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Exploring the melodrama: Works for narrator and piano

Of all the different fusions of literature and music, the melodrama is by far the most neglected and misunderstood. Since the late eighteenth century, composers have written works for narrator accompanied by piano, orchestra, or chamber ensemble. The first melodramas were declamations with orchestral accompaniment, but over time recitations accompanied by small ensembles or solo piano became just as common. Melodramas with piano were composed, for the most part, for intimate parlor settings. They make wonderful additions to any recital program and offer a useful tool in teaching. These works help students develop imagery in music and introduce ensemble skills in a rather unique way.

The birth of a genre

The melodrama was first developed in the mid-1700s by two individuals: the Swiss composer, writer, and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Czech composer Georg Benda. Rousseau and Benda each wrote several works for narrator and orchestra, and by the end of the century the melodrama was gaining some popularity and became an ingredient in opera. Mozart was so enthusiastic about this art form that he began work on a full-evening's-length melodrama for actors and orchestra; unfortunately, he never finished the piece (Branscombe "Melodrama").1 In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, melodrama became a key ingredient in operas; prime examples include Beethoven's Fidelio and Weber's Der Freischütz.

In the early nineteenth century, the piano's popularity as a home instrument and the favorite parlor entertainment of dramatic readings prompted the birth of the melodrama with piano. In the 1800s, a number of well-known composers tried their hand at composing a melodrama. The repertoire is not vast; there are about a dozen works by the major composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with another dozen or so pieces by relatively obscure composers. With the immense popularity of the piano and dramatic readings for home entertainment throughout the nineteenth century, it is surprising how few of these works were left to us.

Romantic-era melodramas

One of the first melodramas with piano was composed by Franz Schubert. Schubert wrote a number of melodramas, but only one with piano. Dating from 1826, the work is entitled Farewell Beautiful Earth and lasts about two minutes. It is a beautiful and poignant farewell to life. The text is taken from an unpublished play by Adolf von Pratobevera,2 and the piece was likely written for one of Vienna's popular Schubertiades. The simple text reflects a peaceful, Christian view of one looking forward to joy in the afterlife. Schubert's music mirrors the text with peaceful themes in a major key over a slow, undulating triplet rhythm. It is an excellent assignment for an intermediate-level student; the piece offers few technical challenges (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: Abshied von der Erde by Franz Schubert, mm. 1-9.

Robert Schumann wrote three works for speaker and piano. All three were written late in his life, one as his Op. 106, and two others as Op. 122. The texts Schumann chose to set fall into our clichéd notion of melodrama: castle life, stormy nights, and ghostly apparitions. But the pieces are interesting and well worth exploring. The piano heightens the text in much the same way it contributes to the mood and drama in his songs. The piano provides a regal fanfare for the knight in his castle in Fair Hedwig, the haunts of phantoms in the Ballad of the Heath Boy, and the noise of a storm in the melodrama The Refugees. The music is engaging; Fair Hedwig in particular is an excellent assignment for a precocious high school student to perform with a friend (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 2: Schön Hedwig, Op. 106, by Robert Schumann, mm. 20-27.

Franz Liszt, in his melodramas, lived up to his reputation of the ultimate Romantic. Liszt wrote five melodramas with piano, choosing even gorier poetry than did Robert Schumann. His most substantial (and lengthy) setting uses Gottfried August Bürger's extended ballad "Lenore." The poem was a favorite in parlor readings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the best English translations of this poem is by Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter Scott was instantly enthralled by the poem when the daughter of the Saxon Ambassador brought an unpublished version of it to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1795. Scott obtained a copy and worked through the night on a paraphrase translation which he entitled "William and Helen."3

The story of Bürger's poem harkens back to the time of the crusades. It tells of a young lady, whose lover failed to return from war. In her heartache and pain she blasphemes and curses God for her ill fate. In the middle of the night, her lover returns and takes her away on horseback, but during the ride it becomes clear that her knight in shining armor is actually a ghastly harbinger of death in disguise. There is a large amount of Lisztian pianism to enjoy in this work: musical depictions of marching soldiers, heart-wrenching emotional despair, a galloping horse on a wild ride through the night, and ghostly apparitions of death.

Of all Liszt's melodramas, The Sad Monk is unique. It is a setting of a poem about a knight in shining armor who stops at a haunted castle for the evening. To create the mood of the ghost who haunts the castle (a monk who had died of despair centuries earlier), Liszt based the harmonies on whole-tone scales and augmented chords (see Excerpt 3). The effect is truly stunning, an exploration of harmonies like nothing previously imagined at the time of the work's composition (1860). This piece is another excellent assignment for the teaching studio; the work poses few technical challenges, allowing students to quickly focus on collaborating with their narrative partner.

Excerpt 3: Der traurige Mönch, S. 348, by Franz Liszt, mm. 72-85.

At the very end of the nineteenth century, Richard Strauss composed two wonderful melodramas. The piano parts of both these works are very engaging and fulfilling for the pianist. They are much like tone poems for the keyboard, with leitmotifs for the various characters and dramatic situations in the poetry. One of the pieces is a short miniature, and the other an extended work that fills a full evening's performance. Strauss composed both of these melodramas to perform with a friend—actor and renowned master of poetry recitation Ernst von Possart. Possart had helped Strauss obtain the position of chief conductor for the Munich Opera, and in return for the favor, Strauss wrote these two melodramas to perform with him.4 

The shorter of Strauss's two works, entitled The Castle by the Sea, is a good assignment for more advanced students. About six minutes in length, the poetry is a dialogue between two people who have seen a castle and its inhabitants, but from two very different points of view and presumably at different times. The piano part is very enjoyable; it depicts the rushing of waves, horn calls from the castle, and the joys and sorrows seen by the two characters in the poem. Strauss's other melodrama is a setting of the poem Enoch Arden by British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This piece is extremely difficult, more appropriate for graduate students at the university or conservatory level. An hour in length, the work narrates the story of the hero's life, from his humble beginnings with his childhood sweetheart, to his shipwreck, years on a desert island, and eventual return to his home village on the English coast—only to find that his wife had remarried his childhood rival. Strauss created leitmotifs for the three main characters. As the characters are brought into conflict with one another, the music builds to an intense climax, just as in Strauss's operas and tone-poems. This work is perhaps the height of the romantic-era melodrama.

The melodrama after 1900

The style and mood of narrations changed around the turn of the twentieth century. The twentieth century saw the composition of several wonderful melodramas, including works by Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Satie.

Although conceived for orchestra from its inception, Prokofiev first scored Peter and the Wolf for piano, playing the keyboard part himself at its first performance. He wrote the work in 1936 for the Central Children's Theatre in Moscow. Only later did he orchestrate it into the work we know and love today.5 The solo-piano version is surprisingly effective but, although the music fits very well under the hands, this work is one for advanced players.

Another twentieth-century piece written to entertain children is Poulenc's Babar the Elephant. Poulenc's three-year-old cousin gave him the challenge of creating music for this tale when she placed her copy of the storybook Babar the Elephant on the piano and said "play this." To entertain his little cousin, Poulenc improvised an accompaniment to each scene. The music was a hit, and as news of it spread throughout the neighborhood, his neighbors began coming by to hear the new piece. So Poulenc put pen to paper and dedicated the work to his young cousins and neighbors.6 The setting is of the first of the famous Babar books written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff. It is a shining example of Poulenc's mastery of characterization. From witty gallops to the poignant song of Babar, the piano brings out the various animals in the story through the rhythms, melodies, textures, and tempos of elephants, the birds, hunters, the joys and fears of Babar, a royal coronation march, and the mists of the jungle. While most of the movements are difficult, several lend themselves appropriate to late-intermediate level students.

Closer to our own time, there have been some newly-commissioned works for narrator and pianist.7 Lee Hoiby combined letters and diary entries of Virginia Woolf in a setting he entitled What is the Light? Ned Rorem composed a melodrama to words by three different women writers of the early twentieth century: British writer Jean Rhys, American Elizabeth Hardwick, and French novelist Colette. His work is entitled Three Women.


Throughout its history, melodrama has had little critical success. Numerous critics have written about the defects of the genre. One critic wrote, "...the speaking voice and the music do not blend ...melodramatic music is a thing of formally undeveloped and unconnected patches and snatches."8 The low regard that music critics have for these pieces is due largely to the fact that melodrama is most often looked at from a purely musical point of view. This is problematic because melodrama is not the purely musical art form one expects when going to the concert hall. Nor is it the purely dramatic art form one expects when going to the theater. Viewing melodramas as a kind of song without singing or as a type of theater with incidental music completely misses the point of this genre. Melodrama represents a true melding of music and theater—a unique genre that is neither one nor the other, but rather something that stands alone. As a musician, this is difficult to reconcile. This repertoire has many of the hallmarks of the song literature, but it frustrates one's expectations of melody and lyricism. Only when one lets go of preconceptions and comparisons to other purely musical genres, can one accept melodrama for what it is and immerse oneself into this unique genre. 

The melodrama literature offers engaging works that can "spice up" a studio recital or an evening entertaining friends and family. The narrations and music complement one another. These pieces inspire students' imaginations and engage listeners in a way that solo piano music does not. Middle school and high school students, particularly young boys, quickly engage with music that depicts ghosts, knights, or wild animals. Inclusion of this repertoire would make a memorable "hit" at the next end-of-term studio recital.

1 Branscombe, Peter. (2001). "Melodrama." Grove Music Online, Ox-ford Music Online.

2 Badura-Skoda, Eva, and Peter Branscombe, eds. (1982). Schubert Studies: Problems of Style and Chronology. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 139.

3 Lockhart, John Gibson. (1901). Memoires of the life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, Gutenberg Project.

4 Pritchett, James. (1994) Richard Strauss: Melodramas.

5 Seroff, Victor. (1969). Sergei Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., pp. 202-204.

6 Goodman, Dan. "Babar the Elephant." Piano Society. 

7 Zeger, Brian. (1999). "In Collaboration: Perform with a Narrator." Piano & Keyboard, 198, pp. 17-19.

8 Niecks, Frederick. (1901). "Professor Niecks on Melodrama." The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, 42/696, pp. 96-97.

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