1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Opera

OPERA (Italian for “work”), a drama set to music, as distinguished from plays in which music is merely incidental. Music has been a resource of the drama from the earliest times, and doubtless the results of researches in the early history of this connexion have been made very interesting, but they are hardly relevant to a history of opera as an art-form. If language has meaning, an art-form can hardly be said to exist under conditions where the only real connexions between its alleged origin and its modern maturity are such universal means of expression as can equally well connect it with almost everything else. We will therefore pass over the orthodox history of opera as traceable from the music of Greek tragedy to that of miracle-plays, and will begin with its real beginning, the first dramas that were set to music in order to be produced as musical works of art, at the beginning of the 17th century.

There seems no reason to doubt the story, given by Doni, of the meetings held by a group of amateurs at the house of the Bardi in Florence in the last years of the 16th century, with the object of trying experiments in emotional musical expression by the use of instruments and solo voices. Before this time there was no real opportunity for music-drama. The only high musical art of the 16th century was unaccompanied choral music: its expression was perfect within its limits, and its limits so absolutely excluded all but what may be called static or contemplative emotion that “dramatic music” was as inconceivable as “dramatic architecture.” But the literary and musical dilettanti who met at the house of the Bardi were not mature musical artists; they therefore had no scruples, and their imaginations were fired by the dream of restoring the glories of Greek tragedy, especially on the side of its musical declamation. The first pioneer in the new “monodic” movement seems to have been Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo. This enthusiastic amateur warbled the story of Ugolino to the accompaniment of the lute, much to the amusement of expert musicians; but he gained the respect and sympathy of those whose culture was literary rather than musical. His efforts must have been not unlike a wild caricature of Mr. W. B. Yeats’s method of reciting poetry to the psaltery. The first public production in the new style was Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), which was followed by a less successful effort of Caccini’s on the same subject. To us it is astonishing that an art so great as the polyphony of the 16th century could ever have become forgotten in a new venture so feeble in its first steps. Sir Hubert Parry has happily characterized the general effect of the new movement on contemporary imagination as something like that of laying a foundation-stone — the suggestion of a vista of possibilities so inspiriting as to exclude all sense of the triviality of the present achievement. Meanwhile those composers who retained the mastery of polyphonic music tried to find a purely vocal and polyphonic solution of the problem of music-drama; and the Amfiparnasso of Orazio Vecchi (written in 1594, the year of Palestrina’s death, and produced three years later) is not alone, though it is by far the most remarkable, among attempts to make a music-drama out of a series of madrigals. From the woodcuts which adorn the first edition of the Amfiparnasso it has been conjectured that the actors sang one voice each, while the rest of the harmony was supplied by singers behind the stage[1]; and this may have been the case with other works of this kind. But the words of Vecchi’s introductory chorus contradict this idea, for they tell the audience that “the theatre of this drama is the world” and that the spectators must “hear instead of seeing.”

With the decadence of the madrigal, Monteverde brought a real musical power to bear on the new style. His results are now intelligible only to historians, and they seem to us artistically nugatory; but in their day they were so impressive as to render the further continuance of 16th-century choral art impossible. At the beginning of the 17th century no young musician of lively artistic receptivity could fail to be profoundly stirred by Monteverde’s Orfeo (1602), Arianna (1608) and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624), works in which the resources of instruments were developed with the same archaic boldness, the same grasp of immediate emotional effect and the same lack of artistic organization as the harmonic resources. The spark of Monteverde’s genius produced in musical history a result more like an explosion than an enlightenment; and the emotional rhetoric of his art was so uncontrollable, and at the same time so much more impressive in suggestion than in realization, that we cannot be surprised that the next definite step in the history of opera took the direction of mere musical form, and was not only undramatic but anti-dramatic.

The system of free musical declamation known as recitative is said to have been used by Emilio del Cavalieri as early as 1588, and it was in the nature of things almost the only means of vocal expression conceivable by the pioneers of opera. Formal melody, such as that of popular songs, was as much beneath their dignity as it had been beneath that of the high art from which they revolted; but, in the absence of any harmonic system but that of the church modes, which was manifestly incapable of assimilating the new “unprepared discords,” and in the utter chaos of early experiments in instrumentation, formal melody proved a godsend as the novelty of recitative faded. Tunes were soon legalized at moments of dramatic repose when it was possible for the actors to indulge in either a dance or a display of vocalization; it was in the tunes that the strong harmonic system of modern tonality took shape; and by the early days of Alessandro Scarlatti, before the end of the 17th century, the art of tune-making had perennially blossomed into the musically safe and effective form of the aria (q.v.). From this time until the death of Handel the history of opera is simply the history of the aria; except in so far as in France, under Lully, it is also the history of ballet-music, the other main theatrical occasion for the art of tune-making. With opera before Gluck there is little interest in tracing schools and developments, for the musical art had as mechanical a connexion with drama as it had with the art of scene-painting, and neither it nor the drama which was attached to it showed any real development at all, though the librettist Metastasio presented as imposing a figure in 18th-century Italian literature as Handel presented in Italian opera. Before this period of stagnation we find an almost solitary and provincial outburst of life in the wonderful patchwork of Purcell’s art (1658–1695). Whether he is producing genuine opera (as in the unique case of Dido and Aeneas) or merely incidental music to plays (as in the so-called opera King Arthur), his deeply inspired essays in dramatic music are no less interesting in their historic isolation from everything except the influence of Lully than they are admirable as evidences of a genius which, with the opportunities of 50 years later or 150 years earlier, might assuredly have proved one of the greatest in all music. Another sign of life has been appreciated by recent research in the interesting farcical operas (mostly Neapolitan) of certain early 18th-century Italian composers (see Leo, Pergolese, Logroscino), which have some bearing on the antecedents of Mozart.

The real reason for the stagnation of high opera before Gluck is (as explained in the articles Music and Sonata Forms) that the forms of music known before 1750 could not express dramatic change without losing artistic organization. The “spirit of the age” can have had little to do with the difficulty, or why should Shakespeare not have had a contemporary operatic brother-artist during the “Golden Age” of music? The opportunity for reform came with the rise of the sonata style. It was fortunate for Gluck that the music of his time was too vigorously organized to be upset by new discoveries. Gluck was a much greater artist than Monteverde, but he too was not overloaded with academic mastery; indeed, though historians have denied it, Monteverde was by far the better contrapuntist, and seems rather to have renounced his musical powers than to have struggled for need of them. But instead of memories of a Golden Age, Gluck had behind him 150 years of harmonic and orchestral knowledge of good and evil. He also had almost as clear a sense of symphonic form as could find scope in opera at all; and his melodic power was generally of the highest order. It is often said that his work was too far in advance of his time to establish his intended reform; and, if this means that undramatic Italian operas continued to outnumber those dramatic masterpieces which no smaller man could achieve, the statement is as true as it is of every great artist. If, however, it is taken to mean that because Mozart’s triumphs do not lie in serious opera he owes nothing to Gluck, then the statement is misleading (see Gluck). The influence of Gluck on Mozart was profound, not only where it is relevant to the particular type of libretto, as in Idomeneo, but also on the broad dramatic basis which includes Greek tragedy and the 18th-century comedy of manners. Mozart, whose first impulse was always to make his music coherent in itself, for some time continued to cultivate side by side with his growing polyphony and freedom of movement certain Italian formalities which, though musically effective and flattering to singers, were dramatically vicious. But these features, though they spoil Idomeneo, correspond to much that in Gluck’s operas shows mere helplessness; and in comic opera they may even become dramatically appropriate. Thus in Cosi fan tutte the florid arias in which the two heroines protest their fidelity are the arias of ladies who do protest too much; and in Die Zauberflöte the extravagant vocal fireworks of the Queen of Night are the displays of one who, in the words of the high priest Sarastro, “hopes to cajole the people with illusions and superstition.” In the article Mozart we have discussed other evidences of his stagecraft and insight into character, talents for which his comic subjects gave him far more scope than those of classical tragedy had given to Gluck. Mozart always extracts the utmost musical effect from every situation in his absurd and often tiresome libretti (especially in vocal ensemble), while his musical effects are always such as give dramatic life to what in other hands are conventional musical forms. These merits would never have been gainsaid but for the violence of Wagner’s earlier partisans in their revolt from the uncritical classicism of his denser and noisier opponents. Wagner himself stands as far aloof from Wagnerian Philistinism as from uncritical classicism. He was a fierce critic of social conditions and by no means incapable of hasty iconoclastic judgments; but he would have treated with scant respect the criticism that censures Mozart for superficiality in rejecting the radically unmusical element of mordant social satire which distinguishes the Figaro of Beaumarchais from the most perfect opera in all classical music.

It cannot be said that in any high artistic sense Italian comic opera has developed continuously since Mozart. The vocal athleticism of singers; the acceptance and great development by Mozart of what we may call symphonic (as distinguished from Handelian) forms of aria and ensemble; and the enlargement of the orchestra; these processes gave the Italian composers of Mozart’s and later times prosaically golden opportunities for lifting spectators and singers to the seventh heaven of flattered vanity, while the music, in itself no less than in its relation to the drama, was steadily degraded. The decline begins with Mozart’s contemporary and survivor, D. Cimarosa, whose ideas are genuine and, in the main, refined, but who lacks power and resource. His style was by no means debased, but it was just so slight that contemporaries found it fairly easy. His most famous work, Il Matrimonio Segreto, is an opera buffa which is still occasionally revived, and it is very like the sort of thing that people who despise Mozart imagine Figaro to be. Unless it is approached with sympathy, its effect after Figaro is hardly more exhilarating than that of the once pilloried spurious “Second Part” to the Pickwick Papers. But this is harsh judgment; for it proves to be a good semi-classic as soon as we take it on its own merits. It is far more musical, if less vivacious, than Rossini’s Barbiere; and the decline of Italian opera is more significantly foreshadowed in Cimarosa’s other chef-d'œuvre, the remarkable opera seria, Gli Orazzi ed i Curiazzi. Here the arias and ensembles are serious art, showing a pale reflection of Mozart, and not wholly without Mozart’s spirit, the choruses, notably the first of all, have fine moments; and the treatment of conflicting emotions at one crisis, where military music is heard behind the scenes, is masterly. Lastly, the abrupt conclusion at the moment of the catastrophe is good and was novel at the time, though it foreshadows that sacrifice of true dramatic and musical breadth to the desire for an “effective curtain,” and that mortal fear of anti-climax which in classical French opera rendered a great musical finale almost impossible. But the interesting and dramatic features in Gli Orazzi are unfortunately less significant historically than the vulgarity of its overture, and the impossibility, after the beautiful opening chorus, of tracing any unmistakably tragic style in the whole work except by the negative sign of dullness.

Before Cimarosa’s overwhelming successor Rossini had retired from his indolent career, these tendencies had already reduced both composers and spectators to a supreme indifference to the mood of the libretto, an indifference far more fatal than mere inattention to the plot. Nobody cares to follow the plot of Mozart’s Figaro; but then no spectator of Beaumarchais’s Mariage de Figaro is prevented by the intricacy of its plot from enjoying it as a play. In both cases we are interested in the character-drawing and in each situation as it arises; and we do no justice to Mozart’s music when we forget this interest, even in cases where the libretto has none of the literary merit that survives in the transformation of Beaumarchais’s comedy into an Italian libretto. But with the Rossinian decline all charitable scruples of criticism are misplaced, for Italian opera once more became as purely a pantomimic concert as in the Handelian period; and we must not ignore the difference that it was now a concert of very vulgar music, the vileness of which was only aggravated by the growing range and interest of dramatic subjects. The best that can be said in defence of it was that the vulgarity was not pretentious and unhealthy, like Meyerbeer’s; indeed, if the famous “Mad Scene” in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor had only been meant to be funny it would not have been vulgar at all. Occasionally the drama pierced through the empty breeziness of the music; and so the spirit of Shakespeare, even when smothered in an Italian libretto unsuccessfully set to music by Rossini, proved so powerful that one spectator of Rossini’s Otello is recorded to have started out of his seat at the catastrophe, exclaiming “Good Heavens! the tenor is murdering the soprano!” And in times of political unrest more than one opera became as dangerous as an over-censored theatre could make it. An historical case in point is brilliantly described in George Meredith’s Vittoria. But what has this to do with the progress of music? The history of Italian opera from after its culmination in Mozart to its subsidence on the big drum amd cymbals of the Rossinians is the history of a protected industry. Verdi’s art, both in its burly youth and in its shrewd old age, is far more the crown of his native genius than of his native traditions; and, though opinions differ as to the spontaneity and depth of the change, the paradox is true that the Wagnerization of Verdi was the musical emancipation of Italy.

After Mozart the next step in the development of true operatic art was neither Italian nor German, but French. The French sense of dramatic fitness had a wonderfully stimulating effect upon every foreign composer who came to France. Rossini himself, in Guillaume Tell, was electrified into a dramatic and orchestral life of an incomparably higher order than the rollicking rattle of serious and comic Italian opera in its decline. He was in the prime of life when he wrote it, but it exhausted him and was practically his last important work, though he lived to a cheerful old age. The defects of its libretto were grave, but he made unprecedented efforts to remedy them, and finally succeeded, at the cost of an entire act. The experience was very significant; for, from the time of Gluck onwards, while it cannot be denied that native and naturalized French operatic art has suffered from many forms of musical and dramatic debasement, we may safely say that no opera has met with success in France that is without theatrical merit. And the French contribution to musical history between Gluck and Rossini is of great nobility. If Cherubini and Méhul had had Gluck’s melodic power, the classics of French opera would have been the greatest achievements in semi-tragic music-drama before Wagner. As it is, their austerity is not that of the highest classics. It is negative, and tends to exclude outward attractiveness rather because it cannot achieve it than because it contains all things in due proportion. Be this as it may, Cherubini had a real influence on Beethoven; not to mention that the libretti of Fidelio and Les Deux journées were originally by the same author, though Fidelio underwent great changes in translation and revision. It is impossible to say what French opera might have done for music through Beethoven if Fidelio had not remained his solitary (because very nearly unsuccessful) operatic monument; but there is no doubt as to its effect on Weber, whose two greatest works, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, are two giant strides from Cherubini to Wagner. Euryanthe is in respect of Leit-motif (see below) almost more Wagnerian than Lohengrin, Wagner’s fourth published opera. It failed to make an epoch in history because of its dreary libretto, to which, however, the highly dramatic libretto of Lohengrin owes a surprising number of points.

The libretti of classical opera set too low a literary standard to induce critics to give sufficient attention to their aesthetic bearings; and perhaps the great scholar Otto Jahn is the only writer who has applied a first-rate literary analysis to the subject (see his Life of Mozart); a subject which, though of great importance to music, has, like the music itself, been generally thrust into the background by the countless externals that give theatrical works and institutions a national or political importance independent of artistic merit and historical development. Much that finds prominent place in the orthodox history of opera is really outside the scope of musical and dramatic discussion; and it may therefore be safely left to be discovered under non-musical headings elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia. Even when what passes for operatic history has a more real connexion with the art than the history of locomotion has with physical science, the importance of the connexion is often overrated. For example, much has been said as to the progress in German opera from the choice of remote subjects like Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to the choice of a subject so thoroughly German as Der Freischütz: but this is only part of the general progress made, chiefly in France, towards the choice of romantic instead of classical subjects. Whatever the intrinsic interest of musical ethnology, and whatever light it may throw upon the reasons why an art will develop and decline sooner in one country than in another, racial character will not suffice to produce an art for which no technique as yet exists. Nor will it suffice in any country to check the development or destroy the value of an art of which the principles were developed elsewhere. No music of Mozart’s time could have handled Weber’s romantic subjects, and all the Teutonism in history could not have prevented Mozart from adopting and developing those Italian methods that gave him scope. Again, in the time of Lully, who was the contemporary of Molière, the French genius of stagecraft was devoted to reducing opera to an effective series of ballets; yet so little did this hamper composers of real dramatic power that Quinault’s libretto to Lully’s very successful Armide served Gluck unaltered for one of his greatest works 90 years later. If Lully owes so little to Cambert as to be rightly entitled the founder of French opera, if Gluck is a greater reformer than his predecessor Rameau, if Cherubini is a more powerful artist than Méhul, and if, lastly, Meyerbeer developed the vices of the French histrionic machinery with a plausibility which has never been surpassed, then we must reconcile our racial theories with the historic process by which the French Grand Opéra, one of the most pronounced national types in all music, was founded by an Italian Jew, reformed by an Austrian, classicized by another Italian, and debased by a German Jew. This only enhances the significance of that French dramatic sense which stimulated foreign composers and widened their choice of subjects, as it also preserved all except the Italian forms of opera from falling into that elsewhere prevalent early 19th-century operatic style in which there was no means of guessing by the music whether any situation was tragic or comic. From the time of Meyerbeer onwards, trivial and vulgar opera has been as common in France as elsewhere; but there is a world of difference between, for example, a garish tune naïvely intended for a funeral march, and a similar tune used in a serious situation with a dramatic sense of its association with other incidents in the opera, and of its contrast with the sympathies of spectators and actors. The first case is as typical of 19th-century musical Italy as the second case is of musical France and all that has come under French influence.

As Wagner slowly and painfully attained his maturity he learned to abhor the influence of Meyerbeer, and indeed it accounts for much of the inequality of his earlier work. But it can hardly have failed to stimulate his sense of effect; and without the help of Meyerbeer’s outwardly successful novelties it is doubtful whether even Wagner’s determination could have faced the task of his early work, a task so negative and destructive in its first stages. We have elsewhere (see Music, Sonata Forms ad finem, and Symphonic Poem) described how if music of any kind, instrumental or dramatic, was to advance beyond the range of the classical symphony, there was need to devise a kind of musical motion and proportion as different from that of the sonata or symphony as the sonata style is different from that of the suite. All the vexed questions of the function of vocal ensemble, of the structure of the libretto, and of instrumentation, are but aspects and results of this change in what is as much a primary category of music as extension is a primary category of matter. Wagnerian opera, a generation after Wagner’s death, was still an unique phenomenon, the rational influence of which was not yet sifted from the concomitant confusions of thought prevalent among many composers of symphony, oratorio, and other forms of which Wagner’s principles can be relevant only with incalculable modifications. With Wagner the history of classical opera ends and a new history begins, for in Wagner’s hands opera first became a single art-form, a true and indivisible music-drama, instead of a kind of dramatic casket for a collection of objets d'art more or less aptly arranged in theatrical tableaux.

Forms and Terminology of Opera.

The history of pre-Wagnerian opera is not, like that of the sonata forms, a history in which the technical terminology has a clear relationship to the aesthetic development. In order to understand the progress of classical opera we must understand the whole progress of classical music; and this not merely for the general reason that the development of an art-form is inseparable from the development of the whole art, but because in the case of opera only the most external terminology and the most unreal and incoherent history of fashions and factions remain for consideration after the general development of musical art has been discussed. For completeness, however, the terminology must be included; and a commentary on it will complete our sketch in better historical perspective than any attempt to amplify details on the lines of a continuous history.

1. Secco-recitative is the delivery of ordinary operatic dialogue in prosaic recitative-formulas, accompanied by nothing but a harpsichord or pianoforte. In comic operas it was not so bad a method as some critics imagine; for the conductor (who sat at the harpsichord or pianoforte) would, if he had the wits expected of him by the composer, extemporize his accompaniments in an unobtrusively amusing manner, while the actors delivered their recitative rapidly in a conversational style known as parlante. In serious operas, however, the conductor dare not be frivolous; and accordingly secco-recitative outside comic opera is the dreariest of makeshifts, and is not tolerated by Gluck in his mature works. He accompanies his recitatives with the string band, introducing other instruments freely as the situation suggests.

2. Accompanied recitative was used in all kinds of opera, as introductory to important arias and other movements, and also in the course of finales. Magnificent examples abound in Idomeneo, Figaro and Don Giovanni; and one of the longest recitatives before Wagner is that near the beginning of the finale of the first act of Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven’s two examples in Fidelio are short but of overwhelming pathos.

3. Melodrama is the use of an orchestral accompaniment to spoken dialogue (see Benda). It is wonderfully promising in theory, but generally disappointing in effect, unless the actors are successfully trained to speak without being dragged by the music into an out-of-tune sing-song. Classical examples are generally short and cautious, but very impressive; there is one in Fidelio in which the orchestra quotes two points from earlier movements in a thoroughly Wagnerian way (see Leitmotif below). But the device is more prominent in incidental music to plays, as in Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s Egmont. Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains the most brilliant and resourceful examples yet achieved in this art; but they are beyond the musical capacity of the English stage, which, however, has practised the worst forms of the method until it has become a disease, many modern performances of Shakespeare attaining an almost operatic continuity of bad music.

4. Opera buffa is classical Italian comic opera with secco-recitative. Its central classics are, of course, Figaro and Don Giovanni, while Cimarosa’s Matrimonio Segreto and Rossini’s Barbiere are the most important steps from the culmination to the fall.

5. Opera seria is classical Italian opera with secco-recitative; almost always (like the Handelian opera from which it is derived) on a Greek or Roman subject, and, at whatever cost to dramatic or historic propriety, with a happy ending. Gluck purposely avoids the term in his mature works. The only great classic in opera seria is Mozart’s Idomeneo, and even that is dramatically too unequal to be more than occasionally revived, though it contains much of Mozart’s finest music.

6. The Singspiel is German opera with spoken dialogue. In early stages it advanced from the farcical to the comic. With Beethoven it came under French influence and adopted “thrilling” stories with happy endings; and from this stage it passed to specifically “Romantic” subjects. Its greatest classics are Mozart’s Entführung and Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Weber’s Freischütz.

7. Opéra comique is the Singspiel of France, being French opera with spoken dialogue. It did not originate in farce but in the refusal of the Académie de Musique to allow rival companies to infringe its monopoly of Grand Opera; and it is so far from being essentially comic that one of its most famous classics, Méhul’s Joseph, is on a Biblical subject; while its highest achievement, Cherubini’s Les Deux journées, is on a story almost as serious as that of Fidelio. All Cherubini’s mature operas (except the ballet Anacreon, which is uninterrupted music from beginning to end) are operas comiques in the sense of having spoken dialogue; though Medée, being, perhaps, the first genuine tragedy in the history of music-drama,[2] is simply called “opéra” on the title-page. In the smaller French works, especially those in one act, there is so much spoken dialogue that they are almost like plays with incidental music. But they never sink to the condition of the so-called operas of the English composers since Handel. When Weber accepted the commission to write Oberon for the English stage in 1825, he found that he was compelled to set the musical numbers one by one as they were sent to him, without the slightest information as to the plot, the situation, or even the order of the pieces! And, to crown his disgust, he found that this really did not matter.

8. Grand opéra is French opera in which every word is sung, and generally all recitative accompanied by the orchestra. It originated in the Académie de Musique, which, from its foundation in 1669 to the proclamation of the liberté des théatres in 1791, claimed the monopoly of operas on the lines laid down by Lully, Rameau and Gluck. Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Spontini’s Vestala and the works of Meyerbeer crown this theoretically promising art-form with what Sir Hubert Parry has justly if severely called a crown of no very precious metal. Weber’s Euryanthe, Spohr’s Jessonda, and others of his operas, are German parallel developments; and Wagner’s first published work, Rienzi, is like an attempt to beat Meyerbeer on his own ground.

9. Opéra bouffe is not an equivalent of opera buffa, but is French light opera with a prominent strain of persiflage. Its chief representative is Offenbach. It seems to be as native to France as the austere opéra comique which it eclipsed. Sullivan assimilated its adroit orchestration as Gilbert purified its literary wit, and the result became a peculiarly English possession.

10. The finale is that part of a classical opera where, some way before the end of an act, the music gathers itself together and flows in an unbroken chain of concerted movements. The “invention” has been ascribed to this or that composer before Mozart, and it certainly must have taken some time in the growing; but Mozart is the first classic whose finales are famous. The finales to the second act of Figaro, the first act of Don Giovanni and the second of the Zauberflöte remained unequalled in scale and in dramatic and symphonic continuity, until Wagner, as it were, extended the finale backwards until it met the introduction (see below) so that the whole act became musically continuous. This step was foreshadowed by Weber, in whose Euryanthe the numbering of the later movements of each act is quite arbitrary. Great finales are less frequent in Singspiel than in opera buffa. They can hardly be said to exist in opera seria, climax at the end of an act being there (even in Gluck) attained only by a collection of ballet movements, whereas the essence of Mozart’s finale is its capacity to deal with real turning-points of the action. A few finales of the first and second acts of opéras comiques (which are almost always in three acts) are on the great classical lines, e.g. that to the first act of Les Deux journées; but a French finale to a last act is, except in Cherubini’s works, hardly ever more than a short chorus, often so perfunctory that, for instance, when Méhul’s Joseph was first produced by Weber at Dresden in 1817, a three-movement finale by Fränzl of Munich was added; and Weber publicly explained the difference between French and German notions of finality, in excuse for a course so repugnant to his principles in the performance of other works.

11. The introduction is sometimes merely an instrumental entr'acte in classical opera; but it is more especially an extension of continuous dramatic music at the beginning of an act, like the extension of the finale backwards towards the middle of the act, but much smaller. Beethoven, in his last version of Fidelio, used the term for the perfectly normal duet that begins the first act, and for the instrumental entr'acte which leads to the rise of the curtain on Florestan’s great scene in the second act. The classical instances of the special meaning of “introduction” are the first number in Don Giovanni and, more typically, that in the Zauberflöte.

12. Leit-motif, or the association of musical themes with dramatic ideas and persons, is not only a natural means of progress in music drama, but is an absolute musical necessity as soon as the lines dividing an opera into separate formal pieces are broken down, unless the music is to become exclusively “atmospheric” and inarticulate. Without recurrence of themes a large piece of music could no more show coherent development than a drama in which the characters were never twice addressed by the same name nor twice allowed to appear in the same guise. Now the classical operatic forms, being mainly limited by the sonata style, were not such as could, when once worked out in appropriate designs of aria and ensemble, be worked out again in recognizable transformations without poverty and monotony of effect. And hence a system of Leit-motif was not appropriate to that ingenious compromise which classical opera made between music that completed from 12 to 30 independent designs and the drama that meanwhile completed one. But when the music became as continuous as the drama the case was different. There are plenty of classical instances of a theme superficially marking some cardinal incident or personal characteristic, without affecting the independence of the musical forms; the commonest case being, of course, the allusion somewhere in the overture to salient points in the body of the opera; as, for instance, the allusion to the words “cosi fan tutti” in the overture to Mozart’s opera of that name, and the Masonic three-fold chord in that to the Zauberflöte. Weber’s overtures are sonata-form fantasias on themes to come: and in later and lighter operas such allusiveness, being childishly easy, is a meaningless matter of course. Within the opera itself, songs, such as would be sung in an ordinary non-musical play, will probably recur, as in Les Deux journées; and so will all phrases that have the character of a call or a signal, a remarkable and pathetic instance of which may be found in Méhul’s Mélidore et Phrosine, where the orchestra makes a true Leit-motif of the music of the heroine’s name. But it is a long way from this to the system already clearly marked by Weber in Der Freischütz and developed in Euryanthe to an extent which Wagner did not surpass in any earlier work than Tristan, though in respect of the obliteration of sections his earliest works are in advance of Weber. Yet not only are there some thirteen recurrent musical incidents in the Freischütz and over twenty in Euryanthe, but in the latter the serpentine theme associated with the treacherous Eglantine actually stands the Wagnerian test of being recognizable when its character is transformed. This can hardly be claimed even for the organization of themes in Lohengrin.

Mature Wagnerian Leit-motif is a very different thing from the crude system of musical labels to which some of Wagner’s disciples have reduced it, and Wagner himself had no patience with the catalogue methods of modern operatic analysis. The Leit-motif system of Tristan, the Meistersinger, the Ring and Parsifal is a profoundly natural and subtle cross-current of musical thought, often sharply contrasted with the externals of a dramatic situation, since it is free to reflect not only these externals, not only the things which the audience know and the persons of the drama do not know, not only those workings of the dramatic character’s mind which he is trying to conceal from the other characters, but even those which he conceals from himself. There was nothing new in any one of these possibilities taken singly (see, for example, Gluck’s ironic treatment of “le calme rentre dans man coeur”), but polyphonic Leit-motif made them all possible simultaneously. Wagner’s mind was not concentrated on the merely literary and theatrical aspects of music-drama; he fought his way to the topmost heights of the peculiar musical mastery necessary to his ideals; and so he realized that principle in which none but the very greatest musicians find freedom; the principle that, however constantly necessary and powerful homophonic music may be in passages of artificial simplicity, all harmonic music is by nature and origin polyphonic; and that in polyphony lies the normal and natural means of expressing a dramatic blending of emotions.

Wagnerian Leit-motif has proved rather a giant’s robe for later composers; and the most successful of recent operas have, while aiming less at the sublime, cultivated Wagner’s musical and dramatic continuity more than his principles of musical texture. Certainly Wagnerian continuity is a permanent postulate in modern opera; but it shows itself to be a thing attainable quite independently of any purely musical style or merit, so long as the dramatic movement of the play is good. This condition was always necessary, even where opera was most symphonic. Mozart was incessantly disputing with his librettists; and all his criticisms and changes, though apparently of purely musical purport, had a brilliant effect on the movement of the play. In one desperate case, where the librettist was obstinate, Mozart abandoned a work (L'Oca del Cairo) to the first act of which he had already sketched a great finale embodying a grandiose farcical figure that promised to be unique in classical opera.

Mozart’s lesson of dramatic movement has been better learnt than anything peculiar to either music or literature; for, while his libretti show how little that quality has to do with poetic merit, the whole history of Italian opera from Rossini to Mascagni shows how little it has to do with good music. On the other hand, the musical coherence of the individual classical forms used in opera has caused many critics to miss the real dramatic ground of some of the most important operatic conventions. The chief instance of this is the repetition of words in arias and at climaxes, a convention which we are over-ready to explain as a device which prolongs situations and delays action for the sake of musical design. But in the best classical examples the case is almost the reverse, for the aria does not, as we are apt to suppose, represent a few words repeated so as to serve for a long piece of music. Without the music the drama would have required a long speech in its place; but the classical composer cannot fit intelligible music to a long string of different sentences, and so the librettist reduces the speech to mere headlines and the composer supplies the eloquence. Herein lies the meaning of Mozart’s rapid progress from vocal concertos like “Fuor del mar” in Idomeneo and “Martern aller Arten” in Die Entführung to genuine musical speeches like “Non più andrai” in Figaro, in which the obvious capacity to deal with a greater number of words is far less important than the naturalness and freedom with which the pace of the declamation is varied — a freedom unsurpassed even in the Elektra of Richard Strauss.

With Wagnerian polyphony and continuity music became capable of treating words as they occur in ordinary speech, and repetitions have accordingly become out of place except where they would be natural without music. But it is not here that the real gain in freedom of movement lies. That gain has been won, not by Wagner’s negative reforms alone, but by his combination of negative reform with new depths of musical thought; and modern opera is not more exempt than classical opera from the dangers of artistic methods that have become facile and secure. If the libretto has the right dramatic movement, the modern composer need have no care beyond what is wanted to avoid interference with that movement. So long as the music arouses no obviously incompatible emotion and has no breach of continuity, it may find perfect safety in being meaningless. The necessary stagecraft is indeed not common, but neither is it musical. Critics and public will cheerfully agree in ascribing to the composer all the qualities of the dramatist; and three allusions in the music of one scene to that of another will suffice to pass for a marvellous development of Wagnerian Leit-motif.

Modern opera of genuine artistic significance ranges from the light song-play type admirably represented by Bizet’s Carmen to the exclusively “atmospheric” impressionism of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande. Both these extremes are equally natural in effect, though diametrically opposite in method: for both types eliminate everything that would be inadmissible in ordinary drama. If we examine the libretto of Carmen as an ordinary play we shall find it to consist mainly of actual songs and dances, so that more than half of the music would be necessary even if it were not an opera at all. Debussy’s opera differs from Maeterlinck’s play only in a few omissions such as would probably be made in ordinary non-musical performances. His musical method combines perfect Wagnerian continuity with so entire an absence of Leit-motif that there are hardly three musical phrases in the whole opera that could be recognized if they recurred in fresh contexts. The highest conceivable development of Wagnerian continuity has been attained by Strauss in Salome and Elektra; these operas being actually more perfect in dramatic movement than the original plays of Wilde and Hofmannsthal. But their use of Leit-motif, though obvious and impressive, is far less developed than in Wagner; and the polyphony, as distinguished from the brilliant instrumental technique, is, like that technique, devoted mainly to realistic and physically exciting effects that crown the impression in much the same way as skilful lighting of the stage. Certainly Strauss does not in his whole time-limit of an hour and three-quarters use as many definite themes (even in the shortest of figures) as Wagner uses in ten minutes.

It remains to be seen whether a further development of Wagnerian opera, in the sense of addition to Wagner’s resources in musical architecture, is possible. The uncompromising realism of Strauss does not at first sight seem encouraging in this direction; yet his treatment of Elektra ’s first invocation of Agamemnon produces a powerful effect of musical form, dimly perceived, but on a larger scale than even the huge sequences of Wagner. In any case, the best thing that can happen in a period of musical transition is that the leading revolutionaries should make a mark in opera. Musical revolutions are too easy to mean much by themselves; there is no purely musical means of testing the sanity of the revolutionaries or of the critics. But the stage, while boundlessly tolerant of bad music, will stand no nonsense in dramatic movement. (The case of Handelian opera is no exception, for in it the stage was a mere topographical term.) In every period of musical fermentation the art of opera has instantly sifted the men of real ideas from the aesthetes and doctrinaires; Monteverde from the prince of Venosa, Gluck from Gossec, and Wagner from Liszt. As the ferment subsides, opera tends to a complacent decadence; but it will always revive to put to the first and most crucial test every revolutionary principle that enters into music to destroy and expand.

  1. The first story in Berlioz’s Soirées d'orchestre is about a young 16th-century genius who revolts from this practice and becomes a pioneer of monody. The picture is brilliant, though the young genius evidently learnt all his music in Paris somewhere about 1830.
  2. Even Gluck never contemplated any alternative to the absurd happy ending of Orfeo; and all his other operatic subjects include a deus ex machina.