Styles & Forms | Turn of the Century | Opera
Richard Wagner (1813–83) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) were the dominant figures as opera moved from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, and it was the great German whose influence was most pervasive. His particular use of mythical subjects, symphonic conceptions, compositional techniques, philosophy and psychology left an indelible mark on all composers who came after him.
On Wagner’s death, in 1883, Verdi wrote to his friend, the music publisher Giulio Ricordi: ‘It is … a name that leaves a powerful imprint on the history of art.’ Before sending the letter he crossed out ‘powerful’ and replaced it with ‘the most powerful’ – such was Wagner’s stature.
It is Wagner more than anyone who can be heard in almost every score written around the turn of the century. Even in Debussy’s symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Wagner is present in the compositional techniques on both macro and micro levels. Verdi permeated musical consciousness far less. Puccini, for whom Verdi was so vital in his youth, showed more interest in French opera and, of course, Wagner, than the grand old man of Italy. The influence of French opera, and of Jules Massenet (1842–1912) in particular, should not be underestimated. Although the composer of Manon (1884) and Werther (1893) is not today held in such high regard as his contemporaries and immediate successors, Puccini and Debussy, among others, would not have been the same without him.
Use of Leitmotif
In terms of subject matter, the strongest trend was for exotic locations. The counter-fashion for strong local colour, begun by the veristic writings of Giovanni Verga and then Mascagni and Leoncavallo, provided a welcome sideline but La fanciulla del West (1910), Madama Butterfly (1904), Salome (1905), Elektra (1909) and even Der Rosenkavalier (1911) testify to the continued allure of unfamiliar worlds. This was allied with increasing fluidity in the form taken by opera. By the dawn of the twentieth century it was taken for granted that an opera would be conceived as a symphonic entity – composed as a complete piece, rather than as a series of discrete sections, with internal structures generated in particular through the use of leitmotifs. Recitative had effectively ceased to exist: there was no longer a boundary between moments of action and moments of reflection. Indeed, it became common for operas to have very little real action and focus instead on a character’s psychological state – Salome and Pelléas are just two examples.
This change of focus went hand-in-hand with dramatic changes to the musical language of opera. The solid ground of diatonic harmony became increasingly shaky as the turn of the century approached. By the first decade of the twentieth century, it had been violently shaken and the full force of an harmonic ‘meltdown’ took hold. Puccini stepped gradually closer to the tonal precipice throughout his life, but perhaps died too soon to step off. Strauss looked directly over the edge – for dramatic reasons...
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