Rossini and the Development of the Mid-Century Lyric Form

Scott L. Balthazar
1988 Journal of the American Musicological Society  
antilena, e cantilena sempre, e cantilena bella, e cantilena nuova, e cantilena magica, e cantilena rara" was for Giuseppe Carpani ( 824, 74-75), librettist and noted critic of primo ottocento opera, the highest achievement of his Italian contemporaries and particularly of the greatest among them, Gioachino Rossini. Melody was central to the operatic experience, generating the emotional impact of Italian music and distinguishing it from foreign operatic traditions. And Rossini's particular
more » ... i's particular treatment of melody was a salient feature of his personal style that separated him from his followers. His melismatic canto ideale, a "noble, simple, florid, impassioned song" ("canto nobile, semplice, fiorito, appassionato"), gave way in the I83os and 40os to a plainer canto declamato in the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.' Rossini professed a distaste for this development that might have been predicted from the style of his own music.2 Even his last opere serie, Maometto II, Zelmira, and Semiramide, show in traditionally cantabile movements little of the impulse toward declamation that would infuse Bellini's writing only a few years later.' Rossini's conservative handling of lyrical detail has, I think, encouraged modern scholars to see his melodic style as conservative in other ways as well. Form has assumed particular importance in this regard because of the attention given to it in a series of studies by Friedrich Lippmann. Lippmann has distinguished two categories in Rossini's melodies: i) "open" melodies containing free successions of short phrases separated by pauses and decorated with colorature; and 2) *I wish to thank Professors Philip Gossett, Roger Parker, and Gary Tomlinson for reading drafts of this paper and making many helpful suggestions. 1 Mazzatinti and Manis 1902, 332. See Lippmann 1969a, 295-97, for a discussion of early assessments of "canto ideale" and "canto declamato." 2 See his letters of 28 June and 26 August 1868 in Mazzatinti and Manis 1902, 325-27 and 329-33. 3 Lippmann has noted Rossini's use of declamatory melody primarily in the active opening movements of duets. See Lippmann 1968, 825-26. On the rise of declamatory melody in Bellini and Donizetti, see Lippmann 1969b, 84, and Lippmann 1966, 96. This content downloaded from on Mon, 8 Dec 2014 12:25:38 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions DEVELOPMENT OF THE MID-CENTURY LYRIC FORM I03 "closed" melodies incorporating longer phrases arranged in more regular periodic groupings. In contrast to Rossini's dual approach, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi wrote closed melodies almost exclusively.4 Lippmann has also argued that Rossini's closed melodies exhaust their thematic content in an initial pair of antecedentconsequent phrases (A A', the section sometimes referred to as the "thematic block" in mid-century melody).s Composers after Rossini, on the other hand, tended to follow a longer, four-phrase structure that usually involves thematic return (A A' B A' or a variant of this arrangement). Lippmann (1981, 428) has attributed the creation of the most concise version of this form to Bellini. Although Lippmann's distinctions successfully establish the overall direction in which composers were moving during this period, they contribute little to our understanding of the actual process of stylistic transformation. Furthermore, they imply that Rossini's participation in that process was minimal, an assumption that deserves further investigation. Rossini's preference for the florid style of melody would not necessarily have precluded a symmetrical treatment of the underlying form. In fact, he might have seen the simplicity and directness inherent in the mid-century design as enhancing the popular appeal of his melodies.6 Thus we have not sufficiently examined the possibility that Rossini-the composer who revitalized Italian serious opera early in the century, who influenced innumerable aspects of its later development, and whose melodies embodied Carpani's ideal of cantilena bella-might also have sown the seeds of Bellinian lyric conventions. In the present study I will suggest that Rossini did play a substantial role in the development of the mid-century lyric form. Its 4 For discussions of closed and open melody, see Lippmann 1968, 8 u7-25, and Lippmann i969c, 154-69. Parts of the latter study have been revised and translated as Lippmann 198 I. See pp. 427-28. On Bellini and Donizetti's abandonment of open melody in the i83os, see Lippmann 1966, 82-83 and 96. 5 Lippmann 1966, ioi. In Lippmann's words (my translation), "In the case of Italian arias composed between 18oo and i830 one must generally be happy if, after the musical idea of the initial measures or else of its corresponding phrase, still other ideas follow. Generally, in Rossini's operas too, true melodic elaborations or even contrasting ideas are unusual, except of course in songs laid out like rondos such as the famous entrance arias of Figaro and Rosina. With only a bit too much exaggeration it can be said that one knows an Italian aria movement of that time if one knows its beginning. Indeed, one often knows it if one only knows four measures; whoever [is] intimate with the style hears the corresponding phrase in advance." 6 Tomlinson (1988) has also noted the "populist" aspect of the Bellinian lyric form. (I wish to thank Professor Tomlinson for giving me a pre-publication manuscript of his study.) See also Tomlinson 1982, 176-77.
doi:10.2307/831752 fatcat:kx4m3dai2zey3pk6egu5orugxu