Incidental Music

Incidental music. Music used to enhance plays and dramatizations, on stage, radio, TV, or film.

Music used to enhance plays and dramatizations, on stage, radio, TV, or film. It encompasses overtures, entr'actes, and interludes; musical occurrences within the action (eg, dances, songs, processions); and musical backgrounds to speech and action, composed to create atmosphere and heighten emotional impact.

During the 19th century and occasionally in the 20th, the first two types often yielded complete sets of pieces which could be performed as concert suites, independently of the plays for which they were composed. Mendelssohn's music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Grieg's for Ibsen's Peer Gynt were typical. The third type of incidental music described above has been used primarily for radio plays, films, and TV rather than for stage dramas. (See also Film scores).

By the middle of the 20th century, when incidental music came into demand in Canada (especially for strictly timed radio and TV dramas, but also for live theatre), Canadian composers showed little interest in producing formal pieces of the traditional kind; overtures were short, and 'bridge' music, used to connect scenes, often was measured in seconds rather than minutes.

In the more leisurely early years of the 20th century a few composers wrote more substantial incidental scores, notably J.-J. Gagnier; Claude Champagne, who in 1917 wrote music for Frère Marie-Victorin's Ils sont un peuple sans histoire; Healey Willan, who collaborated on 14 Hart House Theatre productions in Toronto during the 1920s; George M. Brewer, who worked with the Montreal Repertory Theatre in the 1930s; and Clarence Lucas, who did not write complete sets of incidental music but did write overtures to As You Like It, Macbeth, and Othello. Further along in the century many composers wrote music for plays by Shakespeare. During the 1940s Graham George provided scores for the productions of the Shakespeare Society of Montreal, and Fraser Macdonald wrote music for Earle Grey's Shakespeare productions at Trinity College, Toronto.

Ontario's Stratford Festival probably has commissioned more original music (for its productions of plays of Shakespeare and others) than any theatre in Canada - over 100 scores between its inaugural year, 1953, and 1980. In its first 15 years most of the incidental music was supplied by Louis Applebaum and John Cook. By the late 1980s, Applebaum had contributed music to more than 50 productions. After 1960 an increasing number of other composers, among them Michael Conway Baker, Berthold Carriere (over 40 productions by 1989), Gabriel Charpentier (many scores), Harry Freedman, André Gagnon, Gary Kulesha, Alan Laing, Loreena McKennitt, Raymond Pannell, Alan Rae, Godfrey Ridout, Stanley Silverman, Harry Somers, and Morris Surdin received Stratford commissions.

In Montreal the Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde has commissioned scores from Blackburn (Célimare le bien-aimé, 1952; Le Temps des lilas, 1958), Charpentier (Les Choéphores, 1962; Richard II, 1962; Klondike, 1965; Le Soulier de satin, 1967), Neil Chotem (Klondike, 1967), Rolland D'Amour (Philippe et Jonas, 1953), Andrée Desautels (Dom Juan, 1954), Laurent Jodoin (Le Corsaire, 1952), and Clermont Pépin (Le Malade imaginaire, 1956).

Pépin also has written music for productions of Montreal's Compagnie du Théâtre Club (La Nuit des rois, 1957; L'Heure éblouissante, 1961; Le Mar chand de Venise, 1964). Charpentier, one of Canada's most prolific composers of music for theatre, had composed numerous scores, writing for many different theatre groups throughout Canada. As music director for the Crest Theatre in Toronto, then the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, John Fenwick wrote incidental music for over 30 productions. In 1964 Victor Davies was music director and composer for Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre. Neil Harris and others also have provided music for that company over the years. In Toronto Milton Barnes received commissions 1964-6 from the Crest Theatre. Allan Rae has provided music for Theatre Calgary, the Vancouver Theatre Playhouse, the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, the Shaw Festival, the NAC, and in 1985 became composer-in-residence at Alberta Theatre Projects, where he has provided music for more than 10 productions. Quenten Doolittle's incidental music has been heard in productions at the Banff CA, the Toronto Free Theatre, the Young People's Theatre, and in several Calgary theatres. Don Druick has composed, arranged and conducted music for several Vancouver theatres. Christopher Donison and Roger Perkins have composed incidental music for plays at the annual Shaw Festival.

Others who have written music for plays include John Beckwith (The Killdeer, 1959), Ginette Bellavance (Le Timide au palais, 1971; Dom Juan, 1972; Julien, Julien, 1973; Cyrano de Bergerac, 1974), Keith Bissell (Incidental Music to 'The Centennial Play,' 1967), Michael Century (for the Banff CA festival), J.-M. Cloutier (Visite de la vieille dame, 1969; Les Troyens, 1971), Ron Collier (The Mechanic, 1965), Andrée Desautels (La Fille du soleil, 1946), Hector Gratton (Légendes aux étoiles, 1952), Ronald Hannah (A Sea Liturgy 1986), Derek Holman (Pontiac and the Green Man, 1977), Laurent Jodoin (Tessa, ca 1950), Lothar Klein (several for Shakespeare plays as well as Twin Menaechmi, 1951; The Bluebird, 1952; Marco Millions, 1953; and The Bacchae, 1965), Alfred Kunz (Let's Make a Carol, 1965), Roger Matton, John Mills-Cockell (Memories of My Brother and Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, both 1972, Comedy of Errors 1989)), André Prévost (Électre, 1959), Don Ross (Ecstasy of Rita Joe 1989, Dreaming Beauty 1990, Big Buick City 1991) Manus Sasonkin (The Duenna, 1978), Jean Sauvageau, Owen Underhill (Suicide in B-flat 1984), and Charles Wilson (John Fibber, 1970). John Roby's incidental music for Theatre of the Film Noir won a Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 1981. Norma Beecroft, Robert Fleming, Harry Freedman, William McCauley, and Jean Papineau-Couture have written scores for puppet plays. Harry Somers provided the music for Vibrations (1978), presented by the Canadian Mime Theatre at the Shaw Festival.

The CBC has commissioned an enormous quantity of incidental music for radio and TV, not only for plays and serials but for documentaries and variety and quiz shows. John Weinzweig was a pioneer, beginning in 1941 and providing the music for over 100 radio plays. Other contributors to the genre during the 1940s were Ernest Dainty, Gordon Fleming, Hector Gratton, Quentin Maclean, Barbara Pentland, Michel Perrault, Morris Surdin, and Arnold Walter. Gratton wrote the music for the series 'Je me souviens,' with text by Félix Leclerc, and provided the score for a radio production of Maria Chapdelaine. Surdin, one of the most active of radio composers, wrote over 150 scores 1950-72 for the series 'Jake and the Kid' and many for the series 'CBC Stage,' 'CBC Playhouse,' and 'Adventure Theatre'. Jean Vallerand has written music for some 100 CBC radio plays, including those heard in the series 'Radio-Collège' and 'Sur toutes les scènes du monde'. Lucio Agostini composed for 'CBC Stage,' 'CBC Wednesday Night,' and 'Ford Theatre,' and has been the sole composer for the TV series 'Front Page Challenge'. Alexander Brott wrote scores for radio's 'Playhouse Theatre'. Neil Chotem provided the music for several of Rupert Caplan's CBC radio presentations - The Dybbuk, The World's Illusion, The Trial, A Tribute to Eugene O'Neill - and the series 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey,' 1948-50.

Besides being a composer of incidental music for the stage, Applebaum has been a major contributor to both radio and TV productions. For TV, Frank Haworth composed for the series 'Mr. O' and 'Old Testament Tales' and Claude Léveillée for the programs Des souris et des hommes, L'Échéance du vendredi, Millionnaire à froid, and Le Pélican. William McCauley composed and conducted the music for the 1972 series 'The Whiteoaks of Jalna,' and Harry Somers provided the scores for the series 'Images of Canada' (1972-5). John Mills-Cockell and Ricky Hyslop (the latter in both Vancouver and Toronto) have provided incidental music for numerous programs and series on both CBC-TV and CTV. Clive A. Smith's music was heard in Nelvana's TV animation The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978). Phil Schreibman (who has been a composer-in-residence at the Toronto Free Theatre), composed (1980-7) the incidental music for the 43-episode CBC-TV series 'Seeing Things. In addition to providing music for many CBC-TV productions and specials (eg, 'Ken Dryden's Home Game,' 'Private Capital'), Eric Robertson has composed for 40 episodes of the CBC series 'Street Legal,' and for the BBC-CTV 'OWL-TV' series. John Welsman has been responsible for the music of the 'Road to Avonlea' TV series, and Richard Gregoire has prepared the scores for 'Les Filles de Caleb'. Patricia Cullen (b 1951, d 1991) composed incidental music for a number of TV productions and series, including 'The Edison Twins,' and the 'Care Bears'.

Others who have composed for CBC TV include Gaston Brisson, Lloyd Burritt, André Gagnon, François Morel (L'Heureux Stratagème), Antoine Padilla (Un Mois à la campagne), and Georges Savaria (Yerma and La Maison de Bernarda). Ron Collier, Victor Davies, Samuel Dolin, Phil Nimmons, Robert Turner, and Elliot Weisgarber have written incidental music for both radio and TV.

Though the cost of commissioning, rehearsing, and performing incidental music has always been high, no inexpensive and equally effective replacement has been found; music's powers of enhancement have remained unrivalled. Electronic scores, it is true, can eliminate certain expenses of performance, but they entail costs of their own and in any case must be considered an extension, not a replacement, of the genre. It is clear that the genre will survive while theatre survives. Of all the arts, theatre is the most immediately susceptible to its audiences' reactions. If they like it, it flourishes; if they do not, it disappears; and in Canada - at Stratford, at the Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde, and at other flourishing theatrical centres - the key role of incidental music in successful theatre has been recognized. By 1991, with theatre - live, broadcast, telecast or filmed - an integral part of Canadian life, the writing of incidental and background music had become an important facet of the Canadian composer's activity - indeed, for some, it is their bread and butter.


Further Reading

  • Champagne, Jane. 'The role of music for the theatre,' CanComp, 75, Dec 1972

    Morley, Glenn. 'Composing for the theatre: contemporary directions,' Canadian Theatre Review, Summer 1977

    Timmerman, Nicola. 'Music for film is Ron Harrison's job,' CanComp, 147, Jan 1980

    Bonhomme, Jean-Pierre. 'Écrire de la musique de théâtre du Québec,' Montreal La Presse, 3 Dec 1983

    Powis, Tim. "How to get your music on television,' MSc, 365, Jan-Feb 1989