James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

Richard Strauss: Melodramas

by James Pritchett

Copyright 1994 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

Like many a compositional project, the two works on this disc were inspired not so much by purely artistic goals as by more practical considerations. Specifically, Richard Strauss composed both Enoch Arden and The castle by the sea (Das Schloss am Meere) in order to solidify his friendship and beneficial professional relationship with the actor Ernst von Possart. Possart was a popular and powerful figure; in 1896, he helped Strauss obtain the prestigious position of chief conductor at the Munich Opera. After this, Strauss sought a way to return the favor. Possart's renown as a master of poetry recitation suggested to Strauss a plan: to find a suitable poem and to compose a piano accompaniment that he could perform together with Possart. Enoch Arden, written in 1897, was the result, and it achieved Strauss' goals admirably: he and Possart toured extensively together, performing to large and appreciative audiences. The castle by the sea followed two years later as another vehicle for the composer-actor duo.

The medium of reciter-and-piano was not original with Strauss; it was well-established in the nineteenth century. Piano accompaniments can be viewed as natural enhancements to plain poetry recitations. Such works were called "melodramas"; this term was already in use to refer to parts of operas in which the performers speak during the music (the dungeon scene from the second act of Beethoven's Fidelio is perhaps the most prominent example of this). Piano-accompanied melodramas were composed by Liszt, Schubert, and Wagner, among others. Hector Berlioz went even further: the actor-reciter of his Lelio is accompanied not just by a piano, but by several pianos, an orchestra, and full chorus! Strauss was certainly aware of these earlier melodramas when he decided to compose Enoch Arden and The castle by the sea.

While successful with the public at the time that Strauss wrote them, however, these two pieces have fared less well with music critics over the years. Reading about them in critical surveys of Strauss' music, one encounters such descriptions as "musically insignificant," or "slight." One critic, Norman Del Mar, suggests that the failure lies not with Strauss but with the genre of melodrama itself, a medium he characterizes as "problematic" and "unrewarding."

One possible explanation of the low regard that music critics have for these pieces is that they tend to think of melodramas primarily as musical works. Considered from this perspective, melodramas become a kind of song without singing -- a paradox that is indeed difficult to reconcile oneself to. As musical settings of poetry, they have all the earmarks of a song or lied, but they thwart a musician's expectations of melody and lyricism.

The castle by the sea, however, can still be profitably considered as closely-related to a solo song. Like many a lied, it is based on a short, atmospheric poem, in this case by Ludwig Uhland. Strauss' musical accompaniment is continuous throughout and proceeds in just the fashion that you would expect for a song of this sort -- except that it accompanies a spoken line rather than a melodic one. In the poem, the combination of fantasy and obliquity (Uhland never comes out and says directly what's going on at the castle) produces a certain air of mystery, and Strauss responds with strongly atmospheric, moody, and harmonically somewhat adventurous music. His use of dramatic pauses and subtle inflections of color and harmony underscore the shifts from the enthusiastic questioner of the poem and his morose respondant. Just when the imagery of poem is radiant and brilliant, the music supplies uncertainties: notes that don't fit in, awkward silences, dark sonorities. This sort of colorful miniature -- a fantastic poem read to chromatically-daring music -- looks forward to works like Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, in which the sprechstimme technique bridges the gap between speaking and singing.

Thus, from the musician's point of view, a melodrama is a song without singing. But one could just as well look at it from the actor's perspective and call it a theatre without staging, an approach suggested by Enoch Arden. Considered in this way, the melodrama most resembles a radio play, where dramatic events are described and acted out, but are not actually seen. Or, to take a genre much more familiar to our present-day culture, it is like hearing a movie dialog and soundtrack while imagining the visuals. Tennyson's poem certainly tells the tragic but uplifting story of Arden's life with vivid imagery that allows us to imagine the scenes with an almost cinematic concreteness: the waves breaking on the shore, the children in the hazelwood, Arden under the palms of a desert island in the South Seas, the cozy scene of his family by the fire. If there hasn't been a film version of the story, there should be.

There is much to be gained by listening to Strauss' score for Enoch Arden as a soundtrack without a film: the dramatic functions of the music are revealed in this manner. In the first scene in the hazelwood, where Enoch proposes to Annie, the music stands in for the camera, tracking the receding figure of Philip as he sinks into the gloom of the woods. One can easily imagine how the scenes of Annie's dream and Enoch's ten-year abandonment would be filmed as montages, with the soundtrack supplying the continuity. Just like in a movie, we don't need music in the action-packed scenes. Instead, it is in places where the focus of the poem turns inwards to the thoughts and emotions of the characters, that the music must fill in and elaborate. For example, in the scene where Enoch sees his family again after his lengthy absence, while he is watching and describing them there is no music; once he begins to realize what this means to his life and begins to respond to the scene emotionally, the music comes in to underscore his despair. How many times have we seen scenes like this in movies? Similar quasi-cinematic uses of music appear throughout Enoch Arden. There is relatively little music here at all, really, but it is reserved for the points in the lengthy poem where it is most needed. Just like in a movie, when the music swells, we know that something's up. When Del Mar faults the score of Enoch Arden for being "remarkably scanty," he's missing the bigger picture: like a movie, this is a multimedia show, not just a piece of music.

Today, film, radio, and television all provide daily doses of what amounts to modern-day melodramas; we are less puzzled than music critics by pieces like Enoch Arden and The castle by the sea because we take the musical accompaniment of speech for granted. Perhaps this also explains the proliferation of melodramas and melodrama-like compositions in the twentieth century, from Prokofiev's Peter and the wolf and Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat to the video operas of Robert Ashley, the synthesized voices of Charles Dodge's settings of Samuel Beckett, and the high-tech performances of Laurie Anderson. In works such as these, speech and music are brought together in a wealth of styles and forms. When viewed not from the musician's perspective, but from the viewpoint of late-twentieth century multimedia art, nineteenth-century melodramas such as the two on this disc seem less problematic and more forward-looking than anyone suspected before.