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Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York

Michael V. Pisani

Publication Year: 2014

Throughout the nineteenth century, people heard more music in the theatre—accompanying popular dramas such as Frankenstein, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lady Audley’s Secret, The Corsican Brothers, The Three Musketeers, as well as historical romances by Shakespeare and Schiller—than they did in almost any other area of their lives. But unlike film music, theatrical music has received very little attention from scholars and so it has been largely lost to us. In this groundbreaking study, Michael V. Pisani goes in search of these abandoned sounds.

Mining old manuscripts and newspapers, he finds that starting in the 1790s, theatrical managers in Britain and the United States began to rely on music to play an interpretive role in melodramatic productions. During the nineteenth century, instrumental music—in addition to song—was a common feature in the production of stage plays.

The music played by instrumental ensembles not only enlivened performances but also served other important functions. Many actors and actresses found that accompanimental music helped them sustain the emotional pitch of a monologue or dialogue sequence. Music also helped audiences to identify the motivations of characters. Playwrights used music to hold together the hybrid elements of melodrama, heighten the build toward sensation, and dignify the tragic pathos of villains and other characters. Music also aided manager-directors by providing cues for lighting and other stage effects. Moreover, in a century of seismic social and economic changes, music could provide a moral compass in an uncertain moral universe.

Featuring dozens of musical examples and images of the old theatres, Music for the Melodramatic Theatre charts the progress of the genre from its earliest use in the eighteenth century to the elaborate stage productions of the very early twentieth century.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

This book is the result of nearly twenty years of research. It would not have been possible without the pioneering work and continuing encouragement of David Mayer, theatre historian and professor emeritus of drama at the University of Manchester. He is the first and lasting inspiration for this study. I am also grateful to my editor at the University of Iowa Press...

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Introduction: Genres, Concepts, and Terms

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pp. xi-xxvi

However it may be defined today, “melodramatic theatre” for the first hundred years of its existence simply meant stage action or dialogue accompanied by music. Audiences may recognize “mood” music, but they typically take this aspect of a production for granted. Why is such music necessary and who is responsible for it? What do we know about this technique of...

Part One: Forging a New Musico-Dramatic Genre

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1. The Eighteenth-Century Roots of Melos

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pp. 3-39

Throughout the eighteenth century it was essential that public theatres engage a band of musicians to play for dramatic genres that were expressly musical in nature, such as masques, operas, opéras-comiques, ballets, and pantomimes. The services of musicians were only nominally required, however, in performances of tragedies, histories, and comedies. In these so-called legitimate...

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2. The Rise of Melodrama in the Age of Revolution

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pp. 40-72

Melodrama, the kernel of the popular drama that began to grow its many shoots in the 1780s and 1790s, overwhelmed the theatres of Europe and America by the first decades of the new century. The oppressive castles, robbers and pirates, and avenging ghosts all were in some sense manifestations of a changing society with a new emerging class that found its...

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3. The Early Popular Drama in the Public Theatres

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pp. 73-104

In the first decade of the nineteenth-century, melodrama, with its national heroes, class and ethnic conflicts, sensational scenic effects, and tuneful musical accompaniments, spread like wildfire, not just to the minor theatres of London but also to the regional and provincial theatres of Great Britain and Ireland as well as to theatres in the east-coast cities of the United States. When Holcroft’s...

Part Two: Propagating the Popular Drama

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4. The Anglo-American Melodrama and Its Music

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pp. 107-125

In early 1828 Francis Courtney Wemyss, actor and manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, tried to capitalize on the notoriety of James Fenimore Cooper’s nautical novel The Red Rover by having Samuel H. Chapman prepare a dramatic version of it. The play opened on 21 February 1828, less than six weeks after Cooper’s novel was first published in America. “Here was a field for manager...

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5. Victorian Theatre Bands and Their Leaders

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pp. 126-135

The nineteenth-century theatre music that survives provides only a partial view of how this music sounded and the effect that it had on an audience’s interpretation of the drama. Let us now turn our attention to the musicians who played from these pages and who constituted that anonymous and little-examined entity called the “theatre...

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6. The Craft of Melos in Rehearsal and Performance

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pp. 136-167

Nineteenth-century playgoers and critics prove notoriously inarticulate witnesses on the use of music in the popular drama. The best evidence is to be had from those with a stake in the process: the managers who staged the business and often selected (or rejected) music, the actors who negotiated music into their interpretation of a role, the prompters who recorded these developments...

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7. Music, Suspense, and the Sensation Drama

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pp. 168-204

As Charles Reade, Dion Boucicault, Henry Leslie, Edmund Falconer, and others were to demonstrate, with a well-crafted and well-cast popular drama and a suitable musical score all that was needed was the cachet of sensation to draw audiences to the theatre like pins to a magnet. Using new developments in stagecraft and technical wizardry, near-instantaneous communication...

Part Three: Transforming the Popular Drama

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8. Melos in Crisis

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pp. 207-243

Despite the widespread success of sensation and audiences’ fascination with spectacle in an age of fast-growing technological developments, the popular drama—and the music long associated with it—underwent stunning diversification in the last third of the nineteenth century. In cities and towns across the English-speaking world stock companies continued a varied repertoire...

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9. Nationalism, “Prestige Music,” and Irving’s Lyceum

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pp. 244-274

In August 1879 a writer in London’s Saturday Review observed that “the departure of the fashionable world is commonly the signal for the armed bandit to step forth from his hiding-place.”1 In other words, melodrama survived solely as entertainment for the British lower classes during the summer months. But just as it had in New York, the form was about to receive an unexpected jolt of new life. Critics did not know what to...

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10. Melodrama and Glamour at Century’s End

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pp. 275-308

In 1890 Charles M. Skinner, American writer and editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, wrote a piece for the New York Dramatic Mirror on drama and “musical accompaniment.”

A musical accompaniment to a theatrical performance gives delicacy, feeling, and finish to the acting, softens the voices of the actors, intensifies the emotional effect of their deeds and speeches...

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Conclusion. The Legacy of Melos

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pp. 309-318

Melodramatic theatre, as this book demonstrates, emerged out of pantomime and the intersection of legitimate theatrical traditions in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Staging and music were bound tightly together in this new form, and the conventions established in London’s minor theatres infused the Anglo-American popular drama as it branched...


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pp. 319-360


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pp. 361-386

Other Works in the Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9781609382650
E-ISBN-10: 160938265X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609382308
Print-ISBN-10: 1609382307

Page Count: 414
Illustrations: 50 illustrations, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: paper
Series Title: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture