Wednesday, December 18, 2019


I have been having an argument on the internet.  This is ridiculous I realize.  I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I blog for fun, to give myself something to think about when I go to the opera.  Unlike most bloggers, I have actual credentials.  My doctorate is in vocal literature and pedagogy and it's from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, a very prestigious school.  Opera is precisely within this subject area.

And in addition I wrote a music history book, though admittedly it is in the form of an outline.
This book has the specific purpose of guiding people through changes in musical style over time.  So creating style periods and deciding what goes in them is what it is about.

These periods are determined by the musical materials and not by any literary considerations.  For instance, early opera takes its verbal material primarily from classical [Greece, Rome] subjects, either mythical or historical.  That would make it sound like renaissance rather than baroque because it is the classical literature revived in Europe in the renaissance that makes it renaissance.  But music historians concern themselves only with musical style which makes a huge jump at this time.

In the renaissance the predominating contrapuntal style originated in the Netherlands, and even most of the composers came from there.  Orlando di Lasso.  The Florentine inventors of opera ignored all of that and composed in a style with only bass, melody and chords.  The purpose was to shift focus to the text.  Over the course of its first century opera spread to other parts of Italy and then around Europe.  Handel went to London.  Renaissance style didn't completely disappear, but almost.  It was called the prima prattica.

I bring this up at all to point out that music historians do not consult literary sources to decide their style periods.

Which brings us to verismo.  Here's what I wrote:

Verismo was the operatic version of literary realism, shown in the use of naturalistic recitative, the disappearance of coloratura and commonplace, often violent subject matter. The operas were Cavalleria rusticana (1890) by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), I Pagliacci (1892) by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1858-1919), and Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madame Butterfly (1904) by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).

No, this was not borrowed from Wikipedia.  I wrote all this in the late 70's and doubt that Wikipedia existed then.  The list of operas that remain in the repertoire is small.  I would add Francesco Cilea.  All the other operas by these composers are not literary verismo but cannot be distinguished on a purely musical basis.  Musical style periods invented by music historians concern themselves with only musical features.  So I lump all of them into the same bucket and call it verismo.  This is not a mistake nor is it a crime.  If there was something else to call it--post romantic Italian maybe--I might choose that.  The listed operas are all there is of verismo today.

I doubt this will settle the argument. 

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