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Libretto

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Libretto

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A libretto is the complete body of words used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, sacred or secular oratorio and cantata, musical, and ballet. The term "libretto" is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass and requiem.

The libretto includes the stage directions, the lyrics to the musical numbers, and any spoken passages or pantomime, as applicable. The word libretto is an Italian word which translates literally as "little book." It is distinct from a synopsis or scenario of the plot.

The relationship of the librettist (i.e., the writer of a libretto) to the composer in the creation of a musical work has varied over the centuries, as have the sources and the writing techniques employed.

Contents

Sources of plots

Operatic libretti have been adapted from myths and legends, historical events, biographies, plays, poems, short stories, novels, and sometimes even non-literary sources (as with Goyescas, by Enrique Granados, inspired by paintings of Francisco Goya). The librettist Francesco Maria Piave adapted works by Victor Hugo, the Duke of Rivas, and others. Many other libretti do not derive from a pre-existing work, as with the libretti Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote for Richard Strauss.

The works of William Shakespeare have inspired many composers, including Purcell, Gounod, Verdi and Britten. Goethe's Faust also spawned a large number of opera adaptations. Pushkin's works have provided the source for many Russian operas.

Perhaps more rare is to have an existing work of musical drama inspire other hands to write another one. Such is the case with Bizet's opera Carmen, which was refashioned as an African-American musical (with dialogue) Carmen Jones by Oscar Hammerstein II. Goethe himself wrote a libretto for a projected sequel to Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte.

Naturally it is easier to work with a source for a new libretto if the source is in the public domain, but even with the new work, of course, both the music and the text can be copyrighted.

Relationship of composer and librettist

Libretti for operas, oratorios, and cantatas in the 17th and 18th centuries generally were written by someone other than the composer, often a well-known poet. Metastasio (1698–1782) (real name Pietro Trapassi) was one of the most highly regarded librettists in Europe. His libretti were set many times by many different composers. Another noted 18th century librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for three of Mozart's greatest operas. Eugène Scribe was one of the most prolific librettists of the 19th century, providing the words for works by Meyerbeer (with whom he had a lasting collaboration), Auber, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi. The French writers' duo Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy wrote a large number of opera and operetta libretti for the likes of Jacques Offenbach, Jules Massenet and Georges Bizet. Arrigo Boito, who wrote libretti for, among others, Giuseppe Verdi and Amilcare Ponchielli, composed two operas of his own.

The libretto is not always written before the music. Some composers, such as Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Serov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Puccini, and Mascagni wrote passages of music without text and subsequently had the librettist add words to the vocal melody lines. (This has often been the case with American popular song and musicals in the 20th century, as with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's collaboration, although with the later team of Rodgers and Hammerstein the lyrics were generally written first.)

Some composers wrote their own libretti. Richard Wagner is perhaps most famous in this regard, with his transformations of Germanic legends and events into epic subjects for his operas and music dramas. Alban Berg adapted Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck for the libretto of Wozzeck.

Sometimes the libretto is written in close collaboration with the composer; this can involve adaptation, as was the case with Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Bel'sky, or an entirely original work. In the case of musicals, the music, the lyrics, and the "book" (i.e., the spoken dialogue and the stage directions) may each have their own author. Thus, a musical such as Fiddler on the Roof has a composer (Jerry Bock), a lyricist (Sheldon Harnick), and the writer of the "book" (Joseph Stein)

Other matters in the process of developing a libretto parallel those of spoken dramas for stage or screen. There are the preliminary steps of selecting or suggesting a subject and developing a sketch of the action in the form of a scenario, as well as revisions that might come about when the work is in production, as with out-of-town tryouts for Broadway musicals, or changes made for a specific local audience. A famous case of the latter is Wagner's 1861 revision of the original 1845 Dresden version of his opera Tannhäuser for Paris.

Literary characteristics

The opera libretto from its inception (ca. 1600) was written in verse, and this continued well into the 19th century, although genres of musical theater with spoken dialogue have typically alternated verse in the musical numbers with spoken prose. Since the late 19th century some opera composers have written music to prose or free verse libretti.

Musical requirements

As different musical traditions developed over time in different places, libretti were sometimes subjected to changes because of local requirements of performance practice. For example, an 18th-century Italian comic opera like Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona was to be sung all the way through in Italy, but in France the recitatives had to be converted into spoken dialogue.

Language and translation

As the originating language of opera, Italian dominated that genre in Europe (except in France) well through the 18th century, and even into the next century in Russia, for example, when the Italian opera troupe in Saint Petersburg was challenged by the emerging native Russian repertory. Significant exceptions before 1800 can be found in Purcell's works, German opera of Hamburg during the Baroque, ballad opera and Singspiel of the 18th century, etc.

Just as with literature and song, the libretto has its share of problems and challenges with translation. In the past (and even today), foreign musical stage works with spoken dialogue, especially comedies, were sometimes performed with the sung portions in the original language and the spoken dialogue in the vernacular. Availability of printed or projected translations today makes singing in the original language more practical, although one cannot discount the desire to hear a sung drama in one's own language.

Status of librettists and the libretto

Many writers of libretti have been sadly overlooked today in the receipt of credit for their work. Certainly some still are recognized as part of famous collaborations, as with Gilbert and Sullivan. Often in the 17th and 18th centuries the librettist was considered equal to or more important than the composer; this state of affairs was emphasized by the fact that libretti were more easily printed then, and the music was left in manuscript or even lost. However, today the composer (past or present) of the musical score to an opera or operetta is usually given top billing for the completed work, and the writer of the lyrics relegated to second place or a mere footnote. In some cases, the operatic adaptation has become more famous than the literary text on which it was based, as with Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande after a play by Maurice Maeterlinck.

On the other hand, the affiliation of a poor libretto to great music has sometimes given the libretto's author a kind of accidental immortality. Certainly it is common for works of classical music to be admired in spite of, rather than because of, their libretti.

The question of which is more important in opera -- the music or the words -- has been debated over time, and forms the basis of -- of all things -- an opera, specifically Strauss's last, Capriccio.

Publication of libretti

Libretti have been made available in several formats, some more nearly complete than others. The text -- i.e., the spoken dialogue, sung lyrics, and stage directions, as applicable -- is commmonly published separately from the music (such a booklet is usually included with sound recordings of most operas). Sometimes (particularly for operas in the public domain) this format is supplemented with melodic excerpts of musical notation for important numbers. Printed scores for operas naturally contain the entire libretto, although there can exist significant differences between the score and the separately printed text. Because the modern musical tends to be published in two separate but intersecting formats (i.e., the book, with all the words, and the piano-vocal score, with all the musical material, including some spoken cues), both of these are needed in order to make a thorough reading of an entire show.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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