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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

The style developed by Caccini and the others in camera (or in Camerata) did not stay long in private chambers but was immediately returned to the theater whence, in a sense, it came. The monodist’s objective was to recapture the emotional and ethical contagion of the Greek poet-musicians—in effect, the idea was to resurrect or reinvent the Greek (sung) drama as reimagined by Girolamo Mei. Galilei had exhorted his musician contemporaries to copy the inflections of actors, which implied from the beginning that the ideal destination of the monody would be the mouths of actors—singing actors, who would add the powers of music to their already highly developed histrionic skills.

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ex. 19-6 Romanesca tenor, with Caccini’s and Frescobaldi’s variants

The birth of new music out of the spirit of old drama was (like everything else that seems sudden in history) a gradual thing, with phases unrepresented in written sources. The first extant continuo songs that were performed in the course of a stage spectacle were the ones in the 1589 intermedii. But they undoubtedly had precedents. As early as the late fifteenth century we hear tell of musicalized dramatic presentations at the northern Italian courts. A Fabula di Orfeo, a dramatic representation of the same tale from Ovid that would form the basis of the earliest published musical plays, was composed by the Medici court poet Angelo Poliziano and performed, at least partly sung, during the 1480 carnival season in Mantua. Poliziano (or Politian, as humanistically Latinized) also collaborated with Lorenzo de’ Medici on a sacred play (SS. Giovanni e Paolo) that was performed with music by Henricus Isaac, Lorenzo’s Flemish-born music master, in Florence itself, the eventual hotbed of the “monodic revolution.” Between the 1589 intermedii that he masterminded and his own Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo of 1600, Emilio de’ Cavalieri produced in Florence a number of sung pastorals of his own composition, with texts by the same poet, Laura Guidiccioni (née Lucchesini), to whose words he had composed the great concluding ballo in 1589. According to Jacopo Peri’s own generous remark (in the Preface to Euridice), these pastorals were the first stage works to put the stile recitativo into practice.

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fig. 19-8 Caccini’s Aria di romanesca from Le nuove musiche (1601).

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ex. 19-7a Girolamo Frescobaldi, Dunque dovro (Aria di romanesca), mm. 1-6

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ex. 19-7b Girolamo Frescobaldi, Dunque dovro (Aria di romanesca), mm. 19-24 Secunda parte

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ex. 19-7c Girolamo Frescobaldi, Dunque dovro (Aria di romanesca), mm. 37-42

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ex. 19-7d Girolamo Frescobaldi, Dunque dovro (Aria di romanesca), mm. 55-60

But we do not know these works, just as apart from a few fragments we do not know what is often called the first “true” opera. That distinction belongs to La Dafne, after another mythological tale adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which recounts—or rather, represents—the story of the nymph Daphne who, pursued by Apollo, is changed by the earth-mother Gaea into a laurel tree. The music is by the same team later responsible for the 1600 Euridice. The poem, by Rinuccini, was an adaptation and enlargement of the third intermedio of 1589. The music was by Peri, with some assistance (probably unasked for) from Jacopo Corsi, a noble dilettante who after 1592 (when Count Bardi was summoned to Rome to serve as chief of staff to Pope Clement VIII) cast himself as primary supporter and promoter of neoclassical musico-dramatic experimentation. Corsi maintained at his palace what Claude Palisca, the leading historian of the early musical plays, calls “a kind of semi-professional musical and dramatic workshop.”10

Peri’s musical plays were hatched in Corsi’s incubator, La Dafne possibly as early as 1594. Its first performance took place, possibly at Corsi’s residence and with Peri himself in the role of Apollo, during the Florence carnival of 1597 (1598 by the modern calendar), in the presence of the leading nobles of the city including the resident Medici overlord. It was revived several times thereafter, the latest revival taking place in 1604 at the brand new Pitti Palace. The libretto was set again in 1608 by Marco da Gagliano, and Gagliano’s preface to the published score of his setting, which survives, is our chief witness to the original Dafne. It is Gagliano’s insistence on the novelty of Rinuccini’s and Peri’s spectacle that has led to its being accorded the exalted position it now occupies in history as the first opera, in preference to Cavalieri’s pastorals or any previous “musical tale” (favola in musica), to use Gagliano’s expression.

Calling the work the first opera, of course, puts it in a line that connects it with us; for opera is the first genre encountered since the beginning of this narrative that has persisted in an apparently unbroken tradition all the way to the present. As we shall see, however, the apparent continuity may be somewhat misleading; and so we shall resist the word “opera” for a while and instead go on calling the early spectacles of Peri, Caccini, Gagliano, and (in the next chapter) Monteverdi “musical tales.”

“The pleasure and amazement produced in the audience by this novel spectacle cannot be described,” Gagliano reports. “Suffice it to say that each of the many times it was performed it generated the same admiration and the same delight.” Then comes a significant remark: “This experiment having taught Signor Rinuccini how well singing was suited to the expression of every sort of affection, and that it not only afforded no tediousness (as many might perchance have presumed) but indeed incredible delight, he composed his Euridice, dilating somewhat more in the dialogues.”11 So the difference between Rinuccini and Peri’s Euridice, the first musical tale that does survive, and their previous Dafne was the same as the difference between Dafne and earlier musico-scenic spectacles. That difference lies in the greater emphasis on the dialogue-music as opposed to the song-and-dance music, and the greater concomitant emphasis on music that imitated speech as opposed to the music that “imitated” (or simply functioned as) musical entertainment. Accepting the speech-music—the stile recitativo or stile rappresentativo—as dramatically viable, and accepting as credible the act of speaking from the stage in song (what Cavalieri called recitar cantando) required an imaginative leap that not all were prepared (or are even now prepared) to take. Peri himself put the esthetic problem in a nutshell when he wrote in the preface to Euridice of his paradoxical aim “to imitate with singing whoever speaks (and without doubt no one ever spoke singing).”12

So what made the Florentine (and later Mantuan) musical tales the “first operas” was not the mere fact that they were sung continuously. So were Cavalieri’s pastorals, and maybe even Isaac’s SS. Giovanni e Paolo. And there have since been many types of opera, especially but not only comic opera, that do not use continuous singing but instead alternate singing with spoken dialogue, the very thing that Rinuccini courageously eschewed in his tales. The novelty of the tales was that they maintained and even accentuated the dialogue aspect of the drama (which is to say they did not make formal concessions for the sake of the music) and nevertheless represented all that dialogue through singing. The essential “operatic” move, then, was the insistence that music function on two levels—as representing music and also as representing speech—which meant that some of the music was coded one way for the characters on stage and another way for the audience. There was a music that both the audience and the stage characters “heard” as music (the songs and dances) and another music that the audience heard as music but that was “inaudible” to the characters on stage who were represented (albeit through music, and sometimes very elaborately!) as speaking. (The further complication presented by the instrumental music can wait for now.) It is a dichotomy that every form of opera, and every opera audience, has had to come to terms with, and different types of opera can (and in this book often will) be distinguished on the basis of how they have negotiated this representational crux.

The critic Carolyn Abbate has adopted a useful (and suitably neoclassical) terminology for the “two musics” that have always coexisted in opera. The kind that is “heard” (i.e., interpreted) both on stage and in the house as music she calls “phenomenal music,” from the Greek phenomenon, meaning not an extraordinary thing or occurrence (as in common colloquial usage) but something whose reality exists on the level of sensory perception. The kind that the audience hears as music but that the stage characters do not “hear” that way she calls “noumenal music” from the Greek noumenon, the idealized (“Platonic”) essence of a thing—a higher reality that is hidden from the senses and can only be contemplated by the mind.13

Of the six scattered fragments that survive from Rinuccini and Peri’s Dafne in monody collections, only one counts as “noumenal music” of the kind that distinguishes opera esthetically from other kinds of sung spectacle. (The rest are dance-songs and a strophic “aria” over a ground bass sung by Ovid directly to the spectators by way of prologue.) That singular survivor is the recitative “Qual nova meraviglia!”—“What new marvel is this!”—in which a messenger who witnessed it describes the nymph’s arboreal transformation (Ex. 19-8).

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ex. 19-8 Jacopo Peri, La Dafne: “Qual’ nova meraviglia!”

This is the stile rappresentativo at full strength—the earliest surviving example of it that was meant expressly for the stage. The text is madrigalian: a single strophe in irregular meter. The bass line is remarkably static; often whole lines are declaimed over a stationary harmony, and there is no thematic interplay between voice and accompaniment. Since the versification is irregular, the harmonic changes are unpredictable. There is, in short, nothing that can be identified as a “purely musical” pattern or gesture, nothing that aspires to musical wholeness or memorability. Music, far from exulting in its own stylistic perfection, has been ruthlessly subordinated, a music lover might object, to the text. To which a strict neoclassicist might respond, that’s just where it belongs.

If the music has to be so minimal why have it at all, both the music lover and the theatergoer might wonder, to which the dramatist might respond that the musicalization accomplishes definitively what the actor accomplishes only haphazardly, depending on his gifts—namely the surefire transmission of the affective content of the words to the listener. The composer, then, functions like a supreme actor or stage director, able by the use of harmony (especially chromatic harmony, as in the fifth measure) and dissonance to magnify the rhetorical effects of vocal inflection and delivery.

The Dafne recitative is a tame one; there is no expressive dissonance to speak of. The ones in Euridice show a marked advance not only in sheer prevalence over the phenomenal music, but also in expressive confidence. Whole scenes are played recitar cantando, and dissonance of a harshness that can still sound impressive abounds in proportion to the intensity of the dramatic situation.

Gravest of all is the moment when Orpheus (sung by Peri) gets the news of Eurydice’s death from Daphne, sung by a boy at the first performance while Corsi, on the harpsichord, and three gentlemen on chitarrone, on lute, and on the bowed lira grande, a sort of bowed lute, churned out the continuo from behind—yes, behind—the scene. Note that all four instruments were “lyres,”—that is, chord-producers, not melody-makers; as a “line,” the continuo was a figment of notation, not sound). Some excerpts from the scene are given in Ex. 19-9.

The first thing to notice is the rigor with which the composer has spurned every temptation of the text’s imagery, jam-packed though it is with opportunities for word painting—flowing water, murmuring water, light, dark, singing, dancing, to say nothing of the serpent’s bite. Not one of these images is painted in tones. There is nothing left of wit, nothing to bring a smile of recognition. Instead, the brutal affective contrast is transmitted through the musical analogues of rhetorical delivery and gesticulation. When, for example, Daphne describes the cold sweat that bespattered Eurydice’s face and matted her hair during the death throes (Ex. 19-9a), the music is concerned not with the object described but rather with the emotion of the describer, conveyed in a shocking false relation between the voice and the bass. The moment of Eurydice’s death, at the end of Ex. 19-9a, is described with even greater, colder horror: the words i bei sembianti (“her beautiful features”) are set with hideous irony, using the ugliest harmonies the composer could devise—an augmented triad followed by a blatant harmonic contradiction between voice (on B-flat) and accompaniment (an E-major triad), “resolved” through a descent by a “forbidden” diminished fifth.

Orpheus’s lament (Ex. 19-9b) is set with great subtlety, all conveyed by musical “modulations” to match the modulations of his mood. He goes from numb shock (“I neither weep nor sigh…”) through a sudden outpouring of grief (“O my heart! O my hope…”) to firm resolve. The first section has a particularly static bass to match Orpheus’s initial torpor. The second section, where lethargy gives way to active distress, is introduced by a brusque harmonic disruption: the cadential “Phrygian” E major replaced out of nowhere by “Dorian” G minor. This most anguished section of the lament has the highest dissonance quotient. Orpheus’s lines seem altogether uncoordinated with the bass harmonies. He leaves off after “Ohimè!” (Ah, me!) with a gasp, his line dangling on an A over the bass G. The bass having changed to D as if to accommodate the A, Orpheus reenters (“Dove si gita?”/“Where have you gone?”) with a new contradiction, on E.

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ex. 19-9a Jacopo Peri, Euridice, scene 2, mm. 39-51

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ex. 19-9b Jacopo Peri, Euridice, Orfeo’s closing monologue

The bass once again moves to accommodate the E, which becomes the cadence harmony. The third section begins with the same disruption as the second: a G-minor chord impinging on the cadential E major. This time, however, the G minor moves through the circle of fifths to a cadence on F, the “Lydian,” still the symbol—after eight hundred years!—of mollitude (the primary association by now is not to Plato’s resurrected theorizing but to everyone’s daily experience in church). At the same time the bass begins to bestir itself iconically, moving rhythmically as one does when animated by determination.

This is no tentative first step like the Dafne recitative. By 1600, at least in Peri’s hands, the stile rappresentativo was artistically mature, a fully viable seconda prattica—a “second practice,” as Monteverdi would shortly call it in response to its critics—that would eventually consign the “first practice,” namely the ars perfecta, to the status of a stile antico.14

Did it immediately cause a revolution? By all accounts it did not even cause an immediate sensation, at least with its audience. At the 1600 royal nuptial celebration very few actually heard it. The main entertainment, as we know, was Caccini’s Rapimento, more of a song-and-dance affair on the spectacular scale of the traditional Florentine intermedii. It was performed before an audience—a real public—of 3,800 in the enormous hall atop the Uffizi gallery. Euridice was performed three days later, in a small room in Don Antonio de’ Medici’s apartment on one of the upper stories of the Pitti Palace, for no more than two hundred specially invited guests selected by Corsi. Many of those who were privileged to hear it were unimpressed: a joke that made the rounds afterward likened the music to the monotonous chanting of the Passion on Good Friday (not such a bad analogy, actually, in view of the original purpose of the chant as a sacralized public oration; but of course that was far from the minds of the jokers).

And yet, clearly, a work performed before those specially invited two hundred (nobles all) inevitably commanded greater prestige than one open to all comers as a token of the celebrants’ liberality. And the protocols that applied to intermedii and other festive spectacles remained in force in Euridice, making a mockery of any claim that the work was a revival of the ancient Greek tragedy. (It is clear from this alone that no such claim could have seriously been made; the idea is a historians’ conceit hatched long after the fact.) The tale is furnished with a prologue that has exactly the same function as the prologues to the old intermedii: to cajole the audience and laud the nuptial pair. La Tragedia herself appears before the assembled nobles to say that, while her usual role is to draw sighs, shed tears, and “make the faces and expressions of a crowd in an amphitheater pale with pity,” just this once she is going to relent in honor of the wedding pair and their friends in attendance: “I thus adorn myself in the realm of Hymen [the marriage god] and tune the strings [of my lyre] to a gayer mode to give delight to the noble heart.”

And indeed, the play is made to end happily: Orpheus gets Eurydice back with no strings attached; there is no second death, no second loss. The play remains, as it had to, within the boundaries of the dramatized favola pastorale, the pastoral play, a light genre that did not exist in classical times. Not only would a truly tragic representation have been unfit for a festivity of state, but Ovid’s mythological romance could never have supported one. In a tragedy a hero falls in consequence of a flaw; an accidental death like Eurydice’s is by no classical definition a tragic one (even if Orfeo does lack the ultimate in self-control). The early musical plays did not—could not—aspire to the tragic style. Tragic opera came later, and elsewhere.


(10) Claude Palisca, “The Alterati of Florence, Pioneers in the Theory of Dramatic Music,” in W. Austin, ed., New Looks at Italian Opera: Essays in Honor of Donald J. Grout (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), p. 10.

(11) Marco da Gagliano, Preface to La Dafne, trans. Piero Weiss, in Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 149.

(12) Peri, Preface to Euridice, in Solerti, in Le origini del melodrama: Testimonianze, p. 44.

(13) See C. Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

(14) Giulio Cesare Monteverdi, “Declaration” (Postface to Claudio Monteverdi, Scherzi musicali (Venice, 1607)).

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019007.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019007.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019007.xml