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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

In 1706, while living in Rome between his two stints as maestro di cappella in Naples, Scarlatti was honored by election, along with the keyboard virtuoso and composer Bernardo Pasquini and the great violinist Arcangelo Corelli, to a very prestigious association of musical and literary connoisseurs known as the Arcadian Academy. It had been founded in 1690, the year following the death of Queen Christina, Scarlatti’s former patron, by former habitués of her salon. At its head was Pietro Cardinal Ottoboni, grandnephew of the reigning pope, Alexander VIII. For more than fifty years Cardinal Ottoboni was far and away the most lavish patron of opera in Rome. He was also an amateur librettist, whose texts, whatever their shortcomings, were eagerly set by composers in hopes of an extravagant production and an outstanding performance supervised by Pasquini and Corelli. Two of Scarlatti’s operas and several of his oratorios were set to Ottoboni librettos, including La Statira, the cardinal’s maiden operatic effort.

The Arcadians preached, and to a considerable extent practiced, very lofty esthetic ideals. Following Aristotle, as they would have claimed, but also responding to the criticism of French dramatists who (as we saw in chapter 3) heaped scorn on theatrical music, they wanted to restore opera to its original “classical” purity. This meant cleansing it of the old Venetian comic and bawdy scenes with their conniving servants and aging wet nurses, which had catered to the tastes of paying audiences, and returning opera to the chaste pastoral or heroic historical spheres from which it had sunk. Like most operatic reformers (and as a venerable wag once put it, the history of opera is the history of its reforms), the Arcadians sought to recover the politics of affirmation that had attended the original invention of opera at the noble north Italian courts a hundred years before.

Thus librettos became vehicles for noble sentiment—noble in both the literal and the figurative sense of the word. Real tragedy, which according to Aristotle required a flawed hero and a terrifying dénouement, was deemed unsuitable for moral instruction in an enlightened age: therein lay one crucial difference between the actual classical drama and the “neoclassical” drama of the European courts. A happy ending (lieto fine in Italian) was mandatory in an opera libretto even if it contradicted historical fact; for as Marita McClymonds, a leading historian of “reform” opera, has observed, “poets were expected to portray what, according to an orderly moral system, should have happened rather than what actually did happen.”2 That, as far as opera was concerned, was what was meant by “verisimilitude.” In practical terms, this requirement entailed a schematic, idealized cast of character types that, in Grout’s words, represented “not a picture of the actual world in which people then lived, but rather a diagram of it.”3 This abstract diagrammatic representation of the social world implied, for its fullest delineation, the depiction of three social levels—rulers, confidants, and servants—each represented by a loving couple (or a would-be loving couple). The dramatic intrigue, always played out in three acts, involved the interplay among this set of characters, augmented by one or two others (villains, jealous or rejected lovers, false friends), until the inevitable happy ending, “where,” as Grout writes, “all the couples are finally sorted out and launched on a life which presumably will continue happily ever after.” Most important, he continues, “this consummation is usually brought about not by luck, still less by any intelligent planning by the persons chiefly concerned, but rather by the last-minute intervention of the ruler, in an exemplary act of renunciation inspired by pity and greatness of soul.”

The ruler, in short, functioned in an ideal opera libretto the way a benevolently intervening deity—the proverbial deus ex machina or “god from out of a machine”—descended, like Apollo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, in ancient plays or the earliest courtly operas. Here is another important distinction between the “classical” and the “neoclassical.” Intervention in the newly idealized opera could not be supernatural; it had to be human, but the human intervener, like the ruler in an absolutist state, was taken as the earthly representative of the divine. The neoclassical drama thus celebrated the “divine right of kings.”

These Arcadian reforms were anticipated and paralleled in Venice, the former hotbed of “impure” opera, by Apostolo Zeno (1668–1750), a famous poet and scholar who had founded his own Academy for the restoration of taste and tradition, and whose librettos were set many times over by many composers. Like most operatic reformers, Zeno had high aristocratic patronage (in his case the “Holy Roman” Emperor, no less), and wrote librettos on commission from the Viennese court (where he was eventually in residence) which further idealized the role of the beneficent monarch. One of these, Scipione nelle Spagne, was set by Scarlatti and no fewer than eight other composers between 1710 and 1768: such libretto-longevity was not at all unusual in the eighteenth century.

Along with the purification and elevation of subject matter went the standardization of form and regularization of verse. In librettos like Griselda (on which Scarlatti, one of fourteen who set it, composed his last opera in 1721, twenty years after its creation), Zeno began to cast all the scenes in the same basic shape—recitative followed by a single da capo aria, after which the singer exits amid applause—and made every aria the bearer of a single vivid and consistent emotional message, cast in a simple and distinctive meter to facilitate its setting by the composer. It became a point both of technique and of esthetics to employ as great a variety of aria meters as possible. Thus Zeno and the Arcadians sought at the level of the libretto, the highest level of operatic “structure,” to match Scarlatti’s achievement in standardizing forms and procedures.


(2) Marita McClymonds, “Opera seria,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. III (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 698.

(3) Grout, Alessandro Scarlatti, p. 9.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04003.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04003.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04003.xml