It is interesting to recall the origin of our words ” treble ” and ” discant.” The latter was derived from the first attempts to break away from the monotony of several persons singing the same melody in unison, octaves, fifths, or fourths. ln such cases the original melody was called cantus firmus (a term still generally used in counter-point to designate the given melody of an exercise to which the student is to write other parts), the new melody that was sung with it was called the discard, and when a third part was added, it received the name triplum or treble. As Ambros remarks, this forcible welding together of different melodies, often well-known old tunes, secular or derived from the church chants, was on a direct line with the contemporary condition of the other arts. For instance, on the portal to the left of the Cathedral of Saint Mark, at Venice, is a relief, representing some Biblical scene, which is entirely made up of fragments of some older sculptured figures, placed together without regard to anatomy in much the same brutal fashion that the melodies of the time were sung together. The traces of this clumsy music-making extended down to Palestrina’s time, and became the germ of counterpoint, canon, and fugue, constituting (apart from the folk song) the only music known at that time.
This music, however, very soon developed into two styles, one adopted by the church, the other, a secular style, furnishing the musical texture both of opera and other secular music. The opera, or rather the art form we know under that name (for the name itself conveys nothing, for which reason Wagner coined the term “music drama “) broke away from the church in the guise of Mysteries, as they were called in mediæval times. A Mystery (of which our modern oratorio is the direct descendant) was a kind of drama illustrating some sacred subject, and the earliest specimens laid the foundation for the Greek tragedy and comedy. We still see a relic of this primitive art form in the Oberammergau Passion Play.
We read of the efforts made, as early as the fifth century, to hold the people to the church; among other devices employed was that of illustrating the subjects of the services by the priests performing the offices being dressed in an appropriate costume. Little by little the popular songs of the people crept into the church service among the regular ecclesiastical chants, thus foreshadowing the beginnings of modern opera; for after a while, special Latin texts were substituted for the regular service, the mimetic part of which degenerated into the most extraordinary license as, for instance, in the ” Feast of Asses ” (January 14) which may be called a burlesque of the mass, and which has been described in a former chapter.
With this mixture of the vernacular and the official Latin, these Miracle and Passion Plays, as well as the Mysteries and Moralities (as different forms of this ecclesiastical mumming were called) began to be given in other places besides the churches.
In addition to this combination of singing and acting, the tenson or poetic debate (which was one form of the troubadour songs, and one very often acted by the jongleurs) probably also did its part towards giving stability to this new art form. The earliest specimen of it, in its purely secular aspect, is a small work entitled ” Robin et Marian,” by Adam de la Hale, a well-known troubadour (called ” the humpback,” born at Arras in the south of France in 1240), who followed in the train of that ferocious Duke Charles of Anjou, who beheaded Konradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens, in 1268, and Manfred, both of them minnesingers.
As the Mystery was the direct ancestor of our oratorio, so was the little pastoral of Adam de la Hale the germ of the modern French vaudeville. One of its melodies is said to be sung to this day in some parts of southern France.
The entire object in this little play being that both words and action should be perfectly understood, it is obvious that as little as possible should be going on during the singing. Thus, such melodies as we find in these old pastoral plays would be accompanied by short notes, serving merely to give the pitch and tonality, which would gradually develop into chords, thus laying the foundation for harmony.
If, on the other hand, we look at the ” church play ” of the same period, the Mystery, and remember that it was sung by men accustomed to singing the organum of Hucbald, we have a clue as to what it was and what it led up to. For while one part or voice of the music would give a melody (copied from or at any rate resembling the Gregorian chant or the sequences of Notker of Tubilo), the other voices would sing songs in the vernacular, and, strangest of all, one voice would repeat some Latin word, or even a ” nonsense word” (to use Edward Lear’s term) but much more slowly than the other voices. Thus the needs of the Mystery were as well met by incipient counterpoint on the one hand, as, on the other, the secular song-play engendered the sense of harmony.
That the early secular forerunner of opera, as represented by “Robin et Marian,” was still, to a certain degree, controlled by the church is clear if we remember that at that time the only methods of noting music were entirely in the hands of the clergy. The notation for the lute, for instance, was invented about 146o to 1500. Thus, we can say that the recording of secular music was not free from church influence until some time after the sixteenth century.
This primitive ” opera ” music was thus fettered by difficulty of notation and the influence of the ecclesiastical rules until perhaps about 1600, when the first real opera began to find a place in ltaly. Jacopo Peri and Caccini were among the first workers in the comparatively new form, and they both took the same subject, Eurydice. Of the former the following two short excerpts will suffice; the first is where Orpheus bewails his fate; in the second he expresses his joy at bringing Eurydice back to earth. Caccini’s opera was perhaps the first to introduce the many useless ornaments that, up to the middle of this century, were characteristic of Italian opera.