Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Pastorals, Passepieds, and Pendants: Interpreting Characterization through Aria Pairs in Handel's Rodelinda

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Pastorals, Passepieds, and Pendants: Interpreting Characterization through Aria Pairs in Handel's Rodelinda

Article excerpt

Example 1a. Salvator Rosa, Poetry, 1641, oil on canvas

Example 1b. Salvator Rosa, Music, 1641, oil on canvas

[1.1] Salvator Rosa's companion portraits Poetry and Music (1641; see Examples 1a-b) suggest a strong connection among the titular art forms and their medium of presentation: visual art.(1) In this time and place-as in any distinct culture-painting, music, poetry, and theatre were linked by similar structures, narratives, and semiotic systems; these, in turn, were governed by common aesthetic goals from the mid-seventeenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. The principles of Cartesian philosophy that impacted Baroque thought produced the conflicting aesthetic desires for unity of affect and effective use of contrasts, and during this century-long period in Europe artists addressed this inherent friction in a variety of ways. Rosa's two portraits serve as one example. Together, they form a pendant-a pair of works meant to be viewed and understood together. Although pendants were used in visual art even before this time, they were especially popular from the Baroque through the Enlightenment, often in the form of two portraits.(2) The relationship between pendants is deeper than being superficially complementary. Often making use of sophisticated visual symbolism, each painting provided a context for its pair-the works were meant to reflect two different representations of one idea, two different affects that might be associated with one concept. Author Guy Tal describes the pendant as "a distinctive pictorial format of two interdependent companion pieces of similar dimensions designed to be hung as an adjoining pair. They provided artists with a unique opportunity to demonstrate their visual and intellectual ingenuity by setting up compositional and iconographic analogies and antitheses impossible to present in a single picture" (2011, 20). The ability to present simultaneous unity and contrast between pendants must have intrigued artists, since this type of opposition was central to the Baroque "aesthetic paradox"-the aesthetic need both to elicit movement of the passions in the Cartesian sense and to observe one passion as it is stirred (LeCoat 1971, 220).

Example 2. Lang's gesture for grief and sadness (1727)

[1.2] Composers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sought to capture in music the permanency of visual art and its resulting ability to convey a unified expression, and their solutions are particularly evident in the structure and staging of Baroque opera seria arias.(3) Each aria is similar to one portrait-it presents a depiction of one idea, one aspect of a character-and each typically makes use of conventional musical symbols for this commentary, in addition to lyrics and dramatic context.(4) Further, in these works, arias were staged in a fairly static manner, creating tableaux in which the character struck conventional poses that were associated with the portrayal of specific emotions. Actors even modeled their stances after those used in visual art and tried to emulate subjects and sitters: "Because of [the] similarity between gesture in painting and sculpture, and gesture in acting, and because painters and sculptors were masters of the graceful and beautiful portrayal of the human figure, actors and singers often studied and imitated their works" (Barnett, Dene and Jeanette Massy-Westropp 1987, 122). Many European treatises from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries described appropriate stage gestures and facial expressions for actors. For example, eighteenth-century German author Franciscus Lang described the gesture depicted in Example 2 as appropriate for expressing grief and sadness (1727, 51). The musical and physical construction of opera seria, then, had structural and aesthetic resonances with portraiture and its visual codes.

[1.3] Those resonances could also be interpretive. Pendants present a unique opportunity for complex interpretation because the mutual context they create allows for the depiction of both narrative parallels and divergences. …

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