Vienna in the eighteenth century was by no means unusual in being in thrall to Italian musical and particularly operatic culture. The presence and importance of one figure alone, however, made the city, or at least the imperial court, a special case. This key figure was the poet whose name is most closely linked to the opera seria tradition: Pietro Metastasio. Born Pietro Trapassi in Rome in 1698, he was active first in Naples, where he formed aristocratic connections and came to attention as a poet. Contacts in musical circles provided him with the opportunity to write an opera libretto (an adaptation of existing material), but it was not until 1724 that he produced his first original work, the melodrama Didone abbandonata. Th.is and his next two libretti rapidly toured Italy in settings by a number of composers. In 1729 came the invitation to succeed Apostolo Zeno as Caesarian court poet in Vienna. Metastasio took up the post in April of the following year, and over the next ten years.wrote eleven stage works.
The accession of Maria Theresia as Empress of Austria in 1740 brought about a reduction in spending on elaborate court spectacles, and Metastasio's texts were henceforth to form the basis of entertainments on a less lavish scale.
These texts, which were repeatedly set to music by composers in the Italian tradition throughout Europe (even as late as the 1840s), are archetypes of the opera seria libretto in both form and content. It was in Metastasio's work that the metrical schemes of Italian verse for music were established; these continued to be the common currency until almost the end of the nineteenth century. The plots stressed the essential goodness of the prince-hero (to be identified with the poet's employer), emotions are shown to be a .danger to existing institutions, and reason eventually triumphs over adverse circumstances. Of the four composers represented in this recording, Mozart and Haydn are the most closely tied to this international operatic culture. Mozart's 'Ridente la calma', with its conclusive opera seria sentiment ('Let laughing peace spring up in my heart') dates from between 1772 and 1775; Mozart was by this time an experienced composer of Italian operas -his third trip to Italy began in late 1772, and Lucio Silla was performed in Milan at the end of the year.
Haydn's works in Italian were written for the court of Prince Esterhazy (and include a piece to a Metastasio text). The cantata Arianna a Naxos was composed towards the end of Haydn's employment at Eszterhaza, and was first performed in London in 1791. Although written for voice and keyboard, it was apparently Haydn's intention to orchestrate the accompaniment. The passing of the age of absolute monarchy, the influence of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the upheaval of the early years of the nineteenth century all served to consign the art of opera seria to history. Yet we find Metastasio's verses continuing to provide even Beethoven and Schubert with song texts.
Beethoven's 'La partenza' dates from the second half of the 1790s, a period when the composer was in the habit of submitting pieces on Italian texts to Salieri (who had himself received guidance from Metastasio in the art of declamation), for the word-setting to be checked. More Metastasio settings appear in the Op.82 songs, which may date from about the turn of the eighteenth century, although they were not published until 1811, with a German underlay. The forms are simple, and the vocal line is technically less demanding than in the Mozart canzonetta or Haydn's full-blown scena. Salieri later also supervised Schubert's musical development (this time in a more formal teacher-pupil relationship), and the Metastasio setting of September 1813, 'Pensa, che questo istante', may have been
written as a composition exercise. The text for 'Vedi quanto adoro1 (1816) comes from Didone abbandonata, and more Metastasio . settings appear in the Vier Canzonen of 1817-20.
During the mid-1820s, Schubert published a number of songs in more than one language, probably with the intention of widening his audience (the Lady of the Lake settings of 1825 were published in a German translation with the original English text underlaid). The three songs composed in late 1822/early 1823 and grouped together as his Op.56 (D737, D738 and D767) were all settings of original German texts (one by Goethe and the o\her two by Schubert's friend Franz Bruchmann), but were published in 1826 with Italian translations - possibly by the amateur poet Jakob Nikolaus Craigher de Jachelutta. (Craigher was born in Veneto in 1797 and settled in Vienna in 1820; two of his German poems, Die junge Nonneand Totengrabers Heimweh, were also set to music by Schubert.) Further Metastasio settings followed in 1827. However, by this time the conflicting impulses of Romanticism and Classicism (as represented by the simple, confident sentiments of Metastasio's verse) were beginning to be resolved in favour of the former, and no other Viennese composer after Schubert would again succumb to the lure of Italian texts.
- Kenneth Chalmers
All Music Guide