The Sources of Absolute Music: Mapping Emotions in Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera
The belief that ‘the end of music is to move human affections’ (Descartes, Compendium musicae) has been a central issue in European musical thought since Plato. Opera was invented to recover the power of Ancient music to move the human heart, and its history is a permanent exploration of the capacity of action, words and music to convey emotions.
In the eighteenth century a new type of opera consolidated with the chief concern of expressing the character’s emotions as they changed throughout the drama, inspired by Descartes’ theory of human passions. The key expressive medium was the aria col da capo, where a single, distinct passion was represented, like a concentrated pill of emotional meaning. The ideal corpus to study this issue are the 900 operas set to music by 300 composers on the 27 dramas by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). It contains a comprehensive catalogue of emotions in music, a unique window of opportunity to scrutinize conventions that defined music expression and meaning for over a century, paving the way for the emergence of ‘absolute’ instrumental music, autonomous from any other art form.
DIDONE presents an innovative approach to unveil these conventions: the creation of a corpus of 4,000 digitized arias from 200 opera scores based on Metastasio’s eight most popular dramas, to be analysed using traditional methods and big data computer technology. The comparative scrutiny of dozens of different musical settings of the same librettos will reveal how composers correlate specific dramatic circumstances and emotions with distinct poetic and musical features. The results will be applicable to three main fields: (i) opera performance; (ii) analysis and interpretation of other types of music; and (iii) composition in several scenarios, from film soundtracks to creation by Artificial Intelligence. An opera festival will be designed to recover and disseminate this hitherto ignored repertoire, which was essential to define the European musical identity.
Musicology, opera, Enlightenment, human emotions, computational analysis, digital humanities, European identity