Musical Theatre

by Boris von Haken

1 Richard Wagner and the “Gesamtkunstwerk”

2 Wagner’s Reception and the Emergence of “Regietheater”

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

4 Interactive Musical Theater

5 Acoustic Theater and Spatial Art

6 Fluxus Musical Theater and Instrumental Theater

7 Musical Theater in the Interplay between Electronic and Digital Visual Media


Every form of musical theater is based on a combination of musical sound design and a visually represented event on the stage. On principle, musical theater can only be produced as a collective work by several artists. The collaboration of a composer and a librettist already distinguishes musical theater from other musical genres, since the text of a work of musical theater cannot simply be taken from other literary models. The libretto has to be either completely new or an adaptation of a literary model.

Whereas the combination of music and literature as sung text is a constant, and as a rule can be quite precisely notated in a score, the combination of sounds and images has not been subject to any universally accepted standards or methods for notation. The relationship of sounds and images in musical theater is thus, in most cases, only established in a particular performance. Modernism developed integral concepts of musical theater that aimed to bring not only musical elements but also the visual presentation within an overall artistic design, as Wassily Kandinsky’s Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand (The Fortunate Hand) demonstrate.

In the postwar avant-gardes, such efforts led to an experimental musical theater that transcended genre and media, in which aspects of indeterminacy, improvisation, and interaction have played a greater role right up to the present.


1 Richard Wagner and the “Gesamtkunstwerk”

Richard Wagner was the first to formulate a theoretical concept to combine and integrate various art forms in musical theater. In his text The Art-work of the Future, written in exile in Switzerland and published in 1850, Wagner interpreted the side-by-side existence of the arts as a symptom of cultural and political decline. He called on the artist to overcome this modern division of labor. Wagner’s esthetic program ultimately led to the idea of a free artistic fellowship,[1] which he believed was a basic requirement for the artwork of the future. Wagner thus articulated the revolutionary program of a social utopia of the theater, though as a failed revolutionary he would soon retire the idea. Wagner’s real-life model was the performance practice of the grand opéra in Paris, where various representational techniques for musical theater were brought together on equal footing. Wagner was also fascinated by the normative combination of composition and stage design that was pursued by grand opéra: works performed in Paris should, whenever possible, be performed at other theaters using an identical stage design. The idea of such exemplary performances was one of the motivations for founding the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner’s own opera compositions did not, however, have a central role for the model of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art — which only became significant in modern Regietheater, or director’s theater.

2 Wagner’s Reception and the Emergence of “Regietheater”

The influence of Richard Wagner’s ideas on the avant-garde artists of High Modernism was considerable. Visual artists such as Hubert von Herkomer, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer considered their works for the stage to be successors to Wagner’s. The pioneer of the modern Regietheater and Bildertheater, or theater of scenes, the Swiss director Adolphe Appia, saw his own theoretical writings as interpretations of Wagner’s. In his Musique et la mise en scène (translated as Music and the Art of the Theatre), published in 1899, Appia argued for stage design derived from music.[2] Decorating the stage is not about a more or less faithful reproduction of reality;[3] rather, the forms on the stage have esthetic value because they are part of the totality required by the music. Appia’s own unrealized designs from 1890 to 1892 for stage sets for Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) show that his strategy for translating music into visuals consisted of a new approach to stage lighting. In addition to new lighting techniques, Appia planned to employ three-dimensional stage designs for the first time. In Appia’s scheme, the actors who normally dominated would be subsumed under the overall impression of the stage set; the figures would appear stylized in atmospheric spaces composed entirely of light and architecture. The conception of the spaces was intended to produce a connection between the musical composition and the events on the stage. It was, therefore, only logical that Appia ultimately wanted to reduce the events on stage to pure architecture and lighting effects in his studies created for the theater in Hellerau between 1908 and 1912: Rhythmische Räume (Rhythmic Spaces).

Whereas the presentation of the problem in these concepts was the relationship between the composer’s score and the depiction on stage, the rapid evolution of Regietheater after the First World War led to stage technology being employed, even in opera, as a freely available means of interpretation for the director, and hence the staging became an artistic achievement on its own right, independent of the composition. A final attempt to conceive a new theory for the normative connection of music and scenery was undertaken by Paul Bekker in his text Das Operntheater of 1931,[4] in which he introduced the concept of Spielorganik (dramatic organicism). Nevertheless, he did not explain how the corresponding dramatic rules for a work of musical theater were to be derived by analyzing the score.

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.

4 Interactive Musical Theater

From the mid-1960s onward, John Cage developed a series of collective compositions featuring new forms of musical theater in which the music, the action on the stage, and the stage design were combined for the first time in media-based interactive constellations. The first step in this direction was taken by David Tudor in collaboration with Lowell Cross in the solo piece Bandoneon! (a combine), which was premiered in 1965 as part of the 9 Evenings series for the Second Armory Show. Lowell Cross had developed an apparatus for the event that transformed the sounds of David Tudor’s bandoneon playing, which was manipulated using live electronics, so as to control images on two television monitors. It was the first attempt to link directly the images of a scenic presentation to music.

In John Cage’s Variations V for six tape players, six shortwave receivers, six oscillators, and six loudspeakers, as well as objects, contact microphones, other electronic devices, and dancers (1965), the relationship of music and stage was interpreted in a completely new way. Only the dancers are on the stage, and in this work they take over the function of the instruments and trigger all the musical events by their movements. Robert Moog and Cecil Coker designed two control systems for the piece: one using ten photoelectric cells, each of which was activated when the dancers interrupted a corresponding light beam, and another with electromagnetic field antennas that reacted to the distance between the dancers and their position on the stage. Both controlled the orchestra of electronic sound sources, which reproduced sound material composed by Cage, depending on the actions on the stage. Another counterpoint to this constellation was a stage set composed of light projections, slide projections, and monitors, using material from Nam June Paik, which was also controlled by electronic systems on the stage.[8] Cage developed this media composition as a series of performances for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; hence the work is documented only in a action score produced afterward — Remarks re an Audio-Visual Performance — and in a television production by the composer Gordon Mumma, who took part in these performances.[9]

John Cage continued the basic model of Variations V in several of his interactive media compositions, such as Reunion (with David Behrman, Lowell Cross, Gordon Mumma, and David Tudor). In this work, a number of pieces of electronic music are controlled by the movements of the pieces on an electronically prepared chessboard. At the premiere on March 5, 1968, in Toronto, the stage action was a game of chess between John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, while Teeny Duchamp watched from nearby.[10] The final stage in this open series was HPSCHD (i.e., Harpsichord), composed between 1967 and 1969 with Lejaren A. Hiller, for one to seven amplified electric harpsichords and one to fifty-one tape players (and two to fifty-eight loudspeakers, accordingly), supplemented if desired by slide projections and/or films.

5 Acoustic Theater and Spatial Art

After producing some early serial compositions, Roger Reynolds began in 1961 to compose an opera for the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, based on Wallace Stevens’s famous poem The Emperor of Ice Cream. Because the poem offers no guidelines for a visible action on stage, Reynolds composed the stage positions and movements of the eight singers as abstract movements in space that represented one parameter of his score. It was the first time a spatial presentation had been achieved by purely musical means; the stage was no longer the fixed location for the staging but was only constituted by the performance of the music. This model of an acoustic stage play marked a turn away from the traditional form of visual theater. Reynolds initially pursued this concept further in his choral work Blind Men (1966) on a text by Herman Melville until finally, in the Voicespace series for voice and tape (1975 onward), the stage is depicted as merely an inward event. A comparable model also characterized Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room for voice and tape (1970).[11] The objective of the piece is to develop the musical qualities of a space acoustically, by repeatedly recording a predetermined text on tape and playing it back until the resonance frequencies of the room overlap more and more and the language ultimately breaks down into spatial sound. This compositional method was used in ever new variations and derivations in different contexts, such as Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lohengrin of 1984, an ‘azione invisibile per voce, strumenti e coro’ (invisible action for voice, instruments, and choir), which turns the reality of the stage into a figure from a dream; Luigi Nono’s invisible dramma in musica Prometeo (1981–1985); and Adriana Hölszky’s opera without text Tragoedia (1997).

6 Fluxus Musical Theater and Instrumental Theater

On the basis of his composition Kontakte (1958–1960), Karlheinz Stockhausen created his work for musical theater Originale in 1961, the first European example of a Fluxus work for theater.[12] Originale consists of eighteen scenes, arranged into seven structures, to be performed in any sequence or simultaneously. The passage of time in the work is established by reference to Kontakte, a performance of which forms the center of Originale, with the performers of the premiere of KontakteDavid Tudor (piano) and Christoph Caskel (percussion) — playing themselves in Originale. Other roles in Originale were played by Nam June Paik as the action artist and Hans G. Helms as the writer. Thus Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale thus represents an ambiguous borderline case of musical theater: it conforms to the Fluxus call for concreteness, and it includes aspects of the happening, as first realized by Allan Kaprow, as well as elements of instrumental theater, which makes the performance of music the subject of the performance.

Instrumental theater established itself as an autonomous form thanks to the scenic compositions of Mauricio Kagel, who was substantially motivated by his effort to come to terms with John Cage’s music. His central work, Sur scène (On the Stage), was written as a one-act theater piece with chamber music for a speaker, mimes, singers, and instrumentalists. The basis for the stage work is a lecture on contemporary music that provides the entries for the actions of the mimes and the musicians as well as reflecting ironically on the content of the lecture. Sur scène is an experiment in performing chamber music while having a discourse about chamber music. This kind of play with musical performance as its self-referential theme also characterizes Kagel’s Match for two cellists and a percussionist (1964). The performance takes the form of a ball game between the two cellists. The percussionist is the referee, who tries in vain to keep control of the events. Because the score prescribes an exact repetition of the action — the match is played twice — a seemingly spontaneous game between the musicians becomes a precisely choreographed staging.

7 Musical Theater in the Interplay between Electronic and Digital Visual Media

The interactive forms of musical theater that John Cage developed not only represented the use of new technologies for realizing music scenically but also led to fundamental shifts in the possibilities for musical representation using new media. After first experimenting with forms of interactive musical theater and instrumental theater, Robert Ashley composed his first opera for television: Music with Roots in the Aether (1975–1976), which was not simply a television version of a stage action but also grasped television technology as an autonomous medium for musical composition.[13] Music with Roots in the Aether took the act of composing of seven different artists — David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Roger Reynolds, Terry Riley, and Robert Ashley — as the theme for a kind of documentary. Nevertheless, it was not a mere depiction; rather, the creation of music became a visible, immediate act for the viewer. Avant-garde music, which at first seems lost in reverie, becomes a theatrical action to which the audience can relate. This basic model was continued in the opera Perfect Live (1979–1983), produced for Channel 4, and then in the fourteen-plus-hour opera tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea (1983–1993), composed of the sections Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), Foreign Experiences, eL/Aficionado, and title piece Now Eleanor’s Idea, which Robert Ashley has, however, thus far been able to produce only for the stage.

The development of digital visual media offers new, more flexible design possibilities than traditional television and video technology. As a result, not only it has been possible to realize completely new concepts for the space and the action, but there is also an opportunity for the spontaneous interaction of different media, which previously did not seem possible, given technical and institutional limits. One exemplary work in this direction is the video oratorio Paradiso (2001) by the Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis, who has managed to combine the traditional genre of oratorio composition with forms of expression from VJ culture.

all footnotes

[1] Richard Wagner, “The Art-work of the Future,” in The Art-work of the Future, and Other Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 200.

[2] Adolphe Appia, Music and the Art of the Theatre, ed. Barnard Hewitt, trans. Robert W. Corrigan and Mary Douglas Dirks (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1962).

[3] Appia, Music and the Art of the Theatre, 78.

[4] Paul Bekker, Das Operntheater (Leipzig: Quelle und Meyer, 1931).

[5] See Uta Grund, Zwischen den Künsten: Edward Gordon Craig und das Bildertheater um 1900 (Berlin: Akademie, 2002), 104.

[6] Alexander Wallace Rimington, Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Colour, with a foreword by Hubert von Herkomer (London: Hutchinson, 1912).

[7] Arnold Schoenberg to Wassily Kandinsky, August 19, 1912, in Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky, Letters, Pictures, and Documents, ed. Jelena Hahl-Koch, trans. John C. Crawford (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), 54.

[8] See Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 96–99; Frieder Reininghaus and Katja Schneider, eds., Experimentelles Musik- und Tanztheater, Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert 7 (Laaber: Laaber, 2004), 360–361.

[9] John Cage, Variations V, NDR Television, 1966.

[10] Illustrated in Nyman, Experimental Music, 99.

[11] Alvin Lucier, Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writing (Cologne: MusikTexte, 1995), 323–325.

[12] See Reininghaus and Schneider, Experimentelles Musik- und Tanztheater, 161–165.

[13] A text version is included in Robert Ashley, Music with Roots in the Aether: Interviews with and Essays about Seven American Composers (Cologne: MusikTexte, 2000).

List of books in this text

Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, pictures and documents
1984, Author: Schoenberg, Arnold Publisher: Faber and Faber

Colour-Music: The Art of Light
1926, Author: Klein, Adrian Bernard

Das Operntheater
1931, Author: Bekker, Paul Publisher: Quelle & Meyer

Experimental music. Cage and beyond
1974, Author: Nyman, Michael Publisher: Studio Vista

Experimentelles Musik- und Tanztheater
2004, Author: Reininghaus, Frieder and Schneider, Katja and Sanio, Sabine and Barthelmes, Barbara and Budde, Elmar Publisher: Laaber-Verl.

Music and the Art of the Theatre.
1962, Author: Appia, Adolphe Publisher: University of Miami Press

Music with Roots in the Aether: Interviews with and Essays about Seven American Composers
2000, Author: Ashley, Robert Publisher: MusikTexte

Reflexionen: Interviews, Notationen, Texte
1995, Author: Lucier, Alvin Publisher: MusikTexte

The art-work of the Future, and other works: Trans. William Ashton Ellis
1993, Author: Wagner, Richard Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Zwischen den Künsten : Edward Gordon Craig und das Bildertheater um 1900
2002, Author: Grund, Uta Publisher: Akademie Verlag

see aswell

  • Adolphe Appia
  • Robert Ashley
  • David Behrman
  • Paul Bekker
  • John Cage
  • Christoph Caskel
  • Cecil Coker
  • Lowell Cross
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Teeny Duchamp
  • Philip Glass
  • Hans G Helms
  • Hubert von Herkomer
  • Lejaren A. Hiller
  • Adriana Hölszky
  • Mauricio Kagel
  • Wassily Kandinsky
  • Allan Kaprow
  • Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alvin Lucier
  • Herman Melville
  • Darius Milhaud
  • Robert Moog
  • Gordon Mumma
  • Eadweard Muybridge
  • Luigi Nono
  • Pauline Oliveros
  • Nam June Paik
  • Max Reinhardt
  • Roger Reynolds
  • Hans Richter
  • Terry Riley
  • Alexander Wallace Rimington
  • John Ruskin
  • Oskar Schlemmer
  • Arnold Schönberg
  • Salvatore Sciarrino
  • Wallace Stevens
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen
  • Alfred Tennyson
  • David Tudor
  • Jacob ter Veldhuis
  • Richard Wagner
  • Works
  • 9 Evenings (Theatre and Engineering)
  • An Idyl
  • Bandoneon! (a combine)
  • Blind Men
  • Colour-Organ
  • Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft
  • Das Operntheater
  • Die Musik und die Inszenierung
  • eL/Aficionado
  • Foreign Experiences
  • I Am Sitting in a Room
  • Improvement
  • Kontakte
  • Le livre de Christophe Colomb
  • Lohengrin
  • Match
  • Music with Roots in the Aether
  • Now Eleanor’s Idea
  • Originale
  • Paradiso
  • Parsifal
  • Perfect Lives
  • Prometeo
  • Remarks re an Audio-Visual Performance
  • Reunion
  • Rhythmische Räume
  • Schwarz und Weiß
  • Second Armory Show
  • Sur scène
  • The Emperor of Ice Cream
  • The Fortunate Hand
  • The Rhine Gold
  • The Valkyrie
  • The Yellow Sound
  • Tragoedia
  • Variations V
  • Voicespace

  • Timelines
    1850 until today

    All Keywords
  • Entgrenzung (Chap. 6)
  • Interferenz (Chap. 5)
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 3, 7)
  • Performativität (Chap. 2, 4, 6, 7)
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 3, 4)
  • Simultaneität (Chap. 4)
  • Verräumlichung (Chap. 5)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 1, 2)
  • club culture (Chap. 7)
  • generative Verfahren (Chap. 4)

  • Socialbodies
  • Bayreuther Festspiele
  • Channel 4
  • Fluxus
  • Grand opéra, Paris
  • Lululand
  • Merce Cunningham Dance Company
  • Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)
  • ONCE-Festival
  • Theater Hellerau