V. THE BIRTH OF THE OPERA

Religion, love, the dance, the court, even work shared in generating music. Evelyn found the rural Italians “so jovial and addicted to music that the very husbandmen almost universally play on the guitar … and will commonly go to the field with their fiddle.”60Every ducal court had its choir and maestro di cappella; at Ferrara a female quartet famous as the “Concert of Ladies” moved Tasso to tears and rhymes. Madrigals of love wove their polyphonic plaints, making the adoration of woman, till married, almost as reverent as the litanies to the Mother of God. Masses, vespers, motets, and hymns rolled from a thousand organs; choirs of emasculated boys (evirati, castrati) began, about 1600, to thrill the naves; a Protestant visitor described Catholic church music “sung by eunuchs and other rare voices, accompanied by theorboes, harpsichords, and viols, so that we were even ravished.”61 Monks and nuns were trained into choruses that could stir even the savage breast to orthodoxy. Andrea Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo, and Andrea’s nephew Giovanni Gabrieli in succession drew thousands to St. Mark’s in Venice to hear their organ-playing, their orchestras, and their choirs. When Girolamo Frescobaldi played the great organ at St. Peter’s as many as thirty thousand crowded in or around the church to hear. His varied compositions, complex with their difficult experiments, influenced Domenico Scarlatti, and prepared for the harmonic evolutions of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Musical instruments were almost as diverse as today. Toward the middle of the sixteenth century the violin, evolving out of the lyre, began to replace the viol. The first great violinmakers, Gasparo da Salo and his pupil Giovanni Maggini, worked at Brescia; from them, it seems, Andrea Amati learned the art and took it to Cremona, where his sons handed it down to the Guarneri and the Stradivari. The innovation encountered opposition from those who preferred the softer and gentler tones of the viols; for a century the viols, the lutes, and the violins competed; but when the Amati found ways of tempering the shrillness of the violin, the new instrument, helped by the growing predominance of soprano voices in vocal music, rose to unchallenged leadership.

Compositions were still for the voice rather than for instruments. To this period belongs the romantic figure of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, who graced pedigree with music and murder with madrigals. Born in Naples (c. 1560), he became a virtuoso of the lute, married a highborn lady, had her and her lover killed on suspicion of adultery, fled to Ferrara, married Donna Eleonora d’Este, and published five books of madrigals whose adventurous harmonies and sharp modulations moved from Renaissance to modern polyphonic forms. In February 1600 Emilio de’ Cavalieri, in the Oratory, or prayer chapel, of St. Philip Neri in Rome, produced a semidramatic allegory, with only symbolic action, but with orchestra, dancing, chorus, and soloists; this “first oratorio” preceded by only eight months, and in many ways resembled, Peri’s opera Euridice. A generation later Giacomo Carissimi composed oratorios and cantatas whose monodic chants influenced the development of operatic recitatives.

Many other lines of musical growth converged to produce the opera. Some medieval sacre rappresentazioni had added music and song to the action; in these, as in her Passion music, the Church was mother or nurse of opera as of so many other arts. Recitatives accompanied by music had been heard in late medieval courts. Renaissance scholars had pointed out that parts of Greek tragedies had been sung or recited to instrumental accompaniments. At the court of Mantua, in 1472, Angelo Poliziano united music and drama in his brief Favola di Orfeo; now that sad fable began its long odyssey through opera. The masque, so popular in sixteenth-century courts, provided another road to opera; probably the ballet, the lavish scenery, and the sumptuous costumes of modern opera descend from the dancing, the pageantry, and the gorgeous dress that predominated over the action in Renaissance masques.

Toward the close of the sixteenth century a group of musical and literary enthusiasts, meeting in the home of Giovanni Bardi in Florence, proposed to revive the music drama of the Greeks by freeing song from the heavy polyphony and drowned-out language of the madrigals, and restoring it to what was believed to be the monodic style of ancient tragedy. One member, Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer, set to monodic music parts of Dante’s Inferno. Two other members, the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the singer Jacopo Peri, composed the libretto and the score for what may be reckoned the first opera, Dafne, which was produced in the home of Jacopo Corsi in 1597.62 The performance was so applauded that Rinuccini was invited to write the words, and Peri and Giulio Caccini the music, of a more substantial composition to celebrate the marriage of Henry IV and Maria de’ Medici at Florence (October 6, 1600). The Euridice there performed is the oldest opera still extant. Peri apologized for the imperfections of his hurried work, and hoped to “have opened the path for the talent of others, for them to walk in my footsteps to that glory to which it has not been given me to attain.”63

It was attained by one of the major figures in the history of music. Claudio Monteverdi became an expert violinist in his native Cremona. At twenty-two (1589) he was made violinist to the Duke of Mantua; at thirty-five he was maestro di cappella. Critics hotly denounced his five books of madrigals (1587–1605) for double discords, “licentious modulations,” “illegal” harmonic progressions, and broken rules of counterpoint. “These new composers,” wrote Giovanni Artusi in Delle imperfezioni della musica moderna(1600–3), “seem to be satisfied if they can produce the greatest possible tonal disturbance by bringing together completely unrelated elements and mountainous collections of cacophonies.”64

Turning his reckless hand to the new form that he had heard in Florence, Monteverdi produced at Mantua his first opera, another Orfeo (1607), with an enlarged orchestra of thirty-six pieces. The music and action marked a great advance over Peri’s Euridice. In Monteverdi’s second opera, Arianna (1608), the action was still more dramatic, the music more appealing; all Italy began to intone the deserted Ariadne’s lament, “Lasciate mi morire” (Let me die). In his expansion and reorganization of the orchestra, in his leitmotiv signalization of each character with a specific musical theme, in the overtures (sinfonie) with which he prefaced his operas, in the improvement of recitatives and arias, in the complex and intimate union of music and drama, Monteverdi marked as decisive an advance in opera as his contemporary Shakespeare was making in the theater.

In 1612 Monteverdi moved to Venice as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s. He composed more madrigals, but altered that declining form into such declamation that critics accused him of subordinating music (as Bernini would be accused of subordinating sculpture) to drama; and unquestionably Monteverdi—like nearly all opera—is musical baroque. In 1637 Venice opened the first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano; there Monteverdi’s Adone ran from 1639 till Carnival of 1640, while at times hisArianna was filling another theater. When he produced his last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642), Italy was happy to see that at the age of seventy-five Monteverdi (like Verdi with Otello at seventy-four) was still in the fullness of his powers. A year later he died, leaving the world of music inspired and rejuvenated by a creative revolution.

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