Pub. Date:
The Melodramatic Moment: Music and Theatrical Culture, 1790-1820

The Melodramatic Moment: Music and Theatrical Culture, 1790-1820


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days


We seem to see melodrama everywhere we look—from the soliloquies of devastation in a Dickens novel to the abject monstrosity of Frankenstein’s creation, and from Louise Brooks’s exaggerated acting in Pandora’s Box to the vicissitudes endlessly reshaping the life of a brooding Don Draper.

This anthology proposes to address the sometimes bewilderingly broad understandings of melodrama by insisting on the historical specificity of its genesis on the stage in late-eighteenth-century Europe.  Melodrama emerged during this time in the metropolitan centers of London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin through stage adaptations of classical subjects and gothic novels, and they became famous for their use of passionate expression and spectacular scenery. Yet, as contributors to this volume emphasize, early melodramas also placed sound at center stage, through their distinctive—and often disconcerting—alternations between speech and music. This book draws out the melo of melodrama, showing the crucial dimensions of sound and music for a genre that permeates our dramatic, literary, and cinematic sensibilities today.

A richly interdisciplinary anthology, The Melodramatic Moment will open up new dialogues between musicology and literary and theater studies.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226543659
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/16/2018
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Katherine Hambridge is assistant professor in musicology at Durham University. Jonathan Hicks is a research fellow at Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute.  

Read an Excerpt


The Melodramatic Moment

Katherine Hambridge and Jonathan Hicks

In his Vocabulary of Culture and Society, first published in 1976, Raymond Williams listed dramatic as one of a "group of words which have been extended from their original and continuing application to some specific art, to much wider use as descriptions of actual events and situations:" his other examples included picturesque, theatrical, tragic, and role. Any update of Williams for the twenty-first century would surely have to include melodramatic. There is no question that the word has currency far beyond any specific musical-theatrical art: not only is it commonly used in relation to a wide range of entertainment, from Hollywood films to Brazilian telenovelas, but it is also deployed in the context of political action and everyday life. Within the academy, which is our focus here, it can refer equally to art music and stump speeches, courtroom scenes and sporting incidents. We are by no means the first to note this tendency. In 2000, Rohan McWilliam observed that "the uses of melodrama by historians have become so elastic that almost any form of modern culture is said to have a melodramatic dimension," draining the term of "its explanatory power and hence of its utility." Without a sensitivity to the subjects and workings of actual performed melodramas, the melodramatic is always in danger of running away with itself. Faced with so much opening out and loose association, we want to make the case here for a strategic restriction of melodrama studies. In fact, we want to suggest that "melodrama studies" is in danger of overreach. The vast literature that clusters around the M-word is fundamentally undisciplined; it is a meeting point, not a place of tenure, and it ought to be approached as such.

The present volume stages one such meeting, an encounter in which literary and theater historians, although present and of great importance, are outnumbered by musicologists. This weighting of interests reflects an ongoing attempt to "sonorize" the study of melodrama while maintaining a lively dialogue among disciplines. Without wishing to downplay the insights of scholars who have looked for melodramatic acts outside the theater, we suggest that a return to the period of the genre's inception, and close attention to the place of music therein, is an important and necessary contribution to a fuller understanding of melodrama's complex status in social and political life. Our focus is the years 1790–1820, when popular melodrama first came to prominence in the metropolitan centers of northern Europe. It is these cities — chiefly London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin — that coordinate a busy, multilayered account. What we are calling "the melodramatic moment" is, of course, already known by other names and staked by other claims: revolution, cultural nationalism, imperial ambition, Romanticism, and urban growth have been foregrounded in histories of European culture in this period; within musicology, the rise of the work concept is perhaps the most familiar recent frame of reference, albeit still less prevalent in the popular imagination than the much-criticized idea of the "Romantic Era." In renaming these decades we are not so much seeking to overwrite existing accounts as to engage them in conversation. The aim of this introduction, then, is not to locate the present book in an artificially discrete field of inquiry, despite our ambition to limit and restrict; on the contrary, we want to embrace our topic's many indiscretions and make sense of its multiplicity by insisting on historical specificity.

In what follows we outline a method informed by notions of cultural circulation and adaptation. At the largest level, this helps us build a picture of the continent-wide network of people, objects, and ideas that enabled the rapid spread of a new form of musical theater. At the same time, it gives fresh impetus to microhistories of composition, performance, and reception that show how early melodrama functioned in particular times and places, within particular regimes of regulation and critical comment. Rather than advance an abstract model of what melodrama is or how it works, we propose a history of melodrama that is intricately bound up with the aesthetics and circumstances of performance. Our task is to understand how it was identified at the time and what its structure meant to those who made it and those who paid to see it. This is no easy undertaking. Anyone familiar with the topic will attest that early melodrama is a categorical nightmare. Most obviously, there are two distinct myths of origin to take into account: one that proceeds from philosophy, the other from politics; one concerning Rousseau, the other revolution. Before going any further, we should revisit these two myths, as well as the distinct traditions of performance and scholarship they have come to underwrite.


Rousseau comes first, at least chronologically. His Pygmalion was written in 1762, one year after the successful reception of his sentimental novel, Julie; ou, La nouvelle Héloïse, and the same year as the controversy surrounding Du contrat social. His self-styled scène lyrique, on the ancient theme of an idol brought to life, was overshadowed by the furore caused by his radical philosophy. Indeed, Rousseau would spend much of the rest of the decade in exile, his work censored and even banned for its perceived assault on religious and government authority. Only in 1770, when back in France, did Rousseau turn once more to Pygmalion. At this point he enlisted a silk merchant and amateur musician called Horace Coignet to prepare instrumental interludes for his text, the first performance taking place in private rooms at Lyon's Hôtel de Ville. Despite the relatively low-profile premiere, Pygmalion became an object of international curiosity and a model for theatrical reform. The key feature of the work — its frequent, small-scale alternation of speech and music — was already implicit in the 1762 manuscript, which included asterisks as placeholders for something supplementary to language. These small stars on the page can be read as traces of Rousseau's aspiration to find a form of expression both ancient and modern: one informed by theories of Greek declamation and suspicious of established theatrical convention. His goal was not song, opera, or pantomime but something purposely alternative: an expressive medium that did not compromise textual expression by setting it to music (particularly problematic in French, Rousseau thought) nor limit musical expression by setting text to it. Although Rousseau rarely used the word mélodrame, that was the term that stuck.

To the extent that Pygmalion constituted a point of origin for the history of melodrama, it was one that led to a series of intensely serious compositions. As Ellen Lockhart discusses in the second chapter of this volume, Rousseau's technique was a decidedly avant-garde affair. The constant interruption of the speaker by music was thought to suit only the most extreme subject matter, those points of high emotion that threatened to undo the efficacy of conventional language: life, death, madness, and passionate suffering were the keynotes of early melodrama, without a hint of comic relief. The best-known examples modeled after Rousseau were by the Bohemian composer Georg Benda, who adapted classical subjects to eighteenth-century sensibilities. The titular heroines of his Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea (both 1775) descend into states of manic distress: they struggle to express themselves under the burden of rapid, consuming emotions; speech and music falter, syntax is undone, the psychodrama of the modern self plays out in bursts and fragments. These were the hallmarks of early German-language monodrama, as it was also known, which typically revolved around the tragic fate of a solo (generally female) protagonist. These monodramas featured some of the most idiosyncratic music of the day: their scores were packed with bold gestures, sudden gear changes, and prolonged harmonic uncertainty; they were also obliged to pass the baton back and forth between orchestra and orator, with music and text constantly interrupting or overtaking one another. As Thomas Betzwieser shows in his chapter here, late eighteenth-century monodrama was as much an experiment as an entertainment. It elaborated complex codes across multiple media, requiring specialist actors and sympathetic audiences. It was relentlessly cerebral in its quest for emotional authenticity and became, perhaps inevitably, an acquired taste.

While Rousseauian melodrama enjoyed some thirty years of currency in German lands, with new melodramas composed up to the 1820s, there was ultimately a limited appetite for extended soliloquies of devastation. However, the temporary suspension of sung delivery promised a striking addition to the atmosphere of serious opera, and a number of opera composers inserted melodramatic scenes into their works at moments of heightened tension. These moments typically corresponded to either the hypernatural or the supernatural: in the first case, the broken breaths of a frightened protagonist might interrupt the ordinary passage of song (Beethoven's Fidelio and Le Sueur's La caverne are two examples discussed by Jens Hesselager in this volume); in the second, a similar interruption was caused by the appearance of the otherworldly (the Wolf's Glen scene in Weber's Der Freischütz is the classic case). Here we find old experiment put to new effect as the fractured, febrile atmosphere of the stand-alone monodrama found fresh purpose in the shiver-inducing moments of Romantic opera.

By this point, though, another sort of melodrama was taking Europe by storm. In the years after 1789, the portrayal of violent acts of virtue dominated many Parisian theaters. The ultimate boulevard incarnation of this phenomenon is now associated with one genre in particular — mélodrame — and even one author: the aristocratturned-playwright René-Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt (1773–1844), who had proved exceptionally adept at navigating the choppy waters of post-Revolutionary cultural politics. Beginning with Victor; ou, L'Enfant de la fôret in 1798, Pixerécourt would write a further ninety-three melodramas over the course of his career. Often adapting the plots of novels, often gothic novels, these melodramas tended to be historical, peopled by innocent maidens and evil tyrants, bravehearts and banditti, and were structured around stark moral certainties, historic injustices, bloody acts of vengeance, family reunions, and climactic tableaux. Pixerécourt and his peers combined these plot devices with pantomime techniques, spectacular scenery, the occasional song, and the extensive use of short music cues to accompany and characterize the actors' entrances and exits, and to underline and express key moments, sometimes in conjunction with, sometimes between, spoken textual statements.

It was in Pixerécourt's "mélodrames à grand spectacle" that Peter Brooks famously located a "mode of excess." Melodrama's excess lay, according to Brooks, in the "heightened dramatization:" the overstatement through overlapping media (text, music, gesture, scenery) of the character's deepest feelings and of the "basic psychic conditions" of the plot. This "mode of the bigger-than-life" was itself a function of the "cosmic ethical drama" that Brooks saw being played out explicitly on Paris stages: he read melodramatic texts not only as a response to the social and psychological trauma of the Revolution but also as an appropriation of the sacred at a time of shaken faith. What the boulevards staged, Brooks suggested, was an almost involuntary response to pain and upheaval. These works were spectacular and emotionally extreme because the world that made them was more so; they reveled in peril because that was the affective currency of the day. Compared with the monodrama practiced north of the Rhine, which grew out of an intellectual preoccupation with the aesthetics of human suffering, Brooks saw these Parisian spectacles as less a study in grief, more as shock therapy after the fact. The essence of mélodrame, according to this interpretation, was its cathartic function, which also served as a form of coercion: there was relief to be had in the villain vanquished, and an ideological message that order is best maintained.

Although Brooks was primarily concerned with later nineteenth-century literature and its debt to Pixerécourt's generation, his work has been influential in connecting the poetics of early Parisian melodrama with the Revolution and an emerging "popular" culture. Or rather, it has become a model for looking beyond questions of genre to questions of mode, and to the functioning of the melodramatic beyond the world of the stage. Brook's "melodramatic imagination" and "mode of excess" are at least in part responsible for the adjectival proliferation within the academy we observed above. However, and more important for our purposes here, his emphasis on the political and interpersonal conditions of post-Revolutionary Paris has been one of many factors that have maintained the scholarly separation of the twin traditions of "French" and "German" melodrama. One of the agendas of this book is to challenge such an assumption of difference. To borrow from the musicologist Kofi Agawu, we prefer to proceed via a strategic "assumption of sameness." We know that boulevard melodramas traveled beyond the city limits and jostled for room in the theaters of Berlin, Vienna, and London; there is also evidence that aspects of the monodrama tradition were influential well beyond the German-speaking lands. But in order to understand the contemporaneity, if not the codependency, of the two traditions in performance and discourse, we must first address in more detail the historiographical practices that have tended to keep them apart.


In the last two decades, melodrama and the melodramatic have been increasingly brought to scholarly attention, and a number of musicological publications have made the case for melodrama's historical importance and lasting influence. Broadly speaking, the intellectual roots of these publications are twofold. On the one hand, we can trace the influence of Continental European scholarship, primarily in music and opera studies, which has seen discussions of the stage works of Benda et al. since the first half of the twentieth century. On the other, Anglophone studies of literature, theater, and film have addressed French and English "boulevard" melodrama on and off since the 1960s. There is, then, a substantial body of work that predates the current interest in the topic. As Brooks suggested in 1995, "the melodramatic mode no longer needs to be approached in the mode of apology." Yet the fact that we can now be postapologetic about our topic does not guarantee its mainstream status, perhaps especially within musicology. Indeed, in part owing to the lack of modern editions for French and English repertoire, some of the most valuable recent work has been directed at enhancing our familiarity with melodramatic musical materials and practices.

One of the more widespread and persistent assumptions that has been contradicted by the recuperation of musical scores is the idea that melodramatic music for boulevard theaters was improvised or assembled during rehearsals of the text. We now know that much of it was composed in advance of the rehearsal period and was sometimes specified in great detail: in other words, the text and the stage action were designed with music in mind, often specific music. As well as shedding new light on the performance history of early melodrama, this new documentary material counteracts the persistent historiographical problem that underlay the idea of melodramatic improvisation, namely a reverse-teleological approach that extrapolated back to melodrama from early cinematic sound practices such as quasi-improvised accompaniment; this reverse teleology has also contributed to the relative neglect of early melodrama in favor of the more immediate predecessors of film music.

When we look at the early nineteenth century, however, we find a lively debate regarding the definition and dissemination of melodramatic practices. This debate, which sometimes touched explicitly on the notion of parallel traditions, posed fundamental questions about the nature of music theater, the relations between various media, the place of the stage in shaping national character, and the emergence of categories of high and low art. In other words, melodrama was far more central than we have hitherto acknowledged in discussions about music's expressive potential and social function. Yet we can make little sense of these primary sources without first addressing the disciplinary history of melodrama scholarship. For if the history of early melodrama can be read in terms of a string of stubborn binaries — elite and popular, musical and literary, reflective and reactionary — the persistence of these binaries is partly a function of prevailing historiography. Not only have the German and the French/English traditions been treated as more or less unrelated phenomena, but they have also been addressed by different disciplines: the repertoire represented by Benda has been largely the preserve of musicology; that of Pixerécourt and Co. has been studied by scholars of literature, theater, and film. This disciplinary division is not unvarying: recent musicological work by Emilio Sala, Sarah Hibberd, and Michael Pisani addresses the latter tradition, and there has been some valuable German literary scholarship on melodramatic librettos in the Benda tradition. But the divide was sufficiently entrenched for the musicologist Christine Heyter-Rauland to refer to "the 'other' melodrama" in her work on German translations of French melodramas. To this day, there is still very little interest in the Benda tradition among literary scholars of popular melodrama.


Excerpted from "The Melodramatic Moment"
by .
Copyright © 2018 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Historical Newspapers and Journals Cited vii

Foreword James Chandler ix

Chapter 1 The Melodramatic Moment Katherine Hambridge Jonathan Hicks 1

Chapter 2 Forms and Themes of Early Melodrama Ellen Lockhart 25

Chapter 3 Continental Trouble: The Nationality of Melodrama and the National Stage in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain Diego Saglia 43

Chapter 4 Between the Sacred and the Profane: French Biblical Melodrama in Vienna c. 1800 Barbara Babic 59

Chapter 5 Scenography, Spéculomanie, and Spectacle: Pixerécourt's La citerne (1809) Sarah Hibberd 79

Chapter 6 Compositional Gestures: Music and Movement in Lenardo und Blandine (1779) Thomas Betzwieser 95

Chapter 7 Music and Subterranean Space in La citerne (1809) Jens Hesselager 117

Chapter 8 The First English Melodrama: Thomas Holcroft's Translation of Pixerécourt George Taylor 137

Chapter 9 Benevolent Machinery: Techniques of Sympathy in Early German Melodrama Matthew Head 151

Chapter 10 Vienna, 18 October 1814: Urban Space and Public Memory in the Napoleonic "Occasional Melodrama" Nicholas Mathew 171

Afterword: Looking Back at Rousseau's Pygmalion Jacqueline Waeber 191

Acknowledgments 199

Notes 201

Bibliography 247

Contributors 265

Index 269

Customer Reviews