1850 - 1920


The German genius, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), dominated the first half of this period, and no other person, before or since, has had such a profound effect on opera and singing. His ideas developed in detail and application over his lifetime, and it is their most advanced state that is summarized here.

Wagner felt he had reached a higher level of integration between music and drama than the term opera conveyed, and preferred to style his works 'dramas'. They are now called music dramas. He wrote both the text and the music and shaped them, in the spirit of the time, as GESAMTKUNSTWERKEN . An important tool in achieving this integration was the Leitmotiv   (leading motive), a device that strongly bonded dramatic meaning to a musical idea. It involved assigning a brief melodic theme or harmonic sequence (a motive) a specific dramatic meaning. There could be such a motive for each person, thing or concept in the story: a spear motive, a sword motive, an earth motive, a magic fire motive, a redemption-through -love motive, etc. When one of these dramatic entities or concepts appeared in the story, it was attended by its own special music. These motives were worked into the orchestral material in a stream-of -consciousness manner, and with a little foreknowledge of their significance a listener could understand the basic story line without even hearing the singers. Used in another way, the motives could convey such subtleties as the true intent or thoughts of a character, even when the words he sang said something else: If a treachery motive is played as the villain is mouthing assurances, the audience would know, even if his victim did not, that he cannot be trusted. Wagner's development of this material was remarkable. Often several motives would be sounded simultaneously to create a complex, interwoven tapestry of sound and meaning, or a motive would be altered slightly to suggest some change in the condition of its dramatic counterpart. It was such a direct and useful link between music and dramatic communication that virtually every theatrical composer since Wagner has used the idea, from the Kiss Motive in Verdi's Otello, to the throbbing bass pattern announcing the presence of the shark in the Jaws  movies.

Assigning this quality of meaning to the instrumental score obviously split the focus of dramatic communication, and the onstage performer now had to share his storytelling function with the orchestra. The singer was no longer a soloist being supported by orchestral accompaniment, but had become yet another element in an integrated whole--precisely Wagner's goal.

Wagner conceived his stories as extended, real-time continuums. His dramas used few of the standard formal units of opera, though division of the story into acts remained, as did the orchestral overture or prelude. His real-time approach to the story almost eliminated duets in which the singers sang simultaneously. Arias, recitatives, ariosos and ensembles were dispensed with, replaced by 'continuous melody', which flowed throughout an entire act, giving no hint of formal cadence or musical close. The interpolation of vocal ornamentation by the singer was totally forbidden by the composer, nor was any to be found in these virtually syllabic scores, save on rare occasions when the story prompted it. Even these were not the old ornaments of grace and volubility, but dramatic displays of vocal strength and power: swooping Amazonian battle cries or the jolting power of a forging song.

The theatrical tendency was to portray a widening range of emotion and dramatic situation. Though such writing called for ever stronger musical treatment, the early Romantic composers had not clearly broken with the long held concept that music had to be pleasant to be good. Wagner turned this corner. His advanced chromaticism and delay in resolving suspensions resulted in harmonies that were audacious for the time. He frequently approached the boundaries of tonality and, even today, with our dissonance-jaded ears, we can find sounds in Wagner that cannot be called pleasant. His successors would go still further in this direction to be sure, but it was Wagner who saw that dramatic music needed to be free to portray a complete range of situation, the vile and unspeakable as well as the divine and transcendental. Henceforth, music would express a widening gamut of emotion, and singers would need the requisite aural and musical skills to deal with complex musical structure and dissonant harmonic surroundings. As a measure of where we have come since then, it might be noted that in Vienna, in 1863, the premiere of Tristan und Isolde  was abandoned after seventy-seven rehearsals and the work judged impossibly difficult to perform.

The concept of tailored writing was unacceptable to Wagner who, perhaps unwisely, did not permit his creative imagination to be restricted by practical concerns. Rather, he penned his music as he wanted it and then tried to find someone who could sing it. Traditional ideas of voice use were seriously challenged by his large, vigorously-scored orchestra and by the extended length of his acts, which offered none of the vocal rest periods previously afforded by secco   recitatives. And for the first time not just vocal power, but stamina--the ability to sing for extended periods--was introduced as a vocal requirement. The demands of this music were so wearing, few singers could attempt it and even fewer would undertake it with impunity.

Comparative performance timings for several representative works of this period are instructive:


Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer, 1836:   35 - 35 - 40 - 35 - 15

Tannhäuser, Wagner, 1845:   60 - 65 - 60

Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti, 1853:   32 - 30 - 37

La Traviata, Verdi, 1853:   32 - 35/20 - 27

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner, 1865:   80 - 75 - 73

Siegfried, Wagner, 1876:   80 - 70 - 79

      ---from George Lessing's Handbuch des Opern-Repertoires

Wagner created an an expressive singing line based on the speaking inflection of the German language rather than on melodic prettiness. Called Sprechgesang , speech-song, it eschewed periodic phrasing, emphasized enunciation and was relentlessly accompanied by the orchestra. An entire new category of endurance-centered Helden   (heroic) voices was sought and, occasionally, found to sing it.

In the design he chose for his famous Festival Theatre (created for the ideal performance of his works), Wagner tacitly acknowledged the vocal problems he had created. Though at the time it was built it was the largest theater in Germany, the Bayreuth Festival Theatre has a modest seating capacity of only 1,800. (The old Metropolitan Opera House, built seven years later, sat twice as many.) Wagner located the orchestra in a steeply raked pit sunk under the stage. The cross section of this pit, and its effect, is that of an acoustical horn. The upper opening of the pit was designed so the orchestral sound would be deflected toward the singers and away from the audience. All this did much, at least in that theater, to alleviate the intrinsic balance problems of his scores.

Having his own theater gave Wagner complete artistic control over every aspect of the performance of his works, and enabled him to turn an important philosophical corner: He had not spent years (decades in some cases) bringing his dramas into being just for an occasion, a season, or even a royal commission. Wagner believed he was writing for posterity and was concerned with controlling the quality of performances long beyond his life span. Toward this end, he wrote scores that were complete and, in his view, immutable. With his own theater and total artistic control, he could establish a cadre of disciple-like conductors to carry out and perpetuate his performance expectations. In so doing, he established a conceptual cornerstone--absolute conductorial authority--for the developing new performance practice of PURISM.

Wagner was vitally concerned with the visual effect of his productions and many theatrical innovations were either created or established by him. He darkened the house lighting during the action, invented the Wagner Curtain (a traveler curtain that parted in the middle to reveal the stage, instead of being raised or lowered), and made significant contributions to the art of modern stage direction, which included encouraging the actors to appear to address each other rather than the audience.

At Bayreuth, after Wagner's death, his musical and dramatic ideas were elevated to the level of cult rite under the watchful presence of his widow and successive generations of the Wagner family. Only since W.W. II has a more modern and imaginative theatrical approach been undertaken, though the canon of musical interpretation remains inviolate. The annual festival at Bayreuth has become a paradigm of the situation of opera production everywhere and there is an ever widening philosophical dichotomy at work, in that while the dramatic elements of a production are being constantly rethought, redesigned and revised to keep them fresh and vital, its musical elements are being constantly studied and prepared with precisely the opposite intention of coming ever closer to an historically accurate reproduction of the composer's original concept. When these processes will end, and where we shall be when they do, is uncertain.


Wagner's coeval and Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), inherited the mantle of Italian Romantic opera from his predecessors and sustained it, almost single-handedly, for over half a century. His ideas, like Wagner's, developed and changed during that span, but essentially he remained bound to the traditional number (unitized) format of opera, the idea of the vocal artist as the primary protagonist of the drama, and the accompaniment function of the orchestra. Only in his final works did he abandon the number opera system and employ the continuous music mode of his German rival.

Verdi gradually minimized his use of the cabaletta   form (it was as forced, dramatically, as the da capo   aria had been) and eventually learned to seek sound dramatic situations in the libretti he set. His devotion to the dramatic baritone voice type (he frequently used it in leading roles) did much to popularize its use. Verdi wrote little for the lyric voice, and it was his creation of a basic repertoire for the dramatic voice that was his most important contribution to singing. The opera Il Trovatore  (1853) represents his mid-career style:

The vocal parts are very demanding. Azucena, a mezzo-soprano, has to sing a high C. Luna, a baritone, has to hold a high G. Manrico's stretta is a tough test of a tenor's power and vocal technique. Leonora's "D'amor sull'ali rosee" is a bel canto masterpiece: a seventeen-note run, from the high C to low A, always following the orchestra's speed.
--Joseph Wechsberg, Verdi

Innately more humble than Wagner, Verdi still came to realize that though he composed his works on commissions from impresarios or royalty, he too was writing for posterity. He wrote out his music in full detail and wanted it performed as he had penned it. Still, he was a practical man of the theater and when the tenor, Tamberlik, who had experienced some popular success singing an unwritten high C in one of Verdi's arias, sought the composer's permission to continue the practice, Verdi's reply was realistic but guarded: "Far be it from me to deny the public what it wants. Put in the high C if you like, provided it is a good one."

Unlike Wagner, Verdi lacked the opportunity to create a cadre of 'authorized' conductors, though Arturo Toscanini later presumed to take such authority and became a strong advocate of reverence for the composer's wishes, as best he understood them. Still, it was a report on Toscanini's dictatorial conducting manner that prompted Verdi to comment, " seems we have traded the tyranny of singers, for the tyranny of conductors. This is much worse."


The approaching end of the century saw many advances in science, technology and the legal system, several of which had to do with the voice and singing:

About 1860, Manuel Garcia II, a famous singer turned voice teacher, rigged a set of mirrors and a light source into something he called a 'laryngoscope'. It allowed the observation, for the first time in history, of the functioning of the vocal cords in a living subject and marked the beginning of vocal science.

On December 6, 1877, Thomas Edison recoiled in surprise as his newest invention worked, the first time he tried it, in exactly the way he had hoped, audibly repeating the words he had just spoken into it. The age of the phonograph had begun and, for better or worse, a permanent record of sound could now be made. Composers could now play or conduct definitive readings of their works and posterity sample the artistry of great performers of former times. At least that is how it was supposed to be. In reality the phonograph was considered a novelty and remained a toy until 1900. Musical experimentation then began, but not until recordings were made by Adelina Patti in 1904, was the machine established as a serious musical medium. We have since come to realize that few composers are their own best interpreters and their attempts to create definitive phonographic readings of their works may not be the best of ideas.

The great royal courts of Europe were slowly fading from existence, and so was their vital patronage of artists and the arts. As societies became ever more democratized, it became increasingly important to provide income for composers through legal copyright protection. The first International Union for the copyrighting of literary and artistic works went into effect in Europe in 1886. Music written after that time could no longer be performed for profit without the payment of a royalty to the composer. The same law also precluded arranging a composer's music without permission. The pasticcio   and the blatant music-hall parody would eventually disappear.

In Vienna, in 1889, an international conference officially adopted the standard (for Europe) of 435 vibrations per second for the pitch of A. Pitch was now about as standardized as it was ever going to be. A good thing too, for the speed of transportation was increasing (the first great Alpine tunnel, from Italy to the north, had opened in 1882) and performers were becoming increasingly transient. Understandably, they wanted to sing no higher high C's in Berlin than they were accustomed to singing in Rome.

After Wagner's death, many of his practices were continued and extended by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and others. Huge orchestral forces and increasingly complex dissonance were the order of the day, and Strauss' Elektra  (1909) may still stand as some of the most intentionally harsh music ever penned. (At a rehearsal, Strauss was quoted as exhorting the orchestra: "Louder! Louder! I can still hear the singers!") The known size of the Dresden Opera orchestra in 1768 makes an interesting comparison with the orchestra Strauss specified for Elektra, which premiered in Dresden a hundred and forty years later:


1 Harpsichord for the Kapellmeister
1 Harpsichord for the continuo player
8 First Violins, 7 Second Violins, 4 Violas
3 'Cellos, 4 Basses
5 Oboes, 2 Flutes, 5 Bassoons, 2 Hunting Horns
Trumpets, Drums

Total: 46 pieces


8 First Violins, 8 Second Violins, 8 Third Violins
6 First Violas, 6 Second Violas, 6 Third Violas
6 First 'Cellos, 6 Second 'Cellos, 8 Basses
1 Piccolo, 3 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 1 English Horn
1 Heckelphone, 1 E-flat Clarinet, 4 B-flat Clarinets
2 Basset Horns, 1 Bass Clarinet, 3 Bassoons, 1 Contra Bassoon
4 Horns, 6 Trumpets, 1 Bass Trumpet
3 Trombones, 1 Contrabass Trombone
2 B-flat Tubas, 2 F-Tubas, 1 Contrabass Tuba
6-8 Tympani (2 players), Glockenspiel, Triangle
Tambourine, Small Drum, Birch Rod, Cymbals
Bass Drum, Tam-tam, Celesta, 2 Harps

Total: 119-121 pieces

The boundaries of tonality could barely contain works such as Elektra, and it was also in 1909 that the German theorist and composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), wrote the opera Erwartung, which clearly abandoned tonality. A landmark ballet score by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Rite of Spring, followed in 1913, introducing complex polyrhythmic textures. Such instrumental and vocal music would require an extremely high level of musicianship of its performers.


In Italy, a new operatic school called verismo   (realism) had developed. It did away with period costumes, gods and castles and cast its stories in a contemporary frame. Real sweat (social injustice), real blood (treachery and torture) and real situations (desertion and infidelity) were what these composers wanted in their libretti. Musically, they continued Verdi's course and wrote melodious scores in the continuous music format; the orchestra served an accompaniment function, while dramatic voices and high-note climaxes were featured. Several of the most famous realistic operas, Cavalleria Rusticana  by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) and I Pagliacci  by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1858-1919), appear to be based on true stories and there is nothing in them that could not have actually happened. (In following its honest story line, the Mascagni libretto came to a situation where all the characters had exited and no one was left on stage to sing! Mascagni wrote an instrumental interlude for this moment, and it has become a famous intermezzo.) The popular opera, La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), is another fine example of the style and is also based on incidents in the lives of real people. Contemporary and controversial themes (with their implications for realistic acting) were becoming accepted subjects in opera.

Musically, the end of the century found France in a reactionary stance. Claude Debussy (1862-1918), responded to the massiveness of the German manner and the frenzied passion of the Italian veristi , by seeking yet another path. In his opera Pelléas et Mélisande  (1902), the delicate orchestral scoring and unconventional vocal writing (in not using performance feats to convey dramatic intensity) demonstrate his approach. It also offers one of the most remarkable moments in all opera when, at the long delayed peak of the drama, Debussy defies every rule of musical theater and has the orchestra stop playing and the singers stop singing. The climatic "Je t'aime " is spoken.

Just as the protracted and philosophically overladen German style appeared to be afraid of not saying enough, Debussy, as the proponent of the French style, appeared afraid of saying too much. But the artistic ambiguities thus created can draw out the imagination of the listener in a most effective way. Debussy's Impressionism was short lived, though it made a much needed contribution to the lyric voice repertoire and was an elegant and inspired alternative to the harsh dramatic glare of the veristi   and the turgid ponderousness of the Wagnerians.

The First World War engulfed Europe in a prolonged and hideous slaughter. In just one month of one battle (Verdun) more men were killed, on each side, than had died on both sides during the entire American Civil War. It was a world gone mad, and the creative artists who experienced this time were profoundly affected by it.

GLOSSARY of terms capitalized in the text.

Works in which all the internal elements are closely unified, resulting in a particularly integrated and balanced totality. The Romantics found the idea especially appealing.

The name given to the most recent style of performance practice, which attempts to perform music of various historical periods to sound the way the composer might have heard it. At least that is the basic idea. We tend to cheat a bit when the practices of yesteryear don't suit us (tuning to a lowered pitch, singing without constant vibrato, etc.) or when purism presents us with its intrinsic dilemma: the very modern-day elements that enable and encourage it (exhaustive musicological research, the acceptance of the conductor as a musical authority) are anachronistic elements in older music.

A truly purist performance of Handel's Messiah, for example, would be given in a room seating hundreds, not thousands. The chorus and orchestra would be about equal in size and both would use straight tone, reserving vibrato for special interpretive effects. To match the tuning fork Handel used for his performances, the pitch of A would be 422.5 cps. The role of the conductor would be reduced to that of a beat-keeper, while the soloists would edit, transpose and improvise ornamentation for their material, fully expecting the orchestra to accommodate them in their liberties. Suffice it to say few modern conductors (they who control performance practice today) are really this interested in purism.

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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633.