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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones
Richard Taruskin

Even more adjustment became necessary when the object of “librettization” was a narrative rather than a dramatic work. As novels became increasingly popular, they furnished an ever greater proportion of operatic plots, which then had to be turned into scenarios, and finally into poetry for singing, with all the exacting formal and metrical requirements that implied. One of the most successful early nineteenth-century novel-operas was Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (“Lucy of Lammermoor,” 1835), to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, a staff poet and stage director at the royal theaters of Naples with whom many composers collaborated. Their opera was in fact the sixth one to be based on The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) by Sir Walter Scott, then the most popular writer in all of Europe, whose novels and poems were the source for more than fifty operas. But there would never be a seventh. In its way, Lucia was the romantic opera to end all romantic operas.


fig. 1-10 Fanny Tecchinardi-Persiani (1812–1867) as the title character in the first London production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (lithograph by Edward Morton, 1839).

Living a good deal longer than Bellini, and working throughout his quarter-century career at a Rossinian pace, Donizetti amassed a lifetime total of sixty-six operas. Like Rossini, he excelled in all genres. At least three of his comic operas—L'elisir d'amore (“The love potion,” 1832), La fille du régiment (“The daughter of the regiment;” presented in Paris in 1840), and Don Pasquale (1843)—are repertory standards. But Lucia was his most impressive and influential achievement. It brought to a new scale and standard the incorporation of ensemble writing within the opera seria, and it provided the prototype for what would become a distinct subgenre of operatic tragedy, the “mad scene.” As in the case of Rossini, Donizetti did not invent either of these contributions out of whole cloth; that was not in the nature of the opera biz. Rather, he crystallized them in practice by providing seemingly unsurpassable models (the sort of thing called a locus classicus), thus stimulating legions of emulators.

The reasons for the popularity of Scott's Bride of Lammermoor as an operatic source are not far to seek. It was one of his so-called “Waverley novels,” mixing Scottish local color with horrific plots, a combination that was irresistible to romantic artists and their audiences. Anything set in Scotland, the mistiest locale within the British Isles, was surefire romantic fare, and the novel was also tinged with a few choice if incidental elements of what was known as Gothic romance: mysterious or uncanny occurrences suggesting the influence of the supernatural, all set against the background of stormy landscapes, graveyards, dark ruins, and dilapidated castles.


fig. 1-11 Gaetano Donizetti, in a portrait by Giuseppe Rillosi at the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan.

And, of course, it had the central ingredient—thwarted love. Lucy (Lucia) is the daughter of Sir William Ashton, Laird (lord) of Lammermoor, called Enrico in the opera, and cast as her elder brother. She is destined by her mother, Scott's villainess (who never appears in the opera), for a marriage of convenience to the Laird of Bucklaw (Lord Arturo Bucklaw in the opera), a rich man who will save the Lammermoor fortune. But she loves Edgar (Edgardo), the son of the Laird of Ravenswood, her family's mortal enemy. This basic situation, and some of the reasons for it, are set forth in act I of the libretto.

Getting wind of Lucy's attraction to Edgar, Lady Ashton (replaced by Enrico in the opera) coldly dismisses him from contention and sets about breaking her daughter's spirit so that she will assent to the marriage that has been arranged for her. In the novel, Lady Ashton intercepts a letter from Lucy to Edgar; when it is never answered, Lucy is induced to believe that her beloved has abandoned her. In the opera, Enrico contrives a forged letter in which Edgar declares love to another woman. After reading it, Lucia can no longer resist her brother's pressure. She signs the proffered marriage contract. Only then does Edgar manage to break in on the betrothal ceremony and expose the hoax. In the novel, he arrives after the wedding has been performed and immediately reacts by challenging both Sir William Ashton and his son Henry—the prototype of the libretto's Enrico—to mortal combat on the morrow. In the opera, Edgardo directs his rage at Lucia, who (he is led to believe) has abandoned him. In a dramatic confrontation, he tears the ring he had given her off her hand and curses her. This, the height of the plot imbroglio, is the end of act II.

The central scene of the third act is devoted to the wedding and its grisly aftermath, in which Scott's Lucy murders her unwanted husband and appears, raving, among the guests. This episode is portrayed in far greater detail in the libretto than in the original novel. Disoriented, the heroine appears, dripping dagger in hand, believing that she is about to marry Edgardo. She goes through an imaginary ceremony with him, calls on him to meet her in heaven, and convinces one and all that her end is nigh. This famous scene, the mad scene, is sandwiched between a preliminary one (sometimes omitted) in which Enrico and Edgardo belatedly agree to their duel, and the final scene, in which Scott's original ending is given a typically operatic twist. In the novel, Edgar, galloping furiously along the shore to meet his antagonists, is swallowed up in a quicksand. In the opera, Edgardo, waiting for his enemy in the Ravenswood graveyard, learns of Lucia's death. He echoes her promise to meet in heaven, draws his dagger, and stabs himself, thus completing the parallel with the ubiquitous Romeo and Juliet.

Act II, scene 2, sometimes called the act II finale, is the most complexly structured scene in the opera, and the one that best illustrates the way in which elements perfected in opera buffa were appropriated by composers of romantic tragedies. In a way, the scene is constructed in just the opposite fashion from the older opera seria, often nicknamed “exit opera” for the way in which the da capo arias of old were contrived to precede and motivate exits, which in turn preceded and motivated applause. Romantic opera, especially as it moves in on the dramatic crux, could be nicknamed “entrance opera” for the way in which characters are made to accumulate on stage along with the dramatic tension, until it all boils over in a sonorous ensemble.

The scene, ostensibly an engagement party in a brightly lit, festively decorated hall, begins with two main characters, Enrico and Arturo Bucklaw, on stage, together with a chorus of guests, who begin the act by singing a toast to the lucky groom, to which he graciously responds. This conventional choral opener functions dramatically as the calm before the storm. From this point on to the end of the act, the musical form will be the one with which we are familiar: a cantabile, followed by a transitional passage (or tempo di mezzo, “medium tempo”) and the cabaletta. Only everything will be cast on a multiple scale. Rather than a cantabile/cabaletta for this character or that, we shall have a cantabile/cabaletta for the entire assembled cast. Thus buffo ensemble meets bel canto aria, creating a hybrid that combines features of both so as to project emotion (in a larger house, to a larger audience) more powerfully than ever.

The “recitative” in this scene (so designated in the score) is actually a fine example of extended parlante. Arturo asks Enrico where Lucy is; Enrico, knowing her devastated state (brought on by his own deception), warns Arturo that she may be wearing a sad look, but that is because she is in mourning for her mother. All of this takes place over an orchestral melody with a chugging, marchlike accompaniment. It can be construed in a pinch as a contredanse, which some directors actually choreograph for the assembled guests so that the exchange between the principals may be seen as unfolding in “real time.” Lucia now enters, looking just as despondent as Enrico has predicted. The music underscoring the parlante makes a suitable change in meter, tempo, and key—from a neutral D-major moderato to a pathetic C-minor andante. She is accompanied and supported by Alisa, her mezzo-soprano sidekick, and Raimondo Bide-the-Bent, her tutor. The number of potential soloists on stage is now five. The unsuspecting Arturo greets her ardently; Enrico, in a hissing undertone, reminds her of her duty. Bide-the-Bent utters a sympathetic aside. Lucia signs the proffered contract.

At this point the sixth main character, Edgardo, bursts upon the scene, disrupting the proceedings and causing Lucia to faint dead away. Needless to say, this forces another change of key and tempo (to D♭ major, larghetto) and of course silences the hubbub of the parlante. The action goes into “aria time” for the famous sextet, in which we are made privy to the private ruminations and reactions of all the characters, simultaneously thunderstruck on stage. Another chugging accompaniment starts up, this time a polonaise, one of the most typical cantabile rhythms.

First Edgardo and Enrico, from their diametrically opposing perspectives, give inner voice to their emotions (the former to his enduring love come what may, the latter to remorse) in the kind of gorgeous arching melody a cantabile demands (Ex. 1-11a). As they make their cadence, Lucy (regaining consciousness) and Bide-the-Bent take up the melody, she to lament that she has only fainted, not died, he to continue expressing his pity. Enrico and Edgardo continue as before so that now four singers are in motion, as if in a fugue. When the second stanza is done, the coda begins with Arturo expressing bewilderment, Alisa compassion, and the chorus muttering in amazement. All on stage are now singing at once, and the music moves to the inevitable climax, achieved with a crescendo, an affrettando (quickening), and a syncopated “stalling” high note for Lucia, reminiscent of the one for Norma at the ecstatic peak of “Casta diva.” Here of course it expresses not ecstasy but utter despair. No meaning in music is ever immanent. Everything depends on context. That is why conventions, in the hands of their best deployers, are not to be confused with stereotypes.

Just as in Rossini's comic finales, where as soon as the tempo seems to reach its very limit it is mind-bogglingly increased, here the climax is immediately repeated, louder than the first time (Ex. 1-11b). It is one of the requisite skills of fine operatic singing to be able to reach what seems like maximum power while keeping something in reserve, so that the maximum can be exceeded without falling into strain. The only difference the second time around is in the orchestration, especially the percussion punctuation at the peak.

But that is just the cantabile. Again, as in Norma, it is the cantabile that is generally remembered by name (in this case by Edgardo's incipit, “Chi mi frena”) rather than the cabaletta. But the cabaletta (called the stretta in ensemble finales) plays a very necessary role in capping off the scene, and the act. With the ending of the sextet, it is as if everyone snaps out of their paralysis into a furious parlante, marked allegro, to provide the tempo di mezzo. Seconded by the chorus, Arturo and Enrico furiously threaten Edgardo, who makes equally furious counterthreats, while Bide-the-Bent tries to referee. Then comes the next plot wrench: the return of the rings, with the revelation that Lucia and Edgardo had secretly plighted their troth. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this commotion is the part assigned to the utterly spent Lucia. It consists of only two notes: a single E, set to a quarter note, on which she makes response (“Si”) to Edgardo's frenzied interrogations; and a single scream, a three-measure high A, with which she responds to his curses. And yet it is (when well performed) the part that the audience remembers.


ex. 1-11a Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Act II finale, beginning of sextet (“Chi mi frena”)

The curse now sets off the D-major stretta, in a jig (or tarantella) rhythm, marked vivace. Much simpler than the cantabile, it features a great deal of homorhythmic and even unison singing, and it is cast in a modified da capo form, in which the “A” stanza consists of threats from Enrico, seconded by Arturo and Bide-the-Bent; the “B” consists of defiance from Edgardo, supported by Lucia; a transition allows Alisa to add her horrified voice to the throng, urging Edgardo to leave and save himself; and the return of “A” is set in counterpoint with the opposing parts to provide a frenzied tutti. As in Rossini, the coda is a stretta (marked più allegro) in which the note values are slyly lengthened so as to allow an increase over what seemed the very limit of speed. Da Ponte himself would no doubt have found this strepitosissimo impressive. (It may be confusing to find both the whole fast section of the ensemble and its even faster coda designated by the same term, stretta. Probably the section took its name from the headlong coda, one of its most distinctive features.)

As for the mad scene, it is also based on the cantabile/cabaletta format, remodified to produce another sort of dramatic climax. The flexibility with which the basic matrix could respond to new dramatic situations and requirements shows it to be as malleable as its instrumental counterpart, the “sonata form.” If the one is a stereotype, then so is the other.


ex. 1-11b Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Act II finale, climax of cantabile

As always, there is an opening parlante for Lucia, introduced by horrified pertichini from Bide-the-Bent and the chorus. She sings against an extended flute obbligato. (Donizetti had originally wanted to use an “armonica,” an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, consisting of water glasses of various sizes concentrically arranged around a spindle; ethereal or “otherworldly” pitched sounds were produced by touching wet fingers to the revolving rims.) What the flute plays is in itself significant, since it is a distorted reprise of Lucia's first aria in act I (“Regnava nel silenzio”), in which she described a ghostly visitation of a long-slain Lammermoor lass who had been haunting the castle (Ex. 1-12ab). The flute thus adds a multileveled commentary to the action, establishing itself as Lucia's demented inner voice and linking her cursed future to a cursed past. Nor is that the only reminiscence motif. When Lucia sees the ghost again, standing between her and Edgardo, the flute (now doubled by the clarinet) recalls the cabaletta of their clandestine love duet in act I (“Verrano a te”), again somewhat deformed (Ex. 1-12cd). The last reminiscence in this heartrending parlante is a poignantly elegant embellished reprise of the C-minor music that accompanied Lucia's entrance in the act II finale, now mauled chromatically in a way that at once boosts pathos and intensifies the portrayal of her derangement (Ex. 1-12ef).


ex. 1-12a Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aria: “Regnava nel silenzio” (Act I)


ex. 1-12b Gaetano Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor, Act III, scene 2, introductory flute solo


ex. 1-12c Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Duet: “Verrano a te” (Act I)


ex. 1-12d Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Act III, scene 2, flute and clarinet

The cantabile aria now begins, as a slow waltz marked larghetto and cast in the usual (albeit somewhat deranged) aa′ ba″format—in the flute (Lucia's alter ego) rather than the voice, which continues its parlante for a while, disguising the beginning of the formal lyric. This smudging of boundaries between sections was likely intended as another representation of Lucia's disordered mind, but it was widely adopted thereafter as a “realistic” device. While still relying on the guidance of convention in planning their music, composers could thus give an impression of formal freedom that audiences could interpret as spontaneous emotion. Lucia's lyric entry (“Alfin son tua,” “At last I'm yours”) comes on the “b” section, accompanied by her horrified onlookers, whose pertichini continue the main tune while Lucia, oblivious of them, soars in the mad empyrean. Not until the closing phrase (“Del ciel clemente”) does the prima donna sing the main tune at last, accompanied by the flute obbligato (Ex. 1-13a). But by now the tune is virtually buried in coloratura and crowned by a duet cadenza that Donizetti, relying on the taste and training of his performers, never dreamed of insulting them by actually composing. This interpolated cadenza, ironically enough (considering that Donizetti did not write it), is probably the most famous spot in the opera (although not in the score), and another locus classicus for earnest emulators and parodists alike.


ex. 1-12e Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, cello motif from Act II finale


ex. 1-12f Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Act III, scene 2, violin motif


ex. 1-13a Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Act III, scene 2 (“mad scene”), Cantabile: “Del ciel clemente”


ex. 1-13b Gaetano Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor, Act III, scene 2 (“mad scene”), Cabaletta, “Spargi d'amaro pianto”

The tempo di mezzo is a lengthy parlante for several soloists and chorus, touched off by Enrico's arrival on the scene. He witnesses Lucia's delirium in which, unaware of his presence, she curses his cruelty in what seems at first like the start of the cabaletta (allegro mosso in G♭ major: “Ah! vittima fui d'un crudel fratello,” “Ah, I was the victim of a cruel brother”). But the passage reaches a quick ensemble climax and then subsides, paving the way to the true cabaletta (Ex. 1-13b), in a quicker waltz time, marked moderato, accompanied as before by the flute (“Spargi d'amaro pianto,” “Shed bitter tears”). Each of its two stanzas is followed by a response from all present, the second of them including Lucia herself, who now imagines herself in heaven awaiting Edgardo's arrival, her voice alone occupying a stratospheric space almost an octave above the tessitura of the choral sopranos.

The mad scene from Lucia is not only an exemplary operatic number, inexhaustibly instructive to anyone who wants to understand what makes the genre tick, it also crystallizes certain aspects and paradoxes of romanticism with extraordinary clarity. The magnificent irony whereby Lucia's madness, an unmitigated catastrophe to its observers, is a balm and solace to her, is graphically realized in the contrast between the stressed musical style of the pertichini, the parlanti, and everything else that represents the outer world and its inhabitants, and the perfect harmony and beauty of Lucia's own contributions, especially as regards her duetting with the flute, which (as the audience instantly apprehends) only she can “hear.” That is already a mark of opera's special power: its ability to let us in through music on the unexpressed thoughts and emotions of its characters, a terrain inaccessible to spoken drama (unless, like Eugene O'Neill in his dubiously experimental, much-mocked Strange Interlude of 1928, the author is willing to abuse the device of the “aside” far beyond the willingness of any audience to suspend its disbelief). There is far more to it, however. The beautiful harmony of voice and flute, conjuring up a better place than the one occupied by the sane characters (or, for that matter, the audience), is a perfect metaphor for romanticism's aspirations. All art—all romantic art, anyway—to the extent that it aspires to “the condition of music” (in Walter Pater's famous phrase) aspires to be a beautiful or comforting lie.

Or is it the (higher) truth? To say so is plainly utopian, but that seems to be the message many audiences have wished to draw from art. How does such a message compare with other utopian messages, including religious and political ones, and with what consequences? These are questions to keep in mind from now until the end of the book. First broached by romanticism, they have been the most pressing esthetic questions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And music, the most inherently (or at least potentially) unworldly and utopian of the arts, has been their most insistent harbinger.

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-div1-001008.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-div1-001008.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-div1-001008.xml