Abstract

The critical reception of early nineteenth-century Italian opera has long focused on its supposed cloying sweetness. This sweetness, often framed as amorous, shaped the discourse and affective experiences of primo ottocento opera. Stendhal, for instance, likened Gioachino Rossini's music to lusciously ripe fruit and to sexual arousal. Adolf Bernhard Marx found a concert of Mercadante arias to leave the bitter “aftertaste of lots of sugar.” And August Wilhelm Ambros compared Rossini's melodies to gazing into the eyes of a Titian nude. This article proposes that amorous sweetness was associated with the vocal serenade, a genre evocative of sweet melodies and the ardent love of courtship. The musical elements that articulated serenade topics, what Stephen Rumph calls figurae, saturated slow movements of early nineteenth-century Italian opera. These included pizzicato strings, sustained winds, parallel thirds, and modulations to mediant keys. Although these figurae may appear in conjunction with diegetic serenades or topical serenade passages, they also frequently appeared independent of dramatically appropriate amorous situations. This article proposes that a common configuration of serenade figurae acted as a stock orchestral texture. This convention is modeled as a musical construction: the serenade construction. It paired musical structures with the semantic meanings of the serenade. In its evocation of serenading, the serenade construction preserved scripted listening strategies for attending to vocal melodies and their associated affective responses. It consequently regulated the perception of vocal timbre and perceived melodicity.

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