All this changed in the 1760s, when Christoph von Gluck, the ‘Great Reformer’ of the opera form, came along. Now, to our modern ears, Gluck’s operas sound almost as staid as a Baroque opera, but he pioneered several techniques that are still in use in Musical Theater to this day, such as using lyrical dissonance (music that contradicts its own lyrics) as a dramatic device, or the use of orchestral mood music to capture a character’s psychological state (also heavily used in film scoring, once it came into being).
Gluck’s innovations were picked up by Mozart twenty-odd years later, who used them along with his phenomenal natural gifts to create a new genre of opera that blended the lightness and humor of the just-then-becoming-popular Opera Buffa (comic opera) with the emotional depth and intensity of traditional Baroque Opera Seria, much like the Musical Play blended Operetta and Musical Comedy elements.
Three of Mozart’s most legendary works, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte, were written in this style. Figaro and Cosi are largely in the Opera Buffa style, with farcical plots and plenty of broad comedy, but they also feature the kind of lyrical and elegiac arias not generally found in comic Opera and a depth of human feeling those Operas rarely approach.
The Marriage of Figaro was drawn from the second installment of a highly political trilogy of then-contemporary French plays, and while the political content was pretty heavily downplayed (though not quite so much so as in Rossini’s later Operatic version of the trilogy’s first installment, The Barber of Seville), the implications of the smart servant outwitting the oppressive master are still very much in evidence.
For all its political intent, however, the French play in question was clearly built on the familiar character archetypes of the Commedia Dell’Arte (as were most comedic plays in Europe at the time). Mozart’s great achievement is that he fleshes out these familiar character types into fully realized human beings. It’s notable that even the other great Musical-Theater masterpiece based on these character templates, Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, never really managed to achieve this feat.
The libretto is superb to begin with, probably the best Mozart ever worked with, but the real alchemy comes in the music he composed for the piece. Giving servant characters the kind of high-minded lyrical music he gives them here was almost as subversive at the time as having them outwit their master, and the weight and dignity it adds to their character is ultimately a far more effective upending of the established order than the original play’s more overt political satire.
Cosi Fan Tutte, on the other hand, is a shining example of seemingly frivolous material being elevated to heartbreaking bittersweetness by its musical element. The libretto, a somewhat shallow and slightly bitter comedy about the frailty of women that makes most of its characters rather unlikable and seems downright unpleasantly sexist to both genders by modern standards, would have virtually no appeal as a straight play. But because this story is set to some of Mozart’s most expressive and deeply melancholy music, it takes on all kinds of emotional implications that are not inherent in the text, ultimately playing like a heartbreaking tragicomedy about human foolishness comparable to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. This is reinforced by a heavy emphasis of ensembles over solo arias: only one of the solo numbers, “Per pieta ben mio perdona”, really stops the show, but the Opera features a dazzling and highly varied array of group numbers. This makes perfect sense, if you think about it: Figaro’s characters were unique individuals who demanded their own solo explorations, but the characters in Cosi are simplified caricatures meant to make a larger point about humanity, so giving them deeply felt individual arias would be kind of counterintuitive.
But the clearest illustration of this unprecedented blend of comic and tragic elements was in the unclassifiable nature of Don Giovanni. For the most part, the piece plays as a raucous comedy, but the main character is a sociopathic sex maniac who begins the show by committing rape and murder in rapid succession. We’re encouraged to laugh at him a fair amount of the time, but we also get some disturbing testimonials from his victims, and the show’s climax, where he is dragged down to Hell, is terrifying, featuring probably the most dissonant and frightening music Mozart ever wrote.
Mozart’s stated position was that “poetry must be the obedient daughter of the music”, but he created probably the most successful attempt to unify drama and music ever, because he embodied the drama, not in the librettos, but in the music itself. It’s worth noting that, apart from Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, Mozart’s operas are the only ones from before the Romantic era to still remain a major part of the standard operatic repertoire.
While the more ambitious and high-minded Operas and Oratorios form the bulk of the material from this era that is still performed today, it’s worth remembering that the thing we now call “Musical Comedy” was not by any means an invention of the Twentieth Century. There were always lower-brow Musical Theater genres more lightweight and accessible than true Opera, at least after Opera was introduced so they could imitate it on a small scale. They were generally just plotted vaudevilles, resembling the lightweight, disposable Musical Comedies popular on Broadway in the twenties and thirties. The first of these genres to really make a historical impact was what the English called Ballad Opera, which produced the now rarely-performed but still highly influential Beggar’s Opera, back when Baroque Opera Seria was still in its heyday.
Another of these genres, known as Singspiel, comes into our discussion here because two scores by Mozart (The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute) and one by Beethoven (the aforementioned Fidelio) were written for that format, which entailed spoken dialogue between the songs and heavy use of comic subplots. It was, generally speaking, a fairly frivolous form of entertainment, although both Mozart and Beethoven managed to elevate it quite a bit in their compositions in the field, simply because they were Mozart and Beethoven.
Mozart’s first notable attempt at Singspiel, The Abduction from the Seraglio, was little more than an insubstantial, pseudo-risque piece of fluff, albeit obviously one with very fine music, Mozart being Mozart. But as dazzling as much of the score is, it has a self-consciously showy quality quite different from the effortless feel of more mature Mozart (the big soprano aria “Martern aller Arten” is such an over-the-top vocal showpiece that Peter Shaffer joked in Amadeus that Mozart must have been sleeping with the singer), and the music doesn’t really do much to elevate the trashy story.
But his second Singspiel of any note, The Magic Flute, one of a handful of pieces completed just before his death, is one of his all-time masterpieces. It has a ridiculous libretto with a nonsensical bait-and-switch fantasy plot and several potentially irritating elements, but Mozart’s exalted music elevates it into a monumental tribute to human brotherhood. That kind of alchemy on a bad libretto is something only two or three composers have been able to achieve in the history of Musical Theater, but Mozart could pull it off, and did so more than once. This has led to a popular conspiracy theory that the show is some kind of elaborate coded message about the Freemasons, mostly because people aren’t comfortable admitting that this ecstatic, uplifting music is essentially set to random nonsense. Unfortunately, nothing we know about the character of either Mozart or his librettist here, a proto-Vaudevillian producer named Emanuel Schikaneder, really supports this interpretation, though this hasn’t stopped it from becoming an accepted piece of “common knowledge” in many Classical Music circles.
Beethoven’s Fidelio is if anything even more ennobling, even if Beethoven never quite managed to obscure the flaws in the clumsy libretto he was given as Mozart did. The piece tells the story of a political whistle-blower imprisoned in a villain’s dungeon, and his wife Leonore who disguises herself as a boy and uses the alias Fidelio to infiltrate the prison at which he is held and rescue him. Leonore is portrayed as a kind of secular saint, her husband Floristan as an ideological martyr, and the villain Pizarro as the terrifying embodiment of evil and power.
The Opera is far from flawless…the libretto, as stated, is a cliché-ridden disaster, and even the score has some dull stretches, particularly in the opening scenes. About the only music of real interest until halfway through the first act is the famous “Canon Quartet”, and while it is one of Opera’s great ensembles, the underwhelming and at times downright irritating music surrounding it gets the Opera off to a notoriously slow start, especially as the characters it is given to are almost entirely irrelevant to the main plot.
That said, once the Opera’s villain, Don Pizarro, makes an extremely impressive entrance with his terrifying villain aria, the dramatic intensity of the work never flags again for a moment. Leonore’s thrilling statement-of-determination aria, the tremulous, cautiously ecstatic chorus for the prisoners who are briefly allowed to see the sunlight again, Florestan’s half-mad cry of anguish in his prison, and the fiercely joyful celebration music at the end of the Opera constitute some of the most transcendental and uplifting music ever written, and Fidelio just might be the most ennobling piece of Musical Theater ever (its only real competition for that title being Man of La Mancha).
Beethoven never wrote another Opera, although he did dabble in other Musical Theater forms such as the humanistic Oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (which could be seen as a predecessor to Jesus Christ Superstar in a way, as it focuses primarily on Jesus’ fear and self-doubt prior to the crucifixion), a few incidental scores for plays (the most famous being his music for Goethe’s Egmont), and the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. The latter, while not quite top-drawer Beethoven, was one of the earliest examples of a ballet with actual musical substance, and like Tchaikovsky’s ballets after it, was criticized at the time for being “too complex” for the art form. He also created another early example of the Tone Poem with his famous “Pastoral” symphony. Granted, apart from Fidelio itself, the only one of those works to rank with Beethoven’s all-time classics is the “Pastoral” (although the most memorable theme from The Creatures of Prometheus became legendary when he reused it for his magnificent “Eroica” symphony), but they still show that his interest in the art of musical storytelling extended beyond this one effort.
There was really only one other work of long-term note to come out of the Singspiel genre, Karl Maria von Weber’s Die Frieshutz. Weber seems like a fairly minor composer to most of us now, remembered primarily for this one Opera and one famous instrumental piece, Invitation to the Dance, but apart from perhaps Monteverdi, he was probably the most influential composer ever to fail to leave behind a large body of popular works. In fact, he is actually considered to be the very first composer of the Romantic movement…the one that would bring us Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and the vast majority of major names in Classical Music today. This Opera, and his two lesser-known follow-ups, Euryanthe and Oberon, formed the primary model for the early works of Richard Wagner, and would continue to heavily influence his style and subject matter throughout his career. Weber did have a weakness for showy set arias that Wagner would pretty quickly outgrow, but as Claude Debussy once observed, he was married to his own star singer, which might partly account for that proclivity.
Die Frieschutz also offered a return to fantasy for the Operatic genre. Classical-era Operas, with a few exceptions (such as The Magic Flute) had generally favored ‘realistic’ (if often improbable) fiction over true fantasy, with the mythological themes of Baroque Opera Seria going out of fashion around the time of Mozart’s early career. But Weber, with his spine-tingling supernatural elements, helped to re-popularize the Fantasy Musical. Indeed, his deal-with-the-devil plot premise and the diabolic atmosphere that accompanies it shows as clear an influence on Gounod’s Faust as it does on Wagner.
But Singspiel as a specific format proved to have little staying power, and its few classics were simply absorbed into the Opera genre, to the point where no-one really thinks of them anymore as anything but Opera. I point this out to illustrate how blurry and illusory the supposed line between ‘Opera’ and ‘Musicals’ really is, and how little it is likely to matter when both are in the ‘Classical’ category in the coming centuries.
The other truly monumental composing talent of this era was Mozart’s best friend and Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. His most notable achievement in the field of Music Theatre was his Oratorio The Creation, which by general consensus stands as the ‘runner-up’ to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s The Passion of St. Matthew for the title of Greatest Oratorio of All Time. This piece had perhaps the most ambitious concept of any Musical Theater work ever written…the creation of the universe itself…and amazingly enough, it more or less does justice to its premise. There is the occasional brief passage of somewhat stilted recitative, but the major numbers feature some of the most sublime Classical music ever written.
Haydn’s other great contribution was pioneering yet another new form, the Chamber Opera. For most of his career, Haydn was retained as a private employee of a powerful nobleman of the time, Prince Esterhazy, and composed largely on commissions from his employer. As such, his Operas were mostly staged privately for the Prince, and thus had to be achieved with smaller-scale staging and musical forces. Fortunately, Haydn was quite capable of creating compelling musical dramas within these limits. Apart from their small scale, his Operas strongly resembled Mozart’s in style and sound, and while they were never quite on Mozart’s level…Haydn lacked Mozart’s flawless sense of musical drama, the melodies are not quite as memorable, and he certainly never got a libretto of the caliber of Don Giovanni or Figaro…they are still often stunning as pure music. And their intimate scale and the way they take advantage of it to create a subtler and more delicate experience than regular Opera was the original inspiration that led to the smaller, more intimate forms of modern Musical Theater such as The Fantasticks.
Haydn even dabbled in a form that is almost completely unknown in America, but has a fairly distinguished history in Central Europe, the Marionette Opera. These were essentially ultra-elaborate and sophisticated puppet shows that were used to perform both existing ‘conventional’ Operas and works composed specifically for this medium. Unfortunately, all but one of Haydn’s compositions in that field have been permanently lost, but Philemon and Baucis, based on the Greek myth of the same name immortalized by Ovid’s Metamorphosis, still survives and makes for a fascinating listen if you can find a recording. For years, the closest thing to exposure most Americans had to this art form was the “Lonely Goatherd” set piece in the film version of The Sound of Music, but there’s no question that Jim Henson’s Muppet movie musicals and their various derivants like Avenue Q owe a great deal to this all-too-neglected art form.
The other link between Mozart and Beethoven is a composer who was also at least semi-friendly with Mozart during his life, and who was Beethoven’s teacher before Haydn took over that task: the infamous (and widely misunderstood) Antonio Salieri.
A common analogy you’ll hear among theater snobs who like to pretend to be more musically knowledgeable than they really are is “Comparing Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber is like comparing Mozart and Salieri”. The problem with this is that anyone using that analogy instantly betrays their complete ignorance of Classical music. Only someone whose entire understanding of Mozart’s biography was based on the movie Amadeus would ever try to use such an analogy. A closer analogy for what they they’re trying to imply might be Wagner and Meyerbeer, but of course no-one is going to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.
For one thing, Salieri was far from the talentless mediocrity that Amadeus makes him out to be. He was actually one of the most talented and distinguished composers of his day. Granted, he wasn’t a Mozart-level genius, but…I hate to break it to you idolaters…neither is Sondheim. And while Salieri, like his equivalent from the era of Bach, Georg Philip Telemann, was largely forgotten for many years and is still far less prominent than the friend and colleague he towered over during his lifetime, it’s worth noting that he has not completely vanished, and indeed is seeing a gradual revival today.
The works by Salieri that have managed to hold on to some degree, interestingly enough, are his Operas, and every now and then you’ll see a production mounted of one of them (usually Axur or Falstaf). Heard today, his Operas, while occasionally a bit obvious melodically, are actually extremely impressive, especially if one comes in expecting the “mediocrity” suggested by Amadeus.
Another thing that is often overlooked about Salieri is that he was actually one of Opera’s all-time innovators. Remember, Salieri was Gluck’s former pupil and de facto protégé, and he was arguably much more ahead of his time than his more famous mentor. Mozart is often given credit for elevating Opera Buffa into a serious art form, but the truth is that Salieri was incorporating more lyrical and ambitious elements into Opera Buffa in such works as The Stolen Bucket years before Mozart started doing it. Indeed, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is so similar in plot to Salieri’s earlier Opera La Grotta di Trofonio that the former was almost certainly inspired heavily by the latter. The hyperdramatic last act of Salieri’s Les Danaïdes, which literally takes place in Hell and is filled with proto-Expressionistic portrayals of agony and damnation, was a clear influence not only on the climactic scene of Don Giovanni but also on Hector Berlioz, as can be heard in such works as the famous Symphonie Fantastique and especially the Concert Opera La Damnation de Faust. Salieri’s magnum opus, Axur, was even the closest predecessor to Wagner’s unified Music Dramas that had been seen up to this point.
It was around this time that a new form of Musical Drama, the story-based song cycle, became a major factor in the Musical Theatre scene (in the Twentieth Century, composer Dominick Argento would coin the term “Monodrama” to describe works in this format). It was basically the next stage of stripped-down production beyond Chamber Opera, generally consisting of no more than one singer and a piano with no staging whatsoever. Again, the genesis of this genre predates that of Opera itself, dating back at least to the works of Guillaume de Machaut, 14-century poet-composer, who composed many works in a very similar vein, although many of them now survive only as texts.
The Almighty God of this genre was the great Franz Schubert, a composer on the shortlist of immortal geniuses of Classical Music and arguably the greatest melodist of all time. Schubert never had a success in conventional Opera even posthumously despite several attempts (the closest he came was a loosely adapted updating of Aristophanes’ Lysisistrata called Die Verschworenen, which, while certainly better than most later attempts to musicalize that property, is still widely acknowledged to be far from the composer’s best work). He did write some extremely acclaimed stage music for a play called Rosamunde, but while the music itself remains a Classical-Music staple, the play was a failure and is, in fact, now permanently lost (think of it as the 19th Century equivalent of the modern “cult flop” such as Mack and Mabel).
However, his two most famous works in the Song Cycle field, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, both based on cycles of poems by Wilhelm Müller, are essentially unstaged tragic Operas for one singer. At the very least, these ‘Monodramas’ correspond to Opera the way the great Concept-Album Rock Operas of our own day correspond to Musical Theater. These poems, like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, dealt with the intersection between romantic heartbreak and existential despair (it was a very popular theme in European literature at the time, especially in Germany). Indeed, although not actually based on Goethe’s work, these song cycles do a much more effective job of musicalizing Goethe’s theme than the actual Werther opera by Jules Massenet.
Die schöne Müllerin is the more ubiquitous of the two today, but Winterreise has always been the more respected by the serious music set. The latter is sadder than any tragic Opera I know of, partly because its deliberately unresolved ending denies the listener any real catharsis. The Müller poems it was based on were incredibly depressing to begin with (example: in one the narrator finds a graveyard and wishes to join the dead there, but ruefully observes “there was no room at the inn”), but Schubert’s contribution takes their sadness to a whole new level of eloquence and depth. Some songs, like the first, “Gute Natch” (‘Good Night’), are calm and solemn, even stately, but with an ocean of sadness suggested under the surface. Others, like “Die Wetterfahne” (‘The Weathervane’), are angry and palpably bitter, the narrator cursing the world for what it has done to him. Still others, like “Der Lindenbaum” (‘The Linden Tree’), are full of heartwrenching longing for past happiness that cannot be reclaimed. There is even one desperately upbeat song, “Mut!” (‘Courage!’), sung by the narrator in a futile attempt to raise his spirit.
Throughout, the songs feature Schubert’s legendary gift for sheer melody, but with a depth of sorrow he never approached anywhere else in his work. And while Die schöne Müllerin at least ended with the catharsis of an operatic suicide, Winterreise concludes with its most haunting song of all, “Der Leiermann” (‘The Organ-Grinder’), as the narrator encounters the evocative image of an ignored, penniless organ grinder still relentlessly cranking his instrument. There is no real resolution of the protagonist’s crippling romantic and existential grief, just the musical equivalent of a film fading out on a single symbolic image.
Schubert’s successor in the field of German art song, Robert Schumann, also created two immensely important monodramas, Dichterliebe and Fraunliebe und Leben. The primary difference between the two is that, despite being a disciple of Schubert during his lifetime and generally working in the same fields, Schumann was at heart a dramatist, not a melodist, and his actual style of composing is more reminiscent of Beethoven than Schubert.
The other key difference between the two is that Schubert wrote of love lost, and Schumann wrote of love fulfilled. After all, Schumann wrote virtually all of his Lieder in the year that he married his beloved wife, Clara Schumann, with whom he had already been in love for well over a decade. Schumann’s life was actually a short and rather tragic one (he died in a mental institution after trying to drown himself), but he did have an extremely happy marriage, and his love songs tended to sound uplifting and wildly celebratory even when set to the bittersweet German poetic texts he generally used as lyrics. Even the Dichterliebe, which was written during a period where he was forcibly separated from Clara by her overbearing father, conveys not the existential despair of Schubert’s song cycles, but a fierce and determined devotion bordering on obsession.
Schumann, along with Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber, helped usher in a new era of music that rejected both the ornate stylizations of the Baroque period and the calm, peaceful melody of Mozart and Haydn’s era in favor of something more organic and dramatic. It is this era that would produce most of the major works that form the Classical Music repertoire today, including nearly all of the Operas, and began the artistic progress that would eventually be picked up and continued by modern Musical Theater after the genre’s revolution in the 1940s.