Birth Of Opera And Oratorio

DURING the Middle Ages, individual, social, political and psychological rights were not recognized, but all was governed and controlled by either State or Church; consequently choral music, collective utterance, was the fitting medium for expressing the artistic tendency of the times. All kinds of secular songs — the glee of the English, the madrigal of Italy and Germany, the songs of the social circle and the court — were written in three, four or five parts and in the (to us) quaint, but religiously impressive, church modes. The importance of inner, personal expression, for which opportunity is given in a solo, not being generally felt (although the Roman Church had its solo chant, and the Protestant Church its chorale), the ensemble-form of song was the usual one, until the three great factors which together caused the Renaissance brought about greater freedom in both the political and the social life of the people. As man became recognized as an individual, and not simply as a part of an organic whole, he began to crave individual expression in art. Music, the adopted child of the Church, borrowed its forms from that body, and was even used by the far-seeing fathers of the Church in connection with the drama to impress her semi-barbaric converts, and to strengthen her hold upon the regular communicants.

Many converts of the Church in the early Christian era were descended from the Greeks and Romans, and thus inherited a pronounced taste for theatrical display and representation, their plays being founded almost entirely upon their mythology.

The Church, recognizing the natural demand of the people for dramatic expression, attempted to satisfy it and to show at the same time her superiority. She wished above everything to attract the attention of the world to the new religion. Sacred plays were therefore used so that the mind might be reached through the senses. It was the intention of the Church that the unconverted should find in her everything to which they had been accustomed, but should find it more beautiful and more refined than in any of the old religions. She therefore adopted many a barbaric custom, such as brilliant coloring, decorations, magnificent altar robes, etc. Theatrical representations of the acts of Christ and the Apostles were also given, and variously termed “moralities,” “mysteries,” or ” miracle-plays.”

It is not strange that the Church should thus try to impress the masses, for the native dramatic instinct of mankind had always been associated with, and found expression in, religious worship. The fact was recognized that sensuous perception made a deeper impression on the new converts than mere words, mere sermonizing; and the gospel was therefore acted.

The clergy, being the guides of their congregations both in spiritual and social matters, and striving after leadership in politics as well, desired that even the amusements of the people should be under church supervision; they arranged spiritual plays which were given for public instruction and edification, and for religious purposes, on stages erected in the church edifices. Priests in appropriate costumes impersonated God the Father, Christ, the apostles, the angels, as well as the female characters of Mary Magdalen, etc., no women being allowed to take part.

The singing at these performances was similar to that of the Church. Sometimes choruses were used; for instance, in the musical portions, of the Passion, one body of singers represented the Jews, another the Sanhedrim (the council of the Jews), and still another the Roman soldiery.

A performance of the miracle-play of “The Wise and Foolish Virgins” was given in 1322 at Eisenach (where Bach was born three and one-half centuries later), before the Elector Frederick. In the scene where the foolish virgins plead in vain for admission and for the intercession of the Virgin with her Son, the Elector became so excited that, at the words of Christ, “Nay, Mother, this may not be!” he cried out, “What is the use of saints and of pious works if even the prayers of the Virgin cannot procure help and forgiveness ? ” — and was so affected by the performance that he had a stroke of apoplexy from which he died.

This shows how impressive these productions were made and how seriously they were taken.

High dignitaries of the Church sometimes acted in these plays, although in smaller towns, where there were not many priests to take the parts, they descended sometimes to the level of a “Punch and Judy” show, puppets being used, with a priest behind the curtain making the speeches of the different characters.

In the course of time the clergy, recognizing the fact that the congregation, having acted in the secular plays of the guilds, did not enjoy the Church plays because they were not allowed to take part, permitted societies to be formed whose members might appear in them, just as if we were to take the most devout members from our church congregations and say to them, “Now, you may act in these sacred plays under the direction of the minister.” As a result we find in Paris, in the latter part of the fourteenth century, two societies, the “Confrérie de la Passion,” to whom the king granted the use of the Trinité theatre, and the “Confrérie de Bazoche” both of which organizations were allowed to enact the Passion of Christ. They had what we should call a “permit” or, as they called it in those days, a “patent,” for this sort of performance. In Rome was another such society, the “Compagnia del Confalone,” that held forth in the Coliseum. In England we find similar societies, but outside of the Church, in the guilds, which were a refined edition of our modern trade-unions. The dry-goods people, or Drapers’ Guild, produced “The Creation,” in which Adam and Eve are said to have appeared in their original costumes, apparently without giving offense; whereas the Water-drawers (the men who delivered water at the houses) naturally preferred “The Deluge,” a play which contains some very amusing incidents, although it had a religious purpose. In it we read that when Noah tried to embark his family, his wife refused to go along because she did not want to leave her friends, “the gossips,” and go out into the unknown with just her husband and children. She is made to say, “Row forth away where thou listeth, and get thee another wife.” Noah, however, insists and begins to threaten her, while her friends invite her to a “carousal over a pottle of malmsey.” Her son, Shem, then urges her to go with her family, and finally forces her into the ark, saying, “Mother, in faith, in you shall, whether you will or nay.” And when she finally enters the ark she slaps Noah’s face.

Happenings of this kind were plentiful in these sacred stage-pieces. One of which we have record, and which was played chiefly in Provence, where so many interesting artistic things originated, was called “The Feast of Asses,” or “The Fool’s Festival.” This was held at the Winter solstice, probably as a reminder of the Roman Saturnalia, when the slaves were masters for one day, and the masters slaves.

The Church, wishing to control even this kind of amusement, which consisted of a “fool” bishop’s being chosen, while people and clergy, disguised as beasts, pommeled each other during the frolic, countenanced even this festival. In time this practice degenerated into a very low form, depending somewhat on the size of the town and the opportunities of the people.

In one town the Biblical character Balaam, superbly dressed, and wearing an enormous pair of spurs, rode on a wooden donkey, in which a speaker was concealed. In an-other town the donkey was dressed in a priest’s robe, and was led through the streets into the church, where a mock priest. at the altar intoned the so-called “ass’s chant.”

For a refrain the mock priest imitated the braying of the long-eared animal, to which the congregation, dancing around the beast, responded antiphonally. Sometimes a young girl holding a doll, representing the Virgin Mary with the Christ-Child, rode on a donkey which was led through the streets. The most important character in all these miracles or mystery-plays was the Devil, who acted as the clown, and furnished the humorous element. He was the most abused, and consequently the most popular, of all the characters represented. In those days he did not yet stand for the evil principle, but rather represented a foolish fellow who was always making efforts for the acquirement of souls, and was continually baffled by the Church. All these plays were, as we see, but allegories, and as the laity, the congregation, began to take part in them, they became very popular, sometimes lasting several days and often, in the larger cities, employing several hundred actors. Soon the churches became too small, and a stage was erected in a field or some wide street; but the favorite place was the cemetery, presumably because its in-habitants could not object, and did not mind the disturbance. The stage was often divided into three stories, the middle one representing the earth, everything that happened on earth being enacted there; the upper story representing Heaven, everything celestial being presented there; and we can imagine what was to be seen down below. The actors marched or climbed to their places according to their stations in “Heaven,” or on “Earth,” or “down below,” and the action proceeded quite often in all three places at the same time, somewhat as in our modern three-ring circus.

Because the clergy were few and the people were many, jongleurs, buffoons and vagabonds began to take part in these sacred plays, and introduced all sorts of profane comic scenes. When, for instance, during the Passion, they enacted the scene at the temple where Judas haggled about the thirty pieces of silver, it was made ludicrous because the ointment-seller would bandy coarse jokes with the holy women who came to buy his wares on their way to the Saviour’s tomb.

The Church, seeing that the laity thus gave undue prominence to the worldly element, finally forbade such performances; but in Italy alone was this edict enforced, the rest of Europe continuing as before.

Among the more pretentious of these mysteries or miracle plays we note that in 1440 there was given at Rome “The Conversion of St. Paul;” at Florence in 1447 the story of “Abraham and Isaac,” and in 1556 the stories of “Cain and Abel,” “Samson,” and “The Prodigal Son;” also “The Spiritual Comedy of the Soul,” produced in 1565. This last was a play very much on the order of “Every Woman,” the Soul being accompanied by Conscience, its guardian angel, the Virtues, and some of the Vices. There were about thirty characters represented, among them Paul, Saint Chrysostom, an Announcing-Angel who spoke the prologue, God himself, Michael the Archangel, the human Soul with its guardian angels, Memory, Intellect, Free Will, Faith, Hope, Charity, Reason, Prudence, etc., and — the Devil; while a chorus of angels sang Madrigals. The musical numbers of these church plays were called “Laudes spirituales,” i.e., spiritual praises. This form of sacred miracle-play, a relic of those times, may still be seen every ten years at Oberammergau. It remained for Filippo Neri, the priest who administered the last sacrament to Palestrina, to elevate the Miracle-play into the Oratorio.

Every kind of theatrical performance being forbidden during Lent, Neri conceived the idea of adding to his daily explanations of the Scriptures some choral music to illustrate them; so he asked certain Italian composers to help him by the compositions of these “laudes spirituales,” or illustrative choruses. In them one voice would occasionally sing alone, or two voices would have a musical dialogue, which, however, formed part of a polyphonic work.

When Palestrina took up this form of church music, this sacred play or “azzione sacra” was already called “oratorio,” after the name of the place where the plays were performed, the oratory, a room adjoining the church. The chorus work was all in the style of the Netherland school, polyphonic. The ” Passion according to Matthew ” was thus enacted and while its four-part choruses are free from dramatic intention, they are really preparatory for the great oratorio choruses which were to follow in the days of Handel and Bach. Though it was very much expanded in later days, the idea of a sacred musical representation, a sacred musical play, was Neri’s.

While this was going on within the Church, the musical world outside of the Church had not been idle. The spirit of the Renaissance fostered an admiration for everything handed down from the Greeks, a desire for the breaking-down of conventionality, the establishment of individual thought and individual expression. As the littérateur, the poet, the painter, the sculptor, found each day new beauties and superior excellence in the thought and the descriptions of the ancients works just brought to light, musicians naturally supposed that ancient Greek music had been vastly superior to theirs, and wished to imitate it.

In 1579 Bianca Capello, the beauty of Venice, was married to Francesco, son of the Grand Duke of Florence, and the Florentine élite of course came to the wedding in great numbers. The music for the occasion, consisting of madrigals and similar polyphonic ensembles, had been written by Marenzio and Gabrieli, both pupils of Willaert (the founder of the Venetian school). The Florentines, now fully imbued with the spirit of the Renaissance, were displeased with the inappropriate music associated with the dramatic performances which always occupied a prominent place in such festivities, and when they returned to their home-city, then the art-center as well as the literary center of Europe, they inquired again of the learned professors as to the nature of the Greek music so lauded in the classics. They felt that they must find this lost art which would follow the expression and meaning of the words of their poetry, and its manner of singing, which they deemed must have been different from both the mystic Gregorian chant, and the ornate four- and five-part church motet and madrigal. Their inherited artistic natures demanded a style more natural and logical and of greater harmonic simplicity, one that would not detract from the dramatic energy of a text.

The record of their struggles to reach this ideal is intensely interesting. A number of these musical and literary people formed a club called “Camerata,” in which they discussed the desired change. The leader of this club was Count Giovanni Bardi, a man well known at court, where he was a leading spirit. Among the members, who met at his house every week to discuss art in all its phases, were Galilei, a young amateur, the father of the famous astronomer Galilei; Rinuccini, a poet; Cavaliere, a musician; Strozzi, another poet; Caccini, a quite well-known singer; and Jacopo Peri, another musician. Galilei had studied with a pupil of Willaert’s, Zarlino, who, realizing that at the end of a composition the ear demanded the third in the final chord, without which it sounded empty, conceived the idea of slightly reducing the mathematical ratio of the major third. This was the beginning of the equal temperament of the scale, which was to attain general acceptation in the days of Bach.

Although the drama with music, both sacred and secular, existed, the music was but incidental to the drama, and al-ways halted the dramatic action. The arts thus not only failed to assist, but actually interfered with each other. The “Camerata” realized that something was the matter with their music-dramas, and conceived an ideal of dramatic performance wherein music and action should both be continuous. The creations of the mind of Dante, their great p0et, were, like the songs of Homer, full of individual utterances, and they concluded that these might be paralleled in music. The first results in this musical direction were obtained by Galilei, who, not satisfied with publishing a pamphlet in which he called the music then in use in the drama “fit only for the uncultivated masses, and unsuited to educated people,” decided to prove his assertion.

Being well acquainted with the scene in Dante’s “Inferno” where Count Ugolino has a long soliloquy, he set it to music and presented it at one of the club’s meetings. With an instrument something like a ‘cello, a “viola da gamba,” he sang this soliloquy with an occasional tone from the instrument as support — the first distinctive art-solo with an accompaniment not polyphonic, but harmonic. His subject was a dreadfully gruesome one, to be sure, but this performance marked the beginning of the art of solo-singing — the art of emotional expression, in song, of one’s personal or individual thoughts, or of those of others. He was applauded and appreciated by his fellow club-members, who thought that at last some one had rediscovered the Greek style of music.

After Galilei had written a second piece, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” Caccini, a popular singer, brought the solo song before a more public gathering, and stated that he believed in the new discovery because “counterpoint was a laceration of the poetry.” He further stated that it was “no expression, but a disturbance in the utterance of a thought” when, in the five-part madrigal, one voice would sing “I love you,” while another was singing “in the moonlight.” We may smile at this; but the throwing away of old established ideas and proclaiming a new form of song demanded great courage, and was a very serious matter. In this manner homophony was introduced into musical art.

Peri, another member of the Camerata, encouraged by the efforts of his fellow-members, invented a style of singing which he called the stilo parlante, the speaking style (what we now call recitative), a style of speaking at certain pitches, the tones being used to give dramatic inflection to the text in the conversational part of the drama, and thus abandoning the custom of stopping the music for the sake of the dialogue. So now they had the lyric or solo song for the monologue, the recitative for the dialogue, and the ensemble, which had long existed. To put all these together into one work was the next feat attempted, and Peri was the first to succeed in so doing.

We have seen that these steps were due to the influence of the Renaissance, and find yet further evidence of this in the selection of the text for the first music-drama; for Rinuccini, the poet, wrote a dramatic libretto on the Greek story of Daphne, which Peri set to music. The work was privately performed in 1597, and contains the polyphonic chorus for the ensemble, the arioso or melodic scene, depicting personal feelings, for the monologues, and the recitative for dialogue, every department of the opera thus being present, though in embryonic form.

In 1600, three years later, at the marriage of Henry IV of France to Maria de’ Medici, the same two men wrote a similar work founded on Greek mythology, the story of Eurydice and Orpheus. In this work Peri was assisted by Caccini, Cavaliere and other members of the Camerata, who all helped in the hope of producing a great music-drama. They did not work for personal glory, for each was ready to sink his personality for the benefit of Art, the credit for it all being given to Peri.

And now let us examine the interesting preface of this Euridice, in which the author gives his reasons for doing certain things in a certain way, of saying certain things in a certain manner. In this preface he says that he has adopted recitative and continuous music, because the Greeks employed them. He did not know any more about that than we do, but it shows the Renaissance influence; — he was trying to do what he thought the Greeks had done. He further declares that he does not mean to say that his setting of the story is the Greek setting, or resembles it in melody, but that it is the only one he thinks suited to the story; that is, he acknowledges that dramatic requirements influenced his music.

Considering that this was his first attempt, the melodies and harmonies in this opera are very flowing and very expressive of the text. He uses no counterpoint except in one chorus, and there only for the dramatic purpose of expressing the effect produced by a crowd saying different things at the same time. He calls his Euridice a ” tragedia per musica,” a tragedy with music. This work may well be said to usher into life an art-species which thenceforth without interruption has occupied the musical world. While it is simple, its harmonies meager from our modern standpoint, we should not underrate the merit of the effort. We owe a tribute to the artistic genius of these gentlemen of the Camerata, who, as the poet says, “Walked upon the clouds of their imagination as upon paved roads, and in the end attained the destination which they had set out to reach.”

A word about the performance. The musical instruments used for the accompaniment of the opera were placéd behind the scenes, not in front (a hidden orchestra), so that nothing should interfere with a view of the stage or distract attention from the performance. The only musical portion that resembles what we should call a melody, and introduces a scene, is called sinfonia, and consists of a few measures to be played by three flutes. The drama itself is in three acts; the same story has been used over and over again by succeeding composers of both serious and light operas. The lament of Orpheus over the death of his Eurydice, which follows, is a fair example of the composer’s work. In it we note a primitive attempt at a figured bass (harmonic short-hand), proving that he thought in chords, like Willaert. We note also that the measures are not all of the same length, showing that he followed the rhythm of the text. What is further interesting in the work is his orchestra. It consisted of one violin; an instrument that was called the gravicembalo, of which we shall learn more at another time; a chitarrone (a large guitar, somewhat like that used in modern college mandolin clubs) ; a double-lyre (a small double-stringed harp) ; and flutes. This accompaniment should be remembered, because within six years the opera-orchestra grew from these few instruments to one large enough to play a Wagnerian opera.

When the other members of the Camerata saw the success of Peri’s Euridice, and came to a realization of the value of this newly invented species of drama, Cavaliere, who was religiously inclined, applied the solo and recitative to the church drama with music, and in the same year produced the first real Oratorio, which is called “The Soul and the Body.” Its music was continuous, like that of the opera; and it was given and acted in costume in the oratory, a custom which was still common at the beginning of the nineteenth century in some Catholic countries during Lent. He used for the musical accompaniment a double-lyre, one gravicembalo, a double-guitar, and two flutes. Scoring, barring (putting the bars in), figured basses, which were soon recognized as necessary, all are results of the work of these Florentine gentlemen.

Thus were produced, side by side, two of the greatest musical art-forms, the Opera and the Oratorio; the one born of the Renaissance spirit, drawing its subject-matter not from life, but from mythology; the other the fruit of a religious conception, and of a desire to spread the Gospel.