Music Theory For Non-Musicians™ with Bill Bois
I didn’t like opera. Until I went to one.
Attending an opera and listening to an opera recording are two very different experiences. I highly recommend the former.
And never, ever do the latter.
On record, those high soprano voices hurt my ears. I think that’s an effect of the recording process. Recorded music sounds different from live music.
Sopranos sound shrill on record.
They’re shrill in a live setting, too, but much less so. I think that’s because the sound dissipates through the room.
Plus opera, being a partially visual medium, loses something if you’re not sitting right there in the theater.
Opera singing is unnatural. No one sings that way when sitting around a campfire.
There’s a reason opera performers sing like that, of course, and it’s because they have to be heard and understood in the third balcony without microphones. There’s an orchestra in the pit between them and the audience so they have to project over the orchestra and into the farthest reaches of the auditorium.
In some ways, it’s not much different than yodeling from one mountainside to another.
So opera singers develop their squillo. That’s a technique for producing overtones above the fundamental note they’re singing. The overtones help the vocals pierce through the air and get to the back row.
It’s done by narrowing the aryepiglottic folds of the larynx.
Serious training and practice and an understanding of one’s own anatomy are required to be able to do it.
Squillo sounds bright, and a similar technique called scuro sounds dark. Most opera singers combine the two to sound bright yet full bodied, and this is called chiaroscuro, meaning “light-dark.”
These three words, squillo, scuro, and chiaroscuro, are all Italian.
That’s not surprising because opera is a mostly Italian invention.
Let’s go back to Florence in the 1590s.
You may remember from my article on baroque that classical music was sponsored by the church and royalty.
The church had their own reasons. But royalty had court musicians and composers almost entirely to impress other royals, and to remind their underlings how rich and classy and fabulous they were.
It could be argued that nowadays rich people donate to public broadcasting and build new chemistry buildings at prestigious colleges for the same reasons, not to mention the tax deductions, but I won’t go into that further here.
Anyway, a group of scholars got together in Florence sharing a desire to enrich Italian culture. They came to believe that the ancient Greeks produced the best dramas in the history of mankind. Those plays brought audiences from far and wide, and influenced people to go home and make their lives better. Such was the strength and brilliance of Greek drama.
The scholars called themselves the Florentine Camerata.
They hoped to create works of dramatic art as great as the Greeks.
They came to believe that the ancient dramas were sung, at least by the Greek choruses, and that’s why the plays had such an emotional, uplifting, and life altering effect on their audiences. It’s the music.
At the same time, royalty sponsored masques.
Masques were musical spectacles with singing, dancing, and elaborate scenery. The songs very often told stories about the king, queen, prince, or other royal sponsoring the event.
The stories were very complimentary, of course, and the royal family in question often participated in the finale.
The Florentine Camerata took the idea of all-sung productions from masques and tried to combine it with the serious drama of the Greeks. They hoped to create dramas with inspirational story lines, fantastic music, and well-crafted sets.
Remember that part of music during the renaissance and baroque periods was counterpoint, which is having multiple melodies going on at the same time. That’s fine for harpsichord or pipe organ, but if it’s several voices singing their own lyrics, it becomes impossible to understand what any of them are saying.
So to make things simpler, composers started using monody:
A single voice singing a melody over chords provided by the instruments. One voice plus one melody equals easily understandable lyrics. That’s pretty important when you, as a composer, are trying to tell a dramatic story.
In 1597, the poet Ottavio Rinnucini and the composer Jacopo Peri, both members of the Camerata, wrote “Dafne.”
This was the first opera.
Sadly, none of its sheet music survives. We have its libretto, its lyrics, so we know it’s about the love between Dafne, a nymph, and Apollo, who was the Greek god of music, among other things.
We also know the instrumentation was only five instruments: harpsichord, viol, lute, archlute and triple flute.
However, we don’t have any of its melodies or arrangements.
It was a hit. Five years later, Rinnucini and Peri produced “Euridice” and that was a hit, too. Fortunately, we have its music and libretto, and it’s still produced every now and then.
The Duke of Mantua heard “Euridice” and asked his poet Alessandro Striggio and his composer Claudio Monteverdi, (because everyone has a poet and composer on staff,) to write an opera for him. “L’Orfeo” debuted in 1607 and was yet another hit. Soon, every royal in Italy had their staff artists producing operas.
With instructions to outdo the other guys.
The Florentine Camerata had set about to improve humankind’s condition with inspirational works of drama, but the need to please royal egos led to productions that were less intellectual and more ostentatious.
This happens in every genre.
There may be a spectacle happening at your local arena..
But don’t overlook the band at the bar down the street. There’s some amazing art happening there, too.
The first public opera house, San Cassiano, opened in Venice in 1637.
It gave regular folks the chance to experience opera. It had a very small staff of singers and musicians, and was funded only by ticket sales, so they had to appeal to the public to keep the doors open.
It succeeded, and that success led to three other public theaters opening, sponsored by rich families who wanted to seem benevolent.
Given this new competition, San Cassiano hired the great Monteverdi, who was in his 70s at this point, to write new operas for them. Due to the small cast, as well as budget restraints, he went back to the Camerata’s ideals and wrote works meant to inspire goodness. “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria,” for example, tells the story from the second half of “Homer’s Odyssey” and how virtue is rewarded in the end.
Opera soon – well… soon for the pre-radio age – spread across Europe.
Each region gave opera its own spin, notably in the way it treated dialog.
The Florentine tradition had been that all words should be sung, and there were two ways of doing this. There are arias, which are true songs, and there is recitative singing, which is the dialog between arias done in a sort of speak-singing. Recitative parts are speaking with melody.
- In Germany, Martin Opitz translated the libretto to “Dafne” and Heinrich Schütz set it to new music. Like the original 30 years earlier, the music is now lost, but it was the first German language opera.
- In 1644, Sigmund Staden wrote “Seelewig,” which used spoken dialog rather than recitative singing. This predates what would become known as “English opera” by several decades. In most regards, however, German opera was overshadowed by the Italians.
- Giovanni Battista Lulli moved from Florence to Paris to work as Mademoiselle de Montpensier’s chamber boy in 1646. Already a violinist, he studied with her musicians, began composing, and changed his name to Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Lully meticulously wrote his recitative melodies to imitate the speech patterns of dramatic actors, pausing where they would pause, and emphasizing what they would emphasize.
This approach influenced French opera for a century.
English audiences, however, didn’t like the recitative parts at all. On British stages, songs were sung and dialog was spoken, and that’s all there was to it.
Additionally, there had to be some explanation as to why a character would suddenly burst into song.
It just doesn’t happen in real life, so the British thought it shouldn’t happen on stage. If, however, there was some otherworldly explanation like magic or other fantasy, then sing away.
The result is what’s called a semi-opera or English opera where there’s dialog and no recitative vocals.
In 1691, Henry Purcell wrote “King Arthur.” It’s about the Saxons battling Arthur’s Britons, yet includes familiar imaginary characters like Venus and Cupid so there can be arias.
Meanwhile back in Venice, Monteverdi’s pupil Francesco Cavalli took over as the leading opera composer. The music itself became the focus of opera, and the story played second fiddle.
Something similar happened in Naples.
With Alessandro Scarlatti at the forefront of Neapolitan music, elegance and seriousness became very important. Vocal talent was prized above all else. Scarlatti’s contributions include the final forms of both the three part overture and the da capo aria.
A da capo aria uses an ABA form, with the first part repeated at the end. The middle section acts like a bridge in a modern pop song, expanding on the main idea or introducing other concepts and melodies. It can even be in a different key or tempo.
“Da capo” means “from the head,” as in go back to the start of the piece and repeat the first section. The term “head” is widely used in jazz to indicate that beginning section. In jazz, the middle section is where the improvised solos go, but in both jazz and da capo arias, after the middle section, you go back to the head.
The point of arias became to showcase the singers’ capabilities. The composers’ job, therefore, was to write showcase pieces, while telling the story. The singers, however, could improvise a little, and show off their vocal prowess by ornamenting the melodies with trills and other flourishes. We have the names of the great singers, but no recordings. Obviously.
Thanks to sheet music, however, we can still see who the great composers were.
For royalty in the 1600s, you weren’t hip unless you had an Italian composer in your court, or at least one who had been trained in Italy.
There was great work coming out of other countries, but Italy was where it’s at.
That brings us to the 1700s, which seems like a good stopping point for this installment. Tune in next week to see opera progress.
It’s one of the few genres that lasted for centuries, so there’s lots to talk about.
- Please note that the Suggested Listening clips are single arias from operas that might last a couple hours. You can find complete operas with full stage performances on YouTube.
Or better still: go to a live opera.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
L’ Euridice – 1 Prologo La Tragedia
L’Orfeo – Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi
“La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina” – Antri gelati
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria: Act V, Scene 10, “Illustratevi, o Cieli”
Doriclea: Se ben mai non mi vide questa città (Doriclea lamento)
Seelewig, Act I: Die güldene sonne schwebt über dem meer
Persée: Je perdu la beauté
King Arthur: “The Cold Song”
Il Pirro e Demetrio: Le violette
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