Music 214

The Birth of Opera

Greek Tragedy as a Model

Greek tragedy became the model for emerging operas. The setting of the chorus and the main characters became central in the staging. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles was the first tragic model. Many scholars believed that Greek theater influenced Renaissance theater but they did not see the importance or validity as it pertained to music. There were two views back then; one such view was to only have the choruses sung. This was put into practice in the 1585 performance of Oedipus Rex in Vicenza, Italy, which was translated, Edippo Tiranno. Andrea Gabrieli cast the choruses in a completely homophonic declamatory style that emphasized the rhythm of the spoken word. The second view, which was bought about by Girolamo Mei, was to have both the text of the choruses and the actors sung. Mei, was a Florentine scholar who edited a number of the Greek tragedies. He decided to investigate Greek music and discover how it affected Greek theater. Mei wrote De modis musicis, a treatise in four books. He then wrote to two of his close colleagues informing them about his research. They in turn discussed the research with another group of colleagues.

The Florentine Camerata

Opera came about indirectly, through a group of five individuals, Giovanni Bardi, Vincenzo Gallilei, Giulio Caccini, Ottavio Rinuccini, and Jacopo Peri. This group, later called the Florentine Camerata, came together at Bardi's palace where they discussed literature, science, and the arts, and also where new music was performed. Bardi and Vincenzo Gallilei were the two colleagues to whom Mei wrote. Both decided to bring Mei's research to the group for discussion. Mei's research brought him to the understanding that the Greeks obtained powerful effects with their music because it consisted of a single melody line, whether sung with or with out accompaniment, or by a chorus. This melody could move the listener through the natural expressiveness of the voice, as it rises and falls in pitch, and changes rhythms and tempos. Although the camerata came together to discuss a varied agenda, the topic of Mei's treatise seemed to be discussed at every meeting.

Galilei, who was the father of the famous astronomer and physicist, Galileo, agreed with this treatise of Mei's, and used it to tear apart the Italian madrigal writing. His argument was that only a single line of melody with the appropriate pitches and rhythms could express a given line of poetry. He also went on to say that word painting, changing of registers, rising and falling and different tempos and rhythms and words in the voices, could never deliver the emotional message of the text. This kind of writing only served to show off the cleverness of the composer and the ability of the performers. If it had any value at all it was music suitable for instruments. Only a solo melody could enhance the natural speech inflections of a good orator or actor.

The Earliest Operas

As the discussions of Mei's research went on, the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri decided that the ancient tragedies must have been sung in their entirety. This led to the experimentation of the first opera Dafne. It was named after Rinucinni's first poem, Dafne, which was used for the text of the work. Jacopo Corsi, who also held meetings and musicales at his palace, sponsored this project. Unfortunately this opera did not survive in its entirety. A second poem by Rinuccini, L'Euridice, was then used to write another opera. This opera was Euridice.

Emilio de' Cavaleri was in charge of theater, art, and music at the Florentine ducal court. He produced some smaller scenes with his own music in Florence in a similar style, later claiming to be the first in doing so. In February 1600 he produced a sacred musical play, Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo. This was performed in Rome and it was the longest entirely musical stage work up to that time.


All three of these composers had similar styles and approach to theatrical music. Peri and Giulio Caccini were singers by profession and Cavalieri taught singing. They all aimed for a kind of song that was halfway between spoken recitation and singing. Caccini and Cavalieri wrote in a style based on the madrigal and on the old improvised air for singing poetry. Peri also used the air for singing in his prologue. For his dialogue he invented a new idiom, which soon came to be called stile recitativo or recitative style. This term should not be confused with monody, which stems from the word monodia. This term comes from the Greek monos, meaning "alone" and aidein, meaning "to sing." This term embraces all styles of solo singing practiced in the early years of the seventeenth century, including recitative, arias, and madrigals.

Solo singing was not new. Solo melodies were commonly improvised on melodic formulas to recite epic and other strophic poems. Many songs were composed for solo voice and lute, and it was common in the sixteenth century to sing one part of a polyphonic madrigal while instruments played the other parts, a practice often followed in the intermedio or intermezzo. Many late sixteenth-century madrigals seem written for a soprano solo with chordal accompaniment. In the 1850's, Luzzasco Luzzaschi composed "solo madrigals" for one, two, or three sopranos with harpsichord accompaniment. All these pieces had a solidly harmonic texture. One or more soloists sang upper voices decorated with coloratura passages, while instruments played the lower parts.

Le nuove musiche

Caccini developed a songful yet mainly syllabic style. He aimed at clear and flexible declamation of the words but embellished the melodic line at appropriate places. Monody thus received a patina of vocal virtuosity. In performing polyphonic music in the sixteenth century, singers commonly introduced ornaments--scale figures, turns, runs, passing notes and the like. They improvised them on any long note of a written line, usually without regard to the character of the text. Caccini, on the other hand, chose and placed his ornaments carefully to enhance the message of the text. He wrote two types of songs: airs, which were strophic, and madrigals, which were through composed. Some of these works, published in 1602 under the title, Le nuove musiche, were written as far back as 1590. Caccini boasted in his foreword that the madrigal Perfidissimo volto was greeted in Bardi's Camerata around 1590 "with affectionate applause." Each line of poetry is set as a separate phrase, ending either in a cadence or a sustained note or pair of notes. Repeated notes in speech rhythm abounded particularly in the arias, as they did in improvised airs throughout the sixteenth-century. At a number of cadences, Caccini wrote into the score the kind of embellishments that singers would usually have added. The ornaments that Caccini considered essential were crescendos and decrescendos, trills (called gruppi), rapid repetitions of the same pitch (called trilli), "exclamations," a sforzando at the point of releasing a tone, and departures from strict observance of the printed note values, or what we call tempo rubato.

The Recitative Style

While Caccini built his solo vocal idiom on the improvised air and the polyphonic madrigal, Peri searched for a new solution to the needs of the stage. In his preface to Euridice, Peri recalled the distinction made in ancient theory between the continuous change of pitch in speech and the intervallic, or "diastematic" motion in song. He wanted to find a kind of speech-song that was halfway between them, like the Greeks were thought to have used for reciting heroic poems. By holding the notes of the basso continuo steady while the voice moved through the both consonances and dissonance, the continuous motion of speech was simulated. He liberated the voice from the harmony enough for it to seem like free, pitchless declamation. When a syllable arrived that would be emphasized, or in his words, "intoned" in speech," he was careful that it formed a consonance with the bass and its harmony. The various styles of monody, those used in recitative and madrigal, quickly made their way into all kinds of music, both secular and sacred, in the first decades of the seventeenth-century.


 Monody made musical theater possible because both dialogue and exposition could be conveyed in music clearly, quickly and with the freedom and flexibility needed for truly dramatic expression. In 1600, Peri set to music the pastoral-mythological verse play, Euridice, by Rinnucini, which was publicly performed in Florence that year at the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de' Medici, niece of the reigning grand duke. It was to be performed by a group of singers under the direction of Caccini. But Caccini felt that the vocal lines written by Peri would hurt his singers and so he decided to write his own version. Caccini's version was published first and then Peri's version was published his a little after in the same year. These are the first complete operas to survive.

Euridice elaborated the well-known myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, treated in the currently fashionable manner of the pastoral. In deference to the joyful occasion, it was provided with a happy ending. Of the two settings, Caccini's is more melodious and lyrical, resembling the madrigals and airs of his Nuove musiche. Peri's is more dramatic; he not only realized a style that lies between speech and song, but he varied his approach according to the dramatic situation.

Peri's Euridice

Three excerpts from Peri's Euridice, the Prologue, Tirsi's song, and Dafne's speech, illustrate three styles of monody employed in this work, only one of which is new. The prologue is modeled on the strophic aria for singing verses as practiced throughout the sixteenth century. Each line of verse is sung to a melodic scheme that consists of a repeated pitch and a cadential pattern ending in two sustained notes. A ritornello separates the strophes. Tirsi's song is a canzonet, or dance-song, markedly rhythmic and tuneful, with harmonically strong (mostly dominant-tonic) cadences at the ends of lines. It is framed by a short "symphony" that is the longest purely instrumental interlude in the score. Finally, the speech in which Dafne tells of Euridice's death is a true example of the new recitative. The chords specified by the basso continuo and its figures have no rhythmic profile or formal plan and are there only to support the vocal recitation, which is free to imitate the inflections and rhythms of speech. While the vocal line often returns to pitches that are consonant with the harmony, it may wander away on syllables that are not sustained in speech. Only some line ending are marked by cadences; many are elided.

In his Euridice, Peri devised an idiom that met the demands of dramatic poetry. Although he and his associates knew that they had not brought back Greek music, they claimed to have realized a speech-song that was not only close to what was used in the ancient theater but was also compatible with modern musical practice.