Week 18 in Review

This Week in Blogging:

The beginning of a new volume was heralded by Monteverdian fanfare, and a new feature on the blog. The must-reads page has already stirred good discussion, and has had its first update. (For future reference, you can always access that page via the tab at the very top of our website.) Be sure to continue checking it in the future for new materials. Also, Zach wrote a short but insightful essay on the cost of musical extravagance.

This Week in Reading:

Preface* (II, xxi-xxiii):

This volume is organized around several watershed events:

  • The establishment of opera;
  • The pervasive basso continuo texture, and its implication for harmonic musical thinking;
  • Increasing dominance of instrumental over vocal music, and
  • The composer’s social role changing from “service personnel to autonomous agent,” of which Monteverdi and Beethoven are especially emblematic.

“Chapter 1, Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi”

Opera, now thought of as a quintessential 17th c. genre, had two distinct periods of emergence (i.e., court opera and public opera), and likewise two distinct aesthetic streams. Claudio Monteverdi, the quintessential 17th century composer, provides a perfect frame to approach both streams, as this chapter’s delightful title hints (it’s a quote of opera scholar Nino Pirrotta).

  • From Mantua to Venice (II, 2). Monteverdi’s fame was established during his time as maestro di cappella at the Mantuan court. There he wrote several books of madrigals, became embroiled in one of the most famous musical polemics in history (the quarrel with Artusi that birthed the label seconda prattica for expanded harmonic liberties in service of text expression), and began using basso continuo and the concerted style in his publications. Monteverdi became Maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s in Venice in 1613, and spent the rest of his career there.
  • Poetics and Esthesics (II, 12). An introduction of the poietic fallacy (see this post), and the importance of esthesics, which takes into account the audience’s viewpoint and expectations (not to be confused with the closely spelled esthetics).
  • Opera and its Politics (II, 13). Court opera carried political cachet in at least three ways: 1) the grandeur of the production reflected the power of its princely benefactors; 2) the story lines were thinly veiled allegories meant to honor these same benefactors; and 3) “severe limits were set on the virtuosity of the vocal soloists lest, by indecorously representing their own power, they upstaged the personages portrayed, or worse, the personages allegorically magnified” (II, 15), and thus the noble’s authority was retained.
  • Sex Objects, Sexed and Unsexed (II, 16). Over the course of the 17th c., castrati moved from the church choir to the opera stage, where they became super stars. The stage was the site of all sorts of “carnavalistic” happenings: cross-dressing, gender ambiguity, and authority turned topsy-turvy.
  • The Quintessential Princely Spectacle (II, 18) Taruskin exegetes a scene in act II of Monteverdi’s  first opera (he called it a favola in musica, a musical tale), l’Orfeo (1607).
  • The Carnival Show (II, 26). Taruskin’s reading of Monteverdi’s late opera L’incoronazione di Poppea casts it as a carnivalistic celebration of virtue over vice, lust over romance. In other words, geared specifically to the Venetian public audience for which it was performed.
  • These two opposing streams which are now called opera—the princely spectacle and public opera—define the rest of the history of the genre.

“Chapter 2, Fat Times and Lean”

  • For the first time, composers could build careers primarily around instrumental music. Girolamo Frescobaldi, who did just that, was the leading organist of his day. The organ works that were written down represent only the top portion of what was still a pervasively improvisatory practice. As with any improvisatory practice, certain conventions and genres were used, such as the corrente, balletto, ciaconna, and passacagli.
  • The toccata was a keyboard genre that in the hands of Frescobaldi could become quite extravagant, with incendiary flourishes and rash chromaticism. Some toccatas were played in liturgical settings.
  • Jan Sweelinck was a Dutch organist and composer who wrote “old-fashioned vocal music and extremely up-to-date keyboard compositions,” and is “in retrospect…the last of the legendary ‘Netherlanders’ of the polyphonic Golden Age” (II, 45).

Stay tuned for next week’s review, which will finish out this chapter and then pop over to France to survey their operatic goings on in the second half of the 17th century.

*In the paperback edition of the OHWM, each volume is meant to stand on its own. Therefore, an Introduction addresses the overall project, and is reproduced verbatim in each volume, and a short preface outlines the thrust of each individual volume.

2 Comments

  1. Coming as this reading did at the start of the latest season of American Idol, I was struck by the sections discussing virtuoso passaggii vs. a more sincere, less ornamented style (as in “Possente spirito”). I’ve always been mildly annoyed at how all of those vocal runs in certain styles of pop singing (what I sometimes call the “Mariah Carey effect”) interfere with the purity and expressiveness of the singing. Looks like I’ve just been carrying on the tradition of the music theorist vs. the flash-seeking public! =)

  2. Ha, that’s a great observation! It’s amazing how little the concept of the “diva” has changed over the last 300+ years, and how these aesthetic debates carry on. These are the sorts of historical archs, patterns, and cycles that can really make us see the connections between our contemporary musical world and the past.

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