I was planning to do a history of musical theater (an honest one, rather than the nostalgia-blinded laments for a supposedly dead Broadway you generally get in published histories of the form). However, I realized that to start with the beginning of what we call the Broadway musical would be misleading: things ultimately not that different from our ‘musicals’ existed long before Broadway. As such, let’s look at the musicalized drama from the moment it first began, in the realm of what we now call Opera.
Now, the classic Greek Tragedies were purportedly performed as music dramas when they were new, but since no actual music survives from that period and we can’t be absolutely sure how or even if they were really sung, we’ll pass over them for the purposes of this book. Instead, we’ll start at the point where dramas expressed in music returned to popularity, a popularity that they have maintained continuously in one form or another ever since.
There was a fashionable movement of musicians in Italy called the Camerata that started producing rudimentary opera-like compositions in the early 1600s after reaching the aforesaid conclusion about the Greeks, but they didn’t get much of lasting importance done until opera’s first Genius, Claudio Monteverdi, stepped in and essentially invented Opera. Granted, there were already “Operas” of a sort being written before Monteverdi stepped in, but he wrote the first two Operas that you have the slightest chance of ever seeing performed today, and his works are probably the earliest that a modern audience would recognize as “Opera” in the modern sense.
Amazingly enough, not only was Monteverdi one of the greatest opera composers of all time, but his operas were far more dramatically integrated than Opera would become for more than 200 years after his death. Of his two surviving complete Operas, the first, Orfeo, does seem a bit dramatically primitive today…for all its gorgeous, haunting music, it’s structured so presentationally that it almost seems more like an Oratorio than an Opera. However, Monteverdi’s last opera, The Coronation of Poppea, is a piece of unified musical drama so far ahead of its time that it employs devices and techniques no-one else would think of for centuries. It features some of the most sensual and erotic music in all of the Classical canon, and even looks forward to Carmen in being completely unsentimental, without a single truly sympathetic figure. To demonstrate the sheer extent of this, the romantic leading man is the historical Emperor Nero (yes, that Nero…the one who purportedly fiddled while Rome burned and is the most commonly-nominated candidate for the identity of the Beast of Revelation)…and no, he is not portrayed in a particularly softened or sanitized manner.
Opera after Monteverdi’s death actually became a lot less interesting, at least for the next hundred years or so. Baroque opera basically came in two schools: the Italian, which emphasized big showcase arias over actual drama and was ruled far more by star singers than by composers, and the French, which had more dramatic unity but tended to be staid and conventional, and emphasized the librettos so much that most of it was musically earthbound.
On the Italian side, we had Antonio Vivaldi, the first of Classical Music’s great speedwriters, and the direct precursor of such later composers as Rossini and Donizetti, who were also speedwriters who specialized in composing for star singers. Vivaldi is said to have written 91 Operas in his lifetime, although this number isn’t really substantiated by the available evidence. However, if he did achieve this feat, it was reportedly by the same means that he managed to write his 500-odd concertos…by reusing the same basic composition with very little variation that many times in a row. I can’t claim credit for that observation…it was Igor Stravinsky who first remarked that Vivaldi had written ‘the same concerto a hundred times’…but the lack of variety in his compositions is obvious to anyone who listens extensively to his work. This is why, while Vivaldi did produce a handful of important classical warhorses (The Four Seasons concertos, the Gloria, the L’Olimpiade Opera), anyone exploring his work in greater detail is likely to be rather disappointed.
In addition to his Operatic works, Vivaldi was responsible for creating one of the earliest examples of another format of musical storytelling, the Tone Poem, which tells a concrete story through instrumental music alone, with no vocals, lyrics or visual elements whatsoever. Due to the absence of these aspects, Tone Poems do not really qualify as a subgenre of the Musical Theater medium, but so many of them have been incorporated within Musical Theater works that we must touch on them briefly to fully understand this usage. Vivaldi did not actually invent the form (it dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages), but his famous set of Concertos The Four Seasons are probably the oldest Tone Poems that are still a significant part of the Classical canon.
Meanwhile, the biggest names on the French side during that first hundred years were Lully and Rameau. Lully, who was the undisputed king of French opera for a generation, has pretty much disappeared from the scene today. His librettos, essentially Classical dramas by high-class playwrights of the day, were fairly literate and intelligent by opera-libretto standards, but his very formal, dispassionate, recitative-heavy composing style (not to mention his penchant for long, exaggerated prologue sequences heaping praise on his King and patron, Louis XIV), make him rather hard to get into for people weaned on Romantic Opera. About the only things of his that anyone performs today are the ‘Ballet-Plays’ (which resembled an early version of the Broadway Musical format) that he wrote with legendary French writer Moliere, and that seems more due to Moliere’s contributions than his.
Rameau, the later of the two, was something of an innovator; indeed, he might have wound up being the major operatic reformer of the day if his style had caught on more at the time. His work was far more musically sophisticated than most other French operas at the time, and had a dramatic cogency and immediacy not seen since Monteverdi. In some ways, he was more ahead of his time that the Operatic reformers that would come along after him—notably, he was the first to use the structural scheme of free-flowing arioso that occasionally expands into a formal aria. This structure would of course form the basis for Verdi’s Otello and Wagner’s Lohengrin and Der Meistersingers von Nurnburg, as well as the musicals of Claude-Michele Schonberg and Alain Boublil such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.
Probably the most enduring Operatic work of this era was Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, but it only further illustrates the problems with the form at the time. The work has remained enduringly popular due almost entirely to a single sublime number, Dido’s “Lament”, or “Farewell to Life”. This aria is indeed transcendental, but like such later Opera titles primarily known for a single number as Verdi’s Nabucco or Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, the actual Opera isn’t really all that interesting apart from its one “hit”. Indeed, the libretto sounds downright embarrassing today, and the remainder of the score, while pleasant and enjoyable, isn’t really important Classical music.
Purcell’s other output consisted mostly of incidental musical interludes to be performed between the scenes of existing plays, with his incidental score for Shakespeare’s The Tempest being particularly well-remembered. This practice was actually far older than full-scale Opera in the Monteverdi vein…it was already established practice in Shakespeare’s own day…but like Ballet music, it only came to be truly taken seriously as an art form in itself after it began emulating the stylistic consistency and dramatic cogency of the Operatic format.
The biggest composer to write in the Italian school was Handel, who was not actually an Italian at all but appropriated their language and idiom. It’s a pretty well-known fact that Handel was a composer of incomparable genius, but he was not the most cogent of musical dramatists, which is part of why his most enduring works are Oratorios…another kind of Musical Theater in which the story is narrated rather than acted out…rather than Operas.
Really, the primary legacy of Baroque Musical Theater lies in Oratorios. The genesis of this genre arguably dates back far further than that of Opera…to St. Hildegarde of Bingen, 10th Century Abbess, alleged clairvoyant, and the only female to achieve the ranks of the top-flight Classical composers. Her Ordo Virtutum, a morality play in music set to her trademark brand of composition (which can only be described as a kind of Medieval New Age Music) is the oldest music-theater piece for which we still have the music, predating Monteverdi’s Orfeo by almost 500 years, and serves as a fairly direct predecessor to the Oratorio model.
Handel would have immense success with this form after his Opera career dried up, most notably with the perennial classic The Messiah. The Messiah actually has a very similar concept to the modern musical Godspell…passages from the Gospels delivered as Musical Theater…but with infinitely better music and an approach that actually does justice to the dignity of the subject matter.
Handel is now mostly associated with The Messiah by the general public, but he actually had several other highly successful Oratorios. One of the most notable was Israel in Egypt, which is still easily the all-time finest musicalization of the Passover story, despite a number of later attempts. Its scene-painting techniques for illustrating the plagues are particularly dazzling, and unlike some modern adaptations, it has no illusions about the tone or content of the story…its most famous individual number is called “The Lord is a Man of War”.
It’s worth noting that both Handel and his half-forgotten then-archrival Giovanni Bononcini (now remembered, if at all, for two or three ‘hit’ arias from his Opera Griselda) were shameless about plagiarizing the works of others, to the point where it’s often hard to tell whether some of their surviving compositions were actually written by them. This is a thing worth remembering for those who accuse Andrew Lloyd Webber of plagiarism…even if the accusations that Webber deliberately copies other people’s tunes are true (which is doubtful, for reasons I’ll get to later in this volume), at least the vast majority of material Webber is accused of “cribbing” is currently in the public domain. Handel and Bononcini deliberately plagiarized their own contemporaries, quite freely at that, and were not ashamed to use their wealth and fame to weasel out of the consequences (although Bononcini eventually had to flee his adopted country of England after his career went south and he could no longer use this tactic to avoid plagiarism charges). Handel even once replied, when called out on stealing another composer’s aria, “Yes, but it was far too good for him.”
Of course, the most important and groundbreaking composer of the Baroque era by far was Johann Sebastian Bach. Since all Western music is essentially based on Bach’s innovations, he definitely contributed indirectly to every score written after him, albeit in ways that are too complicated for the scope of this book. But while he wrote no Operas, he did compose two magnificent Oratorios, The Passion of St. Matthew and The Passion of St. John. Both showcase the perfect order and balance and almost blinding beauty found in virtually all of Bach’s compositions, but their ambition lifts them among his most acclaimed works. Indeed, the more famous of the two, the St. Matthew’s Passion, was one of the works most instrumental in Felix Mendelssohn’s efforts to exalt Bach from being seen as just another Classical composer to being enshrined as the Almighty God of Western Music.
The St. John’s Passion has always been quite a bit less popular, for reasons that have less to do with the quality of the music (Bach, alone among pretty much all composers in history, simply didn’t have off days), and more to do with the text to which it’s set. Bach apparently wrote this “libretto” himself (or more accurately, cobbled it together out of a plethora of essentially unrelated sources), and it turns out that for all his incomparable genius as a composer, Bach was not the most stellar of prose writers. The text leaves quite a bit to be desired…it is inconsistent in style, has none of the dramatic unity the St. Matthew’s Passion is famous for, and features some implied anti-Semitic leanings that may or may not have been intentional on Bach’s part, but that may well have had an effect on European (especially German) thinking on the subject that was…not exactly beneficial in the long run, shall we say.
The St. John’s Passion is also the first enduring Musical-Theater work with a modular score. There were no less than four separate editions of the piece revised by Bach during his lifetime, and it is simply not practicable to use the work’s entire body of material in a single performance, so modern productions tend to pick and choose their material from a selection of alternate individual set pieces (all of which, of course, are sublime, this being Bach, which is either fortunate or unfortunate, depending on your view). Granted, plenty of Operas and Oratorios were built like this in that era, many even shamelessly reusing arias from the composers’ earlier works, but scores without a definitive tunestack have become fairly rare in the modern day, and this may be the oldest work based on that model to still be regularly performed.
Like pretty much all of Bach’s vocal music, these works were intended to be performed in a church rather than a theater like Handel’s Oratorios, but the structure of the form is essentially the same. In fact, both Passions deal with exactly the same subject matter and story as Handel’s Messiah, and both are actually structured far more like an actual Opera than that work, which consists mostly of choral narration (indeed, the sacred Oratorio was basically used by the church as a more ‘wholesome’ alternative to the supposedly degenerate genre of Opera, thus enabling them to exploit the format without acknowledging they were compromising their principles).