Styles & Forms | Music in the Renaissance | Roots of Opera

The Renaissance, with its renewed interest in the music of the ancient world, is where the true roots of opera lie. The word ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and refers to the revival of the artistic and intellectual ideals of classical civilization following the intervening Middle Ages.

The Renaissance began in Italy in the late fourteenth century and later spread to other countries throughout Europe, but it was in Italy that the immediate predecessors of modern opera began to take shape in the fifteenth century.


One of the most important precursors of opera was the intermedio. Intermedi were a series of interludes that were inserted between the acts of a play, initially as a means of dividing up the action or marking the passage of time between events in the main drama. They were an aristocratic entertainment, often performed to celebrate occasions such as court weddings, and usually involved singing, dancing, instrumental music and elaborate stage effects. Their subject matter often reflected the fashionable Renaissance themes of stories from classical myths, allegories and pastoral scenes.

The earliest intermedi took place in Ferrara in the late fifteenth century, but the genre reached its height at the court of the Medici family of Florence in the sixteenth. By this time, the intermedi were often more important parts of the entertainment than the original drama. The scenery and costumes could be spectacular and the finest musicians, singers and dancers were employed to perform the musical numbers. The importance of the intermedi for the development of opera at the very end of the sixteenth century lies in the close association between drama and music, and in the intellectual environment in which the most influential intermedi were performed. The 1589 intermedi of Florence, for example, involved many of the musicians and thinkers who were later responsible for the first genuine operas. They used these courtly entertainments as a means of presenting their ideas and putting their theories about the music of the ancient world into practice.

The Florentine Camerata

The Camerata (‘club’ or ‘society’) was a group of intellectuals with aristocratic connections that met in Florence during the 1570s and 1580s. Led by Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, its members came together principally to discuss the music of the ancient Greeks with the aim of influencing the composition of contemporary music. Among its chief members were Vincenzo Galilei, an expert in the music of the ancient world (and the father of Galileo), and the composers Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri, both of whom went on to write the earliest genuine operas.

The Recreation of the Greek Ideal

The principal concern of the Camerata was to recreate as far as possible the character of ancient music. Although they had no actual examples of Greek melodies to go on, they closely studied the writings of the classical music theorists and philosophers (particularly Plato and Aristotle). Several ideas particularly interested the Camerata: the complete union of melody and poetry that its members saw in the performance of...

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