Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Opera and Vocal Music in the Late Seventeenth Century

Chapter Outline

Prelude. (CHWM 242)

In the second half of the seventeenth century, opera spread across Italy and Europe. Venice remained the principal center of opera, and distinctive operatic traditions emerged in France, England, and Germany. Operatic styles influenced vocal music for chamber and church.

I. Italy (CHWM 242–47, NAWM 89–90)

Italy continued to be the stylistic source for composers of operas and chamber cantatas, both of which used recitative and aria.

  1. Opera
    1. Singers
      By the late seventeenth century, opera was established in Venice, Naples, Florence, and Milan. Singers were the stars of opera, often commanding much higher fees than composers, and arias were the main musical attraction.
    2. Aria types
      There were many types of aria, but by the end of the century, the most prevalent form was the da capo aria. Arias often reflected the meaning of their text in musical motives in the melody or accompaniment. Music: NAWM 90
  2. Chamber Cantata
    Rome was the center of cantata composition in the seventeenth century. The short, contrasting sections of the midcentury cantata were replaced by alternating recitatives and arias later in the century.

    Innovations: Singer Power and Singer Worship—the Diva
    Opera was a commercial venture, and to turn a profit, it required successful management by the impresario, collaboration between librettist and composer, backstage workers, and star power. The diva was the female face of opera, winning the favor of audiences and patrons, and even demanding alterations to a role to suit her voice. Anna Renzi rose to prominence because of her talent as well as her image, and she set the standard for the prima donna. Star singers influenced the development of opera by guiding audiences’ tastes.

    1. Scarlatti cantatas
      Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725) wrote over six hundred cantatas. His recitatives used diminished seventh chords and wide-ranging harmonies for expressive effect. Music: NAWM 89a
    2. Da capo aria
      The most common form of aria in Scarlatti’s operas and cantatas is the da capo aria, a conventional, yet flexible, form. The A section opens with a ritornello and contains two settings of the same text, framed by ritornellos; the B section contrasts in key, figuration, and mood; and the A section repeats (with or without the opening ritornello) to produce an ABA form. The da capo aria form became the standard aria form in the eighteenth century. Music: NAWM 89b

II. France (CHWM 247–54, NAWM 82–83)

The sound of the French language influenced the sound of French opera, which was different from that of Italian opera.

  1. Dance and political control
    French Baroque music is centered on dance and is marked by elegance and emotional restraint, characteristics reflecting the king’s political control.
  1. Opera
    1. Tragédie en musique
      During the reign of King Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) successfully combined drama, music, and ballet to create a new French form of opera, the tragédie en musique (later renamed tragédie lyrique).
    2. Lully
      Lully composed vocal and instrumental music for the stage, and in 1672, he was given the exclusive right to produce sung drama in France.
    3. Quinault’s librettos
      Lully’s librettist, Jean-Philippe Quinault, provided librettos that glorified France and the king; featured serious, usually mythological plots in five acts; and provided opportunities for spectacle, including frequent divertissements.
    4. French overture
      Each of Lully’s operas begins with an ouverture, or overture, which is made up of two sections, the first slow with dotted rhythms, the second fast and imitative. Music: NAWM 82a
    5. Divertissements
      A divertissement appeared at the center or the end of each act and provided opportunities for dance and choruses, which appealed to the public.

      Biography: Jean-Baptiste Lully
      Lully was born in Italy, and although he was a musician, it was his dancing talent that landed him a job at the French court. As Louis XIV’s highest musical official, Lully was the most influential musician in seventeenth-century France. His greatest fame came from his operas. He was also known for creating a distinctive orchestral sound by imposing uniform bowing and coordinated ornamentation.

    1. Adapting recitative to French
      Lully developed a French style of recitative that is often more rhythmic and songful than Italian recitative.
    2. Récitatif simple, récitatif mesuré, and air
      Lully developed two types of recitative, récitatif simple (simple recitative), in which the meter shifts freely between duple and triple, and récitatif mesuré (measured recitative), which is more songlike and is measured. Lully’s airs, with tuneful melodies, little text repetition, and no virtuosic displays, are less elaborate than Italian arias. Music: NAWM 82b
    3. String orchestras
      The French created the first large string ensembles, the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi (Twenty-Four Violins of the King) and the Petits Violons (Small Violin Ensemble). These became the model for the modern orchestra, whose core consists of strings with more than one player on a part.
  2. Church Music
    At midcentury, French composers borrowed genres invented in Italy, such as the sacred concerto and oratorio, but wrote in distinctively French styles.
    1. Petit motet and grand motet
      Composers in the royal chapel produced two types of motets on Latin texts, the petit motet (a sacred concerto for few voices with continuo) and the grand motet (a large-scale sacred concerto). Music: NAWM 83
    2. Marc-Antoine Charpentier
      Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634–1704) introduced the Latin oratorio in France, combining Italian and French styles of recitative and air.

III. England (CHWM 254–60, NAWM 86)

English music blended its own native traditions with French and Italian styles.

  1. Musical Theater
    1. Masques
      Masques were court entertainments that shared many aspects of opera, but were more like French court ballets than unified dramas.

      In Context: The Music of la Grande Écurie, or the Great Stable
      The musicians of the Great Stable played for all court events that took place outdoors and were the king’s best wind and brass players. Several important families of wind players, such as the Hotteterres, worked in the Great Stable and contributed to innovations in instrument building, including inventing the modern oboe.

    1. Mixed genres
      The first English "operas" mixed elements of spoken drama and the masque. An attempt to introduce French opera failed in the 1670s, and only two dramas sung throughout met any success in the late seventeenth century: John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
    2. Dido and Aeneas
      Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689) incorporates elements of the English masque and of French and Italian opera.
    3. French and Italian elements
      The overture, homophonic choruses, and scene structure of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas follow the French style, and the arias (including three on ground basses) are decidedly Italian. Music: NAWM 86b

      Biography: Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
      Henry Purcell’s entire career was supported by royal patronage. He was a compositional prodigy and held some of Britain’s most notable musical positions, including organist at Westminster Abbey. Purcell is still considered one of England’s most important composers, best known for his vocal music and his ability to fashion English songs that are natural and expressive.

    1. English elements
      The use of dance in Dido and Aeneas comes from the masque tradition, and many solos and choruses use the style of the English air. Music: NAWM 86c
    2. English recitatives
      In the recitative, Purcell fashions melodies that fit the accents, pacing, and emotions of English text. Music: NAWM 86a
    3. Semi-operas
      Purcell wrote five works in the mixed genre called dramatic opera, or semi-opera. The English did not have a native tradition of opera, or an interest in supporting it, until the late nineteenth century.
  2. Ceremonial and Domestic Music for Voice
    1. Occasional music
      English vocal music ranged from large-scale ceremonial works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra to songs for home performance. English composers also specialized in writing catches, humorous canons.
    2. Church music
      Anthems and services remained the principal genres of Anglican church music.
    3. The public concert
      Public concerts were pioneered in London in the 1670s.

IV. Germany (CHWM 260–62)

Composers in Germany blended Italian, French, and native styles in new ways.

  1. Opera
    Opera in Italian was central to musical life in Germany and Austria, and in the eighteenth century, several of the most successful composers of Italian opera were German.
    1. Opera in German
      Hamburg staged the first operas in German. Composers, among whom Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739) was the most prominent, adopted Italian recitative and aria styles but used a variety of French and German song styles.
    2. Georg Philipp Telemann
      Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) helped to establish the characteristic German style of his time and was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the best composers of his era.
  2. Lutheran Vocal Music
    Two conflicting tendencies arose in the Lutheran Church: orthodox Lutherans favored using all available resources of choral and instrumental music, and pietists preferred simple music and poetry that expressed the emotions of the individual believer.
    1. Chorales
      New chorales continued to be composed, many intended for home devotions.
    2. Concerted church music
      Orthodox Lutheran churches developed the sacred concerto for public worship, and composers often created multimovement concertos.
    3. Johann Pachelbel
      Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706) was one of the most famous composers working in southern Germany.
    4. Buxtehude
      Dieterich Buxtehude was organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where he played the organ, composed music, and performed public concerts of sacred vocal music.
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