As I may have mentioned, I have immersed myself in the works of Wolfgang Mozart in recent weeks. Outside of the time spent at my beloved Detroit Jazz Festival, I have listened almost exclusively to music of Mozart for the last six weeks. A very interesting idea has entered into my thinking during this time, about how we study music history. History is written after the fact of course, looking back and trying to codify what happened. The things we hold out as masterpieces, however, are the innovative compositions that break the molds, rather than exemplify the practice of the time.
When we look at the “Classical” period of European music, it is all about the Viennese classical style. This is a style that emphasizes clarity, balance, refinement, emotional restraint and good taste. Many musical forms came into maturity (sonata-allegro, minuet and trio, theme and variations, rondo, etc), and much of a composer’s goal was to show ingenuity inside these familiar forms. The three names that are held up as the best of the classical style are Haydn, Mozart and the early works of Beethoven. At the same time, although Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, most of them are not played today. Our best count of Mozart symphonies today is 41, but only a handful are played in the standard repertoire. Why have some stood the test of time and others find themselves rarely performed?
Mozart wrote 22 operas, in every popular style of his time, but only a small number are performed today. One of the earliest Mozart operas still in the repertoire, if not THE earliest, is “Idomeneo” of 1781. This is an opera seria, but as I hope to show, it is not a typical one. The libretto (the words) were written by Giambattista Varesco, adapted from a French play written by a fellow named Danchet. The original source of the story, like much of opera seria, is Greek mythology/history. The short version of the story is that Idomeneo, king of Crete, was saved from a shipwreck by Neptune (Greek god of the sea) on his way back from the Trojan war. Neptune has demanded that Idomeneo sacrifice the first person he meets, as a tribute for saving his life. This being opera, the first person he meets is Idamante, his son whom he has not seen for years. Additional dramatic tension is added by the Trojan princess Ilia, who has fallen in love with Idamante in spite of the Greeks killing her father and family. Idamante also loves Ilia, much to the chagrin of Greek princess Elettra, who completely loses composure and vents her spleen in the final Act of the opera. A longer synopsis of the three acts can be found at the link below.
Italian opera seria was an incredibly popular form of entertainment in the late 17th and early 18th century. Hundreds upon hundreds of these operas were written, with new productions happening all the time. These things were churned out like television sitcoms are today. There was very much a standard formula for an opera seria, much of which was codified by the Italian poet Pietro Metastasio. His librettos were set to music repeatedly, by almost every composer of the day. The pattern took a “serious” story from an ancient Greek or Latin text, with a small cast of characters, set in three acts. The acts almost always alternated recitative secco (“dry recitative” accompanied by just harpsichord and bass) with arias for solo voice and full orchestra. These da capo arias were vocal showpieces for the stars, the singers. Boy oh boy, did the singers know they were the stars of the show. They made all sorts of demands on the composer, added their own embellishments, and sometimes had the production substitute an entirely different aria just because they wanted to. According to historian Donald Grout, these practices degraded the aria to “mere tasteless displays of vocal acrobatics.” This kind of spectacle, however, was much of what the audience came to see.
Many of the opera seria featured a unique sort of male soprano, the famed Italian castrato. These singers were superstars, well, some of them were. There was a practice at the time in Italy that few wanted to admit to. In Florence, they said it happened in Naples. In Naples, then said go to Milan. It happened to thousands of Italian boys, so somewhere it was being done. A young pre-pubescent boy that showed vocal promise was brought to a shop to be castrated, thus preventing their voice from dropping octaves when they hit (or didn’t hit) puberty. Drastic action, to be sure, but just imagine if your son could be Michael Jordan, David Beckham and a Hollywood movie star all rolled into one. This is what was dreamed of being achieved by becoming a star castrato, a male soprano with more power than any similar female voice. These boys were immediately taken for intensive musical training, and the successful ones were absolutely worshipped. Families in poverty would bring their sons for such a practice in the hopes they would lift the family into financial success. The big problem with the practice is that these boys still grew, the voice matured, and you never knew exactly what you would end up with as an adult. Although many went through the operation, only a small number went on to be stars.
The role of Idamante in Mozart’s opera was originally written for a castrato named Vincenzo dal Prato. This creates a bit of a problem for staging the opera today, as the practice was banned long ago, and those sort of male sopranos don’t exist anymore. One solution is to make Idamante a “trouser role”, that is played by a female soprano in male costume. This is a pretty good solution in live performance or on video, because you can suspend disbelief and realize that the woman in pants singing is playing a character that is a dude. It doesn’t work as well in audio recordings, because there is no mistaking that it is a female voice. The other solution is to convert the Idamante role to that of a tenor, singing the part an octave lower than originally written. This works better for recordings, and was actually done in at least one production during Mozart’s lifetime.
Getting back to my main point about the music of Mozart that is still performed and studied, “Idomeneo” is no typical opera seria. It is a serious story, borrowed from Greek sources, but it does not follow the formulaic pattern of recitative-aria-recitative-aria. Mozart has improved on the model, and incorporated some of the reforms started by Gluck (perhaps the earliest composer in the standard repertoire today). Mozart’s version has some recitative secco, but also plenty of recitative accompagnato where the entire orchestra plays under the singer. There are beautiful arias, but also more a frequent use of duets and trios than one usually finds in opera seria. Mozart also creates brilliant harmonic segues, where the end of one number moves directly into the next. The musical fabric is almost seamless and connected, all in service of the dramatic storyline. “Idomeneo” is not about singers showing off, but is now an operatic masterpiece uniting music, words and drama. Professor Robert Greenberg calls it an “opera seria transcendent” for the way it rises above the normal conventions of early 18th century Metastasian opera seria.
The realization I am trying to convey here is that you cannot listen to “Idomeneo” and decide you love it, want to hear more like it, and start searching out the usual fare that was opera seria. Although we study Haydn and Mozart for what is the best of the Classical Period, the thing that makes “Idomeneo” great is that it is NOT typical of its time. Old Wolfy has improved upon the formula, expanded things, brought innovation and genius to the experience. This is why we still listen to “Idomeneo” as a masterpiece today, and not some of the 10 or 11 operas Mozart wrote before this one. There is a tendency in art and music history to pull out the original and innovative things as noteworthy and exceptional, but these don’t always represent what was typical or usual of the time. For the same reasons we celebrate Beethoven’s Third symphony, the “Eroica”, for smashing classical era conventions and bringing a newly expressive heroic voice to the symphony, rather than say his First symphony, which more or less follows the classical norms. We pay much more attention to things that break the rules, with genius and originality, than works of art that follow the rules.
That is mainly a lesson for music and art, and not life in general. While some individuals break all the rules and are celebrated as trailblazing innovators, if one breaks too many rules there are people in uniform that lock you up. They put you in handcuffs, stuff you in the back of a car, and then you pay a lawyer a lot of money to do a lot of talking while you sit in a small room with bars. When you are in that small room with bars, if you start shouting you are a genius like Mozart or Beethoven, someone calls a doctor with lots of initials behind their name to do even more talking. Life plans can derail quite quickly this way, so I would suggest keeping the serious rule breaking to musical conventions and not local ordinances.