Schoenberg and after

One musical genre has appeared to be no more than a series of brilliant one-offs. Bayan Northcott surveys the complex history of music theatre
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The Independent Culture

Whatever happened to music theatre? Whatever happen- ed to the Modernist impulse to cast off the accumulated demands and conventions of Italian operatic tradition and Wagnerian music drama? To get back to basics – a small acting space, a handful of musicians, speakers, dancers or mimes; a few props or masks, some adaptable bits of scenery, or just coloured lights – and to tease a new, flexible, direct musical stage out of their interaction? Whatever came of the challenge of those extraordinary source works, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale (1918)?

Quite a lot, actually, but in a curiously spasmodic way. Schoenberg's Expressionist cabaret, with its clown-protagonist projecting a kind of seismographic speech-song against grotesquely parodistic and fantastically iridescent accompaniments for five players, may not have seemed so seminal to the more down-to-earth concerns of the inter-war years. But it has tended to resurface as an influence whenever the cult of extreme states has come back into artistic vogue – for instance, in the music theatre pieces of Maxwell Davies, such as his Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), or Henze's political phantasmagoria, The Tedious Way to the Place of Natascha Ungeheuer (1971).

Stravinsky's piece for actors and dancers (no singers), with its brash small-band scoring and cubist dislocations of such vernacular forms as marches, chorales, tango and ragtime, seemed more immediate to the post-1918 spirit. There was a notable production at Weimar, home of the Bau-haus, in 1923, and its "objective" aesthetic can be discerned behind such Brecht-Weill shows as the Mahagonny Songspiel (1927). And more recently, the combination of knockabout action and underlying ritual circularity of The Soldier's Tale has re-emerged as a formative element in such music theatre pieces of Birtwistle as Down by the Greenwood Side (1969).

And, rather more surprisingly, it might be thought, in the three music theatre works comprising Alexander Goehr's Triptych (1968-70). Surprising, because, as an admirer of Schoenberg – son, indeed, of a Schoenberg pupil – he might have been expected to follow the Expressionist lead. Schoenbergian detail there is certainly to be found in the instrumental writing of, especially, the second piece, Shadowplay (1970), reworking in speech and song Plato's parable of the cave in book VII of The Republic. But the opener, Naboth's Vineyard (1968), a kind of cartoon narrative modelled on the procedures of Monteverdi's dramatic madrigals, and the finale, Sonata about Jerusalem (1970) with its contrasting refrains and pantomimes and hints of Jewish ritual music, seem to follow a more formalistic, Stravinskian line.

In any case, the particular fusions of concept and imagery, music and drama comprising Goehr's Triptych have proved suggestive enough to stimulate some imaginative stagings over the last 30 years, and tough enough to withstand some pretty dubious ones. So why is it only recently that he has chosen to follow them up? Why, after the "mixed media" vogue of the 1960s and early 1970s, were so many contemporary composers, Goehr included, drawn back, after all, to opera?

The answer surely turns on the ineluctable pull between tradition and innovation. However conventional the inherited procedures and forms of opera or music drama may seem to be, they settle enough of the problems of a work in progress to enable a composer and his collaborators to concentrate on the rest – in the process of which, they may, at best, find ways of renewing those very conventions too.

By contrast, the repertory of 20th-century music theatre remains, to an extent, a series of brilliant one-offs, between which no consistent tradition of theory and practice has ever quite evolved. And the basic reason for this must be that, in seeking to start from a specific correlation of images, performing forces and musico- dramatic sources, music theatre collaborators are simultaneously obliged to invent new conventions for their articulation each time. One perceives this in the disconnections between successive pieces even by a single composer such as Kagel, who has preoccupied himself with music theatre, let alone in the utter difference between, say, the medievalized orientalism of The Burning Fiery Furnace by Britten, and Ligeti's scattily surreal Aventures, both composed in 1966.

It is symptomatic that, compared with integrated musical and dramatic techniques of the best operatic training, no schooling for the interactive flexibility of performing techniques demanded by much music theatre has ever evolved, or never for long – although Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies and Goehr, for instance, have all involved themselves closely at one time or another with music theatre groups in search of such disciplines. Yet beyond the West, among the world's other classical musics, a number of potential models for such an integrated vision of training and performance have existed for centuries: and one in particular, which Goehr sought to emulate in an exact fusion of musical and physical gesture in Naboth's Vineyard, and spent the summer of 1968 intensely studying on a Churchill Scholarship to Japan.

The unique and ancient synthesis of narrative, sound, movement and, above all, timing, in Noh theatre was, of course, known about in the West long before 1968, but primarily as a literary source, through Arthur Waley's translations of the 1920s and Yeats's introduction, prompted by Pound, of Noh-like moments of ritual music for flute, zither and drum into his later spoken plays. When Brecht adapted a Waley translation for his cheerless school opera Der Jasager in 1930, Weill still set it to a poker-faced transmutation of his populist idiom. It was left to Britten to fully take on board the intense relationship between stringent resources and vast time-lengths peculiar to Noh, in Curlew River (1964) – rather exceptionally, devising out of extreme economy, a set of conventions strong enough to support two further so-called Church Parables, and to deeply affect his last opera proper, Death in Venice (1973).

In 1999, however, Goehr returned to his old interest, setting two texts by Zeami, the 15th-century founder of Noh: Kantan, the story of a young traveller disabused of dreams of fame and fortune by a magic pillow; and Damask Drum, in which a spurned lover returns as a ghost to menace the object of his passion. To these, Goehr added a wry little interlude, or tailpiece, after Sarugai Koto, concerning a blind man duped into wooing a monkey. His chamber ensemble scores for this evening-length sequence are in no sense mere imitations of the exiguous sounds of Noh; rather, he evokes the dreams in Kantan through a ravishing tissue of modal detail, while the hauntings of Damask Drum climax in ritual poundings of frightening power.

But he did respect the texts of the originals, and was evidently distressed when last summer's musically excellent Almeida Opera staging chose to superimpose intimations of the socio-economic problems of modern Japan. Next week, however, a talented group of graduates in Cambridge – always a hotbed of our musical and theatrical future – are mounting a new staging, produced by Gabriel Burchell, designed by Sarah Chew and conducted by the young composer Richard Baker. It will be fascinating to discover what they find in Goehr's latest synthesis, and what their findings imply for the ever-tantalising future of music theatre.

'Kantan' and 'Damask Drum', ADC Theatre, Cambridge (01223 503333) 7.45pm, 6-9 March