The Reform of Opera

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The Reform of Opera

The Rising Status of the Composer.

The experiments with new dramatically expressive kinds of music that the Galant and Sensitive styles fostered, and which were also found in the Sturm und Drang's movement's influence upon music, soon had an important effect on the operatic world of the eighteenth century. Opera was the place in which drama and the emotions had long found one of their most profound platforms for expression, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a distinguished lineage of brilliant composers, including Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and George Frideric Handel, had developed the form in ways that heightened music's ability to give dramatic expression to the subtlest shades of human emotion. In the century after 1650, though, few operas were performed in precisely the ways their composers had originally envisioned them. Opera was a business that, by and large, served audience tastes. Lully and the Arcadian reformers of Italy had envisioned forms of opera in the late seventeenth century that might rise to the level of the art of tragic antique plays. But the operatic world was driven by financial forces and by impresarios and singers who often were at odds with such elite ideals. Even in the serious operas of the period, artistic unity had frequently been sacrificed to singers' demands to display their virtuosity before adoring crowds. Arias piled on top of one another in performances so that the various members of a cast might have a chance to show off their particular skills. After each, torrents of applause or, in more unfortunate circumstances, boos rained down upon the singers on the stage, thus suspending the action, often for long intervals before the drama could proceed once again. In this increasingly heated and competitive climate, singers traveled with their own arias, which they demanded be frequently inserted into the action of the particular piece they were performing in, often injuring a work's story line. By the 1760s, some composers had grown increasingly impatient with such conventions, and they now longed to create an art that would have greater dramatic integrity. By the end of the century the effects of a gifted lineage of artists transformed opera, weaning it away from its once common performance practices and creating a new genre that might stand beside the theater for the quality of drama it offered. The effect of these transformations was to raise the status of composers as the defining figure in an opera's creation. This process was long, and continued after 1800 as singers and impresarios battled to see that their ideas and contributions played a role on the operatic stage. But in the operas of figures like Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the groundwork was being laid for a distinctly modern conception of opera as a creation of a solitary musical genius, a creation that makes visible the composer's artistic vision.

The "Reform" Operas of Gluck.

The forces that were to revolutionize opera in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries first became evident to contemporaries in the "reform" operas of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Gluck's ideas for the reform of the genre were hardly revolutionary, since many Italian dramatists, librettists, and composers in the decades before Gluck began to stage his productions in Vienna had advocated similar reforms. Rather Gluck was the first to display the potential that might exist in an operatic art form in which drama and music were more closely integrated. One key figure in shaping Gluck's ideas had been Pietro Metastasio, the accomplished librettist and poet who had long been a fixture of the Viennese court theater. Metastasio's librettos, written mostly for the opera seria productions popular in that city from the mid-eighteenth century onward, had employed elevated verse and had displayed their author's unusually keen dramatic sense. In the hands of impresarios, singers, and composers, though, his dramatic vision had often been subverted to take account of the realities of the opera house and its audiences. Metastasio had criticized these tendencies, arguing that the opera was filling up with arias that were little more than "symphonies for voices." Ironically, the poet's vision for an opera that might have greater dramatic unity was shared by his great enemy,


introduction: The accomplished English musician and composer, Charles Burney, is best known today for his General History of Music, a work that provides invaluable insight into the performance practices and customs of musicians and composers of the time. His account of an encounter with the German-Bohemian composer, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–1787) in Gluck's household at Vienna gives us an unparalleled glimpse into the life of one of the greatest musicians of the eighteenth century.

He is very well housed there; has a pretty garden, and a great number of neat, and elegantly furnished rooms. He has no children; madame Gluck, and his niece, who lives with him, came to receive us at the door, as well as the veteran composer himself. He is much pitted with small-pox, and very coarse in figure and look, but was soon got into good humour; and he talked, sung, and played, madame Thun observed, more than ever she knew him at any one time.

He began, upon a very bad harpsichord, by accompanying his niece, who is but thirteen years old, in two of the capital scenes of his own famous opera of Alceste. She has a powerful and well-toned voice, and sung with infinite taste, feeling, expression, and even execution. After these two scenes from Alceste, she sung several others, by different composers, and in different styles, particularly by Traetta. … When she had done, her uncle was prevailed upon to sing himself; and, with as little voice as possible, he contrived to entertain, and even delight the company, in a very high degree; for, with the richness of accompaniment, the energy and vehemence of his manner in the Allegros, and his judicious expression in the slow movements, he so well compensated for the want of voice that it was a defect which was soon entirely forgotten.

He was so good-humoured as to perform almost his whole opera Alceste; many admirable things in a still later opera of his, called Paride ed Elena; and in a French opera, from Racine's Ipfhigeni, which he has just composed. This last, though he had not as yet committed a note of it to paper, was so well digested in his head, and his retention is so wonderful, that he sung it nearly from the beginning to the end, with as much readiness as if he had a fair score before him.

His invention is, I believe, unequalled by any other composer who now lives, or has ever existed, particularly in dramatic painting, and theatrical effects. He studies a poem a long time before he thinks of setting it. He considers well the relation which each part bears to the whole; the general cast of each character, and aspires more at satisfying the mind, than flattering the ear. This is not only being a friend to poetry, but a poet himself; and if he had language sufficient, of any other kind than that of sound, in which to express his ideas, I am certain he would be a great poet: as it is, music, in his hands, is a most copious, nervous, elegant, and expressive language. It seldom happens that a single air of his operas can be taken out of its niche, and sung singly, with much effect; the whole is a chain, of which a detached single link is but of small importance.

If it be possible for the partizans of old French music to hear any other than that of Lulli and Rameau, with pleasure, it must be M. Gluck's Iphigenie, in which he has so far accommodated himself to the national taste, style, and language, as frequently to imitate and adopt them. The chief obstacles to his fame, perhaps, among his contracted judges, but which will be most acceptable to others, is that there is frequently melody, and always measure, in his music, though set to French words, and for a serious French opera.

source: Charles Burney, An Eighteenth-Century Musical Tour in Central Europe and the Netherlands, Dr. Burney's Musical Tours in Europe. Vol. 2. Ed. Percy A. Scholes (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1959): 90–91.

Ranieri Calzabigi (1714–1795), who worked as Gluck's librettist during the 1760s. Calzabigi's libretti were characterized by a direct and forceful use of language rather than the elevated poetry common to Metastasio's. In 1762, the team produced its first opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, a work that broke new ground in the integration of text and music and which set new dramatic standards that other composers would soon try to imitate. In Orfeo Gluck returned to the tale that had long spawned creativity in the operatic world, but he did so in a way that brought new insights to bear on how the tale should best be dramatized. Drawing much of his inspiration from French operatic traditions, he tried to integrate the chorus, spectacle, and dance into Orfeo and his subsequent productions. His compositional techniques blurred the gap that had long separated arias from spoken recitative. Further, in all respects of his production Gluck tried to balance the demands of the music


introduction: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries music experts recognized that there were great differences in national styles of composition and performance. At the beginning of the Baroque, Italy's dominance in musical composition was widely recognized. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, though, a distinctive French style was evidenced in the patterns of composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully, and this style spread throughout the continent to compete with Italian dominance. Before the twentieth century the achievements of English composers were comparatively slight, although the short-lived Henry Purcell did a great deal to foster a taste for new musical compositions at the end of the seventeenth century. In his famous General History of Music (1789) the eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney outlined the history of early Baroque music in England, placing special emphasis on Purcell. Like other commentators Burney was careful to relate English style to continental models, and he laid part of the blame for England's failure to produce a vigorous climate of musical composition on the short lives of its composers.

Indeed, Music was manifestly on the decline, in England, during the seventeenth century, till it was revived and invigorated by Purcell, whose genius, though less cultivated and polished, was equal to that of the greatest masters on the continent. And though his dramatic style and recitative were formed in a great measure on French models, there is a latent power and force in his expression of English words, whatever be the subject, that will make an unprejudiced native of this island feel, more than all the elegance, grace, and refinement of modern Music less happily applied, can do. And this pleasure is communicated to us, not by the symmetry or rhythm of modem melody, but by his having fortified, lengthened, and tuned, the true accents of our mother-tongue: those notes of passion, which an inhabitant of this island would breathe, in such situations as the words he has to set, describe. And these indigenous expressions of passion Purcell had the power to enforce by the energy of modulation, which, on some occasions, was bold, affecting, and sublime.

These remarks are addressed to none but Englishmen: for the expression of words can be felt only by the natives of any country, who seldom extend their admiration of foreign vocal Music, farther than to the general effect of its melody and harmony on the ear: nor has it any other advantage over instrumental, than that of being executed by the human voice, like Solfeggi. And if the Italians themselves did not come hither to give us the true expression of their songs we should never discover it by study and practice.

It has been extremely unfortunate for our national taste and our national honour, that Orlando Gibbons, Pelham Humphrey, and Henry Purcell, our three best composers during the last century, were not blessed with sufficient longevity for their genius to expand in all its branches, or to form a school, which would have enabled us to proceed in the cultivation of Music without foreign assistance.

Orlando Gibbons died 1625, at forty-four.

Pelham Humphrey died 1674, at twenty-seven.

And Henry Purcell died 1695, at thirty-seven!

If these admirable composers had been blest with long life, we might have had a Music of our own, at least as good as that of France or Germany; which, without the assistance of the Italians, has long been admired and preferred to all other by the natives at large, though their princes have usually foreigners in their service. As it is, we have no school for composition, no well-digested method of study, nor, indeed, models of our own. Instrumental Music, therefore, has never gained much by our own abilities; for though some natives of England have had hands sufficient to execute the productions of the greatest masters on the continent, they have produced but little of their own that has been much esteemed.

source: Charles Burney, A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Vol. 2 (1789; reprint with critical and historical notes by Frank Mercer, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935): 404–405.

against the drama. In particular, Gluck banished the incessant ritornellos, or orchestral refrains, that had grown common in the Italian opera of his day. Instead he aimed for a seamless dramatic portrayal, in which music and words marched hand in hand to a common goal. The success of Orfeo in the 1760s and 1770s was followed by a number of similar works, most of which successfully achieved Gluck's reform-minded aims.

Other Changes in Opera.

Although today Gluck is sometimes single-handedly portrayed as the great reformer of eighteenth-century opera, he was only one of several figures whose influence was transforming the genre at the time. In Stuttgart, another center of innovation, the Italian composer Nicoló Jommelli (1714–1774) was experimenting with similar changes in operatic production. And throughout Europe, the opera was acquiring a greatly expanded repertory of themes and plots. At this time the novel was acquiring great popularity as a literary form almost everywhere in Europe, providing a body of literature upon which librettists could draw for dramatizations. In addition, the theater itself was experiencing the birth of the form often referred to as "bourgeois drama," that is, works that treated themes from the everyday life of the European middle classes. In the decades between 1760 and the 1790s, these themes began to make their way into the operatic world as well. Among the works that made use of the fashion for "middle-class" themes were two of the greatest operas of the age: Mozart's Le nozze di figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) in 1786 and his Cosi fan tutte (The School for Lovers) in 1790.


Thomas Bauman and Marita Petzoldt McClymonds, eds., Opera and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

David Charlton, French Opera, 1730–1830: Meaning and Media (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000).

Roger Parker, The Oxford History of Opera (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Stanley Sadie, ed., History of Opera (Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989).

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The Reform of Opera

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