STREATFEILD: CHAPTER 1
THE BEGINNINGS OF OPERA
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-
The foundations of the new art-
With the production of 'Euridice' the history of opera may be said to begin; but if the new art-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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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