Metastasio - The Forerunner Of Gluck
( Originally Published 1915 )
NOT ONE of the great musicians or poet-musicians of the eighteenth century was indifferent to the problems of the lyric drama. All labored to perfect it or to establish it on new foundations. It would be an injustice to attribute the re-form of opera to Gluck alone. Handel, Hasse, Vinci, Rameau, Telemann, Graun, Jommelli, and many others gave time and thought to the matter. Metastasio himself, who is often represented as the chief obstacle to the establishment of the modern lyric drama because he was opposed to Gluck, was no less anxious than Gluck (although in another fashion) to introduce into opera all the physiological and dramatic truth that was compatible with beauty of expression.
It may perhaps be profitable to recall how the talent of this poet was formed—the most musical writer ever known: "The man," Burney ventures to say, "whose writings have probably contributed more to the perfection of vocal melody and music in general than the united efforts of all the great European composers."
From the time of his first beginnings as a child prodigy, the study of music had given him the idea of the poetical reformation which was to make him famous. The hazards of his emotional life, skillfully exploited, were of no little service in the, completion of his poetico-musical education. It was a singer who had the merit of discovering him. Celani has told the story in an article entitled: Il primo amore di P. Metastasio. Metastasio's first love was the daughter of the composer, Francesco Gasparini, the pupil of Corelli and Pasquini, the man who had mastered better than any other the science of bel canto and who helped develop the most famous singers: the teacher of La Faustina and Benedetto Marcello. They met in Rome in 1718-1719. Gasparini wished to marry Metastasio to his daughter, Rosalia, and CeIani discovered the draft of the marriage contract which was drawn up in April 1719. But an unforeseen obstacle supervened. Metastasio left for Naples in May, and Rosalia married another.
At Naples Metastasio met the woman whose influence upon his artistic career was to be decisive: La Romanina (Marianna Benti) a famous singer, the wife of a certain Bulgarelli. Metastasio was at that time clerk to an advocate. His employer hated poetry, which did not prevent Metastasio from writing poems, cantatas, and serenades which appeared under another name. In 1721 he wrote, for the birthday of a member of the imperial family, a cantata: Gli orte Esperiei, which was set to music by Porpora; La Romanina, who was passing through Naples, sang the part of Venus in this cantata. The performance was extremely successful; La Romanina insisted on making the young poet's acquaintance and fell in love with him. She was thirty-five years of age, and he was twenty-three. She was not beautiful; her features were strongly marked and rather masculine, but she was extremely kind in a sensual way and highly intelligent. She gathered together in her house at Naples all the most distinguished artists: Hasse, Leo, Vinci, Palma, Scarlatti, Porpora, Pergolesi, Farinelli. In this circle Metastasio completed his poetico-musical education, thanks to the conversation of these men, the lessons which he received from Porpora,, and above all the advice, intuition, and artistic experience of La Romanina. For her he wrote his first melodrama, Didone Abbandonata (1724), which, by its Racine-like charm and emotion, marks a date in the history of Italian opera. La Romanina was the triumphant interpreter of his earliest poems, among others of Siroe, which almost all the great European composers were to set to music.
After 1727 they went to Rome. There the three led a singular family life: Metastasio, La Romanina, and the husband Bulgarelli. La Rornanina despised her husband but lavished a jealous and passionate love on Metastasio. The old story, so often repeated, had its inevitable climax. Metastasio turned his back upon Italy. In 1730 he was summoned to Vienna as poeta Cesareo. He left Rome, conferring upon his "cara Marianna" full powers to administer, alienate, sell, exchange, or convert his property and his income without rendering him any account. La Romanina could not endure his departure; three months later she set out for Vienna. She did not succeed in getting farther than Venice. A contemporary writes: "It is said that the Didone Abbandonata is largely the story of Metastasio and La Romanina. Metastasio feared that she might cause him annoyance in Vienna and that his reputation would suffer thereby. He obtained an order of the court which forbade La Romanina to enter the imperial domains. La Romanina was furious and in her rage attempted to kill herself by stabbing herself in the breast. The wound was not mortal, but she died shortly afterward of misery and despair."
Some letters written by her to the Abbe Riva, who served as intermediary, display the unfortunate woman's passion. Here is a peculiarly moving passage, written at Venice on August 12, 1730, doubtless after her attempted suicide when she had given her promise to behave sensibly:
"Since you still retain so much friendship for my Friend, keep him safe for me, stand by him, make him as happy as you can, and believe that I have no other thought in the world; and if I am sometimes disconsolate, it is because I am only too conscious of his merit, and because to be forced to live apart from him is the greatest grief that I can suffer. But I am so determined not to forfeit his esteem that I will patiently endure the tyranny of him who permits such cruelty; I assure you that ,I will do every-thing that I am allowed to do to please my dearest friend and to keep him; I will do all that I can to keep myself in good health, simply in order that I may not grieve him...."
She lived a life of misery for four years longer. Metastasio replied to her impassioned letters with serene politeness. La Romanina's reproaches seemed to him "punctual and inevitable, like a quartan fever." She died on February 26, 1734 in Rome, at the age of forty-eight, her love offering Metastasio the supreme affront of naming him residuary legatee. "This," she said, "I do not merely in token of my gratitude for his advice and his help in my misfortunes and my long illness but also in order that he may more conveniently devote himself to those studies which have won so much fame for him." " Metastasio, blushing at this generosity, renounced his inheritance in favor of Bulgarelli and suffered bitter remorse on thinking of "la povera e generosa Marianna.". . . "I have no longer any hope that I shall succeed in consoling myself, and I believe the rest of my life will be savorless and sorrowful." (March 13, 1734.)
Such was this love story, which is closely bound up with the destinies of music, since it was owing to the influence of this woman that Metastasio became the Racine of Italian opera. The echo of La Romanina's voice is still heard in his verses, "which are so liquid and musical," says Andres, "that it seems as though one could read them only by singing them."
This quality of his poetry, as of vocal melody set to words, impressed his contemporaries. Marmontel remarked that "Metastasio arranged the phrases, the rests, the harmonies, and all the parts of his airs as though he sang them himself."
And he did indeed sing them. When composing his dramas he used to sit at the harpsichord, and he often wrote the music for his own verses. We are reminded of Lully singing at the harpsichord the poems of Quinault and remodeling them. Here the parts are reversed. It is the Italian Quinault who composes poems at the harpsichord, already tracing the outline of the melody which is to clothe them. In a letter of April 15, 1750, Metastasio, sending to the Principessa di Belmonte Caffarello's setting of his poem, Partenza di Nice, adds: "Caffarello realized the defects of my composition" (which gives us to understand that he had written one) ; "he has had compassion on the words and has clad them in better stuff." In another letter of the same year (February 21, 1750) to the same lady, he says:
"Your Excellency knows that I can write nothing that is to be sung without imagining the music for it (good or bad). The poem that I am sending you was written to the music that accompanies it. It is, in truth, a very simple composition; but if the singer will sing it with the expression that I have imagined, it will be found that it contains all that is needed to second the words. All that can be added to it, though it be of the choicest, may assuredly win more applause for the musician but will certainly give less pleasure to loving hearts."
Never did Metastasio give his poems to a friend without adding the musical setting. Consequently we have not the right to judge his verses separately, deprived of the melody intended for them, of which he had, as Marmontel says, "the presentiment." Music seemed to him all the more indispensable to poetry because he was living in a Teutonic country where his Italian tongue possessed its full power only when the charm of music made it penetrate the alien mind. He wrote in 1760 to Count Florio: "From the earliest years of my transplantation into this country I have been convinced that our poetry can take root here only in so far as music and acting are combined with it."
Thus his poetry was written for music and theatrical representation. We may imagine how it must have charmed all the Italian and Italianate musicians of the century. According to Marmontel, "all the musicians had surrendered to him." To begin with, they were delighted by the music of his verse. Then they found in him a pleasant, polite, but quite inflexible guide. Hasse constituted himself his pupil. Jornmelli used to say that he had learned more from Metastasio than from Durante, Leo, Feo, and Father Martini-that is, from all his masters. Not only did Metastasio's verses, in which he would allow no alteration, lend themselves marvelously to melody, inspiring and even evoking it, so to speak; they very often suggested the motive of the air to the composer.
Jole-Maria Baroni, in an essay on the Lirica musicale di Metastasio, makes a brief analysis of the various poetico-musical forms in which he writes: canzonetta, cantata and aria. Here I shall confine myself to indicating the musical reforms which Metastasio accomplished.
To him we owe the restoration of the chorus in Italian opera. In this respect he was guided by the musical traditions which had been preserved in Vienna. While the chorus had become obsolete as far as the Italian operas were concerned, the Viennese masters, Johann Joseph Fux and Carlo Agostino Babia, had obstinately retained its employment. Metastasio took ad-vantage of this survival and handled the chorus with an art unknown before his time. He was careful to introduce the chorus only at such moments when it was natural and necessary to the action of the drama. We feel that in writing his choruses he often took as his model the solemn simplicity of the ancient tragedies. It was in the same spirit that those composers who were friends of Metastasio's and influenced by him, as was Hasse, treated the chorus in music. Whosoever will turn to the magnificent chorus of the priests in Hasse's Olimpiade (1756) will marvel at the full development of the neo-antique style—simple, tragic, and religious—the monopoly or invention of which has been only too often attributed to Gluck.
But it was in the recitative that Metastasio and his composers introduced the greatest improvements.
The Italian opera at that time was an ill-balanced assemblage of recitativo secco and arie. The recitativo secco was a monptonous and very rapid chant, not greatly diverging from ordinary speech, and unrolling its interminable length to the accompaniment of the harpsichord solo supported by a few bass notes. The musician paid very little heed to it, reserving his powers for the aria, in which his technical skill and that of the interpreter were given free scope. The poet, on the other hand, retained an affection for the recitative as it enabled the audience to hear his verses fairly distinctly. This rough and ready compromise satisfied no one. The poet and the composer were sacrificed in turn, and there was seldom or never a true partnership between them. However, since the second half of the seventeenth century an intermediate form had found its way into opera, a form which was gradually to assume the most prominent position and which has retained that position (shall I say unfortunately?) in the modern lyric drama: this was the recitative accompanied by the orchestra, the recitativo stromentale, or to give it a shorter and more popular title, the accompagnato. Lully employed it to excellent effect in his later operas. But in Italian opera the accompagnato did not become permanently established until the days of Handel and Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730). The latter, whom President de Brosses called the Italian Lully, had already conceived the idea of employing the accompagnato at the climax of the dramatic action in order to depict the passions excited to the state of frenzy. However, in his case this idea was rather an intuition of genius whose fruits he never troubled to pluck.
The merit of having grasped the importance of this invention and of having utilized it in a logical and reasonable manner seems to belong to Hasse, working under Metastasio's influence, as Hermann Abert has demonstrated. Beginning with Cleo-fide (1731) in which the second act closes with a great scene in recitativo accompagnato, a bold piece of work, Hasse em-ploys accompagnati for curtains and the crises of the action: visions, apparitions, laments, invocations, and tumultuous emotions. In the Clemenza di Tito (1738) Abert calls attention to six accompagnati, five of which are reserved for the two principal male characters, depicting their inward anguish; the sixth, which is apportioned to a secondary character, describes the burning of the Capitol. Two of these great orchestral recitatives are not followed by an aria. In the Didone Abbandonata of 1743 especial note should be taken of the tragic denouement which (like so many other instances) gives the lie to the in-accurate tradition that all operas before Gluck's days were compelled by the fashion to end happily. The whole drama is gathered up into this final scene, which is full of sober violence and a tense emotion.
What part did Metastasio play in the erection of this poeticomusical architecture which reserves the orchestral recitative for the great moments of the action? We shall discover this from a memorable letter which he wrote to Hasse on October 20, 1749, in connection with his Attilio Regolo; a letter to which we may usefully refer the reader. Never did poet supervise more closely the work of the composer or determine before-hand with greater definiteness the musical form adapted to each scene.
After a somewhat lengthy preamble, exquisite in its courtesy, in which Metastasio apologizes for offering advice to Hasse, he begins by explaining the characters of his drama: Regulus, the Roman hero, superior to human passions, equable and serene. . . . "I should find it displeasing," he says, "if his singing and the music that accompanies it were ever hurried save in two or three passages of the work. . . ." "The Consul Manlius, a great man, too inclined to emulation; Hamilcar, an African who understands nothing of the Roman maxims of honesty and justice but who finally comes to envy those who believe in them; Barcé, a beautiful and passionate African woman, of an amorous nature, solely preoccupied with Hamilcar."... etc. "Such are, generally speaking, the portraits which I have endeavored to draw. But you know that the brush does not always follow the outline conceived by the mind. It is for you, no less excellent as an artist than perfect as a friend, to clothe my characters with such masterly skill that they shall possess a marked individuality; if not by reason of the outlines of their features, at least by reason of their garments and adornments."
Then, having laid stress on the importance of the recitatives "enlivened by the instruments," that is, the accompagnati, he indicates where and how they should be employed in his drama.
"In the first act I perceive two places where the instruments may assist me. The first is Attilio's harangue to Manlius, in the second scene, from the line:
" `A che vengo! Ah sino a quando .
"After the words a che vengo the instruments may begin to make themselves heard and, sometimes silent, sometimes accompanying the voice, and sometimes rinforzando, give warmth to a speech which is already in itself impassioned. I should be glad if they did not desert Attilio until the line:
" `La barbara or qual e? Cartago, o Roma?'
"I think, moreover, that it is well to be on one's guard against the mistake of making the singer wait longer than the accompaniment itself demands. All the passion of the speech would be chilled, and the instruments, instead of animating, would weaken the recitative, which would be like a picture cut into sections and thrust into the background; in which case it would be better that there should be no accompaniment."
The same recommendation is made in respect to the seventh scene of Act I: "I insist once again that the actor should not be compelled to wait for the music and that the dramatic passion of the play should not be chilled in this way; I wish to see it increase from scene to scene."
A little farther on ". . . a brief symphony seems to me necessary to give the consul and the senators time to take their seats and in order that Regulus may arrive without haste and take time to reflect. The character of this symphony should be majestic, slow, and, if possible, it should be interrupted to ex-press Regulus' state of mind when he reflects that he is returning as a slave to the place where he was lately consul. In one of these interruptions of the symphony I should like Hamilcar to speak the two lines:
"`Regolo, a che t'arresti e f orse neovo
Per to questo soggiorno?'
and the symphony should not end before Regulus reply:
" Penso qual ne parlii, qual vi ritorno. "
In the second act two instrumental recitatives are required.
In one of these scenes, "Regulus should remain seated as far as the words:
"Ah no. De'vili questo a il linguaggio.'
"He will speak the rest standing. . . . If as a result of the arrangement of the scene Regulus cannot immediately seat himself, he should move slowly toward his seat, halting from time to time and apparently immersed in serious meditation; it would then be necessary that the orchestra should precede and support him until he is seated.
"All his speeches—reflections, doubts, hesitations—will give an opportunity for a few bars of instrumental music with unexpected modulations. Directly he rises, the music should express resolution and energy. And tedium must always be avoided.... "
For the third act: "I should like no instruments to be employed in the recitatives before the last scene although they might suitably be employed in two other scenes; but it seems to me that one should be sparing of such an effect."
This last scene is preceded by a violent tumult on the part of the people, who shout:
"Resti, Regolo, resti ..."
"This outcry should be extremely loud, firstly because truth requires that it should be so, and further, in order to give value to the silence which is then imposed upon the tumultuous populace by the mere presence of Regulus. . . . The instruments should be silent when the other characters are speaking; on the other hand, they accompany Regulus continually in this scene; the modulations and movements should be made to vary, not in accordance with the mere words, as is done by other writers of music, but in accordance with the inner emotion, as is done by the great musicians, your peers. For you know as well as I that the same words may, according to the circumstances, express (or conceal) joy or sorrow, wrath or compassion. I am fully convinced that an artist such as yourself will be able to contrive a large number of instrumental recitatives without fatiguing the hearers; in the first place, because you will carefully avoid allowing things to drag, as I have so insistently advised you; and more especially because you possess in perfection the art of varying and alternating the piano, the forte, the rinforzi, the staccati or congiunti concatenations, the ritardi, the pauses, the arpeggios, the tremolos, and above all those unexpected modulations whose secret resources you alone understand....
"Do you think I have done with annoying you? Not yet .. . I should like the final chorus to be one of those which, thanks to you, have given the public the desire, hitherto unknown, to listen to them. I should like you to make it obvious that this chorus is not an accessory but a necessary part of the tragedy and the catastrophe with which it closes."
And Metastasio brings his minute recommendation to an end only, he says, because he is tired; by no means because he has said everything. Doubtless subsequent conversations commented upon and completed this letter.
Let us sum up the advice here given. We shall note:
1. The supremacy of poetry over music. "The outlines of their features" refers to poetry. "Theft garments and adornments" are represented by music. Gluck expressed himself not very differently.
2. The importance given to the drama, the advice of the craftsman not to delay the actor's delivery so that there be no gaps in the dialogue. This is the condemnation of the useless aria. The music is subordinated to the scenic effect.
3. The psychological character attributed to the orchestra. "The symphony which expresses the reflections, doubts, and perplexities of Regulus." . . . The admitted power of good music to interpret not only the words but the hidden soul, whose emotions often differ completely from the expression of them—in a word, the inner tragedy.
All this, I repeat, is in accordance with Cluck's ideas. Why then are Metastasio and his composers always represented as opposed to Gluck's reform of the opera? This letter was written in 1749, at a date when Gluck had not as yet the least presentiment of his reform. We perceive from it that all artists of all camps were moved by the same preoccupations and were working at the same task. Only the formula adopted was not in all cases the same. Metastasio, a lover of bel canto and one of the last to preserve its true tradition, was unwilling to sacrifice it. And what musician would reproach him for this? He wished the voice—poetry and music—always to be the center of the picture; he distrusted the excessive development. of the orchestra of those days; he found it all the more dangerous in that he was conscious of its strength and endeavored to harness it in the service of his ideal of musical tragedy harmoniously proportioned. We must be truthful; under Gluck the drama gained much but poetry nothing. You will no longer find in him or in Jommelli the Racinian declamation, which was yet further softened and refined during the course of the eighteenth century, but a heavy, emphatic, paraded, shouted utterance; and it needed to be shouted to dominate the din of the orchestra! Compare a scene from Gluck's Armida with the corresponding scene in Lully's Armida; in these two lyric tragedies what a difference of declamation! In Gluck the declamation is slower; there is repetition; the orchestra roars and mutters; the voice is that of a Greek tragic mask: it bellows.
In Lully, and even more in Metastasio's musical collaborators, the voice was that of a great actor of the period; it obeyed certain conventions of good taste, moderation, and natural delivery, in the sense in which the word natural was in those days understood by society (for naturalness varies according to the period; different societies and different ages set different limits to it). The misunderstanding between these two schools was based far less upon fundamentals than upon the manner of expressing them. Everybody was agreed in admitting that opera was tragedy expressed in music. But everybody was not agreed as to what tragedy ought to be. On the one hand were the disciples of Racine; on the other the romantics, born be-fore their time.
Let us add that what matters most in art is not theory but the man who applies it. Gluck sought to reform the musical drama. So did Metastasio; so, in Berlin, did Algarotti, Graun, and Frederick II himself. But there are various ways of seeking to do this, and there is such a thing as temperament. Gluck's temperament was that of a revolutionist, intelligent and audacious, who could at need be brutal, who cared nothing for "what people would say" and turned the conventions topsy-turvy. Metastasio's was that of a man of the world who respected the established usages. He stuffed his operatic librettos with frigid sentences and finical comparisons, and to justify them he referred to the example of the Greeks and Romans; he informed Calzabigi that such methods "had always constituted the chief attraction of eloquence, sacred and profane."
The critics of his day justified them likewise by the example of the ancients and the French classics. They did not tell them-selves that in order to decide if a thing is good one must not ask oneself whether it was good and full of vitality at some previous period, but rather if it is so today. Herein lies the radical defect of such art as Metastasio's. It is full of taste and intelligence, perfectly balanced, but scholarly and sophisticated; it lacks audacity and vigor.
No matter! Though it was doomed to perish, it bore within it many ideas of the future. And who knows whether its worst misfortune was not the defeat suffered by Jommelli, who, of all the musicians subjected to its influence, was the most audacious and traveled farthest on the paths which Metastasio had opened up? Jommelli, who has sometimes been called the Italian Gluck, marks Italy's supreme effort to retain her primacy in opera. He sought to accomplish the reformation of musical tragedy without breaking with the Italian tradition, revivifying it by novel elements and above all by the dramatic power of the orchestra. He was not supported in his own country, and in Germany he was a foreigner, as was Metastasio. They were defeated; and their defeat was Italy's. The Italian Gluck founded no school. It was the German Gluck who assured the victory not merely a form of art but of a race.