The Opera - A Sketch of the Development of Opera. With full Descriptions - of all Works in the Modern Repertory
by R.A. Streatfeild
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse


A Sketch of the Development of Opera. With full Descriptions of all Works in the Modern Repertory.




































If Music be, among the arts, 'Heaven's youngest-teemed star', the latest of the art-forms she herself has brought forth is unquestionably Opera. Three hundred years does not at first seem a very short time, but it is not long when it covers the whole period of the inception, development, and what certainly looks like the decadence, of an important branch of man's artistic industry. The art of painting has taken at least twice as long to develop; yet the three centuries from Monteverde to Debussy cover as great a distance as that which separates Cimabue from Degas. In operatic history, revolutions, which in other arts have not been accomplished in several generations, have got themselves completed, and indeed almost forgotten, in the course of a few years. Twenty-five years ago, for example, Wagner's maturer works were regarded, by the more charitable of those who did not admire them, as intelligible only to the few enthusiasts who had devoted years of study to the unravelling of their mysteries; the world in general looked askance at the 'Wagnerians', as they were called, and professed to consider the shyly-confessed admiration of the amateurs as a mere affectation. In that time we have seen the tables turned, and now there is no more certain way for a manager to secure a full house than by announcing one of these very works. An even shorter period covers the latest Italian renaissance of music, the feverish excitement into which the public was thrown by one of its most blatant productions, and the collapse of a set of composers who were at one time hailed as regenerators of their country's art.

But though artistic conditions in opera change quickly and continually, though reputations are made and lost in a few years, and the real reformers of music themselves alter their style and methods so radically that the earlier compositions of a Gluck, a Wagner, or a Verdi present scarcely any point of resemblance to those later masterpieces by which each of these is immortalised, yet the attitude of audiences towards opera in general changes curiously little from century to century; and plenty of modern parallels might be found, in London and elsewhere, to the story which tells of the delay in producing 'Don Giovanni' on account of the extraordinary vogue of Martini's 'Una Cosa Rara', a work which only survives because a certain tune from it is brought into the supper-scene in Mozart's opera.

There is a good deal of fascination, and some truth, in the theory that different nations enjoy opera in different ways. According to this, the Italians consider it solely in relation to their sensuous emotions; the French, as producing a titillating sensation more or less akin to the pleasures of the table; the Spaniards, mainly as a vehicle for dancing; the Germans, as an intellectual pleasure; and the English, as an expensive but not unprofitable way of demonstrating financial prosperity. The Italian might be said to hear through what is euphemistically called his heart, the Frenchman through his palate, the Spaniard through his toes, the German through his brain, and the Englishman through his purse. But in truth this does not represent the case at all fairly. For, to take only modern instances, Italy, on whose congenial soil 'Cavalleria Rusticana' and the productions it suggested met with such extraordinary success, saw also in 'Falstaff' the wittiest and most brilliant musical comedy since 'Die Meistersinger', and in 'Madama Butterfly' a lyric of infinite delicacy, free from any suggestion of unworthy emotion. Among recent French operas, works of tragic import, treated with all the intricacy of the most advanced modern schools, have been received with far greater favour than have been shown to works of the lighter class which we associate with the genius of the French nation; and of late years the vogue of such works as 'Louise' or 'Pelleas et Melisande' shows that the taste for music without any special form has conquered the very nation in which form has generally ranked highest. In Germany, on the other hand, some of the greatest successes with the public at large have been won by productions which seem to touch the lowest imaginable point of artistic imbecility; and the ever-increasing interest in musical drama that is manifested year after year by London audiences shows that higher motives than those referred to weigh even with Englishmen. The theory above mentioned will not hold water, for there are, as a matter of fact, only two ways of looking at opera: either as a means, whether expensive or not, of passing an evening with a very little intellectual trouble, some social eclat, and a certain amount of pleasure, or as a form of art, making serious and justifiable claims on the attention of rational people. These claims of opera are perhaps more widely recognised in England than they were some years ago; but there are still a certain number of persons, and among them not a few musical people, who hesitate to give opera a place beside what is usually called 'abstract' music. Music's highest dignity is, no doubt, reached when it is self-sufficient, when its powers are exerted upon its own creations, entirely without dependence upon predetermined emotions calling for illustration, and when the interest of the composition as well as the material is conveyed exclusively in terms of music. But the function of music in expressing those sides of human emotion which lie too deep for verbal utterance, a function of which the gradual recognition led on to the invention of opera, is one that cannot be slighted or ignored; in it lies a power of appeal to feeling that no words can reach, and a very wonderful definiteness in conveying exact shades of emotional sensation. Not that it can of itself suggest the direction in which the emotions are to be worked upon; but this direction once given from outside, whether by a 'programme' read by the listener or by the action and accessories of the stage, the force of feeling can be conveyed with overwhelming power, and the whole gamut of emotion, from the subtlest hint or foreshadowing to the fury of inevitable passion, is at the command of him who knows how to wield the means by which expression is carried to the hearer's mind. And in this fact—for a fact it is—lies the completest justification of opera as an art-form. The old-fashioned criticism of opera as such, based on the indisputable fact that, however excited people may be, they do not in real life express themselves in song, but in unmodulated speech, is not now very often heard. With the revival in England of the dramatic instinct, the conventions of stage declamation are readily accepted, and if it be conceded that the characters in a drama may be allowed to speak blank verse, it is hardly more than a step further to permit the action to be carried on by means of vocal utterance in music. Until latterly, however, English people, though taking pleasure in the opera, went to it rather to hear particular singers than to enjoy the work as a whole, or with any consideration for its dramatic significance. We should not expect a stern and uncompromising nature like Carlyle's to regard the opera as anything more than a trivial amusement, and that such was his attitude towards it appears from his letters; but it is curious to see that a man of such strongly pronounced dramatic tastes as Edward FitzGerald, though devoted to the opera in his own way, yet took what can only be called a superficial view of its possibilities.

The Englishman who said of the opera, 'At the first act I was enchanted; the second I could just bear; and at the third I ran away', is a fair illustration of an attitude common in the eighteenth century; and in France things were not much better, even in days when stage magnificence reached a point hardly surpassed in history. La Bruyere's 'Je ne sais comment l'opera avec une musique si parfaite, et une depense toute royale, a pu reussir a m'ennuyer', shows how little he had realised the fatiguing effect of theatrical splendour too persistently displayed. St. Evremond finds juster cause for his bored state of mind in the triviality of the subject-matter of operas, and his words are worth quoting at some length: 'La langueur ordinaire ou je tombe aux operas, vient de ce que je n'en ai jamais vu qui ne m'ait paru meprisable dans la disposition du sujet, et dans les vers. Or, c'est vainement que l'oreille est flattee, et que les yeux sont charmes, si l'esprit ne se trouve pas satisfait; mon ame d'intelligence avec mon esprit plus qu'avec mes sens, forme une resistance aux impressions qu'elle peut recevoir, ou pour le moins elle manque d'y preter un consentement agreable, sans lequel les objets les plus voluptueux meme ne sauraient me donner un grand plaisir. Une sottise chargee de musique, de danses, de machines, de decorations, est une sottise magnifique; c'est un vilain fonds sous de beaux dehors, ou je penetre avec beaucoup de desagrement.'

The cant phrase in use in FitzGerald's days, 'the lyric stage', might have conveyed a hint of the truth to a man who cared for the forms of literature as well as its essence. For, in its highest development, opera is most nearly akin to lyrical utterances in poetry, and the most important musical revolution of the present century has been in the direction of increasing, not diminishing, the lyrical quality of operatic work. The Elizabethan writers—not only the dramatists, but the authors of romances—interspersed their blank verse or their prose narration with short lyrical poems, just as in the days of Mozart the airs and concerted pieces in an opera were connected by wastes of recitative that were most aptly called 'dry'; and as it was left to a modern poet to tell, in a series of lyrics succeeding one another without interval, a dramatic story such as that of Maud, so was it a modern composer who carried to completion, in 'Tristan und Isolde', the dramatic expression of passion at the highest point of lyrical utterance. It is no more unnatural for the raptures of Wagner's lovers, or the swan-song of ecstasy, to be sung, than for the young man whose character Tennyson assumes, to utter himself in measured verse, sometimes of highly complex structure. The two works differ not in kind, but in degree of intensity, and to those whose ears are open to the appeal of music, the power of expression in such a case as this is greater beyond all comparison than that of poetry, whether declaimed or merely read. That so many people recognise the rational nature of opera in the present day is in great measure due to Wagner, since whose reforms the conventional and often idiotic libretti of former times have entirely disappeared. In spite of the sneers of the professed anti-Wagnerians, which were based as often as not upon some ineptitude on the part of the translator, not upon any inherent defect in the original, the plots invented by Wagner have won for themselves an acceptance that may be called world-wide. And whatever be the verdict on his own plots, there can be no question as to the superiority of the average libretto since his day. No composer dare face the public of the present day with one of the pointless, vapid sets of rhymes, strung together with intervals of bald recitative, that pleased our forefathers, and equally inconceivable is the re-setting of libretti that have served before, in the manner of the eighteenth century composers, a prodigious number of whom employed one specially admired 'book' by Metastasio.

Unfortunately those who take an intelligent interest in opera do not even yet form a working majority of the operatic audience in any country. While the supporters of orchestral, choral, or chamber music consist wholly of persons, who, whatever their degree of musical culture, take a serious view of the art so far as they can appreciate it, and therefore are unhampered by the necessity of considering the wishes of those who care nothing whatever about the music they perform. In connection with every operatic enterprise the question arises of how to cater for a great class who attend operatic performances for any other reason rather than that of musical enjoyment, yet without whose pecuniary support the undertaking must needs fail at once. Nor is it only in England that the position is difficult. In countries where the opera enjoys a Government subsidy, the influences that make against true art are as many and as strong as they are elsewhere. The taste of the Intendant in a German town, or that of the ladies of his family, may be on such a level that the public of the town, over the operatic arrangement of which he presides, may very well be compelled to hear endless repetitions of flashy operas that have long passed out of every respectable repertory; and in other countries the Government official within whose jurisdiction the opera falls may, and very often does, enforce the engagement of some musically incompetent prima donna in whom he, or some scheming friend, takes a particular interest.

The moral conditions of the operatic stage are no doubt far more satisfactory than they were, and in England the general deodorisation of the theatre has not been unfelt in opera; but even without the unworthy motives which too often drew the bucks and the dandies of a past day to the opera-house, the influence of the unintelligent part of the audience upon the performers is far from good in an artistic sense. It is this which fosters that mental condition with which all who are acquainted with the operatic world are only too familiar. Now, just as in the days when Marcello wrote his Teatro alla moda, there is scarcely a singer who does not hold, and extremely few who do not express, the opinion that all the rest of the profession is in league against them; and by this supposition, as well as by many other circumstances, an atmosphere is created which is wholly antagonistic to the attainment of artistic perfection. All honour is due to the purely artistic singers who have reached their position without intrigue, and whose influence on their colleagues is the best stimulus to wholesome endeavour. It is beyond question that the greater the proportion of intelligent hearers in any audience or set of subscribers, the higher will the standard be, not only in vocalisation, but in that combination which makes the artist as distinguished from the mere singer. For every reason, too, it is desirable that opera should be given, as a general rule, in the language of the country in which the performance takes place, and although the system of giving each work with its own original words is an ideally perfect one for trained hearers, yet the difficulties in the way of its realisation, and the absurdities that result from such expedients as a mixture of two or more languages in the same piece, render it practically inexpedient for ordinary operatic undertakings. The recognition of English as a possible medium of vocal expression may be slow, but it is certainly making progress, and in the last seasons at Covent Garden it was occasionally employed even before the fashionable subscribers, who may be presumed to have tolerated it, since they did not manifest any disapproval of its use. Since the first edition of this book was published, the Utopian idea, as it then seemed, of a national opera for London has advanced considerably towards realisation, and it is certain that when it is set on foot, the English language alone will be employed.

While opera is habitually performed in a foreign language, or, if in English, by those who have not the art of making their words intelligible, there will always be a demand for books that tell the story more clearly than is to be found in the doggerel translations of the libretti, unless audiences return with one accord to the attitude of the amateurs of former days, who paid not the slightest attention to the plot of the piece, provided only that their favourite singers were taking part. Very often in that classic period the performers themselves knew nothing and cared less about the dramatic meaning of the works in which they appeared, and a venerable anecdote is current concerning a certain supper party, the guests at which had all identified themselves with one or other of the principal parts in 'Il Trovatore'. A question being asked as to the plot of the then popular piece, it was found that not one of the company had the vaguest notion what it was all about. The old lady who, during the church scene in 'Faust', asked her grand-daughter, in a spirit of humble inquiry, what the relationship was between the two persons on the stage, is no figment of a diseased imagination; the thing actually happened not long ago, and one is left to wonder what impression the preceding scenes had made upon the hearer.

Of books that profess to tell the stories of the most popular operas there is no lack, but, as a rule, the plots are related in a 'bald and unconvincing' style, that leaves much to be desired, and sometimes in a confused way that necessitates a visit to the opera itself in order to clear up the explanation. There are useful dictionaries, too, notably the excellent 'Opern-Handbuch' of Dr Riemann, which gives the names and dates of production of every opera of any note; but the German scientist does not always condescend to the detailed narration of the stories, though he gives the sources from which they may have been derived. Mr Streatfeild has hit upon the happy idea of combining the mere story-telling part of his task with a survey of the history of opera from its beginning early in the seventeenth century to the present day. In the course of this historical narrative, the plots of all operas that made a great mark in the past, or that have any chance of being revived in the present, are related clearly and succinctly, and with a rare and delightful absence of prejudice. The author finds much to praise in every school; he is neither impatient of old opera nor intolerant of new developments which have yet to prove their value; and he makes us feel that he is not only an enthusiastic lover of opera as a whole, but a cultivated musician. The historical plan adopted, in contradistinction to the arrangement by which the operas are grouped under their titles in alphabetical order, involves perhaps a little extra trouble to the casual reader; but by the aid of the index, any opera concerning which the casual reader desires to be informed can be found in its proper place, and the chief facts regarding its origin and production are given there as well as the story of its action.


June 1907





The early history of many forms of art is wrapped in obscurity. Even in music, the youngest of the arts, the precise origin of many modern developments is largely a matter of conjecture. The history of opera, fortunately for the historian, is an exception to the rule. All the circumstances which combine to produce the idea of opera are known to us, and every detail of its genesis is established beyond the possibility of doubt.

The invention of opera partook largely of the nature of an accident. Late in the sixteenth century a few Florentine amateurs, fired with the enthusiasm for Greek art which was at that time the ruling passion of every cultivated spirit in Italy, set themselves the task of reconstructing the conditions of the Athenian drama. The result of their labours, regarded as an attempted revival of the lost glories of Greek tragedy, was a complete failure; but, unknown to themselves, they produced the germ of that art-form which, as years passed on, was destined, in their own country at least, to reign alone in the affections of the people, and to take the place, so far as the altered conditions permitted, of the national drama which they had fondly hoped to recreate.

The foundations of the new art-form rested upon the theory that the drama of the Greeks was throughout declaimed to a musical accompaniment. The reformers, therefore, dismissed spoken dialogue from their drama, and employed in its place a species of free declamation or recitative, which they called musica parlante. The first work in which the new style of composition was used was the 'Dafne' of Jacopo Peri, which was privately performed in 1597. No trace of this work survives, nor of the musical dramas by Emilio del Cavaliere and Vincenzo Galilei to which the closing years of the sixteenth century gave birth. But it is best to regard these privately performed works merely as experiments, and to date the actual foundation of opera from the year 1600, when a public performance of Peri's 'Euridice' was given at Florence in honour of the marriage of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV. of France. A few years later a printed edition of this work was published at Venice, a copy of which is now in the library of the British Museum, and in recent times it has been reprinted, so that those who are curious in these matters can study this protoplasmic opera at their leisure. Expect for a few bars of insignificant chorus, the whole work consists of the accompanied recitative, which was the invention of these Florentine reformers. The voices are accompanied by a violin, chitarone (a large guitar), lira grande, liuto grosso, and gravicembalo or harpsichord, which filled in the harmonies indicated by the figured bass. The instrumental portions of the work are poor and thin, and the chief beauty lies in the vocal part, which is often really pathetic and expressive. Peri evidently tried to give musical form to the ordinary inflections of the human voice, how successfully may be seen in the Lament of Orpheus which Mr. Morton Latham has reprinted in his 'Renaissance of Music,' The original edition of 'Euridice' contains an interesting preface, in which the composer sets forth the theory upon which he worked, and the aims which he had in view. It is too long to be reprinted here, but should be read by all interested in the early history of opera.

With the production of 'Euridice' the history of opera may be said to begin; but if the new art-form had depended only upon the efforts of Peri and his friends, it must soon have languished and died. With all their enthusiasm, the little band of Florentines had too slight an acquaintance with the science of music to give proper effect to the ideas which they originated. Peri built the ship, but it was reserved for the genius of Claudio Monteverde to launch it upon a wider ocean than his predecessor could have dreamed of. Monteverde had been trained in the polyphonic school of Palestrina, but his genius had never acquiesced in the rules and restrictions in which the older masters delighted. He was a poor contrapuntist, and his madrigals are chiefly interesting as a proof of how ill the novel harmonies of which he was the discoverer accorded with the severe purity of the older school But in the new art he found the field his genius required. What had been weakness and license in the madrigal became strength and beauty in the opera. The new wine was put into new bottles, and both were preserved. Monteverde produced his 'Arianna' in 1607, and his 'Orfeo' in 1608, and with these two works started opera upon the path of development which was to culminate in the works of Wagner. 'Arianna,' which, according to Marco da Gagliano, himself a rival composer of high ability, 'visibly moved all the theatre to tears,' is lost to us save for a few quotations; but 'Orfeo' is in existence, and has recently been reprinted in Germany. A glance at the score shows what a gulf separates this work from Peri's treatment of the same story. Monteverde, with his orchestra of thirty-nine instruments—brass, wood, and strings complete—his rich and brilliant harmonies, sounding so strangely beautiful to ears accustomed only to the severity of the polyphonic school, and his delicious and affecting melodies, sometimes rising almost to the dignity of an aria, must have seemed something more than human to the eager Venetians as they listened for the first time to music as rich in colour as the gleaming marbles of the Ca d'Oro or the radiant canvases of Titian and Giorgione.

The success of Monteverde had its natural result. He soon had pupils and imitators by the score. The Venetians speedily discovered that they had an inherent taste for opera, and the musicians of the day delighted to cater for it. Monteverde's most famous pupil was Cavalli, to whom may with some certainty be attributed an innovation which was destined to affect the future of opera very deeply. In his time, to quote Mr. Latham's 'Renaissance of Music,' 'the musica parlante of the earliest days of opera was broken up into recitative, which was less eloquent, and aria, which was more ornamental. The first appearance of this change is to be found in Cavalli's operas, in which certain rhythmical movements called "arias" which are quite distinct from the musica parlante, make their appearance. The music assigned by Monteverde to Orpheus when he is leading Eurydice back from the Shades is undoubtedly an air, but the situation is one to which an air is appropriate, and musica parlante would be inappropriate. If the drama had been a play to be spoken and not sung, there would not have been any incongruity in allotting a song to Orpheus, to enable Eurydice to trace him through the dark abodes of Hades. But the arias of Cavalli are not confined to such special situations, and recur frequently,' Cavalli had the true Venetian love of colour. In his hands the orchestra began to assume a new importance. His attempts to give musical expression to the sights and sounds of nature—the murmur of the sea, the rippling of the brook and the tempestuous fury of the winds—mark an interesting step in the history of orchestral development. With Marcantonio Cesti appears another innovation of scarcely less importance to the history of opera than the invention of the aria itself—the da capo or the repetition of the first part of the aria in its entirety after the conclusion of the second part. However much the da capo may have contributed to the settlement of form in composition, it must be admitted that it struck at the root of all real dramatic effect, and in process of time degraded opera to the level of a concert. Cesti was a pupil of Carissimi, who is famous chiefly for his sacred works, and from him he learnt to prefer mere musical beauty to dramatic truth. Those of his operas which remain to us show a far greater command of orchestral and vocal resource than Monteverde or Cavalli could boast, but so far as real expression and sincerity are concerned, they are inferior to the less cultured efforts of the earlier musicians. It would be idle to attempt an enumeration of the Venetian composers of the seventeenth century and their works. Some idea of the musical activity which prevailed may be gathered from the fact that while the first public theatre was opened in 1637, before the close of the century there were no less than eleven theatres in the city devoted to the performance of opera alone.

Meanwhile the enthusiasm for the new art-form spread through the cities of Italy. According to an extant letter of Salvator Rosa's, opera was in full swing in Rome during the Carnival of 1652. The first opera of Provenzale, the founder of the Neapolitan school, was produced in 1658. Bologna, Milan, Parma, and other cities soon followed suit. France, too, was not behindhand, but there the development of the art soon deserved the name a new school of opera, distinct in many important particulars from its parent in Italy. The French nobles who saw the performance of Peri's 'Euridice' at the marriage of Henry IV. may have carried back tales of its splendour and beauty to their own country, but Paris was not as yet ripe for opera. Not until 1647 did the French Court make the acquaintance of the new art which was afterwards to win some of its most brilliant triumphs in their city. In that year a performance of Peri's 'Euridice' (which, in spite of newer developments, had not lost its popularity) was given in Paris under the patronage of Cadinal Mazarin. This was followed by Cavalli's 'Serse,' conducted by the composer himself. These performances quickened the latent genius of the French people, and Robert Cambert, the founder of their school, hastened to produce operas, which, though bearing traces of Italian influence, were nevertheless distinctively French in manner and method. His works, two of which are known to us, 'Pomone' and 'Les Peines et les Plaisirs de l'Amour,' were to a certain extent a development of the masques which had been popular in Paris for many years. They are pastoral and allegorical in subject, and are often merely a vehicle for fulsome adulation of the 'Roi Soleil.' But in construction they are operas pure and simple. There is no spoken dialogue, and the music is continuous from first to last. Cambert's operas were very successful, and in conjunction with his librettist Perrin he received a charter from the King in 1669, giving him the sole right of establishing opera-houses in the kingdom. Quarrels, however, ensued. Cambert and Perrin separated. The charter was revoked, or rather granted to a new-comer, Giovanni Battista Lulli, and Cambert, in disgrace, retired to England, where he died. Lulli (1633-1687) left Italy too young to be much influenced by the developments of opera in that country, and was besides too good a man of business to allow his artistic instinct to interfere with his chance of success. He found Cambert's operas popular in Paris, and instead of attempting any radical reforms, he adhered to the form which he found ready made, only developing the orchestra to an extent which was then unknown, and adding dignity and passion to the airs and recitatives. Lulli's industry was extraordinary. During the space of fourteen years he wrote no fewer than twenty operas, conceived upon a grand scale, and produced with great magnificence. His treatment of recitative is perhaps his strongest point, for in spite of the beauty of one or two isolated songs, such as the famous 'Bois epais' in 'Amadis' and Charon's wonderful air in 'Alceste,' his melodic gift was not great, and his choral writing is generally of the most unpretentious description. But his recitative is always solid and dignified, and often impassioned and pathetic. Music, too, owes him a great debt for his invention of what is known as the French form of overture, consisting of a prelude, fugue, and dance movement, which was afterwards carried to the highest conceivable pitch of perfection by Handel.

Meanwhile an offshoot of the French school, transplanted to the banks of the Thames, had blossomed into a brief but brilliant life under the fostering care of the greatest musical genius our island has ever produced, Henry Purcell. Charles II. was not a profound musician, but he knew what sort of music he liked, and on one point his mind was made up—that he did not like the music of the elderly composers who had survived the Protectorate, and came forward at his restoration to claim the posts which they had held at his father's court. Christopher Gibbons, Child, and other relics of the dead polyphonic school were quietly dismissed to provincial organ-lofts, and Pelham Humphreys, the most promising of the 'Children of the Chapel Royal,' was sent over to Paris to learn all that was newest in music at the feet of Lulli. Humphreys came back, in the words of Pepys, 'an absolute Monsieur,' full of the latest theories concerning opera and music generally, and with a sublime contempt for the efforts of his stay-at-home colleagues. His own music shows the French influence very strongly, and in that of his pupil Henry Purcell (1658-1695) it may also be perceived, although coloured and transmuted by the intensely English character of Purcell's own genius. For many years it was supposed that Purcell's first and, strictly speaking, his only opera, 'Dido and AEneas,' was written by him at the age of seventeen and produced in 1675. Mr. Barclay Squire has now proved that it was not produced until much later, but this scarcely lessens the wonder of it, for Purcell can never have seen an opera performed, and his acquaintance with the new art-form must have been based upon Pelham Humphrey's account of the performances which he had seen in Paris. Possibly, too, he may have had opportunities of studying the engraved scores of some of Lulli's operas, which, considering the close intercourse between the courts of France and England, may have found their way across the Channel. 'Dido and AEneas' is now universally spoken of as the first English opera. Masques had been popular from the time of Queen Elizabeth onwards, which the greatest living poets and musicians had not disdained to produce, and Sir William Davenant had given performances of musical dramas 'after the manner of the Ancients' during the closing years of the Commonwealth, but it is probable that spoken dialogue occurred in all these entertainments, as it certainly did in Locke's 'Psyche,' Banister's 'Circe,' in fact, in all the dramatic works of this period which were wrongly described as operas. In 'Dido and AEneas,' on the contrary, the music is continuous throughout. Airs and recitatives, choruses and instrumental pieces succeed each other, as in the operas of the Italian and French schools. 'Dido and AEneas' was written for performance at a young ladies' school kept by one Josias Priest in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea. The libretto was the work of Nahum Tate, the Poet Laureate of the time. The opera is in three short acts, and Virgil's version of the story is followed pretty closely save for the intrusion of a sorceress and a chorus of witches who have sworn Dido's destruction and send a messenger to AEneas, disguised as Mercury, to hasten his departure. Dido's death song, which is followed by a chorus of mourning Cupids, is one of the most pathetic scenes ever written, and illustrates in a forcible manner Purcell's beautiful and ingenious use of a ground-bass. The gloomy chromatic passage constantly repeated by the bass instruments, with ever-varying harmonies in the violins, paints such a picture of the blank despair of a broken heart as Wagner himself, with his immense orchestral resources, never surpassed. In the general construction of his opera Purcell followed the French model, but his treatment of recitative is bolder and more various than that of Lulli, while as a melodist he is incomparably superior. Purcell never repeated the experiment of 'Dido and AEneas.' Musical taste in England was presumably not cultivated enough to appreciate a work of so advanced a style. At any rate, for the rest of his life, Purcell wrote nothing for the theatre but incidental music. Much of this, notably the scores of 'Timon of Athens,' 'Bonduca,' and 'King Arthur,' is wonderfully beautiful, but in all of these works the spoken dialogue forms the basis of the piece, and the music is merely an adjunct, often with little reference to the main interest of the play. In 'King Arthur' occurs the famous 'Frost Scene,' the close resemblance of which to the 'Choeur de Peuples des Climats Glaces' in Lulli's 'Isis' would alone make it certain that Purcell was a careful student of the French school of opera.

Opera did not take long to cross the Alps, and early in the seventeenth century the works of Italian composers found a warm welcome at the courts of southern Germany. But Germany was not as yet ripe for a national opera. During the first half of the century there are records of one or two isolated attempts to found a school of German opera, but the iron heel of the Thirty Years' War was on the neck of the country, and art struggled in vain against overwhelming odds. The first German opera, strictly so called, was the 'Dafne' of Heinrich Schuetz, the words of which were a translation of the libretto already used by Peri. Of this work, which was produced in 1627, all trace has been lost. 'Seelewig,' by Sigmund Staden, which is described as a 'Gesangweis auf italienische Art gesetzet,' was printed at Nuremberg in 1644, but there is no record of its ever having been performed. To Hamburg belongs the honour of establishing German opera upon a permanent basis. There, in 1678, some years before the production of Purcell's 'Dido and AEneas,' an opera-house was opened with a performance of a Singspiel entitled 'Der erschaffene, gefallene und aufgerichtete Mensch,' the music of which was composed by Johannn Theile. Three other works, all of them secular, were produced in the same year. The new form of entertainment speedily became popular among the rich burghers of the Free City, and composers were easily found to cater for their taste.

For many years Hamburg was the only German town where opera found a permanent home, but there the musical activity must have been remarkable. Reinhard Keiser (1673-1739), the composer whose name stands for what was best in the school, is said alone to have produced no fewer than a hundred and sixteen operas. Nearly all of these works have disappeared, and those that remain are for the most part disfigured by the barbarous mixture of Italian and German which was fashionable at Hamburg and in London too at that time. The singers were possibly for the most part Italians, who insisted upon singing their airs in their native language, though they had no objection to using German for the recitatives, in which there was no opportunity for vocal display. Keiser's music lacks the suavity of the Italian school, but his recitatives are vigorous and powerful, and seem to foreshadow the triumphs which the German school was afterwards to win in declamatory music. The earliest operas of Handel (1685-1759) were written for Hamburg, and in the one of them which Fate has preserved for us, 'Almira' (1704), we see the Hamburg school at its finest. In spite of the ludicrous mixture of German and Italian there is a good deal of dramatic power in the music, and the airs show how early Handel's wonderful gift of melody had developed. The chorus has very little to do, but a delightful feature of the work is to be found in the series of beautiful dance-tunes lavishly scattered throughout it. One of these, a Sarabande, was afterwards worked up into the famous air, 'Lascia ch' io pianga,' in 'Rinaldo.' When the new Hamburg Opera-House was opened in 1874, it was inaugurated by a performance of 'Almira,' which gave musicians a unique opportunity of realising to some extent what opera was like at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1706 Handel left Hamburg for the purpose of prosecuting his studies in Italy. There he found the world at the feet of Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725), a composer whose importance to the history of opera can scarcely be over-estimated. He is said, like Cesti, to have been a pupil of Carissimi, though, as the latter died in 1674, at the age of seventy, he cannot have done much more than lay the foundation of his pupil's greatness. The invention of the da capo is generally attributed to Scarlatti, wrongly, as has already been shown, since it appears in Cesti's opera 'La Dori,' which was performed in 1663. But it seems almost certain that Scarlatti was the first to use accompanied recitative, a powerful means of dramatic expression in the hands of all who followed him, while his genius advanced the science of instrumentation to a point hitherto unknown.

Nevertheless, Scarlatti's efforts were almost exclusively addressed to the development of the musical rather than the dramatic side of opera, and he is largely responsible for the strait-jacket of convention in which opera was confined during the greater part of the eighteenth century, in fact until it was released by the genius of Gluck.

Handel's conquest of Italy was speedy and decisive. 'Rodrigo,' produced at Florence in 1707, made him famous, and 'Agrippina' (Venice, 1708) raised him almost to the rank of a god. At every pause in the performance the theatre rang with shouts of 'Viva il caro Sassone,' and the opera had an unbroken run of twenty-seven nights, a thing till then unheard of. It did not take Handel long to learn all that Italy could teach him. With his inexhaustible fertility of melody and his complete command of every musical resource then known, he only needed to have his German vigour tempered by Italian suppleness and grace to stand forth as the foremost operatic composer of the age. His Italian training and his theatrical experience gave him a thorough knowledge of the capabilities of the human voice, and the practical common-sense which was always one of his most striking characteristics prevented him from ever treating it from the merely instrumental point of view, a pitfall into which many of the great composers have fallen. He left Italy for London in 1710, and produced his 'Rinaldo' at the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket the following year. It was put upon the stage with unexampled magnificence, and its success was prodigious. 'Rinaldo' was quickly followed by such succession of masterpieces as put the ancient glories of the Italian stage to shame. Most of them were produced at the Haymarket Theatre, either under Handel's own management or under the auspices of a company known as the Royal Academy of Music. Handel's success made him many enemies, and he was throughout his career the object of innumerable plots on the part of disappointed and envious rivals. The most active of these was Buononcini, himself a composer of no mean ability, though eclipsed by the genius of Handel. Buononcini's machinations were so far successful—though he himself was compelled to leave England in disgrace for different reasons—that in 1741, after the production of his 'Deidamia,' Handel succumbed to bankruptcy and a severe attack of paralysis. After this he wrote no more for the stage, but devoted himself to the production of those oratorios which have made his name famous wherever the English language is spoken.

In spite of their transcendent beauties, the form of Handel's operas has long banished them from the stage. Handel, with all his genius, was not one of the great revolutionists of the history of music. He was content to bring existing forms to the highest possible point of perfection, without seeking to embark upon new oceans of discovery. Opera in his day consisted of a string of airs connected by recitative, with an occasional duet, and a chorus to bring down the curtain at the end of the work. The airs were, as a rule, fully accompanied. Strings, hautboys, and bassoons formed the groundwork of the orchestra. If distinctive colouring or sonority were required, the composer used flutes, horns, harps, and trumpets, while to gain an effect of a special nature, he would call in the assistance of lutes and mandolins, or archaic instruments such as the viola da gamba, violetta marina, cornetto and theorbo. The recitativo secco was accompanied by the harpsichord, at which the composer himself presided. The recitativo stromentato, or accompanied recitative, was only used to emphasise situations of special importance. Handel's incomparable genius infused so much dramatic power into this meagre form, that even now the truth and sincerity of his songs charm us no less than their extraordinary melodic beauty. But it is easy to see that in the hands of composers less richly endowed, this form was fated to degenerate into a mere concert upon the stage. The science of vocalisation was cultivated to such a pitch of perfection that composers were tempted, and even compelled, to consult the tastes of singers rather than dramatic truth. Handel's successors, such as Porpora and Hasse, without a tithe of his genius, used such talent as they possessed merely to exhibit the vocal dexterity of popular singers in the most agreeable light. The favourite form of entertainment in these degraded times was the pasticcio, a hybrid production composed of a selection of songs from various popular operas, often by three or four different composers, strung together regardless of rhyme or reason. Even in Handel's lifetime the older school of opera was tottering to its fall. Only the man was needed who should sweep the mass of insincerity from the stage and replace it by the purer ideal which had been the guiding spirit of Peri and Monteverde.



The death of Lulli left French opera established upon a sure foundation. The form which he perfected seemed, with all its faults, to commend itself to the genius of the nation, and for many years a succession of his followers and imitators, such as Campra and Destouches, continued to produce works which differed little in scope and execution from the model he had established. The French drama of the seventeenth century had reached such a high point of development that its influence over the sister art was all-powerful. The composers of the French court willingly sacrificed musical to declamatory interest, and thus, while they steered clear of the mere tunefulness which was the rock on which Italian composers made shipwreck, they fell into the opposite extreme and wrote works which seem to us arid and jejune. Paris at this time was curiously isolated from the world of music, and it is strange to find how little the development of Italian opera affected the French school. Marais (1650-1718) was more alive to Southern influences than most of his contemporaries, and in his treatment of the aria there is a perceptible approach to Italian methods; but Rameau (1683-1764) brought back French opera once more to its distinctive national style. Though he followed the general lines of Lulli's school, he brought to bear upon it a richer sense of beauty and a completer musical organisation than Lulli ever possessed. In his treatment of declamation pure and simple, he was perhaps Lulli's inferior, but in all other respects he showed a decided advance upon his predecessor. He infused new life into the monotonous harmony and well-worn modulations which had done duty for so many years. His rhythms were novel and suggestive, and the originality and resource of his orchestration opened the eyes of Frenchmen to new worlds of beauty and expression. Not the least important part of Rameau's work lay in the influence which his music exerted upon the genius of the man to whom the regeneration of opera is mainly due. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was the son of a forester. Such musical education as he received he acquired in Italy, and his earlier works are written in the Italian style which was fashionable at the time. There are few indications in his youthful operas of the power which was destined later to work such changes in the world of opera. He was at first whole-hearted in his devotion to the school of Porpora, Hasse and the others who did so much to degrade Italian opera. 'Artaserse,' his first work, was produced in 1741, the year in which Handel bade farewell for ever to the stage. It was successful, and was promptly followed by others no less fortunate. In 1745 Gluck visited England where he produced 'La Caduta de' Giganti,' a work which excited the contempt of Handel. In the following year he produced 'Piramo e Tisbe,' a pasticcio, which failed completely. Its production, however, was by no means labour lost, if it be true, as the story goes, that it was by its means that Gluck's eyes were opened to the degradation to which opera had been reduced. It was about this time that Gluck first heard Rameau's music, and the power and simplicity of it compared with the empty sensuousness of Italian opera, must have materially strengthened him in the desire to do something to reform and purify his art. Yet, in spite of good resolutions, Gluck's progress was slow. In 1755 he settled at Vienna, and there, under the shadow of the court, he produced a series of works in which the attempt to realise dramatic truth is often distinctly perceptible, though the composer had as yet not mastered the means for its attainment. But in 1762 came 'Orfeo ed Euridice,' a work which placed Gluck at the head of all living operatic composers, and laid the foundation of the modern school of opera.

The libretto of 'Orfeo' was by Calzabigi, a prominent man of letters, but it seems probable that Gluck's own share in it was not a small one. The careful study which he had given to the proper conditions of opera was not likely to exclude so important a question as that of the construction and diction of the libretto, and the poem of 'Orfeo' shows so marked an inclination to break away from the conventionality and sham sentiment of the time that we can confidently attribute much of its originality to the influence of the composer himself. The opening scene shows the tomb of Eurydice erected in a grassy valley. Orpheus stands beside it plunged in the deepest grief, while a troop of shepherds and maidens bring flowers to adorn it. His despairing cry of 'Eurydice' breaks passionately upon their mournful chorus, and the whole scene, though drawn in simple lines, is instinct with genuine pathos. When the rustic mourners have laid their gifts upon the tomb and departed, Orpheus calls upon the shade of his lost wife in an air of exquisite beauty, broken by expressive recitative. He declares his resolution of following her to the underworld, when Eros enters and tells him of the condition which the gods impose on him if he should attempt to rescue Eurydice from the shades. Left to himself, Orpheus discusses the question of the rescue in a recitative of great intrinsic power, which shows at a glance how far Gluck had already distanced his predecessors in variety and dramatic strength. The second act takes place in the underworld. The chorus of Furies is both picturesque and effective, and the barking of Cerberus which sounds through it is a touch, which though its naivete may provoke a smile, is characteristic of Gluck's strenuous struggle for realism. Orpheus appears and pleads his cause in accents of touching entreaty. Time after time his pathetic song is broken by a sternly decisive 'No,' but in the end he triumphs, and the Furies grant him passage. The next scene is in the Elysian fields. After an introduction of charming grace, the spirits of the blessed are discovered disporting themselves after their kind. Orpheus appears, lost in wonder at the magical beauty of all around him. Here again is a remarkable instance of Gluck's pictorial power. Simple as are the means he employs, the effect is extraordinary. The murmuring of streams, the singing of birds, and the placid beauty of the landscape are depicted with a touch which, if light, is infallibly sure. Then follows the famous scene in which Orpheus, forbidden to look at the face of his beloved, tries to find her by touch and instinct among the crowd of happy spirits who pass him by. At last she approaches, and he clasps her in his arms, while a chorus of perfect beauty bids him farewell as he leads her in triumph to the world above. The third act shows the two wandering in a cavern on their way to the light of day. Eurydice is grieved that her husband should never look into her eyes, and her faith is growing cold. After a scene in which passionate beauty goes side by side with strange relapses into conventionality, Orpheus gives way to her prayers and reproaches, and turns to embrace her. In a moment she sinks back lifeless, and he pours forth his despair in the immortal strains of 'Che faro senza Euridice.' Eros then appears, and tells him that the gods have had pity upon his sorrow. He transports him to the Temple of Love, where Eurydice, restored to life, is awaiting him, and the opera ends with conventional rejoicings.

Beautiful as 'Orfeo' is—and the best proof of its enduring beauty is that, after nearly a hundred and fifty years of change and development, it has lost none of its power to charm—we must not be blind to the fact that it is a strange combination of strength and weakness. Strickly speaking, Gluck was by no means a first-rate musician, and in 1762 he had not mastered his new gospel of sincerity and truth so fully as to disguise the poverty of his technical equipment. Much of the orchestral part of the work is weak and thin. Berlioz even went so far as to describe the overture as une niaiserie incroyable, and the vocal part sometimes shows the influence of the empty formulas from which Gluck was trying to escape. Throughout the opera there are unmistakable traces of Rameau's influence, indeed it is plain that Gluck frankly took Rameau's 'Castor et Pollux' as his model when he sat down to compose 'Orfeo.' The plot of the earlier work, the rescue of Pollux by Castor from the infernal regions, has of course much in common with that of 'Orfeo' and it is obvious that Gluck took many hints from Rameau's musical treatment of the various scenes which the two works have in common.

In spite, however, of occasional weaknesses, 'Orfeo' is a work of consummate loveliness. Compared to the tortured complexity of our modern operas, it stands in its dignified simplicity like the Parthenon beside the bewildering beauty of a Gothic cathedral; and its truth and grandeur are perhaps the more conspicuous because allied to one of those classic stories which even in Gluck's time had become almost synonymous with emptiness and formality.

Five years elapsed between the production of 'Orfeo' and of Gluck's next great opera, 'Alceste'; but that these years were not wasted is proved by the great advance which is perceptible in the score of the later work. The libretto of 'Alceste' is in many ways superior to that of 'Orfeo,' and Gluck's share of the work shows an incontestable improvement upon anything he had yet done. His touch is firmer, and he rarely shows that inclination to drop back into the old conventional style, which occasionally mars the beauty of 'Orfeo.' Gluck wrote a preface to the published score of 'Alceste,' which is one of the most interesting documents in the history of music. It proves conclusively—not that any proof is necessary—that the composer had thought long and seriously about the scope of his art, and that the reforms which he introduced were a deliberate attempt to reconstruct opera upon a new basis of ideal beauty. If he sometimes failed to act up to his own theories, it must be remembered in what school he had been trained, and how difficult must have been the attempt to cast off in a moment the style which had been habitual to him for so many years.

When 'Alceste' was produced in Paris in 1776, Gluck made some alterations in the score, some of which were scarcely improvements. In his later years he became so completely identified with the French school that the later version is now the more familiar.

The opera opens before the palace at Pherae, where the people are gathered to pray Heaven to spare the life of Admetus, who lies at the point of death. Alcestis appears, and, after an air of great dignity and beauty, bids the people follow her to the temple, there to renew their supplications. The next scene shows the temple of Apollo. The high priest and the people make passionate appeal to the god for the life of their king, and the oracle replies that Admetus must perish, if no other will die in his place. The people, seized with terror, fly from the place, and Alcestis, left alone, determines to give up her own life for that of her husband. The high priest accepts her devotion, and in the famous air 'Divinites du Styx,' she offers herself a willing sacrifice to the gods below. In the original version the second act opened with a scene in a gloomy forest, in which Alcestis interviews the spirits of Death, and, after renewing her vow, obtains leave to return and bid farewell to her husband. The music of this scene is exceedingly impressive, and intrinsically it must have been one of the finest in the opera, but it does not advance the action in the least, and its omission sensibly increases the tragic effect of the drama. In the later version the act begins with the rejoicings of the people at the recovery of Admetus. Alcestis appears, and after vainly endeavouring to conceal her anguish from the eyes of Admetus is forced to admit that she is the victim whose death is to restore him to life. Admetus passionately refuses the sacrifice, and declares that he will rather die with her than allow her to immolate herself on his account. He rushes wildly into the palace, and Alcestis bids farewell to life in an air of extraordinary pathos and beauty. The third act opens with the lamentations of the people for their departed queen. Hercules, released for a moment from his labours, enters and asks for Admetus. He is horrified at the news of the calamity which has befallen his friend, and announces his resolve of rescuing Alcestis from the clutches of Death. Meanwhile Alcestis has reached the portals of the underworld, and is about to surrender herself to the powers of Hell. Admetus, who has not yet given up hope of persuading her to relinquish her purpose, appears, and pleads passionately with her to leave him to his doom. His prayers are vain, and Alcestis is tearing herself for the last time from his arms, when Hercules rushes in. After a short struggle he defeats the powers of Death and restores Alcestis to her husband. The character of Hercules did not appear in the earlier version of the opera, and in fact was not introduced until after Gluck had left Paris, a few days after the production of 'Alceste.' Most of the music allotted to him is probably not by Gluck at all, but seems to have been written by Gossec, who was at that time one of the rising musicians in Paris. The close of the opera is certainly inferior to the earlier parts, but the introduction of Hercules is a great improvement upon the original version of the last act, in which the rescue of Alcestis is effected by Apollo. The French librettist did not treat the episode cleverly, and indeed all the last scene is terribly prosaic, and lacking in poetical atmosphere. To see how the appearance of the lusty hero in the halls of woe can heighten the tragic interest by the sheer force of contrast, we must turn to the 'Alcestis' of Euripides, where the death of Alcestis and the strange conflict of Hercules with Death is treated with just that touch of mystery and unearthliness which is absent from the libretto which Gluck was called upon to set. Of the music of 'Alceste,' its passion and intensity, it is impossible to speak too highly. It has pages of miraculous power, in which the deepest tragedy and the most poignant pathos are depicted with unfaltering certainty. It is strange to think by what simple means Gluck scaled the loftiest heights. Compared with our modern orchestra the poverty of the resources upon which he depended seems almost ludicrous. Even in the vocal part of 'Alceste' he was so careful to avoid anything like the sensuous beauty of the Italian style, that sometimes he fell into the opposite extreme and wrote merely arid rhetoric. Yet he held so consistently before him his ideal of dramatic truth, that his music has survived all changes of taste and fashion, and still delights connoisseurs as fully as on the day it was produced. 'Paride ed Elena,' Gluck's next great work, shows his genius under a more lyrical aspect. Here he gives freer reign to the romanticism which he had designedly checked in 'Alceste,' and much of the music seems in a measure to anticipate the new influences which Mozart was afterwards to infuse into German music. Unfortunately the libretto of 'Paride ed Elena,' though possessing great poetical merit, is monotonous and deficient in incident, so that the opera has never won the success which it deserves, and is now almost completely forgotten.

The admiration for the French school of opera which had been aroused in Gluck by hearing the works of Rameau was not by any means a passing fancy. His music proves that the French school had more influence upon his development than the Italian, so it was only natural that he should wish to have an opportunity of introducing his works to Paris. That opportunity came in 1774, when, after weary months of intrigue and disappointment, his 'Iphigene en Aulide' was produced at the Academie Royale de Musique. After that time Gluck wrote all his greatest works for the French stage, and became so completely identified with the country of his adoption, that nowadays we are far more apt to think of him as a French than as a German composer. 'Iphigenie en Aulide' is founded upon Racine's play, which in its turn had been derived from the tragedy of Euripides. The scene of the opera is laid at Aulis, where the Greek fleet is prevented by contrary winds from starting for Troy. Diana, who has been unwittingly insulted by Agamemnon, demands a human sacrifice, and Iphigenia, the guiltless daughter of Agamemnon, has been named by the high priest Calchas as the victim. Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra are on their way to join the fleet at Aulis, and Agamemnon has sent a despairing message to bid them return home, hoping thus to avoid the necessity of sacrificing his child. Meanwhile the Greek hosts, impatient of delay, clamour for the victim, and are only appeased by the assurance of Calchas that the sacrifice shall take place that very day. Left alone with Agamemnon, Calchas entreats him to submit to the will of the gods. Agamemnon, torn by conflicting emotions, at first refuses, but afterwards, relying upon the message which he has sent to his wife and daughter, promises that if Iphigenia sets foot in Aulis he will give her up to death. He has hardly spoken the words when shouts of joy announce the arrival of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia. The message has miscarried, and they are already in the camp. As a last resource Agamemnon now tells Clytemnestra that Achilles, the lover of her daughter, is false, hoping that this will drive her from the camp. Clytemnestra calls upon Iphigenia to thrust her betrayer from her bosom, and Iphigenia replies so heroically that it seems as though Agamemnon's plot to save his daughter's life might actually succeed. Unfortunately Achilles himself appears, and, after a scene of reproach and recrimination, succeeds in dispelling Iphigenia's doubts and winning her to complete reconciliation.

The second act begins with the rejoicings over the marriage of Iphigenia. The general joy is turned to lamentation by the discovery of Agamemnon's vow and the impending doom of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra passionately entreats Achilles to save her daughter, which he promises to do, though Iphigenia professes herself ready to obey her father. In the following scene Achilles meets Agamemnon, and, after a long altercation, swears to defend Iphigenia with the last drop of his blood. He rushes off, and Agamemnon is left in anguish to weigh his love for his daughter against his dread of the angry gods, Love triumphs and he sends Areas, his attendant, to bid Clytemnestra fly with Iphigenia home to Mycenae.

In the third act the Greeks are angrily demanding their victim. Achilles prays Iphigenia to fly with him, but she is constant to her idea of duty, and bids him a pathetic farewell. Achilles, however, is not to be persuaded, and in an access of noble rage swears to slay the priest upon the steps of the altar rather than submit to the sacrifice of his love. After another farewell scene with her mother Iphigenia is led off, while Clytemnestra, seeing in imagination her daughter under the knife of the priest, bursts forth into passionate blasphemy. Achilles and his Thessalian followers rush in to save Iphigenia, and for a time the contest rages fiercely, but eighteenth-century convention steps in. Calchas stops the combat, saying that the gods are at length appeased; Iphigenia is restored to Achilles, and the opera ends with general rejoicings.

'Iphigenie en Aulide' gave Gluck a finer opportunity than he had yet had. The canvas is broader than in 'Alceste' or 'Orfeo,' and the emotions are more varied. The human interest, too, is more evenly sustained, and the supernatural element, which played so important a part in the two earlier works, is almost entirely absent. Nevertheless, fine as much of the music is, the restraint which Gluck exercised over himself is too plainly perceptible, and the result is that many of the scenes are stiff and frigid. There is scarcely a trace of the delightful lyricism which rushes through 'Paride ed Elena' like a flood of resistless delight. Gluck had set his ideal of perfect declamatory truth firmly before him, and he resisted every temptation to swerve into the paths of mere musical beauty. He had not yet learnt how to combine the two styles. He had not yet grasped the fact that in the noblest music truth and beauty are one and the same thing.

In 'Armide,' produced in 1777, he made another step forward. The libretto was the same as that used by Lulli nearly a hundred years before. The legend, already immortalised by Tasso, was strangely different from the classical stories which had hitherto inspired his greatest works. The opening scene strikes the note of romanticism which echoes through the whole opera. Armida, a princess deeply versed in magic arts, laments that one knight, and one only, in the army of the Crusaders has proved blind to her charms. All the rest are at her feet, but Rinaldo alone is obdurate. She has had a boding dream, moreover, in which Rinaldo has vanquished her, and all the consolations of her maidens cannot restore her peace of mind. Hidraot, her uncle, entreats her to choose a husband, but she declares that she will bestow her hand upon no one but the conqueror of Rinaldo. While the chorus is celebrating her charms, Arontes, a Paynim warrior, enters bleeding and wounded, and tells how the prowess of a single knight has robbed him of his captives. Armida at once recognises the hand of the recalcitrant Rinaldo, and the act ends with her vows of vengeance against the invincible hero.

The second act shows Rinaldo in quest of adventures which may win him the favour of Godfrey of Bouillon, whose wrath he has incurred. Armida's enchantments lead him to her magic gardens, where, amidst scenes of voluptuous beauty, he yields to the fascinations of the place, lays down his arms, and sinks into sleep. Armida rushes in, dagger in hand, but the sight of the sleeping hero is too potent for her, and overcome by passion, she bids the spirits of the air transport them to the bounds of the universe. In the third act we find that Rinaldo has rejected the love of the enchantress. Armida is inconsolable; she is ashamed of her weakness, and will not listen to the well-meaning consolations of her attendants. She calls upon the spirit of Hate, but when he appears she rejects his aid, and still clings desperately to her fatal passion. The fourth act, which is entirely superfluous, is devoted to the adventures in the enchanted garden of Ubaldo and a Danish knight, two Crusaders who have set forth with the intention of rescuing Rinaldo from the clutches of the sorceress. The fifth act takes place in Armida's palace. Rinaldo's proud spirit has at length been subdued, and he is completely the slave of the enchantress. The duet between the lovers is of the most bewitching loveliness, and much of it curiously anticipates the romantic element which was to burst forth in a future generation. Armida tears herself from Rinaldo's arms, and leaves him to be entertained by a ballet of spirits, while she transacts some business with the powers below. Ubaldo and the Danish knight now burst in, and soon bring Rinaldo to a proper frame of mind. He takes a polite farewell of Armida, who in vain attempts to prevent his going, and is walked off by his two Mentors. Left alone, Armida calls on her demons to destroy the palace, and the opera ends in wild confusion and tumult.

To say that 'Armide' recalls the romantic grace of 'Paride ed Elena,' is but half the truth. The lyrical grace of the earlier work is as it were concentrated and condensed in a series of pictures which for voluptuous beauty surpass anything that had been written before Gluck's day. Against the background formed by the magical splendour of the enchanted garden, the figure of Armida stands out in striking relief. The mingled pride and passion of the imperious princess are drawn with wonderful art. Even while her passion brings her to the feet of her conqueror, her haughty spirit rebels against her fate. Such weaknesses as the opera contains are principally attributable to the libretto, which is ill-constructed, and cold and formal in diction. Rinaldo is rather a colourless person, and the other characters are for the most part merely lay-figures, though the grim figure of Hate is drawn with extraordinary power. But upon Armida the composer concentrated the full lens of his genius, and for her he wrote music which satisfies every requirement of dramatic truth, without losing touch of the lyrical beauty and persuasive passion which breathes life into soulless clay.

In 'Iphigenie en Tauride,' the last of his great works, which was produced in 1778, Gluck reached his highest point. Here he seems for the first time thoroughly to fuse and combine the two elements which are for ever at war in his earlier operas, musical beauty and dramatic truth. Throughout the score of 'Iphigenie en Tauride' the declamation is as vivid and true as in 'Alceste,' while the intrinsic loveliness of the music yields not a jot to the passion-charged strains of 'Armide.' The overture paints the gradual awakening of a tempest, and when the storm is at its height the curtain rises upon the temple of Diana at Tauris, where Iphigenia, snatched by the goddess from the knife of the executioner at Aulis, has been placed as high priestess. The priestesses in chorus beseech the gods to be propitious, and when the fury of the storm is allayed, Iphigenia recounts her dream of Agamemnon's death, and laments the woes of her house. She calls upon Diana to put an end to her life, which already has lasted too long. Thoas, the king of the country, now enters, alarmed by the outcries of the priestesses. He is a prey to superstitious fears, and willingly listens to the advice of his followers, that the gods can only be appeased by human blood. A message is now brought that two young strangers have been cast upon the rock-bound coast, and Thoas at once decides that they shall be the victims. Orestes and Pylades are now brought in. They refuse to make themselves known, and are bidden to prepare for death, while the act closes with the savage delight of the Scythians.

The second act is in the prison. Orestes bewails his destiny, and refuses the consolation which Pylades offers in a noble and famous song. Pylades is torn from his friend's arms by the officers of the guard, and Orestes, left to himself, after a paroxysm of madness sinks to sleep upon the prison floor. His eyes are closed, but his brain is a prey to frightful visions. The Furies surround him with horrible cries and menaces, singing a chorus of indescribable weirdness. Lastly, the shade of the murdered Clytemnestra passes before him, and he awakes with a shriek to find his cell empty save for the mournful form of Iphigenia, who has come to question the stranger as to his origin and the purpose of his visit to Tauris. In broken accents he tells her—what is new to her ears—the tale of the murder of Agamemnon, and the vengeance taken upon Clytemnestra by himself; adding, in order to conceal his own identity, that Orestes is also dead, and that Electra is the sole remnant of the house of Atreus. Iphigenia bursts into a passionate lament, and the act ends with her offering a solemn libation to the shade of her brother.

In the third act Iphigenia resolves to free one of the victims, and to send him with a message to Electra. A sentiment which she cannot explain bids her choose Orestes, but the latter refuses to save his life at the expense of that of his friend. A contention arises between the two, which is only decided by Orestes swearing to take his own life if Pylades is sacrificed. The precious scroll is thereupon entrusted to Pylades, who departs, vowing to return and save his friend.

In the fourth act Iphigenia is a prey to conflicting emotions. A mysterious sympathy forbids her to slay the prisoner, yet she tries to steel her heart for the performance of her terrible task, and calls upon Diana to aid her. Orestes is brought on by the priestesses, and while urging Iphigenia to deal the blow, blesses her for the pity which stays her hand. Just as the knife is about to descend, the dying words of Orestes, 'Was it thus thou didst perish in Aulis, Iphigenia my sister?' bring about the inevitable recognition, and the brother and sister rush into each other's arms. But Thoas has yet to be reckoned with. He is furious at the interruption of the sacrifice, and is about to execute summary vengeance upon both Iphigenia and Orestes, when Pylades returns with an army of Greek youths—whence he obtained them is not explained—and despatches the tyrant in the nick of time. The opera ends with the appearance of Pallas Athene, the patroness of Argos, who bids Orestes and his sister return to Greece, carrying with them the image of Diana, too long disgraced by the barbarous rites of the Scythians.

'Echo et Narcisse,' an opera cast in a somewhat lighter mould, which was produced in 1779, seems to have failed to please, and 'Iphigenie en Tauride' may be safely taken as the climax of Gluck's career. It is the happiest example of his peculiar power, and shows more convincingly than any of its predecessors where the secret of his greatness really lay. He was the first composer who treated an opera as an integral whole. He was inferior to many of his predecessors, notably to Handel, in musical science, and even in power of characterisation. But while their works were often hardly more than strings of detached scenes from which the airs might often be dissociated without much loss of effect, his operas were constructed upon a principle of dramatic unity which forbade one link to be taken from the chain without injuring the continuity of the whole. In purely technical matters, too, his reforms were far-reaching and important. He was first to make the overture in some sort a reflection of the drama which it preceded, and he used orchestral effects as a means of expressing the passion of his characters in a way that had not been dreamed of before. He dismissed the harpsichord from the orchestra, and strengthened his band with clarinets, an instrument unknown to Handel. His banishment of recitativo secco, and his restoration of the chorus to its proper place in the drama, were innovations of vast importance to the history of opera, but the chief strength of the influence which he exerted upon subsequent music lay in his power of suffusing each of his operas in an atmosphere special to itself.





While Gluck was altering the course of musical history in Vienna, another revolution, less grand in scope and more gradually accomplished, but scarcely less important in its results, was being effected in Italy. This was the development of opera buffa, a form of art which was destined, in Italy at any rate, to become a serious rival to the older institution of opera seria, and, in the hands of Mozart, to produce masterpieces such as the world had certainly not known before his day, nor is ever likely to see surpassed. There is some uncertainty about the actual origin of opera buffa. A musical comedy by Vergilio Mazzocchi and Mario Marazzoli, entitled 'Chi sofre speri,' was produced in Florence under the patronage of Cardinal Barberini as early as 1639. The poet Milton was present at this performance, and refers to it in one of his Epistolae Familiares. In 1657 a theatre was actually built in Florence for the performance of musical comedies. For some reason, however, it did not prove a success, and after a few years was compelled to close its doors. After these first experiments there seems to have been no attempt made to resuscitate opera buffa until the rise of the Neapolitan school in the following century. The genesis of the southern branch of opera buffa may with certainty be traced to the intermezzi, or musical interludes, which were introduced into the course of operas and dramas, probably with the object of relieving the mental strain induced by the effort of following a long serious performance. The popularity of these intermezzi throws a curious light upon the character of Italian audiences at that time. We should think it strange if an audience nowadays refused to sit through 'Hamlet' unless it were diversified by occasional scenes from 'Box and Cox.' As time went on, the proportions and general character of these intermezzi acquired greater importance, but it was not until the eighteenth century was well advanced that one of them was promoted to the rank of an independent opera, and, instead of being performed in scraps between the acts of a tragedy, was given for the first time as a separate work. This honour was accorded to Pergolesi's 'La Serva Padrona,' in 1734, and the great success which it met with everywhere soon caused numberless imitations to spring up, so that in a few years opera buffa in Italy was launched upon a career of triumph.

Founded as it was in avowed imitation of the tragedy of the Greeks, opera had never deigned to touch modern life at any point. For a long time the subjects of Italian operas were taken solely from classical legend, and though in time librettists were compelled to have recourse to the medieval romances, they never ventured out of an antiquity more or less remote. Thus it is easy to conceive the delight of the music-loving people of Naples when they found that the opera which they adored could be enjoyed in combination with a mirthful and even farcical story, interpreted by characters who might have stepped out of one of their own market-places. But, apart from the freedom and variety of the subjects with which it dealt, the development of opera buffa gave rise to an art-form which is of the utmost importance to the history of opera—the concerted finale. Nicolo Logroscino (1700-1763) seems to have been the first composer who conceived the idea of working up the end of an act to a musical climax by bringing all his characters together and blending their voices into a musical texture of some elaboration. Logroscino wrote only in the Neapolitan dialect, and his works had little success beyond the limits of his own province; but his invention was quickly adopted by all writers of opera buffa, and soon became an important factor in the development of the art. Later composers elaborated his idea by extending the finale to more than one movement, and by varying the key-colour. Finally, but not until after many years, it was introduced into opera seria, when it gave birth to the idea of elaborate trios and quartets, which were afterwards to play so important a part in its development. Logroscino's reputation was chiefly local, but the works of Pergolesi (1710-1736) and Jomelli (1714-1774) made the Neapolitan school famous throughout Europe. Both these composers are now best known by their sacred works, but during their lives their operas attained an extraordinary degree of popularity. Both succeeded equally in comedy and tragedy, but Jomelli's operas are now forgotten, while Pergolesi is known only by his delightful intermezzo 'La Serva Padrona,' This diverting little piece tells of the schemes of the chambermaid, Serpina, to win the hand of her master, Pandolfo. She is helped by Scapin, the valet, who, disguised as a captain, makes violent love to her, and piques the old gentleman into proposing, almost against his will. 'La Serva Padrona' made the tour of Europe, and was received everywhere with tumultuous applause. In Paris it was performed in 1750, and may be said at once to have founded the school of French opera comique. Rousseau extolled its beauty as a protest against the arid declamation of the school of Lulli, and it was the subject of one of the bitterest dissensions ever known in the history of music. But the 'Guerre des Bouffons,' as the struggle was called, proved one thing, which had already been satisfactorily decided in Italy, namely, that there was plenty of room in the world for serious and comic opera at the same time.

There had been a kind of opera comique in France for many years, a species of musical pantomime which was very popular at the fairs of St. Laurent and St. Gervais. This form of entertainment scarcely came within the province of art, but it served as a starting-point for the history of opera comique, which was afterwards so brilliant. The success of the Italian company which performed the comic operas of Pergolesi, Jomelli, and others, fired the French composers to emulation, and in 1753 the first French opera comique, in the strict sense of the word, 'Le Devin du Village,' by the great Rousseau, was performed at the Academie de Musique. Musically the work is feeble and characterless, but the contrast which it offered to the stiff and serious works of the tragic composers made it popular. Whatever its faults may be, it is simple and natural, and its tender little melodies fell pleasantly upon ears too well accustomed to the pomposities of Rameau and his school. At first lovers of opera comique in Paris had to subsist chiefly upon translations from the Italian; but in 1755 'Ninette a la Cour,' a dainty little work written by a Neapolitan composer, Duni, to a French libretto, gained a great success. Soon afterwards, Monsigny, a composer who may well be called the father of opera comique, produced his first work, and started upon a career of success which extended into the next century.

The early days of opera comique in Paris were distracted by the jealousy existing between the French and Italian schools, but in 1762 peace was made between the rival factions, and by process of fusion the two became one. With the opening of the new Theatre de l'Opera Comique—the Salle Favart, as it was then called—there began a new and brilliant period for the history of French art. It is a significant fact, and one which goes far to prove how closely the foundation of opera comique was connected with a revolt against the boredom of grand opera, that the most successful composers in the new genre were those who were actually innocent of any musical training whatsoever. Monsigny (1729-1817) is a particularly striking instance of natural genius triumphing in spite of a defective education. Nothing can exceed the thinness and poverty of his scores, or their lack of all real musical interest; yet, by the sureness of his natural instinct for the stage, he succeeded in writing music which still moves us as much by its brilliant gaiety as by its tender pathos. 'Le Deserteur,' his most famous work, is a touching little story of a soldier who deserts in a fit of jealousy, and is condemned to be shot, but is saved by his sweetheart, who begs his pardon from the king. Much of the music is almost childish in its naivete, but there is real pathos in the famous air 'Adieu, Louise,' and some of the lighter scenes in the opera are touched off very happily.

The musical education of Gretry (1741-1831) was perhaps more elaborate than that of Monsigny, but it fell very far short of profundity. His music excels in grace and humour, and he rarely treated serious subjects with success. Such works as 'Le Tableau Parlant,' 'Les Deux Avares,' and 'L'Amant Jaloux' are models of lightness and brilliancy, whatever may be thought of their musicianship. 'Richard Coeur de Lion' is the one instance of Gretry having successfully attempted a loftier theme, and it remains his masterpiece. The scene is laid at the castle of Duerrenstein in Austria, where Richard lies imprisoned, and deals with the efforts of his faithful minstrel Blondel to rescue him. In this work Gretry adapted his style to his subject with wonderful versatility. Much of the music is noble and dignified in style, and Blondel's air in particular, 'O Richard, O mon roi,' has a masculine vigour which is rarely found in the composer's work. But as a rule Gretry is happiest in his delicate little pastorals and fantastic comedies, and, for all their slightness, his works bear the test of revival better than those of many of his more learned contemporaries. Philidor (1726-1797) was almost more famous as a chess-player than as a composer. He had the advantage of a sound musical education under Campra, one of the predecessors of Rameau, and his music has far more solid qualities than that of Gretry or Monsigny. His treatment of the orchestra, too, was more scientific than that of his contemporaries, but he had little gift of melody, and he was deficient in dramatic instinct. He often visited England, and ended by dying in London. One of the best of his works, 'Tom Jones,' was written upon an English subject. Philidor was popular in his day, but his works have rarely been heard by the present generation.

With Gretry the first period of opera comique may be said to close; indeed, the taste of French audiences had begun to change some years before the close of the eighteenth century. The mighty wave of the Revolution swept away the idle gallantries of the sham pastoral, while Ossian newly discovered and Shakespeare newly translated opened the eyes of cultivated Frenchmen to the possibilities of poetry and romance. At the same time, the works of Haydn and Mozart, which had already crossed the frontier, disturbed preconceived notions about the limits of orchestral colouring, and made the thin little scores of Gretry and his contemporaries seem doubly jejune. The change in public taste was gradual, but none the less certain. The opening years of the nineteenth century saw a singular evolution, if not revolution, in the history of opera comique.

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse