This is meant to be the first part of a series of posts dealing with several topics that this writer has wanted to discuss here. Comments are not only welcome, but kindly requested.
Roman Engraving of the Plebeian Class Waiting to Buy Tickets for Kenny G, or Maybe Mantovani
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with “theory.” As a student of philosophy and history, “theory,” a.k.a. literary theory or French theory, broadened (and occasionally complicated) matters, while as a music lover, “music theory” explained and simplified its subject, often to the point of reductionism. Apply theory to Moby Dick and it becomes something more than a dense story. Apply theory to Vivaldi’s concertos or King Oliver’s blues, and they might seem like something far less than the sum of all their vivid parts.
While popular wisdom states that an appreciation for jazz and/or classical means a refined ear, over the years many theory experts, in both print and in person, have pointed out how most of the examples of “good music” that this blogger enjoys aren’t very musically sophisticated. For example, Vivaldi is just repeating the same thing over and over again. There are no interesting modulations in his music, just tonic and dominant with an occasional relative minor. King Oliver is just playing what any other trumpeter could play, over a simple (read, “simplistic”) three-chord progression, no fast runs or innovative chord substitutions to be found. “It’s just a…” is a common phrase, as in “it’s just a ii-V-I,” or “it’s just a Phrygian cadence,” whittling down countless musical moments to their barest, most unremarkable essentials.
There’s no arguing with taste, but mocking it remains fair game. Without outright calling anyone a plebian, clever theory-lovers suggest that everyone is free to listen to what they want in the same way that people are free to enjoy reality television, fast food or tap water.
King Oliver and Vivaldi at least get historical street cred as stepping-stones to the advanced, intelligent music any smart listener should appreciate: in Oliver’s case, anything Louis Armstrong recorded before 1931 and in Vivaldi’s case, all the transcriptions Bach made of his music. Yet for many authorities (whether they have a book deal or not), listening to Buster Bailey, Cimarosa, Red Nichols, Salieri, the California Ramblers, Telemann and many other second-stringers is like ordering the meatloaf in a gourmet restaurant: they just never approach the pleasure and refinement of the other items on the menu. Some people may simply like meatloaf, but more importantly, perhaps the connoisseur is missing out on what those other dishes have to offer.
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 Segretoactually 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.”