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Early Melodrama in America: The Voice of Nature.

The Voice of Nature (1803), edited by Karl Kroeger; The Aethiop (1813), orchestral restoration by Victor Fell Yellin. (Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater, 2.) New York: Garland, 1994. [Intro. material, pp. vii-xxvii; The Voice of Nature: libretto, pp. 3-44; incidental music to the play by William Dunlap composed by Victor Pelissier, pp. 45-78; The Aethiop: port., p. 81; cast of characters, p. 82; instruments of the orch., p. 83; text by William Dimond, pp. 84-156; full score restored by Victor Fell Yellin of incidental music by Rayner Taylor, pp. 157-272. ISBN 0-8153-1374-8. Acid-free paper, cloth, $78.00.]

These three volumes in Garland's sixteen-volume series Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater help fill one of the more lamentable gaps in our knowledge of American music before 1900. Scholars have explored music made in America's churches, parlors, and even occasionally, concert halls, but theaters have been largely overlooked. This omission seriously distorts our picture of music-making in Victorian and pre-Victorian America, since the theaters were not only the place where many American musicians earned their livelihood, but also were arguably the greatest, often the only, center of orchestral composition and large-scale instrumental arranging in the country. The four plays in these volumes, published in each case with their attendant musical scores, will give many students of music, theater, or even American history their first view of this vanished world and its all-but-forgotten performance traditions.

Volume 2 in the series contains the two earliest plays, New Jersian William Dunlap's The Voice of Nature ( 1803) and the English playwright William Dimond's The Aethiop (1813). Dunlap is best known today as an art historian and a painter of vast historical canvases in the style of his teacher Benjamin West, but he wore many different hats, and between 1796 and 1811 Dunlap wrote, translated, or arranged some sixty plays for the New York theater. (His friend, the Quaker merchant Thomas Cope wrote of Dunlap in 1801: "He is a valuable man & I cannot help regretting & feeling surprised to kind him the manager of the N. York theatre. He does not, as his friends assure me, associate with the players--having a contempt for the loose profligate manners which prevail among them" [Philadelphia Merchant: The Diary of Thomas P. Cope, ed. Eliza Cope Harrison (South Bend, Ind.: Gateway Editions, 1978), 67].) As The Voice of Nature shows, Dunlap's high-mindedness did not stop with avoiding the company of actors. His play, a free adaptation of a contemporary French drama, uses the biblical story of Solomon and the two mothers to demonstrate, a la Rousseau, the natural and inherent virtue that attends motherhood. In an epilogue, Dunlap goes so far as to maintain that the wicked and decidedly unmotherly behavior of his female villain is not only unnatural but also unthinkable, except to the debased male imagination:

But do such things exist?--I'll ne'er believe it!

Ladies I'm sure your minds can ne'er conceive it!

It's all rather charming, even if it shows more sensibility than sense. Fortunately, Dunlap was a man of sound theatrical instinct, and if his philosophy seems dated it is at least couched in elegant, effective prose. Given a production sympathetic to its naive charm, The Voice of Nature might still find favor with American audiences.

If The Voice of Nature is the earliest surviving play written by an American-born playwright, it is also, by an astonishing coincidence, the earliest American play for which an original musical score survives. Little importance was attached to such scores at the time; they generally became the property of the theater management, and most were lost, discarded, or destroyed in theater fires--a regular occurrence in the nineteenth century. Still more unusual, the music, by the French emigre Victor Pelissier, survives in its original orchestration, thanks to the miraculous preservation of a set of instrumental parts in the composer's own hand. After all this evidence of divine intervention, it would be pleasant to report that Pelissier's contribution was as substantial as Dunlap's, but the truth is that the three classical-style marches (two with chorus) and the pretty little siciliana that make up the incidental music are delightful without being remarkable. Still, this is an invaluable historical document, and students of American music, and perhaps enterprising theater companies, should be grateful for this publication. A useful introduction by the editor, Karl Kroeger, gives a brief overview of the careers of Dunlap and Pelissier, without addressing the question of whether a serious spoken drama with a few (and largely extraneous) bits of ceremonial music really qualifies as a "melodrama."

The attraction of William Dimond's Arabian extravaganza The Aethiop, on the other hand, lies primarily in the extensive musical score composed by the English-born composer Rayner Taylor in 1813 for a production at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre. Taylor was a fine composer; the set of six sonatas for cello and basso continuo he wrote before coming to America will stand comparison with the best continental examples. He also wrote cleverly for the stage, as those who remember bicentennial revivals of his 1778 Haymarket burletta Buxom Joan can attest. The Aethiop score certainly surpasses these earlier efforts in scale: there are seventeen numbers, including a jolly tripartite overture, choruses, songs, dances, and ensembles, several of them quite elaborately worked out. There is a general sense of haste, however; musical characterization is minimal, and if several numbers show a melodic gift equal to those of Taylor's English contemporaries Charles Dibdin, William Linley, or Henry Rowley Bishop, there are also moments where inspiration flags.

Unfortunately, Taylor's orchestral score was probably destroyed in the disastrous Chestnut Street Theatre fire of 1820, and nothing remains but a piano-vocal score published in Philadelphia in 1814. From this source, Victor Fell Yellin, the leading authority on Rayner Taylor, has reconstructed a full orchestral score; too full, some will feel. Sources quoted in Yellin's introduction stress the lavish musical resources placed at Taylor's disposal without getting into specifics, but a contemporary source sets the size of the Chestnut Street orchestra for an English "opera" in 1794 at "about twenty accomplished musicians" (Louis C. Madeira, Annals of Music in Philadelphia [Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1896], 39). Yellin equals, if not exceeds this number by calling on the services of a full string section, four brass players, eight wind players, and a percussionist. While there are cues in the piano score for the occasional solo flute, clarinet, and cello, nowhere are pairs of winds requested, and Yellin's frequent doublings (with divisi clarinets, bassoons, and horns often assigned melodic roles) give his orchestration a thick, protoromantic quality rather at odds with Taylor's folksy Classicism. Those preferring a more transparent eighteenth-century sound can easily make their own adjustments, however, since the piano "souvenir score" is reproduced for easy measure-by-measure comparison with the full score.

The format of the edition is not ideal. In both cases, a contemporary playscript published by the New York house of David Longworth is photographically reproduced: Dunlap's dates from 1807, Dimond's from 1813. Each is followed by the music, which is reproduced directly, one supposes, from the copy supplied by its editor. Here the results are more variable: Kroeger used a computer to generate a score indistinguishable from typeset music; while Yellin's hand-copied score is serviceable, but not up to the standards set by professional copyists. As might be expected, comparing separate texts and music involves a lot of flipping back and forth, and, not infrequently, some hunting around.

George L. Aiken's 1852 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as a play in six acts seems like a curious choice for volume 5. While a play with at least twenty-eight musical cues in the script certainly qualifies as musical theater, unfortunately almost all the music of this Uncle Tom's Cabin is lost. In his introduction, editor Thomas Riis speculates a little on the nature of the missing sections but ultimately can only suggest that modern performers interpolate "a quiet instrumental hymn" here or "a phrase or two from a contemporary minstrel song such as `Nelly Thy' by [Stephen] Foster or `De Boatman Dance' by Dan Emmett" there (p. xvi). The general editor of the series, Deane L. Root, further suggests that the missing descriptive music may be reconstructed by applying "the principles demonstrated in [volume 4 of the series, Monte Cristo] to the music and script reproduced here to approximate the full effects of early productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin" (p. xii). Since the music included in this volume consists only of piano, or pianoless, vocal scores of four eminently forgettable songs by the prominent mid-century manager, producer, and actor George Howard, Foster's "Old Folks at Home" (an early interpolation originally inspired by Stowe's novel), and two contemporary hymns, "New Richmond" and "Oh, Had I the Wings of the Morning," the amount of work left to the user is rather daunting. One might question whether such fragmentary musical material, followed by a reasonably legible photocopy of an old Samuel French playscript, represents much of a value at the $65.00 price. Since this half-hearted "reconstruction" qualifies as neither a critical nor a performing edition, it might have been more useful if it had included a selection of the best of the surviving music from later productions of the play.

The best combination of scholarship and source material comes in volume 4, with Anne Dhu McLucas's edition of Charles Fechter's Monte Cristo. Extensive documentation survives for this once-famous play, which has the added cache of having been the personal vehicle, and indeed, the property of Eugene O'Neill's matinee-idol father James O'Neill. In an extensive introduction, McLucas discusses the nature and origins of melodramatic music, as well as the surviving musical score, promptbooks, reviews, and even the silent film of O'Neill's performance made in 1912. The play, which follows Alexandre Dumas's novel with reasonable fidelity, was somewhat harshly described by the younger O'Neill in 1940 as "just another old melodrama, better than most of them, but with little to explain how it could ever have had such an astonishing appeal for the American public" (p. xxiv, n. 7). From a more distant historical and personal perspective, however, we can appreciate that a charismatic actor, in an age before television, radio, and movies, could indeed have made Monte Cristo a stirring evening's entertainment.

Unfortunately, the anonymous music proves to be uninspired stuff, not much different or more memorable than the silent-movie music its genre inspired, and the user may feel a momentary pang of regret that some more substantial play and score did not survive in such a complete form. Still the historical nature of Monte Cristo makes this edition a cause for scholarly celebration, not in the least because McLucas is so obviously a master of all facets of her subject, both stylistic and historical. As before in this series, words and music are printed separately. In this case the text is a photoreproduction of a fascinating promptbook from the Harvard Theatre Collection once owned by the actor J. B. Studley, who played Danglars in O'Neill's production of Monte Cristo. The score was computer set using Finale software and is meticulously cued to the drama. Thorough critical notes and an excellent selection of engravings and photos of the O'Neill production make this the finest produced of the three volumes here considered and a model for future editions of nineteenth-century American incidental music.
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Author:Kelleher, David
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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