Analytical Essay on Spoken Dialogue in Music

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Spoken dialogue in music can be traced back to 16th and 17th centuries however, it was also used more specifically to signify the independent dialogue settings included in an abundance of madrigals, motets and cantatas; and it was for this type of setting that in the early 17th century G.B. Doni coined the phrase, 'dialoghi fuor di scena' (dialogues without stage performance), (Nutter, Whenham). During the nineteenth century, the uses of spoken dialogue was essential when it came to German and French opera. Considering that opera today is known as shows with continuous singing many get confused and believe that spoken dialogue is only in musicals/spoken theater. The uses of spoken dialogue in operas of the nineteenth century played an imperative role on the content and development for German Singspiel operas, Opéra-Comique and Operettas. The integration of spoken dialogue in operas combined with arias, ensembles, and sometimes dance became an important factor in the strengthening of dialect opera in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Spoken dialogue in German-language comic operas are known as, Singspiel. Although sung recitative was still popular during the rise of spoken dialogue in operas, it was believed that dialogue helped connect the story to the songs smoothly in comparison to a recitative. Although some enjoyed the spoken dialogue the initial shock of it all refused to diminish, 'Christopher Martin Wieland, in his, das deutsche Singspiel, argued for the elimination of spoken dialogue: to have music all the time was clearly superior' (Abbate). carried forward in spoken dialogue, normally in prose, with music reserved for introductions and emotional highpoints; dances, marches and narrative songs are frequent; recitatives occur only occasionally, normally in addition to the dialogue rather than in place of it. While Singspiel continued to be performed on German main stages another genre was gaining popularity in France, opéra comique. This was the equivalent of the German singspiel, where arias alternated with spoken dialogue.

In France, Opéra-Comique began to rise into the spotlight of the operatic world. It was given many names before finally settling on Opéra-Comique, one name most commonly used was “comedie melee d’ariettes”(fsdfsg) Opéra-Comique became widely popular and the use of spoken dialogue began to normalize. These spoken dialogue operas affected the contents. They usually tend to have a wider range of themes and they mainly favored more so sentimental or fantastic plots. Opéra-Comique also initiated the decline on operas/plays performed in France. By the beginning of the Revolution, operas with spoken dialogue on an extensive range of subjects and in a variety of styles were an important part of the opera repertory. Theatres began to pop up and most were vaudevilles or short operas. The Opéra-Comique would compete for audiences and many suffered. Even Italian plays in France (Comédie-Italienne) were dropped in 1780 and the desire for the number of new vaudevilles reduced, “still, 1789 and the early years of the Revolution brought major changes to the Comédie-Italienne. First, its monopoly on operas with spoken dialogue was challenged and soon disappeared.” At the time among the most successful in discovering the way to combine spoken dialogue with sung portions was Bizet's Carmen, which includes recitative and arias combined with spoken segments. Slowly it began to lose its comedy and shift to more serious themes.

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Originating in France, Operetta is a form of light opera that includes spoken dialogue and dances. The operetta was a very popular form of entertainment in mid-nineteenth-century France. Although operettas a short operatic work with section of spoken dialogue it brought back some of the ideals of opera buffa. It has been said that the operetta was the precursor to twentieth-century musical comedy. While operettas feature opera singers in a style more like a play, musical features non-operatic singing in a play, so similarities are inevitable. It can also be argued that Opéra-Comique was the main influence on this process for operettas. Spoken dialogue permitted a quick shift of essential components of spoken theater to the operatic stage. The alternation of spoken dialogue with arias was a vital structure in operettas. With so much importance being on spoken dialogue, librettos were held at an even higher expectation. The dialogue not only helped point out the meaning of the arias but also allowed the aria to become more like a continuation of a conversation. Due to the importance of dialogue in operettas, it became a requirement to hire singing actors. The quality of acting became just as important as the quality of singing quality, if not more.

Eugène Scribe was a famous playwriter and librettist that had a huge in the development of Opéra-Comique and the librettist of many successful Grand Operas in the nineteenth century. He attended the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris, and then entered the law firm of Guillonné-Merville Although he worked at a law firm, he spent most of his time writing satirical vaudevilles in collaboration with his friend from Sainte-Barbe, Germain Delavigne (Pendle). He is known for the perfection of the so-called 'well-made play', where he resurrected the vaudeville, replaced its stock characters with ones from society and introduced elements of the comedy of manners into his plays. He eliminated the musical interludes altogether and expanded the elements of comic intrigue until his plays had become genuine comedies. 'He went on to become one of the great masters of the neatly plotted, tightly constructed well-made play which were intended to appeal to the material aspirations of a middle-class audience whose capacity for idealism was limited' (Schneider). He valued the middle-class and chose everyday life honest and hard sympathetic characters of his comedies honest, caring, simple, hardworking people. He wrote almost 400 theatre pieces of every kind, often in collaboration in what was virtually a literary factory. Although he had many failures he persisted and became one of the most influential librettists in Grand Opera history. Some of his first work began in 1810 but was not very successful. He began to write many dramas for theaters that played Opéra-Comics in the 1820s; his first work being, Valérie. He finally became of some importance when he won the Légion d'Honneur and was elected as a member of the Académie Française in 1836. Scribe was known for the act of merging several different sources, many of his own to write his librettos for Opéra-Comique. He has worked with Offenbach, Meyerbeer, Auber. He also worked with Verdi and Gounod who had a few complaints about Scribe. What he wrote is important to French opera history, but the way it was done will always be immensely impressive. Almost all our present-day lyric theater comes from Scribe's capabilities. We wouldn't have, La Muette, Robert le Diable, La Juive, Les Huguenots, nor the very delightful repertoire of Opéra-Comiques without him (Blaze de Bury). The works of Auber would probably be forgotten without the great collaborations between he and Scribe. 'Of the twenty-five new operas listed in Loewen- berg's Annals of Opera as having been first performed between 1828 - the year of Auber's La Muette de Portici - and 1848, Scribe was responsible wholly or in part for the librettos of sixteen of them' (Pendle). When it comes to Opéra-Comique, Scribe did not fall short. He has a large number of collaborations, and work where he was the author of the librettos for thirty-five works cited by Loewenberg between 1823 and the year of his first collaborations with Auber. That would mean most of the librettos used in Paris performed on the stage were written by Scribe. Due to the high capacity of his work and his relationship with other writers, Scribe continued to be known as a prolific writer for a ton of the major stages in Paris. Also, the significance of his librettos for not only Opéra-Comique but also Grand Opera during the nineteenth century granted him a huge place in French history.

Scribe's past work helped his writing for his work in Opéra-Comiques. Because Opéra-Comiques contained dialogue rather than a recitative, he decided to pull from his past projects to fill in the dialogue. It was easy for him to transfer his playwrights and the techniques he used while writing them to his comedies. Scholars have read over an abundance of his librettos and figured he took what he wrote from his vaudevilles and put them into his Opéra-Comiques. Due to him sourcing himself, he had to make sure to make a few changes to fit the structure around the new setting in his Opéra-Comique. He did use his past plots, but they had to be significantly simplified the musical stage. The quick-paced, prompt, comical dialogue of the comedies/vaudevilles needed to be clearer and more understandable. His audience was no longer the middle class but now where aristocrats who enjoyed the Grand Operas. Now when it came to Scribe's librettos for Grand Opera, he repeated his action of pulling sources from himself. He pulled different elements out of each different style from his past. From his Opéra-Comique he pulled his dramatic techniques, character types, and situations already adapted from his comedies-vaudevilles and dramas, and then finally turned all of that into his librettos for Grand Opera (Pendle).

Work Cited

  1. Abbate, Carolyn, and Roger Parker. A History of Opera. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
  2. Blaze de Bury,Henri 'Portraits d'hier et d'aujourd'hui: I. Auber et Scribe,' Revue des Deux mondes, Ser. 3, Vol. XXXV (1879), pp. 54-55
  3. Nutter, David, and John Whenham. 'Dialogue.' Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
  4. Pendle, Karin. 'Eugene Scribe and French Opera of the Nineteenth Century.' The Musical Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1971): 535-61.
  5. Schneider, Herbert. 'Scribe, (Auguste) Eugène.' Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
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