Get To Work and Do It Our Way: Italian Composers In France

ha2Like British rockers in America during the sixties or Latin pop stars in the nineties, throughout the eighteenth century major European opera venues clamored for Italian composers (as well as singers, librettists and instrumentalists). Yet France seemed to make their imports work harder than anyone else.

Unlike in most countries, Italian musicians in France had to adapt to the language and style of their adoptive land. Learning a foreign language is one thing, but writing it, singing it and setting it to music is another. Piccinni didn’t speak a word of French when he was brought to Paris to work on Roland. With just some coaching from his librettist Marmontel and his own musical instincts, Piccinni made a suitably French, singularly Piccinnist work, for example taking the heroine’s somewhat verbose preaching about love and grafting on his own rich melody and orchestration:

Later on, Piccinni even even sneaks in a very Italianate “storm simile” aria:

French opera in general, with its big choruses, grand ballets, talky plots and emphasis on refinement and artifice rather than virtuosity and immediacy was very different from the Italian style. Musicologist Mariateresa Dellaborra summarizes the French aesthetic as art that sought to “…touch the soul and do so with grace, [while] always (emphasis mine) giving pleasure.” If the Italians had fire in their veins, the French had perfume running through theirs.

Setting aside things like truth, naturalness, complexity or excitement in favor of polish, escapism, unrelenting pleasantry and detachment, listeners can get closer to appreciating (if not liking) this music. Add the idea of immigrant composers, assimilating a foreign style and maintaining the Italian spirit that made them so popular, while also forging an individual sound to compete with their fellow expatriates, and these works become something more than a sugary diversion for the elite. The music turns out to be as challenging for the listener as the composer.

For example, how to portray and absorb disturbing moments using only elegant and lovely sounds? When Ceres hears that her daughter Persephone has been kidnapped and brought to Hades (remember: escapism), Paisiello paints her shock in melancholy but plush colors, without the crushing chords or rhythms contemporary listeners might associate with these feelings:

Paisiello’s music is all about beautiful surfaces and introverted, reserved charm. Neither the composer or his audience were seeking psychological insight (a very modern value). He does gives Ceres a chance to lash out with an air of rage and dissonance, but places beauty above urgency or verisimilitude. Ceres’ anger is expressed in the most stylized terms possible, the aural equivalent of Canova making a sculpture out of Guernica:

Ceres’ lyrical, even hummable fury exemplifies Paisiello’s touch: it’s hard not to get the music accompanying the line [at about 0:40 in the above clip] “Why did you steal something so sweet from me?” stuck in your head. It’s easy to hear why composers across Europe envied the Italians’ knack for a clean, gorgeous theme. Dido’s air “Hélas! Pour nous Il Exposé…” (Alas, For Us He Exposes Himself To Risk…”) is a suspenseful portrayal of her fears for Aeneas’ life, but it uses a catchy motif to drives the sentiment right into the audience’s memory (and it’s vaguely reminiscent of Verdi’s famous motif in La Forza del Destino):

Yet Dido’s climactic end is thoroughly French: she says her last words, stabs herself with Aeneas’ sword and the people of Carthage swear vengeance on Rome in perfectly restrained, stately and gorgeous cadences. No big disturbing chords spelling death, no excessive displays of emotion. The final chorus might even sound triumphant if it weren’t for the lyrics about “eternal war”:

With the onset of Romanticism and an emphasis on broader emotions and flashier harmonies, these operas as well as those of other paisan in Paris like Sacchini, Salieri and Cherubini might seem a little vanilla. Yet they display more than craftsmanship, tunesmithing or the skill needed to reach beyond national and cultural borders. These operas are entirely unique aesthetic modes. Travel writer Rick Steves advises that “if something’s not to your liking, change your liking.” It might be enough to just consider other forms of “liking” and go from there.

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