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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism

Opera Seria and Its Makers

CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Returning now to Italy after a chapter spent in France and England, it is worth a reminder that (with the exception of Portugal) France and England were the only countries in seventeenth-century Europe whose borders then were pretty much what they are today. They were also, and not by coincidence, the only nations in Europe that were ethnically and linguistically more or less coextensive with their territory. The other European nations were either empires—multiethnic, polyglot dynastic states—or small hereditary or republican enclaves whose political boundaries had little to do with language or ethnicity. The much-weakened “Holy Roman” (Austrian) Empire, Charlemagne’s tattered legacy, was the main representative of “supra-ethnicity.” Its main rival, and avid foe, was the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries expanded aggressively into southeastern Europe from Asia Minor and as late as 1683 threatened the walls of Vienna, the Austrian capital. The main areas of fragmented “subethnic” political division were Germany and Italy.

Northern Italy was dominated by the republic of Venice, which in the mid-seventeenth century reached its height of power, controlling much of the eastern Adriatic coast (territory belonging now to Slovenia and Croatia) and extending its rule as far as Crete in the eastern Mediterranean. The other main north Italian city states were Florence and Genoa, both of which had expanded territorially far beyond their municipal borders, with Genoa controlling the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Extending like a stripe through the middle of the Italian peninsula was the Papal State (or Papal Estates), the temporal domain of the Roman Catholic church. The south of Italy was occupied by the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, both of which belonged to the Spanish crown in the seventeenth century and were ruled by provincial viceroys, one in the city of Naples, the other in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, each backed up by an army of occupation.

This period of subjugation, which lasted from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, was an economic disaster for southern Italy, the repercussions of which continue to this day. The city of Naples swelled with an influx of dispossessed peasants, making it by the end of the seventeenth century, with close to 200,000 inhabitants, perhaps the largest but also the most squalid metropolis in Europe. Historians of Neapolitan culture call the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the city’s “iron age.”

Chapter 4 Class and Classicism

fig. 4-1 Europe, ca. 1680.

Musically, however, and in seeming paradox, the same conditions created a golden age. In direct consequence of the urban poverty that viceroyal rule had engendered, a number of orphanages and foundling homes had to be set up in the city. These houses where homeless boys were harbored were called “conservatories” (conservatorio in the singular, meaning “place of safekeeping” in sixteenth-century Italian). They were self-maintaining organizations. Money spent in providing for the inmates was recouped by putting them to work. And one of the obvious ways in which you could employ an orphan was to make him a choirboy. So the training of choirboys became a major preoccupation of the Naples conservatories, training that was eventually expanded to include secular and instrumental music, as the need arose.

That need was greatly stimulated by the importation of opera—“Venice-style music,” as it was at first called by the Neapolitans—beginning around 1650 at the instigation of Count d’Oñate, the mid-century Spanish viceroy. (The first opera production in the city, it is said, was Il Nerone, an adaptation, by a traveling company, of Monteverdi’s Poppea.) The first Neapolitan opera house, the renovated Teatro di San Bartolomeo (St. Bartholomew’s), opened in 1654. Though a public theater, it enjoyed the direct patronage of the viceroyal court. By the 1680s, the court and chapel musical establishments, staffed chiefly by musicians educated at the conservatories, had in large part been siphoned off to San Bartolomeo, which became one of the best-endowed opera houses in Europe. Around the same time, too, its repertoire began shifting over from a transplanted Venetian to a local Neapolitan one that soon became itself a major international force.

Chapter 4 Class and Classicism

fig. 4-2 Interior of the Teatro San Bartolomeo, Naples (eighteenth-century engraving at the Bibliothèque et Musée de l’Opéra, Paris).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-04.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 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-04.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 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-04.xml