A Short History of Opera

A Short History of Opera

Donald Jay Grout
Hermine Weigel Williams
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 4
Pages: 992
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/grou11958
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  • Book Info
    A Short History of Opera
    Book Description:

    When first published in 1947, A Short History of Opera immediately achieved international status as a classic in the field. Now, more than five decades later, this thoroughly revised and expanded fourth edition informs and entertains opera lovers just as its predecessors have.

    The fourth edition incorporates new scholarship that traces the most important developments in the evolution of musical drama. After surveying anticipations of the operatic form in the lyric theater of the Greeks, medieval dramatic music, and other forerunners, the book reveals the genre's beginnings in the seventeenth century and follows its progress to the present day.

    A Short History of Opera examines not only the standard performance repertoire, but also works considered important for the genre's development. Its expanded scope investigates opera from Eastern European countries and Finland. The section on twentieth-century opera has been reorganized around national operatic traditions including a chapter devoted solely to opera in the United States, which incorporates material on the American musical and ties between classical opera and popular musical theater. A separate section on Chinese opera is also included.

    With an extensive multilanguage bibliography, more than one hundred musical examples, and stage illustrations, this authoritative one-volume survey will be invaluable to students and serious opera buffs. New fans will also find it highly accessible and informative. Extremely thorough in its coverage, A Short History of Opera is now more than ever the book to turn to for anyone who wants to know about the history of this art form.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50772-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface to the Fourth Edition
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Hermine Weigel Williams
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The custom of using music in connection with dramatic presentations is universal. It is found throughout the history of all cultures. This is perhaps because the desire to add music to drama is really part of the dramatic instinct itself and may have as its end either edification or entertainment.

    An opera, briefly defined, is a drama in music: a dramatic action, performed on a stage with scenery by actors in costume, the words conveyed entirely or for the most part by singing, and the whole sustained and amplified by orchestral music. It is conditioned poetically, musically, scenically, and to...

  6. PART 1 Music and Drama to the End of the Sixteenth Century
    • Chapter 1 The Lyric Theater of the Greeks
      (pp. 9-12)

      It is indispensable for a student of the history of opera to know something of the history, literature, and mythology of the ancient world, if only because so many opera subjects have been drawn from these sources. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been used for more than thirty operas, the story of Iphigenia (first dramatized by Euripides toward the end of the fifth century b.c.e.) for at least fifty, and the myth of Hercules for probably twice that number. Of the ninety-four operas by the eighteenth-century composer Johann Adolph Hasse, half are on classical themes. Berlioz’s masterpiece, Les...

    • Chapter 2 Medieval Dramatic Music
      (pp. 13-20)

      The history of the theater during the Middle Ages is obscure. Ancient drama seems to have disappeared, although it is possible that traces of Roman comedy may have been retained in the popular farces and other pieces performed by strolling bands of players and (later) by the jongleurs. So far as our actual knowledge goes, however, the significant theater of the Middle Ages is religious.¹ It develops within the liturgy and emerges only partially from the church in the fifteenth century. In the West, two stages of this religious theater are to be distinguished: the liturgical drama (from the eleventh...

    • Chapter 3 The Immediate Forerunners of Opera
      (pp. 21-38)

      With the coming of the renaissance, interest in all forms of secular music increased. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, music was a feature of courtly entertainments, banquets, tourneys, festivals, triumphal entrances, and similar brilliant occasions. This music cannot properly be called “dramatic,” since it did not serve to carry on the action of a drama. Nevertheless, its connection with the history of opera is important, for these courtly displays of the Renaissance established the practice of bringing together many different artistic resources—singing, playing, dancing, scenery, costumes, stage effects—in a single spectacle calculated to appeal equally to the...

  7. PART 2 The Seventeenth Century
    • Chapter 4 The Beginnings: Opera in Florence and Mantua
      (pp. 41-59)

      Early in 1598, Dafne—Ottavio Rinuccini s libretto set to music by Jacopo Peri, with some parts by Jacopo Corsi—was played before a small audience in Corsi’s palace, and it was repeated, with changes and additions, for several years thereafter during Carnival.¹ In the preface to both the libretto and score of Euridice, Rinuccini and Peri explained that Dafne was an experimental work, designed to put into practice their humanistic ideas about the power of music.² For this reason, Dafne was to be entirely sung, in imitation of what they believed to be the Greek and Roman manner of...

    • Chapter 5 Other Early Seventeenth-Century Italian Court Operas, Including the First Comic Operas in Florence and Rome
      (pp. 60-82)

      Marco da gagliano called opera “the delight of the princes,” and for the first few decades of its existence, it was almost exclusively that.¹ Indeed, up to the end of the eighteenth century some operas continued to be produced that were primarily for the delectation or glorification of rulers, nobles, or other wealthy patrons and only incidentally, if at all, for the entertainment of the public.

      The Florentine court was, of course, one of the main centers for such operatic activity. Here the extravagant dramatic entertainments were designed to undergird the legitimacy of the rulers of Tuscany. Particularly interesting examples...

    • Chapter 6 Italian Opera in the Later Seventeenth Century in Italy
      (pp. 83-106)

      Although the beginning of opera is commonly reckoned from the Florentine performances of 1600, it would be almost more appropriate to date it from the opening of the first public opera house in Venice in 1637. Itinerant troupes of singers, rivaling the troupes of the commedia dell’arte and borrowing from them many features of both libretto and music, had begun to circulate in Italy before this date. But the destined center of the new kind of musical drama, based on a combination of broad popular support and prestige appeal to the upper social classes, was Venice.¹ Court operas of the...

    • Chapter 7 Seventeenth-Century Italian Opera in German-Speaking Lands
      (pp. 107-120)

      The courts in german-speaking lands were not slow to import Italian opera. As early as 1614, performances are recorded at Salzburg; performances at Vienna and Prague soon followed in 1625 and 1627, respectively. Cesti’s works were performed at Innsbruck beginning in 1655, and there was Italian opera at Regensburg and Munich from 1653.

      Cesti served as Kapellmeister at the court of Archduke Ferdinand Carl in Innsbruck from 1652 until 1657, during which time he composed three of his most successful operas: Argia (1655), Orontea (1656), and La Dori (1657).¹ Argia was commissioned for festivities related to Queen Christina’s sojourn there...

    • Chapter 8 Early German Opera
      (pp. 121-131)

      The early history of opera in Germany is not one of a comparatively unified development, as in France or England, or even of the evolution of a comparatively consistent musical style, as in Italy. The numerous political subdivisions of Germany in the seventeenth century, the many different cultural traditions, the conflicting elements in both the dramatic and the musical background, and the extremely strong infusion of foreign styles (chiefly Italian, but some French) to different degrees in different parts of the country—all combine to produce a complicated task for the historian.

      Abstractly speaking, a purely “German” opera is one...

    • Chapter 9 Opera in France from Lully to Charpentier
      (pp. 132-146)

      French opera as a continuous institution began only in 1671. This late date is surprising if we reflect that throughout the first part of the seventeenth century (that is, during the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII, and the minority of Louis XIV, who assumed power on the death of Mazarin in 1661), close political and cultural relations existed between Italy and the French court. But opera was not congenial to the Gallic spirit, with its rationalistic bias and its quick awareness of absurdities. Furthermore, the French for many years held that their language was not suited to recitative,...

    • Chapter 10 Opera in England
      (pp. 147-162)

      In france, opera grew OUT of the ballet; in England, it was rooted in the masque. English opera, like its counterpart in France, developed late in the seventeenth century into a distinct national type retaining many traces of the parent form. Unlike French opera, however, English national opera succumbed to Italian taste soon after 1700.¹ The untimely death of its master, Henry Purcell, is symbolic of its own fate—“a spring never followed by summer.”

      The English masque was an entertainment something like the French court ballet, allegorical in character, with the main interest in costumes and spectacle, but including...

  8. PART 3 The Eighteenth Century
    • Chapter 11 Masters of the Early Eighteenth Century
      (pp. 165-202)

      During the early part of the eighteenth century, the younger librettists and composers in Italy were gradually evolving a new type of serious opera that was to dominate the scene for more than a hundred years. This new Italian opera seria will be the subject of the next chapter. The present one is concerned with certain composers of the first half of the century who in the main kept to types of opera already long established and whose works include some of the best dramatic music of the period. The principal composers of this group are Alessandro Scarlatti in Italy,...

    • Chapter 12 Opera Seria: General Characteristics
      (pp. 203-224)

      We have seen how, from its earliest beginnings at Florence and Rome, Italian opera in the course of the seventeenth century passed out of the experimental stage. Radiating from Venice with its public opera houses, it established itself on a firm basis of public interest and support that made it by the end of the century the most widespread and most popular of all musical forms. We have also seen how, in the course of this development, three important national schools of opera rose outside Italy. One of these, the French, maintained its existence and individuality; the English school died...

    • Chapter 13 Opera Seria: The Composers
      (pp. 225-252)

      Naples in the eighteenth century was as preeminent for its music as Venice had been in the seventeenth century.¹ Lalande wrote in 1769:

      Music is the special triumph of the Neapolitans. It seems as if in that country the membranes of the eardrum are more taut, more harmonious, more sonorous than elsewhere in Europe. The whole nation sings; gesture, tone of voice, rhythm of syllables, the very conversation—all breathe music and harmony. Thus Naples is the principal source of Italian music, of great composers and excellent operas; it is there that Corelli,Vinci, Rinaldo [di Capua],Jommelli, Durante (learned in harmony ...

    • Chapter 14 The Operas of Gluck
      (pp. 253-271)

      Christoph willibald gluck was born in 1714, the son of a Bohemian forester. After acquiring some knowledge of music in the elementary schools, he went to Prague, where he remained from 1732 to 1736. After a short spell at Vienna as a chamber musician in the employ of Prince Ferdinand Philip Lobkowitz, he was sent by another noble patron to study with Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1701—75) at Milan.

      No details of his early musical education are known for certain, although he must have become acquainted in Prague with the current Italian opera as represented by Hasse, and while at ...

    • Chapter 15 The Comic Opera of the Eighteenth Century
      (pp. 272-304)

      In seventeenth-century opera, comic episodes of all kinds were regularly mingled with serious scenes. The comic scenes, dramatically related to the operas with which they were performed, could also be excerpted and performed as if they were independent intermezzos.¹ The practice of commingling comic and serious scenes continued into the eighteenth century, especially in Naples and Vienna. At the same time, comic and serious operas were emerging as separate types. The separation of styles was brought about, in part, by Zeno and Metastasio, in whose reform of the opera libretto in the early eighteenth century the comic was considered to...

    • Chapter 16 The Operas of Mozart and His Viennese Contemporaries
      (pp. 305-332)

      Most opera composers have been specialists; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) was one of the few whose greatness was manifested equally in opera and in other branches of composition. His genius and training led him to conceive of opera as essentially a musical affair, like a symphony, rather than as a drama in which music was merely one means of dramatic expression. In this conception he was at one with the Italian composers of the day, and his work may be regarded in a sense as the ideal toward which the whole eighteenth-century Italian opera had been striving. He overtopped...

  9. PART 4 The Nineteenth Century
    • Chapter 17 The Turn of the Century
      (pp. 335-352)

      During the first half of the nineteenth century, Paris was virtually the European capital of opera. Not only did many composers of eminence live there, but even those residing elsewhere did not feel they had arrived until they had had a successful production at Paris. The origin of this dominance goes back to the time of Gluck. Although Gluck’s later operas had a delayed success in Germany and none at all in Italy, their style was so congenial to the French that it attracted disciples, through whom this style of opera maintained itself through the revolutionary period and blossomed anew...

    • Chapter 18 Grand Opera
      (pp. 353-368)

      For eight years after Spontinis Olimpie (1819), no significant new works were produced at the Paris Op象. In 1828 occurred the first performance of Auber s serious opera La Muette de Portici (also known as Masaniello, after the name of its hero). This was followed less than a year later by Rossinis French opera, Guillaume Tell. In 1831 appeared Meyerbeers Robert le diable, in 1835 Halévy s La Juive, and the following year Meyerbeers Les Huguenots. These works established a type of musical drama that has come to be generally known under the name of grand opera. Before considering specific...

    • Chapter 19 Opéra Comique, Operetta, and Lyric Opera
      (pp. 369-382)

      Even before the French Revolution, several distinct tendencies had become apparent in the opéra comique. There were those works, such as Monsigny s Déserteur, Philidor’s Tom Jones, and Grétry s Richard, in which the comic features were secondary to sentimental or romantic elements. During the Revolution and afterward, this vein of romantic comedy was still cultivated, but it had a strong rival in the many horror and rescue pieces of the same period, to which allusion has already been made. There were also, of course, many regular operas and opéra comiques on patriotic subjects that were of only ephemeral interest....

    • Chapter 20 Italian Opera of the Primo Ottocento: Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Their Contemporaries
      (pp. 383-416)

      In the early part of the eighteenth century, Italian opera had been predominant in every country of Europe except France; by the end of the century, it was one among several national schools. Composers of Italian birth who worked mainly outside their own country—Sacchini, Salieri, Cherubini, and Spontini, among others—tended to merge their national characteristics in an international style of which the most conspicuous examples were the works of Gluck’s followers in France and, in a later line of development, the French grand opera. Alongside this cosmopolitan opera were the various national types, especially the French opéra comique...

    • Chapter 21 The Romantic Opera in Germany
      (pp. 417-435)

      The rise of nationalism in music, one of the outstanding fea¬tures of the nineteenth century, is nowhere more striking than in the rapid growth of the Romantic opera in Germany. Before 1820 German opera was known outside its own country through a very limited number of Singspiele, of which Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte was the principal example. With the performances of Webers operas, especially Der Freischütz at Berlin in 1821, German Romantic opera became fully established and its ensuing developments culminated in the worldwide triumph of Wagner s music dramas fifty years later. Since Germany displays more clearly and completely than...

    • Chapter 22 The Operas of Wagner
      (pp. 436-472)

      From time to time in the history of music, there have been composers whose works summed up the achievement of a whole epoch, making the final synthesis of a style: Palestrina and Bach are two outstanding examples. There have been other composers whose work incorporated not only the end of one style but the beginning of another as well: to this group belong Beethoven and Wagner. The early operas of Richard Wagner (1813—83) were the consummation of German Romantic opera of the nineteenth century; the later music dramas were in a style that, although retaining many features of what...

    • Chapter 23 The Later Nineteenth Century: France, Italy, Germany, and Austria
      (pp. 473-504)

      The rise of a new school and a new spirit in French music began in 1871, when the Société Nationale de Musique was founded, with the device Ars gallica. Undiscriminating acceptance of incongruous musical styles on the one hand and a frivolous addiction to the trivialities of operetta on the other were succeeded by a strenuous effort to return to the indigenous music of the land—the folksong—and to restore in modern terms the great musical individuality that had belonged to France in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The range of activity was widened. Whereas before 1870 composers...

  10. PART 5 Other National Traditions of Opera from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries
    • Chapter 24 National Traditions of Opera
      (pp. 507-574)

      The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Saw the rise of independent schools of composition in many countries that had previously been tributary to the chief musical nations of Europe or that, like Spain and England, had been for a long time only on the periphery of the main developments. Opera played a leading part in the growth of musical nationalism, as the use of characteristic national subjects, often from patriotic motives, stimulated composers to seek an equally characteristic national expression in their music. National operas, as a rule, were not intended to be exportable, and indeed relatively few of these works,...

  11. PART 6 The Twentieth Century
    • Chapter 25 Introduction / Opera in France and Italy
      (pp. 577-610)

      Of all the musical forms, opera is the most immediately sensitive to changes in political, economic, social, and general cultural conditions. Its very nature as a complex and costly public spectacle largely dependent on official patronage or private subsidy makes it especially vulnerable to political dictates and economic vicissitudes; its subject matter reflects, positively or negatively, current human preoccupations; its form, content, and idiom are all affected by changing ideals of dramatic and musical style. Two world wars, a worldwide economic depression, and the emergence of political systems committed to strict control of art in the interest of the state...

    • Chapter 26 Opera in the German-Speaking Countries
      (pp. 611-661)

      The influence of the French musical style made its mark in Germany with Franz Schreker (1878–1934),¹ whose first opera, Der ferne Klang, was composed between 1903 and 1909, though not performed until 1912.² The first notable feature of Schreker’s music is the harmony, which basically is like that of Debussy: seventh and ninth chords as consonant units; free use, singly or in combination, of chromatic alteration, pedal points, and organum-like parallel progressions; and treatment of sensuous effect as an end in itself. But it is the Debussy of L’Après-midi d’un faune and La Mer, rather than of the subdued...

    • Chapter 27 National Opera in Russia and Neighboring Countries; Central and Eastern Europe; Greece and Turkey; the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland; Spain, Portugal, and Latin America
      (pp. 662-707)

      In the Soviet Union during the 1920s, two principal kinds of new operas were being performed: the traditional, conservative works supported by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, and the progressive, avant-garde works promoted by the Association for Contemporary Music. The former group included operas commemorating battles and revolutions (e.g., For Red Petrograde, 1925, and The Storming of Perekop, 1927) and operas from the international repertoire revised to capture the revolutionary spirit (e.g., Tosca revised as The Struggle of the Commune, 1924). The latter group in¬volved works by Soviet composers who were truly innovative and by out¬standing non-Soviet composers, such...

    • Chapter 28 Opera in the British Isles, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
      (pp. 708-728)

      The situation in England in the early part of the twentieth century is interesting because of the contrast between the work of continentally oriented composers and the efforts of others to create a viable opera of distinctly English character. To the former group belongs Dame Ethel Smyth (1858—1944). Following two early operas brought out in Germany (Fantasio, 1898; Der Wald, 1902), her principal work for the stage was The Wreckers, aptly described as “halfway between Tristan and Grimes.” Although written originally on a French libretto, this opera was first produced in a German translation (as Strandrecht) at Leipzig in...

    • Chapter 29 Opera in the United States
      (pp. 729-786)

      At the beginning of the twentieth century, Oscar Hammerstein challenged the unrivaled domination of opera production at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House by building the Manhattan Opera House. Describing himself as “the little man who’ll provide grand opera for the masses,” Hammerstein planned to stage a repertoire similar to that of the Metropolitan, but with better quality productions and at prices low enough to attract music lovers from all walks of society. The Manhattan Opera House opened on December 3, 1906, with Bellini’s I Puritani, and for the next several years this opera company gave New Yorkers some exceptionally...

  12. Appendix: Chinese Opera (Xiqu)
    (pp. 787-794)
  13. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 795-796)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 797-896)
  15. Sources and Translations of Musical Examples
    (pp. 897-910)
  16. Index
    (pp. 911-1032)