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Opera Before Gluck

Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Euridice" (Orpheus and Eurydice), produced in 1762, is the oldest opera in the repertoire of the modern opera house. But when you are told that the Grand Opéra, Paris, was founded by Lully, an Italian composer, in 1672; that Italians were writing operas nearly a century earlier; that a German, Reinhard Keiser (1679-1939), is known to have composed at least 116 operas; and that another German, Johann Adolph Hasse, composed among his operas, numbering at least a hundred, one entitled "Artaxerxes," two airs from which were sung by Carlo Broschi every evening for ten years to soothe King Philip V. of Spain; -- you will realize that opera existed, and even flourished before Gluck produced his "Orpheus and Eurydice."

Opera originated in Florence toward the close of the sixteenth century. A band of composers, enthusiastic, intellectual, aimed at reproducing the musical declamation which they believed to have been characteristic of the representation of Greek tragedy. Their scores were not melodious, but composed in a style of declamatory recitative highly dramatic for its day. What usually is classed as the first opera, Jacopo Peri’s "Dafne," was privately performed in the Palazzo Corsi, Florence, in 1597. So great was its success that Peri was commissioned, in 1600, to write a similar work for the festivities indidental to the marriage of Henry IV. of France with Maria de Medici, and composed "Euridice," said to have been the first opera ever produced in public.

The new art-form received great stimulus from
Claudio Monterverdi, the Duke of Mantua’s director of music, who composed "Arianna" (Ariadne) in honor of the marriage of Francesco Gonzaga with Margherita, Infanta of Savoy. The scene in which Ariadne bewails her desertion by her lover was so dramatically written (from the standpoint of the day, of course) that it produced a sensation. The permanency of opera was assured, when Monterverdi brought out, with even greater success, his opera "Orfeo," which showed a further advance in dramatic expression, as well as in the treatment of the instrumental score. This composer invented the tremolo for strings – marvelous then, commonplace now, and even reprehensible, unless employed with great skill.


Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi’s scores contained, besides recitative, suggestions of melody. The Venetian composer, Cavalli, introduced melody more conspicuously into the vocal score in order to relieve the monotonous effect of a continuous recitative, that was interrupted only by brief melodious phrases. In his airs for voice he foreshadowed the aria form, which was destined to be freely developed by Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725). Scarlatti was the first to introduce into an opera score the ritornello -- the instrumental introduction, interlude, or postlude to a composition for voice. Indeed, Scarlatti is regarded as the founder of what we call Italian opera, the chief characteristic of which is melody for the voice with a comparatively simple accompaniment.

By developing vocal melody to a point at which it ceased to be dramatically expressive, but degenerated into mere voice pyrotechnics, composers who followed Scarlatti laid themselves open to the charge of being too subservient to the singers, and of sacrificing dramatic truth and depth of expression to the vanity of those upon the stage. Opera became too much a series of showpieces for its interpreters. The first practical and effective protest against this came from Lully, who already has been mentioned. He banished all meaningless embellishment from his scores. But in the many years that intervened between Lully’s career and Gluck’s, the abuse set in again. Then Gluck, from copying the florid Italian style of operatic composition early in his career, changed his entire method as late as 1762, when he was nearly fifty years old, and produced "Orfeo ed Euridice." From that time on he became the champion for the restoration of opera to its proper function as a well-balanced score, in which the voice, while pre-eminent, does not "run away with the whole show."

Indeed, throughout the history of opera, there have been recurring periods, when it has become necessary for composers with the true interest of the lyric stage at heart, to restore the proper balance between the creator of a work and its interpreters, in other words to prevent opera from degenerating from a musical drama of truly dramatic significance to a mere framework for the display of vocal pyrotechnics. Such a reformer was Wagner. Verdi, born the same year as Wagner (1813), but outliving him nearly twenty years, exemplified both the faults and virtues of opera. In his earlier works, many of which have completely disappeared from the stage, he catered almost entirely to his singers. But in "Aida" he produced a masterpiece full of melody which, while offering every opportunity for beautiful singing, never degenerates into mere vocal display. What is here said of Verdi could have been said of Gluck. His earlier operas were in the florid style. Not until he composed "Orpheus and Eurydice" did he approach opera from the point of view of a reformer. "Orpheus" was his "Aida."

Regarding opera Gluck wrote that "the true mission of music is to second the poetry, by strengthening the expression of the sentiment, and increasing the interest of the situations, without interrupting and weakening the action by superfluous ornaments in order to tickle the ear and display the agility of fine voices."

These words might have been written by Richard Wagner, they express so well what he accomplished in the century following that in which Gluck lived. They might also have been penned by Verdi, had he chosen to write an introduction to his "Aida," "Otello," or "Falstaff"; and they are followed by every successful composer of grand opera today -- Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Massenet, Strauss.

In fact, however much the public may be carried away temporarily by astonishing vocal display introduced without reason save to be astonishing, the fate of every work for the lyric stage eventually has been decided on the principle enunciated above. Without being aware of it, the public has applied it. For no matter how sensationally popular a work may have been at any time, it has not survived unless, consciously or unconsciously, the composer has been guided by the cardinal principle of true dramatic expression.

Finally, I must not be misunderstood as condemning, at wholesale, vocal numbers in opera that require extraordinary technique. Scenes in opera frequently offer legitimate occasion for brilliant vocal display. Witness the arias of the Queen of the Night in "The Magic Flute," "Una voce poco fa" in "The Barber of Seville," "Ah! Non giunge" in "Sonnambula," the mad scene in "Lucia," "Caro nome" in "Rigoletto," the "Jewel Song" in "Faust," and even Brünnhilde’s valkyr shout in "Die Walküre" -- works for the lyric stage that have escorted thousands of operatic scores to the grave, with Gluck’s gospel on the true mission of opera for a funeral service.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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