After Gluck the first great name is that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Haydn had indeed written a number of operas, but they were, in the main, light in character and exercised no influence what-ever on the development of the form. At the age of twelve, Mozart had composed two operas, but the first to receive public performance was Mitridate, Re di Ponto (Mithridates, King of Pontus), which was produced at Milan two years later under his own direction. This was followed by others, but these early works do not call for any extended mention. Though they abound in melody and show a maturity remarkable in so young a composer, they were frankly written to please the taste of the time and do not in any essentials depart from the accepted Italian style then in favor, as fixed by Scarlatti and his contemporaries.
Gluck and Mozart Compared.It was not until Idomeneo, Re di Creta (Idomeneus, King of Crete) was brought out during the Carnival season of 1781, that he demonstrated fully the gifts which made him the first dramatic composer of his time. In this he shows a great advance over the conventional opera of the period and an approach to the ideals of Gluck, though neither in Idomeneo nor in any of his later operas did he attempt to embody these ideals in the uncompromising form chosen by the older master. Though contemporaries, no two composers could well be more unlike in character, temperament and methods than Gluck and Mozart. The one, a man of years, ripened through travel and study, conditioned his music according to the requirements of the drama; the other, a youth of no great intellectual endowments aside from his art, but aflame with the fire of genius, felt the drama in terms of music. Thus they approached the task from opposite sides. Not that .Gluck was without feeling or Mozart without intellect; it was simply a case of the dramatist and the musician solving the problem each in his own way. At the same time it was impossible that Gluck’s theories should be entirely without influence on Mozart. Even a genius must learn from his environment, and Gluck’s position, though sharply disputed by the Italian school to which Mozart belonged, could not be ignored by the younger man. Then, too, Mozart had been in Paris during the height of the Gluck-Piccini controversy, and it is known that he had made a close study of Alceste, to which Gluck, in the form of a dedication to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had given a preface containing a clear exposition of his principles of dramatic composition. It is hard to say, however, what direction Mozart’s dramatic course might have taken had his life not been cut so pitilessly short and if his outward circumstances had been less constrained. He was obliged to adapt himself to Italian influences which at that time were all powerful.
The Singspiel.As already mentioned, the first attempts at German opera took the form of the Singspiel, but it gradually died out during the invasion of Italian opera in Germany. Its revival and development to a higher standard was due to Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804), who received his first impulse through an English ballad opera of a farcical nature, “The Devil to Pay.” This was translated into German and given (1743) at Berlin with the original English melodies taken from popular ballads. Hiller set this translation to music and followed it with many others which soon acquired great vogue; one or two, for example, Der. Dorfbarbier (The Village Barber), are still heard in Germany. Hiller, though one of the most learned musicians of the day, the founder of the celebrated Gewandhaus Concerts in Leipzig and editor of the first musical periodical ever published, adopted a simple, natural Folk-style in these operettas, as they were also called. Goethe was particularly interested in this revival of a national form of opera; it stimulated him to the writing of the ballads which in turn acted so powerfully in developing the German song under the hands of Loewe, Schubert, Schumann and others.
Mozart’s First German Opera.Emperor Joseph II, wishing to establish the Singspiel in Vienna, commissioned Mozart to write a German opera of a similar style. This resulted in Die Entführung aus dean Serail (The Elopement from the Seraglio), and the composer’s hopes of founding a national school of opera were high. Unfortunately, he was doomed to disappointment. Though Die Entführung was received with enthusiasm, popular favor was averse to opera in any other tongue than Italian ; the German theatre was open only a few years and with the exception of Die Zauberflote, his future operas were composed to Italian texts.
His Later Operas.Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro1786), Don Giovanni (Don Juan-1788), Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute1791) rank as Mozart’s greatest operas. Considered as music alone, the last reaches a height which gives an idea of what he might have done in nationalizing the opera if he had been spared a score of years longer ; but its confused, irrational plot stands in the way of its popularization. The same objection holds good of Cosi fan Tutte (Women are All Alike-179o), which contains some of his most exquisite music.
Characteristics of Mozart’s Operas.Mozart’s conception of the opera is that of the musician, not of the dramatist. This is plain from the indifferent texts he willingly accepted, yet so universal was his genius that he fused the two elements into a complete and consistent whole. Such a union of clearly-cut characterization and musical beauty is unknown in the opera. He made his characters eternal types by means of music so apposite to their individuality that it seems in each case to spring from inward necessity, yet which as music has never been surpassed for intrinsic grace and charm. Italian melody in its best estate on a foundation of German depth and solidity is its distinguishing characteristic. This characterization is confined, how-ever, to details and personages ; of the development of the drama as a whole he apparently had but little idea. This, however, was not called for by the taste of the times ; the opera was not considered from a dramatic standpoint, save by Gluck and the composers of the French school ; the libretto furnished a series of situations suitable for musical illustration, not a consistent and logical dramatic action.
Their Significance to German Art.Mozart marks the highest point reached by the opera of the 18th century; he also marks the passing of Italian supremacy in Germany. The Germans were already masters of the other great forms, the Oratorio and the Symphony; Gluck and Mozart captured the Opera also for Germany, though it was not for several decades after Mozart’s death that German opera rose from its discredited position at the close of the century.
Beethoven’s Fidelio.A mighty. impulse was given to the development of a national school by the production of Fidelio (1805), Beethoven’s only opera. His two great predecessors had been obliged for the most part to write their operas to French and Italian texts. Beethoven (1770-1827), however, showed his independence and sturdy national character by choosing a subject totally alien to the frivolous intrigues which at that time ruled the Viennese stagea story of heroic, wifely devotionand composed it to German words and in the German style; that is, with dialogue instead of recitative. Essentially symphonic in character, Fidelio shows the same disregard of vocal limitations which characterizes the Ninth Symphony and the Mass in D. Difficult for the singers, it was still more difficult for the public. In subject and treatment it was above their heads ; they turned it the cold shoulder and it soon disappeared from the boards. An appreciation of its greatness was reserved for a later day.
Italian Composers in France and Germany.The popularity of Italian opera outside of Italy led to the expatriation of many Italian composers who exercised a powerful influence in France and Germany. Among these Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) deserves mention for his career in Vienna, where he was the successful rival of Mozart in court favor and later the teacher of Beethoven. More important was Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), who found his way to Paris just before the Revolution. A master of the severe contrapuntal school, which was then passing away, Beethoven considered him the first composer of the day for the stage and studied his works zealously. Cherubini was present at the first performance of Fidelio, which shows strong traces of the influence exerted upon Beethoven by Les Deux Journées (The Two Days, known in Germany and England as The Water Carrier), Cherubini’s greatest opera. The two were on intimate terms during the stay of the latter in Vienna for the purpose of bringing out several of his operas. There was much in common between them; the Italian had the solidity, dignity and nobility of treatment generally associated with the German character. Beethoven’s choice of a subject for his opera was doubtless influenced by Les Deux Journées; the themes of both are much the same, involving devotion and self-sacrifice of the highest order.
Spontini and Rossini.Another Italian composer who went first to France and afterward to Germany was Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851), who with La Vestale (The Vestal) enlarged the sphere of the opera in Paris. Spectacular and pompous in character, sonorous and powerful in instrumentation, it pointed directly to the type of grand opera originated by Meyerbeer nearly a generation later. In 1820, he was summoned to Berlin, where he remained as court composer and conductor for twenty-two years, a period coincident with the most significant development of the German school of opera. Spontini was the last of the many Italians who had for a century and a half borne al-most uninterrupted sway in Germany.
The most brilliant and gifted of all these wandering sons of Italy was Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868). As rich in melody as Mozart, though of a less refined type, he owed more to nature than to study. His first successful opera, Tancredi (1813), set all Italy agog with the freshness and vivacity of its airs, and it was not long before he was the most popular composer in Europe. Gifted with prodigious facilityin one period of eight years he wrote twenty operashis operas ruled all stages and fixed the standard by which all others were judged.
Characteristics of Rossini’s Operas. They are, on the whole, a reversion to the conventionalized opera of Handel’s time in being written for the singer to exhibit his art and not to express the significance of the drama; this notwithstanding their undoubted charm, the many piquant and original touches in rhythm and harmony, the occasional suggestive instrumentation. An intensely florid style is used not only in the buffet school where it can readily be justified, but in operas of a tragic nature where it is manifestly out of place. In Semiramide, for instance, a story of battle, murder and sudden death is told in the same rippling rhythms and highly ornamented melodies that illustrate the intrigues of his Barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville), where they are eminently appropriate.
His Change of Style.This is true, however, only of his works composed for the Italian stage. His Guillaume Tell (William Tell), produced in 1829, five years after his arrival in Paris, showed the influence of his new environment by an almost startling change of style. Elevated and dramatic in treatment, shorn of redundant ornament as befits the character of the subjecttaken from Schiller’s play of the same nameit remains his greatest achievement; at least in serious opera. It was also his last work for the stage. It is not known by what strange caprice he practically closed his career as composer at the age of thirty-nine.
Oxford History of Music, Vol. V.