Melisma is when one syllable of text is stretched over multiple notes. Conversely, a syllabic setting takes one note for one syllable of text. Melisma (and melody) comes ultimately from the Greek melos, or “song.” Accordingly, it should be unsurprising that it is in a Classical-period opera’s aria where we will find any melismatic moments of text setting. The setting for the recitative, meanwhile, is almost always completely syllabic, since of course, a recitative has the “intent of mimicking dramatic speech” (Monson). In short, we could say that the more melisma present in the vocal line, the more sung and less spoken a passage is. Melisma draws attention to the opera-ness of a passage, to the quality of it being sung and dramatized, as opposed to the words recited. And the more a passage is sung, in some imagined spectrum with spoken as the other extreme, then the more it is something that bends whatever it contains to the musical demands of the moment, not the demands of the words. Traditionally, the more melismatic, the more musical expression is prioritized—such as in an aria. Likewise, the more syllabic, the more spoken, the more linguistic expression is prioritized—such as in a recitative.
Britten’s vocal writing often has some interesting use of melismatic text-setting. It is not just a feature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but most of Britten’s vocal works, that going back and forth between completely syllabic and suddenly melismatic text-setting be quite common. But since Midsummer is such a text driven opera, in fact at times much less of an opera than a sung play, the effect of melismatic moments are quite different than what we usually find, whether in Britten’s other works or simply in general when we find text that is melismatically set. In Midsummer, melisma is closely tied with the idea of acting. The fairies, who have greater capabilities in the domain of disguise and deception, speak less and sing more than the “rude mechanicals,” who are bad actors. These bad actors, however, do make attempts at melismatic singing—what in this opera identifies a true ability to play a part or produce an effect on someone well. The lovers, finally, do also get momentary melismatic vocal lines; however, as with their music in general, it is of a more traditional 19th-century-opera nature in that the bending of the text exists usually only to enlarge the depth of the emotion expression.
Britten was acutely aware of the text he was dealing with: he considered it a “tremendous challenge that one must not let through a single ill considered phrase because it would be matched to such great poetry” (Palmer, ed.). We can see Britten giving himself far more liberty with the text in an opera of just a few years earlier: his adaptation of the Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw. There are many moments in this opera where Britten allows vocal music to not just be dominant as the expressive element with regards to text, but there are even moments where music is the only active element. In Variation VII, for example, the highly melismatic vocal line is the dramatically relevant, in this case, coercive and seductive device on stage (ex 1). Voice here belongs to music and music alone. The text, “Ah, Miles,” repeated over and over, is swept up and pushed aside by the tormenting melodic line. The music and the music alone is acting. This is certainly one extreme in the means of expression. And it is an extreme he never allowed himself in Midsummer.
There is one special case of melismatic text-setting, however, at which Britten was extremely proficient. Word-painting, or, “The use of musical gesture(s) … to reflect, often pictorially, the literal or figurative meaning of a word or phrase,” frequently finds its way into Britten’s vocal writing, even though it is a technique usually associated with the Renaissance and Baroque periods (Carter). Word-painting is not necessarily melismatic. For example, in “I Rage, I Melt, I Burn” from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, “rage” is portrayed with a fast ascending pattern marked furioso (ex 2). This word-painting certainly relies on melisma to express the sentiment of the text. “Rage” then continues to be expressed without melisma by its rising motion to the top of the bass’ range. The next word “melt,” conversely, marked adagio and piano, word-paints by its descending motion and altogether contrast with the “rage” music. And finally “burn” is expressed again without melisma by the large descent, a tri-tone away, to a note out of the key, like falling into a fiery pit. This classic example of word-painting in just three key words shows a number of melismatic and syllabic ways of word-painting available to one Baroque composer.
Very often through, word-painting effects are in fact achieved through melismatic leaps or runs. A famous example is “Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted” from Handel’s The Messiah (ex 3). Here “exalted” is expressed by the fanciful and intricate rising pattern in the voice (ex 3.1). This effect continues in its sentiment but is careful not to exactly repeat itself (ex 3.2). This gives off the sense that the exalting is inexhaustible—endless possibilities to play around the various scale patterns (There is another interesting non-melismatic painting moment here where “mountain” gets the highest note of the phrase and “low” gets the lowest.) The word-painting continues as “plain” is extended for a lengthy three bars, plainly moving back and forth between a G and an F (ex 3.2-3.3).
I use these examples from Handel because Britten had an unusually natural feel for the art of word-painting, of which explicit uses such as the ones above had fallen virtually completely out of fashion by the late-modern period Britten was working in. And Britten, though certainly a modernist by all accounts, lets the influences from English Baroque music bleed right through to the surface of his work throughout his output. One of the many ways in which this manifests is his word-painting. A few examples before we return to Midsummer will help give a context for Britten’s methods of setting text.
Britten had another penchant for setting the highest English poetry from the past, a seemingly impossible task. In a an early piece called Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943), Britten set Tennyson, Keats, Blake, and so on. There is strong sense in these songs of Britten’s acute attentiveness to these immovable texts, as with the Shakespeare; still, he does not shy away from taking liberties. Though for the most part the text is set syllabically and strictly to the rhythms of spoken English, melismatic word-painting abounds in sudden and striking moments throughout. In “Nocturne” the word “leaps” literally leaps up and then down before getting to next word (ex 4). The type of painting is exactly the same type as the Handel examples above—it is a direct inheritance. Another example is in “Hymn,” where the melismatic setting “excellently” shines radiantly and brilliantly through the texture (ex 5). Again, these examples could come right out of Handel or Purcell.
But then there are other examples that are harder to account for. In “Sonnet,” as before, the poem is set mostly honoring the patterns of spoken English except for two striking moments: “forgetfulness” (ex 6.1) and “lulling” (ex 6.2). But it is hard to explain these two moments in terms of word-painting. In all of the above examples, word-painting is a special kind of musical representation—or at least it points at representation. Word-painting, such as the examples we’ve had so far, do not represent sounds such as a bell or a bird-song or a folk tune, in music, but they represent words themselves. As the term itself explicates: painting words. But these last examples (#6) are different. The most straightforward representation from the words we had earlier is the physical one—“leaps”—where the music can actually do what the verb says. Melodically representing many physical verbs seems perfectly feasible. Slightly more of a stretch but still quite fathomable are adjectives or adverbs: “exalted” “plain” and “excellently.” Here, a slight detour is taken, or perhaps we could say a new sign is pointed at to make the representation happen; it comes in the form of the quality of the sentiment or posture of the music. The music for these three adjectives sounds like, that is, could be described as the adjectives that they represent. Furthermore, even though it is clear that usually, when we find melisma in a setting of text, the composer is prioritizing musical expression over linguistic expression, from these examples above, we can see that the meaning of the words are actually bending the music. The two modes become joined and the idea of one medium being more important in the expression no longer makes sense.
The latter examples from “Sonnet,” however, do not represent a physical verb or an adjective. They are verbs of which action’s scope is mind. It is not at all a stretch to say that the setting of “exalted,” above, sounds exalted. But can we at all reasonably say that Britten’s setting of “forgetfulness” sounds like forgetting? After all, what does forgetting sound like? There is no descriptive quality or physical gesture to represent. In fact, the melisma did not particularly have to be on the two words “forgetfulness” and “lulling,” the way the melody leapt for “leaps” and was plain for “plain” and exalted for “exalted.” Instead, here, Britten is taking a more macro approach. The speaker of the poem is possessed by thoughts of death. Britten takes this general sentiment and dramatizes precisely where that possessed moment is, once in each of the first two quatrains of the sonnet. The whole recitation cannot have this quality, or else the singer could not get any of the words out of his mouth. But a simple recitation would not put into the singer’s vocal melody any of the quality of the words. The moments where the singer feels possessed could have been on the words “shutting,” “enshaded,” “soothest,” “Sleep,” or “willing,” for example (Keats). It seems that “forgetfulness” and “lulling” were chosen in part because of their expressive depth, and in part because of where the phrase was going musically. Yet it is still hard to imagine arguing that this setting has no representational aims. It is certainly not representing sound. Nor is it representing a word. Britten’s setting is representing the poem however, not a single word, but the poem at large. The isolated moment of melisma alone is not representational; but coupled with the surrounding words, which are given musically as near-recitation, the effect is at least abstractly representational of the poem. It is in these sorts of distinctions where Britten’s various methods of text-setting for the various groups of characters in Midsummerbecomes interesting.
A quick note, first, on the history of text-setting and the Baroque’s influence on Britten. As we saw with Handel’s examples, most of the representational capacity of the music was in the twists and turns of the vocal part. The orchestra followed the singer. As time went on, expression in the vocal line by no means disappeared, but the duty of expressing a text’s meaning was vastly turned over to the accompaniment in a song, or the orchestra in an opera. Schubert and Schumann, throughout their Lieder, Verdi, in his operas, and Debussy in both his chansons and his one opera Pelléas et Mélisande all play hugely important roles in this swing of the pendulum. Britten was immensely influenced by all of these figures; but he was essentially also influenced by the vocally expressive techniques of earlier music.
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Though all the groups of characters have at least some melismatic moments, only the fairies get a lot of melisma and large chunks at once. The vocal lines of the “rude mechanicals” rhythmically follow the speech patterns of English very closely. Little more time than would be required to say any of their lines is spent singing them. The melismatic moments in their music is almost always word-painting. Word-painting is an appropriate technique for the “mechanicals” because it is explicit. Its technique is on the surface. The means of expression do not ask to be hidden or disguised. This is a match for Shakespeare’s (and thus Britten’s inherited) “mechanicals,” since their acting techniques are shown explicitly. Word-painting is also a good match because it is a relatively primitive type of vocal acting. Since it wears its technique on its sleeve, it does not mean to coax its audience.
Britten finds a few items in Shakespeare’s text that make for easy representation in music. For example, the lion’s “roar” is the only melismatic syllable in its line each time it occurs (ex 7). Music’s own material, sound, can easily be gestured at here. A similar gesture appears when Flute worries that the ladies might “shriek” (ex 8). Other moments of word-painting are not melismatic, but do achieve word-painting’s essential characteristic that is the musical bending of the text to serve that text itself. When Puck makes Bottom’s head into an ass-head, Bottom’s vocal line leaps up to an indeterminate falsetto note just before the end of the phrase causing the last two notes to sound like a donkey’s bray (ex 9).
The word-painting does extend beyond merely sonic representations though. A number of times, Britten gives the vocal line leeway with certain adjectives, such as “gentle” (ex 10) and “merry” (ex 11). Even the verb to “fear,” which has a certain descriptive, or adjective-like, quality, gets its melismatic moment (ex 12). These moments resemble or gesture at the adjective-style word-painting we saw before. They are a kind of aural pantomime—little attempts at doing something more than speaking normally. The “rude mechanicals” are making small attempts at acting in these moments. They are learning how to say less or more than exactly what the text says, by briefly experimenting with melismatic text-bending.
With all of these examples, we see what these actors are trying to do. Their techniques are explicitly representational. But they are not very interesting or convincing actors in these moments, not just of their parts in Pryamus and Thisby, but even in the play they are actually in, with us as their audience. This group of characters is not creative, experienced or confident enough as actors to do more than the most obvious and explicit techniques of saying other than what you actually are. No matter how good the skills in singing and acting of the performer, Britten has effectively forced this group to be bad at acting (which of course takes a skilled actor to pull of, no doubt). It is the fairies, as we will see later, who can use melisma to more imaginative and coercive ends, making the others on stage and us alike forget the actor behind the mask.
The sense that the “rude mechanicals” are trying out and testing their feeble limits as actors not only riddles the play, but Britten’s music. This becomes especially clear once we determine that melisma, or that effect that when not used as word-painting allows the singer to say what is not in the text, signifies good acting. During the actual on-stage rehearsal, Flute begins to recite his lines extremely hesitantly (ex 13). At the end of the line, on the word “hue” is a feeble attempt at the end at melisma. Flute chokes at this fleeting attempt at melisma. He is a timid character, and this brief moment where he tries to go beyond simply reciting his lines and actually act scares him off. Later, after the “rude mechanicals” are summoned by the Duke, the various characters all begin singing to themselves, giving each other encouraging advice about the upcoming performance for which they are underprepared and by no means innately good actors (ex 14). The sudden outburst of melismatic singing amounts a nervous testing out of the gears. Before the “rude mechanicals” enter the Duke’s palace, they are revving their acting engines to see how far they might be able to go in the following performance.
As we’ve seen, where the “rude mechanicals” are not making sheepish attempts at acting, their only other technique is word-painting. And word-painting is transparent in its method, hardly explicit. It is visibly not subtle. That is surly why, historically speaking, its possibilities were exhausted quickly, and it became a cliché after the Baroque. Here, Britten uses the effect ironically. In this Modernist opera’s context, word-painting amounts to a comically inadequate performance of that could have been performed much better. It is possible that Britten is even making a meta-comment on all of this when he supplies the same musical gesture for Bottom’s head’s “transla[tion]” into an ass-head, and the word “rehearsal” itself. This effect is truly mesmerizing from the “rude mechanicals’ ” point of view. When they all say, “Bottom, bless thee, thou art translated,” it seems as if they are trying hopelessly to take their apprehension of Bottom’s head’s bizarre transformation and squeeze it into the melismatic grace note on the syllable “la” (ex 15). They are making an attempt to somehow understand what has happened by trying to use music to express something beyond their words. Their imaginations are not powerful enough in this play, though, and it fails them. This musical gesture of a grace note in the middle syllable of a three-syllable word moving up a forth comes from the beginning of the same scene where the word “rehearsal” is set with all the same qualities except for its being down a fourth instead of up (ex 16). Perhaps Britten is joking here on the inadequacy of the “rude mechanical” imagination.
On the other side of the spectrum are the fairies, who have a unique and special access to a realm of purer music. They never quite wholly use music to express themselves, as Peter Quint did in The Turn of the Screw above (ex 1). Here, pure music is a means of coercion, a playing of a part so well that poor Miles cannot see through Quint, and is seduced. Britten does not allow his fairies this total access to music, because he wants to leave room for Shakespeare’s words to do some of the work, and also because the fairies are actually not perfect in their actions, hardly omnipotent or all-powerful. They have human feelings of jealousy, and take action accordingly, clouting those actions with a certain earthly tangibility. Still though, the fairies’ melismatic moments usually cannot be said to be word-painting. The effects are more like the quasi-representational or abstractly representational melismatic moments in “Sonnet,” localized where they are because those words are the richest in the vicinity (ex 6). The fairies’ departures from the spoken rhythms of the text represent acting at large, not something else locally. Their melismatic effects are their very powers to make the others believe Bottom’s head really is an ass-head, or Demetrius really is in love with Helena.
When Oberon takes the flower with which he will put a spell on Titania, and he says, “I know a bank where the wild / thyme blows, where oxlips / and the nodding violet grows, / quite over-canopied / with luscious woodbine, / with sweet musk-roses / and with eglantine,” the orchestra becomes almost completely static yet his vocal line flies up and down on many of the richer words in the passage (ex 17). The effect is mesmerizing, to have text suddenly and unpredictably fractured in the service of musical expression. This is made even more so by the replication of his types of patterns in the orchestra’s music. The unity between Oberon’s vocal music and the orchestra’s music ties Oberon closer to the realm of music, furthering the degree to which music is made his primary means of expression. The sense we then get in the audience is that Oberon has a great power to change and alter things, even words and meanings themselves. “Violet” becomes something more than violet; “sweet” suddenly means more than it says. What subtexts he is speaking to do not have to be and are not clear yet. They do become explicitly stated just a few lines of text later, when he tells Puck, “Take thou some of it, / and seek through this grove: / a sweet Athenian lady is in love / with a disdainful youth: / anoint his eyes; / but do it when / the next thing he espies / may be the lady.” Here, the rhythms of spoken English are carefully followed in Britten’s setting (ex 18). But before, we get a representation, through intense melisma, of Oberon’s skill itself. In fact, the singer’s very skill required to perform these difficult and delicate melodies, which we perceive upon hearing these lines, represents the character Oberon’s skill as an actor and magician. The vocal line does not paint all of these individual words, but instead paints what is behind them, as we say in Britten’s setting of Keats’ “To Sleep,” above. It is a more advanced representational technique for a more skilled master of the art of disguise and deception.
We get the sense almost directly within Britten’s text itself that he is identifying melisma with performance. At the end of this last section, Oberon sings about the “hateful fantasies” that await Titania after he has played his trick on her (ex 19.1). These seven notes that are given to the first syllable of “fantasies” are the same exact seven notes as Oberon’s main flower-juice theme on the text “Be it on Lion, Bear or Wolf or Bull” (ex 19.2). This theme, with which the opera is littered when Oberon’s powerful charms cause their effects on people, is identified with the “fantasy” he will cause Titania. His charming power is his power to cause fantasy. The melismatic setting of “fantasies” on this melody retrospectively acts in our memories our past hearings of it with the previous text, and preemptively acts on future hearings that will come later in the opera. When we hear that melody, we begin to forget text altogether, focusing instead on the strange power of music to act on people in this opera, instead.
Even in the first scene of the opera, when Titania and Oberon have a very human-like argument, rooted in jealousy and infidelity, their powerful skills as actors are displayed. Argument itself is a kind of acting, using whatever skills you have to convince the other that the position you have taken on is true. The attempt involves hiding holes or transparencies that would show that the argument is made of words, instead of the stance really existing truly in the world. During Titania and Oberon’s argument, they take swings at each other with heavily melismatic lines as their weapons (ex 20). This is not a nineteenth-century opera style “anything you can do I can do better,” but it is just that game of trying to out do one another in this opera. The words—“charmeth” “music” “drowned” “murrion” “spring” “summer” “mazéd”—that are stretched out over many notes are hardly painted by these melodies. The main element of the scene that Britten’s melodies are representing at large is argument and posture itself. Just as Oberon and the orchestra mimicked each other before, Titania and Obeorn mimic each other’s phrases here, pushing the domain of meaning further into the music. Their attempts at singing these phrases more brilliantly than the other one become their argument.
Words do not act in opera the way they do in a play. Generally speaking, they don’t work as well, just as words, when sung, even in their original language. Jokes that rely on word-play become less funny. For example, when Bottom mistakes “odious” for “odours,” in the opera, the humor is largely lost (ex 21). The locus of comedy or tragedy has to be music when the context is operatic. Britten found a way to create a solution for one of the main problems in adapting Shakespeare’s play: how to establish a musical dialectic that can represent skill in the arts of deception, when words no longer have as much ability to do so as they did before.
But the dialectic does not function just to delineate good and bad actors. It begins to play a dramatic role as well. The fairies’ deceptive games have a real effect on the world. They turn a death penalty into an authorized marriage for one couple, and hatred into love for another. In small, but vital ways, they remake the world. And their music—specifically their music that has taken on meaning outside the texts it is tied to—remakes the music of other parts of the play, as well. This fairy music (ex 19.2) bleeds into every other realm of action. The opening harmonic seconds of the “rude mechanicals’ ” music are the same exact notes of the opening harmonic seconds in ex 19.2 (ex 22). Our first introduction to the lovers’ music is infiltrated with fragments from ex 19.2. As Lysander and Hermia enter, the four-note top lines of the orchestra part have the same intervals as the second phrase of Oberon’s theme. G-F#-D#-E is an exact copy of the notes for [med-]“dling Monkey or” from ex 19.2, transposed down a half-step (ex 23). And E-D-F-C just a bar later in the lovers’ intro-music is a transposed retrograde-inversion of the notes for “On meddling Mon-”[key] (ex 23). These fragments become the motifs of Lysander and Hermia’s vocal lines for the entire scene. Even in the Duke’s music, the tiny bit of music from ex 19.2 creeps in. Before the lovers enter, tiny snippets of Oberon’s melody are referenced ever so briefly (ex 24). Oberon’s music itself has the ability to shape-shift, to put on different clothes, and seem to create effects wherever it enters. These little references to pure music as a kind of mask in itself belong to the fairy world that exists before the opera started, will exist after the opera is finished, and permeates all else during its action.
Non-Midsummer Night’s Dream audio examples
Ex 1 at 2:09 (and before) http://open.spotify.com/track/6TkFIVMyXSrE22zoPu90ul
Ex 2 at 0:06 http://open.spotify.com/track/13wioIsFaKVzGL54U96tmJ
Ex 3.1 at 0:30 http://open.spotify.com/track/0nBmjdK7NDZYlrLK4q2Mq1
Ex 3.2 at 0:42 ibid
Ex 3.3 at 1:02 ibid
Ex 4 at 0:20 http://open.spotify.com/track/0r7SHC9YisIS74ZHdvtZJY
Ex 5 at 0:32 (and again later) http://open.spotify.com/track/7fNgUneKTETJazCWri75ri
Ex 6.1 at 0:45 http://open.spotify.com/track/5AVS78dYR0watGQq2sJZTH
Ex 6.2 at 1:52 ibid
Britten, Benjamin. “The Composer’s Dream.” 1960. The Britten Companion. Ed. Christopher Palmer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 178. Print.
Britten, Benjamin, Myfanwy Piper, and Henry James. The Turn of the Screw, Op 54 (full score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1966. Print.
Britten, Benjamin, Peter Pears, and William Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (vocal score). Ed. Imogen Holst and Martin Penny. London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1960. Print.
Britten, Benjamin. Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op 31 (vocal Score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1944. Print.
Carter, Tim. “Word-painting.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
Handel, George Frideric. Acis and Galatea (vocal score). New York: Kalmus. Print.
Handel, George Frideric. The Messiah (vocal score). Braunschweig: Henry Litoff’s Verlag. Print.
Keats, John. To Sleep. Web. <http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/assemble_texts.html?SongCycleId=75>.
Monson, Dale. “Recitative.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
 Richard Taruskin’s chapter on Britten in the Oxford History of Western Music makes a powerful case for his place in the Modernist cannon (as opposed to being seen as spillover from the Romantic, anticipating the post-Modern, or worst of all a panderer to popular tastes), even though nearly all the other Modernist composers of his time and place would have never though he belonged among them. Taruksin’s view, though once contested, is hard to find much challenged anymore.
 the same intervals but with the order reversed and the direction up where the original was down and down where the original was up