Music History – Italian School Of The 19th Century

—While Meyerbeer was dominating the French stage and through it exerting a powerful influence on serious opera in all countries, the Italian school was recovering in part from the impulse given it by Rossini. The highly ornamented style which he brought into vogue was modified in the works of several composers who also gave more consideration to truth of expression. With these, melody still reigned supreme, but it was short of the excessive ornamentation which overloaded Rossini’s music; in character and rhythm it was also more generally in ac-cord with sentiment and situation. The florid element was by no means suppressed; it had been an integral factor in Italian music for two centuries and was too strongly entrenched in public favor to be banished so completely as it had been in the German romantic opera, but it was kept in subordination and in the main not allowed to dictate the melodic idea. This was a step in advance for the Italian school of that period, which through the fluent warblings of Rossini and his imitators, had approached dangerously near the Scarlatti-Handel type of the previous century.

Donizetti.—This reaction in the direction of greater simplicity and sincerity was led by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). At first a follower of Rossini, he only attained success after the latter had ceased composing and he himself had acquired a style of his own. Donizetti was not with-out innate force, but his great melodic facility led him to rely upon melody rather than upon musical development or dramatic characterization. Hence his tragic operas, though often admirable in detail, lack the sustained strength demanded by their subjects. Of these, Lucia (founded upon Scott’s “Bride of Lammermoor”) achieved the greatest popularity, while in La Favorita (composed for the Grand Opéra) he shows more dramatic power than in any of his more than three-score operas. In many of his lighter works he is particularly happy; for example, in Don Pasquale, which compares favorably with Rossini’s Il Barbiere, and in L’Elisire d’Amore (The Elixir of Love). La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment—written for the Opéra Comique) has made the tour of the world.

Bellini. — His younger contemporary, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), on the contrary, displays no capacity for humor nor is he much better fitted to cope with the somber or the heroic. Essentially a lyrical temperament, neither broad nor deep but endowed with exquisite sensibility within certain limits, his sphere is the emotional, the tender and the elegiac. For this reason his charming opera, La Sonnambula (The Somnambulist), on account of its idyllic subject, is a more representative work than Norma or I Puritani (The Puritans), though both enjoyed high popularity until within recent years. Much of Bellini’s vogue was due to the admirable singing of a number of Italian artists who were identified with his works—Pasta, Grisi, sopranos; Mario, tenor ; Tamburini, baritone ; Lablache, basso, not to forget Jenny Lind, who was at her best in his operas. With their passing and the establishment of the modern school of dramatic composition, in which the voice is only one of many factors instead of being the chief element of expression, they have gradually dropped from the repertory.

Verdi. — A far more significant personality than either Donizetti or Bellini is Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Not merely a melodist but a dramatist as well, his long life gave him the opportunity of profiting by the many influences which brought about the mighty musical development of the last hundred years. The fact that he did so without compromising his artistic or national individuality shows the inherent genius which gives to him the distinction of being the great Italian composer of the century. Strong and sturdy from the first, his early works, if somewhat coarse in fiber, seemed doubly powerful in contrast with those of his contemporaries, which were distinguished by sweetness and melody rather than by depth or vigor. From Ernani to Rigoletto, from the much sung Trovatore to Don Carlos, to mention only a few of his, thirty operas; Verdi shows a steady growth in largeness of style and command of means which culminated in Aida, written for the Khedive of Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal in 1871.

Aida.—Aida is the full fruition of the Romantic movement beyond the Alps, manifested, however; in a style and manner thoroughly Italian. Unmistakably influenced by the uncompromising stand taken in Germany by Wager, Verdi here shows the definite adoption of a new standard, yet by methods which make no decided break with what he had hitherto accomplished. In form, Aida is closely allied to the Meyerbeer type of Grand Opéra through its succession of dramatic and spectacular features, but these develop naturally in the course of the action and are combined with a sincerity and unity of effect lacking in the more artificial creations of the German composer. The florid style is strictly avoided ; without the continuous flow of the music drama, the different movements, recitatives, arias, ensembles, etc., are yet more closely connected and are sustained by a richer, more fluent orchestration than he had hitherto given to his operas, the local color called for by the Egyptian theme receiving adequate consideration.

Significance of Aida.—Aida marks the beginning of the new Italian school, one more in sympathy with the original conception of the opera as a drama, while retaining the characteristic Italian grace and charm of vocal treatment. This school was still further enlarged and developed by Verdi, but this extension belongs to a later period and will be considered in its logical connection.

Wagner and the Music Drama.—It is to Richard Wagner (1813-1883) that we owe the renaissance in modern form of the primitive ideal of the opera as embodied in the works of Peri and Caccini. Simple and formless as these now appear, they contain the germ of all that he has accomplished, apart from the question of means, even to the very name of music drama. This he revived because, in his opinion, the term opera had acquired a preponderantly musical signification which made it inappropriate for his later works in view of their dramatic character. An exception to the general rule of precocity among musicians, it was not until his sixteenth year that he resolved to devote himself to music. Like Weber, whom as a child he saw frequently and regarded with the utmost reverence, his early associations were with the theatre and the drama, a fact of ne small significance in the careers of both. Der Freischütz was his favorite opera, a liking which bore abundant fruit in later years.

His Early Operas. — The future master of the music drama, however, began by composing operas—operas, more-over, in which he shows originality in one feature only—that of writing their texts himself, and this remained his invariable practice. In other respects they gave no hint of the startling individuality he was to unfold so unexpectedly in his Flying Dutchman. His first opera was Die Feen (The Fairies). It was based on a fairy tale of but slight worth, and the music was strongly reminiscent of Weber and Marschner. As the work of a youth of twenty, without reputation or influence, it is hardly surprising that he found no manager willing to produce it. He was some-what more fortunate with his second opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Love Veto), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” This was performed once, in 1836, at Magdeburg, where he was director of the opera, and had thus come under the influence of the French and Italian composers then popular in Germany. The music is such a palpable imitation of Adam, Auber, Donizetti, and Bellini that it has never been given since. Die Feen was never produced during his lifetime, but a few years after his death received a number of representations in Munich.

His Sojourn in Paris.—In 1839, he determined to go to Paris. Many foreign composers had succeeded in entering the Grand Opéra, among them Meyerbeer, then in the full flush of the renown he had gained with Les Huguenots. What one German had done, another might attempt. Accordingly, with the utmost faith in his star and amid manifold discouragements, Wagner made his way to the French capital, where he hoped through the influence of Meyerbeer to secure the acceptance of his Rienzi at the Grand Opéra. He had prepared it from Bulwer’s novel of the same name with the express intention of utilizing it as a framework for the large spectacular style demanded by the Académie de Musique. His sojourn in Paris brought him nothing but disappointment. Neither Rienzi nor Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), which he wrote during his stay of two and a half years, was successful in winning a hearing, while he lived the greater part of the time in the most painfully straitened circumstances.

Rienzi.—Before long, he realized the hopelessness of his endeavor and sent Rienzi to Dresden, where it was accepted and after a long delay performed in 1842. The result was a triumphant success and led to the speedy production of The Flying Dutchman. This, however, by no means made a similar impression. Rienzi was an opera of the type made familiar by Meyerbeer, in which effect was secured by the heaping together of every device known to stagecraft. The ballet, the march of the Messengers of Peace, the final catastrophe of the burning of Rome, had as much to do with its enthusiastic reception as the :music, which was noisy, showy and brilliant, as befitted a work of such calibre.

The Flying Dutchman. Change of Style. —The Flying Dutchman, however, showed Wagner in an entirely different light. With it, instead of receiving his inspiration from without, as had been the case with the preceding operas, it came from within. On his way to Paris he had made a stormy voyage of several weeks from a port on the Baltic to London. He was familiar with the myth of the Flying Dutchman, and found that the sailors on board his ship believed it implicitly. This in connection with Heine’s version of the legend, which represents the unhappy mariner as doomed to perpetual wandering on stormy seas until he finds a woman faithful unto death, made a strong impression on him, and while in Paris he wrote the poem and composed the music within seven weeks after finishing Rienzi. A more sudden metamorphosis of style is unknown in the history of music. The earlier work was an opera pure and simple, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, characterized by pomp, brilliancy, sonority. Its successor was conceived as a drama in which music served to emphasize the action and to intensify the emotional situations; instead of being master, it was servant; external effects were disregarded save only as they were in harmony with this conception. Not that the composer entirely achieved this ideal; The Flying Dutchman displays not a few lapses into operatic conventionalities, but as a whole it was a startling and radical change which puzzled and displeased the public. They had looked for something in the style of Rienzi and could make nothing of a work so contrary to the popular idea of what an opera should be. Accordingly, after a few performances, it was dropped from the repertory.

Tannhâuser. — Nothing daunted by the lack of favor shown his change of style, Wagner carried it to a still greater extent in his next opera, Tannhäuser (1845), founded on a medieval legend. The dramatic motive of this is much the same as that of The Flying Dutchman, one of which Wagner was particularly fond—the power of love to redeem and save from the consequences of sin and error. Tannhäuser brought about his head the full storm of hostile criticism which with The Flying Dutchman had only begun to lower. He was reproached for its difficulty, for its lack of pleasing melodies, for the audacious harmonies which many critics considered inexcusable dissonances. Singers objected to the broad declamation it required; they complained that it would eventually ruin their voices.

Lohengrin.—This almost general dissatisfaction, however, led to no concessions by the composer in his next opera, Lohengrin, which marked a further advance in the unpopular direction taken by its predecessors, but it interfered with its performance. Though he was conductor of the Opera at Dresden, he could not secure permission to pro-duce it. Baffled and discouraged in his artistic schemes, a radical in politics, he joined the insurrectionists during the revolution of 1849. The failure of the rebellion necessitated a hasty flight from Germany. He took refuge in Switzer-land and remained in exile until a proclamation of amnesty in 1861 allowed him to return. In the meantime he had sent the score of Lohengrin to Liszt, then conductor of the opera at Weimar, and there it was brought out in 1850.

Lohengrin proved the turning-point in his fortunes. The romance of the subject, its dramatic treatment and undeniable beauty gradually reconciled the public to the novelty of its style. Before Wagner was relieved from his sentence of banishment it had become one of the most popular operas in Germany—he once ruefully remarked that he would soon be the only German who had not heard it.