Works with Narrator: Combining the Spoken Word with Music Is a Difficult Balancing Act, Writes Gavin Dixon, but When It Is Done Well-As It Is in These 10 Recommended Recordings-The Dramatic Impact Can Be Overwhelming

By Dixon, Gavin | Gramophone, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Works with Narrator: Combining the Spoken Word with Music Is a Difficult Balancing Act, Writes Gavin Dixon, but When It Is Done Well-As It Is in These 10 Recommended Recordings-The Dramatic Impact Can Be Overwhelming


Dixon, Gavin, Gramophone


Scene-setting, storytelling, sloganeering--a narrator can be a useful addition to a musical ensemble. Mixing speech with music usually involves some genre-bending, bringing opera closer to spoken theatre, or recital closer to recitation. The term 'melodrama' originally referred to a stage work in which speaking actors were accompanied by music. It was pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Pygmalion--a collaboration with composer Horace Coignet--launched the form in the 1770s. In the following decades, melodramas were particularly popular in London, where the hybrid nature of the form allowed it to evade the restrictions placed on 'serious' theatre.

Many 19th-century composers took up the idea of spoken but accompanied passages in their operas, including Beethoven, for the grave-digging episode in Fidelia, and Weber, for the incantation scene in Der Freischutz. Concert works with narrator are a more recent invention. Strauss's Enoch Arden, composed at the end of the 19th century, brought the idea into the mainstream and influenced many composers in the 20th century as they experimented with new performing contexts and innovative genres.

Concert melodramas offer a range of unique performing opportunities. Retired singers may continue to exploit their dramatic and rhetorical prowess, actors find a route to the concert platform, and celebrities from all the performing arts and beyond can appear with leading musicians and orchestras. Celebrity appeal has its commercial benefits, of course, and many of the works here have been recorded dozens of times, as record labels cash in on their star signings. But effective collaboration is just as important for a successful interpretation, and each of these recordings demonstrates a keen musical sensibility from its narrator, combined with a musical performance that is sensitive to the words, yet shares the foreground, not so much accompanying as illustrating and expanding on the text.

(10) Bliss

Morning Heroes

Brian Blessed narr

LPO / Michael Kibblewhite

Cala [M] CACD1010 (2/93)

Arthur Bliss composed this choral symphony as a way of coming to terms with his experiences of active service during the First World War. The text, presented by the narrator and amplified by the chorus, juxtaposes images of trench warfare with episodes of heroism from classical Greek literature. The work requires a narrator who will give it everything--drama, passion, intensity--and so Brian Blessed is ideal casting.

(9) Schoenberg

Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte

David Wilson-Johnson spkr

Fred Sherry Qt; Jeremy Denk pf

Naxos [B] 8 557528 (1/09)

'If thou hadst died as honour dies, Some new Napoleon might arise, To shame the world again ...' In 1942, Byron's Ode to Napoleon, written the day after the Emperor's abdication, seemed grimly prophetic. Schoenberg's setting for speaker, piano and string quartet channels Beethoven, referencing the E flat major of the Eroica Symphony and motifs from the Fifth, in its contemplation of parallels between dictators past and present.

(8) Stravinsky

Oedipus Rex

Sols incl Ralph Richardson

narr RPO / Colin Davis

CfP [B] 585011-2 (9/03)

Paradoxes abound in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. Its hybrid opera-oratorio form involves staged drama, but with only minimal movements and the singers masked. Sophocles writes in Greek, yet Stravinsky sets his text in Latin. The narration, however, is given in the language of the audience. The work's gravitas and monumental tone have taxed many narrators on record, but Ralph Richardson is pitch-perfect for Colin Davis's masterful reading.

(7) Honegger

Jeanne d'Arc au bucher

Sols incl Marthe Keller,

Georges Wilson narrs French

National Orch / Seiji Ozawa

DG [F] 429 412-2GH (4/91)

Honegger was so impressed with Paul Claudel's libretto, detailing the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, that he set the two lead roles as speaking parts to prevent his music from obscuring the text. …

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