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THE NECESSITY AND THE POWER OF GIVING AN
OPERA TO THE ENGLISH.
No. II. We cannot commence our Second Essay under higher auspices than those of Voltaire and Sir Walter Scott,-men eminent above all others of their time, yet of succeeding ages, and of nations differing at those periods as completely in their temperament and dramatic tastes as any civilized states in the world. It is thus, then, that the ornament of our own country has connected the opinions of the great literary name of France with his own upon our particular subject, in his Essay on the Drama :
“Voltaire has, with more justice, confessed that, probably, the best imitation of the ancient stage was to be found in the Italian tragic opera. The recitative resembled the musical declamation of the Athenians; and the choruses, which are frequently introduced, when properly combined with the subject, approach to those of the Greeks, as forming a contrast, by the airs which they execute, to the recitative, or modulated dialogue of the scene. Voltaire instances the tragic operas of Metastasio in particular, as approaching, in beauty of diction and truth of sentiment, near to the ancient simplicity, and finds an apology even for the detached airs (so fatal to probability) in the beauty of the poetry and the perfection of the music; and although, as a critic and a man of cultivated taste, this author prefers the regular, noble, and severe beauties of the classic stage to the effeminate and meretricious charms of the opera, still he concludes that, with all its defects, the sort of enchantment which results from the brilliant intermixture of
scenery, chorus, dancing, music, dress, and decoration, subjects even the genius of criticism ; and that the most sublime tragedy, and most artful comedy, will not be so frequently visited by the same individual as an indifferent opera. We may add the experience of London to the testimony of this great critic; and, indeed, were it possible that actors could frequently be procured, possessed of the powers of action and voice which were united in Grassini, it would be impossible to deny to the opera the praise of being an amusement as exquisite in point of taste, as fascinating from show and music.”
After such testimony, theoretical and practical, the question of the power of opera to move the affections in a very high, if not in the
very highest degree, must be considered to be set at rest. Ménétrier, indeed, maintains entirely opposite dogmas: they also involve some curious historical conjectures, with which the inquirer may be amused. He says—“The state of the opera deserves a particular elucidation; and to this end we must endeavour to trace it to its origin, which lies in a great measure hid in darkness. Riccoboni is of opinion that the first ever represented was that which the Doge and Senate of Venice exhibited for the entertainment of Henry II. of France in the year 1574. But this account is by no means satisfactory, for Sulpitius, an Italian, speaks of the musical drama as an entertainment known in Italy in the year 1490. History traces the rise of opera no farther; but a circumstance mentioned by Sulpitius, who was a man of letters, may
seem to lead us up to its true origin. He is, by some, supposed to have been the inventor of this musical drama, but he ingenuously tells us that he only revived it. We have seen that the tragedy of the ancient Greeks was accompanied with music; that the same union was borrowed and maintained through the several provinces of the Roman empire. If, therefore, we suppose, what is altogether probable, that the form of the ancient tragedy had been still kept up in some retired part of Italy, which the barbarians never conquered, we then obtain a fair account of the rise of the modern opera, which hath so much confounded all inquiry. As Venice was the place where the opera first appeared in splendour, so it is highly probable that there the ancient tragedy had slept in obscurity during the darkness of the barbarous ages. For while the rest of Italy was overrun by the nations from the North, the seas and morasses of Venice alone preserved her from their incursions. Hence history tells us people flocked to Venice from every part of Italy; hence the very
form of her republic had been maintained for thirteen hundred years; and from these views of security it was natural for the helpless arts to seek an asylum within her canals from the fury and ignorance of a bárbarous conqueror. Other circumstances concur to strengthen this opinion. The Carriival first appeared in splendour, and still wears it, at Venice, beyond every other part of Italy. Now the Carnival is in many circumstances almost a transcript of the ancient Saturnalia of Rome. In the Venetian comedy the actor wears a masque; a palpable imitation, or rather continuation, of the old Roman custom. That the modern opera is no more than a revival of the old Roman tragedy, and not a new-invented species, will appear still more evident if we consider that it is an exhibition altogether out of the nature, and repugnant to the universal genius, of modern customs and manners. We have seen the natural union of poetry and music, as they rise in the savage state, and how this union forms the tragic species in the natural progression of things. Hence we have deduced the musical tragedies of ancient Greece; but in ancient Rome it appears they arose merely from imitation and adoption; nor could it be otherwise, because the Romans wanted the first seeds or principles, from whence the musical tragedies of the Greeks arose. The same reasoning takes place with respect to the modern opera : it emerged at a time when the general state of manners in Europe could not naturally produce it; it emerged in that very city where, most probably, it must have been hid—in a city whose other entertainments are most evidently borrowed from those of ancient Rome; and if to these arguments we add this further consideration, that the subjects of the very first operas were drawn from the fables of ancient Greece and Rome, and not from the events or achievements of the times, and further, that in their form they were exact copies of the ancient drama, these accumulated proofs amount to a near demonstration, that the Italian Opera is but the revival of the old Roman tragedy. Such being the birth of the modern opera, no wonder it inherits the weakness of its parent; for we have seen that the Roman tragedy never had its proper effects, considered in a legislative view, having been separated from its important ends before its arrival from Greece. “As, therefore, it had declined to a mere amusement when it was first adopted by Rome, and as we have seen that in proportion as the Roman manners grew more dissolute, tragedy sunk still lower in its character, till at length it became no more than
a kind of mere substratum, or groundwork, on which the actors displayed their abilities in singing and gesticulation, it was altogether natural that it should rise again in the same unnerved and effeminate form."
“ From these causes, therefore, we may trace all the features of the modern opera, however unnatural and distorted they may appear. The poem, the music, and the performance, as they now exist in union, are the manifest effects of this spurious origin. First, that the subject of the poem should even, on its first appearance, be drawn from times and countries little interesting, and gods, and wonders, and celestial machinery introduced, which neither the poet nor his audience believed in, could only be the effect of a blind principle of imitation, tending to mere amusement. The established separation of the poet's from the musician's art was productive of parallel effects : for the poet, ambitious only of shining in his particular sphere, became generally more intent on imagery than pathos; or else, instead of being principal, he became subservient to the composer's views; from whence arose a motley kind of poem (calculated only for a display of the musician's art), which degenerated by degrees into a mere pasticcio.-Secondly, the same causes account for all the absurdities of the music. The recitative, a perpetual musical accompaniment in the declamatory parts, is a practice so much at variance with modern manners, that it extorted the following censure from a candid critic:- I beg pardon of the inventors of the musical tragedy, a kind of poem as ridiculous as it is new. If there be anything in the world that is at variance with tragic actors, it is song. The opera is the grotesque of poetry, and so much the more intolerable as it pretends to pass for a regular work. Now, if along with Dacier we regard the opera as a modern invention, this circumstance of the perpetual musical accompaniment is indeed unaccountable: but if we regard it as a mere imitation, or continuance of the old Roman tragedy, and trace it upwards to its true fountain, the Greek drama; and again, follow this to its original source, the savage song-feast; we there see how naturally these extremes unite, and discern the rude melody and song of the barbarous Greek tribes, gradually melted into the refinements of the modern opera. Again, as the separation of the poet's from the musician's art produces an improper poetry, so the separation of the musician's from the poet's character was productive of improper and unaffecting music ; for the composer, in his turn, only intent on shining, commonly wanders into unmeaning divisions, and adopts either a delicate and a refined, or a merely popular music, to the neglect of true and musical expression. Hence, too, the da capo had its natural origin and practice, which tends only to tire and disgust the hearer, if he comes with an intent of being affected by the tragic action, or with any other view than that of listening to a song.—Thirdly, with regard to the performance of the
opera. The theatrical representation is of a piece with the poetry and music; for, having been regarded from its first rise more as an affair of astonishing show than affecting resemblance, it is gaudy, flaunting, and unnatural. The singers, like the poet and musician, being considered merely as objects of amusement, no wonder if their ambition seldom reacheth higher than to the display of an artificial execution. As a consequence of these principles, the castrati were introduced into all sorts of characters, in spite of nature and probability, and still continue to represent heroes and statesmen, warriors and women. The flourished close or cadence arose naturally from the same sources; from a total.neglect of the subject and expression, and an attention to the mere circumstance of execution only. The frequent encore, or demand of the repeated performance of particular songs, was the natural effect of the same causes.
No audience demands the repetition of a pathetic speech in tragedy, though performed in the finest manner, because their attention is turned on the subject of a drama: thus, if the audience were warmed by the subject of an opera, and took part in the main action of the poem, the encore, instead of being desirable, would generally disgust; but the whole being considered as a mere musical entertainment, and the tragic action commonly forgot, the artificial performance of a song becomes naturally a chief object of admiration, and the repetition of it a chief object of request. Thus, the whole farrago of the modern opera seems resolved into its clear and evident principles; and hence the subject, the music, the action, the dress, the execution, decorations, and machinery, are such a glaring compound of trifling and absurd improbabilities, that the tragic influence is overlaid and lost; nor is it possible for any impartial and rational spectator to take part in the dramatic action, or be moved by the ill-feigned distress. Let not the writer be thought to derogate from the ability or merit of all the poets, musicians, and singers, who devote all their labours to the opera. He knows there are exceptions in either of these departments. Neither let him be supposed to censure the opera as an entertainment unworthy all attention, considered as a mere amusement; on the contrary, whoever is inclined to hear a succession of symphonies and songs, set off with all the decorations that can dazzle the eye, and all the refinement of execution that can enchant the ear, let him attend the Opera, and he will find his taste highly gratified.”
It is particularly to be observed that Addison and Arteaga, Voltaire and Scott, and many more illustrious names, (Rousseau, Algarotti
, Sulzer, and Lacepede, amongst others, might be added,) all deduce their philosophy of the musical drama, and their opinions of its force, from no other than the legitimately-constructed opera, consisting of music, and music alone, from beginning to end. This is the main consideration. This continuous feeling of the vehicle ought not to be interrupted or disturbed. The mind of the spectator should be brought as nearly as possible to an illusion, approaching belief, that musical intonation is no less a part of the constitution of the actors than their persons and features. This alone reconciles the apparent and indeed the natural incongruity. It is thus one and single. By the admixture of speech the English, and also the French and Germans, make it the more strikingly perceptible; the Italians are better philosophers, and manage it with infinitely greater judgment and advantage.
We may now proceed to examine the parts of the musical dialogue separately, and somewhat at large ; which is indispensable, if we would understand the theory, i. e. the philosophy and the superiority of the regular structure. The dialogue rises from plain to accompanied recitative, through all the variety of duet, concerted pieces, and chorus, according to the number of persons engaged in the scene. Recitative, then, must be first subjected to our analysis.
Every drama must have passages of comparatively small and great interest; the mind remains not in the same state of excitement, nor do the incidents maintain a constant elevation. Skilful actors, no less
than authors, of set purpose, throw passages into shade to bring out others into stronger light.* Thus contrast heightens the general effect. Hence the distinction so judiciously taken by the Italians, of simple and accompanied recitative, the one of mere plain dialogue, not raised by passion, the other entirely devoted to it. The language of violent emotion is short, vivid, broken, rapid, and exclamatory. Such bursts of feeling can never afford subjects for continuous strains of melody. The music (both melody and harmony) must accord with the words. And here it is not only that the uniformity and propriety upon which we have insisted are destroyed, but that the supremest agency of music may be employed. Unluckily we have few or no instances (always excepting our solitary “ Artaxerxes”) upon the English stage; but the works of Purcell and of Handel abound in magnificent examples. Nothing finer (if so fine) can be found than the forceful and impassionate contrasts in the “ Let the dreadful Engines of Eternal will” of the former composer, and the “ Deeper and deeper still ” of the latter. Whoever has heard Bartleman in the one and Braham in the other, without the aids of scenic illustration,t will feel how infinitely more powerful in affecting the feelings is this species of composition discharged from all the fetters of strict time, rhythm, or sustained melody, yet occasionally employing all of these for short intervals, together with the whole force of everchangeful harmonies.
It should seem, then, this constituted, in the beginning of opera, the first avenue to air, and through all time it appears to have had the same effect in touching the heart. Tartini confirms it by a remarkable anecdote. Having spoken of the narratives of the power of sounds to be found in ancient authors, he says" In spite of doubts about the truth of the accounts found in ancient historians concerning the Greek music, such are the ancients who give those accounts, that it would be the height of rashness not to believe them. Plato and Aristotle are all who
Rousseau was quite sensible of this necessary accommodation to the alternate drooping and swelling of the mind, and in his Dictionary of Music has thus pronounced his decision, including both the censure of verbal dialogue and the praise of recitative:
“ Our lyrical dramas are too purely musical to remain so throughout. An opera which should be only a succession of airs, would tire almost as much as a single air of the same length. The melodies must be separated by speech, but speech must be modified by music; the ideas should vary, but the language should remain the same. This language once adopted, if changed in the course of a piece, would be like speaking half in French and half in German. There is too great a disparity between conversation and music to pass at once from the one to the other: it shocks both the ear and probability. Two characters in dialogue ought either to speak or to sing; they cannot alternately do the one and the other.
“ Now, recitative is the means of union between melody and speech. It is that which separates and distinguishes the airs, which tranquillizes the ear, astonished by that which has preceded, and prepares it for the enjoyment of what is to follow. In short, it is by the aid of recitative that that which is merely dialogue becomes recital or narrative in the drama, may be rendered without quitting the given language, and without disturbing the course of the melody."
+ Handel's “ Acis and Galatea” was performed as a drama, at the benefit of M. Bochsa, some years ago, at the King's Theatre, amidst, perhaps, the most curious selection of entertainments this country ever witnessed. Braham played Acis; Begrez, Damon; and (we believe) Zuchelli
, Polypheme. But the whole was, from some cause or other-chiefly, perhaps, the admixture of foreign and English singers, and the subject of the catastrophe of the action-so ridiculous, that all sober effect was destroyed.