’Bayreuth in Miniature’: Wagner and the Melodramatic Voice

David J Trippett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


During the first half of the nineteenth century, the widespread German practice of reciting in public often used musical accompaniment to reinforce the words’ poetic effect. Richard Wagner typically read his essays and poems aloud, and occasionally sang through his own operas to piano accompaniment in this manner. Contemporary reports indicate that his recitations had the character of contemporary melodrama, a genre typically denounced by German critics as frivolous, and by Wagner himself as “disagreeable miscellaneousness.” This study reads Wagner against the grain to argue that melodrama was important for his vocal aesthetics. It examines Wagner’s writing about the voice in the broad context of German “speech melody” as both a philosophical concept (material speech), and one with a practical meaning for theatre actors. By drawing on a wide range of nineteenth-century sources, from minor German theatre critics and elocutionists to more prominent vocal theorists and physiologists, this study rereads certain passages in Wagner’s mature music drama as distinctly “melodramatic” in terms of their expressive technique. This raises questions as to whether all of Wagner’s vocal lines were fully sung as such, and the extent to which aspects of his composition—including the semiotic function of _Leitmotive_—were heir to an inheritance from melodrama.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-138
Number of pages67
JournalMusical Quarterly
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • wagner studies
  • voice
  • melodrama
  • recitation
  • vocal expression
  • Richard Wagner


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