Styles & Forms | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera

Opera developed from a mixture of genres, styles and techniques that combined to create a distinctly new form of music. Among opera’s many novel aspects, one of the most significant was its secular nature.

Opera essentially upended the basic principle of church music. For religious purposes, words had to predominate over the music. With opera, it was the other way around – plots, characters and lyrics were important, but they served the musical agenda.

A Break with Sacred Tradition – Dramma per Musica

In Renaissance times, secularism was tantamount to heresy, and heresy incurred severe punishment, including torture and burning. It was no small matter, therefore, when the effect of secularism on opera made it an obvious culprit. The evidence was there in opera’s reliance on the pagan myths of ancient Greece, its strong emotional content, its emphasis on human, rather than religious motivations and the flamboyant materialism of its spectacular staging. Opera broke another basic tradition of religious music – that the libretto should consist of sacred texts. Instead, opera had its own libretto, the dramma per musica (‘drama for music’), which dealt with heroic or serious but not necessarily religious themes. In these circumstances, it was inevitable that opera should become subject to papal prohibition orders.

New Musical Forms Evolved – Monody

The pope, however, could not exercise a blanket ban in Italy, which in Renaissance times was a mass of city-states with their own rulers, their own laws – and their own opera houses. Religious authorities were able to exert less pressure of the sort that had controlled the arts in Medieval times, so that new musical forms were able to evolve. One of them was monody, the solo song that became popular in Florence and Venice in the first half of the seventeenth century. Monody, which was accompanied by a continuo (bass line), often played on a harpsichord or lute, came in two forms. The first was the madrigal type, which had an elaborately decorated vocal line. The second, established by Caccini around 1601–02, was the aria type, in which the principal melody was repeated with variations. Monody was emotional and highly ornamented, with varied rhythms and leaps between notes that greatly heightened its dramatic effect.


Recitative, a part-spoken, part-sung musical line based on natural speech rhythms and pitch, was regarded as largely synonymous with monody. During the seventeenth century, recitatives acted as a link between one aria and the next, but this was not their only function. Their words could also further the plot or give insights into the characters, without letting go of the musical line. Another French innovation, the ballet de cour, or ‘royal court ballet’, featured a recitative at the start of each act, where it served as a narrative to explain the action or ‘plot’ demonstrated by the dance.


Like the ballet, opera was a genre requiring the precise, skilful teamwork known as ensemble playing. The expression came from the French word ensemble, meaning ‘together’....

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