Voyage to the Moon: Baroque pasticcio, meaning and emotion


The Baroque Period – usually thought of as the timespan 1600-1750

Pasticcio – A composite opera, created by borrowing arias from other works and generating a new libretto with accompanying recitatives.

When the idea of reimagining the late seventeenth and eighteenth century pasticcio form was presented as a potential History of Emotions project, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to investigate the artistic collaborations required to generate an affective artistic work drawing on this practice. The objective of the project was to respect the historical genre of the pasticcio and yet generate a new opera for the public.

For the History of Emotions researchers, this project required us to interrogate historical sources to understand how the musical borrowing and blending was achieved. The genre had originally emerged as a convenient way of producing new works in quick succession, which often operated as vehicles to showcase the singers’ abilities. The derogatory ‘hotch-potch’ label bestowed on the earliest versions of the genre highlighted the compromises of quick production, but by the middle of the eighteenth century, the form fostered great creative ingenuity.

The reality is that ‘borrowing’ in music was common at the time, and there has been and will remain a tradition of such practices.  Of course, some musical ideas have been rather famously reimagined by a range of different composers across time and musical genres. Perhaps it is the nineteenth century “Caprice No. 24” by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) that is best known to us today as a source of inspiration and variation by many composers across the intervening years – composers as diverse as Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948-). While there may be many cultural reasons for the popularisation of the source, the musical material is eminently suitable for variation. Pianist, composer and writer Stephen Hough has pointed out that the melody is built out of “textbook classical harmony”, and as such, allows for instant and easy shifts to other tonalities and expressive veins. Also, the melody cuts “a dashing rhythmic shape as it…repeatedly turns on itself with a swagger and clip of the heel”.

But, in today’s society fully attributed borrowing and variation holds a different ethical and legal position to unattributed use of material. In contemporary contexts, with intellectual copyright laws, use of music without appropriate acknowledgement can result in charges of plagiarism. One of the most celebrated recent examples is an alleged out of court settlement to the Giacomo Puccini Estate by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the entire melody of the song “Music of the Night” which appears as a central theme in his musical Phantom of the Opera (1986), and is a direct and unattributed quote from Puccini’s opera La fanciulla del West (1910).

In pasticcio, borrowing arias from a range of different composers was the name of the game. Our artistic team was asked to source arias from the eighteenth century, drawing on composers who used the genre themselves. These arias were to form the backbone for a new libretto, thus reimagining the pasticcio genre to create a new work for the twenty-first century. The project provided an opportunity for the creative team to explore the strategies that could be employed to give the sense of both familiarity and surprise – something old and new in one.

Musical Meaning in the Baroque

Baroque musical practices varied tremendously, and by the end of the period, approaches used to intensify affective experience were very different to those of the early seventeenth century. Focussing on the eighteenth century — when the pasticcio form was at its height —musical devices employed to intensify affective content included repetition and variation. Rhythmic devices and melodic shapes were also used to heighten the emotive elements, especially when aiming to capture the essence of words in vocal music, for example, slow-moving melodies reflecting a sad text.  Exploring and finding appropriate keys and key relationships was another element that dictated meaning, with specific harmonic relationships supporting the dramatic curve of the plot. Vocal and instrumental timbre and tessitura were also specifically modified to reflect emotional character, for example, wisdom being deep/rich and low, mad being thin/penetrating and high. In addition to these elements, bodily postures and gestures added to the meaning. The artist was to “orate”, drawing on stocks of the art of rhetoric. These included gestures to mark beats or words, or gestures to symbolise a specific emotional state. Today, musical meanings of the time can be accessed through treatises from the period.

“The Intention of Musick is not only to please the Ear, but to express Sentiments, strike the Imagination, affect the Mind, and command the Passions…the Performer, who is ambitious to inspire his Audience, to be first inspired himself; which he cannot fail to be if he choses a Work of genius, if he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with all its Beauties; and if while his Imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted Spirit into his own Performance.”

Geminiani, The Art of Playing on the Violin, 1751


This endeavour to research meaning with a view to giving more informed performances developed significantly a century ago with Arnold Dolmetsch’s landmark book The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries, published in 1915. Historical treatises on performance practice formed the basis of Dometsch’s investigation. Since then, but particularly building momentum in the 1960s and ’70s, specialist ensembles have emerged dedicated to understanding and communicating Baroque music. Through their work, established modes of performance for this repertoire have developed based on historical enquiry and experimentation.

Of the many aspects of performance etiquette and meaning from the Baroque period, the communication of emotion is the central element – “to express Sentiments and …command the Passions”, as Geminiani suggests. Of course, only some of these devices were notated in the score, while other improvisatory performance practices can be gleaned nowadays from historical treatises, which describe how to make the performance more “affective”.

Meanings in Voyage to the Moon

Selecting arias for a pasticcio opera in the twenty-first century presents its own challenges. During the eighteenth century, the singers often insisted on using arias that were popular to appease and draw in their audiences, and also to showcase their own voices. There were many operas in production, so picking an aria from the latest Italian ‘hit’ might have been just the sort of strategy a singer would use to advance their own career. Nowadays, of course, there are comparatively few Baroque operas in regular opera performance. Furthermore, with such a wealth of musical materials in archives — many unperformed since their composition some 300 years ago — there is an opportunity to draw to attention these materials, if only through a single aria.

Picking arias for Voyage to the Moon has been a careful and collaborative process, balancing the opportunity to bring unknown works from the archives and to juxtapose them with works in the popular Baroque repertoire today. The skill and knowledge of the music team has produced a blending of some very well known arias by Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759), along with relatively unknown works by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676 -1760), Johann Adolph Hasse (1699 –1783), Gian Francesco de Majo (1732 –1770), and Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787). The resulting intermingling of musical elements has offered a bounty of expressive riches: light, shade, stillness, fury, tranquillity and energy.

It was essential when investigating potential arias from the eighteenth century to be used in this work, that they would fit with the “sentiment” of the narrative. The story begins as we encounter the great warrior Orlando who is suffering a “great madness” after his love Angelica has eloped with Medoro, a knight from the enemy forces. Orlando’s friend and colleague, Astolfo, tries to help him. Feeling the power of friendship, Magus (a wise magician) arrives to offer counsel and conjures up a chariot to take them to the moon, which is home to lost things, and the likely site of Orlando’s sanity. But before Astolfo can save his friend, he has to convince the fierce Guardian of the Moon, Selena, that Orlando is worth saving. In a desperate plea to save his friend, Astolfo offers his own life in exchange for Orlando’s sanity. This act of altruism and love moves Selena, and she hands over Orlando’s sanity stored as vapour in a jar. Returning to earth, Astolfo is forced into a fight with Orlando whose ongoing rage and anger has left him in a state of frenzy.  In the middle of the bitter exchange, Magus releases the vapour and a magical calm comes over Orlando as his sanity is restored. The opera ends as Orlando notes that the passionate love he experienced for Angelica was “madness”, and the love of friendship and loyalty “triumphs” over all.

In this story, which is Michael Gow’s take on a section of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem of the sixteenth century, we are confronted by verbal and musical manifestations of distress, frenzy, madness, anger, affection, pathos and loss. For each emotional state, there is a genre of aria to suit: a rage aria, a madness aria, an aria revealing love and friendship, and so on. Each aria conforms to specific musical requirements, but more than this, each aria offers a showcase for the singer: a coloratura soprano with a dizzying display of vocal fireworks, the warm rich hues of the mezzo, and the depths of felt emotion in the bass baritone.

In addition to concerns that relate to the arias, the instrumentalists will be applying historical practices to their bowing, timing, use of dynamics, and ornamentation. The musical messages will be rich in historical reference and detail to intensify the emotions expressed in the text and the musical compositions.

Drawing together the old and the new, this reimagining of the baroque pasticcio art form in the twenty-first century, from the perspective of the History of Emotions, thus makes for a rich and fascinating study.

By the Voyage to the Moon researchers Jane Davidson, Joe Browning and Frederic Kiernan, based at the University of Melbourne. Jane Davidson is Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne, and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). Joseph Browning is a ethnomusicologist and postdoctoral research fellow at CHE specialising in the shakuhachi, central Javanese gamelan, and ethnographic approaches to Western art music. Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and research assistant at CHE.

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