Monthly articles (in French and English) on the theme "Querying orthodox economics"

No. 46 - October 2009

Is bel canto obsolete?


Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto!

Gioacchino Rossini, in a reported conversation in Paris, 1858; see Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti  (Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee, 1994), page 1

Is it possible to compose  a new opera in an old style?

A well-loved operatic form

Opera-goers have always loved bel canto, the mellifluous arias of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and many other composers now, perhaps unjustly, forgotten. Their music exalts the arts of melody and vocalisation with its memorable tunefulness and dazzling displays of vocal agility. The apogee of bel canto was roughly the period 1800 – 18301; Verdi and others carried on the tradition far into the nineteenth century. Towards its end, serious musicians regarded operas in this style as out-dated, even primitive by comparison with the heroics of Berlioz and Wagner; but they could not deny the staying-power of the old favourites.

One historian, writing around 1880 about the great soprano Adelina Patti, then in her prime, commented that the early nineteenth-century operas were obsolete, and should logically have been consigned to the archives, but were kept alive by the great singers of his day; including, of course, Adelina, who loved those operas and sang them to perfection. After all, she was born into them; both her parents were opera singers of the bel canto age, and the little girl is said to have stood on a table to sing Casta Diva2 to her parents, much to their surprise, in 1850, when she was only seven. On another occasion she was taken to visit Rossini, who heard her sing Una voce poco fà,3 with many embellishments and variations, as was customary in those days. That’s a fine aria, remarked Rossini, who composed it?

In the opera house, old is better     

Today, a fair number of those operas that were thought obsolete in 1880 remain as vigorously alive as ever. No opera composer currently active has the present-day box-office pulling power of Bellini (1800 – 1835) or of Rossini (1792 - 1868). And that is a problem. Opera is a wonderful art, but it is an art that is barely renewing itself. New operas do appear, but how many of them join the ranks of the established favourites?

Audiences want the same old operas over and over again, because there are no new ones that they find equally attractive. Directors who feel the need to get some novelty into their programmes resort to denaturing the old pieces by remaking them in grotesque fashion. This silly and extremely irritating practice has become so habitual that many opera fans and music critics are now dissatisfied if an old opera is not dressed up, or rather down, in totally anachronistic and incongruous costumes and settings. A director who fails to mess up old masterpieces is said to lack imagination, vision, courage... 

An old opera revived in Paris

Gounod’s opera Mireille, first performed in 1864, was recently revived in Paris by the new director of the Opéra, Nicholas Joel, who had the good sense to present this beautiful work  in authentic style. What could have been the excuse for tarting up, for the sake of novelty, an opera that very few in the house had ever seen before? Yet I heard a good many complaints about the old-fashioned staging. This is like visiting Versailles and complaining that the chateau has not been rebuilt in concrete.

The dearth of attractive new operas brings us to an interesting, if heretical, question: why is it deemed impossible, or at least unthinkable, to compose a new bel canto opera today? Before you ridicule me for writing utter nonsense, consider this: the bel canto format is about two hundred years old. Would it not be absurd to employ such an archaic style today? Don’t jump to conclusions! How old was the sonnet form when Shakespeare wrote his series of 154 sonnets at the end of the sixteenth century? Literary historians reckon that the first sonnets were written some 350 years earlier. This already ancient pattern was still good enough for Shakespeare, and it has remained good enough for countless other poets, even into the twentieth century.

What is a style's lifespan?

The architectural style of the ancient Greeks developed from around 600 BC onwards, so it is now some two and a half millennia old. The Romans copied and developed it, but ‘classical’ Greco-Roman architecture fell into disuse with the decline of the Roman empire, superseded by Romanesque in the west and Byzantine in the east. In the later middle ages, the Gothic style developed in France; one of its earliest examples is the splendid Basilique de St Denis, the burial-place of the French kings, just north of Paris; it dates from around 1120. From here, Gothic architecture – then known aptly as the ‘French style’ – spread across Europe.

How did it come to be called Gothic? That is a curious tale; the Goths had nothing whatever to do with the architecture that bears their name. They were an ancient people of central Europe, who invaded Italy and occupied Rome in 410 AD, thus playing a major role in the breakup of the empire. As seen from Rome, naturally, they were a barbarous tribe.

Cultured people of the Renaissance, fascinated by their rediscovery of Greek and Roman civilisation, fell in love with classical architecture; and, strange as it seems to us, they saw the architecture of the great medieval cathedrals as primitive and barbaric. So, making their own the Roman view of the Goths, they called it, as a deliberate insult, Gothic!

Decline and revival

From the Renaissance onwards, classical architecture has never ceased to be admired. First among the Renaissance architects to revive the Classical style was Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446), who designed the great dome of the cathedral in Florence, as well as many more strictly classical buildings. Thus, from around 1400 till the early twentieth century, it has been normal for architects to base at least some of their work on a style that even in Brunelleschi’s day was already two thousand years old.

Likewise the Gothic style of church building flourished from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries; then it was revived in the eighteenth century and remained in favour till the early twentieth. Gothic revival architects extended the use of the Gothic style far beyond the religious scene; they built private houses, railway stations (St Pancras’ “cathedral” where we Parisians arrive when visiting London) and, of course, the Parliament Houses of London and Budapest. Near Moscow there is a Gothic “opera house” at Tsaritsyno, now used for concerts and conferences, built for Catherine the Great by the gothic-revivalist Vasiliy Bazhenov in 1778. 

An abrupt rejection

But around 1925 it became quite suddenly unacceptable to use these styles any more.  What was  so special about  1925?

I choose that date simply as an indication of the period when architectural attitudes changed so disastrously. It was, as it happens, in 1925 that Le Corbusier made some of his more absurd statements: for example, that the Gare d’Orsay and the Grand Palais [two fine Parisian buildings of around 1900] are not architecture;4 or again, as people grow more cultivated, decoration disappears.5 A couple of years earlier, he made a rather more commonplace comment: modern society is being totally recast; machinery has overturned everything; we have evolved at lightening speed over the past hundred years; a curtain has fallen, shutting out for ever what were our customs, our methods, our work…6

In other words, everything is different now, the past is no longer relevant and never will be again, you cannot put the clock back (even if it shows 10:15 when the time is 09:55)… all that tiresome bullshit. However, in recent years – nearly a century after Le Corbusier’s denigration – both the Grand Palais and the Gare d’Orsay have been painstakingly restored! 

A misguided notion

Le Corbusier's remark about the falling curtain provides the key to much that is wrong with culture today. We are still obsessed by the idea that our modern world has changed so much that it is unacceptable  to use traditional art-forms any more. If we do venture to use them, we are completely out of step with our times; our work, however well done, is therefore worthless. Nevertheless, it is perfectly acceptable to go to great lengths to preserve and restore old works of art in all their traditional glory. Thank goodness, we do just that, thus demonstrating how much we still love and value those works, despite the alleged irrelevance of their form to our times.  

There is surely something wrong with that allegation.

It is in fact an expression of twentieth-century cultural arrogance. Ways of life do, of course, change, but human nature does not change much. In any case, some of the twentieth-century changes have been misguided and ephemeral, and now need to be reversed. We are beginning to move back, at least in part, from oil to wind, from car and aircraft to train, from intensive to organic, from complex derivatives to more straightforward finance…in these and many other ways we are feeling the need to pull back Le Corbusier’s curtain. How many of the damaging changes of the last century will survive through this one?

The permanence of good styles

Architecture that was pleasing to ancient Greeks proved equally satisfying to Renaissance Italians, later to the eighteenth-century English and to nineteenth-century Americans, not to mention plenty of diverse societies in other times and places, often very different from each other, let alone from the Greece of Solon. The philosopher Roger Scruton, noting that modernist architects contemptuously dismiss all new building in old styles as pastiche, pointed out7 that this epithet…if taken seriously would condemn all serious architecture from the Parthenon to the Houses of Parliament. For the Parthenon was built around 440 BC, in a style that dates back to around 600. 

The notion that Greek and Gothic architecture became suddenly and irrevocably obsolete around 1925, just because Le Corbusier and the pretentious gurus of the Bauhaus said so, is incredible.

In fact, there are even today architectural practices that cultivate classical architecture for new buildings. Have a look at these sites:

Robert Adam Architects (Winchester, England): www.robertadamarchitects.com

Stanhope Gate Developments (London): www.stanhopegate.co.uk

Robertson Partners (Los Angeles & New York): www.robertsonpartners.net     

David M Schwarz Architects (Washington DC): www.dmsas.com

Neo-classicism at the opera?

We have wandered a long way from the opera house and bel canto. But perhaps architecture has a lesson for music. If classical forms in architecture - and in poetry -  have continued in living use for so many centuries, indeed millennia, why should we write off as obsolete a musical format that is a mere two hundred years old? Why can't anyone compose a new opera with melodious, well-structured arias in the forms that audiences have loved from the time of Monteverdi, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, to that of Verdi, at the end of the nineteenth?

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1    Some readers may disagree with this statement. The term bel canto is defined variously by historians; some say it relates only to Italian opera in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

2    Casta Diva, a prayer to the moon-goddess, a celebrated and very demanding aria, comes from Act I of Bellini's Norma (1831). See Herman Klein, The Reign of Patti (Century, New York, 1921), page 16. This biography is accessible online at  www.archive.org/stream/reignpatti00kleigoog#page/n10/mode/2up; click on link Patti recorded Casta Diva in 1906 and this recording, transcribed to CD, is still available. 
3    Una voce poco fà is Rosina's aria in Act I of Rossini's Barber of Seville (1816)

4    Le Corbusier, Trois Rappels, le Volume in Vers une architecture (Editions Arthaud, Paris, 1925)     

5    Le Corbusier, L'Art Décoratif aujourd'hui (Grès, Paris, 1925), page 85    

6    Le Corbusier, Température in Vers une Architecture, loc. cit. supra       

7    Roger Scruton, Hail Quinlan Terry in Spectator (London, 20 June 2004 )