The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart

The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart

by Mitchell Cohen


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The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart by Mitchell Cohen

A wide-ranging look at the interplay of opera and political ideas through the centuries

The Politics of Opera takes readers on a fascinating journey into the entwined development of opera and politics, from the Renaissance through the turn of the nineteenth century. What political backdrops have shaped opera? How has opera conveyed the political ideas of its times? Delving into European history and thought and an array of music by such greats as Lully, Rameau, and Mozart, Mitchell Cohen reveals how politics—through story lines, symbols, harmonies, and musical motifs—has played an operatic role both robust and sotto voce.

Cohen begins with opera's emergence under Medici absolutism in Florence during the late Renaissance—where debates by humanists, including Galileo's father, led to the first operas in the late sixteenth century. Taking readers to Mantua and Venice, where composer Claudio Monteverdi flourished, Cohen examines how early operatic works like Orfeo used mythology to reflect on governance and policy issues of the day, such as state jurisdictions and immigration. Cohen explores France in the ages of Louis XIV and the Enlightenment and Vienna before and during the French Revolution, where the deceptive lightness of Mozart's masterpieces touched on the havoc of misrule and hidden abuses of power. Cohen also looks at smaller works, including a one-act opera written and composed by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Essential characters, ancient and modern, make appearances throughout: Nero, Seneca, Machiavelli, Mazarin, Fenelon, Metastasio, Beaumarchais, Da Ponte, and many more.

An engrossing book that will interest all who love opera and are intrigued by politics, The Politics of Opera offers a compelling investigation into the intersections of music and the state.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175027
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 502,472
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Mitchell Cohen is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and editor emeritus of Dissent magazine. His books include Zion and State and The Wager of Lucien Goldmann (Princeton). His writing has appeared in such publications as the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in New York City.

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Were political ideas embedded in the first operas? If so, what were they and what did they imply? What does the political world in which opera was born tell us about this art form? What do operas tell us about politics? To approach these questions, we turn first not to words and music bound together for the stage, but to a wedding celebration.

The couple didn't marry for love. They wed out of political duty. It was in Florence in the autumn of 1600 that Maria de' Medici, niece of Tuscany's Grand Duke Ferdinando I, became the queen of France's King Henri IV. Their union fortified a partnership between Florence and Paris against Savoy and, in the larger picture of European politics, it strengthened them both against the Habsburg rulers of Spain (with whom Henri had recently been at war) and the Holy Roman Empire.

Spanish imperial power had grown throughout the fragmented political world of the Italian peninsula in the mid-sixteenth century. Ferdinando I had altered past Tuscan policies aiming to balance Spanish power with increased French power. In this context, he had recognized the value to Tuscany of Henri of Navarre's struggle to attain the French throne. By the time Henri, the Huguenot-turned-Catholic, married Maria, he was both King Henri IV and indebted financially and politically to her relatives. Florence's ruling clan and premier banking family supported him in French power struggles. Negotiations for a connubial alliance, with a suitably large dowry, had gone on for some eight years.

The groom didn't come to the ceremony. He was engaged elsewhere — against the troops of Savoy's Duke Carlo Emanuele I. Henri IV's love interests were elsewhere as well, with his mistress, and not with reputedly tempestuous Maria. He sent a surrogate for the nuptials in Florence's cathedral on October 5. The king missed a lavish occasion, the sort of display that princely families gave to promote their prestige at home and abroad. The banquet at Palazzo Vecchio (the old municipal citadel that had once been the seat of Florence's republic) was opulent. Each dish comprised part of an allegory extolling the illustrious couple and their kin. Icing on the cake was molded as a wintry landscape. Sugar-animals moved about on it, and changed shape. Two hundred and thirty-three years later this "vast magnificence" on which "no expenses were spared" was presented as the "most distinguished occurrence" in the reign of Ferdinando I in a history written by Lorenzo L. Da Ponte, the son of Mozart's librettist, then a professor of Italian literature at a college in New York.

Henri IV also missed a milestone in Western culture. A variety of public and private events celebrated the new union. The principal theme was universal peace. The Abduction of Cephalus by Gabriello Chiabrera with accompanying music by Giulio Caccini — most of it is lost — played at the Uffizi Theater. More important historically was EurydiceEuridice in the original — which is often called the second opera. These works originated in efforts within Florentine circles to marry words, music, and tale in a new way. Euridice was performed on Friday, October 6, on the second floor of the Pitti Palace, the duke's official residence, in the rooms of a Medici family member. It recounted how mythic Orpheus, armed only with his famous voice and his lyre, braved the Underworld to retrieve his love. Poor Eurydice, the treenymph, had died of snakebite on their wedding day. The performance, the first that could be called public, was a present to the new queen from Jacopo Corsi, a nobleman, patron of the arts, and longtime champion of marriage between Henri and Maria. (It had probably been completed by the previous spring because there had been a performance of it in May, also in a salon at the Pitti Palace, at the request of the archduchess.) The librettist, Ottavio Rinuccini, was a Florentine court poet. Jacopo Peri, a musician and singer who played a vibrant role in Florentine commercial life and served in a wide variety of Florentine governmental and legal offices, composed most of the music, although segments were by Caccini. The latter, Peri's archcompetitor, was also known as "Giulio Romano" because he was born and had studied in Rome (Caccini rushed to put into print his own musical setting of the libretto within two months of the performance.)

Dafne, usually credited as the first opera, was an earlier Corsi-RinucciniPeri effort based on another myth. A small audience saw it in Corsi's palazzo during Carnival 1597–98. Corsi and his collaborators were men of the late Renaissance, and they aimed to create a contemporary counterpart to ancient Greek tragedy. Their experiment was also one result of several decades of discussion of music within the Florentine artistic and intellectual worlds; these, in turn, corresponded to historical and political transformations in Florence and, more broadly, Europe. While Euridice was published, most of Dafne's music is lost. We do have descriptions of Dafne's first presentation. "It was performed in a small room and sung privately" with "a consort of instruments" playing, one observer recalled years later. "I was stunned at this marvel." The entire work was sung through with musical accompaniment. Its novelty was a kind of musical declamation or declamatory song that later evolved into the conventions of recitative. Another witness, the composer Marco da Gagliano (he reset the libretto to his own music in 1608), commented that the experiment showed to Rinuccini "how apt song was to express all kinds of emotions," and that it could lead "to incredible delight."

But it was Euridice, some two years later, that effectively launched the new art form.

It is improbable that Euridice's audience, estimated at two hundred people, mostly noble, recognized the evening's significance. Responses were mixed, and the failure of the production team to prepare the scenery fully did not help. Some in the audience found its new musical style far from pleasing. Its declamatory singing was compared to "the chanting of the Passion." Centuries later, an audience is also likely to find tedium in Euridice, but historical charm too. An audience won't find in it the vibrant splendor of Orfeo, the "myth" or "fable (favola) in music" written about the same mythic couple seven years later in Mantua. This collaboration by Claudio Monteverdi and Alessandro Striggio the Younger is usually considered the first "great" opera. Evidently, Monteverdi examined Peri's score in preparing his own, and scholars speculate that he may have been at the Florentine wedding. Then thirty-three years old, Monteverdi was a Mantuan court composer in his liege's entourage there. It included a young painter named Peter Paul Rubens, who may also have attended Euridice.


The story of Orpheus and Eurydice made a lasting impression on the Renaissance. Although its origins were Greek, the early makers of opera were inspired by Roman renderings of it by authors such as Virgil and Ovid. The myth tells of art, love, and the defiance of death. Orpheus had many historical trappings and a varied presence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cultured Italians recalled how ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras and Plato had been taken by his tale. Or they may have thought of Horace's praise of the mythic singer as an "interpreter of divine will" and founder of civilized life ("While men still roamed the forests, they were restrained from bloodshed and a bestial way of life" by his song).

In some ancient tellings, Orpheus is just an extraordinary vocalist and musician; in others he founds cities or a religious cult. Music could prepare your soul for contemplation and philosophy, thought Marsilio Ficino, the fifteenth-century philosopher and translator of Plato into Latin, the principal language of Renaissance learning. He founded the Platonic Academy of Florence under Medici patronage, and his intellectual sway in his native city would be lasting. Like Plato, he believed that something supernatural possessed poets. Ficino liked to sing hymns with a lyre, as Orpheus, supposedly, had done. And Ficino followed Plato's philosophical idealism, but gave it a Christian guise. Contemplation, he thought, detaches you from the material world. Your inner self is ushered into a purely spiritual and rational realm, which is also that of the cosmos. Like the ancient Pythagoreans and Plato, Ficino compared the structures of the universe to those of music. An imitation of God's mind could be heard in human music. This Neoplatonist also compared medicine and music: the former rids us of physical illnesses while the latter, both vocal and instrumental, rids us of infirmities of spirit and body.

Orpheus was an obvious protagonist for a new dramatic deployment of music a century after Ficino. Orpheus demonstrated music's powers by facing the sovereign of Hades and pleading, melodiously: return my love to me. His song shook "hard hearts no human prayer can hope to soften ...," reports Virgil, "The very halls of Death ... were awestruck." As Orpheus sang "accompanied by plucked strings," Ovid tells us, "bloodless spirits ... wept." In the best-known versions of the myth, he persuades the Infernal Ruler, but Pluto lays down a condition if he is to permit what has been previously unthinkable. Orpheus may retrieve Eurydice, but he must not look back at her as they ascend. Alas, he does look back and she is lost.

This tale lends itself naturally to sighs, to music — and to politics in more than one way, although this may not be obvious at first. Since the Florentine Euridice was invented for a political-matrimonial event, the familiar end would have hardly been appropriate. How could a love story celebrate a royal wedding and end with the bride in the Underworld because the groom flouted the stipulation of a king? Spectators at the Pitti Palace learned at the beginning of the performance that the account of the myth they were to behold would not have its best-known dark climax. A figure called Tragedy first addressed them in a prologue. Usually, I make "the faces of the crowd" brim with pity. This evening, however, she sang, I "temper my song with happier notes." In this version, Orpheus and Eurydice ascend safely into a happy future. French guests surely found this appealing. Their realm had been rent by bloodshed among Catholics and Protestants. Henri IV's kingship had offered deliverance. Not only had he abjured his Calvinism for the Church of Rome to secure the French throne, he then, by the Edict of Nantes of 1598, conferred various rights to his former coreligionists to attain civic peace. His marriage to Marguerite de Valois was annulled in 1599 to allow him his marriage to Maria the next year. Tragedy's prologue must have suggested to the French suite at the Pitti Palace that their land's afflictions were to be superseded by sweeter times — thanks, in part, to Florentine support for their king.

This was suggested too by Arcadian scenes that followed. Pastorals had long comprised a popular Renaissance stage genre, and they included tales of Orpheus. As early as the late fifteenth century, a Fabula d'Orfeo by the Tuscan humanist Angelo Poliziano was performed with music in Mantua. Often, pastorals presented a "Golden Age" which, depending on when they were written, might suggest a contrast between a happy past world and an unhappy present. Or they may have meant to hint at the good accomplished by an incumbent ruler. Ovid, who lived in the era of Pax Romana, when Rome's first emperor, Augustus, imposed peace on tumult following the collapse of the Roman republic, wrote of an early golden age when men, "though ignorant of laws" and with "no fear of any punishment" were responsible and virtuous. All peoples lived in peace and the earth itself, "untaxed" by hoes or ploughs, provided "freely" all "essentials ... Spring was the only season ..." In Euridice, the set "showed the most enchanting woods, both in relief and painted," wrote Michelangelo's nephew, who was in the audience at the "premiere." The scenery was "placed in a well-composed arrangement and lit as if by daylight by means of aptly placed lights within." A shepherd cheered the union of "adventurous Orpheus" and "fortunate Eurydice"; a nymph called on Phoebus ("Bright One," another name for Apollo) to double the rays shining down on them. Orpheus sang of how "courtly love" had changed his own celebrated song. No longer would it move people to sorrow. Instead, he told listeners, his voice would now praise love, "whose sweetest roses" hide among "the sharpest thorns."

And then: thorns. A nymph arrives from the woods with bad news for Orpheus. A poisonous serpent bit your love. She called to you as she succumbed. Orpheus, although stunned, insists: her cry shall not be in vain. He prepares to face hell for her. Yet the shepherds and nymphs issue a warning. It begins with an observation: "A good pilot/ constant and strong/ knows how to escape the wrath of the sea." No mortal is skilled enough to circumvent mortality, they point out. Orpheus will not be dissuaded, suggesting not just the strength of his love for Eurydice, but that something else is at stake. When the nymph tells him of his loss, she addresses him as the "worthy sovereign of great Phoebus and the sacred Muses." Orpheus is the Sun God's son. As Phoebus-Apollo navigates through the skies in a blazing chariot, his son must now navigate through the Underworld and take up what is literally a death-defying challenge. All this implies another question: Does Orpheus also have the qualities of a prince, and thus the capacity to be a ruler?

Philosophers, beginning at least in Greek antiquity, likened political rule to captaining a ship. Educated members of Euridice's audience would have detected in Rinuccini's words a debt to Plato's Republic. In it he told a parable about mutinous sailors struggling with a ship's master — a burly fellow who is "a little deaf and shortsighted, and no less deficient in seamanship." For Plato, who was hostile to the direct democracy that governed Athens (that is, to the majority rule of the citizens), the ship's master comprised the citizenry; the sailors were the equivalent of demagogic politicians who try to garner support for themselves and claimed that anyone can steer a vessel, whether educated and capable to do so or not. They try to divert the Master with this or that inebriation. It may be drink or an opiate, but when translated politically it means great speechifying and beautiful deceptive words. Each sailor is in fact pursuing his own interests when proposing himself at the helm and deriding anyone actually fit for this role as "a mere stargazer." And so the sailors turn a ship's journey into "a drunken carousel." They don't understand that a true navigator must be predisposed inwardly to his task and then must actually learn it. Plato's point was plain. Neither politicians nor the "People" can govern. Only if you know how to rule and have the capacity for mastery can you steer properly the ship of state.

Plato's metaphors appeared persistently throughout sixteenth-century political discussions and in musical ones too. Just a decade before Euridice, Justus Lipsius published a text titled Politica: Six Books of Politics or Political Instruction. We will come across this Flemish humanist's name often as he was one of the most prominent continental political theorists of the century, along with Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli (with his "realist" view of political power), Jean Bodin (French formulator of the idea of sovereignty), and Giovanni Botero (who attempted to Christianize "reason of state"). The issues they discussed, especially what we would now call the nature of the modern state, seeped recurrently into opera. Lipsius had already edited important editions of works by two celebrated ancients, the historian Tacitus and the philosopher Seneca, both of them important for early opera. In Politica Lipsius defended in principle emperors, kings, and princes. They kept order in his own era of religious strife. He also compared governing a polity to piloting a ship. How difficult it is for "one head" to control "so many," he wrote. Since the "all-encompassing multitude" is "discordant" and "tumultuous," it needs to be stationed "by gentle means" under a "common yoke." Few have been able to do so, Lipsius remarked, and he observed further that inexperienced men don't see the adversities entailed in preserving "a straight course" on turbulent seas. Great virtues are needed to do so, indeed, "many-sided Prudence" must steer the ship of state "as if by a rudder." The right hand must be in charge. We don't know that the first creators of opera pondered the politics of Lipsius's book, although they may well have and had certainly read Plato well and knew Lipsius's scholarship. While Lipsius's concern was not music, and while he had no role in the birth of opera, his writings and translations colored greatly the entire intellectual world of Europe. The metaphor of a good pilot appealed easily to elites who looked with fear and chagrin at shaken Europe.


Excerpted from "The Politics of Opera"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mitchell Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Prologue Mixtures, Boundaries, Parallels xiii

Acknowledgments xxxi

Part 1 Metamorphoses, Ancient to Modern

1 Who Rules? 3

2 Reigning Voices 18

Intermedio (I) 37

3 Laws and Laurels 40

Part 2 Mantua to Venice

4 Orpheus’s Ways 55

Intermedio (II) 64

5 A Prince Decides on Naxos 71

Intermedio (III) 81

6 The Political Scenario of Monteverdi’s Venice 84

7 Revealing Ulysses 101

Intermedio (IV) 119

8 Spectacles 124

Part 3 Under French Suns

9 Agitations and Absolutes 143

10 In the Winds The Decades of Pernucio and Telemachus 167

Un court intermède 188

11 Vertical, Horizontal 197

12 Nature and Its Discontents 216

Part 4 Ancients in Modernity

13 From Elysium to Utica 225

Zwischenspiel (I) 244

14 From Crete to Rome 252

Part 5 “. . . And although I am no Count . . .”

15 Masters and Servants 267

Zwischenspiel (II) 292

16 Gaits of History 301

17 Looking for Enlightenment 335

18 Tamino’s Wonder 353

Sarastro’s Sabbatical This Is Not a Finale 373

Appendix “Backstage” 391

Notes 407

Select Bibliography 449

Index 465

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