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CD reviews: Melodramas that aren't melodramatic

August 28, 2010 |  9:30 am
Olga Marriage between word and music has never been simple, and is seldom stress-free. Take melodrama. I'm not sure what caused its meaning to change over the years. In the 18th century, melodrama was the genre of spoken word accompanied by — and elevated by — music. Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Richard Strauss were melodramatists. Now Oxford English Dictionary defines melodrama as "a crude appeal to the emotions."

 But call it what you will, the genre in its original sense has never lost its effectiveness or appeal, as Aaron Copland's lasting "Lincoln Portrait," with its stirring orchestral score joined to Honest Abe's magnificent words, attests. Meanwhile, several new CDs reveal that composers continue to be fascinated by the complex relationship between spoken word and music. In song, lyrics inevitably become subservient to music. But melodrama allows for more nuance in the role-playing between dominants and submissives, and what could be more modern than that?

Like song, melodramas also live and die on their music, but in the latter case, music cannot save poor words. Nor will its music forgive objectionable words. It can even harm a noble text. For examples of noble, edgy and objectionable, click here for the full Sunday review in Arts & Books.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Olga Neuwirth, an Austrian composer of especially noir melodramas. Credit: Priska Ketterer