Incidental Music

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Incidental Music


music written for dramatic productions. (In Russian, the term teatral’naia muzyka, “theater music,” is also used in the broad sense to denote music written for any production in the theater—opera, ballet, operetta, music drama, or musical comedy—as well as for the dramatic theater.)

In the musical theater, music is the most important means of characterizing people and scenes, and it is inseparable from the production’s dramaturgy; in the final analysis, it is the principal vehicle for the artistic idea. In the dramatic theater, the music helps give the production a specific emotional atmosphere. Together with other means, it re-creates the historical, national, and local flavor of the scene, deepens the character traits of personae, and emphasizes crucial moments in the development of the action and the dramatic climax. It is crucial in lyric scenes and in the presentation of personae from fairy tales and fantasy. It also frequently has dramatic importance.

Forms of dramatic art that make important use of music have existed since antiquity—classical tragedy and comedy, the Italian commedia dell’arte, English masques, Chinese drama, and the theatrical genres of other Eastern peoples. In Western European dramatic art of the 19th and 20th centuries, such forms included the opera comique, the prologue as an independent piece, and the divertissement.

In certain plays the inclusion of set musical numbers is specified by the playwright himself. The music is an inseparable part of such plays and must be performed in all productions. In other instances, incidental music represents an element of the production that is introduced by the director according to his own concept of staging the work. A director may also invite a composer to create a musical setting of a play for a particular production, or he may select suitable musical pieces or excerpts from various works unconnected with the production.

Incidental music specified by the playwright is usually in the form of musical pieces performed on the stage—solo or choral singing, solo instrumental performances, or numbers performed by a dance orchestra or military band. The music is usually performed offstage, and the actors only pretend to sing or to play musical instruments. Often the singing is accompanied by an orchestra not called for in the stage action; dance scenes may also be. staged in this way. Incidental music that is integrated with the stage setting of a particular production is usually played during silent scenes, or it may provide a background for monologues or dialogues. In the 20th century, sound recordings have also been used for musical settings, in addition to music performed by solo musicians, choral groups, and orchestras.

In addition to musical numbers integrated with the stage action, relatively large-scale instrumental pieces may be used to provide an introduction to the entire production or to individual acts; examples are the overture and the entr’acte. In the nature of their images and their development, such pieces are closely linked to the particular play and represent a variety of program music.

Many works of incidental music written by major composers are often performed independently in their original form in concert. These are usually overtures, for example, Beethoven’s overture to Goethe’s drama Egmont and Mendelssohn’s overture to Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The composer may also provide new arrangements of the work, usually in the form of a suite, for example, Grieg’s suite drawn from his music for Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt, and Bizet’s suite from his music written for Daudet’s drama L’Arlésienne.

Many composers have written for the dramatic theater, including J. B. Lully (for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac), R. Schumann (for Byron’s Manfred), O. A. Kozlovskii (for V. A. Ozerov’s Fingal), A. N. Verstovskii (forN. A. Polevoi’s Parasha, the Siberian Girl), M. I. Glinka (for N. V. Kukol’nik ’s Prince Kholmskii), M. A. Balaki-rev (for Shakespeare’s King Lear), P. I. Tchaikovsky (for A. N. Ostrovskii’s The Snow Maiden), A. S. Arenskii (for Shakespeare’s The Tempest), and A. K. Glazunov (for Lermontov’s Masquerade). Vivid incidental music has been composed by many Soviet composers, including D. B. Kabalevskii (for A. E. Korneichuk’s The Destruction of the Squadron and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal), A. A. Krein (for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing), A. I. Khachaturian (for a version of Lermontov’s Masquerade), T. N. Khrennikov (for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and A. K. Gladkov’s In Bygone Days), and D. D. Shostakovich (for Shakespeare’s Hamlet).


Glumov, A. Muzyka v russkom dramaticheskom teatre: Istoricheskie ocherki. Moscow, 1955.
Settle, R. Music in the Theatre. London, 1957.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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