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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

Because there is so much material to choose from, the ubiquitous Artaserse, in its various early settings, makes an ideal introduction to the music of the opera seria. Metastasio’s own plot synopsis or argomento was published in all of the opera’s printed libretti—the “little books” that were sold to the audience so that they could follow the text if they wished, including the lines of recitative that had been cut by the composer. The story, attributed to the third-century Roman historian Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus), reads as follows:

Artabanus, chief officer to Xerxes, King of Persia, seeing the power of the king diminish daily because of his losses to the Greeks, hopes to sacrifice to his own ambition the whole royal family, along with the abovementioned Xerxes, and ascend the Persian throne. Therefore, taking advantage of the ease of access to which his intimate friendship with his master entitled him, he gained entry to Xerxes’ palace at night and killed him. Then, to dispose of the royal princes, Xerxes’ sons, he sets them one against the other, causing Artaxerxes, one of the abovementioned sons, to kill his own brother Darius, believing him to be a parricide upon Artabanus’s insinuation. The only thing the traitor fails to accomplish according to plan is the death of Artaxerxes. Through various accidents (which supply the episodes that adorn the present drama), in the end his treason is exposed and the safety of Artaxerxes is assured, which exposure and assurance are the main action of the drama.8

And yet it is a question what is the main action and what are the episodes, since the greater part of the libretto’s actual events, and four of its six characters, were “freely” invented by Metastasio so as to meet the specific demands of opera. Artabanus and Artaxerxes are transferred from the historical account to the operatic plot, but neither of them belong to the “first couple.” That pair, to whom the lion’s share of arias are assigned, consists of Arbaces, Artabanus’s son and Artaxerxes’ bosom friend, and Mandane, Artaxerxes’ sister, who is Arbaces’s beloved. To round out the second couple and achieve a pleasing symmetry, Artaxerxes is also given a beloved: Semira, daughter of Artabanus and sister of Arbaces. Thus the sister of each main male character is the other’s lover. And so as to have an “inferior” character as part of the remainder, Artabanus is given an evil confidant: Megabises, a corrupt army general.

Such an extreme symmetry of design cries out for a “structuralist” interpretation that will bring its motivating premises to light. Martha Feldman, a historian of the genre, has embodied the relationships in Artaserse in an ingenious diagram representing what she calls its “archetypal geometry.”9 It is laid out in the form of two “patriarchal triangles,” with the rival fathers Xerxes (an unseen presence) and Artabanus at their heads (Fig. 4-5). Stripped to its most basic level, the story of the opera reduces to the fundamental narrative of all opere serie: “a moral tale of impure elements tamed and eradicated from the idealized body politic.”

The Fortunes of Artaserse

fig. 4-5 “Geometry” of the dramatis personae in Metastasio’s libretto Artaserse (after Martha Feldman).

The invention of Arbaces gives Artabanus a new motive for killing Xerxes, who has tried to prevent the marriage of his daughter to Artabanus’s son, a social inferior. That is what makes Arbaces the central character in the drama, for it is he who symbolizes the basic conflict between love and duty.

In the first act, Artabanus exchanges swords with Arbaces so as to hide the murder weapon. But later, to exculpate himself, he reveals the bloody sword in Arbaces’s possession to Artaxerxes and accuses the bewildered Arbaces of the murder. Artaxerxes, mourning his father and brother and loath to execute his friend and prospective brother-in-law, is bereft and confused. In the second act, Artabanus proposes to Arbaces a plan not only to escape but to usurp the throne; but Arbaces, the paragon of honor, refuses to cooperate, leaving his father at once enraged at his disobedience and awed by his probity. Semira pleads with Artaxerxes to show mercy for her brother, but Mandane, more loyal to her class and family ties than to her lover, calls for vengeance against the man she believes to have killed her father. Artaxerxes, still trusting Artabanus, bids him resolve the matter. Artabanus, to everyone’s horror, condemns his son to death but is still secretly planning to dispossess Artaxerxes and put Arbaces on the throne.

In the third act, Artaxerxes, despite Arbaces’s apparent treason, releases his friend from imprisonment on the condition that he exile himself forever. Artabanus then comes to his son’s cell to rescue him, but finding it empty assumes that Arbaces has been executed. Mandane laments his death; but Arbaces, overhearing her, reveals himself alive and proclaims his love, vowing to die rather than leave her, showing his steadfastness.

Meanwhile Artabanus, still up to no good, poisons the wine in Artaxerxes’ coronation cup. The coronation is interrupted, just as Artaxerxes is about to drink, by reports of a rebellion that has been fomented by Megabises on behalf of Artabanus. Arbaces, at first suspected of leading it, reveals himself as its suppressor and is reconciled with Artaxerxes. As a token of renewed friendship, Artaxerxes offers Arbaces the first sip from the coronation cup. Artabanus, who loves his son despite all his evil designs, intervenes and confesses. He is at first condemned, but Arbaces offers his life in place of his father’s, thus proving once again his true nobility of spirit and making himself worthy of Mandane’s hand. Artaxerxes, in an act of kingly magnanimity, commutes Artabanus’s sentence to exile and the two loving couples are betrothed amid coronation festivities. The last number in the opera is a “chorus” (that is, an ensemble of all the principals minus the banished Artabanus) praising the clemency shown his enemies by Artaxerxes, the “Giusto Re” (“just king”).

The opera contains thirty arias in all. Arbaces, the primo uomo, gets six (two per act); Mandane, the prima donna, gets five. In addition, the first couple, in accordance with their prerogative, sing the one duet in the opera, which occurs in the act III declaration scene, giving Arbaces a total of seven numbers and Mandane six. Artaxerxes, Artabanus, and Semira have five apiece. Last, and least, Megabises makes do with three (one per act), which is actually rather generous for an inferior role. As the main character, Arbaces gets to sing not only the most arias but also the most elaborate ones.

Particularly impressive is his aria di bravura in act III, sc. 1, which Arbaces sings upon leaving his cell and setting off for points unknown. It is a “simile aria,” in which the singer’s situation or emotion is pinpointed by means of a poetic image, here L’onda dal mar divisa—a wave severed from the sea. Vinci’s setting (Ex. 4.5), from the original Rome production of 1730, is typical of his style, and that of the early opera seria generally. It also typifies the music that the great castratos sang. (The part was originally intended for Giovanni Carestini, already a famous soprano at the age of twenty-six, of whom Hasse would say, “he who has not heard Carestini is not acquainted with the most perfect style of singing.”10)

The Fortunes of ArtaserseThe Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-5a Leonardo Vinci, “L’onda dal mare divisa” (Artaserse, Act III, scene 1), mm. 1–24.

The Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-5b Leonardo Vinci, “L’onda dal mare divisa” (Artaserse, Act III, scene 1), mm. 39–55.

The Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-5c Leonardo Vinci, “L’onda dal mare divisa” (Artaserse, Act III, scene 1), mm. 136–56.

It was a style Vinci had in fact pioneered, making him historically a figure of considerable importance, even if his music is forgotten today, along (for the most part) with the opera seria itself. Artaserse was the short-lived Vinci’s last opera (out of thirty-one, all composed between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four!), and his sixth setting of a Metastasio libretto. By the time he wrote it, the da capo aria format had undergone considerable transformation since Scarlatti’s death, only a decade or so before.

The lengthy orchestral ritornello (Ex. 4.5a) consists of three distinct, indeed contrasting, parts: an initial statement of the main theme that will be taken up by the singer, a middle section “spun out” in sequences of triplets, and a final cadential phrase. The ritornello alternates with the voice three times during the aria’s first section: R1V1R2V2R3. Each vocal passage consists of a complete setting of the first sentence of the text, so that the entire text is repeated, giving the “A” section of the aria its greater amplitude. The repetitions are tonally contrasted: the first begins in the tonic and cadences in the dominant; the second, following the complementary trajectory, begins in the dominant and cadences in the tonic. The middle and final ritornellos are partial ones, consisting of a bit of the triplet material plus the cadence phrase. The “triplet material,” as becomes evident when the singer takes it up in impressively “wavy” melismas (Ex. 4.5b), represents the motion of the metaphorical sea.

The Fortunes of Artaserse

fig. 4-6 Leonardo Vinci, caricature by Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674–1755).

The aria’s middle section (Ex. 4.5c) also embodies a tonal contrast, beginning in the relative minor and ending with a cadence on the subdominant. Thus the piece is laid out according to a clearly demarcated sectional plan, articulated by cadences and tonal “movement,” that organizes a relatively long span of time. But if the format of the aria has become ampler and more complicated since the time of Scarlatti, the texture has been simplified. Dr. Burney, a great admirer of Vinci, gave him credit (perhaps a little too much credit) for virtually reinventing opera along lines similar to those that attended its original invention among the Florentines a century before.

“Without degrading his art,” Burney exulted, Vinci “rendered it the friend, though not the slave to poetry, by simplifying and polishing melody, and calling the attention of the audience chiefly to the voice-part, by disintangling it from fugue, complication, and laboured contrivance.”11 And yet one of Vinci’s contemporaries, Pier Francesco Tosi, a castrato and a famous singing teacher, complained in his Observations on the Florid Song, published in Bologna in 1723, that “poor Counterpoint has been condemn’d, in this corrupted Age, to beg for a piece of Bread in the Churches”12 (where the stile antico still hung on).

The place to look, when judging texture, is the bass line, and Vinci’s static bass gives credence both to Burney’s delight, and to Tosi’s complaint, that counterpoint had been banished from the theater. Vinci’s bass is no longer in a contrapuntal relationship to the melody but rather its well-subordinated harmonic accompanist. Its cadential rests very often coincide with those of the melody, so that the phrases are very clearly set off and balanced one against another. For long passages, indeed, the bass is confined to reiterations of single pitches that change regularly on the bar line. It is most static, in fact, precisely when the voice part is the most florid, leaving no doubt about who is carrying the musical ball. Like everything else in the setting, the homophonic—indeed, newly “homophonized”—texture casts a spotlight on the virtuoso singer.

Also noteworthy is a new style of orchestration, in which two horns join the orchestral strings, never to play obbligati (that is, independent melodic lines) but only to double the string parts or provide harmonic support. The sound thus gained is handsome, but the use of natural brass instruments sets new and narrow limits on the harmony, virtually confining it to what we now call the “primary” chords—tonic, dominant, subdominant. These limits were not only acceptable but actually desirable within the new style; they were an additional simplification and clarification of design.

The use of horns or trumpets as supporting members of the band can be found in earlier Italian music—in the work of Scarlatti, for one, and in even older composers. Scarlatti used to be given credit for it along with so much else to which he is no longer thought entitled, not only because the work of his older contemporaries was even less well known today than his but also because innovations, historians tended to feel, had to have protagonists. More likely the practice originated in the unwritten repertories that provided the stylistic background to the new Italian idioms we are now discovering. Its incorporation into “art” music coincided with the “liberation of melody” so touted by Burney, among others, and the undisputed sovereignty of the singers who sang them.

Just how much the singers controlled the show in opera seria we cannot tell by looking at just one setting of a given libretto. We have to compare settings. So let’s have a look at the analogous number—Arbaces’s exit aria in act III, sc. 1—in Hasse’s Artaserse, composed in the same year as Vinci’s for performance in Venice. And to our surprise, we find that it is a wholly different aria—different not only in music but in text as well. Metastasio’s original simile aria has been bumped, as it were, in favor of another (by a poet unknown) consisting of an accompanied recitative (“Ch’io parta?”/”Should I go?”; Ex. 4.6a) and a much more florid, virtuosic aria in which the voice enters (Ex. 4.6b) with a long held note on the first syllable of the word “Parto” (“I go”), and then begins again with the main theme as foreshadowed by the ritornello: “Parto qual pastorello prima che rompa il fiume” (“I go like a shepherd lad before the flood”). Ex. 4.6c shows the beginning of the first main vocal passage, to give an idea of the extreme virtuosity required of the singer.

The reason for the substitution lies in the casting. The role of Arbaces was sung in Venice by the greatest of the eighteenth century castrati and very likely the greatest opera singer who ever lived: Carlo Broschi (1705–82), known as Farinelli, after the Farina family, a noble Neapolitan clan who were his earliest patrons. Although he was undisputed champion among the singers of his time and lived a long life, Farinelli had a short public career, beginning in Naples in 1720 and ending in London in 1737. Afterwards he joined the household of King Philip V of Spain, whom he served not only as court singer but as a trusted and powerful counselor as well. The development of Farinelli’s career was mirrored in the music his talent inspired. He left behind a veritable wake of florid arias, indeed the fanciest, most embellished vocal music in the entire European operatic tradition.

The substitute aria interpolated into Hasse’s version of Artaserse was very likely a “portfolio aria,” composed by Hasse just for Farinelli to use as a signature piece.

The Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-6a Johann Adolf Hasse, Artaserse (1730), recitativo obligato (“Ch’io parta?”) mm. 1–9.

All the great castrati had such arias that they brought with them wherever they sang. When Hasse revised his setting of Artaserse thirty years later for performance in Naples, Farinelli was no longer active—and sure enough, the 1760 score reverts to Metastasio’s original aria text, “L’onda dal mar divisa”, set this time with only modest coloraturas and without any recitativo obligato.

The Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-6b Johann Adolf Hasse, Artaserse (1730), aria (“Parto qual pastorello prima che rompa il fiume”), mm. 37–45.

The ultimate Farinellian signature tune was the famous shipwreck simile aria, “Son qual nave ch’agitata” (“I am like a storm-tossed boat at sea”), first heard in the London pasticcio version of Artaserse in 1734. Although published that same year in a volume called “The Favourite Songs in the Opera call’d Artaxerxes by Sig. Hasse,” this particular vehicle was actually the work of the singer’s brother Ricardo Broschi (1698–1756), a minor Neapolitan composer who has ridden his sibling’s coattails into the history books. (Except for the recitatives, the whole role of Arbaces was done over for this production, mainly by Farinelli’s former teacher, Porpora, then one of the reigning composers for the London stage.)

The Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-6c Johann Adolf Hasse, Artaserse (1730), aria (“Parto qual pastorello prima che rompa il fiume”), mm. 49–57.

The Fortunes of ArtaserseThe Fortunes of Artaserse

ex. 4-7 Riccardo Broschi, “Son qual nave ch’agitata”

Ex. 4.7 gives the first solo entrance of an abridged and simplified version of this virtually incredible display aria, published in 1734, with the orchestral accompaniment (the by-then standard strings and horns) reduced to a single violin line. The full score, with many more virtuoso turns, is found in a manuscript that the Spanish king (Farinelli’s patron) sent Maria Theresa (Metastasio’s patron) as a gift in 1753, containing the repertory with which the retired singer now entertained the Spanish court in private.13


(8) The Works of Metastasio, trans. John Hoole, Vol. I (London: T. Davis, 1767), p. 3.

(9) Martha Feldman, “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage: Thoughts toward a Ritual View,” JAMS XLVIII (1995): 454–55.

(10) Dale E. Monson, “Carestini, Giovanni,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 731.

(11) Charles Burney, A General History of Music, Vol. II, ed. Frank Mercer (New York: Dover, 1957), p. 917.

(12) Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song; or, Sentiments on the Ancient and Modern Singers, trans. J. E. Galliard (London, 1742), p. 126.

(13) It is published in facsimile in Hans-Peter Schmitz, Die Kunst der Verzierung im 18. Jahrhundert (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1955), pp. 76–93.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Class and Classicism. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Mar. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Mar. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04006.xml