Words with music. Music with words. The two are intertwined and their combination is really how most of us experience and ingest music on a daily basis. Whether it’s singing along to our favorite hits on the radio, or walking into most public spaces, chances are we’re listening to songs — words and music.
The ultimate expression of this combination is opera. Opera is often a musical adaptation of a play or novel. And there are also oratorios, which are biblical or religious texts set to music. Both can include soloists, vocal ensembles, and large choirs with orchestra. However, there is a small but important category of music and spoken word — Melodrama.
We think of melodrama today as overacted soap-operas, but it originally meant a play that was interspersed with music to accompany the drama on stage. Almost all of the major composers of the 19th century wrote music for this genre. For example, Beethoven’s famous Egmont Overture is an overture to a melodrama he composed to Goethe’s play, Egmont, and the rest of the music he wrote for this melodrama is certainly worth a listen! What follows is a great recording of the complete incidental music to Egmont, narrated in German by Klaus-Jürgen Wussow with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by George Szell.
One of the most popular melodramas that’s still occasionally performed today is Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Listen to Judi Dench narrate this fantastic performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.
The most well known 20th century composition with narration is probably Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Here’s a great narration by Count Dooku, I mean Saruman, I mean….Christopher Lee!
Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is unfortunately often done without its original narration, but listen to this unique recording with Peter Pears narrating and Benjamin Britten conducting.
Richard Strauss’ melodrama to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden for piano and speaker is a delight and should be performed far more than it is. One of the great recordings, in English, is with the actor Claude Rains, with Glenn Gould on piano.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded the narration of Enoch Arden in German, which was what Strauss originally had in mind when he composed it. On this recording there are also melodramas written by Schumann, as well as the haunting Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke by the composer, Viktor Ullmann.
Along with Peter and the Wolf, Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale is a melodrama par excellence. Part of its success, I believe, is the heightened rhythmic delivery that is required of the narrator and the complete integration of text and music. It’s subject matter is fitting for a piece written directly after WWI, and this new recording narrated by Roger Waters is excellent.
Schoenberg composed very powerful melodramas and one of Jessye Norman’s most famous recordings is his Erwartung.
In Schoenberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire an entirely new style of declamation was created. Sprechstimme, literally speak-singing wasn’t quite narration and not quite singing but somewhere in the middle. Watch this stunning performance with the great soprano Kiera Duffy and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Finally, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw is a piece I believe everyone should hear. I don’t say this lightly as it is one of the most disturbing compositions of post WWII but it is music of remembrance and it should be honored by listening to it with intent, so that its message is never forgotten.