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Composing for the Stage: The Rise of Musical Biodramas


As the curtains rise on Oliver Cotton’s “The Score“, the theatric world once again finds itself enthralled by the tales of legendary composers. Bach’s faceoff with Frederick II joins the list of plays spotlighting the lives of musical masters, revealing the rich tapestry of stories waiting to be retold.

The Blossoming of Musical Biodramas

Many might argue that the intrigue surrounding playwrights’ penchant for composers started with Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”. However, even before Mozart’s dramatic representation, there was Sacha Guitry’s 1926 play featuring the prodigy. Why this fascination? Composers’ lives, often filled with dramatic tensions, intrigue, and the complexities of genius versus their societal roles, present a goldmine for dramatists.

The Mozart Phenomenon

Amadeus, diving into the alleged confession of Salieri about poisoning Mozart, introduced a Mozart far removed from a porcelain figurine. Shaffer painted the portrait of a musical genius with human flaws, underlining the intricate ties of music, power, and approval in 18th-century Vienna. Yet, this narrative wasn’t entirely new. Alexander Pushkin, in 1830’s “Mozart and Salieri”, touched upon similar themes. When this masterpiece resurfaced in 1989, audiences rediscovered the nuanced relationship between talent and dedication.

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Pownall’s Unique Touch

British playwright David Pownall, who passed away in 2022, delved deep into the psyche of composers. From examining the liberating aftermath of Gesualdo’s crimes in “Music to Murder By” to capturing Elgar’s private despair in “Elgar’s Rondo”, Pownall’s pen carved profound narratives. His magnum opus, “Master Class”, centred around Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s summoning by Stalin, brought forward compelling questions of an artist’s responsibility in communicating national desires and traumas.

Moral Quandaries in Musical Plays

Beyond the spectacle, these plays shine a light on significant moral dilemmas. Ronald Harwood’s works, “Taking Sides” and “Collaboration”, delve into the choices of musicians during Nazi Germany’s reign. While the former attempts to understand the decisions of Wilhelm Furtwangler, the latter unravels Richard Strauss’s complexities as he navigated his relationship with the Nazis to protect his family. These theatrical pieces elevate the genre from mere biopics, distancing from Hollywood’s exaggerated tales like the notorious “Song Without End”.

In Conclusion

The theatre’s embrace of musical legends is not a mere attempt to capitalize on their fame. It’s an exploration of their complexities, their challenges, and their undeniable impact on the world.

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