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The farewell aria of Sultan Bazajet in Handel's opera Tamerlano. (Note the da capo instruction.) First edition, London, 1719. Tamerlano - Bajazet-Aria.jpg
The farewell aria of Sultan Bazajet in Handel's opera Tamerlano . (Note the da capo instruction.) First edition, London, 1719.

In music, an aria ( [ˈaːrja] ; Italian: air ; plural: arie [ˈaːrje] , or arias in common usage, diminutive form arietta [aˈrjetta] , plural ariette, or in English simply air) is a self-contained piece for one voice, with or without instrumental or orchestral accompaniment, normally part of a larger work.

An air is a song-like vocal or instrumental composition. The term can also be applied to the interchangeable melodies of folk songs and ballads. It is a variant of the musical song form often referred to as aria.

The plural, in many languages, is one of the values of the grammatical category of number. Plural of nouns typically denote a quantity other than the default quantity represented by a noun, which is generally one. Most commonly, therefore, plurals are used to denote two or more of something, although they may also denote more than fractional, zero or negative amounts. An example of a plural is the English word cats, which corresponds to the singular cat.

Orchestra large instrumental ensemble

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, which mixes instruments from different families, including bowed string instruments such as violin, viola, cello, and double bass, as well as brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments, each grouped in sections. Other instruments such as the piano and celesta may sometimes appear in a fifth keyboard section or may stand alone, as may the concert harp and, for performances of some modern compositions, electronic instruments.


The typical context for arias is opera, but vocal arias also feature in oratorios and cantatas, sharing features of the operatic arias of their periods. The term was originally used to refer to any expressive melody, usually, but not always, performed by a singer.

Opera artform combining sung text and musical score in a theatrical setting

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like most operas, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an instrumental ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece – though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio the choir often plays a central role, and there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

A cantata is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.

Origins of the term

The term, which derives from the Greek ἀήρ and Latin aer (air) first appeared in relation to music in the 14th century when it simply signified a manner or style of singing or playing. By the end of the 16th century, the term 'aria' refers to an instrumental form (cf. Santino Garsi da Parma lute works, 'Aria del Gran Duca'). By the early 16th century it was in common use as meaning a simple setting of strophic poetry; melodic madrigals, free of complex polyphony, were known as madrigale arioso. [1]

A strophe is a poetic term originally referring to the first part of the ode in Ancient Greek tragedy, followed by the antistrophe and epode. The term has been extended to also mean a structural division of a poem containing stanzas of varying line length. Strophic poetry is to be contrasted with poems composed line-by-line non-stanzaically, such as Greek epic poems or English blank verse, to which the term stichic applies.

A madrigal is a secular vocal music composition of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Traditionally, polyphonic madrigals are unaccompanied; the number of voices varies from two to eight, and most frequently from three to six. It is quite distinct from the Italian Trecento madrigal of the late 13th and 14th centuries, with which it shares only the name.


In music, polyphony is one type of musical texture, where a texture is, generally speaking, the way that melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic aspects of a musical composition are combined to shape the overall sound and quality of the work. In particular, polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice, monophony, or a texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords, which is called homophony.

In opera

Aria form in late 17th century French and Italian opera

In the context of staged works and concert works, arias evolved from simple melodies into structured forms. In such works, the sung, melodic, and structured aria became differentiated from the more speech-like ( parlando ) recitative – broadly, the latter tended to carry the story-line, the former carried more emotional freight and became an opportunity for singers to display their vocal talent.

Recitative is a style of delivery in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech. Recitative does not repeat lines as formally composed songs do. It resembles sung ordinary speech more than a formal musical composition.

The aria evolved typically in one of two forms. Binary form arias were in two sections (A–B); arias in ternary form (A–B–A) were known as da capo arias (literally 'from the head', i.e. with the opening section repeated, often in a highly decorated manner). [2] In the da capo aria the 'B' episode would typically be in a different key – the dominant or relative major key. Other variants of these forms are found in the French operas of the late 17th century such as those of Jean-Baptiste Lully which dominated the period of the French baroque; vocal solos in his operas (denominated of course by the French term, airs) are frequently in extended binary form (ABB') or sometimes in rondeau form (ABACA), [3] (a shape which is analogous to the instrumental rondo).

Binary form is a musical form in 2 related sections, both of which are usually repeated. Binary is also a structure used to choreograph dance. In music this is usually performed as A-A-B-B.

Ternary form, sometimes called song form, is a three-part musical form consisting of an opening section (A), a following section (B) and then a repetition of the first section (A). It is usually schematized as A–B–A. Examples include the da capo aria "The trumpet shall sound" from Handel's Messiah, Chopin's Prelude in D-Flat Major and the opening chorus of Bach's St John Passion.

The da capo aria is a musical form for arias that was prevalent in the Baroque era. It is sung by a soloist with the accompaniment of instruments, often a small orchestra. The da capo aria is very common in the musical genres of opera and oratorio. According to Randel, a number of Baroque composers composed more than a thousand da capo arias during their careers.

In the Italian school of composers of the late 17th and early 18th century, the da capo form of aria came gradually to be associated with the ritornello (literally, 'little return'), a recurring instrumental episode which was interspersed with the elements of the aria and eventually provided, in early operas, the opportunity for dancing or entries of characters. [4] This version of aria form with ritornelli became a dominant feature of European opera throughout the 18th century. It is thought by some writers to be the origin of the instrumental forms of concerto and sonata form. [5] The ritornelli became essential to the structure of the aria – "while the words determine the character of a melody the ritornello instruments often decided in what terms it shall be presented." [6]

A ritornello[ritorˈnɛllo] is a recurring passage in Baroque music for orchestra or chorus.

Concerto musical composition usually in three parts

A concerto is a musical composition generally composed of three movements, in which, usually, one solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band. It is accepted that its characteristics and definition have changed over time. In the 17th century, sacred works for voices and orchestra were typically called concertos, as reflected by J. S. Bach's usage of the title "concerto" for many of the works that we know as cantatas.

Sonata form is a musical structure consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. It has been used widely since the middle of the 18th century.

18th century

By the early 18th century, composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti had established the aria form, and especially its da capo version with ritornelli, as the key element of opera seria . "It offered balance and continuity, and yet gave scope for contrast. [...] The very regularity of its conventional features enabled deviations from the normal to be exploited with telling effect." [7] In the early years of the century, arias in the Italian style began to take over in French opera, giving rise eventually to the French genre of ariette, normally in a relatively simple ternary form. [8]

Types of operatic aria became known by a variety of terms according to their character – e.g.aria parlante ('speaking-style', narrative in nature), [9] aria di bravura (typically given to a heroine), [10] aria buffa (aria of a comic type, typically given to a bass or bass-baritone), [11] and so on.

M. F. Robinson describes the standard aria in opera seria in the period 1720 to 1760 as follows:

The first section normally began with an orchestral ritornello after which the singer entered and sang the words of the first stanza in their entirety. By the end of this first vocal paragraph the music, if it were in a major key as it usually was, had modulated to the dominant. The orchestra then played a second ritornello usually shorter than the first. The singer re-entered and sang the same words through a second time. The music of this second paragraph was often slightly more elaborate than that of the first. There were more repeats of words and perhaps more florid vocalisations. The key worked its way back to the tonic for the final vocal cadence after which the orchestra rounded the section off with a final ritornello. [12]

Gluck in a 1775 portrait by Joseph Duplessis Joseph Siffred Duplessis - Christoph Willibald Gluck - Google Art Project.jpg
Gluck in a 1775 portrait by Joseph Duplessis

The nature and allocation of the arias to the different roles in opera seria was highly formalized. According to the playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni, in his autobiography,

The three principal personages of the drama ought to sing five arias each; two in the first act, two in the second, and one in the third. The second actress and the second soprano can only have three, and the inferior characters must be satisfied with a single aria each, or two at the most. The author of the words must [...] take care that two pathetic [i.e. melancholy] arias do not succeed one another. He must distribute with the same precaution the bravura arias, the arias of action, the inferior arias, and the minuets and rondeaus. He must, above all things, avoid giving impassioned arias, bravura arias, or rondeaus, to inferior characters. [13]

By contrast, arias in opera buffa (comic opera) were often specific in character to the nature of the character being portrayed (for example the cheeky servant-girl or the irascible elderly suitor or guardian). [14]

By later in the century it was clear that these formats were becoming fossilized. Christoph Willibald Gluck thought that both opera buffa and opera seria had strayed too far from what opera should really be, and seemed unnatural. The jokes of opera buffa were threadbare and the repetition of the same characters made them seem no more than stereotypes. In opera seria the singing was devoted to superficial effects and the content was uninteresting and stale. As in opera buffa, the singers were often masters of the stage and the music, decorating the vocal lines so floridly that audiences could no longer recognise the original melody. Gluck wanted to return opera to its origins, focusing on human drama and passions and making words and music of equal importance. The effects of these Gluckist reforms were seen not only in his own operas but in the later works of Mozart; the arias now become far more expressive of the individual emotions of the characters and are both more firmly anchored in, and advance, the storyline. Richard Wagner was to praise Gluck's innovations in his 1850 essay "Opera and Drama": " The musical composer revolted against the wilfulness of the singer"; rather than "unfold[ing] the purely sensuous contents of the Aria to their highest, rankest, pitch", Gluck sought "to put shackles on Caprice's execution of that Aria, by himself endeavouring to give the tune [...] an expression answering to the underlying Word-text". [15] This attitude was to underlie Wagner's would-be deconstruction of aria in his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk .

19th century

Despite the ideals of Gluck, and the trend to organise libretti so that arias had a more organic part in the drama rather than merely interrupting its flow, in the operas of the early 19th century, (for example those of Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti), bravura arias remained focal attractions, and they continued to play a major role in grand opera, and in Italian opera through the 19th century.

A favoured form of aria in the first half of the 19th century in Italian opera was the cabaletta , in which a songlike cantabile section is followed by a more animated section, the cabaletta proper, repeated in whole or in part. Typically such arias would be preceded by recitative, the whole sequence being termed a scena. There might also be opportunities for participation by orchestra or chorus. An example is Casta diva from the opera Norma of Vincenzo Bellini. [16]

After around 1850, aria forms in Italian opera began to show more variety – many of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi offer extended narrative arias for leading roles that enable, in their scope, intensification of drama and characterisation. Examples include Rigoletto's condemnation of the court, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!" (1851). [16]

Later in the century, the post-1850 operas of Wagner were through-composed, with fewer elements being readily identifiable as self-contained arias; [17] whilst the Italian genre of verismo opera also sought to integrate arioso elements although still allowing some 'show-pieces'. [16]

Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first edition, 1741) Goldberg-titlepage.png
Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first edition, 1741)

Concert arias

Concert arias, which are not part of any larger work, (or were sometimes written to replace or insert arias in their own operas or operas of other composers) were written by composers to provide the opportunity for vocal display for concert singers; [18] examples are Ah! perfido , Op. 65, by Beethoven, and a number of concert arias by Mozart, including Conservati fedele .

Instrumental music

The term 'aria' was frequently used in the 17th and 18th centuries for instrumental music used for dancing or variation, and modelled on vocal music. [19] For example, J. S. Bach's so-called "Goldberg Variations" were titled at their 1741 publication "Clavier Ubung bestehend in einer ARIA mit verschiedenen Verænderungen" ("Keyboard exercise, consisting of one ARIA with diverse variations.")

The word is sometimes used in contemporary music as a title for instrumental pieces, e.g. Robin Holloway's 1980 'Aria' for chamber ensemble. [20] or Harrison Birtwistle's brass band piece, 'Grimethorpe Aria' (1973) [21] .

See also

Related Research Articles

Opera buffa is a genre of opera. It was first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas variously classified by their authors as commedia in musica, commedia per musica, dramma bernesco, dramma comico, divertimento giocoso.

Christoph Willibald Gluck composer

Christoph WillibaldGluck was a composer of Italian and French opera in the early classical period. Born in the Upper Palatinate and raised in Bohemia, both part of the Holy Roman Empire, he gained prominence at the Habsburg court at Vienna. There he brought about the practical reform of opera's dramaturgical practices for which many intellectuals had been campaigning. With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he broke the stranglehold that Metastasian opera seria had enjoyed for much of the century. Gluck introduced more drama by using simpler recitative and cutting the usually long da capo aria. His later operas have half the length of a typical baroque opera.

Rondo and its French part-equivalent, rondeau, are words that have been used in music in a number of ways, most often in reference to a musical form but also to a character type that is distinct from the form.

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<i>Orfeo ed Euridice</i> opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck

Orfeo ed Euridice is an opera composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck, based on the myth of Orpheus and set to a libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi. It belongs to the genre of the azione teatrale, meaning an opera on a mythological subject with choruses and dancing. The piece was first performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 5 October 1762, in the presence of Empress Maria Theresa. Orfeo ed Euridice is the first of Gluck's "reform" operas, in which he attempted to replace the abstruse plots and overly complex music of opera seria with a "noble simplicity" in both the music and the drama.

<i>Opera seria</i> opera genre

Opera seria is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and "serious" style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to about 1770. The term itself was rarely used at the time and only attained common usage once opera seria was becoming unfashionable and beginning to be viewed as a historical genre. The popular rival to opera seria was opera buffa, the 'comic' opera that took its cue from the improvisatory commedia dell'arte.

In music, an intermezzo, in the most general sense, is a composition which fits between other musical or dramatic entities, such as acts of a play or movements of a larger musical work. In music history, the term has had several different usages, which fit into two general categories: the opera intermezzo and the instrumental intermezzo.

Italian opera Operas in Italy or in the Italian language

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"Va tacito e nascosto" is an aria written for alto castrato voice in act 1 of George Frideric Handel's opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto, composed in 1724 to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym. Sung by the character Julius Caesar, it features extensive solos for natural horn.

A rage aria is an operatic aria expressing the rage of the character performing it.



  1. Westrup et al. (n.d.), 1: Derivation
  2. Westrup et al. (n.d.), 2: Seventeenth century vocal music
  3. Anthony (1991), 202–205.
  4. Talbot (n.d.); Solie (1977), 54–5
  5. Solie (1977), 31. See also e.g. Rosen (1988)
  6. Lewis (1959), 97.
  7. Lewis (1959), 96
  8. Anthony (1991) 213–5.
  9. Merriam-Webster dictionary online Archived 2013-02-02 at the Wayback Machine accessed 21 March 2013.
  10. Wikisource-logo.svg  Moore, John Weeks (1880) [1854]. "Aria di bravura"  . Complete Encyclopaedia of Music. New York: C. H. Ditson & Company.
  11. "Aria buffa" in Webster's 1913 Dictionary
  12. Robinson (1962) 34–5.
  13. Cited in Robinson (1962) 33. (Translation slightly adapted).
  14. Platoff (1990) 99–100.
  15. Wagner (1995) 26–7.
  16. 1 2 3 Westrup (n.d), §5.1.
  17. Westrup (n.d), §5.2.
  18. The Oxford Companion to Music , "Concert aria"
  19. Westrup et al. (n.d.), Introduction
  20. Boosey and Hawkes Archived 2013-05-04 at the Wayback Machine website, accessed 21 March 2013
  21. "Birtwistle - Grimethorpe Aria for brass ensemble - Universal Edition". Universal Edition. Archived from the original on 28 April 2018. Retrieved 28 April 2018.