The Melodrama or Recitation is a musical form that I love hearing and playing. They are not a popular or well-known genre in classical music yet many significant composers have written them over the years so perhaps they deserve a little more attention.
A melodrama is a narrated poem or story accompanied by music. Music and words are a great combination. There are many different forms of accompaniment but the preferred mediums are mainly orchestral or piano music. Famous examples include Peter and the Wolf (Prokofiev) and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Britten), but I love the settings with piano accompaniment.
Early examples of the Melodrama include short song – like pieces by Schubert but the genre came into its own in the 19th century or Romantic era. The Melodrama was especially popular amongst the Victorians, many of whom had parlour pianos and would enjoy including this genre at their own house soirees.
Liszt wrote five examples (there are five surviving recitations but it is thought that he wrote more as he especially liked this form) in three languages: three German, a Hungarian and a Russian. My favourite, Der Traurige Mönch (1860) or The Mournful Monk, is a dour fateful ghost story (the poem was written by Nicolaus Lenau ). Liszt’s dramatic yet sparse accompaniment brings the story to life, the eerie harmonies are a fine example of the composer’s early interest in atonality, something he explored more fully in his late compositions. Other Liszt recitations include; Lenore, Helge’s Loyalty, The Dead Poet’s Love and The Blind Man. The tales cover a wide range of human emotion and are beautifully highlighted by Liszt’s expressive piano parts.
The pinnacle of melodrama writing came in 1897 when Richard Strauss set Lord Tennyson’s evocative poem, Enoch Arden to piano music. The work was written for the actor Ernst von Possart whilst Strauss was busy writing Don Quixote. Possart and Strauss performed the piece many times using a German translation. It was very well received by audiences at the time enhancing the composer’s reputation considerably and Strauss was inspired to write a further melodrama, The Castle by the Sea (Das Schloss am Meere) the following year.
Enoch Arden has been described as incidental music: Strauss employs leitmotifs or themes to identify each character; the two parts to the 60 minute piece (it can last much longer depending on the narrator!) are introduced by a prelude and concluded with a postlude. There are long passages where the piano is silent but although the music is somewhat sparse, what there is to play is sublime; rich in colour, sonority and texture. It is a joy to perform and is incredibly expressive.
Enoch Arden has been performed and recorded frequently over the years. Narrators of note include Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jon Vickers and Michael York and pianists of note include Glenn Gould, Emanuel Ax and Marc-Andre Hamelin. I performed it several times with the music critic John Amis both here in the UK and in Canada at the International Liszt Festival (in Hamilton, Ontario).
Other composers who have tackled the Melodrama include Poulenc (who wrote the wonderfully whimsical Barbar the Elephant), Satie, Walton and the British female composer Liza Lehmann. Lehmann (1862 – 1918) was an opera singer turned song composer who wrote five recitations in all. Out of the five, The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant are the most enduring. Lehmann’s unashamedly romantic, expressive piano accompaniments complement Oscar Wilde’s moving tales very effectively.
Whilst Melodramas will never generate the interest of piano music or songs, they are a beautiful and interesting form. Some may say they are outdated but they would benefit from a mini revival. So I will finish today by asking this question: are there any festival or concert hall artistic directors out there willing to programme a Melodrama?
A taster from Enoch Arden performed by Michael York and John Bell Young.