The Rise of Romantic Opera by Edward J. Dent

Edited by Winton Dean. Cambridge


The Messenger lectures (obiter dicta on Gluck, Cherubini, Le Sueur, Méhul, Spontini, Rossini, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, Bellini and others, plus extended prologue and peroration) were given at Cornell University in 1937-8. Once they had been delivered, not even their author ever thought them viable again, except as a source-book for a later work on opera. 40 years on, they look to me just as lifeless as ever, despite a spirited attempt to resuscitate them by methods including the puff direct. They are not unworthy, the editor suggests, of “one of the world's foremost musicologists”. But after 190 pages of what might be called recitativo secco (especially since nearly half the text is devoted to drily reciting the plots), many readers may feel that any field in which Dent has eminence must be uncommonly flat.

   Let's attend the Schubert lecture. The great teacher begins by standing a whole class in the corner. “Probably few of Schubert's adorers could even state the name of one of his operas”. He then gives us a hundred lines in which he airs his own irrelevant knowledge, grandly corrects the work of inferior scholars, explains that Schubert was not instrumental and classical but theatrical and romantic, kindly expounds a couple of plots, pretends to offer some deep analysis, and makes (according to my tally) nine mis-statements on matters of fact. This tone of complacent and condescending inaccuracy characterizes all these arid harangues. Winton Dean's 140 excellent footnotes expand and clarify the text, and also offer unobtrusive corrections to some 45 inaccuracies and 15 errors. Of the nine on Schubert, he amends only two. No doubt modesty compelled restraint, here and elsewhere; but enough is done to show that Dean is a far abler scholar than Dent (though the latter might have been spared the gloss on p.144, as p.146 shows).

   Two further reasons are offered for this cele­bration of Dent's centenary year. The lectures “explore an important turning-point in musical history”, namely that Romantic opera originated not, in Germany but in French and Italian comic opera, which was also the principal source of 19th-century German symphonic and instrumental style. No doubt this is more than just the typical opera buff's overvaluation of opera buffa, or making mountains out of Méhuls. On the other hand Dent's dictum may be not so much true as truistic. Of course opera had a continuous history; of course ìt lent dramatic and expressive techniques to instrumental music. What else? The trouble with such contentions is that if stated moderately they are unremarkable, while if inflated (as here) they risk being exploded. In any event we arguably need more than one turning-point in 7000 otherwise static lines.

   The other reason is that these lectures convey an important message: that we must train our imagination, cultivate a detached scepticism, and abandon our slack habits of reverence for masters and masterpieces. Personally I see no flicker of imagination anywhere in this text: But no doubt the deadwood of a dry old stick may be of some use as kindling. A more pernicious folly is the attitude to mastery. There is pathos in Dent's own sad words “You may well ask what was the use of talking for so many hours about operas which are now completely forgotten . . .”. Breathless, we await the answer­ which leaves us every bit as breathless: “I sometimes suspect that all this research” (a technical musicological term for raking up old scores and giving oneself airs) “is of value only to the researcher himself.” Right; because it is so often treated as an end in itself and so rarely as a means for making inferences, making and testing hypotheses, drawing conclusions, forming critical judgments, or even just expressing and communicating delight and admiration. Indeed, such activities (surely the whole point of research) are implicitly or even explicitly disavowed. “All that we can do in studying the music of the past is to analyse and classify its technical characteristics.” “We” of course means “I”. The tailless fox preached taillessness; he could have based his sermon on this text. 


The Musical Times, July 1977 (p. 562) © the estate of eric sams