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 The Beginnings of Opera

  (This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.)

Claudio Monteverde


The early history of many forms of art is wrapped in obscurity. Even in music, the youngest of the arts, the precise origin of many modern developments is largely a matter of conjecture. The history of opera, fortunately for the historian, is an exception to the rule. All the circumstances which combine to produce the idea of opera are known to us, and every detail of its genesis is established beyond the possibility of doubt.

The invention of opera partook largely of the nature of an accident. Late in the sixteenth century a few Florentine amateurs, fired with the enthusiasm for Greek art which was at that time the ruling passion of every cultivated spirit in Italy, set themselves the task of reconstructing the conditions of the Athenian drama. The result of their labours, regarded as an attempted revival of the lost glories of Greek tragedy, was a complete failure; but, unknown to themselves, they produced the germ of that art-form which, as years passed on, was destined, in their own country at least, to reign alone in the affections of the people, and to take the place, so far as the altered conditions permitted, of the national drama which they had fondly hoped to recreate.

The foundations of the new art-form rested upon the theory that the drama of the Greeks was throughout declaimed to a musical accompaniment. The reformers, therefore, dismissed spoken dialogue from their drama, and employed in its place a species of free declamation or recitative, which they called musica parlante. The first work in which the new style of composition was used was the 'Dafne' of Jacopo Peri, which was privately performed in 1597. No trace of this work survives, nor of the musical dramas by Emilio del Cavaliere and Vincenzo Galilei to which the closing years of the sixteenth century gave birth. But it is best to regard these privately performed works merely as experiments, and to date the actual foundation of opera from the year 1600, when a public performance of Peri's 'Euridice' was given at Florence in honour of the marriage of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV. of France. A few years later a printed edition of this work was published at Venice, a copy of which is now in the library of the British Museum, and in recent times it has been reprinted, so that those who are curious in these matters can study this protoplasmic opera at their leisure. Expect for a few bars of insignificant chorus, the whole work consists of the accompanied recitative, which was the invention of these Florentine reformers. The voices are accompanied by a violin, chitarone (a large guitar), lira grande, liuto grosso, and gravicembalo or harpsichord, which filled in the harmonies indicated by the figured bass. The instrumental portions of the work are poor and thin, and the chief beauty lies in the vocal part, which is often really pathetic and expressive. Peri evidently tried to give musical form to the ordinary inflections of the human voice, how successfully may be seen in the Lament of Orpheus which Mr. Morton Latham has reprinted in his 'Renaissance of Music,' The original edition of 'Euridice' contains an interesting preface, in which the composer sets forth the theory upon which he worked, and the aims which he had in view. It is too long to be reprinted here, but should be read by all interested in the early history of opera.

With the production of 'Euridice' the history of opera may be said to begin; but if the new art-form had depended only upon the efforts of Peri and his friends, it must soon have languished and died. With all their enthusiasm, the little band of Florentines had too slight an acquaintance with the science of music to give proper effect to the ideas which they originated. Peri built the ship, but it was reserved for the genius of Claudio Monteverde to launch it upon a wider ocean than his predecessor could have dreamed of. Monteverde had been trained in the polyphonic school of Palestrina, but his genius had never acquiesced in the rules and restrictions in which the older masters delighted. He was a poor contrapuntist, and his madrigals are chiefly interesting as a proof of how ill the novel harmonies of which he was the discoverer accorded with the severe purity of the older school But in the new art he found the field his genius required. What had been weakness and license in the madrigal became strength and beauty in the opera. The new wine was put into new bottles, and both were preserved. Monteverde produced his 'Arianna' in 1607, and his 'Orfeo' in 1608, and with these two works started opera upon the path of development which was to culminate in the works of Wagner. 'Arianna,' which, according to Marco da Gagliano, himself a rival composer of high ability, 'visibly moved all the theatre to tears,' is lost to us save for a few quotations; but 'Orfeo' is in existence, and has recently been reprinted in Germany. A glance at the score shows what a gulf separates this work from Peri's treatment of the same story. Monteverde, with his orchestra of thirty-nine instruments—brass, wood, and strings complete—his rich and brilliant harmonies, sounding so strangely beautiful to ears accustomed only to the severity of the polyphonic school, and his delicious and affecting melodies, sometimes rising almost to the dignity of an aria, must have seemed something more than human to the eager Venetians as they listened for the first time to music as rich in colour as the gleaming marbles of the Cà d'Oro or the radiant canvases of Titian and Giorgione.

The success of Monteverde had its natural result. He soon had pupils and imitators by the score. The Venetians speedily discovered that they had an inherent taste for opera, and the musicians of the day delighted to cater for it. Monteverde's most famous pupil was Cavalli, to whom may with some certainty be attributed an innovation which was destined to affect the future of opera very deeply. In his time, to quote Mr. Latham's 'Renaissance of Music,' 'the musica parlante of the earliest days of opera was broken up into recitative, which was less eloquent, and aria, which was more ornamental. The first appearance of this change is to be found in Cavalli's operas, in which certain rhythmical movements called "arias" which are quite distinct from the musica parlante, make their appearance. The music assigned by Monteverde to Orpheus when he is leading Eurydice back from the Shades is undoubtedly an air, but the situation is one to which an air is appropriate, and musica parlante would be inappropriate. If the drama had been a play to be spoken and not sung, there would not have been any incongruity in allotting a song to Orpheus, to enable Eurydice to trace him through the dark abodes of Hades. But the arias of Cavalli are not confined to such special situations, and recur frequently,' Cavalli had the true Venetian love of colour. In his hands the orchestra began to assume a new importance. His attempts to give musical expression to the sights and sounds of nature—the murmur of the sea, the rippling of the brook and the tempestuous fury of the winds—mark an interesting step in the history of orchestral develop ment. With Marcantonio Cesti appears another innovation of scarcely less importance to the history of opera than the invention of the aria itself—the da capo or the repetition of the first part of the aria in its entirety after the conclusion of the second part. However much the da capo may have contributed to the settlement of form in composition, it must be admitted that it struck at the root of all real dramatic effect, and in process of time degraded opera to the level of a concert. Cesti was a pupil of Carissimi, who is famous chiefly for his sacred works, and from him he learnt to prefer mere musical beauty to dramatic truth. Those of his operas which remain to us show a far greater command of orchestral and vocal resource than Monteverde or Cavalli could boast, but so far as real expression and sincerity are concerned, they are inferior to the less cultured efforts of the earlier musicians. It would be idle to attempt an enumeration of the Venetian composers of the seventeenth century and their works. Some idea of the musical activity which prevailed may be gathered from the fact that while the first public theatre was opened in 1637, before the close of the century there were no less than eleven theatres in the city devoted to the performance of opera alone.

Meanwhile the enthusiasm for the new art-form spread through the cities of Italy. According to an extant letter of Salvator Rosa's, opera was in full swing in Rome during the Carnival of 1652. The first opera of Provenzale, the founder of the Neapolitan school, was produced in 1658. Bologna, Milan, Parma, and other cities soon followed suit. France, too, was not behindhand, but there the development of the art soon deserved the name a new school of opera, distinct in many important particulars from its parent in Italy. The French nobles who saw the performance of Peri's 'Euridice' at the marriage of Henry IV. may have carried back tales of its splendour and beauty to their own country, but Paris was not as yet ripe for opera. Not until 1647 did the French Court make the acquaintance of the new art which was afterwards to win some of its most brilliant triumphs in their city. In that year a performance of Peri's 'Euridice' (which, in spite of newer developments, had not lost its popularity) was given in Paris under the patronage of Cadinal Mazarin. This was followed by Cavalli's 'Serse,' conducted by the composer himself. These performances quickened the latent genius of the French people, and Robert Cambert, the founder of their school, hastened to produce operas, which, though bearing traces of Italian influence, were nevertheless distinctively French in manner and method. His works, two of which are known to us, 'Pomone' and 'Les Peines et les Plaisirs de l'Amour,' were to a certain extent a development of the masques which had been popular in Paris for many years. They are pastoral and allegorical in subject, and are often merely a vehicle for fulsome adulation of the 'Roi Soleil.' But in construction they are operas pure and simple. There is no spoken dialogue, and the music is continuous from first to last. Cambert's operas were very successful, and in conjunction with his librettist Perrin he received a charter from the King in 1669, giving him the sole right of establishing opera-houses in the kingdom. Quarrels, however, ensued. Cambert and Perrin separated. The charter was revoked, or rather granted to a new-comer, Giovanni Battista Lulli, and Cambert, in disgrace, retired to England, where he died. Lulli (1633-1687) left Italy too young to be much influenced by the developments of opera in that country, and was besides too good a man of business to allow his artistic instinct to interfere with his chance of success. He found Cambert's operas popular in Paris, and instead of attempting any radical reforms, he adhered to the form which he found ready made, only developing the orchestra to an extent which was then unknown, and adding dignity and passion to the airs and recitatives. Lulli's industry was extraordinary. During the space of fourteen years he wrote no fewer than twenty operas, conceived upon a grand scale, and produced with great magnificence. His treatment of recitative is perhaps his strongest point, for in spite of the beauty of one or two isolated songs, such as the famous 'Bois épais' in 'Amadis' and Charon's wonderful air in 'Alceste,' his melodic gift was not great, and his choral writing is generally of the most unpretentious description. But his recitative is always solid and dignified, and often impassioned and pathetic. Music, too, owes him a great debt for his invention of what is known as the French form of overture, consisting of a prelude, fugue, and dance movement, which was afterwards carried to the highest conceivable pitch of perfection by Handel.

Meanwhile an offshoot of the French school, transplanted to the banks of the Thames, had blossomed into a brief but brilliant life under the fostering care of the greatest musical genius our island has ever produced, Henry Purcell. Charles II. was not a profound musician, but he knew what sort of music he liked, and on one point his mind was made up—that he did not like the music of the elderly composers who had survived the Protectorate, and came forward at his restoration to claim the posts which they had held at his father's court. Christopher Gibbons, Child, and other relics of the dead polyphonic school were quietly dismissed to provincial organ-lofts, and Pelham Humphreys, the most promising of the 'Children of the Chapel Royal,' was sent over to Paris to learn all that was newest in music at the feet of Lulli. Humphreys came back, in the words of Pepys, 'an absolute Monsieur,' full of the latest theories concerning opera and music generally, and with a sublime contempt for the efforts of his stay-at-home colleagues. His own music shows the French influence very strongly, and in that of his pupil Henry Purcell (1658-1695) it may also be perceived, although coloured and transmuted by the intensely English character of Purcell's own genius. For many years it was supposed that Purcell's first and, strictly speaking, his only opera, 'Dido and Æneas,' was written by him at the age of seventeen and produced in 1675. Mr. Barclay Squire has now proved that it was not produced until much later, but this scarcely lessens the wonder of it, for Purcell can never have seen an opera performed, and his acquaintance with the new art-form must have been based upon Pelham Humphrey's account of the performances which he had seen in Paris. Possibly, too, he may have had opportunities of studying the engraved scores of some of Lulli's operas, which, considering the close intercourse between the courts of France and England, may have found their way across the Channel. 'Dido and Æneas' is now universally spoken of as the first English opera. Masques had been popular from the time of Queen Elizabeth onwards, which the greatest living poets and musicians had not disdained to produce, and Sir William Davenant had given performances of musical dramas 'after the manner of the Ancients' during the closing years of the Commonwealth, but it is probable that spoken dialogue occurred in all these entertainments, as it certainly did in Locke's 'Psyche,' Banister's 'Circe,' in fact, in all the dramatic works of this period which were wrongly described as operas. In 'Dido and Æneas,' on the contrary, the music is continuous throughout. Airs and recitatives, choruses and instrumental pieces succeed each other, as in the operas of the Italian and French schools. 'Dido and Æneas' was written for performance at a young ladies' school kept by one Josias Priest in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea. The libretto was the work of Nahum Tate, the Poet Laureate of the time. The opera is in three short acts, and Virgil's version of the story is followed pretty closely save for the intrusion of a sorceress and a chorus of witches who have sworn Dido's destruction and send a messenger to Æneas, disguised as Mercury, to hasten his departure. Dido's death song, which is followed by a chorus of mourning Cupids, is one of the most pathetic scenes ever written, and illustrates in a forcible manner Purcell's beautiful and ingenious use of a ground-bass. The gloomy chromatic passage constantly repeated by the bass instruments, with ever-varying harmonies in the violins, paints such a picture of the blank despair of a broken heart as Wagner himself, with his immense orchestral resources, never surpassed. In the general construction of his opera Purcell followed the French model, but his treatment of recitative is bolder and more various than that of Lulli, while as a melodist he is incomparably superior. Purcell never repeated the experiment of 'Dido and Æneas.' Musical taste in England was presumably not cultivated enough to appreciate a work of so advanced a style. At any rate, for the rest of his life, Purcell wrote nothing for the theatre but incidental music. Much of this, notably the scores of 'Timon of Athens,' 'Bonduca,' and 'King Arthur,' is wonderfully beautiful, but in all of these works the spoken dialogue forms the basis of the piece, and the music is merely an adjunct, often with little reference to the main interest of the play. In 'King Arthur' occurs the famous 'Frost Scene,' the close resemblance of which to the 'Choeur de Peuples des Climats Glacés' in Lulli's 'Isis' would alone make it certain that Purcell was a careful student of the French school of opera.

Opera did not take long to cross the Alps, and early in the seventeenth century the works of Italian composers found a warm welcome at the courts of southern Germany. But Germany was not as yet ripe for a national opera. During the first half of the century there are records of one or two isolated attempts to found a school of German opera, but the iron heel of the Thirty Years' War was on the neck of the country, and art struggled in vain against overwhelming odds. The first German opera, strictly so called, was the 'Dafne' of Heinrich Schütz, the words of which were a translation of the libretto already used by Peri. Of this work, which was produced in 1627, all trace has been lost. 'Seelewig,' by Sigmund Staden, which is described as a 'Gesangweis auf italienische Art gesetzet,' was printed at Nuremberg in 1644, but there is no record of its ever having been performed. To Hamburg belongs the honour of establishing German opera upon a permanent basis. There, in 1678, some years before the production of Purcell's 'Dido and Æneas,' an opera-house was opened with a performance of a Singspiel entitled 'Der erschaffene, gefallene und aufgerichtete Mensch,' the music of which was composed by Johannn Theile. Three other works, all of them secular, were produced in the same year. The new form of entertainment speedily became popular among the rich burghers of the Free City, and composers were easily found to cater for their taste.

For many years Hamburg was the only German town where opera found a permanent home, but there the musical activity must have been remarkable. Reinhard Keiser (1673-1739), the composer whose name stands for what was best in the school, is said alone to have produced no fewer than a hundred and sixteen operas. Nearly all of these works have disappeared, and those that remain are for the most part disfigured by the barbarous mixture of Italian and German which was fashionable at Hamburg and in London too at that time. The singers were possibly for the most part Italians, who insisted upon singing their airs in their native language, though they had no objection to using German for the recitatives, in which there was no opportunity for vocal display. Keiser's music lacks the suavity of the Italian school, but his recitatives are vigorous and powerful, and seem to foreshadow the triumphs which the German school was afterwards to win in declamatory music. The earliest operas of Handel (1685-1759) were written for Hamburg, and in the one of them which Fate has preserved for us, 'Almira' (1704), we see the Hamburg school at its finest. In spite of the ludicrous mixture of German and Italian there is a good deal of dramatic power in the music, and the airs show how early Handel's wonderful gift of melody had developed. The chorus has very little to do, but a delightful feature of the work is to be found in the series of beautiful dance-tunes lavishly scattered throughout it. One of these, a Sarabande, was afterwards worked up into the famous air, 'Lascia ch' io pianga,' in 'Rinaldo.' When the new Hamburg Opera-House was opened in 1874, it was inaugurated by a performance of 'Almira,' which gave musicians a unique opportunity of realising to some extent what opera was like at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1706 Handel left Hamburg for the purpose of prosecuting his studies in Italy. There he found the world at the feet of Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725), a composer whose importance to the history of opera can scarcely be over-estimated. He is said, like Cesti, to have been a pupil of Carissimi, though, as the latter died in 1674, at the age of seventy, he cannot have done much more than lay the foundation of his pupil's greatness. The invention of the da capo is generally attributed to Scarlatti, wrongly, as has already been shown, since it appears in Cesti's opera 'La Dori,' which was performed in 1663. But it seems almost certain that Scarlatti was the first to use accompanied recitative, a powerful means of dramatic expression in the hands of all who followed him, while his genius advanced the science of instrumentation to a point hitherto unknown.

Nevertheless, Scarlatti's efforts were almost exclusively addressed to the development of the musical rather than the dramatic side of opera, and he is largely responsible for the strait-jacket of convention in which opera was confined during the greater part of the eighteenth century, in fact until it was released by the genius of Gluck.

Handel's conquest of Italy was speedy and decisive. 'Rodrigo,' produced at Florence in 1707, made him famous, and 'Agrippina' (Venice, 1708) raised him almost to the rank of a god. At every pause in the performance the theatre rang with shouts of 'Viva il caro Sassone,' and the opera had an unbroken run of twenty-seven nights, a thing till then unheard of. It did not take Handel long to learn all that Italy could teach him. With his inexhaustible fertility of melody and his complete command of every musical resource then known, he only needed to have his German vigour tempered by Italian suppleness and grace to stand forth as the foremost operatic composer of the age. His Italian training and his theatrical experience gave him a thorough knowledge of the capabilities of the human voice, and the practical common-sense which was always one of his most striking characteristics prevented him from ever treating it from the merely instrumental point of view, a pitfall into which many of the great composers have fallen. He left Italy for London in 1710, and produced his 'Rinaldo' at the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket the following year. It was put upon the stage with unexampled magnificence, and its success was prodigious. 'Rinaldo' was quickly followed by such succession of masterpieces as put the ancient glories of the Italian stage to shame. Most of them were produced at the Haymarket Theatre, either under Handel's own management or under the auspices of a company known as the Royal Academy of Music. Handel's success made him many enemies, and he was throughout his career the object of innumerable plots on the part of disappointed and envious rivals. The most active of these was Buononcini, himself a composer of no mean ability, though eclipsed by the genius of Handel. Buononcini's machinations were so far successful—though he himself was compelled to leave England in disgrace for different reasons—that in 1741, after the production of his 'Deidamia,' Handel succumbed to bankruptcy and a severe attack of paralysis. After this he wrote no more for the stage, but devoted himself to the production of those oratorios which have made his name famous wherever the English language is spoken.

In spite of their transcendent beauties, the form of Handel's operas has long banished them from the stage. Handel, with all his genius, was not one of the great revolutionists of the history of music. He was content to bring existing forms to the highest possible point of perfection, without seeking to embark upon new oceans of discovery. Opera in his day consisted of a string of airs connected by recitative, with an occasional duet, and a chorus to bring down the curtain at the end of the work. The airs were, as a rule, fully accompanied. Strings, hautboys, and bassoons formed the groundwork of the orchestra. If distinctive colouring or sonority were required, the composer used flutes, horns, harps, and trumpets, while to gain an effect of a special nature, he would call in the assistance of lutes and mandolins, or archaic instruments such as the viola da gamba, violetta marina, cornetto and theorbo. The recitativo secco was accompanied by the harpsichord, at which the composer himself presided. The recitativo stromentato, or accompanied recitative, was only used to emphasise situations of special importance. Handel's incomparable genius infused so much dramatic power into this meagre form, that even now the truth and sincerity of his songs charm us no less than their extraordinary melodic beauty. But it is easy to see that in the hands of composers less richly endowed, this form was fated to degenerate into a mere concert upon the stage. The science of vocalisation was cultivated to such a pitch of perfection that composers were tempted, and even compelled, to consult the tastes of singers rather than dramatic truth. Handel's successors, such as Porpora and Hasse, without a tithe of his genius, used such talent as they possessed merely to exhibit the vocal dexterity of popular singers in the most agreeable light. The favourite form of entertainment in these degraded times was the pasticcio, a hybrid production composed of a selection of songs from various popular operas, often by three or four different composers, strung together regardless of rhyme or reason. Even in Handel's lifetime the older school of opera was tottering to its fall. Only the man was needed who should sweep the mass of insincerity from the stage and replace it by the purer ideal which had been the guiding spirit of Peri and Monteverde.










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