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  • The Monodramatic Experiment
  • Christopher Smith (bio)

The Seyler Acting Troupe is in town [. . . ] Herr von Dallberg [sic] is the director, – and he is determined to keep me here until I’ve composed a Duodrama for him, and in fact, it didn’t take me too long to make up my mind, – for I’ve always wanted to write a play of this sort; – I can’t remember whether I wrote to you about these dramas when I was here before? – At that time I went twice to see such a play, and I saw it with the greatest pleasure! – in fact, nothing had ever surprised me quite as much! – I had always thought that this sort of performance could not be effective on stage! – You probably know that there is no singing but only Recitation – and Musique functions like an obbligato Recitative – now and then the words are recited with the Musique and then the effect is most magnificent.1

Thus, in Mannheim on 12 November 1778, did Mozart write to his father. Despite the bubbling enthusiasm, Mozart could not really have ‘always’ wanted to write a duodrama, as he calls it. The genre, unlike other forms that Mozart turned to early in his career, was itself only a few years old. Besides, it is strange that the youthful composer should have expressed surprise at being bowled over by the performances if he had already set his heart on writing something similar. As for the suggestion that Dalberg was keeping Mozart at Mannheim until he delivered a score, a letter the young composer wrote twelve days later makes it perfectly clear that he was in fact seeking a commission.2 Like the reference that Mozart went on to make about the opportunities for making money in cultured Mannheim, the froth is all probably intended to mask a disinclination to return to the paternal home in humdrum Salzburg.

However that may be, the quotation and the artistic experiences it reports will serve to introduce some examination of what stirred Mozart to interests rather better than a consideration of the somewhat disappointing use he later made of the form.3 This is all the more true since the composer’s failure to make the most of possibilities that he glimpsed in a musico-dramatic innovation about which he was, in the event, to maintain his enthusiasm for only a short while, was not by any [End Page 21] means all that there is to be said for the new artistic form that he had enjoyed so much.4 Offering fresh means for combining words with music in dramatic form, it offered possibilities that were not to be neglected by major figures in Romanticism and would, moreover, be explored anew in the early twentieth century. It constitutes an interesting and, in its way, attractive part of the never-ceasing debate about the compatibility of the two expressive forms.

The development had its origins in an archaeological puzzle. Scholars have always been aware that the Greeks invariably associated music with poetry, not just, as the very adjective suggests, lyric poetry, but dramatic verse too. But the Greeks, for all their ingenuity and subtlety in theorizing about mathematical, even metaphysical aspects of music, appear not to have devised a scheme of musical notation, and few original instruments survive to modern times. As art history plainly shows, architects have always had struggles in achieving a Classical style in building capable of satisfying, on the one hand, scholarly and aesthetic demands and, on the other, the practical demands of construction and functionality.5 As dramatists and musicians embarked on similar endeavours to emulate the Ancients in their own artistic spheres, they faced far greater difficulties on account of the dearth of directly applicable data. Knowing, as modern writers and composers do with their additional familiarity with drama on screen and radio, how music can regularly add emotional amplitude to theatrical experience, they were, moreover, still persuaded that to achieve excellence aere perennius they would be well advised to follow Ancient Greek practice in this sphere as in others. Just how to do so was the problem.

There was, besides, a practical difficulty that compounded scholarly concern to...


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pp. 21-33
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Archived 2009
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