Classical Opera Essay

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THE question of what sort of music should be employed in opera is a fundamental one, and has given rise to more controversies, heart-burnings, and recriminations than any other matter, since it lies at the root of all differences between schools or individuals. In the earliest times, we find a declamatory style; in the works of the Venetians, melody asserts itself; with Scarlatti, musical learning is pressed into service; in the epoch of Handel, a conventional form dominates the stage; the efforts of Gluck bring back something of an earlier dramatic style, with vastly increased resources in the orchestra; Mozart reverts again to a more melodic method, enforcing it with correct expression and consummate orchestral skill. There can be no doubt that the best results in all these different styles would be due, not merely to the use of good music, but also to its proper adaptation to the dramatic situation. Whether a libretto be worthy or not is hardly a question for the musical critic, though of course it has much to do with the popularity of the opera.

In the days of the eighteenth century, the drama was a much more conventional affair than at present. With England a prey to the cunning artifice of the Pope-Dryden group of poets, France but lately emerged from the courtly superficialities of Le Grand Monarque, Germany still in the grasp of Paris fashions, and Italy possessing little of the earlier Renaissance vitality, it was no wonder that literature did not show any of the free exuberance of thought that came later in the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. So even under the best circumstances there was an amount of conventionality in all the earlier librettos that forced the audiences of their day to judge largely by the music. To quote a later saying, Whatever was too silly to be spoken could be sung. When the classical period in musical history appeared, with the advent of the symphonic school, and the full orchestral resources were employed to mingle intellectual and emotional effects in their proper balance by uniting melody with harmony, it is not surprising to find a school of operatic composers who reflected the spirit of their time.

They devoted all their study and inspiration to the task of producing the best possible music, and employing it in an effort to raise the standard of the stage. If their operas are seldom given today, it is because these works are both too good and not good enough; to good for an unthinking public that considers opera merely intended to tickle its ears with melody, and not good enough to hold their own against the great advance in dramatic realism that has taken place since their day. When they appeared, however, their librettos possessed a passionate intensity that was new on the stage, and their pure and lofty harmonies were synonymous with all that was best in classical music. It is a significant fact that Germany, the country that is most appreciative of pure music (i.e. instrumental compositions without the extraneous aid of any plot), should be the place where these works are most warmly received today. The first of the composers to whom this lengthy preamble is dedicated was Cherubini.

Born in Florence, in 1760, he soon proved himself a genius, and by the age of twenty he had become thoroughly proficient in the old sacred style that gave Italy its renown. During the next eight years a change came oer the spirit of the scene, and our young enthusiast left the straight and narrow path, and devoted himself to the production of conventional Italian operas. In 1788, however, after settling in Paris, he deliberately discarded the light Neopolitan style, and in his first French work, Demophon, showed marked indications of the grandeur he was destined to attain in his later operas. His Parisian career thus began within a decade of Glucks departure, and he, rather than the indecisive Salieri, is the logical successor of the German reformer. Despite the ignorance of the military leaders during the Revolution, and the opposition of Napoleon in the Consulate, Cherubini remained master of the musical situation in Paris, and Paris was dramatically in advance of the rest of the world.

If Demophon was an interesting suggestion, rather than a successful achievement, its promise was amply fulfilled with the production of Lodoiska, in 1791. This work, which made its composer famous throughout the world, obliterated in an instant the melodious trifles that had been in vogue since Glucks departure. Its deep earnestness, its profound learning, its harmonic and melodic richness, and its great dramatic strength won instant approval, and kept the piece on the boards for nearly two hundred times during its first year. Its story, rather poorly arranged, deals with the efforts of lodoiskas lover to rescue her from the castle of a more powerful rival, and introduces an assault by Tartars at the close, to make a diversion that ensures her final escape. After Eliza (1794) came a still greater success, in the shape of Mede (1797). Its grandeur and classic proportion rendered it a masterpiece, while its tremendous dramatic strength and sublimity won general admiration.

Yet the opera at first was not a success,no doubt because its music was too harmonic to suit the masses. Its weak points are a poor libretto, a decided monotony in its general tone, and a too complete centering of interest in the title r´le. Three years later (1800) came another great production, Les Deux Journes. The action of this opera takes place in the time of Cardinal Mazarin, and deals with the fortunes of the deputy Armand, who has incurred the enmity of the prelate. The gates of Paris are strictly guarded, and all precautions are taken to prevent Armands escape. He is saved from capture by the water-carrier Mikeli, whose son he had once befriended, and he makes his way out of the city concealed in Mikelis water-cart. In the neighboring village of Gonesse, however, he is captured by the cardinals troops while protecting his wife Constance from the rudeness of two soldiers. The dnouement comes in the shape of a pardon from the queen, and all ends happily. The style of the music is so genial and natural, so full of warmth of feeling and expressive charm, that it must undoubtedly rank as Cherubinis best opera.

The attacks on the declamatory style of Mede were hardly justified here, for, as Ftis says, There is a copiousness of melody in Cherubini, especially in Les Deux Journes; but such is the rudeness of the accompanying harmony, and the brilliant colouring of the instrumentation, . . . that the merit of the melody was not appreciated at its just value. A more modern writer (Ritter), in reference to this and other operas of the composer, says, They will remain for the earnest student a classic source of exquisite artistic enjoyment, and serve as models of a perfect mastery over the deepest resources and means that the rich field of musical art presents. The only later work of Cherubini that needs mention here is Faniska, brought out in Vienna in 1806. Founded on a plot somewhat similar to Lodoiska, it won instant success, and among the crowd that thronged to its premi¨re were Beethoven and Haydn, both of whom were anxious to bear homage to the truly great composer. He produced several other operas in Paris, all more or less successful.

Concerning Les Abencerrages, Mendelssohn wrote that he could not sufficiently admire the sparkling fire, the clever original phrasing, the extraordinary delicacy and refinement with which the whole is written, or feel grateful enough to the grand old man for it. The latter part of Cherubinis long career was devoted to teaching and sacred compositions, and at his death, in 1842, his fame in church music rivalled his reputation in opera. The works of Mehul (1763-1817) and Lesueur (1763-1837) are the only ones of the time that ranked with Cherubinis. Mehul, especially, was successful in continuing and improving the grand style of Gluck, and his operas are marked everywhere by a powerful directness that is not inappropriate to the stormy days of the Revolution. Lesueur possessed a certain large simplicity of style, but his works are somewhat less effective than those of his compeer. The logical successor of Cherubini was Spontini (1774-1851).

Born at Majolati, he soon devoted himself to the study of music, and in 1791 entered a Neapolitan conservatory. After several years of Italian operatic triumphs, he too, decided to try his fortunes in Paris, and in 1803 he entered the gay capital. The next year saw the production of his first French effort, the one-act opera Milton. Three years afterward he produced the masterpiece that gained immortality for him in the musical world,La Vestale. His renown was increased by Fernando Cortez (1809), but after this he brought forth nothing worthy of mention for ten years, and even his Olympie (1819) can hardly compare with the two earlier works. Spontini professed a great admiration for Mozart, but his music is a direct outcome of the chaste simplicity of Glucks style.

Unlike Cherubini, he showed the prevailing fault of the Italian race,one that has been evident in opera until within the last three decades of the nineteenth century,a lack of the harmonic sense. This very instinct for the logic of harmony is just what has caused the greatness of modern music in the classical and subsequent periods, so it is not surprising to find Spontinis works on the shelf at present. Yet in his day he was without a rival in popular favour, and his compositions exerted undoubted influence on such diverse natures as Wagner and Meyerbeer. The other French composers of this time, although worthy of more than a passing mention, were less definitely under the influence of the classical style that was even then known as German music. Henri Montan Berton, son of that Pierre Berton who tried to make peace between Gluck and Piccini, occupied a respectable, but not pre-eminent, position in comic opera. Catel (1773-1830) displayed much elegance and purity of style, but unfortunately acquired a professional reputation for writing learned music. Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1825) composed operas that were pleasing, if not ambitious, but is better known as a master of the violin. Persuis (1769-1819) wrote much that is now forgotten, and remains in history as a great orchestral leader.

More important was the work of Nicolo Isouard (1777-1818), popularly known as Nicolo. He had little originality, and much of his music was commonplace, but some passages of his Joconde and Cendrillon show great tenderness and charm. The master of opera comique during this period was Boieldieu (1775-1834). Many of his earlier works were too trivial to last, but Ma Tante Aurore (1803) brought him into popular favour, and his two great works, Jean de Paris (1812) and La Dame Blanche (1825), placed him securely at the head of his school. The latter opera is founded on episodes from Scotts Monastery and Guy Mannering, but, like the novels of the immortal romancer, it is cast in a form that is too lengthy to suit modern standards. Boieldieus music shows much melodic beauty, though its tenderness often degenerates into sentimentality. He was the last representative of the school of Grtry and Monsigny, as after him came the deluge of Italianism that is usually associated with the name of Rossini. In Germany, the successors of Mozart at first produced little of enduring value.

S¼ssmayer, his pupil (1766-1803), displayed a melodic facility and a peculiar popular charm, but his works lack depth and originality. Winter (1754-1825) was strong in declamation and chorus work, but is best remembered by his church music. Weigl (1766-1846) won much appreciation by his tuneful Schweizer Familie. Dittersdorf (1739-99) carried on the earlier traditions of the Singspiel, and displayed real brightness and vivacity in his comedies. But the only worthy example of the more serious and lofty operatic style was Beethovens solitary opera, Fidelio, produced in 1805. The libretto, a translation from the French, had already been used, notably in Paers Eleonora. According to the story, Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, has become the captive of his bitterest enemy, Pizarro. In the state prison, of which the latter has charge, Florestan is confined in a cell without light or air, utterly at Pizarros mercy.

Leonore, wife of the prisoner, has in some way discovered her husbands plight, and, in the hope of aiding him to escape, she disguises herself in male attire, and, under the name of Fidelio, enters the service of Rocco, the head jailer. She soon wins the admiration of the jailers daughter, Marcellina, who neglects her former lover, Jacquino, for the sake of the handsome stranger. Meanwhile Pizarro, learning of the approaching visit of Ferdinand, the governor, decides to kill Florestan in order to escape detection. He bribes Rocco to dig a secret grave in the cell, while Fidelio, aroused by this treachery, obtains leave to help the jailer. Together Fidelio and Rocco proceed to the cell (Act II.), where the unfortunate Florestan is lying overcome with starvation. When their work is over, Pizarro himself appears, and prepares to stab Florestan; but the disguised Leonore, who has remained in the background, now rushes to Florestans defense, and threatens Pizarro with a loaded pistol.

At this moment the governors trumpet-call is heard from without; Pizarro is obliged to receive him, Florestan and Leonore rush into each others arms, and the governor restores the prisoner to his lost honours and banishes his oppressor. This opera, like The Magic Flute, still retains traces of the old Singspiel, in the form of spoken dialogue. But the verbal passages are few and short, and, if rightly uttured, may be made to add emphasis to the musical climaxes. In all French performances they have given way to recitative. Of the character of the music there is nothing but praise to be said. It is all in the strongly dramatic vein that gives such power to Beethovens orchestral works. In an age when operatic realism was not sought after, when the characters might pause in the midst of even the best operas and express in detail their views on the situation, the sincerity and appropriateness of the music could not fail to win its meed of admiration.

But now the public makes greater demands, and the musico-dramatic action of Fidelio, like that of Don Giovanni, is far too deliberate for modern taste. Its many well-known numbers show Beethovens emotional power at its greatest; but, like the Mozart selections, they are now heard to best advantage on the concert stage. Especially suited for concert prima donnas is Fidelios well-known outburst of indignation (Abscheulicher!) and the glorious adagio (Komm, Hoffnung!) with which it is joined. Jacquinos lament in the first act is also worthy of note; in this act, too, is the famous canon-quartette, Mir ist so wunderbar; while the jailers sonorous Gold Song, and Pizarros fiery aria when he is forced to decide on Florestans murder, stand out in bold relief.

The second act is one long dramatic scena, and culminates in the almost frenzied duet, O Namenlose Freude! Produced at the Kaerntnerthor Theatre, in Vienna, a year before Faniska, it was not overwhelmingly popular, and only in later times did it attain the fame of Cherubinis operas. In judging the classical school, as a whole, due allowance must be made for the lack of swift and natural action already aluded to. If the dramas of this epoch represented a tremendous advance over the conventional productions of a Metastasio, we can only realise their force by putting ourselves in the place of their earliest audiences, and ignoring all the progress made since their day. If we do this, we see that the formal character of the music is merely a relative matter, due to a contrast with the freer style of the present; and even today there are many who would find relief from the modern dissonances in the clear, well-formed themes of the older masters.

Classical Of Concerto

A classical concerto is a three-movement work for an instrumental soloist and orchestra. It combines the soloists virtuosity and interpretive abilities with the orchestras wide range of tone colour and dynamics. Emerging from this encounter is a contrast of ideas and sound that is deamatic and satisfying. The classical love of balance can be seen in the concerto, wher soloist and orchestra are equally important. Solo instruments in classical concertos include violin, cello, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn and piano. Concertos can last anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, and it has three movements: (1)fast, (2)slow, and (3)fast. A concerto has no minuet or scherzo. Int the first movement and sometimes in the last movement, there is a special unaccompanied showpiece for the soloist, the cadenza. The soloist will be able to display virtuosity by playing dazzling scale passages and broken chords. Themes of the movement are varied and presentd in new keys. At the end of a cadenza, the soloist plays a long trill followed by a chord that meshes with the re-entrance of the orchestra. Cadenzas are improvised by the soloist.

Classical Style

Anyone who has heard Charles Rosen play Bachs Art of Fugue or the late Beethoven piano sonata (or Debussy for that matter) will expect this book to have a hard core of intellectuality but in fact it surpasses expectation with its pithy clean-cut style and wide knowledge of non-piano music and indeed of the non-musical arts. Classical Style is a formidable subject and Mr.Rosen is wisely selective. I have restricted myself to the three major fiqures of the time as i hold to the old-fashioned position that it is in term of their archievement that the musical vernacular can best defined.

There is danger here of historical distortion, or at least of suppression. Mr.Rosen seems uninterested in the Mannheim School unappreciative of the gentle lyricism for which Mozart loved J.C. Bach, and not much aware of Beethovens debt to Clementi. Boccherini is mentioned only as being insipid, Dussek not mentioned at all and Dittersdorf dismissed as a mere tonic and dominant man though the first movement of his once-famous string quartet in Eb major shows him as nothing of the kind. There is mention of the Strum And Drang music Haydn wrote in 1768-1772, but not of the strange fact that many other European composer wrote Strum and Drang works at the same time. However all this is of no great importance if we accept that the book is not about classical style as a whole but about its development by Haydn Mozart and Beethoven.

Any limitation of the subject matter will almost certainly have improved it , and Mr.Rosen was surely right to confine himself to a mere handful of musical categories. Thus he writes specifically about Haydns earlier symphonies but not the later ones about Mozarts string quinters but not the quartets, about Mozarts piano concertos but Beethovens, The piano sonata is not mentioned in the contents but Mr.Rosen says a good deal about it in parenthesis; he digresses freely and fascinatingly. Beethoven is given a single chapter without subsections and (this is a fact not a criticism) only half the number of pages allowed to Haydn and Mozart. Mr.Rosen is always interesting on classical form: The musical language which made the classical style possible is that of tonality, which was not a massive immobile system but a living gradually changing language from its beginning.

He rejects the terms First Subject and Second Subject and thinks we should dismiss as merely quaint the observation that in sonatas the first subject tends to be masculine and the second subject ferminine Haydn often managed with only one subject, while other composers often definition of sonata form until Czerny did so after Beethoven death. It was not defined until it was died. The great composers constantly broke the rules not knowing that there were any. Mr.Rosen begins his own definition of sonata form as follows.

The first section or exposition has two events, a movement of modulation to the dominant, and a final cadence on the dominant. Each of these events is characterized by an increase in rhythmic animation. Because of the harmonic tensions the music in the dominant (or second group) generally moves harmonically faster than that in the tonic. These events are articulated by as many melodies as the composer sees fit to use. The second section also has two events a return to the tonic and a final cadence. Some form of symmetrical resolution (called recapitulation) of the harmonic tension is necessary: an important musical idea played anywhere except at the tonic is unresolved until it is so played.

Sonata Allegro Form

Sonata-allegro form is a structural pattern used by composers first in the 18th century as a means to organize their music. Similar to a basic essay format of introduction with a thesis, supporting body paragraphs and conclusion that restates the thesis, sonata-allegro form organizes music through an initial statement, development of themes and a recapitulation of the original material. While the origins are much older, sonata-allegro form grew to prominence as a defining characteristic of the Classical style as used by Haydn and Mozart and then further developed by Beethoven. In an era called the Age of Reason, the aesthetic values of 18th century music emphasize logic and clarity with traits of symmetrical phrases, declarative melodies and simple accompaniment. Organization in music as well grew to prominence because of the growing interest in logic and clarity which allowed for the development of sonata-allegro form.

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