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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones
Richard Taruskin

To see the new serious opera in its fullest flower, we can turn to Rossini's successors: Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35), who was to the early 1830s what Rossini had been to the 1820s, and the somewhat late-blooming Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), who enjoyed a like preeminence in the decade 1835–45. In viewing their works we will see the coming of a truly romantic temper to the opera seria, and (partly for that reason) we will be dealing with operas that survive in active repertory, unlike those of Rossini, who is represented on today's operatic stage by his comic operas alone. More specifically, we will see how the cantabile-cabaletta format was continually expanded until it could encompass long scenes packed with highly diversified action.

Bellini, the son and grandson of composers, received intensive musical instruction from the Mozartean age of four, but did not write his first opera until his twenty-fifth year. He made up rapidly for lost time, even if he never quite developed Rossinian facility. By the time of his death, two months before his thirty-fourth birthday (more shades of Mozart), he had completed ten operas. At least four—I Capuleti e i Montecchi (“The Capulets and Montagues,” 1830), La sonnambula (“The maiden sleepwalker,” 1831), Norma (1831), and I puritani (“The Puritans,” 1835)—have entered the permanent Italian repertory, while the two 1831 operas are international standards.

Bel Canto

fig. 1-7 Vincenzo Bellini, anonymous portrait at the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan.

Eight of Bellini's operas were written in collaboration with Felice Romani (1788–1865), the leading librettist of the period, whose eighty-odd scripts were set by dozens of composers from Rossini in 1813 to the Austrian piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg in 1855, some of them many times over. With Bellini, though, Romani formed the closest working relationship of his career; their partnership merits remembrance on a par with Lully/Quinault, Gluck/Calzabigi, and Mozart/Da Ponte. Like the others, the Bellini/Romani partnership created a type that defined a phase of operatic history.

That type is sometimes rather vaguely called bel canto. All that the term means is “fine singing,” and it has been applied to many things, starting as far back as the Venetian opera of the 1630s. The application is always retrospective, however; bel canto is always something that has been lost—a golden age. The application to the operas of Bellini's time, the one that has remained current in loose common parlance, was made by none other than the sixty-five-year-old Rossini, in a conversation that supposedly took place after dinner at his Paris residence one evening in 1858.

“Alas for us, we have lost our native bel canto,” Rossini's interlocutor, a wealthy amateur, reported him as saying. The loss consists “of three elements: first, the Instrument—the voice—the Stradivarius, if you like; second, Technique—that is to say, the means of using it; and third, Style, the ingredients of which are taste and feeling.” Such a loss can only portend debasement of all culture. The first symptom, as always, was contempt for honest labor.

Bel Canto

ex. 1-10a Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Scene e cavatina (Act I, scene 5), Parlante: “In pagine di morte”

The “Stradivarius,” Rossini remarked (continuing the analogy with a priceless violin), used to be manufactured (he was referring, of course, to castrati), but now had to be cultivated—a task that began by assigning to the pupil, a child of no more than twelve, a strict regime of “guttural contractions,” soundless throat exercises, and this “purely aphonic gymnastic,” he noted, “could go on for months and months.” What was sought next was “equality of timbre over the whole range of the organ, equalization of the registers.” This took years, and no music was involved, only scales.

Bel Canto

ex. 1-10b Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Scene e cavatina (Act I, scene 5), Cavatina con coro (“Casta diva,” beginning)

Technique was acquired by singing exercises. Every voice teacher had his “page”—a set of studies or vocalises that imparted correct vowel placement and agility, leading to facility in gruppetti (fast ornaments), roulades (fast scales and arpeggios), trills, and the like. Typically, a student worked on the “page” for three years, and then another three were spent in “putting into practice as a whole,” or in combinations, “everything that had been studied in detail.” “Then,” according to Rossini, “at the end of a final year, the teacher could say proudly to that student (who had scarcely tried out a cavatina in class): ‘Go now, get on with you. You can sing whatever you wish.”’

But not even then was training over. Style had to be acquired before a singer dared perform before a paying audience. It meant listening to great singers and imitating them. For “style is traditions, and the secrets of those traditions could be surprised by the young novice only among great singers, the perfect models consecrated by fame.” Traditions, Rossini continued,

elude scholastic instruction. Only the performing model, taken from life, can inculcate and transmit them. So that if those who possess the great, true traditions disappear without leaving disciples on their level, their art vanishes, dies.

And of course, that is precisely what had happened. “Today there is no such school, there are neither models nor interpreters, for which reason not a single voice of the new generation is capable of rendering in bel canto the aria ‘Casta diva.’”25

Inevitably, Rossini had named Bellini's greatest and most famous aria, Norma's cavatina in the opera that bears her name. And what was most telling was the fact that he referred to it not by the opening words of the cabaletta, but by those of the cantabile, for that was precisely the difference between the opera seria of Rossini's generation and the romantic melodramma of Bellini's. The great music now was the slow music, a music rarefied into fantastic melodie lunghe, lunghe, lunghe (“long, long, long melodies,” as an admiring Verdi called them),26 for composing which Bellini had an unparalleled gift. There was nothing like them in Rossini. The Bellinian cantabile was music that, like romantic music anywhere, sought to plumb subjective depths and scale transcendent heights.

Bel Canto

fig. 1-8 Poster for a revival of Bellini's Norma at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

It also partook of a romanticism that, as spoofed by W. S. Gilbert in The Mikado, “praises with enthusiastic tone/Every century but this and every country but [its] own.” Long long ago and far far away remained the preferred operatic locale, so that time could unfold in a leisurely mythological or epic manner. In the case of Norma, the place was ancient Gaul (the Celtic provinces of northwestern France) standing in for Britain—land of misty islands and the romantic locale par excellence for continental artists—and the time was that of the Druids as described by Julius Caesar in his history of the Gallic campaigns.

The premise, as usual, was forbidden love. Norma, the Druid high priestess, is torn between her public duties and her guilty love for Pollione, the Roman proconsul, against whose occupying forces the Druids are planning to revolt. Her love has lately been aggravated by jealousy; for, although she has borne Pollione two children in violation of her oath of chastity, he has forsaken her in favor of Adalgisa, a temple “virgin.” In the end, Norma and Pollione, his love for her rekindled, perish on a sacrificial pyre in the Druid temple in voluntary expiation of their sin.

Bel Canto

fig. 1-9 Giuditta Pasta (1797–1865) in the title role of Bellini's Norma.

“Casta diva,” Norma's cavatina, provides the framework for a scene of grandiose proportions, involving the participation of another soloist, her father Oroveso, the Archdruid (bass), and the full chorus, with the orchestra supplemented by what was known as the banda, a brass ensemble played on stage by musicians in costume. Almost all of its components have their counterparts or prototypes in the scene from Rossini's Tancredi that culminates in “Di tanti palpiti.” But the growth in dimensions, the infusion of spectacle, and especially the enormous influx of stage action into what had formerly been an exclusively reflective domain can be interpreted as either a new romanticism or a new realism, and shows the ultimate futility of trying to distinguish between the two.

The scene depicts a ritual: a sacrifice to the moon goddess and an augury in which the Druids hope to learn from the goddess whether the time is ripe for revolt. First, in an accompanied recitative, Norma haughtily addresses the populace and counsels patience. Her father objects, supported by stormy tremolando strings and seconded by the chorus, but she silences one and all by claiming divine inspiration. In a sort of speech-song called parlante (Ex. 1-10a), in which a repeated orchestral motif lends a momentary march-time regularity to the rhythm as if to underscore her words, Norma assures them that Rome will perish—but through decadence, not military defeat. She then leads the assembled congregation in a prayer. This is the famous cantabile, in which the priestess, entranced, cuts the sacred mistletoe from the holy oak and, responsively with the chorus, begs the goddess to calm the hearts of her compatriots.

The long, long, long melody is heard three times in all. It sounds first as a flute solo, the new key prefigured by a sudden excursion into its Neapolitan region, as if graphically to portray the advent of Norma's altered state of consciousness. The first two phrases of the ecstatically embellished melody, balanced four-bar periods, are played complete, but the third phrase is cut off after three measures and followed by a fermata—a favorite device for heightening expectation before a big lyric moment. Norma then sings the first stanza complete (Ex. 1-10b).

The miraculous coherence of the melody despite its inordinate length is achieved by a paradoxical trick. It is deliberately irregular in phrase structure, so that it cannot be parsed all the way down by successive binary divisions. The first two phrases, foreshadowed by the flute, have “classical” regularity. The eight-bar whole comprises two equal and parallel four-bar phrases, and each of these in turn comprises a pair of two-bar phrases set off by caesuras. Then follows a pair of parallel phrases (or rather a single phrase of one measure's duration and its embellished repetition) that veer off toward the relative minor.

But instead of being answered in kind, they are followed by a phrase of five bars’ duration without any caesuras or internal repetitions at all. This last, longest, and least regular phrase, moreover, encompasses a thrilling contour. It arches quickly up to the melody's highest note, preceded by a whole measure that does nothing but “stall” a half step below, its momentary inability to move forward emphasized by the unstable diminished-seventh harmony and the syncopated rhythm of its repetitions. And then, over two luxuriant measures, the tension relaxes by degrees, with every beat sung to the same rhythm, and the harmony zeroing in on the tonic along the circle of fifths. As the dynamics subside from the passionate fortissimo at the melodic peak to the pianissimo on which the chorus will enter, the melody sums up its entire range, finally touching down on the low tonic G that has not been heard since the middle of the first phrase.

But there is another stratagem at work as well to keep this melody afloat, one that can be probed by taking note of how many beats begin with the melody sounding dissonances against the accompanying harmony. At first they are sparse. After the downbeat of the second measure, no such dissonance occurs until the functionally equivalent downbeat of the sixth. But then the tide of dissonance suddenly surges. Every beat of the seventh bar emphasizes the dissonant seventh (or the more dissonant ninth) of the dominant harmony, and the resolution to the tonic takes place against a chromatic appoggiatura to the third of the chord that clashes against its neighbor in the accompaniment as if G minor were vying with G major. The two one-measure phrases that provide the bridge to the climax are similarly riddled with accented dissonances; but the prize goes to the last two ostensibly relaxing measures, in which every single beat sounds a momentary discord, whether accented neighbor, appoggiatura, or suspension.

These purely melodic dissonances are smoothly approached and quit. None stands out as a jagged stab. One is conscious only of peaceful lyricism, but one's ear is kept perpetually on edge by an insistent undercurrent of harmonic tension in which practically every beat, crying out softly for resolution, maintains an understated but powerful undertow. When this great wave, this surge of melodic and harmonic electricity, has at last subsided, one feels that one has been transported and deposited in a different place. One's own consciousness has been altered. That is romanticism.

The two stanzas of the cantabile are separated by the choral response, to which the enraptured Norma adds the kind of roulades that Rossini, in 1858, already said no one could sing properly anymore. (We'll never know; and we'll never know what we're missing). On repetition, the cantabile is enhanced by the continued participation of the chorus and a short coda + cadenza. To provide a transition to the cabaletta, which requires a change of mood, something must snap Norma out of her trance. This the banda does quite handily, signaling the completion of the service.

Norma renews her promise that when the goddess commands, she will be ready to lead the attack. Oroveso and the chorus demand that Pollione be the first to die, and this of course sets Norma's heart afire. She promises to punish him, but her inner voice of conscience confesses her inability to harm the man she loves. The whole cabaletta (“Ah! bello a me ritorna,” “Ah, come back to me, my beloved”) is sung as an extended agitated aside (that is, an expression of unspoken thoughts), cast in a military march rhythm that emphasizes the war that rages within Norma's breast (Ex. 1-10c).

Like virtually all cabalettas of the period, it is cast in a very regular form with a pedigree that goes all the way back to the middle ages: a (four bars) a′ (four bars) b (2+2 bars), a” (freely extended). Despite its rigidly conventional structure, however, it is the most personal music Norma gets to sing. “Heard” only by the audience, she addresses private words of love to Pollione, at complete variance with her public stance. This time the choral interjections between her phrases (and especially right before the coda + cadenza), in which the people wish ardently for a day that Norma hopes will never come, underscore not their community in prayer, but their secret irreconcilable opposition.

Bel CantoBel Canto

ex. 1-10c Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Scene e cavatina (Act I, scene 5), Cabaletta (“Ah! bello a me ritorna,” beginning)

Thus between them the cantabile and the cabaletta encapsulate the heroine's fatal dilemma. The musical form has managed to embody the dramatic crux; or rather, the librettist has managed to cast the dramatic crux in terms that the musical form can embody. That is the high, if oft-maligned, art of libretto-writing, of which Romani, on the evidence of this scene (to say nothing of the contemporary demand for his work), was a proven master. Finding musically motivated ways of constructing—or, in the case of preexisting plots, of radically reconstructing—dramatic scenarios required the exercise of considerable imagination and a highly specialized skill. It required the ability to imagine any dramatic situation in specifically musical terms.

Why, then, have the efforts of professional theatrical poets been so frequently maligned? The reasons have principally to do with a generalized antipathy to conventions that was part and parcel of nineteenth-century esthetics, especially in the second half of the century when standardized musical forms themselves came under increasing suspicion. This, too, is something that could be ascribed either to romanticism or to realism. It also has to do with increasing reverence for canonical authors and texts—a feature of romanticism that often masqueraded as “classicism.” Thus adaptations of Shakespeare (as in Romani's Capuleti e Montecchi, set by Bellini but not only by him), or of Victor Hugo (as in Romani's Lucrezia Borgia, set by Donizetti), are presumed to be debasements rather than legitimate transpositions to an equally—or, for Italians, a far more—effective dramatic medium. Ironically enough, the more skill a librettist showed in redeploying the contents of a novel or drama for musical effect, the more artistically suspect his efforts were often held to be.

The matter becomes especially ironic when one considers that, as demonstrated by the music historian Michael Collins as recently as 1982, I Capuleti e i Montecchi was based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet only indirectly if at all. Its actual sources were the same sixteenth-century Italian novellas that had originally served Shakespeare, as filtered through more recent Italian plays, librettos, and ballets. This other tradition enabled Romani, as Collins put it, “to transform Giulietta and Romeo into nineteenth-century ideal types, the languishing heroine and the ardent hero, thus furnishing Bellini with the occasion to rise to great heights of Romantic expressiveness in his music.”27 To put it that way is to put the cart and the horse in the right order. It was the music that had to be served. Otherwise, why write operas?

This may seem obvious enough, but there has always been a vein of opera criticism that implicitly prefers spoken plays to musical ones, remaining blind or deaf to the way in which conventional musical forms expertly deployed (and beautiful voices expertly employed) can serve to channel and intensify emotion, often beyond the means of the “legitimate” stage. The primary target of such criticism has always been the cantabile/cabaletta combination, the libretto's supreme artifice. Thus Joseph Kerman, one of the most influential opera critics of the mid-twentieth century, could denounce the cabaletta (“one of the worst lyric conventions of early nineteenth-century opera”) as inherently antidramatic:

This cabaletta was a fast, vehement aria or duet of extremely crude form and sentiment; it always came after a slower, quieter piece for the same singer or singers, and served to provide a rousing curtain. The form was strophic, and of the simplest pattern; the accompaniment consisted of a mechanically repeated polonaise or fast march rhythm. Between the slower aria and its cabaletta, a passage of recitative or parlante served to present some sort of excuse for the singer to change his mind.28

But notice that everything is mentioned in this critique except the chief thing—the singing, for the sake of which the crude form and sentiment, the repeated rhythms, and the artificially contrived situation existed. Rossini might have ascribed this indifference to the vocal and sensuous aspects of opera to the critic's impoverished experience. A hundred years earlier, after all, Rossini had already proclaimed the death of “fine singing.” But there was something else at work, too. Antipathy to Italian opera, quite the norm among mid-twentieth-century critics, was further testimony to the unquestioned dominance of the Hoffmannesque brand of German romanticism, with its strong preference for the “absolute” values of instrumental music and its idealist (Protestant and puritanical) contempt for all sensuality. Kerman's critique might as well have been written a hundred years earlier by Odoyevsky.


(25) Edmond Michotte, “An Evening Chez Rossini, 1858,” trans. Herbert Weinstock, Opera XVIII (1967): 955–58, condensed.

(26) Giuseppe Verdi to Camille Bellaigue, 2 May 1898; Verdi: The Man in His Letters, p. 431.

(27) Michael Collins, “The Literary Background of Bellini's I Capuleti ed i Montecchi,” JAMS XXXV (1982): 538.

(28) Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (New York: Knopf, 1956), p. 146.

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. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001007.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001007.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001007.xml