We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

The first sung phrase in Ex. 4.7 is followed by a fermata in the printed score. Such fermatas in virtuoso arias signal not a pause but a “cadenza” (short for cadenza fiorita, “ornamented cadence”), an unwritten solo that can come (as here) after the textual “motto,” but that more often precedes—and delays—an important cadence. Cadenzas are display vehicles abounding in what their singers called passaggii, from which we get our English term “passage” or “passagework,” replacing the earlier English “divisions.” In theory cadenzas were improvised by the singer on the spot, but in practice they were often worked out in advance and memorized.

Opera Seria in (and as) Practice

fig. 4-7 Jacopo Amigoni, portrait of Farinelli (center), surrounded by (left to right) Metastasio, Teresa Castellini, the artist, and the artist’s page, holding his palette.

There are three fermatas signaling cadenzas during the second vocal solo alone in the version of Farinelli’s shipwreck aria in the Maria Theresa manuscript, and we have the word of many earwitnesses that singers considered all of the main cadences in an aria fair game for embellishment. As often happens, it was chiefly those who disapproved of the practice, or of what they took to be its abuse, who took the trouble to write about it. P. F. Tosi, himself a singer (but writing as a preceptor of singers), complained in 1723 that the ends of all three sections in da capo arias were becoming overgrown with cadenzas: during the first cadenza, “the orchestra waits”; during the second “the dose is increased, and the orchestra grows tired.”14 But during the last cadenza, chaffs Tosi, “the throat is set going like a weather-cock in a whirlwind, and the orchestra yawns.” There was a touch of envy here, perhaps, for we do not find much indication of audiences complaining. Nor did Metastasio himself, who might have been expected to think the practice of interpolating cadenzas, and also of adding coloraturas by the bushel to the da capo repeat, an assault upon his handiwork. Quite the contrary: as we see in a group portrait (Fig. 4-7) by the Madrid painter Jacopo Amigoni (now hanging in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia), Metastasio and Farinelli were the best of friends. They met in 1720, when the singer, then a teenager, made his Neapolitan debut on the very occasion at which the poet’s verses for music were first sung in public, and remained on terms of intimacy until the end of their lives more than sixty years later. (The figures in the portrait, from left to right, are Metastasio, Farinelli’s pupil the soprano Teresa Castellini, Farinelli, the artist, and his page.) The great librettist recognized the great singer as a major influence—a far greater one than any composer—on the development of the opera seria and its supremely ornate, aristocratic musical style. The two of them, Metastasio and Farinelli, were likewise universally regarded during the eighteenth century as being far more important to the art of opera than any composer, and so a historian must regard them as well.


(14) Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song, pp. 128–29.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04007.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 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04007.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 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04007.xml