We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

Just a brief word now, in closing, about the genre represented by Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo, the sacred play that happened to scoop all the other early figured-bass publications into print. This work, too, has been claimed for consideration as “the first surviving opera” (to quote the New Grove Dictionary of Opera). It was produced in Rome in February 1600, about eight months before Peri’s Euridice saw the stage. It was set to continuous music, though without much recitative, and fully staged.


ex. 19-10a Anima mia che pensi, the original lauda (pub. 1577)


ex. 19-10b Anima mia che pensi, beginning of Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s dialogue setting

The Soul, a soprano, and the Body, a tenor, each with teams of allegorical supporters, advisers, and tempters, struggle against the blandishments of worldly delights, and are finally successful. The work ends with spectacular visions of hell and heaven. This too was a favola in musica: the Counter Reformation’s answer, perhaps, to the Florentine neoclassical entertainments; and if Peri’s pastoral counts as an opera, so does Cavalieri’s. They were both musicalizations of existing dramatic genres, neither of them ancient. But the same reservations proposed above—against calling the Florentine musical plays operas—apply to Cavalieri’s Roman one.

The sacra rappresentazione or sacred play with music had a long history, even if we do not attempt to trace it all the way back to the medieval liturgical dramas described in chapter 3. In the fifteenth century it had developed out of the singing of laude that embodied dialogues. Most of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century rappresentazioni were declaimed, aria-style, to melodic formulas or over ground basses, with frottolas, madrigals, and instrumental pieces interspersed. Some surviving instrumental works by Henricus Isaac, including a wild Moorish dance and a battaglia, are thought to be remnants from such plays, possibly from Lorenzo de’ Medici’s own SS. Giovanni e Paolo.

Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione was very much in the existing tradition, since it was basically an expansion of an old lauda, Anima mia che pensi, that took the form of a dialogue between body and soul. It was, however, the first such play to sport continuous music, some of it in the new dramatic style that the composer had pioneered in his pastorals. The first dialogue between the title characters (some of it shown in Fig. 19-4) is actually a setting of the old lauda, of which a polyphonic version had been published in 1577 (Ex. 19-10a). What had merely been two successive strophes in the lauda now becomes a highly contrasted colloquy (Ex. 19-10b): the question, posed by the body in recitative style, is answered by the soul in a dancelike aria.

At its first performance it was a play in the full sense of the word, but since it was performed immediately before Lent in the assembly hall of an Oratory, it prefigures the specifically Lenten genre of Biblical favole in musica, scriptural musical tales in dramatic “recitar cantando” form but nonstaged. That genre, which came to be called oratorio after its performance venue, arose a few decades later in response to the institution of public musical theaters, which had to close during Lent. It had a distinguished history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is not wholly extinct even today.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Nov. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Nov. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019008.xml