The Music House stands on a quiet street in downtown Greenville, a grand Victorian whose spacious porch is shaded by towering live oaks. This was the setting for “An Evening of Melodrama,” hosted by East Carolina University professor John B. O’Brien, and featuring Finley Woolston, musician and genial host of Public Radio East.

The evening’s program began on the porch, where guests socialized over sangria and lemonade, then made their way to the spacious music room. Although a harpsichord, celeste, and harp stood nearby, the instrument that took center stage at the front of the room was O’Brien’s newly-acquired 1887 Steinway Small Concert Grand, Model C, the “piano of his dreams,” the ideal instrument for an evening of Victorian entertainment. This impressive instrument, which for several years was the performance piano in New York’s Steinway Hall, is over seven feet long, and its immaculate rosewood case with ornately scrolled music desk holds inner workings that have been perfectly restored in every detail.

Although melodrama was probably unfamiliar to many of the evening’s concert-goers, it was actively cultivated for more than a century. The earliest documented work was Pygmalion, whose music and French text was written in 1770 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who, coincidentally, famously argued that French was unsingable!). Some contend that melodrama continues today, in film. But it was during the nineteenth century that the genre reached its zenith. Certainly the rise of the European middle class and the relative affordability of pianos created a fresh demand for piano-based chamber music. The value placed on literature as well during that era meant that the emergence of chamber melodrama, which combined literature and piano, was more than a remote possibility!

As the concert commenced the house lights dimmed and O’Brien began Schubert’s accompaniment to Pratobevera’s “Farewell Lovely World.” As expected from the master of the lied, the music’s shadings of character and modulations underscored the content of the words read by Woolston, setting a high bar for the pieces to come. Schubert tempered his melodic talent in this context, the music of a melodrama being supportive rather than central. But compared to the other melodramas of the evening this was one of the more lyrical works.

Surely in a concert pairing literature and music one would hope to find a work by Robert Schumann, who had strong ties to both worlds. So it was a delight to see his name as the composer of Three Ballades for Declamation. The first, Friedrich Hebbel’s “Fair Hedwig” was firmly set in the Romantic tradition – a knight, a maiden, and their mutually concealed love for each other. “The Heather Boy” that followed was, as Woolston mentioned, reminiscent of Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” with its contrasting registers of men’s strident voices, a boy’s timidity, and the tragic theme.

The collaborators juxtaposed the third Schumann work, “The Fugitives,” with Richard Strauss’ setting of Uhland’s “The Castle by the Sea.” Schumann’s stormy piano part, expertly played, called to mind once again “Erlkönig” and its demanding accompaniment. Strauss’ tremolos and wide-ranging arpeggios might remind the listener of a bygone era. O’Brien’s careful interpretation rescued the music from sounding simply obsolete, and he succeeded in presenting it as a period piece.

After a wine-tasting intermission, Woolston read Turgeneff’s poem, “How Beautiful Were Once the Roses,” text-painted by Anton Arensky, and the evening ended with G.A. Berger’s “Lenore.” In this work Liszt calls on the piano to play several roles, including military band, hymn singing accompaniment, and, what seems to be the ubiquitous melodramatic element, the galloping horse. Burger’s poem cautions the listener to be careful what we wish for. Perhaps it is best to follow Turgeneff’s lead by recalling life’s fondest moments, rather than grieving for what cannot be. 

This concert was dedicated to the memory of James Lester “Jim” Rees, professor emeritus of ECU School of Communication, long-time host of the weekly ECU School of Music radio program, and tireless promoter of the arts in Eastern Carolina.

*We are pleased to welcome Judith N. Barber to CVNC; she’ll help strengthen our Eastern NC coverage. For her bio, see About Us..