Prima la musica, poi le parole?

Prima la musica, poi le parole is a one-act opera by Salieri, commissioned and performed in 1786 at the same time as Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor. Emperor Joseph set up the commissions as a kind of competition, not only between the two composers, but between Italian and German opera in general. (Salieri’s piece won, perhaps because of the court’s favor for Italian opera, since modern audiences would surely judge Mozart’s music to be better.) In Salieri’s piece, a poet struggles to craft a libretto for the composer’s music, while balancing the demands of two sopranos who want large roles. The title raises the age-old question of opera and musical theatre: What comes first, the lyrics or the music?

The question is usually asked about the composition process and is notoriously unanswerable. The re-use of libretti in opera shows us that it was often the music that was written to fit the words. In opera seria, for instance, a composer might grab a Metastasio libretto, perhaps have it revised a bit, and work from there. But the process went the other way, too. In ‘pastiche operas’, for example, a new story was fitted around existing set numbers, sometimes with rewritten lyrics to suit the new plot. What comes first is far from fixed: It depends on the musical style and the composer-librettist team.

Directors also have to wrestle with the question of music or lyrics. Critics and audiences complain if directors are not ‘musically sensitive’, but also if they are perceived to have contradicted the libretto. Obviously, a good opera director draws on both music and lyrics, but which is most important? Where should s/he turn in the case of ambiguity or uncertainty? It varies by director and opera, but this brief interview with Peter Brook offers one illustrious director’s perspective.

In Capriccio, the Countess must decide between two suitors: the poet, who represents words, and the composer, who represents music.
In Capriccio, the Countess must decide between two suitors: the poet, who represents words, and the composer, who represents music.

Finally, what about the singers? It seems most singers I work with find music far easier to learn than words, particularly if the text is not in their native language. I’m the opposite–a couple sing-throughs, and the tunes won’t be anywhere in my head, but I’ll know all the lyrics by heart. In the first few rehearsals of an opera or musical, I’m always the one making musical mistakes, and the other singers are the ones forgetting their words. Of course, my fellow singers and I envy each other’s abilities. I’d give a lot to remember melodies after only a few hearings, and my singer friends have told me they would love to redirect the hours they spend drumming text into their heads. No one order is better or more correct here–by the opening, we’d all better be intimately familiar with both music and words–but the one that doesn’t come naturally always looks easier!

Opera composers and librettists are sensitive to the questions the medium raises. Richard Strauss’s Capriccio tackles the issue of words versus music. In the opera, the beautiful Countess is loved by both a poet and a composer-musician. She promises to let them know which she prefers (poetry or music?) in the morning, but the opera ends before we see her make her decision. She seems most enraptured, however, by the perfect combination of the two in the forms of song and opera.