Nuts & Bolts: Da Capo Aria

The da capo aria provided some of the greatest eighteenth-century opera singers with the means to show off their dazzling vocal techniques. After the second verse the singer would return to the first verse but with embellishments. Michael Tanner explains the subtle art.

Aria is the Italian for air, in both senses. But in the sixteenth century it came to mean a song or style of singing. Da capo means ‘from the head’, that is, from the start; and abbreviated to DC, as it often is, the initials occur in a score at the point where the performer has to go back to the beginning and continue until he or she reaches ‘Fine’, that is the end.

A da capo aria is a song in which the first section gives place to a more or less contrasting second one, and then the first is repeated, either exactly as it was first time round (which is how it is likely to be printed) or with added ornaments, at the performer’s discretion. Da capo arias were the main items of interest in operas from the late seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth centuries, and were largely responsible both for their appeal, for those who enjoyed them, and for the disrepute into which opera fell, for those who felt it should be primarily a dramatic form.

In the first 50 years of opera, that is from 1600, there is hardly anything which can be called musical form. The brief choruses and orchestral passages are separated by lengthy periods during which a single singer expresses himself in a semi-melodic way, but with little repetition; the orchestra accompanies with appropriate harmonies, but little in the way of independent music. And since the singer is moving his thoughts along, as in a spoken play, music is strictly subordinate, though it may be extremely expressive, as it is in Monteverdi’s three surviving operas.

Mood swings in song
Understandably, singers became restive with this regime, and audiences also wanted, if the singers were fine, to hear them display their voices. So slowly we see operas develop into a series of rapidly moving recitatives, alternating with arias, or songs; and the simplest principle of organisation for them is clearly to have the first part repeated after a varied second part. Da capo arias in themselves can of course be highly expressive, but it doesn’t always make for dramatic momentum to have someone ending in the same state of mind as they began, which is what the form dictates. It has even led one theorist to maintain that the point of da capo arias is to depict people in obsessional states. This may be the effect, but it can hardly be the aim, since even the humbler characters, usually given one aria in a long opera, still have to stick to the same form.

The need for a new look
The greatest writer of operas employing da capo arias, Handel, displays his genius by maintaining interest while adhering to a predictably simple scheme. And while he is now regaining popularity as an operatic composer, there are some who feel it is hard to take the works seriously as dramas since every character has to end their arias feeling just as they did when they began them.

By contrast, the greatness of Mozart, and often of Gluck, is the way in which feelings develop during an aria so the form becomes one of progression rather than reprise.

The fact that singers were expected to add ornaments to their arias when they embarked on the repeats meant that up to a point they could show themselves in a more intense or complicated state; but in the event most ornamentation was devoted merely to technical display.

Since the greatest singers of the age of da capo were castrati, they had prodigious lung power which resulted in enormously long runs, executed on a single syllable, and thus implausible as dramatic expression. Singers have always tended to be hopelessly vain, no doubt partly because of the cruel brevity of their careers, in almost all cases. So rather than expressive truthfulness, which can often be gained by simple means, they have indulged in their public’s vulgar taste for fireworks and varying a tune one’s audience has just listened to provides a golden opportunity.

So long as da capo arias were the staple of opera, it was bound to remain inert as a dramatic form: Mozart and Gluck were needed to haul it into a new age. But in oratorio, where narration alternates with meditation, da capo arias really come into their own.

Hence in Handel’s Messiah, and still more in Bach’s great Passions and the B minor Mass, there are long passages where the music seems to have achieved a sublime stasis, even if the singer is lamenting the human condition. It is above all as religious music that one welcomes the endlessness of those huge arias. If occasionally they lead us to wonder whether Paradise wouldn’t be tedious, that is a question which believers have to face anyway.

Tools of the trade
Ritornello: the orchestral passage which usually precedes the entry of the voice, and recurs at the end of each vocal paragraph.
Dal segno: from the sign. If the aria is not to be repeated from the beginning, it starts some way in, indicated by a characteristic sign.
Recitative: vocal writing, usually for a single voice, which more or less follows the natural rhythms and accentuation of speech and its pitch. Originally the main ingredient in opera, it came to alternate with arias.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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