Too Much Opera?

The Operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vol. I: Eraclea

edited by Donald Jay Grout
Harvard University Press, 192 pp., $18.50 (paper)

The Operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vol. II: Marco Attilio Regolo

edited by Donald Jay Grout, edited by Joscelyn Godwin
Harvard University Press, 224 pp., $20.00 (paper)

The Operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vol. III: Griselda

edited by Donald Jay Grout
Harvard University Press, 256 pp., $18.50 (paper)

The Operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vol. IV: The Faithful Princess

edited by Donald Jay Grout
Harvard University Press, 208 pp., $18.50 (paper)

The Operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vol. V: Massimo Puppieno

edited by Donald Jay Grout, edited by H. Colin Slim
Harvard University Press, 153 pp., $18.50 (paper)

Italian Opera 1640-1770

edited by Howard M. Brown
Garland Publishing, 50 vols. pp., $60.00 per volume

Domenico Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti; drawing by David Levine

It should be a cause for rejoicing that much of our ignorance of the history of music is permanent, irrevocable. In economic and social history, a statistical sampling or a well-established general trend can sometimes stand in for a large number of missing specific facts: we do not need to know the details of every market transaction, every marriage contract. In the history of music, as of any other art, nothing can supply the absence of the individual work. Knowledge of the work itself is not simply one of the prerequisites of research in music history, but the goal. Economic history does not exist until the data are grouped and generalized: for music history, generalization is either a second best, or an intermediate step on the road that starts with the work and returns to it with greater understanding.

The history of music begins to collapse under the strain of too many works. Understanding a work of music is not quite synonymous with enjoying it, but it demands imagining someone else’s enjoyment, and seeing why this is, or once was, possible. Any generalization is based on this necessary effort of appreciation. No music historian, therefore, can build on his predecessor’s labors with anything like the confidence, however limited, of the historian of science. Each advance in any branch of history may demand a tiresome reexamination of each piece of detailed evidence, but in the history of an art it also leads to a renewed concentration on the individual work, a reappreciation. Too much evidence, and the process would grind to a halt.

For this reason, the historian of, say, eighteenth-century music tended to rely blindly on nineteenth-century values to select his evidence for him and, in short, to determine his field of study. He concentrated above all not on what was done in the eighteenth century but on what later generations thought was important out of all the things that were done. This old-fashioned attitude could be justified persuasively enough: history is what is remembered. Mozart was remembered and his elder and once-famous contemporary Wagenseil, who wrote some fine works, was forgotten; Mozart remains a living force in the history of music until this day, while Wagenseil must be disinterred each time in order to re-enter history. I have been told, to my surprise, that Wagenseil continued to be performed occasionally in Vienna during the early decades of the nineteenth century, twenty and thirty years after his death in 1777. That proves that one can be both performed and forgotten. (In fact, it still happens today. Many works are played only because the conductor once learned the score and the parts are easily available, and no one—neither public nor orchestra—pays the slightest notice, except for the critic who reports the event.)

A wave of historicism in the twentieth century and an ever-growing uncertainty of values threaten the comfort and stability of…

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