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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 339-344
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Opera as Ontology:
Enlightened Music, Gender, and Genre
Throughout the eighteenth century, long by virtue of being especially eventful, the coming-of-age of musical aesthetics centered in part on the evolution and reformulation of opera, and, through the development of instrumental music, on the rise of the modern symphony. By late century, changes in performance practice were coupled with the role of gender in performance giving rise to professional standards of performance and the role of women as composers, librettists and arts patrons. Added to the ever-changing subject matter of opera itself during the century, these topics have retained the keen interest of musicologists and literary scholars to this day. Even as it continued to evolve as genre during the Enlightenment, opera retained its theorists, admirers, and detractors. Opera's ability to relate to the world as a combination of music and theater was questioned as early as 1677, when freethinker Charles de St. Évrémond asked how characters could musically present the most trivial aspects of their lives, commenting upon the ridiculous feat of 'singing while acting.' Mid-century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lauds musical mimesis in his entry opera in le Dictionnaire de la musique, stating that it is the prodigious task of the musician to paint images that cannot be understood, wherein lies the complexity of his talent. In so doing, Rousseau states, he draws from the painter a vast number of tableaux stemming from nature itself through which to elicit sympathy from the spectator.
Each of the four books currently under review focuses on the gradual evolution of musical performance practice during the eighteenth century to engender attributes reflecting Enlightenment values of sympathy, humanity, justice, and social reform. Three of the four reflect the changing aesthetics of opera itself as the Enlightenment's quintessential musical form. Viewed as a unity, these four books seem to foreground music's existence as an ontology through which was molded a discourse embodied through opera as spectacle art. Downing Thomas posits an aesthetics of opera during the Enlightenment that allows the art form to transcend its role in the late seventeenth century as mimesis of ancient tragedy, to become by the late eighteenth, through the advent of opéra comique, an aesthetics allied to larger Enlightenment concerns of sympathy and affection between individuals. Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelman investigate issues of gender in the composition and production of opera during the period immediately before the Napoleonic era brought about in large part by the writings of Rousseau. John A. Rice's study of music in the Viennese Court of Marie-Therese concerns the universality of musical performance and a rare in-depth perspective of the Empress Marie-Therese as singer, patroness, and collector of musical manuscripts. Susan Vandiver Nicassio seeks to recontextualize the culture of opera in Italy in the late-eighteenth century through an in-depth study of the historical background of the opera Tosca, set in Rome in 1800.
The title of Downing Thomas's study of the aesthetics of eighteenth-century opera heralds what proves to be a compelling insight into the development of a musical aesthetics. In a vein similar to that of his previous study, Music and the Origins of Language (1995), Thomas's present work sheds new light on the aesthetics of opera. Two premises stated in his introduction are elucidated throughout his text: first, that operas display both aesthetic...