Beginning Of The Opera

The Opera, in its inception, was literary rather than musical in nature. It was a result of what is known as the Renaissance, so-called because its most prominent manifestation in Italy was a revival of the learning of the ancients. This phase of the movement was initiated by Petrarch (1304-1370), who devoted his life to the study of the classical past of Italy. The Latin classics had never been entirely lost, but those of the Greeks had become practically extinct during the dark ages which followed the conquest of the Roman Empire by the barbarians of the North, in the 5th century. The arts had been kept alive only through the fostering care of the Church, and all had taken on a conventionally ecclesiastical character. Education had declined ; it was practically confined to churchmen—-even kings and rulers could barely sign their names, while the people at large were. sunk in gross ignorance. The revival of Latin literature through the influence of Petrarch led to an interest in the Greek classics which soon became the engrossing study of the learned. Diligent search was made for lost and forgotten manuscripts ; academies of learning were founded ; lectures were given on Greek philosophy. In the enthusiasm thus created it was even thought that not only the arts and literature of the ancient world might be restored, but its governmental, social and political structure as well.

Scope of the Renaissance. — The Renaissance, however, was not merely literary in nature. It was in reality the awakening of man from the spiritual and intellectual slumber which had bound him for nearly a thousand years. Long before it was defined it had been perceptible in many ways. First, materially, in a spirit of exploration, of adventure and enterprise. Traders and travelers startled Europe with glowing accounts of the far East; missionaries took long and dangerous voyages in the hope of converting its heathen inhabitants. An eager desire for in-creased commercial facilities with these favored countries by means of a westward passage brought about the discovery of America, with which modern history may be said to have opened.

With this extension of the world’s boundaries, the mind of man began to expand as well. As he looked forward with eager anticipation to the future, he studied the past with an eye newly alive to the treasures of its buried culture. Instead of his former acquiescence in being one of a dull, inert mass, serving without question those in authority over him, he began to feel and to assert his own individuality, to resist the crushing weight of feudalism which had hitherto oppressed him. Freedom of intellect, of con-science, of science, of art, was in the air.

The effect of this transition from medievalism toward modern liberty of thought and action varied with different nationalities. In northern nations it took the direction of rebellion against prevailing religious and political conditions, for example, in Germany and England. Italy, how-ever, remained steadfast in religion and government; the revolt was against traditions in matters of art and literature. Roman law and Greek philosophy were exhumed ; the classics were zealously studied for standards of taste and culture.

Music of the Ancients.—Notwithstanding this research, no trace was found of the music actually in use among the ancients. From the evanescent nature of the art and the total lack of examples, the elaborate descriptions of its complicated system of scales and modes given by Greek philosophers failed to yield a trustworthy clue to its real character.

It was known, however, that the drama, owing to the enormous proportions of the amphitheatre in which it was performed, was musically declaimed, and that the voices of the actors and chorus were sustained by lyres and flutes. Thus, in the Greek tragedy we find the principal features of the modern opera—scenery, dramatic action, solo and choral singing, the orchestra. It was also known that in the music of the Greeks the word was the governing principle; that there was no independent instrumental music —nor was there elsewhere for many centuries afterward. The tone was regarded only as a means of heightening the effect of the poetry; the succession of long and short syllables dictated both rhythm and melody. Of harmony in the modern sense of the term, there was none ; instruments and voices alike were in unison.

Music Chiefly Choral.—In the 16th century, Florence was the centre of the enthusiasm for Greek culture. She and her sister-cities in the north of Italy were the arbiters in matters of taste, of learning and erudition. There, toward the end of the century, a small group of scholars and musicians, known as the Camerata (Chamber), meeting at the house of Count Bardi, discussed the possibility of reproducing the musical declamation of Greek tragedy. The time was ripe for such an experiment. The polyphonic school had reached its climax in the intricate works of di Lasso (1520-1594) and Palestrina (1514-1594). Though admirably suited to the Church, the contrapuntal style of these great composers was manifestly unfit for dramatic purposes ; it could voice the aspirations of a body of worshipers swayed by a common belief, but could not express individual feeling. No voice was more important than an-other, all progressed according to canonic law, their complex intertwining practically destroying the essentially secular elements of accent and rhythm. It was, in short, the embodiment in music of the medievalism which had so long controlled Church and State.

Thus far the spirit of emancipation which had produced such great results in the other arts and in politics elsewhere had touched music but lightly. Attempts had been made to break the restraints of contrapuntalism, but there was a total ignorance as to what steps would prove most effective in reaching that end, and nothing definite had been accomplished. Aside from the Folk-song, which was ignored by musicians save only as it served as Cantus Firmus for their counterpoint, there was no music for the solo voice; it was conceived solely from a choral standpoint.

The Recitative.—Their dissatisfaction with the school of music then in vogue and the impossibility of adapting it to their purpose led to various experiments by this band of enthusiasts to discover the principles upon which the Greeks had founded the musical declamation employed in their tragedies. They argued that it must have followed as closely as possible the inflections of the voice in speaking; therefore they made this their study. Thus originated the Recitative, the distinguishing feature of the lyric drama, which, though using the definite pitches of the musical scale, reproduces in its progressions and cadences the characteristic but intensified effect of an oratorical delivery of the text. It was the exact contrary of the music of the age in which the word counted for almost nothing, the art of combining independent voices and of playing them off one against the other for everything.

The Cantata.—The first result of their efforts was the Cantata (from cantare, to sing), meaning a composition for the voice in contradistinction to the Sonata (from sonare, to sound), which was applied to one for instruments. The Cantata had but little in common with what is now under-stood by the term. It was a recitation on musical intervals for a single voice accompanied by but one instrument. Any-thing like a formal melody was carefully avoided, and the accompaniment, generally played on the lute, was of the most unpretending character. The first of these cantatas was composed by Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the celebrated astronomer, on the tragic fate of Count Ugolino, as related by Dante in the Inferno. This, therefore, was the first art-song ever composed. Unfortunately, it has been lost; but contemporary accounts tell of the profound impression it created. Other cantatas were written and sung by Giulio Caccini (1550-1618), a skilled and an admirable lutist as well, and all awakened the utmost enthusiasm among the little company.

These works were known as Nuove Musiche (new music) and such as have survived are, in general, painfully thin and crude to modern ears. When compared with the rich polyphony of the prevailing Church style they seem at the first blush to indicate retrogression. Progress, however, seldom advances in a direct line; it generally moves by spirals which at times apparently retreat only to mount the higher at the succeeding curve. These dull recitatives bore the germ of emancipation from the scholastic laws which had heretofore prevented music from expressing individual emotion; they typify the spirit of the Renaissance and are the foundation of the art as we now know it.

The First Opera.—Another of the number, Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), also a musician, took the next step by composing music of the same style to a drama, the Dafne (Daphne) of the poet Rinuccini, who was the life and soul of this attempt to revive the lost declamation of the Greeks. This was performed privately in 1597 at the Corsi Palace, and produced so strong an impression that it was repeated a number of times at the Carnival seasons of the succeeding years. In 1600, Peri was invited to compose a similar work for the marriage festivities of Henry IV of France and Maria di Medici. This was Euridice, also writ-ten by Rinuccini, which bears the distinction of being the first opera to receive public performance, and thus introducing the new art-form to the world at large. The score of Dafne has been lost, but that of Euridice still exists.

It was then known as a music drama (melo dramma or dramma per la musica); the term opera (abbreviation for opera in musica, that is, musical work) did not come into use until the middle of the century. The orchestra, which was played behind the scenes, consisted of a harpsichord, two lutes and a bass-viol. In addition, three lutes played a short ritornello (interlude) in one scene. With this exception, the instruments were used merely to support the voice; the tonality was almost exclusively minor, and the harmony of the simplest. It is thought that Peri sang the part of Orpheus and that Francesca Caccini, daughter of the composer and one of the most gifted singers of the day, sang Euridice.

Caccini claimed the new style as his invention, and it is certain that parts of Euridice were composed by him, though Peri’s name alone appears on the title page of the published work. Emulating the success of his colleague, the former soon set the same drama to music.

Characteristics of the Early Opera.—The two settings are so similar that one might almost be taken for the other. Both display the same characteristics. Of dramatic feeling or characterization as understood at the present day there is no sign ; development of musical thought, none whatever ; a dreary waste of recitatives is but slightly relieved by the occasional flourishes (giri e gruppi, that is, runs and turns) allowed the singers by the taste of the times. The choruses, however. which are introduced freely, serve to vary the monotony somewhat. They exhibit a singular mingling of the old and new styles, natural under the circumstances. The voices sing either in a recitative-like unison, or begin in fugato, and later move in simple harmonic progression. Their distaste for the contrapuntal style led these reformers to reject it so far as they could.

Its appearance at all is due to the fact that no other mode of writing for a number of voices had as yet been devised —a strictly harmonic treatment had not been thought of. Since, then, they were at a loss as to the management of choral masses, they were obliged to have recourse in part to old methods.

Another name associated with the Florentine school de-serving mention is that of Marco da Gagliano, a priest who soon took the lead in the new movement. His first opera was Dafne (1607), composed to Rinuccini’s drama which had already served Peri ; it was a common practice in those days for composers to use the same text. As a scholar and musician, Gagliano was superior to his predecessors. He shows a greater warmth of feeling and a tendency toward melody which they considered as a lowering of their ideals.

The Florentine School.—One particular characteristic of the Florentine school was a sedulous avoidance of anything like extended melody or definite form. To the composers of this school, music was not an end in itself ; it was sub-ordinate to , the distinct, impassioned declamation of the poet’s verses. They held that any independent development of musical thought was a weakness ; that it tended to distract the attention of the hearer from the drama, and to interfere with its logical continuity. The predominant influence was that of the scholar, not of the musician. This was to be expected from the character of the little coterie interested in the new art-form. The majority were wealthy amateurs, zealous students of the classics and aflame with the desire for the actual revival of the Greek tragedy. Peri and Caccini were the only musicians and they were strongly averse to the contrapuntal music of the day. Its persistently ecclesiastical effect debarred it from expressing the personal feeling which was the object of their research. In the effort to escape its ban, they unwittingly emancipated their art from the control of the Church, and made it accessible to mankind in general. This, therefore, is the great service of the Florentine reformers: the establishment of a purely secular school of music susceptible of indefinite development.

Making allowance for the vast difference in means due to the practical creation of independent instrumental music since the 17th century, their practice was precisely the same as that of the modern composer who writes a music drama and uses the same term to define his work. When Dafne and Euridice first saw the light, however, there was neither knowledge nor experience to point the way; it was found only after a slow and laborious process of experimentation, involving the acceptance of much that was rejected after having served its turn. Though Peri and Caccini with their confrères did not succeed in the end they had in view, they accomplished far more by originating the Opera, the point of departure for the whole modern art of music.


Symonds.—The Renaissance in Italy.

Apthorp.—Opera Past and Present.

Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Articles on subjects mentioned in this and following lessons.

Streatfeild.—The Opera.

These general works serve for other lessons on the opera.