A - Z
Gradually increasing in speed.
A stress on a particular note or beat, highlighting its place within a musical phrase.
Slow and drawn-out tempo.
Fast and lively tempo. Frequently applied at the end of a scene and/or act.
The highest of the male voices.
The lowest of the female voices.
Prefix used to denote an instrument that is lower in pitch and darker in tone than a treble instrument – eg alto saxophone, alto flute.
Moderate tempo. Slightly faster than Adagio – literally “walking pace”.
Italian for “air”. A term used since the time of Alessandro Scarlatti to describe an independent solo vocal piece within an opera, frequently created to display the artist’s vocal facility.
An abbreviated and simpler form of aria.
Literally “like an aria”: an arioso is traditionally a brief, melodic conversational passage in strict time (see “Recitative”)
A chord performed as a broken run of notes.
Music that is not in any key. With atonal music the traditional harmonic language no longer applies and the twelve notes of the octave function independently of any key centre. Atonality is associated above all with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
Dance form in which a story is told through the unification of music and dance. Originated in the French court of the sixteenth century. Used by Lully as an interlude in his operas, then evolved into the hybrid opéra-ballet. During the nineteenth century ballets became a central feature of Grand Opéra, and the genre soon branched off into its own independent art form. Dominated by the French until Tchaikovsky’s emergence during the 1870s.
Baritone The male voice between tenor and bass. There are a number of specific baritone categories: Bariton, a generic term for a French-style baritone, eg Escamillo (Carmen). Basse-taille, a light lyric baritone traditionally heard in Baroque and Classical French opera, eg Lully and Rameau. Heldenbariton, the most powerful of the baritone voices, used in Wagner and Strauss, eg Wotan (Der Ring) and Orestes (Elektra). Spielbariton, a dark comic voice called for by German comic opera, eg Don Giovanni.
Music composed between 1600 and 1750, spanning the period from Monteverdi to Handel. The period before Classical.
The lowest part of a chord or piece of music. The lowest of the male voices. There are a number of specific bass voice categories: Basse-bouffe/basso-buffo, a rich, comic voice used in French light opera and operetta, eg Jupiter (Orpheus in the Underworld), and an Italian comic character voice common in Italian and German opera, eg Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung and Donizetti’s Don Bartolo (L’elisir d’amore). Basso cantante, a light lyric bass, frequently a character voice, eg Padre Guardino (La forza del destino). Bass-contre, a middle-weight bass-baritone common in early French opera, especially Rameau. Basso profondo, a dark Italian heroic bass employed extensively by Verdi, eg Ramfis in Aida.
Literally “beautiful song”. A late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century school of singing, characterized by a concentration on beauty of tone and virtuosic agility. Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti are the main bel canto composers.
Music that uses two keys at the same time. Used by Strauss and Stravinsky.
Italian for “comic”; eg opera buffa.
An heroic but brief showpiece (frequently coming after an aria) built upon a rapid, unchanging rhythm. The most famous example is Manrico’s “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il trovatore.
The closing sequence of a musical phrase or composition. The “perfect cadence” gives a sense of completion; the “imperfect cadence” leaves the music hanging in mid-air.
In opera, a solo passage designed to show off a singer’s technical abilities, generally occurring at the end of an aria, above the penultimate chord of a cadence. Traditionally based upon themes from the main body of music, and traditionally improvised by the artist, though by the middle of the nineteenth century it was common for composers to write their own.
A “singing” style. An exaggerated form of legato.
An extremely long and fluid type of melody.
A verse form originating in fourteenth-century folk traditions. The term became widely applied to any song with a folk-like character.
An heroic but brief showpiece (frequently coming after an aria) built upon a rapid, unchanging rhythm. The most famous example is Manrico’s “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il trovatore.
An eighteenth-century term used to describe a lyrical operatic song or aria in a single section, thus distinguishing it from a traditional aria in which there was a “da capo” section.
Chest voiceThe standard vocal register used by all but falsetto and coloratura singers. Most conventionally written operatic music is now sung using the chest voice, although for high notes the head voice is used to introduce a brighter, more ringing quality.
ChordAny simultaneous combination of notes.
ChromaticismUse of notes not belonging to the diatonic scale – ie using sharps, flats and naturals alien to the established key. The chromatic scale comprises twelve ascending or descending semi-tones. Chromaticism played a major part in middle and late Romantic music – Wagner in particular.
ClassicalNow a generic term for all western art music. Specifically, however, it refers to the post-Baroque period roughly between 1750 and 1830. Pre- eminent Classical composers were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
ColoraturaSoprano voice capable of great range, agility and delicacy. Famous coloratura roles include The Magic Flute’s Queen of the Night, many of the bel canto heroines and many of the opéra-lyrique female roles – notably those by Gounod and Thomas.
Commedia dell’artreA dramatic genre of unknown origin that evolved in sixteenth-century Italy and had a profound influence on the development of opera. It was essentially a form of improvised comedy, based upon a scenario rather than pre-written dialogue, and made use of generic characters such as Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Pulchinello (the original Mr Punch).
The lowest of the female voices – the same as an alto, but alto is associated with sacred and choral music, whereas contralto is purely operatic.
Adjective derived from “counterpoint”.
Melodic lines move in opposite directions.
The highest male voice (also known as alto).
CounterpointThe placing of two or more musical parts against each other.
Da CapoMeans “repeat from the beginning”.
Deus ex machina“God from the machine”: a device used in Greek and Renaissance drama and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century opera to bring about a happy ending, through the intervention of a god or allegorical figure. The conclusion of Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a prime example.
DiatonicMusic using the major and minor scales: music constructed exclusively of the notes defined by the key.
DissonanceA combination of notes that jars the ear.
See definition for ‘serial music’
Comic operatic style developed by Goldoni, in which serious and comic characters share the stage. The most famous example is Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
DynamicsThe qualities and degrees of softness and loudness.
Musical interlude – like an intermezzo - dividing the acts of an opera.
As in the visual arts, a term used to describe works in which the artist’s state of mind is the primary concern; similarly applied above all to German music of the early twentieth century, as composed by StraussBerg and Schoenberg.
Italian for “false” or “altered”. A voice employed by male singers to reach extremely high, female registers. Usually used as a special effect, as in Falstaff’s imitation of Mistress Ford in Verdi’s opera. Comes closest in tone to the counter-tenor, which is essentially a highly cultivated and disciplined form of falsetto singing.
A highly complicated contrapuntal form in which two or more voices are built around a single theme. Their entries are in direct imitation of the theme’s opening but each voice is developed independently, so that ultimately the two or more voices are complete melodies in themselves. An operatic device that allows several characters to express themselves simultaneously. Common throughout the whole history of opera, although the most famous examples come in the second act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and the finale of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Literally “total work of art”. Wagner’s term for his dramatic ideal in which music, drama, painting and poetry would unite to create a new art form.
An enormously popular form of opera, prominent in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century, in which the production values were as important, if not more so, than the music. Pioneered by the librettist Scribe, the composer Meyerbeer and the designer Daguerre, the formula was simple: the principal requirements were five acts, a strong sense of local colour, a huge troupe of performers, a central love interest, weighty choruses, lengthy ballets, opulent duets, extended confrontations (frequently between opposing families) and a cataclysmic, preferable disastrous, conclusion – such as the sinking of a ship or the eruption of a volcano. Shorn of its acute accent, the term is now applied to almost any large-scale opera eg Verdi’s Don Carlos.
A slow Cuban dance in duple time. Used by Bizet in Carmen
The rate at which chords change.
The simultaneous grouping of notes to form a musically significant whole; the basic unit of harmony is the chord. Harmony can colour any single melodic line in innumerable different ways and a composer’s harmonic language is one of his or her most immediately identifiable characteristics.
A vocal technique whereby the sung tone is raised from the chest (where it is normally produced) into the head, where the skull causes the tone to ring out. Especially used by tenors for very high notes or by those who wish to conserve their energy.
German for “heroic tenor”. A term used to describe the loudest and strongest tenor voice, especially necessary for performances of Wagner and Strauss.
A phrase reappears slightly altered, but obviously related to its original form.
Term, taken from painting, to describe music in which evocation of tone and atmosphere are the dominant considerations; typified by Debussy and his followers.
The scoring of music for individual instruments within a complete score. Not the same as orchestration, which refers to a composer’s skill in writing for groups of instruments.
Musical interludes performed between the acts of a play in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Italy, involving dance, song and often spectacular scenic effects. The very first operas evolved from intermedi, which were also the forerunners of the intermezzo.
1. Originally a short comic diversion played between the acts of a play but later develop as a separate operatic entertainment in which there were two or, at most, three characters, who played out a simple, invariably domestic scenario – eg Pergolesi’s La serva padrona.
2. A brief instrumental or orchestral diversion performed during an opera’s scene changes, to denote the passing of time. The intermezzo in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana is perhaps the best known.
The distance between two notes. Intervals are expressed numerically – thirds, fourths etc (though ”octave” is used rather than “eighth”). Composers’ preferred intervals are highly recognizable aspects of style.
A musical idea turned backwards; usually refers to melody, but can also apply to rhythm.
The basis of tonal music. The keynote is the foundation of the key, which classifies the notes lying at specified intervals from that keynote – thus the key of C major specifies the notes of the major scale, whereas C minor specifies the notes of the minor scale, which has different intervals from the major. As there are twelve notes in the chromatic scale, it follows that there are twenty-four keys. Each key has a certain number of flats and sharps, signified by the key signature. Notes other than those belonging to a work’s key are referred to as “accidentals”. Accidentals are the basis of chromaticism.
Slow and broad tempo
Instruction to sing or play smoothly.
- Related Terms
Literally “leading motif”. First used with reference to Weber, to describe a short, constantly recurring musical phrase that relates to a character, emotion or object. Associated above all with Wagner, who turned the leitmotif into a means of blending numerous associations and making structural connections across vast spans of time.
“Half voice”. A direction to sing quietly without changing the basic colour of the voice. Not the same as falsetto.
First used in connection with American composers such as Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich, who rejected the complexities of the European avant-garde in favour of music which was constructed from repeating cycles or additions of small phrases. Now used also for European composers such as John Tavener, whose music has affinities with the religious music of the pre-Renaissance period.
A brief but recognizable musical idea, usually melodic but sometimes rhythmic.
The foundation of serialism; the order in which a composer chooses to arrange the composition’s basic twelve notes, none of which can be repeated until the other eleven have been deployed.
A self-contained unit, such as an aria, duet, trio or chorus; a “numbers opera” is an opera constructed from a chain of such units and most opera up to the mid-nineteenth century conforms to this form.
An instrumental solo played above or beneath as an accompaniment to the sung line. Verdi’s obbligati are particularly beautiful.
The interval that divides two notes of the same written pitch – eg C to C'.
Italian comic opera of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
French for “comic opera”, but the term describes a French opera that includes text to be spoken, not sung or declaimed through recitative. The Paris Opéra allowed no spoken dialogue, whereas the Paris Opéra-Comique made it a necessity. Opéra comiques were rarely comic, although most contained comic characters for light relief. The most famous example is Bizet’s Carmen.
An opera seria with the addition of comic or sentimental episodes. The most famous example is Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto.
Serious or tragic opera of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Established and mastered by Metastasio.
The art of writing for an orchestra, demanding an understanding of the qualities of each instrumental section and an ability to manage and combine them.
Ornaments (or embellishments)
Notes added to the printed score in performance by a singer. Up to the late eighteenth century, composers indicated where such additions were required; by the start of the nineteenth century this improvisatory element had been virtually quashed.
A melodic figure that is repeated throughout the course of an opera, applied through the use of a ground bass (link to: bass definition). Used extensively during the seventeenth century for laments, eg Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas.
An orchestral introduction to an opera.
Melodic lines move in the same direction.
A sustained or repeated note - usually in the bass - deployed to build harmonic tension.
The use of two or more keys at the same time.
An orchestral introduction to a scene or act. There is no absolute distinction between a prelude and an overture, although preludes are generally shorter and, more often than not, run directly into the opera, whereas a pause usually punctuates the end of an overture.
Semi-sung dialogue and narrative in opera. In its rhythmic freedom it is closer to dramatic speech than to song. Unlike arioso, there is no written melody, only a guide to the harmonic foundation, which the singer follows at his or her discretion.
A phrase, or melodic module, is repeated verbatim.
The name given to an opera in which the scenario revolves around the rescue of a heroine and/or hero from impending peril, whether prison or death. Especially popular around the time of the French Revolution, which produced many (frequently fictional) tales of rescue and derring-do. The most famous examples are by Cherubini’s Lodoïska and Beethoven's Fidelio.
A subtle flexibility of pace that subtly alters the shape of a phrase but does not affect its pulse, tempo or structure. A necessity in bel canto, especially Bellini. Summarized by Liszt as being like the collective motion of the leaves of a tree.
Musician in an opera company who rehearses and coaches the cast at the piano prior to full orchestral rehearsals with the conductor.
A melodic phrase is immediately repeated up or down the scale.
Also known as “twelve-tone” or “dodecaphonic” music serialism was developed by Schoenberg as a replacement for traditional harmonic and tonal languages. A serial composition is based upon a twelve-note theme (the “tone-row” or “note-row”, which can then be used in different ways: forwards, backwards, upside down and backwards, or superimposed to create chords. Its most extreme form, in which predetermined rules govern every aspect of the piece, including volume and speed, is known as total serialism.
The highest female voice.
There are a number of specific soprano categories: Coloratura soprano, the most agile and acrobatic of all voices, eg Mozart’s Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute) Dramatischer soprano, the most powerful of the German female voices, eg Wagner’s Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) and Strauss’s Elektra. Soprano léger, a light, frequently comic soprano, eg Mozart’s Despina (Così fan tutte). Soprano lyrico spinto, an Italian medium-weight soprano capable of great dramatic power as well as delicate sweetness, eg Puccini’s Madame Butterfly Soprano lyrique, a smooth, unusually agile French romantic voice, eg Delibes’s Lakmé.
- Related Terms
In eighteenth-century opera, a serving-girl caricature who uses her cunning and wit to sort out problems, eg Mozart's Despina (Così fan tutte). Later used to describe the light and fluttery voice type, such as Marzelline (Fidelio) and Adèle (Fledermaus).
Literally “speechsong”, a singing style midway between song and speech. Invented by Schoenberg (although it was anticipated by Wagner), the technique requires the singer to approximate the pitch of the note and deliver it with the right amount of colour. The best known and finest example of its use in opera is Berg’s Wozzeck
The term applied to a voice notated in Sprechgesang.
The opposite of legato. A direction for a note to be played or sung shorter than it is marked, detaching it from the note that follows. The best known operatic example is Riccardo’s “Laughing Scherzo” in Verdi’s Masked Ball.
A term used to describe a song or aria in which the same music is used for each verse, eg “Nessun Dorma”.
Emphasis on the off-beat; characteristic of jazz and much used in early twentieth-century operas, especially by Krenek and Weill.
The second highest male voice.
There are a number of specific voice categories: Heldentenor
Spieltenor, a light German, frequently comic voice, eg Pedrillo (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and David (Die Meistersinger).
Ténor, a generic term for the nineteenth-century French tenor voice, eg Bizet’s Don José (Carmen).
Ténor-bouffe, a light comic voice, eg Offenbach’s Paris (La belle Hélène).
Tenore di forza, a heroic voice, demanding uncommon power and stamina, eg Verdi’s Otello.
Tenore di grazia, a lyric romantic voice, calling for agility and pure legato, eg Donizetti’s Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore).
Tenore spinto, a lyric Italian voice required to push to short bursts of dramatic intensity, eg Puccini’s Rodolfo (La bohème).
Tenor Trial, the lightest of character voices, eg Ravel’s Torquemada (L’heure espagnol). So named after the eighteenth-century tenor Antoine Trial.
- Related Terms
The natural range of a voice, or the range within which lie most of the notes of a role.
A term used to describe an opera in which each episode flows evenly and naturally into the next.
The quality of a sound – literally its “stamp”. Also known as “tone colour”, it’s the timbre that distinguishes voices and instruments from one another – it’s what makes the difference between a middle C played by a flute and a middle C played by an oboe.
The numbers at the beginning of a composition, movement or section (or, indeed, midway through a phrase in some twentieth-century scores) that indicate the number and kind of beats in a bar – 4/4, 3/4, 9/16 etc.
A musical system in which melodies and harmonies are based on various major and minor keys/scales. The basis of most Western music.
The common term for French serious opera of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; principal exponents were Lully and Rameau.
Italian for “disguised”. Refers to a singer (generally a soprano who performs as someone of the opposite sex (generally a boy), eg Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier
“Realism” in Italian. A short-lived, but enormously popular form of opera that dominated Italian music during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Exemplified by Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, verismo operas were generally one-act works of intense action and high-voltage emotion, conveyed through music that relied heavily upon shock tactics.
Rapid but small vibrations in pitch – most often used in reference to string players, singers and wind players. Up to the twentieth century it was used sparingly, as an expressive colouring, but it has now become a fundamental part of vocal technique, sometimes leading to ugly and painful noises. Can take some getting used to, although the very best singers rarely abuse it.
German for Prelude.
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