Project Gutenberg EBook of The Opera, by R.A. Streatfeild

While Gluck was altering the course of musical history in Vienna, another revolution, less grand in scope and more gradually accomplished, but scarcely less important in its results, was being effected in Italy. This was the development of opera buffa, a form of art which was destined, in Italy at any rate, to become a serious rival to the older institution of opera seria, and, in the hands of Mozart, to produce masterpieces such as the world had certainly not known before his day, nor is ever likely to see surpassed. There is some uncertainty about the actual origin of opera buffa. A musical comedy by Vergilio Mazzocchi and Mario Marazzoli, entitled 'Chi sofre speri,' was produced in Florence under the patronage of Cardinal Barberini as early as 1639. The poet Milton was present at this performance, and refers to it in one of his Epistolae Familiares. In 1657 a theatre was actually built in Florence for the performance of musical comedies. For some reason, however, it did not prove a success, and after a few years was compelled to close its doors. After these first experiments there seems to have been no attempt made to resuscitate opera buffa until the rise of the Neapolitan school in the following century. The genesis of the southern branch of opera buffa may with certainty be traced to the intermezzi, or musical interludes, which were introduced into the course of operas and dramas, probably with the object of relieving the mental strain induced by the effort of following a long serious performance. The popularity of these intermezzi throws a curious light upon the character of Italian audiences at that time. We should think it strange if an audience nowadays refused to sit through 'Hamlet' unless it were diversified by occasional scenes from 'Box and Cox.' As time went on, the proportions and general character of these intermezzi acquired greater importance, but it was not until the eighteenth century was well advanced that one of them was promoted to the rank of an independent opera, and, instead of being performed in scraps between the acts of a tragedy, was given for the first time as a separate work. This honour was accorded to Pergolesi's 'La Serva Padrona,' in 1734, and the great success which it met with everywhere soon caused numberless imitations to spring up, so that in a few years opera buffa in Italy was launched upon a career of triumph.

Founded as it was in avowed imitation of the tragedy of the Greeks, opera had never deigned to touch modern life at any point. For a long time the subjects of Italian operas were taken solely from classical legend, and though in time librettists were compelled to have recourse to the medieval romances, they never ventured out of an antiquity more or less remote. Thus it is easy to conceive the delight of the music-loving people of Naples when they found that the opera which they adored could be enjoyed in combination with a mirthful and even farcical story, interpreted by characters who might have stepped out of one of their own market-places. But, apart from the freedom and variety of the subjects with which it dealt, the development of opera buffa gave rise to an art-form which is of the utmost importance to the history of opera—the concerted finale. Nicolo Logroscino (1700-1763) seems to have been the first composer who conceived the idea of working up the end of an act to a musical climax by bringing all his characters together and blending their voices into a musical texture of some elaboration. Logroscino wrote only in the Neapolitan dialect, and his works had little success beyond the limits of his own province; but his invention was quickly adopted by all writers of opera buffa, and soon became an important factor in the development of the art. Later composers elaborated his idea by extending the finale to more than one movement, and by varying the key-colour. Finally, but not until after many years, it was introduced into opera seria, when it gave birth to the idea of elaborate trios and quartets, which were afterwards to play so important a part in its development. Logroscino's reputation was chiefly local, but the works of Pergolesi (1710-1736) and Jomelli (1714-1774) made the Neapolitan school famous throughout Europe. Both these composers are now best known by their sacred works, but during their lives their operas attained an extraordinary degree of popularity. Both succeeded equally in comedy and tragedy, but Jomelli's operas are now forgotten, while Pergolesi is known only by his delightful intermezzo 'La Serva Padrona,' This diverting little piece tells of the schemes of the chambermaid, Serpina, to win the hand of her master, Pandolfo. She is helped by Scapin, the valet, who, disguised as a captain, makes violent love to her, and piques the old gentleman into proposing, almost against his will. 'La Serva Padrona' made the tour of Europe, and was received everywhere with tumultuous applause. In Paris it was performed in 1750, and may be said at once to have founded the school of French opéra comique. Rousseau extolled its beauty as a protest against the arid declamation of the school of Lulli, and it was the subject of one of the bitterest dissensions ever known in the history of music. But the 'Guerre des Bouffons,' as the struggle was called, proved one thing, which had already been satisfactorily decided in Italy, namely, that there was plenty of room in the world for serious and comic opera at the same time.

There had been a kind of opéra comique in France for many years, a species of musical pantomime which was very popular at the fairs of St. Laurent and St. Gervais. This form of entertainment scarcely came within the province of art, but it served as a starting-point for the history of opéra comique, which was afterwards so brilliant. The success of the Italian company which performed the comic operas of Pergolesi, Jomelli, and others, fired the French composers to emulation, and in 1753 the first French opéra comique, in the strict sense of the word, 'Le Devin du Village,' by the great Rousseau, was performed at the Académie de Musique. Musically the work is feeble and characterless, but the contrast which it offered to the stiff and serious works of the tragic composers made it popular. Whatever its faults may be, it is simple and natural, and its tender little melodies fell pleasantly upon ears too well accustomed to the pomposities of Rameau and his school. At first lovers of opéra comique in Paris had to subsist chiefly upon translations from the Italian; but in 1755 'Ninette à la Cour,' a dainty little work written by a Neapolitan composer, Duni, to a French libretto, gained a great success. Soon afterwards, Monsigny, a composer who may well be called the father of opéra comique, produced his first work, and started upon a career of success which extended into the next century.

The early days of opéra comique in Paris were distracted by the jealousy existing between the French and Italian schools, but in 1762 peace was made between the rival factions, and by process of fusion the two became one. With the opening of the new Théâtre de l'Opéra Comique—the Salle Favart, as it was then called—there began a new and brilliant period for the history of French art. It is a significant fact, and one which goes far to prove how closely the foundation of opéra comique was connected with a revolt against the boredom of grand opera, that the most successful composers in the new genre were those who were actually innocent of any musical training whatsoever. Monsigny (1729-1817) is a particularly striking instance of natural genius triumphing in spite of a defective education. Nothing can exceed the thinness and poverty of his scores, or their lack of all real musical interest; yet, by the sureness of his natural instinct for the stage, he succeeded in writing music which still moves us as much by its brilliant gaiety as by its tender pathos. 'Le Déserteur,' his most famous work, is a touching little story of a soldier who deserts in a fit of jealousy, and is condemned to be shot, but is saved by his sweetheart, who begs his pardon from the king. Much of the music is almost childish in its naïveté, but there is real pathos in the famous air 'Adieu, Louise,' and some of the lighter scenes in the opera are touched off very happily.

The musical education of Grétry (1741-1831) was perhaps more elaborate than that of Monsigny, but it fell very far short of profundity. His music excels in grace and humour, and he rarely treated serious subjects with success. Such works as 'Le Tableau Parlant,' 'Les Deux Avares,' and 'L'Amant Jaloux' are models of lightness and brilliancy, whatever may be thought of their musicianship. 'Richard Coeur de Lion' is the one instance of Grétry having successfully attempted a loftier theme, and it remains his masterpiece. The scene is laid at the castle of Dürrenstein in Austria, where Richard lies imprisoned, and deals with the efforts of his faithful minstrel Blondel to rescue him. In this work Grétry adapted his style to his subject with wonderful versatility. Much of the music is noble and dignified in style, and Blondel's air in particular, 'O Richard, O mon roi,' has a masculine vigour which is rarely found in the composer's work. But as a rule Grétry is happiest in his delicate little pastorals and fantastic comedies, and, for all their slightness, his works bear the test of revival better than those of many of his more learned contemporaries. Philidor (1726-1797) was almost more famous as a chess-player than as a composer. He had the advantage of a sound musical education under Campra, one of the predecessors of Rameau, and his music has far more solid qualities than that of Grétry or Monsigny. His treatment of the orchestra, too, was more scientific than that of his contemporaries, but he had little gift of melody, and he was deficient in dramatic instinct. He often visited England, and ended by dying in London. One of the best of his works, 'Tom Jones,' was written upon an English subject. Philidor was popular in his day, but his works have rarely been heard by the present generation.

With Grétry the first period of opéra comique may be said to close; indeed, the taste of French audiences had begun to change some years before the close of the eighteenth century. The mighty wave of the Revolution swept away the idle gallantries of the sham pastoral, while Ossian newly discovered and Shakespeare newly translated opened the eyes of cultivated Frenchmen to the possibilities of poetry and romance. At the same time, the works of Haydn and Mozart, which had already crossed the frontier, disturbed preconceived notions about the limits of orchestral colouring, and made the thin little scores of Grétry and his contemporaries seem doubly jejune. The change in public taste was gradual, but none the less certain. The opening years of the nineteenth century saw a singular evolution, if not revolution, in the history of opéra comique.

Meanwhile opera in Italy was pursuing its triumphant course. The introduction of the finale brought the two great divisions of opera into closer connection, and most of the great composers of this period succeeded as well in opera buffa as in opera seria. The impetus given to the progress of the art by the brilliant Neapolitan school was ably sustained by such composers as Nicolo Piccinni (1728-1800), a composer who is now known principally to fame as the unsuccessful rival brought forward by the Italian party in Paris in the year 1776 in the vain hope of crushing Gluck. Piccinni sinks into insignificance by the side of Gluck, but he was nevertheless an able composer, and certainly the leading representative of the Italian school at the time. He did much to develop the concerted finale, which before his day had been used with caution, not to say timidity, and was so constant in his devotion to the loftiest ideal of art that he died in poverty and starvation. Cimarosa (1749-1801) is the brightest name of the next generation. He shone particularly in comedy. His 'Gli Orazi e Curiazi,' which moved his contemporaries to tears, is now forgotten, but 'Il Matrimonio Segreto' still delights us with its racy humour and delicate melody. The story is simplicity itself, but the situations are amusing in themselves, and are led up to with no little adroitness, Paolino, a young lawyer, has secretly married Carolina, the daughter of Geronimo, a rich and avaricious merchant. In order to smooth away the difficulties which must arise when the inevitable discovery of the marriage takes place, he tries to secure a rich friend of his own, Count Robinson, for Geronimo's other daughter, Elisetta. Unfortunately Robinson prefers Carolina, and proposes himself as son-in-law to Geronimo, who is of course delighted that his daughter should have secured so unexceptionable a parti, while the horrified Paolino discovers to his great dissatisfaction that the elderly Fidalma, Geronimo's sister, has cast languishing eyes upon himself. There is nothing for the young couple but flight, but unfortunately as they are making their escape they are discovered, and their secret is soon extorted. Geronimo's wrath is tremendous, but in the end matters are satisfactorily arranged, and the amiable Robinson after all expresses himself content with the charms of Elisetta. 'Il Matrimonio Segreto' was produced at Vienna in 1792, and proved so very much to the taste of the Emperor Leopold, who was present at the performance, that he gave all the singers and musicians a magnificent supper, and then insisted upon their performing the opera again from beginning to end. Cimarosa was a prolific writer, the number of his operas reaching the formidable total of seventy-six; but, save for 'Il Matrimonio Segreto,' they have all been consigned to oblivion. Although he was born only seven years before Mozart, and actually survived him for ten years, he belongs entirely to the earlier school of opera buffa. His talent is thoroughly Italian, untouched by German influence, and he excels in portraying the gay superficiality of the Italian character without attempting to dive far below the surface.

Even more prolific than Cimarosa was Paisiello (1741-1815), a composer whose works, though immensely popular in their day, did not possess individuality enough to defy the ravages of time. Paisiello deserves to be remembered as the first man to write an opera on the tale of 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia.' This work, though coldly received when it was first performed, ended by establishing so firm a hold upon the affections of the Italian public, that when Rossini tried to produce his opera on the same subject, the Romans refused to give it a hearing.

Paer (1771-1839) belongs chronologically to the next generation, but musically he has more in common with Paisiello than with Rossini. His principal claim to immortality rests upon the fact that a performance of his opera 'Eleonora' inspired Beethoven with the idea of writing 'Fidelio'; but although his serious efforts are comparatively worthless, many of his comic operas are exceedingly bright and attractive. 'Le Maître de Chapelle,' which was written to a French libretto, is still performed with tolerable frequency in Paris.

It is hardly likely that the whirligig of time will ever bring Paisiello and his contemporaries into popularity again in England, but in Italy there has been of late years a remarkable revival of interest in the works of the eighteenth century. Some years ago the Argentina Theatre in Rome devoted its winter season almost entirely to reproductions of the works of this school. Many of these old-world little operas, whose very names had been forgotten, were received most cordially, some of them—Paisiello's 'Scuffiara raggiratrice,' for instance—with genuine enthusiasm.

Wars and rumours of wars stunted musical development of all kinds in Germany during the earlier years of the eighteenth century. After the death of Keiser in 1739, the glory departed from Hamburg, and opera seems to have lain under a cloud until the advent of Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804), the inventor of the Singspiel. Miller's Singspiele were vaudevilles of a simple and humorous description interspersed with music, occasionally concerted numbers of a very simple description, but more often songs derived directly from the traditions of the German Lied. These operettas were very popular, as the frequent editions of them which were called for, prove. Yet, in spite of their success, it was felt by many of the composers who imitated him that the combination of dialogue and music was inartistic, and Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814) attempted to solve the difficulty by relegating the music to a merely incidental position and conducting all the action of the piece by means of the dialogue. Nevertheless the older form of the Singspiel retained its popularity, and, although founded upon incorrect æsthetic principles—for no art, however ingenious, can fuse the convention of speech and the convention of song into an harmonious whole—was the means in later times of giving to the world, in 'Die Zauberflöte' and 'Fidelio,' nobler music than had yet been consecrated to the service of the stage.


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