The introduction of the opera into Germany dates from 1627. In that year a German translation of Rinuccini’s Dafne, which, it will be remembered, was the text of Peri’s first opera, was set to music by Heinrich Schuetz (1585-1672) and performed on the occasion of the wedding of the Landgraf of Hesse. Schütz, who also composed the first German oratorio, Die Auferstehung Christi (The Resurrection of Christ), had been sent by the Landgraf to study in Italy in 1609, only two years after the production of Monteverde’s Orfeo. The score of his Dafne has been lost, but it was doubtless in accordance with the principles of the Florentine school. The Thirty Years’ War and its lamentable consequences prevented any immediate development of the new form. Occasional productions of Italian opera were given in several German cities, but it was not until the establishment of the Hamburg opera late in the century that the new musical movement gained a permanent footing in Germany. Even then its popularization proceeded but slowly.
German Composers Barred.It is true that not long after the beginning of the 18th century, great interest was manifested in Italian opera at .a number of courts, Berlin and Dresden in particular, but this had no influence in the formation of a national school. Its effect indeed was the ex-act contrary. Singers and composers were brought from Italy ; among the cultivated classes opera in German was considered a barbarism, so that native musicians met with little or no encouragement in this field. They were obliged to write their operas to an Italian text if they wished a hearing for them; the Church alone was freely open to German composers. The Church, too, was the only place where the people could hear music; public concerts were unknown and, save at Hamburg, the opera could be heard only by invitation to those who had entrée to court circles. This led to the remarkable activity in the production of sacred music which is such a feature of that period. This also, as shown by the early history of the Hamburg opera, was more in consonance with German character than the light, ephemeral operas which ruled the Italian stage.
Characteristics of the Early German Opera.The Ham-burg opera house was opened in 1678 with a Biblical Sing-spiel (literally song-play) of an allegorical nature, Adam and Eva; oder der erschaffene, gefallene and wieder aufgerichtete Mensch (Adam and Eve; or the Created, Fallen and Redeemed Man) by Johann Theile (1646-1724) a noted organist of the day and a pupil of Schütz. This was the first performance of a German opera on a public stage. The Singspiel corresponds to the English ballad opera in being a series of songs, ensembles, etc., mainly of a simple nature, connected by spoken dialogue. The curious taste of the time is shown by the choice of subject; the work itself was a survival of the Miracle Plays and Mysteries of the Middle Ages. It begins with the creation of the earth, which is formed out of chaos by characters representing the four elements; the Almighty descends by means of a flying machine and calls man into being ; Lucifer succeeds in his temptation of Eve to the great joy of demons who sing an exulting chorus, etc. As the Italians took the subjects for their early operas from classical mythology, so the Germans took theirs from Bible history. Adam and Eve was followed by a series of similar Singspiele: Michal and David, The Maccabean Mother, Esther, Cain and Abel, and many others.
Change of Character.In time, however, these gave way to operas in the Italian style. The chief agent in this change was Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) who, as composer and manager, brought the Hamburg opera to its highest point. Associated with him was Johannes Mattheson (1681-1764), a man of many and varied gifts as singer, composer, conductor, scholar and diplomat, now chiefly remembered by his close relations with George Frederic Handel (1685-‘759). The latter at the age of eighteen came from his native city, Halle, to Hamburg, then the musical centre of Germany, to continue his studies. Mattheson recognized the youth’s genius and opened the way for the performance of his first opera, Almira.
Handel and the Hamburg Opera.This, with Nero, was given in 1705 with such success that Keiser, jealous of the young composer, set them both to music himself and banished his rival’s works from the stage. Handel thereupon withdrew and the year following went to Italy, where he spent several years. His connection with the Hamburg opera was too slight for him to have exercised any influence upon it; then, too, he had not yet reached artistic independence himself, and it is doubtful whether he would have made any change in the direction it was taking toward conventionalized Italian opera. At that time the Hamburg opera was rapidly losing its national character; the style mainly cultivated was that of the Neapolitan school; a tasteless mingling of languages was even allowed in one and the same operathe recitatives were often sung in German and the arias in Italian. This decadence continued, with a consequent loss of popular favor, until in 1738 opera in German was given up entirely, and Italian opera reigned triumphant in Germany.
The Conventionalized Italian Opera.Handel, on his re-turn from Italy, finally found his way to England, where he made his home for the rest of his life. The series of operas he produced there form the climax of the type originated by Scarlatti, which by this time flourished on all stages to the exclusion of all others, save in France, where the ideals of Lully ,and his school still prevailed. Its chief aim was to afford singers an opportunity to display their accomplishments. To this end the composer directed his attention principally to the production of arias which should correspond to this demand. Exquisitely beautiful as these often were, their preponderance completely obscured the dramatic significance of the opera, and led the singers to entertain grossly exaggerated ideas of their importance. They dictated to composers, refused to sing what in their opinion failed to suit their voices, and in many ways kept the opera from rising above the low artistic level to which it had fallen. To please them, a highly artificial scheme of arrangement was adopted to which the drama was totally subservient. Only six characters were allowed, three men and three women ; the arias were strictly classified according to style and assigned to the singers in a certain fixed order ; no ensemble beyond a duet was permitted, and the chorus sang only in the closing finale. No matter what the dramatic exigencies might be, adherence to these formule was rigidly exacted.
Handel’s Operas.Though Handel infused a vigor of spirit and a wealth of characteristic melody into this form of opera, he made no definite attempt to escape its restrictions. Many of his most beautiful creations are buried in operas which are dead beyond possibility of resurrection on account of his acquiescence in the sentiment of his times. That this is not due to lack of innate power is shown by his oratorios.
Gluck and His Reform of the Opera.This so-called concert opera reigned with almost undisputed sway until the influence of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) wrought a momentous change. Persuaded of the low estate to which the opera had been reduced, Gluck stood for a re-turn to first principles ; he advocated a ruthless sacrifice of the conventionalities which through the vanity of sing-ers and the love of sensation on the part of the public had grown up around the opera and the placing of it upon its original foundation of the drama. He was a man of mature years when in 1762 he put his theories into practice by the production of Orfeo in Vienna. He had composed many operas in the prevailing Italian style, but his judgment, formed by extensive study and travel, convinced him of the essential weakness of that school: its concentration upon the purely musical element. This he saw made of the opera a puppet-show for the display of vocal art which, great as it was from a technical point of view, was mechanical and meretricious in character. He was not alone in his condemnation; critics and thinkers such as Addison and Steele in England, Diderot in France, Marcello and Algarotti in Italy had employed the varied resources of wit, satire and reason to expose the follies and inconsistencies of the opera. From the nature of the case, however, they could work no change; most of them were literary men who could criticise but not create.
Gluck’s Travels and their Influence.Gluck had traveled much. There was hardly an art-centre in Europe from Copenhagen to Naples which he had not visited for the purpose of bringing out his works. In England, he had heard Handel’s oratorios, which profoundly impressed him; in Paris, he had made acquaintance with Rameau’s operas. Both of these masters exercised a strong influence over his change of style; the former by his powerful handling of the chorus which had been practically banished from the Italian stage, the latter by his consistent adherence to dramatic truth of expression. He was in addition a zealous student of art and literature in all their phases; he brought to his problem not only the ear of the musician but the intellect of the scholar.
“Orfeo.”In Orfeo, Gluck took the same stand which Peri had taken in his opera on the same myth a century and a half before: the illustration of the drama through music which should give it a poignancy of expression denied to the spoken word. The later composer had the immense advantage of musical resources undreamed-of at the time of the Florentine opera, but both stand upon the same artistic platform. It was a daring task that Gluck had attempted. Orpheus, robbed by death of Euridice, seeks to regain her by forcing entrance to the place of departed spirits. On his descent to the nether world he is confronted by a band of demons who bar his way, but finally melted to tears by the pathos of his song, they allow him to pass. The composer must make this appeal adequate to the effect; anything less would result in an anti-climax totally disastrous to dramatic illusion. Gluck passed this test triumphantly. Even today this scene remains one of the most powerful known to the operatic stage. Orfeo, in its strength and simplicity, was so opposed to the taste of the day that its victory was by no means unquestioned, but it soon won universal recognition and with its successor, Alceste (1767), is the oldest opera heard at the present day.
Gluck in Paris. Alceste was followed by Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen), but the severity of the new style aroused such a storm of hostile criticism that the discouraged composer turned to Paris with his Iphigenie en Aulide (Iphigenia in Aulis) to a French text after Racine’s tragedy. Marie Antoinette, then the wife of the Dauphin, had been his pupil in Vienna, and through her influence the opera was produced, though not without arousing one of the most bitter wars in musical annals. Twelve years before, Italian Opera Buffa had gained a footing in Paris. Its lightness, melodic grace, and witty dramatic situations captivated many who immediately attacked the prevailing type of French opera, of which Rameau was the head, as heavy and unmusical. This opinion was strenuously combated by others who upheld native art. Thus there were two strongly-opposed parties, one defending the Italian, the other the French school of opera. After Rameau’s death, the Italian party was in the ascendency, but on Gluck’s arrival with a French opera he was taken as the representative of the national school. Piccini, the most popular Italian composer of the day, was pitted against him, but it needed only the production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris) to crush his rival’s claims. This was his last great work. He retired to Vienna, which was his home until his death.
Influence of Gluck.The influence exerted by Gluck was far-reaching and permanent. The reform he initiated did not create a schoolit did far more; it profoundly affected all schools. With no immediate followers among the composers of his time he stood alone, as he stands today, one of the most commanding figures in musical history. His Orfeo marks the beginning of a new era by rescuing a great and important form of art from a decadence which had robbed it of legitimate power and effect. The opera more than any other form of music is dependent upon popular favor for existence. It is therefore peculiarly susceptible to influences which tend to lower artistic standards. Gluck, however, made it impossible that it should ever again sink to the level of the mass of crudities and puerilities from which he lifted it.
Oxford History of Music, Vol. IV.