Gluck’s Theory of Integration and the American Musical

Richard Wagner, German Opera Composer

Richard Wagner

Christoph von Gluck’s goal, complete integration of art forms (music, word and dance), can be seen in Richard Wagner’s views on opera, expressed in “The Artwork of the Future” (1849) and “Opera and Drama” (1851), which laid the groundwork for Italian grand opera and the golden age of American Musical Theatre.

In their view, complete integration permits the birth of an art form that is many times more potent than any one form existing on its own.

Opera Europa goes on to explain the power of the opera art form: “In each work, all the components of opera combine their expressiveness and their beauty.  This complex alchemy makes an opera performance an extraordinary show, monopolising the sight, hearing, imagination and sensibility of the audience, where all human passions are at work.”

Opera Europa tries to explain how substantial, thematic content adds to the power of the art form:  “Love, Tragedy and Death are often at the heart of the plot.  The characters, sometimes torn between their feelings and their duty, are confronted with extraordinary situations and are carried away by heightened feelings.”

In the following two quotes, it is clear that Opera Europa favors the music over the librettos:

“By playing with rhythms, tones, melodies, nuances, the composers exploit the extraordinary suggestive power of the music in order to create particular atmospheres that lyrics or staging can not create.”

“Music is beyond words.  It addresses directly the audience’s heart and appeals to its sensibility and imagination.”

With all due respect to Opera Europa, we don’t agree.  We side with Gluck and Wagner in asserting that it is the fusion of word and music, in a dramatic setting, that creates the awesome power of opera, operetta or musical play.

Oscar Hammerstein II Portrait, American Lyricist and Librettist

Oscar Hammerstein II

If we skip forward from Gluck and Wagner to 1925, following the successful production of Rudolf Friml’s Rose-Marie (1924.28), Oscar Hammerstein II wrote an article in Theatre Magazine (May, 1925), in which he examined the role of word and song:

“The revolution in musical comedy which Rose-Marie has wrought was not accidental.  It was a carefully directed attack at the Cinderella show in favor of operatic musical comedy….. The history of musical comedy has passed through a variety of phases, but the type that persists, that shows the signs of ultimate victory, is the operetta–the musical play with music and plot welded together in skillful cohesion….. Is there a form of musical play tucked away somewhere…which could attain the heights of grand opera and still keep sufficiently human to be entertaining?”

Some scholars may find it interesting that Gluck was working toward the same goal but at a time when opera had not yet attained the respect that it would one day receive, the day it would be called “grand opera.”

Unfortunately, integration is only one of the processes needed to achieve a “grand” conclusion.  Marrying a turgid libretto to a lifeless score won’t accomplish much–there is an element of compositional growth and librettist advancement that must occur in order to achieve the overall goal.  While we may not sufficiently understand how Gluck and Wagner approached the evolution of compositional skills, we do have some insight into how Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers achieved the desired result.

Jerome Kern 1930's Portrait by Alfredo Valente, American Broadway Composer

Jerome Kern

Kern felt that if he became sufficiently involved in the story and the characters, his compositional skills would rise to the occasion.  Hammerstein once said of Kern:  “He didn’t think a score important unless it is linked to a good libretto….He was always more intense about story and characterization than about music.”

Is “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat a result of Kern’s interest in the character of Joe?

In the mid-1930’s, after returning from a stay in Hollywood, Rodgers said: “I should like to free myself for broader motifs, more extended designs–but within the framework of the theatre.”  After making that statement, Rodgers met with George Balanchine to draft ideas for a ballet in a new show.

Richard Rodgers, American Broadway Composer

Richard Rodgers

Not sure how to work with Balanchine, Rodgers asked:  “Do you do the step first, and then I fit the music to it?”  Balanchine shook his head:  “You write.  I make.”  Rodgers, freed of any secondary considerations, composed the towering Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Labels are Dangerous

Are we too worried about characterizing the type of show being produced on Broadway?  Did Hammerstein’s insistence on using the term “operetta” create some resistance to his concept of a higher form of musical play?

Was Porgy and Bess best suited to be a “folk opera” or a musical play?

Was Oklahoma! a “folk opera?”  In his review of Oklahoma!, Lewis Nichols said:  “A truly delightful musical play…simple and warm.  Possibly, in addition to being a musical play, ‘Oklahoma!’ could be called a folk opera.  Whatever it is, it is very good.”

Mary Garden, American Opera Soprano

Mary Garden

David Ewen refers us to a great American soprano, who went on to do many remarkable things, Mary Garden:  “In her autobiography Mary Garden has remarked that in her opinion native American opera of the future will probably resemble South Pacific and The King and I.”  

Is operatic music the same as dramatic music?  Is it a form of music or an adjective describing any form of music?  In The King and I, is the song “We Kiss in the Shadows” an aria, an operatic song or something else?  Is the song “Getting to Know You” from the same show some lower order of music, even though it is critical to the plot?

The consideration of Gluck’s and Wagner’s theory of integration will be continued in the next Segment.