Perspective and Music., Part 1…Day 26

Sorry, gentle readers, I am somewhat obsessed with finishing my paper for my class today, so we are back to the topic of music and perspective.  I really can think of little else.  Today, I’ll write about the librettist and the composer’s perspective.  In tomorrow’s entry, I’ll write about the performer’s and the audience’s perspective.

Music is never a solitary act – except perhaps during practice times. Even in the recording studio, there are the other musicians, the engineers, and the hoped for audience – the listeners.  And each of these participants approaches the musical act from a different perspective

Perspective is something that is often discussed in the visual arts – the development of technical perspective during the renaissance, the deconstructed perspective of the Fauvists and the Cubists; but it is a seldom considered term in the musical world.  But, I think, an equally important one.

The importance of opera comes from the spontaneous combustion that comes when all of these varied perspectives meet in a single moment, in the theatre.

Opera as an art form, provides just such an intersection of perspective.  It combines the perspective of the librettist (the person who writes the text), the composer (the person who writes the music), the designer (the person who creates the look of the event), the performers (who must bring all of this to life)– and, the very, very important perspective of the audience.

Opera usually begins first as the libretto.  Before the libretto may be a book, or in modern times, a play, a movie, even a newspaper article.  So today includes works such as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking[1], from the book and the movie by the same name or John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer[2] and Nixon in China[3], even the recent Doctor Atomic[4].  And, if you believe that words are more powerful than music because they reach the intellect, then you will think that the librettist’s perspective may be the most important.  But I say that, like the blind men and the elephant, even the librettist only has a piece of the picture.

The librettist’s job is to conceive the story and set the words down on paper.  And this job has changed over the centuries.  In the days of the famous librettist Metastasio, the librettist simply wrote was a long dramatic poem and then sold it to an opera house.  The opera house would then assign or offer the libretto to a composer in their employ, who would produce the music to libretto’s words, amending and cutting as necessary along the way. Librettos might be set more than once, by different composers, and in different times. 

By Verdi’s time, however, the process was changing.  Yes, if you were an unknown composer, you might still receive your libretto from the opera house and work much as in Metastasio’s day; but as Verdi’s fame grew, he often chose the original work for the libretto, and chose and worked directly with his librettist.  Today, a libretto may come from the composer, and in any case, the work of word crafting goes hand in hand with the work of musical composition.

To summarize, though, no matter what the process for the development of the work , the librettist’s perspective is that of storyteller.  And, without the words, there is no opera.

The composer’s job is to create music that adds a layer to the story-telling.  Particular since the time of Richard Wagner, the music is almost another character in the opera.  The music applied to the text of the librettist can move the action forward or pause it; the music can support the meaning of the words or conflict with it; the music can create comfort or tension.  So the composer can tell the same story as the librettist, or a different one. 

So the composer’s perspective is an important one.  The composer chooses the style of the music and the form of the opera, more so than does the librettist.  Some of that choice is dictated by the accepted musical and theatrical trends and styles of the day:  Mozart would not have created a through-composed[1] narrative opera, because, well, it was not conceived of stylistically until the late work of Giuseppe Verdi and the Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner: for Mozart, the style of recitative[2] and aria was, well, the only form that was possible.

The contemporary composer has this full palette of expression available, plus anything new that they can create.  And so, for the contemporary composer, the choice of form and musical style is often a reflection of their perspective on the text and the message of the theatre piece:  should the work be a through-composed narrative, should the style be tonal or atonal, or a mix, is there a reason to mix-in other musical elements and styles such as jazz or world music.  All of these are decisions that reflect the composer’s perspective on the text and the event or story portrayed in the opera. 


[1] A through-composed opera resembles more the dialog flow of a play; it does not separate itself into arias, trios, quartets, etc. as does the earlier forms of the Baroque and Classical periods.

[2] Recitative is dialogue set to music.  In Baroque and Classical opera, the recitative generally moves the action of the theatre piece forward, while arias and ensembles are expository moments on the emotions and feelings of the characters performing them.

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