Mozart, Medea and melodrama

by Richard Luckett


Today the word ‘melodrama’ probably conjures up a black-visaged villain crouching behind painted foliage, clutching a ketchup-stained knife or a smoking pistol. It is a recognisably nineteenth century legacy. But in the eighteenth century, melodrama signified something entirely different, something which, far from being hackneyed, was at the sharp end of the avant-garde. It implied, in the words of a contemporary who had just seen a melodrama and needed to explain to his father what the novelty was, a staged piece, accompanied by music, with ‘no singing in it, only recitation, to which the music is like a sort of obbligato accompaniment to a recitative. Now and then words are spoken while the music goes on, and this produces the finest effect’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The writer was the young Mozart, in a letter of 12th November, 1778. What he had just seen was Georg Benda’s Medea, and Benda, Wolfgang reported, had composed another in the same genre, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos... both are really excellent. You know that of all the Lutheran Kappelmeisters Benda has always been my favourite, and I like these works of his so much that I can carry them around with me’. What is more, he goes on, he has a commission to write one himself, and begins to believe that ‘most operatic recitatives should be treated in this way — and only sung occasionally, when the words can be perfectly expressed by the music’.

Mozart never completed what he described as his ‘declaimed opera’. It was to be called Semiramis, and nothing of it survives. But he did employ the technique of melodrama for one number in Thamos, Kohig in Agypten, and for two in Zaide — again unfinished, and not published until long after his death.

Georg Anton Benda

Georg Benda was born in Bohemia in 1722, and returned there to die in 1795. He was in fact a Catholic. But most of his working career was spent in the employment of the Lutheran Dukes of Saxe-Gotha, and it was Duke Friedrich III’s Duchess, Luise Dorothea, who provided the principal artistic stimulation in the court. She was intensely interested in musical theatre, and the 1760s and 1770s were a period of experimentation and fermentation in opera and ballet. In Vienna Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi, embarked on the programme of operatic reform that has given us Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste. In Stuttgart, Noverre developed his new naturalistic ballet. In France Jean-Jacques Rousseau, social and aesthetic theorist, novelist, dramatist and musician, argued for a new relationship between words and music. But it would also be an ancient one, since it would revive what he believed had been classical Greek practice, and to illustrate this, early in the 1760s, Rousseau wrote what he described as a scene lyrique: Pygmalion, a dramatic monologue to be recited to the accompaniment of music. This was to be the direct inspiration of Medea.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Nevertheless the idea remained embryonic, and it was not until 1770 that Pygmalion was given its first performance, at Lyons, with music partly by Rousseau himself, partly by his friend Coignet. The music was not a success although the text, and the idea, manifestly were, since in 1772 there was not only a Paris revival of the original but also stagings of two entirely new settings, one in Vienna, the other in Wiemar. The Wiemar version was composed by Anton Schweitzer, and its acclaim made Schweitzer the obvious person to whom the alert actor-manager Seyler would turn when he commissioned another work of the same kind, Ariadne auf Naxos. The text was by the poet Johann Christian Brandes, and designed as a vehicle for the declamatory talents of Brandes’ actress wife, Charlotte. But Schweitzer abandoned the project, which was taken over by Benda, since Gotha was the ducal court at which the Seyler troupe had recently been playing. Ariadne, which had its premiere at Gotha in January, 1775, was an instant success, and not the least consequence was that Seyler’s wife, Sophie, the company’s other leading actress and Charlotte Brandes’ inevitable rival, demanded that she also be allowed to demonstrate her histrionic prowess in this new and arresting form.

It was no doubt this domestic circumstance which accounted for the urgency with which the creation of Medea was invested, words and music being completed in just a few weeks. For his text Seyler went to Friedrich Willhelm Gotter, a poet and playwright whose friend Goethe admired his ‘refined, clear, and cheerful mind’, and a colleague of Benda’s at Gotha, where he was court archivist. Moreover, poet and composer had recently collaborated in a successful singspiel, another form of alternative music theatre, in which songs replaced the formal arias of opera, and spoken dialogue the recitatives.

Medea had its premiere on 1st May 1775 at Leipzig, where theatrical productions were an important part of the annual city fair. A more complex work than Ariadne, in which the declamation falls, except at one crucial point, between musical phrases, rather than, as is largely the case in Medea, over continuous music, it was instantly acclaimed, performed in several other German cities, and translated into Italian, Dutch, Danish and Czech. Mozart was far from being alone in his enthusiasm.

What now seems surprising is Benda’s originality. He was 52 when he composed Medea, not an age that one associates with radical innovation, and his previous compositions, although numerous and competent, were largely conventional. He seized on all the latent possibilities of melodrama, and sought to eliminate its principal generic weakness by introducing recurrent motifs, to help create some sense of organic form in what might otherwise have all too easily become a series of spasmodic snatches of musical illustration. In so doing, of course, he anticipated what is often assumed to have been an innovation of Wagner’s.

A playbill for the premiere of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail

The work now known as Zaide received its title when it was first published by J. A. Andre in 1838. It was to have been a singspiel to a text (which does not survive) by Johann Andreas Schachtner, a close family friend of the Mozarts, who was court trumpeter at Salzburg. He played other instruments besides, and had considerable literary facility — being, amongst other things, responsible for the German version of Idomeneo. His source for Zaide was Sebastiani’s Das Serail, an immensely popular comedy in the fashionable Turkish mode. Why Mozart, who worked on the score in Salzburg in 1779–80 should have abandoned it after completing fifteen numbers and sketching one more is unclear; the most likely explanation is that the libretto proved unacceptable to the theatre management. The surviving music is melodically rich and stylistically eclectic. There are several innovative concerted numbers and — Mozart’s debt to Benda — two ‘melodramen’. Though they are of the Ariadne rather than the Medea type Mozart took particular care over their orchestration. But it was not an avenue he was to develop, although Zaide itself is an obvious stepping-stone to Die Entführung aus dem Serail.