"Is the story of the rebirth of the music drama that of the miscarriage of tragedy?" Leo Schrade asked at his third Norton lecture last night. Laying strict limitations on both forms, he called tragedy, an artistic medium quite distinct from other forms of drama with ideas peculiar to it, particularly the idea of fate. On this basis he refused to call medieval passion plays music drama and qualified the character of tragedy in Monteverdi's operas.
Schrade claimed that the force behind the rebirth of music drama was the growing awareness of Greek tragedy. Memory of ancient drama was the only source of this art, and its unfolding was erratic because "it was as much a story of forgetfulness as a story of remembrance."
Medieval Drama 'Freakish'
The Middle Ages, he said, made drama "freakish polemic in the name of religion." Its only justification was the moral betterment of man, an aim he called "antagonistic to the tragedy." Schrade cast doubt on "what usefulness could ever lie in telling the stories" in which "nothing but horror remained."
The Swiss professor maintained that the religious purpose of a passion play kept it from becoming "a tragedy as an independent work of art." The Greeks, he pointed out, never gave their drama the specifically liturgical purpose medieval culture did. Even Dante, he said, "lost a kindred understanding of the tragic texture," and thus made the goat the image of tragedy, for "offensive was its odor, and ugly its voice."
Italian Contribution Minimized
He minimized the contribution which the Italians of the Renaissance made to the rebirth of tragedy. While they rediscovered the important role of music in Greek drama, they retained a "demand for confining music within narrow banda." Their use of Greek ideas was almost entirely restricted to technical matters; they thus "suffered from an erroneous conception of the tragic."
Monteverdi, he stated, did bring about a rebirth of music drama, but gave it a very new form. The Italian did not use tragedy as a special category of drama, "a perfection of its own," but rather made it a human condition which the opera sought to communicate. The tragic element in his works was only "a momentary constellation and not of lasting significance, its roots are in human nature and the real and not in fate or the propitious shape of art." Schrade lays great emphasis on the role of fate in tragedy; he thus set Monteverdi's use of it apart from a truer form.