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The eighteenth-century reform of opera: a pamphlet

September 21, 2008

This pamphlet is from the Liceo Musicale Biblioteca Bologna and must be from the early eighteenth century. So far I have not been able to identify the author.

My additions are in square brackets. The original spelling and use of italics are retained, but I have edited the original’s use of capitals. The footnotes, which are all quotations from Horace, are all included.

ADVICE TO THE Composers and Performers OF Vocal Musick etc.

It may, perhaps, seem strange that one who has not thoroughly studied the Grounds of Musick, should take upon himself to reform and correct those errors and abuses, which have long prevailed, and do still bring great discredit upon an art so justly had in the highest estimation; but as all productions of this kind fall under the jurisdiction of right reason, (which has a right to judge of every thing, wherein the understanding is any way concerned) it will not, I hope, be thought needful to make any apology for publishing my sentiments upon Vocal Musick, or exposing those abuses which have been introduced both by Composers and Performers.

The greatest perfection of Vocal Musick is, that it be made subservient to the words, or (to speak more plainly) that the Composer takes particular care to express the sense of them, rejecting the most pleasing movement, which is improper for that purpose, and contenting himself with a more indifferent one, which answers that end; by which means he takes the surest way not to please those alone, who have skill in musick, but others also, who only give attention to the words. And this is so necessary to be observed, that if a Composer should set a fine brisk Air to words of a different nature, he would betray as great want of skill as Horace’s Painter, who when he was required to paint one, who had escaped from a shipwreck, with the loss of everything, could paint nothing else but a Cypress-Tree; upon which those words of his may justly be applied to such painters and Composers. (1) Nor is it sufficient for the Composer to chuse a Movement suitable to the sense of the words; It is no less necessary that he carry it on in such manner, as to give no offence to his hearers, by making too long divisions and repetitions; there being no small judgement required to know when to have done and leave off, as Horace has well observed: (2) which is a rule that deserves to be particularly regarded by those Composers, who affect (if I may so express myself) to spin out the thread of their fancy through all the possible variations of Counterpoint and Modulation.

The French who take great pains to persuade themselves, that their musick excels the Italian, condemn the too frequent divisions used by some of our Composers, and are so weak as to humour a singer, who has no other qualification to recommend himself, but that of being able to tickle the ear: However, it must be allowed, that we give them just reason to censure us upon this account.

In an Opera, which commonly consists of about thirty songs, it is allowable for the better and more artful contrivance of the whole, to use some divisions to make a kind of Chiaroscuro (or something that is of the same nature with light and shades in painting.) This produces a wonderful effect in the whole; but still any Composer will justly expose himself to censure, who overcharges his musick with too many divisions. It is not the great number of notes that moves the passions, but a few, disposed in due time and place, and modulated with art and judgement.

Another irregularity is that of encumbering and overcharging the composition with too many Symphonies. This custom has so much grown upon us, within these late years, that if a stop be not put to it, the Singer will be made to give place to the instruments, and the Orchestre will be more regarded than the voices. It cannot be denied, that if Symphonies are well intermixed with the songs, it will have a very good effect; especially, if the Composer rightly understands how to make use of them, and is a compleat Master: but then he must take particular care that they do not make his composition any way confused, and must guard himself against running into excess in the use of them, remembering that most useful saying of Terence, Ne quid nimis.

Another error incident to Composers of no great judgement, is that of using a martial accompagnement upon a subject, when there is required great tenderness of expression; or when rage and despair are to be expressed, of making the accompagnement languishing and pathetic; The Symphonies must be directed by the movement of the singing part; so that both voice and instruments may conspire together to produce an uniform and regular variety.

Another intolerable fault it is for a Composer to begin a song with one subject, and having dwelt upon it some time, to leave it for another, for the sake of variety, which is a piece of affectation, that has no other effect than to divert the attention from the first design, and to create confusion.(3)

It is not many years since unisons accompanying the singing part were invented, which was probably done for the help of such as are not able to sing their part; and they are for the most part used by Composers, who have no great stock of invention, and dare not attempt any thing that is great and masterly. (4)

Some songs in an Opera will bear unisons, and oftner the unskilfulness of the singer obliges the Composer to make use of them; but this he ought to do sparingly, lest he run into a fault which may be imputed to his ignorance.

In fine, altho’ these observations (such as they are) may be applied to musick in general; yet my principal aim being to propose what may be useful in the composition of operas, I shall adventure to give my opinion concerning the Rules which are necessary to be observed towards the composition of a good opera.

When the Composer has the drama to set to musick, which I suppose to be well contrived, set off with the best language, and adorned with all the beauties of Poetry; he must follow the same method that is observed by a good painter, who, when he is to draw a piece of history, or anything of the like nature, first forms the disposition of it in his mind, then draws it on his cloth, and at length colours and embellishes it, razing out and adding to it what in the progress of the Work he judges most conducive to its perfection; by which means the principal figures in his piece appear in their proper situation; they perfectly express his design, and there will be nothing wanting in it that is necessary to render the whole work beautiful to the eye, and pleasing to the most correct judgement.

Counterpoint must be the Composers guide, if he would be careful not to transgress the rules of his art; but good judgement (which must be acquired by experience) will order and adjust the different movements in such manner that they may mutually support each other, and render the whole a compleat masterpiece, or at least a valuable composition. And this regular disposition with respect to the entire piece is so necessary, that a judicious composer will put an indifferent song in some certain places with design, in order to set off and prepare the way for another, which is intended to express some lively passion; and when it is thus introduced, it will have an admirable effect, whence that rule of Horace will be very useful in the composition of an Opera. (5)

We now proceed to consider the faults which Singers are apt to commit; and that we may not be deceived by false appearances, it may be proper to lay down some rules, which may help us to distinguish the good from bad ones.

An excellent voice. A fine taste, and singing perfectly in tune, which is the effect of a nice ear, are gifts which nature bestows on very few, and which, if improved by study, will lead any one to the attainment of all other qualities which are necessary to make a famous singer; such are, exact time, a distinct expression of the words, the keeping the voice firm and steady, the entering into the design of the composer: To which I might add the characterizing, that is, the embellishing the composition with proper graces, and some others of less account; but if these rare qualities are not managed with judgement (by which both nature and art must be brought to perfection,) the consequences will be, that our best performances will be but indifferent, our good become bad, and the indifferent, intolerable.

And it is this good judgement that must direct us in the management of the voice, and improve our taste, so that we may give such a vivacity of languishment to the song as the composition requires; but the singing in time and tune must be constantly preserved, and never be neglected, upon any occasion whatsoever.

The binding together or stringing the notes firm and distinct with the voice, which the Italians express by the terms (Legare and Staccare la Voce) are graces equally agreeable, although contrary to each other; and nothing but good judgement can direct the singer how to use them properly, (that is to say) according to the nature and design of the composition; but he must take particular care to make Graces and Cadences that are just and proper, although they are in themselves but (6) noisy trifles.

If nature has been so bountiful as to bestow a good voice and an excellent taste on the singer, or if for want of good natural capacity, the qualities above mentioned are not attainable, he will justly deserve praise, if he only sings plain, at least he will perform in such manner as not to give any disgust to the hearer. A heavy, dull Friesland Honse is not capable of becoming so sprightly as a Spanish Ginnet. It is of the greatest use to know ones own abilities; but self-love, which often blinds persons of good sense, and the applause the singer meets with from the multitude often corrupts his judgement, so that he comes to fancy himself a much more excellent performer, than he really is, and to flatter himself that he merits the applause that is given him, although it has no better foundation than meer caprice, or the want of good judgement and good taste in those who extol him.



[I speak to tell the truth, not out of hatred of anyone, nor disdain.]


Hor. (1) Non erat his Locus
Hor. (2)———Sunt certi denique fines
Quos ultra citraque nescit consistere Rectum.
Hor. (3)——Servetur ad imum
Qualis ab incœpto processerit, et sibi constet.
Hor. (4) Serpit humi tutus nimium timidusque procellæ.
Hor. (5) ut jam nune dicat, jam nunc debentia dici
Pleraque differat, et præsens in tempus omittat.
Hor. (6) Nugæ canoræ.

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