Opera In France And England

The fame of Italian opera soon spread to other countries. Princes and kings, eager to hear the new style of music, held out golden inducements to Italian composers and singers to come to their courts ; it was generally thought that none but an Italian could compose an opera or sing an aria. The consequence was that in almost all countries during the 18th century the prevailing musical influence was Italian ; native composers and singers were obliged to study Italian models if they wished to attain to popular favor. In France, however, this influence was only sufficient to modify without obscuring the features of an essentially national school. Independence in matters of art has always been a marked characteristic of the French; they have led rather than followed. The most distinguished names in the history of French opera have been those of foreign birth, but whatever their nationalities, all give evidence of the effect exerted upon them by the definite form, the clearness of dramatic intention demanded by the canons of French taste.

Origin of French Opera.—As the Italian opera was derived from the classical tragedy, so the French opera had its origin in the Ballet, the favorite form of amusement in France. The French Ballet of the 17th century was by no means confined to the dance ; it was a heterogeneous mingling of dances and dialogues, songs and choruses, corresponding to the English Masque. Like the early operas in Italy, their spectacular features were on a large and expensive scale, which confined them to occasions of especial festivity at court or among the nobility. The taste for dancing had much to do with the direction taken by the opera in France; it is still characteristic of the French school, as is shown by the prominent place given to the ballet in the Grand Opera.

Lully.—The founder of the French school, Jean Baptiste Lully (1633-1687), was Italian by birth, but at the age of thirteen he was taken from his native city, Florence, to France, as a page in the service of the Chevalier de Guise. His musical gifts soon won him a place in the royal band and finally the post of court composer. D e first wrote bal-lets in which the King (Louis XIV) himself danced, and later turned his attention to the opera.

Italian Opera in France.—Italian opera had already been heard in France. Through Cardinal Mazarin, an opera company from Venice had visited Paris in 1645, and two years later Peri’s Euridice had been given also by a Venetian troupe; but these and later performances had aroused no attempts at imitation by French composers. They con-tented themselves with writing ballets which were per-formed as intermezzos between the acts of Italian operas in order to bring them nearer the French standards of taste. The superior vocal ability of the Italians was acknowledged, but the lack of rhythmic form in their music made an un-favorable impression. The king was passionately fond of dancing; he and his courtiers frequently took part in the ballets produced at court, hence the interest lay in the drama as illustrated by the dance rather than by song.

Beginning of French Opera.—The first French opera to receive public performance was Pomone (Pomona), in 1671, by Robert Cambert (1628-1677), who had previously written several others which had been performed only in private. It awakened much more interest than the Italian operas which thus far had been heard in Paris, and incited Lully to the composition of his first opera, Les Fêtes de l’Amour et Bacchus (The Feasts of Love and Bacchus), which was produced the following year. From that time until his death he composed fifteen operas, which deter-mined the form of French opera for practically a century.

Characteristics of Lully’s Operas. — Lully’s operas, like those of the Florentine school, were on the whole declamatory in style, and like them their subjects were generally taken from classical mythology. They are destitute of the sustained melody which appeared somewhat later in the Neapolitan school; but the recitatives are so skilfully varied in rhythm and show such intimate knowledge of the genius of the French language that in dramatic effect they are far superior to those of the earlier school. To the overture, the ballet, the chorus, he assigned music of a different type, rhythmic and formal in nature, thus relieving the monotony of an exclusively declamatory style. A master of stage-craft, his operas abounded in cunningly-devised spectacles and original scenic effects which excited wonder and held the attention. In short, so far as the means of the times allowed, we find in the Lully operas the well-considered balance between the musical and dramatic elements still characteristic of the French school.

The French Overture.—One of Lully’s greatest services was the elaboration of the Overture into a larger and more dignified form. The Italians had never paid much attention to the overture. At first it appeared only as a brief instrumental prelude, sometimes but a few measures in length. The introduction to Monteverde’s Orfeo, for ex-ample, consists of only nine measures which the composer directs to be played over three times to serve as overture. Later it was somewhat extended in length and provided with some regularity of design, but the Overture as a fixed form dates from Lully. It began with an impressive slow movement, followed by an Allegro in fugue style. Some-times this was all ; but it generally concluded with another slow movement, often one of the stately, dignified dance tunes of the day, and often merely a repetition of the Introduction. This form was known as the French Overture, and was soon adopted by composers of all nationalities. About the middle of the 18th century it was supplanted by the Italian Overture, perfected by Scarlatti, and described in Lesson XIX.

The Prologue.—The overture was commonly followed by a Prologue. This had nothing to do with the action of the drama ; it introduced mythological and allegorical characters who danced and sang, often paying the most fulsome adulation to the king, who was compared to the most celebrated heroes of mythology and antiquity. After the prologue, either the overture was repeated, or another and a shorter one was played. This pseudo-classical type of opera naturally flourished in the artificial atmosphere of the court on which it was dependent for favor. It lasted until the time of Gluck, when the influences which led to the great uprising of the people in the latter part of the 18th century swept it away with other traditions and conventions.

Rameau.—Until we come to Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), none of Lully’s successors succeeded in definitely extending the limits he had fixed. Rameau had won the name of the first theoretician of the day, and was a man of fifty when his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was produced. Even he made no essential change in the scheme established by Lully beyond greatly enlarging the sphere of the orchestra, originating novel rhythms and bolder harmonies. This was, however, a long step in advance, since it saved the opera from sinking to the level of a dull, mechanical imitation of Lully’s methods, into which contemporary composers had fallen.

The English School.—Italian music, in the form of the Madrigal, had been popular in England since the time of its introduction in 1598, by Thomas Morley (1557-1604) . Native composers immediately took it into favor, a favor it has never lost; madrigals are still composed and sung in England, though elsewhere the form has been dead for nearly two centuries. The declamatory opera of the early Italian school, however, never took root. It was, as we have seen, primarily a drama in which music played a secondary part, and as such it was far too crude and lacking in human interest to appeal to a public accustomed to the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and whose taste in music, moreover, was rather for melody than for recitative. Then, during the Protectorate, the Puritanical spirit which led to the destruction of church organs and for a time forbade all theatrical performances proved an in-superable obstacle to any development of dramatic music.

The First English Operas.—In 1656, Sir William Davenant, the playwright and theatrical manager, evaded this prohibition by introducing music into his plays and calling them operas. Much of this music, which was in the form of incidental songs, choruses and instrumental interludes, was written by Henry Lawes (1595-1662) and Matthew Locke (d. 1677). The latter is well known for his music to “Macbeth,” which up to within a few years was not infrequently heard in performances of the tragedy. These so-called operas had little or no effect on the development of a native school. They are principally noteworthy in being the first English operas and the first theatrical performances in England in which women appeared on the stage. Previously the parts of women had been played by boys.

Influence of the French School.—At the Restoration in 166o, Charles II found the prevailing style of music in England but little to his taste. Fond of the gay measures and lively dances of the French opera, in 1664 he sent Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), the most talented of the boys forming the choir in the Chapel Royal, to Paris to study with Lully. Three years later he returned, and be-came the teacher of England’s greatest composer.

Henry Purcell. — This was Henry Purcell (1658-1695), one of a family of musicians of whom he stands first. As a child he is said to have composed anthems while a chorister in the Chapel Royal, and at the age of twenty-two he composed his first opera, Dido and Eneas, a most remarkable work for a youth of his years. It is the only one of his dramatic works in which there is no spoken dialogue, its place being supplied by recitative, and therefore, strictly speaking, it was his only opera. He can never have seen an opera of this type; his acquaintance with the new style must have been largely based on what Humfrey had told him of such performances in Paris, though it is possible that he had the opportunity of studying Lully’s scores. In its union of dramatic feeling and characterization with depth of musical resource, Dido and Eneas was far in advance of anything that had yet appeared in France or Italy. Though it shows the influence of the French school, the sturdy English character which distinguishes all of Purcell’s music is plainly apparent.

Purcell’s Dramatic Works.—It was followed by a large number of works for the stage, but these were in the main merely incidental music for dramas ; among them Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (known as The Fairy Queen), Dryden’s “King Arthur,” the last being the most important and extended in form. Unfortunately, many of them have been lost ; but enough remain to show that in Purcell’s early death England lost the most original musical genius she ever possessed. He founded a distinctly national school which, for the lack of a successor of equal gifts, was destined to succumb to foreign influences.

Their Characteristics.—His melodies bear the freshness and spontaneity of the English Folk-song at a period when music was generally cultivated, before civil wars and religious bigotry had crushed the art spirit which, during the 16th century, had made the English people the leaders in musical progress. His recitatives show a vigor and an intuitive perception of dramatic effect unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries on the Continent. He was an accomplished contrapuntist and applied his knowledge of counter-point with admirable results to sacred music, yet never allowed it to become obtrusive in his dramatic works. In these clear, expressive melody and vigorous declamation were the distinguishing features ; his learning served only to secure a natural flow of the one and an appropriate setting for the other.

The Masque.—The precursor of the English opera was the Masque. Like the French Ballet, this was a dramatic entertainment consisting of dialogues, dances, songs, and choruses. The subject was allegorical or mythical in nature and the mounting of the most elaborate description. The leading poets and dramatists of the day wrote many masques. The most famous was Milton’s “Masque of Comus,” the music by Lawes, which was performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634. The music in these masques was at first designed merely to give variety to what was in the main a pleasure to the eye, but Purcell relieved it of this subordinate character by investing it with a weight and authority which made it an integral factor in the dramatic expression.

Typical English Opera.—He thus fixed the form of the English opera as a play with songs, choruses, ensembles, etc., connected by spoken dialogue instead of recitatives. The music, therefore, instead of carrying on the action, is confined to the more quiet situations of the drama, such as are naturally adapted to lyrical expression. The in-flexibility of this form has doubtless had much to do with the lack of development in the English School of Opera compared with the remarkable growth of other schools which have abandoned the union of the spoken with the sung word in the serious opera.

The Ballad Opera.-The only characteristic creation of the English school is the Ballad Opera. This had its origin in “The Beggar’s Opera,” produced in 1728. Slight in texture, it was simply a play with songs set to the most popular ballad tunes of the day. Its extraordinary success in the face of the financial failure of Italian opera left no doubt as to the real taste of the English people, and was decisive as to the direction taken by later composers, such as Sir Henry Bishop (1786-1855), Michael Balfe (18o8-1870), Arthur Sullivan (1842-1901).


Davy.—History of English Music.