Chapter 26. Romantic Opera and Musical Theater to Midcentury

Chapter Outline



While purely instrumental music gained prestige, opera continued to be a central part of musical life, especially in Italy and France. Opera served as elite entertainment and also as the source of music that was popular with audiences of all classes and professions. Composers followed national trends, even while they developed new forms and approaches and borrowed ideas across national boundaries. Italian composers dominated the field, but new types of opera that were cultivated in France and Germany also exercised a lasting influence. In addition, a lively operatic life emerged in the Americas, centered on the performance of European operas. At the same time, a new form of musical theater-the minstrel show-sprang up in the United States and became the first musical export from North America to Europe. 

Chapter Outline: 

  1. The Roles of Opera
    1. General trends
      1. Opera played a central role in musical life, especially in Italy and France.
      2. Opera was both an elite entertainment and a popular diversion for all classes.
      3. Composers continued to follow national trends.
        1. Italian composers dominated.
        2. New types of opera were cultivated in France and Germany and became lasting influences.
      4. America
        1. A lively operatic life centered on performances of European opera.
        2. The minstrel show sprang up in the United States and became the first American music to be exported to Europe.
    2. Opera enjoyed a golden age in the first half of the nineteenth century.
      1. New opera houses appeared throughout Europe and the New World.
      2. Most operas were run for profit by an impresario, usually supported by the government or private sources.
      3. Members of the aristocracy and middle class attended opera as a sign of their social status.
      4. Performances of excerpts helped to popularize opera.
        1. Amateurs, singing from piano reductions, performed individual numbers in salons.
        2. Operatic selections were transcribed for solo piano.
        3. Overtures and arias appeared in concerts.
        4. Operas were parodied in popular theater.
        5. Café orchestras and even barrel organs played opera melodies.
      5. Operatic stories varied considerably, but they appealed to the middle class by addressing issues that spoke to them.
      6. As the music became the most important element of opera, the composer increasingly became a dominant force.
      7. By 1850, a permanent repertory of operas began to emerge.
  2. Italian Opera
    1. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) (see HWM biography, page 661, and Figure 26.1)
      1. Rossini may have been the most famous composer in Europe in the 1820s.
      2. He is primarily known for his operas.
        1. Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeria (The Italian Woman in Algiers), both from 1813, established his international reputation.
        2. In 1815, he became musical director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.
        3. Il Barbieri de Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816), a comic opera, was his most successful work.
        4. Rossini moved to Paris and became director of the Th�atre Italien.
        5. Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829) is his last major opera.
      3. During the last forty years of his life, he wrote no more operas.
        1. His life was marred by illness, and he ate to excess.
        2. He wrote witty piano pieces and songs that influenced French composers.
      4. The popularity of his operas is partially due to his ability to blend aspects of opera buffa and opera seria.
      5. The conventions that he helped to create for Italian opera would endure for over fifty years.
      6. Rossini helped establish bel canto.
        1. Literally “beautifully singing,” the term refers to lyrical lines, effortless vocal technique, and florid delivery.
        2. In bel canto, melody is the most important element.
    2. Rossini’s operatic style
      1. Rossini combines tunefulness with snappy rhythms and clear phrases.
      2. The sparse orchestration lightly supports the voice and has occasional solos for individual instruments for color.
      3. Harmonic schemes are simple and original; he favored third-related keys.
      4. A popular device was the “Rossini crescendo,” created by gradually getting louder as a single phrase was repeated.
    3. Rossini’s scene structure
      1. Rossini distributed the action throughout each act by constructing scenes (scena) rather than confining the action to recitatives.
      2. Scenes have several standard sections (see HWM Figure 26.2).
        1. Instrumental introduction
        2. Recitative accompanied by orchestra
        3. Cantabile, the slow and lyrical section of the aria, generally expresses calm moods
        4. In some, an interlude called tempo di mezzo (middle movement) interrupts and changes the mood
        5. Cabaletta, the final and more active part of the aria, is usually repeated in whole or in part with embellishments.
        6. The finale brings together many characters.
      3. The cantabile and cabaletta together constitute the aria; some scenes contain nothing else.
      4. A duet or ensemble may follow a similar pattern, but it was often preceded by a tempo d’attacco, in which the characters trade melodic phrases.
    4. Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville (NAWM 125)
      1. Rosina sings of her love for the count and her determination to outwit her guardian (see HWM Example 26.1).
      2. This is an entrance aria, which was known as a cavatina.
      3. The orchestral introduction presents ideas that will be heard later.
      4. Rosina begins with a cantabile.
        1. The opening resembles recitative, which suggests her tentativeness.
        2. Coloratura, florid figuration, suggests her passion for Lindoro.
        3. She vows to evade her guardian in a comic patter song.
        4. The coloratura music addressing Lindoro returns.
      5. The cabaletta follows immediately.
        1. The various emotional sides of Rosina are depicted.
        2. A Rossini crescendo increases the excitement.
        3. The music for the last three lines is repeated.
    5. Rossini’s serious operas
      1. Rossini is best known for his comic operas, but his serious operas were equally significant in his day.
        1. Otello (1816)
        2. Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt, 1818)
        3. Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829)
      2. Guillaume Tell
        1. The opera had five hundred performances in Paris during Rossini’s lifetime.
        2. The story dealt with revolution and was subject to censorship.
        3. Rossini includes choruses, ensembles, dances, processions, and atmospheric instrumental interludes in the manner of French grand opera.
    6. Rossini’s overtures
      1. His overtures have found an independent life in the concert hall.
      2. Most consist of a slow introduction and a fast sonata form without a development section.
      3. The overture to Guillaume Tell, his most famous overture, has four sections.
        1. A slow pastoral introduction
        2. A musical depiction of a storm
        3. Another pastoral featuring a ranz de vaches (a Swiss cowherd’s call) played by an English horn.
        4. A galloping allegro that was used as the theme for The Lone Ranger.
    7. Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
      1. Bellini came into prominence after Rossini retired.
      2. He preferred dramas of passion with gripping action.
      3. Action was not limited to recitative, but was also built into arias.
      4. Bellini composed ten operas, including:
        1. La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker, 1831)
        2. Norma (1831)
        3. I Puritani (The Puritans, 1835)
      5. His style is characterized by long, sweeping, highly embellished, intensely emotional melodies.
      6. Casta diva (Chaste Goddess) from Norma (see HWM Example 26.2)
        1. The form of this scene follows the structure established by Rossini.
        2. In each section, the chorus plays an important role in creating a sense of continuous action.
    8. Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
      1. Donizetti composed over seventy operas, about one hundred songs, several symphonies, and a number of other vocal works.
        1. Lucia di lammermoor (1835), a serious opera
        2. La Filled u regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment, 1840), an opéra comique
        3. Don Pasquale (1843), an opera buffa
      2. Donizetti’s melodies captured the sense of a character, situation, or feeling.
      3. By averting cadences, he avoided applause until a scene was finished.
      4. The music often has a seamless continuity.
      5. The “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor has an unbroken flow of events.
        1. A chorus opens with a commentary on Lucia’s appearance after she has killed her husband.
        2. The orchestra then plays foreboding music.
        3. Lucia’s recitative with flute ends with a florid cadenza.
        4. The flutes and clarinets recall a previous love theme, a device that is known as a reminiscence motive.
        5. The tempo di mezzo section is a trio.
        6. The cabaletta begins, but the chorus and trio break in.
        7. Lucia ends the scene in a faint.
    9. Classics of Italian opera
      1. Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti were performed throughout Europe and America.
      2. Many of their arias became popular tunes that were known in large segments of society.
      3. Several of their operas became permanent classics of the operatic repertoire.
  3. French Opera
    1. Opera in the early nineteenth century
      1. Opera remained the most prestigious musical genre in France.
      2. Napoleon allowed only three theaters to present opera.
        1. The Opéra, which primarily showed tragedies, was the most prestigious.
        2. The Opéra-Comique gave operas with spoken dialogue.
        3. The Théatre Italien presented Italian operas.
      3. Other theaters presented a variety of theatrical works often using music.
      4. A new building for the Opéra theater was built in 1821 during the Restoration (see HWM Figure 26.3).
      5. After the “July Revolution” of 1830, the government continued to subsidize opera.
    2. Grand opera
      1. Grand opera appealed to the middle class.
      2. Spectacle was as important as music (see HWM Figure 26.4).
        1. Machinery
        2. Ballets
        3. Choruses
        4. Crowd scenes
      3. The leaders of grand opera were librettist Eug�ne Scribe and composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864).
      4. Meyerbeer, born to a German-Jewish family in Germany, established the genre with two works:
        1. Robert le diable (Robert the Devil, 1831)
        2. Les Huguenots (1836)
      5. Les Huguenots typifies grand opera.
        1. Five acts
        2. Large cast
        3. Dramatic scenery and lighting effects
        4. Tragic story set in sixteenth-century France
        5. Combination of entertaining spectacle and glorious singing, as exemplified by the closing scene of Act II
      6. Other grand operas
        1. Guillaume Tell (1829) by Rossini
        2. La Juive (The Jewess, 1835) by Jacques Halévy
        3. Don Carlos (1867) by Verdi
        4. Rienzi (1842) by Wagner
      7. Les Troyens (1856-58) by Berlioz has elements of grand opera and the traditions of Lully.
        1. Berlioz created the libretto from Virgil’s Aeneid.
        2. He condensed the narrative in a series of powerful scene-complexes that incorporate ballets, processions, and other musical numbers.
    3. Opéra comique
      1. Differences from grand opera
        1. Opéra comique used spoken dialogue instead of recitative.
        2. It was less pretentious and required fewer singers.
        3. The plots presented comedy or semiserious drama.
      2. In the early nineteenth century, there were two kinds of op�ra comique, romantic and comedy.
    4. Ballet
      1. Ballet had been popular in France since the seventeenth century.
      2. Marie Taglioni introduced a new style called Romantic ballet (see HWM Figure 26.5).
        1. Ballerinas were preeminent and moved with lightness.
        2. They wore translucent skirts and shoes that allowed them to stand en pointe.
        3. Taglioni introduced the new ballet to Russia, Europe, and North America.
      3. Composers for Romantic ballet fit the music to the choreography.
      4. Giselle (1841) by Adolphe Adam, one of ballet’s highlights, uses recurring motives to underscore the progress of the drama.
  4. German Opera
    1. General
      1. The interaction between music and literature was strong in German-speaking regions.
      2. Singspiel integrated romantic elements from French opera with the genre’s national features.
    2. Der Freisch�tz (The Rifleman) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) (see HWM Figure 26.6) established German Romantic opera.
      1. The opera exemplifies German Romantic opera.
        1. Ordinary folk, with their concerns and loves, are placed center stage.
        2. The plots are drawn from medieval history, legends, or fairy tales.
        3. The story involves supernatural beings set against a background of wilderness and mystery.
        4. Scenes of a humble village and country life are interspersed.
        5. Mortal characters represent superhuman forces, both good and evil.
        6. The triumph of good represents a type of religious redemption.
        7. The musical style draws upon traditions of other countries, but also uses simple, folklike melodies, giving it a distinctly German quality.
        8. The chromatic harmonies and orchestral color are also distinctive.
      2. “Wolf’s Glen” scene (NAWM 126)
        1. The scene is set around midnight at the eerie Wolf’s Glen (see HWM Figure 26.7).
        2. The scene incorporates elements of melodrama, a genre of musical theater that combines spoken dialogue with background music.
        3. While casting seven magic bullets, various terrifying images appear in the dark forest.
        4. Daring harmonies, a colorful orchestration, and an offstage chorus support the supernatural elements of the plot.
  5. Opera and Theater in the United States
    1. European influence.
      1. Traveling theater companies performed spoken plays, ballad operas, and English versions of foreign-language operas with spoken dialogue.
      2. These companies presented opera as entertainment for all classes.
      3. Foreign-language operas took hold slowly.
        1. In New Orleans, French operas were common; the Th�atre d’Orléans produced both French and Italian operas in their original language.
        2. In New York, a European troupe presented a season of Italian operas.
        3. Several attempts were made to establish a permanent Italian opera house, including one in 1833 that involved Lorenzo da Ponte, then a professor at Columbia University.
        4. The Academy of Music (1854) was the first company to last more than a few years.
        5. By the 1850s, operas in Italian and English were established in San Francisco.
      4. Opera achieved a high level of popularity.
        1. Overtures, arias, and other excerpts were freely performed.
        2. Swedish soprano Jenny Lind toured the United States (1850-52), singing before tens of thousands of people.
    2. American opera
      1. There was little demand for opera by American composers.
      2. The early attempts were influenced by European models.
    3. Minstrel shows
      1. Minstrelsy, a theatrical form in which white performers blackened their faces, was the most popular form of musical theater in the United States.
      2. One of the most successful troupes was Christy’s Minstrels (see HWM Figure 26.8).
      3. These shows allowed white performers to behave outside accepted norms and hence to comment candidly on social, political, and economic conditions.
      4. Today’s audiences would find these shows offensive for their racial stereotyping.
      5. Minstrelsy grew out of solo comic performances that produced some of the first bestseller songs to be a hit overseas.
      6. The songs for minstrel shows remained popu lar long after the shows went out of fashion.
        1. Dan Emmett from the Virginia Minstrels composed Dixie (1860).
        2. Stephen Foster wrote a number of songs for Christy’s Minstrels that evoke some qualities of African-American music.
          • Oh! Susanna (1848)
          • Camptown Races (1950)
          • Old Folks at Home (1951)
          • My Old Kentucky Home (1953)
      7. Minstrelsy was the first in a long succession of entertainment forms that white musicians have borrowed from the music of African Americans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s