Classical Opera

Topics: Opera, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven Pages: 9 (3653 words) Published: February 5, 2013
Classical Opera
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 o'er 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 Gluck's departure, and he, rather than the indecisive Salieri, is the logical successor of the German reformer. Despite the...
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