Music in Melodrama: 'The Burden of Ineffable Expression'?

By Hibberd, Sarah; Nielsen, Nanette | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Music in Melodrama: 'The Burden of Ineffable Expression'?

Hibberd, Sarah, Nielsen, Nanette, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, every London theatre had an orchestra, and almost every dramatic work included an element of music. Composers commonly wrote for a wide variety of 'high' and 'low' genres, from opera and ballet through to melodrama and burlesque. The boundaries between these genres were not clear cut, and most involved a mixture of sung and orchestral music together with accompanied pantomime, dance and stage tableaux, as well as speech. This fluidity extended not only between genres and across the high/low cultural divide, but also across national boundaries: many of the practices and relationships between music and gesture were derived from French opera and ballet-pantomime, and Italian opera was a popular source for composers.

The prevalence of music in the theatre was in part the result of the 1737 licensing act, which confirmed the monopoly of Italian opera at the King's Theatre, and English spoken drama at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. The other - 'illegitimate' - theatres were thus left with an array of spectacular dramas, all incorporating a significant musical element. These included melodrama, burletta, pantomime, English opera, ballet and other extravaganzas.1 Orchestral music was used variously in these works to accompany pantomime and dance and to provide incidental support to the drama. Sung airs were very popular, from choruses and glees through ballads and comic songs to opera arias. Thus audiences were used to a theatrical experience which embraced music at a variety of levels, and theatre directors were at ease in this musico-dramatic environment, accustomed to working with composers and musicians as well as choreographers, dancers, writers and actors. The size of the orchestra would vary with the size of the theatre, but generally strings and horns would have been essential, with - if finances allowed - woodwind (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), brass (trumpets), perhaps a harp, a piano and percussion. A larger orchestra would be more capable of creating striking timbrai effects, but strings were nevertheless extremely versatile, capable of singing lyricism, percussive chords and sinister tremolo effects.

The Music of Melodrama

Music was crucial in Romantic melodrama, delineating the extremes and contrasts of the genre by relatively straightforward means. Yet although the music itself was essentially simple, the way in which it informed audience understanding of the action was more sophisticated. On a basic level, as David Mayer has observed, it helped audiences to concentrate in a noisy theatre, and held them 'rapt'.2 More specifically it might accompany scene changes; mark the entrances and exits of individual characters with signature tunes; punctuate or underscore dialogue; and evoke atmosphere. Beyond that, it could shift the mood of a scene abruptly. For example, a lighthearted tune might begin in the major key then suddenly switch to the minor, or stop on a diminished chord. Or the quotation of music heard earlier in the work might create the effect of a flashback, the anticipation of future events, or even the equivalent of switching camera angles as attention is drawn in quick succession to different characters or even to offstage action or approaching characters by sounding their signature tunes. Occasionally the melody of a well-known song or aria would be quoted by the orchestra to add further clarification, or a new dimension, to the dramatic situation by means of unsung words.

Examination of the extant scores for early melodrama reveal some important general points about the role of such music. Thomas Busby's score for the Covent Garden performance of Holcroft's Tale of Mystery ( 1802) - the work that inspired the vogue for melodrama in London - may be compared with the written text in which instructions for music are included.' First, there are suprisingly long passages of music provided to complement minimal stage directions. For example, 42 bars of hunting music accompany the entrance of one character. …

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