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Classical Opera

This article was originally published in A History of Opera. Arthur Elson. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1901. pp. 108-126.

THE question of what sort of music should be employed in opera is a fundamental one, and has given rise to more controversies, heart-burnings, and recriminations than any other matter, since it lies at the root of all differences between schools or individuals. In the earliest times, we find a declamatory style; in the works of the Venetians, melody asserts itself; with Scarlatti, musical learning is pressed into service; in the epoch of Handel, a conventional form dominates the stage; the efforts of Gluck bring back something of an earlier dramatic style, with vastly increased resources in the orchestra; Mozart reverts again to a more melodic method, enforcing it with correct expression and consummate orchestral skill. There can be no doubt that the best results in all these different styles would be due, not merely to the use of good music, but also to its proper adaptation to the dramatic situation. Whether a libretto be worthy or not is hardly a question for the musical critic, though of course it has much to do with the popularity of the opera.

In the days of the eighteenth century, the drama was a much more conventional affair than at present. With England a prey to the cunning artifice of the Pope-Dryden group of poets, France but lately emerged from the courtly superficialities of Le Grand Monarque, Germany still in the grasp of Paris fashions, and Italy possessing little of the earlier Renaissance vitality, it was no wonder that literature did not show any of the free exuberance of thought that came later in the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. So even under the best circumstances there was an amount of conventionality in all the earlier librettos that forced the audiences of their day to judge largely by the music. To quote a later saying, "Whatever was too silly to be spoken could be sung."

When the classical period in musical history appeared, with the advent of the symphonic school, and the full orchestral resources were employed to mingle intellectual and emotional effects in their proper balance by uniting melody with harmony, it is not surprising to find a school of operatic composers who reflected the spirit of their time. They devoted all their study and inspiration to the task of producing the best possible music, and employing it in an effort to raise the standard of the stage. If their operas are seldom given today, it is because these works are both too good and not good enough; to good for an unthinking public that considers opera merely intended to tickle its ears with melody, and not good enough to hold their own against the great advance in dramatic realism that has taken place since their day. When they appeared, however, their librettos possessed a passionate intensity that was new on the stage, and their pure and lofty harmonies were synonymous with all that was best in classical music. It is a significant fact that Germany, the country that is most appreciative of "pure music" (i.e. instrumental compositions without the extraneous aid of any plot), should be the place where these works are most warmly received today.

The first of the composers to whom this lengthy preamble is dedicated was Cherubini. Born in Florence, in 1760, he soon proved himself a genius, and by the age of twenty he had become thoroughly proficient in the old sacred style that gave Italy its renown. During the next eight years "a change came o'er the spirit of the scene," and our young enthusiast left the straight and narrow path, and devoted himself to the production of conventional Italian operas. In 1788, however, after settling in Paris, he deliberately discarded the light Neopolitan style, and in his first French work, "Demophon," showed marked indications of the grandeur he was destined to attain in his later operas. His Parisian career thus began within a decade of Gluck's departure, and he, rather than the indecisive Salieri, is the logical successor of the German reformer. Despite the ignorance of the military leaders during the Revolution, and the opposition of Napoleon in the Consulate, Cherubini remained master of the musical situation in Paris, and Paris was dramatically in advance of the rest of the world.

If "Demophon" was an interesting suggestion, rather than a successful achievement, its promise was amply fulfilled with the production of "Lodoiska," in 1791. This work, which made its composer famous throughout the world, obliterated in an instant the melodious trifles that had been in vogue since Gluck's departure. Its deep earnestness, its profound learning, its harmonic and melodic richness, and its great dramatic strength won instant approval, and kept the piece on the boards for nearly two hundred times during its first year. Its story, rather poorly arranged, deals with the efforts of lodoiska's lover to rescue her from the castle of a more powerful rival, and introduces an assault by Tartars at the close, to make a diversion that ensures her final escape.

After "Eliza" (1794) came a still greater success, in the shape of "Medée" (1797). Its grandeur and classic proportion rendered it a masterpiece, while its tremendous dramatic strength and sublimity won general admiration. Yet the opera at first was not a success,--no doubt because its music was too harmonic to suit the masses. Its weak points are a poor libretto, a decided monotony in its general tone, and a too complete centering of interest in the title rôle.

Three years later (1800) came another great production, "Les Deux Journées." The action of this opera takes place in the time of Cardinal Mazarin, and deals with the fortunes of the deputy Armand, who has incurred the enmity of the prelate. The gates of Paris are strictly guarded, and all precautions are taken to prevent Armand's escape. He is saved from capture by the water-carrier Mikeli, whose son he had once befriended, and he makes his way out of the city concealed in Mikeli's water-cart. In the neighboring village of Gonesse, however, he is captured by the cardinal's troops while protecting his wife Constance from the rudeness of two soldiers. The dénouement comes in the shape of a pardon from the queen, and all ends happily.

The style of the music is so genial and natural, so full of warmth of feeling and expressive charm, that it must undoubtedly rank as Cherubini's best opera. The attacks on the declamatory style of "Medée" were hardly justified here, for, as Fétis says, "There is a copiousness of melody in Cherubini, especially in 'Les Deux Journées;' but such is the rudeness of the accompanying harmony, and the brilliant colouring of the instrumentation, . . . that the merit of the melody was not appreciated at its just value." A more modern writer (Ritter), in reference to this and other operas of the composer, says, "They will remain for the earnest student a classic source of exquisite artistic enjoyment, and serve as models of a perfect mastery over the deepest resources and means that the rich field of musical art presents."

The only later work of Cherubini that needs mention here is "Faniska," brought out in Vienna in 1806. Founded on a plot somewhat similar to "Lodoiska," it won instant success, and among the crowd that thronged to its première were Beethoven and Haydn, both of whom were anxious to bear homage to the truly great composer. He produced several other operas in Paris, all more or less successful. Concerning "Les Abencerrages," Mendelssohn wrote that he could not sufficiently "admire the sparkling fire, the clever original phrasing, the extraordinary delicacy and refinement with which the whole is written, or feel grateful enough to the grand old man for it." The latter part of Cherubini's long career was devoted to teaching and sacred compositions, and at his death, in 1842, his fame in church music rivalled his reputation in opera.

The works of Mehul (1763-1817) and Lesueur (1763-1837) are the only ones of the time that ranked with Cherubini's. Mehul, especially, was successful in continuing and improving the grand style of Gluck, and his operas are marked everywhere by a powerful directness that is not inappropriate to the stormy days of the Revolution. Lesueur possessed a certain large simplicity of style, but his works are somewhat less effective than those of his compeer.

The logical successor of Cherubini was Spontini (1774-1851). Born at Majolati, he soon devoted himself to the study of music, and in 1791 entered a Neapolitan conservatory. After several years of Italian operatic triumphs, he too, decided to try his fortunes in Paris, and in 1803 he entered the gay capital. The next year saw the production of his first French effort, the one-act opera "Milton." Three years afterward he produced the masterpiece that gained immortality for him in the musical world,--"La Vestale." His renown was increased by "Fernando Cortez" (1809), but after this he brought forth nothing worthy of mention for ten years, and even his "Olympie" (1819) can hardly compare with the two earlier works. Spontini professed a great admiration for Mozart, but his music is a direct outcome of the chaste simplicity of Gluck's style. Unlike Cherubini, he showed the prevailing fault of the Italian race,--one that has been evident in opera until within the last three decades of the nineteenth century,--a lack of the harmonic sense. This very "instinct for the logic of harmony" is just what has caused the greatness of modern music in the classical and subsequent periods, so it is not surprising to find Spontini's works on the shelf at present. Yet in his day he was without a rival in popular favour, and his compositions exerted undoubted influence on such diverse natures as Wagner and Meyerbeer.

The other French composers of this time, although worthy of more than a passing mention, were less definitely under the influence of the classical style that was even then known as "German music." Henri Montan Berton, son of that Pierre Berton who tried to make peace between Gluck and Piccini, occupied a respectable, but not pre-eminent, position in comic opera. Catel (1773-1830) displayed much elegance and purity of style, but unfortunately acquired a professional reputation for writing "learned music." Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1825) composed operas that were pleasing, if not ambitious, but is better known as a master of the violin. Persuis (1769-1819) wrote much that is now forgotten, and remains in history as a great orchestral leader. More important was the work of Nicolo Isouard (1777-1818), popularly known as Nicolo. He had little originality, and much of his music was commonplace, but some passages of his "Joconde" and "Cendrillon" show great tenderness and charm.

The master of opera comique during this period was Boieldieu (1775-1834). Many of his earlier works were too trivial to last, but "Ma Tante Aurore" (1803) brought him into popular favour, and his two great works, "Jean de Paris" (1812) and "La Dame Blanche" (1825), placed him securely at the head of his school. The latter opera is founded on episodes from Scott's "Monastery" and "Guy Mannering," but, like the novels of the immortal romancer, it is cast in a form that is too lengthy to suit modern standards. Boieldieu's music shows much melodic beauty, though its tenderness often degenerates into sentimentality. He was the last representative of the school of Grétry and Monsigny, as after him came the deluge of Italianism that is usually associated with the name of Rossini.

In Germany, the successors of Mozart at first produced little of enduring value. Süssmayer, his pupil (1766-1803), displayed a melodic facility and a peculiar popular charm, but his works lack depth and originality. Winter (1754-1825) was strong in declamation and chorus work, but is best remembered by his church music. Weigl (1766-1846) won much appreciation by his tuneful "Schweizer Familie." Dittersdorf (1739-99) carried on the earlier traditions of the Singspiel, and displayed real brightness and vivacity in his comedies. But the only worthy example of the more serious and lofty operatic style was Beethoven's solitary opera, "Fidelio," produced in 1805.

The libretto, a translation from the French, had already been used, notably in Paer's "Eleonora." According to the story, Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, has become the captive of his bitterest enemy, Pizarro. In the state prison, of which the latter has charge, Florestan is confined in a cell without light or air, utterly at Pizarro's mercy. Leonore, wife of the prisoner, has in some way discovered her husband's plight, and, in the hope of aiding him to escape, she disguises herself in male attire, and, under the name of Fidelio, enters the service of Rocco, the head jailer. She soon wins the admiration of the jailer's daughter, Marcellina, who neglects her former lover, Jacquino, for the sake of the handsome stranger. Meanwhile Pizarro, learning of the approaching visit of Ferdinand, the governor, decides to kill Florestan in order to escape detection. He bribes Rocco to dig a secret grave in the cell, while Fidelio, aroused by this treachery, obtains leave to help the jailer. Together Fidelio and Rocco proceed to the cell (Act II.), where the unfortunate Florestan is lying overcome with starvation. When their work is over, Pizarro himself appears, and prepares to stab Florestan; but the disguised Leonore, who has remained in the background, now rushes to Florestan's defense, and threatens Pizarro with a loaded pistol. At this moment the governor's trumpet-call is heard from without; Pizarro is obliged to receive him, Florestan and Leonore rush into each other's arms, and the governor restores the prisoner to his lost honours and banishes his oppressor.

This opera, like "The Magic Flute," still retains traces of the old Singspiel, in the form of spoken dialogue. But the verbal passages are few and short, and, if rightly uttured, may be made to add emphasis to the musical climaxes. In all French performances they have given way to recitative. Of the character of the music there is nothing but praise to be said. It is all in the strongly dramatic vein that gives such power to Beethoven's orchestral works. In an age when operatic realism was not sought after, when the characters might pause in the midst of even the best operas and express in detail their views on the situation, the sincerity and appropriateness of the music could not fail to win its meed of admiration. But now the public makes greater demands, and the musico-dramatic action of "Fidelio," like that of "Don Giovanni," is far too deliberate for modern taste. Its many well-known numbers show Beethoven's emotional power at its greatest; but, like the Mozart selections, they are now heard to best advantage on the concert stage.

Especially suited for concert prima donnas is Fidelio's well-known outburst of indignation ("Abscheulicher!") and the glorious adagio ("Komm, Hoffnung!") with which it is joined. Jacquino's lament in the first act is also worthy of note; in this act, too, is the famous canon-quartette, "Mir ist so wunderbar;" while the jailer's sonorous "Gold Song," and Pizarro's fiery aria when he is forced to decide on Florestan's murder, stand out in bold relief. The second act is one long dramatic scena, and culminates in the almost frenzied duet, "O Namenlose Freude!"

Produced at the Kaerntnerthor Theatre, in Vienna, a year before "Faniska," it was not overwhelmingly popular, and only in later times did it attain the fame of Cherubini's operas.

In judging the classical school, as a whole, due allowance must be made for the lack of swift and natural action already aluded to. If the dramas of this epoch represented a tremendous advance over the conventional productions of a Metastasio, we can only realise their force by putting ourselves in the place of their earliest audiences, and ignoring all the progress made since their day. If we do this, we see that the formal character of the music is merely a relative matter, due to a contrast with the freer style of the present; and even today there are many who would find relief from the modern dissonances in the clear, well-formed themes of the older masters.



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