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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Operatic folly

During the late 16th century small groups of wealthy intellectual Italian dilettantes, poets, artists and musicians, formed themselves into discussion groups, calling themselves 'comrades'. The Florentine comrades had a particular interest in music and became influential under the leadership of Count Giovanni de' Bardi.

The musicians were drawn together by their common affliction. They were technically inept in the skills of composition, though some were fine singers and lutenists. They were unable to demonstrate even a moderate command of the exquisite contrapuntal technique of Palestrina, who died at the end of the 16th century as their groups were forming. Nevertheless their aspiration was to be acknowledged as composers. Unequal to the technical challenge, they turned their frailty into the dogma of modernism. Palestrina, they decided, was a curious museum style. The new way was to re-create the power of Ancient Greek drama in simple recitatives, throw aside complex counterpoint and elaborate harmony and allow the words to form musical phrases, rhythms and punctuation to reflect their meaning and emotion in a pure and natural manner.

This was far from building on the glorious achievement of the past. It was more a bid by influential mediocrities to create a market for superficial novelty. It needed a master like Monteverdi to weld together the best of these new ideas with the secure older style and make opera a significant new art form. The old skills returned and were borne aloft by new masters who then, in their turn, became unfashionable and their craft despised.

History amuses us but teaches us little. The fugue was out of fashion when Bach became its master, for no one else could command it any more. It is Bach who is revered now, though. The great Russian composers of the 19th century, and some of their later pupils among which was Stravinsky, disdained symphonic development because it was beyond their technical capabilities.

The cycle of history turns full circle. Despising melody, contrapuntal skills, harmonic subtlety and symphonic cohesion, operas of the last thirty years have returned again to monodic naivety, made from inelegant recitatives and noise, using lavish sets as their disguise. It is not difficult for a good undergraduate music student to write recitatives. Much greater is the challenge of joining words and melodic lines, making them complementary and meaningful.

Beneath our present poverty-stricken surface is an emptiness awaiting its Monteverdi.

Copyright © 22 August 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Paul Sarcich, UK

... an interesting take on the formation of opera! As for the description of modern opera, your present-day Monteverdi does exist, in fact several do, but they are not going to get acknowlegement, recognition, or better yet performances in today's musical climate, are they?





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