Thursday, March 23, 2006

Opera, Oratorio, and Cantata in the Late Baroque

Oratorio and cantata were two genres that re-emerged in the first half of the eighteenth century. They were already important musical alternatives to opera by the mid-seventeenth century, but differed in nearly every respect from the genres of the same names found in the early eighteenth century. As genres late in the period, they both bespoke the traditions from which they originally sprang and permitted new recombinations of the musical elements of these same traditions.

The oratorio and cantata of the eighteenth century were both linked, unlike opera, to religious themes. Although intended for very different uses and circumstances of performance, all three genres contained musical commalities. Not surprisingly, the three genres would share similarities given the restricted number of available forms. On a superficial level, the three genres could be said to differ in delivery and intent rather than in musical content. All three genres featured recitative, solo and duet arias, choral movements, many of the same forms, and even dance elements.

The opera is based upon one of the variants of the timeless story of love and loss and involves staging. The oratorio is also based upon a story, but a sacred one with Biblical origins rather than a secular one. Oratorio is not staged and is not used as part of worship. A significant feature is the use of the chorus as narrator. The cantata addresses a religious topic, but it is not narrative. Rather it is a collection of commentary set to music, and the cantata is used in worship. In the religious music orb, the work methods of the two most important composers, G.F. Handel and J.S. Bach differed extensively.

As early as the middle of the seventheenth century, the aria had supplanted the recitative as the most important musical component of the opera. This hierarchy remained intact throughout the Baroque period. The earlier forms of the aria, including strophic, ostinato, and dance, continued to be used, but in the late seventeenth century a new alternative emerged. The new form was the da capo aria, and it earned its name from its appearance in the written score. The da capo aria follows the scheme ABA, and the words "da capo," written at the end of section B indicated that the musicians should return to the beginning of section A and saved the scribe/publisher the time and effort to rewrite the section.

A major figure in the development of the new aria form was Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), the father of Domenico Scarlatti and an important figure in the adaptation of the Baroque binary dance form into the later sonata allegro form. Scarlatti contribution to the development of the da capo aria was his recognition of its dramatic possiblities. Section B could be used to present very different and contrasting emotions that were bolstered by very different and contrasting music. Recitative also took on a new character, with greater use of arioso making it more melodic and dramatic (in a musical sense) and less declamatory. Arioso demonstrated a blurring of lines between aria and recitative. All aria continued to be a vehicle for the ever-entertaining virtuoso singing, regardless of the genre in which it was imbedded.

As noted, more than a single tradition or musical element were often combined in later works. In opera aria, "Dido's Lament" from Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas" exemplifies this melding. The aria is based on an ostinato, but the music that the character of Dido sings above the ostinato is actually in a modified strohic form AABB!

The best know examples today of oratorio are those of G.F. Handel. Handel arrived at the realization of the commercial possiblities of the genre only after changes in the musical taste of the English public had turned against Italian opera. The average Englishman did not speak Italian and did not particularly care to listen for extended periods to music in language he did not understand. The Beggar's Opera, little more than a lowbrow collection of popular songs and crude parodies on opera arias and there dramatic airs, drove the last nail into the coffin of Italian opera in England and drove Handel to bankruptcy. Handel's discovery of oratorio was quite accidental and came in the form of a commission from Dublin. His appreciation of its possibilites was immediate, and the die was cast that he would devote the rest of his creative life to composing in the genre.

Handel's libretti were drawn literally from the Bible, though the verses he used were not necessarily consecutive ones. His musical style in the oratorios is a reversion to the high Baroque idiom, and in oratorio he abandonned the fashionable new stile galant touches he used in in his last operas in hopes of saving them from financial failure. His choral style resonates with fugal writing, but this too is affected by older traditions. His fugues are not the monthematic ones that German organ composers wrote to fill the time before the worship service. Instead the subjects could change as the work unfolded or the imitative texture could be abandonned altogether. The music was controlled by the dramatic needs, not requirements of musical form, and, in this respect Handel's choral fugues show a direct and strong linkage to both Grand Concerto and madrigal! Another madrigal element is Handel's use of music to set mood or depict events. In madrigal, tone painting was a rather local and sometimes puerile device; in Handel, musical depiction occurs on a grand and alomost profound scale. Handel's oratorios also approach recitative differently than opera and cantata. Recitative is often assigned to the chorus, not a soloist. Arias, which are not nearly as frequent in Handel's oratorios as they are in contemporary opera or even cantata, retain all the features of contemporary opera. They are quite beautiful, but they are also presented as both musical relief for the listener and as the opportunity for the singer to make grand display of his talents.

The German cantata actually offered a happy accomodation to both the Pietist and Orthodox factions of the Lutheran Church. Introduced by Erdmann Neumeister in 1700, the cantata was explanatory and meditative poetry on Biblcial passages that were sung to music. This poetry offered a satisfactory balance of the objective and subjective and the formal and emotional. Early cantata incorporated all the great musical traditions to their time including the Lutheran chorale, the solo song, the concerted style, and added to these the dramatic possibilities of operatic recitative and aria. The cantata, then, does not tell a story nor is its text drawn literally from Biblical sources. Rather, each movment reflects upon some aspect of the religious sentiment or holiday at hand.

Bach composed no fewer than five complete cycles of cantatas, of which three complete cycles and part of a fourth surivive. The majority were composed at Leipzig, where he was cantor. Although the works follow a variety of formats, several components are retained in all of them.
Bach usually based the music of each of his cantatas upon the melody of a single Lutheran chorale. Although the chorale melody usually serves as the superstructure for more than one movement, new texts are often used in place of the one originally afixed to the chorale. Other cantatas use more than one chorale melody, and yet other cantatas exist in which only the chorale text and not the melody appear in the work, the chorale melody appears only in the presentation of the chorale as the last movement, or neither the melody nor the text are incorporated.

Bach's development of the chorale melody in cantatas that retain the chorale melody can vary. The most common application of the melody mirrors another contemporary Lutheran organ-music genre, the chorale prelude. Here the melody is presented in an internal voice but pushed to the fore by the use of organ stops that imbue it with a distinct timbre. Around the chorale melody Bach constructs a polyphonic but not imitative texture that actually could exist as its own, free-standing composition. The chorale prelude procedures are carried into at least one of the movements of the cantata. This use of the chorale melody does not differ in concept from the cantus firmus technique used in Catholic music from the ninth century to the advent of pervasive imitation in the late fifteenth century. Moreover, the conceptual equivalent is also found in the Baroque period as the ostinato, though the ostinato is invariably constructed for its melodic value and the possibilites of development of the upper voices. It is also kept short in length.

A second procedure of note is found in the architecture of the first movement of "Ein Feste Burg" (no. 80). Here Bach creates a motet, using the full orchestra and the chorus. As in the motet, each line of the chorale is developed fugally. Bach goes one step further--the chorale melody also appears in the high trumpet as a cantus firmus! The blatant use of older compositional techniques is likely deliberate. "Ein feste burg" was a battle hymns, and Bach's desire to imbue it with even greater power could have meant "borrowing authority" from the older institution of the Catholic Church. A similar borrowing is found in the incorporation of the Roman arch by both the Catholic Church and countless secular Western governments inluding our own. Similar technical melding is found in "Wachet Auf." Here the first movement contains cantus firmus technique, French dotted rhythms, Italian violin passaggi, and fugue. The arias in Bach's cantatas do contain virtuoso singing, but this singing is not blatantly "showy" as in the arias of Handel's arias. Rather Bach is careful to retain control in his passaggi so that each is at once subdued and musically meaningful.