Opera represents one of the highest levels of performing arts that Western Civilization has created, but where did it come from? In this lesson, we look at the beginning of Opera, starting with the late Middle Ages and then on to the Early Renaissance.
The First Operas
Imagine yourself in a medium sized town at the very beginning of the Renaissance. All your life, the only music you have heard is either the stodgy pipes of the church organ or the stringed instruments of the traveling minstrels. Then a new show comes to town. You take your seat and instantly hear new music, from multiple instruments.
This music sounds completely unlike anything else you’ve ever heard – it’s so pretty it’s almost ornamental. A curtain opens and you hear singing and see costumes and dancing. This really is something special! You could tell a lot of work went into this – fitting, since this new form’s name is Italian for work – opera.While today we may think that opera has been around since women in horned helmets first learned to sing, it really is a product of the Renaissance. The first works that we can even call real operas only came into being in the last 400 years or so. In this lesson, we’ll look at how it all came together and became one of the most refined arts of the Renaissance.
Drama in the Middle Ages
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, drama had been a high art form. However, during the Middle Ages, it was largely forgotten as an elevated form of performance. In fact, drama during the Middle Ages largely took on one of two varieties. It could be what were known as mystery plays, which were meant to teach the tenets of Christianity to a population that was largely illiterate. While these sound harmless enough, the Church loathed the fact that drama could take some of their influence and tried to limit their expansion. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there were much more basic plays. These acts largely appealed to the lowest common denominator and, in many ways, resembled something like a live-action South Park.
It was out of the latter of these two that the great dramas of the early Renaissance, most notably Shakespeare’s writings, would evolve. After all, a lot of Shakespeare’s work is pretty crass, even if the writing is beautiful. Later, in cases like the ballets de cour and masque, these dramas were combined with significant amounts of dancing, as well as some music. Still, as drama continued to evolve throughout the Renaissance, it was clear that even the best acting and dancing had a natural partner in the new musical abilities of the day.
In the last few decades, advances in technology have lead to entirely new sounds emerging in music.
After all, techno would be largely impossible without the sounds of these new instruments. A similar event happened during the Renaissance, but this time with stringed instruments.Before, stringed instruments were largely just lyres and fiddles, constructed without real concern for large-scale use. However, with the rise of other arts during the Renaissance came a new interest in the music of stringed instruments. Out of this interested in stringed music came an interest in harpsichords and ultimately pianos.
The resulting style of music, Baroque music, was quite unlike anything the world had ever heard. The term ‘Baroque’ comes from the fact that the music was heavily ornamented in sound.With new instruments, a much greater range of performance was possible. To see how this worked, imagine trying to play a sad song on a ukulele. It would be very difficult because the sound just doesn’t evoke the right mood. Now imagine playing a sad song on a violin or even a guitar. Suddenly, there is much more range of possibility.
The work of people like Johann Sebastian Bach took advantage of this new range to innovate musically for the first time in hundreds of years.
While Bach was the greatest of the Baroque composers, he entered a relatively crowded field. The first operas, such as Dafne and L’Orfeo, invoked themes of Greek mythology.Much like the Renaissance masters of painting and sculpture, they reached back to the Classics to find inspiration for their storylines. Both of these works were originally composed in Italian.
However, it would only be a few decades before the form reached France and Germany, where many later great operas would be written. By the middle of the 17th century, the first English Opera was written: Siege of Rhodes.
In this lesson, we looked at the early history of opera.
Drama was either ultra-religious or ultra-offensive during the Middle Ages, but by the Renaissance, it had evolved to the works of Shakespeare and the ballets de cour and masque. Both of these styles included heavy amounts of dancing. music was added as a result of the Baroque period, during which the musical talents of the age advanced further than ever before. The first operas, Dafne and L’Orfeo, were written in Italian, and the later Siege of Rhodes was the first English Opera.