In Medea, Cherubini uses the orchestra much as Euripides used the chorus in his Greek tragedy—to describe and comment on the situation at hand. Here is an opportunity for students to explore ways that musical instruments contribute to the drama of Medea beyond their typical function as accompaniment. In this activity, students will listen to three excerpts, paying close attention to the orchestration and how unusual instrumentation brings attention to certain parts of the text.
STEP 1. INQUIRE
Distribute the reproducible with Medea’s entrance aria. Play the aria once, simply asking students to note any lines that particularly stand out, any instruments they notice, etc. Anything and everything they notice is good—encourage all answers! Now play the aria again, asking students to pay special attention to any time the word “Medea” is uttered in the text—do they hear anything special or specific? If they need some help, draw their attention to the strings.
STEP 2. DEFINE
Whenever the text has the word “Medea,” the strings have a shivering or trembling effect. Offer students a definition for this special timbre: “tremolo” (the word is related to the English word “tremble”). Invite the students to consider:
- How do you think the strings achieve this trembling effect? (It’s created with rapid back-and-forth motion by the bow on a single note.)
- What could the tremolo effect represent?
- What could the timpani at the end of the excerpt represent?
- How does the steady yet uneven rhythm behind Medea’s announcement enhance the moment?
As an optional conclusion for your discussion about this excerpt, introduce the idea of “text painting,” when the music represents the literal meaning of a text. (For instance, in the song “Jack and Jill,” the melody goes up when they climb the hill and then comes back down when the young protagonists tumble down the hill.) How might the tremolo strings be an example of text painting?
You might also invite students to notice the smoother lines in Creon’s music as a contrast to the agitato (or, “agitated”) quality of Medea’s accompaniment. What is the dramatic reason for this musical choice?
STEP 3. EXPAND
Play the introduction to Act II. Ask students to pay attention to both the tremolo strings and the general mood of this excerpt.
- What is the mood of this excerpt?
- How does the string tremolo help to set this mood?
- What might the mood of this excerpt portend for the second act? What can we expect?
Repeat Steps 1 through 3 with the two other excerpts for this activity, drawing attention to the musical elements discussed below.
In this aria, invite students to pay close attention to the flute: At certain moments in the aria, it is unusually prominent. Offer students a definition. The flute in Glauce’s aria is an example of an “obbligato”: A prominent melody in the accompaniment performed by a solo instrument. (Ask students if the word “obbligato” sounds like an English word they know; they will likely reply that it sounds like “obligation” or “obligatory.” For more on this term, see the “10 Essential Opera Terms.”)
Have students listen again and highlight the places in the text where the flute appears. Explain that the flute functions just like the highlighter, drawing attention to certain moments in the text.
Now ask them to think carefully about the obbligato flute and how it impacts this scene:
- What words or phrases are highlighted by the flute? Why might these words be important?
- How does the flute contribute to the drama? Does the unusual sound affect the emotion of the scene?
- What might the flute symbolize?
Finally, think about how this moment would change if there were no obbligato. How would use of a different obbligato instrument change the character of the moment?
In this case, the obbligato instrument is a bassoon. Repeat the same process you used for Glauce’s aria. Finally, invite students to consider how Glauce’s and Neris’s arias compare to Medea’s entrance music: Based on their respective accompaniments, how might they describe these three characters?
- Expand this activity to the rest of Medea: As students watch the opera, they can listen for other examples of featured accompaniments, tremolo strings, and uneven rhythms.
- Choose a non-musical story or play and invite students to suggest instances where an obbligato instrument would help to enhance a long speech or exchange. What passage/instrument(s) would you choose? What would your obbligato add to the moment?
- Ask students to find examples of obligato and highlighted words in popular music.