Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)


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II. Origins

1. Background, precursors.

2. Immediate origins.

Opera, §III: Early opera 1600–90

1. Background, precursors.

Music was inserted into plays as early as ancient Greek times. Choral songs, performed on occasion to the accompaniment of mimetic dancing, served to divide the play into sections and commented on the action in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. During the 16th century, when Greek drama came to serve as a model for certain aspects of musical theatre, scholars debated the possibility that the plays were sung from beginning to end, a speculation long since abandoned, although it seems probable that some portions of Greek plays other than the choral interludes may also have been sung or at least declaimed musically, by soloists or ensembles of singers. The tradition of including music as an integral part of theatrical activities continued and even expanded in Roman times. With the destruction of the Roman theatres in the 6th century, however, all trace of official theatrical activity, musical or otherwise, disappeared from the archival records. Professional entertainers – mimi, histriones, joculatores and the like – continued to perform plays and skits which combined music with acting during the early Middle Ages, though there is only fragmentary evidence of this.

A vast corpus of medieval drama with music survives. It can be roughly divided into two kinds: so-called liturgical drama (see Medieval drama), and vernacular plays with incidental music. Some parts of the sacred service came to be dramatized in order to make the events depicted – and especially the Resurrection of Christ, his Nativity, and the events leading up to it – more vivid and immediate. These liturgical and paraliturgical dramas, whether performed in church as part of a service or somewhere else, were sung in chant from beginning to end. For this reason they have been called the first music dramas, though it should be stressed that the various repertories of religious dialogues, ceremonies and plays from the Middle Ages are far from having common origins or a single continuous history.

Similarly diverse in origin, destination and nature are the various sorts of play in the vernacular that survive from as early as the 13th century, though most copiously from the 15th and 16th centuries. On the one hand, vast medieval mystery and morality plays that often lasted several days were organized by towns for the purposes of both religious celebration and commercial gain. On the other hand, during the 15th and 16th centuries, troupes of professional actors, members of various guilds, and even amateurs performed a more modest repertory of comedies and short plays for a variety of occasions in many countries of western Europe. Both the long religious plays and the shorter comedies made use of music as an incidental part of the action. Indeed, this use of music is one of the few things both kinds of play have in common. Only rarely did music play a larger role in vernacular drama. Adam de la Halle’s Jeu de Robin et Marion, for example, written during the 1280s, is an exception in incorporating so many melodies (most of them presumably pre-existing) into its action.

None of these early musical-dramatic activities seems to have been connected historically. No single grand narrative can be written to link medieval drama to the history of 16th-century Italian comedy and tragedy, let alone to the events that led to the invention of opera in the early 17th century. The history of Italian upper-class theatre in the Renaissance should probably begin with the series of classical plays performed at the Ferrarese court in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and especially the performances of comedies by Plautus and Terence that became models for many of the erudite written comedies during the century. These courtly performances of classical plays were commissioned by the duke and acted by the courtiers themselves. Later in the century, erudite neo-classical comedies came to be performed by amateurs, by members of the learned academies that flourished during the century, or even by those professional troupes of actors who were better known for their ability to improvise comedies, the so-called commedie dell’arte (see Commedia dell’arte).

Learned comedy was, of course, not the only genre cultivated in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries. Sacre rappresentazioni, church pageants enlivened with music (much of it related to laude), flourished; they may even have had an important influence on the establishment of the pastoral as a genre, or on the idea of vernacular drama with music, but those connections have yet to be solidly established. A repertory of rustic plays featuring peasants and other members of the lower classes also came to be written and performed. Eventually, too, the genre of tragedy was cultivated.

Some exceptional plays did not fit comfortably within any of the principal genres. Angelo Poliziano’s Orfeo, performed at the court in Mantua about 1480, was such an exception. Poliziano called it a favola. Music played a central part. None of it survives, probably because it was not ‘learned’ written music but belonged rather to the tradition of improvised or semi-improvised music cultivated by Italian poet-musicians in the 15th century. One such poet-musician, Baccio Ugolini, played the role of Orpheus and accompanied himself on the ‘lira’, almost certainly the lira da braccio. In addition to Ugolini’s solo sections, there were several choruses. It has been argued persuasively that there is some connection between Ugolini’s performance and the philosopher Marsilio Ficino’s Orphic singing to the lyre, if not between Ficino’s ideas and Poliziano’s play (Tomlinson, B1988). In any case, Poliziano’s Orfeo was an important landmark in the pre-history of opera, not so much for its form or its influence as for its symbolic significance as a highly musical play outside the Aristotelian genres (it was neither tragedy nor comedy) that dealt with the power of music in a classical setting.

Opera, §III: Early opera 1600–90

2. Immediate origins.

The traditional view of the origins of opera – that it developed directly from discussions in the 1570s led by Count Giovanni de’ Bardi of Florence and his group of friends who constituted an informal academy known as the Camerata, and from later discussions in the circle around Jacopo Corsi – remains the best narrative of the events leading directly to the first operas: Rinuccini’s Dafne of 1598 with music by Jacopo Peri and Jacopo Corsi, Rinuccini’s Euridice of 1600, set by Peri and by Giulio Caccini, and Gabriello Chiabrera’s Il rapimento di Cefalo of 1600, set by Caccini. (Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo of 1600 should also be included in this group of early dramatic works, even though it was performed in Rome and by virtue of its subject matter is regarded as the first example of oratorio.) Among the many topics discussed by Bardi and his friends, music occupied an important place, and specifically the nature of ancient Greek music and the source of its emotive power. Moreover, various experiments in writing an appropriately dramatic music were made in Florence at the end of the century, most notably Vincenzo Galilei’s lost settings of the Lamentations for Holy Week and a scene from Dante, and Laura Guidiccioni’s three pastorals set to music, also lost, by Emilio de’ Cavalieri.

Nevertheless, a full account of how opera came into existence and how it came to take precisely the form it did needs to consider a number of other 16th-century developments, among them: (1) the history of music in erudite comedy, and especially the nature and role of the intermedi, the musical compositions, sometimes sung to the accompaniment of stage action or dancing, that closed each act (see fig.1); (2) the nature of music in 16th-century tragedies, and especially of the choruses that divided the scenes; (3) the debate about genres that engrossed literary circles in 16th-century Italy, and especially the debate about the nature of the pastoral, since pastoral eclogues served as a principal model (perhaps the principal model) for the earliest operas; and (4) the nature of the other kinds of music written for staged or semi-staged presentation at courts, academies, civic celebrations and the like – shorter staged scenes and dialogues that have no agreed-upon generic designation, although they were widespread in 16th-century Italy. In addition, we should take into account not only the activities of court musicians and singers, and those employed as musicians to members of the highest reaches of society, but also commedia dell’arte players who fulfilled an important though not as yet completely understood function in the history of Italian musical theatre.

Aside from the few songs introduced naturalistically into the plots of various plays, music in 16th-century erudite comedy consisted mainly of madrigals (or in some cases instrumental music), which closed each act. At some performances the musicians were hidden behind the stage, but more often they appeared on stage to sing and sometimes to dance. In many cases, these intermedi did nothing more than mark the passing of time, as in Verdelot’s intermedi madrigals for Machiavelli’s La Mandragola and La Clizia, one of the very few sets of normal madrigalesque intermedi to survive (some of the same music served for both plays). In many cases, the madrigals used as intermedi may not have been written specifically for that purpose (or at least not for particular plays or performances); it sufficed that the texts dealt with approximately the right subject matter. There seems not to have been a particular theatrical style that distinguished these madrigals from others, but it is difficult to be precise about this, since so little music survives for the texts that appear in many play books.

For great occasions, and especially weddings within the Medici family in Florence, more elaborate intermedi were staged between the acts of a play. In these courtly intermedi, several musical compositions were performed between the acts, and they were accompanied by stage action, including elaborate machines and dancing. Detailed descriptions of some of these grand occasions were published, and at least two sets of partbooks include the music composed especially for the events: those commemorating the wedding in 1539 of Cosimo I de’ Medici with Eleonora of Toledo, and those commemorating the wedding in 1589 of Ferdinando I de’ Medici with Christine of Lorraine (see fig.1). Courtly intermedi did not have plots, but many of them were centred on a common theme, often pastoral or mythological in character. Grand courtly intermedi were the most impressive examples of musical theatre of the 16th century.

The most famous and probably the most elaborate intermedi of the entire century were those organized for the Medici wedding of 1589, performed between the acts of Girolamo Bargagli’s comedy La pellegrina. They were devised by Count de’ Bardi around the theme of the power of music in the ancient world (the subject of many discussions of the Camerata), directed by Cavalieri, and composed by Peri, Caccini, Marenzio and other composers of the Medici circle. The 1589 performance was a seminal event for the history of musical theatre, even though the music itself did not differ in character very much from regular madrigals or lighter Italian secular forms. The six intermedi were sung throughout, mostly by soloists – including Peri and Caccini – and the third of them, treating the story of Apollo and the python, is a direct precursor of the first opera, Dafne, a decade later. But the music of 1589 does not represent any advance towards an operatic style, that is, a kind of music appropriate for setting dramatic dialogue.

Whereas the intermedi have been well studied and performed, music for 16th-century tragedies is much less well known, at least partly because so little of it survives, and partly because the surviving music, notably Andrea Gabrieli’s music for Edipo tiranno (Orsatto Giustiniani’s adaptation of the Oedipus of Sophocles), which opened the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in 1585, seems so unimpressive. Virtually every 16th-century tragedy includes long choruses to divide the action, and 16th-century commentators seem to make a distinction between these sorts of chorus and intermedi. To judge from Gabrieli’s example, choruses for tragedies were set to a music simple enough to allow the words to be heard easily by the audience. However, producers and composers devised various solutions to the problem of an appropriate music for tragedy – an example is Norton and Sackville's Gorboduc produced in London in 1562 – and in many cases may have organized music indistinguishable from that appropriate for intermedi.

The role of music in tragedy, comedy and pastoral (the three principal dramatic genres of the late 16th century) was discussed by a number of writers on dramatic theory and practice in the 16th and 17th centuries, notably Leone de’ Sommi (B1556), Angelo Ingegneri (B1598), the anonymous author of Il corago (Bc1630) and G.B. Doni (B1630). Sommi and Ingegneri wrote mostly about intermedi and tragic choruses with some consideration of incidental music, Il corago and Doni about operatic works. Whereas the author of Il corago wished to offer advice about how best to compose and produce opera, Doni, as an antiquarian concerned about the nature of music in ancient Greek and Roman theatre, criticized the new genre on the grounds (among other things) of monotony and lack of verisimilitude and advocated instead a judicious mixture of speech and song, the song reserved chiefly for monologues and choruses.

Such discussions of dramatic practice took place against a longstanding literary debate about genres, and especially about the propriety of the new mixed genres of tragicomedy and pastoral, unknown to Aristotle and hence suspect in the eyes of 16th-century intellectuals, debates chronicled in Weinberg’s magisterial study of literary criticism in the Italian Renaissance (B1961). The new pastoral drama, including such famous literary landmarks as Agostino Beccari’s Il sacrificio: favola pastorale (1555), Tasso’s Aminta: favola boscareccia (1573) and Guarini’s Il pastor fido: tragicomedia pastorale (written c1580–85), made use of an unusually large amount of music. Il sacrificio, for example, included a scene in which priests chanted in a kind of recitative and were answered by a chorus (only the vocal part of a fragment of the music, by Alfonso dalla Viola, survives); and Il pastor fido included a famous blind-man’s-buff scene (the so-called ‘Giuoco della cieca’) with singing and dancing.

These plays are important precursors of opera, since discussions about them overlapped and intersected with the discussions that led to the first operas. Certainly the first operas came about partly as a result of debate about the kind of music most appropriate for the pastoral genre. The pastoral plays like those listed above did not, however, serve as models for the earliest operatic librettos. The first operas, instead, seem to have been modelled on the much shorter pastoral eclogues, of 500–700 verses, which put into dramatic (and usually amorous) conflict shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs and satyrs and gods and goddesses. Most eclogues are quite static dramatically and evidently derive from the long tradition of courtly entertainment. In truth, though, the study of the literary climate in Italy in the late 16th century, and of genres and debates about genre, has hardly been exhausted, especially as these questions relate to music and musicians.

The staged entertainments that had enlivened court life (and also academic and civic life) for centuries provided yet another contributing element to the diverse mixture of traditions and genres that established the character of early opera. Mascherate and moresche already had a venerable history by the second half of the 16th century. Entertainments in which masked singers and dancers interrupted a banquet or a ball are described by various chroniclers from at least the 14th century. In the late 16th century, short tableaux were sometimes offered as entertainment in upper-class society. They are called by a variety of names (including morescha and mascherata but also favola pastorale, favola, ballo or simply fiesta, among others); there is no generic descriptive term for such entertainments. Madrigal comedies, for example, surely belong in this category, especially since it has been shown (by M. Farahat, EMH, x, 1991, pp.123–43) that some of these cycles of polyphonic madrigals, canzonettas and villanellas were actually staged in private rooms. (Many madrigal comedies include characters and dramatic situations derived from commedia dell’arte; most of them were written for performance in academies.) More squarely in the tradition of courtly entertainments, though, were the three scenes by Laura Guidiccioni, including the blind-man’s-buff scene from Il pastor fido, set to music, now lost, by Cavalieri, performed in Florence in the 1590s; or the shorter dramatic works of Monteverdi like Il ballo delle ingrate, Tirsi e Clori and the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.

Opera can thus be seen as a genre that grew out of literary discussion in high society. But another tradition that went into making opera, that of the commedia dell’arte, should not be excluded from consideration (as Pirrotta, Li due Orfei, has pointed out). During the second half of the 16th century, several professional acting troupes toured Italy, performing not only their own special repertory of improvised or semi-improvised plays with stock characters but also written comedies and other kinds of play. Although scholars have been inclined to characterize commedia dell’arte players as only semi-literate artisans, the truth is that many of the actors were highly educated, highly literate and highly musical. Isabella Andreini, for example, the leading lady of the troupe called I Gelosi, was a poet, author of a pastoral eclogue, member of an academy and an accomplished linguist and musician; and Monteverdi’s first Ariadne in his mostly lost opera Arianna (1608) was an actor. Moreover, commedia dell’arte plays influenced the form and style of some opera librettos towards the middle of the 17th century (Bianconi and Walker, C(i)1975), and troupes of professional actors sometimes performed opera. Closer investigation is needed of the musical orientation of the commedia dell’arte players in general and their connection with opera in particular.

There was a vast amount of dramatic music heard in Italy in the 16th century, and a large literature of debate and discussion about it. All this activity contributed to musicians’ ideas of what an appropriate music for the theatre should be. The crucial change from courtly entertainment to opera came about when a kind of music appropriate for dramatic dialogue was invented, by Caccini, Cavalieri, Vincenzo Galilei or Peri (all of them claimed credit). The overall shape of the earliest operas, Dafne and the two Euridice settings (as well as Monteverdi’s Orfeo), was deeply influenced by earlier traditions, at least in that scene divisions were closed off by large intermedi choruses; and their subject matter was determined after extensive literary debate about genre, ancient history and the nature of music’s power.


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