previous sub-section
10—Il diletto : Aria, Drama, and the Emergence of Formal Conventions
next chapter

Static Da Capo Arias

Poetic form had a more exclusive and abstract impact on musical form in da capo arias with longer refrains. For one thing, the longer refrains were always metrically distinct from their surrounding text and thus did not lend themselves to musical integration. For another, these arias did not usually require integration within a dramatic fabric because they were designed to function outside it. Arias with longer refrains were reserved for situations in which formality was appropriate. The refrains merely emphasized their formality. The form of these arias matched their function. Statuesque, objective, they offered the composer greater freedom of expression than was available to him in the more dramatically relevant arias with short refrains, freedom to indulge in musical expansion and development of various kinds. Not incidentally, nearly all of these arias were non-strophic. Rare before 1650, they increased in number during the second half of the century, as librettists developed more occasions for them. Eventually, every protagonist was introduced by one, a presentation aria. And others found their way into librettos disguised as songs of one kind or another.

Possibly the most memorable of all presentation arias from this period is Xerse's "Ombra mai fù," which opens Xerse .[43] The text, made famous by


Handel's subsequent setting, comprises a four-line refrain in quinari , which encloses two six-line strophes of settenari and endecasillabi .[44] The refrain extols the plane tree, whose special qualities are appreciated more specifically in the two strophes (example 42):

Ombra mai fù
Di vegetabile
Cara, & areabile,
Soave più.

Bei smeraldi crescenti,
Frondi tenere, e belle,
Di turbini, ò procelle,
Importuni tormenti.
Non v'affligano mai la cara pace,
Ne giunga a profanarvi Austro rapace.

Mai con rustica scure
Bifolco ingiurioso
Tronchi ramo frondoso,
E se reciso pure
Fia, che ne resti alcuno, in stral cangiato,
O lo scocchi Diana, ò 'l Dio bendato.

Ombra mai fù . . .

Never was shade
Of vegetable
More dear & amiable,
More sweet.

Lovely growing emeralds,
Tender, beautiful branches,
May the importunate torments
Of whirlwinds or storms
Never afflict your precious peace,
Nor rapacious southern gale profane you.

May injurious peasant
Never cut a leafy branch
With his crude axe;
And if one should be severed,
May it remain, changed into a dart,
To be hurled by Diana, or by the
   blindfolded god.
Never was shade . . .

Cavalli's music is appropriately formal and expansive. He set the refrain (A) twice, basically straight through, first moving to the dominant, then back to the tonic, D major, with string accompaniment throughout; and he followed it with an instrumental ritornello. Although their scoring is different—continuo instead of strings—and they are generally more elaborate, with more expressive text interpretation involving word repetitions and melismatic extensions, the strophes (B) resemble the refrain in a number of ways: in their tonality (D major), meter (triple), and general melodic motion. Likewise harmonically self-sufficient, they do not require the refrain for closure. Indeed, the independence of the two sections seems to be confirmed by the rubric aria at the head of the first strophe in the Venice score, suggesting that Cavalli (or his copyist) thought of the refrain and strophes as two separate pieces. On the other hand, their relationship is also stressed by a linking ritornello, based on the refrain, which appears at the end of A and after the first strophe of B, though perhaps not after the second.[45] The refrain then returns, exactly as it was, followed by its ritornello.[46]


Many presentation arias are cast in similarly expansive da capo form, with lengthy refrains, but "Ombra mai fù" is atypical in several respects. The formal boundaries between its refrain and strophe(s) are more clearly articulated than most, by a ritornello and by the harmonic self-sufficiency of each of them. Yet the two sections are quite similar in character, so much so that the same ritornello can be used after each. Usually composers tended to emphasize the formal distinction between refrain and strophe more strongly by contrasting their musical material, but they made them harmonically interdependent so that the return of the refrain is at least tonally necessary for the completion of the aria. The special qualities of Xerse's aria are undoubtedly the result of its special dramatic function. It not only presents him as the hero of this opera, but by associating him indelibly with one of his best-known attributes—the plane tree—it identifies him as the historical Xerxes. The stiltedness of the expanded da capo form perfectly matches the iconic situation.

Medoro's non-strophic aria "O luce serena" in Medoro (1.8) is more typical of the formal da capos used for the presentation of protagonists.[47] Angelica has been anxiously awaiting Medoro's return from battle; in this aria, he presents himself to his beloved. The four-line refrain is distinguished by meter and closed rhyme scheme from the rest of the text, although it does share its rhyme (not its meter) with the line preceding its return. And there is also a distinction in tone. The refrain is more abstract, an apostrophe, whereas the middle section is more urgent, an active engagement of the beloved (a contrast that parallels the one in "Ombra mai fù") (example 43):

O luce serena
Del cielo d'amor,
O dolce mia pena,
O luminoso ardor.

Fuor di mè,
Tutto in tè,
Trasformato in un respiro,
Volo, ò bella in un sospiro
A bearmi nel tuo cor.

O luce serena . . .

O serene light
Of the heaven of love,
O my sweet sorrow,
O luminous ardor.

Beside myself,
Wholly in you,
Transformed into a breath,
I fly, O beauty, in a sigh
To bless myself in your heart.

O serene light . . .

Lucio emphasized the contrast in structure and tone between the sections with highly contrasting music. The refrain unfolds slowly, line by line, in a stately manner, hovering over the D-major tonic chord for the first twenty measures; leisurely repetition of words, phrases, and lines of text and the string echoes of each vocal phrase help to prolong the ethereal effect of harmonic stasis. A single


move to the dominant, as the final line concludes, provides the harmonic climax; the refrain resolves to the tonic during the repetition of its final phrase, which links the two formerly separated phrases setting lines 3 and 4, the whole falling into characteristic ABB' form.

A shift to duple meter and an implied modulation to the dominant mark the onset of the B section, which is, characteristically, accompanied only by continuo.[48] In contrast to the harmonic stasis of the refrain, the B section avoids asserting any key at all until its final cadence in G (IV), although its steady eighth-note motion does let up briefly to cadence on E minor before resuming its sequential propulsion toward the end. (It immediately transforms the refrain tonic, D, into the dominant of G, though postponing confirmation of G as its tonic until the end.) Like the refrain, the B section is also a miniature ABB' form; its final phrase, which sets the last three lines of text, undergoes the usual transposed repetition. The return of the refrain is necessary from a harmonic point of view, and it restores the placidity of the scene as well as the tonic, grounding the emotional intensity expressed in the middle section. This aria is a presentation of Medoro and an extravagant declaration of his love for Angelica—to which she responds in kind. It stands as an appropriately static portal to the ensuing action, during which their love will undergo severe testing before its final reaffirmation at the happy end.[49]

Aside from presentation, there were numerous individual situations in which the static, elaborate da capo aria functioned with particular efficacy. Usually, the preparation of an action rather than a response is involved. Aldimira's "Vaghe stelle" in Erismena (2.7) has a specific purpose, which its elaborate da capo structure helps to fulfill. Like Xerse's "Ombra mai fù" and Medoro's "O luce serena," it serves as a prelude to a dramatic action and thus stands apart. But it goes farther than either of those arias in being designed to initiate that action: to rouse the sleeping Erismena, disguised as Erineo, with whom Aldimira has fallen in love. As such it benefits from musical elaboration, which can only increase its impact on the sleeper. The composer, evidently relishing the opportunity for expansion encouraged by its dramatic purpose, filled the aria with some of the most expressive music in the opera. As in "Ombra mai fù," the refrain is metrically distinct from the B section. In sense, too, the two sections parallel those of "Ombra mai fù." The refrain is an apostrophe, an abstract, metaphoric invocation, while the central section is more


direct, more urgent and more mundane, abandoning metaphor for literalism: Erismena's "stars" become mere "eyes" (example 44):


Vaghe stelle,
Luci belle
Non dormite.
Aprite il sereno
De vostri begli occhi,
Lasciate, che scocchi
In questo mio seno
Amore i suoi dardi,

Bei lucidi sguardi
I lumi deh aprite.
Vaghe stelle . . .

Stars transcendent,
Lights resplendent,
Why thus sleep ye?
Display the serene
Of your beauteous eyes,
Let love play his part
On this stage of my heart,
Shoot hither his shafts
   and fix here his dart.
Ye splendors so clear,
Unveil and appear.
Stars transcendent . . .

Cavalli's setting is unusually free and expressive, contributing to the passionate tone of Aldimira's address. The piece is proclaimed a formal aria by an opening ritornello, which also announces (typically) the main thematic material of the refrain, and which later returns to separate the refrain from the middle section of the aria. The three-line refrain is expanded considerably, both musically and textually, not only by means of the opening and closing ritornello (which, though textless, has the rhetorical function of emphasizing the words of the refrain), but by repetition of the text as a whole, which introduces a new motive before cadencing with the original one; the extra repetition also serves to solidify a return to the tonic, temporarily left for the dominant at the end of the first statement. (Text is repeated to increase the dimensions and weight of this aria, possibly because Aldimira was the prima donna.) The three-line refrain is thus actually heard four times, twice with and twice without words; three times with the same music, once with new music. The refrain returns verbatim, though without the introductory ritornello, at the end of the aria.

Emphasis on the refrain is predictable, but the composer's expansion of the central section of the aria is perhaps less so. Textually already twice as long as the refrain, it becomes even longer and heavier through repetition of individual lines, melismatic extension, interruption by ritornello (after the first two lines), and, finally, through threefold reiteration of its final line, each time on a different scale-degree (C, A, G), which lends urgency to Aldimira's plea. In Cavalli's setting, the text reads:

Deh, deh aprite, aprite
Deh, deh aprite, aprite
bei lucidi sguardi
i lumi deh aprite
deh lucidi sguardi
i lumi deh aprite


—the momentum increasing through modulation and through the addition of string accompaniment.

Although, as in "Ombra mai fù," the refrain and middle section are not particularly contrasting musically—they share meter, melodic style, overall harmonic structure, and even the string accompaniment—each is harmonically complete and thus independent of the other. Here, however, the composer provides an added expressive touch by unexpectedly eliding the end of the strophe with the returning refrain, thereby emphasizing the naturalness of the recurrence.

These expanded da capo arias seem to share very little with the recitative-like refrain forms with which our discussion began. From the retrospect of subsequent operatic history, the larger forms seem more "progressive": non-strophic, with longer, tonally closed refrains that were not recomposed but repeated (as indicated by rubric), and with clear formal boundaries, their distinguishing characteristics became the conventions of the mature da capo form of the early eighteenth century.

It is important to recognize, however, that the differences between the two types represented more than a chronological development from the early 1640s to the mid 1650s. This is made clear by a comparison of the expanded da capo arias with other pieces contemporary with them, even those within the same operas—for example Xerse, Medoro , and Erismena . These arias stand out as exceptionally large and fully developed even within their own specific contexts. Nor did da capo arias increase in size all at once. Musical expansion remained exceptional well into the final decades of the century, in bipartite as well as da capo arias.

As I have suggested, the elaborate da capo arias, no less than their more austere counterparts, developed in response to specific dramatic situations. The shorter refrain forms were invariably integrated within the dramatic fabric; musical continuity between sections and recomposition of the refrain often contributed to that integration. The more statuesque forms served their function by being external, outside the drama; that function was enhanced by expansive musical treatment and strong formal articulations between sections.

Elaborate arias, during which the increasingly powerful singers could command the stage for extended periods, obviously pleased them and their adoring public more than shorter, more modest ones and might have proliferated for that reason alone. But the ultimate ascendancy of the larger forms was a function as well of modifications in the dramaturgy of librettos. In addition to all of the standard justifications for arias, librettists developed clear dramaturgical conventions for their use, at entrances and, increasingly, at exits. These con-


ventions in turn absolved librettists and composers of the necessity of fitting each aria into a specific dramatic context—the general supplanted the specific— and eventually freed composers to indulge their musical inclinations.

As the total number of arias increased during the 1650s and 1660s, so did the proportion of da capo to bipartite arias, but more gradually. In operas of the 1650s, da capo arias constituted less than one-third of the total; by the 1660s the proportion was about equal; and by the late 1670s the bipartite aria was virtually obsolete.[50] The gradual disappearance of the bipartite aria and of the shorter, more spontaneous da capo refrain forms at once reflected and affected changing concepts of dramatic structure. The accumulating energy of both the bipartite and the continuous, affective da capo refrain arias, which suited them so well to integration within ongoing action, became less necessary as the dramaturgy of librettos accommodated arias through a conventionalized scene structure built expressly to contain them.

From the early recitative-like closeness of music and text, which tended to keep them functioning within a fluid dramatic framework and restricted their musical elaboration to brief, text-inspired moments, arias expanded to take up increasing amounts of operatic space and time; they eventually absorbed much of the expressive responsibility formerly exercised by recitative and arioso. Musical expansion, originally text-inspired and quite irregular, gradually settled into more conventional schemes of repetition involving whole sections of text, particularly the refrain, though not always to the same music. The conventions of formal structure as well as dramaturgy increasingly outweighed the requirements of any individual dramatic situation.

The conventional occasions for arias developed by earlier librettists and composers—the public situations that called for formal songs and comic commentary and the private ones that lent conviction to the formal expression of intense passion as thought rather than speech—remained in use throughout the century. But these were increasingly supplemented by others, most notably that of direct address between characters on stage, a mode of communication that required a real stretch of imagination to be believed; that dilemma was only partly eased by the conventions of entrance and exit that were superimposed on all of these situations.[51]

The greater number and more conventionalized placement of arias had a significant effect on their dramatic responsibility and musical treatment. In


order to fulfill the expanded role of the aria in characterization, and for purposes of musical variety, librettists and composers began to focus on a single, specific affect or emotion in each aria, portraying the multiple facets of a character seriatim, one at a time, over the course of several arias. Such distribution and concentration of affect provided substance enough for the increased number of arias sung by each character, often more than ten in a single opera.[52] Inspired by a particular word or phrase, the affect was usually embodied in the refrain, which increasingly supplied the central musical idea of the aria that was then developed in some way in the B section and emphatically reiterated in an elaborate da capo. These, of course, were the arias of the affections of late baroque opera satirized so effectively by Marcello and others.

The da capo aria not only gradually supplanted the bipartite aria. In its most fully developed and expanded form it eventually replaced the convention of strophicism, which, though often problematic from the point of view of verisimilitude, had been fundamental to the definition of aria from the very beginning of operatic history. With the da capo aria, librettists still maintained some measure of control over composers' settings. At the same time, however, the form provided the singers with an official, sanctioned opportunity to exercise their own freedom by ornamenting the returning refrain. The abandonment of the strophic structure in favor of the da capo is a final sign of the singer's arrival to claim center stage.


previous sub-section
10—Il diletto : Aria, Drama, and the Emergence of Formal Conventions
next chapter