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libretto (ləbrĕtˈō) [Ital.,=little book], the text of an opera or an oratorio. Although a play usually emphasizes an integrated plot, a libretto is most often a loose plot connecting a series of episodes. Characterization and emotion are suggested by the words of a libretto but are expressed by the music. The first major librettist was Ottavio Rinuccini, an Italian poet of the 16th cent. Outstanding in the 17th cent. was Philippe Quinault, and in the 18th cent. important librettists were the poet Pietro Metastasio, many of whose 50 libretti were set numerous times by major composers, Ranieri di Calzabigi, and Lorenzo Da Ponte. The 19th-century librettists of note included Augustin Eugène Scribe, W. S. Gilbert, and the composers Arrigo Boito and Richard Wagner; prominent in the 20th cent. was Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the verbal text of a work of musical drama, such as an opera or operetta and, in the past, of a cantata or oratorio; a ballet scenario; a brief summary of the content of an opera, operetta, or ballet. The term came from the fact that in the late 17th century, opera librettos were often printed for theatergoers in the form of little booklets.

The libretto is the literary and dramatic basis of an opera. Until the mid-18th century, librettos were composed in a fixed pattern following standard musical and dramatic conventions. Thus, the same successful libretto was often used repeatedly by different composers. Later, the libretto was usually written by a librettist in close collaboration with the composer, and sometimes with his direct participation, ensuring better unity among action, words, and music.

In the 19th century, outstanding composers with literary and dramatic gifts began writing librettos for their operas themselves, including H. Berlioz, R. Wagner, A. Boito, and M. P. Mussorgsky. Such 20th-century composers as S. S. Prokofiev and K. Orff continued the practice.

The main sources of subjects for librettos are folk poetry, legends, fairytales, and professional works of literature. Literary works are usually significantly different in libretto form—for example, the basic concept of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades was revised in P. I. Tchaikovsky’s opera. Only in exceptional cases have dramatic works been used intact in librettos—for example, Dargomyzhskii’s The Stone Guest, based on Pushkin’s drama, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on Maeterlinck’s play.

Librettos vary greatly in content, structure, application of a verse or prose text, and presence or absence of subdivisions of the text. The history of the libretto is inseparably linked with that of opera itself in all its generic and national varieties. Every type of opera in musical history has a corresponding type of libretto.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a text written for and set to music in an opera, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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