History of Opera/Florentine Camerata and Contemporaries

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The Baroque period (Portuguese: “barocco”, an irregularly-shaped pearl) was initially propelled by a group of intellectuals and artists who met in Florence many times between 1570 and 1590, having scholarly debates about music, and especially the role of words. The group, called the Florentine Camerata, was under the patronage of the Count Giovanni di Bardi, and included such notables as the music theorist Vincenzo Galilei (a student of Zarlino and father of the great astronomer Galileo Galilei) and Baroque composer Giulio Caccini. The Camerata, like the Church, felt that the words were supreme in music, and should be understood. However, where the Church interpreted this opinion as ground for great reduction, the Camerata saw it as an opportunity to start afresh and create a new genre. The Camerata had benefited from the availability of Classical Greek literature that came with the Renaissance, and felt that the Greek dramatic repertory – the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and others – was the greatest there was to study. The Camerata therefore made it their business to study Greek dramas, as well as interpret how they may have been performed.

The Camerata’s reverence for the literature of the Greeks resulted in their opinion that the words were the master of the music, not the other way around as was the case in the Renaissance. They therefore created a new musical genre where the words would be the most important aspect, and the music would be written to suit the drama of the words; they also felt that in doing so, they could recreate the experience of attending a Greek drama as it was originally performed. The philosophical position of the Camerata is referred to as the doctrine of affections; it attests that emotion is the primary purpose of music, and all of the efforts by the composer should be towards properly articulating the emotions of the text. The Camerata’s music would therefore do away with elaborate six-voice polyphony and instead focus on simple monophonic voice lines, set syllabically, with rhythms based on speech patterns, and accompanied by instruments; these are all traits that they considered to be consistent with an actual Greek dramatic performance. The result was the new genre of opera.

Opera has a great deal to do with the combination of multiple art forms (poetry, music, painting, drama, et al.); it is this trait that separates it from the Renaissance, where arts were all separate. Therefore, in opera – and Baroque music in general – the combination of voices and instruments was common. The older practice of the Renaissance became known as the stile antico, or sometimes the prima prattica; the new Baroque style was known as the stile moderno, or seconda prattica. The seconda prattica focused on the affections of the music, with opera performers on stage playing roles, displaying great emotion; this is in contrast to Renaissance singers, who were characterized by serene and impersonal affections, displaying the Medieval reverent denial of self. Words were more important than the music in the seconda prattica, in contrast to the words’ reduced importance in the prima prattica. Since the words were so important in the seconda prattica, a singer was no longer only a deliverer of the music, but rather had a specific responsibility to create drama and articulate text; it was the instrumentalist’s job to accompany. As a result of the separate roles and responsibilities of instrumentalists and vocalists, musical lines in the seconda prattica had to be specified as being instrumental or vocal. This means that in the seconda prattica, musical lines were written with specific instruments in mind, and written idiomatically for those instruments; this is in contrast to the prima prattica, where all parts were more or less interchangeable.

The first opera composers therefore created a new style of composition that reflected the simple, syllabic text treatment that almost sounds spoken so that the words could be easily understood, and where the other voices did not compete with the first like in the imitative counterpoint of the prima prattica, but rather embraced the role of accompaniment. This new style was called stile rappresentativo, which today is called recitative. The stile rappresentativo was dominated by the voice, singing text mostly syllabically with a rather free rhythm, accompanied by a continuum of partially-improvised chords below, and often played by a plucked string instrument such as the lute or theorbo; this accompanying bassline was called the basso continuo. The earliest operas consisted mainly of sections in the stile rappresentativo, with instrumental and choruses interspersed.

The very first recorded opera was written by the Florentine composer Jacapo Peri (1561-1633) in 1597, and it was called Dafne. While the libretto exists, most of the music has been lost. Peri’s second opera, Euridice (1600), is the first opera that has survived. In the same year, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) also wrote his first opera, Euridice, essentially setting the exact same libretto as Peri. The poet Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621) was the librettest for both Dafne and both treatments of Euridice. True to their conceptions about drama, an early Florentine opera was known as a “Favola in musica” (Italian: “musical fable”). Caccini in particular is notable, as it is he who is credited with the creation of the stile rappresentativo, a type of monody. Caccini was more of a singer than a composer, and although he did write some of the first operas, he is best known for his solo songs with basso continuo in the style. His work Le nuove musiche (1602), a collection of these songs, is historically very important; Caccini also felt the need to explain this new style, so he included a preface to the original publication.

The Camerata members invented the stile rappresentativo, or what today is most commonly called recitative. This was a form of singing that sought to mimic the natural cadence and rhythms of speech, most often accompanied only by the basso continuo.

The earliest operas, including those of Claudio Monteverdi, are primarily in stile rappresentativo, with only brief and relatively simple interludes of more melodic singing.

Listen to Monteverdi: L’Orfeo excerpt from Act I “In questo lieto”