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Writing about music (opera) tutorial notes

November 3, 2007

1. Introduction.

This tutorial is primarily intended for students who are going to write about opera, though I hope it will also be of interest to students studying other topics.

For this tutorial you will need a vocal score of Verdi`s Rigoletto. If all you have available is a full score, that is all right. You will also need a recording of the opera. During the tutorial you will be pointed towards a specific section of the score- and be prepared to write some bar numbers into your score.

1. Aims of the tutorial

This tutorial focuses on an aspect of assignment writing many students find problematic, particularly those students who have little knowledge of music theory. The aspect in question is writing about music, and particularly, how to use music examples in essays. Students often acknowledge the importance of music in opera – rightly – but then go on to write essays that do not address how the music is being used.

This tutorial aims to explain:

• how to use music examples in essays
• how to reference music examples
• how long examples should be
• what kinds of scores to use
• what kinds of things to say about examples when writing an essay about opera
• how to improve your mark through the apt use of musical examples

The materials refer to an extract from Rigoletto, so you will need a score of this opera. Either a full score or a vocal score will do, though I recommend a vocal score.

2. Writing about music.

Let`s begin by outlining a simple framework that can be used for writing about music.

2.1. The basic framework of music.

Consider this question: what does music consist of?

One answer, which provides a basic framework for writing about music, is that music consists of:

a. Five elements
b. Two ways of organising the five elements

The five elements are:

1. Melody
2. Harmony
3. Rhythm
4. Dynamics
5. Timbre or tone colour

Two ways of organising the five elements are:

1. Form
2. Texture

A composer is faced with the problem of what to do with the five elements, form and texture. Creating music can largely be regarded as a process of organisation: melodies, harmonies etc. have to be organised if something meaningful is to be created. However, when writing about music the task is to deconstruct, not to construct: when analysing a piece of music we ask what the composer has done with the five elements and form and texture.

2.2. The five elements explained in more detail.

But before pursuing this line of argument, let`s look at the five elements of music in more detail.

2.2.1. Melody.

Notes coming one after each other, thereby creating a recognisable line, create melody. A melody is not necessarily a tune and is not necessarily pleasant to listen to. Nor is a melody necessarily always in the upper part; a bass line can be a melody even though it is not a tune. In this sense `melody` is a technical term, implying little in the way of aesthetic judgement. To call something a melody is not necessarily to imply that it sounds good: it is to make a judgement that a recognisable line has been created, regardless of how pleasant or not this line might sound.

2.2.2. Harmony.

Harmony is created when notes sound together at the same time. Again, like melody it is a value free term; it does not imply that the notes so combined sound pleasant. Harmony can be harsh, dissonant – it is still harmony. The study of harmony usually involves the study of chords and how they are used.

2.2.3. Rhythm.

Under the heading of rhythm comes anything to do with how long sounds last. Features such as accent and pulse, which create patterns, also come under the heading of rhythm. Rhythm might be considered to be the basic element of music: there is no music without it.

2.2.4. Dynamics.

How loud or soft notes or sounds are. This includes things like crescendos, fadings away, and sudden loud or soft passages.

2.2.5. Timbre or tone colour.

The distinctive colour of voices and instruments. We can tell the difference between a clarinet and an oboe because each instrument has its distinctive timbre. Every human voice has a unique timbre.

2.3. The two ways of organising the five elements.

The two ways of organising the five elements are –

2.3.1. Form.

What are we looking at when we look for form in music? The search for form is usually the search for some kind of repetition. Every musical style has characteristic ways in which repetition is used. For example, Ternary Form has a distinctive patter of repetition (ABA), where an opening section is repeated.

2.3.2. Texture.

Texture is the most difficult aspect of music to define. It has got to do with how the music is built up, for example, how many instruments are playing, what they are playing, how many melodic lines are sounding at the time, whether there is a main melody, whether there is an accompaniment. The possibilities are infinite. Texture is very important; it is one of the main reasons why musical styles sound different.

Examples of three common and simple textures:

a. melody and accompaniment (Verdi`s “La donna mobile”)

b. block chords (as in a hymn tune like “Abide with me”)

c. counterpoint (music made up a of several melodic lines going on at the same time, as in the final scene of Verdi`s Falstaff)

3. Conclusion.

If you keep the above seven points in mind they can generate basic questions about what is going on music. If you want further clarification of any of the above terms you could consult a good music dictionary.

4. Some practice at using the framework.

We`ve got our basic framework: let`s get some practice at using it. But first a few words specifically about writing about opera.

4.1. Writing about opera.

In a way opera is more complicated than pure music because there is more going on than `just music`. However, when writing about opera you have one great advantage – there is usually a verbal text. You have something to focus on, a way of starting to get to grips with the material. Perhaps it is easier to write about music that sets a text because you can discuss how the composer sets the words.

So when you are studying a passage from an opera, there are two basic questions that make a good start:

1 What is the effect of the passage?

2 How is the effect created?

There is usually no problem in answering the first question – you can use your own reaction (though that is not necessarily an infallible guide, since you are unlikely to be moved to tears and laughter by Cavalieri`s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo, as the original audiences were).

The second question is more difficult – you have to say what is happening in the music to create the effect; you have to analyse the music using the seven-point framework.

Look at it another way: you want to make a point in an essay. You want to say what happens in an opera at a certain point. You start by describing the effect, but then you have to say how the effect is created – and this is the difficult bit, because in order to say how the effect is created you have to analyse the music. You have to say how the music relates to the verbal text, and put all this across in a way that is clear to the reader by, for example, using precise references. Not an easy task.

Let`s start by looking at some essentials.

4.2. Scores.

It is a good idea to use scores when studying opera. For one thing, it is very difficult to write about music without having a score to refer to.

Vocal scores are generally more useful than full scores for opera, unless you want to write about orchestration in detail. Vocal scores are a lot easier to follow than full scores and will be more than adequate for most of your work on Opera in Context. Also, full scores of many operas are hard to find.

If you are not a brilliant score reader I suggest following the words first, and then trying to follow the music afterwards.

4.3. Practice at score reading.

In order to study the rest of these materials you will need a vocal score of Verdi`s Rigoletto, or at least, a vocal score of the extract from it we are studying. The extract is No 6 in Act I (though you also might find it referred to as Act II scene 1). The libretto reference is from Rigoletto`s “Quel vecchio maledivami!” to his “va,va,va,va!”.

The extract begins with the orchestral introduction to “Quel vecchio” and ends the bar after Rigoletto`s last “va!”. Number every bar in this extract in your score. You should end up with 69 bars. As a check, Rigoletto`s first note should be in bar 10 (bars 1-9 are the orchestral introduction).

A copy of the vocal score of the extract –

 

Rigoletto No 6 p.1

Rigoletto No 6 p.1

Rigoletto No 6 p.2

Rigoletto No 6 p.2

Rigoletto No. 6 p.3

Rigoletto No. 6 p.3

Rigoletto No. 6 p.4

Rigoletto No. 6 p.4

Rigoletto No. 6 p.5

Rigoletto No. 6 p.5

Rigoletto No. 6 p.6

Rigoletto No. 6 p.6

 

4.4. Referencing.

In the material that follows references are to these bar numbers, though when writing about opera other methods of referencing are possible.

This brings up a perennial problem when studying opera: the scores don`t generally have bar numbers

Some solutions to this problem are:

1 Refer to lines in the libretto, not forgetting to give Act and scene numbers. Don`t forget to say what opera you are writing about – yes – it has been done. Arias and recitatives are identified by their first lines.

2 You could use rehearsal numbers or letters (large numbers or letters placed in the score at strategic points); these should be the same in every edition.

3 Best of all is to have a short photocopied extract in an appendix. By short I mean one of two pages, which is quite a lot of a vocal score. Either number the bars of the extract yourself (as we have done here) or use page numbers, with bar one at the start of each page.

Finally, you will be using your references to the extract as evidence in an argument, so you should not write long sections of analysis. Short examples with apt comments will do the job.

5. An exercise.

Listen to the specified extract from Rigoletto, following the score. If you can`t read music, or can`t read it very well, concentrate on following the words. Just by doing this you have made a start on following the score and on this basis might even be able to try to make some comments on what is happening in the music. For example, just by listening you might be able to identify changes in the instruments used in the orchestral accompaniment.

The next stage is to think about how you might make good use of this extract in an assignment. Some comments on this follow.

When writing about an extract from an opera it is vital to establish:

a. the historical context of the opera
b. the context of the extract

a. You need to know the general cultural and musical- operatic contexts, so that you approach the piece with the right expectations and ask the right questions. You wouldn`t start looking for leitmotifs in this extract, though you might look for a recurrent theme. And you wouldn`t look for a da capo structure or a ritornello.
But you might want to consider the extract in the context of the development of nineteenth-century opera: why would it not appear in Rossini?

b. What happened in the opera before the extract? What happens immediately after the extract? These are relevant questions. What is the dramatic function of the extract within the Act, the scene, or even the opera as a whole? These too are important questions.

So you have to ask the right questions, and they have to be questions that you can reasonably expect to be able to provide an answer to: analysis involves asking searching questions about the text.

The kinds of questions we can ask of an extract from an opera could concern:

a.  tone
b. atmosphere/mood
c. dramatic pace
d. characterisation
e. form

As a general rule, keep questions about short extracts concrete and fairly straightforward.

Exercise 1

Here is a quick exercise to give you some practice.

Think of seven questions to ask of this extract, along the lines of:

Why is `x` there (`x` being a musical feature)? How does Verdi create the appropriate mood?

For example: why does Verdi use a solo cello melody? Why give this meldoy to the cello instead of some other instrument like the bassoon?

1. A response to Exercise 1.

My seven questions are:

1. How does Verdi create the appropriate mood in bars 1-10?

2. What is the effect of the music in bars 10-13? How is this effect created?

3. How does the music change in bar 13, and why?

4. Bar 36: why is ff used?

5. Why is there no accompaniment in bar 37?

6. Bar 43: how does the accompaniment change and why?

7. What is different about the bass line in bars 51-52, compared to the preceding bars? Why is it different?

Now try and answer some of the questions, either mine or your own. I won`t answer the questions, as answers to another question will be discussed in detail later on.

When you have answered the questions, listen to the extract again. Does having worked this exercise make you think any differently about the extract?

1. Examples of pieces of writing for evaluation.

The three pieces of writing that follow are examples from imaginary assignments.

The assignment title is:

What techniques of musical characterisation does Verdi use in Rigoletto?

Read the extracts, and then give each an approximate grade.

2. Three extracts from imaginary essays.

Extract 1

In the middle of the opera Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. The scene starts with Rigoletto recalling Monterone`s curse, which we hear in the music. Sparafucile then approaches. Sparafucile is depicted as a suave and slightly sinister character. Antonio Frascati, who sang the role in the last performance I saw ably put this across. However, he didn`t quite get the low notes. This scene is very important because in it Sparafucile plants in Rigoletto`s mind the idea of killing the Duke. Rigoletto is at first horrified when he learns of Sparafucile`s profession, and we hear his horror reflected in the music. Verdi creates a sinister atmosphere for the whole scene, with gloomy harmonies and low sounds in the orchestra.

Extract 2

At the start of Act II (or in Act I scene ii) Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. This is a crucial part of the story; after their meeting is over we as good as know that Rigoletto is going to hire Sparafucile to kill the Duke, even though this is not explicitly stated in the scene. The Act opens with tense-sounding chords, with a short motif used in the bass also helping to create an unsettled atmosphere. But before Sparafucile starts to sing the mood changes, and this change is brought about by the music; a cello melody is heard, played ppp, with a light accompaniment. This perfectly expresses the character of the suave and sinister Sparafucile.

Rigoletto and Sparafucile sing arioso-type phrases over this melody. At “demonio” Rigoletto expresses his horror when he learns what Sparafucile does for a living. Rigoletto`s horror is heard in the music; there is a build up to a ff climax, a dramatic pause and then the accompaniment stops completely. The music is expressing the contrast between the cool and controlled Sparafucile and the agitated Rigoletto.

Extract 3

The start of Act II (sometimes called Act I scene 2) is an excellent illustration of Verdi`s masterly use of musico-dramatic techniques, and especially how he uses music for characterisation. The Act opens with a series of diminished 7th chords played by the orchestra (bars 1-10); these chords are played at a pp dynamic level. A brooding and mysterious atmosphere is created. The use of a short three-note motif in the bass adds to this effect.

When Rigoletto first sings he does so quietly, using a repeated note. Rigoletto recalls Monterone`s curse; bars 10-13 use the `curse motif` with which the opera opened and which was also heard when Monterone cursed Rigoletto and the Duke in Act I. The music as well as the words tells us that Rigoletto is thinking about the curse. The dissonant chord in bar 12 also helps to express how Rigoletto is feeling; he is in a state of emotional turmoil.

In bars 13-14 Verdi uses the music to express what kind of person Sparafucile is. A solo cello, beginning in bars 13-14, plays a melody in which mainly consists of small leaps and stepwise movement. When we hear the melody we know that Sparafucile is going to be an ingratiating character.

My comments and grades follow.

1. Comments on three extracts from essays on Rigoletto.

Extract 1

In the middle of the opera (1)Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. The scene starts with Rigoletto recalling Monterone`s curse, which we hear in the music. (2) Sparafucile then approaches. Sparafucile is depicted as a suave and slightly sinister character.(3) Antonio Frascati, who sang the role in the last performance I saw ably put this across. However, he didn`t quite get the low notes. (4) This scene is very important because in it Sparafucile plants in Rigoletto`s mind the idea of killing the Duke.(5) Rigoletto is at first horrified when he learns of Sparafucile`s profession, and we hear his horror reflected in the music.(6) Verdi creates a sinister atmosphere for the whole scene, with gloomy harmonies and low sounds in the orchestra.(7)

1 Too vague a reference – be more precise.

2 But what happens in the music? You need to say.

3 How is this done?

4 This is irrelevant.

5 A good comment on the dramatic importance of the scene.

6 But what happens in the music to suggest Rigoletto`s horror?

Grade: 52

Extract 2

At the start of Act II (or in Act I scene ii) Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. (1) This is a crucial part of the story; after their meeting is over we as good as know that Rigoletto is going to hire Sparafucile to kill the Duke, even though this is not explicitly stated in the scene.(2) The Act opens with tense-sounding chords,(3) with a short motif used in the bass also helping to create an unsettled atmosphere.(4) But before Sparafucile starts to sing the mood changes, and this change is brought about by the music; a cello melody is heard, played ppp, with a light accompaniment.(5) This perfectly expresses the character of the suave (6) and sinister Sparafucile.(7)

Rigoletto and Sparafucile sing arioso-type phrases over this melody. (8) At “demonio” (9) Rigoletto expresses his horror when he learns what Sparafucile does for a living. Rigoletto`s horror is heard in the music; there is a build up to a ff climax followed by a dramatic pause and then the accompaniment stops completely. (10) The music is expressing the contrast between the cool and controlled Sparafucile and the agitated Rigoletto.(11)

1 Good precise reference.

2 Good comment on the place of the scene in the narrative.

3 Quite a good comment on the music, but doesn`t identify why the music sounds tense.

4 Yes, a good comment on an important detail of the music.

5 Good comment on the music, but there could be one or two more telling details added here. For example, what musical characteristics does the accompaniment have?

6 Be careful about using words like `suave`, which are to a certain extent subjective (a character might be suave in one production but not in another). `Sinister` is probably less controversial.

7 A good link between the music and characterisation.

8 Good comment on the texture.

9 Good discussion of word-setting, good precise reference.

10 Good comment on a dramatically significant use of music.

11 A good conclusion, which has been backed up with evidence.

Grade: 62

This extract has done enough to make it over the 59 barrier. An essay that is very good, even excellent, in many respects is unlikely to score more than 59 unless there is some use of the music as evidence.

Extract 3

The start of Act II (sometimes called Act I scene 2) is an excellent illustration of Verdi`s masterly use of musico-dramatic techniques, and especially how he uses music for characterisation. The Act opens with a series of dissonant chords played by the orchestra (bars 1-10); these chords are played at a pp dynamic level. A brooding and mysterious atmosphere is created. The use of a short three-note motif in the bass adds to this effect.

When Rigoletto first sings he does so quietly, using a repeated note. Rigoletto recalls Monterone`s curse; bars 10-13 use the `curse motif` with which the opera opened and which was also heard when Monterone cursed Rigoletto and the Duke in Act I. The music as well as the words tells us that Rigoletto is thinking about the curse. The dissonant chord in bar 12 also helps to express how Rigoletto is feeling; he is in a state of emotional turmoil.

In bars 13-14 Verdi uses the music to express what kind of person Sparafucile is. A solo cello, beginning in bars 13-14, plays a melody in which mainly consists of small leaps and stepwise movement. When we hear the melody we know that Sparafucile is going to be an ingratiating character. (1)

1 There is no need to comment in detail on this passage, but note the precise referencing and the way that details of the music are picked up and used as part of the analysis. There are quite a few short and apt references to the music, and to how the music is contributing to – even creating – the dramatic effect.

Grade: 68

Barry Mitchell

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Brandon Campanile permalink
    November 22, 2008 8:23 pm

    hello, ignore the simplicity of my greeting please.

    I have read the information on your website and will reply that
    It has greatly inhanced my knowledge of writing music.
    I am trying to write an opera and must say that there are not many references on the Internet available for a teenage male such as myself.
    So I thank you for your informative information.

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