With its internal units--the da capo aria, secco recitative and arioso--well defined, and the experimental phase of its theatrical presentation completed, Baroque opera would enjoy a period of relative stability. Still, the processes of formulization and refinement of detail that took place had their effects on singing.


The structure of the da capo aria was built on musical key relationships and became rigidly established. An opening section established the basic tonality with a tonic-dominant-tonic pattern. This was followed by a second section, in a related key, using new material and the same three-part modulation plan. The entire opening section was then repeated, with the expectation the singer would use this opportunity to display his taste, virtuosity and imagination in the highly esteemed art of ornamentation, and it should be understood that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries singers probably never executed a solo part as it was written.

To have arias specially written to favor their vocal skills gave singers an important display opportunity. Apparently every singer thought his role should be so graced, and rules had to be established to control the order and distribution of arias within the opera. Each performer was to have at least one aria in each act, but no one might have two in succession. No aria could be followed immediately by another of the same type, even though performed by a different singer. Lesser artists must have fewer and less important arias than the leading artists (see ICE CREAM ARIA), and so on. There was also an irresistible temptation to carry a few especially favoring arias with one (they were called arie di baule --luggage arias) and, should the composer of the next opera not produce anything quite as complimentary, interpolate (insert) one's tried and true aria into the new work. It was this kind of thinking--viewing operas as an assemblage of interchangeable parts--by not only the singers, but by deadline-pressured librettists and composers, which ultimately led to the pasticcio , a work in which nearly everything was borrowed from other sources and simply strung together to create a 'new' whole. The idea of musical copyright was several centuries away.

Handel's oratorio, Messiah, dated 1741, has become the best known work of this period and though it is not an opera, it serves to illustrate many major aria types of the time. Da capo arias were used less frequently in oratorio than in opera, and there are only two in Messiah: He was Despised  (technically, a dal segno  ) and The Trumpet shall Sound, though the bravura bass aria, Why do the Nations, is an implied one. They are almost never performed as such today. With the growing tendency to classify and formulize, arias were carefully categorized:

The aria cantabile   was characterized by a smooth, gentle melody that, combined with a simple accompaniment, gave ample opportunity for ornamentation by the singer. The text usually dealt with a gentle or tender subject. (He shall Feed His Flock like a Shepherd  demonstrates the style. )

The typical aria di portamento   was strong in rhythm, slow in movement and had frequent sustained notes that offered many opportunities for embellishment. It used a flowing, sedate accompaniment and dealt with a dignified, grand or sublime subject. (I know that my Redeemer liveth ).

The aria di mezzo-carattere   usually employed an andante tempo and a rich, full accompaniment. It had less pathos and restraint, but more dramatic power than either of the types mentioned above. (O Thou that Tellest ).

The aria di bravura   employed an allegro tempo and was often written simply as an opportunity to display the singer's agility, range or skill of execution. (Rejoice Greatly ).

The aria parlante , also called agitata   or infuriata , was a declamatory opportunity for the expression of emotion and passion. It had few long notes and little opportunity for ornamentation. The rapidity of motion was proportionate to the violence of the passion expressed. A syllabic vocal line and elaborate accompaniment were usual. (Thou Shalt Break Them ).

In the aria d'imitazione , the voice imitated the trumpets, flutes or violins, and the text often involved natural phenomena: storms, bird calls or the hunt. Echo effects and coloratura duels between the singer and a solo instrument were often involved. (The Trumpet Shall Sound ).

In the Protestant countries, oratorio developed in parallel with the opera and for musical purposes they are very similar. Based on sacred subjects, the oratorio and Passion (an oratorio dealing with the death of Christ) were performed without the visual trappings of the theater. The role of the chorus was more prominent and vigorous in oratorio than opera and, when performance in a church setting allowed it, the organ often played a prominent part in oratorio accompaniments. The orchestra, not being limited by the size of a theatrical orchestra pit, was often enlarged.

Librettists and composers viewed arias as discrete units, each of which could be devoted to the expression of a specific mood (affect). Dramatic situations were contrived to allow as much variety in these mood states as possible, even though the progression and unity of the plot might suffer as a result. And always, important words in the text were set with appropriately descriptive WORD PAINTING devices.

The Doctrine of Affections, a set of musical cliches or melodic conventions...became the established technique for the composition of vocal works. Its basis was the attempted analogy between music and speech....Related to this doctrine was the restriction to one mood (or affect) in each aria: joy, sadness, jealousy, anger. Because of this limitation, much Baroque music is monothematic.
--Elaine Brody, Music in Opera

As producers and impresarios tried to establish and maintain their audiences in an increasingly competitive field, they sought to present the best performers available. Gifted singers found themselves increasingly in demand and, as box office attractions, their position within the hierarchy of the opera company rose considerably. Opera had become the entertainment industry of its time, and the finest singers were becoming stars of international renown. The losers in this process were the stage designers, for librettists no longer centered their plots on sensational scenic effects but instead sought ways to feature and favor the new vocal stars. No doubt the funds formerly devoted to constructing stage machinery were now being used to attract famous singers.

New theaters were constantly being built, reflecting not only the rising public demand for entertainment, but also the fact these buildings sustained a heavy risk of fire. Most were wooden structures and any carelessness with the lamps and candles used for stage lighting doomed them. The result provided opportunities for renewal and, inevitably, enlargement of the theaters. Increasing the capacity of the house--with all its implications for increased orchestra size and louder singing--was yet another way to provide more box office revenue to pay the fees of the new stars.

Until the end of the seventeenth century the English playhouses had wide, deep aprons that extended as far forward from the proscenium arch as the stage proper stretched behind....The modifying of this platform stage was one of the most important changes made in this era in the structure of theatres.....About 1696...the manager of Drury Lane Theatre cut off part of the apron stage in order to gain extra room in the theatre....The orchestra now had its place in front of the stage and was no longer in a box or gallery.....Covent Garden Theatre, opened in 1732, was 51 feet from the stage to the back of the boxes. The owner economized on space by allowing only 21 inches per person.
--Benjamin W. Griffith, Jr., The Beggar's Opera

The basic system of resident company members and visiting artists--which exists in many companies today--was forming, as were new ideas of role assignments. Each company had a prima donna   (first lady), a soprano who played the part of the heroine, and a seconda donna , an alto, whose role usually made her the heroine's confidant or rival (or both!). There was also a primo uomo   (first man), who was a musico   (as the castrati were now called) and played the hero and central character, and a secondo uomo , a basso, who played a variety of roles--villain, priest, king or father--depending upon the story. These primary singers were usually foreigners, often Italian, hired at great expense to sing with the company for the season. A small group of resident singers was maintained to fill out the plot requirements with a variety of small roles: duennas, maids, messengers and conspirators. These singers were called comprimari : those who perform 'with the primary' artists.

The style of acting, like everything about opera at this time, was highly formulized. It consisted mainly of stock poses assumed by the singers as they moved to traditional locations on the stage that comported primarily with their importance as performers and only indirectly with the dramatic situation of the characters they were representing. Strong emotions were not portrayed and, as in ancient Greek drama, violent action took place off-stage and was reported by messengers as having occurred. There was a good deal of coming and going, for convention required that a singer exit the stage immediately after delivering an aria, thereby giving opportunity for the departing performer to be applauded. If audience reaction warranted it, the singer was expected to return and repeat (encore ) the aria with different, more impressive improvisatory flourishes. Woe be to any performer unable to improvise new ornaments and capable only of repeating his previous 'improvisation'!


The musici , were easy targets for ridicule as well as admiration, unmistakable not only in their vocalism but in their physical appearance as well. Their operation feminized them and while some were extolled for their physical beauty and could have passed for women, many became quite tall and carried abnormally large rib cages on poorly developed legs. There is some difference of opinion concerning their acting skills. It is recorded that the great Farinelli, the most famous musico , "stood perfectly still when he sang and made few gestures." But an observer wrote of another, Nicolini, "His action was so significant that a deaf man might go along with him in the sense of the part he acted." On balance, they probably acted no better or worse than other singers, though we know of one musico , Guadagni, who studied acting with one of the best actors in Europe. He may just have been a uniquely adventuresome person, as he also sang the Messiah  under Handel and so was probably the first musico   to perform in a language other than Italian.

That the musici  could sing was not disputed:

The vocal range of the musico seems not to have been remarkable for its extent, but his facility in execution was stupendous. Composers and singers strove ever to invent new feats of vocal jugglery with which to bewilder and delight the public. The flexibility of Farinelli's voice was so highly developed that the violins in the orchestra could not follow him in his flights. Cafarelli was renowned for the perfection of his trill and was the first to embellish his airs with rapid chromatic scales.
--Francis Rogers, The Male Soprano

Trained as thoroughly in the art of ornamentation as they were in vocalism, these phenomenal virtuosos expected, like all singers, to elaborate and complete the composer's musical outline with their improvisations. In doing so, they gained a hold over their audiences comparable to the most popular entertainers of today. Their fame and fortune was so alluring it became the dream of many poor families that their son might help them escape poverty through such a career. Riding the crest of public adulation, it seems the musici   should have little fear for their future. Yet in reality their fabulous FIORITURA   displays were becoming excessive and badly slowing the movement of the already meager drama. The restless public would soon find the light, comic interludes (intermezzi ) performed between the acts of the serious operas--like half-time shows in modern day sporting events--were more to their liking than the main event.


These intermezzi , which soon developed into comic opera (opera buffa ), did not derive from a musical tradition, but came instead from the old Italian COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE   and other theatrical traditions. Their plots were more realistic and direct than the stilted, formalized ones of serious opera (opera seria ) and their characters were broadly drawn and entertaining. Small casts of three or four singers and actors romped through secco recitatives, arias and several formats rarely used in opera seria : duets, quartets and ensemble finales. The buffo   acting style was relatively realistic and the emphasis was on the entertaining situation rather than the singing. There was no place for the musico   in such works. His vocal skills weren't needed and the artificiality he represented had no place in the realism of comedy.

Small touring companies took these lively buffa   entertainments all over Europe, playing their part in popularizing and establishing the genre. Opera seria   slowly assimilated many features of the comic style: more melodious, often folksong-like arias, a range of small vocal ensemble forms, the rapid patter song (often assigned to the basso, thereby increasing the importance of this voice type), the advancement of the tenor from comic or character parts to the role of the lover, and a variety of aria forms, including a new type of cantabile   aria, often cast in a minor key and using chromatic harmonies.

The final decades of the Baroque era saw the gradual return of the chorus to opera seria   and several significant changes in musical instruments. The organ, harpsichord and lute family had their lower ranges extended and the string bass joined the orchestra. The violin family with its warm, singing tone replaced the cooler, more restrained instruments of the viol family. The bassoon and oboe replaced the Renaissance shawm and crumhorn, and the clarinet and French horn joined the orchestra. The idea of EQUAL TEMPERAMENT in tuning started to gain acceptance and the vox humana   stop, the tremulant   and swell box (a crescendo and diminuendo device) were invented for the organ.

The alternation of forte and piano was now widely used as an aid to expression. New, graduated dynamics, dependent not merely on the actual nature of the instrument, but also on the personal control of the performer, won increasing favor, and the instrument-makers took this tendency into account.
--Karl Geiringer, Instruments in the History of Western Music

So it was that a new keyboard instrument was beginning to interest musicians. Unlike the harpsichord or the organ, it could produce a wide variety of dynamics, depending upon how strongly its keys were depressed. Its Italian developer named it after this novel and useful feature, calling it the 'loud-soft' or fortepiano .

Not everybody welcomed such a newfangled machine. One old-fashioned German composer, a certain J. S. Bach, had little use for it and never owned one or wrote any music for it. But the trend was toward acceptance not only of the instrument but of the underlying idea. Music would be getting louder.

GLOSSARY of terms capitalized in the text.

A very old Italian theatrical format in which recurring characters such as Arlecchino (Harlequin), Colombina and Pantaloon improvised plays based on stock situations: a crafty valet, the rich old man who is duped, the pedantic doctor, the pert maidservant, etc. Such famous operatic characters as Figaro, Don Pasquale, Doctor Bartolo and Despina clearly reflect this ancestry.

Also called gorgia(e), embellishments or divisions. A variety of ornamental vocal elements, many of them centuries old, were in common use at this time and, of course, categorized. Practice varied, but the writing in of ornaments by composers was generally frowned upon as being an intrusion on the creative prerogatives of the performer and detrimental to the visual clarity of the melodic line. The most common ornaments:

Convention required that even small roles--those cast with young, inexperienced singers or aging ones with waning powers--be given an aria. The audience looked forward to these contrived, vocally limited spots as an opportunity to leave the theater briefly and, without missing anything important, go have ice cream. Berta's aria, in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, is a late, easily accessed example.

There are small differences in the acoustical distance between the pitches in the scale of each musical key. A subtle, equalizing, mis-tuning (tempering) of these intervals, while effacing the distinctive acoustical profile of the key, makes it possible for instruments to modulate without having to be continually re-tuned. The idea took a century to be universally accepted and, in that it enabled more facile movement between tonal centers, may be considered the first in a series of steps leading toward modern-day atonality.

The setting of descriptive and important words with melismas, altered 'exotic' intervals, striking dissonances or other appropriate treatment. For example, skips to low tones on such words as plunging  or abyss, or to high notes on heaven  or arise; melismas with wavy patterns on seas  or ocean, dissonant harmony on agony  or prolonged notes on endless  or eternal. This sort of writing, which glossed words with illustrative musical configurations, visual or audible, pervaded the last half of the Baroque period and culminated in the works of Bach and Handel.

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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.