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

st 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.