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The Secular Commedia Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

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Chapter 1

Comic Flux and Comic Precision

It's call'd a Polypus . . .

And {apos}tis a reptile of so strange a sort,

That if {apos}tis cut in two, it is not dead;

Its head shoots out a tail, its tail a head.

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, Isabella; or Odes (1740)

Le Neveu de Rameau, the disquieting dialogue-satire by Denis Diderot, contains a long passage in which the eponymous Nephew lectures his interlocutor, a Diderot-like figure, on the merits of Italian over French opera. Opera criticism is not the dialogue's principal preoccupation, but rather the far more somber issue of cynicism's clash with moral philosophy. Yet about two-thirds of the way through, the discussion veers off into a peculiar musical topicality: the usually cynical Nephew begins to argue ardently for one side in the well-known mid-eighteenth-century Parisian culture war known as the guerre des bouffons (the Italian, as it happens). The passage is often plucked out of context by music historians and anthologized as one more piece of documentary evidence for that noisy quarrel.1

Indeed, I was in the process of so treating it myself when I was arrested by a curious image the Nephew uses in his opera discussion.2The image is buried in the middle of this oft-excerpted passage and passes by so quickly that it rarely disturbs the casual reader. The third or fourth time through, however, its mild incongruity begins to nag. It occurs in a harangue that the Nephew is delivering on the nature of the language most appropriate for opera libretti. Here is his description of the ideal style:

It is the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line, and its expressions should be pressed out urgently, one after the other; the phrase must be short, the meaning cut off, suspended; the musician must be able to make use of the whole and of each of the parts-to omit a word or repeat it, to add a word that is missing, to turn the phrase backward and inside out like a polyp, without destroying it.3

At first the Nephew's fleeting mention of the polyp seemed to be no more than a whimsical solecism, wholly in character for an eccentric creature from whose trains of thought one does not demand complete coherence. Like most modern readers, I was ignorant of the nature of Diderot's particular polyp, having only vague marine and medical associations with the word.4But a brief investigation led me to an unlikely site of exploration for a music historian studying the habits of musical comedy-the freshwater ponds of eighteenth-century naturalists-and to the tale of an important biological discovery that rapidly insinuated itself into the literary and philosophical discourse of the period.

The scene of Diderot's dialogue is an imagined encounter in a Parisian café, sometime between 1760 and 1762, between a philosophe-narrator (so he establishes himself in his brief exposition) and the actual nephew of the actual composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The author designates them Moi and Lui, respectively. The Nephew, Jean-François Rameau, was both in truth and in Diderot's fiction a music teacher and professional parasite (the Nephew seeing little difference between these two occupations). Again in both truth and fiction, he was a man of extravagant changeableness-as Moi describes him early on, "a compound of elevation and baseness, of good sense and folly."5 In the words of the writer Jacques Cazotte, who as an old school chum had known the actual Nephew, "That strange man nursed a passion for glory and never found any way of attaining it."6Talented, but living in the shadow of his famous uncle, whom he professed to despise, he is pictured here as choosing in company to burlesque the madman, delivering brilliantly cynical critiques of human nature from behind this façade. He mounts an extraordinary performance for Moi, who at first pretends mere amusement at the antics of his old acquaintance. But he is clearly transfixed by Rameau's strange blend of nihilism and innocent candor.

The discussion of the virtues of Italian opera occurs toward the climax of the dialogue. The Nephew exults in the crushing blow delivered to the operas of his detestable Uncle by the Italian juggernaut that triggered the guerre des bouffons. The 1752 production in Paris, by an Italian buffo troupe, of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona (The maid mistress) on the hallowed neoclassic stage of the Opéra provoked passionate responses from Parisian intellectuals, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notorious Lettre sur la musique française, a devastating critique of the musical potential of the French language.7 The Italians took the capital by storm, causing a national crisis of confidence in the powers of French music.8 Two camps formed, rallying around the King (for the French) and the Queen (for the Italians). Rameau "the great" was the figurehead of the French camp, while Rousseau, Diderot, and other philosophes took up their cudgels for the Italian. Earlier in the dialogue the Nephew had gleefully reported, "These cursed bouffons, with their Serva padrona . . . have given us a real kick in the ass" (a vulgarism that is also a topical pun, since the French word for ass here is "cul," and the stuffyAcadémie Royale de Musique, known less formally as the Opéra, stood at the end of a cul-de-sac, a fact of which the Nephew reminds us a few sentences later).9If it stood alone, this portion of the dialogue would be no more than it seems-an eccentric and polemical but surprisingly substantive account of that famous tempest in a salon de thé. (Later, in the Confessions, Rousseau, claiming responsibility for the controversy, suggested that by stirring it up he had saved the monarchy from a far worse fate.)10

The aesthetic doctrine advanced by the Nephew in the polyp passage is nothing out of the ordinary; it could have come straight from Rousseau's Essai sur l'origine des langues. Libretto language, the philosophes argued, should voice "the animal cry of passion"-that is, the short and disjunct exclamatory expressions of the movements of the soul that they ascribed to the invention of the Italians.11In La Nouvelle Héloïse Rousseau has that paragon of sensibilité, Saint-Preux, praise Italian opera texts as revealing "the powerful and secret link between passion and sound."12In the Lettre sur les sourds et muets Diderot had judged the French language incapable of such direct passionate utterances: French, he argued, is a language of logic but not of poetry; it traces out brilliant thought sequences, tight trains of reasoning, but cannot capture the semaphoric gestures of the passions-"hieroglyphs," Diderot termed them.13As the Nephew explains, "This makes French lyric poetry much more difficult than in languages with inversions, that by themselves offer all these advantages."14French libretto poetry had a fatal propensity to stiffly well-turned phrases and measured aphorisms-a style appropriate to the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld or the Pensées of Pascal, but not to the direct representation of human nature on the comic stage. In an impassioned speech just after the polyp metaphor occurs, the Nephew cries out, "We need exclamations, interjections, suspensions, interruptions, affirmations, negations; we call out, we invoke, we shout, we groan, we weep, we laugh out loud. No wit, no epigrams; none of these pretty thoughts. It's too removed from simple nature."15 Simple nature is represented in this dialogue by the image of the polyp.

What, then, is a polyp, and what light can it shed on the subject of the comic musical theater? As I hinted at the start, my own associations with polyps had been more medical than zoological, involving Ronald Reagan, who so candidly, in the fine tradition of our nation's ailing presidents, brought intestinal polyps to the nation's attention. (Closer to musical home, Haydn suffered for a good deal of his life from a nasal polyp.) Polyps, however, come in two classes, the zoological and the pathological. In its earliest usage, the word "polyp" in both French and English designated not only morbid growths in human organs but also large, free-floating shell-less mollusks of the class of Cephalopods, like the octopus and the cuttlefish or squid. Their distinguishing characteristics are a large amorphous body and a plethora of feet. ("Polyp" is from the Greek poly and pous, "many-footed," and the Greek name for octopus was "polupous.") The identification of medical polyps with these mollusks is at least as old as Horace, a semantic transference that was probably suggested by the tentacle-like ramifications shared by the two organisms.16Owing to the ability of these mollusks to change colors in order to blend with their background, "polyp" earned an extended meaning that was something like "Protean." (The connection of polyps with Proteus is easy to establish: the god of changes was from the sea, and zoology salutes mythology by calling the common amoeba, another amorphous organism, Amoeba proteus.) A 1583 Mammalia cited in the Oxford English Dictionary notes that "the Polipe chaunge themselves into the likenesse of everie object," and a 1606 wordbook extends this with the statement that "inconstant persons are sometimes said to be Polypes." The original polyp was a marine chameleon.17

In the mid-1700s, even as the use of the term "polyp" to designate these Cephalopods was becoming obsolete, the name was transferred to a newly discovered organism, another Protean creature.18 This new organism was Protean, however, in displaying a different sort of adaptive behavior-its refusal to be classified firmly as an animal or a plant. In 1740 the young Genevan naturalist Abraham Trembley, examining the teeming aquatic animal and plant life he had captured in powder jars on a country estate where he was a tutor, discovered a peculiar "insect" later to be dubbed the freshwater polyp or hydra.19This creature exhibited stunning generative and regenerative behaviors never observed before. It "budded" new offspring like a plant, popping out a little protuberance like the nub of a branch that would rapidly separate to become a new polyp. And, even more amazing, when cut into any number of pieces (Trembley first tried two, then four, and then was emboldened to chop it into innumerable little bits), each piece would regenerate into a fresh polyp! Driven in a spirit of Baconian thoroughness to torture his "little aquatic Being" to the utmost, Trembley even managed to turn it inside out, performing a retournement or inversion, as he called it. With the aid of a boar's bristle, he made the tiny creature's inside its outside and fixed it permanently in this position, despite its efforts to right itself, by driving another bristle through its body near its lip. Fastened firmly thus, the polyp continued to live, eat, and reproduce quite capably.

The discovery made by this meticulous young naturalist was stunning to both biologists and philosophers (the distinction between the two being far less clear-cut in the mid-eighteenth century than it would become over the next fifty years). By 1741, through the busy network of correspondence by which scientists communicated in this period, the news of this discovery had traveled to Paris to the Académie des Sciences, and to the Royal Society in London. There is an extensive description of Trembley's discovery in the first edition of the Encyclopédie. The existence of the polyp raised grave questions about the constitution of natural beings, some so radical that even its discoverer was unwilling to countenance them. Rhetoric ran high: in the Histoire de l'Académie des Sciences the ever-regenerating polyp was compared to a phoenix rising from the ashes, and a disciple of the great naturalist Réaumur reported the furor in the grand ironic vein: "A miserable insect has just shown itself to the world and has changed what up to now we have believed to be the immutable order of nature. The philosophers have been frightened, a poet told us that death itself has grown pale."20 The polyp appeared to be an animal, not a plant, because it was capable of locomotion: it could detach itself from one position and take up another. Its discoverers classified it as an insect.21 Yet like a plant it could produce offspring without benefit of mating; in its hollow transparent core it appeared to have none of the organs hitherto considered necessary to animals; and, most importantly, once chopped into pieces, each fragment could produce a new and separate creature. If animals have souls, where in these fragments could the soul of the original polyp reside?

Long-standing distinctions between plant and animal, soul and body, were challenged by this discovery, forcing notions of the discrete to give way to the continuous, the formed to the formless, the divine unitary to the mundane and messy manifold. In previous theories of generation, God and Chance had battled it out for the position of final cause. Now Nature was being inserted as a mean between the two extremes. In Cartesian rationalism the separation between the thinking soul and the soulless but animate body (mere "extended substance") had enforced the opinion that animals, lacking rationality, were machines without souls-automata. Generation was caused by the serendipitous collisions of drifting molecules. This unpalatable theory had been partially displaced in the late seventeenth century by a teleological biology more in conformity with Christian principles, in which generation took place by means of a limited number of preformed germs or seeds-fully formed "animaliculi" planted there at the time of the Creation. Each contained a minuscule version of itself, which at birth sprang fully formed, organized to "grow" its miniature organs to maturity. When these germs ran out, the world would end.

The polyp put paid to both hypotheses. It demonstrated that soul-matter is infinitely divisible, so that neither an externally installed soul nor a preexistent germ could survive the random cutting of the polyp's substance. The power of generation, growth, and change must be immanent in the very matter of the polyp, not implanted by divine ordinance. Hence the polyp revealed living matter's capacity for autonomous activity, its ability to direct its own somatic and psychic development.22 This living example of the continuity of matter challenged teleology, blurred the distinctions between creatures, and plunged thinkers like Diderot into revolutionary, evolutionary thoughts about the mutability of species.23

Any doubt that Diderot had in mind Trembley's stunning discovery in the passage from Le Neveu with which this chapter opened is allayed by diction that can be no mere coincidence: Trembley's word for the turning of the polyp inside out was retournement, and the Nephew uses the words tourner et retourner to describe the torturing of the libretto phrase (having just previously in this same passage described music as the most violent of the arts). The scientific literalism of the polyp simile, intentionally comic in its incongruity, suggests various local meanings. Perhaps the mention of the animal cry of passion in the same breath as the description of this most voiceless of animal specimens could be meant to twit Rousseau for his famous discussion of the relation of language and the cry of passion in the Essai. (No one emerges well from this dialogue.) And the polyp as Cephalopod seems to have been proverbial in French parlance for its tenacity-it just sticks to things. The Nephew has something of this quality in himself.

The central intention of the passage, however, is to characterize the new opera; clearly Diderot meant to connect this astonishing discovery of contemporaneous natural science with the powers of opera buffa. And this connection resonates powerfully with other claims made by the philosophes for the significance of this moment in operatic history. The polyp image may seem strange to us, but it is no stranger than equating the animal cry of passion with the comic periods of La serva padrona-which is precisely what the philosophes did. What is convention to one is nature to another. La serva padrona-and indeed mostopere buffe-strike modern audiences as convention-ridden, although delightfully so. They are praised for their brilliant use of comic stereotypes, simplistic but efficient reductions of human behavior.24But the polyp metaphor suggests that the philosophes saw the new opera in a different light. It made its appeal to them as a natural organism: to Rousseau, to Diderot, opera buffa seemed nature itself. Unlike those Cartesian machines of the tragédie lyrique that projected the motions of the passions of the soul with eloquent froideur, the genre manifested a new vitalism-a "principle of motion and rest in itself" (to crib from Aristotle's definition of nature)-the volatility of its matter.25 Its appeal was the potential infinity of its divisibility and the power of its being to survive and adapt in fragmentation. It was constructed out of materials resembling Diderot's hieroglyphs-fragmentary gestures that, no matter how tiny, still retained their identities, so that their brief yet precise representations were understood.

In the dialogue these representations are brought into being by the Nephew, the ventriloquist, who "does all the parts." Here we have a suggestion of that other polyp, the Cephalopod, the "marine chameleon," with its ceaseless capacity for mutation into others' shapes. The Nephew, who speaks so fondly of the Protean, is a polymorph himself, a Proteus of the pantomime, who keeps up a relentless running mimicry of all the beings discussed in the dialogue, and finally, in a climactic moment, enacts an entire opera buffa. In these repeated pantomimes, the Nephew takes on an endless parade of different shapes, fragmenting his identity nearly beyond recognition. The Diderot figure describes one of these virtuoso performances: "He mimicked a man who's growing angry, who's indignant, who grows tender, who gives commands, who begs, and delivered without preparation speeches of anger, sympathy, hatred, and love. He sketched the characters of the passions with amazing finesse and truth."26 The Nephew's Protean nature is foregrounded at the outset by the epigrammatic fragment Diderot affixed to the dialogue, a quotation from a satire of Horace: "Vertumnis, quotquot sunt, natus iniquis" (loosely, "he who is born under the variable Vertumnus's hostile star"). The Etruscan deity Vertumnus was "the changeable god of the seasons, 'an Italian Proteus.'"27The large saltwater polyp (Cephalopod) is as peculiar a natural organism as its tiny freshwater namesake. Like Horace's god Vertumnus, it has a kind of "negative capability": without voice, intentionality, or shape of its own, it is defined by taking on the shapes of other beings, which it does ceaselessly, in a state of continual flux. Diderot presents the comic surface of opera buffa as a kaleidoscopic series of imitative gestures strung out by a master narrator who "does all the shapes." The new comic art is both natural and Protean: buffa is an art of fraction and flux.

This principle can be seen at work in the very opera that caused all the fuss: Pergolesi's La serva padrona. When the Nephew described the rude shock administered to Parisian audiences by La serva padrona, he was telling only the unvarnished truth. In the reception history of opera buffa there is no avoiding the phenomenon of this opera, as the Italian savant Francesco Algarotti reports. A severe critic of his own country's serious opera, Algarotti was as taken as the philosophes with the natural expressive powers of this beguiling comic piece: "But no sooner was heard upon the theatre of Paris the natural yet elegant style of the Serva padrona, rich with airs so expressive and duets so pleasing, than the far greater part of the French became not only proselytes to, but even zealous advocates in behalf of the Italian music. A revolution so sudden was caused by an intermezzo and two comic actors."28 Of course Pergolesi's intermezzo was more a symbol of the phenomenon than a source of it. The new comic style had developed in Naples early in the century, having been given a boost, as more than one observer wryly noted, by its expulsion from the serious stage by the Arcadian reformers. It met with overwhelming acceptance as it traveled through Italy, settling in Rome and Venice by the late 1730s and {apos}40s and in London in 1748. The report of Charles de Brosses, a French magistrate visiting Italy in 1739-40 and a generally reliable and thoughtful critic, demonstrates how powerfully the early intermezzi had worked their wiles: "I confess that these sorts of pieces, when they are like . . . La serva padrona, and Livietta e Tracollo by the charming Pergolesi, give me greater pleasure than all the others. The bluestockings in this country, who admire only serious operas, tease me for having lost my head over them. But I persist in my opinion that the less serious the genre, the more successful Italian music is at it."29 The lionizing of La serva padrona in Paris simply ratified the new genre's enormous and widely recognized appeal.

There is no doubt that the motivation for that famous battle was political as well as aesthetic: by attacking the Opéra, a symbol of the self-glorification and chauvinism of the monarchy, the philosophes were firing potshots at the régime under the cover of music criticism. But ultimately the Pergolesi phenomenon transcended local politics. Although the composer's short life was over at the age of twenty-six, sixteen years before the famous performance, he assumed a posthumous position as cultural icon, a phenomenon that was wittily prophesied after the fact by the Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, the German diplomat, Parisian man-about-town, and intimate of Diderot. In his pro-Italian polemic "Le petit prophète de Boehmisch-Broda" (1753), Grimm intones in the voice of pseudo-Jehovah:

You will bring [the "vain and proud" French people] the music of my servant Pergolesi, whom men to this day call divine, because I caused him to spring fully formed from my brain.

And it will be the time of signs and miracles.30

And it was so. La serva padrona received at least twenty-four new productions in its first ten years in the major operatic centers of Italy and Germany. Any survey would surely reveal that Pergolesi was the composer most often mentioned in writings of the period, and it is an established fact that his Stabat Mater was the most published work in the eighteenth century (to the annoyance of some critics, who lamented the intrusion of comic and sentimental elements into a sacred work).31The Italian intruder had properly chastised the "vain and proud French."

Not, of course, without the approval and self-aggrandizement of some of their own countrymen. Pergolesi's position as cultural icon was bound up with-and matched by-Rousseau's. As mentioned earlier, the latter's seditious Lettre sur la musique française, with its ringing conclusion ("the French have no music and cannot have any; or . . . if they ever have, it will be so much the worse for them") was generated by his first hearing of La serva padrona.32The Lettre became as much a touchstone of late eighteenth-century music criticism as Pergolesi's intermezzo had been of opera buffa; it was well nigh obligatory when writing about music to mention this notorious text. Rousseau was ravished by Pergolesi's music. In the article on duos in his Dictionnaire he chooses all three of his examples from "the immortal Pergolesi," praising the opening movement of the Neapolitan composer's Stabat Mater as "the most perfect and touching duo that has come from the pen of any musician," and the first duet from La serva padrona, "Lo conosco," as the "comic duo perfectly to my taste in all its parts."33 Such veneration from a devotee of sensibilité is strong testimony to the fact that in the presence of the buffi the French bouffonistes thought themselves face to face with simple nature.

Nature also emerges front and center in the rapt account of the opera by no less a personage than the Baron d'Holbach, the Maecenas of the philosophes, who was one of the first on the firing line in this particular culture war. In his 1752 "Letter to a Lady of a Certain Age, on the Present State of the Opera" this well-known cynic and misanthrope was nonetheless able to summon up ardent enthusiasm for Pergolesi's creation: "The Serva padrona! There's more genius in only one of these pieces than in all our immense compilations of notes."34No mere rave, d'Holbach's description helpfully spells out some of the virtues of the new phenomenon:

[Pergolesi's is] a dialogued music without equal. The tunes have a simplicity, elegance, and expressiveness the like of which we have never heard before; they would suffice alone to convey the meaning of the words. The tone of nature is there, always rendered with power and truth, and often at those very moments when it would seem least likely of being captured. . . . What . . . can such epithets as Mountebanks, Buffoons signify when applied to Comedians who, with the utmost delicacy, give expression to passions common to all humanity and who present them from the most striking angles? Someone, a better judge of these extraordinary portrayals, said, "It is life itself; and at the same time these melodies are divine!"35

That it proceeded in "dialogued" style was one of the features of the new opera that projected the "tone of nature." An audience accustomed to an unbroken succession of solo arias in opera seria must have been overwhelmed at witnessing actual sung interactions between performers. Tunes that successfully mimed the dramatic situation are another feature. But perhaps the most striking attribute of the new genre mentioned by d'Holbach was the power of the acting. Given what usually appears to us today as a limited emotional range in characterization, as compared to the extensive anatomy of the passions that occupied opera seria, it may be surprising to learn that the buffi were celebrated for their histrionic abilities. De Brosses praises the precision of the ensemble in the musical performance, and this must have been an important factor in their reception.36But d'Holbach, Algarotti, Charles Burney, the Italian singing teacher Giambattista Mancini, whose treatise on singing was a paean to the great voices of the past-these pundits all were moved by more than mere musical skill. They remarked on the superior dramatic power of the acting on the buffa stage, and consequently, as can be seen in Charles Burney's remarks below, its greater universality. In Naples, at a dismal performance of Gelosia per gelosia, an opera buffaby Piccinni, Burney praised the powers of the comic actor Signor Casaccia, "a man of infinite humour; the whole house was in a roar the instant he appeared; and the pleasantry of this actor did not consist in buffoonery, nor was it local, which in Italy, and, indeed, elsewhere, is often the case; but was that of original and general sort as would excite laughter at all times and in all places." Later, at another performance of the same opera, he returned to further praise of the singer's acting: "There is so much vis comica in Casaccia, that his singing is never thought of."37 Mancini saw good acting as the cause of buffa's elevation from intermezzo to independence: "How have the opere buffe and dances that at one time served only as intermezzos in opere serie both come to stand on their own, and to become principal spectacles instead of accessories, if not by means of the dramatic art? The actors and comics with their gesticulation and the dancers with their pantomime are today effectively the only ones who still use and appreciate good acting."38 It is important to realize that the buffi were not just a diverting pack of mountebanks who had stumbled onto the Parisian stage and into a political battle in which they came to serve as convenient pawns. Nor were they welcomed by Parisian intellectuals as a postmodern critic might welcome a new TV sitcom-condescendingly, as a fresh and interesting revelation of bourgeois cultural practice. The new form of comic theater that developed out of the Neapolitan comic tradition offered both to the philosophes and to critical witnesses in other European capitals a fresh kind of musical fiction of serious matter. With its engaging mode of mimesis it challenged the tradition-encrusted, hierarchical institutions of the reigning musical theater in the same way that calcified Cartesian and Christian notions of generation had metamorphosed under the pressure of Trembley's little polyp. The Spanish-born Jesuit Stefano Arteaga, an early historian of opera writing in the 1780s, held that the passions of the ordinary people represented in opera buffa, being less intense and therefore more natural than those of opera seria personages, were easier to represent truthfully, relying as they did not on passaggii but on the true histrionic skills of the performers.39

A sample from the oft-evoked but seldom-studied Serva padrona may shed some light on its success. If you don't know the story, the title-The Maid Made Mistress-says it all. Serpina, the clever serving maid, manipulates her blustering master, Uberto, into marrying her, and at the end they expect to live happily ever after. (It is mere ornament to the basic plot line to mention the complication of a third actor, the mute butler Vespone, whose main function is to appear toward the end dressed as the rough soldier whom the blackmailing Serpina threatens to marry.) La serva padrona begins with a basso buffo singing a list of infinitives with their chiming -ire rhymes-no sterile epigrams here:

Aspettare e non venire,

Stare a letto e non dormire,

Ben servire e non gradire-

Son tre cose da morire!

To wait around and have no one come,

To lie in bed and get no sleep,

To serve well and get no thanks-

These are three things that kill me!

A happy ending is foreshadowed even in Uberto's opening infinitive list, which seems at first to mouth a conventional comic complaint about the "servant problem" (Leporello's "Notte e giorno faticar" in reverse). But the enumeration of grievances moves from the master's annoyance at the recalcitrant servant-"To wait around and have no one come"-to a complaint about ingratitude for service rendered, ingratitude on Serpina's part for the master's service to the serva! (Uberto claims to have raised Serpina as though she were his daughter.) In an opera called La serva padrona the padrone uses the word servire of himself before the story has even gotten underway. His comic self-pity signals vulnerability-a resistance easily broken. The seeds of his capitulation are sown at the start.

The musical setting twists the simple text about like a polyp (example 1). Uberto's aria opens with a sequence of three-measure phrases, drawn out by the exaggerated rhetorical accent of a whole note held across the bar line: "As-pet-ta-re e non venire." The infinitive list-it climbs one sequence too high, as if in comic self-forgetfulness-is adroitly counterstated by drawn-out descending half notes on "Son tre cose." Quick rising sequences continue to bend the text about, leading to the dominant pedal, and a new set of sequences drives to the final cadence. The cadence figure, on "da morire," is another buffa topos-basso buffo chromaticism. Quick half-step motion is awkward to negotiate in a resonant lower register; hence it provokes laughter. It can be comically menacing (like Osmin in the Seraglio) or a comically pathetic expression of exasperated despair, as here. Absent are seria's elaborate melismas on emblematic words like amore or furore: Uberto's anger is communicated by musical accents, rising lines, and rhetorical pauses; textual self-consciousness is nowhere in view. On the stage of the Opéra the fresh slangy directness of his grumbling must have been bracing; it resounded as the voice of nature and a challenge to the institutionalized stodginess of the official operatic art.


I've already mentioned the usual snap judgment that most comic characters are one-dimensional stereotypes who introduce themselves as though with nametags at a conference, offering up one salient trait as a quick identifier. Modern critics reserve their praise for composers who depart from these stereotypes to give a character that much sought-after quality of a developed subjectivity-of "real depth."40Comic opera is contrasted to its disadvantage with serious drama, where character-true personhood-is a field of difference to be explored with self-conscious discursiveness, Hamlet providing the extreme case. No matter how creaky the conventions of baroque opera may seem to modern audiences, the genre permitted a similar subjective discursiveness through that regular form of aria, the soliloquy: in repeated pauses during the drama, namely the arias, interaction with the other characters would cease, leaving the stage free for the soloist to step out of the action in order to explore his or her interiority, to report at some length on the passions-pathē (feelings suffered or tolerated by the receiving body) that were at the present moment gripping this particular soul.41 (That seria characters conducted this soulful examination singing high tragic music tends to further the judgment that they were particularly "deep.") Accustomed as modern readers are to the great nineteenth-century European and Russian novels, this discursiveness is nature to them-not one of many possible conventions or habits of fictional character depiction, but as direct a representation as possible of the processes of actual interior lives.

It is easy to forget that fictions are fictional, and that every fictional country has its ways. As the philosophes' reactions make clear, what was depicted in eighteenth-century musical comedy was also nature-but under another description, one that in fact answered more closely to the notion of character in classical antiquity than to the modern conception of discursive introspection. While there may be less room here for the roundedness and complexity one meets in other fictions, the alternative is not necessarily a forest of empty stereotypes. Opera buffa articulated an entire social cosmos, highborn to lowly, and its emphasis was comparative: on ēthē rather than pathē, on character-signaling behavior rather than on the discursive expression of the passions.42

In The Rhetoric of Fiction, for example, Wayne Booth speaks with unfeigned admiration of the characters of Boccaccio's Decameron, even as he terms them "two-dimensional, with no revealed depths of any kind."43Boccaccio, he argues, was a skillful writer who revealed just enough information about his characters to make the fiction work in the vein he intended, filtering out any details that would distract. Sometimes we learn about these characters from their actions; at other times it is enough for the storyteller to describe them with a few key words: to tell us that a character is "gallant," or "no less virtuous than fair."

Booth's reading saves the expression "two-dimensional" from pejorative connotations. Instead it is the equivalent of the master draftsman's ability to suggest an image with two telling strokes of his pen-two strokes rather than the disparaging "two dimensions." The story Booth chooses for his example comes from the tales of the fifth day of the Decameron, the day for which the announced theme is "good fortune befalling lovers after divers direful or disastrous adventures." The story has a happy ending: in order to allow the lovers to marry, a husband and son have to be killed off, and a much-prized falcon murdered and consumed at luncheon like Thyestes' children. But these passings are barely noted; it is arranged that we will be entirely engaged by the graces of the protagonists so that we can delight in their ultimate good fortune. That third stroke or dimension-the tragic dimension of willful and brooding self-consciousness-might distract from the enjoyment of the mechanics of thecommedia. Hence its conspicuous absence. This "two-stroke" paradigm gives us the characters of most true comedies. What is needed for depicting them is a means of vivid and precise description, which catches the character in glints and facets in the Boccaccian manner.

A little slogan occurs to me that neatly sums this up: in opera buffa, enargeia is energeia. Translation: in opera buffa, vivid character depiction-enargeia-is accomplished by energeia, or by showing us glimpses of men and women "at work." Enargeia is a term in classical poetics for the power to project lively images. It has an interesting derivation, from argos, "bright" or "flickering"; the adjective enargos was used by Homer of gods appearing in their own forms to mortals. "Manifest" and "manifestness" might be good general synonyms. Enargeia usually refers to images in the graphic arts, but it is no less helpful as a term that captures the lively essence of efficient character delineation in the musical theater.44The other term in the slogan, energeia, is an important Aristotelian word that can be translated as "being at work" (the preposition en- or "in" plus ergon, or "work"). Energeia to Aristotle is "what makes the world go round," both literally, in the response of the planetary spheres to the being of the Prime Mover, and more metaphorically, in a human being's pursuit of his telos, the ultimate object of his desire-his moti-vation.45To Aristotle one is only oneself when one is "at work," and hence the motions of work will be most revealing of self.

In the Poetics Aristotle gives his imprimatur to the "two-stroke" paradigm. In his judgment, one often baffling to the casual modern reader, plot is the central factor in both tragedy and comedy, and character is inseparable from, but importantly subsidiary to, action: "For tragedy is an imitation not of men but of actions and of life. Both happiness and unhappiness lie in activity and our end is some activity, not a quality. Now it is according to characters (ēthē) that we have qualities, but it is according to activities that we are happy or the reverse. Hence [on stage] they do not do actions in order to imitate characters, but they comprehend characters through actions."46 In other words, ethos is made known through action, through motion, through the image of a character "at work." The character of Oedipus, Aristotle's principal example, is revealed not by hermetic self-analysis but by his ceaseless public efforts to bring to the light the truth behind his city's sickness. If one is only fully oneself when one is "at work," it follows that only in action will characters display the true object of their desires, the thing that "makes them tick." Discursive psychological insight has no place here; it is a relatively modern development.

Because the musical conventions of opera buffa in the late eighteenth century left characters to reveal themselves in the motions of action-en ergō, so to speak-they possessed the quality of enargeia-lively essence-to a high degree. On stage these creatures, as they move in and out of incident, reveal themselves unwittingly-without introspection-in the gestures of their arias and duets. The matter of these revelations is various topoi, simple ones like the basso chromaticism mentioned above and more mediated ones, which use dance and other rhythms or characteristic styles as their materials.47These codifications of gesture and signification had been available to earlier, serious opera, but only in its aria-soliloquies; to indulge in discursive interiority one must be alone. As I've said, different fictions, different expressive habits. Opera buffa's focus on its characters' social rather than interior natures made these gestures brief and allusive, embedded them in actions, and hence (the most significant musical innovation) deployed them in constant gestural contrasts-in the "dialogued style," the "tone of nature." These precise, forceful, and concentrated images could be employed and contrasted or counterstated in the same aria, duet, or ensemble. High, middle, and low topoi jostled each other about in profusion; opera buffa was shaped by precision in flux.

Another example from La serva padrona will serve the point. The opera's two duets function as embryonic buffa finales. Rousseau's favorite duet, "Lo conosco," at the end of the first act, manifests this enargetic brilliance (example 2). Hearing the increasing fragmentation of the lines of dialogue as the duet progresses must have been an energizing experience for the Parisian audience after the long-windedness of the serious opera. And warring bits of word painting cleverly keep score in the contest between master and servant. Serpina has proposed marriage to Uberto, and in a triumph of illogic she accuses his "shifty eyes" of telling the truth about his feelings for her, a truth that she insists that his shiftier words belie. In response he accuses her of getting above herself-of "flying too high"-and his ineffectual protest is underlined by a comic melisma on the word volate-"you're flying"-a parody of high-flown rhetoric. In a sure-footed miming of innocent puzzlement and pique, Serpina asks him if he hasn't noticed her charms and her dignity, her maestà, which she mimes with long and lofty pitches. She is both putting on airs and displaying her wares. The slow-witted Uberto can't stand it, and she knows it. Simple means project rather subtle relations between the lovers.

This fresh clarity of characterization and the new power to mix modes combine to introduce a powerful new weapon in the buffa style-irony. In an aria about his bewilderment about the predicament he is caught in, "Son imbrogliato io già" (I'm all snarled up), Uberto's imitation of a serious topos reveals with unconscious irony his inflated sense of self-importance (example 3). In his confusion he speaks of hearing a mysterious voice that says to him, "Uberto, think of yourself." (The little bird that suggested this line to him was probably Serpina, who had just enjoined him piteously to "think of Serpina" when she's gone.) Putting the brakes on the feverish imbroglio style, his oracular directive to self-interest is rendered with all the trappings of a sepulchral voice from opera seria. The juxtaposition of contrasting topics also makes possible a musical version of ironic dissimulation. Serpina, for example, puts on a high-or at least sentimental-style when, pretending to be leaving Uberto for that nonexistent husband, she begs him to remember her. Just in case the audience is slow to pick up her trick, she alternates the doleful Larghetto with a quick Allegro aside exulting at its discernible success; you see, she winks, he's coming around (example 4). 

These two topics alternate several times during the aria, and each time the Allegro returns, we welcome back Serpina's spirited voice-what we recognize to be her true voice-which throws her imitation of the serious into relief as histrionically lugubrious, pure manipulation. The subversive nature of this juxtaposition of styles is not to be understated. Against the conventional modern assumption that the serious is the locus of truth telling, this "aria" frames a serious gesture as theatrical, a false face, a caricature, the comic topos exposing its pretense. The mixed mode of comedy undermines the elevated style, making it difficult to take the serious seriously. No wonder conservative critics have always regarded stylistic mixture with suspicion.

In opera this new comic style, with its precise fractionings of gesture, was welcomed wholeheartedly by the philosophes and other European writers. It also began to have its effect on instrumental music, but there the reception was less welcoming, and understandably so. After all, the polyp metaphor, although it seems benign in the Nephew's first invocation, is not without its disturbing implications. The Nephew's virtuoso performance must be evaluated in its relationship to the longer work in which it is embedded. Le Neveu de Rameau is a study of a bizarre soul, a seeming madman, who nevertheless plagues the reader with disturbing flashes of cynical truth about the threat of moral flux. (He will make a significant reappearance in Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes as the representative of alienated consciousness.)48 One must be wary of Diderot the ironist, the devotee of dangerous play who left so many of his manuscripts, including Le Neveu, unpublished in his lifetime.49 He styled himself as a latter-day Socrates, and Le Neveu de Rameau is a deliberately aporetic dialogue, which closes on a question and leaves the conflict between the stodgy philosophe and the disreputable parasite carefully unresolved.

Perhaps the dependable Nature so rationally classified by natural scientists is just the tip of an iceberg of infinite and formless beings, of heaving protoplasm engaged in self-directed but pointless mutation. The polyp's infinite sectility suggests to Diderot the thrilling possibility of vast unknown worlds: "People think there's only one polyp! And why would nature entire not be of the same order?"50He gives this excited but formless speculation a fantasizing sci-fi form in Le Rêve d'Alembert, where he imagines d'Alembert dreaming of "human polyps in Jupiter or Saturn!" "A man breaking up into an infinity of human atoms, . . . a human society formed from-a whole province populated by-the debris of one single individual-that's so pleasing to imagine."51 Later Nietzsche will seize on the polyp as symbolizing the monstrousness of the infinite when, in Der Fall Wagner, he contrasts the rounded, organized, "perfect" music of Bizet with its now detestable opposite, "the polyp in music, the 'infinite melody'" of Wagner.52And in its other incarnation, the cuttlefish, the polyp suggests the dangers of the empty and the formless: creatures that habitually take on others' shapes must be suspected of having no proper shape of their own. In the climactic pantomime of Le Neveu, a kind of operatic mad scene, the Nephew comes close to being eradicated in his frenzied affecting of a jumble of passions:

He began to move into the grip of a passion, and to sing very softly. He raised his voice as he grew more impassioned. Then came gestures, grimaces, and bodily contortions, and I said: "Good; there's a guy who's lost and a new scene on its way." And indeed off he goes off with a shout: Je suis un pauvre misérable . . . monseigneur, monseigneur, laissez-moi partir . . . O terre, reçois mon or; conserve bien mon trésor . . . mon âme, mon âme, ma vie! O terre! . . . le voilà le petit ami; le voilà le petit ami! . . . aspettare e non venire . . . a Zerbina penserete . . . sempre in contrasti con te si sta . . .53He crammed together and jumbled up thirty tunes, Italian, French, tragic, comic, of all sorts and descriptions; sometimes in a bass voice he descended to hell; sometimes hoarsely mimicking a falsetto, he tore up the high end of the airs, aping in his gait, in his bearing, in his gestures, the different people singing; now raging, now appeased, now commanding, now sneering. . . .

Now his head was completely wasted. Drained by fatigue, like a man coming out of a deep sleep or a long trance, he stood motionless, dazed, astonished. He looked around like a lost man who is trying to recognize his surroundings. He was waiting for his strength and his wits to come back; he mechanically wiped his face.54

The Nephew could be described as in a process of retournement-of turning himself inside out-in the frenzy of his performance. Fraction and flux threaten self-annihilation.

For the Protean polyp is wittily unlike the type of natural organism that would in the nineteenth century become such an important metaphor for the analysis of music. The romantics enshrined an organism that was "a whole presupposed by its parts," a being in which, because parts contain the germs of their wholes, wholeness is distinctly prior to partness. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century understandings of a musical organism have more in common with the pre-Trembley teleological notion of the preformed germ. This is especially true of the work of the theorist Heinrich Schenker, who performed an untiring inspection of works of music to reveal the primal seed; consider, for example, his statement that "the quest for a new form of music is a quest for a homunculus."55The polyp challenges the wondrous organic unity of Nature; it suggests instead Nature's tendency to fraction, and the shifty character of her taxonomy. A "part" is a curious entity when it has no apparent nature of its own, when it offers no dotted lines on which to cut. And if it is prior to the whole, the whole also lacks a "nature." The polyp is a study in infinity and its potential monstrousness.

The question of the dangers of infinity, albeit raised by Diderot in the context of "opera criticism," did not figure in any obvious way in the public debate about Italian operatic comedy, whose own natural flux was received by the philosophes with open-hearted enthusiasm, not with apprehension. But the question was indeed raised in criticisms of the new instrumental music taking shape just after midcentury-the music of the so-called "Classic" style, the newly emergent freestanding sinfonias, chamber works, and solo sonatas. Critics of this music used language that echoed the descriptions of opera buffa, but in a pejorative manner. The forces of reaction were puzzled by the fractioned, Protean nature of the new style; they saw it as shifting, full of idle contrasts, without a unifying voice-a list of polyp-like qualities. In 1755 the French neoclassic critic Pluche set the theme that would dominate at least thirty years of music criticism:

The most beautiful melody, when it is only instrumental, almost necessarily becomes first cold, then boring, because it expresses nothing. . . . You would never think well of a person who passes from sadness to great outbursts of laughter, and from jesting to an air of gravity, to an air of tenderness, to anger, and to rage, without having any reason to laugh or to be offended. Now are sonatas and many other kinds of music anything else than I have just said? They are to music what marbled paper is to painting. It even appears that the more impassioned they grow, the less reasonable they seem.56

Pluche sees instrumental music as engaged in a referenceless miming of shifting emotions. In his last quoted sentence he might have been describing the Nephew himself in his climactic pantomime.

Writing in his Hamburgischen Dramaturgie (1769) of symphonies composed to accompany spoken drama, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing sounded the same motif: "Now we melt with sympathy and suddenly we are to rage. Why? How? Against whom? Against the person for whom our soul was just now all pity? or against someone else? [Instrumental] music cannot specify all this; it only leaves us in uncertainty and confusion; we feel, yet without perceiving a correct sequence for our feelings; we feel as we do in a dream; and all these disorderly feelings are more fatiguing than agreeable."57 Less thoughtful but admirably pithy criticisms of this sort can be found in large numbers in Bellamy Hosler's Changing Aesthetic Views of Instrumental Music in Eighteenth-Century Germany: an "incomprehensible mishmash" (unverständliches Mischmasch), "ear-tickling jingle-jangle" (ohrkitzelndes Klingklang), "mere noise" (blosses Geräusch).58

Strikingly, these criticisms were often couched in terms of the intrusion of the comic into the serious mode. C. P. E. Bach's irritable words in a letter to a publisher about musical taste testify to the pervasiveness of the comic: "How often [taste] changes in music! How corrupted is it not, right now! Everything must be foolish and comic."59 From the chorus of complainers two others are particularly worth quoting because of their vivid descriptions of the intrusion. The German critics Johann Adam Hiller and Carl Ludwig Junker, writing in the 1770s, both personify the intruder as a character from the comic stage. Hiller grumbles about that "odd mixture of styles, the serious and the comic, the exalted and the low, that are so often found together in one and the same piece."60 In one essay he makes explicit the sense that this comic intrusion has come straight from the theater:

Far be it from me to consider [the taste for the comic] as base and reprehensible in and of itself. But I would prefer that it did not invade other places in which it does not belong. . . . How many concertos, symphonies, and so on are heard these days in which we experience the majesty of music in calm and dignified tones; but before one suspects it, Hanswurst [the Harlequin of the Viennese comic stage] leaps into the middle and through his vulgar jesting begs our indulgence all the more, the more serious was the previous affect.61

In an essay on the life of the composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Junker also blames the theater for the comic contamination; interestingly, his intruder is female. In the process he takes a swipe at Haydn: "The comic maiden, once cast out of the domain of the theater, appears to have implored music for admission; the priest [Haydn], a man who seemed to have been created for humor, was moved. He seized the funny creature and thrust her into his temple, and ever since we laugh about Viennese music." Then Junker poses a set of anxious rhetorical questions: "Is the comic a truly satisfying emotion for music? Is it not too wearisome, too monotonous, to become national? Is it not beneath the art-is it not too base?"62

Such alarm is perfectly predictable in critics whose experience had been shaped primarily by the notion of unity of affect in baroque music and the sober unities of the neoclassic stage. And they were responding to what was indeed an extraordinary musical phenomenon. The beginning of a Haydn symphony written a few years earlier-Symphony No. 59 in A Major, "Das Feuer," probably composed about 1767-can serve as an example of what was in their ears-the disorderly and dreamlike sequence of affective postures that Lessing describes (example 5).63 Of course a thoroughly domesticated modern audience will have the opposite problem: in order to respond to this antic diorama of the passions displayed for its delight it must suppress an obedient tendency to a structural listening that trains listeners to winnow the "substantive" from the merely "transitional." The opening is successively annunciatory, misterioso, purposeful, agitated, urbane, rollicking, valedictory, and all in just over a minute of music: what are these postures if not the enargetic-mimetic-units we just observed in opera buffa? And where do they come from if not from the new comic habits-Hanswurst invading the temple of tragedy? Comic flux and the precision of comic mimesis were not exclusive to the comic stage. To its eighteenth-century audiences the polyp-art was only acceptable when attached to words, which gave limits to its potential infinity. When transferred to instrumental music, the fractioned, Protean style of opera buffa seemed dangerously to court the formless and the morally inarticulate, without the moral rudder of words; listening to the new music must have been a riskier enterprise in the late eighteenth century than it is possible to conceive today. Nonetheless, this descent into the comic so distasteful to eighteenth-century critics seems to have been the source of what is most effective in the "Classic" instrumental style. It is the theater of surface and stylistic heterogeneity, of precision in flux. There is nothing "Classic" about it.


Unfortunately, until the last few decades of the twentieth century writers looking back on this music have managed to see only the temple, and not the variegated host that constituted its congregation. They have persistently read the instrumental music of the presumed high Viennese Classic style against the wrong paradigms-against distinctively modern ones, tempered in the convulsive fires of the nineteenth century and hardened into covert values in the twentieth. The waning of the eighteenth century saw what Carl Dahlhaus, after Thomas Kuhn, dubbed a "music-esthetic 'paradigm shift,'" in which a curtain came down on habits of thought about music's nature that had been sustained in one mode or another since antiquity, and the longstanding view of art as mimetic and referential suddenly ceded to an aesthetic that argued music's autonomy from the domain of human activity.64 The lofty name of "absolute music" resulted from the "lofty claim" (Dahlhaus's words) that the art of music now granted to the initiate "a premonition of the absolute"-an unparalleled access to, in E. T. A. Hoffmann's words, an "unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing."65 This was a far cry from the humbler assumption of earlier days that music's virtue was to imitate with precision the actions of ordinary mortals. The newly blinkered view effaced all consciousness of the vivid mimetic representations that had been passed on in the eighteenth century from the comic musical theater to the infant symphonic style. Apparently self-contained, instrumental music was seen as the best guide to the absolute: it came to be theorized as offering a pure organic structure, which, because it was completely separated from the taint of a worldly referential content, could best provide the longed-for "intimation of infinity."66 Instrumental music "is the most romantic of all arts," Hoffmann continued, "since its only subject-matter is infinity."67

The poet Keats became a bard of the new aesthetic with the famous assertion, in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," that "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter." The poet urges the soundless pipers ringing the eponymous urn to

. . . play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.68

That curious word "ditty" has suffered a lot of alteration over the years. For Thomas Morley, at the end of the sixteenth century, it meant a text for musical setting, whereas for Keats, two centuries later, it specifically connotes wordlessness.69 In the nineteenth century it often meant birdsong, and the nightingale's transcendent song fluting its astonished way through the darkness was for Keats an embodied version of those "unheard melodies," that immaterial song from the beyond.

The next best thing to unheard melodies, of course, was music for instruments alone, music that had sloughed off the mundane expressivity of the word. Theorists determinedly abstracted from the "Classic" repertoire's brilliant mimetic surface-and, it should be pointed out, from all vestiges of mimetic habits in their own repertoires, and there are many-in search of an organic, purely self-referential structure that would mark music's detachment from the worldly and its direct connection with the infinite and the sublime. Hoffmann opened his famous essay on Beethoven's instrumental music with a rhetorical question: "When music is spoken of as an independent art, does not the term properly apply only to instrumental music, which scorns all aid, all admixture of other arts (poetry), and gives pure expression to its own peculiar artistic nature?"70 Suddenly the logos, the word, ancient bearer of truth and reason, seemed inadequate, prosaic. A wordless, imageless art showed the path to a higher truth, pointing beyond mere worldly experience to deeper mysteries. No longer the poor sister of language and painting, forced to call on the precision of words in order to move its auditors properly, music became the handmaiden of the ineffable, the indeterminate, and the expressively empty-semiotically, an "empty sign."71 The motivation behind these new values was the inherently impossible goal of making present those unheard melodies, and the medium of choice was no longer the opera that had dominated the imagination of the eighteenth century but the new German instrumental music, especially the symphony as practiced by Beethoven-the ideal of deutsche Tonkunst.

The many recent discussions about this sudden alteration in music's fortunes have been the source of an important consciousness raising concerning the sedimentation of unconsidered premises lying behind modernism's aesthetic judgments-its set of "covert and casual values."72 The veneration of the autonomous and the absolute has finally lost the status of a tacit value and, shorn of its transparency, has become available for critique, freeing historians and critics from the grip in which, unknowing, they were held. Looking backward to the "Classic" style's prehistory, it is possible to bracket the style with its origins rather than with its aftermath, uncovering a far more appropriate model for its music-making habits than absolute music-namely, the mimesis of the comic musical theater.

Mimesis-the much-maligned "doctrine of imitation," or Nachahmungslehre-had offered what seemed like a perfectly reasonable account of the function and value of the arts from the time of Aristotle and Plato well into the eighteenth century.73 Today's music historians are entirely willing to accept mimesis and the notion of an expressive code as applying to music through the time of J. S. Bach, and indeed they have sometimes been a little too credulous about the degree to which in baroque music the expression of the passions was codified in a Lehre.74 But reading backward from this side of the nineteenth century, they have tended to draw a sharp line of demarcation between the "baroque" and the "Classic" or "Classical," the very word asserting the purity of the new style that reigned in the latter half of the eighteenth century.75 Rarely has anyone asked why the trajectory plotted by mimetic music should have been interrupted so abruptly, why it would not seem more reasonable for there to be a continuity in expressive habits between two musical styles that shared so much else.

And there was a second notable blind spot in nineteenth-century aesthetics: comedy. The aesthetic of musical autonomy is natively a tragic one, hostile to the comic spirit. The posture of autonomy, of individuality, is a tragic stance; as Charles Rosen observed (in a telling context-a discussion of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, a work high on the romantic hit parade), unity is a quality endemic to the tragic.76 George Steiner, in his study of the centrality of Sophocles' tragedy Antigone to the history of modern consciousness, writes of the conventions of philosophizing since the nineteenth century: "The major philosophical systems since the French Revolution have been tragic systems. They have metaphorized the theological premiss of the fall of man. . . . To philosophize after Rousseau and Kant, to find a normative, conceptual phrasing for the psychic, social, and historical condition of man, is to think 'tragically.'"77 As in philosophy, so in aesthetics-but not always with the profundity of Kant or Heidegger. Our uncritical exaltation of Storm and Stress from a topos to a lifestyle was perhaps one regrettable result of the romantic "paradigm shift." The heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers stressed not the fall of man but the possibility of redemption, and hence was essentially a comic notion, at one with the social accommodations of the comic theater. Firmly embedded in the social context that comedy provided, buffa's stylistic heterogeneity was wholly antithetical to the spirit of absolute music. It was the very trait that organicists strove to transcend with their narratives of unity and deep structure. Yet while the image of comedy offered in Le Neveu catches its kaleidoscopic mimesis seductively, at the same time the dialogue stresses the art's dark and dangerous side, the tendency toward ungroundedness that instrumental music's eighteenth-century critics also sensed. Although these critics read this tendency as insubstantiality and a failure of significance, Diderot took it much further: the Nephew's comedy threatens to disintegrate into madness and social collapse. Yet no matter how risky and novel it may have seemed-no matter how "un-Classic"-no one has ever claimed that the music of the "Classic" repertoire is the music of madness and disintegration. How, then, did mute instrumental music resist the dangers implicit in comic fractioning? What allowed the comic equilibrium to remain in balance? What made the center hold?

In the matter of mimesis one inevitably looks to the ancients: Aristotle in his discussion of tragedy provided a paradigm for character in motion, for the flickering manifestations of being that action affords. But neither he nor his contemporaries offered a satisfactory paradigm for the comic theater. Athenian comedy was far less influential than its tragedies: Aristophanes' scurrilous topicality requires much glossing to be at all funny; Menander exists primarily in fragments and is best known for his influence on the Romans; and a treatise by Aristotle on comedy is unfortunately lost, although a modern reconstruction exists.78 But medieval and Renaissance discussions of commedia as a genre were not concerned with the anatomy of humor; they spelled out the vision of the human estate that comedy by its nature represented.

Unlikely as it may seem at first, the great Commedia of Dante Alighieri provides an instructive model for the eighteenth-century comic musical theater. It seems unlikely, because according to conventional wisdom Dante's poem can hardly appear to be a comedy at all; the proper subject matter for comedy is the profane, not the sacred, so the word "comedy" here at best seems to be stripped of its ordinary reference. Its author, however, with no prejudice to its exalted subject matter, sternly insisted on calling it a comedy.79 He obligingly provided a gloss on this decision in the form of a famous letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala, which describes the several levels on which his great sacred poem can be read. Toward the end of the letter Dante explains with utmost clarity why he entitled his arduous journey from Hell through Purgatory to Paradise La commedia (the adjective divina was added in the sixteenth century):

To understand the title, it must be known that comedy is derived from comos, "a village," and from oda, "a song," so that a comedy is, so to speak, "a rustic song." Comedy, then, is a certain genre of poetic narrative differing from all others. For it differs from tragedy in its matter, in that tragedy is tranquil and conducive to wonder at the beginning, but foul and conducive to horror at the end, or catastrophe, for which reason it is derived from tragos, meaning "goat," and oda, making it, as it were, a "goat song," that is, foul as a goat is foul. . . . Comedy, on the other hand, introduces a situation of adversity, but ends its matter in prosperity. . . . And as well they differ in their manner of speaking. Tragedy uses an elevated and sublime style, while comedy uses an unstudied and low style. . . . So from this it should be clear why the present work is called the Commedia. For, if we consider the matter, it is, at the beginning, that is, in Hell, foul and conducive to horror, but at the end, in Paradise, prosperous, conducive to pleasure, and welcome. And if we consider the manner, it is unstudied and low, since its speech is the vernacular, in which even women communicate.80

Although in his discussion of comedy Dante uses as reference point hoary and perhaps spurious Greek etymologies associated with the theater, the word commedia in the fourteenth century had a broader application, denoting a narrative of any genre that describes a journey from adversity to prosperity. It is a way of apprehending the world that offers a decisive alternative to the tragic perspective; if anything, it can be said to encompass tragedy because it incorporates the torments of Hell into the comic journey. In his description Dante was merely saying about the genre what in his time everybody knew.81 His title is all the more pointed when one remembers that he called the great work by his pagan guide, Virgil, the Aeneid, an alta tragedia (high tragedy).82

A happy ending and a vernacular style are the commedia'ssalient characteristics. To sing in the vernacular is perhaps to imitate the Scriptures, whose use of simple language for exalted subject matters had overturned conventional assumptions about high and low diction.83 But in the letter Dante invokes the poet Horace, who in his Ars poetica tacitly assumed the appropriateness of the low style to comedy and vice versa when stating that comic writers can "speak like the tragic, and also the reverse of this." Dante's poetic vernacular was of course Italian-the language of his native city and the dolce stile nuovo, or "sweet new style" of love poetry in which he had learned to sing. It makes possible the characters, incidents, and actions with which he peoples his poem-old friends and enemies, historical figures, men and women whose stories could not be appropriately told in Latin, the elevated literary language of the time. To be a true narrative of salvation the poem must be all-inclusive, including in its embrace the humble and vile as well as the sublime and elevated, and, importantly, the female as well as the male-the vernacular being the language in which "even women communicate." It must be, to borrow a term from Erich Auerbach's famous exegesis of the Commedia, "encyclopedic," or, to quote C. S. Lewis, "as crowded and varied as a London terminus on a bank holiday."84 Low, middle, and high types must all be contained there, must jostle each other about. They must be sharply defined so as to be quickly recognizable; they are rarely allowed a lengthy expository aria. They are the quintessential en-ergetic characters: what they are up to when we encounter them defines them entirely, whether they are sentenced to work out the action of their sin to eternity, as do the souls in Inferno, or allowed to work off their sin in the Purgatorio by enacting its opposite until purged.

The happy ending-the lieto fine-is the second essential characteristic of Dante's Commedia, and perhaps its more defining one-no mere convention but a theological necessity. Because the poet's subject is the salvation of our immortal souls, the poem must terminate in the beatific vision. But the happy ending of the commedia was a custom of the secular comedy, which Dante appropriated for his sacred theater. If Dante's insight was that the story of Christian beatitude brought the comic habit to its fullness, then its essential matter must reside in the humblest of profane comedies as well.

To put this hypothesis to the test, let us return to Serpina and her wiles. Her trick works well, and finally there comes the anticipated happy ending, the resolution into connubial bliss-the ratifying of the social contract that protects their topsy-turvy world. The affairs of this world and its well-being are the concern of comedy, and we can hear this reflected in the duet that closes the intermezzo, where the lovers join in the unanimity of parallel thirds. The duet is set as a gigue, the first real dance topic to be introduced; its swinging and buoyant {tsg}68{\tsg} rhythms not only project the "mirth and cheerfulness"appropriate to a lieto fine, but they also suggest a formal celebration, conflating the recognition scene and the marriage, that marriage by which all comedies are ended (example 6).85 This marriage is one we may legitimately have our doubts about: is it appropriate for the Maid to become Mistress? For the social orders to be inverted? Who is the good person here? Uberto begins to seem like a man who is standing in his own way. Serpina connives, but her spirited cleverness is attractive; we grow impatient with Uberto's blindness to the chance that her conniving could issue in a desirable end. Rather than being appropriately cautious, he is foolishly playing the heavy, resisting the possibility of marital bliss. Our doubts dissolve in the happy ceremony of the final duet, when this inappropriate coupling of a wily servant and her blustering master suddenly seems a real love match. 

Serpina and Uberto share their terminal bliss with the main characters of most other eighteenth-century comic fictions,so many that Jane Austen was moved to articulate this convention in the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."86 Again a beginning that contains its own end-that promises a wedding. Expectations thus aroused, we happily proceed through sixty-one wryly observed and deliciously orchestrated chapters. We know we will be satisfied at the close by the celebration of a "marriage of true minds," a union that is ever in doubt but always certain-the wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, scion of Pemberley. As the Clown in Twelfth Night sings, "Journeys end with lovers meeting"; proper comedies end in marriage.87And as Austen makes clear in her opening sentence, Pride and Prejudice is a proper comedy.

But that sentence is not just a statement about endings; it is also, if less obviously, a statement about the nature of the community that spawns, frustrates, guarantees, and requires those endings, and hence it instructs us further about the world we see in embryo in La serva padrona. "It is a truth universally acknowledged . . . " Austen's first words suppose a universe brimming with people who attend to the waxings and wanings of human affairs and draw conclusions about them. They note the circumstances of birth and luck-"the possession of a good fortune"; they note the promptings of desire-"must be in want of a wife." But there is an ironic tone in the authorial point of view (no surprise); the joke is in the connection of fortune and desire, the nature of the imperative of the "must," which is by no means in the control of the hapless bachelor. In that word "must" Austen means us to hear the emphatic tones of the provincial community, the agents and motors of society, who will find this man a wife. At its purest theirs is a benign desire for a natural completion, for a momentary reveling in the life-affirming vision of a man and woman coming to live in harmony with one another. At its worst it is the determination of the busybodies, the conniving mothers, the sour old men, to work their crosspatch ways on nature. These are the "blockers" (Northrop Frye's term); they cause the comic contretemps.88 (In the miniaturized cosmos of La serva padrona, Uberto is both blocked and blocker.) Ultimately the efforts of the blockers also, indirectly of course, assure the final celebration.

Caught in the amiable web of Austen's narrative, we pass through well nigh all the postures of the provinces and the passions of the soul before arriving at the happy ending. In an Austen novel the equivalent to the unanimous gigue duet is a blissful ritual dialogue in which the clicks of the long-expected falling into place are deliciously audible. We are persuaded of the rightness of the union by the lovers' hasty but euphoric exchanges explaining apparent failures of affection in the past. Why resist the pleasure of recalling the scene between Elizabeth and Darcy?

[She:] Why, . . . when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?

[He:] Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement . . .

[She:] You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.

[He:] A man who had felt less, might.

[She:] How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable to admit it!

Elizabeth's last line is one of the lively wry sallies that make her such a lovable heroine. Her mock deprecation of their obvious suitedness-"How unlucky!" she playfully exclaims-is actually a grateful and gracious acceptance of Darcy's intensely understated declaration of passion-"A man who had felt less, might"-and a celebration of their deep "reasonableness" in being able mutually to recognize proper attraction.

This literary reconciliation scene has an operatic equivalent in Le nozze di Figaro, where Susanna in the fourth-act finale recognizes without missing a beat that Figaro, despite his seeming defection from her out of misplaced jealousy, is still her proper lover. She turns their tacit reconciliation into a mischievous reproof to an improper lover-the philandering Count, who blunders into their happy ending in search of his date. Da Ponte has the couple foreground the comic convention in their speech as they enact it, just in case we should fail to get the point:

La commedia, idol mio, terminiamo:

Consoliamo il bizzarro amator.

Let us end the comedy, my idol;

Let us console the peculiar lover.89

Again, as in Serpina's and Uberto's ultimate duet, the rhythms of reconciliation are those of a gigue, but with a slower, more pastoral motion than the romping gigue of that other happy couple-we are, after all, in the darkened garden (example 7).90 Common to both Elizabeth and Susanna is an absence of self-conscious, discursive analysis and of personal display. They express themselves instead in motion and in play, glorying in the tacit showing-forth of their natures.91 The deeply felt is left unsaid; enargeia is indeed achieved by energeia. Susanna and Elizabeth are consummate creations of the comic fiction. And like Serpina in her gigue, they express their enargetic brilliance with greatest concentration at the moment of the happy ending. 

The lieto fine also binds together the comic disparateness that audiences and nervous theorists saw as threatening instrumental music; this is how that repertory holds its center, so to speak. In a third gigue, a textless, and hence seemingly "voiceless," gigue, one can hear how the festive virtù-the celebratory power-of the operatic happy ending also plays itself out in instrumental music. At the close of the last movement of Mozart's Violin Concerto in D Major, K. 218, a slow duple-metered gavotte-like movement gives way to a festal gigue in much the same way as in La serva padrona (example 8).92 In these examples the voiceless gigue assumes the celebratory function of the voiced gigue. In other words, the persistent use of gigues and other lilting triple dances in operatic celebrations provides a semantic context for the sense of reconciliatory revelry we feel when these dances close instrumental movements, as they so often do. Eighteenth-century symphonies have happy endings too.93

This is the explicatory progression I would like to suggest: from the sharply defined characters of all types in Dante's Commedia, who play out a narrative of reconciliation and salvation, to the vivid characters in secular comedies who play out a narrative of love, conflict, and the accommodation of marriage, and finally, in instrumental music (slipping into a different mode of critical discourse), to a multiplicity of vivid, high-profile musical topoi, arranged in the shiftings of continual contrast and counterstatement to organize a whole with pronounced beginning, middle, and happy ending. In short, we arrive (happily) at the characteristics of the new instrumental music, so inscrutable to its eighteenth-century contemporaries, and, for entirely different reasons, to many of us today, or until recently.

I have enumerated the similarities between divine and profane happy endings, but there is also a crucial difference: there are too many ambiguities in the happy ending of the secular comedy for us to rest in it comfortably for long. Doubts are raised in La serva padrona by the questions remaining about Serpina and Uberto as a match, and in Figaro by the comparison of the happy reconciliation of the servant couple to the necessarily provisional accommodation between the noble spouses. Austen's Darcy and Elizabeth have the most untroubled homecoming of these three, but in a world peopled as well by Lydias and Lydgates-Elizabeth's wayward sister and the cad who ruins her-there always remains the possibility of seriously regrettable error. Unlike the ascent to Paradise, the secular happy ending is not a transcendent homecoming but a contingent, edgy, and short-lived adjustment. Nevertheless, at the time of its sounding, it is joyous and affirmative-a celebration in which we are all invited to join. The musical comedy of the buffi sacrificed exploratory discursiveness, but it gained other powers. Its enargetic vitality, its vernacular mode, and its spirit of social reconciliation were new and compelling-so much so that it provided a paradigm that shaped the first flowering of the repertoire of instrumental music that we regard with such lofty seriousness today.