Why incidental music?

As with very many (perhaps too many) things in my life, it all began with Sibelius. During my undergraduate degree I had discovered Sibelius’s symphonies and, after some soul-searching, decided that I loved this music enough to pursue a Masters on Sibelius, and try to build an academic career studying Nordic music.

I threw myself into researching Sibelius’s work, and devoured the copious books and articles on his symphonies, tone poems, and violin concerto. But hidden in the biographies, I also found references to his incidental music — music written for spoken dramas. The most extensive discussion was in Tomi Mäkelä’s absolutely wonderful biography. Talking about the reasons for Sibelius not having written a full-scale opera, he writes that one important factor was:

the progressive genre of incidental music, which was popular throughout Europe around 1900, which Sibelius actively influenced, as well as the fact that opera — like the symphony, the solo concerto and piano music — found itself in a crisis and had already found gifted reformers in Strauss and Janacek.

This was one of the first times I’d seen incidental music framed in a way that wasn’t immediately dismissive, so I decided to investigate. And I was shocked. I had expected Sibelius’s incidental music to be really only a few chords here and there, given the scarcity of writing on it. But these works are an astonishing display of compositional inventiveness. There’s a huge range among Sibelius’s incidental pieces, and in their own ways they display Sibelius at his most refined, almost like the concentrated essence of Sibelian writing. Take, for example, this extract from his 1916 music for Jedermann (‘Everyman’):

Using very few resources, Sibelius’s harmony and orchestration immediately conjures up an otherworldly and meditative atmosphere, slowly gaining tension just by rocking between two notes as the rest of the orchestra rises through a scale. Here, in highly condensed form, are the kind of techniques that he uses for his later Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony.

Which got me thinking harder about Mäkelä’s phrase — ‘the progressive genre of incidental music, which was popular throughout Europe around 1900.’ Who were the other “incidental” composers of the early twentieth-century? How much of this music was there? How “popular” was “popular” — did this mean a few hundred people would have heard this music, or a few million? And what did he mean by ‘progressive’? What did this music sound like? This phrase suggested the existence of a whole history of music that I just didn’t know about.

After a bit of digging, it became apparent that the sheer volume of incidental music written in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries was beyond anything that I’d anticipated. In these years theatre music was Big Business, and writing incidental music was an important part of many composers’ lives. As Charles Gounod said in 1895, ‘for a composer, there is…one road to follow in order to make a name, and that is the theatre.’ Composers got some of their most significant exposure through theatres, and their incidental works often became some of their best-known pieces. Incidental music could be anything from a couple of songs sung by an on-stage character, to full orchestral scores running throughout most of the production, working a bit like film music does today. A lot of time and energy was expended on this music, and through working in the theatre composers collaborated with some of the most innovative directors, actors, scenographers, writers, and choreographers of their day.

A question that I’ve had to confront throughout my research is why incidental music has received so little attention until now. Why is is that incidental music by some otherwise well-known composers (such as Sibelius) so rarely gets performed? Why are there scores sitting in archives that haven’t seen the light of day since the 1910s? Why aren’t there as many books about incidental music as there are about opera, or film music? Why is it that even today, most writing about incidental music begins with some variant of the phrase (to quote Eric Saylor on Vaughan Williams), ‘dramatic works typically receive the least recognition or respect’?

It’s impossible to answer these questions without looking at music history more broadly, and the assumptions and ideas that have underpinned the study (and performance) of classical music. Because at the heart of it, these are questions whose answers are about perceived value. 

Autonomy & the solo genius
The most important underlying ideology is my favourite thing to complain about: the idea of musical autonomy, and the associated construct of the isolated solo genius. (More on this here.) To understand why incidental music has been on the fringes of musicology, we can compare it to the symphony, one of the most revered genres (historically) within the discipline. The symphony has been held up as a paradigm for the most profound expression of compositional creativity, the ultimate outpouring from a single, solo author (although this assumption is also problematic, but that’s a story for another time). Symphonies are “autonomous” and the music doesn’t obviously interact with any other media. The way the music is presented demands that the listener focus their concentrated attention on the music and the music alone. 

By these measures, theatre music is almost the antithesis of the symphony. The music’s written to fit around other media, it was very often written to commission, and the composer is working as part of a collaboration. Because the music’s just one part of a larger production, the audience’s attention isn’t focused solely on the music. None of these factors uphold the ideology of autonomous music, nor the idea of the solo creative genius.

The differences between the two genres don’t need to be problematic, but the way analytical theories have been developed over the last couple of centuries has made them problematic and meant that theatre music has been pushed to one side. Musical theorists have mainly focused on explaining the relationship between musical “form and content”. In other words — how musical ideas work with a self-contained, “autonomous” structure. So analytical theories tend to focus on the development of musical motifs, how the music does or doesn’t build up tension between different keys, and how composers plays with formal expectations. 

If we try and apply this to theatre music, it will come out wanting. It answers to different rubrics, and is structured according to completely different imperatives. Theatre music rarely has a “form” that we’d recognise from solo instrumental music, for example. Very often the musical cues are more like fragments — chords or themes that interact with the spoken text. And even during the longer periods of music the actors are often speaking, so the music is shaped around and with the text, will occasionally stop suddenly, then come back a few moments later with completely different keys and instruments. It just doesn’t work in the same way as “autonomous” music.

The values that have been associated with “great” classical music over the last two hundred years or so are so tied up with ideas of autonomy that theatre music has suffered as a result. And it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Theatre music is depicted as being unworthy of attention because it doesn’t fit existing theories. And because it’s thought of as being a bit rubbish in comparison to other genres, nobody’s studying it to actually say how theatre music works. And so theatre music fades from the pages of music history, becoming first a memory and then a non-presence. We’d notice if a whole history of music didn’t mention opera, but the history of theatre music is currently not well-known enough for its non-presence to be recognised as an absence. 

In some sense, the musical score is a way of distancing music from its original context. The self-containment of the score symbolises a constant musical “object” that persists — a moment made timeless, like an insect in amber. But because theatre music is written for a specific production, we lose a lot when the music is taken out of context. The play script and production elements such as set design are in some sense a part of what the music is.

Let’s take the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello from 1971. The music for this was composed by Guy Woolfenden. There’s a lot of music, and it mainly divides into two types — music that sounds stereotypically “French” and music that sounds stereotypically “Middle-Eastern”, using different instruments and keys to create the contrast. It’s quite repetitive, and it is in many way extremely clichéd. If you played this on its own in a concert hall, you’d probably be pretty confused.

On its own this music is a bit perplexing and perhaps a bit boring. But with the knowledge that the production was set in 1850s Cyprus, it begins to make more sense. The reviewers noted that ‘This is not the traditional domestic Othello, but a private tragedy conducted amid public events in an imperial outpost’ (The Times, 1971). Woolfenden’s use of heavily stereotyped musical clichés is deliberate, and part of what makes it dramatically effective. It’s a way of communicating to the audience that this production was casting Cyprus as a meeting place between “East” and “West”, ‘a dusty frontier post of Victorian empire’ (Observer, 1971). This production is a fascinating insight into the way that the Empire and its politics was being dealt with on stage in the 1970s, and the music would have shaped the audience’s perception of the production.

Taking theatre music out of its context kind of misses the point. But is that so different from other music? There are definitely substantial differences between the way that theatre music and instrumental music is written, but I think it’s quite easy to over-exaggerate these differences. All music is of a time and place. The way it’s structured, the way it sounds and the way it’s performed — these are all historically contingent and tell us something about the priorities and ideals of the society (and individuals) that the music comes from. Theatre music is just more explicit about this. It doesn’t fit with a history of thought that paints music as outside or beyond society, time, and reality. But this reflects back on the way we can think about “autonomous” music. Autonomy is an important idea in the history of classical music, but that doesn’t make it a truth about the way that music exists. Theatre music is a valuable reminder of this.

Publishing & Performance
But if context is all-important, how do we publish and perform this music? This is a problem that doesn’t have an obvious answer. There are a few incidental music editions, but these are few and far between. And the lack of performable editions, performances, and recordings all contribute to making incidental music a relatively under-explored genre.

Let’s start with the publishing decisions. We’ll assume for now that the production we’re interested in had original music composed for it, and that a score survives. First up — do we include the play text with the score? Or just the score? Should photographs be included for context? 

page 56
A page from Ture Rangström’s score for ‘Till Damaskus (III)’

Assuming we just go for the score, incidental scores very rarely have anything close to a “definitive” version. Incidental scores are usually covered in deletions, inserts, crossed-out cues, and notes-to-self from performers and conductors (to say nothing of composers and directors). It’s very difficult to tell, in many cases, precisely what music was performed when. So should our edition include all the music that exists? Or try and make an educated guess at what was used in performance, and only include that? And what if was a travelling production, and the music was changed between venues? Argh!

The standard format for classical music publishing just doesn’t cope well with the challenges that incidental music throws at it. Which means that it’s not performed, so people don’t know about it, and therefore they’re not studying it.

So what next?
Incidental music doesn’t fit well with the dominant assumptions and ideals that have historically shaped writing about classical music history. A system that values “autonomy”, solo authorship, “definitive scores” and concert performance has kept theatre music in the margins. 

This is starting to change — and what exciting avenues it’s opening up. Certainly in the early twentieth-century, incidental scores were often experimental and innovative, and ranged from the heartbreakingly beautiful to the frankly bizarre. Not only is this fascinating music to listen to and perform, but it’s an insight into the many different ways that composers thought about being “modern” in a period that was obsessed with progress and the new. 

A next step for studying historical incidental music will be to get it published, performed, and recorded. The issues around publishing incidental music aren’t unique. They apply to many other genres as well. Instrumental pieces sometimes went through multiple manifestations, revisions, and editions (e.g. Bruckner), hence the considerable number of critical editions of famous composers’ works. Availability of source material is a familiar problem from early music, and film scores have to deal with the question of whether to include texts and visuals. Incidental music can learn from all of these areas — and perhaps finding ways to publish incidental music can also help to conceptualise a more innovative and open way of presenting these musics as well. 

Also, incidental music presents a really fun performance challenge. Sometimes, you can take the longer movements and just play those (composers did a similar thing by arranging their incidental music into the form of suites — Nielsen’s Aladdin suite being a more famous example). This is all well and good, but perhaps there are possibilities to work in collaboration with actors and go for a semi-staged performance. Or to perform extracts with the text? Working with incidental music is a great way of shaking up a concert programme, of doing musical outreach with schools, or opening up new techniques and repertoire for performers.

There is some fantastic incidental music out there that is languishing unheard in archives. Some of it’s not especially interesting to listen to on its own, but a lot of it is. And much of it is by composers who aren’t so well-known now, because they wrote so much incidental music. If we want to diversify the canon and expand the range of music that we listen to, we could do way worse than introducing incidental music into the mix. And this is to say nothing of contemporary incidental music. Many theatres commission music for productions — Jocelyn Pook’s music for Mike Bartlett’s Charles III is an excellent example, or Evelyn Glennie’s music for the RSC’s Troilus and Cressida. This is a whole branch of contemporary composition that receives far, far too little attention.

Prioritising incidental music means questioning many of the values and assumptions that have labelled it as uninteresting, unexciting, and unworthy. It doesn’t just give us new music. It gives us a new way of looking at the music that we already know, of hearing it afresh, and listening to theatre history with new ears.


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