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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In Italy opera rose out of the mystery play, and recitative - or musical declamation - first appeared in that branch of dramatic music called oratorio. In the middle of the six teenth century Phillip of Neri founded an order of preachers to supply the growing demand of the times; the church in which he preached thus came to be called the Church of the Oratorio. He conceived the idea of using music to attract a larger congregation and employed a poet to write a series of pieces based upon the mystery, and including dances and scenery. These were set to music and produced with great success. From this dramatic music grew the form of oratorio, so-named from its having first been given in that particular church. This form of entertainment proved so popular that in a short time music was regarded as a necessary factor and even indispensable in the madrigal.
This does not imply that music had not been allied to dramatic performance previous to that time, for Italy had always been in touch with ancient Greece and Egypt, where the musical dance had existed almost from time immemorial; but it was not until the beginning of the seventeenth century that we find a definite start toward modern opera and oratorio. For a long time secular music was in evidence only in connection with court festivities, but in 1637 a theater for the production of musical drama was opened to the public. This was the Theatre of San Cassiano, in Venice, and henceforth public taste was a factor to be taken into account in the development of Italian opera.
Monteverde (1568-1643) was the first genius to give his entire attention to the opera. He loosened some of its rigid laws and proved that dramatic action may be expressed in music as well as in poetry, For some time before Monteverde's death, Venice was the center of the opera world. It is said that six hundred and fifty different operas were performed there in one century. So great was the success of the public opera house that by the end of the century ten others had been built in Venice and were eagerly patronized. In Rome none were opened until 1671, but we hear of operas being given out of doors or in private houses as early as 1632.
Before the seventeenth century, woman held a most insignificant place in the musical world, but the new art of song brought the feminine voice into great prominence. Many singing schools were established, and by the latter part of the seventeenth century singers of marvelous technical ability sprang up.
"The world has never seen a more complete devotion to a single branch of art. The Italian method became the law for Europe. The great singer was the pet of fashionable society, and his gains were fabulous. . . . The work existed solely for the honor and glory of the singer, purely as singer, not as singer and actor combined. The audience cared little or nothing for the play, and listened only to the arias, which they judged with the greatest keenness on technical grounds."
Scarlatti (1659-1725) founder of the influential Neapolitan school, was by far the most famous composer of his time. As director of the Royal School and writer of church and opera music, he was in a position to aid greatly in the development of his art, and many of his pupils became well known throughout Europe. He increased the scope of the aria and accompanied recitative, and enlarged the overture to a form of three movements, from which the symphony was later developed. But his works reflect the superficiality of his age and, like the others, soon sank into oblivion.
Operatic history from this point is that of the struggle between music written for dramatic illustration and that designed merely to please the ear, and, as we shall see, the lat ter finally triumphed. Composers wrote with the vocal powers of a favorite singer of the times ever in mind, and would even submit to constant varying of text and melody to suit the latter's whims. New methods of singing necessarily arose to provide the vocal technique required by the brilliant runs, trills and all manner of florid embellishments then in vogue, while plot and action were given but passing thought.
In addition to being entirely given over to vocal display, Italian grand opera of the eighteenth century was most artificial and stereotyped in form. The number of its characters was generally limited to six, three of each sex; and it was a practice rarely departed from to make them all lovers-a custom that introduced weakness and absurdity into otherwise worthy operas. The piece was invariably divided into three acts, each not to exceed a certain number of verses.
"The excessive and exclusive taste of the Italians for vocalizable melodic music led to the dreariest period in the history of art, because it necessarily excluded so much that is needed to make music permanently interesting. The accompaniments had to be kept in subordination to prevent their distracting the ear from the full enjoyment of the singer's skill; wherefore all the higher qualities of direct expression which depend upon harmony were excluded. Variety of form became superfluous, because the vocalist naturally liked to display his powers in cadences and other formalities in the same parts of his arias. Dramatic development became superfluous because the audiences were not concerned with the interest of the story set, but with the music and the performers. How these influences continued to drag Italian opera down lower and lower into the sloughs of shams, and even to the most vapid vulgarity, it is not necessary to recall."
But technical resources must be cultivated before great thoughts can be expressed, and mere ravings of hysterical passion are no more lasting in music than they are in litera ture. Gradually more attention was given to the context of the play itself and, although Italian opera has always been and is today a display ground for the showy art of the vocalist, by the latter part of the eighteenth century there began to be some continuity of plot and action.
After reaching the highest pinnacle of glory in the technical perfection of its melody, Italian opera steadily declined. Its success had been due to the development of showy vocal ism alone, and when this could be carried no further there was nothing whatsoever in the form or plot of the opera to redeem it. The inevitable result was a gradual sliding backward and for many years no composer appeared to check its fall.
Italy, the land of sunshine and song, has been the birthplace of most of our musical forms, but it has always been left for some other country to develop the ideas suggested by her composers. While Germany was producing such men as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Italy's importance in the musical world was rapidly growing less. That she has deteriorated rather than advanced in the art of music is proved by the fact that she contributes practically nothing to the most varied concert program of today. Her one trend of musical development has been in the field of opera and, in order to produce operas that would succeed, her composers have been forced to cater to popular taste, which was content with a pleasing melody combined with a trivial plot requiring no mental exertion to follow its development.
When Italian grand opera had declined to such an extent that it was practically extinct, it suddenly burst forth with renewed splendor under the inspiration of Rossini and his fol lowers, and for a short time Italian melody once more held sway.
Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1729-1868) came of humble parentage, his father being a town trumpeter and his mother the daughter of a baker. His aptitude for music showed itself at an early age, and when very young he began the study of singing, cello and .counterpoint in his native town of Pesaro. The whole history of music tells of no composer who has met with such instant success, for from the beginning of his career Rossini had all Italy at his feet. He was in no way a reformer and cared not at all for the lasting value of the means he employed to divert an unreflecting audience. He appeared at a time when musical taste was at a low ebb and, accepting it just as he found it, he exploited the popular forms with great skill.
It would be unjust and even absurd to hold him responsible for the shallowness of his times and it must be conceded that he poured new life into the stagnant opera of the day. Moreover, he curbed the license of singers to alter notes at will and introduced a far higher grade of melody and singing. His early operas were written in the Seria style and were faithful imitations of other Italian operas of his day. It is in opera buffa that Rossini was at his best, for it alone afforded him an opportunity to display his love of brilliant effects and "vocal fireworks."
Perhaps the most popular of Rossini's works and assuredly the best opera buffa in existence is his "Barbiera di Seviglia" (Barber of Seville), written in Rome in 1816. Among its arias in popular use as concert numbers today are the aria "Una Voce Poco Fa," and the final trio of the Count, Rosina and Figaro-"Zitti, Zitti." This delightful comedy is based on the love affair of Count Almaviva, who is enamored of Rosina, the pretty ward of Doctor Baitolo. However, her guardian wishes to wed her himself and so zealously guards her from all would-be suitors. After serenading to no avail, the count disguises himself as a soldier and, aided by Figaro, the witty barber of Seville, attempts to enter the Doctor's house but is foiled by a guard. Not daunted by this failure, the count next appears as a substitute sent by Basilo, Rosina's singing teacher, who, he reports, is seriously ill. Of course the count makes good use of his hour to advance his suit, which is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Basilo himself. But Figaro bribes him to retreat and Rosina agrees to elope that night. Many humourous difficulties present themselves but finally the lovers flee and are married before Bartolo and his friends appear.
In his last opera, "Guillaume Tell," is shown a broader and more truly musical style. This, the last of Rossini's operas, is his most perfect work judged from a dramatic as well as a musical standpoint. The text is founded on the well-known story of Tell, the hero who freed his Fatherland from one of its most cruel despots.
The first act opens with a chorus of peasants who are celebrating a marriage feast. Tell enters and cannot refrain, even amid so much mirth, from speaking of the tyranny and oppression which hangs over them all. Arnold, son of a Swiss soldier, is present and notwithstanding his love for Mathilda, Princess of Hapsburg, whom he once saved from drowning, promises to stand by his own countrymen and to join Tel? in an effort to liberate Switzerland from Austrian tyranny. A little later, Leuthold, a Swiss peasant approaches; he is a fugitive, having killed an Austrian officer who attempted the abduction of his daughter. His only safety lies in quickly crossing the lake, but a storm is on the approach and none of the fishermen will venture out. Tell offers his aid and, seizing the oars, rows Leuthold safely across. He has been gone but a few moments when Rudolf von Harras rushes on the scene with his soldiers, only to find his prey has escaped. Nobody being willing to betray the name of the deliverer, Arnold's father is seized and imprisoned, with the hope that the truth may be forced from him.
Meanwhile Arnold has again met the Princess Mathilda, as she is returning from a hunt, and declares his love to her. Just then Tell enters with Walter Furst and informs Arnold of his father's captivity. At once roused from his love-dreams, Arnold vows to forget his own desires till he has freed Switzerland from such tyranny. The three men pledge revenge by the famous oath taken on the Rutli. With the war cry "To arms!" ringing to the sky, they depart on their bloody mission.
In the last act Gessler has caused his hat to be placed on a pole in the market-place of Altdorf, to be greeted by the Swiss as if it were himself in person. None dare to disobey this distasteful order until Tell passes by with his son and refuses to salute the hat. Gessler witnesses this act of defiance and by way of punishment orders him to shoot an apple off his little son's head. Tell is forced to submit, despite his terrible fear that he may miss the mark and kill the boy; carefully selecting two arrows, he hits the center of the apple with the first. Gessler then compels him to tell why he has thus provided a second arrow and Tell confesses that with it he would have shot the tyrant, had he missed his aim. Upon this he is seized by the guards in spite of the entreaties of the Princess Mathilda, who has witnessed the gross injustice. But Gessler's time has come. At this last insult the Swiss join in revolt, the fortresses of Austria fall and Mathilda herself begs to be admitted into the alliance of free citizens. Tell kills Gessler in his struggle and in a majestic chorus the Swiss announce the day of liberty.
Quite unaccountably, after the tremendous success which met this opera Rossini suddenly left the dramatic field of music; perhaps he realized that he had reached the height of his musical powers and that any further attempt would but decrease his fame. His style was adopted by a brilliant group of composers, none of whom equalled him in the invention of melody and, although they were immensely popular at the time, few of their operas are known today. The most accomplished of the group were Donizetti and Bellini, who were nearly as gifted as their master and whose bewitching melodies are still enjoyed when their beauty is displayed by such artists as Sembrich and Caruso. Verdi (1813-1901) is sometimes classed with this group of composers, but although his early operas might easily have been the productions of Donizetti or Bellini, his later works mark the beginning of a more modern style and proves him a greater genius than any of the so-called "Rossini School" of Italian musicians.
Giuseppe Verdi was born in a little Italian hamlet on October 10, 1813, the same year in which a still greater genius-Richard Wagner-came into the world. Evincing a love for music when very young, Verdi was allowed to follow the bent of his genius. He received lessons on the organ and in counterpoint and when nineteen was prepared to ably fill any position as organist. The following story related by Elson tells of his early skill and independence:
"It happened that in the competition for an organist's post, none of the twenty-eight aspirants was able to write a correct fugue on the subject given by Basily. When he complained to Lavigna the latter waged that Verdi could do it. The young student, who was sitting near by, at once took pen and paper and soon finished the composition. Basily read the production with astonishment, and was forced to compliment Verdi on his skill. `But how is it that you have written a double canon on my subject?' queried the master. `Because I found it rather poor, and wished to embellish it,' was Verdi's instant reply."
Although his early operas have been relegated to the obscurity which they deserve, his later works give evidence of a superior intellect and true artistic feeling. He was a man of broad interests, an intense patriot and during his lifetime held several diplomatic positions. In all, he wrote twenty-seven operas, but no more than six of these are performed today. He is perhaps best known as the composer of "Il Trovatore," although the merits of this opera by no means justify its popularity.
The plot of "Il Trovatore" is very confused and trivial; indeed, it has been called by one able critic "melodrama run mad." Its success is due to its catchy and very effective mel odies which appeal strongly to the greater part of opera-attending audiences. "The music is often distressingly simple and tawdry, but in spite of that quality it possesses such direct melodic and dramatic force that the opera deserves far more praise than the critics are willing to accord to a work of the purely tuneful order that inspires our street organs. Despite its weak plot, it has the strength of a musical setting excellent in design and workmanship, though written as if in words of one syllable to please a public that was wholly childlike in its emotions."
Two men seek the hand of Leonore, Countess of Sergaste, one a minstrel by the name of Manrico, and the other Count Luna. Azucena, a gipsy, is supposed to be the mother of Manrico and she vows revenge on Count Luna because his father has caused her mother to be burned as a witch. Azucena has stolen one of his children for revenge, named him Manrico and brought him up as her own son. After exciting incidents, Manrico and Azucena are imprisoned by the wicked Count, who threatens to kill them unless Leonore will promise to marry him. She is sent to tell Manrico, but he declines to accept liberty at such a price, and is consequently executed in the presence of Azucena. Rather than keep the promise which she had made only to save her lover's life, Leonore takes poison. The gipsy then tells the Count that Manrico was not her son, but his own brother, and, filled with rage at the error she has allowed him to commit, the Count orders her to be burned at the stake.
The "Anvil Chorus," the "Miserere" and music of the famous prison scene contain some of the magnificent melodies in which this opera abound, but unfortunately they are thrown together with little judgment or regard to the effect of the opera as a whole.
In a later opera, "Aida," Verdi displays a power and dignity most astonishing when we take into consideration the triviality of his earlier work. It is a masterpiece of dramatic force, and most ably reflects the magic beauty of the Nile country. "Aida" was written as a result of a commission from the Khedive of Egypt, in 1869, to write a national opera for the celebration attendant upon opening the Suez Canal. The effect of this work was to bring to Verdi the recognition of the highest musical circles of Europe.
The scene of the opera is laid in ancient Egypt, and its highly-colored and somewhat sensuous melodies are quite in keeping with Eastern mysticism and romance. Aida is the daughter of the Ethiopian king and is living as a hostage at the Egyptian court. There Rhadames, a young warrior, falls in love with her, not knowing that she is the daughter of a king. In the ensuing war with the Ethiopians, Rhadames covers himself with glory and returns with a host of prisoners, among whom is Aida's father, Amonasro. The king celebrates the overwhelming victory by freeing all but Amonasro and rewards the unwilling Rhadames with the hand of Princess Amneris.
When Aida's father learns of her attachment with his conqueror, he persuades her to influence him to join their cause and leave his native land. But the plot is overheard by the jealous Amneris, who betrays Rhadames to the government. He is thereupon tried and found guilty, but is offered pardon if he will renounce Aida and marry Amneris. This he refuses to do, so is sentenced to the horrible death of being buried alive in a vault. There Aida conceals herself and the faithful lovers die in each other's arms.
Two other operas written in this later period justify the high position which Verdi holds in the Italian opera-world; "Othello" and "Falstaff" are both based upon Shakespearean stories and characters. Opera repertoire contains no more original and vivacious comedy than "Falstaff," which was written in the composer's eightieth year.
Some critics have accused Verdi of imitating Wagner's style, but this indicates either a shallow perception or the inability to recognize national characteristics when they are most apparent. Verdi is as thoroughly Italian in his style as Wagner is German in his, and he well deserves the name he has won as a creator of most ravishing melody.
Within the past few years a new school of opera has appeared in Italy, which may be called a counterpart of the naturalistic school in the spoken drama. In the productions of this group of writers, not only is real life depicted in detail but the physical side of human nature may be said to be overemphasized and instinctive passions displayed in all their native crudity. Considerable talent has been expended upon these operas but they contain little noble sentiment to redeem them. The music is sometimes rich and effective, but it is more often sensational to a fault and at times even blatant.
"Cavalleria Rusticana" was the first of these realistic operas and took the whole continent of Europe by storm. Pietro Mascagni, its composer, has since written several op eras, none of which has been well received. The story of "Cavalleria Rusticana," presented in one act, is briefly this: Turridu, a Sicilian peasant, has loved Lola and been accepted, but after an absence passed in military service he returns to find her married to the wealthy Alfio. He tries to console himself with Santuzza, a peasant girl, and promises to marry her. Lola however, although happily wedded, will not have her former lover profess devotion to another, and renews her friendship with him, receiving him often in her husband's absence.
This excites Santuzza's jealousy and she pours out her grief to Turridu's mother, who tries in vain to comfort her. In a stormy interview with Turridu she entreats him not to forsake her but he angrily flings her from him. Now desperate wth love and jealousy, Santuzza tells Alfio of his wife's falseness and he immediately challenges the false lover to a duel. Turridu, repenting too late of his folly and his treachery to Santuzza, accepts the challenge and is killed in the en counter. Peasants rush in to announce his death, whereupon Santuzza falls lifeless and the curtain falls upon the double tragedy.
The success of this opera has been due to the vivid action and intensity of passion, rather than to its musical worth. "In the opera are these elements: simple means employed by sim ple characters shake and harrow the spectators; dramatic touches are blows in their directness; the occasional absence of judicious art is forgotten in the exhibition of fierce truth. In his haste to tell his story Mascagni has no time to construct themes of balanced length. Phrases are short and intense; rhythm frets; dissonances rage and scream. There is feverish unrest from beginning to end; but the fever is the fever of a sturdy, hotblooded youth, and not the artificial flush of a jaded maker of music."
Other prominent writers of this school are Tasca, Spinelli and Puccini. The latter is the best known of the group and his operas have met with remarkable success. It is always dif ficult to judge the lasting worth of our contemporaries, and it is still a question whether Puccini's operas will stand the test of time. Although his "Madame Butterfly" is exceedingly popular, none of the present-day Italian operas is more often presented than is "La Tosca," written a few years earlier.
"La Tosca" was first produced at Covent Garden, London, in 1900. Although the text is not one particularly adapted to operatic treatment, yet it is most cleverly orchestrated and the music is strong and original in style. The scene is laid in Rome, the first act opening in the interior of the Church of Santa Andrea; time, the year 1800. Angelotti, a Roman consul who has been unjustly imprisoned, is aided by his sister to make his escape and appears in the church, still in prison garb, to find the key she has hidden for him. This he finds but just as he is leaving he hears approaching footsteps and conceals himself. The intruder proves to be Cavaradossi, an artist and old friend of Angelotti's, who has come to the church to paint a portrait of the Madonna. The fugitive makes himself known and Cavaradossi promises to help him in his escape; just then they are interrupted by Tosca, a noted singer who is madly in love with the artist. She has heard him in conversation with some one and at once becomes suspicious of his fidelity. After much persuasion, she is finally induced to withdraw, without seeing the visitor. Cavaradossi then takes his friend to his own villa, just as the booming of the prison cannon is heard, proclaiming the escape of an inmate. As they hurry out of the church, Scarpia, chief of police, enters by another door in search of Angelotti; failing in this effort, the wily Scarpia makes Tosca believe that her lover has been in secret meeting with another woman, showing her a fan dropped by Angelotti's sister, as proof.
The second act takes place in the apartments of Scarpia. Cavaradossi has been seized in his villa and is summoned to disclose the hiding place of the prisoner, but this he refuses to do. Scarpia then orders Tosca to be brought before him, hoping to torture the artist by gaining her favor; to his amazement, however, Tosca throws herself into her lover's arms, rejoiced to find him unharmed. Thoroughly enraged and jealous, Searpia then orders Cavaradossi to the torture chamber; at last distracted by her lover's groans of pain, Tosca agrees to reveal the hiding place of Angellotti. So Cavaradossi is again brought in, this time unconscious, and Scarpia fiendishly orders him to be executed unless Tosca will grant him her favor. After vain entreaty she consents, after he shall have signed a passport for the artist to leave the country. While he is doing so, Tosca steals up behind and stabs him.
The last act shows Cavardossi in the Castle Santa Angelo, awaiting his sentence. Tosca rushes in with the passport and, not knowing that the soldiers have already been ordered to shoot the prisoner, tells him that they will only pretend to shoot, and that he must fall as if dead, after which she will take him secretly away in her carriage. After a volley of shots from the soldiers, Cavaradossi falls, but when Tosca hurries to his side, she finds that he has in truth been killed. Crazed by her grief, she leaps to the parapet of the terrace and throws herself into space, before the horror-stricken soldiers.
"Madame Butterfly" was first produced in Milan in 1904 and was brought to this country two years later. The story is based upon a drama of the same name by David Belasco and is one of pathetic tragedy throughout.
The first act opens in Nagasaki, Japan, and discloses Lieut. Pinkerton, a United States Naval officer, inspecting the house to which he is going to take his bride, Cho-Cho-San, who is called Madame Butterfly on account of her light-hearted, dainty ways. The American Consul is with him and earnestly seeks to dissuade him from entering upon this marriage to one whose traditions and ideals are so different than his own, but his entreaties are in vain. During the discussion the bride arrives with friends and tells Pinkerton that she has renounced her faith that she may share his religion and commit herself absolutely to his care. The marriage contract is signed, but when the wedding feast begins Madame Butterfly's uncle, a priest, arrives and curses her for renouncing her religion. Exasperated by such intrusion, Pinkerton turns him and the other Japanese relatives out of the house, and is left alone with his bride.
Three years elapse and the second act shows Madame Butterfly awaiting her husband's return from an official absence to America. Meanwhile Pinkerton, never having taken his Japanese alliance seriously, marries an American wife and informs the Consul that he is about to bring her to Nagasaki. A wealthy Japanese is in love with Madame Butterfly and entreats her to no longer wait for the faithless husband but she will not listen to his pleadings.
The Consul undertakes the difficult task of informing her of her husband's intended return, but cannot make her grasp the situation. When he tries to explain that her husband now cares for another, her only reply is to bring him their baby boy. Failing utterly in his mission, the Consul departs just as the guns announce the arrival of Pinkerton's ship in the harbor. Madame Butterfly is in a transport of joy; with her maid's help she decorates the house for his reception and then waits for his approach. The maid and the baby fall asleep but the little Japanese wife never ceases her vigil.
The third act opens on the same scene. The long-looked for arrival takes place and Pinkerton enters with his American bride; he discovers Madame Butterfly and seems dazed when he takes in the full tragedy of the situation. Unable to face the crisis he rushes away, leaving the Consul to explain. He appeals to the maid to make Madame Butterfly realize the circumstances and urge her to leave the baby to be brought up as an American child. With the outward calm characteristic of her race and with rare nobility, little Madame Butterfly wishes her rival much happiness and sends word to her faithless husband that she, too, will soon find peace. She realizes only that she is standing in the way of the happiness of one she dearly loves and rather than this should continue, she kills herself with her father's dagger. The tragedy closes when Pinkerton and the Consul come upon her lifeless body.
The music of this opera is Oriental throughout and is in perfect keeping with the movements of the sad story, showing passages of graceful brilliancy as well as deepest pathos.
Although once the leader of musical progress, Italy now shows no such promise of future greatness as France. Italian music at present means merely opera music and the vigorous instrumental advancement in which lies the hope of French music today finds no parallel in Italy. Italian composers in recent times have been numerous, yet few of them have made any particular impression outside their own country.