Nineteenth-Century Opera & Music Drama

Nineteenth-Century Opera & Music Drama
A. France
1. Grand opera, associated with Meyerbeer, features spectacle and lavish display to
satisfy the appetite of the relatively uncultured middle class audience who sought
excitement and entertainment.
2. Opéra comique and lyric opera were lighter forms featuring pleasant tunes and
charming plots. Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Carmen belong in this category.
3. Berlioz's Les Troyens (1856-58) is unlike any other opera. It stands as an epic grand
opera, though not frivolous or empty. Les Troyens is the consummate Romantic French
opera because it is so poetic and well crafted. It inherits the opera tradition of Rameau
and Gluck.
B. Italy
1. Opera seria and opera buffa were still "operative" terms in the nineteenth century.
2. Rossini was the principal Italian opera composer of the early nineteenth century. He
wrote both serious and comic operas. His best comic masterpiece is The Barber of
Seville (1816). His style features clarity of phrase structure combined with a clean
orchestration. He represented the deep-rooted Italian conviction that an opera is in
essence the highest manifestation of an intensely cultivated art of song: melodious
music designed to be popular.
3. Donizetti composed 70 operas, of which his Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La Fille du
regiment (1840), L'elisir d'amore (1832), and Don Pasquale (1843) have endured in the
repertory. He was the immediate predecessor to Verdi, both having a significant reliance
on the public.
4. Bellini's Norma (1831) is lyrical and elegant, more in keeping with the Romantic spirit.
5. Verdi was the most important nineteenth-century operatic composer in Italy. With 26
operas, his music represents the history of Italian opera after 1840. He developed the
idea that opera is emotional human drama, leaving behind the myths and legends.
Instead he chose librettos based on works by Romantic authors (Schiller, Hugo, etc.).
His typical scheme:
a. four acts (or three acts with prologue),
b. ensemble finales at ends of second and third,
c. big duet in third,
d. fourth usually opens with preghiera (prayer scene) accomp. by chorus.
Verdi's three periods:
1. Il trovatore (most popular) and La traviata (1853)
notable for choruses, avoids "numbers", gradual progression from "nearspeech" to lyrical arioso.
2. Aida (1871)
experimentation, refinement of character, thematic unity, innovative
3. Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893)
continuous music, Otello is the consummate tragic opera, Falstaff the
consummate comic opera.
C. German Romantic Opera
1. Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) is the first truly Romantic German opera.
Plots drawn from medieval history, legend or fairy tale.
Supernatural beings and events
Emphasizes wild and mysterious nature
Uses simple folklike melodies of German origin
Emphasis on harmony and tone color for expression
2. Wagner was one of the most important musical and literary figures in the nineteenth
century. He brought German opera to its height, he created a new operatic form called
music drama (Gesamtkunstwerk), and he contributed significantly to the dissolution of
Classic tonality through his chromatic harmonic idiom.
3. For Wagner, music served the drama. He was his own librettist.
4. He developed the leitmotif (recurring theme associated with a particular character,
thing, or idea) and "endless melody" (continuous music propelled by chromatic
5. Wagner was profoundly influential: opera as drama.