The earliest known secular stage play with music, Adam de la Halle’s Le jeu de Robin et de Marion, has been touted as the first musical comedy.
Of the two extant sources, the Paris version is by far the rowdier one—three characters that do not appear in the Aix version engage in mooning the audience, playing with sheep dung, and speaking in unimaginable metaphors worthy of Hungarians.
Common to both versions, Robin, Marion, and the seducing knight are more stock characters, but their lines are pithy and suggestive—e.g., from the scene depicted above:
Knight: You surely won’t put up a fight—you’re just a peasant, I’m a knight!
Marion: Money can’t buy love, you know.
Knight: It can buy something like it, though.
This according to “The hows and whys of Adam de la Halle’s Robin & Marion” by Lucy E. Cross (Early music America XVII/1 [Spring 2011] pp. 38–42). Below, a complete family-friendly performance of the work.
The Forschungsinstitut für Musiktheater in Thurnau launched the peer-reviewed, open-access electronic journal Act: Zeitschrift für Musik & Performance (ISSN 2191-253X) in 2010. This international interdisciplinary publication provides a platform for essays, reviews, and columns at the intersections of musicology, theater studies, dance studies, and media studies. Act places particular value on methodological plurality and on supporting young academics.
Appearing twice a year, each issue will comprise two to five essays and an editorial, along with a review section (in the form of review essays) and a section for columns and announcements. The inaugural issue was edited by Anno Mungen and Knut Holtsträter.
Since the fifteenth century—perhaps even earlier—a group of young choirboys known as los seises has danced for feast days in the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede in Seville. These cantoricos were performing in Christmas Eve plays by the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Documents from 1505 record expenses for masks for the boys’ performance as singing and dancing shepherds, and toward the middle of the sixteenth century the Council Acts indicate performance of a farsa de Navidad. As described in 1541, these brief skits were often associated with lively dance numbers from the contemporaneous Spanish theater. These diversions appear to have caused some offense, as a 1549 decision banned the performances, allowing only devotional singing.
This according to “Los seises in the golden age of Seville” by Lynn Matluck Brooks (Dance chronicle V/2 , pp. 121–155). Below, los seises perform in 2010.
An open collection of digitized popular sheet music from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, Sheet music consortium is hosted by the UCLA Digital Library Program, which provides an access service to sheet music records at the host libraries. Each of the over 100,000 entries includes full bibliographic information; links to further resources, such as full reproductions, may be provided depending on the host institution.
The consortium members are the Archive of Popular American Music at the University of California, Los Angeles; IN Harmony: Sheet Music from Indiana at Indiana University; the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University; and the Historic American Sheet Music collection at Duke University.
Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.
Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.
Thanks to the concentration of fragrant flowering trees and shrubs at the Bois de Boulogne, the chestnut trees in the Champs Élysées, and the linden trees in the Palais Royal, his honey has an intense floral flavor; it is sold at the Opéra’s gift shop and at the Paris gourmet shop Fauchon.
This according to “Who’s humming at Opera? Believe it or not, bees” by Craig S. Smith (The New York times 152/52,526 [26 June 2003] p. A:4).
An anonymous pamphlet from around 1733 titled Do you know what you are about? or, A Protestant alarm to Great Britain rails against the egregious inroads that Roman Catholic degeneracy, not least in the form of Italian opera, were making in England.
Händel and Senesino are particularly singled out for “playing at the dog and bear, exactly like the two kings of Poland contending for the Empire of Doremifa” in contrast to the humble, hardworking John Gay, whose praiseworthy Beggar’s opera reached the stage only through his own admirable toil and steadfastness.
This according to William Charles Smith’s “Do you know what you are about?: A rare Handelian pamphlet”, an article in The music review no. 98 (2 April 1964, pp. 114–19); the issue, which honors the 70th birthday of the English librarian, bibliographer, and honorary curator of the Royal Music Library Cecil Bernard Oldman (1894–1969), is covered in our recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Above, a satirical depiction by John Vanderbank from around 1723 of Senesino, Francesca Cuzzoni, and Gaetano Berenstadt performing in a Händel opera (probably Flavio, re di Longobardi).
Music was commonly introduced into French plays at least by the time of Molière, but after Louis XIV gave Lully a monopoly on opera in 1673 this practice was drastically circumscribed. Actors protested politely at first, but Louis did not take the hint, so dramatists began to turn to their sharpest weapon: satire.
Operagoers were depicted as ridiculous losers, and operas as overblown and barbaric. Opera houses were portrayed as venues for illicit flirtation, and opera singers as people with questionable morals. Operas were said to bay at the moon, to have no new airs, and to employ monkeys instead of poets and musicians. While this derision had no apparent effect on the opera world, it gave French comedy a rich new subject.
This according to “Comedy versus opera in France, 1673–1700” by Henry Carrington Lancaster, an essay included in Essays and studies in honor of Carleton Brown (New York : New York University Press, 1940), which is covered in RILM’s recently-issued Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Above, Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin’s depiction of Lully’s Armide as performed at the Palais-Royal in 1761.
Illustrated libretti for eighteenth-century opera performances comprise a specific and unusual type of visual art. Since these engravings were made before the performances, they cannot be interpreted as objective documentation—indeed, clear evidence points to discrepancies between these representations and what the audiences actually saw. Rather, they must be seen as conveying the intention of these occasions, in surprisingly subtle ways.
Christine Fischer demonstrates this way of reading libretto illustrations in “Engravings of opera stage settings as festival books: Thoughts on a new perspective of well-known sources” (Music in art XXXIV/1–2 , pp. 73–88). In the above engraving by Johann Benjamin Müller of the final scene in Maria Antonia Walpurgis’s Talestri, regina delle amazzoni (1760), Fischer notes that the wide gap between the female Amazons and the male Scythians—their leaders both with drawn swords—demonstrates their opposition, but the bridge in the background indicates their impending reconciliation. The message below the surface involves reassurance that the composer’s ongoing consolidation of her political power in Dresden will be beneficial to all, and that her rule will be based on a deep knowledge of state affairs and peaceful collaboration with powerful men.
Der travestirte Hamlet: Eine Burleske in deutschen Knittelversen mit Arien und Chören (1794) was one of several parodies that capitalized on the Hamlet fever that swept the German-speaking lands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Karl Ludwig Giesecke wrote the play; the composer was not indicated, but there are grounds for believing that it was Vincenc Tuček (1773–1821).
The numbers include a song in which Polonius coaches Ophelia on how to seduce Hamlet, a song in which Hamlet insists that he is not afraid of ghosts, and a duet for Hamlet and Ophelia at the end of the “get thee to a nunnery” scene. No one is killed in the play: Polonius avoids Hamlet’s rapier, Ophelia recovers her sanity, the poisoning is averted, and ultimately everyone goes out to drink wine together. The show ends with a choral finale and a contradance.
This according to “Some Viennese Hamlet parodies and a hitherto unknown musical score for one of them” by Peter Branscombe in Festschrift Otto Erich Deutsch zum 80. Geburtstag (Kassel : Bärenreiter, 1963), which is covered in RILM’s Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Above, Edwin Booth as the Melancholy Dane, ca. 1870.
Related article: Comedy versus opera
“Playing the piano with a rifle” in The Strand magazine 28 (December 1904, pp. 580–8) describes a performance by Colonel Gaston Bordeverry, who learned the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana by ear and, having devised a system of bull’s-eyes to indicate the correct notes on a specially-built piano, performed the tune by firing 66 shots at the instrument with a rifle. The specially-made bullets were powderless and noiseless when they struck, which they did with enough force to pierce through a one–inch-thick plank.
Colonel Bordeverry and his daughter were variety show performers in the early twentieth century; his performance of the intermezzo was one of their most successful numbers. The article was reprinted as “Not the usual performance practice” in the American Musical Instrument Society newsletter 32/1 (Spring 2003, pp. 12–13, 16).