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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

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 musicology. What ought to count, it is now felt, is not what later generations thought great, but what contemporaries judged significant. Since this formula would eliminate now-acknowledged masterpieces like Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew, which (as far as we know) passed unregarded and unappreciated by Bach’s contemporaries, it has to be enlarged to include everything that contemporaries or their posterity judged significant. That opens the floodgates. Since hardly an opera was ever produced or a piano sonata published that did not have the respect of someone besides the composer, the study of music ceases to be concerned only with masterpieces (why should it be?) and becomes genuinely democratic and tolerant. Works of music, like their composers, are children of God and He loves them all.

Happily, therefore, many thousands of works have disappeared beyond recall. On hearing that a manuscript of Byzantine chant, which had never been transcribed or photographed, had been destroyed, a friend who works in that field exclaimed with relief: “Thank God! One less to deal with.” It is not the unimportant and the trivial that have gone forever. Major works, unquestionably among the finest of their time, have been totally annihilated. This is above all the case with operas, almost none of which were published before the end of the eighteenth century. Few people needed or wanted a full score and the orchestral parts of an opera, and even during the nineteenth century it was usual for an opera company to pay for a handwritten copy: manuscript copies, indeed, were easily obtained, and there were copying bureaus in several Italian cities and elsewhere.

In the eighteenth century, manuscript copies were naturally even more widespread than in the nineteenth. Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard, for example, was known and played by many musicians including Mozart and Beethoven long before it was published. Copying music was a menial but not a degrading task: Rousseau preferred to make his living by it. An opera that was performed only a few times (and in an age of frequent and revolutionary changes of musical style, many operas became old-fashioned almost before being staged) had a good chance of vanishing completely, leaving nothing behind except the libretto, if that, and the bill for the scenery and costumes. Of the more than a dozen operas by Monteverdi, the first master of the form, only the earliest one (Orfeo of 1609) and two late ones (Il Ritorno di Ulisse of 1641 and L’Incoronazione di Poppea of 1642) have come down to us. What he did in the intervening thirty years was never published and the manuscripts were destroyed during his lifetime.

The greatest composer of opera at the beginning of the eighteenth century is generally agreed to be Alessandro Scarlatti. So far this reputation has been based largely on hearsay, on the word of a few scholars who have actually seen a score. Scarlatti wrote more than a hundred operas between 1679 and 1721: the music for less than half of these has survived, sometimes only in fragmentary form. Until 1974, only two of these operas had been completely published, neither in a satisfactory edition.

For the study of the history of music, the most important event of the 1970s has been the start of a complete critical edition of Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas, under the direction of Donald Jay Grout, with the help of Joscelyn Godwin and H. Colin Slim. What graduate students in music today know about their subject comes largely from Grout’s one-volume general history, the best book of its kind ever written. After his recent retirement from Cornell, he has devoted himself passionately to the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti. The first volume came out in 1974, and four more have been issued to date. Professor Grout told me that around another two dozen operas are salvageable, enough of their music having come down to us to warrant publication. At the present rate of a volume a year, the edition should be complete soon after the year 2000 if Harvard University Press perseveres. Perhaps someone will then commence work on a complete edition of the 500 or so cantatas of Scarlatti that are still extant today.

Serious opera (opera seria) between Monteverdi and Mozart has had a bad press, while the importance of comic opera (opera buffa) has been more generally recognized. Opera seria, in its time the most prestigious form of music, is the most neglected today, the least performed and perhaps the least understood. It is obviously unfair to judge the opera seria from 1660 to 1760 by the dramatic standards which we would apply to most plays and most other operas, but this very unfairness requires some comment. The operas of Monteverdi, both Orfeo and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, treat classical mythology and classical history in a baroque style with some plausibility and great dignity. Later, Mozart could meet Beaumarchais’ plays and even Molière’s with a dramatic conception fully their equal, as Verdi could deal with the plays of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare. In early eighteenth-century opera in France, however, the influence of the tragedies of Racine was palpable, but more as a reproach than an inspiration. In Italy (and Germany, where the opera was largely Italian in language and even in style), the conception of drama in opera was even more constrained.

Racine’s plays and the eighteenth-century French opera librettos that imitated them, however distantly, reached out of their court atmosphere not only to the mythological world of Greek tragedy but also to the political world of ancient Rome and, by implication, of modern Europe. The Italian librettos (even—or perhaps above all—those of Metastasio, the greatest of the early eighteenth-century Italian poets, and master and tyrant of the libretto form) stay almost entirely within a completely artificial court ideal, heavily influenced by the antiquated pastoral of the Renaissance; the politics rarely rises above court intrigue and then only when some kind of dynastic consideration is involved.

An example is the medieval male-chauvinist tale of Griselda, the patient wife who never wavered in the respect, obedience, and love she owed her husband, even when he beat her, took away her children, and repudiated her publicly. In its original form, it has a grisly emblematic power. In the libretto by the court poet at Vienna, Apostolo Zeno, set by Scarlatti among many others, it is degraded into a series of public humiliations for the low-born wife of King Gualtiero, so that his rebellious nobles would be persuaded by her virtue that she was worthy to reign and, above all, that the son she bore Gualtiero was a worthy heir.

Another opera by Scarlatti, Marco Attilio Regolo, has a subject that would have been most apt for a heroic drama of Corneille: a Roman general, captured by the Carthaginians, is sent by them on his word of honor back to Rome to arrange peace; instead he urges war and returns voluntarily to Carthage alone to be put to death. For most of the opera this subject is pushed aside: the Roman general has a wife and a daughter captured with him; the commander of the Spartans, allies to the Carthaginians, loves the daughter; the Carthaginian general loves the mother, and he repudiates his fiancée, the princess of Sicily, who loves him although she has only seen his picture; and she disguises herself as a man to plan revenge—what kind of revenge is unclear. (A later libretto by Metastasio on the same subject restored the basic heroic theme, but dissipated most of its energy.)

It is easy enough to make fun of any form of drama, and opera is particularly subject to absurdity. But nineteenth-century opera—hero and villain exchanged long ago as infants in the cradle, the hunchback with the beautiful daughter, the dragon-killer—has a fairy-tale charm: it is disfigured mostly by its obeisance to the moral pieties, as when John of Leyden in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète gives up his revolution because he loves his mother. Early eighteenth-century opera seria repudiates comparison with any other form of literature except court pastoral—and that in an insipid form, with all the Renaissance idealism and bold speculation of the pastorals of Sidney and Tasso drained out of the genre: even the erotic casuistry of the early seventeenth-century pastoral is coarsened and cheapened.

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