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Baroque Period And Opera

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 3594 words Published: 4th May 2017

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Early baroque composers favoured homophonic texture over the polyphonic texture typical of Renaissance music. They felt that words could be projected more clearly by using just one main melody with a chordal accompaniment. Homophonic textures only characterise early baroque, by the late baroque period, polyphonic texture returned to favour.

To depict extreme emotions, early baroque composers used dissonance with a new freedom. Never before were unstable chords so prominent and emphatic. Contrasts of sound were stressed, one or more solo singers against a chorus, or voices against instruments.

A baroque piece usually expresses one basic mood: what begins joyfully will remain joyful throughout. Emotional states like joy, grief, and agitation were represented-at the time, these moods were called affections. Specific rhythms or melodic patters were associated with specific moods. The prime exception to this baroque principle of unity of mood occurs in vocal music. Drastic changes of emotion in a text may inspire corresponding changes in the music.

Rhythmic patterns head at the beginning of a piece are repeated throughout it. This rhythmic continuity provides a compelling drive and energy – the forward motion is rarely interrupted.

Baroque melody also creates a feeling of continuity. An opening melody will be heard again and again in the course of a baroque piece. And even when a melody is presented in varied form, its character tends to remain constant. There is a continuous expanding, unfolding, and unwinding of melody. This sense of directed motion is frequently the result of a melodic sequence, that is, successive repetition of a musical idea at higher or lower pitch levels. Many baroque melodies sound elaborate and ornamental, and they are not easy to sing or remember. A short opening phrase is often followed by a longer phrase with an unbroken flow of rapid notes.

Volume tends to stay constant for a stretch of time. When the dynamics do shift, the shift is usually sudden, like physically stepping from one level to another. This alternation between loud and soft is called terraced dynamics. The organ and harpsichord were both well suited for continuity of dynamic level.

Imitation between various lines, or voices, of the texture is very common. A melodic idea heard in one voice is likely to make an appearance in the other voices as well.

In the baroque period chords became significant. As composers wrote a melodic line, they thought of chords to mesh with it. Indeed, sometimes they composed a melody to fit a specific chord progression. This interest in chords gave new prominence to the bass part. Basso continuo or figured bass is made up of a bass part together with numbers which specify the chords to be played above it. Usually the bass part is played by the left hand of an organist or harpsichordist and a cellist or bassoonist. The right hand, the keyboard player improvises chords or even a melodic line, following the indications of the numbers.

Word painting was used. Heaven might be set to a high tone and hell to a low tone. Rising scales represented upward motion; descending scales depicted the reverse. Descending chromatic scales were associated with pain and grief. Composers emphasised words by writing many rapid notes for a single syllable of text.

Opera is the fusion of music, acting, poetry, dance, scenery and costumes. Began in Italy around 1600.

Voice types:

Coloratura soprano – very high range; can execute rapid scales and trills

lyric soprano – rather light voice; sings roles calling for grace and charm

dramatic soprano – full, powerful voice; is capable of passionate intensity

lyric tenor – relatively light, bright voice

dramatic tenor – powerful voice; is capable of heroic expression

basso buffo – takes comic roles; can sing very rapidly

basso profondo – very low range, powerful voice; takes roles calling for great dignity


A song for solo voice with orchestral accompaniment. It’s an outpouring of melody that expresses an emotional state. In an aria, I love you, might be sung ten times to accommodate the expansion of the idea. Often the action stops while the character’s feelings are revealed through music. An aria usually lasts several minutes. It is a complete piece with a definite beginning, high point, and end.


A vocal line that imitates the rhythms and pitch fluctuations of speech. In a recitative, words are sung quickly and clearly, often on repeated tones. There is usually only one note to each syllable in a recitative. Recitative is used for monologues and dialogues that connect the more melodic sections of the opera.

In opera multiple characters can express contrasting feelings at the same time when different melodies are combined. This is only possible in opera and cannot be duplicated in spoken drama.

An opera chorus generates atmosphere and makes comments on the action. Their sound creates a kind of tonal background for the soloists.

Most operas open with a purely orchestral composition called an overture or a prelude. Since the eighteenth century, the music for an overture has been drawn from material heard later in the opera. The overture is thus a short musical statement that involves the audience in the overall dramatic mood. Orchestral introductions to acts in the opera other than the first are always called preludes.

Opera was born in Italy.

During the late baroque, operas consisted largely of arias linked by recitatives. These recitatives were usually accompanied only by a basso continuo, in which case they are called secco recitatives. At emotional high points and moments of tension, however, they might be supported by the orchestra, they are then called accompanied recitatives. Late baroque arias followed the structure of ABA called da capa aria.

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Monteverdi’s Orfeo is considered to be the first great opera. Orfeo is about Orpheus, the gifted musician of Greek mythology. Orpheus, son of the god Apollo, is ecstatically happy after his marriage to Eurydice. But his joy is shattered when his bride is killed by a poisonous snake. Orpheus goes down to hades hoping to bring her back to life. Because of his musical talent, he is granted this privilege, as long as he does not look back at Eurydice while leading her out of hades. Orpheus looks back in a moment of anxiety and Eurydice vanishes. Apollo pities Orpheus and brings him up to heaven, where he can gaze eternally at Eurydice’s radiance. Orfeo includes recitatives, arias, duets, choruses, and instrumental interludes.

Tu se’ morta in Act II of Orfeo is an example of a secco recitative. Orpheus sings solo in a recitative style with accompaniment by a basso continuo played by an organ and bass lute. The texture of this piece is homophonic, as was popular in early Baroque music. There is no time signature which gives the performer the freedom to portray emotion in their singing. Word painting is also found in this piece. Words such as stelle (stars) and solo (sun) are sung high in the performers register while abissi (abysses) and morte (death) are sung low.

Roman opera was based more on religious subjects than on Greek mythology, and it made more use of the choruses. Distinction between recitative and aria began to emerge. The prototype of comic opera were intermezzi, comic interludes between the acts.

The principal characteristics of Venetian opera were: more emphasis on formal arias, the beginning of bel canto style and more attention to vocal elegance than to dramatic expression, less use of chorus and orchestral music, complex and improbable plots, elaborate stage machinery, and short fanfare-like instrumental introductions.

As compared to Italian opera, the outstanding traits of French opera were: use of ballet, greater importance of the drama, more use of the orchestra and instrumental music, shorter and simpler dance-like airs, careful attention to accentuation of the text, more expressive and melodic recitative, less emphasis on virtuosity, the French overture.

In Baroque music, ritornello was the word for a recurring passage for orchestra in the first or final movement of a solo concerto or aria (also in works for chorus). In ritornello form, the tutti opens with a theme called the ritornello (refrain). This theme, always played by the tutti, returns in different keys throughout the movement. However, it usually returns in incomplete fragments

In the Prologue of Orfeo there is a recitation by La Musica, there are five verses, each introduced by a ritornello. The same ritornello appears at the end of Act II and at the beginning of Act V.

La serva padrona was originally an intermezzo to Pergolesi’s opera seria Il prigioniero superbo (The Proud Prisoner). The two were premiered on 5 September 1733, the first performance after an earthquake in Naples had caused all theatres to be closed, and celebrated the birthday of the Empress of Habsburg.

Il prigioniero was unsuccessful in its day[1] and is not a recognized title in today’s operatic repertoire. Eventually the two pieces were separated, and La serva padrona went on to enjoy fame throughout Europe for years after its premiere. The importance of this intermezzo can hardly be overlooked in the history of opera. With a new finale, the French version played a large part in the Querelle des Bouffons. It was appealing because of its presentation of characters that were relatable to any audience, namely the cunning maid and her aging master. La serva padrona is often seen as the quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period. Owing to its importance, over time it came to be known as more than just an intermezzo and was performed as a stand-alone work.

Intermezzo I

Dressing room.

Uberto, an elderly bachelor, is angry and impatient with his maidservant, Serpina, because she has not brought him his chocolate today. Serpina has become so arrogant that she thinks she is the mistress of the household. Indeed, when Uberto calls for his hat, wig and coat, Serpina forbids him from leaving the house, adding that from then on he will have to obey her orders. Uberto thereupon orders Vespone to find him a woman to marry so that he can rid himself of Serpina.

Intermezzo II

Same dressing room.

Serpina convinces Vespone to trick Uberto into marrying her. She informs Uberto that she is to marry a military man named Tempesta. She will be leaving his home and apologizes for her behavior. Vespone, disguised as Tempesta, arrives and, without saying a word, demands 4,000 crowns for a dowry. Uberto refuses to pay such a sum. Tempesta threatens him to either pay the dowry or marry the girl himself. Uberto agrees to marry Serpina. Serpina and Vespone reveal their trick; but Uberto realizes that he has loved the girl all along. They will marry after all; and Serpina will now be the true mistress of the household.

The piece is for bass, soprano, and a “mute” actor.

Opera is the fusion of music, acting, poetry, dance, scenery and costumes. At the end of the sixteenth century a small group of aristocratic intelligentsia, known as the Camerata, met frequently in Florence. The Camerata had the intention of reproducing the combination of words and music which made up Greek theatre. The text was the main focus of this music with all the words being sung naturally, in the same manner as normal speech, and the music must interpret the spirit of the text. This resulted in a new style of music which was mostly homophonic, in contrast to polyphonic music that was popular at the time. The first surviving opera, Peri’s Euridice in 1600, was a flop, Monteverdi’s Orfeo seven years later, however, was not. Orfeo managed to fulfil the requirements posed by the Camerata and while also being dramatic and portraying extreme emotion.

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Over the baroque period opera evolved and developed into different types and varied in different areas. Orfeo was characteristic of a Florentine opera and an opera seria. All forms of opera shared similar musical components such as: solo song, in opera called aria; pieces for two or more solo voices, duet, trio etc; recitative, a singing style that replicated the rhythms and pitch fluctuation of speech; chorus; the orchestra; and the overture, the instrumental introduction to an opera.

The various cities of Italy each had variants on the opera. Florentine opera, such as Orfeo, was based off Greek mythology. While Roman opera was based on religious subjects and made more use of choruses. Venetian opera had an emphasis on formal arias, less use of chorus and orchestral music, complex and improbably plots and short fanfare-like introductions. Choruses were nearly non-existent in Neopolitan opera and there was a new style of operatic song, arioso, which was a mix between recitative and aria. Castrati were popular and drew great interest from audiences.

Opera spread to France and included the use of ballet, more extreme drama, more use of the orchestra and instrumental music, more expressive and melodic recitative and less emphasis on virtuosity.

Towards the end of the Baroque period a new style of opera appeared known as opera buffa. These comic operas originated as intermezzi between the acts of opera serias. Opera buffa differed from opera seria due to its light and humorous subjects, commonplace characters rather than heroic figures, popular tunes replaced the dramatic and formal aria; and characters, subjects and melodies of opera serias were parodied. Pergolesi’s opera buffa La serva padrona was an intermezzo to Pergolesi’s opera seria Il prigioniero superbo.

Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona show the development and similarities between early baroque and late baroque opera. Whilst the pieces are of differing style and were written over 100 years apart many characteristics of baroque music and opera appear in both.

The plots of Orfeo and La serva padrona differ greatly as one is a opera seria and the other an opera buffa. Orfeo tells the tale of Orpheus, the gifted musician of Greek mythology. Orpheus, son of the god Apollo, has just married Eurydice but his joy is soon crushed after she is killed by a poisonous snake. Orpheus goes down to hades hoping to bring her back to life and further drama and tragedy ensues. La serva padrona features the old bachelor Uberto and his maidservant Serpina. Uberto and Serpina are contantly fighting but Serpina manages to trick Uberto into marrying her and becomes the home’s mistress. Verspone, a servant of Uberto’s, is a mute character but is important to the plot. The opera is light hearted and made up of common people. Over the baroque period the plots of operas changed dramatically in style as can be seen in Orfeo and La serva padrona.

All operas were mostly homophonic, this way words could be projected more clearly with only one main melodic line. Both Orfeo and La serva padrona are mostly homophonic. In fact, whilst polyphony came back into fashion as the baroque period progressed, La serva padrona is less adventurous in terms of harmony in comparison to Orfeo. Orfeo makes use of polyphony in choruses, duets and trios. This can be seen in Act I: lo non diro qual sia nel tuo gioir with Euridice, Chorus, Nymph and the Sheperds singing two different melodies in a round-style which eventually join together in a homophonic ending.

Excerpt from Orfeo Act I: lo non diro qual sia nel tuo gioir

La serva padrona is rather simple, only written for a string quartet and a soprano and bass. The second violins generally double the first violins and the viola generally doubles the bass part one octave higher. The instrumentation of Orfeo is more expansive than that of La serva padrona. Orfeo utilises: 2 clavicembalos, 1 double harp, 2 chitarrones, 2 bass cithers, 3 bass gambas, 2 organs with wood pipes, 1 organ with reed pipes, 2 small violins, 4 violins, 4 violas, 2 violoncellos, 2 contrabass viols, 4 trombones, 2 cornetts, 1 fautino, 1 high trumpet, 3 soft trumpets.

Orfeo makes use of this range of instruments through its varying pieces. Orfeo has arias, recitatives, choruses, dances, sinfonias and duets. La serva padrona on the other hand is made up of only arias and recitatives and a duet to end each act. The range of instruments in Orfeo also results in contrast of dynamics between pieces. The use of more and less instruments changes the volume from loud to soft, suddenly, rather than gradually. This is known as terraced dynamics and is characteristic of the baroque period. La serva padrona remains a similar dynamic for most of the opera. Dynamics are altered through the doubling of string parts and the removal of string parts.

Two different types of recitative were used in baroque opera. The first being secco recitatives, which were usually accompanied by only a basso continuo. The second being accompanied recitatives which were accompanied by the orchestra. Tu se’ morta in Act II of Orfeo is an example of a secco recitative. Per altro io penserei in Act II of La serva padrona is an example of an accompanied recitative. This style of recitative is used for an emotional high point in the opera. Arias are also found in both pieces. La serva padrona being a piece of the late baroque period, the arias follow the structure of ABA known as de capa aria.

Excerpt from La serva padrona Act II: Per altro io penserei

The ascending violin patterns in the excerpt above are an example of the music’s use in supporting the text. The fast, ascending, scalic pattern is representative of the excitement and confusion in this piece of the opera. This is a technique known as word painting. Words may be set to higher and lower tones according to the emotion or type of word. This is seen in Te se’ morta in Act II of Orfeo in which the words stelle (stars) and solo (sun) are sung high in the performers register while abissi (abysses) and morte (death) are sung low. Word painting was used throughout the whole baroque period in opera.

Excerpt from Orfeo Act II: Te se’ morta

Beyond the standard soprano, alto, tenor, bass, there were different types of opera voices. These included: coloratura soprano, lyrics soprano, soprano castrato, dramatic soprano, lyric tenor, dramatic tenor, basso buffo, basso profondo. Orfeo makes use of a variety of voice types. Orfeo is performed by a dramatic tenor, due to their powerful voices, while Eurydice and La Musica were performed by soprano castrato. In La serva padrona Uberto is performed by a basso buffo as they could sing very fast and were perfect for comic roles. Serpina is performed by a coloratura soprano which is evident due to her rapid scales and trills and high range. The contrast in voice types in the two operas is due to their different style with one being an opera seria and the other an opera buffa.

Reoccurring passages for the orchestra in baroque music are called ritornellos. Ritornellos are found throughout Orfeo. The ritornello is introduced in Act I and it appears at the end of Act II and at the beginning of Act V.

Excerpt from Orfeo Act I: Prologo

Ritornellos do not appear in La serva padrona as there is only a string quartet and voices. Imitation however does appear. The imitation of various voices of texture was common of the baroque period. Melodic ideas that are shown in one voice appear in other voices as well.

Excerpt from La serva padrona Act I: Sempre in contrasti

Due to the increased use of homophony in the baroque period chords became much more significant than they were in the past. Basso continuo or figured bass is a bass part that is used together with numbers which specify the chords to be played above it. Usually the bass part is played by the left hand of an organist or harpsichordist and a cellist or bassoonist. In Orfeo the basso continuo is played by many instruments but mainly by organs. In La serva padrona the basso continuo is played by the cello or double bass and is doubled by the viola an octave higher. Basso continuo is a primary characteristic of the baroque period and lasted over all 150 years.

Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona both share many characteristics that are common of the baroque period. They also have a few significant differences that are due to the differing style of opera. French and German operas would offer further contrasts to these two Italian operas. On first glance it appears that Orfeo is more evolved and later opera than La serva padroma, this, however, is not true. While Orfeo does offer more instruments and a greater contrast of pieces La serva padroma takes a small part of the first operas and expands on them so that it stands as a genre of opera on its own. The evolution of opera through the baroque period wasn’t through the invention of new techniques or massive stylistic changes but rather through refinement of the original techniques and slight tweaks to the musical and lyrics content.


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