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Mabary, Judith Ann

Redefining Melodrama: The Czech Response to Music and Word

Ph.D. Washington University - St. Louis, 1999
(jamabary@artsci.wustl.edu)

With its emphasis on combining spoken text with an instrumental accompaniment, melodrama constitutes one of the most unusual genres in music and a topic that has remained largely unexplored despite the intrinsic value of its repertoire. The very act of presenting simultaneously the disparate elements of speech and music results in an intriguing synthesis that, at the same time, capitalizes on the unique value of each component. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau must be credited with the origins of classical melodrama in his scene lyrique "Pygmalion," it was Czech composer Jiří Benda who expanded his ideas into the fully developed staged works that provided the model for contemporary composers.

Although Benda's classical melodrama quickly gained a following in Germany, audiences in the Czech lands were more attracted to the popular form of the genre standardized by Pixérécourt in Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The classical style was transferred to smaller-scale concert works by several German composers, including Liszt and Schumann, but did not become popular in Prague until the 1870s when the concert melodramas of Zdeněk Fibich initiated a compositional trend that produced an enormous body of works performed throughout the Czech lands by professionals and amateurs alike. The cultural milieu in Prague, where Czech intellectuals were attempting to strengthen the sense of nation by revitalizing the use of the vernacular in the arts, supplied a fertile environment for the introduction of melodrama, whose principal objective was to maintain the intelligibility of text and enhance its meaning via a dramatic, non-verbal accompaniment.

Classical melodrama assumes several different styles in the works of Fibich, Foerster, Ostrčil, and Suk. While the music of Fibich and Foerster remains closely bound to the text, Ostrčil adopts a more independent stance reminiscent of the symphonic poem. The primary distinctions between the scenic works of Fibich and Suk reveal the historical progression of staged melodrama from late nineteenth-century Romanticism, where Wagner's music drama is taken to a logical next step, to present-day musical theater and film, in which elements of sung and spoken genres are combined in a single entity.