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:

Caldara
Paisiello
Stradella
Scarlatti
Cavalli
Cimarosa

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.

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