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History of the Opera until 1800


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kwon, Hyungee
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007



Table of Contents


I. Introduction
II. The Origin of the Opera : The Sixteenth Century
III. The Development of Distinctive Operas : The Seventeenth Century
III.1 Opera in the Seventeenth Century : Italy
III.2 Opera in the Seventeenth Century : Germany
III.3 Opera in the Seventeenth Century : France
III.4 Opera in the Seventeenth Century : England
IV. Reform of the Opera : The Eighteenth Century
IV.1 Reform of the Opera : Italy, Germany and France
IV.2 The Exceptional : England and Russia
V. Conclusion
VI. Notes
VII. Bbliography



I. Introduction
            Opera literally means "work" in Italian. This shows the complex side of opera, which involves solo and choral singers, orchestras, actors, dancers, scenery and even costumes all in one stage. Opera does origin from Italy, Florence, but the roots of opera can be traced back to ancient Greece. In the classical Greek drama, there were parts in which the chorus, a body of people who would explain the background or summary of the drama, would sing. Later on, these parts will develop into a new form of music called opera.
            This paper is about the history of the opera. However, this paper will mainly focus on the history of opera starting from its origins in the 16th century to the 19th century. The 20th century will be touched, but not in full detail. Instead, the patrons and audience of the opera from the 16th century to the 19th century will be handled in depth.

II. The Origin of the Opera : The Sixteenth Century
            The first opera ever to be composed was Dafne by Jacopo Peri. Jacopo Peri was a composer who was born in Rome but lived in Florence for most of his life. He was first sponsored by Giovanni de Bardi (1). Giovanni de Bardi was famous as the owner and sponsor of Florentine Camerata, a group of composers and music theorists who attempted to restore the aesthetic effects of classical Greek music. They believed that not just the "chorus" parts, but the entire Greek drama was originally sung. So, in order to "restore" this situation, opera was developed. (2) Florentine Camerata was famous from 1573 until the late 1580s, but, being more concerned with theoretical matters, it moved to Rome in 1592. This left Jacopo Corsi, a rich composer, as the second most prominent patron in Florence after the Medici family (3). Under the influence of the Florentine Camerata and the sponsor of Jacopo Corsi, Jacopo Peri composed the first opera, Dafne, in 1597 and performed it at the palace of Jacopo Corsi (4). Unfortunately this opera was not preserved, making Euridice by Jacopo Peri the first opera to survive until today. Euridice was performed at the wedding of Henry IV. of France to Marie de Medici (5). Another famous composer, Claudio Monteverdi, composed L'Orfeo for the court of Mantua in 1607. This is the first opera to still be performed today. Since the composers were under the sponsorship of nobles and performed mainly for the nobles, opera in the 16th century was preferred entertainment of the aristocracy.
            One of the most famous opera houses was also built during the 16th century. Teatro Ducale was built in 1589 in Italy. However, this opera house would be destroyed by a fire. The sponsors of this opera house decided to rebuild it and renamed it Teatro alla Scala. Famous constructor Giuseppe Piermarini finished the Scala opera house in 1776, and until today, it is one of the most famous opera houses in the world (6)

III. The Development of Distinctive Operas : The Seventeenth Century
            While the opera was mainly intended to entertain the aristocracy in the 16th century, things started to change as a new century came. The opera originated from Italy, but quickly spread to Germany, France, and England. These countries would develop their own kind of opera according to their social and cultural situation. Also, it is noticeable that in Italy, opera starts to spread to the mass. However, it takes more time for opera to become accessible to the mass in other countries compared to Italy.

III.1 The Opera in the Seventeenth Century : Italy
            In 1637, Italy started a new tradition called carnivals, or "seasons". During these carnivals, the public would be able to enjoy opera. For instance, at the Carnival of 1637, the San Cassiano Theatre was the first public opera theatre to open. It was Claudio Monteverdi who wrote the first opera for this theatre (7). These public opera theatres were supported by ticket sales. During the 17th century, or sometimes referred as the Baroque era, Claudio Monteverdi was mostly responsible for the development of opera. To promote opera to the mass, he continued to write for the public theatres and one of his followers, Francesco Cavalli, helped spread opera throughout Italy. No longer was opera limited to only the aristocrats in Italy.

III.2 The Opera in the Seventeenth Century : Germany
            The first German opera was composed by Heinrich Schütz. Heinrich Schütz was the leading opera composer in Germany. In his early years, it was Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel who sponsored Heinrich Schütz. In 1598, the Landgrave was staying at Heinrich Schütz's father's inn and fell in love with Heinrich's voice at once. He brought Schütz to the court of Kassel and sponsored him. Fortunately, Schütz was able to study in Venice. Later on, Elector Johann Georg of Saxony asked Schütz to come to Dresden and work for him. There was a fight between the Elector and the Landgrave, but Schütz eventually chose the more prestigious court of Dresden. Under the Elector¡¯s sponsor, Schütz composes the first German opera, Daphne, in 1627 for the wedding of the Elector's daughter Sophia Eleonora to the Landgrave Georg II. of Hessen-Darmstadt at Torgau (8). However, besides Schütz, most of the composers in Germany preferred opera written and sung in Italian. It is not until the late 18th and 19th century that operas written in German started to get recognized.

III.3 Opera in the Seventeenth Century : France
            Most of the countries preferred Italian operas like Germany, but France was different. In the early 17th Century, some unsuccessful attempts were made to import Italian opera to the French court. Eventually opera did not gain popularity until Jean-Baptiste Lully founded the French opera. French opera was very different from Italian opera because it was more concise, quicker in story development, and most importantly not divided into recitatives and arias. Recitatives are a type of vocal writing that is suit for a single voice. Aria is a song that is usually independent from the opera (9). Lully combined these two for dramatic effect. Without Lully, it would have taken more time for France to appreciate opera.
            Lully's power to introduce a new kind of music was related to his sponsors. Lully was close to the king, Louis XIV. He actually worked for the king and was sponsored by the royal court. With the assist of the king, he staged his first opera Codmus et Hermione in 1673. This opera established the pattern for French opera. However, Lully used his influence over the king to eliminate any potential rivals. Making so many enemies, later on Lully's homosexual scandal would bring a controversy to the royal court. The king tried to protect him, but Lully eventually lost his place at court (10). Thought there is no doubt that Lully was the most influential composer in French opera.

III.4 Opera in the Seventeenth Century : England
            If Germany had Heinrich Schutz and France had Lully, England had Henry Purcell. He respected the Italian and French styles of opera but came up with a new style for the English opera. The most remarkable of his works was the opera Dido and Aeneas. This opera formed the landmark of English opera history. It was first performed at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School at Chelsea by young Gentlewomen (11). Dido and Aeneas never found a way into the theatre, but was very popular among private circles of composers.
            The most unique thing about English opera is that it was not rich nobles who sponsored composers but patent theater companies that did. This will change when the 18th century comes, but until 1708, virtually all opera performances in London were given under the auspices of the patent theater companies (12). Under the sponsorship of these theaters, composers were able to develop the English opera.

IV. The Reform of the Opera : The Eighteenth Century
            The 18th century was a time when reform was popular in opera. Italy, Germany, France, and England all started to show signs of reform in the opera. This reform in the opera gave more people a chance to enjoy opera. In the 17th century, Italy mainly showed this kind of movement, but the reform in opera of the 18th century lead Europe to open operas not just for the rich and noble, but also for the common.

IV.1 Reform of the Opera : Italy, Germany and France
            As the new century started, a new style called the opera seria, or "serious" opera became the standard style for the Italian opera. Opera seria is a noble and serious style of Italian opera that was popular from 1710s to the 1770s. This style quickly spread throughout Europe. However, comedic opera also started to develop. This opera was in sharp contrast to the opera seria. It was more popular to the people who wanted to revolt against the serious and dramatic opera (13). This is how opera buffa first emerged. Classified as the Italian comic opera, opera buffa was characterized by everyday settings, local dialects, and simple vocal writing. Opera buffa was, in part, intended to transform opera into a genre that the common people could relate to more easily (14). If opera seria was an entertainment that was made mainly for the kings and nobility, opera buffa was made to depict the common people who live with common problems. Through opera buffa, the public was finally able to understand the words that the singers sung and the story behind the music. This reform in opera shows that music, more specifically opera, was going in the direction of the public.
            Another reform in Italy was conducted by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Before Gluck, there was Francesco Algarotti who believed that opera seria needed to go back to the basics of opera. Gluck expanded his thought and stated that the two main Italian operatic genres - opera seria and opera buffa - had many drawbacks. Gluck believed that Italian opera has strayed too far from what opera should really be and seems unnatural. In opera seria, the singers were emphasized too much, and opera buffa had lost its freshness of jokes and comedy (15). Gluck was planning to reform Italian opera.
            In order to fulfill his ideas, Gluck needed a sponsor. When he got married to an 18-year-old, Maria Anna Bergin, in Vienna, the bride brought a lot of money (16). With this money, Gluck started to compose his own operas. His most famous opera was Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762. This opera marked the beginning of Gluck's reform. Then, when Gluck moved to France, he became the music teacher of Marie Antoinette (17). Marie Antoinette was to marry the future king of France, Louis XVI, so Gluck had great power in France. Marie Antoinette became his stable patron and Gluck composed six operas under her support. His opera Iphigenie en Aulide sparked great controversy in France, but with the protection from the king and queen, Gluck was able to succeed in his reform.
            However, Gluck's reform takes real meaning when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart decides to follow Gluck's footsteps. In his early ages, Mozart was not able to produce the music he wanted to because of his patron. His first patron was the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. Mozart was loved at the Salzburg court but because of the low salary, Mozart grew gradually discontented. Also, Mozart longed to compose operas, but the Salzburg court only provided rare occasions for opera production. Because of these limitations, Mozart's early operas were all based on the opera seria style. Eventually, during their trip to Munich for the celebration for the installation of Emperor Joseph II, Mozart was offended as Colloredo treated him as a mere servant and decided to leave (18). He left to Vienna and started to compose opera on his own. During this period, Mozart started to write more liberal operas like The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, and Don Giovanni, which are both very dramatic in style. Fortunately, Mozart finds a steady sponsor under an aristocrat. Then Joseph II. appointed him to take over Gluck's position (19). This is when Mozart decides to follow Gluck's footsteps and starts to write as Gluck's successor. The Magic Flute in 1791 is the most representative works of Mozart at this period. This is a Singspiel, a dramatic form of opera written in German, and becomes an important breakthrough in achieving not only international recognition of German opera, but also helps opera spread to the common people.
            As it is seen above, Mozart starts to become a part of the reform in opera gradually as his patrons change. Eventually he becomes the successor of Gluck and continues the reform in opera. Their works are important because they they promoted making the opera accessible to the general public.
            France was going on a similar route as Italy and Germany; opera was starting to spread to the common people. However, it spreads in a different style. France always had a rivalry with the Italian opera. Lully's successor Jean-Philippe Rameau, disliked Italian opera and stayed with the French style. This attitude made Rameau start a new kind of opera in France - the opera comique. Opera comique was an equivalent to the German Singspiel, where the words were written in spoken dialogues. Since opera comique was written in spoken dialogues as well, it appealed to a wider audience. More importantly, since opera comique had an element of social criticism through satire, it was more emphasized through the French Revolution that took place in 1789 until 1799 (20). Eventually, opera was able to spread in France to the public like Italy and Germany.

IV.2 The Exceptional : England and Russia
            England was one of the few countries that went against the popular flow of opera becoming open to the public. England kept the style of opera seria and this dominated until the end of 19th century. Georg Friedrich Händel, the successor of Purcell, pursued the opera seria and dominated England for a while. As usual, he was sponsored by an opera house, in which he not only composed but also performed himself.
Russian opera also did not get a chance too spread to the common people. This was because opera first came into Russia in the 1730s, very late compared to the other countries (21). Therefore it would be wrong to state that Russia went against Italy, Germany, and France, because it was not given enough time to develop opera. As opera was brought into Russia by Italian operatic groups, it quickly became the main entertainment for the Russian Imperial Court and aristocracy. Many foreign composers were invited to Russia in order to develop more operas. The first opera written in Russian was actually Tsefai I Prokris by Francesco Araja, an Italian composer, in 1755. It would take more time for Russia to open operas to the public.

V. Conclusion
            It is interesting to see how the social atmosphere of certain periods has influenced the form and popularity of opera. When there was strict hierarchy, opera was a mere entertainment of the aristocrats. The patrons were also important influence to the composers. However, opera gradually started to become more accessible as country after country started to develop its own style. Sometimes opera was respected because it reflected social situations like the comical satires that developed during the French Revolution. Opera has come a long way since the ancient Greek period to the 21st Century, but that does not stop new composers from developing new styles. Opera has developed for the past few centuries and there is no doubt that it will continue on developing.


IX. Notes

(1)      Article : Jacopo Peri, from Goldberg Web
(2)      Article : Florentine Camerata, from Wikipedia
(3)      Article : Jacopo Corsi, in : Encyclopedia Britannica
(4)      Article : Performing Arts Timeline, from Infoplease
(5)      Article : Jacopo Peri, in : Columbia Encyclopedia
(6)      Teatro alla Scala, from Teatroallascala
(7)      The Carnival of 1637, from The Musical Quarterly
(8)      Heinrich Schutz, from Periodic Table
(9)      Musical Forms, from Classical Music Pages
(10)      Article : Jean-Baptiste Lully, from GLBTQ Encyclopedia
(11)      Article : Henry Purcell, from Wikipedia
(12)      Hume 2004
(13)      Religious Music, from The Classical Era
(14)      Opera Buffa, from The Victorian Web
(15)      Article : Christoph Willibald Gluck, from Wikipedia
(16)      Gluck, from Demoroid
(17)      Article : Marie Antoinette, from Wikipedia
(18)      Article : Mozart, from Wikipedia
(19)      Mozart, from Teach12
(20)      Rosand 2005
(21)      Article : Opera, from Wikipedia


X. Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in November 2007.
1.      Berdyaev, N A. The Fate of Russia. 1915.
2.      Article : Christoph Willibald Gluck, from Wikipedia, .
3.      Article : Florentine Camerata, from Wikipedia, .
4.      Gluck, from Demoroid, .
5.      Heinrich Schutz, from Periodic Table. .
6.      Article : Henry Purcell, from Wikipedia,
7.      Hume, Robert D. The Sponsorship of Opera in London, 1704-1720. Chicago : UP 2004
8.      Article : Jacopo Corsi, in : Encyclopedia Britannica, .
9.      Article : Jacopo Peri, in: Columbia Encyclopedia. .
10.      Jacopo Peri, from Goldberg Web, .
11.      Article : Jean-Baptiste Lully, from GLBTQ Encyclopedia. .
12.      Article : Marie Antoinette, from Wikipedia. .
13.      Mozart, from Teach12. .
14.      Article : Mozart, from Wikipedia. .
15.      Musical Forms, from Classical Music Pages, .
16.      Opera Buffa, from The Victorian Web, .
17.      Article : Opera, from Wikipedia. .
18.      Article : Performing Arts Timeline, from Infoplease. .
19.      Article : Religious Music, from The Classical Era. .
20.      Rosand, Elle. "The 18th Century : Fantasy and Reason." Stylistic Evolution (2005).
21.      Teatro alla Scala, from Teatroallascala,
22.      Article : The Carnival of 1637, from The Musical Quarterly. .


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