The First Operas: Part 1

When you get the chance to reacquaint yourself with works that you have not heard for many years it is sometimes a delight to reawaken that first initial flush of emotion you felt all those years ago when you first discovered the piece. Sometimes you even make new discoveries along the way. Recently I was writing a course on Renaissance music and had the pleasure of rediscovering the origins of Opera. Not works that we would usually recognise as the full overblown bombastic abominations of some composers, or the amateurish attempts of others, but true diamonds from amongst the beginnings of the art form; works by Caccini, Peri and especially Monteverdi. So, in these two blogs, I thought I would mention these humble beginnings, and hope that the reader will too discover the wonderful delights that these works offer.

The art form that became known as Opera originated in Italy in the late 16th and early 17th century, although it drew upon much older traditions of Medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainments such as ‘Ludus Danielis’, where sections of the story were acted out or spoken over an accompaniment. This in turn leads us back to the Dark Ages, with the Scops/Skalds and Bards of the Northern lands, and even to the Roman and Greek ideas of music drama. In fact, this is how it actually came about, with the reawakening of interest in the art forms of the ancients. The word opera means “work” in Italian and was first used in the modern musical and theatrical sense of the term in 1639, soon spreading to other European languages.

The earliest operas were modest productions compared to other Renaissance forms of sung drama, but they soon became more lavish and took on the spectacular stagings of the earlier genre known as Intermedio (Intermezzo). It was an attempt to recreate something lost to antiquity and modern practices found in stage and music Intermedio.

Dafne, by the Mantuan based composer Jacopo Peri, was the earliest composition that can possibly considered an opera, as understood today, although with only five instrumental parts it was more like a Chamber Opera than either the preceding Intermedi or the operas to come of Claudio Monteverdi. It was written around 1597, largely under the inspiration of a circle of literate Florentine humanists known as the Florentine Camerata. Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek Drama and was part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance period. The members of the Camerata thought that the ‘chorus’ parts of Greek dramas were probably originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles. Thus Opera was conceived as a way of restoring this antiquarian situation. Most of the music for Dafne is lost but the libretto was printed and does still survive. One of Peri’s later operas Euridice (a popular subject for Renaissance composers) dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day intact, and is performed occasionally at early music festivals.

The traditions of staged sung music and drama go back to both the secular and religious forms found in the Middle Ages. Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri’s works, however, did not just arrive as if out of a creative vacuum. It can be stated that an underlying prerequisite for the creation of opera was the practice of monody. This is the solo singing or setting of a dramatically conceived melody that is created to express the emotional content of the text. This is then accompanied by a relatively simple sequence of chords rather than any other polyphonic part. Simple yet effective.

Italian composers began composing in this style late in the 16th century, and it grew in part from the long-standing practice of performing polyphonic madrigals with one singer accompanied by an instrumental rendition of the other parts. From this, it was only a small step to fully-fledged monody and thus to opera in its most basic form. All such works tended to set humanist poetry of a type that attempted to imitate Petrarch. This was another element of the period’s desire to restore the principles associated with its rather mixed-up notion of antiquity.

The solo Madrigal, Frottola, Villanella and their types featured prominently in the Intermedio entertainment form of theatrical spectacle, with music that was often funded by the wealthy and more bourgeois, opulent and increasingly secular courts of Italy’s city-states (Italy was still broken up into various states since the breakup of the Roman Empire in the mid-6th century). Like the later Opera, an Intermedi featured not only solo singing, but also madrigals performed usually in four or five part voice textures. Dancing was also accompanied by the instrumentalists present in the court. These Intermedio were lavishly staged and tended not to tell a story as such but nearly always focused on a particular element of human emotion or experience, expressed through mythological allegory, and were very often ‘Pastorals’ that were rife with illusion and social comment on the court and the state.

Giulio Caccini (1551 – 1618)

Giulio Caccini (1551–1618)

Giulio Romolo Caccini was not just a composer but also a teacher, singer, instrumentalist and writer. Little is actually known about his early life but we do know is that he was the son of a carpenter, Michelangelo Caccini, who was the older brother of the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Caccini. Giulio studied in Rome taking the Lute, Viol and the Harp, and also acquired a reputation as a singer. In the 1560s, The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici of Florence was so impressed with his talent that he took Caccini to Florence for further study.

By the year 1579, Caccini was singing at various Medici court entertainments, including weddings and affairs of state, and took part in the sumptuous and bombastic Intermedi of the time. During this time he took part in the movement of humanists, writers, musicians and scholars who formed the Florentine Camerata. They were a group that gathered at the home of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, and was dedicated to recovering the supposed lost glories of ancient Greek dramatic music. With Caccini’s abilities as a singer, instrumentalist, and composer added to the mix of intellects and talents, the Camerata developed the concept of Monody, which was at the time a revolutionary departure from the polyphonic practice of the late Renaissance years.

Caccini’s character seems to have been less than appealing and was seemingly blighted by envy and jealousy, not only in his professional life but for personal advancement with the Medici personages. His rivalry with both the composers Emilio de‘Cavalieri and Jacopo Peri appears to have been very intense. It is believed that he may have arranged for Cavalieri to be removed from his post as director of festivities for the wedding of Henry the IV of France and Maria de‘ Medici in 1600. This caused Cavalieri to leave Florence in quite a rage. He also seems to have rushed his own version of the opera Euridice into print before Peri’s opera on the same subject could be published, while simultaneously ordering his group of singers to have nothing to do with Peri’s production.

Caccini wrote music for only three known operas: Euridice (1600) in collaboration with Jacopo Peri; Il Rapimento di Cefalo (1600), and another version of Euridice in 1602. He published two collections of songs and solo Madrigals in 1602 and 1614 respectively.

L’Euridice (1600)

Jacopo Peri (1561 – 1633)

Jacopo Peri (1561–1633)

Jacopo Peri was a composer and singer on the cusp of the Renaissance and the Baroque styles just like his near contemporary Monteverdi. He is nearly always referred to as the inventor of Opera and wrote what is commonly regarded as the first opera, Dafne. He was born in Rome and studied in Florence with Cristofano Malvezzi. He worked in a number of churches there as an organist and a singer. He subsequently began to work in the Medici court, first as a singer and keyboardist, and later as a composer. His earliest works were Intermedi and Madrigals, some of which have survived through to the present day.

In the 1590s, Peri became associated with Jacopo Corsi who was the leading patron of music in Florence. They believed contemporary art was inferior to that of the past, particularly that of classical Greek and Roman works. With this concept in mind they decided to attempt to recreate Greek tragedy in the same manner as the Ancients, but from their limited understanding of the ideas of the art form. Their work added to that of the Florentine Camerata of the previous decade, which produced the first experiments in Monody. Peri and Corsi brought in the poet Ottavio Rinuccini to write a text, the result being Dafne. Nowadays, this is understood to be a long way from anything the Greeks would have recognised or understood, however, it is none the less the first work in a new form; Opera.

Rinuccini and Peri next collaborated on Euridice. This was first performed in 1600 at the Palazzo Pitti. Unlike Dafne, the parts have survived history to the present day. It is rarely performed and, when it is, it is usually done so as some vague historical curio. The work uses recitatives, a new development which went between the arias and choruses, helping to move the action along at a much more smoothly paced speed than jolts of individual songs/monodies which were separate from the story around them.

Peri produced a number of other operas, often in collaboration with other composers (such as La Flora with Marco da Gagliano and Euridice (1600) with Giulio Caccini, despite the jealousy felt by the older composer). Peri also wrote a number of other pieces for various court entertainments, as was expected of an employee of the court. By the time of his death, his operatic style was looking old-fashioned and anachronistic in comparison to the work of younger, more reformist composers such as Claudio Monteverdi. However, Peri’s influence on the later composers was large and profound.

Peri’s Grave marking in the Santa Maria Novella

Peri’s Grave marking in the Santa Maria Novella


Hor Che Gli Augelli:

More to come in The First Operas: Part 2…

Originally published at WeAreOCA.