E 320M • Literature and Music
12:30 PM-2:00 PM
The course focuses on operas and choral compositions of Purcell, Handel and Mozart, and the literary texts they are based on. Technical musical knowledge is not a pre-requisite. We will mainly be concerned with problems of setting literary texts to music.
We start with the first English opera, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (text by Nahum Tate, a poet laureate), with Purcell's Odes for Saint Cecilia's Day, and with his collaboration (a semi-opera) with a more worthy poet laureate, Dryden, King Arthur. In a semi-opera only allegorical or divine figures were allowed to sing. The reasoned bias of Dryden against English as a language to be set to music, which motivated this restriction, will be examined.
In a vacation from his public English career as composer of Italian opera, Handel collaborated with John Gay on a masque or chamber opera, Acis and Galatea, and with Pope on an oratorio, Esther, both originally intended for a small private audience. At the same time he wrote his Chandos Anthems, based on Biblical texts from the Book of Common Prayer. Handel at first shared Dryden's view of setting English texts, and was committed to composing and producing opera in Italian (in London). But, along with his settings of Dryden's Odes for St. Cecilia's Day and Alexander's Feast, and Milton's l'Allegro ed Il Penseroso (all of which we will also study), these works later provided the path that led Handel to become the great composer of English oratorio. The foremost example of this genre is his Messiah, with texts drawn mainly from the Old Testament, which was followed by Samson, his oratorical setting of a condensed version of Milton's Samson Agonistes.
The latter part of the course will deal with Mozart's and Da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. We will read and discuss the literary sources of their librettos, Beaumarchais' play and Moliere's Don Juan. Here it is not so much the matching of words and music, but rather the suiting of music to dramatic situations and exchanges, which can be appreciated even where we don't understand Italian.
The grading for the course will be based on three papers, two short, one long, (total: at least 16 pages), an oral report and participation in the class discussion.