Europe acknowledged the supremacy of Italian music, accepted its instruments and forms, welcomed its virtues, crowned its castrati, and surrendered to its melodious opera before, despite of, and after Gluck. Gluck, Hasse, Mozart, and a thousand others went to Italy to study its music, to learn the secrets of bel canto from Porpora, or to receive Padre Martini’s accolade.
In Venice, said Burney, “if two persons are walking together arm in arm, it seems as though they converse only in song. All the songs there are duets.”9 “In the Piazza di San Marco,” reported another Englishman, “a man from the people—a shoemaker, a blacksmith—strikes up an air; other persons of his sort, joining him, sing this air in several parts, with an accuracy and taste which one seldom encounters in the best society of our Northern countries.”10
Lovers under a window plucked at a guitar or mandolin and a maiden’s heart. Street singers carried their strains into coffeehouses and taverns; in the gondolas music caressed the evening air; salons, academies, and theaters gave concerts; churches trembled with organs and choirs; at the opera men melted and women swooned over some diva’s or castrato’s aria. At a symphony concert given in Rome under the stars (1758) Morellet heard such exclamations as “O benedetto! O che gusto! Piacer di morir!—O blessed one! Oh, what delight! One could die of pleasure!”11 It was not unusual, at the opera, to hear sobbing in the audience.
Musical instruments were loved with more than sexual fidelity. Money was lavished to make them objects of art, precisely fashioned in precious wood, inlaid with ivory, enamel, or jewelry; diamonds might be seen on harps or guitars.12 Stradivari had left in Cremona pupils like Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri and Domenico Montagnana, who carried on the secret of making violins, violas, and violoncellos with souls. The harpsichord (which the Italians called clavicembalo) remained to the end of the eighteenth century the favorite keyboard instrument in Italy, though Bartolommeo Cristofori had invented the piano-forte at Florence about 1709. Virtuosi of the harpsichord like Domenico Scarlatti, or of the violin like Tartini and Geminiani, had in this age an international reputation. Francesco Geminiani was the Liszt of the violin, or, as his rival Tartini called him, II Furibondo—“the madman” of the bow. Coming to England in 1714, he became so popular in the British Isles that he stayed there through most of his final eighteen years.
The rise of such virtuosi encouraged the production of instrumental music; this was the golden age of Italian compositions for the violin. Now—chiefly in Italy—overture, suite, sonata, concerto, and symphony took form. All of them stressed melody and harmony rather than the polyphonic counterpoint which was culminating and dying with Johann Sebastian Bach. As the suite grew out of the dance, so the sonata grew out of the suite. It was something sounded, as the cantata was something sung. In the eighteenth century it became a sequence of three movements—fast (allegro or presto), slow (andante or adagio), and fast (presto or allegro), with sometimes the interpolation of a scherzo (“joke”) recalling the merry gigue, or a graceful minuet recalling the dance. By 1750 the sonata, at least in its first movement, had developed “sonata form”—the exposition of contrasting themes, their elaboration through variation, and their recapitulation toward the close. Through the experiments of G. B. Sammartini and Rinaldo di Capua in Italy, and of Johann Stamitz in Germany, the symphony evolved by applying sonata form to what had formerly been an operatic overture or recitative accompaniment. In these ways the composer provided pleasure for the mind as well as for the senses; he gave to instrumental music the added artistic quality of a definite structure limiting and binding the composition into logical order and unity. The disappearance of structure—of the organic relation of parts to a whole, or of beginning to middle and end—is the degeneration of an art.
The concerto (Latin concertare, to contend) applied to music that principle of conflict which is the soul of drama: it opposed to the orchestra a solo performer, and engaged them in harmonious debate. In Italy its favorite form was the concerto grosso, where the opposition was between a small orchestra of strings and a concertino of two or three virtuosi. Now Vivaldi in Italy, Handel in England, and Bach in Germany brought the concerto grosso to ever finer form, and instrumental music challenged the pre-eminence of song.
Nevertheless, and above all in Italy, the voice continued to be the favorite and incomparable instrument. There it had the advantage of a euphonious language in which the vowel had conquered the consonant; of a long tradition of church music; and of a highly developed art of vocal training. Here were the alluring prima donnas who yearly mounted the scales in weight and wealth, and the plump castran who went forth to subdue kings and queens. These male sopranos or contraltos combined the lungs and the larynx of a man with the voice of a woman or a boy. Emasculated at the age of seven or eight, and subjected to a long and subtle discipline of breathing and vocalization, they learned to perform the trills and flourishes, the quavers and runs and breathtaking cadenzas, that sent Italian audiences into a delirium of approval, sometimes expressed by the exclamation “Evviva il coltello!” (Long live the little knife!)13 The ecclesiastical opposition (especially at Rome) to the employment of women on the stage, and the inferior training of female singers in the seventeenth century, had created a demand which the little knife supplied by cutting the seminal ducts. So great were the rewards of successful castrati that some parents, with the victim’s induced consent, submitted a son to the operation at the first sign of a golden voice. Expectations were often disappointed; in every city of Italy, said Burney, numbers of these failures could be found, “without any voice at all.”14 After 1750 the vogue of the castrati declined, for the prima donnas had learned to surpass them in purity of tone and rival them in vocal power.
The most famous name in eighteenth-century music was not Bach, nor Handel, nor Mozart, but Farinelli—which was not his name. Carlo Broschi apparently assumed the name of his uncle, who was already well known in musical circles. Born in Naples (1705) of pedigreed parentage, Carlo would not normally have entered the ranks of the unmanned; we are told that an accident that befell him while riding compelled the operation that resulted in the finest voice in history. He studied singing with Porpora, accompanied him to Rome, and appeared there in Porpora’s opera Eumene. In one aria he competed with a flutist in holding and swelling a note, and so outpuffed him that invitations came to him from a dozen capitals. In 1727, at Bologna, he met his first defeat; he divided a duo with Antonio Bernacchi, acknowledged him as “King of Singers,” and begged him to be his teacher. Bernacchi consented, and was soon eclipsed by his pupil. Farinelli now went from triumph to triumph in city after city—Venice, Vienna, Rome, Naples, Ferrara, Lucca, Turin, London, Paris. His vocal technique was a wonder of the age. The art of breathing was one secret of his skill; more than any other singer he knew how to breathe deeply, quickly, imperceptibly, and could hold a note while all musical instruments gave out. In the aria “Son qual nave” he began the first note with almost inaudible delicacy, expanded it gradually to full volume, and then reduced it by degrees to its first faintness. Sometimes an audience, even in staid England, would applaud thiscuriosa felicitas for five minutes.15 He won his hearers also by his pathos, grace, and tenderness; and these qualities were in his nature as well as in his voice. In 1737 he made what he thought would be a brief visit to Spain; he remained in or near Madrid for a quarter of a century. We shall look for him there.
With castrati like Farinelli and Senesino, with divas like Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, opera became the voice of Italy, and, as such, was heard with delight everywhere in Europe except in France, where it stirred a war. Originally opera was the plural of opus, and meant works; in Italian the plural became singular, still meaning work; what we now call opera was termed opera per musica— a musical work; only in the eighteenth century did the word take on its present meaning. Influenced by traditions of the Greek drama, it had been designed originally as a play accompanied by music; soon, in Italy, the music dominated the play, and arias dominated the music. Operas were planned to give display solos to each prima donna and each primo uomo in the cast. Between these exciting peaks the auditors conversed; between the acts they played cards or chess, gambled, ate sweets, fruit, or hot suppers, and visited and flirted from box to box. In such feasts the libretto was regularly drowned in an intermittent cascade of arias, duets, choruses, and ballets. The historian Lodovico Muratori denounced this submergence of poetry (1701);16 the librettist Apostolo Zeno agreed with him; the composer Benedetto Marcello satirized this tendency in Teatro alla moda (1721). Metastasio for a time stemmed the torrent, but rather in Austria than in Italy; Jommelli and Traëtta struggled against it, but were repudiated by their countrymen. The Italians frankly preferred music to poetry, and took the drama as mere scaffolding for song.
Probably no other art form in history ever enjoyed such popularity as opera in Italy. No enthusiasm could compare with an Italian audience welcoming an aria or a cadenza by a singer of renown. To cough during such a ceremony was a social felony. Applause began before the familiar song was finished, and was reinforced by canes beating upon floors or the backs of chairs; some devotees tossed their shoes into the air.17 Every Italian town of any pride (and which of them was without pride?) had its opera house; there were forty in the Papal States alone. Whereas in Germany opera was usually a court function closed to the public, and in England it limited its audience by high prices of admission, in Italy it was open to all decently dressed persons at a modest charge, sometimes at no charge at all. And as the Italians were devoted to the enjoyment of life, they insisted that their operas, however tragic, should have a happy ending. Moreover, they liked humor as well as sentiment. The custom grew to interpolate comic intermezzi between the acts of an opera; these interludes developed into a genus of their own, until they rivaled opera seria in popularity, and sometimes in length. It was an opera buffa—Pergolesi’s La serva padrona —that charmed Paris in 1752, and was acclaimed by Rousseau as attesting the superiority of Italian music over French.
Buffa or seria, Italian opera was a force in history. As Rome had once conquered Western Europe with her armies, as the Roman Church had conquered it again with her creed, so Italy conquered it once more, with opera. Her operas displaced native productions in Germany, Denmark, England, Portugal, Spain, even in Russia; her singers were the idols of almost every European capital. Native singers, to win acceptance at home, took Italian names. That enchanting conquest will go on as long as vowels can outsing consonants.