[ocr errors]

unless he had alleviated it by passages of sheer music, points of repose in which we gain a momentary respite from such pity and such terror. So we have the Euripidean choruses—the interpolations, as Aristotle calls them-which carry us far away from the stage, which sing to us the song of Cyprus or the song of the western seas, which bathe our souls in pure melody, and send us back to the scene quieted and refreshed. Music, in short, is here used not to intensify the dramatic note but to relax it; and from this usage important consequences were to follow.

Greek Comedy sat looser to the religious conception, for its purpose was largely a satiric portraiture of current life and current events. But Aristophanes always makes his appeal to patriotism, which at Athens was a second religion, and in more than one play shows himself fully conscious of his religious surroundings. The very licence of the Frogs' is, so to speak, under ecclesiastical sanction; it is the direct ancestor of the Messe de l'âne' and the Fête des Fous'; and amid all its audacious burlesque this comedy contains two of the most beautiful hymns in the Greek language. Further, as Greek Comedy departs from ritual observance it becomes less musical: in the Plutus'the chorus is no more than a stage crowd ; it is absent from the recovered scenes of Menander.

When, after the dark centuries, drama revived again in western Europe, it passed through very much the same stages of evolution. No doubt there were two convergent streams—that of the folk-drama with its mumming play, its May game and its morris dance; and that of the liturgical drama with the story of the Nativity for Christmas, the Quem quæritis' for Easter, and the cycle of mystery plays for Corpus Christi. But, though divergent, they both alike sprang from religious origins: the one from some primitive memory of natureworship, the other so directly from the ritual of the Church that historians are unable to date the point of transition ; and both were for the most part essentially musical in character. The dances had their rude accompaniment, the choral songs their rude melody; the ecclesiastical chant, already at a high pitch of organisation, announced the sacred message in melodic phrase and celebrated it with hymn and canticle. From


the former of these sprang the Maggi or May songs of the Tuscan peasants, which are at least as old as the fourteenth century. From the latter came, in direct succession, the Sacre Rappresentazioni and their kindred forms, which, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, appeared in Florence, in Mantua and in other Italian cities. The musical importance of these is discussed in an admirable essay by M. Romain Rolland,* and in the very interesting volume recently published by Mr W. J. Henderson. They deserve, indeed, some special consideration, for they anticipate by nearly two hundred years the music-drama which we usually associate with the name of Monteverde.

They were given on great festivals after Vespers. The scene was one of the Florentine churches—notably San Felice in Piazza—and was embellished with every form of decoration and stage device that the best artists and mechanicians could invent. Here is the description of a scene by Brunelleschit: Dans la voûte de l'église, un ciel, plein de figures vivantes, tournait; une infinité de lumières luisaient et scintillaient. Douze petits angelots, ailés, aux cheveux d'or, se prenaient par la main, et dansaient, suspendus. Au-dessus de leurs têtes trois guirlandes de lumières, d'en bas, paraissaient des étoiles. On eût dit qu'ils marchaient sur des nuages. Huit enfants groupés autour d'un socle lumineux descendirent ensuite de la voûte. Sur le socle était debout un petit ange d'une quinzaine d'années, solidement attaché par un mécanisme de fer invisible et assez souple pour lui laisser la liberté de ses mouvements. La machine une fois descendue sur la scène, l'ange alla saluer la Vierge et fit l'Annonciation. Puis il remonta au ciel, au milieu de ses compagnons qui chantaient, tandis que les anges du ciel dansaient dans l'air une ronde.'

The stories were taken from Holy Writ, or (occasionally) from the lives of saints, and were represented by dramatic action and by dialogues and speeches which, it would

appear, were sometimes recited and sometimes sung. To quote again from M. Rolland :

Certaines parties de la pièce, d'un caractère traditionnel -Prologues (Annunziazioni), Epilogues (Licenzi), prières, etc.



'L'Opéra avant l'Opéra,' in ‘Musiciens d’Autrefois.'
• Musiciens d’Autrefois,' pp. 26–28.

étaient sans doute chantées sur une cantilène spéciale. De plus, on intercalait dans la Sacra Rappresentazione des morceaux de caractères variés : soit des pages de liturgie régulière ou populaire (des “Te Deum ou des “Laudi"), soit des chansons profanes et de la musique de danse, comme l'indiquent certains libretti : “Tel morceau doit être chanté comme les · Vaghe montanine' de Sacchetti.” Tel autre marqué: bel canto." Ici, “Pilate répond en chantant alla imperiale." Là “Abraham tout joyeux dit une Stanza a ballo.Il y avait des chants à deux et à trois voix. Le spectacle était precédé d'un prélude instrumental, qui suivait le prologue chanté. On avait donc un petit orchestre; et nous voyons mentionnés, ça et là, des violons, des violes et des luths.'

The intervals between the acts were filled with choruses and ballets of action, chosen apparently not for sheer contrast, as was the practice of eighteenth century opera, but with some bearing on the main issue. Thus we read of a chorus of huntsmen as intermezzo in the story of St Margaret; and there would seem to be other instances of a similar kind.

It is difficult to see what element is here lacking. We have prologue and overture, orchestra and singers, the play presented in musical phrase,* and with scenic effects so elaborate that they could hardly be surpassed by Munich and Bayreuth. We may smile at the simplicity of the directions; we may sometimes wonder at the incongruity of the designs; but we cannot doubt that to the congregations which assembled to witness these dramas the simplicity was natural and the incongruity non-existent. They were religious offices as vivid as the Good Friday procession in a modern Italian town, and at least as intimate as, to an Athenian audience, the representation of · Agamemnon' or · Edipus.'

In course of time the frank paganism which marked one side of the Renaissance invaded these ecclesiastical dramas and introduced among the most sacred subjects the triumphs of Cæsar and Trajan, and even the cars of Neptune and Venus. So, little by little, the scene shifted from church to palace, from Pius II to Beatrice d'Este and Ludovico Moro. About 1472 Politian wrote his • Favola di Orfeo,' which Symonds describes as a true

[ocr errors]


* M. Rolland goes so far as to speak of un récitatif moulé sur la phrase parlée,' If this is correct, little was left for the moderns to invent.


[ocr errors]


lyric drama, and which Mr Henderson, who devotes to it nearly a third of his entire volume, places 'at the foundation of modern opera.'

Poetically ' (he says) it was the superior of any lyric work except, perhaps, those of Metastasio. Musically it was radically different from the opera as it was from the liturgical drama. But none the less it contained some of the germs of the modern opera. It had its solo, its chorus and its ballet. . .. It was distinctly lyric and secular, and was therefore as near the spirit of the popular music as any new attempt could well approach.' * By the end of the century the change was complete; in 1502 five comedies of Plautus were given at Ferrara with ballets and choruses à l'antique; in 1518 came the 'Suppositi'of Ariosto with an orchestra offifes, bagpipes, cornetti, viols, and organ,' and a flute obligato 'which gave much delight to the company. The whole form was growing artificial and courtly; music and spectacular display were gaining the upper hand; a direct way was being paved for the baroque opera of the seventeenth century. As so often happens, this clash of ideals struck into existence a form which owed direct allegiance to neither—the Italian pastoral, of which Guarini's Pastor Fido ’ is the best-known example, and Tasso's · Aminta' that of the chief historical importance. Indeed, Tasso deserves in this matter more than a passing mention. He was devoted to music, the soul of poetry' as he calls it; he deplored its misuse in mere tunefulness and sensual delight; he was the direct precursor of that Florentine revolution the originality of which has been somewhat over-estimated by musical historians. M. Rolland remarks on the significant fact that, at a famous performance of Aminta' in 1590 Rinuccini and Emilio dei Cavalieri were both present.

Hence followed those meetings at Count Bardi's house in Florence, where Peri, Caccini, Rinuccini, Vincenzo Galilei and others proceeded to apply to secular art the reform which Cavalieri was furthering at St Philip Neri's Oratory in Rome. They had two antagonists to meet at


* Some Forerunners of Italian Opera,' pp. 66, 67, See also pp. 90, 91.

+ See Mr E. J. Dent's article on the Baroque Opera, Musical Antiquary,' January 1910.

the same time. Learned music, as represented by the great contrapuntists, was bound by a system of elaborate and formal rules, admirably adapted to preserve its purity and dignity of utterance, but not sufficiently flexible to allow of its extension into the domain of the theatre; drama, transferred from ritual observance to courtly display, was treating music as a separate independent art which made its own appeal, gave its own pleasure, and year by year was breaking the last threads of connexion that bound it to the requirements of plot and character. The aim of the Florentine reformers was to set on the stage a music which should be wholly expressive and dramatic, should emancipate itself from all formal regulations, and follow without question or hesitation the lead of the poet.

Their method of effecting this was to recover, so far as they could, the principles of Greek Tragedy.* They were all scholars ; they were all animated by that passion for Greek art which had spread through Italy since Chrysoloras came from Byzantium to lecture in the Florentine schools; in Peri's • Euridice' and in Monteverde's • Orfeo' they once more vindicated that absolute fusion of music and drama which, as tradition attested, had been wrought by the hand of Æschylus. And herein lay at once their strength and their weakness. Greek Tragedy gave them the noblest of models; on that score their choice could not have more happily fallen. But it gave them also a range of themes which had become cold and remote, and which, for at least a generation, had been associated in the public mind with pageantry and scenic display. To ancient Athens Orpheus was a national hero, to mediæval Florence he was the centre of a picturesque fairy-tale; and it needed more genius than these men possessed to relight the fire on that old and forgotten altar. They struck a gallant blow in the cause of freedom, and in so doing have earned an honourable place in the history of the art; but they had not the strength to consolidate a permanent victory; and, despite all their endeavours, Italy soon fell back from its new



In comedy they moved with a more tentative step. Vecchi's 'Amfiparnasso' (1594), though very expressive and often very amusing, is a curious compromise between the methods of the stage and those of the madrigal.

« VorigeDoorgaan »