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?