Nineteenth-century recitative undoubtedly constitutes one of the most complex, elusive and neglected phenomena in the field of opera studies. There are many reasons for this neglect, not least a latent uncertainty concerning its true function and aesthetic value. Within the historical discourse, recitative is generally recognized as an essential part of opera, but nonetheless considered an inevitable nuisance, or a relic from the past to be done away with. Of course, in an aesthetic order in which “absolute music” constitutes the ideal, and any extra-musical content is a distraction from pure beauty, the intermediary and intermedial phenomenon of recitative cannot have much value. Compared to an “abstract” symphony or a string quartet, recitative is a very “concrete” form: it fulfils the clear dramaturgical function of conveying dramatic information and content within an opera. Furthermore, while the ontological reality of music is always a multifaceted construct of composed and performed elements which diverge or coincide to greater or lesser extent, recitative is situated on the far edge of this spectrum with a large part of the artistic responsibility left to performers rather than composers. For all these reasons, layers of forgotten conventions, aesthetic traditions and contextual interpretations have been all too easily buried beneath the deceptive banality of recitative. This study of nineteenth-century recitative reassesses this paradigm shift, re-emphasizing the generally overlooked wealth and value of transitional sections in German romantische Oper and French grand opéra.
The notion of “transition” is in many ways central to this study. Firstly, the early nineteenth century itself can be seen as a phase of transition, during which many new impulses emerged, while at the same time older traditions continued to be maintained. Recitative offers a case in point: based largely on inherited traditions and conventions, it was gradually transformed and adapted to the new demands of the “romantic” era. Secondly, recitative was not only in a state of transition at the turn of the nineteenth century, it also travelled and transited between linguistic contexts. The original Italianate phenomenon of recitative gradually spread: on the one hand, Italian recitatives were translated and adapted – with all the challenges and difficulties this implied – while on the other hand, librettists and composers increasingly developed recitative idioms to fit the specific requirements of every original language. Thirdly, recitative itself presents an important means of transition within operatic composition, ideally suited to the expression of transitional situations and emotions. Finally, as the boundaries between closed numbers and recitatives became increasingly fluid in the course of the nineteenth century, a varied spectrum of transitional musical textures emerged between lyrical song and spoken dialogue, including melodrama, arioso and parlante textures that cannot always be clearly distinguished from recitative.
In order to trace the multifatrious developments affecting early nineteenth-century French and German recitative, this dissertation takes into account a large corpus of theoretical and didactic sources, as well as a selection of representative declamatory passages composed roughly between 1820 and 1860. On the basis of these sources, four areas of focus are established: first, the “Prosodic Structures” which constitute the textual basis of declamatory music, the poetic forms preceeding and underlying recitative; second, the “Compositional Forms” of recitative, the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic parameters which define the range of declamatory forms available for operatic expression; third, the crucial issue of “Dramaturgical Functions”, the situations and conditions which push composers and librettist to resort to declamatory passages within the overall structure of an opera; and fourth, the “Performance Practices” specific to the improvisational art of recitative. With the analytical tools developed in these preliminary studies, the second part of this study focuses on a selection of works and scenes of the Romantic repertoire with case studies dedicated to German dialog opera, French grand opéra, Richard Wagner’s romantic operas, and the Parisian works of Giacomo Meyerbeer.
Bio (January 2017)
Born on 2 March 1982 in Zurich, Laura Moeckli lives in Basel with her partner and daughter. In 2015, she obtained her PhD from the University of Bern with a thesis on recitative in 19th-century German and French opera. She has worked as a research assistant at the Universities of Fribourg and Bern, the Bern University of the Arts and the Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, where she taught seminars and organized several international workshops and conferences. She was awarded a three-year research grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation for an interdisciplinary project dedicated to the Parisian Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer. In 2016 she submitted several articles and presented papers at conferences in Switzerland, Germany, England and Canada. Her current research areas include nineteenth-century opera performance and reception, transatlantic interaction in early twentieth-century music, and operatic temporality.