1760 - 1850

The heady sense of revolution and change present in the political air was beginning to enter and embolden other areas of human endeavor. Artists--playwrights, poets, painters and composers--and their works were strongly affected. (It may actually have been the other way around. In Napoleon's opinion it was the writing of the play, The Marriage of Figaro, by Beaumarchais, which marked the beginning of the French Revolution.) Opera, a fusion of the arts and always a sensitive reflector of its time, showed great need of change. Singing, too, would have to adapt to fit the times.

Until now composers and singers had been equal partners in the creation of the music the audience heard, the composers sketching a basic musical outline that the singers then completed with their ornamentation. But singers had upset the balance of this partnership when they no longer reserved their ornaments to the CADENZAS or the da capo   section of the arias. They were adding elaborate embellishments everywhere, lengthening works intolerably and displaying their personal skills at the expense of the drama and music. The singer's abuse of their ornamentation prerogatives had made opera seria   little more than a concert in costume and a vehicle for a self-serving star system.

The Italian opera buffa   had awakened all Europe to the pleasures of the comic opera format and to the possibility of bringing new values to the lyric stage. Italy had created opera buffa   from its unique theatrical traditions, and other countries now reshaped the genre for their own consumption. The English form, ballad opera, took well-known melodies and folksongs for its arias and often parodied opera seria   in its plots. Other national forms, the Singspiel, opéra comique  and zarzuela , brought entertaining action, an almost mandatory happy ending and an enjoyable, eclectic musical style to their audiences. More important than their differences were the basic features these national types all shared: the naturalism of spoken rather than sung dialogue, the immediacy of performance in the language of the audience and, most importantly, the vitalizing premise that it was the work, not the performer, which was primary. The 19th century European operetta (Offenbach, Gilbert & Sullivan, Johann Strauss, Jr., et al.) and its offspring, the American Broadway Musical (Victor Herbert through Andrew Lloyd Webber), are startlingly direct descendants of these works, all being set on precisely the same foundations.

All this comported well with the idea of naturalism with which the leading thinkers of the time were so concerned. But serious opera did not fair so well in the new philosophical light. The contrived seria style of the high Baroque could not continue to exist in such a climate and would have to be purged of many of its affectations. Fortunately, there were creative artists ready to take up this task, and as it was the work--the opus itself--that was now to become primary, it would be the creators of the work who would, by extension, gain in importance.


Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) is the composer most often credited with leading the reforms. Two of his statements briefly summarize his ideas:

I have tried to restrict music to its true function of aiding poetry in the expression of the emotions and the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or smothering it under vain and superfluous ornaments.

No matter how gifted a composer may be, he will produce only mediocre work if he is not inspired by the poet...All arts must imitate Nature. That is the goal I try to achieve in my music, which I try to keep as simple and natural as possible, merely attempting to emphasize and lend greater expression to the poetic declamation.

Composers of the time took to themselves a greater share of the creative responsibility than before. In a fundamental change, the amount of vocal ornamentation allowed in performance was diminished and increasingly controlled by the composer. Librettists made their contribution to the new style with plots in which the characters and situations were increasingly natural and realistic. The form-bound plots of the great Baroque librettists, some of which had been set and reset forty or fifty times, were put aside in favor of more dramatically fluid works in which vocal display opportunities were traded for improved continuity and theatrical validity. Arias, though they did not yet include any physical action, were no longer addressed directly to the audience, but became either a soliloquy or a communication between the characters in the story. The extended finale ensemble was developed, as was a new aria form that employed only a brief recapitulation rather than a complete da capo   section. Acting was gaining importance as a presentational skill for the singer. The comparatively realistic buffo   acting style was adopted for use in serious opera and the expression of a wider range of emotion undertaken. New libretti allowed the chorus, which had been a passive commentator on the story, to take a more active role. To further heighten the theatrical sense of the performance, the front curtain was being drawn between each act.

Operas, as much as singers, were now creating international interest and the public wanted to hear the works that had been successful elsewhere. As operas thus gained longer lives and productions in more than one locale, their composers could not always be present for the production and they began to fill their scores with increasing detail and more complete instructions. A new personage, the conductor, would join the ranks of the opera company to act as the composer's unofficial surrogate. The conductor's duties--artistic control of the singers and orchestra, supervision of tempi, balance and ensemble, and the completion of any figured bass material--were soon established, and have not changed much since.

In a letter written in 1781, as he was composing his Singspiel , Die Entführung aus dem Serail, W. A. Mozart detailed some of its musical features, thus providing a glimpse of the leading edge of expressive concepts of the day. He wrote of the first act tenor aria :

...Belmonte's aria in A major, "O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig". Would you like to know how I have expressed it--and even indicated his throbbing heart? By the two violins playing octaves...I wrote it expressly to suit Adamberger's voice. You feel the trembling--the faltering--you see how his throbbing breast begins to swell; this I have expressed by a crescendo . You hear the whispering and the sighing--that I have indicated by the first violins with mutes and a flute playing in unison.
--Eric Blom, Mozart's Letters

Clearly, the orchestra had shed its subservience and was becoming an important element of the performance. Instruments could now be controlled to sound through a wide dynamic range, players had gained considerable virtuosity and the quality of their ensemble was improved. A music school and orchestra in Mannheim, Germany, became famous for developing many elements of the new Classical style: melodic prominence of the violins, homophonic (non-contrapuntal) texture, presto -like quick tempi, extended crescendi , general pauses, unexpected fortissimi   and replacement of the basso continuo   accompaniment by written-out orchestral parts.

In an important step toward blending the internal units of opera, the orchestra began to be used to accompany some recitatives.

...the continuo function gradually faded as did the pre-eminence of the harpsichord and accompanying instruments. Horns and winds lost their predominantly solo or tutti function: oboes no longer played merely solo parts or doubled the violins when all the strings were playing, but joined the flutes and bassoons to create a woodwind ensemble. This ensemble, with the horns (and other brass, to some extent), began to fill the inner harmonies...the classic orchestra of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert ...had four groups: woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings, each of which had a specific function. The strings were in four or five parts (violin I, violin II, viola, cello, and double bass), and there were pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and horns, sometimes trumpets, later clarinets, plus percussion.
--J. Merrill Knapp, The Magic of Opera

The musical world had been expanding for some years in directions other than opera. Major instrumental forms and orchestral organizations were becoming so developed there would soon be composers who would specialize in writing instrumental rather than vocal music. The cantata had been given an instrumental counterpart, the sonata, and a wealth of other instrumental chamber forms had developed. The symphonic form was well established, and the concerto had evolved into the form for virtuoso soloist and orchestra we know today. The idea of public recitals and concerts had begun and a miniature vocal form, the song, was becoming popular.

The period of Viennese Classicism--with its clarity and restraint--was brief, devastated at its very peak by the early death of Mozart (1756-1791). It would be followed by a new style, based on quite different values--subjectivity and overtly expressed emotion.


Early Romantic operatic composers viewed the old musical intensifiers, rhythmic motion and floridity, as too limiting and began to explore a previously underused expressive resource--amplitude. They soon found that the nature of the vocal instrument requires most singers to choose between amplitude and flexibility. Both qualities are rarely found, to the degree desired, in the same singer. As composers expanded their expressive vocabulary, employing either agility or amplitude as suited their purpose, singers had a practical choice to make: they would have to become specialists and prepare themselves as either lyric or dramatic types.

The song (Lied ) became an increasingly interesting format as the Romantic poets produced poems filled with forthright emotion and heightened expressivity. Composers responded by exchanging old strophic and folksong-like forms for a through-composed manner more suited to their expressive needs. The song would become a major vocal genre but, designed as it was for the lyric voice and piano accompaniment, it did very little to extend the boundaries of vocalism. Still, as poetry by the likes of Heine, Rückert and Eichendorff had more substance than the lines of even the finest operatic libretti, the song provided an alternate vocal format with heightened poetic and intellectual values. In this way it played a useful part in the Romantic trend, guiding vocal writing away from its previous virtuosic bias and toward a literary one.

In opera, the development of more forceful singing soon led to an expansion of the full-voice range. The emergent tenor voice provides an interesting example. Until now, A  had been the top full-voice pitch for tenor, though such artists as Giovanni Rubini (1794-1854) and Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) were singing up to F  above high C  in a mixed voice or reinforced falsetto manner. About 1835 the first full-voice, declamatory high C  came from the throat of one Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896). Rossini prophetically described the sound as "the squawk of a capon having it's throat cut." But the die had been cast, and both increased amplitude and extended range soon became basic to the new dramatic vocal style. (To put Duprez's accomplishment in perspective, it should be noted the Paris Opera tuning of the time put C  at the frequency of 446, making it a slightly sharp high A  in modern terms.) Vibrato, formerly reserved for occasional use as an ornament, unavoidably attended more powerful singing and would soon become ubiquitous. Rubini was notorious for this new vibrato presence and must also be held responsible for the creation of the tenor sob.

High and powerful quickly replaced agile and ornate as dramatic intensifiers and the vocal feats of choice, and the musici   were doomed. Mozart was the last great composer to write anything enduring for them--the motet Exsultate, Jubilate  (with its famous Alleluia ), and La Clemenza di Tito. Napoleon outlawed castration in Italy in 1806. The French had never embraced it, and England last heard a musico   in 1844. The last musico , Alessandro Moreschi, a member of the Papal Choir, died in 1922, but not before making some now historic phonograph recordings.

The tenor, the male voice with the highest gamut, fell heir to the musico's   position. With this adjustment the distribution of operatic roles, based on voice type and gender instead of vocal skills, became established and remains essentially unchanged to this day. Only Rossini's operas, featuring the dramatic coloratura contralto, in both male and female roles, remain as significant exceptions. Today, the basic voice-type labels (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) have become generic terms. In Italy, for example, the quality of an operatic tenor's voice can now be further defined with such terms as eroico, drammatico, di forza, robusto, lirico spinto, lirico, di grazia, di mezzo carattere, leggiero   and tenorino . Such specialized nomenclature reflects the variety of demands found in today's repertory.

A simple high-note count for the tenor roles of several operas of this period and later, demonstrates just one aspect of the situation:

Guillaume Tell I Puritani Tannhäuser La Bohème
G 456 153 143 52
Ab 93 13 52 45
A 92 35 24 11
Bb 54 4 - 8
B 15 4 - -
C 19 - - 1
C# 2 3 - -
D - 2 - -
F - 1 - -

The new, louder dramatic vocal style allowed the size of opera houses to be enlarged again. Technical improvements included wing areas adjacent to the stage, a prompter's box and an enlarged orchestra pit. The conductor's location within the pit was becoming standardized so the players would, while facing him, direct their sound toward the audience rather than toward the stage. Some houses built in this period still stand, or have been rebuilt to their original plans, and are in active use today. Audience capacity had expanded manyfold over the past century, and houses seating several thousands were no longer unusual. The capacity of the La Scala opera house built, in Milan in 1778, was 3,600, that of the San Carlo, built in Naples in 1816, was 3,500.

Even these figures fail to reflect the increasing physical dimensions of the houses. Seats were being installed for every ticket holder, and the space these required expanded the size of the auditoriums considerably compared to when most of the audience stood. Nothing like an acoustical science yet existed to guide the architects who planned these structures, yet most of them are very satisfactory in this regard. Empirical design knowledge and an abundant use of wood in the auditorium yielded the results they wanted.

Bigger houses inevitably required louder orchestras and, by 1816, the La Scala orchestra had a string section of fifty players, many of whom probably had the neck of their old instrument strengthened so they could use the high tension stringing that had come into vogue because of the brighter, louder tone it provided. Instead of two winds and brass, large houses used three or four in a section and mechanical improvements in these instruments were increasing their amplitude. Special instruments like the English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and modern harp were also being introduced.

Opera was over two centuries old and a considerable repertoire had been amassed. Seasons were no longer devoted primarily to newly commissioned pieces, but included revivals of previous productions and operas that had been premiered elsewhere. If works were old fashioned, the practice was to revise them so they would conform to the practices then current. Female artists donned armor and false moustaches to sing former musico   roles, and old operas were rescored to reflect contemporary orchestral abilities. All works worthy of being revived were accorded such treatment, often by the best current composers. It was no less than Mozart who revised Handel's Messiah  by writing additional orchestral parts for it. So it was that old roles, which had been carefully tailored to previous generations of artists, were increasingly imposed upon current performers, to be sung in significantly enlarged theaters, while contending with expanded accompaniments.

In many large opera houses, the growing tendency was to support a permanent company, with a large roster of resident singers. There were obvious managerial benefits in having more than one singer available to undertake a role on short notice, or of playing an opera 'in repertory', with different singers performing it on alternate nights. Having a ready supply of native artists, capable of singing national or regional works in the vernacular, was also useful. It may have been the conversion from the stagione  to the repertory system that occasioned the rise of a new personage--the artist's representative or agent. As singers were increasingly hired for specific productions, rather than entire seasons, their agents could bargain on their behalf for the most desirable roles and conditions.

Opera was no longer completely dominated by Italian artists. Other countries had developed their musical and vocal resources well enough to make worthy contributions to the genre. The Germans brought ponderous sobriety to their works and lent an increasing import to the orchestra in their operas. The French developed the elements of epic grandeur, pageantry and scope, employing massive choral scenes and lengthy ballets. Their expensive costuming and lavish scenic effects became the standard for what is still called Grand Opera. The subtle interaction between a culture's spoken language and its music, contributed to the disparate voice-training methods and goals that evolved in the major European countries. These methods still differ in a variety of ways, and readers interested in this subject should read the detailed study by Miller listed in the bibliography.

The Italians went their way. Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Italy's foremost early Romantic composer, maintained "Opera is voice, voice, voice!" and, though pointedly writing out the ornamentation he wanted, generally held to the conservative, florid vocal style. His compatriots, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), joined him in this and established that brief span of creativity many revere as the age of BEL CANTO .

Their development of the cabaletta   format is of interest:

....[the] cabaletta  was a fast, vehement aria or duet, of extremely crude form and sentiment; it always came after a slower, quieter piece for the same singer or singers, and served to provide a rousing curtain. The form was strophic, and of the simplest pattern (AABA or ABB); the accompaniment consisted of a mechanically repeated polonaise or fast march rhythm. Between the slower aria and its cabaletta, a passage of recitative or parlante   served to present some sort of excuse for the singer to change his mind.
-- Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama

In his single attempt at theatre music, the other towering master of the time, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), wrote a Singspiel   based on a rescue plot. For our purpose it contributed little, save one minor innovation: he had the orchestra play while some spoken dialogue was being delivered. This idea of melodrama (to use the word in its original sense) was just one more step toward the next major development in opera; the increasing integration and merging of its formal units.

GLOSSARY of terms capitalized in the text.

Italian for beautiful singing. The term was not in common use until about 1880, when it may have been used in reaction to the Wagnerian vocal style. In present usage it usually refers to the Italian singing methods of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries (particularly the early Romantic period) with its emphasis on virtuosity and beauty of tone.

Ornamentation used to embellish the cadence of an aria, usually on a 6/4 chord before its resolution to the dominant in the closing formula. It was introduced by Italian opera singers in the late seventeenth century and soon after that in the German style. The French did not use it until nearly a century later. Among the many conventions that applied to it: it should begin with a messa di voce , last no longer than the duration of a single breath, and end with a trill.

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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.