Norman O’Neill – Music to Stage Plays

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This is a wonderful old article (it was published in the proceedings of the Royal Musical Association in 1910) which lays out the land for the traditional method of presenting music to a stage play. Norman O’Neill was a composer who wrote prolifically for the theatre, and these musings are the product of an expert knowledge. He was hugely prolific and famous in his day, being the first british composer to conduct his own music for recording, and teaching composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Nowadays, however, he is almost entirely forgotten, perhaps because his output was the theatrical ephemera rather than the monumental symphonies by which composers are usually known.

A Portrait of The Author (via imslp.org)

On History

The essay starts by outlining the rich tradition of English theatrical music, focussing in particular on the works of Shakespeare. By pointing out the wide variety of musical cues alluded to in the text of various plays O’Neill argues that “Shakespeare well knew the value of music to help his dramatic effects and situations.”

Perhaps the most interesting pointers in this first half of the essay is his outlining of the various ensembles which have been common in repertory theatre throughout the ages. He notes that in the Shakespearean theatre tended to use (as far as was known): “a combination of stringed instruments. Sometimes flutes and hautboys were added. Anything more than this in the way of a climax of sound was probably obtained by trumpets and drums.” This is a very practical solution to the problems of outdoor staging, and the remarks on the simplicity of the music: most of it is called for in the dialogue, or otherwise happens at points in which music can be legitimately used (such as fanfares or parties). A turn of the century theatre, however, had a wider range of “house bands”:

Many a conductor in our smaller provincial theatres to-day has less than this at his disposal. In illustration of this perhaps you will allow me to tell the following story. I was once asked to write some music for a play which was to go on tour in our small towns. When I inquired what kind of orchestra I should write for, I was informed that in some places I might find twelve players: this would be considered a great luxury and would only exist in a very prosperous theatre. In others I should constantly find only three players, (pianoforte, cornet, and violin), and so it was necessary to write my music in such a way that it could be performed by any of these noble combinations. Considerable economy of instrumentation and material was necessary, I need hardly say.

Interestingly he notes with sadness that no Elizabethan theatre manuscripts have survived, a sadness compounded by the fact that an unknowingly similar fate awaited him, as his scores are equally unknown.

He, like many writers (myself included) attempted to categorise theatrical music, using the following divisions: The first:-Incidental music-which may or may not be specially composed for the play. The second :-Entr’actes and interlude music. The third :-Music which is specially written for a play, and which is an essential part of the production. The term ” incidental music ” is sometimes, and I think correctly, applied to marches, dances, and songs which are incidental to the action of the play, but it is also applied to what is called ‘Melodrame.’ That is, to music which accompanies the dialogue and reflects the feeling and emotionof the spoken lines”.

He makes a point which is as relevant today, in this world of instant replay and mechanical reproduction, as it was in the days before soundtracks and recorded song: “A short musical interlude played during a change of scene seemed to me exactly the right thing in the right place. This, I think, was specially written by Mr. Crook for the situation. But in a case of this kind there is, of course, no reason why a composition which has not been specially written should not be chosen, that is to say if the right piece for the particular situation, with the right sentiment, can be found. But as I have already pointed out this is rather a dangerous proceeding, on account of the associations which are inevitably bound up in our minds with any well-known pieces of music.” (emphasis mine)

On Working

When a play in which the music is to be an important feature is to be put upon the stage, the composer usually meets the author and the producer and discusses where it will be advisable to introduce music. The producer or “metteur en scene” of a play draws up a plan of the whole action in every detail, the scenic effects, and so forth, which he intends to employ. These will greatly determine the spirit and atmosphere of the production. It is not enough for a composer only to know the play through and through, but he must also be in close touch with the exact spirit in which the work is to be given. Where music is to accompany the dialogue he must, before writing any music, know the tempo of the speeches, the pauses and business to be introduced, so that his music may coincide in the minutest detail with the stage rendering of the play. He will otherwise find his musical effects clashing or coming in the wrong place. Where music accompanies the action and there is no dialogue, as for instance in a procession or entrances of characters, most careful adjustment is necessary, the producer and composer working together and arranging the time that any such effect or business will take on the stage. Where there is no dialogue, the stage business should be timed to the music. Where there is dialogue the music should be timed to the stage. It is obviously much easier for the composer to accompany the actors in speeches, than it would be for actors to follow the music.

When music accompanies dramatic action without dialogue each movement of the actors must be timed to the music, and not only is a great deal of rehearsal usually necessary if the effects are at all elaborate, but what is sometimes more difficult to obtain, mutual sympathy between them and the conductor is essential. Sometimes, as in opera also, the best effects are those which are the most simple. Such effects as the intro- duction of a chorus behind the scenes, or a stage orchestra in conjunction with the orchestra in front, are all hard to obtain in the theatre. They are, of course, most effective if well arranged. We have all probably heard the stage trumpet come to grief in ” Carmen,” or the “Sirens” sing anything but alluringly in “Tannhauser.” In ‘ L’Arlesienne” Bizet avoids this danger by having a small stage orchestra to accompany his hidden chorus. But the dramatic situation will not always allow for that.

In summary: Always follow the dictates of the production, and keep it simple, stupid.

On Orchestration:

All music that actually accompanies the spoken lines should, in my opinion, be mainly scored for strings, which I think mix far better with the human voice than do wood-wind instruments. Harps, horns, and timpani-softly, of course- can also be used effectively, and, to quote Bizet again, the lower notes of the flute also. The fact that the clarinet is not a suitable instrument to accompany the human voice was first brought home to me by Mr. Martin Harvey. I had written for the solo clarinet in the accompaniment of a speech of his. In rehearsal he stopped when he heard this. “Is that a clarinet ?” he said. “Yes,” I replied. “Oh, it sounds like a caricature of my voice !” And this is just the danger with reed instruments.

Horns, harps, and even the brass and percussion can be used in melodrame, but for ordinary purposes the string orchestra is the best, and with regard to the wind, as they say in the Instrumentation primers, “these beautiful instruments should be used sparingly “! As soon as music to the spoken lines becomes too obtrusive it defeats its own end. It is very often impossible for the conductor or the actor to tell if the music is too loud or too soft. The right balance can only be obtained from the theatre. Personally I always listen to the music from the dress circle before the first performance.

On Ensemble

Personally, I very much object to an orchestra in which there are as many wind players as strings. So often in the theatre, music is played which has been scored for an orchestra of at least fifty with three trombones, trumpets, horns, and full wood-wind, against which struggle seven or eight violins, two violas, and two violoncellos. To my mind, it is far belter to do with less wind and brass, and to get something like a proper balance between wind and strings. I will not lay down any hard and fast rule, but for ordinary purposes an orchestra of, say, twenty-six performers should, I think, be constituted in this way :-

  • 4 first violins
  • 3 second violins
  • 2 violas
  • 2 double-basses 
  • 2 violoncellos 
  • 2 horns, 
  • 2 trumpets,
  • 2 clarinets 
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 flutes 
  • 1 oboe
  • and one trombone or harp and celesta (one player),
  • one percussion.

The harp is more essential in a small orchestra than in a large one. It makes just this difference, I think, it turns what we call a ” theatre band ” into a little orchestra.

But twenty-six performers are a comparative luxury. For a run of a play in which there is no music, and during which the orchestra is only required in the entr’actes, a conductor may consider himself lucky if his management allows him eighteen or even sixteen players. For ordinary purposes an orchestra of eighteen performers should be constituted thus:

  • 4 first violins
  • 2 second violins
  • 1 viola
  • 2 violoncellos
  • 1 bass
  • 1 flute
  • 1 clarinet
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 horns
  • 1 oboe.
  • 1 trumpet
  • percussion

Of course with only a small orchestra the conductor will find it necessary to arrange nearly all the standard works, and in many cases practically re-score them for his combination of instruments.

His Conclusions

In conclusion I should like to suggest that some of our own younger composers should turn their attention to the modern theatre orchestra. There is an undoubted opening here, as there is a great lack of music well scored for small orchestra. I feel that it would not only benefit them, by bringing their name and work before the public, but at the same time be quite a healthy change from writing for the larger orchestra. A modern musician may gain much experience in the theatre in spite of the necessary limitations connected with the performance and the writing of music for the stage.

My Conclusions!

I wholeheartedly agree! I find it sad that a century later theatrical music is even less of a focus than it was, but his exploration of scoring, orchestration and dramatic interaction are important lessons for all composers young and old.

O’Neill, Norman. “Music to Stage Plays.” Proceedings of the Musical Association 37 (1910): 85-102. http://www.jstor.org/stable/765702.

One Response

  1. […] finish, I’ll leave you with a remark by Norman O’Neill. He let’s slip that even a century ago audiences were not conducive to good theatre, and were […]

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