Music Drama

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Music Drama


(1) One of the early names for opera. It was used from the time that opera originated in Italy at the turn of the 17th century (dramma per [la] musica, dramma in musica); the term was used interchangeably with the new term “opera” until the 18th century.

(2) A concept advanced during the second half of the 19th century. As part of a reaction against existing operatic conventions, the music drama reflected the new tendency to introduce principles of dramatic theater into opera. It is characterized by a consistent subordination of music to dramatic action, an integration of individual episodes to achieve fluidity of action, and the replacement of arias by freely constructed vocal monologues and of duets by scenes of musical dialogue.

The theoretical development of the music drama was realized most fully in the writings of R. Wagner between 1849 and 1852. He set forth the following basic principle: drama is the goal, and music is the means. Wagner opposed divertimento and ornamentation and advocated the expression of the dramatic principle in music and the concept of an opera as an integral work uniting several types of art. He contrasted the music drama with the traditional opera of the first half of the 19th century, the achievements of which he undervalued at times. In his own operatic works, beginning with Lohengrin (1848), Wagner attempted to transform old operatic forms using principles of the music drama. He himself, however, opposed the term “music drama,” preferring to give each of his operatic works an individual designation. The Wagnerian concept of the music drama greatly influenced the subsequent development of opera.

At the same time, the major composers of other national schools largely resolved the problems of operatic dramaturgy in their own way. The solutions are extremely diverse, as, for example, in such operas as Verdi’s Otello, Dargomyzhskii’s The Stone Guest, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri In the operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina M. P. Mussorgsky created a unique type of “folk music drama.”

(3) A dramatic work in which an essential role is allotted to music, both vocal and instrumental. Music drama of this type existed in ancient and medieval theater (for example, Shakuntala by Kalidasa in India, the liturgical drama of the Roman Catholic countries of Europe, and the musical theater in China). During the Renaissance, “holy plays,” which resembled music dramas, were performed in churches and on squares.

In the USSR the term “music drama” is used in the republics of Middle Asia and in Kazakhstan to designate a play with music. Initially such music dramas were reworkings of poetic folk legends that included folk songs and dances (Leili and Medzhnun) . Later, the plays included episodes written by professional composers, the folk orchestra was replaced by a symphony orchestra, and musical dramaturgy acquired greater importance. Such music dramas, including Brusilovskii’s Kyz-Zhibek (Kazakhstan, 1934), Glière and Sadykov’s Giul’sara (Uzbekistan, 1937), and Vlasov and Fere’s Altyn kyz (Kirghizia, 1937), retain the conversational dialogues, the replacement of which by recitatives would transform the work into an opera.

(4) The term “music drama” is used sometimes to designate a work of the operatic genre in which there is a predominance of dramatic content and in which sharp dramatic conflicts arise (for example, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Bizet’s Carmen, and Glinka’s Ivan Susanin).


Wagner, R. “Khudozhestvennoe proizvedenie budushchego.” In Russkaia muzykal’naia gazeta, 1897, nos. 1–3, 5–12. (Translated from German.)
Wagner, R. Opera i drama. Moscow, 1906. (Translated from German.)
Druskin, M. S. Voprosy muzykal’noi dramaturgii opery . Leningrad, 1952.
Iarustovskii, B. M. Dramaturgiia russkoi opernoi klassiki. Moscow, 1952.
Ferman, V. E. Opernyi teatr: Stat’i i issledovaniia. Moscow, 1961.
Albright, H. D. “Musical Drama as a Union of All the Arts.” In Studies in Speech and Drama: In Honor of A. M. Drummond. Ithaca-New York, 1944.


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