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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones
Richard Taruskin

Even as he denounces the cabaletta, Arist makes an important point about it when he notes its (to him) offensive dance rhythm. An écossaise (in German schottische, “Scottish”) was the early nineteenth-century version of the contredanse, by 1813 a ballroom favorite. So was the polonaise (“Polish”), a strutting processional dance in triple meter and another characteristic cabaletta rhythm. The use of ballroom dances as aria models had a considerable history, especially in Mozart. But it was in Mozart's comic operas that he relied on the practice, not his serious ones. The infiltration of serious opera by the rhythms of the ballroom was only one of the ways in which by Rossini's time the serious had adopted—and adapted to its purposes—the resources of the comic.

To say this is by no means to imply that serious opera had become comic, or in any way less serious. It had, however, become more “realistic” within the admittedly unrealistic terms of romanticism. (And from the perspective of a Hoffmann or an Odoyevsky, of course, that made it less “spiritual.”) It was more concerned, in the words of Wye J. Allanbrook, to “move audiences through representations of their own humanity,” and playing subliminally on their memories of social dancing was a potent way of achieving that.22 The other all-important resource that serious opera borrowed from the comic in the nineteenth century was the ensemble piece—at first in finales, then in introductions and finales, and finally wherever the plot reached a crux.

This, too, had nothing to do with comedy, but with “realism”: the possibility of integrating full-blown lyricism with interaction among characters, which is to say with dramatic action. In the nineteenth century, then, serious or tragic opera achieved what the comic opera had achieved in the eighteenth: the reconciliation of dramatic and musical values, so that they could be integrated in a single continuity rather than spotlit in an “artificial” alternation.

But of course words like “realism” and “artificial” have to be put in quotes in discussions like this because opera (like any medium of artistic representation) is artificial and conventional by definition. What appears realistic is merely whatever artifice or convention happens to be accepted as that by a given audience. Dancelike arias and ensembles no more resemble real-life behavior than do alternations of continuo recitative and da capo aria. The most that can be said in favor of “true realism” is that the newer techniques enabled a somewhat more evenly unfolding action, so that operatic events took place in something more nearly resembling “real time” than before.

Another change that to us may signal greater realism is the gradual abandonment in the 1830s of the heroic role en travesti. Men played men and women women; but the soprano lead was usually given a confidante sung by a lower-voiced woman—a contralto or a “mezzo-soprano” (to use a term coined in connection with the change) so that audiences could continue as before to enjoy virtuoso female duet singing, the brilliant cadenzas in thirds now representing devoted friendship rather than erotic love. But all of these modifications are matters of degree, not kind; and the degree, while crucial enough to matter (and to be in its time an object of controversy and acrimony), is rather small.

The idea that “men are men and women women” might seem to have come late to opera, but in fact (as some recent cultural historians have argued) it arrived there no later than in many other areas of nineteenth-century thinking and doing. Gender identities, as categories incorporating and regulating both biological and social roles, seem to have hardened around the same time that national identities, and many other forms of personal identity, took on their modern definitions. In fact, the development of modern voice categories in nineteenth-century opera is an excellent illustration of the process described by Michel Foucault (1926–84), a French historian of ideas, whereby ars erotica, erotic art (or sexual artifice), was replaced by scientia sexualis, the science (or true knowledge) of sex.23

Only since the nineteenth century, in this view, have gender roles and their attendant behaviors been as well defined, as standardized, and (consequently) as well policed as they are today. Another symptom of the change was the coining of the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual”—terms that radically dichotomized, and set in opposition, modes of sexual behavior that had formerly coexisted and mixed more freely, especially among the aristocracy. Matters that had formerly been regarded as varieties of social behavior were redefined as matters of natural endowment or identity. As Foucault put it, it was nineteenth-century society, and no earlier one, that “set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex.”24

This development, abetted as much by the nineteenth-century scientific revolution (which envisioned the possibility of a single, all-encompassingly “true” representation of nature) as it was by the rise of “Victorian” morality (whereby the behavior of the middle class was accepted as a social norm for all classes), made it harder for nineteenth-century audiences to accept soprano voices in heroic roles. The voice range could no longer be separated from the rest of the “female” constitution, nor could it credibly represent a character type that did not accord with Victorian notions of femininity, firmly identified with an ideal of bourgeois domesticity that would not be effectively challenged until past the middle of the twentieth century.


(22) Wye J. Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 16.

(23) See M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 57ff.

(24) Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 69.

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. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001006.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 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001006.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 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001006.xml