Oratorio And Development Of The Opera

—The novelty of the new style, which was called the stilo rappresentativo (representative style), the vigor and freedom it gave to an impressive delivery of the text, aroused universal attention. Among the composers who essayed it was Emilio del Cavaliere (1550-1599). By applying it to a sacred subject, he originated the Oratorio. Roman by birth, he had passed part of his life in Florence, and though not a member of the Camerata, was familiar with its aims and practice.

The germ both of the Opera and Oratorio is to be found in the Miracle Plays or so-called Mysteries of the Middle Ages. These were dramatic representations of Bible scenes or religious allegories by means of which a populace unable to read was taught the great truths of sacred history. Cavaliere’s oratorio, La Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo (The Representation of Soul and Body), was given in 1600 in Rome, at the Oratory of the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella—hence its name.

Its Characteristics.—Save for the nature of the subject, there was no apparent difference between it and an opera. The allegorical characters taking part appeared in costume and in action. The score even gives directions by which it may be concluded with a dance if so desired. By this, how-ever, dignified and stately movements are understood, in nowise resembling the rapid dance of modern times. The composer in his instructions for performance, which are unusually full and complete, lays great stress upon an expressive delivery of the text, and the swelling and diminishing of the tones by the singers. In vigor and characterization it far surpasses Peri’s and Caccini’s operas. Cavaliere’s death, which occurred ten months before the production of his work, and the great popularity of the Opera, put a stop to the immediate development of the Oratorio; that was reserved for Carissimi a generation later.

Monteverde.—The task of taking the opera from the experimental stage and of placing it on the artistic foundation which it now occupies was accomplished by Claudio Monteverde (1568-1643), a man of extraordinary genius and originality. A harmonist of surpassing force and boldness, he had always rebelled against the restraints of the contrapuntal school, though, unlike Peri and Caccini, he was skilled in its intricacies. He was viol player in the band of the Duke of Mantua, and had composed masses and madrigals, many of which were severely criticised by the pedants of the day. He joined definite issue with them in his freedom of treating dissonances, the distinguishing feature of modern harmony. Heretofore, sevenths, ninths, augmented fourths and the like had never been heard without preparation. Monteverde, however, introduced them without regard to this restriction, little heeding the anathemas heaped upon his head by those who considered his infractions of established rules unpardonable. His ardent, restless temperament, seeking novel modes of expression, often led to wild and extravagant combinations which even today appear harsh and forced. At that time they must have seemed wilful attempts at outraging the ear and the sense of harmonic propriety. These innovations, however, are the cornerstone of modern harmony; of this as well as of the opera, Monteverde is the real founder. What are defects in his church music are excellences in his operas. The discords which disturb the serenity of a religious atmosphere are admirably fitted to produce dramatic effects and powerful climaxes. Monteverde belonged to the stage as his great contemporary, Palestrina, belonged to the church.

Position of Music in the 17th Century. — The interest which the success of the Florentine composers would have for a man thus gifted can be readily imagined. Yet he was obliged to wait a number of years for an opportunity to emulate their achievements. Music then was the especial pastime of the great; it was part of the state with which they surrounded themselves. Almost all titled and wealthy families had their own bands of musicians and choirs of singers. These assisted in their private chapels and lent additional eclat to seasons of festivity. Concerts and operas were given only at court or in the palaces of noblemen; public halls for any kind of musical occasion were unknown. A musician or composer could make his way only by attaching himself to a noble house or by securing a patron in court circles. Dafne and Euridice were made possible through the interest and protection of Count Bardi and Count Corsi. The opera was also attended with great expense. The taste of the times demanded an enormous out-lay for mounting—costumes, scenery, decorations ; only the extremely wealthy could afford it, and they reserved it for occasions of especial importance.

Monteverde’s First Opera.—In 1607, the marriage of Margaret of Savoy to Francesco Gonzaga, son of the Duke of Mantua, opened the way for Monteverde’s first opera, Arianna (Ariadne), which was received with the utmost enthusiasm. Unfortunately, but a fragment of it remains, Ariadne’s lament after her desertion by Theseus, the most celebrated opera air ever written. In its unprepared discords of the harshest nature, in the poignant expression of grief and despair so at variance with the placid art of the day, this shows how, by a single stroke, Monteverde cut loose from all the traditions of the past. In its less than a score of measures it also anticipates principles of artistic structure which were not formulated for nearly a century later and which hold good to the present day. It is said that it brought tears to every eye.

His Second Opera.—The following year he produced his second opera, Orfeo (Orpheus), so called to distinguish it from Peri’s Euridice on the same subject. Though most of Monteverde’s works have been lost, the score of Orfeo has been preserved. It shows a surprising advance over the simplicity of the Florentine operas. First of all, in the great expansion of the orchestra. This numbers thirty-seven instruments which throughout are combined in groups and as a whole with an art prefiguring certain effects of orchestration supposed to be purely modern. Like harmony, instrumentation dates from Monteverde. Instead of the customary vocal prologue, it begins with a Toccata (instrumental prelude). The composer’s keen dramatic instinct is shown by the masterly way in which he avoids the monotony of his predecessors ; the recitatives are varied by the introduction of ritornelli, and each act ends with a chorus and a stately passage for the orchestra. Five years later, the most famous composer of the day, he left Mantua. for Venice, where until his death he was director of music at St. Mark’s.

Monteverde’s Characteristics.—Monteverde’s greatest service to the opera lay in enlarging the sphere of the orchestra, and in the initiation of a thoroughly instrumental style adapted to the character of each instrument. He increased the number of players and released the orchestra from the subordinate position of being a mere support for the voice by employing it to heighten the dramatic situation. He originated many previously unknown effects, among them the pizzicato and the tremolo of the violins in precisely the same form as used at present. The latter so astounded the players that at first they refused to attempt it, saying that it was impossible. He endowed the Recitative with far greater freedom and depth of expression ; under his hand it lost much of the dryness of the Florentine school. His manner of writing for the voice was declamatory rather than melodious; what traces of definite melody occur in his works are generally confined to the instruments, in which he curiously anticipates the practice of latter-day dramatic composers.

Popularization of the Opera.—Until 1637 the opera was restricted to royalty and the nobility. In that year the first public opera house was opened in Venice, and such was the popularity of the new amusement that before the end of the century there were no fewer than eleven in that city alone, then with a population of about 140,000. It spread through Italy with almost like rapidity, bearing in its wake an unparalleled development of the art of song.

Change of Character.—With its introduction to the people, it was manifestly impossible for the opera to retain its original character. So long as it was confined to the cultivated, the classical ideals of its founders met with intelligent appreciation, but when confronted with audiences drawn from the masses desirous only of being amused, a change was inevitable. Mythological and classical subjects were gradually discarded in favor of those involving intrigue and disguise ; comic personages were introduced to enliven the scene. As the dramatic action was thus brought nearer the comprehension of the unlearned, so the music departed from the oratorical standards of the early school, and showed a frank tendency toward melody and regularity of form. What was lost in elevation of theme, however, was made up by the human interest imparted to the play and the consequent endeavor of the composer to express, by his music, the varying vicissitudes of life. Thus it gained in warmth of feeling and flexibility in means of expression, while the evolution of rhythmic melody and definite musical structure laid the foundation of the art as we now have it.

The Venetian School.—Venice naturally became the centre of an important development of the opera. Of the numerous composers forming the Venetian school, Francesco Cavalli (1600-1676) and Marco Cesti (162o-1669) are second only in importance to Monteverde. The first was Monteverde’s pupil, and had much of his broad dramatic style modified by the influences of which we have just spoken. Cesti came to Venice from Rome, where he had been the pupil of Carissimi, and brought with him the smoothness and melodic flow of his master, albeit lacking in essential power. Other names of a later date are Giovanni Legrenzi (1625-1690), especially noted for spirit and vivacity, and Antonio Lotti (1667-1740), his pupil, known by one or two charming airs which still survive.

Carissimi and the Oratorio. — Giovanni Carissimi (1604-1674), though he never wrote for the stage, was the strongest musical influence of his day. He was an ardent admirer of the new school, and adapted it in the form of oratorios and cantatas to the Church. In such works the necessity for form as regards definite tonality, distinct rhythm and melodic sequence is naturally much greater than in the Opera where music is used to illustrate the dramatic situation, and is furthermore elucidated by the action of the play. When the ear alone is obliged to pass judgment there must be evidence of design in these particulars, else the effect is confused and bewildering. Carissimi’s musical instinct grasped this truth. His oratorios and cantatas show a logical arrangement of choruses and ensembles, recitatives and arias combined with a unity of effect and a clearness of characterization heretofore unknown. The choruses in particular are strongly rhythmic and far more dramatic than those which were commonly heard on the stage.

Secularization of Church Music.—This introduction of the new style into the Church marked the passing of the old school and strongly affected methods of dramatic composition. The public had never been in sympathy with the austere standards of the Florentine school and welcomed the appearance of intelligible melody and the spirited rhythms to which Carissimi gave the first direct impulse. Not only this; he fixed the form that the music of the Church was to bear for a century to come. This secularization of church music had its good and bad sides; good by reason of the greater freedom and variety of expression thus gained ; bad because of the bold and mechanical imitation of Carissimi’s purely formal details by his successors, which in the end led to a tiresome monotony of style.

Characteristics of the Venetian School.—Thus was taken the first step toward the complete reversal of the conditions under which the early Opera had arisen. Instead of the music’s being subordinate to the drama, the drama was soon to serve merely as an excuse for the music ; the opera was destined to sink to the level of a concert sung in costume ; the dramatic action reduced to a minimum. The Venetian school marks the turning-point in this direction. The high ideals of Monteverde and his predecessors were gradually thrust into the background ; the singer began to assume precedence over the actor ; truth of expression yielded to the fascinations of time and tune, which even the musically uncultivated could enjoy without bothering their heads as to real dramatic fitness. Closely connected with these tendencies was the establishment of a school of singing which, if we may believe contemporary accounts, surpassed in technical facility and brilliancy any vocal art heard either be-fore or since that time. The result was that singers finally regarded the opera only as a field for the display of their dazzling accomplishments and in this they were willingly supported by a public eager to be entertained and amused.


Apthorp.—The Opera, Past and Present.

Elson.—The History of Opera.

Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, article on Opera.