The first experiments in the construction of an opera had their origin in circumstances in themselves of no very great importance, and only remotely connected with music. In 1579 Bianca Capello was married to Francisco de Medici, son of Cosmo, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The wedding took place in Venice amid elaborately devised festivities, among which were dramatic representations accompanied with music. In the suite of the Grand Duke were several Florentines, who took a considerable interest in music, and these Florentine gentlemen were very unhappy with the music and entertainments they witnessed in Venice. This music was specially written for the occasion by two of the most distinguished composers of the time, Andrea Gabrielli and Luca Marenzio, one of the greatest of madrigal writers, so that it is probable that the Florentines had little to complain about as regards its technical excellence. What they objected to, however, was its lack of relation to the words and situations amidst which it was introduced and on their return to Florence, they formed themselves into a society for the improvement of music, more especially in connection with the drama.
The problem with which these Florentines proposed to grapple was no usual one, and almost identically the same as that which confronted Wagner more than two hundred and fifty years later, to present a drama in which the words and music should be on an absolutely equal footing, and equally expressive of the sentiment of the moment. Passing over the first of the society's experiments in dramatic music, for the reason that there is little or no information still existing, we come to a work of real importance and interest, the Euridice of Ottavio Rinuccini and Jacopo Peri, Rinuccini furnishing the poem and Peri the music. True to the spirit of the Renaissance, which in all things studied to apply old principles to new requirements, the Florentine reformers looked to antiquity for guidance in their innovations. This was to be the start of a new kind of musical entertainment and some would argue, the beginning of opera. The opera is in three acts. The scene of the first is set in the country, where Eurydice and Daphne are discovered amid a group of nymphs.
When they leave the stage, Orpheus enters with two shepherds. Daphne presently returns, and relates to them the death of Eurydice from the bite of a serpent, and the first act concludes with the lament of Orpheus for his lost Eurydice. In the second act, Venus leads Orpheus to Hades, in order that he may beg of Pluto the restoration of Eurydice to life. At first, Pluto is stubborn, but after much pleading, he yields, and the last act depicts the happy return of Orpheus with Eurydice. The orchestra consisted of but four individuals, Signer Jacopo Corsi, who played the harpsichord behind the scenes; Don Garzia Montalro, who played the chitarone, or large guitar; Messer Giovannibatista dal Violono, the viol da gamba and Messer Giovanni Lapi, a large lute.
Thus, the orchestra in this early music drama amounted to the seventeenth century equivalent of a piano, two guitars and a cello. Throughout the opera there is not one spoken word, all the dialogue is expressed in recitative, and the airs themselves approximate somewhat to recitative, and of this a notable example is the pathetic lament at the end of the first act. The chorus is also handled in a manner very different from that of older writers, very apparent efforts being made to render it as spontaneous, seeming, and natural to the course of the narrative as possible.
A further development of the music drama is displayed in another setting of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, by Glaudio Monteverde (1568-1643), under the title of Orfeo and after a brief sketch of this work; we must turn to other phases of Renaissance musical art. Monteverde's Orfeo was first produced at Mantua in 1607, and like Peri's Euridice, its production formed part of the festivities of a wedding, in this case that of the young Prince Francisco of Mantua. This was not Monteverde's first essay as a dramatic composer, for he had, earlier in the same year, produced a work entitled Ariadne, in which he gave strong proof of his originality.
His Orfeo, however, affords us a more distinct idea of the advance which the new dramatic music had made within the comparatively short space of seven years.
Michael Shaw is an organ and keyboard teacher and sells sheet music and tutor books at his websites http://www.keyboardsheetmusic.co.uk and http://www.mikesmusicroom.co.uk