Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
     Home - All Operas - Opera Stories - Opera History - Opera Physiology

Donizetti And Bellini
French Opera From Lulli To The Death Of Rameau
General View Of The Opera In Europe In The Eighteenth Century Until The Appearance Of Gluck
Gluck And Piccinni In Paris
Introduction And Progress Of The Ballet
Introduction Of Italian Opera Into England
Introduction Of The Opera Into France And England
Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since
On The Nature Of The Opera And Its Merits As Compared With Other Forms Of The Drama
Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck
Opera In France Under The Consulate Empire And Restoration
Opera In Italy Germany And Russia During And In Connection With The Republican And Napoleonic Wars
Rossini And His Period
Rossini Spohr Beethoven Weber And Hoffmann
Rousseau As A Critic And As A Composer Of Music
The French Opera Before And After The Revolution
The Italian Opera Under Handel
The Opera In England At The End Of The Eighteenth And Beginning Of The Nineteenth Century
The Origin Of The Opera In Italy And Its Introduction Into Germany

History Of The Opera From Its Origin In Italy To The Present Tim

The Origin Of The Opera In Italy And Its Introduction Into Germany

It has often been said, and notably, by J. J. Rousseau, and after him,
with characteristic exaggeration, by R. Wagner, that "Opera" does not
mean so much a musical work, as a musical, poetical, and spectacular
work all at once; that "Opera" in fact, is "the work," par excellence,
to the production of which all the arts are necessary.[1] The very
titles of the earliest operas prove this notion to be incorrect. The
earliest Italian plays of a mixed character, not being constructed
according to the ancient rules of tragedy and comedy, were called by the
general name of "Opera," the nature of the "work" being more
particularly indicated by some such epithet or epithets as regia,
comica, tragica, scenica, sacra, esemplare, regia ed
esemplare, &c.; and in the case of a lyrical drama, the words per
musica, scenica per musica, regia ed esemplare per musica, were
added, or the production was styled opera musicale alone. In time the
mixed plays (which were imitated from the Spanish) fell into disrepute
in Italy, while the title of "Opera" was still applied to lyrical
dramas, but not without "musicale," or "in musica" after it. This was
sufficiently vague, but people soon found it troublesome, or thought it
useless, to say opera musicale, when opera by itself conveyed, if it
did not express, their meaning, and thus dramatic works in music came to
be called "Operas." Algarotte's work on the Opera (translated into
French, and entitled Essai sur l'Opéra) is called in the original
Saggio sopra l'Opera in musica. "Opera in music" would in the present
day sound like a pleonasm, but it is as well to consider the true
meaning of words, when we find them not merely perverted, but in their
perverted sense made the foundation of ridiculous theories.


The Opera proceeds from the sacred musical plays of the 15th century as
the modern drama proceeds from the mediæval mysteries. Ménestrier,
however, the Jesuit father, assigns to it a far greater antiquity, and
considers the Song of Solomon to be the earliest Opera on record,
founding his opinion on these words of St. Jérôme, translated from
Origen:--Epithalamium, libellus, id est nuptiale carmen, in modum mihi
videtur dramatis a Solomone conscriptus quem cecinit instar nubentis

Others see the first specimens of opera in the Greek plays; but the
earliest musical dramas of modern Italy, from which the Opera of the
present day is descended directly, and in an unbroken line, are
"mysteries" differing only from the dramatic mysteries in so far that
the dialogue in them was sung instead of being spoken. "The Conversion
of St. Paul" was played in music, at Rome, in 1440. The first profane
subject treated operatically, was the descent of Orpheus into hell; the
music of this Orfeo, which was produced also at Rome, in 1480, was by
Angelo Poliziano, the libretto by Cardinal Riario, nephew of Sixtus IV.
The popes kept up an excellent theatre, and Clement IX. was himself the
author of seven libretti.

At this time the great attraction in operatic representations was the
scenery--a sign of infancy then, as it is a sign of decadence now. At
the very beginning of the sixteenth century, Balthazar Peruzzi, the
decorator of the papal theatre, had carried his art to such perfection,
that the greatest painters of the day were astonished at his
performances. His representations of architecture and the illusions of
height and distance which his knowledge of perspective enabled him to
produce, were especially admired. Vasari has told us how Titian, at the
Palace of la Farnesina, was so struck by the appearance of solidity
given by Peruzzi to his designs in profile, that he was not satisfied,
until he had ascended a ladder and touched them, that they were not
actually in relief. "One can scarcely conceive," says the historian of
the painters, in speaking of Peruzzi's scenic decorations, "with what
ability, in so limited a space, he represented such a number of houses,
palaces, porticoes, entablatures, profiles, and all with such an aspect
of reality that the spectator fancied himself transported into the
middle of a public square, to such a point was the illusion carried.
Moreover, Balthazar, the better to produce these results, understood, in
an admirable manner the disposition of light as well as all the
machinery connected with theatrical changes and effects."

[Sidenote: DAFNE.]

In 1574, Claudio Merulo, organist at St. Mark's, of Venice, composed the
music of a drama by Cornelio Frangipani, which was performed in the
Venetian Council Chamber in presence of Henry III. of France. The music
of the operatic works of this period appears to have possessed but
little if any dramatic character, and to have consisted almost
exclusively of choruses in the madrigal style, which was so
successfully cultivated about the same time in England. Emilio del
Cavaliere, a celebrated musician of Rome, made an attempt to introduce
appropriateness of expression into these choruses, and his reform,
however incomplete, attracted the attention of Giovanni Bardi, Count of
Vernio. This nobleman used to assemble in his palace all the most
distinguished musicians of Florence, among whom were Mei, Caccini, and
Vincent Galileo, the father of the astronomer. Vincent Galileo was
himself a discoverer, and helped, at the Count of Vernio's musical
meetings, to invent recitative--an invention of comparative
insignificance, but which in the system of modern opera plays as
important a part, perhaps, as the rotation of the earth does in that of
the celestial spheres.

Two other Florentine noblemen, Pietro Strozzi and Giacomo Corsi,
encouraged by the example of Bardi, and determined to give the musical
drama its fullest development in the new form that it had assumed,
engaged Ottavio Rinuccini, one of the first poets of the period, with
Peri and Caccini, two of the best musicians, to compose an opera which
was entitled Dafne, and was performed for the first time in the Corsi
Palace, at Florence, in 1597.

Dafne appears to have been the first complete opera. It was considered
a masterpiece both from the beauty of the music and from the interest of
the drama; and on its model the same authors composed their opera of
Euridice, which was represented publicly at Florence on the occasion
of the marriage of Henry IV. of France, with Marie de Medicis, in 1600.
Each of the five acts of Euridice concludes with a chorus, the
dialogue is in recitative, and one of the characters, "Tircis," sings an
air which is introduced by an instrumental prelude.

New music was composed to the libretto of Dafne by Gagliano in 1608,
when the opera thus rearranged was performed at Mantua; and in 1627 the
same piece was translated by Opitz, "the father of the lyric stage in
Germany," as he is called, set to music by Schutz, and represented at
Dresden on the occasion of the marriage of the Landgrave of Hesse with
the sister of John-George I., Elector of Saxony. It was not, however,
until 1692 that Keiser appeared and perfected the forms of the German
Opera. Keiser was scarcely nineteen years of age when he produced at the
Court of Wolfenbüttel, Ismene and Basilius, the former styled a
Pastoral, the latter an opera. It is said reproachfully, and as if
facetiously, of a common-place German musician in the present day, that
he is "of the Wolfenbüttel school," just as it is considered comic in
France to taunt a singer or player with having come from Carpentras. It
is curious that Wolfenbüttel in Germany, and Carpentras in France (as I
shall show in the next chapter), were the cradles of Opera in their
respective countries.


To return to the Opera in Italy. The earliest musical drama, then, with
choruses, recitatives, airs, and instrumental preludes was Dafne, by
Rinuccini as librettist, and Caccini and Peri as composers; but the
orchestra which accompanied this work consisted only of a harpsichord, a
species of guitar called a chitarone, a lyre, and a lute. When
Monteverde appeared, he introduced the modern scale, and changed the
whole harmonic system of his predecessors. He at the same time gave far
greater importance in his operas to the accompaniments, and increased to
a remarkable extent the number of musicians in the orchestra, which
under his arrangement included every kind of instrument known at the
time. Many of Monteverde's instruments are now obsolete. This composer,
the unacknowledged prototype of our modern cultivators of orchestral
effects, made use of a separate combination of instruments to announce
the entry and return of each personage in his operas; a dramatic means
employed afterwards by Hoffmann in his Undine,[3] and in the present
day with pretended novelty by Richard Wagner. This newest orchestral
device is also the oldest. The score of Monteverde's Orfeo, produced
in 1608, contains parts for two harpsichords, two lyres or violas with
thirteen strings, ten violas, three bass violas, two double basses, a
double harp (with two rows of strings), two French violins, besides
guitars, organs, a flute, clarions, and even trombones. The bass violas
accompanied Orpheus, the violas Eurydice, the trombones Pluto, the small
organ Apollo; Charon, strangely enough, sang to the music of the

Monteverde, having become chapel master at the church of St. Mark,
produced at Venice Arianna, of which Rinuccini had written the
libretto. This was followed by other works of the same kind, which were
produced with great magnificence, until the fame of the Venetian operas
spread throughout Italy, and by the middle of the seventeenth century
the new entertainment was established at Venice, Bologna, Rome, Turin,
Naples, and Messina. Popes, cardinals and the most illustrious nobles
took the Opera under their protection, and the dukes of Mantua and
Modena distinguished themselves by the munificence of their patronage.

Among the most celebrated of the female singers of this period were
Catarina Martinella of Rome, Archilei, Francesca Caccini (daughter of
the composer of that name and herself the author of an operatic score),
Adriana Baroni, of Mantua, and her daughter Leonora Baroni, whose
praises have been sung by Milton in his three Latin poems "Ad Leonoram
Romæ canentem."


The Italian opera, as we shall afterwards see, was introduced into
France under the auspices of Cardinal Mazarin, who as the Abbé Mazarini,
had visited all the principal theatres of Italy by the express command
of Richelieu, and had studied their system with a view to the more
perfect representation of the cardinal-minister's tragedies. The
Italian Opera he introduced on his own account, and it was, on the
whole, very inhospitably received. Indeed, from the establishment of the
French Opera under Cambert and his successor Lulli, in the latter half
of the seventeenth century, until the end of the eighteenth, the French
were unable to understand or unwilling to acknowledge the immense
superiority of the Italians in everything pertaining to music. In 1752
Pergolese's Serva Padrona was the cause of the celebrated dispute
between the partisans of French and Italian Opera, and the end of it was
that La Serva Padrona was hissed, and the two singers who appeared in
it driven from Paris.

In England the Italian Opera was introduced in the first years of the
eighteenth century, and under Handel, who arrived in London in 1710,
attained the greatest perfection. Since the production of Handel's last
dramatic work, in 1740, the Italian Opera has continued to be
represented in London with scarcely noticeable intervals until the
present day, and, on the whole, with remarkable excellence.

Of English Opera a far less satisfactory account can be given. Its
traditions exist by no means in an unbroken line. Purcell wrote English
operas, and was far in advance of all the composers of his time, except,
no doubt, those of Italy, who, we must remember were his masters, though
he did not slavishly copy them. Since then, we have had composers (for
the stage, I mean) who have utterly failed; composers, like Dr. Arne,
who have written Anglo-Italian operas; composers of "ballad operas,"
which are not operas at all; composers of imitation-operas of all kinds;
and lastly, the composers of the present day, by whom the long
wished-for English Opera will perhaps at last be established.

In Germany, which, since the time of Handel and Hasse, has produced an
abundance of great composers for the stage, the national opera until
Gluck (including Gluck's earlier works), was imitated almost entirely
from that of Italy; and the Italian method of singing being the true and
only method has always prevailed.

Throughout the eighteenth century, we find the great Italian singers
travelling to all parts of Europe and carrying with them the operas of
the best Italian masters. In each of the countries where the opera has
been cultivated, it has had a different history, but from the beginning
until the end of the eighteenth century, the Italian Opera flourished in
Italy, and also in Germany and in England; whereas France persisted in
rejecting the musical teaching of a foreign land until the utter
insufficiency of her own operatic system became too evident to be any
longer denied. She remained separated from the rest of Europe in a
musical sense until the time of the Revolution, as she has since and
from very different reasons been separated from it politically.

[Sidenote: OPERA IN FRANCE.]

Nevertheless, the history of the Opera in France is of great interest,
like the history of every other art in that country which has engaged
the attention of its ingenious amateurs and critics. Only, for a
considerable period it must be treated apart.

In the course of this narrative sketch, which does not claim to be a
scientific history, I shall pursue, as far as possible, the
chronological method; but it is one which the necessities of the subject
will often cause me to depart from.

Next: Introduction Of The Opera Into France And England

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 1646