The Phenomenon of opera

The Phenomenon of Opera

“Like never before and never since, musicians of the time were in a position to communicate with all levels of society.” 

Lucio Dalla

The archive’s diverse holdings and its research and information functions relate to contexts of music and cultural history, and the history of opera aesthetics. The archive contains invaluable material about the history of music, especially opera, which can be viewed as an artistic and social phenomenon. In 19th century Italy in particular, it takes on a distinctive mediation role in the socio-political structure. The relationships between the great publishing personalities Giovanni, Tito I and Giulio Ricordi and “their” composers attest to how, during the course of the 19th century, the opera business changed from a theater-driven to a publisher-driven system.

Both the historic periods and the linking of marketing and artistic concepts play a role in this connection. The diverse range of publishing correspondence documented in the archive illuminates this productive relationship. Not only is the correspondence with the “big five” — Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini — exemplary in this respect; the letters in their entirety shed a lot of light on this process of change, which also reflects a change with regard to how the works and their authors are perceived. The appreciation of the original, unique works, and of the authorship of these works are new ideas in the opera business of the time, and the Ricordi publishing house plays a crucial role in this. In this respect, the archive is a rich source of clarification regarding the interaction between different societal forces of the time, as it documents the interconnectedness of artistic and economic aspects with letters, documentations of contracts, fee agreements, reception (eyewitness reports, reviews, correspondence) and marketing. Various search filters can be used to understand the genesis of the texts and music, and the performance history and reception of individual works. This also provides an unparalleled insight into the socio-economic fabric of 19th century Milan as an up-and-coming European metropolis.

The story of opera is fundamentally Italian, but also fundamentally European. At the time of the publishing house’s establishment by Giovanni Ricordi, Donizetti- and Bellini-influenced bel canto opera still dominates the opera stage. The Napoleonic era is not over and the genre of opera is still bound to the Ancien Regime. At the same time the demands of the French Revolution and the beginnings of industrialization have also reached Italy, that politically fragmented region with the Regno delle Due Sicilie in the south, the Papal States in Rome, the free duchies in central Italy, Savoy in the northwest and the Austrian territories in the northeast. The goal of a unified Italian state is still distant, but the social and political movements against the privileges of the nobility exist. In a social climate affected by liberal and conservative forces, the musical landscape is also in a state of flux.

An old dispute about the primacy of music vs. lyrics in opera is settled by the bel canto opera in favor of “melody”: Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini write incomparably beautiful cantabile tunes, which are spontaneously provided with additional flourishes during the singers’ performance. The Archivio Storico Ricordi collection contains autographs of operas by these three composers, well restored and already digitized.

From the first decades of Giovanni Ricordi’s activities, when he expanded his collection through clever contracts so that in 1814 he was able to publish a first catalog, documents survive that testify to one of the secrets of the Ricordi company’s success: the personal relationship between the publisher and his authors, whom he treats in a friendly manner. For instance, in a letter to Donizetti, Giovanni reports extensively on the success of a performance of the opera Anna Bolena in Paris — a success that he wants to tell the composer about immediately after his return as an eye witness (“testimonio oculare”), out of respect and appreciation for him. Giovanni’s European-influenced basic attitude, as shown in his various correspondences with publishers (Breitkopf & Härtel as well as Peters in Leipzig, and Boosey and Hawkes in London), and composers and librettists abroad, also contributes to the company’s growing success. Using the international business language of the time, Giovanni corresponds in French with Boosey and Hawkes in London. The collection of “copialettere” begins in the 1830s: a copy of each letter sent from the house of Ricordi is archived — and in the early days, a “copy” was of course a transcript.