Monday, January 31, 2005

Classic Italians

When I was studying for my doctorate, I was required to memorize long lists of composers and compositions and dates, most of which I had already studied before. I was fascinated to see the names of Italian opera composers:


Who were these people, and why had I never heard of them before? Paisiello came up again as a character in a novel by George Sand. And why had I never heard their music except in the Classic Italian Songs books? It’s something that has puzzled me ever since.

The beginning and ending of the arc are known -- Monteverdi and Rossini – but what about everything that went between? What could the explanation possibly be?

One piece of the puzzle is, of course, the rise and fall of the castrato, but is that the whole story?

I’m fascinated by the commercial explanation (see money). These people, the composers and the castrati, were the chief purveyors of commercial opera. The idea was to produce, make money and move on. Rossini, for instance, was the first to compose the ornamentation, a sure indication that the art was preparing to die. What was composed was a framework for the singer to build on.

They were known to compose the same libretto over and over, the objective being new music, new money. Libretti are hard to come by, but modern composers don’t consider redoing a famous piece. Rossini received a lot of criticism for composing Barber of Seville, because it was already a famous opera by Paisiello.

Composers: consider a new trend. Do another Streetcar, another Dead Man Walking, until someone comes up with a well-composed opera, something with melody a singer can really sink their teeth into, with music that rises to the level of the story.

These are the people between Monteverdi and Rossini.

Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) He was a Venetian, important in establishing the bel canto style. He and Monteverdi established the Venetian opera. His real name was Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni. He had a gig at St. Marks throughout his career.

Marc Antonio Cesti (1623-1669) Studied with Carissimi. Carissimi is not listed because he wrote oratorios, was in fact the founder of that form, and not operas. Cesti worked in Vienna for some of his career and was most remembered for Il Pomo d'Oro, a festival opera presented at Vienna.

Alessandro_Stradella (1644-1682) Well, isn't this fun. He didn't have a regular gig because he was constantly being run out of town. He was in Venice from 1677 to ? and would indeed have made at least part of his living from the commercial opera there. He was eventually murdered.

Carlo Pallavicino (1630-1688) Sorry, he isn't in Wikipedia. He worked in Venice from 1674 to 1685 and wrote operas during that period.

Agostino Steffani (1653-1728) He was very international, working in Hanover for an extended period, and lived his adult life primarily outside Italy.

Allesandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) He is probably the most significant in the group because he established the Neapolitan school, the school of Handel, Mozart and Rossini. There are Carissimi and Queen Christina connections here.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) May we presume he was a Venetian opera composer? Orlando is the opera we know best.

Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) He is a Neapolitan, writing both serious and comic operas.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) He wrote La Serva Padrona and was very famous in his short life. He was an early Rococo master. He was also centered in Naples.

Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) He started out in Venice and wrote operas in the Venetian style while moving on to Mantua, Rome and eventually Vienna.

Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) He also had a gig at St. Marks and wrote operas in the Venetian style. He worked briefly in Dresden.

Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) Aha: "In 1722 his operatic successes encouraged him to lay down his conservatory commitments." This was during his tenure in Venice. He was trained in Naples and brought this style to Venice. And some other cities.

Antonio Sacchini (1734-1786) He was also a Neapolitan by birth and by training. He had triumphs in opera in both London and Paris.

Giovanni Paisiello (1741-1816) He was also trained in Naples.

Domenico Cimarosa
 (1749-1802) He started out in Naples.

So now it is possible to test my theory about money. The results appear to be good.

In the seventeenth century commercially viable opera existed only in Venice. Composers found operatic success in Venice or they took regular court or church jobs to make a living, usually in other cities. They might tour with operas created for Venice, but Venice was the center of creativity.

Opera in that era fell into two categories: the kind with small casts and no chorus intended for Venice, and large scale celebration operas intended for special occasions in various courts around Europe. Venetian operas were neither entirely comic nor entirely serious.

Of all the operas written for Venice The Rough Guide lists only:
Monteverdi's Il ritorno de Ulisse in Patria
Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea
Cavalli's Giasone
Vivaldi's Orlando

Then beginning with Allesandro Scarlatti an alternate commercial venue started up in Naples, which was at that time the largest city in Italy. The Neapolitans liked a kind of lower class comic opera in Neapolitan dialect that didn't integrate with the usual content of serious opera. This led naturally to the division into opera seria and opera buffa. What we know primarily as Handelian opera is Neapolitan opera seria.  As a German, Handel was far too serious for buffa, but the Italians wrote in both styles.

This is the opera we know as Baroque and classical opera with secco recitatives [recitative accompanied only by continuo], da capo arias [ABA form], the whole thing.

The Rough Guide discusses:
Paisiello's Il barbiere di Siviglia
Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto
Salieri's Les Danaides
Salieri's Falstaff
Three are opera buffa and the other is in French.

When the Italians traveled to foreign cities like Hanover, Vienna and Dresden, they worked for royal patrons and presented festival operas whose scores are often carefully preserved in the Denkmaler Deutsche Tonkunst. If they were commercially successful and stayed in Venice or Naples, their works were largely ignored by succeeding generations. Each year new works were composed and the old ones forgotten. Like modern popular music styles changed rapidly, and no one looked back.

They followed the rules of popular music, enjoyed a burst of popularity and flamed out into obscurity. It was their popularity, perhaps even the concept of popularity that doomed them.

I'm happy to see my idea verified.

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