The Opera in the Evolution of Music

Music of Yesterday

The opening of the seventeenth century saw a revolution in music such as has never since been paralleled. With Palestrina and his school, music, as it then was known) reached a climax of perfection beyond which progress was scarcely conceivable. But the genius of the age, the age of Renaissance, still tended toward expansion and discovery. The era of the opera came in with a strange suddenness. Leaving behind them, as it were, the edifice which .church and secular polyphony had required centuries to build, the new generation of music dramatists set forth upon an unknown course. That they in time arrived at a desired port was due largely to the genius of the Italian race for adapting itself to the various conditions as they arose.

In spite of the new departure which music  took in the early years of the seventeenth century, the old school lived on under the wing of the Church for many years, at first untouched by the revolutionary ideas of secular composers and afterward only gradually affected by them. But the rise of opera, of instrumental music, and in fact of secular music as a separate entity gave a new complexion to, the whole world of music.

The little band of Florentines who set themselves to create the new music worked as if unconscious that a thousand years of development lay behind them. They had no science and no experience. Their first strivings after expression are pathetically ineffective. By the side of the majestic oratory of Palestrina their works appear like the incomprehensible gibberish of childhood. Yet the truth was in them, and from the humble germ that they planted sprang one of the noblest developments of music. But before the fathers of opera were justified of their offspring, a weary path of experiment had to be traversed. Unlike many sister forms of art, opera had to work out its own salvation. Printing and oil-painting sprang full-grown from birth. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the first book printed, the Mazarin Bible, and the first great picture painted in oils, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb,” for beauty of conception and perfection of execution have never been surpassed ; but it was many years before opera became even articulate; even now, after three hundred years of incessant development, it is easy to believe that the zenith of its achievement has not yet been reached.

Opera, like so many other things, owed its foundation largely to accident. When, late in the sixteenth century, a small band of Florentine enthusiasts proposed to themselves the task of reviving the lost glories of Greek drama, nothing was farther from their thoughts than the creation of a new art-form. They worked upon what they believed to be antiquarian lines; they wrote plays, and because they fancied that the Greek drama was sung, or rather chanted in a kind of accompanied recitative, they decided to perform their plays in the same way. Their first efforts have very little musical value. They are almost entirely set to a bare monotonous recitative, varied at rare intervals by simple passages of choral writing and short instrumental interludes. From beginning to end there is nothing that can be called a tune, and the accompaniment merely supports the voice by occasional chords contributed by a harpsichord and three instruments of the lute type.

It was in 1600 that Cavalieri produced the first oratorio, his ” Rappresentazione di anima e di corpo,” which was performed at Rome in the Oratory of San Filippo de  Neri In general structure Cavalier’s work resembles that of his Florentine contemporaries, but it has decidedly more musical interest. The solo parts and the choruses are more expressive, and the instrumental sections are considerably more elaborate. Unfortunately Cavalieri died in the year in which his oratorio was produced, and little attempt seems to have been made to follow up his initial success until the time of Carissimi, whose oratorios are an interesting attempt to graft the new • dramatic style upon the rich and solid polyphony of past ages. At Florence, on the other hand, the seed fell upon good ground, but no definite advance can be traced until the appearance on the scene of Claudio Monteverde.

Monteverde was the first trained musician who devoted himself to the new music. He had been thoroughly grounded in the traditions of the contrapuntal school Had he fallen upon a dull, pedantic era when everything that had a tinge of novelty was derided, he would have accomplished little or nothing. But the way, in many respects, had been prepared for him, and his accomplishment, as our sketch of his life shows, was great. His success soon found him followers, of whom Cavalli is one of the most famous. In the matter of form he improved upon Monteverde. In CavalI’s works, as in the later operas of Monteverde, we begin to pass from the first merely experimental stage of opera. Cavalli avoids the pitfalls into which I1Monteverde s inexperience had led him, but on the other hand his music has not the concentrated dramatic force of his predecessor. Still Cavalli is an important figure in the history of music. In his operas we find for the first time a regularly developed aria, varying the monotony of the interminable recitative. He had the true Venetian love of color, and he tried to make his orchestra give musical significance to the sights and sounds of nature, such as the murmuring of rivers or the sighing of the winds.

Cesti was another of Monteverde’s most famous followers. In his time opera had advanced still further on the path of development. Cesti’s music is tuneful and charming, and many of his airs would probably be as successful now in pleasing public taste as on the day they were written. In his works we find for the first time the da capo regularly used, that is to say the repetition of the first part of an air after the end of the second part. Excellent as this invention was in giving cohesion to the musical fabric of an opera, it was much abused by subsequent writers, and is largely responsible for the degradation of opera in the eighteenth century to the level of a concert on the stage.

In Cesti’s time the rivalry between the various opera houses of Venice was very keen, and it is easy to believe that the managers tried to outbid each other in the favor of the public by staging their pieces in the most magnificent manner. At any rate the accounts of the scenery used sound very elaborate. Operas were still an important feature at court festivals, and here, as in the court masques in England, gorgeous staging was a matter of course. Engravings still survive of the scenery used when Cesti ‘s opera, “II pomo d’oro,” was produced at Vienna in 1668, which give some idea of the elaborate nature of the entertainment. At Parma the old theatre still stands in the Farnese palace, just as it did in the seventeenth century, but in such a wrecked and dismantled condition that it is not easy to realize what it looked like in all the splendor of a court festival. Nevertheless those who have visited Parma, and have read the accounts that survive of the magnificent performances given under the auspices of the Farnese family, can very well amuse themselves by trying to recreate the scene in imagination.

It would serve no good purpose here to enumerate the composers who, during the seventeenth century, furnished Italy with  operas. Their name is legion. Throughout the country the musical activity was amazing. Hardly a town was without its opera house, and the libraries of Italian cities furnish convincing proofs of the enormous quantity of music produced at this period. What may be called the first period of Italian opera culminated in Alessandro Scarlatti, a composer of extraordinary genius and fertility, who definitely established the form of Italian opera which prevailed during the eighteenth century. Scarlatti found opera still to some extent in the tentative stage; he left it a highly developed art form of exquisitely ordered proportion, an instrument capable of expressing human emotion with beautiful certainty and force. Historians, noting the fact that after Scarlatti’s day Italian opera soon degenerated into a concert upon the stage with little or no dramatic significance, have found in his works the seeds of decadence, and have not hesitated to describe Monteverde’s primitive struggles after expression as more “dramatic”’ than the ordered beauty of Scarlatti’s airs, without seeing that the germs of all that Scarlatti accomplished are to be found in Monteverde, though often in so undeveloped a state as to be barely recognizable.

It is a common error, especially among those whose knowledge of music is bounded by the works of Wagner, to suppose that the duty of operatic composers is to give musical expression to the ordinary inflections of the human voice. This is entirely to misread the convention upon which opera is founded. When song has been substituted for speech, realism of this kind is out of the question. Music, like architecture, depends for its effect upon the beauty of ordered design and proportion. The man who built the first log cabin probably took as his model the cave in which his ancestors had dwelt, but we do not therefore judge houses according to their resemblance to caves. It probably required a greater effort of creative genius to build the first log cabin than to build Westminster Abbey, but that does not prevent us from regarding Westminster Abbey as the finer Work of art. Monteverde was a man of extraordinary genius, and the value of his work in the history of modern music cannot be overestimated, but to speak of his music as a great artistic accomplishment is to misunderstand the man and his aims altogether. He would have written like Scarlatti if he could. His career shows a constant striving toward that goal. Anyone who compares his later works with ” Orfeo” must see the enormous advance in form which he made during his lifetime.

The tendencies of modern opera toward formlessness and so-called “dramatic truth” and “realism” have blinded critics to the main principles upon which opera is founded, so that distinguished modern writer actually talks about Monteverde “regarding his early efforts in the histrionic and dramatic direction as a forlorn hope,” and says that Cavalli ”drifted away from l his dramatic ideals in the direction of technical artistic finish and clearness of musical form,” as though a dramatic ideal could be better expressed by imperfect than by perfect technic, by chaotic confusion than by assured mastery of form.

Scarlatti carried opera in Italy to heights far beyond the ken of his predecessors, but meanwhile further developments of the new art were claiming attention beyond the Alps. Lulli brought Italian traditions to Paris, where he grafted them upon the masques which already were popular at the French court. Lulli was an extremely clever man, and he speedily divined the instincts of the French people in musical matters, and suited his music to their peculiar taste. In Italy the trend of opera was more and more iti the direction of sheer musical beauty, regardless of the meaning of the words, but the logical French mind insisted upon knowing what the music was all about. Thus we find that recitative retains an important place in Lulli’s operas while set airs are few and far between.

Vocalization was far less cultivated in France than in Italy, and long after Lulli’s time French singers were famous for their ugly voices and bad singing. Dancing, on the other hand, for which the Italians seem to have cared comparatively little, was much appreciated in France, and elaborate ballets are a prominent feature of Lulli’s operas. Thus in Lulli’s hands French opera soon developed into a distinctive art-form, very stiff and majestic compared with the melodious and flexible music of Italian writers, but vigorous and intelligent, and lending itself well to the elaborate stage display in which the French then as now delighted. Historically, Lulli is also interesting as having, if not invented, at any rate perfected, what is known as the French form of overture, a solemn introduction followed by a quick movement in a fugal style and concluding with a dance, which was afterward carried to the highest conceivable pitch of perfection by Handel.

In Germany the development of opera was comparatively unimportant. The wars of the seventeenth century interfered with the progress of all kinds of art, and though performances of opera were occasionallygiven at German courts, the new art took no real root in the country until the opening of the Hamburg Opera house in 1678 and the rise of Keiser. Even then operas were given mainly ‘in Italian, and the style of the music was for the most part thoroughly Italian, though occasionally modified by German influence in minor details.

The development of the new music in England will be shown in the sketch of Purcell contained in the present volume, wherein also the biographies of the great composers of the modern world present to the reader in practically a chronological order the lives and works of the masters through whom mainly the triumphs of musical art have been achieved. Some compilers of works on great composers limit their lists to a few—less than twenty, perhaps—of the supreme names in musical history. In the present volume the list has been extended to embrace a much larger number, to all of whom the word great, which is a relative term, may—and should—be, in one degree or another, justly applied.

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