Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Firsts!

Jacopo Peri
Jacopo Peri, costumed as Arion in a production of La Pellegrina (1589)

There are “firsts” and then there are firsts.

The first person to eat sliced bread? No big deal.  But the first person to eat an artichoke (which is, let’s be honest, a giant freaking thorn)? That took guts; that’s a first.

The first person to moonwalk? (That would be the bandleader Cab Calloway, who invented the move in the mid 1930s and called it “the Buzz.”) Admirable, but really not a particularly big deal.  The first person to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong; July 20, 1969)? One of the most epic firsts in the history of humankind.

Let’s discuss another of the most epic firsts in all of human history: the first person to compose a complete opera.  That event occurred in the city of Florence in 1600, and that person was the singer, actor, organist and composer Jacopo Peri, who was born in Rome on August 20, 1561, 457 years ago today.

Happy birthday, Maestro!

Admittedly, there were numerous other composers of theatrical music active in Florence at the time, and the names Giulio Caccini and Emilio de’ Cavalieri have also been bandied about as possible “originators” of opera.  But Peri must receive the credit because of his invention of something he called the “stile recitativo” – “recitative style”: a way of setting dialogue to music that differentiated it from song (or aria). 

Peri’s invention of operatic recitative was but the last step in a lengthy period of experimentation and research by some of Florence’s most talented and intelligent people, a group that has come to be called the Florentine camerata which met at the home of Giovanni Bardi for 19 years.

I would tell you that the house is still there, near the center of Florence – just a couple of short blocks north of the Arno River and a few hundred meters east of the Piazza Signoria – at number 5 via de’ Benci: the palace of Giovanni Bardi, Count of Vernio, who lived from 1534 to 1612.

The Bardi Palace
The Bardi Palace in 2006, under renovation, with my (pregnant) wife at bottom center.

Attributed to the great Florentine architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi (who is best known for the dome built atop Florence’s Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore), the palace was built between 1420 and 1427.

It’s quite a casa; the Bardis were very rich.  And while we can’t speak for the virtues of Giovanni Bardi’s predecessors, we can speak for those of the Count himself.  According to Stefano Arteaga, writing in his book Revolution of the Italian Musical Theatre (published 1783), Giovanni de’ Bardi was:

“a virtuous cavalier, liberal, magnanimous, of excellent taste, highest gentility, great knowledge of every kind of letters, and consequently a just appraiser and devoted lover of the literati.”

In other words, our kind of guy.

Talent goes where the money flows, and the art and architecture financed by such wealthy Florentines as Giovanni Bardi remains, to this day, among the very greatest contributions to human culture.

(It has been suggested that of the 1,000 most important European artists of the second millennium – from the year 1001 to 2000 – 350 lived or worked in Florence.  Not bad for a city whose population did not rise above 100,000 until the nineteenth century.)

Florence’s monetary and intellectual wealth bred a special sort of padrone: gentlemen of leisure who could afford to sponsor both artists and the sorts of private academies or ridotti for which the Italian Renaissance was justly famous.  The club or “camerata” that Giovanni Bardi sponsored and hosted at his house from 1573 to 1592 has come to be known as the “Florentine camerata”.  (After 1592, the group met in the home of Jacopo Corsi, who was considered – after the de Medicis – Florence’s leading patron of the arts.) The Florentine camerata was a group of noblemen, musicians, and poets whose great common interest was contemporary and ancient music and theater.  Among the camerata’s most pressing questions was why didn’t their contemporary music produce the same sorts of miracles and magic that the ancient Greeks claimed their music created? 

It is a fact that the members of the Florentine camerata knew next to nothing about ancient music.  But they knew what the ancient Greeks had written about their music, and based on these writings, the members of the camerata wanted their music to be as expressively powerful, magical, and capable of uniting and defining their community as they believed ancient Greek music had been.  It was this desire that led, eventually, to the invention of opera, which – along with William Shatner’s rendition of Tambourine Man – we may rightly consider the single most important musical event of the last 400-plus years. 

We have already correctly established that Jacopo Peri – whose birthday we’re celebrating today – composed what is considered to be the first opera. The big question, though, is which of Peri’s works should be credited as being the first opera?

Item:  it is a fact that a music-dramatic work entitled Daphne was composed in the mid-1590s and was likely performed – privately – sometime during the Carnival season of 1597-1598. (The “Carnival season” runs from December 26 through “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras, the day before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday).  With words by Ottavio Rinuccini and music primarily by Jacopo Peri, Daphne might have been the first opera.  We say “might” because Daphne was never published, and as only six brief fragments have survived, we can’t know for sure if it set a stage play completely to music in such a way as to differentiate between song, dance, madrigal, and musical dialog projected via the recitative style that Peri invented.

Item: it is a fact that Peri’s and Rinuccini’s L’Euridice – which has survived – sets a stage play completely to music in such a way as to differentiate between song, dance, madrigal, and dialog, employing the new “recitative style.”

Item: it is a fact that L’Euridice was performed to great approbation in October 1600 and published four months later, thus becoming an instant benchmark for the new dramatic art.  There is still some debate as to whether Daphne was ever performed at all, and if it was performed, whether it was performed in its entirety.  One wonders: like the tree that falls in a forest with no one there to hear it, did Daphne, in fact, make a sound?

Item: with Peri’s recitative styled opera in the vanguard, a musical-syntactical revolution took place during the seventeenth century, a revolution that touched pretty much every technical and expressive aspect of Western music: melody, harmony, musical form, instrumental design, and so forth.  But nothing was more influential than opera’s intrinsic combination of music and theater, of song (aria) and sung dialogue (recitative), and its consequent focus on the individual human emotion being sung by person.  The sheer expressive exuberance of opera was something very new, despite the fact that it was also the ultimate product of the Renaissance desire to recapture the expressive power the ancients ascribed to their music.

Thus we can comfortably assert, that the first work that we would today define as an opera  was Jacopo Peri’s and Ottavio Rinuccini’s L’Euridice,  first performed at the Pitti Palace in Florence, on October 6, 1600. 

For LOTS more information on the Florentine Camerata, Jacopo Peri and the beginnings of opera I would humbly direct your attention to both my Great Courses surveys “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” AND “How to Listen to and Understand Opera”.

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