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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi
Richard Taruskin
Opera and Its Politics

fig. 1-3 Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519), depicted on a Mantuan coin.

One important aspect of the “esthesics” of early dramatic music was its descent in part from the sixteenth-century Florentine court spectacles known as intermedii. All the earliest favole in musica were fashioned to adorn the same kind of north Italian court festivities, flattering the assemblages of “renowned heroes, blood royal of kings” who were privileged to hear them, potentates “of whom Fame tells glorious deeds, though falling short of truth,” as La Musica herself puts it in the prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo—first performed during the carnival season of 1607 to fête Francesco Gonzaga, the hereditary prince of Mantua, where the composer was employed. The words were written by the prince’s secretary, Alessandro Striggio (the son of a famous Mantuan madrigalist of the same name), and the whole occasion had a panegyric (prince-praising) subtext.

Thus the revived musical drama—the invention of a humanistic coterie of Florentine nobles—reflected (and was meant to reflect) the recovered grandeur and glory of antiquity on the princes who were its patrons. Like most music that has left remains for historians to discuss, it was the product and the expression of an elite culture, the topmost echelons of contemporary society. To put it that way is uncontroversial. But what if it were said that the early musical plays were the product and the expression of a tyrannical class—a product and an expression, moreover, that were only made possible by the despotic exploitation of other classes? That would direct perhaps unwelcome attention at the social costs of artistic greatness. Such awareness follows inescapably from an emphasis on the “esthesic,” however; and that is perhaps one additional reason why the “poietic” side has claimed so vast a preponderance of scholarly investigation.

One scholar who did not flinch from the social consequences of the untrammeled pursuit of artistic excellence was Manfred Bukofzer, in a still unsurpassed essay, “The Sociology of Baroque Music,” first published in 1947. Bukofzer characterized the early musical plays, of which Monteverdi’s Orfeo was the crowning stroke, as the capital artistic expression of the twin triumphs of political absolutism and economic mercantilism, an expression that brought to its pinnacle the traditional exploitations of the arts “as a means of representing power.” It was precisely this exploitation that, in Bukofzer’s view, brought about the stylistic metamorphosis that, following the terminology of his time, he called the metamorphosis from “Renaissance” to “Baroque.” His description is vivid, and disquieting:

Display of splendor was one of the main social functions of music for the Counter Reformation and the baroque courts, made possible only through money; and the more money spent, the more powerful was the representation. Consistent with the mercantile ideas of wealth, sumptuousness in the arts became actually an end in itself…. However, viewed from the social angle the shining lights of the flowering arts cast the blackest of shadows. Hand in hand with the brilliant development of court and church music went the Inquisition and the ruthless exploitation of the lower classes by means of oppressive taxes.7

With the spread of musical plays from the opulent courts of Italy to the petty courts of northern Europe—chiefly Germany, where the first musical play was Dafne, a setting of the Florentine court poet Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto for the earliest of all favole in musica (originally set by Peri for performance in 1597) as translated by Martin Opitz, court poet of the Holy Roman Empire, with music by Heinrich Schütz, a former pupil of Gabrieli, performed to celebrate a princely wedding at the court of Torgau in 13 April 1627—the costs became ever more exorbitant and the bankrolling methods ever more drastic. “The Duke of Brunswick, for one, relied not only on the most ingenious forms of direct and indirect taxation but resorted even to the slave trade,” Bukofzer reports. “He financed his operatic amusements by selling his subjects as soldiers [in the Thirty Years’ War] so that his flourishing opera depended literally on the blood of the lower classes.”8 The court spectacles thus bought and paid for apotheosized political power in at least three ways. The first and most spectacular—and the most obvious—was the fusion of all the arts in the common enterprise of princely aggrandizement. The monster assemblages of singers and instrumentalists (the former neoclassically deployed in dancing choruses like those of the Greek drama, the latter massed in the first true orchestras) were matched, and even exceeded, by the luxuriously elaborate stage sets and theatrical machinery. Second, the plots, involving mythological or ancient historical heroes caught up in stereotyped conflicts of love and honor, were transparent allegories of the sponsoring rulers, who were addressed directly, as we know, in the obligatory prologues that linked the story of the opera to the events of their reign.

Third, most subtly but possibly most revealing, severe limits were set on the virtuosity of the vocal soloists lest, by indecorously representing their own power, they upstaged the personages portrayed, or worse, the personages allegorically magnified. The ban on virtuosity reflected the old aristocratic prejudice, inherited from Aristotle, that found its most influential neoclassical expression in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, in which noble amateurs are enjoined to affect sprezzatura (“a certain noble negligence,” or nonchalance) in their singing lest they compromise their standing as “free men” by an infusion of servile professionalism. Giulio Caccini, the leading early monodist, had explicitly revived the concept of sprezzatura in the preface to his famous songbook Nuove musiche of 1601 and in so doing gave some precious insight into the manner and purpose of the moderate, intimate, elegantly applied throat-music called gorgia, comparable in some ways with the intimate style of singing known in the twentieth century as crooning.

Caccini’s preface contained a sarcastic, even cranky comparison between the subtle gorgia he employed and the unwritten (extemporized or memorized) passaggii—real virtuoso fireworks—with which less socially elevated singers peppered their performances. Passaggii, Caccini sneered, “were not invented because they were necessary to the right way of singing, but rather, I think, for a certain titillation they afford the ears of those who do not know what it is to sing with feeling; for were this understood, then passages would no doubt be abhorred, since nothing can be more contrary to producing a good effect.” The matter is couched outwardly in terms of fastidious taste, but the social snobbery lurking within is not hard to discern. Virtuosity is “common.” Those who indulge it or encourage it with their applause are to be despised as vulgar, “low class.” (To find Caccini’s heirs in this antipopulist bias, chances are one need only read one’s local music critic or record reviewer.)

Not surprisingly, virtuosity found a natural home in the commercial music theater. It is only one of the reasons for regarding the Venetian Teatro San Cassiano and the year 1637, not the Florentine Palazzo Pitti or the year 1597, as the true time and place of the birth of opera as we know it now. Where the court spectacles, even Orfeo, now seem like fossils—ceremonially exhumed and exhibited to sober praise from time to time (and dependably extolled in textbooks) but undeniably dead—the early commercial opera bequeathed to us the conventions by which opera has lived, in glory and in infamy, into our own time. From now on, the word opera as used in this book will mean the commercial opera. Anything else will be called by a different name, whether or not its creators chose to do so.

As Ellen Rosand has written, modern operagoers can still recognize in seventeenth-century Venetian works “the roots of favorite scenes: Cherubino’s song, Tatiana’s letter, Lucia’s mad scene, Ulrica’s invocation, even Tristan and Iseult’s love duet.”9 With these references to characters and scenes from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century operas by Mozart, Chaikovsky, Donizetti, Verdi, and Wagner, all pillars of the modern repertoire, and surely not by accident, Rosand has named four potent female roles, one fairly neutered masculine partner, and a delectable cross-dresser. Ever since opera opened its doors to a paying public—a public that had to be lured—it has been a prima-donna circus with a lively transsexual sideshow, associated from the very beginning with the carnival season and its roaring tourist trade. Uncanny, nature-defying vocalism easily compensated for the courtly accoutrements—the sumptuous sets, the intricate choruses and ballets, the rich orchestras—that the early commercial opera theaters could not afford. Never mind the noble union of all the arts: what the great Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin called “educated screaming” is the only bait that public opera has ever really needed, and its attraction has never waned.


(7) Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (New York: Norton, 1947), pp. 394–95.

(8) Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, p. 398.

(9) Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice, p. 7.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01004.xml