1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Melodrama

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MELODRAMA (a coined word from Gr. μέλος, music, and δρᾶμα, action), the name of several species of dramatic composition. As the word implies, “melodrama” is properly a dramatic mixture of music and action, and was first applied to a form of dramatic musical composition in which music accompanied the spoken words and the action, but in which there was no singing. The first example of such a work has generally been taken to be the Pygmalion of J. J. Rousseau, produced in 1775. This is the source of romantic dramas depending on sensational incident with exaggerated appeals to conventional sentiment rather than on play of character, and in which dramatis personae follow conventional types—the villain, the hero wrongfully charged with crime, the persecuted heroine, the adventuress, &c. At first the music was of some importance, forming practically a running accompaniment suitable to the situations—but this has gradually disappeared, and, if it remains, is used mainly to emphasize particularly strong situations, or to bring on or off the stage the various principal characters. Such plays first became popular in France at the beginning of the 19th century. One of the most prolific writers of melodramas at that period was R. C. G. de Pixericourt (1773–1844). The titles of some of his plays give a sufficient indication of their character; e.g. Victor, ou l’enfant de la forêt (1797); Carlina, ou l’enfant du mystère (1801); Le Monastère abandonné, ou la malédiction paternelle (1816). Another form of melodrama came from the same source, but developed on lines which laid more emphasis on the music, and is of some importance in the history of opera. Probably the first of this type is to be found in George Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos (1774). The most familiar of such melodramas in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. In these the dialogue is entirely spoken. In true opera the spoken dialogue was replaced by recitative. It may be noticed that the speaking of some parts of the dialogue is not sufficient to class an opera as a “melodrama” in this sense, as is proved by the spoken grave-digging scene, accompanied by music, in Fidelio, and the incantation scene in Der Freischütz. To this the English term “declamation” is usually applied; the Germans use Melodram. But see Opera.