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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Aria

In 1960, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert at The White House. At the end of the performance President Eisenhower said to him, "You know, I liked that last piece you played; it's got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles." The President's equation of "arias" with "highbrow" is not uncommon. The usual means of dealing with the feeling that some art form or another is inaccessible is to make it accessible, something most performing arts organisations in this country do very well, and it’s what I spend a lot of my time doing. So in this post I want to take that vexed term - aria - and talk about it a bit.

(As a side note, the President’s words inspired Bernstein to compose a song cycle called Arias and Barcarolles in 1988.)

This is not a history of the aria, but a summary of the way two particular forms of aria have developed over the past four centuries or so. Without any further introduction, I want you to listen to this. [listen]

This song was first performed in 1607. It's sung by one of the shepherds in the first act of Monteverdi's opera Orfeo. We'd call it an aria, albeit a rather short one, because it fits exactly with the simplest definition of the term. Aria in Italian means "air", in the sense that we might use the word "air" in English to mean a song.

Strozzi: Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1630)

In the earliest operas, of which Orfeo is definitely one, the musical structure of a solo song was dictated largely by the poetry being set. The shepherd's exhortation falls into three sections, of which the first and last are virtually identical, so Monteverdi's musical setting reflects this. The little aria is less than two minutes long; the contrasting middle section (with different words and therefore different music) starts a third of the way in, and the reprise of the opening music and words starts at about the 1’15 mark.

This three-part, A-B-A structure was by no means the only way Monteverdi, his contemporaries or his immediate successors structured their arias, but over time it

became popular. By the end of the 17th century it was pretty much the only way opera arias were structured. And not just in opera either; Italian cantatas (both secular and sacred) and oratorio all derived their structures from the opera of the day, and by the late 1600s arias were almost exclusively written in a three-part, A-B-A format.

Even though he's mainly remembered today for his concertos, Antonio Vivaldi made a major contribution to the wild world of Italian opera in the early 18th century. In recent decades his operas have been rediscovered, performed and recorded, and they use this three-section structure for virtually all their arias. Today we call these arias "da capo" arias, because they always return “to the top” ("da capo" in Italian) for the third and final section. Singers were expected to embellish these repeats of the opening part of the aria not only to display their virtuosity but also - and this is too-often forgotten by singers today - to enhance the meaning of the text. Singers in the Baroque would have been booed for not ornamenting a da capo repeat, yes, but they would also have been booed for over-ornamenting, or for ornamenting tastelessly in a way which ran counter to the meaning of the words.

Fortunately Philippe Jaroussky (in my opinion) adds just enough delicious ornamentation in the reprise of this aria from Vivaldi's opera Orlando furioso to paint the delights of playful love. [listen]

Philippe Jaroussky

Of course, when virtuosity was called for, the great singers of the late Baroque opera stage had it in spades. The castrati were as famous for their breath control as they were for their agility, and Vivaldi was utterly merciless when it came to challenging these songbirds to greater and greater feats of utter showmanship.

In the hands of lesser composers all this descended into the realm of sport. Virtuosity became an end in itself and people rapidly tired of it. The shallowness of much of the opera of the early 18th century was the reason for its demise and for the need for reform. But some composers loved the old straight-jacket of these conventions of opera seria as it was known, and managed to create powerful and honest dramatic works within these structures.

Italian opera seria reached its highest expression in the hands of a German who trained in Italy and worked in London: George Frideric Handel. Handel only ever wanted to be an opera composer and between 1705 and 1741 he wrote 42 of them. He stuck to it past the point of his audiences being tired of it, and only moved on to oratorio when he saw the cause was hopeless. Yet his best operas are stunning, able to move a modern audience as deeply as Mozart, Verdi, Puccini or any other of the great opera composers, if performed in a manner which is faithful to the conventions of the form. Too often today one sees Handel opera productions in which it's clear that the director feels the need to “make” the work interesting, shorter, more relevant, and all sorts of atrocities are perpetrated upon them which would not be tolerated in the works of any other composer. Yes, they're long, and yes, they contain dozens of da capo arias, but Handel managed in his best operas to communicate powerfully with his audiences in music which is as great - dare I say even greater - than that of the oratorios.

In the opera Julius Caesar in Egypt, premiered in 1724, Handel turned out stunning aria after stunning aria for his lucky cast, which comprised some of the greatest singers of his time. But it's not all fireworks and virtuosity. The utter heartbreaking grief of Cornelia in discovering that her husband has been murdered (and his severed head presented to Caesar in her presence) is presented in a major key aria - in da capo form - which looks forward to the major key expressions of grief in the tragedies of Bellini and Donizetti. It’s sung in this video by Anne Sofie von Otter. [listen]

Anne Sofie von Otter

The da capo aria was the mainstay of late 17th and early 18th century vocal music. Its use decreased during the mid-18th century so that by the time Mozart came to write his mature operas (in the 1780s) it had largely ceased to be a feature of the operatic form. Mozart - and other composers, like Gluck - came to write arias which had no return to the start but which were through-composed for dramatic reasons. Some of Mozart's opera arias hint at da capo form by virtue of their key structure, but when a grand, formal statement was required, a new form of opera aria developed, and Mozart was a master of its use.

This form of aria had three sections but there was no return to the start. The first section was a recitative, a section in which there was very little actual melody but rather a declamatory, speech-like presentation of the text which set up the character's emotional state. Unlike secco recitative, which was accompanied by the continuo instruments only, this recitative was now usually accompanied by the orchestra.

In The Marriage of Figaro, composed in 1786, Mozart provides two such grand set pieces in the third act, contrasting the situations of the embattled Count and Countess. In her set piece, the Countess enters to sing an accompanied recitative (at the start of the link below: E Susanna non vien) which laments the loss of her husband's love.

Then comes the aria proper which is in two sections, each of which is characterised by its tempo and emotional content. The first section (at 1’50 in the link below: Dove sono), is slow and over time this first part of an aria has become known as the cavatina. This term usually means a simple melody which is direct and from the heart. It's certainly is from the heart here, and this section in itself suggests and ABA structure with the return of the original melody (at 3’42).

And then (at 4’30 in the link below: Ah! se almen), the Countess pulls herself together, determined to stop feeling sorry for herself and to work to win back her wayward husband. The tempo changes and this faster second section is usually these days called the cabaletta, although originally it referred to both the slow and fast sections of the aria. The cabaletta sometimes includes some virtuosic display but its intention is to express in music a strength of character and a forward momentum in the plot. As usual, Mozart does it perfectly, and it's sung beautifully here by Sara Macliver. [listen]

Sara Macliver

Earlier in the same act Mozart gives a solo aria to the Count which is structured similarly. The recitative expresses rage at the discovery of being duped by his servants, and the aria (at 1’22) his determination to extract revenge and get what he wants. The aria has a tempo change (at 2’53) to divide cavatina from cabaletta but the cavatina here is hardly a simple melody, as it was in this Countess's aria. The second section is marked by a faster tempo and virtuosic display. The baritone in this recording is Matthias Goerne. [listen]

Matthias Goerne

It must be stressed here that not all Mozart's opera arias are in this form; far from it. But for the big statement, the big solo scene, the formal declamation, this was the form used - or adapted - by Mozart in his mature operas. It became the standard structure for such moments in opera throughout the 19th century, only to be broken down by composers like Wagner and, later, Puccini, who reshaped opera for their own dramatic ends.

Verdi, on the other hand, like most of the composers of the Italian mainstream in the 19th century, made great use of the recitative-cavatina-cabaletta form of aria writing, and it's these set pieces (for his heroines in particular) which are among his greatest musical creations.

The first act of La traviata, first performed in 1853, concludes with one of Verdi's most famous such creations. In the recitative, Violetta muses on the strange feelings welling up inside her and wonders if this might be real love. The cavatina - in a slow tempo - sees her contemplating the man who has aroused these feelings in her and who might lead her away from a life of superficial pleasure into something more meaningful. She then interrupts herself with another short recitative, mocking such nonsense and coming back to grim reality. The cabaletta is a dazzling showstopper but one in which the virtuosic demands have real, dramatic meaning. Violetta is trying to drown out the thought of love and the memory of Alfredo's voice and focus on what she has always done: living for pleasure and for the moment. Natalie Dessay brings it to life here. [listen]

Natalie Dessay

The structure of what became the classical aria - recitative, cavatina, cabaletta - became the backbone of Italian (and to a large extent French and German) opera in the 19th century. I’ll finish, though, with a twentieth century example of the form.

In his 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky embraces the ancient world in his most monumental reading of the neoclassical style, and the aria for Jocasta at the start of act two is cast in a form which suggests both the da capo aria and the recitative-cavatina-cabaletta form. After a recitative section the aria itself begins slowly, moving on to a virtuosic fast section (listen for the spectacular solos for the E flat clarinet!). This ticks the boxes for the recitative-cavatina-cabaletta form. But then the slow cavatina section returns, making us realise it’s actually in a sort of da capo form. This is one of the most perfect and appropriate uses of the structure in the post-Romantic age, sung passionately here in a famous Japanese production by Jessye Norman. [listen]

And from this point the music moves on without a break into a duet. But it's pretty powerful stuff and clearly based on a form which Mozart or Verdi would have easily recognised. Next time you're listening to a large-scale vocal work see if you can hear if the composer has used either a da capo structure or a recitative-cavatina-cabaletta structure. You'll be amazed where it pops up.

Igor Stravinsky in 1927, the year he wrote Oedipus Rex.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2010.

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