A che bellezza!
Arias and cantatas Seicento
Polyphony dominated the music of the sixteenth century, but the new intellectual climate established by Renaissance humanism since the end of the previous century had begun to erode it long before that. In Florence a group of nobles and intellectuals proposed music composed on other principles. Already in Dodechakordon, Henricus Glareanus defended in 1547 not only the validity, but also the superiority of monody over polyphony. Later Gioseffo Zarlino was caught in a dilemma which he was unable to solve: theoretically he aspired to a rational music, based on a natural and mathematical order, from which the principles of modern tonality would result. In practice, the dominant polyphony of his time prevented him from drawing all the possible consequences from that fundamental intuition.
It was the members of the Camerata Bardi who would give the final step, by putting into practice the theories of Zarlino to establish a new paradigm in the relationship between music and lyrics. For that was at the bottom what was at stake. If music aspired to move listeners, it had to be a tool to “move affections.” Thus monody and the functional harmony became much more useful than the tools of the old modal system and the polyphonic singing. It was Vincenzo Galilei who in his famous Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music (1581) laid the foundations of the new system. He identified the contrapuntal polyphony with Gothic barbarism and the accompanied monody with the most genuine tradition of classical Greece. But the new style was defended not just because of its similarity with Greek music, but because it was based on Nature and on Reason. On the one hand each mode represented a musical ethos thus transmitting a specific emotion.
On the other polyphony was not only inconvenient for its linguistic and musical confusion generated by the mix of voices, but it was also confusing because of its overlay of different types of scales. The latter often produced a contradictory effect on the listener. A new type of music was required that not only allowed the clear under- standing of the words, but that was also able to move in a clear and distinct way the spirits of those who listened. The relationship between music and lyrics was thus seated on a rational and natural principle, which argued for the expressive capacity rather than by pure hedonistic beauty of sound. On this basis, musicians and intellectuals of the Florentine Camerata Bardi established the melodrama that was later was called ópera.