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 Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones
Richard Taruskin

Not so the seria. Under the impact of romanticism, serious opera flowered anew, and again Rossini was at the forefront, although this aspect of his historical contribution is less evident in the context of today's performing repertoire. It may be argued, in fact, that the most fertile articles in the Code Rossini were those that pertained to the serious aria (or more precisely and to the point, the scena ed aria that replaced the recitative-plus-aria unit of old) and those that pertained to the dramatic ensemble, imported from the opera buffa to serve serious or tragic aims. These were crucial renovations. They gave serious opera a new lease on life, transforming it into opera as we know it today.

Once again it should be emphasized that neither these nor any Rossinian novelties were his wholly original invention. They were newly standardized and redeployed adaptations from previous practice. One can find them foreshadowed in the work of many composers, including Mozart. But beginning with Rossini, opera became unthinkable without them.

The Rossinian serious aria (or duet) consisted of two main sections in contrasting tempos—the cantabile, or lyric effusion, and the cabaletta, or brilliant conclusion. The etymology of cabaletta, a term first encountered around 1820, is uncertain. It may be a corruption of the Iberian cobla, meaning stanza, for it usually consisted of a short stanza strophically repeated either in whole or in part, with an orchestral ritornello in between the repetitions and a brilliant coda, all of which amounted to an eager invitation to the singer to embroider away. Indeed, the double-aria conception is a quintessentially singerly one. It allowed the virtuoso to show off everything from beauty of tone and breath control (in the cantabile) to euphoric fireworks (in the cabaletta).

For Italian opera, especially serious opera, remained a singers’ showcase. The new style of aria did serve new dramaturgical purposes and meet new dramaturgical criteria by allowing, through its new emphasis on contrast, for more action to be accommodated within what had formerly been static “aria time.” When preceded by an orchestral introduction and an accompanied recitative, when fitted out with a turn of plot (often involving the chorus) between the cantabile and the cabaletta to motivate the latter's incandescence, or when enhanced by what were called pertichini (brief interventions by other characters in dialogue with the soloist), the aria could be built up into a whole scena, or dramatic scene, with a self-contained dramatic trajectory. But it served old purposes, too, and better than ever, since every aria became a varied demonstration of traditional vocal prowess, giving the audience that much more of what they had come to bask in.

The item that put this new style of aria permanently on the map and made it de rigueur for perhaps fifty years to come was “Di tanti palpiti” (“So many heart throbs”), the hero's cavatina (entrance aria) from Tancredi, the other colossal hit of the miraculous year 1813, and the most famous aria Rossini ever wrote. (As was often the case, the piece is named after its cabaletta, the most memorable part.) Years later, looking back on his career and feigning shame at his success (all the better to mock the pretensions of the great), Rossini thanked his publisher for a gift by abasing himself as the “author of the too-famous cavatina ‘Di tanti palpiti.’”17 Too famous, indeed. So completely had it come to symbolize Italian opera and all its values that, as long as it remained current on the recital stage, parodies of it were a universally recognized code among German composers and their audiences for triviality, flightiness, and inanity. As late as 1868, Wagner quoted it (and surely expected his audience to notice it) in the bleating Tailors’ Chorus from Die Meistersinger (Ex. 1-8). What could better recommend it to our attention?

Tancredi, a “heroic musical drama,” is in its externals a quasi-historical opera of the old school, even down to the casting of the title role, a valiant knight-crusader, for a so-called musico—a contralto “in trousers.” (See Fig. 1-6; a generation or two earlier, the role would have been composed for a castrato.) In other ways, the libretto substantiates the frequent claim (or complaint) that romantic opera amounts in essence to a constant rehash of the myth of Romeo and Juliet: “star-cross'd lovers.” The title character, the exiled heir to the throne of Syracuse, and his beloved Amenaide are the children of warring clans. In Voltaire's drama, on which the libretto was based, mutual suspicion prevents their union, and the drama ends with the hero's death on the battlefield. In the first version of the opera, a happy ending was substituted. Later, Rossini retrofitted the last act with a tragic finale closer to the original (but also with a love duet, otherwise lacking in the opera). Nineteenth-century audiences preferred the first version; twentieth-century revivals, mainly instigated by scholars, have favored the more serious tragic ending.18

Heart Throbs

ex. 1-8 Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger, Act III, Tailors’ Chorus (“mit Bockstriller”)

Tancredi's cavatina (act I, scene 5) marks his first appearance in the opera that bears his name. He has just returned to Syracuse in disguise, torn between his love for Amenaide and his duty to his father, whose rule is threatened by Amenaide's father. The orchestral Andante that opens the scene (Ex. 1-9a) is one of Rossini's characteristic tone-paintings, full of nature sounds that conjure up the beautiful landscape to which Tancredi addresses his first words of accompanied recitative: “O sweet, ungrateful native land, at last I return to you!” The accompaniment to the recitative is full of orchestral and harmonic color, both of which change subtly to register the hero's fugitive moods. A switch, first to the relative minor and then to the subdominant, accompanies thoughts of Amenaide, at first painful, then sweet, finally resolute.

Heart Throbs

fig. 1-6 Marietta Alboni (with moustache) in the trousers role of Arsace and Giulia Grisi as the title character in a revival of Rossini's Semiramide (St. Petersburg, 1844).

The cantabile section, “Tu che accendi questo core” (“You who set this heart of mine afire,” Ex. 1-9b), ends with multiple cues for embellishment: the markings a piacere (“at pleasure,” i.e., do whatever you want) in the vocal part and colla parte (“stay with the soloist”) in the accompaniment. The fermata means “cadenza, please,” just as it did in the days of the da capo aria. If the notes on the page are recognizable at this point, the singer is not doing her job. The same goes double, of course, for the repeated strains in the cabaletta.

Heart Throbs

ex. 1-9a Gioacchino Rossini, Tancredi, Act II, “Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti,” orchestral introdution

Heart Throbs

ex. 1-9b Gioacchino Rossini Tancredi, Act II, “Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti,” cantabile

Heart ThrobsHeart Throbs

ex. 1-9c Gioacchino Rossini, Tancredi, Act II, “Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti,” cabaletta

What made this particular cabaletta such a favorite? One thing must have been the surprising modulation to the flat mediant (A♭ major) just where the first stanza seemed about to make its cadence (Ex. 1-9c). Not only did the little jolt give the audience a pleasurable frisson, it also functioned as a sort of FOP, requiring a modulation (via F minor) back to the tonic for the repetition of the opening line. The last dominant chord carries another fermata, requiring another cadenza: the harmonic structure and the vocal virtuosity work in tandem here to increase the satisfaction of return. And of course, the effect also plays upon—and plays out—the meaning of the words in the context of the action: the whole aria is about returning, and the very words that had launched the harmonic digression were “mi rivedrai, ti rivedrò,” “you will see me again, and I will see you.” The quick passaggii on the last page (Ex. 1-9d) were, as always, only a springboard for improvised delirium.

But such explanations are rationalized reflections and, to the extent of their rationalization, false to an experience whose essence is sensuous immediacy, a sense that the music is playing directly on the nerves and calling up the listener's own memories of the emotions portrayed. As the French novelist Stendhal put it in his Life of Rossini (1824), “without the experience, or the memory of the experience, of the madness of love, as love is known in the happy countries of the South, it is quite impossible to interpret the phrase mi rivedrai, ti rivedrò.” Stendhal's Life is far more than a biography. (As a biography it is quite useless in fact, being full of errors and fabrications.) It is a great work of music criticism, as crucial in its way, and within its Franco-Italian milieu, as E.T.A. Hoffmann's writings on Beethoven for an understanding of what—and how much!—the music of the early nineteenth century meant to its hearers. What Rossini's contagious heart throbs meant to Stendhal, or stimulated in him, was a great liberating impetuosity of soul that contrasted utterly with the (as he saw it) pompous and vapid spirituality touted in the Protestant north, where manners were restrained and souls unmusical. Pitting Stendhal against Hoffmann is perhaps the best way of encompassing the increasingly split world of music in the early romantic era, with its nation-based esthetics and its hardened antagonisms.

As the quotation about “Di tanti palpiti” already shows, Stendhal used Rossini (just as Hoffmann used Beethoven, just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had used Pergolesi) as a springboard for national stereotyping. The passage continues, even more pointedly:

The nations of the North might devour twenty Treatises on the Art of Poetry as learned as that of La Harpe [Jean-François de La Harpe (1739–1803), French literary authority and theorist of “classicism”], and still have no understanding why the words mi rivedrai precede the words ti rivedrò. If any of our fashionable critics could understand Italian, they would surely detect a lack of breeding, if not indeed a total contempt for the delicacies of social intercourse in Tancredi's behavior towards Amenaide!19

Heart Throbs

ex. 1-9d Gioacchino Rossini, Tancredi, Act II, “Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti,” coda

Beyond that, Rossini's inimitable talent is said to reside in his plainness and clarity, in the indescribable rightness of his portrayal of things as they are, a rightness that silences criticism. Nowhere is this rightness better exemplified than in “Di tanti palpiti.” “What is there to be said about this superb cantilena?” Stendhal asks, using the fancy Italian word for song. “Talking about it to those who already know it would seem to me to be as absurd as talking about it to those who have never heard it—if indeed, in the whole of Europe there may still be people who have never heard it!” And in a footnote that drips with sarcasm, seemingly pointed directly at writers like Hoffmann who wax endlessly about the transcendent and the ineffable, he adds, “O happy lands, within whose boundaries there is known no stronger guarantee of a reputation for sublime profundity than a talent for being obscure and incomprehensible!” Behind this there lurks once again the figure of Beethoven, still alive at the time of writing, and already cast as the antipode to Rossini. In another passage, Stendhal removes all doubt that, compared with his idol, Beethoven and all that he stands for, is… well, limited. “Human emotions,” he declares, “tend to remain obstinately tepid when their reactions are interrupted by the necessity of choosing between two different categories of pleasure, each of a different quality.” And he illustrates his assertion with a remarkable comparison:

If I were to feel the urge to listen to a resplendent display of pure harmony, I should go and hear a symphony by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven; but if I were to desire melody, I should turn to Il matrimonio segreto or to Il re Teodoro [The Secret Marriage and King Theodore, operas by Cimarosa and Paisiello respectively]. If I wanted to enjoy both these pleasures simultaneously (insofar as it is physically possible to do so) I should pay a visit to La Scala [the Milan opera house] for a performance of Don Giovanni or Tancredi. But I confess that, if I were to plunge any deeper than this into the black night of harmony, music would soon lose the overwhelming charm which it holds for me.20

How might Hoffmann have answered this? It would be easy enough to guess, but as it happens we can do better. Hoffmann himself never issued any comparable pronouncement about Rossini; but a writer known as “the Russian Hoffmann” did, and did it with specific reference to “Di tanti palpiti.” He was Vladimir Odoyevsky, a Moscow aristocrat who published novellas and fantastic sketches very much like Hoffmann's, and who (again like Hoffmann) was an enthusiastic musical dilettante with some decent compositions to his credit.

In 1823, aged nineteen, Odoyevsky published a satirical novella that contained a scene at the opera drawn pretty much from life. A troupe of Italian singers had come to town under the direction of Luigi Zamboni, a famous basso buffo who had “created” (that is, sung the first performance of) the role of Figaro in Rossini's Barbiere. A Count Gluposilin (the name means “Strong-and-stupid”) is holding forth to young Arist (“The Best”), the first-person narrator, on the merits of Rossini during a performance of Tancredi. (They listen to the arias, converse during the recitatives.) “Di tanti palpiti,” the moment everyone has been waiting for, proves too much for Arist:

—“What!” I shouted, “Tancredi is singing an écossaise, and a pretty poor one at that! And everyone is delighted with it??”

—“Calm down,” Gluposilin remonstrated, on the verge of anger, “you want to quarrel with the whole world. Don't you know, kind sir, this aria is so good that every gondolier in Italy is singing it!”

— “I quite agree,” I answered him coolly. “This is a fine aria for a gondolier; but for Tancredi it won't do at all. Do Mozart and Méhul write their operas like that? With what simplicity and strength they depict the slightest tinge of character! You won't find Tancredi expressing his joys and sorrows like any old gondolier with them!”

— “Enough already! Forgive me,” Gluposilin insisted, “but this aria is first-rate! It's beyond argument, beyond argument!”…I had my revenge on Gluposilin. For the whole duration of the performance I tormented him with my doubts. When, for example, he went into ecstasies at roulades and trills, I stopped him cold with the remark that they were being done to the words Io tremo (“I tremble”), i miei tor menti (“my torments”), il mio dolente cor (“my grieving heart”). Another time I pointed out to him that Argirio really shouldn't be using a dance tune to tell Amenaide Non ti son più genitor (“I'm no longer a father to you”); and so on. I spent the evening angry at myself for understanding Italian, angry at the singers for their distinct enunciation; it took away half my pleasure.21


(17) Rossini to Tito Ricordi (1865); quoted in Gossett, “Rossini,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XXI (2nd ed.), p. 738.

(18) See Philip Gossett, The Tragic Finale of ‘Tancredi’/Il finale tragico del Tancredi di Rossini (Pesaro: Fondazione Gioacchino Rossini, 1977).

(19) Stendhal, Life of Rossini, trans. Richard N. Coe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972), p. 58.

(20) Stendhal, Life of Rossini, p. 128.

(21) Vladimir Odoyevsky, “Dni dosad” (Vexing Days, 1823), in T. Livanova and V. Protopopov, Opernaya kritika v Rossii, Vol. I (Moscow: Muzïka, 1966), pp. 312–13.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001005.xml