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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

Partly because it was a fairly late work and partly because of its extraordinary literary demands, Attilio Regolo was not frequently set to music. Besides Hasse’s setting there were only three others, the last in 1780. By contrast, Metastasio’s most popular libretto, the most frequently reused operatic libretto of all time, was Artaserse (Artaxerxes). It was set first in 1730 by Leonardo Vinci, Scarlatti’s successor as maestro di cappella in Naples, for performance in Rome. Vinci’s setting became a frequently revived classic in its own right and helped establish the text as a must for budding composers. (Two very famous later composers of opera, Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck and Johann Christian Bach, made their debuts with settings of Artaserse, in 1741 and 1760 respectively.)

In all, over ninety settings of this libretto are known, the last being The Regicide, set in translation by a composer named Lucas for performance in London at the incredibly late date of 1840, some 110 years after the first setting was heard. On the way, just about every important composer of opera seria set it, including Giuseppe Scarlatti, a nephew or grandnephew (accounts differ) of Alessandro, who set it for Lucca in 1747; Baldassare Galuppi, who set it for Vienna, and Niccolò Jommelli, who set it for Rome, both in 1749 (each of them made at least one later setting as well); Giuseppe Sarti, who set it for the Royal Theater of Copenhagen in 1760; Thomas Arne, who set it for London in 1762; Niccolò Piccinni, who set it for Rome in 1762; Giovanni Paisiello, who set it for Modena in 1771; Josef Mysliveček, who set it for Naples in 1774; Domenico Cimarosa, who set it for Turin in 1784; and Nicolas Isouard, who set it for Livorno in 1794.

Hasse, Metastasio’s favorite, set Artaserse three times: for Venice in 1730, close on the heels of Vinci; for Dresden in 1740; and for Naples in 1760. In 1734, following a common practice, a refacimento of Hasse’s first setting was presented in London in the form of a pasticcio or hodgepodge (literally a pie), in which a lot of the original music was replaced with popular arias by other composers, including Nicola Porpora, a Neapolitan composer who was then enjoying a great vogue in the English capital, and Ricardo Broschi, another visiting Neapolitan, who wrote for it (under circumstances shortly to be described) one of the most celebrated arias of the century.

What has so far gone without saying, but had better be said now, is that with the sole exception of Arne’s (for reasons that will emerge in a later chapter), and of course Lucas’s anachronistic Regicide of 1840, every one of these settings was performed in Italian, wherever it was staged (whether in Denmark or in Russia, where a setting by Francesco Araja was given for the St. Petersburg court as early as 1738), whatever the composer’s nationality (whether Czech like Mysliveček or Maltese French like Isouard), and whether or not the audience understood the language in which it was sung. And that is because wherever opera seria was sung, the singers were mainly Italian virtuosi, whose careers (like those of most Italian composers) were international.

The international status—indeed, the “world” hegemony—of Italian music (and not only opera) from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries is still reflected in the Western “classical” musicians’ vocabulary, which to this day is an international patois based largely on the terminology the Italians brought with them wherever they went. (This is already demonstrated by the translation given above of Metastasio’s letter to Hasse, which was published in 1796 by Sir Charles Burney, the English music historian; even in the adapted version given here, alterations are mainly substitutions of more familiar Italian words, like fermata, for the less common ones Burney employed.)

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04005.xml