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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform

The Operas Of Piccinni, Gluck, And Mozart

CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Throughout the eighteenth century, opera and its endless “reforms” continued to encode the social history of the age. That is why opera criticism so often makes good and exciting reading, even when the composers and the operas of which it treats have been long forgotten. Both by design and by its nature, it can mean far more than it says.

And again both by design and by its nature, the burgeoning comic opera continued to bear the heaviest freight of what is now called “subtext” (that is, the stuff you read between the lines) even as it continued to be “the best school for today’s composers,” in the words of the German musician Johann Adam Hiller (1728–1804), who reacted to it both as composer and as critic.1 “Symphonies, concertos, trios, sonatas—all, nowadays, borrow something of its style,” Hiller wrote in 1768.

The composer whom Hiller had first in mind was his exact contemporary Niccolò Piccinni (1728–1800), who certainly qualifies today as “long forgotten.” In his day, however, Piccinni was not only a prominent figure but a controversial one as well. He became the focal point of a “cause” and, in his rivalry with the somewhat older (and today much better-remembered) Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87), the object of a querelle, a Parisian press war. The issues his career raised for contemporary audiences, critics, and composers continued to reverberate long after the decades of his greatest fame. They were issues of social as well as musical import.

The best way of approaching Piccinni’s “cause” and its social repercussions might be to note that his most famous opera, La buona figliuola (“The good little girl,” or “Virtuous maiden”), was one of the earliest to be based on a modern novel, then a new literary genre with distinct social implications of its own. The opera’s success was virtually unprecedented: between its Roman première (with an all-male cast) in 1760 and the end of the eighteenth century, La buona figliuola played every opera house in Europe, enjoying more than seventy productions in four languages.

Its plot came by way of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), a novel in the form of letters that tells of a chaste maidservant who so resourcefully resists the crass advances of her employer’s son that the young man finally falls seriously in love with her and marries her with his family’s blessing. Pamela achieved phenomenal popularity with a new class of readers, the same “bourgeois” readership that made the novel the paramount literary genre for centuries to come, and who were especially susceptible to Richardson’s idealistic moral: to wit, that natural virtues and emotions—pertinacity, honesty, love—can be practiced both high and low, and can level artificial barriers of rank.

This is only a variation, of course, on an ancient pastoral prototype, in which virtuous maids fend off or are rescued from lascivious aristocrats. But it was indeed a novel variation, and a telling one, this sentimental version in which the bar of class is actually overcome and maid and aristocrat find happiness together. For aristocrats, then, the moral “love conquers all” could be a socially ominous one. The eighteenth-century English novel was, among other things, a celebration—and, potentially, a breeding ground—of social mobility. The Pamela motif has been a stock-in-trade of bourgeois fiction ever since, though by now more a cliché of “romance novels” and soap operas (like Our Gal Sunday, a radio staple from the 1930s to the 1950s: “the program that asks the question, Can a young girl from a small mining town in West Virginia find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?”) than of serious fiction.

Richardson’s novel was soon translated into Italian, and attracted the attention of Carlo Goldoni, whom we met briefly in the previous chapter as the chief librettist of the early opera buffa. Actually, librettos were only a sideline for Goldoni, the leading Italian dramatist of the century. His main mission in life, as he saw it, was replacing the old improvised commedia dell’arte with literary comedies that had fully worked-out scripts and modern realistic situations, worthy of comparison with Molière and Congreve, the mainstays of the French and English stage. Goldoni saw in Pamela the makings of a hit, but as often happened, some funny things happened to the story on its way to the stage.

The trouble was that an Italian audience would not have found the plot sufficiently believable. Nor could such a thing be shown in the theater, which, being a site of public assembly, was in Italy (as elsewhere) far more strictly policed by censors than the literary press. The sticking point was the happy ending—or rather, what made it happy. The elevation of a poor commoner through marriage was not possible in Italy. According to Italian law, such a marriage would bring about not the ennobling of the commoner but the disgrace and impoverishment of the noble.

Hence Goldoni was forced to find another motivation or excuse for the happy marriage. He found it in the device of mistaken identity: Pamela’s father turns out to be not a poor schoolteacher but an exiled count, and so she can marry her noble lover with impunity. As Goldoni put it in the preface to his adaptation,

The reward of virtue is the aim of the English author; such a purpose would please me greatly, but I would not want the propriety of our Families to be altogether sacrificed to the merit of virtue. Pamela, though base-born and common, deserves to be wed by a Nobleman; but a Nobleman concedes too much to the virtue of Pamela if he marries her notwithstanding her humble birth. It is true that in London they do not scruple to make such marriages, and no law there forbids them; nevertheless it is true that nobody would want his son, brother, or relative to marry a low-born woman rather than one of his own rank, no matter how much more virtuous and noble the former.2

The emphasis was thus shifted away from the potential disruption of traditional social norms, but the satisfaction of natural love in a happy marriage was nevertheless retained, and the story could still capture the imaginations of idealistic lovers. Whereas we may think the device of mistaken identity a threadbare stratagem, in the context of eighteenth-century continental society and its rules, the device made the story more realistic and convincing, not less.

When Goldoni finally adapted his Pamela adaptation as an opera libretto, he had to make even more changes in order to satisfy the musical requirements of the opera stage. Now Pamela (rechristened La Cecchina) and herpursuer (Il Marchese della Conchiglia) are in love from the beginning, at first hopelessly. They are the main soprano/tenor pair, and sing duets. The Marchese’s sister, Lucinda, also based on a Richardson character, is there to oppose the social mismatch. She is given a lover (Il Cavaliere Armidoro) who threatens her with rejection if her brother takes a common wife. There is a basso buffo, Mengotto, a gardener in love with Cecchina, and a sharp-tongued servant girl, Sandrina, in love with Mengotto. (She also gets a sidekick, Paoluccia, with whom she sings gossipy patter duets.)

The last of the newly invented characters is the swashbucking German mercenary soldier Tagliaferro, another basso buffo who gets wheezy laughs by mangling Italian. It is he who clears up the matter of Cecchina’s parentage in the last scene. All the tangled pairs are sorted out, and multiple happy weddings are forecast: Cecchina with the Marchese; Lucinda with the Cavaliere; Mengotto with Sandrina. The libretto ends with an invocation to Cupid from all hands: “Come unite each loving heart,/ And may true lovers never part.”

That would henceforth be the stock ending of the buffa, so that operas eventually divided into those in which people die (tragic) and those in which they marry (comic)—but both, increasingly, for love, not duty. That substitution was the great sentimental innovation and the great hallmark of “middle-class” (as opposed to aristocratic or “Family”) values. It flew directly in the face of the opera seria, at first its chief competitor, which celebrated noble renunciation in dramas where people (or title characters, at any rate) neither died nor married. It marked the point at which the comic opera could begin to surmount the farce situations of the intermezzos and carry a serious or uplifting message of its own. That serious message was nothing less than a competing set of class aspirations—the aspirations of a self-made class whose power had begun to threaten that of hereditary privilege.

In Italian the new genre was eventually christened semiseria; in French, more revealingly, it was called comédie larmoyante (“tearful comedy”). In both, the happy end was reached by way of tears and therefore carried ethical weight. But instead of the weight of traditional social obligation, it was the weight of an implied injunction to be “authentic”—artlessly true to one’s natural feelings. (And yet, as the opera historian William C. Holmes observes, the Marchese nevertheless “seems quite relieved when, in the dénouement, Cecchina is revealed as a German baroness.”3) We know the device of mistaken identity the only way we can know it now—through a screen of cynical nineteenth-century satires (as in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan) that returned it to the realm of farce. Originally it was just as thrilling a concept as the intervention of a deus ex machina had been in an earlier age: it was the device through which the genre’s approved values—true love and artless virtue—could find their just reward.

For even though unwittingly a baroness by accident of birth, Cecchina is by nature and by her true character just “una povera ragazza,” a poor girl with a pure heart. The Italian phrase is the title of her main aria, the opera’s most famous number (Ex. 9-1a), in which she exposes that heart for all to see—or rather hear (its very beating is famously represented by the second violins)—since the music, as in any opera, is the ultimate arbiter of truth. The social idealism that was the essence of the comédie larmoyante is made explicit by Piccinni’s music and its canny contrast of styles. For Cecchina’s aria, with its folklike innocence, is immediately contrasted with one that depicts the artful scheming of Lucinda (Ex. 9-1b), who as a “noble” character is given all the appurtenances of an opera seria role—in particular the virtuoso coloratura style of singing, replete with melismas on emblematic words (in this case disperato, “hopeless”). Of course in this ironic context it is just the “noble” aspects of Lucinda’s music that cast her as ignoble, for she schemes to thwart the rightful consummation of true love. It is she, of course, who is thwarted in the end.

Chapter 9 Enlightenment and ReformChapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform

ex. 9-1a Niccolò Piccinni, La buona figliuola, “Una povera ragazza” (Act I, scene 12), mm. 5–9

Chapter 9 Enlightenment and ReformChapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform

ex. 9-1b Niccolò Piccinni, La buona figliuola, “Furie di donna irata” (Act I, scene 14), mm. 21–31

So even if it typically ended with a perfunctory nod at aristocratic propriety, the comédie larmoyante was a genre in which the bourgeoisie, the optimistic “self-made” class, glorified itself and celebrated its dream of limitless opportunity. It was no accident, then, that the prototype was English. Indeed, the spread of Pamela, and of Pamela-inspired spinoffs, into continental artistic consciousness is an index by which to measure the spread of bourgeois ideals. Aristocratic audiences, needless to say, found the genre insufferable, and it quickly became just as popular a target for lampooning as the opera seria had been. Indeed, the adjective larmoyante, which in normal usage is just as disparaging in its implications as the English “lachrymose,” was originally applied to the new genre by contemptuous aristocrats.

One aspect of comic opera, noticeable already in Pergolesi’s Serva padrona, received a notable boost from Piccinni in La buona figliuola. The shape of a comic libretto depended on a plot that is first hopelessly tangled, then sorted out. The musical shape of the opera followed and epitomized this plan in a fashion that set the comic genre completely apart from the contemporary seria. Both the tangle (imbroglio) and the sorting were symbolized in complex ensemble finales in which all the characters participated. In an intermezzo like La serva padrona these were mere duets. In full-length opera buffa, they could be scenes of great length and intricacy, in which the changing dramatic situation was registered by numbers following on one another without any intervening recitative, all to be played at a whirlwind pace that challenged any composer’s imaginative and technical resources. The first two acts of La buona figliuola end with quintets, the third and last with nothing less than an octet, representing the full cast of characters.

The second-act finale represents the height of imbroglio. Tagliaferro has just persuaded the ecstatic Marchese that Cecchina must be the lost baroness Mariandel on account of a distinctive blue birthmark on her breast. The Marchese rushes off to prepare their wedding forthwith, leaving Tagliaferro alone with the sleeping Cecchina. She calls tenderly in her sleep on her lost father. Tagliaferro, moved, responds in kind. Unfortunately this curious exchange is witnessed by Sandrina and Paoluccia. It is here that the finale begins.

At first it is dominated by the buffi, the characters most nearly recognizable from the earlier farce intermezzos like La serva padrona—namely Sandrina and Paoluccia, the sharp-tongued gossips, and Tagliaferro, the bumbling bass. They accuse him of trying to seduce Cecchina, and when the master returns (his entry underscored with a modulation to the subdominant), they denounce the hapless Tagliaferro. The Marchese, however, does not believe them, rejecting their malicious tale in a melting siciliano that expresses the purity of his love and faith. A quick change of tempo turns the siciliano into a madcap jig as the two girls argue back with the two men, finally reaching a peak of frenzied raving that is captured musically in a breathless prestissimo (Ex. 9-2) that returns to the opening patter tune of the finale, thus tying the whole imbroglio into a tidy musical package.

Chapter 9 Enlightenment and ReformChapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform

ex. 9-2 Niccolò Piccinni, La buona figliuola, Act II finale


(1) Johann Adam Hiller, Wöchentliche Nachrichten und Anmerkungen, die Musik betreffend, Vol. III, p. 8 (22 August 1768), trans. Piero Weiss in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 239–40.

(2) Carlo Goldoni, Preface to La buona figliuola, trans. Catherine Silberblatt Woflthal in the notes to Fonit Cetra LMA 3012 (Niccolò Piccinni, La buuona figliola [sic]), ca. 1981.

(3) William C. Holmes, “Pamela Transformed,” Musical Quarterly XXXVIII (1952): 589.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-09.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-09.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-09.xml