The Week in Reading: The history of opera is riddled with heated reforms and counter-reforms, which only attested to the level of cultural power it held during this period. Indeed, opera often became the site for proxy wars between competing political ideologies, commercial strategies, and aesthetic philosophies, and fierce querelles – often over considerations that may strike us as absurd – dot the history of the genre. The political utility of operas gives Taruskin an opportunity to address the tricky issue of how we today should discuss (and perform) music that is so deeply associated with unfavorable political philosophies and regimes. We have the tendency, with such a yawning gap of time between us and them, to dismiss the political content of high art; after all, many people today are still steeped with the romantic notion of the autonomy of the artwork, and something as quotidian as politics has no place in the exalted realm of Art. Taruskin warns that we should ignore politics only at our own peril; dismissing concerns of “political correctness” can have the effect of marginalizing as irrelevant and out-of-touch a style that is already at grave risk of being perceived this way.
After these final thoughts on France, we traverse the Channel up to Britain, which hasn’t made an appearance in these pages since half way through Vol. I. A few unique styles flourished in Jacobean England, most notably consort music, perhaps the earliest form of instrumental chamber music to gain such wide popularity. Catering to upper-class amateur musicians, consort music tended to be conservative (even to the point of using cantus firmus technique). During “the distracted times” (the English Civil War of 1642-48), music production took a drumming; Puritans like Oliver Cromwell didn’t take too well to music. But during the Restoration, Charles II returned from his exile in France, bringing with him all the musical goodies he had learned during his years abroad. This infusion of continental music was decisive, and the great Henry Purcell came on the scene as England’s musical polyglot par excellence. The chapter ends with an extended discussion of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which, surprisingly, was barely performed in its day. Rather, it was first published in 1841 and received its great modern revival in 1895 as a nationalistic testament to England’s hollowed musical past. Again, we can’t talk about music without talking politics.
CHAPTER 4: Class and Classicism – Opera Seria and its Makers:
Naples at this time was a contradictory place: on one hand, it was ruled by the Spanish and had severe problems with poverty; on the other, all the teeming masses of the poor led to lots of orphanages and foundling houses for homeless boys. Why is a negative countered with another negative, you ask? Because such institutions (known as “conservatorio,” or conservatories) paid for themselves by putting the kids to work as choirboys. Thus, training of musicians became a major business in Naples and led to real flowering of musical culture. Yes, from exploitation came art (not the first nor the last time this will happen, either). The Neapolitan composer Alessandro Scarlatti wrote 114 operas, helping to standardize the operatic form and lay the groundwork for opera seria. Among his many contributions: the “da capo aria,” which featuring a repeat structure that took a time burden off the over-stretched composer; Neapolitan 6ths chords (you remember this harmonic device from Freshman theory!); and “binary” dance movements that exemplified “closed” tonal motion and would come to be profoundly influential in the burgeoning development of tonality.
And this takes us (belatedly) up to last week, which Mark will be reviewing shortly. Thanks for hanging in there while Mark and I went through two spectacularly busy weeks – it feels good to be caught up!