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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi
Richard Taruskin

The situation in Venice changed drastically when the Teatro San Cassiano opened its doors during the carnival season of 1637. This was the Western world’s first public music theater—the world’s first opera house—and it seems in retrospect inevitable that it should have been Venice, Europe’s great meeting place and commercial center, that brought it forth. “There and then,” as Rosand has written, “opera as we know it assumed its definitive identity—as a mixed theatrical spectacle available to a socially diversified, and paying audience: a public art.”5 This was a greater novelty, perhaps, than we can easily appreciate today, after centuries of public music-making for paying audiences. But it made a decisive difference to the nature of the art purveyed, and learning to appreciate this great change will teach us a great deal about the nature of art in its relationship to its audience. In a word, it will teach us about the politics of art and (for our present purposes even more pressing) about the politics of art history, which like the music theater itself is a genere rappresentativo, an artful representation of reality.

Poetics and Esthesics

fig. 1-2 Carnival festivities on the Piazza San Marco, Venice.

In classical times, and again since the “Renaissance,” or revival of secular learning in the sixteenth century, most history has actually been biography, the story of great men and great deeds. Since the nineteenth century, which was not only the “Romantic era” but also the era of Napoleon and Beethoven, and of a triumphant middle class of “self-made men,” the great men celebrated by historians have typically been great neither because of high birth or hereditary power, nor because of their election by God, but rather by virtue of their individual talents and their ability to realize their destinies, especially in the face of obstacles. (This, we can easily see, is an exact description of both the Napoleonic myth and the myth of Beethoven.) Like Josquin des Prez before him, (see “Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” chapter 14), Monteverdi has been Beethovenized by historians. For a long time, the standard account of his life and works was a book by the German musicologist Leo Schrade called Monteverdi, Creator of Modern Music.6

An art historiography that is centered on great creative individuals will be a historiography centered on what is called poetics. This word has an etymology similar to the words “poetry” or “poetic”, but has an altogether different meaning and a very useful one that should be kept free of the more commonly used words that resemble it. All of these words stem from the Greek verb poiein, “to make.” The word “poetics” remains close to this original meaning and refers to the creative process, the actual making of the artwork.

The near-exclusive focus on poetics—on making—that is typical in post-Romantic historiography can lead to what is sometimes called the “poietic fallacy.” (The peculiar spelling “poietic,” derived from the Greek root word, is used here simply to lessen the possibility of confusion with the more ordinary meaning of “poetic.”) The poietic fallacy is the assumption that all it takes to account for the nature of an artwork is the maker’s intention, or—in a more refined version—the inherent (or immanent) characteristics of the object that the maker has made.

There has been considerable (quite diversely motivated) resistance to this model of art historiography since twentieth century, and some revision of it. This book will reflect that resistance and revision to some extent. It will pay as much or possibly more attention to larger social, economic, and religious forces as to the personal intentions of composers and theorists. (It could go without saying, but perhaps it had better be said anyway, that complete disregard of such intentions would be just as partial and just as distorted a viewpoint as its opposite: composers are influenced by all sorts of “larger forces,” as are we all, but subjectively—and directly—they are most of all influenced by music.)

And yet when it comes to the neoclassical impulse that gave birth to dramatic music at the end of the sixteenth century, which found expression in so much explicit theorizing, it is hard not to follow the “poietic” model, putting things mainly in terms of artists’ and theorists’ expressive aspirations and achievements. But like any other form of art (at least those that have been successful), dramatic music, of course, had an “esthesic” side as well (from the Greek aisthesis, “perception”), reflecting the viewpoint and the expectations of the audience. (“Esthesics,” like “poetics,” has a more common cognate—“esthetics,” the philosophy of beauty—with which it should not be confused.) In fact the esthesics of dramatic music is perhaps more of a determining factor (or at least more obviously a determining factor) in its development than in any other branch of musical art, and it is very closely bound up with politics. Before we can understand “opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi”—that is, the differences between Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607 and his Incoronazione di Poppea of 1643—that bond has to be explored.


(5) Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), p. 1.

(6) Leo Schrade, Monteverdi, Creator of Modern Music (New York: Norton, 1950).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01003.xml