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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

The great masterwork of the intermezzo genre—if such a contradiction in terms can be admitted—was La serva padrona (“The servant mistress”) by the precocious Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–36), a Neapolitan, who died of consumption at the age of 26 and who became, for that reason among others, a figure of enduring romantic fame. In his short life (with an active career lasting only five years) Pergolesi managed to compose ten works for the stage, of which four were opere serie (two to texts by Metastasio) and three were two-part intermezzos.

La serva padrona, written expressly to be played between the acts of one of Pergolesi’s own serie, was first performed with it at the Teatro San Bartolomeo on 5 September 1733 in honor of the birthday of Elisabeth Christina, the consort of the Austrian Emperor Charles VI, then nominal ruler of Naples. The evening’s main event, Il prigioniero superbo (“The proud prisoner”), was soon forgotten. The intermezzo, however, quickly became world famous, at first thanks to performances by traveling troupes of buffi who within ten years of its first performance took it all around Italy and as far away as Munich, Dresden, and even Hamburg in the north of Germany.

By the end of the 1740s it had been heard in Paris, and by the end of the ‘50s it had conquered London, St. Petersburg, and Madrid. And as we can tell from its printed librettos, it was (with a single main exception) still being performed then pretty much intact, the way it was originally written. That was extremely unusual for any opera in the eighteenth century, but particularly for a “low” piece. It means that the work was already regarded as a classic, a work exemplifying its type to perfection. And so it remains: La serva padrona is still occasionally performed and recorded as a two-act opera, the earliest comic opera in the standard repertory.

Its plot and cast of characters are of the usual kind. There are two sung roles, Serpina (soprano) and her master and guardian Uberto (bass), plus a mute role (Vespone, another servant) who gets to laugh once. The importance of conventions even to this supposedly “natural” genre is epitomized by the heroine’s name.

The “War of The Buffoons”

fig. 8-9a Caricature, ca. 1734, of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, by Pier Leone Ghezzi. This is the only extant depiction of the composer from life.

The “War of The Buffoons”

fig. 8-9b Late eighteenth-century portrait of Pergolesi, done after his early death had made him a figure of romantic legend.

Like Serpilla in Il marito giocatore it comes from serpe (snake), identifying Serpina as another “sharp-tongued” female, a stock figure ultimately derived from the old improvised commedia dell’arte, the traditional theater of masks and clowns. Her sharp tongue is the source of a great deal of the fast-paced patter that made the comic style so irresistible.

Both scenes contain little arias for each of the characters and a culminating duet. In the first, the master frets and stews over the maid’s insolent behavior, finally ordering Vespone to go out and find him a wife. Serpina orders Uberto to marry her; he won’t hear of it; she locks the doors to prevent Vespone from leaving, and the two of them erupt in sarcastic bickering. In the second, Serpina disguises Vespone as “Capitan Tempesta” (“Captain Storm”), her threatening bully of a fiancé, who is demanding from Uberto an impossible dowry. The only way out of a fight with the captain, she insinuates, is for him to agree to marry her himself. After a lot of coaxing and some agonized reflection, he gives in; Vespone removes his disguise; Uberto’s been had, but he’s happy. The newly engaged couple sing a duet of reconciliation.

Ex. 8-11 contains a sampling from the second half of the second intermezzo, beginning with Serpina’s coaxing aria, “A Serpina penserete” (“Think of Serpina!”). She addresses Uberto to the strains of a melting larghetto; the repetitive bass, marking at least two cadences every measure, “truly” mimics the affection of cajolery. In between her approaches to Uberto, however, Serpina addresses us, the spectators, through ironic asides, set as perky little jigs of joy, in which she throws off her mask and revels in the effect she is having (Ex. 8-11a). This was a new dramatic situation for opera, and a new musical effect: contrast as irony—the very essence of comedy—replaces the “unity of affect” in which the opera seria had found its version of truth. Here we see the psychological, dramatic, and representational roots of the contrast-and-balance technique that became the universal stylistic medium of art music by century’s end.

Uberto’s little “tizzy aria,” “Son imbrogliato io già” (“I’m really all snarled up”), is also full of irony. There is only one meter and tempo this time, but the whole joke of the piece lies in the contrast between his opening “fret motive” in eighth notes at a breakneck, practically unsingable tempo—a rapid-patter effect that became the very hallmark of the basso buffo—and his periodic attempts to take himself in hand, intoning in stately whole notes, “Uberto, pensa a te” (Uberto, think of yourself!), as if in ironic answer to Serpina. At those moments, the music slips into rather “distant” parallel-minor tonalities—another jokey contrast that became a standard operating procedure by century’s end. A tantalizing question is whether there is any dramatic significance in the fact that the drolly repetitive cadential bass that underlies Uberto’s fretting is the same as the one that underlaid Serpina’s blandishments in the preceding aria. Or was it just a cliché of the style—one of the allurements that made it so popular and, for all its levity, so weighty in history?

The final lovers’ duet, with its adorably silly imitations of Serpina’s little heart-hammer and Uberto’s thumping heart-drum, was originally composed for another opera of Pergolesi’s—his last one, a full-length commedia musicale called Il Flaminio. Its passages in parallel thirds (that is, tenths) served as well as the original finale to symbolize the “harmonious” resolution of the little domestic farce, and by the 1750s it had already become customary to replace the original giguelike finale with this no less affectionate, but funnier, duet.

The “War of The Buffoons”

ex. 8-11a Giovanni Pergolesi, La serva padrona, Act II, Serpina’s aria, mm. 8–18

The “War of The Buffoons”

ex. 8-11b Giovanni Pergolesi, La serva padrona, Act II, Uberto’s aria, mm. 12–15, 31–39

This slightly revised version of La serva padrona was the one brought to Paris, along with Orlandini’s Giocatore and a dozen other intermezzos and newfangled comic operas, by a troupe of buffi under the direction of a canny impresario named Eustachio Bambini, for a run beginning in August 1752. The furor they touched off with their performances, and the debates to which it led, had extraordinary repercussions in the French capital, and in all of its cultural satellites both in France and abroad. The so-called Querelle des Bouffons (“press controversy about the buffi” or, more literally, “War of the Buffoons”), with its stellar cast of characters, presaged not only musical but also social and political change.

The “War of The Buffoons”

fig. 8-10 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Press wars had always been a feature of France’s lively intellectual life. There had been one only shortly before between the “Lullistes” and the “Ramistes,” proponents of Lully’s and of Rameau’s operas. And there would be later ones too (including one to which we will have to pay attention, between the “Gluckistes” and the “Piccinnistes”). Always there were political and social subtexts, because under an absolute monarchy, where political, religious, and social issues could not be debated openly, they had to go underground, into highly suggestive and allusive art and literary criticism, among other things, for discussion. Such covert argumentation, often called “Aesopian discourse” because of the unstated but obvious “moral,” has been a feature of modern intellectual life in totalitarian societies ever since. A great deal of music criticism—and of music, too—has carried hidden messages since the eighteenth century, which, precisely because they are necessarily hidden, are ever subject to conflicting interpretation.

Diderot’s pamphlet, Rameau’s Nephew, which has already been quoted, may be viewed as an aftershock of the Querelle des Bouffons. One of the most powerful salvos was fired off by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in a scathing “Letter on French Music,” published in November 1753, which elicited more than thirty rejoinders. Rousseau gave no quarter, ridiculing the tragédies lyriques performed by the royal musical establishment as stilted, labored, devoid of naturalness, ugly in harmony, and ungainly in prosody (text-setting). He went so far as to maintain that there was not and could not be such a thing as a truly French opera, for the phrase, he asserted, was a veritable contradiction in terms.

An enthusiastic if rudimentarily trained amateur composer, Rousseau had geared up for his attack with a one-act “intermède” of his own, Le devin du village (“The Village Soothsayer”), composed in obvious emulation of the Italian intermezzos and performed at Fontainebleau, a Paris suburb, on 18 October 1752, only a couple of months after Bambini’s buffi had made their début. Although written to a French text (his own), and in a style that recalled French folksongs (pastourelles) more than anything Italian, this was nevertheless “comic” music, intended as an object lesson to his musical countrymen.

Its typical pastoral plot, concerning the triumph of “natural” rustic virtue over courtly sophistication, was a somewhat more didactic version of the usual intermezzo triumph of pluck over rank. But it was Rousseau’s only successful opera (previous attempts to write tragédies lyriques having brought him nothing but ridicule). It played both in France and abroad until the end of the century and even a little beyond. Despite its implied politics, its catchy tunes even made it a court favorite for a while. After hearing it, Louis XV was observed by his palace staff tunelessly humming the opening number (Ex. 8-12) for the rest of the day.

But Rousseau was much more than a musician. His appeals to natural virtue and his denigrations of the traditional musical repertoire of the royal court were linked: both were veiled expressions of his philosophical and political hostility to the monarchical order. Diderot, too, expressed otherwise unprintable liberal ideas through his fictionalized “nephew of Rameau,” who wished to cast his detestable uncle’s work wholesale into oblivion while reveling in “the modern style” of the Italians.

For “modern style” here, we can read “modern philosophy” between the lines. For the likes of Rousseau and Diderot, the Querelle des Bouffons was a covert forum for disseminating the complex of ideas now collectively referred to as “Enlightened.” Rousseau came close to making all of this explicit in his Confessions, where he gloated that Bambini’s buffi “struck a blow from which French opera never recovered.” It could be claimed with equal (imperfect but pithy) justice that the Querelle des Bouffons, a long generation before the French revolution, struck the beginnings of a blow from which not only the tragédie lyrique but the absolutist monarchy itself never fully recovered.

The “War of The Buffoons”

ex. 8-12 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le devin du village, no. 1, “J’ai perdu mon serviteur”

But were Diderot’s and Rousseau’s reasons for welcoming the comic style the same as the average composer’s? The average keyboard player’s? The average concertgoer’s or music buyer’s? To what degree did the spread of the “comic style” in music coincide with, or even abet, the spread of Enlightened philosophy? Did the philosophy carry the music in tow? Or did the music carry the philosophy? These are questions that can hardly be answered with any precision. But the reality of the connection between the music and the philosophy, avidly acknowledged and as avidly resisted at the time, can hardly be denied.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08008.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08008.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08008.xml