Chapter 20. Opera and Vocal Music in the Early Classic Period

Chapter Outline



In the middle decades of the eighteenth century, composers created a new musical language based on songful, periodic melodies with light accompaniment. First developed in vocal music, especially comic opera, this new idiom reflected a growing taste for music that was “natural,” expressive, and immediately appealing to a wide variety of listeners. It emerged during an era when many types and styles of music coexisted and the merits of each were fiercely debated. This chapter will sketch the social and intellectual background for this new language, describe its central characteristics, and trace its development in opera and vocal music. The next two chapters will examine how composers applied the new idiom to instrumental music, including several new genres and forms, and show how composers such as Haydn and Mozart enriched it with elements of other styles to form what has become known as the classical style. 

Chapter Outline: 

  1. Europe in the Mid- to Late Eighteenth Century
    1. Aspects of eighteenth-century life
      1. Europe was dominated by a number of strong political powers, most notably France, Great Britain, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.
      2. Revolutions in America and France had a strong impact on European politics at the end of the century.
      3. Changes in economic conditions resulted in a rising middle class and a lessening of aristocratic power.
      4. Europe enjoyed a cosmopolitan age, due in part to intermarriages of noble families.
      5. A universal musical style emerged that blended features from all nations (see HWM Source Reading, page 474).
    2. The Enlightenment
      1. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that applied reason to issues of emotions, social relations, and politics.
      2. Beliefs of the Enlightenment
        1. Individual rights
        2. Naturalness
        3. Universal education
        4. Social equality
      3. Social reformers in France were known as philosophes.
      4. Ideas of the Enlightenment were incorporated into the founding documents of the United States.
      5. Interest in the welfare of humankind extended to rulers, who oversaw social reform.
      6. An organization devoted to humanitarian ideas and brotherhood known as Freemasonry emerged and spread throughout Europe and North America.
      7. The middle class’s increased interest in learning and the arts affected writers and artists.
    3. Social roles for music
      1. Public concerts and private teaching provided musicians with methods to supplement their income (see HWM Innovations, page 476, and Figures 20.1 and 20.2).
      2. A large repertoire of music was composed for amateur musicians to perform at home (see HWM Figure 20.3).
      3. Magazines devoted to music began to appear in midcentury.
      4. The first universal histories of music were written.
        1. Charles Burney, A General History of Music
        2. John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music
        3. Universal education
        4. Johann Nicolaus Forkel, Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik
  2. Musical Taste and Style
    1. Musical styles in the mid- and late eighteenth century
      1. Various musical styles coexisted, including the traditional Baroque style and newer styles.
      2. Contemporary critics developed a number of new values.
        1. Composers should avoid contrapuntal complexity.
        2. Melodies should contain short phrases and have simple accompaniments.
        3. The language of music should be international.
        4. Music should appeal to all tastes.
        5. Music should be natural and immediately pleasing.
    2. Terms for styles
      1. Galant
        1. Galant was a term for everything modern and sophisticated.
        2. Melodies built from repeated motives and short phrases were emphasized.
        3. Phrases were combined into larger periods.
        4. The harmony was simple with frequent cadences.
        5. Galant style became the foundation for music of the mid- to late eighteenth century (see HWM Source Reading, page 481).
      2. Empfindsam style (“sentimental style”)
        1. Empfindsam style originated in Italy, but it is most closely associated with C. P. E. Bach.
        2. It was characterized by surprising turns of harmony, chromaticism, and speechlike melodies.
      3. Classical
        1. “Classical” music sometimes refers to art music of all ages, and sometimes it specifies the music of the late eighteenth century.
        2. The narrowest definition denotes the style associated with the mature music of Haydn and Mozart.
        3. The term was applied to music as an analogy to Greek and Roman art.
        4. The Classic Period in music is approximately 1730 to 1815.
  3. Qualities of the Classical Style
    1. Melody
      1. Baroque phrasing
        1. Baroque melodies were spun out of a single melodic-rhythmic subject.
        2. Baroque melodies embodied a single affection.
        3. Sequential repetition of phrases with infrequent cadences resulted in integrated movements without sharp contrasts.
      2. Periodicity
        1. The new melodic style broke up the melodic flow with a succession of short distinct phrases of two to four measures in length.
        2. A period, consisting of two or more phrases, formed a complete musical thought.
        3. This melodic style is characterized by frequent cadences.
        4. Principles of rhetoric and grammar were applied to music, as described by Heinrich Christoph Koch in Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition (see HWM Example 20.1).
    2. Harmony
      1. A hierarchy of cadences developed; the strongest cadences mark the end of a period or of sections and movements.
      2. Harmonic movement, such as I-V-I, can be observed as a simple chord progression and as large-scale harmonic schemes.
      3. Harmonic movement was slower than in the Baroque era.
      4. The Alberti bass set chords in repeating patterns to animate harmonies without distracting from melodies (see HWM Example 20.2).
    3. Distinctions between beginning, middle, and ending gestures allowed composers to communicate location in the musical form.
    4. Emotional contrasts
      1. In the Baroque era, strong and invariable states of affection were thought to dominate human emotions.
      2. Deeper knowledge of blood circulation, the nervous system, and human physiology suggested that emotional states were constantly changing.
      3. The music of the classic era began to incorporate contrasting moods rather than projecting a single affection.
  4. Italian Comic Opera
    1. Stylistic features of Classic-era music first appeared in Italian opera in the 1720s.
      1. Comic opera was most open to the new stylistic trends.
      2. Both comic and serious opera emphasized beautiful melodies and used music to show changing emotions.
    2. Opera buffa
      1. Italian comic opera is known as opera buffa, although dramma giocossa, dramma comico, and commedia per musica were also used at the time.
      2. General characteristics
        1. A full-length work that was sung throughout
        2. Six or more characters
        3. Plots caricatured the faults of both aristocrats and commoners.
        4. Characters often resembled the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte.
        5. Dialogue was set in rapidly delivered recitative with continuo.
      3. Arias.
        1. Short tuneful phrases accompanied by simple harmonies
        2. Da capo forms
        3. Example: T’aggio mmidea from Le zite ‘ngalera (The Spinsters in the Galley) by Leonardo Vinci (see HWM Example 20.3)
    3. Intermezzo
      1. This genre originated as a short, comic, musical interlude between the acts of a serious opera or play (see HWM Figure 20.4).
      2. Plots were mostly comedies involving ordinary people, sometimes parodying the excesses of serious opera.
      3. Most have only two singing roles and incorporate bass voice.
      4. The music alternated recitative and arias.
      5. La serva padronna by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
        1. The composer died young from tuberculosis.
        2. There are only three characters, one of whom is mute.
        3. The plot questions the social hierarchy.
    4. La serva padronna, excerpt (see NAWM 93 and HWM Example 20.4)
      1. Recitative section
        1. The opening conversation is set in the standard simple recitative.
        2. As Uberto doubts his actions with Serpina, the orchestra punctuates his thoughts; accompanied recitative is reserved for the most dramatic moments in opera seria.
        3. The harmonies modulate rapidly, suggesting Uberto’s changing thoughts.
      2. Aria
        1. Da capo form
        2. A ritornello frames the A section.
        3. The A section has two complete statements of poetic text.
        4. The B section has new text, keys, and musical ideas.
        5. The music projects contrasting moods, unlike Baroque arias.
    5. Later comic opera
      1. Dramatist Carlo Goldoni introduced serious and sentimental elements.
      2. La buona figliuola (The Good Girl) by Niccolo Piccinni is an example.
      3. Italian comic opera introduced ensemble finales in which all the characters are gradually brought on stage.
  5. Opera Seria
    1. The simple melodic style of opera buffa was assimilated into opera seria-serious Italian opera.
    2. The poet Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) established the form of opera seria.
      1. Composers throughout the century set librettos by Metastasio.
      2. His librettos were produced in Naples, Rome, Venice, and Vienna.
      3. He sought to promote morality through entertainment by portraying heroic characters from ancient Greek or Roman stories.
      4. The conventional cast consists of two pairs of lovers and other characters.
      5. Stories usually end with a heroic deed or a magnanimous gesture by a principal character.
      6. The story is presented in three acts.
    3. The music alternates recitatives and arias.
      1. Recitatives develop the action through dialogue.
        1. Most of the dialogue is set with simple recitative.
        2. The most dramatic moments use accompanied recitative.
      2. Arias are soliloquies in which a principal actor reacts to events.
      3. Occasionally there are duets, larger ensembles, and choruses.
      4. The role of the orchestra, which was minimal outside of the overture, would expand during the century.
    4. Arias were generally in da capo form with variations in detail.
      1. Metastasio’s two-stanza texts set the standard for the 1720s-1740s.
      2. First A section of the da capo aria
        1. The opening ritornello announces the melodic material.
        2. The first vocal statement presents the main idea in the tonic and then modulates to the dominant or related key.
        3. A short ritornello follows.
        4. The second vocal statement, which repeats the first stanza of text, starts in the dominant or related key and ends in the tonic with a florid passage.
      3. The B section
        1. Heard only once, this section uses the second stanza of text.
        2. Syllabic text-setting is typical, often with light accompaniment.
        3. This section may be in a different tempo, meter, or key.
      4. The return of the A section
        1. The vocal material of the A section is repeated with embellishments.
        2. The omission of the ritornello, indicated by a sign and the words dal segno, could shorten the aria’s length.
      5. New features in aria forms
        1. The A sections included contrasting moods, often in two keys.
        2. Melodies used four-measure antecedent and consequent phrases, deviating for effect.
    5. Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) was the master of opera seria (see HWM Figure 20.5).
      1. He spent many years in Italy and worked at the court of the elector of Saxony in Dresden.
      2. He was the most popular and successful opera composer in Europe in the middle of the century.
      3. Most of his operas use Metastasio librettos.
      4. Cleofide was composed for Hasse’s wife, Faustina Bordoni, a professional singer (see NAWM 94 and HWM Figure 20.6).
        1. The da capo aria has contrasting ideas and short phrases.
        2. In the A section, the first vocal statement modulates to the dominant, and the second modulates back to the tonic, E major.
        3. The B section changes to E minor and has a faster triple meter.
        4. An ornamented version of this melody is in HWM Example 20.5.
  6. Opera in Other Languages
    1. Opera outside of Italy
      1. Opera seria maintained its character when performed in other countries.
      2. Comic opera reflected local influences.
        1. Set in native language
        2. Music accentuated national musical idioms.
      3. Historical significance of comic opera
        1. It was a vehicle for simple, natural singing.
        2. It encouraged the growth of national operatic traditions.
    2. France
      1. Querelle des bouffons (Quarrel of the Comic Actors) was a pamphlet war beginning in 1752 that argued the relative merits of French and Italian opera.
        1. The issue involved nearly every intellectual in France.
        2. The debate was sparked by the presence of an Italian opera troupe in Paris that performed, among other works, Pergolesi’s La serva padronna.
      2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
        1. Rousseau praised the emphasis on natural melodies in Italian opera.
        2. He composed an opera, Le Devin du village (The Village Soothsayer, 1752), using the melodic style of Italian opera (see HWM Example 20.6).
      3. Opéra comique
        1. French comic opera, called opéra comique, began around 1710 and used simple popular tunes known as vaudevilles.
        2. Simple airs, or ariettes, inspired by the Italian style, began to appear after 1750.
        3. Opéra comique used spoken dialogue rather than recitative.
        4. By the end of the eighteenth century, serious plots based on social issues were introduced into the operatic genre.
        5. Richard Coeur-de-Lion (Richard the Lion-Hearted, 1784) by Grétry sparked a vogue for rescue plots, which influenced Beethoven’s Fidelio.
    3. England
      1. Ballad opera was the name for the popular opera in England.
        1. Set in English, ballad operas used spoken dialogue.
        2. Initially, the songs were borrowed popular tunes with new words, but later new songs were composed.
        3. Ballad opera peaked in the 1730s and remained influential for decades in Britain and America.
      2. The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by John Gay and Johann Pepusch
        1. The enormous popularity of this ballad opera established the genre.
        2. The play satirizes London society and the conventions of opera seria (see HWM Figure 20.7).
        3. The original orchestration includes violins, but the music survives only with basso continuo realization.
    4. The Beggar’s Opera, excerpt from Scene 13 (NAWM 95)
      1. In this scene, Macheath is fleeing from the law and hiding in Polly’s room.
      2. Both borrowed melodies are from Henry Playford’s Pills to Purge Melancholy.
      3. My heart was so free/It roved like a bee is sung by Macheath.
        1. The song parodies the simile aria of Baroque operas (a predicament is described through comparison).
        2. The words are sung to the melody of Come fair one be kind, a courting song.
        3. The tune has a jig character and is in binary form.
      4. Were I laid on Greenland’s coast
        1. This is based on the tune O’er the hills, and far away, which is suggested in Polly’s text.
        2. The duet is a verse-refrain form of a traditional song.
        3. The tune is modal, in C Dorian.
    5. Germany and Austria
      1. Serious German opera appeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
      2. German comic opera, called Singspiel, first appeared in Vienna in the 1710s.
        1. Singspiel (“singing play”) features spoken dialogue, musical numbers, and a comic plot.
        2. English ballad opera exerted a strong influence.
        3. Its principal composer was Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804).
        4. In northern Germany, Singspiel merged with more serious opera.
        5. Audiences in Vienna preferred farcical subjects with lively music inspired by Italian comic opera.
  7. Opera Reform
    1. Beginnings
      1. Some opera composers, librettists, and patrons wanted opera to be more natural.
        1. They wanted more flexibility in recitatives and arias in order to make the action more natural.
        2. They used the orchestra more and reinstated choruses.
        3. They resisted the demands of singers.
        4. Francesco Algarotti articulated these ideals in An Essay on the Opera (1755).
      2. Opera composers Nicol?Jommelli (1714- 1774) and Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779) were important figures in the reform.
        1. Both worked where French tastes were predominant.
        2. Jommelli’s works provided models for later opera seria.
        3. Traetta aimed to combine the best of French tragédie en musique and Italian opera and borrowed material from Rameau.
    2. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) (see HWM Figure 20.8)
      1. Born to Bohemian parents, Gluck traveled throughout Europe.
      2. He was influenced by the Italian reform movement and vowed to purge Italian opera of it abuses and excesses.
        1. He did not want singers’ wishes or the da capo form to restrict the composer.
        2. He wanted the overture to be an integral part of the opera.
        3. He lessened the contrast between recitative and aria.
        4. His goal was to create music of “a beautiful simplicity.”
      3. Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)
        1. The poet Raniero de Calzabigi supplied the libretto.
        2. As in with Alceste, Orfeo molds the music to the drama.
      4. Gluck believed that the French language could be used successfully in opera.
        1. Iphigénie en Aulide (Iphigenia in Aulis, 1774) is based on a French libretto and was a tremendous success in Paris.
        2. Gluck revised Orfeo and Alceste with French texts and continued to compose other French operas that became models for later composers.
    3. Orfeo ed Euridice, Act II, Scene I opening (NAWM 96)
      1. Two orchestras are used, one of which is for plucked strings imitating the sound of Orfeo’s lyre.
      2. Dissonances and diminished chords create the sense of terror.
      3. The ballet of the Furies
        1. The dance quickly modulates to C minor through chromaticism.
        2. The dance is central to the story, unlike the ballets in French opera.
      4. Orfeo’s song to the Furies
        1. Simple melody, sparse embellishment, and economy of material
        2. The melody has simple phrases.
        3. The Furies periodically respond with “No.”
        4. The role of Orfeo was originally written for castrato, but is today sung by a male countertenor or a female mezzosoprano.
  8. Song and Church Music
    1. Reflecting the growth of amateur music, songs were composed in many nations.
      1. Songs tended to be strophic.
      2. Melodies were simple, syllabic, and diatonic.
      3. The accompaniment, usually for keyboard, was easy enough to be played by the singer.
      4. The romance, a common song type in France, featured a simple expressive melody and a sentimental text.
      5. In Britain, ballads were printed with texts only and then sung to a familiar tune.
      6. A fashion for Scottish and Irish folksongs developed at the end of the century.
    2. The Lied (German song) achieved a special artistic importance.
      1. Over 750 collections of Lieder were published in the second half of the century.
      2. Lieder tended to be strophic, easy to sing, and supported by a subordinate accompaniment.
      3. Lieder composition was particularly strong with North German composers, including Telemann, C. P. E. Bach, and Carl Heinrich Graun.
      4. Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814) incorporated more flexible forms and greater independence for the accompaniment, as seen in Erlkönig (The Earl-King, 1794), HWM Example 20.7.
    3. Church music maintained traditional styles or adapted prevailing secular styles.
      1. Catholic music
        1. A few composers continued to compose in the stile antico of Palestrina and the polychoral style of Benevoli.
        2. The leading composers of sacred music were also opera composers.
        3. Italian oratorios were almost indistinguishable from operas in style.
      2. Lutheran music
        1. Rejecting the elaborate chorale-based compositions, services centered on hymns in the new galant style.
        2. The oratorio was composed in North Germany, such as Der Tod Jesu (The Death of Jesus, 1755) by Carl Heinrich Graun.
      3. England
        1. The Baroque style was prevalent in sacred music, largely due to the influence of Handel.
        2. Leading sacred composers included William Boyce, Maurice Green, John Stanley, and Charles Avison.
    4. Sacred music in the New World
      1. Sacred music in European settlements tended to reflect the national styles of the émigrés.
      2. In New England, Calvinists sang metric psalms, some of which were published in the Bay Psalm Book (1640).
        1. The first edition had psalms without notated music.
        2. The ninth edition (1698) included thirteen melodies.
      3. In the eighteenth century, singing schools trained amateurs to sing psalms and anthems in parts.
      4. William Billings (1746-1800) wrote over 340 pieces.
        1. Almost all of the works are sacred for unaccompanied four-part choir on newly composed melodies, such as Chester.
        2. Most were harmonized hymn tunes called plain tunes.
        3. He also wrote about fifty anthems and fifty-one fuging tunes, which use imitation in the middles sections and unconventional voice leading.
        4. Two of his collections are The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770) and The Continental Harmony (1794).
      5. Creation (see NAWM 97 and HWM Figure 20.9)
        1. This is a fuging tune from The Continental Harmony.
        2. The first half of the piece is homophonic and syllabic.
        3. The second half, the fuging portion, is imitative.
        4. Homophony returns at the end.
        5. The principal melody is in the tenor line.
        6. Parallel fifths and octaves suggest Billings’s lack of training.
      6. Other contributors to Yankee tunebooks include Daniel Read and Andrew Law.
      7. Moravians were German-speaking Protestants from Moravia and Bohemia who settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
        1. They sang concerted arias and motets in their church services and imported music from Europe.
        2. Among the leading Moravian composers are Johannes Herbst, Johann Friedrich Peter, and John Antes.
        3. Moravians collected music libraries and regularly played chamber music and symphonies by European composers.

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