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2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre
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Music and Drama

In considering the function of music in ancient drama, the Incogniti librettists, very much in the tradition of sixteenth-century literary critics, rehearsed all the possibilities: that ancient drama was sung throughout, that only the choruses were sung, that none of it was sung.[13] In the end, however, it hardly mattered what evidence they adduced. Their conclusion was always the same: regardless of ancient practice, the requirements of modern taste alone were sufficient to justify dramma per musica .

Few librettists were as confident and succinct—and as circuitous—on the matter as Vincenzo Nolfi in the preface to his Bellerofonte (164:2). He readily accepted the classical precedent of sung drama as the least controversial feature of his activity, declaring axiomatically that his was "a kind of poem that has returned to the original nature of drama as far as singing is concerned." But he rejected historical precedents for every other aspect of his libretto, proclaiming it to be entirely modern, geared to a culture "that no longer acknowledges Epicharmus as father, nor Sicily as homeland, nor Aristotle as law-giver" (Appendix I. 19d). But then, in another twist, he went on to defend the idea of novelty and change of taste on the very basis of the precedent he had previously


rejected, dropping the names of various authorities in his wake: "All customs change, and even the most depraved novelties can please, as Scaliger said in regard to the Amphytrion of Plautus. If the various Cratinuses, Aristophanes, and Terences were alive today, they too might change their ideas" (Appendix I.19e).

Pietro Paolo Bissari, more specific in his classical citations and more expansive and circumstantial in his discussion (as well as more consistent), prefaced his Torilda (1648) with a lengthy disquisition on classical drama. His aim was to show that every aspect of his libretto—machines, gods, dances, frequent changes of scene, infusion of comic elements, and even the placement of the orchestra in the theater—was based on classical precedent. Musical setting was second on his list, following frequent scene changes: "Nor would it be at variance with that practice for drama to be staged with music, since it is known that Phrynicus was elected Captain for this reason, that he had his tragedies sung with melodies and musical art that were modes appropriate for battle" (Appendix I.25b). Bissari, who was more anxious than most of his colleagues to establish the continuity between ancient drama and his own work, concluded his essay on an unusually positive note by suggesting that "in all of these works the ancient institutions seem revived rather than interrupted" (Appendix I.25e).[14]

Most writers, however, took a more tentative and circumspect stance, clothing their defenses in more theoretical garb. The anonymous (= Incognito) author of Le nozze d'Enea (1640 [1641]), for example, evidently believed that only the choruses of ancient drama were sung; but that hardly prevented him from justifying his own theatrical efforts, though it complicated his argument. He opened his defense by distinguishing between two types of tragedy, "di lieto fine" and "d'esito lugubre" ("called tragichissima by Aristotle"), and then offered the usual explanation, modern taste, for having chosen the former type for his libretto:

In order to accommodate myself to current taste, I have chosen a tragedy with a happy ending, rather than otherwise. Considering in addition that since it is to be sung, and not simply recited, such a tragedy seemed more appropriate: although not because I am certain that in ancient times melancholy tragedies were not also sung, or at least the choral part; but it is certain that such a practice was gradually abandoned, to the point where, even in "happy" tragedies, music had become an external, merely ornamental feature. (Appendix I.9c)[15]


Somewhat later in the letter, the author returned, again obliquely, to the issue of the function of music in ancient drama. He explained his substitution of ballets for "classical" choruses between the acts of his work on the grounds that sung choruses only had an effect when the rest of the drama was not sung (i.e., he assumed that in ancient drama only the choruses were sung): "Given that the entire tragedy is sung, to sing the choruses as well would become too tiresome; therefore, in order to please the spectators more with variety, ballets have been introduced" (Appendix I.9i).

Even those librettists who were unwilling to admit that music had played any part at all in early classical drama found a way to link their works with the past. Giacomo Badoaro, for example, to judge from his preface to Ulisse errante (1644), considered the complete musical performance of a drama to be very far from ancient practice. But he exploited the lack of consistency among ancient playwrights on other issues, such as the appropriate number of characters in a drama or the necessity of a prologue, to justify a wide variety of modern practices.

The author who perhaps more clearly than any other articulated the Incognito librettists' attitude toward classical sources, and the one who certainly presented them most cynically, was Gian Francesco Busenello, Monteverdi's collaborator in L'incoronazione di Poppea . In a letter to his friend Giovanni Grimani, proprietor/impresario of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, written upon the presentation of his drama Statira (1655), Busenello aired the entire controversy about the correct performance of ancient tragedy, systematically undermining the relevance of each of the issues in the debate. In general he discouraged the use of ancient precedent as a standard for measuring modern efforts. Since his poetry was designed to be sung, he argued, ancient poetic models should not be applied to it, the assumption being that ancient poetry was not sung (Appendix I.13b). But, he continued, like the skilled polemicist he was, "even if we allow that the poems of the ancient Greeks were sung, as some maintain, and that Homer himself was both the poet and composer of his own songs, that music was different from ours" (Appendix I.13c). Finally he deflated the significance of the whole investigation of ancient practice, refusing "to be the judge of whether it was the ancients or the moderns who brought musical plays into the theater" (Appendix I.13d). His attitude regarding the futility of such investigation is perhaps best captured by the final sentence of the preface to another of his librettos, La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore : "And may those who enjoy enslaving themselves to the ancient rules find their fulfillment in baying at the full moon" (Appendix I.12b).[16]


These early Venetian librettists' preoccupation with the genre of their works was not unambivalent. For at the same time as they defended their combination of music and drama either on the grounds of classical precedent or as a response to the demands of modern taste, they also blamed a variety of defects in their librettos, such as lapses in decorum, form, or style, on the special exigencies of music. These shortcomings, they claimed, were the inevitable result of combining two incompatible artistic media. The question of how music and drama must modify each other when they are combined is, of course, the central aesthetic issue of opera, and it is to these librettists that we owe the first and most articulate airing of the issue. Their need to justify opera, because it was new, prompted them to expose and attempt to resolve the inconsistencies, imperfections, and compromises inherent in it. Concern with this issue abated after some years of operatic experience, but it never completely disappeared.

Music served as scapegoat for a variety of literary offenses: for inelegant language, mixed meters, varied characters, and so on. One author, Niccolò Enea Bartolini, the librettist of Venere gelosa (1643), proceeded from the defensive premise that because his work was created to be sung, it should nonetheless not fear comparison with those that are merely intended to be recited. The implication, of course, was that it might otherwise be considered thoroughly inferior: "And if its poetry is not filled with aphorisms and witticisms, it cannot on that account be called either cold or lacking in spirit. I have maintained a high style, and with diversity of meters and propriety of language have sought to stimulate the imagination of the composer" (Appendix I.21).

The anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea also cited music as a blanket excuse for all sorts of lapses in his poetry, in particular his use of varied meters to distinguish between high and low characters:

And so to adapt to the characters, and to the emotions that they are to express, I have made use of a number of different meters; that is to say, I have given versi sdruccioli to people of low condition, and versi brevi and tronchi to choleric types, though knowing well that the better Tuscan tragedians used only lines of seven, eleven, and occasionally five syllables. Nevertheless, given that the ancient Greeks and Romans, in addition to the lamb, also used trimeter, tetrameter, and other meters in their tragedies, I do not see why [such variety] is prohibited to us, at least in the case of six- and eight-syllable lines. And besides, musical tragedies are entitled to a freedom not enjoyed by those that are merely spoken. (Appendix I.9f)

The same justification served for his mixture of characters—in particular, his introduction of comic characters within a serious plot:

I have made use of this fellow [Numano, called "the Strong" by Virgil] as a comic character, since I could not find in the author anyone more suitable [for such a role], and because I knew the disposition of many theatergoers, who prefer jokes like this to serious things as we see that Iro of our friend was a marvelous success. But re-


ally I would not have introduced this sort of character in a different kind of [i.e., non-musical] tragedy. (Appendix I.9e)

For Busenello, writing for music required the abandonment of poetic elegance and classical poetic forms. In the preface to Starira , he acknowledged the low style of his poetry; more ambitious literary embellishment, he implied, was not suitable for musical drama:

I would have been more eloquent in writing this play, and would have concentrated my faculties to elevate the style somewhat, if the brevity and conventions required by the [musical] stage had allowed it. It is one thing to compose an ode or a sonnet, in which enthusiasm is permitted to thought, and ecstasy to the imagination in exciting the ears with sweet stimuli and the heart with a sensual sparkle, by contriving a soothing and ingenious conclusion; it is another thing to compose a play, in which the characters are under constraints, and use common speech, and if the tone becomes too elevated it loses its seemliness and decorum. (Appendix I.13a)

And in the letter on Starira already mentioned, he explained that he had tried to follow the style of the best Italian authors instead of ancient writers in his "elocutions." Since he was writing poetry for music, with its "measures and numbers, irregularities and alliterations geared to music, Greek forms, such as strophes and antistrophes, hymns, idylls, and odes, are all irrelevant" (Appendix I.13b).

But the impact of music on drama went far beyond mere inelegance and infelicities imposed on its poetry; it thoroughly undermined its verisimilitude. It was difficult for any audience to believe that singing was speech. What sparked all of these librettists' preoccupation with the genre, their attempts to justify the combination of music and drama, either through classical precedent or modern taste, was their discomfort with the question of verisimilitude. This issue underlies all their defenses, although it is actually mentioned only rarely. One of the few authors to do so was Giacomo Badoaro, in the preface to Ulisse errante (1644). After having characteristically blamed his own specific failure to observe the ancient rules of drama on the special demands made by music, he addressed the question of verisimilitude: "It is normal today for the purpose of pleasing the spectators . . . to introduce improbable situations so long as they do not disturb the main action." Having introduced music into our dramas, he continues,

we cannot avoid the implausible, namely, that men should carry on their most important transactions while singing. Moreover, in order to enjoy variety in the theater, we are used to music for two, three, and more voices, which causes another unlikelihood: that several people conversing together should suddenly find themselves saying the same thing simultaneously. (Appendix I.8j)


The joining of music and drama could simply not be achieved without the loss of verisimilitude. No matter what precedents might be adduced, song could not pass for speech. As all these librettists recognized, and as Badoaro acknowledged, the impact of dramma per musica depended on an audience believing either that the singers were in fact really speaking, or else that they meant to be singing. The complete acceptance of the genre required the acceptance of unverisimilar action—and clearly, this never happened.

Verisimilitude, the eternal operatic embarrassment, continued to cast a shadow over opera well after 1650, but the focus narrowed somewhat from general skepticism of the whole enterprise to specific concern with the nature of the musical language itself. Badoaro's distinction between speech and song was rendered more precise in the by now classic formulation of this dilemma in a libretto of 1651 by Francesco Sbarra, Alessandro vincitor di se stesso :

I know that the ariette sung by Alexander and Aristotle will be judged as contrary to the decorum of such great personages; but I also know that musical recitation is improper altogether, since it does not imitate natural discourse and removes the soul from dramatic compositions, which should be nothing but imitations of human actions, and yet this defect is not only tolerated by the current century but received with applause. This kind of poetry today has no purpose other than to give delight; thus we should adjust to the practice of the times. (Appendix I.29e)

By 1651, through use, musical "speech," that is, recitative, had become thoroughly acceptable. But "song," that is, the arias, still posed a problem. Sbarra's statement is corroborated by the continued reluctance of librettists to introduce arias into their dramas, and their attempts to construct and invent evasions and pretexts for them. The development and persistence well beyond the middle of the century of conventional situations in which singing was either natural or purposely unnatural—songs within the drama, for instance, or scenes of madness and sleep—bear witness to the unresolvable contradiction posed by the mixing of music and drama.

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