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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Director’s Working Methods in Drama Theatre: Music in a Play (The Theme of Transformation)

Zykov Aleksei Ivanovich

PhD in Art History

Professor at the Department of Special Disciplines of Saratov State Conservatory named after L.V. Sobinov

410028, Russia, Saratovskaya oblast', g. Saratov, ul. Rabochaya, 23

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Abstract: The research object of this article is the music embellishment of a dramatic play as one of the key elements in creating a theatrical piece of work's single text. The author is the first to consider the formation of musical space as a director’s method of creating a stage performance. The need to study it is determined by the movement of the modern theatre towards musicalization—the formation of the stage as a single sound space and the shifting of the functions of a background music writer to the director. The research subject is the use of background music and the interpretations of the main musical themes, the detection of the peculiarities of their functions, and an attempt to define the operating name of a director’s method. To achieve this goal, the author uses the observation method and studies the production of the play Krechinsky’s Wedding at Penza Drama Theatre as a director, a choreographer, and an author of the background music. The analysis of the use of background music, which is undertaken for the first time within the framework of theatre drama, shows that music, applied in this algorithm, performs various functions. It creates the atmosphere of action, becomes a play’s full-fledged “text,” and an instrument of the author’s “translation” of a literary work into a theatre-stage language. At the same time, it allows the music space to become integral, thus following the trend of drama theatre moving towards its musicalization. The author suggests naming the director’s method the “transformation of a musical theme.”  


transforming a musical theme, timbre, interpretation, musical arrangement, artistic director's method, music in drama theater, drama theatre, musicalization, modern theatrical art, the method of participant observation

Creating a performance in drama theater is a complex process of multi-vector connections of its various parts, creating a single fragile environment for representatives of different types of art. The famous Soviet and Russian literary and cultural critic Yuri Lotman wrote in 1980 that these parts are subtexts consisting of the “verbal text of the play, the game text created by the actors and the director, and the text of the pictorial – musical and light design” [8, p. 596–597].

Now, this division into three huge layers of a performance’s single artistic space is the main format for building a theatrical and stage work. At the same time, Lotman makes an important remark about the director and actors but limits their role to the “game text.” However, according to the definition of the French theater practitioner and theorist P. Pavy (1980), the director not only creates a “game text,” he “takes responsibility for the aesthetic side of the performance and its organization, the selection of performers, the interpretation of the text, and the use of stage tools at his disposal” [10, p.285]. It seems that this judgment more accurately reflects the realities of modern theater and means that the director takes control of all the “texts” when creating a performance, choosing specific ways of working with them. To use a metaphor, this relationship looks like this: texts “verbal, playful, pictorial-musical, and luminous” represent “materials” and “tools” for creating a performance, as well as “visual-visual” and “visual-visual-visual;” shapes, actor and director – “builder” and “architect.” The ways to use subtext parts in creating a complete representation (“materials,” “tools,” and even “builder”) are just the techniques that the director uses when creating a theatrical and stage work. In this article, we denote them as “directing techniques.”

But the situation has another important feature, indicated earlier by the authors named Moiseĭ Samoĭlovich Kagan (1972), the art of directing itself “does not have its own means of implementation,” it can realize its artistic ideas only in the “body” of other arts like “literature, acting, camerawork, painting, dance, music” [5, p.377]. That is, for the management of “materials,” “tools,” and even “builders,” the architect of “theatrical and stage action” needs art specialists, “the text” of which is used in the performance. In particular, this applies to the “text of the pictorial – musical and light design” [8, p. 597], where “directing techniques” are developed, as a rule, in collaboration with the artists (set design, costumes, lighting) and the composer or music director.

In this article, we will turn to the musical text of the performance. The relevance of research in this area today is due to several factors at once. The main one is modern drama theater’s growing interest in music not only as the most effective element of creating a particular atmosphere for the performance but also the tendency of all theatrical and dramatic art to musicalize [9], that is, to form a single sound environment for the performance, including giving the stage production entertainment when combining music with dance – plastic means of expression – where the music actually becomes a drama of wordless action [4].

This trend is clearly seen in scientific literature, where this problem is given great attention. Even in one of the first works, Music of a Dramatic Performance (1978), its author N. A. Tarshis wrote that “music becomes necessary for the director’s theater in its broad meaning” [14, p. 20]. For our research in the perspective of directing techniques, this remark is especially valuable. The next major works on the topic were the dissertations of I. A. Brodova (1989) [2] and N. F. Babich (2012) [1] (even though Babich’s work focuses on plastic theater and the principles of working with plastic theater, they turned out to be no less relevant for the dramatic art). Foreign authors also address this problem: of particular interest is David Roesner’s work, Musicality in Theater: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making (2014) [16]. In addition, the issues of music in drama theater have recently been paid increasing attention by authors in the pages of scientific journals. These are, for example, articles by S. Korobeynikov (2010) [6], I. Umnova (2011) [15], N. Lesakova (2017) [7], and Yu. Oseeva (2019) [9]. All of them help to see different vectors of studying the presence of music in a dramatic performance and allow us to consider the problem more at length but in a new perspective from the point of view of directing techniques.

An equally important factor for studying the issue is the peculiarities of modern theatrical practice. We have already said that to fully create a performance in the chain of “director-subtext,” there must be a “connecting link” – a specialist art form to which the director refers. However, the director’s practical work reveals other realities of the present time. About this, in particular, writes Umnova (2011): “In recent decades, the selection of musical fragments for a performance by the director himself has become most widespread in the context of the commercialization of art” [15, p.47]. It turns out that now the director is assigned additional functions that he, in fact, may not professionally own. Apparently, this sometimes gives rise to performances where the musical component of the theatrical action turns out to be a space of random and eclectic elements. In this situation, the view of the play’s “musical design” as a directing technique becomes quite practical.

Let us proceed directly to the consideration of the topic of the article. A professional stage director, even in the absence of a composer or musician, as a rule, still understands that the organization of the performance’s musical space is subject to specific laws (in a generalized form they are presented in Roesner’s work [16, p. 233]). In particular, the play’s themes are repeated periodically, reminding the audience by the appearance of a particular character, event, emotional state, etc. To preserve their functions, which have just been mentioned, these topics usually remain unchanged. But what happens when the same theme is heard in a play in different ways? For example, it is exposed to the arrangement, that is, there is an “arrangement of a musical work for performance on another instrument or by another composition of instruments, voices” [12, p. 23], or its interpretation: is there a creative disclosure of an image or piece of music by the performer? [12, p. 247] The question arises: does it retain the same functions or acquire others?

Focusing on this particular part of a dramatic performance’s musical text, we will try to consider its functional features and provide a working definition for one of the director’s techniques.

The problems of constructing a performance’s musical sphere with the help of arranging and interpreting themes have not been considered explicitly in scientific literature. The authors touch on the existence of this technique in passing. For example, N. I. Lesakova, in the article Expressive Possibilities of Music in a Dramatic Performance (2017), notes that “the director uses a system of repetitions-reminiscences: The minuet will repeatedly sound in various situational contexts, sometimes varying beyond recognition” [7, p. 354]. Nevertheless, theater practitioners turn to this technique quite often, as in metropolitan productions (for example, the play Eugene Onegin directed by Rimas Tuminas at the Moscow Theater named after Yevgeny Vakhtangov, 2013), and in the peripheral (the play Don Juan, or the Love of Geometry directed by O. Zagumenny in the Saratov TYUz named after Yu. P. Kiselev, 2018).

To address the problem, let us turn to the production of Krechinsky’s Wedding at the Penza Drama Theater, named after Anatoly Lunacharsky (2019), where the author of the article acted as director, choreographer, and author of the musical design. The use of the method of included observation helped to understand the reasons for the director’s appeal to this technique and its artistic results.

Recall that the famous Russian playwright Aleksandr Sukhovo-Kobylin’s play (1817–1903) was written in 1854. The director’s concept of a literary text, on the one hand, rejected the external attributes of modernizing the plot, and on the other, recreating “historical authenticity.” The music was supposed to connect the past with the present: to be written “then” but recognizable now. As a result, the themes for the play seemed to unexpectedly turn out to be the works of Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), a contemporary of the play’s author. Four of them were needed: the ‘Sonata for Viola and Piano’ (unfinished, 1828), the ‘Polka in D-minor’ (1830), the ‘Original Polka in B-flat Major’ (1840–1852), and the ‘Children’s Polka’ (1854). We will consider their application as the number of topic transformations increases.

Topic one: Sonata for Viola and Piano.’ According to the director, the central plot conflict of the play is focused on the choice of the main character, Lidochka, between the young but simple and modestly well-off landowner Nelkin and the fifty-year-old favorite of secular society Krechinsky. It is a choice between true love and a position in the world. Glinka’s unfinished sonata – tender, poignant, bright, and tragic – became, of course, Nelkin’s theme. She does not transform in the play, accompanying the hero through the plot twists and turns of the story, helping the audience empathize with the character, hoping for a successful outcome, and, already in the final, marking the tragic end of his fate. Here is one of the performance’s leitmotifs, characterized for the sake of understanding what happened to the music next.

Topic two: The Original Polka in B-flat Major’ is played for the first time at the very beginning of the performance by the symphony orchestra (instrumentation by Mily Balakirev). Functionally, the music creates an atmosphere of conviviality, referring to nineteenth-century balls: brilliance, luxury, pomp, and prudery. The choreographer visualizes this moment: at the ball, Krechinsky appears as the most important guest, and there is a meeting with Lidochka and her departure from Nelkin. The character of the musical piece, created by the sound of a symphony orchestra, allows the director to immerse the viewer in the environment of high society, about which the main character’s father and aunt begin to argue desperately in the next scene [13].

Again, the theme appears in a situation where Krechinsky is trying to win over Lidochka’s father. The latter actively resists; their dialogue reaches the key question: what is the attitude of the secular Krechinsky to life in the village, which he – the father of Lidochka – idealizes, idolizes, adores? This question was supposed to put Krechinsky in a dead-end to show there is a gap between the characters.

At this point, the director again turns to the ‘Original Polka,’ previously set as the ball’s theme, if more broadly, the theme of secular society. However, it is now performed by a trio of accordion players. This move changes the “status” of the topic. The timbre of folk instruments gives the polka a different character: it turns into a joke. In the context of the performance, the semantic load of the theme “changes the sign.” The brilliance and pomposity set by the theme earlier are distorted, like pictures in a crooked mirror, pomp, and prudery turn into rollicking, if not frivolousness. The choreographer enhances it by visual means, attracting the guests at the ball to the image of “rural residents,” acting out caricatured “village scenes” based on folk dance.

As a result, the arrangement reveals a different Krechinsky to the audience: a person who can instantly mimic, adapt to circumstances, a player who achieves their goal by any means. The music and the plastic etude reveal that his “love of the countryside,” as well as his “socialism,” is only a game. The technique shows that the difference in the timbral sound of a musical work can equally participate in identifying the character’s disposition, showing the environment of his habitat under a very important artistic condition: the unity of the musical space of a theatrical production.

The third musical theme of the play: The Children’s Polka,’ is used in three fragments. This “etude” piece of music became the theme of Krechinsky’s colleague, the reckless and, oddly enough, unsophisticated swindler Rasplyuev. For the first time, the character appears on stage in the play’s second act – beaten, having lost Krechinsky’s money, and therefore fearfully waiting for an angry denouement. The musical arrangement made it possible to make this fragment literally audible: it begins with the double bass’ bass part, setting the atmosphere of danger, and only after that, like a careless bird, the theme (wind instruments) flutters into the space. The choreographer complements the audible with the visible, using movements to show Rasplyuev’s fears (he looks out for Krechinsky, runs from one room to another, hides, etc.).

The musical theme’s next appearance: sincerely, childishly surprised Rasplyuyev, who received a “boxing” from Krechinsky, argues that boxing should not have appeared in such a civilized country like England. Here, the director used a theme played on a xylophone, a percussion instrument with a certain pitch, while technically extremely slow.

Finally, the third fragment. In his monologue, a desperate Rasplyuyev heart-rendingly begs Fyodor (Krechinsky’s servant) to let him go, assuming that Krechinsky has abandoned him, the police will come, and everything will be over. Still, the latter, fulfilling the master’s instructions, does not allow Rasplyuyev to leave. There was an electronic sound reminiscent of the xylophone and other percussion instruments, as well as wind instruments and piano.

From the briefly outlined moments of the performance, we can see that the third theme refers to the arrangement with the task of “intonation” coloring the character. Rasplyuev’s character remains unchanged throughout the performance: “a little man,” dependent and simple-minded. And musical fragments, due to the different sounds of instruments, as well as tempo changes, focus the audience’s attention on different manifestations of the character’s disposition: infantile fear (the first fragment), simple-minded surprise (the second fragment), naive despair (the third fragment), creating a holistic artistic image of Rasplyuev as one of the main characters.

Note that the theme not only performs these “direct” functions. It emphasizes the theme of danger, fear, and the unknown of the entire theatrical action. At such moments, the director uses the ‘Children’s Polka’ without the main melody: only the bass part on the piano sounds (in technical slow-down). This simple technique accurately creates a tense atmosphere for the action, its lack of clarity, for example, every mention and appearance on the stage of a precious pin, Fyodor’s monologue (Krechinsky’s servant), the jamming into Tishka’s conversations, who plays a double role (according to the director’s interpretation of a police detective), etc.

The theme is also heard at the end of the performance, becoming a kind of generalization of the “little man’s” desires to get out to the top by any means, a kind of “rasplyuyevism,” which is a “complete carelessness about morality, any rules, any self-movement” [11, p.245]. The director finally shows the viewer the super-task of the production, returning him to one of the key themes of the play – the theme of money, and putting into Krechinsky’s mouth no longer the text of Sukhovo-Kobylin but a phrase expressing the author of the play’s position: “Money, it’s just money.” After the final phrase, a musical interpretation of Rasplyuev’s theme sounds (therefore, it is not immediately guessed), placed in a jazz environment filled with the variability of guitar performance. The characters approach the bag that has been thrown on the floor with the money shaken out of it, look at it carefully, and freeze in a silent scene.

So the theme of a reckless character, a swindler, making a “creative disclosure of an image or a musical work by the performer” [12, p. 247], takes us to the present. The ease of jazz interpretation hints at the need for an easy, calm attitude to material goods and, in particular, money, that is, bringing the viewer to the semantic and even philosophical summary of the whole performance. At the same time – again, we pay attention – and it does this without going beyond the production’s musical unity.

We will identify the role of the end: the fourth theme – ‘Polkas in D-minor.’ It sounds in the play most often and in different versions, but it is always associated with the main character’s image – Krechinsky. Let’s analyze the most significant moments from the reception’s point of view.

The theme’s first version sounds in a piano performance at a fairly fast pace – used twice. First, at the time of the main character’s arrival at Muromsky’s house (the father of the main character): the meeting and “shuffling” with Atueva (the heroine’s aunt) are visualized by the choreographer not only with bows and hugging of the characters but also with the dance of young girls waiting for their suitors (again, the characters designated in the program as “guests at the ball”). Then, at the moment of Muromsky’s arrival, Atueva, Lidochka, and the guests in Krechinksy’s house, the dancers walk around the tables, the main characters conduct small talk. The musical theme in both the first and second cases creates an atmosphere of secular lightness and elegant ease.

The second version of the theme is played in an orchestral performance at a reasonably moderate pace. At the same time, the constructed score of the solo sound transfer from one instrument to another gives the musical work a humorous character. It is also used twice. The first case allows the director and choreographer to visualize what is only being discussed in the play. So Krechinsky instructs Rasplyuyev to go to Lidochka and take her precious pin (in the play, the character later tells how everything happened). However, the directors of the play, through the arrangement of the theme, the features of its score, and the plasticity, replace the story with a show: Rasplyuyev walks down the street, horse-drawn carriages cross it back and forth (this picture is created by “guests”: a man depicts a harnessed horse, a woman holds it by a long scarf with one hand, an umbrella in the other). Finally, Rasplyuyev meets Lidochka, etc. Rasplyuyev talks to Muromsky, revealing all the wretchedness of his knowledge and upbringing. Guests in the frame of a rhythmically arranged choreographed score drink tea, move from place to place, communicate.

A brief description of the theme’s second arrangement allows us to identify the new functions of using the technique. With its special performance character, the theme’s inclusion does not just create an atmosphere of action; it turns out to be a “treble clef” that opens the director and author’s reading of the play. In this case, it allows you to translate a literary text into the format of musical and plastic art and make it more spectacular and memorable.

The possibilities of arranging the fourth composition did not exhaust the ‘Polka in D-minor.’ An even more important finding for the creation of the performance’s musical sphere was its interpretation. With her help, the polka turned from a fun, sometimes pompous or humorous melody into a magical, fairy-tale one, foreshadowing miracles and giving hope. This interpretation became the theme of the relationship between Krechinsky and Lidochka and, more precisely, Lidochka’s dreams of living with Krechinsky in high society. This musical fragment occurs periodically in the play, accompanying the heroine in her feelings from delight to disappointment; it also allows the director and choreographer to make the scene of the arrival of guests especially human and touching. “Give me a chair, Fyodor: I’m tired!.. For the first time in my life, I am tired; I must be getting old...” [13, p. 99] – Krechinsky falls asleep, the guests appear, afraid to wake the host, there is a dance of girls, like waiting brides and Lidochka says: “Do you love me?.. A lot?.. Look, I want to be terribly loved... without measure, without mind” [13, p. 104] (the text of a later scene, turned by the director into a small monologue). An elderly, tired Krechinsky tries to say something unintelligible in a dream; it becomes clear to Lidochka that her dreams will not come true.

Interpretation made the character of the musical work different, changed its artistic image. The fragment again demonstrated the possibility of using musical means to abandon the literal translation of the play into stage language, introducing its creative counterpart, revealing the depth of the characters’ experiences, emotionally affecting the viewer, making the theatrical production relevant today.

The fourth theme clearly showed the reception’s potential: in different situations and relationships with different characters, Krechinsky’s theme remains the same, but it does not sound the same; thus, it does not tire with multiple repetitions and at the same time preserves the unity of the performance’s musical space.

Let’s sum up the results. Consideration of the ways of using the four musical themes of the Penza performance ‘Krechinsky’s Wedding’ in various arrangements and interpretations revealed that the musical design could create conditions for revealing the character’s temperament and his space. Music creates an atmosphere of action, becomes an equal performance “text,” an instrument of creative (the author’s) translation of a literary work into a theatrical and stage language.

When using the arrangement and interpretation of a musical theme, its purpose does not change, but it becomes much broader. It can actualize the situation, introduce philosophical meanings into the performance, and denote the author’s position. Due to the timbral sound, it can become the theme of a particular character, strengthen its characteristics, give them an “intonation” color, and reveal different sides of the character’s nature. I think that the variety of timbres has yet to be evaluated in their potential. It seems to be greater than the consideration of a single performance allows us to reveal. In any case, the analysis confirms the observation made earlier that “timbre contributes to enhancing the scale of dynamics in the field of dramatic tension” [3, p. 2].

The use of themes in different arrangements and interpretations makes it possible to make the musical space as integral as possible, which meets the artistic requirements – the tendency of the movement of drama theater to its musicalization, creation of phonospheres, the unity of music, sounds, noises of a theatrical production, a harmonious sound continuum that immerses the viewer in the performance.

The considered directorial technique does not yet have a clear naming. The functions of the “arrangement” and “interpretation” in the performance are identical, most precisely defined as “changes in the sound of the musical theme.” If this is the case, the definition of “musical theme transformation” can be suggested as a working title for the director’s technique.

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