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  • Words and Music in Nineteenth-Century Italian OperaAuthor(s): Luigi DallapiccolaSource: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn - Winter, 1966), pp. 121-133Published by: Perspectives of New MusicStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/832391 .Accessed: 28/10/2014 16:09

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    ABOUT THIRTY years ago, when I was asked by Edward J. Dent whether I knew any Italian treatise describing the principles of the compo- sition of arias in Italian opera, I had to answer in the negative. Now, however, I believe that there existed at least a tradition for composing arias, one perpetuated orally and by example.

    I should like to consider here what the poetic quatrain offered to the composer of the Italian melodrama as a basis for the construction of operatic forms, with specific reference to arias, ariosi, and cavatinas.

    In La Traviata, in the scene where Alfredo reveals his rage at his sup- posed betrayal by Violetta, these lines occur:

    Ogni suo aver tal femmina Per amor mio sperdea: Io cieco, vile, misero, Tutto accettar potea.

    The range of the voice in the first line is a major sixth and in the second a major seventh. In the music, no significant metrical differences between the two lines are evident; in the second, however, the melody has a slight tendency to move upwards. It is in the third line that the tragedy is most clearly implied, and an emotional crescendo is brought about here by a discontinuous and agitated declamation that is matched by an appropriate accompaniment. The fourth line is accompanied by a decrease in excite- ment (one entirely independent of the actual musical dynamics). (See Ex. 1)

    At this point it might be interesting to see how Verdi solved his compo- sitional problem when the librettist expanded a quatrain by two lines. This happens, for example, in the Quartet in Rigoletto. The Duke starts:

    Bella figlia dell'amore, Schiavo son de' vezzi tuoi, Con un detto sol tu puoi Le mie pene consolar.

    * 121.

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    The music of this quatrain is almost precisely in accordance with the formal scheme described above: there is no melodic difference between the first and second lines, in both of which the melodic range is a major sixth; a climax is reached in the third line, where the voice spans an octave, and a diminuendo follows in the fourth line.

    La Traviata (Finale secondo) Allegro sostenuto

    Alfredo - -,[r? -.I40. 1.

    0 - gni suo aver tal fern - - - mi-na

    per a - mor mio sper - de - - - a: Io cie-co, vi-le,

    mi - - - se-ro, tut - - to ac-cet-tr po-te - -

    7x Ex. 1

    Verdi also sets the two lines that the librettist has added: Vieni e senti del mio core II frequente palpitar,

    but for the sake of the musical structure he makes his own emendation by repeating the third and fourth lines of the stanza, so that the original six lines have grown to eight. And although Verdi holds to the traditional scheme in the initial quatrain, he now feels compelled, with eight lines at his disposal, to regard lines five and six as the climax of the two quatrains,

    . 122 *

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    or, in other words, to treat the entire passage as a quatrain of two-line pairs. Indeed, while the voice in the crescendo of the first quatrain reaches the high Ab, it goes to high Bb in the over-all climax, and the diminuendo is accomplished with the repetition of the third and fourth lines from the original quatrain.

    S a, . I Lb-A

    Al Bel-la fi-gliadel-l'a - mo - - re schia-vo son de've-zi tuo - -

    co- i Bonun detto;un det-to sol tu puo - - i le mie pe-ne, le mie pe-ne con-so-

    - lar. CVieni e sen ti delmio co - re il fre-quen -te pal- pi-

    4P J^ -1 r IN, -rYI it - tar o- - - I on un detto,un.det-to

    sol tu puo - - - i le mie D

    pe-ne, le mie pe-ne con-so - lar.

    Ex. 2

    In Leonora's cavatina in Act I of II Trovatore, the text consists of two ten-line stanzas. There is a structural innovation here: lines five and six form a kind of insertion. The big emotional crescendo occurs in the pe- nultimate line, and the diminuendo in the last.

    i " ' Y F r i ! quando so-nar per l'a - e-re in - fi-no al-lor si mu

    - - to,

    ? =,. I , I F --.a -- -

    i- 48,

    Ex. 3

    The same ten-line construction, including the inserted fifth and sixth lines, is to be found in the aria "D'amor sull'ali rosee," in the last act of the same opera.


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  • PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC I should like to reemphasize that the emotional crescendo is normally

    found in the third line (in a four-line stanza) or in the third pair of lines (in an eight-line stanza). It is almost too well known that the reason for many changes in the original text of Italian operas lies in the vanity of singers. Even though I am, in principle, against modifications, I wish to underline a case where the modification is quite preferable to the original text.

    In Manrico's aria "Ah si, ben mio, coll'essere" (II Trovatore: third act), the last quatrain is repeated two times; in the printed score there is only one change: in section A. Although the first time the highest note is Db, the second time the climax is reached at Eb. And because of that there is no doubt that Bb (instead of Ab) in section C is perfectly, indeed, in- finitely more beautiful than in the original version. Unfortunately I was not able to learn when this modification became a part of performance practice. It is certain, in any case, that it underlines once again the im- portance of the third section, the real keystone in the construction of the aria in Italian opera. The performer, on his part, cannot establish the prin- cipal tempo of the aria without taking this third section into account (Ex. 4).

    The emotional crescendo is created through rhythmic animation, through harmonic surprise, or through the upward movement of the vocal line. Frequently, of course, the final result is achieved through the col- laboration of two or three such elements; only rarely does a fourth, such as a striking instrumental idea, take part. I shall return to this point later, with reference to a passage in Otello.

    Especially interesting treatment of the climax is found in "0 qual soave brivido" in Un Ballo in Maschera: the beginning of the third pair of lines is underlined by a fermata. In this case there is also a coda, but one which, based entirely on word repetition, is completely independent of the poetic- musical form of the quatrain.

    Although the quotations so far have been from operas by Verdi, the formal scheme I have described is to be found also in Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. In Mathilde's aria ("Selva opaca") in the second act of William Tell, for example, the climax is effected by harmonic means. And the classic example of Italian melody, "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma, completely confirms the same principle. Here, with regard to duration, the first line contains sixteen times the unit of three eighth-notes, and the second fifteen (including the rests, of course). The third line contains no less than twenty-two times the same unit--and the concluding line, "senza nubi, senza vel," only four!

    Nor does Verdi abandon this traditional scheme in the works of his last period. In evidence I adduce a single example from the first act of Otello. The climax of the so-called "tempest scene" (where chorus and orchestra are marked ff, tutta forza) sets the following lines:


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  • C-r


    Manrico _ _ - dim. dolce

    Ia IVOF M wig II) i l . i1

    Fra que - glie-stre-mlv-

    ne - ii- ti a tej pen-sier ver - ra, ver-ra, e so - lojn cel pre - ce--der -ti la mor-tea me par - r,

    A B C D

    Execution : .6

    o - loJn ciel pre-I I i --- I dim.

    Fra qL-e- t ev

    Fta que -glive-stre-miva-

    ne - li-ti a te.Jl pen-ster ve - rl, ver-rl, e so -

    lo. ctel pre - ce-der -ti la mor-to me par

    - ABI

    Ex. 4

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    Dio, fulgor della bufera! Dio, sorriso della duna, Salva l'arca e la bandiera della veneta fortuna! Tu, che reggi gli astri e il Fato! Tu che imperi al mondo e al ciel, Fa che in fondo al mar placato posi l'ancora fedel.

    Here we find a greater formal variety than