Dissertation Index

Author: Decker, Gregory J.

Title: The Language of Baroque Opera: Topic, Structure, and Characterization in Handel's Italian-Language Operas

Institution: Florida State University

Begun: December 2009

Completed: April 2011


With few exceptions, there is a distinct paucity of modern analytical studies regarding the association of music and drama in Baroque opera seria. Few authors even mention the works, and those who do tend to make comments about them only in passing or assume that they are inherently not dramatic and, presumably, not worthy of study. It is possible, however, to reveal relationships between music and drama if the analysis of these operas is approached in a way that acknowledges the aesthetic principles that influenced their composition. The purpose of this dissertation, then, is to examine the relationship between music and drama in Baroque opera seria; I study arias from George Frideric Handel’s operatic works as case studies.

In chapter one, I set forth the methodology for the analyses, contextualizing my work within the bounds of musical semiotics, musical topic theory, the structural analysis of Baroque music, and opera analysis in general. The groundwork for systematic stylistic interpretation laid by Robert Hatten and Raymond Monelle’s investigations into the origins of musical topics and their cultural associations are crucial in my own attempts to reconstruct stylistic competence for the Baroque opera seria; subsequently, Matthew Shaftel’s methodology for opera analysis coupled with Joseph Kerman’s understanding of the interaction between music and drama in opera provide the means for forming these interpretations.

Initial substantiation for my stylistic claims comprises chapter two. I investigate many possible musical topics at work in the Baroque era. I provide historical and modern evidence for their existence, the affects they might project, and the stylistic level with which they are likely associated. In many cases, I compare instrumental compositions by Handel with known dance or other stylistic characteristics with arias that share these attributes. I also discuss the implications for stylistic level of hypermetric and harmonic structure (after Channan Willner) and the use of “topical reversal”—one way, I posit, a Baroque composer might have manipulated topical material and associations. I put the results of the investigations in chapter two into practice in the following two chapters. Chapter three is an in-depth exploration of the arias of Cleopatra in Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724), their interaction with dramatic elements, and the possible resulting effect on her characterization. Chapter four serves the same function for the character of Grimoaldo in Handel’s opera Rodelinda, Regina de’Longobardi (1725). In the final chapter of this dissertation, I suggest the implications for further research in this vein, and I provide a topical interpretation of an aria by J.S. Bach.

Keywords: Music theory, Handel, Baroque opera, semiotics, topics, opera analysis, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Cleopatra


Chapter One: Introduction, Review of Literature, and Methodology

Chapter Two: Expressive and Structural Strategies in Handel's Opera Seria

Chapter Three: Musical Characterization In-Depth: Giulio Cesare (1724)

Chapter Four: Musical Characterization In-Depth: Rodelinda (1725)

Chapter Five: Conclusion


Greg Decker
Moore Musical Arts Center 2143
Bowling Green State University
College of Musical Arts
Bowling Green, OH 43403

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