SOME FORERUNNERS OF ITALIAN OPERA
W. J. HENDERSON
"The Orchestra and Orchestral Music," "What Is Good Music," "The Art of the Singer," etc.
New York Henry Holt and Company 1911 Copyright, 1911, by Henry Holt and Company Published March, 1911 The University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.
"In a land of sand and ruin and gold There shone one woman, and none but she."
The purpose of this volume is to offer to the English reader a short study of the lyric drama in Italy prior to the birth of opera, and to note in its history the growth of the artistic elements and influences which finally led the Florentine reformers to resort to the ancient drama in their search for a simplified medium of expression. The author has not deemed it essential to his aims that he should recount the history of all European essays in the field of lyric drama, but only that of those which directly affected the Italians and were hence the most important. For this reason, while some attention is given in the beginning to the French and German liturgical plays, the story soon confines itself to Italy.
The study of the character and performance of the first Italian secular drama, the "Orfeo" of Poliziano, unquestionably a lyric work, is the result of some years of labor. The author believes that what he has to offer on this topic will be found to possess historical value. The subsequent development of the lyric drama under the combined influences of polyphonic secular composition and the growing Italian taste for luxurious spectacle has been narrated at some length, because the author believes that the reformatory movement of the Florentines was the outcome of dissatisfaction with musical conditions brought about as much by indulgence of the appetite for the purely sensuous elements in music as by blind adherence to the restrictive laws of ecclesiastic counterpoint.
With the advent of dramatic recitative the work ends. The history of seventeenth-century opera, interesting as it is, does not belong to the subject especially treated in this volume. The authorities consulted will be named from time to time in the pages of the book.
Chapter Page I. The Early Liturgical Drama 1 II. The Sacre Rappresentazioni 21 III. Birthplace of the Secular Drama 35 IV. The Artistic Impulse 53 V. Poliziano's "Favola di Orfeo" 68 VI. The Performance of "Orfeo" 85 VII. Character of the Music 98 VIII. The Solos of the "Orfeo" 117 IX. The Orchestra of the "Orfeo" 136 X. From Frottola Drama to Madrigal 147 XI. The Predominance of the Spectacular 160 XII. Influence of the Taste for Comedy 179 XIII. Vecchi and the Matured Madrigal Drama 190 XIV. The Spectacular Element in Music 207 XV. The Medium for Individual Utterance 220 Index 237
SOME FORERUNNERS OF ITALIAN OPERA
The Early Liturgical Drama
The modern entertainment called opera is a child of the Roman Catholic Church. What might be described as operatic tendencies in the music of worship date further back than the foundation of Christianity. The Egyptians were accustomed to sing "jubilations" to their gods, and these consisted of florid cadences on prolonged vowel sounds. The Greeks caroled on vowels in honor of their deities. From these practices descended into the musical part of the earliest Christian worship a certain rhapsodic and exalted style of delivery, which is believed to have been St. Paul's "gift of tongues."
That this element should have disappeared for a considerable time from the church music is not at all remarkable, for in the first steps toward regulating the liturgy simplification was a prime requisite. Thus in the centuries before Gregory the plain chant gained complete ascendancy in the church and under him it acquired a systematization which had in it the elements of permanency.
Yet it was through the adaptation of this very chant to the delineation of episodes in religious history that the path to the opera was opened. The church slowly built up a ritual which offered no small amount of graphic interest for the eyes of the congregation. As ceremonials became more and more elaborate, they approached more and more closely the ground on which the ancient dramatic dance rested, and it was not long before they themselves acquired a distinctly dramatic character. It is at this point that the liturgical ancestry of the opera becomes quite manifest. The dance itself, at first an attempt to delineate dramatically by means of measured movement, and thus the origin of the art of dramatic action, was not without its place in the early church. The ancient pagan festivals made use of the dance, and the early Christians borrowed it from them. At one time Christian priests executed solemn dances before their altars just as their Greek predecessors had done. But in the course of time the dance became generally practised by the congregation and this gave rise to abuses. The authorities of the church abandoned it. But the feeling for it lingered, and in after years issued in the employment of the procession. When the procession left the sanctuary and displayed itself in the open air, something of the nature of the dance returned to it and its development into a dramatic spectacle was not difficult.
According to Magnin the lyric drama of the Middle Ages had three sources,—the aristocracy, religion and the people. Coussemaker finds that this lyric drama had in its inception two chief varieties, namely, the secular drama, and the religious or liturgical drama. "Each of these dramas," he says, "had its own particular subject matter, character, charms and style. The music, which formed an integral part of it, was equally different in the one from the other."
[Footnote 1: "Les Origines du Theatre Moderne ou Histoire du Genie Dramatique depuis le Premier Siecle jusqu'au XVIe." Paris, 1838.]
[Footnote 2: "Histoire de l'Harmonie au Moyen Age." Paris, 1852.]
The liturgical drama, which was chronologically the first of the two forms, originated, as we have noted, in the ceremonies of the Christian church, in the strong dramatic element which inheres in the mass, the Christmas fetes, and those of the Epiphany, the Palms and the Passion. These are all scenes in the drama of the sacrifice of the Redeemer, and it required but small progress to develop them into real dramatic performances, designed for the instruction of a people which as yet had no literature.
The wearing of appropriate costumes by priest, deacon, sub-deacon and boys of the choir is in certain ceremonies associated with the use of melody and accent equally suited to the several roles. Each festival is an anniversary, and in the early church was celebrated with rites, chants and ornaments corresponding to its origin. The Noel, for example, was supposed to be the song which the angels sang at the nativity, and for the sake of realistic effect some of the Latin churches used the Greek words which they thought approached most closely to the original text. The Passion was the subject of a series of little dramas enacted as ceremonials of holy week in all the Catholic churches.
Out of these ceremonies, then, grew the liturgical drama. The most ancient specimens of it which have come down to us are those collected under the title "Vierges sages et Vierges folles," preserved in MS. 1139 of the national library at Paris. The manuscript contains two of these dramas and a fragment of a third. The first is the "Three Maries." This is an office of the sepulcher, and has five personages: an angel, the guardian of the tomb and the three Maries.
The drama of the wise and foolish virgins, which was thoroughly examined by M. Magnin and by Coussemaker after him, is simple in construction. It begins with a chorus in Latin, the theme of which is indicated by the first words:
"Adest sponsus qui est Christus: vigilate, virgines."
This chorus is set to a melody grave and plaintive. Then the archangel Gabriel, using the Provencal tongue, announces the coming of Christ and tells what the Savior has suffered on earth for the sins of man. Each strophe is terminated by a refrain, of which the conclusion has the same melody as the first stanza of each of the strophes. The foolish virgins confess their sins and beg their sisters for help. They sing in Latin, and their three strophes have a melody different from that of the preceding strophes. They terminate, like the others, with a sad and plaintive refrain, of which the words are Provencal:
"Dolentas! Chaitivas! trop i avem dormit."
In modern French this line reads, "Malheureuses! Chetives! Nous avons trop dormi!" The wise virgins refuse the oil and bid their foolish sisters to go and buy it. All the strophes change the melody at each change of personages. The little drama comes to its end with the intervention of Christ, who condemns the foolish virgins. The words of the Savior have no music. Coussemaker wonders whether the musician was unable to find a melody worthy to be sung by the Savior or intentionally made Him speak instead of chant. The same author, in his "Histoire de l'Harmonie au Moyen Age," gives facsimiles of all the pages of the original manuscript of this play. The notation, that of the eleventh century, is beautifully clear, and its deciphering is made easier by the presence of a line ruled across the page to indicate the relative positions of the notes. The music of these dramas is what we should naturally expect it to be, if we take into account the character of the text. The subjects of the dramas were always incidents from the Bible and the plays were represented in churches by priests or those close to them.
It is certain that the educational drama of the church continued in the state of its infancy for several centuries. Even after the birth of the "Sacra Rappresentazione" in the fourteenth century the old-fashioned liturgical drama survived in Italy and was preserved in activity in other parts of Europe. Several interesting manuscripts in great libraries attest the consideration accorded to it at a period much later than that of which we have been speaking. Nevertheless the era of the origin of the plays as a rule will be found to antedate that of the manuscripts. For example, in the royal library of Berlin there is a fifteenth century manuscript of a liturgical drama entitled, "Die Marienklage." Dr. Frommann, of Nuremberg, after careful study, has decided that the play was of middle German (perhaps Thuringian) origin in the fourteenth century. This play is in part sung and in part spoken. It begins with this bit of Latin chant by Mary:
[Footnote 3: See Robert Eitner's introduction to the First Part of "Die Oper von ihren ersten Anfaengen bis zur Mitte des 18. Jahrhunderts." Leipsic, 1881.]
The rest of the text is in old German. Here is a specimen of the recitative or chant with the German text:
These recitatives are in a style exactly like that of the early French church plays.
As Coussemaker notes, one does not find in these plays the passions, the intrigues nor the scenic movement found in the secular drama. What we do find is calm simplicity of statement, elevation and nobility of thought, purity of moral principles. The music designed to present these ideas in a high light necessarily has an appropriate character. We do not find here music of strongly marked rhythm and clearly defined measure, suitable to the utterance of worldly emotions, but a melody resembling the chant, written in the tonalities used in the church, but containing a certain kind of prose rhythm and accentuation, such as exists in the Gregorian music.
This was the inevitable march of development. The liturgical drama originated, as has been shown, in the celebration of certain offices and fetes, for which the music assumed a style of delivery clothed in unwonted pomp. Characters and costumes and specially composed music soon found their way into these ceremonies. The new music followed the old lines and preserved the character of the liturgical chant. Gradually these accessories rose to the importance of separate incidents and finally to that of dramas. But they did not lose their original literary and musical character.
In studying the development of a secular lyric drama, it is essential that we keep in mind the nature of the music employed in the dramatic ceremonials, and later in the frankly theatrical representations of the church. The opera is a child of Italy and its direct ancestors must be sought there. The first secular musical plays of France far antedated the birth of the primitive lyric drama of Italy, and it requires something more than scientific devotion to establish a close connection between the two. But the early French ecclesiastical play is directly related to that of Italy. Both were products of the Catholic Church. Both employed the same texts and the same kind of music. They were developed by similar conditions; they were performed in similar circumstances and under the same rules.
For these reasons it is proper to discuss the early French religious drama and that of Italy as practically one and the same thing, and to pass without discrimination from the first performances of such plays outside the church to the establishment of that well-defined variety known in Italy as the "Sacre Rappresentazioni." This form, as we shall see, was the immediate outgrowth of the "laud," but one of its ancestors was the open-air performances. The emergence of the churchly play into the open was effected through the agency of ecclesiastic ceremonial. Pagan traditions and festivities died a hard death in the early years of Christianity, and some of them, instead of passing entirely out of the world of worship, maintained their existence in a transformed shape. Funerals, as Chouquet pointedly notes, "provided the occasion for scenic performances and certain religious fetes the pretext for profane ceremonies."
[Footnote 4: "Histoire de la Musique Dramatique en France," par Gustave Chouquet. Paris, 1873.]
The fete of the ass, celebrated on January 14 every year at Beauvais, was an excellent example of this sort of ceremony. This was a representation of the flight into Egypt. A beautiful young woman, carrying in her arms an infant gorgeously dressed, was mounted on an ass. Then she moved with a procession from the cathedral to the church of St. Etienne. The procession marched into the choir, while the girl, still riding the ass, took a position in front of the altar. Then the mass was celebrated, and at the end of each part the words "Hin han" were chanted in imitation of the braying of the beast. The officiating priest, instead of chanting the "Ite missa est," invited the congregation to join in imitating the bray.
This simple procession in time developed into a much more pretentious liturgical drama called "The Prophets of Christ." But this appearance in the open streets was doubtless the beginning of the custom of enacting sacred plays in the public squares of cities and small towns. The fete of the ass dates from the eleventh century, and we shall see that open-air performances of religious dramas took place in the twelfth, if no sooner.
Other significant elements of the fete of the ass and similar ceremonials were the singing of choruses by the populace and dancing. In the Beauvais "Flight into Egypt" at one point the choir sang an old song, half Latin and half French, before the ass, clothed in a cope.
"Hez, sire Asnes, car chantez! Belle bouche rechignez; Vous aurez du foin assez Et de l'avoine a plantez."
This refrain was changed after each stanza of the Latin. The people of Limoges, in their yearly festival, sang:
"San Marceau, pregas per nous, E nous epingarem per vous."
In the seventeenth century these good people of Limoges were still holding a festival in honor of the patron saint of their parish, and singing:
"Saint Martial, priez pour nous, Et nous, nous danserons pour vous!"
This choral dance formed in the church, and continued to the middle of the nave, and thence to the square before the edifice, or even into the cemetery. At a period later than that first mentioned these dances had instrumental accompaniment and became animated even to the verge of hysteria. Thus unwittingly the people of the medieval church were gathering into a loose, but by no means unformed, union the same materials as the ancients used in the creation of their drama.
The earnest Lewis Riccoboni holds that the Fraternity of the Gonfalone, founded in 1264, was accustomed to enact the Passion in the Coliseum, and that these performances lasted till Paul III abolished them in 1549. Riccoboni argues that not the performance was interdicted, but the use of the Coliseum. This matters not greatly, since it is perfectly certain that out-door performances of the Passion took place long before 1549. Those which were given in France were extremely interesting and in regard to them we have important records. It is established beyond doubt that near the end of the fourteenth century a company of players called the Fraternity of the Passion assisted at the festivities attendant upon the marriage of Charles VI and Isabella of Bavaria. Thereafter they gave public performances of their version of the Passion.
[Footnote 5: "An Historical and Critical Account of the Theaters in Europe," by Lewis Riccoboni, translated from the Italian. London, 1741.]
It was too long to be performed without rest, and it was therefore divided into several days' work. It employed eighty-seven personages and made use of elaborate machinery. There seems to be little doubt that some of the scenes were sung, and there is no question that there were choruses. The stage directions are not the least remarkable part of this play. The baptism is set forth in this wise: "Here Jesus enters the waters of Jordan, all naked, and Saint John takes some of the water in his hand and throws it on the head of Jesus." Saint John says:
"Sir, you now baptized are, As it suits my simple skill, Not the lofty rank you fill; Unmeet for such great service I; Yet my God, so debonair, All that's wanting will supply."
"Here Jesus comes out of the river Jordan and throws himself upon his knees, all naked, before Paradise. Then God, the Father, speaks, and the Holy Ghost descends, in the form of a white dove, upon the head of Jesus, and then returns into Paradise: and note that the words of God the Father be very audibly pronounced and well sounded in three voices, that is to say, a treble, a counter-treble and a counter-bass, all in tune; and in this way must the following lines be repeated:
'Hic est filius meus dilectus, In quo mihi bene complacui. C'estui-ci est mon fils ame Jesus, Que bien me plaist, ma plaisance est en lui.'"
Students are offered another choice of dates for the beginning of the performance of sacred plays in the open air in Italy, to wit, 1304. Vasari says that in this year a play was enacted on the Arno, that a "machine representing hell was fixed upon the boats, and that the subject of the drama was the perennially popular tale of 'Dives and Lazarus'." But Vasari was not born till 1512, and he neglected to state where he got his information. The latter years of the fourteenth century, at any rate, saw the open-air sacred drama in full action, and that suffices for our purpose.
The Sacre Rappresentazioni
Leaving D'Ancona, Vasari and the others in their confusion of dates, we find ourselves provided with a satisfactory point of departure and with some facts well defined. The drift of Provencal ideas over the borders into Lombardy may or may not have given some impetus to the growth of certain forms in Tuscany and Umbria, but at any rate it is clear that the Italian form of "Sacre Rappresentazioni" grew chiefly out of the poetic form called "Laud."
This itself was one of the products of a religious emotion. To observe it in its cradle we must go back to the beginnings of Italian literature. The seemingly endless battle between Emperor and Pope, which scarred the soul of Italy through so many years, was at that time raging between Frederick II and Innocent III and Gregory IX. The land reeked with carnage, rapine, murder, fire and famine. So great was the force of all this that the people fell into a state of religious terror. They believed that the vengeance of a wrathful God must immediately descend upon the country, and as a penance the practice of flagellation was introduced.
Against this horrible atonement came a violent reaction, and out of the reaction attempts to continue in a soberer and more rational form the propitiatory ideas of the flagellants. The chief furtherers of these reforms were lay fraternities, calling themselves Disciplinati di Gesu Cristo. From the very outset these fraternities practised the singing of hymns in Italian, instead of Latin, the church language. These hymns dealt chiefly with the Passion. They were called "Lauds" and they had a rude directness and unlettered force which the Latin hymns never possessed. Presently the disciplinati became known as Laudesi. The master maker of "Lauds" was Jacopone da Todi and his most significant production took the form of a dialogue between Mary and the Savior on the cross, followed by the lamentation of the mother over her Son. Mary at one point appeals to Pilate, but is interrupted by the chorus of Jews, crying "Crucify him!" Many other "Lauds," however, were rather more in the manner of short songs than in that of the subsequently developed cantata. The music employed was without doubt that of the popular songs of the time. It appears to have made no difference to the Italians what kind of tune they employed. They "sang the same strambotti to the Virgin and the lady of their love, to the rose of Jericho and the red rose of the balcony."
Here, then, we find a significant difference between the liturgical drama and the sacred representations. The chant, which was the musical garb of the former appears to have had no position in the latter. We shall perceive later that this difference marked a point of departure from which the entire lyric drama of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, prior to the invention of dramatic recitative by the Florentines, proceeded to move in a musical world of its own.
The sacred representations built up a method complex and pregnant without chancing upon the defining element of opera. And this result was reached chiefly, if not solely, because the ecclesiastic chant was not employed. In its stead the musical forms practised by composers of secular music and adopted by musicians of such small education as hardly to be worthy of the title of composers, makers of carnival songs and frottole, predominated and determined the musical character not only of the Sacre Rappresentazioni, but also of the secular lyric plays which succeeded them and which continued to exist in Italy even after the "stile rappresentativo" had been introduced in the primitive dramma per musica of Caccini and Peri.
A closer examination of the songs of this period and of the manner in which they affected the lyric character of the sacred plays and the succeeding secular dramas may be postponed until we have permitted ourselves a glance at the character of the sacred plays as literary products and have taken into account the manner of their performance.
The Disciplinati di Gesu began by intoning their lauds before a crucifix or the shrine of some saint. Presently they introduced antiphonal singing and in the end dialogue and action. By the middle of the fourteenth century the laud came to be called "Divozione." After being written in a number of meters it finally adhered to the ottava rima, the stanza generally used in the popular poetry of the fifteenth century. It was the custom to sing these dramatic lauds or "Divozioni" in the oratories. Every fraternity had a collection of such lauds and that they were performed with much detail is easily ascertained.
Records of the Perugian Confraternity of San Domenico for 1339 show that wings and crowns for angels, a crimson robe for Christ, black veils for the Maries, a coat of mail for Longinus, a dove to symbolize the Holy Ghost and other properties had been used. By 1375 the "Divozioni" were acted in church on a specially constructed stage, built against the screen separating the choir from the nave. The audience sat in the nave, and a preacher from time to time made explanations and comments. The stage had two stories, the upper of which was reserved for celestial beings.
The "Divozione" appears to be, as Symonds declares it to be, the Italian variety of liturgical drama. The Sacra Rappresentazione, which was developed from it, was a very different affair. Just when these representations took definite individual form is not known, but the period of their high development was from 1470 to 1520. It was precisely at this time that their entire apparatus was adapted to the dramatization of secular stories and the secular lyric drama came into existence.
This whole subject has been exhaustively treated by John Addington Symonds in the fourth volume in his great work "The Renaissance in Italy." He examines briefly, but suggestively, D'Ancona's theory, that the "Sacre Rappresentazioni" resulted from a blending of the Umbrian divozioni with the civic pageants of St. John's Day in Florence. Civic pageants were common and in them sacred and profane elements were curiously mingled. For example, "Perugia gratified Eugenius IV in 1444 with the story of the Minotaur, the tragedy of Iphigenia, the Nativity and the Ascension."
In the great midsummer pageant of St. John's Day there were twenty-two floats with scenery and actors to represent such events as the Delivery of the Law to Moses, the Creation, the Temptation, etc. The machinery of those shows was so elaborate that the cathedral plaza was covered with a blue awning to represent the heavens, while wooden frames, covered with wool and lighted up, represented clouds amid which various saints appeared. Iron supports bore up children dressed as angels and the whole was made to "move slowly on the backs of bearers concealed beneath the frame."
We are justified in inferring that ability to supply an elaborate scenic investiture for the sacred drama was not wanting. When the sacred plays began to be written, their authors were for the most part persons of no distinction, but Lorenzo de Medici wrote one and Pulci also contributed to this form of art. The best writers, according to Symonds, were Feo Belcari and Castellano Castellani.
The sacred plays were not divided into acts, but the stage directions make it plain that scenes were changed. The dramas were not very artistic in structure. The story was set forth baldly and simply, and the language became stereotyped. The "success of the play," says Symonds, "depended on the movement of the story, and the attractions of the scenery, costumes and music."
Symonds describes at some length "Saint Uliva" and the interludes of Cecchi's "Esaltazione della Croce." The latter belongs to 1589, but it is almost certain that the manner of presentation was traditional. That similar splendors might have been exhibited in the fifteenth century we shall see later. Symonds thus describes the introduction to the "Esaltazione." A skilful architect turned the field of San Giovanni into a theater, covered with a red tent. The rising of the curtain showed Jacob asleep with his head resting on rocks, while he wore a shirt of fine linen and cloth of silver stockings and had costly furs thrown over him. As he slept the heavens opened and seven angels appeared sitting on clouds and making "a most pleasant noise with horns, greater and less viols, lutes and organ.... The music of this and all the other interludes was the composition of Luca Bati, a man of this art most excellent." After this celestial music another part of the heavens opened and disclosed God the Father. A ladder was let down, and God leaning upon it "sang majestically to the sound of many instruments in a sonorous bass voice."
The other interludes were also filled with scenic and musical effects. For instance one showed the ecstasy of David, dancing before the ark "to the sound of a large lute, a violin, a trombone, but more especially to his own harp." These references to the employment of many instruments in accompanying the voice or the dance make us wonder whether our historical stories of the birth and development of the orchestra are well grounded. But we shall have occasion to consider this matter more fully when we approach the study of the musical apparatus of the first lyric dramas. It may be noted, however, in passing that the Italian word "violino" was used as late as 1597 to designate the tenor viol. This instance of uncertainty in terminology warns us to be careful in accepting all things literally.
Perhaps what is of greater significance is the fact that there seems to have been more uniformity of effort and style in the first secular drama, doubtless owing to its great superiority as a piece of literary art. That sacred plays were seldom written by men of literary rank and ability we have already noted. That they were long drawn out, cumbersome, disjointed and quite without dramatic design has also been indicated. Their real significance as forerunners of opera lies in their insistent employment of certain materials, such as verse, music and spectacular action, which afterwards became essential parts of the machinery of the lyric drama.
Indeed in the profusion of spectacular interludes one finds much that resembles not only opera, but also the English masque and sometimes even the French pastoral. Yet close examination will convince any student of operatic history that almost every form of theatrical performance, from the choral dance to the most elaborate festival show, exerted a certain amount of influence on the hybrid product called opera. For example, between the acts of "Saint Uliva," which required two days for its presentation, the "Masque of Hope" was given. The stage directions say: "You will cause three women, well beseen, to issue, one of them attired in white, one in red, the other in green, with golden balls in their hands, and with them a young man robed in white; and let him, after looking many times first on one and then on another of these damsels, at last stay still and say the following verses, gazing at her who is clad in green." The story of Echo and Narcissus was also enacted and the choir of nymphs which carried off the dead youth had a song beginning thus:
"Fly forth in bliss to heaven, Thou happy soul and fair."
On the other hand some few sacred plays showed skill in the treatment of character. The "Mary Magdalen" is one of these. The Magdalen is portrayed with power and even passion. But the general purpose of the sacred play, which was to instruct the populace in the stories of Bible history, precluded the exercise of high literary imagination. Fancy and the taste of the time seem to have governed the fashioning of these plays. Their historic importance thus becomes much larger than their artistic value. Their close approach to the character of early opera is beyond question.
Birthplace of the Secular Drama
In the midst of more imposing chronicles bearing upon the growth of Italy the student of her history is likely to lose sight of the little Marquisate of Mantua. Yet its story is profoundly interesting and in its relations to the development of the lyric drama filled with significance. That it should have come to occupy such a high position among the cultivated centers of the Renaissance seems singularly appropriate since Virgil, the Italian literary deity of the period, was born at Pietole, now a suburb of Mantua.
The marquisate owed its elevation to the character of the great lords of the house of Gonzaga, who ruled it from 1328 to 1708. In the former year the head of the house ousted from the government the Buonacolsis, who had been masters since 1247. In 1432 the Gonzagas were invested with the hereditary title of Marquis and in 1530 Charles V raised the head of the house to the rank of Duke. When the last duke died without issue in 1708 Austria gained possession of the little realm.
Entangled in the ceaseless turmoil of wars between Milan and the forces allied against her, Mantua under the rule of the Gonzagas maintained her intellectual energy and played bravely her part in the revival of classic learning. Her court became a center of scholarship from which radiated a beneficent influence through much of northern Italy. The lords of Gonzaga fought and plotted, ate and drank, and plunged into the riotous dissipation and free play of passions which characterized the Renaissance period, but like other distinguished Italians they steeped themselves in learning and were the proud patrons of artists, authors, teachers, composers.
The eminence of the house in scholarship doubtless dated from the reign of the Marchese Gian Francesco Gonzaga. This nobleman cherished a genuine love for ancient history and was not without an appreciation of Roman verse. Believing, as he did in common with most Italians, that the republican thought of Rome was the foundation of all exalted living, he realized that his children ought to be committed to the care of a master thoroughly schooled in ancient lore. He therefore invited to his court, in 1425, the distinguished scholar Vittorino da Feltre and gave the children entirely into his hands. A separate villa was allotted to the master and his pupils. This house had been a pleasure resort where the young Gonzagas and their friends had idled and feasted. Under Vittorino it was gradually transformed into a great school, for the Marquis was liberal enough to open its doors to students from various parts of Italy. The influence of the institution became far reaching and vital. The children of the Marquis, surrounded by earnest minds, by students often so poor that they had to be provided by their patron with clothes and food, but none the less respected in that little community of the intellect for their sincerity and their industry, could not fail to imbibe a deep reverence for learning and a keen and discriminating taste in art.
It is, then, in the natural order of things that Ludovico Gonzaga, one of the sons of Francesco and pupils of Vittorino, should have been proud to receive at his court the sycophantic and avaricious poet Filelfo, and to suffer under his systematic begging. He discharged his debt to the world of art with greater insight when in 1456 he invited to his court the great painter Mantegna. He offered the artist a substantial salary and in 1460 the master went to reside at Mantua. He remained there under three successive marquises till his death in 1506. He enriched the little capital with splendid creations of his art, now unfortunately mostly destroyed. Mantegna's "Madonna della Vittoria," in the Louvre, was painted to celebrate the deeds of Francesco Gonzaga in the battle of Fornovo.
When he was ejected from Rome for making obscene pictures, Giulio Romano went to live at Mantua, and the city still bears the traces of his residence as well as of Mantegna's. The ducal palace, begun in 1302, contains five hundred rooms in many of which are paintings by Romano. The Palazzo Te is regarded by most authorities as Giulio's noblest monument, displaying, as it does, his skill as an architect, painter and sculptor. The Cathedral of San Pietro was restored from his designs and in the Church of San Andrea, in a tomb adorned by his pupils, sleeps the great Mantegna.
The history of music at the court of Mantua begins at least as early as the fourteenth century. Vander Straeten found some record of a musician of the Gallo-Belgic school called Jean le Chartreux, or by the Italians Giovanni di Namur. He was the author of a "Libellus Musicus," preserved in the British Museum. He was born at Namur, learned singing, and according to Vander Straeten, studied the works of Boethius under Vittorino da Feltre in Italy. He cites Marchetto of Padua as the first to write in the chromatic manner since Boethius. Bertolotti in his searching examination of the records of Mantua found numerous names of musicians employed at the court or permitted to exercise their calling within the boundaries of the marquisate. He notes the predominance of Flemish masters and the supremacy of their ideas in the music of Italy. He attributes to Vittorino da Feltre the introduction of the systematic study of music and credits him with publicly teaching the art and inspiring in some measure the treatise of Jean le Chartreux. From Bertolotti we learn that Maestro Rodolfo de Alemannia, an organist, and German, living in Mantua, obtained in 1435 certain privileges in the construction of organs for six years.
[Footnote 6: "La Musique aux Pays-Bas avant le XIX Siecle," Edmond Vander Straeten. Brussels, 1867-1888.]
[Footnote 7: "Musici alia Corte dei Gonzaga in Mantova dal Secolo XV al XVIII," per A. Bertolotti. Milan.]
From this time forward we find music and musicians in high favor at the court of Mantua. Neither Vander Straeten nor Bertolotti succeeded in obtaining from the archives of the city more than fragmentary mention of musicians of whom we would gladly know more. Nevertheless there is sufficient to demonstrate the interest of the marquises in the art and the frequency with which musical entertainment was provided.
Toward the end of 1458 Germans became more numerous among the musicians at Mantua, though they do not appear at any time to have held a commanding position. This is quite natural since at that period German musicians had no school of their own, but with the rest of the world were followers of the Flemings. In 1458 Barbara of Brandenburg, Marchioness of Mantua, took from Ferrara Marco and Giovanni Peccenini, who were of German birth. Two years later the Marquis, wishing to engage a master of singing for his son, sent to one Nicolo, the German, at Ferrara, and this musician recommended Giovanni Brith as highly qualified to sing in the latest fashion the best songs of the Venetian style.
Ludovico, who has already been mentioned and who was the marquis from 1444 to 1478, had for two years at his court the celebrated Franchino Gaffori. This master, born near Lodi in 1451, was the son of one Betino, a soldier. The boy went into the church in childhood and studied ecclesiastical music under a Carmelite monk named Johannis Godendach. Later, he went to Mantua, where his father was in the service of the Marquis. "Here for two years he closely applied himself day and night to study, during which time he composed many tracts on the theory and practice of music." The period of Gaffori's greatest achievements in theoretical work, especially his noted "Practica Musicae," from which Hawkins quotes copiously, was later than his residence at Mantua, but his studies at that court at least betoken the existence of a congenial atmosphere, and we may be assured that such an enlightened amateur as Ludovico did not neglect opportunities to acquaint himself with the workings of this studious mind.
[Footnote 8: "A General History of the Science and Practice of Music," by Sir John Hawkins. London, 1776.]
Bertolotti reproduces sundry interesting letters which passed between the courts of Ferrara and Mantua and dealt with musical matters. Perhaps an epistle from the Duke of Milan in January, 1473, might cause a passing smile of amusement, for in it the Duke confides to the Mantuan Marquis a project for the revival of music in Italy. It seems that he was weary of the long reign of the Flemings, and was sending to Rome for the best musicians with the purpose of founding an orchestra so that composers and singers would be attracted to his court. But as this fine project had no direct bearing on the history of the lyric drama we may permit it to pass without further examination.
However far we may follow the extracts from the archives of Mantua in the fifteenth century, we get nothing definite in regard to the production of the first Italian secular and lyric drama at that court. We are driven into the hazardous realm of conjecture as to the relations between its production and the prominent musicians who formed part of the suite of the Marquis. This indeed is but natural, since it could not be expected of the Marquis and his associates that they should know they were making history.
We learn that in 1481 Gian Pietro della Viola, a Florentine by birth, accompanied Clara Gonzaga when she became the Duchess of Montpensier and that he returned to Mantua in 1484—the year after "Orfeo" was probably produced. We learn that he composed the music for the ballerino, Lorenzo Lavagnolo, who returned to Mantua in 1485 after having been since 1479 in the service of the Duchess Bona of Savoy. We are at least free to conjecture that before 1479 Lavagnolo trained the chorus of Mantua in dancing so that he may have contributed something to the ballata which we shall at the proper place see as a number in Poliziano's "Orfeo."
Travel between the courts of Mantua and Ferrara was not unfamiliar to musicians, and there is reason to believe that those of the former court often sought instruction from those of the latter. For example, it is on record that Gian Andrea di Alessandro, who became organist to the Marquis of Mantua in 1485, was sent in 1490 to Ferrara that he might "learn better song and playing the organ from Girolamo del Bruno." In 1492 he was sufficiently instructed to be sent by the Marquis to San Benedetto to play for the ambassador from Venice to Milan.
The celebrated composer of frottole, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, was for some time in the service of the Mantuan court. It was formerly believed that he went to Mantua in 1494, but Signer Bertolotti unearthed a document which showed that his father was engaged there in 1487. From which the learned Italian investigator reached the conclusion that the young Tromboncino was with his parent. It seems to be pretty well established that the two went together to Venice in 1495.
But he returned to Mantua and for many years passed some of his time at that court and some at Ferrara. For example, we learn that in 1497 the Cardinal d'Este promised the Marchioness of Mantua that she should have some new compositions by Tromboncino. Yet in 1499 he was sent with other musicians of the suite of the Gonzagas to Vincenza to sing a vesper service in some church. It appears that Tromboncino was not only a composer, but an instrumental musician and a singer.
These fragmentary references to the activities of Tromboncino at the court of Mantua are indeed unsatisfactory, but they are about all that are within our reach. That he was born at Verona and that he was one of the most popular composers of the latter end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century and that his special field of art was the frottola are almost the sum total of the story of his career. We know that he wrote two sacred songs in the frottola style, nine "Lamentations" and one "Benedictus" for three voices. Petrucci's nine books of frottole (Venice, 1509) contain all of Tromboncino's.
Carlo Delaunasy, a singer in the service of Isabella, Marchioness of Mantua in 1499, and Marco Carra, director of music to the Marquis in 1503, 1514 and 1525, are among the names unearthed from the archives of Mantua by their keeper at the request of Mr. Vander Straeten. These papers contained the names of a few other singers, players and directors, but their inadequacy was demonstrated by the fact that they contained no mention of Jacques de Wert, a composer of great activity and talent, to whom Vander Straeten devotes some fifteen pages of his exhaustive work.
De Wert was born in Flanders near the end of the first half of the sixteenth century. While yet a child he was a choir boy in the service of Maria de Cardona, Marchesa della Padulla. Subsequently he entered the service of Count Alfonso of Novellara and in 1558 he published a book of madrigals which attracted widespread attention. Ten years later we find him at the court of Mantua, where his happiness was destroyed by the conduct of his wife. He appealed for aid to the Duke of Ferrara and the result appears to have been a dual service, for while he remained at Mantua he wrote much for the other court. His distinguished "Concerto Maggiore" for fifty-seven singers was written for some state festival.
His service at Ferrara, whither he often went, enticed him into a relationship with Tarquinia Molza, a poet and court lady, which caused her to go into retirement. De Wert continued to live in Mantua and his last book of madrigals was published in Venice, September 10, 1591. He must have died soon afterward. Between 1558 and 1591 he put forth ten books of madrigals, generally for five voices, though toward the end he sometimes composed for six or seven. He was the author also of some motets, and Luca Marenzio, who brought the madrigal style to its most beautiful development and whose influence molded the methods of the English glee and madrigal writers, is believed to have been his pupil for a short time. Marenzio unquestionably lived for some months in Mantua, where according to Calvi he completed his studies under the guidance of the Duke.
[Footnote 9: "Scena Letteraria degli Scrittori Bergamaschi," per Donato Calvi. Bergamo, 1664.]
Of Alessandro Striggio and his art work at the court of Mantua and elsewhere special mention will be made in another part of this work. Moreover it is not necessary that anything should be said here of the epoch-making creations of Claudio Monteverde, who was long in the Gonzaga service and who produced his "Orfeo" at Mantua. Sufficient has been set forth in this chapter to give some estimate of the importance and activity of Mantua as a literary and musical center. The culture of the age was confined almost exclusively to churchmen, professors, literary laborers and the nobility. The long line of musical and dramatic development followed at Mantua had no relation to the general art life of the Italian people. But its importance in its preparation for the birth of the art form finally known as opera is not easily overestimated, especially when we remember that this form did not become a public entertainment till 1637. It was at Mantua that Angelo Poliziano's "Orfeo," the first lyric drama with a secular subject, was produced, and it must be our next business to examine this work and set forth the conditions under which it was made known.
The Artistic Impulse
The non-existence of the drama in the Middle Ages is one of the strikingly significant deficiencies of the period. The illiterate condition of the people, and even of the nobility, the fragmentary state of governments, the centralizing of small and dependent communities around the feet of petty tyrants, the frequency of wars large and small, and the devotion of men to skill in the use of arms, made it impossible that attention should be bestowed upon so polite and sedentary a form of amusement as the drama.
It is generally held that the church made the first movement toward the abolition of the drama by placing its ban on the plays handed down from the Greeks and the Romans, partly because of their inculcation of reverence for heathen deities and partly because of the shameless indecencies which had invaded them. But this could have been only one of many causes which operated in keeping the play out of Europe for so many centuries. When it was revived, as we have seen, in the form of the liturgical drama and afterward of the sacred representation, it bore little or no resemblance to the splendid art product bequeathed to the world by the Greeks.
The sudden and glorious return of the dramatic subjects of the Greeks to the stage of medieval Europe marks the beginning of the modern era. When the Italians turned to the stories of ancient fable for material for their secular drama they were without doubt quite unconscious of the importance of the step they were taking. It is only the reflective eye of retrospective study that can discern all the significant elements happily combined in this event by the overmastering laws of human progress.
To enter into a detailed examination of the matter would demand of us a review of the whole movement known as the Renaissance. This, however, is not essential to an appreciation of the precise nature of the step from the sacred representation to the lyric drama and its importance in laying the foundations of opera. This momentous step was taken late in the fifteenth century with the performance of Angelo Poliziano's "Favola di Orfeo" at the Court of Mantua to celebrate the return of the Cardinal Gonzaga. The Italian authorities are by no means agreed as to the importance of this production. Rossi says:
"The circle of plot in the religious drama, at first restricted to the life of Christ, had been gradually broadened. Some writers, wishing to adapt attractive themes to the aristocratic gatherings of the princely courts, availed themselves of the very form of the sacred drama of the people in the treatment of subjects entirely profane. Thus did Poliziano, whose 'Orfeo,' as the evident reproduction of that form in a mythological subject is an isolated type in the history of the Italian drama."
[Footnote 10: "Storia della Letteratura Italiana." Milan, 1905.]
Alessandro D'Ancona in his monumental work on the sources of the Italian play says:
"The 'Favola di Orfeo,' although it drew its argument from mythology, was hardly dissimilar in its intrinsic character from the sacred plays, and was moreover far from that second form of tragedy which was later given to it, not by the author himself, but probably by Tebaldeo, to serve the dramatic tastes of Ferrara. So then the 'Fable of Orpheus' is a prelude, a passage, an attempt at the transformation of the dramatic spectacle so dear to the people, and while it detaches itself in subject from the religious tradition, it is not yet involved in the meshes of classic imitation. If, indeed, from the stage setting and from the music introduced into it, it is already an artistic spectacle, it cannot be called an example of ancient art restored. It was a theatrical ornament to a prince's festival."
[Footnote 11: "Origini del Teatro in Italia." Firenze, 1877.]
Perhaps both of these admirable Italian authors had their eyes too closely fixed on the spoken drama to perceive the immense significance of Poliziano's "Orfeo" in the field of opera. If they had paused for a moment to consider that Peri and Caccini chose the same story for the book of their operas, in which the musical departure was even more significant than the dramatic innovation of Poliziano had been, that Monteverde utilized the same theme in his epoch-making "Orfeo," and that for nearly two centuries the poetic and musical suggestiveness of the Orpheus legend made it hold its grip on the affections of composers, they might have realized better the relative value of the achievement of Poliziano.
Let us then briefly review the influences which led to the selection of the subject and the character of its literary investiture by the Italian poet. The nature of the music and the manner of performance will have to be examined separately. The transformation which came upon Italian life and thought under the influence of the revival of the study of ancient literature and philosophy has been extensively examined in numerous works. But at this point we must recall at least the particular effect which it had on Italian poetry. The creations of Dante might seem to us tremendous enough in themselves to have originated an era, but as a matter of fact they marked the conclusion of one. They were the full and final fruition of medieval thought, and after them Italian literature entered upon a new movement.
Petrarch was the father of the revival of ancient literature. Not only was he himself a profound student of it, but he suggested to Boccaccio that line of study which governed the entire intellectual life of the author of the "Decameron." With the application of Boccaccio to the translation of Homer into Latin we perceive a singular illustration of the trend of the classic devotion of the time. Despite the fact that the "Divina Commedia" had magnificently demonstrated the beauty of Italian as a literary medium, fourteenth century scholars regarded the language with contempt. Pride in their connection with historic Rome, as well as the environment of places associated with his personality, made Virgil their literary deity. The ancient language of the eternal city and of the "AEneid" was for them the only suitable literary instrument. That they played upon it as amateurs seems never to have occurred to them. The study of Greek which followed the activities of Petrarch was at first confined to a narrow circle and it never spread far beyond the limits of university walls. But the study of Greek thought and ideals, as obtained from the ancient works, speedily found its way through the entire society of cultivated Italians. The people had their own poets and their own songs, but the aristocracy, which was highly cultivated, plunged into the contemplation of Grecian art. The influence of all this on Italian literature was deep and significant.
But there were other significant facts in the history of this era. Italy was not yet a nation. She had no central point of fixture and no system of radiation. She was divided into a group of small centers, each with its own dominating forces. Naples was unlike Rome; Florence was unlike Venice; Milan was different from all. Each had its characteristics, yet all had points of similarity. All were steeped in the immorality of the age, and all embarked with equal enthusiasm in the pursuit of classic learning. The strange combination of physical vice with intellectual appetite produced throughout Italy what Symonds has happily called an "esthetic sensuality." The Italian's intellectual pursuits satisfied a craving quite sensuous in its nature.
It is not at all astonishing that in these conditions we find no national epic and no national drama, but a gradual growth of a poetry saturated with physical realism and the final appearance of a dramatic form equipped with the most potent charms of sensuous art. It was in such a period that a special kind of public was developed. The "Cortegiano" of Castiglione, Bembo's "Asolani," the "Camaldolese Discourses" of Landino could have been addressed only to social oligarchies standing on a basis of polite culture.
In such conditions the stern ideals of early Christianity were thrust into obscurity and the sensuous charms of a hybrid paganism, a bastard child of ancient Greece and medieval Italy herself, excited the desires of scholars and dilettanti from the lagoons of Venice to the Bay of Naples. In the midst of this era it is not remarkable that we hear the pipe of Pan, slightly out of tune and somewhat clogged by artifice, as it was later in the day of Rousseau, but none the less playing the ancient hymns to Nature and the open air life.
Jacopo Sannazzaro (1458-1530) embodied the ideals of the time in his "Arcadia," in which Symonds finds the literary counterparts of the frescoes of Gozzo and Lippo Lippi. At any rate the poem contains the whole apparatus of nymphs and satyrs transplanted to Italian landscape and living a life of commingled Hellenism and Italianism. The eloquence of Sannazzaro is that of the Arcadian the world over. He sighs and weeps and calls upon dryads, hamadryads and oreads to pity his consuming passion. When he sees his mistress she is walking in the midst of pastoral scenes where satyrs lurk behind every bush and the song of the shepherd is heard in the land. Sannazzaro's "Arcadia" was the inspiration of Sir Philip Sidney's. It was a natural outburst of the time and it conveys perfectly the spirit of Italian imaginative thought in a period almost baffling in the complexity of its character.
It was not strange that in such a time Italian poets should have discerned in Orpheus the embodiment of their own ideals. There is no evidence that the Italians of the fifteenth century knew (or at any rate considered) the true meaning of the Orpheus myth. Of its relation to the Sun myth and of Euridice as the dawn they give no hint. To them Orpheus was the embodiment of the Arcadian idea. He was the singer of the hymns that woke all nature to life. For him the satyr capered and the coy nymph came bridling from her retreat, the woods became choral and the streams danced in the sunlight to the magic of his pipe. This was the poetic phase of the general trend of human thought at the time. The philosophers began by questioning the authority of dogma. Next they turned for instruction to the ancients, and finally they interrogated nature. In the course of their development they revolted against the deadening rule of the church and claimed for the human mind the right to reason independently. The scientific investigation of natural phenomena followed almost inevitably and the demonstrations of Giordano Bruno and Galileo shook the foundations of the church.
In the field of polite literature men turned to nature for their laws of daily life and believed that in the pastoral kingdom of Theocritus they had found the promised land. Inevitably it followed that the figure of Orpheus, singing through the earth, and bringing under his dominion the beast and the bird, the very trees and stones, should become the picture of their fondest dreams. He was the hero of Arcady "where all the leaves are merry." In his presence the dust of dry theology and the cruel ban of the church against the indulgence of human desires were impossible. From solemn ecclesiastic prose the world was turned to happy pagan song. The very music of the church went out into the world and became earthly in the madrigals of love. The miter and the stole gave way to the buskin and the pack; and the whole dreamland of Italy peopled itself with wandering singers wooing nymphs or shepherdesses in landscapes that would have fired the imagination of a Turner.
And withal the dramatic embodiment of this conception was prepared as a court spectacle for the enjoyment of fashionable society. Thus we find ourselves in the presence of conditions not unlike those which produced the tomfooleries of the court of Louis XVI and the musettes, bergerettes and aubades of French song.
The production of Poliziano's "Orfeo" may not have seemed to its contemporaries to possess an importance larger than that which Rossi and D'Ancona attribute to it; but its proper position in musical history is at the foundation of the modern opera. Poetically it was the superior of any lyric work, except perhaps those of Metastasio. Musically it was radically different in character from the opera, as it was from the liturgical drama. But none the less it contained some of the germs of the modern opera. It had its solo, its chorus and its ballet. But while the characters of these were almost as clearly defined as they are in Gluck's "Orfeo," their musical basis, as we shall see, was altogether different. Nevertheless it was distinctly lyric and secular and was therefore as near the spirit of the popular music of the time as any new attempt could well approach. It had, too, in embryonic form all that apparatus for the enchantment of the sense and the beguilement of the intellect which in the following century was the chief attraction of a lyric drama, partly opera, partly spectacle and partly ballet.
[Footnote 12: George Hogarth, in his "Memoirs of the Musical Drama," London, 1838, declares that this "Orfeo" was sung throughout, but he offers no ground for his assertion, which must be taken as a mere conjecture based on the character of the text. Dr. Burney, in his "General History of Music," makes a similar assertion, but does not support it.]
Poliziano's "Favola Di Orfeo"
In the year 1472 the Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, who had stayed long in Bologna, returned to Mantua. He was received with jubilant celebrations. There were banquets, processions and public rejoicings. It would have been quite unusual if there had been no festival play of some kind. It is uncertain whether Poliziano's "Orfeo" was written for this occasion, but there seems to be a fair amount of reason for believing that it was. At any rate it could not have been produced later than 1483, for we know it was made in honor of this Cardinal and that he died in that year.
If the "Orfeo" was played in 1472 it must have been written when its author was no more than eighteen years of age. But even at that age he was already famous. He was born in Montepulciano on July 14, 1454. The family name was Ambrogini, but from the Latinized name of his native town turned into Italian he constructed the title of Poliziano, by which he was afterward known. At the age of ten he was sent to Florence, then governed by Lorenzo de Medici. He studied under the famous Greeks Argyropoulos and Kallistos and the equally famous Italians, Landino and Ficino. Gifted with precocious talent, he wrote at the age of sixteen, astonishing epigrams in Latin and Greek. At seventeen he began to translate the "Iliad" into Latin hexameters, and his success with the second book attracted the attention of Lorenzo himself. Poliziano was now known as the "Homeric youth." It was not long before he was hailed the king of Italian scholars and the literary genius of his time. When he was but thirty he became professor of Greek and Latin in the University of Florence, and drew to his feet students from all parts of Europe. John Reuchlin hastened from Germany, William Grocyn from the shades of Oxford, and from the same seat of learning the mighty Thomas Linacre, later to found the Royal College of Physicians. Lorenzo's sons, Piero and Giovanni, were for a time his pupils, but their mother took them away. Poliziano was as vicious as the typical men of his time and the prudent Clarice knew it.
[Footnote 13: John Argyropoulos, who was born at Constantinople in 1416, was one of the first teachers of Greek in Italy, where he was long a guest of Palla degli Strozzi at Padua. In 1456 he went to Florence, where Cosimo de Medici's son and grandson were among his pupils. He spent fifteen years in Florence and thence went to Rome. To this master, George Gemistos and George Trapezuntios, the acquisition of Greek knowledge at Florence in the fifteenth century was chiefly due. It should be particularly noted that all of them went to Italy before the fall of the Greek empire in 1453. Andronicus Kallistos was one of the popular lecturers of the time and one of the first Greeks to visit France. Cristoforo Landino, one of the famous coterie of intellectual men associated with Lorenzo de Medici, took the chair of rhetoric and poetry at Florence in 1454. He paid especial attention in his lectures to the Italian poets, and in 1481 published an edition of Dante. His famous "Camaldolese Discussions," modeled in part on Cicero's "Tusculan Disputations," is well known to students of Italian literature. Marsilio Ficino was a philosopher, and his chief aim was a reconciliation of ancient philosophy with Christianity.]
Dwelling in a villa at Fiesole, provided for him by Lorenzo, Poliziano occupied his life with teaching and writing, occasionally paying visits to other cities. In 1492 Lorenzo passed away and Poliliziano wrote an elegy which is to this day regarded as unique in modern Latin verse. In 1494 the famous scholar followed his patron, even while Savonarola was setting Italy in a ferment of passionate religious reaction against the poetic and sensuous paganism infused into the thought of their time by Poliziano and Lorenzo. The scholar was laid in San Marco and they set upon his tomb this epitaph: "Here lies the angel who had one head, and what is new, three tongues."
This is not the place for a discussion of Poliziano's importance in literature, but it is essential that we should understand the significance of his achievement in the "Orfeo." The philosophic and poetic spirit of the period and of this poem has already been discussed. But we may not dismiss the subject without noting that Poliziano powerfully forwarded the impulse toward the employment of Italian as a literary vehicle. Too many of the Italian humanists had preferred Latin, and had looked down upon the native language as uncouth and fit only for the masses. But when the authority of Poliziano was thrown upon the side of Italian and when he made such a triumphant demonstration of its beauties in his "Stanze" and his "Orfeo," he carried conviction to all the writers of his country.
According to Poliziano's own statement he wrote the "Orfeo" at the request of the Cardinal of Mantua in the space of two days, "among continual disturbances, and in the vulgar tongue, that it might be the better comprehended by the spectators." It was his opinion that this creation would bring him more shame than honor. There are only 434 lines in the "Orfeo" and therefore the feat of writing it in two days was no great one for a man of Poliziano's ability.
Sismondi regards this work as an eclogue rather than a drama. He says: "The universal homage paid to Virgil had a decided influence on the rising drama. The scholars were persuaded that this cherished poet combined in himself all the different kinds of excellence; and as they created a drama before they possessed a theater, they imagined that dialogue rather than action, was the essence of the dramatic art. The Buccolics appeared to them a species of comedies or tragedies, less animated it is true, but more poetical than the dramas of Terence and of Seneca, or perhaps of the Greeks. They attempted indeed to unite these two kinds, to give interest by action to the tranquil reveries of the shepherds, and to preserve a pastoral charm in the more violent expression of passion. The Orpheus, though divided into five acts, though mingled with chorus, and terminating with a tragic incident, is still an eclogue rather than a drama."
[Footnote 14: "Historical View of the Literature of the South of Europe," by J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi, translated by Thomas Roscoe. London, 1895.]
Sismondi's perception of the survival of the pastoral character in this new form of entertainment is something we can appreciate, for this character has survived all the experiments made on the "Orfeo" legend and it dominates even the epoch-making work of Gluck.
Symonds, who had a broader view of art than Sismondi, had no difficulty in perceiving that the true genius of this new drama was lyric. He says: "To do the 'Orfeo' justice we ought to have heard it with its own accompaniment of music." He enlarges upon the failure of the author to seize the opportunity to make much of the really tragic moment in the play, namely that expressing the frenzied grief of Orfeo over the loss of Euridice. Yet, he notes, "when we return from these criticisms to the real merit of the piece, we find in it a charm of musical language, a subtlety of musical movement, which are irresistibly fascinating. Thought and feeling seem alike refined to a limpidity that suits the flow of melody in song. The very words evaporate and lose themselves in floods of sound." Surely, here is the description of an ideal opera book.
Two editions of the play are known and both are published in a volume edited by Carducci. The first version is that originally printed in 1494 and reprinted frequently up to 1776. In the latter year the second version was brought out by Padre Ireneo Affo at Venice. This was in all probability a revision of the poem by Poliziano. In this version the division into five acts is noted and there are additional poetic passages of great beauty. It may be worth a note in passing that in 1558 a version of the "Orfeo" in octave stanzas was published for the use of the common people and that as late as 1860 it continued to be printed from time to time for the use of the Tuscan contadini.
[Footnote 15: "Le Stanze, l'Orfeo e le Rime di Messer Angelo Abrogini Poliziano," per Giosue Carducci. Firenze, 1863.]
The main movement of Poliziano's poem is intrusted to the traditional octave stanza, but we find passages of terza rima. There are also choral passages which suggest the existence of the frottola, the carnival song and the ballata. The play is introduced by Mercury acting as prologue. This was in accordance with time honored custom which called for an "announcer of the festival." The first scene is between Mopsus, an old shepherd, and Aristaeus, a young one. Aristaeus, after the manner of shepherds, has seen a nymph, and has become desperately enamored. Mopsus shakes his head and bids the young man beware. Aristaeus says that his nymph loves melody. He urges Mopsus:
"Forth from thy wallet take thy pipe and we Will sing awhile beneath the leafy trees; For well my nymph is pleased with melody."
Now follows a number which the author calls a "canzona"—song. The first stanza of the Italian text will serve to show the form.
"Udite, selve, mie dolce parole, Poi che la ninfa mia udir non vole. La bella ninfa e sorda al mio lamento E'l suon di nostra fistula non cura: Di cio si lagna il mio cornuto armento, Ne vuol bagnare il grifo in acqua pura Ne vuol toccar la tenera verdura; Tanto del suo pastor gl'incresce e dole."
The two introductory lines preface each stanza. This first one is thus translated by Symonds, whose English version is here used throughout.
"Listen, ye wild woods, to my roundelay; Since the fair nymph will hear not, though I pray.
The lovely nymph is deaf to my lament, Nor heeds the music of this rustic reed; Wherefore my flocks and herds are ill content, Nor bathe the hoof where grows the water weed, Nor touch the tender herbage on the mead; So sad because their shepherd grieves are they."
[Footnote 16: In "Sketches and Studies in Italy," pp. 217-224.]
There are four stanzas. The nymph who has bewitched Aristaeus is Euridice and the second scene shows us the shepherd pursuing her. It appears that in trying to escape from the shepherd she was bitten by a deadly snake, for in the third scene a dryad tells the story of the tragedy to her sisters. In the first edition, "dei codici chigiano e Riccardiano," the next scene introduces Orpheus, who sings a song with Latin text beginning thus:
"O meos longum modulata lusus Quos amor primam docuit juventam, Flecte nunc mecum numeros novumque Dic, lyra, carmen."
The most significant matter connected with this scene in the early version of the poem is the stage direction, which reads thus: "Orfeo cantando sopra il monte in su la lira e seguente versi latini fu interotto da un pastore nunciatore della morte di Euridice." The name of the actor of Orfeo is mentioned as Baccio Ugolino. This stage "business" in English reads: "Orpheus singing on the hill to his lyre the following Latin verses is interrupted by a shepherd announcing the death of Euridice." Thirteen verses of the song are given before the entrance of the shepherd, and immediately after the announcement Orpheus descends into Hades. In the Padre Affo's later version of the work this song of Orpheus does not appear, but a dryad announces to her sisters the death of Euridice and then follows a chorus:
"L'Aria di pianti s'oda risuonare, Che d' ogni luce e priva: E al nostro lagrimare Crescano i fiumi al colmo della riva—"
The refrain, "l'aria di pianti" is repeated at the end of each stanza. At the conclusion of this chorus the dryads leave the stage. Orpheus enters singing a Latin stanza of four lines beginning:
"Musa, triumphales titulos et gesta canamus Herculis."
In Padre Affo's edition it is at this point that a dryad tells Orpheus of Euridice's death. Mnesillus, a satyr, mocks him. The hero now sings in the vernacular:
"Ora piangiamo, O sconsolata lyra," etc. "Let us lament, O lyre disconsolate: Our wonted music is in tune no more."
The story now moves similarly in both editions. Orpheus determines to descend to Hades to try to move the infernal powers "with tearful songs and words of honey'd woe." He remembers that he has moved stones and turned the flowing streams. He proceeds at once to the iron gates and raises his song. Pluto demands to know
"What man is he who with his golden lyre Hath moved the gates that never move, While the dead folk repeat his dirge of love."
These words leave no doubt that Orpheus sang. Even Proserpine, the spouse of Pluto, confesses to her lord that she feels the new stirrings of sympathy. She desires to hear more of this wondrous song. Now Orpheus sings in octave stanzas. The last stanza of his song is thus translated by Symonds:
"I pray not to you by the waves forlorn Of marshy Styx or dismal Acheron, By Chaos, where the mighty world was born, Or by the sounding flames of Phlegethon; But by the fruit that charmed thee on that morn When thou didst leave our world for this dread throne! O queen, if thou reject this pleading breath, I will no more return, but ask for death."
Pluto yields up Euridice according to the well-known condition that Orpheus keep silence and look not back till out of Hades. The poet again sings four Latin lines and with his bride starts for the upper world. The catastrophe is treated in much the same manner as it has been in subsequent versions of the story. Euridice disappears. Orpheus is about to turn back, but he is stopped by Tisiphone. He then breaks into virulent raillery, swears he'll never love woman more and advises all husbands to seek divorce. All this is in resounding octave rime. Then a Maenad calls upon her sisters to defend their sex. They drive Orpheus off the stage and slay him. Returning they sing a chorus, which is the finale of the opera.
"Ciascun segua, O Bacco, te; Bacco, Bacco, oe, oe! Di corimbi e di verd'edere Cinto il capo abbiam cosi Per servirti a tuo richiedere Festiggiando notte e di. Ognun breva: Bacco e qui: E lasciate bere a me. Ciascun segua, O Bacco, te."
This chorus is translated by Symonds. The first stanza, above given in the original Italian, is translated thus:
"Bacchus! we must all follow thee! Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!
With ivy coronals, bunch and berry, Crown we our heads to worship thee! Thou hast bidden us to make merry Day and night with jollity! Drink then! Bacchus is here! Drink free, And hand ye the drinking cup to me! Bacchus! Bacchus! we must all follow thee! Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!"
This is a sketch of the poem of Poliziano, on a story which became the subject of many operas, down to the time of Gluck. This is the story set by Monteverde in his famous work, which has recently been revived in Italy with success. This story was utilized by Peri and Caccini in their "Euridice," which is accepted as the first opera written in the new representative style of the sixteenth century to receive a public performance.
But, as we have already noted, in this "Orfeo," performed at the Mantuan court, there was so much of the material of a genuine lyric drama that it now becomes our business to examine more closely the character of the musical features and the manner of the performance. The points at which music must have been heard are clearly indicated by the text. Before proceeding to a consideration of this music, let us picture to ourselves how the work was performed.
The Performance of "Orfeo"
The "Orfeo" was performed in a hall of the castle. The lyric dramas of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were all presented in private. There were no opera houses, and the theater, though revived in Italy in the fifteenth century, had no permanency till Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, at the suggestion of Ariosto built in his capital a real play house. There is nevertheless no reason to think that the performance of Poliziano's "Orfeo" lacked admirable scenic and histrionic features. We have already seen how skilful the Italian managers and mechanicians of spectacular sacred plays were in preparing brilliant scenic effects for their productions. Since the form and general apparatus of the sacred play were seized by Poliziano for the fashioning of his "Orfeo," it is altogether probable that he accepted from the earlier creation pregnant suggestions as to the manner of presentation.
However, as the "Orfeo" was to be given indoors the manner of exhibiting it had to differ somewhat from that of the open air spectacle. The scale of the picture had to be reduced and the use of large movement relinquished. A temporary stage was erected in the great hall of the Palazzo Gonzaga. A single setting sufficed for the pictorial investiture of the action. The stage was divided into two parts. One side represented the Thracian country, with its streams and mountains and its browsing flocks. The other represented the inferno with Pluto, Proserpine, and the other personages made familiar by classic literature. Between the two was a partition and at the rear of the inferno were the iron gates.
[Footnote 17: "Florentia: Uomini e cose del Quattrocento," by Isidore del Lungo.]
One easily realizes the vivid potency of the picture when Baccio Ugolino, as Orpheus, clad in a flowing robe of white, with a fillet around his head, a "golden" lyre in one hand and the "plectrum" in the other, appeared at the iron gates, and, striking the strings of the sweet sounding instrument, assailed the stony hearts of the infernals with song as chaste and yet as persuasive as that of Gluck himself. It is no difficult task to conjure up the scene, to see the gorgeously clad courtiers and ladies bending forward in their seats and hanging upon the accents of this gifted and accomplished performer of their day.
Of the history of Baccio Ugolino little, if anything, is known. There was a Ugolino of Orvieto, who flourished about the beginning of the fifteenth century. He was archpriest of Ferrara, and appears to have written a theoretical work on music in which he set forth a great deal of the fundamental matter afterward utilized in the writings of Tinctoris. But whether this learned man was a member of the same family as Baccio Ugolino is not known. The fact that he was located at Ferrara makes it seem likely that he was related to Poliziano's interpreter, who might thus have belonged to a musical family.
At any rate Baccio Ugolino possessed some skill in improvisation, and was also accomplished in the art of singing and accompanying himself upon the lute or viol. We shall in another place in this work examine the methods of the lutenists and singers of the fifteenth century in adapting polyphonic compositions to delivery by a single voice with accompaniment of an instrument. It was in this manner of singing that Baccio Ugolino was an expert. Symonds goes so far in one passage as to hint that Ugolino composed the music for Poliziano's "Orfeo," but there seems to be no ground whatever for such a conclusion.
Baccio Ugolino was without doubt one of those performers who appeared in the dramatic scenes and processional representations of the outdoor spectacles already reviewed. His pleasing voice, his picturesque appearance, grace of bearing and elegance of gesture, together with his ability to play his own accompaniments, marked him as the ideal impersonator of the Greek poet, and accordingly Poliziano secured his services for this important part.
For the other roles and for the chorus the numerous singers of the court were sufficient. That there was an organized orchestra must be doubted, yet there may have been instrumental accompaniments in certain passages. This also is a matter into which we shall further inquire when we take up a detailed examination of the musical means at the command of Poliziano and his musical associates. The study of this entire matter calls for care and judgment, for it is involved in a mass of misinformation, lack of any information and ill grounded conclusions. For example, we read in a foot-note of Rolland's excellent work  that in March, 1518, the "Suppositi" of Ariosto was performed at the Vatican before Pope Leo with musical intermezzi. The author quotes from a letter of Pauluzo, envoy of the Duke of Ferrara, written on March 8. He wrote: "The comedy was recited and well acted, and at the end of each act there was an intermezzo with fifes, bag-pipes, two cornets, some viols, some lutes and a small organ with a variety of tone. There was at the same time a flute and a voice which pleased much. There was also a concert of voices which did not come off quite so well, in my opinion, as other parts of the music."
[Footnote 18: "Histoire de l'Opera en Europe avant Lully et Scarlatti," par Romain Rolland. Paris, 1895.]
Upon this passage Rolland makes the following comment: "This is the type of piece performed in Italy up to Vecchi, as the 'Orfeo' of Poliziano (1475), The Conversion of Saint Paul (Rome, 1484-92, music by Beverini), Cephale et Aurore (music by Nicolo de Coreggio) 1487, Ferrara, etc."
This confusion of Poliziano's "Orfeo" with spoken drama interspersed with intermezzi is unfortunate. There were no intermezzi at the representation of this lyric drama. It was in itself an entire novelty and nothing was done to distract the attention of the audience from its poetic and musical beauties. We can hardly believe that there was any close consideration of the fact that the work was an adaptation of the apparatus of the sacra rappresentazione to the secular play. The audience was without doubt absorbed in the immediate interest of the entertainment and was not engaged in critical analysis or esthetic speculations.
The costuming of the drama presented no difficulties. The skill already shown in the preparation of the sacred representations and the festal processions could here be utilized with excellent results. From 1470 to 1520, as we have already seen, was the period of the high development of the sacred play. Only a few years earlier the civic procession, or pageant, had shown in brilliant tableaux vivants the stories of the Minotaur and Iphigenie. The study of classic art and literature had blossomed in the very streets of Italy in a new avatar of the dramatic dance. From every account we glean testimony that the costuming of these spectacles was admirable. It must follow that so simple a task as the dressing of the characters in Poliziano's "Orfeo" was easily accomplished at that time when the Arcadian spirit of the story was precious to every cultured mind.
There were no mechanical problems of stage craft to be solved. The men who designed the cloud effects and the carriages for the floating angels in the open air spectacles might have disposed of them with ready invention, had they existed, but the theater of action, with its two pictures standing side by side, was simplicity itself. But let us not fall into the error of supposing that the scenery was crude or ill painted. The painter of the scenery of the production of Ariosto's "Suppositi," described by Pauluzo, was no less a personage than the mighty Raphael. The accounts of the writers of the latter part of the fifteenth and all of the sixteenth centuries are prolific in testimony as to the splendor of the pictorial elements in the festal entertainments of courts and pontiffs.
[Footnote 19: "At the end of the fifteenth century, about 1480, are cited as famous scene painters Balthasar Reuzzi at Volterra, Parigi at Florence, Bibiena at Rome."—"Les Origines de l'Opera et le Ballet de la Reine," par Ludovic Celler. Paris, 1868.]
Celler, in speaking of the theater of the period of Louis XIV, says: "The simplicity of our fathers is somewhat doubtful; if they did not have as regards the theater ideas exactly like ours, the luxury which they displayed was most remarkable, and the anachronisms in local color were not so extraordinary as we have often been told." The author a little further on calls attention to the fact that the mise en scene of the old mystery plays had combined splendor with naive poverty. But he is careful to note that the latter condition accompanied the representations given by strolling troupes in small villages or towns, while the former state was found where well paid and highly trained actors gave performances in rich municipalities. In the villages rude stage and scenery sufficed; in the cities all the resources of theatric art were employed.
[Footnote 20: "Les Decors, les Costumes et la Mise en Scene au XVIIe Siecle," par Ludovic Celler. Paris, 1869.]
Without doubt one of the most serious of all problems was that of lighting. One cannot believe that at so early a date as that of this first secular drama of Italy, the system of lighting the stage was such as to give satisfactory results. Yet it is probable that artificial lighting was provided, because it would have been extremely difficult to admit daylight in such a way as to illumine the stage without destroying much of the desirable illusion. Celler, in the first of his two volumes already quoted, tells how the "Ballet de la Reine" (1581) was lighted by torches and "lamps in the shape of little boats" so that the illumination, according to a contemporary record, was such as to shame the finest of days. But hyperbole was common then, and from Celler's second book we learn that even in the extravagant times of Louis XIV the lighting problem was an obstacle. It caused theatrical enterprises to keep chiefly to pieces which could be performed in the open air or at any rate by daylight. "The oldest representation," he says, "given in a closed hall, with artificial light and with scenery, appears to have been that of the 'Calandra,' a comedy which Balthazzar Peruzzi caused to be performed before Leo X in 1516 at the Chateau of St. Ange." Duruy de Noirville says that Peruzzi revived the "ancient decorations" of the theater in this "Calandra" which "was one of the first Italian plays in music prepared for the theater. Italy never saw scenery more magnificent than that of Peruzzi." This is a matter in which Noirville cannot be called authoritative, but it is certain that the fame of the production of "Calandra" was well established. Noirville's authority for his statements was Bullart's "Academie des Sciences et d'Arts," Brussels, 1682. Whether the comedy had music or not we cannot now determine, and it is a matter of no grave importance. The interesting point is that the fame of the scenic attire of "Calandra" seems to have been well established among the early writers on the theater and that they also regarded as significant its indoor performance. The performance of Poliziano's "Orfeo," however, took place some forty years earlier than that of "Calandra," and it was without doubt in a closed hall and therefore most probably with artificial light of flambeaux and lamps.
[Footnote 21: "Histoire du Theatre de l'Opera en France depuis l'Etablissement de l'Academie Royale de Musique jusqu'a present." (Published anonymously.) Paris, 1753.]
Character of the Music
It becomes now the duty of the author to make some examination of the music of this first lyric drama. But here we unfortunately find ourselves adrift upon a windless ocean. We are driven to the necessity of deducing our information from the results of analogical reconstruction. Nothing indeed can be more fascinating than the attempt to arrive at a comprehension of the music of Poliziano's "Orfeo." All record of it appears to be lost and the Italian savants who have given us illuminating studies of the literary structure of the work, of its environment and its performance, have hazarded scarcely a remote conjecture as to the style of its music.
But we are not without a considerable amount of knowledge of the kinds of music in use at the time when this work was produced and we can therefore arrive at some idea of the nature of the lyric elements of the "Orfeo." First of all we may fairly conclude that some portions of the text were spoken. It seems, for instance, improbable that the prologue delivered by Mercury could have been set to music. If all other considerations are set aside there still remains the important fact that the hero of the play is a musical personage. He is to move the powers of hell by his impassioned song. It would, therefore, be artistically foolish to begin this new species of work with a piece of vocal solo which might rob the invocation of Orpheus of its desired effect. It is altogether probable that the prologue was spoken, and that the opening dialogue in the scene between the two shepherds was also spoken. After the lines
"Forth from thy wallet take thy pipe and we Will sing awhile beneath the leafy trees; For well my nymph is pleased with melody."
there follows a number which the author plainly indicates as lyric, for he calls it a canzona. Beginning with this it seems to me that we may content ourselves with inquiring into the musical character of those parts which were without doubt lyrically treated in the performance. In the early version of the poem we have a stage direction which shows that the Latin text beginning "O meos longum modulata" was sung by Orpheus. Again it is made plain by the text, as well as by the details of the ancient legend itself, that the hero sang to the accompaniment of his lyre when he was arousing the sympathies of the infernal powers. It is not certain that song was employed in the scene between him and Tisiphone. All the choruses, however, were unquestionably sung.
The propositions which must now be laid down are these: First, the choral parts of the work were in the form of the Italian frottola, and the final one may have approached more closely to the particular style of the canto carnascialesco (carnival song) and was certainly a ballata, or dance song. Second, the solo parts were constructed according to the method developed by the lutenists, who devised a manner of singing one part of a polyphonic composition and utilizing the other parts as the instrumental support. Third, there were two obligato instruments, the pipe used in the duet of the two shepherds, and the "lira" played by Orpheus. Fourth, there was probably an instrumental accompaniment, at least to the choral parts.
In regard to the choruses, then, we must bear in mind the well established characteristics of the madrigal dramas of the sixteenth century. In these works the choruses were set to music in the madrigal style and they were frequently of great beauty. But the Italian madrigal had not been well developed at the time of the production of Poliziano's "Orfeo," while the frottola was the most popular song of the people.
The frottola was a secular song, written in polyphonic style. The polyphony was simple and the aim of the composition was popularity. It is essential for us to bear in mind the fact that in the fifteenth century the cultivation of part singing was ardent and widespread. The ability to sing music written in harmonized form was not confined to the educated classes. It extended through all walks of life, and while the most elaborate compositions of the famous masters were beyond the powers of the people, the lighter and more facile pieces were readily sung.
[Footnote 22: "During the fifteenth century the love of part-singing seems to have taken hold of all phases of society in the Netherlands; princes and people, corporate bodies, both lay and clerical, vying with each other in the formation of choral societies." Naumann, "History of Music," Vol. I, p. 318.
"The practice of concerted singing was not confined to the social circles of the dilettanti, but was also very popular in the army; and we have before alluded to the fact that Antoine Busnois and numerous others followed Charles the Bold into the field." Ibid., p. 320.]
The teachings and practice of the Netherlands masters spread through Europe rapidly, and some of the masters themselves went into Italy, where they became the apostles of a new artistic religion. The Netherlands musicians began early to write secular songs in a style which eventually developed into the madrigal. Frequently they took folk tunes and treated them polyphonically. Sometimes they used themes of their own invention. In time musicians of small skill, undertaking to imitate these earliest secular songs, developed the popular form called frottola. Later we find some of the famous masters cultivating this music of the people. Adrian Willaert, who settled in Venice in 1516, wrote frottole and gondola songs in frottola form. It was from such works that he advanced to the composition of the madrigal of which he was so famous a composer and which he raised to the dignity of an art work.