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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Birth of Opera

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

"Music is nothing other than the fable and last and not the contrary, the rhythm and the sound, in order to penetrate the perception of others and to produce those marvelous effects admired by the writers, which cannot be produced by discant in modern musical compositions."

Giulio Caccino, Le Nuove Musiche, 1602

In a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon, our titular rabbit applies hair tonic to Elmer Fudd accompanied by the staccato paced refrain of Gioacchino Rossini's overture to his opera The Barber of Seville.

The music is instantly recognizable. Along with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and Bizet's "Habernaro" from Carmen, Rossini's overture helps define the popular notion of opera. Opera is grand and dramatic. Passionate arias are set against elaborate settings. The spectacle of opera reached its fullest form during the late 19th century, but the roots of opera trace back to Florence of the late Renaissance.

Starting in 1573, a group of intellectuals, musicians, and poets began to gather in order to discuss the prevailing ideas in the arts. The group had no formal organization, and they were invited to meet at the residence of Count Giovanni Bardi. Bardi was the scion of an old Florentine banking family. He was learned in the philosophy of Plato, had a passion for the works of Dante, and was a sponsor of several artists, mostly musicians. One of the members, Giulio Caccini, would later on, in 1602, refer to this loose association of artists and thinkers as the Camerata. (Another member was Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo and a noted musician in his own right.) It is uncertain how the word Camerata was coined by Caccini, but it derives from the Italian/Latin "camera," meaning "chamber."

One of the primary topics of discussion for the Camerata was contemporary music. These men were highly critical of the popular styles of music of the day. Music of the late 16th century had been based on the concept of polyphony. Polyphony involved various voice parts that sang different melodies. Madrigals, a popular musical form of the period, made extensive use of polyphony. This made for compositions that were complex, elaborate, and extravagant. The members of the Camerata criticized these styles as being overly embellished, and they felt that polyphony, with its many counter-melodies, made it hard for listeners to understand the context of what was being sung. Their goal then was to reform the polyphonic style and bring music closer to a purer form. Towards this aim, they turned to Ancient Greek theater.

Members of the Florentine Camerata: Vincenzo Galilei, Count Bardi, Giulio Caccini

The Florentine Camerata drew their inspiration from two related threads of thinking. First, many of the members considered themselves humanists. Humanism was a philosophical approach that centered on the individual. They believed in the inherent goodness of human beings, and they felt humans could be transformed through poetry, literature, and rhetoric. They were optimistic about humanity's potential and celebrated the free will of humankind. The humanists believed that the means of moral improvement could be found amongst the now widely rediscovered Classical Greek texts. The members of the Camerata held the belief that music could only be improved by returning to the manner of the Greeks.

This led them to the second and more direct influence on their thought. Girolamo Mei had a reputation among his contemporaries as an expert on the Greek language and ancient musical forms. Mei, though not a member of the Camerata, corresponded with Vincenzo Galilei for many years. The two men shared thoughts on ancient instruments and music. Mei argued that polyphony did not exist in the ancient world. He felt that emotions were most heightened through the use of what is now referred to as monody. He believed that the Greek theater utilized single vocal lines along with a simple instrumental accompaniment. Blending humanist tradition and Mei's scholarship, the Camerata sought to improve music by making it more akin to their idea of Greek tragedy.

Their experimentation led them to develop a new style called "recitativo," "recitatar cantando," or recitative. In this style, only one voice is used to make the text clear and understandable to the listener. Words were sung naturally as if one was reciting the text. The melody followed the intonations and accents of the spoken word, and the rhythm followed that of poetry where notes corresponded to unstressed or stressed syllables. All this was done to evoke greater emotion in the listener of the piece.

During this time, it was common for the Italian nobility to host special events and celebrations. As part of these, plays often were performed. Intermedio or intermezzi were the intervals between acts of a stage performance. These musical or dance interludes had pastoral or mythological themes to them. It is here that one finds the first examples of the recitativo style. Thanks in part to the Camerata, the foundations of opera would emerge from these recitativo intermezzos.

The earliest composition considered by music historians to be an opera is Dafne. The music was composed by Jacopo Peri but with some input from music patron Jacopo Corsi. Poet Ottavio wrote the libretto Rinuccini. It was most likely performed in December of 1598 at the Palazzo Tornabuoni, one of the main residences of the Medici family in Florence. It was the first attempt at using the new standards developed by the Florentine Camerata to revive Greek drama. Peri composed his music based on the melodic speech of recitativo, and this became the main part of the opera. The action was accompanied by a small ensemble of instruments, including a harpsichord, lutes, a viol, and a flute. The story was based on the myth of Apollo and Dafne. Venus, tired of Apollo's incessant bragging, arms her son Cupid with two arrows. One is for Apollo to fall in love with the nymph Dafne. The second arrow is for Dafne to flee from Apollo's advances. Rinuccini's 445 verses have survived, but Peri's music has been lost.

Dafne must have impressed the Medici hosts, for they commissioned Peri and Rinuccini to write another composition. This was to be for the occasion of Catherine de Medici's wedding to Henry IV of France in 1600. The subject was the story of Orpheus overcoming the obstacles of the underworld to reunite with his love Eurydice. Euridice is the first known complete opera.

The recitativo, as developed by the members of the Camerata, helped lessen the prestige of the older polyphonic style of music. Now an audience could follow the storyline and, in turn, become more involved in the action on stage. Characters could convey their personalities and their emotions. The Camerata had wedded the art of acting and the art of singing. In doing so, they gave birth to opera.


Further Reading:

The Florentine Camerata: Claudio Palisca

A History of Opera: Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker

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