Monthly Archives: May 2014

Melodrama workshop


In March 2014, the AHRC-funded ‘French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era’ and the ERC- funded ‘Music in London’ projects co-organised a conference on European stage melodrama c. 1800 at King’s College, London, entitled ‘The Melodramatic Moment, 1790-1820’. As a prelude to the academic papers, a workshop was held to explore the various relationships between text and music in the first act of English and French versions of La Forteresse du Danube. This melodrama, by René Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt, was first performed in January 1805 at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, with music by Francesco Bianchi. Translated by Theodore Edward Hook into English, The Fortress, with music by Hook’s father James, premiered at the Haymarket in 1807. The English text follows the French closely for the main part, though shortens the dialogue considerably. This close textual relationship between the French original and the English adaptation allowed for a useful comparison of the use of music in the two versions.

Music Sources

The original Bianchi score for La Forteresse has not survived. There are 3 extant scores, the music for the reprise in 1810 by Cantiron and Dupetit-Méré (Avignon), an anonymous score in Montpellier and one by E. Marty held in Lille. The latter is the most extensive in terms of musical cues and was selected to be basis for the workshop largely on this criteria alone as the amount of music and – unusually – performance directions in the score, detailing the timings of music in relation to the action, gave us more information as a basis for investigating the role of music in an early French melodrama: survival rate of scores for the early years of the 19th century is very low. We still have to find out at which performances this score was used, and would like to know more about the composer: we know, however, that each regional theatre would have used its own music while taking the printed text from the Paris publication of the play – hence the three different manuscript scores from regional theatres from Montpellier, Avignon and Lille. This opens up the possibility of regional variations in contemporary audience’s understanding of what melodrama was – an issue beyond the scope of this workshop but one to bear in mind for future examinations of provincial scores.

The Hook music for The Fortress survives only in printed piano score. It was relatively common for the scores of English melodrama to be published and songs, madrigals etc were often inserted into the English melodramas in part to make the sale of the score more viable. As such, the two scores are fare from equivalent musical objects: one a set of manuscript parts for performance, riddled with mistakes, and the other a published piano reduction of stage music for publication, with the possibility of numbers added in (though the musical numbers did correspond to indications for music in Hook’s published play text). As scores are so scarce, however, the opportunity for direct comparison between English and French versions of the same play was too good to miss – and was, as it turned out – revealing.

Workshop Format

The workshop was directed by Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey (Central) who has worked extensively on practice-based research of this nature in conjunction with Professor Jacky Bratton (RHUL). The two project teams were also involved in the debates and discussions surrounding the text and scores over the course of the day. Musical director Mark Austin was present throughout, accompanying the Hook scenes on the piano and conducting the musicians for the French scenes. The four actors from Central School of Speech and Drama were given an introduction to eighteenth-century acting styles and stock gestures ahead of the workshop. The workshop itself consisted of two two-hour rehearsals with a further hour as final run-through before performing the first act of Hook’s The Fortress in its entirety, and the musical cues from Pixerécourt’s La Forteresse. The second of the two-hour rehearsals and the performance at the end were attended by an audience of academics, who were then invited to join the teams in a discussion of the rehearsal/performance process, chaired by Jacky Bratton



Aiden Condron

Jamienne Devlin

John Fitzpatrick

Sam Gibbs


Musical Director and Pianist

Mark Austin


Musicians (for French score)

Violin 1                      Ed McCullough

Violin 2                      Lucy Goddard

Viola                           Guy Raybould

Cello                           Rosie Goddard

Double Bass             Vera Pereira

Oboe                          Jesse Coby

Bassoon                    Joanna Stark


Rehearsing the Hook

The actors had to unlearn everything they had been taught about modern acting , which meant that they had to work very hard at adjusting to the 19th-century tradition of acting. We quickly abandoned a sit-down read-through and moved to acting out the scenes.  There are already some preliminary conclusions to draw from the process of rehearsal and performance:

Whereas reading through script and score we thought we would miss out all the repeats in the musical numbers – there seemed too much music for the description of stage action-, once we started working with the music, we decided we wanted as much as possible. Here the importance of pantomime in melodrama became very clear: we used the music as a prompt  – and sometimes as quite a specific guide – to build up pantomime scenes, based on quite brief stage directions in the script. One example of this would be how the increasing frequency of pointed accents in the musical number covering Alice searching in the box of books suggested to us her increasing frustration. Jamienne (playing Alice) and Aiden (playing Everard) quickly built up a mime scenario – sometimes holding poses for several second – with its own little narrative: waiting for the other character Vincent to leave; commencing the search; Everard getting distracted by the books and Alice taking over; Alice getting more and more frantic. We ended up wanting more music for this, rather than less!

In general, there seemed more room for farcical scenarios and physical comedy in the English version. The scene when Oliver sounds the alarm to stop Everard escaping took on a clearly comic nature because of the lively tune. Even slowed down, the music still seemed to encourage the actors representing the soldiers to perform comically.

The collective impression of the English music was that it was stylistically more conservative, and dramatically less specific than the French score, which followed the dialogue and action closely. So, for instance, the final scene of the act in the Hook adaptation contained an ‘end of act’ piece of music that didn’t seem to cater for the mood of the scene as suggested by the text.

The musical cues in the French score

The actors performed an English translation of the original French text, but in rehearsal we kept in mind the length of lines/ phrases when working on musical cues. As we worked on the French score after the English one, there was the possibility that we were influenced by our interpretation of the latter: however, the score (and libretto) actually led to quite different stagings and interpretations of the action, notably less comic.

The manuscript partition and the libretto sometimes indicated different places for the musical numbers – this is consistent with other French melodrama scores – and as a result, there was a lot more trial and error than with the English score where it was always clear when the music should be played. However, the performance directions in the manuscript score did indicate how text and music should be put together in ways that weren’t obvious simply from the stage directions in the printed libretto: when Oliver sounds the alarm about Evrard escaping, the music continues under the off-stage shouting of the soldiers in pursuit (as indicated in the score by the direction that the music should finish at a certain point). There was nothing comic about the music, which was tense and discordant, and our interpretation of the scene as a result sought to emphasise drama, rather than comedy.

The role of Oliver was key in both French and English versions, and required some tricky miming of emotional experience. Sometimes, particularly in the letter-reading scene, the music gave some useful cues as to the timing of emotional processes. But the French score in particular could be more ambiguous – and more demanding: experimenting with varying the tempo of the musical number covering the embrace between Olivier and his adopted father Evrard, revealed how by slowing it down (and the on-stage action, as a result), we could intensify the emotional impact of the relationship between Evrard and Olivier.  Similarly, the final monologue of the act was succeeded by music that seemed to express the moral dilemma facing Olivier (contrasting sharply with the English score), and required gestural externalization of the emotions just expressed in the spoken text.

In noting the variety of dramatic functions that music fulfilled in the play, we also noted that the function could remain ambiguous. Some music seemed to represent noise; diegetic (eg. part of the on-stage sounds world) music; emotional processes; stage action, some off-stage action. Some musical numbers could have had a dual function. When Alix hears music from outside the castle – the music of the Hungarian peasantry – we tried her speaking over it, as well as listening to it, or moving to it. When she spoke over it, the juxtaposition served to heighten the nostalgia that she expressed verbally. The music makes definite gestures towards folk music – towards being the sounds that she hears – but with full scoring and at some length eg. if she didn’t speak over it, there would be considerable dramatic stasis. These could suggest a moment of tableau, however.

Video extracts from the workshop will be available online soon.


Napoleon’s theatre legislation of 1806 in the provinces

In March 2014, the Napoleonic theatre team held a workshop with Cyril Triolaire (Theatre Studies, University of Clermont-Ferrand). Cyril offered us an overview of the work of the Therepsicore project (led by Professor Philippe Bourdin – see ), which for the last 3 years has been gathering details of archival material held on theatre in the archives in France outside Paris. He gave us a preview of the database which will contain the research team’s findings and presented some additions to the findings of his thesis, published in 2012 as Le Théâtre en province pendant le Consulat et l’Empire, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2012.

The main thrust of Cyril’s arguments about Napoleonic theatre is the extent to which the Napoleonic regime based its development of theatre organisation on Revolutionary practices. The decision to create privileged troupes in the provinces represented an egalitarian desire to diffuse Parisian repertoire throughout the Empire. So while Napoleon is re-establishing an ancien régime tradition of theatrical privilege, it is based on a belief in the usefulness of theatre for creating a new social order which had developed during the Revolution.
Discussion after the presentation was wide ranging. We discussed how few performance posters have been found in the provincial archives and how coverage of performances in the provincial press was also less regular than might be expected. This means that only registers and receipt books can provide an accurate account of which plays were performed and when. One of the intriguing details that analysis of these throws up is that the rhythm of performance in the provinces changed as a result of the Napoleonic decrees on the organisation of theatre in 1806/07. Some provincial towns lost their permanent theatres for instance. When touring, the privileged troupes tended to perform more frequently than before (every couple of days, with more plays per evening), leading to short but intense bursts of theatrical activity in a town before the troupe moved on. However, Cyril also called into question the extent to which the decrees on theatre reorganisation affected the provinces. The effect of the degrees was certainly not felt overnight and although in theory the reforms led to a professionalization of troupes, they didn’t eradicate amateur troupes, especially in more remote areas where the privileged troupes rarely toured.
Cyril reminded us of the importance of seeing the decrees on theatre of 1806 and 1807 in the context of the other decrees of 1806, notably the decrees on festivals (February) and on imperial catechism (April).
We also discussed the definition of mélodrame – if a play in Paris is given the label it is largely because of the size of cast, special effects, etc – performed on a large stage with expensive set and costumes, and with a full orchestra. The Parisian mélodrames were “à grand spectacle”. But what were performances in the provinces like? It seems that each theatre used its own music and the cast, stage, orchestra and budget would have been much smaller – what remains of the elements one would identify as making up a mélodrame? The question is open for discussion!
Katherine Astbury