The seventeenth century was a time of great change in musical style, particularly in opera, which was becoming much more popular and was beginning to be focused on a lot more. Opera was spreading out from Italy and into other countries in Europe, although Venice remained the centre of activity. In October 1697, a Venetian opera newsletter stated that “Truly today operas have become so common in every part of Italy, that not only in its famous cities, but even in various towns and villages they are performed incessantly”.1 Composers began to write music for the specific intention of public appeal. Opera was no longer a luxury afforded only by the aristocracy, it was now open to the general public, who went to hear the beautiful arias in particular.
The previous musical style had been quite simple. The arias in Caccini’s Le Nuove Musique are characteristic of the style that was present at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Caccini himself named them “Canzonette a uso di aria”, which suggests a relationship between the poetry and the music. The poems are all strophic and they are set for solo voice along with a continuo accompaniment. They have quite a lot of ornamentation. The strophic aria was common during the first half of the seventeenth century. The majority of them were in a recitative style but some of them made use of regular rhythmic patterns. Most arias from Venice before 1660 are in either triple time or a mixture of triple and duple, and they had four or more verses. The vast majority of them had a continuo accompaniment, along with instrumental ritornellos between verses. These arias in which instruments would appear between verses or accompanied the voice were known as arie concertate2. They first appeared in the 1640’s and grew in popularity a little as the century went on, although they did not come into prominence until the time of the opera seria. They tended to be accompanied by the strings and the continuo, sometimes with an added trumpet.
In Italy especially, the aria became the supreme expression of musical style and development. During the first three quarters of the century, “Venetian opera became the catalyst for the development of Baroque musical styles3” and by the end of the century, opera had become the most important form of musical expression all over Europe, including places such as Germany. It was usual practice to have approximately twenty-four arias in an opera during the first half of the seventeenth century, but due to the public demand for arias, it was now common to have up to sixty arias in any given opera. Composers and librettists thus needed to respond to the demand for arias and recitatives. They rose to this challenge by writing their verses in such a way that made them more suitable for arias, and whenever the dialogue or the scene provided an opportunity, composers would write “aria-like lyrical expansions”.4
Strophic arias, in which a number of verses were sung to the same music, continued to be performed and composed as the seventeenth century wore on. However, times were changing. Previous to this, the focus of the aria had been on the words, and the music was composed to add dramatic effect to the lyrics. But now composers were becoming much more inventive with their own music. Their concern for the form of the music was beginning to outweigh their concern for the drama. They began to care less and less about the poetry and they were discovering purely musical ways to dramatise and define the aria. They became much more aware of word painting and of composing the music so that the theme would be evident. Thus the themes became much more substantial and original. This became noticeable particularly around the 1680’s. The previous triple time which had been favoured, was now being replaced with common time. More and more frequently, the continuo would begin a theme, which would be repeated by the vocalist and then the two would engage in a...
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