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

The 20th Century: Exploring the Dark Side

Opera ------- Musicals

Musical drama in the 20th century retained its perennial penchant for fantasy, unreality and artificiality, but with far darker treatments than in the past. Dramatically, the structures of opera became far more concentrated examinations of the dark side of human psychology. Even when they turned to familiar, timeless topics, like the Orpheus myth, 20th century composers often treated the subjects with a certain ambiguity. The shock to human self-confidence by Freudian psychology and quantum mechanics was reflected in all the arts, and opera was no exception. Even the bright, cheery musicals contained mordant satire and depictions of murder, violence, addiction, political corruption, anti-Semitism, prostitution and racism.


Opera : Early- and Mid-Century

The 20th century shock to musical stability came with the introduction of Arnold Schoenberg's method of 12-tone serial composition, based more on mathematics than on musical arts. Schoenberg, in his atonal expressionist opera Erwartung (1924) clearly wished to deny any debt to a musical past with his creation. However, a second artistic movement called Neo-Classicism chose "to celebrate the vitality of the confrontation between past and present, between tonal styles and post-tonal technologies" (Arnold Whittall, "Towards Mid-Century"). Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress (1951) is perhaps the best example of the movement.

The early-20th century view that opera needed to come down from its Olympian heights and engage with psychological reality more directly may also be responsible for experiments that sought to liberate opera music from its traditional role of supporting words. Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht collaborated in such works as Mahagonny to free music from its responsibility to support and represent what the words state and imply. Brecht insisted that the dramatic form should be free from the unified, organic structures of the 19th century and created theater that intentionally alienated audiences from stage action.

Opera : 1970 – 2006

Contemporary opera tends toward 2 particular strains:

•  meditations on the topic of the artist in the world, continuing to the present the theme of the harpist / singer Orpheus (see Philip Glass's 1993 minimalist Orphée ), or

•  "morality plays" about those aspects of life that psychology and modern history have brought most directly into question, in particular, the subject of social and political authority" (Arnold Whittall, "Modern drama").

John Duffy. Black Water. Cover from score.

William Balcom. A View from the Bridge. Cover from score.

Both John Duffy (Black Water) and William Bolcom (McTeague and A View from the Bridge), featured here, examine moments of American history in which individuals find their lives derailed by circumstances that spiral quickly out of their control. Political authority is in these cases the catalyst for the tragedy. Their music is an eclectic mix of styles and tonalities.


The 20th Century Musical

Musicals : Early Days

According to Andrew Lamb ("1919-42: History"), the early musicals of the 20th century were "mostly vehicles for individual stars with contrived 'boy-meets-girl' situations and happy endings." They invariably had big production numbers and tunes. Nonetheless, the prominent composing teams of George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the lyricist/composer Cole Porter, all had their start creating such shows. Some of the better known shows of the 1920s were Lady, Be Good! (1924), Tip Toes (1925), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930) by George Gershwin; Vincent Youngmann's No No Nanette (1924); and Hammerstein and Kern's Show Boat (1927). Rodgers and Hart experimented with wittier plots, lighter tunes and differing subject matter in the 1920s, but produced no hits until 1937's On Your Toes that included the ballet segment set to "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." By the 1930s the Gershwins were using increasingly satirical material (for example, the attacks on war and big business in 1931's Of Thee I Sing), hearkening back to the origins of comic opera, and created a genuine opera in Porgy and Bess (1935). Closing this era was the earliest example of black musical, Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke's artistic masterpiece Cabin in the Sky (1940).

Ray Bolger in Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes

From: Of Thee I Sing

George Gershwin

From: Porgy & Bess

Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin

Musicals : Mid-Century

Many of the same composers and lyricists of the early days of Broadway continued to produce mid-century, with a few important shifts. Familiar song writer / lyricist teams of the period were Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Also producing were Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In this period, dance numbers became extremely important, the 'belt' of voices became more pronounced (best illustrated by Ethel Merman), and the vocal parts of the protagonists shifted from soprano and tenor to mezzo-soprano and romantic baritone. Important shows of the period were Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (1948) and Can-Can (1943), Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950), and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949), Carousel (1945), and The King and I (1956).

Of all the great musicals of the period, Oklahoma! represents a major generic shift. John Snelson ("1943-59: History") writes: "All of its supposed innovations – opening with a solo voice rather than a chorus, the use of ballet for psychological revelation, the advancement of character through song – have earlier precedents. However, Oklahoma! provided a focus for all of these, further aided by its creation of an American mythic folk history and an assertion of 'American-ness' at a time of war, and its wide dissemination through broadcasting and recordings both nationally and internationally."

Frank Loesser

Musicals : 1960 to the present

The American musical of the last 46 years, like much artistic expression, has overturned many of the conventions and patterns established by the well-established repertory of the previous generation. The musical genres embraced in musicals have widened considerably, to include jazz, rock, ragtime, ballad, cabaret, symphonic rock, opera, Jewish music, early popular song, tango, and doo-wop. Though overly-simplistic, a sort of split can be seen between those more cerebral, academic works characterized by the production of Stephen Sondheim, and the quasi-operatic romantic mega-musicals of British-born Andrew Lloyd Webber. Together, they constitute what has been called by Stephen Citron the "new musical" [Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical (New York: Oxford UP, 2001)]. Citron describes the characteristics of the 'new musical' as follows:

  • A rapprochement between popular music and theater music
  • The tremendous advancement of stagecraft technology
  • A reassessment of morality
  • The realization among producing faculty – of the many advantages of workshopping, touring, and previewing to sculpt the raw materials of a production into a professional show (p. 4)

Major shows of this period are too numerous to represent here fairly. Mentioned in this exhibit are more operatic shows like Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) and Lloyd Webber's Evita (1983), as well as the more intellectual (though bawdy and funny) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963). Larson's Rent (1996) may represent a future healing of another historical split, that of pop music away from musical theater, despite the tragic and early death of the composer. While heavily influenced by Puccini's La Bohème in terms of plot, borrowed melodies and verismo, Rent has clear musical credentials in its show-tune pop sound.

Stephen Sondheim


Andrew Lloyd Webber


Leonard Bernstein

West Side Story

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum



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Diehn Composers Room

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