A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Intermezzo

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INTERMEZZO (Fr. Intermède. Entr' Acte. Old. Eng. Enterlude). I. A dramatic entertainment, of light and pleasing character, introduced between the Acts of a Tragedy, Comedy, or Grand Opera; either for the purpose of affording an interval of rest to the performers of the principal piece; of allowing time for the preparation of a grand scenic effect; or, of relieving the attention of the audience from the excessive strain demanded by a long serious performance.

The history of the Intermezzo bears a very important relation to that of the Opera; more especially to that of the Opera Buffa, with the gradual development of which it is very intimately connected. The origin of both may be traced back to a period of very remote antiquity. It is, indeed, difficult to point out any epoch, in the chronicles of Dramatic Art, in which the presence of the Intermezzo may not be detected, now in one form, and now in another. Its exact analogue is to be found in the Satiræ of the old Roman Comedy. In the Mysteries and Miracle Plays of the Middle Ages—those strange connecting-links between old things and new—it assumed the form of a Hymn, or Carol, sung, either in chorus, or by the Angelo nunzio, to a sort of Chaunt which seems to have been traditional. In a rare old work, by Macropedias, entitled, 'Bassarus. Fabula festivissima' (Utrecht, 1553), some verses, adapted to a melody by no means remarkable for its festive character, are given at the close of every scene. And the popularity of the Tune is sufficiently proved by its persistent reiteration in other works of nearly similar date.

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These rude beginnings contrast strangely enough with the highly finished Intermezzi decennially presented in the course of the Passion-Play at Ober-Ammergau. But, the Passion-Play is known to have undergone many important improvements, within a comparatively recent period; and its case is, in every way, so exceptional, that it is no easy task to determine its true position as a historical landmark.

Almost all the earlier Italian plays were relieved by Intermezzi. Many of these were simply Madrigals, sung by a greater or less number of voices, as occasion served. Sometimes they were given in the form of a Chorus, with instrumental accompaniment. The most favourite style, perhaps, was that of a Song, or Canzonetta, sung, by a single performer, in the character of Orpheus. In no case was the subject of these performances connected, in any way, with that of the pieces between the Acts of which they were interpolated. Their construction was extremely simple, and their importance relatively small. We first find them assuming grander proportions, at Florence, in the year 1589, on the occasion of the Marriage of the Grand Duke Ferdinand, with Christine de Lorraine. To grace this ceremony, Giovanni Bardi, Conte di Vernio, produced a new Comedy, entitled L'Amico fido, with Intermezzi, à grand spectacle, prepared expressly for the festival, and presented with a degree of splendour hitherto unknown. For the first of these, called 'The Harmony of the Spheres,' the poetry was written by Ottavio Rinuccini, and the music composed by Emilio del Cavaliere, and Cristofano Malvezzi. The second, also written by Rinuccini, and called 'The Judgment of the Hamadryads,' was set to music by Luca Marenzio. For the third, called 'The Triumph of Apollo,' invented by Bardi, and written by Rinuccini, the music was composed, partly by Luca Marenzio, and partly, it is said, by the Conte di Vernio himself. The fourth, entitled 'The Infernal Regions,' was written by Pietro Strozzi, and accompanied by sombre music, composed, by Giulio Caccini, for Violins, Viole, Lutes, Lyres of all forms, Double Harps, Trombones, and 'Organs of [1]Wood.' The fifth—'The Fable of Arion'—was written by Rinuccini, and set to music, by Cavaliere and Malvezzi.

This grand performance naturally gave an extraordinary impulse to the progress of dramatic music. Within less than ten years, it was followed, in the same city, by the production of the first Opera Seria, at the Palazzo Corsi. Meanwhile, the Intermezzo steadily continued to advance in interest and importance, Guarini (1537–1612) wrote Intermezzi to his own Pastor Fido, in the form of simple Madrigals. In 1623, L'Amoroso Innocenza was produced, at Bologna, accompanied by Intermezzi della Coronazione di Apollo, per Dafne convertita in Lauro, set to music by Ottavio Vernizzi. This work introduces us to a new and extremely important epoch in the history of the branch of Dramatic Art we are now considering. By degrees, the Intermezzi were made to embody a little continuous drama of their own. Their story—always quite unconnected with that of the principal piece—was more carefully elaborated than heretofore. Gradually increasing in coherence and interest, their disjointed members rapidly united themselves into a consistent and connected whole. And thus, in process of time, two distinct dramas were presented to the audience, in alternate Acts; the character of the Intermezzi being always a little lighter than that of the piece between the divisions of which they were played, and on that very account, perhaps, better fitted to win their way to public favour. The merry wit inseparable from the Neapolitan School undoubtedly did much for them; and, before long, they began to enter into formidable rivalry with the more serious pieces they were at first only intended to relieve. Their popularity spread so widely, that, in 1723, a collection of them was printed, in two volumes, at Amsterdam; and so lasting was it, that, to this day, a light Italian Operetta is frequently called an Intermezzo in Musica.

The next great change in the form of the Intermezzo, though really no more than the natural consequence of those we have already described, was sufficiently important, not only to mark the culminating point in its career, but to translate it, at once, to a sphere of Art little contemplated by those who first called it into existence. Already complete in itself, all it now needed was independence: an existence of its own, apart from that of the graver piece to which it owed its original raison d'être. Such an existence was obtained for it, by the simple process of leaving the graver piece—whether Tragedy, Comedy, or Serious Opera—to depend upon its own resources, while the Intermezzo, with its once disconnected links united in unbroken sequence, was performed as a separate work, in one Act. This revolution was effected chiefly by the genius of a young composer, whose untimely death, considered in relation to its influence upon the Lyric Drama, can never be sufficiently deplored. From beginning to end, the narrative of Pergolesi's Art-life is identified with the ultimate fate of the Intermezzo. His first important composition—a Sacred Drama, called San Guglielmo d'Aquitania—was diversified by Intermezzi, of a playful character, introduced between its principal divisions. His greatest triumph—La Serva Padrona—was, itself, an Intermezzo, pur et simple. This delightful work—the whole interest of which is centred in two characters, whose voices are accompanied only by a stringed band—was first produced, in Italy, between the Acts of another piece, in the year 1734 [App. p.685 "1731"]. Its success was unbounded. It soon found its way to every Capital in Europe; and, everywhere but in France, was received with acclamation. The French, however, were slow to appreciate it at its true value. Its first performance in Paris, Oct. 4, 1746, was little short of a failure: but when, Aug. 1, 1752, it was played between the Acts of Lulli's Acis et Galathée, it originated a feud between the 'Lullistes' and the 'Bouffonnistes,' scarcely less bitter than that which raged, at a later period, between the rival followers of Gluck and Piccinni. National vanity forbade the recognition of the Italian style: national good taste forbade its rejection. Rousseau, with characteristic impetuosity, threw himself into the thick of the fray; fought desperately on the Italian side; declared French Opera impossible; and stultified his own arguments by the immediate production of a French Intermède the well-known Devin du Village. Long after this, the controversy raged, with unabated fury: but, in spite of the worst its enemies could do, La Serva Padrona exercised a salutary and lasting effect upon French dramatic music—indeed, upon dramatic music everywhere. In 1750 it met with an enthusiastic reception in England. Its success was as lasting as it was brilliant: and, almost to our own day, it has kept its place upon the stage, not between the Acts of a Serious Opera, but as an independent piece; marking the critical period at which the history of the Intermezzo merges, permanently, into that of the Opera Buffa, its legitimate heir. [See Opera Buffa.]

The anomalous character of this sweeping change became at once apparent. It was as necessary as ever, that, on certain occasions, some sort of entertainment should be given between the Acts of serious pieces. The Intermezzo having so far outgrown its original intention as to be utterly useless for this purpose, something else must needs be found to supply its place. The Dance was unanimously accepted as a substitute; and soon became exceedingly popular. And thus arose a new species of Interlude, which at no time, perhaps, attained a greater degree of perfection, than under the 'Lumley Management' at Her Majesty's Theatre, where, night after night, a Ballet Divertissement, with Cerito, or Carlotta Grisi, for its principal attraction, was given between the Acts of a Grand Opera, sung by Grisi, Persiani, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache; the long line of successes culminating in that memorable Pas de Quatre, which, danced by Taglioni, Fanny Elsler, Carlotta Grisi, and Cerito, is still regarded as one of the greatest triumphs of Terpsichorean Art on record.

Instrumental music is frequently played, in Germany, after the manner of an Intermezzo. The noble Entr'actes composed by Beethoven, for Schiller's 'Egmont,' by Schubert for 'Rosamunde,' and by Mendelssohn, for Shakspeare's 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' are familiar to every one. These, of course, can only be presented in association with the great works they were originally designed to illustrate. But, less appropriate music, good enough of its kind, though intended for other purposes, was, at one time, by no means uncommon. We once heard Vieuxtemps play a Violin Concerto between the Acts of an Opera, at Leipzig, in the days when the Orchestra was under the masterly direction of Ferdinand David: and, in the year 1845, Alboni (then unknown in England) sang several of her favourite Songs, in the same pretty little Theatre, between the Acts of a play. Such performances as these may, naturally enough, be repeated, at any time. But, with our present ideas of Art, anything like a revival of the Intermezzo, in its older form, would manifestly be impossible. We may learn much from its history, which is both instructive, and entertaining: but, for all practical purposes, we must be content to leave it in the obscurity to which, since the production of La Serva Padrona, it has been not unprofitably consigned.

II. The word is also used for a short movement, serving as a connecting-link between the larger divisions of a Sonata, Symphony, or other great work, whether instrumental, or vocal; as in No. 4 of Schumann's 'Faschingsschwank aus Wien' (op. 26). The beautiful Intermezzo which, under the name of 'Introduzione,' lends so charming a grace to Beethoven's 'Waldstein Sonata' (op. 53) is said to be an after-thought, inserted in place of the well-known 'Andante in F' (op. 35), which, after due consideration, the great Composer rejected, as too long for the position he originally intended it to occupy. The term is however used for larger movements:—as by Mendelssohn for the 3rd movement in his F minor Quartet (op. 2), or for the 'grand adagio' which, under the name of 'Nachruf,' he specially composed in memory of his friend Ritz, and inserted in his Quintet, op. 18, in lieu of the previous Minuet (Letter, Feb. 21, 1832); or for the Entracte expressive of Hermia's search for Lysander in the Midsummer Night's Dream music. The 2nd movement of Goetz's Symphony, virtually a Scherzo, is entitled Intermezzo. Schumann and Brahms, again, have both used the word to denote independent pieces of small dimensions, the former in his 'Opera 4'—six pieces usually consisting of a main theme and an Alternativo; and the latter in his latest publication (op. 76), eight pieces for the P.F., of which 4 are Capriccios and 4 Intermezzi.

[ W. S. R. ]

  1. Organi di legno.