Polyphonic Music and the Development of Opera

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A look at how polyphonic music developed and how it influenced the development of opera.

Origins of Opera

Opera is a genre of art that fuses together various other art forms including music, drama, and sometimes even dance. The word “opera” is actually derived from the Italian word for “work” or “piece”. Opera first originated in Florence, Italy during the late 1500s. It was initially created as an attempt to revive the ancient Greek tradition of tragedy.

Polyphonic music and the development of opera

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers. Opera is ordinarily supported by a combination of singing and speech. It is traditionally divided into recitative, in which the singers deliver their lines in a style midway between speech and song, and aria (air), in which they sing more floridly. In early opera, such as Jacopo Peri’s Dafne (1597) and Giulio Caccini’s Euridice (1600), recitative was predominant. However, by the time of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), a new balance had been struck between recitative and aria that has largely persisted to the present day. Opera spread rapidly throughout Europe during the 17th century, with new centres emerging in Venice, Rome, Naples, Munich, London, Dresden and Prague.

The first operatic forms emerged in Italy during the late 16th century. A crucial step was the development of polyphony (multiple independent melodic lines) by composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli and Orlando di Lasso. This allowed for greater complexity within individual musical pieces, and laid the groundwork for future developments in opera.

As opera developed, it began to incorporate elements from other genres of theatre, such as drama and ballet. This served to add further dimensions to the operatic experience, making it more than simply a musical performance. By the 18th century, opera had become one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Europe.

The first operas

The first operas were written in the early 17th century, shortly after the invention of the genre by a group of Italian intellectuals and musicians. These men were looking for a way to revive ancient Greek drama, which they believed to be the height of artistic achievement. They turned to opera because it combined music, acting, and poetry into a single art form.

The first operas were based on ancient Greek myths and stories, and they were performed in special theaters designed specifically for opera. The early operas were very different from the operas of today—they were more like musical plays, with long stretches of spoken dialogue interspersed with musical numbers.

The first operas were written by a group of composer known as the Florentine Camerata. The most famous member of this group was Jacopo Peri, who composed the first opera, Dafne (1597). Dafne was met with mixed reviews—some people loved it, while others thought it was too Experimental and criticized its use of off-key notes (which Peri had included deliberately to imitate the sound of ancient Greek music).

Despite its mixed reception, Dafne paved the way for other early operas, including Euridice (1600) by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini’s La favola d’Orfeo (1607). These works laid the foundation for future opera composers and established many of the conventions that are still used in opera today.

The Italian Opera

Italy is considered the birthplace of opera. The first opera was performed in the early 1600s in Florence, and the form quickly spread to other Italian cities such as Venice and Rome. Opera soon became a mainstay of court life in Italy, and it wasn’t long before Italian opera composers began to find success in other countries as well.

The Italian opera and its influence

Italian opera is a significant part of Western opera. It has its origins in the Florentine Camerata, a group of humanists, musicians, and poets who gathered in Florence in the late sixteenth century. The Camerata was founded by Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, who is credited with being one of the first to develop the concept of polyphonic music.

polyphony is a type of musical composition that features two or more independent melodic lines. The Italian opera was heavily influenced by the polyphonic music of the Renaissance, and it is this type of music that forms the basis of much of Western opera.

The first Italian operas were written in the early seventeenth century, and they quickly became extremely popular. Opera quickly spread to other parts of Europe, and it remains one of the most popular forms of classical music today.

The first Italian opera houses

The first public opera house in Italy was the Teatro diFirenze, which opened in 1580. The first opera performed there was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, a work which is now lost. Opera quickly spread throughout Italy, with production companies opening in Venice (1565), Naples (1594), and Rome (1600), among other cities.

Opera gave rise to a number of new genres of music, including the intermezzo and the sinfonia. Intermezzos were short operas that were performed between the acts of a longer opera. They usually featured comic characters and were intended to provide relief from the more serious plot of the main opera. Sinfonias were standalone orchestral pieces that were often used to open an opera or as an interlude during one.

Opera also had a significant impact on vocal music, as it was one of the first genres in which singers were required to sustain long vocal lines without accompaniment. This led to the development of a new singing technique known as bel canto (“beautiful singing”). This technique emphasized breath control and legato (smooth) singing, rather than the staccato (detached) singing that was common at the time.

The first Italian opera house was the Teatro di Firenze, which opened in 1580. The first opera performed there was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, a work which is now lost. Opera quickly spread throughout Italy, with production companies opening in Venice (1565), Naples (1594), and Rome (1600), among other cities.

The French Opera

The French opera and its influence

The French opera is a form of opera that originated in France in the late seventeenth century. It is distinct from the Italian opera, which also began to develop around this time. The French opera is characterized by its use of the chorus, which plays an important role in the action of the opera. The French operas of the eighteenth century are some of the most famous and influential works in the history of opera. They include such works as Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” (1733) and François-Joseph Gossec’s “Le devin du village” (1752).

The French opera continued to develop in the nineteenth century, with such works as Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” (1858) and Charles Gounod’s “Faust” (1859). The influence of the French opera can be seen in many later operas, such as Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata” (1853) and Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (1850).

The first French opera houses

The first French opera houses were built in the 17th century, and by the early 18th century, they were some of the most popular venues in Paris. The most famous French opera house of the time was the Palais-Royal, which was built in 1641 and was home to many of the most popular operas of the day. Other important opera houses of the time include the Théâtre des Tuileries (1643), the Théâtre de Monsieur (1645), and the Théâtre de la Comédie-Italienne (1660).

The popularity of French opera continued into the 18th century, with many famous composers writing works for the stage. Jean-Philippe Rameau is one of the most important figures in French opera history, and his works helped to define the genre. Other notable 18th-century French composers include André Campra, François Couperin, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The French Revolution brought about a change in operatic tastes, and by the early 19th century, Italian opera had become more popular than French opera. This trend continued throughout most of the 19th century, although there were a few notable exceptions, such as Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836) and Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867), both of which were immensely popular in France.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of important French operas were written, including Jules Massenet’s Werther (1892), Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859), and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (1877). However, it was not until after World War II that French opera regained its former prominence. Since then, a number of internationally acclaimed French composers have written works for the stage, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, Pierre Boulez, and Kaija Saariaho.

The German Opera

Opera is a form of musical theatre that combines acting, singing, and dancing, and is usually performed in an opera house. Opera first developed in Italy in the 16th century, and soon spread to other countries in Europe, such as Germany.

The German opera and its influence

The German opera is a type of polyphonic music that became popular in the early 17th century. It is characterized by its use of multiple voices singing in harmony, often with accompaniment from an orchestra. The German opera was influential in the development of opera as a whole, and its influence can be seen in the work of such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

The first German opera houses

The first German opera houses were built in Hamburg (1678), Brunswick (1690), and Frankfurt (1740). They were all private enterprises, supported by bankers, merchants, and aristocrats. The operas performed were mostly Italian, with German translations provided in the program. The first German-language opera was produced in Hamburg in 1678. It was an adaptation of an Italian work by Alessandro Stradella and was called “Repudium Amoris” (“Rejection of Love”).

In the early part of the eighteenth century, a new type of opera began to be popular in Germany: the Singspiel (“singing play”). This was a mix of spoken dialog and singsong recitative, with some numbers being sung in full. The first great Singspiel composer was Georg Philipp Telemann, who wrote over fifty such works. His most famous is “Pimpinone” (1725), about a cuckolded husband.

Another popular form at this time was the ballad opera, imported from England. These were often morality plays or farces set to well-known tunes. One famous ballad opera composer was Johann Christoph Pepusch, whose “The Beggar’s Opera” (1728) parodied many aspects of Italian opera seria.

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