Florentine Camerata

The Florentine Camerata was a group of scholars, poets, musicians, and amateurs in Florence, Italy, who formed a type of academy to study and establish musical practice at the end of the 16th century.  Its leading spirit in the beginning was Count Giovanni Bardi de Vernio (1534-1612), a distinguished patron of arts and letters, in whose house the members met.  Among them was Vincenzo Galilei (1533-91), father of the famous astronomer and himself a singer and composer of lute music and madrigals.  Galilei, having become interested in the study of ancient Greek music, applied for enlightenment on certain questions to a Roman scholar.  From his study, Galilei published his discoveries and conclusions in 1581 in a document entitled, "Dialogue about Ancient and Modern Music."  This work, containing among other matters an explicit "declaration of war against counterpoint," became the basis of all the later theory and practice of the Camerata.  Galilei's argument was, in brief, that for every phrase of poetry there was but one, unique melody ot tones and rhythms that perfectly expressed it.  The correct way to set words, Galilei said, was to use a solo melody which would merely enhance the natural speech inflections of a good orator.

In the writings of Galilei and other members of the Camerata the theory of the "new music" was fully developed.  Three corollaries were established from the study of Greek principles:

1)  The text must be clearly understood:  therefore, the performance must be by a solo voice with the simplest possible accompaniment

2)  The words must be sung with correct and natural declamation, as they would be spoken, avoiding on the one hand the regular dance-like meters of popular songs and on the other the textual repetitions and subservience to contrapuntal necessities found in madrigal and motet writing

3)  The melody must not depict mere graphic details in the text but must interpret the feeling of the whole passage, by imitating and intensifying the intonations and accents proper to the voice of a person who is speaking the words under the influence of the emotion which gives rise to them

In the last decade of the 16th century, the leaders in Italian monodic writing were Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) and Giulio Caccini (ca. 1546-1618).  The earliest surviving compositions in the Florentine monodic style are some songs written by Caccini in the 1590s and published in 1602 under the title of "Le nuove musiche" (New Music).

In 1600, Peri and Caccini jointly set to music a pastoral-mythological drama, "Euridice," by Ottavio Rinuccini, a member of the Florentine Camerata, which was publicly performed in that year at Florence in connection with the festivities in honor of the marriage of Henry IV of France and Marie de' Medici.  In the following year each composer published a version of his own, and these two are the earliest surviving complete operas.

Opera thus began as an experimental attempt to revive Greek music for the delectation of a little circle of learned amateurs.  It might have died an early death had not the poets and composers realized that the form had to have a richer musical content.  The composer who first wrote operas with this richness, and who therefore is perhaps best entitled to be called the creator of opera, was Claudio Monteverdi.  "Orfeo," the first of Monteverdi's operas, was performed at Mantua in 1607.  Its subject matter is the same as that of the Florentine "Euridice" operas, but expanded into full five-act length.  The music likewise may be said to take the Florentine "stile rappresentativo" as its point of departure, but soon leaves its model behind.