An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries

The Long 19th Century: 1780-1920

Operatic Genres ------- Musicals

The history of musical drama in the 19th century must begin with the period affected musically by Mozart and socially by the French Revolution. The ruling classes of the late 18th century relied upon opera as a stabilizing influence, because of opera's escapist penchant for fantasy and exoticism. Indeed, opera's popularity among the masses made it a perfect instrument for propagandist uses. Additionally, the important concept of 'repertory opera,' operas that were becoming part of every opera company's repertoire, developed in the late 18th century with Lully, Rameau, Mozart (especially Don Giovanni ), and Handel's oratorios. French grand opéra, particularly the work of Giacomo Meyerbeer, seriously challenged Italian opera for international hegemony in the repertory beginning in the 1830s, and then in the 1870s Wagner displaced both Italians and French until the 1920s or 1930s.

Meyerbeer. Opening page of the score for Les Huguenots

A drawing of the 1858 production of Les Huguenots

Operatic genres

The forms of opera stayed relatively stable throughout the century. Two important changes occur, however:

  • the infiltration of comic scenes into serious opera
  • the emergence of the operettas of Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss .


The turn away from plots focused on the public square and the world of politics that seem beyond the control of individuals and toward plots concerned with the private world of family and relationships, continues. Verdi's individuals increasingly dominate his dramas, and Wagner's retreat into the world of myth represents a further flight from contemporary issues. While Wagner's music dramas are steeped in Germanic mythology, the stories of Tannhauser, Tristan and Isolde, The Flying Dutchman, and The Ring Cycle operas all have sources outside of Germany. By the 20th century, plots become increasingly psychological. At the same time, Bizet and Puccini expand their use of the exotic within plots, a shift that Puccini will call verismo, a sort of naturalism.

Verdi. Rigoletto. A section of the famous Quartet. Act III.

Musical Styles

The major change of the 19th century stylistically was an abandonment of the traditional recitative-aria form in favor of the multi-movement musical number. The only pauses in the music occurred between acts. A corollary to this change was the movement of dialogue to a central place in communication. Duet began to replace aria as opera's preferred narrative mode of discourse, a trend only partially reversed by the advent of sound recordings.

The combination of increased continuity of music, increased use of dialogue, and a less predictable formal pattern allowed for other kinds of musical communication in opera. Principal among them is the use of motiv, which Wagner enormously strengthened with his use of leitmotif, a musical idea that could symbolize or evoke nearly anything.

The French also led the way to a bigger and noisier opera. New instruments were invented; the orchestra expanded greatly in size, variety, and use of instruments. The scores of grand opéra in particular "contain a wide range of formal types and styles. Virtuoso italianate airs, extensive in range and requiring a formidable technique, contrast with relatively simple romances. Solo music is often part of larger complexes. Choruses and long ensembles, conceived to advance the drama in as impressive a way as possible, dominate tableaux. Romantic interest in local colour and in pageantry led to a revolution in several aspects of staging – in the style of scenery and costumes, the placement and movement of soloists and chorus and in techniques of lighting. Spectacle, long a feature of French opera, achieved new heights." (M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, "Grand opéra")

Wagner. Sketches for The Valkyrie and Twilight of the Gods.

Valkyries on horseback.

Wagner. The Valkyrie. Wotan's Magic Fire, end of Act III.

The 19th-Century Origins of the Musical

Musicals have their origins in a wide variety of musical and dramatic genres that date back to the 19th, and in some cases the 18th, century. Below are the major contributors:

  • Comic Opera
  • Operetta and associated genres
  • Music Hall
  • Minstrel Shows
  • Vaudeville
  • Burlesque
  • Ragtime and Jazz

Perhaps the most influential of all these was the Operetta. Jacques Offenbach, like Sir Arthur Sullivan, nearly always had excellent libretti and a gift for musical satire (his best known tune, the cancan of the gods from Orpheus in the Underworld, was however composed not by him, but rather by Carl Binder on his themes). Essential elements in these shows for the developing musical were the use of popular airs, comic songs, and extravagant spectacle. These opéras-bouffes and operas féeriques were popular all over the hemisphere, and indeed the work that has historically been called America's first musical, John Kendrick's The Black Crook (1866), was furnished with lavish Parisian sets and ballet dancers.

Jacques Offenbach

The earliest direct ancestors of today's musicals were the so-called musical comedies produced in the 1880s and 1890s by theater manager George Edwardes at two London theaters, the Gaiety and Daly's. In 1893, he produced a musical comedy at the Gaiety called A Gaiety Girl. Contemporary press reports called it 'one of the most curious examples of dramatic architecture we have for some time seen. It is sometimes sentimental drama, sometimes almost light opera, and sometimes downright "variety show".' Basic elements were:

  • Sumptuous contemporary dresses
  • Youthful casts
  • Romantic plots
  • Catchy tunes


Early publicity for Offenbach's La vie parisienne

Publicity for the musical comedy Havana, produced by George Edwardes for the Gaiety Theatre.

Gaiety. Gowns for the girls of the front line.

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Diehn Composers Room

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