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The Rise of Light Opera

This article was originally published in A History of Opera. Arthur Elson. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1901. pp. 62-78.

SCENE FROM "LE NOZZE DI FIGARO"WHILE the grand opera composers had been employed in furnishing the world with a voluminous series of tragedies, historical or mythical, ancient or mediæval, it was not to be supposed that comedy was cast utterly into the background. As early as the days of Cavalli, the comic element had shown its appearance on the stage, though not in a very decisive manner. In 1639 a musical comedy by Mazzocchi and Marazzoli, entitled "Chi Sofre Speri," was performed in Florence under the patronage of Cardinal Barberini, and was witnessed by the poet Milton. About twenty years later a theatre was erected there, devoted wholly to comedy, but for some reason it did not prove successful. The true Opera Buffa came later, and arose directly from the intermezzi that were introduced between the acts of the serious plays.

Intermezzi seem to have existed from ancient times, when they took the form of Satiræ, and were given with the Roman comedies. In the mysteries and miracle plays of mediæval Christianity, they appeared as hymns or carols. In the Italian renaissance they became madrigals, choruses, and sometimes solos. Soon they grew in importance, and in 1589, at the marriage of the Florentine Grand Duke Ferdinand, we find a set of five interludes built on a most ambitious scale, and resembling fully developed masques. As the object of all these musical side-shows was to relieve the continued strain of the principal piece, it is not surprising to find them written in contrast to it; and thus there arose a series of comic scenes between the acts of Opera Seria. Soon it became customary for the different intermezzi to contain the same characters. At this point the only step necessary to create Opera Buffa was the separation of the intermezzi from their serious frame, and their union in one piece.

This step was taken in the early part of the eighteenth century, by the Neapolitan composer, Logroscino. He united all the separate scenes into one act, and performed an additional service to music by introducing the concerted finale, afterward to be so effectively employed in grand opera. But his reputation was merely local [1], and it remained for a younger composer to bring the new form before the eyes of Europe.

Pergolesi (1710-1736) was the first whose works in lighter vein became widely known. Writer of sacred music of unexampled freshness, composer of a successful Opera Seria ("Sallustia") in his twenty-second year, and author of delightful comedies, there is little doubt that he would have ranked as one of the world's great geniuses but for his early death. His chief buffo success, "La Serva Padrona," was written in 1734, and for many years remained the best example of its school. It deals with the schemes of the maid Serpina to win the hand of her master Pandolpho. After scolding him, bullying him, and wheedling him by turns, she finally makes use of the pretended attentions of Scapin, the valet, and piques Pandolfo into proposing, almost against his will. The orchestra was here limited to the simple string quartet, but the action was so sustained, and the music so lively and varied, that the unexampled success of the work was fully deserved.

Somewhat later and much more long-lived than Pergolesi was the Neopolitan Jomelli (1714-1774). Not especially famous in Opera Buffa, he achieved far greater renown in the field of serious opera and church music. Like Scarlatti, he was too much given to the employment of a learned style, and his later operas were condemned as deficient in melody. It is worth while to note, in passing, that the young Mozart first made this criticism [2], and wrote home from Naples, in 1770, that Jomelli's operas were beautiful, but too elevated in style, and too antique, for the theatre.

In France there had been a sort of musical pantomime at the fairs of St. Laurent and St. Gervais, but nothing resembling light opera until the performance of "La Serva Padrona" in Paris in 1750. It's success there, when given between the acts of Lully's "Atys," at once aroused a controversy between the adherents of serious and comic opera, but this "Guerre des Bouffoons" proved finally that the new style had come to stay. At first the only results were translations from the Italian, but in 1753 the great Rousseau [3] brought out "Le Devin du Village," and two years later the Neopolitan Duni won a Parisian success with his dainty "Ninette à la Cour."

The real founder of the French Opéra Comique, however, was the native composer Monsigny (1729-1817). His long and successful career placed in on a firm basis, and fused the French and Italian schools into one. Between 1759 and 1777 he produced a number of works that met with constantly increasing success, and when he retired from the Opéra Comique in the latter year, he possessed ample renown and considerable fortune. Yet his music is not marked by any essential greatness; he had little technical training, and depended almost wholly on his instinct for dramatic truth and a felicitous vein of melodic brightness. His scores were thin and poor, his themes lacking in all real musical interest; but his plays were far more natural and entertaining than the pompous grand operas of the period.

Grétry (1741-1813) followed in the path of Monsigny, and carried Opéra Comique to a still higher plane. Like his predecessor, he was unable to attain to any skill in the strict part-writing of the Italian teachers, and relied wholly on his melodic gifts. His comic operas are even more brilliant and sparkling than those of Monsigny, who apparently did not dare to reënter the field in competition with his younger rival. Of the fifty or more works that Grétry produced in Paris, the best known were "Le Tableau Parlant" (1769), "Zemire et Azor" (1771), and "L'Amant Jaloux" (1778), while "Richard Cœur de Lion" (1784) was a successful attempt to treat a more romantic and loftier theme. This last work is Grétry's masterpiece, for his talent was hardly adequate for the still more vigorous librettos of his "Peter the Great" or "William Tell."

The great chess-player Philidor (1726-1795) was also an operatic composer of note, but his works, though well received, have not stood the test of time. He excelled his two contemporaries in originality, musical knowledge, harmony, and instrumentation, but he lacked true dramatic skill.

In Germany, after the prestige of the Hamburg school began to wane, there was little activity of any kind in the operatic field, although Karl Graun, at Berlin, duplicated Handel's London successes. But with the advent of Johann Adam Hiller, or Hüller (1728-1804), a form of light opera arose in Leipsic that fairly earned a national reputation. This was the Singspiel, a sort of popular vaudeville plentifully sprinkled with songs. Although the action took place partly in spoken dialogue, the music was by no means unimportant, and Hiller showed considerable skill in developing the German "Lied," in handling some rudimentary ensemble pieces, and in occasionally arranging an adequate dramatic scena. Probably Hiller adapted his ideas from the French operettas, but he stands completely acquitted of servile imitation. The best of his fourteen Singspiele held the stage for over a century, and are even now occasionally performed in Germany.

The first English light opera had its birth in a somewhat similar manner. In 1727 John Gay wrote a brilliant satire on the prevailing fashions, follies, and crimes of the day, calling it "The Beggar's Opera," [4] and Doctor Pepusch arranged the music from old English and Scotch tunes, together with many popular songs of the time. Probably suggested by a remark of Swift, that "a Newgate pastoral might make an odd pretty sort of thing," this extravaganza had for its hero a daredevil highwayman named Captain Macheath. It was brought out in the next year, by John Rich, at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and met with instant success, seriously interfering with Handel's operatic enterprises. So enormously popular did it become that it was given sixty-two performances during the first season, and its enthusiastic reception occasioned the remark that it made Gay rich and Rich gay. It remained in vogue for many years, and became the model on which the so-called ballad-operas were founded.

Although all the civilised countries of Europe could boast indigenous forms of light opera, the Italian school was the one that possessed the most lasting qualities, and it gradually assumed a sway in all the leading capitals. The traditions of the Neapolitan school, as exemplified by Scarlatti, Greco, Porpora, and the German Hasse, were more or less ably upheld by their successors, of whom the most renowned were Traetta, Vinci (the artist), Piccini, Sacchini, Guglielmi, and many others, besides Pergolesi and Jomelli. Most of these composers excelled not only in the old-style Opera Seria, but in the new Opera Buffa as well. Piccini, especially, did excellent work, and made many improvements in the simple finales of Logroscino. Piccini seems to have been a musician of unusual attainments, and but for his unfortunate encounter with Gluck he would have achieved far greater fame than fell to his lot. Edwards justly says: "Gluck was a composer of larger conceptions and of more powerful genius than his Italian rival; and it may be said that he built up monuments of stone while Piccini was laying out parterres of flowers. But if the flowers were beautiful while they lasted, what does it matter to the eighteenth century that they are dead now, when even the marble temples of Gluck are antiquated and moss-grown?" [5]

But the greatest name among the later Neapolitans was Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). Born of poor working people, he managed to attend for eleven years the celebrated Conservatorio Santa Maria di Loretto, and his first work, in 1772, won him at once a high place among composers. From that time until 1787 he produced dozens of operas, some in rivalry to Paisiello. Called to the court of St. Petersburg by Catherine II., his amazing fertility continued unabated. In Vienna, at the court of Leopold II., he brought forth his greatest work, "Il Matrimonio Segreto" (1792). This piece, which soon won for itself the position formerly occupied by Pergolesi's "Serva Padrona," is replete with a melodic grace and delicious humour that are eminently attractive even to-day.

The story, simple yet full of amusing situations, deals with the troubles of Paolino, a young lawyer who has secretly married Carolina, the daughter of the rich but avaricious Geronimo. To ingratiate himself with his unsuspecting father-in-law, he tries to arrange a marriage between his rich friend, Count Robinson, and Geronimo's other daughter, Elisetta. But Robinson prefers Carolina, and to her father's delight proposes for her, while Paolino becomes the object of an unsaught admiration on the part of the elderly Fidalma, Geronimo's sister. The young couple are discovered in an attempted flight, and the paternal wrath bursts out in full force; but gradually Geronimo is brought to accept the situation, while Robinson accepts Elisetta.

The music of this work, like that of most of the composer's seventy-six operas, represents the highest development of its kind in Italy. If not quite as rich in depth and expression as the matchless melodies of Mozart, Cimarosa's works displayed an unequalled freshness and variety of material, and his light operas possessed in the highest degree that direct liveliness, and merry, chattering loquacity that marks the best Italian buffo work. His chief strength lay in the vocal parts, but he handled his orchestra with skill and delicacy, and his ensembles were often masterly. Of his serious operas, the best was "Gli Orazi e Curiazi," but it proved somewhat lacking in depth, and, in spite of a favourable reception, was gradually forgotten.

Paisiello (1741-1815) was even more prolific than Cimarosa, but his works were less enduring. Some of them, when revived recently in Rome, aroused genuine enthusiasm, but the great majority are now permanently laid on the shelf. Paisiello deserves mention as being the first composer who made free use of the concerted finale in Opera Seria.

The immense popularity of light opera needs no explanation. If beauty is its own excuse for being, certainly mirth may claim an equal right of existence. The comic muse is more easily understood than the tragic, and if Melpomene wins our admiration, Thalia will always succeed in gaining our sympathy as well. But there was still another reason for the success of Opera Buffa; the absurdities of the serious form drove the public to take refuge in the lighter vein, just as surely as they caused the reforms of Gluck. It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the musicians of the early part of the eighteenth century had certainly taken this fatal step. Grétry asserted during his sojourn to Rome, a period covering several years, he never saw a serious opera succeed. "If the theatre was crowded," he said, "it was to hear a certain singer; when he left the stage, the people in the boxes played cards, or ate ices, and those in the pit yawned." [6] But in light opera, despite arbitrary arrangement of characters at first, there was no formal and meaningless rules, and the natural genius of librettist and composer were allowed free play. No wonder, then, that the form has withstood the ravages of time, and survives even to the present day.

1 Logroscino's works, more broadly comic than those of his rivals, were written in the local Neopolitan dialect; but so popular were they that they earned him the title of "Il Dio dell' Opera Buffa."
2 See Mozart's letter to his sister, page 74, in Edward Holmes' "Life of Mozart."

Castil Blaze, in his "Molière Musicien" (vol. ii., p. 409), apparently proves this opera to have been the work of a certain Granet, of Lyons. This Granet sent the libretto and music to Rousseau, but instead of reaching him, the opera came to a certain Pierre Rousseau. Before redirecting it, the recipient, himself something of a musician, showed it to his friend De Belissent, a conservator of the royal library. Great was their astonishment when Jean Jacques Rousseau palmed the work off as his own. The soi-disant composer remained carefully absent from the rehearsals, and allowed the singer Jeliotte to supply certain recitatives that were lacking. Granet meanwhile died, but Pierre and his friend openly accused Jean Jacques of fraud, in the columns of the Journal Encyclopedique. In reply, Rousseau undertook to write a second musical setting; but this new arrangement, not performed until after his death, was utterly without any musical knowledge or skill.

Mendel, however, in his generally reliable lexicon, states that Rameau, in speaking of an earlier work of Rousseau, said that parts of it were the work of a skillful musician, the rest merely the efforts of a tyro without the slightest knowledge of the rudiments of music; and that the accusations of plagiarism, founded on this criticism, were due to the malice of Baron Grimm, Von Holbach, and others.

4 "The Beggar's Opera" was also an attempt to stem the rising tide of Italian opera which was at that time almost a craze in London. It parodied this school with much success.
5 Sutherland Edwards, "History of the Opera," p. 296.
6 See Philip Hale, "Operatic Extravagances," in Boston Symphony Programme Book, 1901.

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