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Early civilizations
Middle Ages
16th - 17th century
     Oratory and oratorio
     Dido and Aeneas
     Piano and forte

18th century
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Castrati: 16th -18th century

During the 16th century there begin to appear references, in the records of the choir of the Sistine chapel, to castrati. They are male singers who have been castrated, causing their voices to remain as high as those of boys but with the added physical power of male lungs and larynx. In church music and opera, up to the end of the 18th century, the castrato voice is widely considered the most thrilling sound in music, bringing fortunes to the singers themselves - most of them poor boys with good voices, whose families take money to submit them to the operation.

It has been calculated that some 4000 boys are operated on in Italy in the 18th century - though, as Charles Burney discovers, No one knows where.


Dafne: 1597

An unusual entertainment takes place at the palace of Jacopo Corsi in Florence, probably as part of the carnival festivities before Lent in 1597. The novelty is that the singers enact an entire drama, with music throughout, telling the story of Daphne who is changed into a laurel to escape the attentions of Apollo. The select audience is delighted. The author of the words, Ottavio Rinuccini, says that this first opera 'gave pleasure beyond belief to the few who heard it'.

Most of the music of Dafne is lost but its composer, Jacopo Peri, describes eloquently the style of musical speech which he is pioneering - 'a harmony surpassing that of ordinary speech, but falling so far below the melody of song as to take an intermediate form'.


The Oratory and the oratorio: 1600

The Oratory in Rome, founded in 1575 by Philip Neri, has made a habit of sugaring the preacher's pill by providing a semi-dramatic musical performance - half of it before the sermon and half after.

In 1600 this musical entertainment develops into a major performance. Entitled La rappresentazione di anima e di corpo (The representation of soul and body), with music by Emilio de' Cavalieri, it borrows the conventions of the newly developed form of opera - with arias, choruses and even ballets. It establishes a new tradition of dramatic religious music, which will take its name from the Oratory and which will lead (without the ballets) to such famous works as the St Matthew Passion and Messiah.


Monteverdi: 1607-1642

The director of music at the court of Mantua, Claudio Monteverdi, presents a festivity before Lent in 1607. His entertainment adopts the latest musical style, that of opera, which is just ten years old this year. La Favola d'Orfeo, described as a 'fable in music', tells in a prologue and five acts the story of Orpheus' love for Eurydice and his descent to the underworld to rescue her.

Orfeo is Monteverdi's first attempt at opera. The part of Orpheus is sung by a castrato, starting an operatic tradition using castrati which will last for two centuries. A successful blend of recitative, songs and instrumental sequences makes Orfeo the earliest opera to hold a place, nearly four centuries later, in the repertory.


When the duke of Mantua dies, in 1612, Monteverdi accepts the post of Master of Music for the Venetian republic. His main task becomes the composition of sacred music for performance in St Mark's, and it is these pieces which first spread his fame through Europe.

Fortunately for us the prosperous citizens of republican Venice see no reason why the new musical form of the day, opera, should be restricted to private performances for the aristocracy. In 1637 Venice opens the first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano. Monteverdi is now seventy, but his interest in the form is rekindled. Two operas survive from these last years, both of them masterpieces.


Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his country) is premiered in the Teatro San Cassiano in 1641. By then another public opera house on a grander scale, the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, has opened in the city. Here Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) is presented in 1642.

Monteverdi has a special ability to express emotion and drama in vocal music, even in an operatic convention which now seems formal. Contemporary accounts mention people weeping at his arias, and the Venetian public are the first to demonstrate the broad popular appeal of opera. At one point in the 17th century there are as many as seven opera houses in the city.


Dido and Aeneas: 1689

In 1689, probably in December, there is a surprising operatic premiere in London. A group of 'young gentlewomen', for whom the dancing master Josias Priest runs a boarding school in Chelsea, have been rehearsing a work commissioned by Priest from Henry Purcell.

This short work, of remarkable intensity, is Purcell's only opera; and it is the only English opera written before the 20th century to have a secure place in the modern repertory. The young gentlewomen have professional support in the main parts (including the tenor role of Aeneas), but they display their skills to advantage in the opera's seventeen dances, arranged for the occasion by Mr Priest.


It is Purcell's misfortune that there is as yet no opera house in London. In spite of its strange origins Dido and Aeneas is a profound and powerfully felt work, most famously so in Dido's great lament upon the departure of Aeneas. The opera's success makes Purcell much in demand in the theatre (his main employment is as organist in Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal), but the role of a theatre composer at the time is mainly to add songs to existing plays and masques.

Even so, Purcell fulfils this task with such skill that King Arthur (1691, with a text by Dryden) and The Fairy Queen (1692, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream) are still sometimes performed.


Piano and forte: c.1698

A maker of keyboard instruments in Florence, Bartolomeo Cristofori, begins work in about 1698 on a harpsichord che fa il piano e il forte (which can do soft and loud). He achieves this by devising a mechanism which will strike the strings rather than pluck them. In doing so, he greatly extends the range of effects available to the performer on the traditional harpsichord.

Early accounts emphasize this 'piano e forte' element of the new instrument, and from them it derives the name of pianoforte - or, in a more recent abbreviation, simply piano. By the end of the 18th century the piano occupies the central place in both professional and amateur music which it has held ever since.


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