“Melomachia”: Melodic Challenge and Displacement in Some 19th Century Music, by Rodney Stanning Edgecombe

“Melomachia”: Melodic Challenge and Displacement in Some Nineteenth-Century Music

Rodney Stenning Edgecombe

In François Philidor’s Ernelinde (the three-act version of which premiered at the Opéra in 1767, and the five-act redaction in 1777), a battle is waged “dans les coulisses” between the soldiers of Ricimer and those of Rodoald. Although the musical interest of this scene is negligible (gruppetti at the nodes of the D major triad against static tonic/dominant harmony), it does represent something of a coup de theâtre. I don’t know enough about eighteenth-century opera to be able to cite any precedents, but I would imagine that, if they exist at all, they are few and far between. After all, most librettists of the Baroque and the Galante were wedded to a paint-by-numbers Aristotelianism, and would have thought twice about disrupting the unities. The neoclassical recipe specified that battles and their outcomes be relayed by a nuntius. There is, of course, no shortage of soldier choruses in pre-Romantic opera, but these tend to be anticipatory (“Già la tromba, la chiamo” in Handel’s Serse–1738) or ex post facto (the “Entrée des combattants” in Lully’s Thesée–1675 and the exchange between “soldats croisés” and “soldats sarrasins” in Act III of Sacchini’s Renaud–1783). Nor does sinfonia to Act III of Giulio Cesare (1724) fit the bill, for, despite its sub-title (“Battle Music”), it turns out to be a Handelian presto with comparatively few military inflections. In all of these, actual combat is conspicuous by its absence, and when it does figure on the stage (as in the Giulio Cesare ballet) its oppositional tension is stylized out of existence. The stage directions speak significantly of “A mock-battle between Egyptian and Roman youths” (131–italics mine), while the andante pace and the portly gravitas of the antiphons give a masque-like composure to the proceedings.