Magazine article Musical Times

Conventions of Prayer in Some 19th-Century Operas

Magazine article Musical Times

Conventions of Prayer in Some 19th-Century Operas

Article excerpt

IN THIS ESSAY, I propose to look at the way in which liturgical forms have been accommodated on the lyric stage of the 19th century, and also at the musical and textual conventions that have developed in tandem with them. I shall base my typology of these forms on classical rather than Christian models so as to admit some neo-classical preghiere into my study, and also to address those pagan forms of prayer that persisted on the stage of the primo ottocento. One must bear in mind that there is often only a nominal difference between classical and Christian prayer, given the fact that both are predicated on archetypal human postures, and also given the fact that the primitive church made wholesale adaptations of Roman liturgical practices.

Those practices were categorised in terms roughly similar to their Catholic avatars, even though, to an extent more marked than in their successors, they were differentiated by degrees of intimacy and gravitas. Preces related chiefly to private entreaty, whether with a deity or a powerful person. (We will recognise in this a recurrent situation of the primo ottocento, namely, a heroine in extremis appealing either to a deity or to a tyrannical baritone.) Precationes, on the other hand, associated as they were with ceremonies of the comitia, emerged from the public adaptation of preces, the sort of pious communal prayer that operatic composers invoke to image a society at peace with itself, as at the start of Linda di Chamounix or Cavalleria rusticana. Deprecationes, by contrast, were more tendentious and purposeful - prayers designed to ward off evil and, to that extent, a verbal form of apotropaic sacrifice. (These have an operatic history that stretches as far back at least as Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride and as far forward as Verdi's Otello.) And if they succeeded, they led, naturally enough, to festivals of thanksgiving or gratulationes, of which we find a private example in La forza deldestino ('Sono giunta! Grazie, o Dio') as well as such grateful tributes to Isis in Act II, scene 2 of Aida. The standard Christian vehicle for public gratulation was the Te Deum, which figures in propria persona (so to speak) at the start of La Juive.

Obsecrationes took form as solemn public prayers offered up by the people, who invoked the gods as witness to the covenant, while obtestationes referred to even more solemn versions of the same enterprise, such as Sinon's treacherous invocation of 'eternal fires' when the Trojans undo his fetters in the Aeneid. The operatic locus classicus for this kind of prayer is doubtless the 'Conjuration of the nobles' in Meyerbeer's Huguenots, while a 'chamber' version of an obstestatio can also be found in Act 2 duet between hero and villain from Verdi's Otello, 'Sì pel ciel'. There is little (if anything) to distinguish Roman intercessory prayers - supplicia - from preces and precationes, but the closely related activities of blessing and cursing - both specialised intercessory prayers - figured as benedictiones and exsecrationes respectively. Benedictio, despite its being a late Latin term, would cover all those invocations of divine protection and advancement that must have existed at the very birth of the Republic, as witness the blessing that Aeneas calls down on himself in Book 8 of Virgil's poem:

O Father Tiber, with thy hallowed flood,

Take to your care Aeneas and at length

From perils fend him.1

That happens to be a private version of an utterance that could just as easily adapt itself to public occasions and to social groups instead of individuals. So, while the Marquis of Calatrava administers a 'chamber' blessing to Leonora at the start of La forza del destino, Tchaikovsky's Joan of Arc encompasses the entire French nation in her hymn 'Tsar vishnikh sil' in Act 1 of Orleanskaya Dyeva.

The same distinction of scale holds true with regard to the exsecratio. Horace's Tenth Epode represents a private kind of cursing, advanced half in jest:

Under evil omen the ship sets sail, bearing unsavoury Mevius. …

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