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The Florentine Background

At the beginning of its development, operatic poetry was relatively undifferentiated. The first librettists, borrowing from the pastoral, chose versi sciolti for their dramas, a meter characterized by freely alternating settenario and endecasillabo lines, unrhymed or rhymed irregularly. Lacking formal restraints or conditions, the pastoral meter suited the open-ended stile recitativo devised by the Florentine composers for the clear and immediate communication of dramatic poetry in music. The stile recitativo was relatively unencumbered by textural, harmonic, or melodic responsibilities. It could thus aspire to the condition of speech, ebbing and flowing in response to the changing emotional temperature of a dramatic text. Governed by the form and sense of poetry rather than by principles of musical structure, it was an effective means of communication that did not strain verisimilitude.

The musico-dramatic continuity promoted by versi sciolti was occasionally interrupted by an unusual textual passage that attracted special attention to itself by virtue of its structure: a succession of tightly rhymed lines, perhaps, or a passage in a new meter. Inspired by some unusual event or emotion in the drama, such passages frequently gained further emphasis (and greater differentiation from their context) through immediate repetition of their distinctive verse structure, thereby producing a strophic form. Self-contained forms like


these suggested a contrast in musical setting, a more closed, structured treatment in which the freedom of speech would yield to the control of musical form. But any kind of musical structure, especially strophic repetition, interrupted the dramatic continuity and undermined the verisimilitude that the stile recitativo had been developed to sustain. The use of the same music for two different passages of text was inimical to a style in which music sought to respond directly, newly, and uniquely to specific words. It broke the illusion of spontaneity: people did not speak in strophes, or in rhyme, or in meter, let alone in melody—at least not under ordinary circumstances.[1]

But not all circumstances in opera were ordinary. Some explicitly called for music. In addition to dialogue, operas (like plays) contained songs, choruses, and dances. For such occasions, musical organization was not merely possible; it was necessary. There were other instances, too, not so obvious, in which organized music was more effective than ordinary speech for projecting character and situation: moments of great emotional intensity—elation or despair—often needed a special outlet, the heightened emphasis provided by song.[2]

Formal music, then, might temporarily slow the dramatic action by stepping outside its flow, but by that very separateness it could also serve the action by summarizing, punctuating, or commenting on it; or it could carry the action on a new level, that of music rather than speech, as songs and choruses. Early librettists reserved textual formality for just such occasions: where it could contribute directly to the drama without seriously disrupting or undermining its verisimilitude.[3]


The composer's response to the librettist's formal hints depended, of course, on his interpretation of their function. If actual songs or choruses were indicated, he usually chose aria style, a measured, lyrical setting that unfolded according to musical rules. In more ambiguous cases he might try to minimize, undermine, or counteract their static implications by using a declamatory vocal style or writing a strophic recitative only loosely structured by means of a repeated bass; or else he could use a combination of styles, reserving lyricism perhaps just for the conclusion of such a passage. Finally, he might choose to ignore the librettist's formal hints altogether, or, conversely, to impose a formal structure where the libretto had none, in response to his own interpretation of the drama.

The composer's confirmations of the librettist's formal structures, even if they resulted in more highly organized music, were as consonant with the precepts of the stile rappresentativo as was open-ended recitative. Both kinds of response were governed by the words; the aim of both was the same: to interpret, reflect, or project the drama through its poetry. The stile rappresentativo of the Florentines, then, actually covered a wide spectrum of music, ranging from free, speech-imitating recitative to more formal, self-contained, and musical moments. This wide spectrum eventually separated into recitative and aria.

Closed forms, for solo as well as chorus, internal as well as external to the drama, were built into opera from the very start. Orpheus, the quintessential operatic hero, sang his way into Hades, proving that music could promote action. To be sure, singing was his natural mode of expression. Yet even for him librettists and composers distinguished between speech and song. He achieved his goal specifically through a formally organized song: Rinuccini's "Funeste piaggie" comprises three irregular stanzas linked by a refrain set lyrically by Peri; Striggio's "Possente spirto" is a six-strophe text in terza rima , which Monteverdi cast as an increasingly elaborate series of strophic variations. Despite—or actually because of—their form, Orfeo's songs satisfied the requirements of verisimilitude.

Even in operas not featuring musicians, however, music per se could serve the drama. Songs were a frequent ingredient of early opera, as they had been in the pastoral. Nymphs and shepherds could sing in musical plays because they sang in nature. Likewise, divinities could express themselves in any form they chose; their songs actually helped to distinguish them from ordinary mortals.


Verisimilitude was not an issue for the inhabitants of Olympus or Arcadia.[4] Yet, even more realistic opera plots concerned with human characters, such as Arianna in Mantua and those involving biblical and chivalric heroes introduced in Rome during the 1620s and 1630s, contained a variety of closed forms. These were mostly choruses and dances, though there were some solo songs as well— especially for servants and other minor characters, but occasionally also for protagonists. If they did not always serve specific dramatic functions as songs, they at least did not interrupt the action.[5]

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