the grand opera composers had been employed in furnishing the
world with a voluminous series of tragedies, historical or mythical,
ancient or mediæval, it was not to be supposed that comedy
was cast utterly into the background. As early as the days of
Cavalli, the comic element had shown its appearance on the stage,
though not in a very decisive manner. In 1639 a musical comedy
by Mazzocchi and Marazzoli, entitled "Chi Sofre Speri,"
was performed in Florence under the patronage of Cardinal Barberini,
and was witnessed by the poet Milton. About twenty years later
a theatre was erected there, devoted wholly to comedy, but for
some reason it did not prove successful. The true Opera Buffa
came later, and arose directly from the intermezzi that were
introduced between the acts of the serious plays.
Intermezzi seem to have existed from ancient times, when they
took the form of Satiræ, and were given with the
Roman comedies. In the mysteries
and miracle plays of mediæval Christianity, they appeared
as hymns or carols. In the Italian renaissance they became madrigals,
choruses, and sometimes solos. Soon they grew in importance,
and in 1589, at the marriage of the Florentine Grand Duke Ferdinand,
we find a set of five interludes built on a most ambitious scale,
and resembling fully developed masques. As the object of all
these musical side-shows was to relieve the continued strain
of the principal piece, it is not surprising to find them written
in contrast to it; and thus there arose a series of comic scenes
between the acts of Opera Seria. Soon it became customary
for the different intermezzi to contain the same characters.
At this point the only step necessary to create Opera Buffa
was the separation of the intermezzi from their serious frame,
and their union in one piece.
This step was taken in the early part of the eighteenth century,
by the Neapolitan composer, Logroscino. He united all the separate
scenes into one act, and performed an additional service to music
by introducing the concerted finale, afterward to be so effectively
employed in grand opera. But his reputation was merely local
, and it remained for a younger
composer to bring the new form before the eyes of Europe.
Pergolesi (1710-1736) was the first whose works in lighter
vein became widely known. Writer of sacred music of unexampled
freshness, composer of a successful Opera Seria ("Sallustia")
in his twenty-second year, and author of delightful comedies,
there is little doubt that he would have ranked as one of the
world's great geniuses but for his early death. His chief buffo
Serva Padrona," was written in 1734, and for many years
remained the best example of its school. It deals with the schemes
of the maid Serpina to win the hand of her master Pandolpho.
After scolding him, bullying him, and wheedling him by turns,
she finally makes use of the pretended attentions of Scapin,
the valet, and piques Pandolfo into proposing, almost against
his will. The orchestra was here limited to the simple string
quartet, but the action was so sustained, and the music so lively
and varied, that the unexampled success of the work was fully
Somewhat later and much more long-lived than Pergolesi was
the Neopolitan Jomelli (1714-1774). Not especially famous in
Opera Buffa, he achieved far greater renown in the field
of serious opera and church music. Like Scarlatti, he was too
much given to the employment of a learned style, and his later
operas were condemned as deficient in melody. It is worth while
to note, in passing, that the young Mozart first made this criticism
, and wrote home from Naples,
in 1770, that Jomelli's operas were beautiful, but too elevated
in style, and too antique, for the theatre.
In France there had been a sort of musical pantomime at the
fairs of St. Laurent and St. Gervais, but nothing resembling
light opera until the performance of "La Serva Padrona"
in Paris in 1750. It's success there, when given between the
acts of Lully's "Atys,"
at once aroused a controversy between the adherents of serious
and comic opera, but this "Guerre des Bouffoons" proved
finally that the new style had come to stay. At first the only
results were translations from the Italian, but in 1753 the great
Rousseau  brought out "Le
Devin du Village," and two years later the Neopolitan
Duni won a Parisian success with his dainty "Ninette à
The real founder of the French Opéra Comique,
however, was the native composer Monsigny (1729-1817). His long
and successful career placed in on a firm basis, and fused the
French and Italian schools into one. Between 1759 and 1777 he
produced a number of works that met with constantly increasing
success, and when he retired from the Opéra Comique in
the latter year, he possessed ample renown and considerable fortune.
Yet his music is not marked by any essential greatness; he had
little technical training, and depended almost wholly on his
instinct for dramatic truth and a felicitous vein of melodic
brightness. His scores were thin and poor, his themes lacking
in all real musical interest; but his plays were far more natural
and entertaining than the pompous grand operas of the period.
Grétry (1741-1813) followed in the path of Monsigny,
and carried Opéra Comique to a still higher plane.
Like his predecessor, he was unable to attain to any skill in
the strict part-writing of the Italian teachers, and relied wholly
on his melodic gifts. His comic operas are even more brilliant
and sparkling than those of Monsigny, who apparently did not
dare to reënter the field in competition with his younger
rival. Of the fifty or more works that Grétry produced
in Paris, the best known were "Le Tableau Parlant"
(1769), "Zemire et Azor" (1771), and "L'Amant
Jaloux" (1778), while "Richard Cur de Lion"
(1784) was a successful attempt to treat a more romantic and
loftier theme. This last work is Grétry's masterpiece,
for his talent was hardly adequate for the still more vigorous
librettos of his "Peter the Great" or "William
The great chess-player Philidor (1726-1795) was also an operatic
composer of note, but his works, though well received, have not
stood the test of time. He excelled his two contemporaries in
originality, musical knowledge, harmony, and instrumentation,
but he lacked true dramatic skill.
In Germany, after the prestige of the Hamburg school began
to wane, there was little activity of any kind in the operatic
field, although Karl Graun, at Berlin, duplicated Handel's London
successes. But with the advent of Johann Adam Hiller, or Hüller
(1728-1804), a form of light opera arose in Leipsic that fairly
earned a national reputation. This was the Singspiel,
a sort of popular vaudeville plentifully sprinkled with songs.
Although the action took place partly in spoken dialogue, the
music was by no means unimportant, and Hiller showed considerable
skill in developing the German "Lied," in handling
some rudimentary ensemble pieces, and in occasionally arranging
an adequate dramatic scena. Probably Hiller adapted his
ideas from the French operettas, but he stands completely acquitted
of servile imitation. The best of his fourteen Singspiele
held the stage for over a century, and are even now occasionally
performed in Germany.
The first English light opera had its birth in a somewhat
similar manner. In 1727 John Gay wrote a brilliant satire on
the prevailing fashions, follies, and crimes of the day, calling
Beggar's Opera,"  and
Doctor Pepusch arranged the music from old English and Scotch
tunes, together with many popular songs of the time. Probably
suggested by a remark of Swift, that "a Newgate pastoral
might make an odd pretty sort of thing," this extravaganza
had for its hero a daredevil highwayman named Captain Macheath.
It was brought out in the next year, by John Rich, at Lincoln's
Inn Fields, and met with instant success, seriously interfering
with Handel's operatic enterprises. So enormously popular did
it become that it was given sixty-two performances during the
first season, and its enthusiastic reception occasioned the remark
that it made Gay rich and Rich gay. It remained in vogue for
many years, and became the model on which the so-called ballad-operas
Although all the civilised countries of Europe could boast
indigenous forms of light opera, the Italian school was the one
that possessed the most lasting qualities, and it gradually assumed
a sway in all the leading capitals. The traditions of the Neapolitan
school, as exemplified by Scarlatti, Greco, Porpora, and the
German Hasse, were more or less ably upheld by their successors,
of whom the most renowned were Traetta, Vinci (the artist), Piccini,
Sacchini, Guglielmi, and many others, besides Pergolesi and Jomelli.
Most of these composers excelled not only in the old-style Opera
Seria, but in the new Opera Buffa as well. Piccini,
especially, did excellent work, and made many improvements in
the simple finales of Logroscino. Piccini seems to have been
a musician of unusual attainments, and but for his unfortunate
encounter with Gluck he would have achieved far greater fame
than fell to his lot. Edwards justly says: "Gluck was a
composer of larger conceptions and of more powerful genius than
his Italian rival; and it may be said that he built up monuments
of stone while Piccini was laying out parterres of flowers. But
if the flowers were beautiful while they lasted, what does it
matter to the eighteenth century that they are dead now, when
even the marble temples of Gluck are antiquated and moss-grown?"
But the greatest name among the later Neapolitans was Domenico
Cimarosa (1749-1801). Born of poor working people, he managed
to attend for eleven years the celebrated Conservatorio Santa
Maria di Loretto, and his first work, in 1772, won him at once
a high place among composers. From that time until 1787 he produced
dozens of operas, some in rivalry to Paisiello. Called to the
court of St. Petersburg by Catherine
II., his amazing fertility continued unabated. In Vienna,
at the court of Leopold II., he brought forth his greatest work,
Matrimonio Segreto" (1792). This piece, which soon won
for itself the position formerly occupied by Pergolesi's "Serva
Padrona," is replete with a melodic grace and delicious
humour that are eminently attractive even to-day.
The story, simple yet full of amusing situations, deals with
the troubles of Paolino, a young lawyer who has secretly married
Carolina, the daughter of the rich but avaricious Geronimo. To
ingratiate himself with his unsuspecting father-in-law, he tries
to arrange a marriage between his rich friend, Count Robinson,
and Geronimo's other daughter, Elisetta. But Robinson prefers
Carolina, and to her father's delight proposes for her, while
Paolino becomes the object of an unsaught admiration on the part
of the elderly Fidalma, Geronimo's sister. The young couple are
discovered in an attempted flight, and the paternal wrath bursts
out in full force; but gradually Geronimo is brought to accept
the situation, while Robinson accepts Elisetta.
The music of this work, like that of most of the composer's
seventy-six operas, represents the highest development of its
kind in Italy. If not quite as rich in depth and expression as
the matchless melodies of Mozart, Cimarosa's works displayed
an unequalled freshness and variety of material, and his light
operas possessed in the highest degree that direct liveliness,
and merry, chattering loquacity that marks the best Italian buffo
work. His chief strength lay in the vocal parts, but he handled
his orchestra with skill and delicacy, and his ensembles were
often masterly. Of his serious operas, the best was "Gli
Orazi e Curiazi," but it proved somewhat lacking in depth,
and, in spite of a favourable reception, was gradually forgotten.
Paisiello (1741-1815) was even more prolific than Cimarosa,
but his works were less enduring. Some of them, when revived
recently in Rome, aroused genuine enthusiasm, but the great majority
are now permanently laid on the shelf. Paisiello deserves mention
as being the first composer who made free use of the concerted
finale in Opera Seria.
The immense popularity of light opera needs no explanation.
If beauty is its own excuse for being, certainly mirth may claim
an equal right of existence. The comic muse is more easily understood
than the tragic, and if Melpomene wins our admiration, Thalia
will always succeed in gaining our sympathy as well. But there
was still another reason for the success of Opera Buffa;
the absurdities of the serious form drove the public to take
refuge in the lighter vein, just as surely as they caused the
reforms of Gluck. It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous,
and the musicians of the early part of the eighteenth century
had certainly taken this fatal step. Grétry asserted during
his sojourn to Rome, a period covering several years, he never
saw a serious opera succeed. "If the theatre was crowded,"
he said, "it was to hear a certain singer; when he left
the stage, the people in the boxes played cards, or ate ices,
and those in the pit yawned." 
But in light opera, despite arbitrary arrangement of characters
at first, there was no formal and meaningless rules, and the
natural genius of librettist and composer were allowed free play.
No wonder, then, that the form has withstood the ravages of time,
and survives even to the present day.