Tag Archives: classical

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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My Favorite Cimarosa

Though known for his humbleness, Domenico Cimarosa was probably proud to never accomplish the same feats as his contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Cimarosa didn’t compose a variety of complex, emotionally probing works.  He wasn’t misunderstood or criticized for his music.  He didn’t even inspire passionate stories about dying sick, young and penniless.  Instead, Cimarosa’s comic operas made him immensely rich and popular, and were still well-known after he passed away ten years later and seventeen years older than Mozart.

Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto actually received the most famous encore in operatic history, when Leopold II requested the whole work be repeated directly after its premier.  Tuneful, catchy and a little bawdy (even without the risqué stage direction below), no wonder His Majesty couldn’t get enough:

In addition to a Holy Roman Emperor and the Austrian wunderkind himself, Cimarosa’s other fans included Haydn, who staged several of Cimarosa’s operas for his own patron, French realist writer Stendahl, who actually preferred Cimarosa’s music to that of you-know-who and Rossini, who apparently couldn’t stop whistling the Cimarosa arias he heard as a boy.  Yet aside from Il Matrimonio Segreto, most of Cimarosa’s works are rarely if ever performed.  At some point in history Cimarosa’s modest goals and immense success came to be classified as shortcomings.

While the current critical script is that even second-rate Mozart is preferable to the best efforts of a composer like Cimarosa, fresh listening is never a bad idea.  For starters, it’s helpful to hear Cimarosa as Cimarosa, rather than “not Mozart” or some other composer i.e. as a musician who enjoyed straightforward harmonies, rounded melodies and bright textures, with a lot of woodwinds thrown in for added color.  Atene Edificata doesn’t offer any intricacies in terms of music or story: the “characters” (really just allegorical mouthpieces for Cimarosa’s onetime employer Catherine the Great) praise god and country in lyrical phrases [just click “Play” below to listen]:

and runs that fall easily on the ear, with good momentum and without chromatic surprises [skip ahead to 2:40 in the following clip]:

Cimarosa was best known for his comedies, but tense drama and psychological insight were never really priorities in any of his works, nor were they as important to his contemporary listeners as they are for current operagoers.  Cimarosa’s opera seria graft his bright style onto the vocal acrobatics and highfalutin stories eighteenth century audiences craved.  “Superbo Di Me Stesso,” from Cimarosa’s setting of Metastasio‘s warhorse L’Olimpiade does provide a novel musical treatment for this well-worn text [starting at 0:39 in the following clip]:

The minor chords and wide intervals proclaiming “Superbo di me stesso, andrò portando in fronte” (“I’ll proudly go, bearing in front”) and the sweeter curlicues for “quel caro nome impresso, come mi sta nel cor” (“that beloved name, as it’s written in my heart”) convey how seriously this speaker takes the task of competing under a friend’s name to earn that friend a prize, and how dear that friend’s name is to the character.  The skipping variation on “quel caro nome impresso” just reinforces his sentiments.  Not a bad bit of character painting, especially for a libretto that had been set dozens of times previously and a composer now known for his “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” music.

On the other hand many of L’Olimpiade‘s arias are pure vocal exhibition.  “Mi sento, O Dio, Nel Core” (“I feel, oh gods, in this heart”) for soprano with obbligato oboe is a magnificent traffic jam of an aria [which starts at 1:38 in the clip below], with an overly long, tacked on introduction, an impossibly high tessitura (even for a pro like Patrizia Ciofi) and gratuitous (even for eighteenth century audiences) coloratura.  It also seems to go on forever, but makes for a hell of a show.  In Cimarosa’s time, even serious opera was rarely “drama,” and “high art” only well after the final curtain: it was was vocal showpiece, spectacle, an athletic event and even a competition, a night of ” can they make it?”

As for that “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” sound, YouTube user Thrax1982 (who posted the above videos and whose dedication to lesser known operas is invaluable) offers the best analysis of Cimarosa’s music as “often (not [always]) seem[ing] like it’s put together of Lego blocks.”  While that description might imply simplicity, sameness and a lack of emotion, it also suggests the use of familiar materials to create vivid, recognizable structures.  Cimarosa’s compositional process is pretty transparent; no advanced theories or formal curveballs lurking under all those glistening surfaces.  That might just be artistic choice on the composer’s part.  Besides, Legos are fun, and they can make some pretty impressive stuff.

Gli Orazi e I Curiazi, a tale of political duty, romantic love and familial loyalty set in ancient Rome, leaves lots of room for big choruses, lush eroticism and deadly serious situations.  Cimarosa flexes his theatrical chops at several key moments (including an unusually grim ending) and the second act’s oracle scene is as far removed from Cimarosa’s comedies as possible [Thrax’s commentary in the following clip is especially informative]:

Yet Cimarosa’s musical instincts for a sheerly beautiful effect enhance even stock scenes.  Three-part harmony between the heroine, her Roman brother and an enemy of Rome that she just happens to be in love with depicts a brief truce as a moment of peace and celebration between siblings, lovers and nations [skip ahead to 3:44 below]:

It’s not dramatic verisimilitude or advanced music theory, but it does make for some great music.  Shortly after, the brief duet between the couple, “Ti giura il labbro e il core amore e fedeltà” (“My lips and heart swear love and fidelity to you”), is so pure it brings the narrative to a halt:

Taken on its own terms, this simple, perhaps “superficial” writing works for Gli Orazi, due in part to Cimarosa’s knack for a distinct melodic hook.  The lovers’ quarrel that opens Act II features some particularly juicy strings in the accompanied recitative, expressing this scene’s intensity in a highly stylized but effective manner:

The violins behind the ensuing duet “Se Torni Vincitor” (If You Return Victorious,” starting four minutes into the above clip) are touching, memorable and in musical terms, just plain gorgeous.  Occasionally “beautiful” is enough, as is building with blocks rather than marble or watercolors.  Cimarosa, as well as other musicians stuck on the historical unemployment line, remind us that it might be time for some prepositional reversal to the old adage “good, but not Mozart.”

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