History of Opera

By Henry T. Finck

A few years ago Lawrence Gilman wrote a book in which he endeavored to prove that Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande (which was produced twenty years after Wagner’s last work), is the climax of operatic development, the goal at which the music drama was always aiming, but which it never quite reached before that opera.

If this is true, then the omega of operatic evolution is surprisingly like the alpha; for Debussy, in that work, follows principles very much like those adopted by the originators of Italian opera. He simplifies the orchestra, so that the words of the singers may always be understood distinctly. On the part of the singers , distinctness of enunciation is, in Pelleas et Melisande, held to be by far the most important thing; hence they use, from beginning to end, a kind of recitative, which is practically a sort of chant. Debussy deliberately banishes from his score all vocal melody, and is thus in the same boat as Peri, Cavalieri and Caccini, who, three centuries ago, boasted of their nobile spressatura del canto- their “noble contempt for vocal melody.”

Inasmuch as melody – and plenty of it – is what opera goers most eagerly desire, how did it happen that these, the first Italian opera composers, adopted such a strange attitude towards it? Before answering this question, it will facilitate a complete understanding of the situation if we glance at the earliest germs of the opera – namely, at such crude combinations of music with action as existed before the Italians just named attempted to create a new art, modeled, as they supposed, after the dreams of the ancient Greeks.

Indian Pantomime with Music

The dramatic art of civilization is usually traced back by historians to the sacred dances of ancient Greece. But long before the Greeks danced to the accompaniment of music, wild men of all parts of the world – savages and barbarians – did the same thing, just as they do to the present day.

Catlin tells in his book on the North American Indians how the Mandans, for instance, acted when their hunters could not find any buffalos to kill for their food. Then or more of them formed a ring and danced. Presently the indulged in a real pantomime, in which one of the men, wearing a mask made of a buffalo’s head with its horns, and with the tail hanging down behind, played the part of the buffalo, while the others pretended to shoot him with bow and arrow and to skin and cut him up. This play was accompanied by “drumming and rattling, chanting and yelling,” so that it was really a musical play of an extremely crude sort, to be sure.

Ancient Greek Plays with Music

Hundreds of similar illustrations might be given, but we pass on at once to the ancient Greeks. Everybody knows that they used music with their famous plays, among them the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, which we admire to this day; but how did they apply music to these dramas?

The chorus took a prominent part, and its lines were not spoken, but sung. Many of the monologues and dialogues also were sung. But in the classical period this song was more like declamation than like a real melody, and the accompaniment was provided by the player of an aulos (an instrument resembling our oboe), who followed the singer in unison. At a later period this simplicity was abandoned, both the vocal utterances and part of the aulos being decorated with ornamental passages. Still later, the chorus was reduced to a minimum.

Together with Greek civilization this foreshadowing of opera soon came to an end. There is no evidence that the Romans used music in connection with their tragedies or comedies.

During the first thousand years of the Christian era music, like the other arts, led a precarious existence. Its life, as an art, lay entirely in the hands of the monks, and they had many other things to engage their attention, wherefore progress was slow. It is to the church, nevertheless, that we owe the development of music, including, odd as it may seems to us, the opera.

Medieval Germs of the Opera

It is in the liturgy, the rites of the church, that we find the first medieval germs of the opera, as well as or the oratorio; for at first these two forms of art, now so widely apart, differed very little from each other. In order to provide entertainment combined with religious instruction for their congregations, the priests, as far back as the eighth century, began to present the gospels in a dramatized form, one of them reciting the part of Jesus, others the parts of the evangelist and the high priest, while the populace was represented by a trained choir. In the twelfth century the congregation took part in these productions by singing hymns at proper intervals.

Beginning with the fourteenth, instruments also, among them trombones and an organ, were used to deepen the impression. What is most noteworthy, however, is that the vocal utterances at these performances were less like flowing melody than like the crude operatic recitative, the invention of which, by Peri, toward the end of the sixteenth century, was considered such an epoch-making thing.

The Passion – the sufferings of Christ between the Last Supper and His death – was found especially suited to such semi-dramatic presentation, and thus arose the passion plays, a survivor of which can still be seen at Oberammergua in Bavaria, once in ten years. Other varieties were the mysteries, based on legends of the saints, and the moralities, in which such Christian virtues as Justice, Faith, Charity, appeared as characters. In course of time these became so popular that they had to be given outside the churches, in cemeteries and market places. These are the sacred forerunners of the opera.

Ballets, Masques and Madrigal Plays

Of secular forerunners of the opera there were also several. French writers have called the troubadour, Adam de le Halle, the first opera composer, because of his pastoral play, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, which was produced in the year 1285. It was divided into scenes, contained spoken dialogue and “dialogue songs,” in which two voices alternated, besides a number of popular ballad tunes interspersed between the spoken parts. But this was not real opera, being more like what we call a variety show, or at most, a crude sort of operetta. Others of the kind had preceded it.

About three centuries later the French were much given to producing, at court festivals, ballets d’action, in which, besides dancing, there was action, poetry and music, which in some cases were closely enough united to foreshadow real opera. One of these entertainments, Baltazarini’s Circe, ou le Ballet de la Reine, produced in 1581, is said to have cost about a million dollars, and to have lasted from ten o’clock in the evening to half past three in the morning – which shows that the Meyerbeer and Wagner operas long ago had predecessors as to length! This ballet included solo songs, duos, choruses and instrumental interludes. Louis XIV was so fond of such ballets that he took part in presenting them.

In England a popular precursor of the opera was the masque, in which music, vocal and instrumental, was combined with costumes, acting, scenery and dancing. In these performances, also, persons of rank frequently joined.

Italy had its share of similar, near-operatic entertainments – pantomimes, ballets, masques at Carnival time, and intermezzi, or short play scenes with music, which were introduced between the acts of tragedies in order to relieve the emotional tension of the hearers.

A Singularly Unoperatic Practice

In all these precursors of the opera, secular and sacred, while there was often a good deal of music, it was usually associated but loosely with the play, alternation being the rule in place of the true operatic amalgamation in which the several arts are, like so many metals, mixed to form an alloy. Something more nearly approaching an alloy is found in the early madrigal plays. These were really a sort of dramatic cantata, composed for the concert room without scenery, costumes or action. But the text was a regular play, and the music attempted to reflect its spirit, now serious, now comic.

In one respect, however, these performances were amazingly unoperatic. The words written for a character in a play were not sung by him or her as a solo part, but by a chorus of several voices, in madrigal style! Even so great a sixteenth century composer as Orlando Lasso was capable of composing a comic scene representing a monk and his servant quarreling in a wine cellar, which piece, however, was, in according with the ridiculous custom of the time, sung not as a musical dialogue by two voices, but by two choirs of five voices each!

The absurdity of this procedure was at last brought home forcibly to some discerning persons at the wedding (1579) of the celebrated Venetian beauty, Bianca Capello, to the Duke of Tuscany. The music provided by two famous composers, Claudio Merulo and Andrea Gabrieli, for the dramatic representation arranged for this occasion, though good of its kind, was generally considered more appropriate for a solemn occasion like a church service than for a merry wedding feast. Intelligent music lovers were becoming more and more convinced that choruses and counterpoint were not the most suitable things to accompany a theatrical play.

The First Opera with Recitative

Among the clubs in Florence at that time there was one, the Camerata, which won historic fame and importance. It included not only music lovers, but other artists and men of science and learning; among them, Vincenzo Galilei, father of the famous astronomer, the eminent vocal teacher Caccini, and the composer, Peri. These men used to meet in the house of Count Bardi, where they discussed various esthetic questions, particularly the relations of music to the drama.

Their ambition was to create a new form of art, resembling the ancient Greek drama, of the wonders of which, and the deep impression it made on the hearers, they had read so much. They hoped and believed that they might make an equally deep impression on the audiences of their day if they could only find out just how the Greek actors delivered their lines.

Opinions differed, but Peri believed that Greek actors “must have made use of a sort of music which, while surpassing the sounds of ordinary speech, fell so far short of the melody of singing as to assume the shape of something intermediate between the two.” Therefore, he continues, “Abandoning every style of vocal writing known hitherto, I gave myself up wholly to the sort of imitation (of speech) demanded by this poem.” The reference is to the play of Dafne which he had been asked to set to music. He did so, and the result was what is generally considered the first real opera.

The words “Abandoning every style of vocal writing known hitherto” indicate that Peri considered himself the originator of this new style of vocal delivery, half way between speech and song. But Caccini wrote a preface to one of his own works, in which, after stating that he had learned more from the conversations of the musicians, poets and philosophers of the Camerata than from thirty years’ practice of counterpoint, he goes on to say that since, in the effort to adapt poetic texts to the counterpoint, they were made unintelligible, and since, moreover, our feelings cannot be touched when the words are not understood, it “had occurred to him” to adopt a kind of song resembling speech and betraying a nobile sprezzatura del canto.

Besides these two, there is a third, Cavalieri, who used the same kind of unmelodious recitative in what is accepted as the first real oratorio, his Rappresentazione di Anima e Corpo, which was produced in the year 1600.

It seems probably that, instigated by the conversations in the Camerata, these several composers worked out the same problem simultaneously, and that, consequently, they share equally in the claim to having originated the operatic recitative.

Peri’s Dafne was written entirely in this new style, called the stile rappresentativo, stile recitativo or stile parlante. It was composed in 1594 and was privately performed three years later in the Palazzo Corsi. The score of this first opera was unfortunately not preserved, but Peri’s second and last opera has come down to us. It was written to give splendor to the wedding of Henry IV of France with Maria de’ Medici. Its title was “Euridice,” and it was first sung in 1600.

A Boycott on Melody

So far as can be ascertained from a comparison of what have been preserved, Peri’s recitative was somewhat superior to that of Caccini and Cavalieri; but that is not saying very much. Peri has perhaps had too much honor thrust upon him. In making it possible for the singers to enunciate the words so distinctly that the hearers could understand them, he went in the right direction – but he went much too far; writing recitative which, while it follows the word accents carefully, is seldom musical or expressive.

Peri and his colleagues forgot that in an opera it is not correct to say “the play’s the thing.” Music has its rights too, and these rights were ignored by the earliest opera composers. Not only were the vocal parts shorn of melodic charm, but the accompanying instruments also were not allowed to indulge in melody. They were chiefly of the kind the strings of which were plucked, and what they contributed to the performance was mostly short, twangy chords, the bass only being sustained. The choruses alone were not composed in the recitative style, but they were too short and insignificant to rescue the musical side of the entertainment.

If we heard any of these early operas we would find them an intolerable bore. By the Italians of the 17th century they were not only tolerated, but admired, for three reasons:

  1. They were a new plaything
  2. They had fine scenery
  3. Members of the nobility took part in their performance

Monteverdi, The Italian Wagner

A reaction against this boycott on music was bound to come; in fact, it came very soon, chiefly through the work and influence of Claudio Monteverdi, who did so much in the way of reforming and improving the opera that I think he might be justly called the Italian Wagner. Only ten years after the production of Peri’s Dafne, he composed an Orfeo (1607), in which both the vocal and the instrumental parts are less dry and unmusical. Gagliano, in 1608, wrote a Dafne in which the rhythms of popular folk tunes are used. Rome had a school of composers who helped to make the opera musical – a school to which Hugo Goldschmidt has devoted a whole volume of 412 pages, 256 of which contain illustrations of the 17th century operas in musical type. It is entitled Studien zur Geschichte der italienischen Oper in 17 Jahrhundert, and gives a vivid insight into the operatic situation.

Monteverdi, however, was, as just stated, the greatest of the reformers. I call him the Italian Wagner for five reasons:

  1. He made the operatic recitative more melodious and expressive
  2. He boldly used unprepared discords to express dramatic emotions
  3. He was attacked for these things by critics and theorists, but applauded by the public
  4. He greatly enlarged the orchestra, and used special appropriate groups of instruments to accompany the different characters (in his Orfeo, for instance, Pluto is accompanied by four trombones, Orpheus by bass-viols, the chorus of spirita by organs with flute registers, and so on)
  5. He invented new orchestral effects, such as the (instrumental) tremolo, and the pizzicato.

Dr. Reimann, in his Kleines Handbuch der Musicgeschichte (a marvelous compendium, entirely up-to-date) lays great stress on the fact that it was not Peri and the other originators of Italian opera who invented artistic solo song with accompaniment. Such a combination was in use in Florence three centuries before them. Peri used no song, but recitative. It remained for his successors to introduce real solo song into the opera (as Monteverdi did with this arioso), and to utilize also for the opera the other musical factors which the older Italian composers had developed, but which Peri deliberately and foolishly ignored.

Sumptuous Scenery and Brilliant Colorature

Monteverdi was a musical genius. His rival, Gagliano, confessed that, with his Arianna, Monteverdi “visibly moved al the theater to tears.” Probably it would not thus move us, for we demand much more of opera than did the Italians three centuries ago. But even in the works of the less gifted of these composers there was usually something to interest the audiences, particularly the sumptuous scenery already referred to. Green fields and gardens, fountains and rivers with nymphs, the angry waves of the stormy ocean, lightning darting from dark clouds and followed by peals of thunder, bushes and trees growing up suddenly, Moorish dancing girls – these were specimens of the things to be seen.

Florid singing also was ere long added to the operatic attractions. As early as 1594 Bovicelli published a treatise on ornamental singing (coloratura), which had originated an imitation of lute players. Peri, in the preface to his Eurydice (1600), refers to a famous singer, Vettoria Archilei, who had always made his music worthy of her singing “by adorning it, not only with those turns and long vocal flourishes, both simple and double, which are at all times devised by the activity of her genius – more in obedience to the fashion of our time than because she thinks they constitute the beauty and strength of our singing – but also with those charms and graces which cannot be written down, are not to be learned from the writing.”

This sentence is of great historic importance. It shows that the adorning of melodies by the singers was in fashion before Peri and his colleagues originated their operas with recitative. Ere long, this coloratura, with the rest of the bel canto, made its home in the opera, and the recitative, of which Peri and his colleagues had been so proud, was relegated to the background, as a mere foil, to that bel canto- that is, to the ornamental arias which gradually made up the musical substance of an opera.

The First Public Opera House

This tendency was greatly accelerated after 1637. It is a most remarkable fact that up to that date there had been no public performances of operas. In other words, for forty years operas were sung only in private halls and palaces to invited guests!

When the public at large at last got a chance to hear operas, the production of them was greatly stimulated. Venice began with one public opera house in 1637, and before the close the century it had eleven.

A few of the composers followed in the line of progress marked out by Monteverdi. For instance, Cavalli taught the orchestra to mirror sights and sounds of nature – the sounds made by ocean, brooks and storms. But for the most part the composers catered only to the taste for tunes and trills. Operas became mere concerts in costume. No one cared for text or plot. On one occasion a spectator, seeing the hero of the opera stab the heroine, exclaimed: “Great heavens! The tenor is murdering the soprano!”

In France the degradation of the opera was less marked. There Lully not only upheld the best musical traditions, but added new elements. Above all, he paid careful attention to the text, and tried to make the music conform to it. But in Italy and in Germany (which for generations followed the lead of Italy) the “concert-in-costume” style of opera flourished exclusively until the great reformer Gluck called a halt and curbed the monopolistic vanity of the singers.

After him, the florid aria again triumphed in the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and it required the genius and example of Richard Wagner to banish mere showy singing entirely from the opera houses and to convert the opera into a real music drama, in which recitative and melody, poetry and music, are of equal importance and united with scenery and acting into the most impressive and popular of all the arts. This is better than Debussy, for the same reasons that Monteverdi was superior to Peri.