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CRITICS AND OPERATIC PERFORMANCE PRACTICE IN LONDON DURING THE 1830s Robert Bledsoe University of Texas at El Paso In the first decades of the nineteenth century the musical differences between operatic scores and operatic performances were much greater than they later became. It was commonplace to cut, interpolate, substitute, and otherwise reshape the musical units of operas, while keeping more or less intact many of their characteristic structural features.1 Although the system's heart was in Italy, during the 1830s operatic performances in London—at the King's Theatre, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden—exhibited many of the same characteristics. Composers, performers, and managers all had a financial interest in maintaining or at least accommodating themselves to the prevailing practices, but some opera-goers complained vigorously and published their objections not only in England's main musical journal, the Harmonicon, but also in books and in journals like the Athenaeum and the London and Westminster Review, which had a wider circulation and influence than the musical press. This article is an examination ofthese performance practices in London in the light of contemporary complaints about them by professional and amateur critics as diverse as Pückler-Muskau, von Raumer, Fétis, Peacock, Ayrton, and Chorley. It shows that to a surprising extent such alterations were not only noticed but also knowledgeably, even fiercely, analyzed and criticized. We know how intensely Verdi disliked the conditions under which his first operas were performed. And in a letter written to Count Melzi in 1843, Donizetti stated his "active opposition to anyone's tampering with his Victorian Review 16.1 (Summer 1990). 60Victorian Review scores" (Ashbrook 212). But composers generally had no choice but to come to terms with the inevitable. As Philip Gossett noted: An Italian opera in the first half of the nineteenth century, regardless of the country in which the performance took place or for which the compositions were written, was treated as a collection of individual unites that could be rearranged, substituted, or omitted depending upon local conditions of performance, local taste, or on many occasions whim. (21) Indeed, composers sometimes found it convenient to avail themselves of the same freedoms that performers and managers did. William Ashbrook has pointed out that "the composers of Donizetti's generation did not regard self-borrowing as a bad thing per se; to them an opera score was not a fixed entity, but rather a concatenation of interchangeable parts. With such a view, self-borrowing served a very pragmatic purpose, as long as it was done discreetly" (54). Adolph Adam, for example, took note of the convenience in his autobiographical sketch: Quand je suis en peu d'anglais, Laporte me fit faire deux opéras pour Covent-Garden His first Campaign, en deux acts et 77ie Dark Diamond, en trois actes. Le premier réussit beaucoup, et le second ne fut joué que trois fois. J'ae replacé la musique de ces deux ouvrages dans plusieurs opéras donne depuis à Paris, (xxvi) In addition to self-borrowing, composers, managers or performers brought in pieces from operas by other composers, though Ashbrook has noted that Donizetti would "only rarely . . . sanction the introduction of music by other composers into performances of his operas" (211). Of course, the ephemeral nature of much operatic production supported the tampering: operas were put on for a few performances and never heard again. Stendhal noted in the twenties that the Italian public liked novelty (445), but also complained that the habit of interpolation was carried too far: Rossini should have had "the right to see his works performed at least once as they were written, instead of chopped up into unrecognizable little bits and pieces!" (86). A few years after Stendhal, another traveller to Italy, Frederic von Raumer, commented condescendingly on Italian performance conditions that contributed to such a casual attitude to alterations: "a comparison of the list of performances in the German and Italian theatres will evidently show that with us the most valuable dramatic and musical works of all, or at least of many ages and nations, are understood and appreciated, while in Italy the Robert Bledsoe61 native summer plants of last year alone are brought forward for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 59-70
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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