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In Praise of Convention: Formula and Experiment in Bellini's Self-Borrowings

Mary Ann Smart
Journal of the American Musicological Society
Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 25-68
DOI: 10.2307/831869
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/831869
Page Count: 44
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In Praise of Convention: Formula and Experiment in Bellini's Self-Borrowings
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Abstract

In the 1880s, the realization that Bellini had extensively reused melodies from early or unfinished works in his most famous operas provoked a small aesthetic crisis in Italy. Although today such reuse of material is no longer looked upon as a scandalous breach of compositional integrity, scholars have been slow to examine Bellini's self-borrowings for clues to the evolution of his style or to his attitudes toward the relations between melody and drama. Most of Bellini's self-borrowings show the composer simplifying his melodies, reducing harmonic and melodic variety as if to distance himself from bel canto convention. At the same time, melodic convention is essential to understanding the borrowings, a fact that becomes particularly obvious in those cases where dramatic parallels between the two contexts of a melody are obscure or nonexistent. For example, the recasting of a cheerful cabaletta in Zaira as a lament in I Capuleti e i Montecchi relies on a resemblance between melodic figures conventionally used to imitate tears or laughter-but also critiques those conventions. An allusive relationship between refrains in Il pirata and I puritani similarly derives its logic more from a shared musical evocation of solitude and empty space than from any overt dramatic resemblance between the two scenes. The article argues that for Bellini self-borrowing was entangled with the looser techniques of allusion and reliance on melodic convention. For this reason, study of the self-borrowings provides a model for engaging with the musical language of early nineteenth-century Italian opera, redressing the tendency to dismiss its musical detail as "merely" conventional and thus unworthy of analysis.

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