Musical affect at the intersection between the sacred and secular realms

This multi-year project explores how emotion was written into the vocal music of the early eighteenth century  the era of J.S. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi  and how it was projected in performance, focusing in particular on opera and sacred music in northern Italy, and on the earliest performances of Bach's sacred music in colonial Australia.

Musical affect at the intersection between the sacred and secular realms

Image: The Royal Theatre in Turin, by Pietro Domenico Oliviero, c. 1752. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2014: Musical affect at the intersection between the sacred and secular realms
This project triangulates these previous investigations by exploring the expression of emotions at the intersection between the theatrical and sacred realms in early modern Italian vocal music through a study of the influence of affective topoi borrowed from opera on solo vocal music for the church.

The starting point for this investigation is a pair of solo motets attributed to Handel’s leading Italian contemporary, Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), held at the music archive of the Basilica of St Anthony of Padua.  Neither of the two motets has been previously studied, and one of them was entirely unknown before I identified it in 2012. Both stand out as unusual in Porpora’s output in that they are for bass voice rather than the usual soprano or alto solos, and because they unmistakably borrow the musical ‘storm’ topos, common in operatic arias of the period, to describe the passions of spiritual, rather than worldly torment. Through a broader exploration of this and related topoi in Porpora’s vocal music, I aim to illuminate both the commonalities and the tensions between the affective experiences of the sacred and secular realms projected in Italian music and its widely disseminated influences across western Europe in the early and mid-18th century.  

2013: Musical emotion in the sacred sphere
Studies of the expression of emotion in 17th- and early 18th -century European music have typically focused on either the compositional rhetoric of German sacred music or the performative rhetoric of Italian opera. This project consists of two distinct strands which seek to extend that understanding in other directions which have so far been less researched: the affective rhetoric of Italian sacred music in both composition and performance, and the emotional reception early modern sacred music in colonial Australia.

The first strand arises from my study of previously un-researched manuscripts of music associated with the Basilica of St Anthony of Padua in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Basilica was an important centre of music theory and performance in this period, when expressive trends in both the visual arts and music moved from counter-reformation austerity to baroque emotional intensity.  
A second strand interrogates emotional responses to early modern sacred music in colonial Australia through a study of the reception of the earliest Sydney performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. In announcing the first Sydney performance, the Australian Town and Country Journal (17 Apr 1880) commented on the work’s ‘expression of a profound melancholy, a heavenly sorrow, a pensive and faithful devotion’, suggesting that the emotional content projected onto the work 150 years after its composition, and on the other side of the world, was distinctly different from that associated with its composition and original performances.

2012: The performance of affect in early modern opera
In early modern Italy, one of the principal venues for the public performance of affect was the theatre, and in particular the opera stage, where the projection of intense emotion was heightened to its most rarified level through musical declamation. Most study of Italian opera in this period has hitherto focused on set-piece arias, each designed to convey one clearly defined passion which expresses the emotional state of an individual character at a particular point in the drama. Much less attention has been paid, however, to the performance of the more mercurial, complex emotions of the intervening narrative, delivered in the semi-sung recitatives which make up at least half of the musical material of the opera.

This project investigates the historical evidence for the performance of affect in recitative, focusing on the role of rhetoric in informing theatrical delivery. The first stage of the project interrogates the concept of decorum, a key “encompassing term” in classical rhetoric (Burton, 2007), and explores its implications for the embodied, vocal and gestural delivery of recitative, in particular in the flexible, quasi-improvised interaction between voice and accompanying basso continuo. The second stage applies this rhetorical model of delivery to a detailed case study of a recitative scene from an early 18th-century opera, proposing new guidelines for historical informed performance practice in this notoriously problematic genre.