When Claudio Monteverdi was asked by the elder son of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga to provide a "fable in music" for the local learned academy, he could hardly refuse. Collaborating with the young poet and court secretary, Alessandro Striggio as librettist, Monteverdi created the fable of Orfeo. Its two performances were small local events, but the power of Orfeo's drama and the charm of its music have turned it into a timeless classic whose success would have astounded the few dozen Mantuan aristocrats present at the first performance.
In 1607 the forty-year-old Monteverdi was living in the northern city of Mantua with his wife, Claudia, and his two surviving children (Francesco, five years old, and Massimiliano, three; an infant daughter had died). He had served the duke as chief musician for seventeen years, beginning as a string player and singer at court.
Monteverdi's duties weighed heavily on him at this time. He complained in 1608 that "the fortune I have known in Mantua for nineteen consecutive years has given me more occasion to call it misfortune, and inimical to me, and not friendly." He went on to lament the out-of-pocket expenses that made the duke's glorious service more burdensome than rewarding.
But although Monteverdi may have been a servant at home, his reputation as a producer of contemporary music extended beyond Mantua. He had published eight collections of vocal music; his recent books of madrigals had enjoyed five reprintings; and more reprints, and more music, were in the works. He was, as he called himself on the title page of his fourth book of madrigals, "Maestro della musica del Sereniss. Sig. Duca di Mantova" (Master of the music of the Most Serene Lord Duke of Mantua). He was in charge of music for the entire ducal establishment, and as such responsible not only for organizing the day-to-day concerts and musical recreations but also for providing music for important court events. He was enormously busy, reported his brother, Giulio Cesare Monteverdi, in the preface to Claudio's Scherzi musicali of 1607, "because of his responsibility for both church and chamber music, but also because of other extraordinary services, for, serving a great prince, he finds the greater part of his time taken up, now with tournaments, now with ballets, now with comedies and various concerts, and lastly with the playing of the two viole bastarde."
Orfeo, together with the opera Arianna, produced the following year, was a turning point for Monteverdi. As his fame grew, he spent much time away from Mantua and within a few years was appointed maestro di cappella of Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice, a job he was to hold from 1613 until his death, in 1643.
Orpheus in Music
The myth of Orpheus tells universal human truths about duty and desire, passion and persuasion, life and deathnatural and timeless subjects for meditation and representation. The story has various versions, but at the center are the singer Orpheus and the beautiful Euridice. When Euridice dies and is taken to the underworld, Orpheus follows where no mortal is allowed and through the power of his song convinces Pluto to allow Euridice to return to the upper world. There is only one condition: that as he leads Euridice upward, he must not look back to see whether she is following.
It is a story about the relationship of heart to mind, of emotion to reason: Orpheus leads Euridice out of the underworld, but his emotion gets the better of his reason, he does look back, and he loses Euridice forever. This moment speaks to us all and is retold in thousands of ways in song, story, fable, and theater. Children who shout at puppets to warn the downstage character about the upstage policeman with the club always know that the club will strike. We want to shout at Orpheus not to look back, yet we know he will look back. The story is always gripping, because we are Orpheus.
But this is also the tale of a singer and of the power of music, of the demigod Orpheus, whose music charms wild beasts and almost gets him into the realm of the dead. And, at least in this telling, it is a story of Orpheus's father, Apollo, god of the sun and of music (an art named for the muses who consort with Apollo on Mount Parnassus). Such a story, in which music is central to the plot, serves as a particularly suitable vehicle for sung drama, especially in the new recitative style of that time, which distinguished between speaking and singing.
It is often a problem in opera to get used to hearing people sing what we normally say ("Where is the soap?"), though once we get used to it, we understand the convention that someone singing on the stage is representing someone speaking in the nonoperatic world. But then it becomes difficult to represent singing onstage, for if singing represents speech in the world, what could represent a song in life? The recitative supports this distinction handsomely, for its declamatory style is really akin to speech in its speed, its rhythms, and its lack of the more unspeechlike traits of melodyexceptionally long notes, many notes per syllable, and so forth. And if this is used onstage for speech, as it is in Orfeo and other works of its kind, then song can be used for song, and the difference will be clear. Orfeo sings songs in the opera: in act 2; when he tries to cross the Styx; and when he rejoices at the prospect of seeing Euridice again. We immediately recognize these as songs from a great singer. So what better subject for an opera, particularly one in the new recitative style, than one about the most famous singer of legend?
Almost four centuries after its creation, Orfeo can still charm us, because it tells a universal story and does so with breathtakingly beautiful songs and speeches. Some will say that it stands at the threshold of the history of opera, that it foreshadows great things to come, that it is an early version of an art form that will later be more highly developed. But that is to look at a future that in 1607 did not yet exist. Nevertheless, we recognize today much of what the Mantuans heard. We hear individual performers delivering their lines in a rhythm not unlike that of speech and being accompanied by a changing combination of chord-playing instruments: harpsichords, lutes, harps, organs, and sometimes the snarling regale (a little organ with reed pipes). We also notice those parts oriented more toward musical form: beautiful songs, spirited dance rhythms, grand choruses, lively instrumental interludes. We hear a wide variety of instrumental colors: strings, recorders, trumpets, trombones, cornetti (a cornetto is a finger-hole wooden instrument with a trumpet mouthpiece that creates a clear and radiant sound). Our first impression, in short, is one of high drama combined with opulent variety. But it is not the opulence of nineteenth-century grand opera. Orfeo at its origin is intimate and exclusive, and it is extravagant only in the amount of care lavished on a small private entertainment.
Orfeo, unlike the other pieces in this book, was first performed not in public but in private, for a learned association, an academy of male nobles in the duke's palace in Mantua, at the end of the carnival season preceding Lent. Orfeo was a combination of learned experiment and courtly entertainment. The audience consisted of members of the academy, which held regular meetings in the palace, and some invited guests. Perhaps two hundred persons could have crowded in. After one further performance a few days later (to which women were invited), Orfeo was not heard again until the twentieth century.
If Orfeo was an academic exercise designed to intrigue those few members of an elite who could be its critics, how did it come to occupy such an important position in our own time, as the first great opera, as a masterpiece of expression and drama, as a brilliant musical kaleidoscope of genres and forms? In short, because of Monteverdi's musical genius. Although the persons for whom the performance was intended were perhaps an academic and courtly elite, they were also like us, in that they were moved as much as we are and fully aware of the universality of the myth of Orpheus. But they were more attuned than most of us to many details in the performance. They knew the story and understood every nuance of the poetry. They knew something of the musical and dramatic experiments in Florence that had preceded this version. They would instantly have seen how closely Orfeo was linked with the traditions of classical drama as codified by Aristotle. They were at home with the conventions of the pastoral setting from the poetry and drama of their own time. Some of the music sounded to them like the music they were used to at court, and some of it was entirely new in style and concept. So their appreciation must have been different, and perhaps richer, than ours. When we consider the world in which these people lived, and the things they expected to see, we may come to a more varied view of Orfeo and a deeper appreciation of its originalities.
In the beginning of the seventeenth century the Italian peninsula, geographically so distinct, was divided into many small and not-so-small territories, each with different currencies and units of measure and their own capital cities, ambassadors, and governments. The lower peninsula, including Naples and Sicily, was governed by viceroys appointed in Spain; the central portion, around Rome, was ruled by the pope; and the many smaller principalities to the north were ruled by princes and dukes. Piedmont, Savoy, Urbino, and Florence were all governed by hereditary rulers. Exceptional were the republics of Genoa and Venice, great seagoing powers whose dukes (or doges) were in principle elected and did not inherit their position. The balance of power among these dynastiesinfluenced by the pope's desire to possess Ferrara, the Spanish influence in Naples and Milan, the ambitions of the Austrian emperor, the duke of Savoy's long-standing desire to possess the principality of Monferrato (which belonged to the duke of Mantua)led to wars, arranged marriages between princely families, and many spies and armies.
In Monteverdi's day the city of Mantua (Mantova in Italian) was the center of an important dukedom, the capital of a Renaissance city-state, and the residence of a great prince and his court. Situated in the flat land of the Po Valley, the city was, as it still is, surrounded by lakes formed from widenings of the Mincio River. Since the fourteenth century the city and its territory had been ruled by the Gonzaga family; their imposing ducal palace, a combination of residence and fortress that had achieved enormous dimensions, was in itself a history of a family's involvement with the arts.
The city was rich: the twenty thousand ducats from the mills are an indication of the strength of the woolen trade; commerce and tradingmuch of it undertaken by the large Jewish communitymade Mantua a flourishing city.
Today the city center still retains its medieval and Renaissance layout and many of its old buildings. Grand palaces and private houses survive, along with piazzas suited for markets, public assembly, and evening strolls. The largest piazza fronts the largest building, the one that dominates the city in almost every way: the palace of the dukes. In the sixteenth century the palace was said to be the largest building in the world. It encloses many courtyards, hanging gardens, a large area for equestrian display (the Gonzagas were famous for their love of horses), the large Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara, a miniature version of the shrine of the Scala Santa in Rome, a fortress surrounded by a moat, and innumerable apartments, salons, galleries, and other necessary spaces, built and rebuilt from the fourteenth through the early seventeenth century.
A general economic decline around the turn of the seventeenth century marked the beginning of a downturn in Mantuan fortunes; the Gonzaga line expired, and the city, sacked by imperial troops in 1630, ultimately became a possession of Austria in 1708. But it is often on the protected farther slopes of the peaks that culture flowers most richly; and the early years of the seventeenth century were the culmination of a long period of important artistic patronage.
Vincenzo Gongaza, the forty-four-year-old reigning duke of Mantua and Monferrato since 1587, had done much to cultivate the arts. He inherited great wealth and power from his father, Guglielmo, and, like him, felt the desire, even the princely obligation, to employ his wealth in splendor, in largesse, and in generosity.
Vincenzo's military enthusiasm had led to a number of expensive campaigns, most recently against the Turks in 1601, though none brought much in the way of political gains. In recent years Vincenzo had retreated from active participation in government, relying for most decisions on his counselors and his duchess, Eleonora de' Medici. In his youth Vincenzo had led a life of pleasure; hunting, gambling, travel, amorous adventures, music, and theater had been his passions, and to these he returned in his later years. He was a generous patron, an attentive listener, a compassionate ruler, and his court was magnificent. He also succeeded in dissipating a substantial amount of the family wealth.
Mantua was in one sense a country, and in another a single household. The operation of a great princely court was no small matter. An enormous number of functionaries were needed to support the financial and administrative operations of the duchy, and a great many servants to maintain the life of the ducal family, the supporting nobles, and the court. Ducal accounts report the income from hundreds of properties, rents, and taxes, and the array of officials needed to administer and keep track of them all. No less important were the needs for a civil government to provide justice, peacekeeping, and other social services and for a standing army to provide defense.
The ducal householdas distinguished from the public administration and the management of private holdings elsewherewas in itself an enormous operation. Some eight hundred persons ("mouths," as they were called in court records) were on the ducal payroll. Aristocratic courtiers furnished particular services to the duke, his family, or his household; these included officers of the ducal chancery and secretariat, who had public functions but lived at the palace. Officials of the treasury included the guardia camera (chamber guards), five camerieri (stewards), two ushers, and an assistant, all overseen by a superintendent who in turn was assisted by a notary and a goldsmith. Various courtiers close to the duke were provided with income and housing; these might be friends, counselors, or they might be the artists, poets, musicians, philosophers, and scientists who add luster to the renown and the eminence of a great court. They might bear such titles as gentiluomo (gentleman), scudiere (squire), or coppiere (cupbearer). The duchess was surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting and any number of young pages. Alchemists were charged with producing poison gases for military strategy.
Other professional staff included scalchi (literally, carvers of meat) and staffieri (footmen), physicians, pharmacists, barbers, and medical assistants; tutors and spenditori (stewards), who made all the court's purchases; clergy for the services in the ducal chapel; and waiters, chamberlains, assistants, cooks, drapers, wood gatherers, gardeners, guards, servants for the pages, farriers, blacksmiths, bell ringers, clock-winders, and falconers. Not to mention the horses. The Gonzagas were enormously proud of their thoroughbreds, which in 1581 numbered 520, requiring substantial stables, pasture, and personnel.
The Gonzagas were among the great ruling princely houses of Europe. Vincenzo's maternal grandfather had been the emperor Ferdinand; his forebears included Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, who had presided over the Council of Trent in 1561. It was incumbent on a great prince to have a great court, which meant surrounding himself with the finest thinkers and artists and showing his grandeur in works of beauty and his nobility in acts of generosity. The dukes of Mantua amassed an enormous collection of valuable paintings and classical statuary.
The arts were important to society and in particular represented the taste, the wealth, and the status of princes, ruling houses, aristocrats, and wealthy bourgeoisie. The commissioning and decoration of churches, chapels, and palaces provided work for architects, painters, and sculptors and reflected glory at least as much on the patron as on the artist. Artists themselves held a kind of ambiguous status; they were respected for their talent, but their social standing as artisans prevented their full acceptance in a society where status was determined more by birth than by ability. In such a context, performing musicians played a role as servants, providing a pleasant background for courtly activities and occasionally giving performances that engaged the active attention of an audience. The status of composerswho usually were also performerswas sometimes a bit higher than that of other musicians, and the most respected composers sometimes found themselves in the company of intellectuals, scientists, and fellow artists engaged in discussions about the nature of beauty, the role of the arts in the good life, and the relationship of the arts as described by the ancients to the arts of today.
Since the fifteenth century the Gonzagas had been patrons of the finest artists and musicians in Italy and elsewhere. Isabella d'Este, wife of Marquis Francesco II and one of the greatest patrons of her time, died at Mantua in 1539; Leon Battista Alberti, the architect and theorist, served the Gonzagas, and his masterpiece, the Basilica of Sant'Andrea, stands in the center of Mantua; Andrea Mantegna, whose Camera degli sposi in the palace is one of the great monuments of Renaissance painting, was court painter from 1460 to 1506; Giulio Romano, painter and architect, died in 1546 after enriching Mantua with monumental works. Of musicians there were plenty, as we will see.
Duke Vincenzo had made considerable improvements in the grand ducal palace; with his architect and the Prefect of the Ducal Fabric, Antonio Maria Viani, he built the Galleria della Mostra (a splendid gallery to show off the most beautiful paintings and statues), the Loggia di Eleonora, and the outer portion of the Galleria degli Specchi and added a ducal theater (not yet built at the time of Orfeo: it opened the next year with the premiere of Monteverdi's Arianna, from which only the poignant lament survives). In Vincenzo's time the palace numbered more than five hundred rooms and, with the gardens, occupied some eight and a half acres.
Peter Paul Rubens went to Mantua in 1600 to serve Vincenzo and was based there for several years, though he seems to have spent much of that time in Rome. He painted three large canvases for the church of the Santissima Trinità, and in 1605 he finished the famous painting of the Gonzaga family adoring the Holy Trinity (the viewer of which might spend more time contemplating the Gonzagas than the Trinity).
Duke Vincenzo had a particular taste for the stage. Long before the opening of his new theater in 1608, he had arranged for regular visits of touring theatrical companies, like the Gelosi, the Accessi, and the Uniti. Such visiting companies, often made up of extended families of actors, provided all sorts of entertainment during their period of residence, from improvised low comedy to high rhetorical drama in verse. Women were regularly members of such companies, and in at least one case a woman was the head of the company, the chief actor, and a playwright. Plays were performed sometimes in the palace, sometimes in the public theater (the scena pubblica) in the town. The Jewish community of Mantua regularly performed plays for the duke, the court, and the public, often to mark the carnival season.
The duke's fondness for the theater and his taste for the pastoral were combined when he brought to court the poet Battista Guarini and repeatedly planned to stage his influential play Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) in the 1580s; this was finally performed, with musical interludes, in 1598. The spectacle was to include an amorous game of blindman's buff, with dance and singing to music of Giangiacomo Gastoldia moment that may have inspired the balletto, the dance-song, of shepherds in the first act of Orfeo.
The poets of Italy engaged the duke's interest and dedicated works to him: Torquato Tasso, whose great Jerusalem Delivered served Monteverdi for his dramatic Combat of Tancred and Clorinda; Gabriello Chiabrera, source of many of Monteverdi's musical texts, including the 1607 Scherzi musicali; Guarini, whose Faithful Shepherd had a profound influence on Italian pastoral drama. In particular, Ottavio Rinuccini, the leading poet at the Medici court at Florence, had many discussions with the duke on musical and poetical subjects; and Rinuccini's own musical drama on the subject of Orpheus was to have a strong effect on Monteverdi's Orfeo.
Grand entertainments of all sorts were staged whenever an occasion presented itself: a wedding, a papal or imperial election, the birth of the son of the king of Spain (for which in 1605 special constructions and triumphal arches containing fireworks were displayed throughout the city); artistic supervision for such celebrations, and for all dramatic events, was in the hands of the court official Federico Follino, who selected themes and texts, supervised the construction of sets, and arranged for musicians and singers.
During Vincenzo's reign, music took on a particular importance in Mantua. After the drama, the duke was particularly fond of singers, especially female singers (the duchess thought him entirely too indulgent in this regard). He established a trio modeled after a famous group in nearby Ferrara, and the skill of the Mantuan ladies was soon known throughout Italy.
The composers of Mantua were a source of considerable pride, and the dissemination of the works of the ducal composers through printed editions brought prestige to Mantua and its ruling family. Monteverdi continued the Mantuan tradition of madrigals established by Giaches Wert and Benedetto Pallavicini. Salomone Rossi, composer of dances, Jewish liturgical music, and much else, was director of instrumental music (only in 1606 had he been honored by being excused from wearing on his hat the yellow badge that identified Jews). Ludovico da Viadana, whose Concerti ecclesiastici were to have such wide currency, was chapel master at the cathedral from 1593 to 1597. Giangiacomo Gastoldi was director of music at the ducal basilica of Santa Barbara; his balletti were imitated by the Englishman Thomas Morley, Queen Elizabeth's favorite, and other composers around the European world.
Music at Court
Although the court at Mantua had a distinguished group of professionals, anyone well educated was a musician of some sort. Singing, playing the lute or some other instrument, learning to read musicthese were all skills that a well-rounded member of a princely court was expected to acquire. Like dancing, fencing, and equestrian talents, musical skills were understood to contribute to the smooth and agreeable ordering of society and to create in the soul of the performer and the listener a pleasure that was one of the delights of social intercourse. Baldassare Castiglione, born of a noble family near Mantua, described what a courtier ought to acquire in the way of music in his treatise The Book of the Courtier, used as a model in many Italian courts: "I am not satisfied with our Courtier unless he be also a musician, and unless, besides understanding and being able to read music, he can play various instruments."
Most of the audience for Orfeo therefore had some musical ability and familiarity with songs, madrigals, instrumental music, and dance music. When they heard the songs and dances and choruses in Orfeo, they recognized a style of music in which they themselves participated and which they were able to judge and enjoy in a way that many of us are not. We are accustomed to a strong distinction between virtuosic performances by professionals and music made by amateurs, and we marvel at the skill of the trained musician. And whereas this distinction was certainly true in Mantuathere was indeed professional virtuoso performance and difficult musicit is also true that Orfeo is generally of a level of difficulty that is readily accessible to a musically competent listener. It is lovely music, and much of it sounds like music that one might sing or play oneself.
But a few places in Orfeo are so dazzlingly virtuosic that they move from the realm of normal music making to the realm of the expert: for example, the solos by Orfeo, a few instrumental passages, and some highly impressive duets and trios by nymphs and shepherds. These moments would have been especially impressive and noteworthy to listeners, who would instantly have recognized the expertise required of composer and performer.
Although music was a popular pastime for many, there was still a need for professional musicians. The receptions, feasts, and entertainments of court life required vocal and instrumental music; the regular concerts, competent performers and composers; and church services, a large stock of masses and motets.
What we know of the music of the court is limited mostly to the music published by Monteverdi and other Mantuan musicians. This gives us a look at the musica da camera (chamber music), the madrigals, solos, trios, and the scherzi musicali (literally, "musical jokes" or light song), the music that people actually listened to and that showed off the skills of the court singers. What it does not do is give us much of a look at the dance music, the occasional music, the music played by instruments for ceremonial occasions, or the trumpet music that accompanied the duke in the streets.
Monteverdi's job was extraordinarily difficult and taxing. Not exactly a servant, neither was he a genius in residence. Although his letters show him to be regularly in contact with the duke and the highest court officials with regard to providing music for specific occasions, Monteverdi newer felt that the compensation and respect given to him in Mantua came up to the standards of his music or of the quantity of his work. As noted, he was enormously busy, "now in tournaments, now in plays, now in balletti." A letter of 1611 from Monteverdi to Prince Francesco Gonzaga concerning some possible new musicians gives us an idea of the variety of jobs a musician had to perform: "His Highness the Prince ... very much likes not only to hear a variety of wind instruments, he also likes to have the said musicians play in private, in church, in procession, and atop city walls; now madrigals, now French songs, now airs, and now dance-songs." Three balli (theatrical dance scenes) published in Monteverdi's madrigal books give us a look at court entertainments for special occasions. These begin with short dramatic scenes (the shepherd Tirsi and the shepherdess Clori flirt; or the Poet is crowned by the Nymphs; or Pluto, Venus, and Cupid discuss ingratitude in love), and the opening scene is followed by a long series of dances. Like ballets in France and masques in England, these balli were entertainments that mixed theater and ballroom, musician and courtier, since the entertainment that began as a performance ended as an evening of social dancing for everyone.
The virtuosity required of the singers in Orfeo, and the rich variety of its instrumental colors, are a tribute to the depth and the strength of Mantuan music making. The musical establishment of the court included about fifteen singers, eight string players, several keyboardists, lutists, and guitarists (Spanish music was much in fashion), and a small number of wind players. Their job was to provide all the music necessary for court ceremonies, entertainments, worship, and such special occasions as called for music. They were directed by Monteverdi and by his assistant maestro di cappella, Don Bassano Casola. What we know about these performers helps us reconstruct the sound and the spirit of the original Orfeo, for most of them were involved in its performance.
The court of Mantua was known for its virtuoso singers. Duke Vincenzo had spent much time at Ferrara in the 1580s, and his musical establishment reflected something of the taste of the Este court, both in its personalities and its makeup. At Ferrara the concerto delle donne (the consort of ladies), for which so much impressive music was written by Luzzascho Luzzaschi, set a standard for virtuosity, established a new style of singing, and created a sound for which Ferrara was widely famous. Vincenzo Gonzaga created a similar ensemble at Mantua, as noted, though his interest may not have been exclusively musical: he seems to have shown a possibly unsuitable extravagance toward these ladies.
The singers available in Mantua, however, fell short of the number needed to stage Oreo. We will see shortly how outside help was sought, and how the casting was arranged.
The Culture of Orfeo
Given Duke Vincenzo's taste for the theater, the pastoral, and music, it seems entirely fitting that the three should come together, under the auspices of the local academy and through the guidance of his heir, in the performance of a musical pastoral for the theater on the subject of Orpheus. Orfeo is a courtly entertainment, the project of an intellectual academy, and as such reflects much of the intellectual activity of court life at that time.
The Accademia degli Invaghiti (the academy of the lovestruck, the fascinated, or those who have taken a fancy to something) was an association of gentlemen dedicated to the arts, poetry, rhetoric, and the courtly virtues. Academies like this, centered usually on noble courts, were common in Renaissance Italy. They had similar names (the Elevati, the Alterati, and so on), though each academy believed it had a special mission, an emphasis that set it apart from all the rest. Academies met to hear disputations, poems, rhetoric of various kinds (such as eloquent memorial minutes for deceased members) and to engage in elaborate ceremonies. Such academies, limited for the most part to aristocratic members, played a large part in the intellectual life of the time.
The Mantuan academy was founded in the 1560s by Cesare Gonzaga (duke of Guastalla, whose wife, Camilla Borromeo, was the pope's niece), and it originally met in Cesare's palazzo next to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. It was reorganized under Cesare's son Ferrante in the 1570s and occasionally gave theatrical productions to which the public might be invited. By Monteverdi's time the academy held its meetings in the palace under the protection of the duke, and its members included Francesco and Ferdinando Gonzaga. The court poet and diplomat (and Orfeo librettist) Alessandro Striggio was a member, but Monteverdi apparently was not; evidently intellectual and artistic rank were not always sufficient to guarantee membership in such a group. Striggio was an aristocrat and an important official of the court, and though other intellectuals and artists (Galileo Galilei, Peter Paul Rubens, for example) might hold protected positions as ornaments of a courtly nature, Monteverdi was an employeehighly respected and of the first rank among the musicians, to be sure, but still not suitable for membership in the Invaghiti.
In 1607 the Invaghiti were treated to such creations as an "Oration in Praise of St. George, the Valorous Cavalier of Christ," by Giulio Cesare Facipecore, and a discourse by Count Scipione Agnelli, not yet eighteen years old ("but in wisdom most aged") in praise of Saint Barbara, patroness of the ducal church. And in the same year, of course, the academy produced, under the leadership of Prince Francesco Gonzaga, the fable of Orfeo, written by their fellow member Striggio and set to music by the court composer.
The spectators at the first performance of Orfeo were instantly aware that they were being shown a drama in the classical tradition of Greece and Rome. The revival and study of the learning of classical antiquity, the humanism of the Renaissance, brought with it an interest in the expressive power of ancient music as reported by Plato and others. In the course of much discussion among scholars and artists, it was agreed that the power of classical drama owed much to the fact that its actors sang their roles, and that they sang not in the learned polyphony of the sixteenth century but in a sort of simple recitation with only the plainest of accompaniment.
The moment the allegorical Musica appeared in the prologue, the Mantuan audience knew what to expect. A prologue in classical tragedy, as defined by Aristotle, is whatever comes before the first chorus. Normally the prologue involves one individual (an actual person, e.g., a watchman) who sets the scene and engages the sympathy of the spectator. In classical comedy, the prologue is a figure who stands in for the author and speaks to the audience to gain their sympathy and introduce the plot. In this sense, Musica ("I am Music, who with sweet accent can calm any troubled heart"), who addresses the audience ("Famous heroes, of the noble blood of kings"), tells the plot ("Now I'll tell you of Orfeo"), and sets the scene ("Let no bird move among these trees; let no wave sound on these banks"), is a combination: she stands outside the action (as in comedy) but performs the traditional and expected role of classical drama (as in tragedy). This is not a comedy, and not a tragedy: it is a favola, a fable.
The spectators also knew the format of classical drama, made up of episodes (or acts), in which characters generally deliver long poetical speeches. Scenes of dialogue, in which actors alternate speech quickly, are reserved for special moments. In Orfeo these are the two highly dramatic moments when Orfeo loses Euridice: the first, when death removes her from the world, and the second, when Orfeo himself chooses passion over reason and looks back at her.
In classical theater the episodes, or acts as they are called in Orfeo, are separated by choral odes. Members of the chorus are part of the action (here, they are nymphs and shepherds or infernal spirits), but they also stand outside it and comment on it. In Orfeo, not only do they have individual speaking roles, but as a chorus they announce ("Ecco Orfeo!"Here comes Orfeo!) and react ("Ahi! Caso acerbo!"Ah, bitter event!). They also comment on the scene, especially between the acts, interpreting it to the spectators. "Mortal man should not put his faith in transitory things," they sing after Orfeo gets news of Euridice's death, "which suddenly flee away, and often a great ascent precedes a fall." In fact they get a bit preachy; after Orfeo is ejected from the underworld, the chorus makes the point plain: "Orfeo conquered the Inferno, and was then conquered by his passions; worthy of eternal glory should be only he who conquers himself." In yet another sense, they are ourselves, as they react to and reflect on what happens.
Orfeo is also a pastoral drama, as any good courtier would have immediately recognized. The pastoral tradition is a poetic and dramatic convention in which shepherds and shepherdesses, always young and free, live in a beautiful natural environment of mountain, vale, stream, and meadow. It is a mythical time and place, where nymphs and shepherds associate with gods, where politics, economics, social difference, warfare, physical suffering, and aging have no place. A land where the weather is always good and the sheep need no tending, allowing its inhabitants to explore the things that matter: love and its complexities. The elimination of external distractions makes the pastoral the locus par excellence for the study of emotional states and for the display of the changing passions that is the theme of poet and dramatist and the delight of the sensitive spectator.
The pastoral idyll, which has a tradition stretching back to classical Greece and Rome, was revived in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian poetry and drama. At the end of the fifteenth century, Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia set the stage for the revival. "Back then the greatest gods did not disdain / to lead their sheep in wood and meadowland / and, as we do today, they used to sing" (Arcadia, published in 1502, sixth eclogue). Pastoral drama had included Torquato Tasso's Aminta (1573) and Guarini's The Faithful Shepherd (1589), a piece of enormous popularity and influence all over Europe. Everybody knew it. Musicians used texts from this play for madrigals and canzonette (lighter songs).
We are not much inclined to pastorals nowadays. But we too have conventional settings: the Western, the television sitcom, the detective novel. The value of such formats is their efficiency: we understand much in advancefor example, the setting and the general shape of the plot; and we know that this is a world especially constructed for our delight.
If gods and heroes occasionally invade Arcadia, they do so that the mythological setting, at once real and timeless, might contribute by its unreality to our focus on things internal. And it is entirely suitable that Orfeo should find himself in an Arcadian environment, for the pastoral setting is a place of recreation, of poetry and music.
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