Musical Theatre

3 Image and Music on the Stage: Models for a Musical Theater of Scenes

The crucial impulses for developing a musical theater of scenes ultimately came neither from composers nor from practitioners of the theater. The first projects and experiments to have an esthetic influence were by visual artists. One pioneer was Hubert von Herkomer, who was born in Upper Bavaria but lived in the United States and England from the age of two. Von Herkomer earned a considerable fortune as a graphic artist with a penchant for social criticism and as a portraitist of important artists and scholars, such as Richard Wagner, John Ruskin, and Alfred Tennyson. In 1883 he founded a private art school in the village of Bushey, near London, which he ran until 1904. Over time, an artists’ colony was created, which became a center of the late Victorian avant-garde. In his private home, Lululand, named after his second wife, Lulu, von Herkomer set up a private theater, placing great emphasis on modern electrical lighting technology. The actors were students from the art school and von Herkomer himself. Prominent musicians were engaged for the music, including the famous Wagner conductor Hans Richter. Performances included works for the stage such as An Idyl (1883–1889), which von Herkomer conceived as an extension of his work as a visual artist, in the tradition of tableaux vivants or living pictures. Von Herkomer saw it as a form of picture-making, in which musical theater became an instrument of an almost cinematographic concept of the image.

Consequently, this led him first to work with protocinematographic techniques — in which context von Herkomer invited Eadweard Muybridge to Bushey — and ultimately to working with the new medium of film itself, transforming his theater into a film studio in 1913.[5] Conceptual connections also existed with the development of the Colour-Organ by Alexander Wallace Rimington, who sought to render compositions both visually and acoustically, by directly assigning color values to notes.[6]

Wassily Kandinsky’s encounter with the stage direction of Max Reinhardt, whom he met while living in Berlin from September 1907 to April 1908, became a decisive influence on the development of his own conceptions for the theater. His work with visual artists in Reinhardt’s theater was especially crucial. Kandinsky presumed there was a direct correspondence between painting, theater, and music. Already in the sketches to his first stage composition, Schwarz und Weiss (Black and White; 1908–1909), he tied the action on the stage to a detailed color arrangement. In contrast to artistic positions based on analogical models, Kandinsky did not strive for a direct correspondence of image and sound but instead sought to connect different art forms based on common structural principles such as movement and rhythm. Consequently, in Kandinsky’s stage composition Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound; 1909–1912; premiered 1956), the sequences of scenes and the colors are linked. Der gelbe Klang is documented in a written text intended to serve as a definitive director’s script for all performances of the stage play. Only the presentation of the music is not defined.

In his opera Die glückliche Hand (The Fortunate Hand; 1910–1913), the composer Arnold Schoenberg tried to take up the thread of Kandinsky’s theatrical conceptions. In a letter on August 19, 1912, Schoenberg wrote Kandinsky: But as I said, ‘Der gelbe Klang’ pleases me extraordinarily. It is exactly the same as what I have striven for in my ‘Glückliche Hand’, only you go still further than I in the renunciation of any conscious thought, any conventional plot.[7] While working on the piece, Schoenberg not only remained in close contact with Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Kokoschka, but also dedicated himself increasingly to painting, which was echoed in the visual design of the play. Moreover, Schoenberg’s score included detailed instructions for the stage direction, in particular the lighting design. The action on stage, the music, and the lighting are treated as phenomena of equal value that point to an integral concept.

Arnold Schoenberg’s project for the theater had no lasting influence, as a consequence of the caesura of the First World War. The institutions of the theater world, which presumed the composer and interpreter would be separate, proved ill suited to such integral artistic undertakings. Despite isolated attempts in this direction — Darius Milhaud’s opera Le livre de Christophe Colomb (The Book of Christopher Columbus; 1929), which combined film and stage action, being the primary example — such artistic concepts were not immediately picked up by contemporary composers. In the nearly contemporaneous Regietheater — for which Richard Wagner’s Parsifal entering the public domain in 1913 was a kind of starter’s gun — the design of the scenery achieved the status of an autonomous artistic element, but composing music and presenting it on stage remained separate realms in a theatrical world based on the division of labor. A new beginning would have to wait for the avant-garde compositions that followed the Second World War.