Among the more difficult yet more necessary phases of research for a historical novel is the act of subtraction. Imagining what life would be like without ______________.
I’m all right subtracting the sounds of modernity–the cars, the aeroplanes, the trains, the spin cycle of the washing machine, radio, telly and computer games–and replacing them with the noise of the country–horses, carriages, cows, sheep…and birds–lots more birds than we know today.
And a city would have had its share of tradesmen shouting, and knife grinders who set up shop outside one’s house…
But what about music? In this case…well…the works of certain composers.
Because, you see, I love opera. Am a complete and utter fool for it.
The works of Puccini? I love them. All of them!
Which brings me to the crunch.
Because here I am, working through the sounds of 1813 as I construct the atmosphere and plotlines of the next novel–and I’ve just been forced to ask myself the question: What would life be like without Puccini? What would life be like without the aria, Nessun Dorma?
Can you imagine it?
And I suddenly don’t know if I can.
In 1813, they would have had the operas of Mozart–his operas premiered in London in the spring of 1812. Haydn’s works were well-known and well-loved across the length and breadth of Europe. But not all of Beethoven’s symphonies were yet written–although numbers five and six were finished or well on their way.
(Which leaves me with the frightening question, can I imagine life without Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony? And the answer to that is a flat, “No.”)
As for opera…Cherubini had (surprisingly) not only lived in Paris during the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, but had survived and flourished and pretty much stayed there–so there’s his Medea to be reckoned with, though without the sublime performance of Maria Callas, obviously.
Cimarosa, whose operas I like very much, had died in 1801, though his status was at the time, roughly equal to that of Mozart…but he was rather out of favour in Italy because of his pro-Napoleon views–he’d even been imprisoned for them.
Rossini is a better bet. Born in 1792, he entered the conservatory in Bologna in 1806–roughly the same time Napoleon took over Italy and decided to make it part of France. And by 1812-13, Rossini had four works on in Venice, including L’italiana in Algeri. Which makes life seem suddenly brighter, since that’s an opera I know, love and have seen. Though there’s no Il Barbieri di Siviglia yet.
All of which is rather interesting though, because their French bureaucratic overlords decried the Italians’ devotion to the ‘corrupting influences’ of the opera which according to the French led to them having slack morals and an absence of proper civic (read pro-French) devotion. They write often to Paris about it, complaining particularly about the Romans who went to the opera every evening.
(The French wanted them to watch didactic pro-Napoleonic plays which would, in their minds, instruct and elevate the Italians…and yes, if these sound a little like the Stalinist propaganda plays of the 20th century, you’re right…)
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the French in Italy appear not to have liked Italian music much at all. They thought that Italian culture had been going downhill, roughly, since the Roman Empire. So, er, they didn’t think much of Vivaldi either.
There is, of course, the wealth of Italian sacred music…though much of that would have languished unperformed and unheard because of the French Concordat which had dissolved many of the Italian monastic orders and confiscated the church properties. And of course, conscription had emptied Italian churches (those that were still allowed to hold Mass) of the young men for the choirs.
But still, life without Turandot and La Boheme?
This may prove trickier than I thought…