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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

During opera’s first century, especially at the public theaters of Venice (and as we have known since chapter 1), it was considered good form to mix serious and comic scenes and characters, producing a kind of heterogeneous “Shakespearean” drama that afforded audiences the very utmost in varied entertainment. Then the reformers got to work. Seeking to restore the dignity of the earliest “neoclassical” (courtly) operas and justify the genre in light of classical poetic theory, librettists began to regard comic scenes as breaches of taste. Such scenes were banished, at first by the high-minded dilettantes who ran the learned academies, finally by the frosty Metastasio.

But what is kicked out the front door often climbs back in through the window. The public, especially in Venice, was unwilling to give up a favorite operatic treat—nor, more to the point, were they willing to forgo the pleasure of seeing and hearing their favorite buffi, many of whom had large followings. So a curious compromise was reached. The newly standardized opera seria remained free of any taint of comedy, but little comic plays with music were shown during the intermissions. These, naturally enough, were called intermezzos (“intermission plays”). They were usually in two little acts (called parte, “parts”) to supply the intermissions required by a typical three-act opera seria, and almost always featured two squabbling characters, a soprano and a bass, these being the most typical ranges for buffi. Often enough they were at first loosely based on the comedies of Molière or his many imitators.

The first set of intermezzos for which a libretto survives was given in Venice in 1706 (it was called Frappolone e Florinetta after its bickering pair). Immediately specialist librettists and composers sprang up for the genre, and it assumed a very particular style. It is that style, which directly reflected the strange nature of the relationship between the intermezzos and their host operas, that played such a colossal—and entirely unforeseen—role in the evolution of eighteenth-century music. We have already seen some of the unforeseen products of that evolution. Their existence is the famous “problem” we have been addressing. Here, at last, are the beginnings of a solution to it, based on recent investigations and speculations by a number of scholars, particularly Piero Weiss and Wye J. Allanbrook, who have made progress at filling the black hole.19

The first big international hit scored by an intermezzo composer was Il marito giocatore e la moglie bacchettona (“The gambler husband and the domineering wife”) by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676–1760), a Florentine composer active in Bologna who was even older than Bach the Father, and who actually spent most of his life composing opera seria to lofty “Arcadian” libretti. The set contains three intermezzos, each depicting an episode in the rocky married life of the title characters: in the first, the wife, exasperated at the husband’s behavior, resolves to divorce him; in the second the husband, disguised as the judge at the divorce court, promises to find in the wife’s favor if she will sleep with him and, after she agrees, reveals himself and throws her out of the house; in the third, the wife comes back disguised as a mendicant pilgrim and soothes the husband into a reconciliation.

First performed in 1715 (as Bajocco e Serpilla, after the names of the title characters), Orlandini’s intermezzos made the rounds of all the Italian theaters as actual intermission features, and, performed in sequence as a sort of three-act comic opera in their own right, conquered foreign capitals as well, reaching London (as The Gamester) in 1737, and Paris (as Il giocatore) as late as 1752. Everywhere it made a sensation. Perhaps the aria in which the distraught husband hurls imprecations at his wife will show why (Ex. 8-10).

In keeping with the strictest Aristotelian principles, according to which tragedy portrayed “people better than ourselves” and comedy “people worse than ourselves,” this aria is “low” music with a perfect vengeance.20 Everything about it is impoverished. The texture is reduced to unisons. The vocal line is reduced to barely articulate ejaculations of rage. The melody is reduced to asthmatic gasping and panting with insistently repeated cadences that prevent phrases from achieving any length at all. The structure is reduced to a patchwork or mosaic of these little sniffles, snorts, and wheezes. It might be thought a mere parody, and so the music of the early intermezzos is often described. And yet it came, particularly to foreign audiences, as a revelation.

Intermission Plays

fig. 8-8 “Instrument making” (Lutherie) from Diderot’s Encyclopédie.

Intermission Plays

ex. 8-10 Bajocco’s aria from Giuseppe Maria Orlandinis Il giocatore

One of the most precious testimonials to that revelation came from the pen of Denis Diderot, the famous French encyclopedist, in his satire Rameau’s Nephew, written early in the 1760s, while the elder Rameau was still alive.

From the mouth of this fictional character (albeit based on a real person, a nephew of the great French composer who plied a modest trade as a music teacher and who had a considerable reputation in society as a “character”), Diderot voiced the widespread amazement of French artists and thinkers at the art of the buffi: “What realism! What expression!” he exclaims. And to those who might scoff—“Expression of what?!”—he spells it out with ardor bordering on anger, and with characteristically bizarre imagery:

It is the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line, and these moments should tumble out quickly one after the other, phrases must be short and the meaning self-contained, so that the musician can utilize the whole and each part, varying it by omitting a word or repeating it, adding a missing word, turning it this way and that like a polyp, but without destroying it.21

What the fictionalized nephew of Rameau is describing here is nothing other than the revolutionary new style of musical discourse we began investigating with the music of Bach’s sons: short phrases that are musically and expressively self-contained so that they may be balanced and contrasted, so that they can express emotions the way they really present themselves in the real physical—or “animal”—world: the natural world.

The strange reference to the “polyp” is the most telling touch of all. In the eighteenth century the word referred not to a tumorous growth but to a class of marine animals that included the octopus and the squid—animals with soft, amorphous bodies and many feet. They were a symbol of changeability: an association, as Allanbrook has pointed out, that resonates with the more familiar word “protean,” also nautical, which comes from Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea in Greek mythology, who could change himself into any shape he pleased.

It was its protean changeability—the very quality we have already isolated as the essential, inexplicable newness of mid-century instrumental music—that, coupled with its freshness and its elemental simplicity, gave the lowly comic music of the intermezzos its air of perfect naturalness and made it so influential. In an age that still regarded the nature and purpose of art as imitation of nature, this could be viewed as an improved art. Comparing Orlandini’s imitation of rage with Handel’s in Vivi, tiranno! (Ex. 7-1), we can be struck anew by its directness, compared with which Handel’s elaborate melismas on the emblematic word furore can seem the height of stilted “baroque” contrivance.

The grand Handelian rhetoric stood revealed as the product of labored, unnatural artifice. Orlandini’s simple syllabic setting with its frequent repeated notes and wide vocal leaps was “the animal cry of passion,” intensified by an orchestral accompaniment that in its close tracking of the vocal part seemed to mirror not only the singing but even the gestures of the actor. The art of tragedy was the high rhetorical style. The low art of comedy was born of nature. It was “true.” The music of change in the eighteenth century—Heartz’s “main evolution”—was the music of comedy. What we have already traced has been its transfer into the wordless medium, which it transformed into another medium of nature and truth. The later eighteenth-century style was in effect the comic style.


(19) See Piero Weiss, “Baroque Opera and the Two Verisimilitudes,” in Music and Civilization: Essays in Honor of Paul Henry Lang, eds. E. Strainchamps and M. R. Maniates (New York: Norton, 1984), pp. 117–26; idem, “La diffusione del repertorio operistico nell’Italia del Settecento: Il caso dell’opera buffa,” in S. Davoli, ed., Civiltà teatrale e Settecento emiliano (Bologna, 1986), pp. 241–56; idem, “Ancora sulle origini dell’opera comica: Il linguaggio,” Studi pergolesiani/Pergolesi Studies I (1986): 124–48; and especially Wye J. Allanbrook, “Comic Flux and Comic Precision,” and “A Voiceless Mimesis,” lectures delivered at the University of California at Berkeley, in the fall of 1994 while this book was being drafted, forthcoming as The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music (Ernest Bloch Lectures, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press).

(20) Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Kenneth A. Telford (Chicago: Regnery, 1961), pp. 10–29.

(21) Denis Diderot, Le Neveu de Rameau, trans. Wye J. Allanbrook in “Comic Flux and Comic Precision.”

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 The Comic Style. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08007.xml