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The Origin of Opera

This article was originally published in A History of Opera. Arthur Elson. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1901. pp. 11-35.

IN seeking the earliest examples of operatic music, in its true sense, the student must turn to ancient Greece. There, where all that is greatest in art had its origin, the employment of music to increase dramatic effect of drama produced a true opera, in our most modern understanding of the term. Unfortunately, we have nothing more than scattered fragments of the Grecian music. But from these, and from the writings of the ancient authors, we can for a dim idea of the effect attained. There is no doubt that the great choruses of tragedies like "Agamemnon" and "Antigone" were sung to the grandest music then composed. The dialogue, too, was never spoken, but declaimed with musical inflection throughout, and the works were accompanied by an orchestra of lyres and flutes, corresponding in tone-colour to the harps and clarinets of the present.

Between ancient and modern times there is nothing to be found resembling opera, except the comic ballad operetta "Robin et Marion," and one or two similar works by the trouvère Adam de la Hale (1240-1287). The so-called miracle and mystery plays were undoubtedly operatic in the sense of possessing music; but they exerted no influence upon secular composers. After the decline of minstrelsy, musical composition became a mere intellectual exercise, consisting of a mathematical interweaving of vocal parts. With the modern era came a revolt against this technicality. But even the music of such great writers as Orlando di Lasso and Palestrina, with all its expressiveness, was hardly dramatic in spirit. Some composers of the Italian polyphonic school made attempts to employ this style for operatic purposes, but the earliest opera now existing resulted from an independent effort to "revive the just designs of Greece."

At the end of the sixteenth century, a band of Florentine enthusiasts attempted to resuscitate the old style of musical declamation, and originated opera as it exists today. "Dafne," with music by Jacopo Peri, is lost, but "Euridice," produced by the same composer in 1600, is still in existence. According to its preface, it was written "to test the effect of the particular kind of melody" which musicians of that day imagined "to be identical with that used by the Greeks and the Romans throughout their dramas." Except for a few bars of chorus, the work was made up of accompanied recitative. The orchestra consisted of a violin, chitarone (large guitar), lira grande (large viol with ten or more strings), liuto grosso (lute), and gravicembalo (harpsichord). The harmonies are indicated by the figured bass, and the instrumental parts of the work are rather thin. The beauty lies in the vocal score, which is really expressive, and follows the inflections of the human voice with much success.

But Peri and his rival Caccini, though original, were not skilled musicians. It remained for the genius of Claudio Monteverde to reveal the possibilities of the new form. Trained in the school of Palestrina, he was never at ease in writing according to the contrapuntal rules and restrictions of the older masters. But in the opera he found the style of work for which his harmonic gifts were best fitted. His "Arianna" (1607), of which only a few passages are left, "visibly moved the entire theatre to tears," according to a critic of the time. His "Orfeo," produced a year later, is preserved to us in its entirety, and shows a tremendous advance over the simple Florentine music-dramas. The instruments used at the first performance were two harpsichords, two bass viols, ten viols, a double harp, two small French violins, two chitaroni, two organi di legno (sets of wooden pipes), three large viole de gamba, four trombones, one regale (tiny folding organ), two cornetti (wooden horns), one flute, one clarino (trumpet), and three sordini (muted trumpets). Since Monteverde was himself a good technical musician (violist to the Duke of Mantua, at whose command the two operas were written), the immense success of his works is not surprising, and after his settlement in Venice we find him surrounded by pupils and imitators. Here he introduced two new orchestral effects, the pizzicato of plucked strings, and the violin tremolo.

Cavalli, the most famous pupil of Monteverde, carried on the good work in Venice. He it was who made the first deviation from the strict "musica parlante" of the Florentines, by the introduction of the aria. He considered that his natural melodic gifts should not be hampered by the artificial declamatory rules of the age of Pericles, and by his frequent use of tunes he became the first cause of many a modern quarrel over the true function of opera. The aria was still further elaborated by Cesti, who added the da capo, or repeat of the first part after the close of the second. Cesti was a pupil of the great Roman composer Carissimi, and from this renowned teacher he imbibed a thorough knowledge of the best methods of phrasing and instrumentation. Cavalli had enriched opera by introducing programme-music, which attempts to reproduce in tone the actual sights and sounds of nature. Cesti, by combining Cavalli's methods with his own musical learning, raised opera to a higher dignity than it had ever before attained. At the same time, however, this very musical learning made him give too little attention to dramatic significance.

Meanwhile the lyric drama, at first the luxury of princes and nobles, came to depend on the support of the whole people. In Venice, in the year 1637, the first public opera-house was opened, and met with such success that by the close of the century the city contained ten other similar institutions, and gave a livelihood to a score of minor composers. In Rome, no opera was performed until 1632, and no theatrical representations given until 1671, though a band of strolling players presented an operetta on a cart in the carnival of 1606. Bologna seems to have encouraged opera from its inception, though no theatre appeared there until 1680. Naples, afterward such an operatic centre, seems to have been later than any of the Italian cities in giving encouragement to the new form.

By far the most famous composer of the century was Alessandro Scarlatti, the founder of the Neopolitan school. Endowed with great natural gifts, he soon recognised the value of strict training to develop his talent. The history of music contains many instances of the value of hard work. Beethoven kept at the piano by a stern father, Schubert earnestly striving to master the centerpoint he had neglected in childhood, and Mendelssohn writing some musical thought each day, are but a few of many examples. In Scarlatti's case, unlike Schubert's, the forethought came first, and not afterward. The great Italian never ceased to labour at the science of music until he became recognised as the most learned composer of his time. His knowledge of counterpoint, combined with his great natural genius, enabled him to write with a freedom and breadth of style that put all his predecessors far in the background. In his hands the "da capo" of Cesti became fully developed, and the interminable monologue of previous times was broken up into three distinct forms,--the recitativo secco, or plain recitative of ordinary stage action, the recitative stromentato, or accompanied recitative, used in moments of intensity, and the aria, for the impassioned soliloquy so often indulged in by operatic characters. He wrote no less than 108 operas, besides many cantatas of more or less dramatic style, and all of these are marked by a rare freshness of melody that does not fail to charm even at the present day. It must be noted, however, that mere beauty of music is not sufficient for the needs of the stage,--the music must be appropriate, as well as attractive, and must reflect, or intensify the dramatic situation. Judged according to this rule, Cesti's music began to deviate from the true path, while Scarlatti's departed from it still farther.

Meanwhile the other countries of Europe adopted the new form of amusement that Italy had found so successful, changing it more or less to suit their needs and accord with existing conditions. In France, as early as 1581, the success of "Le Ballet Comicque de la Reine," by the Italian Baltazarini (Beaujoyeaulx), showed that the court of Henry III was fully able to enjoy its diaphanous plot, and appreciate its pretty music. In 1600, Rinuccini, the librettist of Peri's "Euridice," visited Paris in the suite of Maria de' Medici, and attempted to introduce the new cult of the Florentines, but met with little encouragement. The ballet, with more or less incidental music, continued its aristocratic career, undisturbed by rival entertainments, for nearly fifty years. Cardinal Mazarin made a second attempt to import the Italian article, also without permanent result. It was not until 1646, with Venice already revelling in the luxury of four public theatres, that the first French opera appeared. In that year the Abbé Mailly, secretary to the papal nuncio, saw his tragedy, "Achébar, Roi de Mogol," produced at Carpentras, by his master, Cardinal Bichi. After some performances of Italian works, the native talent again came to the front in 1659, in the shape of a pastoral by the poet Perrin, with music by Cambert. As the work pleased Louis XIV, its success was assured, and more of its kind followed by the royal command. So enthusiastic did the Frenchmen become that even Italian operas met with a cold reception, and in 1669 Perrin was given a royal charter allowing him to found a national academy of music.

The success of Cambert's "Pomone" and "Les Peines et Plaisirs d'Amour" (1671) aroused the jealousy of that foremost of intriguers and musicians of the time, Jean Baptiste Lully. Born near Florence about 1633, Lully entered the kitchen service of Mlle. de Montpensier, in Paris, when thirteen years old. Escaping from that post by his skill in violin-playing, he rose to be composer, director, and music-master to the royal family. Not yet satisfied, he succeeded in getting control of the academy in 1672, and in conjunction with the poet Quinault proceeded to create a school of French opera that won him everlasting fame. Up to this time he had produced many ballets and divertissements, and the years 1672-1686 witnessed the production of no less than twenty operas, in which widely different subjects were treated with consummate mastery. To Lully belongs the development of the overture, which he found as a faint-hearted Italian prelude, and bequeathed to posterity as a well-marked musical form consisting of a dignified largo, a bright fugal allegro, and a stately minuet. He invested the dull recitative secco with new beauty, by adding accompaniment, and he introduced his choruses with consummate dramatic skill. The freshness of his melodies compensates largely for their monotony and poor harmonic treatment, but his works would hardly please modern ears, because of the frequent changes of rhythm which he used in producing declamatory effects. He died in 1687, after reigning supreme in the French art world for fifteen years.

None of Lully's immediate successors were of the mental proportions necessary to assume the mantle of the departed genius. Colasse, Danchet, Campra, and Destouches did little but imitate, and it is not until the appearance of Rameau (1683-1764) that we find a musician worth more than a passing mention. This composer, famous in connection with clavichord playing and systematic harmony, did not enter the operatic field until his fiftieth year, and then began with an apparent failure. His "Hippolyte et Aricie," produced in 1733, fell flat at first, but time showed that this was the fault of the audience rather than the composer, and the score of operas and ballets that followed it placed him at the head of the French school. For the monotony and trivialities of his rivals he substituted new forms, piquant rhythms, bold modulations, and a richer orchestration. Instead of merely allowing the wood-wind to play in unison with the strings, he wrote separate parts for it, and brought the flutes, oboes, and bassoons into increased prominence. He was unfortunate in not finding a good librettist, and his melodies were less simply captivating than those of Lully, but he enjoyed a tremendous popularity in spite of the growing strength of Italian opera in Paris.

In Elizabethan England, the masque occupied the same position that the ballet held on the other side of the channel. It was always given with more or less incidental music, and as at the time the English composers were scarcely less famous and less numerous than the poets, there can be no doubt that the form was thoroughly worthy of the popularity it enjoyed. In 1617 a masque of Ben Jonson's was given a complete musical setting (by Lanière), which must have made it a true opera, but no imitations followed it. What is generally spoken of as the first English opera was "Dido and Æneas," the work of England's greatest composer, Henry Purcell.

Most of the dramas of the Restoration contained incidental music, and Charles II, who disliked the elaborate counterpoint of the day, sent Pelham Humphrey to learn the Paris fashions and bring back a full description of Lully's works. The result of Humphrey's operatic studies in the gay capital is to be found in the composition of his pupil, Purcell, which was first produced in 1679 at a young ladies' school in Leicester Fields. Purcell's later work for the stage consisted wholly of incidental music, but many passages show marvellous genius, and in melody and dramatic power alike he was far ahead of his French contemporaries. Purcell was the last great musical genius of England, and no further activity there is to be recorded until the advent of Handel.

Meanwhile the Germans had kept fairly well abreast of the other nations in operatic progress. There can be no doubt that but for the Thirty Years' War Germany would have taken a preëminent position in the art world as well as in the political life of Europe. But under the existing conditions she had to borrow her civilization from her neighbors. As early as 1627 we find a German composer, Heinrich Schütz, setting to music a translation of Rinuccini's "Dafne" for performance at the marriage of the Landgrave of Hesse, in Torgau; but, unfortunately, all trace of this, as of Peri's earlier setting, is lost. Italian operas were given at Regensburg in 1653, at Vienna in 1665, and at Munich in the same year. "Seelewig," a semi-sacred opera by Sigmund Staden, was printed at Nuremburg as early as 1644, but German opera was not established on a permanent basis until the opening of an opera-house in Hamburg, in 1678, with a performance of "Adam and Eve," by Johann Theile. In that year three other operas were given, and a number of composers soon came forward. One man, however, Reinhard Keiser (1673-1739), was decidedly primus inter pares, and did for Germany a service similar to that of Lully in France and Purcell in England. Of the 116 operas that he is said to have produced, only a few remain; but these few show that Keiser, though less perfect in finish than Lully, was a master of expression, and made evident efforts to attain dramatic truth.

But Hamburg was to witness the triumphs of a much greater artist, whose music has a firm hold on public favour today, though his operas are too archaic in form for the present,--Georg Friedrich Handel. Born in Halle in 1685, he showed an early fondness for the forbidden luxury of music, and is said to have concealed a clavichord in his room during his seventh year. In his youth he studied the respectable profession of law, at his father's desire, but gave up this distasteful work in 1702. His first opera, "Almira," was produced in 1705, and was followed quickly by three others. Handel's wonderful gift of melody brought the Hamburg school to its highest point, but his earlier works are marred by the barbarous fashion of mixing Italian and German to suit the needs of the singers, who seem to have been dictatorial in the past as well as in the present. The early crudities soon disappeared, however, and in 1707 the composer left for Italy, to worship the shrine of Scarlatti. Here "Rodrigo" (Florence, 1707) and "Agrippina" (Venice, 1708) brought fresh laurels to the Saxon genius. In 1710 he settled in London, where his "Rinaldo" (composed in a fortnight) surpassed everything previously existing in the operatic world. Here he brought forth one piece after another, during a period of thirty years; managing theatres, soothing the disputes of singers, braving the wrath of the dandies by composing in his own chosen methods, triumphing over his rival, Buononcini, making fortunes and losing them, and finally leaving the stage with "Deidamia," in 1741. From that year until his death in 1759, he spent his time in composing oratorios and paying off his debts.

Handel's compositions represent the highest development of the opera in the past. The works of his successors are cast in a different mold, and foreshadow the triumphs of the present, while his own are rather the result of a successful evolution than the cause of a new progress; therefore it may not be amiss to pause for a moment and inspect their style more closely. In place of the straightforward drama emphasized by music, according to the canons of the Florentine classicists, the musical elaborations of Cesti, Scarlatti, and his pupils had led to the establishment of definite rules regarding the kind of arias to be employed, their number, their order in the opera, and even the number of characters to be introduced.

The performers were generally six, at most seven. Usually three were women and three men, two of the former being sopranos and a third being a contralto, while the first man was always an artificial soprano, the second either soprano or contralto, and the remaining one (or two) tenor or bass. On the popularity of these singers much of the success of the work depended. We should find it strange today if Hercules were to sing a soprano solo, or Theseus warble out a series of roulades in alt; the conventions of Handel's day, however, not only accepted these conditions, but insisted on them. The light opera prima donna of the present, so often decked out in the full regalia of manhood, is but the logical successor of the eighteenth century opera heroes.

The airs entrusted to these personages were arranged in well-defined classes. All the numbere were in the "da capo" form, closing with a repeat of the first part, but they differed from one another in the character of their music. The aria cantabile was a work of simplicity and sweetness, though even this was often garnished with vocal ornaments by the singer. The aria di portamento, also a slow movement, was more symmetrical and more strongly marked in rhythm, allowing the singer to swell on sustained notes or glide from one to another, but admitting of little embelishment. Its expression was sedate and dignified, its accompaniment simple. The aria di mezzo carattere, as its name implies, possessed medium qualities, and was taken at a fair speed. Its accompaniment was richer than the preceding, and more varied. The aria parlante was more declamatory in character, and therefore well suited to the expression of strong emotion. The aria di bravura, or d'agilita, was entirely a display piece, and contained rapid or difficult passages that were intended to exhibit the utmost skill of the singer. To such a pitch was the art of singing carried in Handel's time that the best artists of today need care and study in preparing passages that the Handelian singers attacked with ease.

No less stringent were the laws governing the number and characters of the airs to be employed. The operas were divided into three acts, and each artist sang at least one aria in each act. No performer was allowed to sing two arias in succession, nor could two similar arias occur together even when sung by different performers. The most important selections were placed at the close of the first and second acts. In the last two acts the hero and heroine each expected a special scena consisting of a recitative followed by a display aria. Besides these, their desire for applause had to be still further gratified by a grand duet. No trios or quartets were permitted, though in one instance Handel was bold enough to defy this rule and introduce a quartet into "Radamisto." The operas were always concluded by a lively chorus, sometimes accompanied by a dance. Under these conditions it is not surprising to find that the librettists were unable to treat their subjects in a worthy manner, and the composers cared little or nothing about suiting their music to the dramatic emotion of the words. Opera had degenerated into a set of contrasted vocal forms, as definite as the group of instrumental movements that constituted the suite. In Handel's case the man was greater than the method, and the formal rules of the time often lost their absurdity through the force of his genius, but not even his wonderful music could give permanence to an art form that was based on incorrect aesthetic principles.

The orchestra of Handel's time had also reached the point where the old was discarded and the new began. The obselete organs and guitars of Monteverde no longer appear. In their place we find a complete set of stringed instruments, consisting of first and second violins, violas, violoncellos (rarely used), and contrabasses; an adequate group in the wood-wind, including flutes (rarely used), oboes, and bassoons; and a brass band consisting of horns, trumpets, and in the oratorios an occasional trombone. Thus the only important modern instrument still lacking was the clarinet.


Cambert, Robert

Handel, Georg Friedrich

Lully, Jean Baptiste

Scarlatti, Alessandro

Related Webpages

Classical Opera
Origin of the Opera
The Rise of Light Opera


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