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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

Ultimate “classical” perfection was reached by the Roman poet Pietro Antonio Trapassi (1698–1782), a godson of Cardinal Ottoboni himself, who was virtually raised in the bosom of the Arcadian Academy and who eventually replaced Zeno as Austrian court poet in 1730. His pen name, Metastasio, has become the very emblem of the genre he perfected. It was a sort of pseudo-Greek translation of his family name: trapasso means transit or conveyance from one place to another (and by extension, death, or “passing on”); Metastasio substitutes Greek roots for Latinate ones (compare the medical term metastasis, meaning the spread or transference of a disease or a fluid from one part of the body to another). The “translation” signaled the poet’s neoclassical leanings and his avowed aim, as usual, of re-resurrecting the ancient Greek drama, and all its effects, through opera.

Between 1720 and 1771 Metastasio wrote some sixty librettos, of which about half (twenty-seven) belonged to the genre of opera seria—“serious opera”—the term now used for what Metastasio, following tradition, had called dramma per musica (“drama through music”). Over the next century or more, Metastasio’s texts were set more than eight hundred times by more than three hundred composers. During that long span of time, and at the hands of several generations of musicians, the music that clothed these texts underwent considerable stylistic change. (At the most basic level, the settings of the arias became steadily longer and more elaborate, and therefore fewer.) But the librettos remained relatively constant. That is what it means to be (regarded as) a classic. No other librettist ever achieved such a stature or so dominated the opera of his time.

The stylistic changes in the music will naturally be the subject of future discussions in this book. And of course Metastasio’s librettos did undergo a certain amount of adaptation (or refacimento—“remaking”—to use the Italian word) as they circulated over time and from place to place. They had increasingly to be cut as the musical entities got longer. But their longevity, and their consistency, are nonetheless remarkable and have a great deal to teach us about the musical and social ideals of their age. It was an age of relative political and social stability, a stability that the very longevity and consistency of Metastasio’s libretti can seem to symbolize. In advance of all musical discussion, then, the style and structure of the Metastasian libretto deserve consideration, since they embody a critical set of concepts with many important consequences.

The Metastasian libretto was a supreme balancing act, reconciling the theoretical ideals of the Arcadian reformers with the practical demands of the stage. Not only the audience but the performers had to be considered, for the star singers in an opera performance were in effect another hierarchical society, and a very demanding one. To meet and balance all demands, the older reform libretto was adjusted to feature six main roles, deployed in two pairs and a “remainder.”

At the top was the first couple: the primo uomo or first man, almost always played by a castrato, and the prima donna or first lady, played by a soprano where women were allowed on the public stage, and by another castrato where they were not. The indifference to the actual sex of performers, which is evident in the casting not only of opera seria but also the contemporary spoken theater, is something that fascinates many historians in our present era of gender politics. In the case of Artaserse, a famous Metastasio libretto that will furnish our main example, the first performance of its first musical setting took place in Rome, where women could not sing on stage, and featured two male castratos in the main lovers’ roles. Most subsequent performances cast the roles according to sex, although the male was always a eunuch, never a “natural” man. But in at least one production, a gala sung at Naples in 1738 on the birthday and wedding-eve of the King of the Two Sicilies, both “first” roles were sung by women. As the figurative meaning of “prima donna,” which still survives in colloquial English, emphatically suggests, these favored singers, whatever their actual sex, had many prerogatives and insisted on them. Between the two of them, the first couple had to sing half the arias in the show, amounting to as many as half a dozen arias apiece. And only they could sing a duet.

The second couple, also noble, claimed three or four arias apiece. Afterwards came the “remainder”: confidants, villains, servants, whatever. They could be given no more than two arias, and these arias had to be positioned less conspicuously than those of the higher-ranking roles. One of these characters, for example, had to sing the first aria in act II, because in many theaters that was when refreshments were served to the audience and nobody was listening. (The first aria in act II actually came to be known as the aria di sorbetto or “sherbet aria,” and the hapless singer to whom it was assigned could expect to be drowned out by the clinking of spoons.)

In addition, the arias each character sang had to belong to different standard types that showed off different aspects of their vocal prowess. These included the aria di bravura or virtuoso aria full of difficult coloratura passages; the aria d’affetto or tender aria full of long-held, swelling notes; the aria cantabile or lyrical aria, in which the singer’s ability to sustain long phrases was displayed, and so on. Not only were these types to be distributed within the roles; they also had to be distributed in their succession, so that there never be two arias of the same type side by side. Thus the librettist had to be able to anticipate the demands of singer and of composer alike, and also meet strict standards of plot propriety and literary style. It was specialist work, and in its profusion of rigorous conventions it was a “classical” art indeed. No wonder the works of Metastasio, who could manage all these staggering prerequisites within a style that apparently exemplified classical “simplicity” and “naturalness,” were kept up in active use as long as they were.

Metastasio rationalized the artificiality of the neoclassical dramatic art he practiced and reconciled it with the principles of the classic drama he claimed to emulate by comparing the arias, which functioned as reflective monologues at the conclusion of every scene, not with soliloquies but with the chorus—the eternal commentator—in the classical Greek drama. In this way the aria differs in quality and function even from the recitative soliloquy that might precede it. The essential difference is that the recitatives exist within the stage world; they are addressed to the dramatis personae, the characters on stage, even if the singer and the addressee are one and the same (as in a true soliloquy, an “internal dialogue”).

The arias, like the Greek choruses, are addressed outward to the audience; they are emotional weather reports, so to speak, delivered in a sort of stopped time, or “time out.” As traditionally staged, the arias were actually sung stage front, facing the spectators, accompanied by appropriate stylized poses or attitudes. A “character,” in such a drama, was only the sum of the prescribed attitudes he or she was called upon to strike.

The artificiality of this scheme is proverbial and often mocked. And yet no matter how much opera may have changed after Metastasio, no matter how vehemently later operatic composers, librettists, or theorists may (in the name of one form of “realism” or another) have rejected his stylizations, this most fundamental stylization forever remained: the distinction between “recitative time” (public time, clock time, time for action) and “aria time” (internal time, psychological time, time for reflection). The formalization of this distinction was the great stroke of genius that gave opera not only more room for music but also a special dramatic dimension that modern spoken drama (despite many fruitless experiments with “asides”) could never match.

Metastasio began his career in Naples, Scarlatti’s old haunt, with Didone abbandonata (“Dido abandoned”), based on the same story as Purcell’s famous little opera of 1689. Even though it was an early work and therefore somewhat atypical (lacking a lieto fine, for one thing), Didone abbandonata was one of Metastasio’s most popular librettos. It was set more than sixty times by composers great and obscure over a period of precisely a century, from 1724 to 1824.

Comparing Metastasio’s libretto with Virgil’s original story as summarized in chapter 3, and with Purcell’s setting as discussed there, will illuminate the special nature of opera seria. Like virtually all opere serie it is in three long acts. Where Nahum Tate, Purcell’s librettist, had three main characters—Dido, Aeneas, and Belinda (Dido’s confidante)—Metastasio’s has the standard six. Dido (soprano) and Aeneas (alto castrato) make up the first couple. The second couple consists of Araspes (bass) and Dido’s sister Selene (soprano), who at first is also in love with Aeneas: the remainder consists of the villains Iarbas (tenor), a Moorish king who is fruitlessly wooing Dido, and Osmidas (tenor), Dido’s faithless confidant, who is plotting against her with the help of the jealous Iarbas.

In the first act, Aeneas informs Dido of his decision to leave Carthage; Iarbas, unaware of this, tries to kill Aeneas with the help of Araspes, his henchman. In the second act, Araspes declares his love to Selene who rejects him; Aeneas magnanimously intercedes with Dido on behalf of Iarbas, who has already been set free by Osmidas; Dido at first pretends to accept Iarbas’s offer of marriage to test Aeneas’s love; having been reassured, she rejects Iarbas. In the third act, Iarbas challenges Aeneas to a duel, whereupon the Moors and Trojans all begin fighting with one another; again Aeneas shows his magnanimity by defeating Iarbas but sparing his life; Selene declares her love to Aeneas but cannot deter him from leaving. Araspes comes with news that the Moors have set fire to Carthage, but even at this Dido does not give in to Iarbas’s entreaties. Learning of Osmidas’s betrayal and her sister’s secret love, she sings a rage aria (modeled by Metastasio on the ending of Quinault’s libretto for Lully’s Armide, performed at Louis XIV’s court some forty years before; see chapter 3), following which she throws herself into the fire and is killed.

A cluttered action, a confusion of lovers, a welter of superfluous characters (there is also “Arbaces,” Iarbas in disguise), but ample opportunity to display the high virtues of fidelity, steadfastness of purpose, and noble generosity (all at grave personal cost) and express the high emotions of love in many variations. In writing it, the young Metastasio was guided by the singers who were to portray the leading couple: Maria Anna Benti, called La Romanina, Italy’s reigning diva (at whose house the poet was staying), and her partner, the castrato Nicolo Grimaldi, called Nicolini. They gave the librettist, in seriousness, the indispensable advice he needed about role requirements and aria types, the notorious but inviolable rigmarole later parodied by so many satirists of the opera seria like Carlo Goldoni (see Weiss and Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 194–96). His early mastery of these absolute injunctions enabled Metastasio to cope, for the rest of his career and with seeming effortlessness, with all the competing demands of the librettist’s craft.

The libretto Metastasio himself regarded as his masterpiece, at once typical and ideal, was Attilio Regolo, which more than any other highlighted the theme of noble self-sacrifice. The title character, Marcus Attilius Regulus (d. ca. 250 bce), was, like so many opera seria heroes, an exemplary historical personage: “a Roman hero of consummate virtue,” as Metastasio himself put it, “not only in principle but in practice,” because he is “a rigid and scrupulous observer, not only of justice and probity, but also of the laws and customs which time and the great authority of his ancestors have rendered sacred to his country.”4 A Roman consul and general, Regulus invaded Africa and defeated the Carthaginians in 256 bce but was defeated and captured by them the next year. Having promised to return whatever the outcome, he was sent by the Carthaginians to Rome in 250 to negotiate peace and exchange prisoners. Having failed in his mission, but remaining true to his promise, Regulus returned to Carthage and was tortured to death.

The distribution of the six roles emphasizes filial as opposed to erotic love. The main couple is Regulus (alto castrato) and his daughter Attilia (soprano), leaving the latter’s husband (the impassioned Licinius, another castrato) to the “remainder.” The second couple consists of Hamilcar, the Carthaginian ambassador, and Barce, a Carthaginian noblewoman who has been kept as a slave by Publius, Regulus’s son, who also loves her. (In another act of noble magnanimity, Publius gives her back her freedom to return to Carthage with Hamilcar.) The remainder consists of Licinius, Publius (who must argue in the Senate against the proposed peace even though its rejection means his father’s certain death); and Manlius, Regulus’s successor as consul, who at first is ruled by envy of his predecessor, but is finally persuaded by Regulus’s sterling example to act nobly on behalf of state and civic interests.

The libretto’s ideology of civic fortitude and heroic sacrifice to the social order is most explicitly set forth by negative example, through the mouth of the uncomprehending Barce, the Carthaginian slave, who is portrayed with undisguised racial contempt. The librettist describes her as “a pleasing, beautiful and lively African,” whose “temperament, like that of her nation, is amorous,” not noble.5 She cannot fathom the magnanimity of the Romans, Metastasio’s idealized European patrons. “What strange ideas does the love of praise excite in Rome!” she declares (in the words of Metastasio’s eighteenth-century translator, John Hoole), and continues:

With envy Manlius views his rival’s chains, while Regulus abhors the public pity that would save his life. The daughter glories in her father’s sufferings, and Publius—this surpasses all belief!—Publius, my beauty’s slave, for honor’s sake, resigns the mistress whom his soul adores.6

That is the recitative preceding Barce’s last exit aria, which begins, “But thanks be to Heaven, I don’t have a Roman soul!”

Metastasio prepared this grand quintessence of everything that is meant by the word “august” for a gala performance in Vienna to honor Emperor Charles VI on his saint’s name day in 1740. Charles’s sudden death two weeks before the planned celebration prevented its performance. Instead of letting the work out for another occasion, Metastasio continued to work on it intermittently over the next nine years, during which time it was on several occasions performed at court under the Empress Maria Theresa as a spoken play despite its operatic structure that turned every character into an endlessly soliloquizing Hamlet. Metastasio always maintained that his librettos were suitable for spoken performance and that he would rather hear them that way than poorly set.


fig. 4-4 Johann Adolf Hasse, copperplate engraving by C. F. Riedel after a painting by Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707–1762).

Metastasio finally let Attilio Regolo out for setting in 1749 at the request of King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, who wanted to have it performed at his court in Dresden. The proposed composer, Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783), was a musician the librettist could trust. He had already composed 43 opere serie, fifteen of them to Metastasio libretti (one of them for Vienna, where it had triumphed in the poet’s presence). Even so, Metastasio sent Hasse a long letter, now a classic text of music history, in which he detailed his wishes as to how his text should be set.

In particular, he bade the composer set certain key passages—mainly the title character’s occasional soliloquies of impassioned self-doubt—in accompanied recitative (recitativo obligato in eighteenth-century Italian), a style reserved for very special effects, in which the whole orchestra, not just the continuo, accompanied the singer. And he counseled so, as he put it to Hasse, “for (you know this as well as I) the same words and sentiments may be uttered, according to the diversity of situation, in such a manner as to express either joy, sorrow, anger, or pity.”7 And music may underscore such nuances and ironies with peerless subtlety and truthfulness “by the judicious and alternate use of pianos and fortes, by rinforzandos [sudden loudening], by staccatos, slurs, accelerating and retarding the measure, arpeggios, shakes [trills], sostenutos [that is, fermatas or holds], and above all, by new modulation [of the harmony].” With the insight of the trained musician that he was, Metastasio presumed to instruct the composer how to let the music not merely transcribe or represent, still less duplicate, but actually supplement (at times by contradicting) the meanings of the words to which it is set. Hasse, it may be presumed, did not really need this lesson. It is something all successful opera composers know, for it is the very idea of the dramma per musica—not just “a play for music,” as normally translated, but a play through music.

Metastasio’s letter was dated 20 October 1749. The première of Hasse’s lengthy opera took place on 12 January 1750, a mere 84 days later. That speediness was enough, from the point of view of its producers and consumers, to justify all the many easily derided conventions of the opera seria.


(4) Pietro Metastasio to Johann Adolf Hasse, 20 October 1749, trans. John Hoole, in Patrick J. Smith, The Tenth Muse: A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto (New York: Knopf, 1970), p. 403.

(5) Ibid., p. 405.

(6) Smith, The Tenth Muse, p. 96.

(7) Metastasio to Hasse, in Smith, The Tenth Muse, pp. 407–8.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." 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-div1-04004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04004.xml