Development Of Italian Opera

THE success of Peri’s Euridice in Italy, and later in France and Germany, was not so much due to the inherent value of the work itself, as to the general realization that these newly invented styles of musical utterance exhibited a fitness for dramatic purposes far beyond that of polyphonic writing.

It was left for a musician greater than Peri to erect on this foundation a style of music which, in its combination of constructive ingenuity, color, breadth of composition and perfection of detail, was fit to rank with the greatest works of other arts during the same period. The name of this artistic genius was Claudio Monteverde, born in 1568 at Cremona. At the time of his birth, his native town was already celebrated for its violin-making, Andrea Amati (1520-1611), whose grandson, Niccolô Amati (1596-1684), was the most famous of this remarkable family of violin-makers, having already made a reputation as a splendid artisan. This was a very paying industry in those days, because everybody who pretended to be anybody in society had in his house a chest of stringed instruments of different sizes, or at least a quartet of violins, two sopranos, a tenor and a bass (viola da gamba). In a catalogue of violins published in Italy in 1601, many kinds of such instruments are mentioned; good authorities consider that the making of true violins probably did not begin much before the year 1550.

Monteverde went as a young man to Mantua, where he entered the service of the noble family of the Gonzagas as a violinist. In this position he had the advantage of studying with a sound contrapuntist, Ingegneri, the cathedral choir-director, from whom he undoubtedly acquired a knowledge of the strictly polyphonic style. In 1603 his teacher died, and Monteverde succeeded him as director of music in the ducal family. It must be understood that in those days a musician could earn his living only by working either for the Church or in some rich family. This continued to be the case for many years afterwards, even Haydn being at first but a sort of upper servant in the house of one of the Austrian princes, receiving his daily orders for music as the kitchen chef did for the dinners. In such positions, however, musicians had a chance to try out their ideas, and it was while Haydn was in the service of this prince that he conceived and worked out the form of the Symphony. The case of Monteverde was similar, for while with the Gonzagas he conceived and created his surprises for the musical world.

His first opera was Ariadne, the text being supplied by the poet Rinuccini, and its first performance took place in 1607, seven years after that of Peri’s Euridice.

With the exception of one number, “The Lament of Ariadne,” the music of this opera is lost, in spite of the fact that it was performed in Venice as late as 1637. This aria is so intensely mournful that it is said to have brought tears to the eyes of Monteverde’s audiences.

While this aria consists of but nineteen measures, it con-tains several examples of Monteverde’s innovations, which stamp him as a worthy follower of Willaert and Gabrieli, first apostles of the Renaissance in music. These innovations consisted principally of the use of dissonances unknown up to that. time, such as (Z) a dominant seventh-chord without preparation — an unprepared dissonance; (2) a secondary seventh-chord without preparation; (3) a suspension with-out preparation. Though these things are technical, they are mentioned because the free use of discords, forbidden by the learned theorists, proves that Monteverde had abandoned convention and tradition and devoted his music to the expression of human feelings and passions, thus following the teachings of the Renaissance.

The most important constructive feature which he in-vented in this little aria was that of the Da Capo. Ex. 53 shows that the text began and ended with the repeated phrase “Lasciatemi morire!” (“Let me die, let me die”), the musical setting being identical, thus practically making a real Da Capo. This D. C. germ of construction assumed in later years great proportions. We speak of Haydn as the father of the symphony, but the recapitulation in the symphonic form of the sonata-form is the legitimate outgrowth of Monteverde’s invention, who thus provided that prime requisite of art-form, unity.

In the same year Monteverde wrote another opera, Orfeo, the libretto being somewhat altered from Peri’s Euridice by its author, Rinuccini. This opera has been preserved, and a German copy of it is easily procurable. The altered plot conforms more to the mythological story than that of Peri’s libretto. We notice at once a remarkable development of the orchestra, for, while Peri used but five instruments, the number used by Monteverde in Orfeo seven years later is very large and shows what this genius deemed necessary for the musical expression of the dramatic text. His orchestra included two gravicembali, one on each side of the stage, played from a figured bass to supply harmony; two contrabassi or double-basses; three viole da gamba (‘cellos); ten viols (about the size of our violas) and two small “French” violins (the violins of to-day), which were tuned a third higher than the other violins, together forming a complete orchestra of seventeen stringed instruments. But this is not all; two large harps, two chitarroni (large guitars the size of bass viols) ; two organi di legno (small portable organs), for which we have substituted our wood-wind instruments for color; one regal (another kind of portable organ, with a single diapason or flute stop) ; a number of brass instruments, sufficient to balance the strings of a modern orchestra, and almost equal to the requirements of the most dramatic composer of the nineteenth century, consisting of four trombones, two cornetti (small trumpets), one clarino (soprano trumpet), and three muted trumpets, besides two flutes and one piccolo — thirty-nine instruments in all. This development, coming within seven years, proves how well prepared were both musicians and the musical art for the message of the Renaissance.

A brief description of this opera should not come amiss. It commences with a Prelude, called “Toccata,” having throughout a double pedal-point, of which we will speak again. This was to be performed three times, and served as an overture to put the audience in a proper mood. When the curtain rose, an orchestral prelude called a ritornello was played. The prologue was given by a singer, who impersonated one of the Muses, in verses that were separated by ritornelli, during which there was dancing or varied stage business. The first act, which commences with an elaborate chorus of dancing shepherds and shepherdesses, deals with the love of Orpheus and Eurydice, and contains a solo by Orpheus, “Rosa del ciel,” which is quoted in Grove’s dictionary in the article on Monteverde. The whole act represents essentially the realization of the happiness of existence, thoroughly human, and therefore appropriate to Renaissance thought. In the second act there are two arias with a D. C., a duet for two tenors (the first known in-stance of such a duet), and in the middle of this duet, as an interlude or echo, a duet for two flutes (behind the scenes), something which must have taken the audience rather by surprise. In the course of this act Orpheus receives the announcement of the death of his wife Eurydice. (Ex. 54.)

He is silent for some time, then breaks forth into a “lament,” a cry of sorrow, whose accompaniment consists of a double-bass, a little portable organ, and a large guitar, a distinct accompaniment for a distinct voice and character. The beginning and ending of this ” lament” are particularly fine, and it is full of harmonic innovations, one of which is an augmented chord of the sixth, a dissonance practically unknown until then.

The act concludes with a chorus, followed by an orchestral interlude which lasted from the close of this act until the curtain went up on the next, making an absolutely continuous performance. This interlude is dramatically important in its foreshadowing of the descent of Orpheus into Hades in search of his Eurydice; a point which, in the drama, is reached only at the end of the third act. Only the keenest dramatic feeling could have caused this arrangement, this musical pseudo-prophecy, which is again repeated during the passage with Charon across the Styx and at the close of the act. Its conception is suggestive of the “journey of Parsifal to the castle of the Holy Grail,” in that there is continuous music during the passage from one place to the other. Monteverde may well be called the Wagner of the seventeenth century, for the repetition of this orchestral interlude at different portions of the journey to Hades had in it all the elements of what we call the Leitmotiv (leading-motive). The scene of Act IV is laid in Hades. After long pleading, Eurydice is finally permitted to follow Orpheus provided he does not look back at her. In the scene where they appear on the stage, the composer has assigned to Orpheus a melody quite modern in style, which we cannot refrain from quoting in comparison with that of his first opera, because it shows a departure from the speaking or declaiming style (stilo parlante), and Orpheus really sings— one of the conditions upon whose fulfillment Eurydice’s departure depended. Following is one of its three stanzas, which were separated by interludes for the violins.

Then a doubt disturbs Orpheus’ mind. Is Eurydice following him, or is he being fooled by the imps of Hades? He hears dreadful sounds behind him; he fears he has been deceived; he turns, sees Eurydice; she fades from sight, and he hears the condemnation: “Thou hast broken the conditions and are unworthy of favor,” sung by the bass voice (the first bass we know of in an opera) of an unseen singer.

In the fifth act, Orpheus is bewailing his grief to the rocks and the trees, and the composer introduces echoes to this lament, as Gluck did nearly two hundred years later. Apollo then descends, and carries Orpheus to the skies, where he will see his Eurydice among the stars. The opera concludes with a dance, “Moresco,” which is described in Grove’s dictionary.

These are a few of the marvelous innovations in music which marked the years immediately following the birth of opera; from them the high musical and dramatic ideals of the early Italian composers may be partially realized.

In 1613 Monteverde obtained the position of music-director at the church of San Marco in Venice, with a much higher salary than any of his predecessors, which shows that he must have been held in high esteem by his contemporaries, and that the new style of. music had taken deep root, for Monteverde was incapable of writing music in the style of Palestrina. His first years in Venice were devoted to re-forms of music for the Church, and his first opera, Ariadne, reappeared as an oratorio, under the name of “The Lament of the Virgin.”

We have nothing operatic from his pen until 1624, when he wrote Tancred and Clorinda. Here he introduces two new effects for the violin, the pizzicato, in imitation of the clashing of swords, and the tremolo for all the strings; both used in the’ exciting scene where Tancred meets Clorinda (his disguised beloved) in mortal combat.

Shortly after the appearance of this opera, progress in art was checked by the Black Plague, which again ravaged Europe and which probably induced Monteverde to take holy orders and retire to a monastery. In entering the church, however, he did not lose his artist-nature, for through his influence there was opened in Venice, in 1637, a theater where opera could be given for the common people who had hitherto been deprived of this pleasure. He then took up the pen again and wrote four more operas.

Monteverde died in 1643 at the age of seventy-five, having played a most important part in one of the greatest revolutions which have ever taken place in any art. He strove to make the music illustrative of the text by means of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic devices, as well as by means of original orchestral effects, such as neither his predecessors nor his contemporaries had conceived, and which astonished even the musicians of his orchestra. Every new harmonic combination invented by him was used with unerring judgment as to its esthetic significance. His Orfeo makes us question the originality of what are supposed to be really modern conceptions, such as the employment of certain instruments to support the voices of certain dramatic characters, and the constant use of the declamatory style, as later employed by Wagner, in preference to the true recitative or true melody.

A word now about the instrumental prelude of that opera, the Toccata. Based from beginning to end upon a double organ-point, what shall we say of it? It is absolutely identical in construction with the introduction to Wagner’s Rheingold, although the two compositions are, of course, totally unlike in feeling and intention.

The direct successor of Monteverde was Francesco Cavalli, who, having grown up under his tutelage, had during his teacher’s lifetime obtained the position of second organist at the church of San Marco, and at the age of forty produced his first opera. That form of entertainment had now become so popular that a new theatre was opened in Italy almost every alternate year, and in less than one century (the seventeenth) six hundred and fifty-eight operas were produced in Venice alone, chiefly by native or resident poets and composers.

At the age of fifty, Cavalli produced his greatest work, Jason, which was the first opera performed in Rome, in 1671. In the score of this opera we notice that the clefs are fixed, indicating that the orchestra had then assumed a definite form. As a relic of the highest form of part-writing in polyphonic style for five voices, the violins were divided so that the strings consisted of first and second violins, first and second violas, and basses. We note also that in the less dramatic portions of the work some very florid passages are given to the voices, evidently for the display of “vocalization,” an art then growing very rapidly.

The term “opera” was first applied to the works of Cavalli, all previous works of that character being called music-dramas, like Wagner’s; The musica parlante, or recitative, of the early days was gradually transformed into another kind of recitative, the stromentato, which was not so eloquent, but had a more continuous accompaniment, while the aria became full of ornamentation (coloratura).

The appearance of the Aria as a musical form of beauty for beauty’s sake, is an indication that Renaissance influence was waning. What had happened to painting was going to happen to music, for the love of the beautiful was growing, and growing so fast that it finally became the essential thing; and the principle of realism, “truth to nature,” the genuinely dramatic expression, which was the maxim of the early Re-naissance, was to be lost in admiration for the beauty of the setting, until finally words were again wedded to music as poorly fitted to express their meaning as the popular songs which had been made to accompany the text of the Mass.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Cavalli was the sole Italian composer to follow firmly in the footsteps of Monteverde. Even before his death a musician had sprung up who had made himself felt in the domain of church music, and that was Carissimi (1604-1674). He introduced the idea of beauty for beauty’s sake, though he may still be classed in the Renaissance period. Among his best pupils were Alessandro Scarlatti and Cesti, whose arias much more resemble those by Handel of sixty years later, than those by Monteverde of thirty years before.

The Renaissance composers had endeavored to denote what a person would have sung in a particular situation if it had been the habit of people to express themselves in song instead of speech. This, as we know, was Wagner’s idea, and is, of course, the true spirit of the music-drama. The idea of Carissimi and his followers was, that music should first of all be pleasing; so he insists on beauty of outline and phrase in the music of each of his dramatic characters. His music is, therefore, far more pleasing and beautiful than Monteverde’s, but, on the other hand, Monteverde more nearly reached a realization of dramatic truth.

As an example of such departure from the truthful musical expressions, we might cite an instance from the oratorio of Jephthah, where the daughter, lamenting her fate, sings an aria, each of whose phrases closes with a short, florid pas-sage echoed by two flutes in thirds. Thinking that a singly echo would be bald, Carissimi sacrificed truth to a desire to please, something quite different from Monteverde, whose echo was a more real one.

The conceptions of Monteverde and Cavalli caused a vast improvement in the violin, and made that instrument change its position from that of an humble helper to the principal instrument in the orchestra. The beauty of its tone created a desire for similar vocal beauty, and, as a result, we find the voice-teacher abroad in the land as early as 1650.

Beginning with Scarlatti in Naples, there now developed a musical style which, in contradistinction to the sublime style of Palestrina and the dramatic style of Monteverde, might be called the style beautiful. He devoted himself largely to the promotion of the opera, omitting, however, much of the dra matic spirit, while increasing its beauty, and his compositions served as models for Handel. His fertility in composition was marvelous. At the age of sixty-two he had composed 114 operas, 200 masses and hundreds of cantatas.. Dr. Burney, the English historian, discovered a manuscript of Scarlatti’s containing 35 cantatas dated on successive days. Scarlatti was an excellent singer and teacher, a genial conductor, and a fine clavicemballist (or, as we should term it, pianist), although excelled in this by his son, Domenico. Even before his death in 1725, his style had become the model for the rising generation, and finally, as developed by his pupils Leonardo Leo and Francesco Durante, attained supremacy throughout Europe. Vain were the attempts of dramatic innovators to return to the ideals of Monteverde, for even a Handel could not change the style and form of “opera” as it had been prescribed and “iron-cladded” by Scarlatti. His extremely graceful and melodious style culminates in Bellini, Donizetti, and most of Rossini’s works. The overture, as written by him, consists of three movements, one fast, one slow, and then another fast movement — a sort of prophecy of the three movements of the early symphony.

Being a voice-teacher, Scarlatti wrote chiefly for the singer, a practice which has always been a stumbling-block to every combination of pure musical and dramatic art. He perfected the form of the aria, and made it the important part of the lyric drama, the recitative being used merely as a thread to unite the several arias and duets.

His best pupil was Porpora (1686-1766), an even greater voice-teacher than Scarlatti, for his pupils became the great singers of Europe. It was he who gave Haydn much musical instruction.

Gradually, the trills, turns and roulades of the arias, the “vocalization,” became their most attractive feature, and the singer became the chief power in the opera. The public went to hear the singer, not the opera; the composer, the musician, being no more considered. As a result, Mozart and Schubert starved, and even Wagner felt the results of this attitude.

Intellectual elevation was not required of the singer, vocalization being considered all-sufficient. During almost the whole eighteenth century, opera-composers lived under iron rules of musical construction. They could not even distribute the voices in their opera as they chose. Six principal singers was the proper number for an opera — no matter what the drama might demand — three men and three women, and the men were sopranos, or tenors, although, if circumstances compelled the use of a seventh person for a small part and a fourth man was necessary, he might be a baritone or bass. In Handel’s Teseo, for instance, all the singers were either sopranos or altos. The form and place of each aria in the opera was absolutely fixed, and the same iron conventionality which had caused the dark Middle Ages descended upon the operatic form. The society opera-goers knew the rules of operatic construction. Even if a new opera was given, they knew that at about such and such an hour in the evening the principal soprano would sing her great aria; so they came just in time to hear that, and then immediately departed.

When Handel wrote an opera whose arrangement of arias was different from the rules prescribed, he lost his following and his fortune. There were five kinds of arias; (i) the cantabile — real singing to show the range, tone and quality of the voice; (2) the portamento, to show sustained breath, phrasing, etc., (3) the aria di mezzo carattere, something mid-way between the two previous ones; (4) the parlante, in declamatory style; (5) the aria di bravura, the fireworks, the pyrotechnics, as in the mad scene of Lucia. Every scene in the opera was assigned to one singer; each singer had one aria in each act; no two arias in succession, even by different singers, were to be of the same style. The Scene I, Scene II, Scene III, etc., in the older Italian operas do not mean that the scene changes, but that each scene is assigned to a different singer, who is then entitled to the “lime-light,” everybody else staying in the background.

In the second and third acts, each of the principals had one scene with a bravura aria and took part in a duo, but there were no trios or quartets. Some one has said that it would have been impossible to have a quartet in those days, for the singer who had the principal part (the melody in the quartet) would probably have been murdered (?) by the other singers. The sublime and dramatic styles of church music steadily retreated before the advance of the public demand for coloratura singing and vocal display, a typical example being Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” which is most sensuously beautiful, but not religious.

The next prominent Italian composer after Scarlatti was Piccini, the unsuccessful rival of Gluck in Paris, and who seems to have written the first ensemble numbers for the principal singers.

When, because of the labors of Gluck, Mozart and Weber, Italian opera seemed doomed to decay, Rossini (born in 1792) was the magician who, by the sensuous charm of his melody, again captured the opera-loving public and bound it with those brilliant fetters which a large portion of the musical world has hitherto been unable or unwilling to cast off. In 1829 he himself made an attempt (his last) at real dramatic writing with an approximation of the earlier Italian form in his William Tell. Here he abandoned the prevalent Italian style and forswore florid writing, but, while this work is very melodious and also very dramatic, the Italians did not admire it until within the last thirty years.

Donizetti (1797–1848) came next in the same style, but with improvements in the ensemble numbers over those of Rossini, his greatest triumph being the sextet in Lucia, probably the most popular ensemble number in any Italian opera of the early nineteenth century.

Bellini (1802-1835), his contemporary, next captured the world with La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani, all full of great arias, but without much dramatic power — simply beautiful music.

After him came Verdi, born in 1813, with Ernani, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and later Aida, Otello and Falstaff. While his early operas are in the prevalent Italian style, in Aida he reapproaches for the first time the Monteverde idea, and Falstaff and Otello are again cast in the mould of the first great Italian operas, although an interval of more than two hundred years of melodious riot separated them. Otello is a great masterwork, and its music, like that of Falstaff, is absolutely subservient to and interpretative of the text.

After Rossini came Boito, with his Mefistofele, who partook of the Wagnerian spirit and wrote not only his own librettos but those of many of the operas of his countrymen. That the Italian composers since the day of Verdi have returned to the principle of the Renaissance, realistic dramatic expression, is evidenced by the works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini and other Italians, which belong to the standard répertoire of Modern Grand Opera companies.