Pisani: putting the “melos” in Melodrama

Everyone uses the word, yet few really know what it means. “Melodrama” is a label often attached to human behaviour, but the usage is a metaphor for something else. And I suspect that those who have studied drama or theatre will be thinking that my accusation was for everyone but them, that they are exempted by having learnt the precise definition of “melodrama” in their theatre history, something like this one from google:
a play interspersed with songs and orchestral music accompanying the action.”

But there’s a problem with that. Melodramas come down to us almost entirely as text, with little idea about the music in melodrama, let alone the more sophisticated idea of “melos” (the mood or affect of the music) in melodrama.  It’s a familiar problem as the so-called silent era of the cinema (not very silent given that music was played with the attractions, short or long) illustrates, when we rely upon indirect knowledge via cue-sheets and the eye-witness descriptions of audience members.

Was melodrama like silent film? And how would I ever discover the answer to that question?PISANI

Perhaps the answer can be found via Michael Pisani’s new book (click link  for purchase information): Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth Century London & New York.

Pisani takes great pains to examine specimens of music used in the melodramatic theatre, assembling many samples alongside portions of the plays. I believe it’s potentially very important to scholars of the popular theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries.  But this is almost as important to film music scholars looking for antecedents for the practices of silent film, the immediate successor to melodrama in the first quarter of the 20th century.  Pisani’s book is consigned to the Music Library by its Library of Congress call number, and so likely would fly under the radar to anyone beyond music. Inter-disciplinary research poses a special challenge, requiring the reader to venture outside their immediate subject. If I want to understand Carmen music isn’t enough.  I need to read Merimée’s novella even if that’s not found in a music library. While Pisani’s book is legitimately classified as “music” I would hope that theatre and film scholars will make the effort to hunt it down.

After reading Pisani’s book, which contains many interesting specimens of music from melodrama, explained in context, I strongly believe in the connection between melodrama and film. I couldn’t help noticing the simplest resemblance to habits I observed in two places:

  • Silent film music, where on rare occasions original scores were composed, but more often the medium employed existing music re-purposed and/or arranged by the performer(s)
  • Church music, where one again sees that combination of existing music and the occasional original composition

I think it’s fair to say that this was the normal practice –to combine original and re-purposed music—in the popular melodramatic theatre, which is why the cues in silent film are so similar to what was seen in the previous century, as reported in Pisani’s book.

I was watching Strike Up the Band, the Judy Garland – Mickey Rooney—Paul Whiteman film from 1940. Near the end there’s a fascinating sequence that might resemble melodrama, the presentation of a show called “Nell of New Rochelle”. Did someone recall something from a few decades before (the way we might recall the 1950s)? A girl is tied to the railway tracks. There’s a villain and a hero, and at the end the good guy defeats the bad guy.  We may giggle at the way it is presented in the film, at how simple the form seems, a popular entertainment that is not taken seriously.

But I have to think its influence is underestimated.

  • At one point (p53) Pisani writes about tremolo used to maintain a mood (or what he calls a “melos”) for a few seconds.  This would enable the musicians to suspend the movement forward in the score, to wait until the right moment to move forward, thereby synchronizing with the action.  This effect survives in film, but in fact was one of the fascinating innovations we see in some of Wagner’s music-dramas, a simplification of the orchestral texture. Did Wagner first encounter this practical idea in melodrama? While there is no smoking gun, I’m tempted to think so.
  • We read about the “hurry”, a kind of fast music for chases & action onstage. Rossini is in my head lately, having seen Maometto II twice in the past week. Pisani describes (p55) the use of the hurry in the late 1700s, or in other words well before Rossini. Did Rossini emulate something he encountered in melodrama, perhaps improving it and perfecting it? I wonder if in this and perhaps other cases, that the composer of high art was credited with inventing something that was appropriated from the popular theatre, where the original composer received little or no credit.
  • Underlying the entire discussion is the way taste shifts from one era to the next. Melodrama was despised by those with more refined tastes, as certain forms today are held in contempt. Effects that might move a crowd in one century would become over-used and exhausted. For example we read that the effect known in the 20th century as “mickey-mousing” is considered a low trick by the composer, yet I read of its use in the 19th century, suggesting that at one time it was the height of good taste. Indeed, if we recall moments in opera –for instance Alberich’s two magical transformations in Das Rheingold (first into a dragon, then into a frog) or the sprinkling of water by Rodolfo into Mimi’s face when she passes out in the first act of La boheme—it’s clear that music was sometimes expected to closely imitate the action.

Forgive me if my review is like a bad trailer, that gives away at least one part of the story for of course Pisani makes his own connections at the end of the book, showing the legacy of melodrama in film (both “silent” and long after).  But this is a very fertile subject for investigation.  I heartily recommend Pisani’s study to the student of film music, theatre music, and opera too.  I need to read it again.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Theatre & musicals. Bookmark the permalink.

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