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"All the world's a stage".

THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS ARTICLE came from my inimitable predecessor and creator of "The Song File," Carol Kimball. My recent purchase of her 2013 book, Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music, led to many pleasant hours perusing some fabulous and of forgotten poetic/recital programming ideas. (1) One in particular appealed to me greatly, and the more I read and researched, the more fascinated I became with why the early 16th century commedia dell'arte had such farfung infuence on Western culture, especially on 19th century French Symbolist poets. Professor Kimball included a wonderful table of some eight or so songs composed on the characters of the commedia in both the book and her article in the January/February 2010 issue of Journal of Singing, which may be easily downloaded through the NATS website. (2) My aim here is to further expound on the ideas promulgated by this masked theatrical art form and briefy trace its infuence on vocal music in France and beyond in order to inspire us to involve both ourselves and our students more intimately in the imagery of these beautiful and descriptive songs.


The commedia was originally called commedia all' improvvisa, or "comedy of improvisation," to distinguish it from commedia erudita, or "learned comedy," which was written by literati and performed by amateurs. In 16th century Italy, arte meant something closer to "that which is made by artisans," and the term dell'arte was later added to denote that these were professional actors. Te theatrical form employed stock themes, stock characters, and stock pranks or jokes (lazzi), and while there were some authored plays, many of the scenes were loosely interpreted and the actual performance was highly improvisatory. As early as the 1520s, early performers of the zanni character type were entertaining audiences in a manner much like the later commedia of 1750, when the style actually received its name from Carlo Goldoni in his play, Il teatro comico. Although Goldoni used it as a term of disparagement, the name stuck and became a source of pride among 18th century practitioners who saw their tradition as thoroughly professional. (3) In fact, theater historians believe the legacy of commedia (the term I will henceforth use to refer to the commedia dell'arte all'improvvisa) was the first truly professional theater company; more notable is the fact that it was also the first tradition in Europe in which women played the roles of female characters on stage. (4)

The commedia probably sprang up as a result of several disparate elements. Its roots may be traced back to the ancient Roman comedies of Titus Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE), who wrote some 130 Latin farces, and whose plays had undergone a rediscovery during the Renaissance; to the Venetian Carnevale, which originated in 1162 and where elaborate masks were (and still are) the custom; to the mime theater practice of the Byzantine world; to the jongleurs of medieval Europe and the market culture of popular entertainment in the piazza. There is even a theory that the commedia was a response to the political and economic crises of the 16th century that caused actors to band together and form an early sort of "union." It is probably best to sum it up by saying the commedia was the result of the right ingredients coming together at the right place in the right time, as most truly creative endeavors seem to do.

Whatever its origins, what is certain is that the masks worn at Carnevale came in several distinct types, which were ofen associated with diferent occupations and character traits. Table 1 is a very brief summary of the major masks and sub-masks and some of the associated names of these stock characters. It would be impossible to include the variants of each name in every language, but the main theme should be readily apparent and easily related to your own knowledge of song literature and opera. I have placed in upper case the main type each character inhabits.

According to Antonio Fava, one of the world's leading maestros of commedia dell'arte and maker of traditional commedia masks, there are only four basic characters: vecchi (old men), capitani (captains, or military/authority figures), innamorati (lovers), and zanni (servants, from which the English word "zany" is descended). (5) All subcharacters are derived, or hybridized, from these. For instance, the vecchi include both the wealthy older man of commerce and the dottore, or notary fgure. The innamorati are both male and female, and the reader will recognize many common names used as stock commedia characters in 17th and 18th century European art song: Florinda, Silvia, Lidia, Isabella, and male counterparts Flavio, Silvio, Vittorio, and Lindoro.

Micke Klingvall, a Swedish actor, director, and teacher, suggested in a speech to the Royale Dramatic Teatre in Stockholm that the stereotypes comprising the commedia masks could be found in real life, on the street, during these early days of the genre. The homeless people and country bumpkins that were mocked and teased represented the zanni; real life soldiers became capitani; the vecchi (Pantalone and Dottore) were those who demanded total control, unable to accept anything less; the innamorati are recognizable anywhere as the totally self-absorbed young lovers. (6) I believe these characters are still to be found today in our own time and culture, which explains their continuing appeal.

The first three stock characters identifed above are basically "fat," or static: they have a distinct role to play that only rarely varies. The vecchi and capitani are almost always the butt of the joke, providing humor because we so easily recognize these stereotypical personalities that transcend time and place. Who doesn't roll his eyes and laugh at the stodginess of Archie Bunker, or the studied, stilted erudition of Dr. Frasier Crane? The inability of the innamorati to see beyond their own desires provokes the humorous actions of the others who surround them. Tink When Harry Met Sally, The Pirates of Penzance, and countless other plotlines in opera and romantic comedies; in fact, the commedia set the stage for today's entire romantic comedy genre. The capitani are the braggadocios of society: the stalwart military man who boasts of his prowess in battle, but squeals when he sees a mouse in the room; or cares only about chasing women, not enemies. Perhaps Belcore in L'elisir d'amore and Col. Klink from Hogan's Heroes both ft this category in diferent ways. Tese three types almost always serve as comic foils, the "straight man," even though they can be funny in helping to set up the "joke."

The zanni are marvelously dynamic, inventive, and versatile characters. If the action develops around the innamorati, the zanni perpetuate it. Tey constitute the largest group of subcharacters, and though they are still considered stock fgures in commedia, they are nonetheless imbued with a sense of emotional energy that is only rivaled by their onstage physical pranks and antics. Tis category ranges in 20th century popular culture from the exaggerated, unscrupulous cartoon villain Wile E. Coyote to the sad, melancholic clown of Red Skelton (a Pierrot if there ever was one). The zanni represent the common man, and are not only the down-and-out denizens and local yokels of 16th century Italy, but in today's adaptable society have evolved to shopkeepers, waitresses, and politicians. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss's current character in Veep is an ideal model, as is Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Tese character types almost always "work for" the vecchi and innamorati of their world, even though they may not be true servants. However one fnds them, their principal function is to entertain by whatever means at their disposal.

One of the earliest principal icons of the commedia was an onstage tree flled with musical instruments, and the climax of a production was ofen a musical performance. (7) In fact, the traveling troupe were frequently "virtuosic singers;" commedia leading lady Virginia Ramponi-Andreini (1583-1630), daughter-in-law of Isabella Andreini (Figure 1), created the title role in Monteverdi's 1608 L'Arianna at the last minute. Some actual printed music from the commedia survives in early 17th century song anthologies,(8) and readers are no doubt familiar with many character names, such as Pergolesi's "Nina," Scarlatti's "Se Florindo e fedele," and Parisotti's "Se tu m'ami," which includes "Bella rosa porporina/Oggi Silvia scegliera" in the B section. Example 1 shows an example of a printed song from the Dufresy and Regnard drama La Foire Saint-Germain, which was premiered by the King's Italian Players in the Hotel de Bourgogne, Paris, on December 26, 1695.


The commedia was brought to France by King Henry II (1519-1559), who was married to Catherine de' Medici, a member of the ruling family of Florence. Henry went to Venice sometime in the middle of the 16th century, saw a commedia dell'arte performance, and invited the group (named I Gelosi) to come to Paris. Originally performed in the French capital in Italian, and known as the Teatre Italienne, over the course of a century or more the scenes of the commedia were transmogrifed, resulting in a process of "Frenchifying Italian words or Italianizing French words," (9) giving rise as well to a diferent physical stage language for the stunts and dances. By 1716 Italian troupes visiting Paris nearly always performed in French, providing a path for the development of plays written entirely in French, such as the 1695 La Foire Saint-Germain, an early example noted above. The advent of the Age of Enlightenment rendered the "grotesque style...unfashionable" by 1780; however, Harlequin and Pierrot did not totally disappear, remaining popular with the lower classes in pantomimes and farces. (10)

From there the commedia spread all over Europe, where various cultures, including those of England and Germany, marked it with their own imprimatur for at least the next two centuries. Examples include Shakespeare (The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing) and, nearly three centuries later, E. T. A. Hofmann (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, written 1819-21, from which Ofenbach's opera was eventually patterned afer he saw Barbier and Carre's 1851 play Les contes fantastiques d'Hofmann). (11)

In art, literature, and music, the chief ambassador of commedia infuence is found in the tragic clown fgure of Pierrot, and in particular his association with the moon. Even the iconic David Bowie appeared as Pierrot in his 1980 video Ashes to Ashes. Much has been written concerning this character, and I will not go into depth here except to describe Pierrot's impact on early 19th century Paris. Jean-Gaspard Deburau, a Bohemian mime, began appearing at the Teatre des Funambules around 1819 under the stage name "Baptiste." This theater, which was demolished during Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris in the 1860s, specialized in hosting acrobats and mimes, and Deburau took the part of Pierrot as a young man. He excelled in the role, continually expanding and deepening his Pierrot until he died in 1846. His interpretation of the role leaned towards a restrained and nuanced acting style, replacing the original commedia's bold and brash comedy. Several mimes continued successfully as Pierrot afer Deburau's death, including his son Jean-Charles, but it was the elder Deburau who "enshrined Pierrot within French culture, and established the sense of Pierrot as a sensitive and anguished artist." (12) Deburau's Pierrot became further entrenched with the French literati when Teophile Gautier compared the mime's work to the works of Shakespeare in an 1842 fctionalized review, "Shakespeare at the Funambules."


The French Symbolist movement in literature had its beginnings with Charles Baudelaire's 1857 publication Les feurs du mal. Baudelaire was signifcantly infuenced by Edgar Allan Poe's morbidly melancholic and ofen tawdry style, and through his French translations of fve volumes of Poe's poetry, Baudelaire helped feed the mid 19th century French literary fascination with the "Watteauesque[(13)] artifce and commedia dell'arte disguise, a mask of sophistication that half-conceals deeper emotions." (14) This thoroughly French attitude resulted directly from the defowering of pure Romanticism by the Parnassians, headed by Leconte de L'Isle and, for a time, Baudelaire. Baudelaire was also attracted to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, who claimed that the world is driven by a constantly dissatisfied will, which continuously yet unsuccessfully seeks satisfaction. The July 1830 political uprising in Paris served as "an intense disillusionment to many young Romantics," (15) including Teophile Gautier (1811-1872), whose writings took on a pessimistic, Schopenhaueresque tone from this time forward. Gautier's 1838 La comedie de la mort included 57 poems loosely based on the premise that spiritual death is far worse than physical death, and that art is the only refuge available from the hostile vagaries of life. (16) This so strongly infuenced the then (17) year old Baudelaire (1821-1867) that twenty years later he dedicated his first major publication, the 1857 Les feurs du mal, to Gautier. Both of these publications were extremely important in the history of art song: Gautier's La comedie de la mort was the textual basis for Hector Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete, and Baudelaire's Les feurs du mal served as rich poetic fodder for numerous French composers, including Debussy, Charpentier, Chausson, Faure, Henri Duparc, Andre Caplet, Jean Chatillon, Marcel Bertrand, Jean Cras, Louis Vierne, and D'Indy.

For Theophile Gautier, commedia's stereotypical Pierrot was no simple fool, but rather the epitome of post-Revolutionary French society, an archetype of those who were, sometimes tragically, seeking to fnd their place in a new, bourgeois world. Pierrot is creative and solitary; he is autonomous, ofen ironic, and endlessly imaginative. He makes people laugh as he bumbles his way through life, accepting blame for wrongs he has not committed, and he quickly became acknowledged as the paradigm of post-Romantic 19th century French poets, who themselves felt victimized, at odds with society as a whole, lived tragic lives, and ofen exhibited self-destructive tendencies.

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) was the Symbolist movement's poster child, and much of his poetry is biographic. Arthur Graham writes that Verlaine's life involved "an overprotective mother, alcoholism, bisexuality, a broken marriage, a lifetime without seeing his son, a religious conversion, drugs, degradation, and fnally a leading Symbolist poet." (17) Verlaine became the "father" of Symbolist poetry with his 1884 publication Les poetes maudits, in which he interwove his own prose with poems by some of the poets he felt were similarly "cursed" by their obscurity and odd sense of spiritual extremity, simultaneously "hell-bent" and "heaven-storming." (18) The first line of Verlaine's "Art poetique" (Jadis et naguere, 1884) announced the principle that underlies most of Verlaine's poetry: "De la musique avant toute chose" (Music before anything else). (19) Verlaine brought musical elements back to French poetry that had by and large been missing since the Renaissance: euphony, elegance, meter, and formal perfection. He also drew much of his imagery from music, especially in Fetes galantes. (20)

By their very temperament, the Symbolists were attracted to commedia characters, whose own natures were masked both figuratively and literally. Masks allowed the actors to become caricatures, and no longer completely open to the pains and misfortunes of fate. The stylized masks simultaneously symbolized and veiled artistic ferment, and served to distinguish the creative artist from the man behind the mask. (21) In the Symbolist world, the masks became aspects of an inner life, representing personal confict; all the masks together therefore contain aspects not only of one's private life, but of all humanity. Commedia always tells the same tale: death and resurrection in a festive context. (22)

Much that the commedia accomplished through physical pranks, costuming, masks, and somewhat vulgar gags, the Symbolists accomplished through fnessing life's ambiguities. To the Symbolists, symbols were not merely allegories, intended to represent; instead, they were meant to evoke particular states of mind. This is what is most apparent to me in the French melodies that many of us (and our students) sing. In Verlaine's poem "Mandoline" (most famously set by both Debussy and Faure), a picture is painted, a mood set; the companions Tircis, Aminte, Clitandre, and Damis--commedia fgures all--show us their personalities by their actions, not their words, for they have none. We know how they are dressed, where they are, that one has written verses, that one is strumming the mandolin--but that is all we know of them. A picture of desultory amusement is painted, but nothing more. Similarly, Henri Duparc set Charles Baudelaire's "La vie anterieure" (Les feurs du mal), in which Baudelaire vividly describes the immense columns and porticos, the rolling waves making mystic music, and the nude slaves imbued with fragrance who refreshed his brow with palm leaves. But this powerful portrait merely serves to defend the Symbolist manifesto, that art's purpose was to provide a temporary refuge from the strife of the will and the world, with these fnal two lines of the poem: "Et don't l'unique soin etait d'approfondir/Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir" (And whose sole purpose was to understand in depth/The sorrowful secret that made me suffer). None of this is real outside of his mind, but even if it were, his sole purpose in being there is to understand his own sufering. Schopenhauer's philosophy of pessimism, to be sure!

My goal in writing this article is to inspire you to continue this research wherever you are in your musical journey. There is much still to be mined from the commedia dell'arte and its infuence on French Symbolist poetry; there is perhaps a doctoral dissertation to be written on how that poetry afected not only contemporary French composers, but other musicians across Western culture--Schoenberg, Honegger, Milhaud, Hindemith, Berg, Widor, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Zemlinsky, Ned Rorem, even the Russians Gretchaninov and Taneyev, all wrote art songs composed to the poetry of the French Symbolists. Let this small contribution be a starting point for continued exploration, inspiring you to breathe vitality and creativity into your own performances through deeper knowledge, while understanding yourself as a singer to be a small part of the wider world of art: timeless, immortal, and always newly formed.

Plaudite, amici, commedia fnita est. (23)


(1.) Carol Kimball, Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2013).

(2.) Carol Kimball, "A Smorgasbord of Song Groups," Journal of Singing 66, no. 3 (January/February 2010): 349.

(3.) Matthew R. Wilson, A History of Commedia dell'Arte; (accessed November 11, 2014).

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Micke Klingvall, Commedia dell'Arte and its former signifcance; (accessed November 12, 2014).

(7.) Anne MacNeil, "Commedia dell'arte," Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press; (accessed November 13, 2014).

(8.) Sarah Hibberd, "Commedia dell'arte," The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press; (accessed November 13, 2014).

(9.) David Trott, Commedia del-Arte in France from 1660-1760;

(10.) Alice M. Phillips, "Mirrors of Harlequin: Romanticism and the Artist as Tragic Performer," Montage 4 (2010): 11.

(11.) Ibid., 10.

(12.) Christopher Laws, Pierrot Through the Arts: Deburau, Laforgue, Schoenberg and on; (accessed November 11, 2014).

(13.) The French painter Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) originated a style known as Fete galantes which helped imprint the commedia dell'arte in visual form upon the Gallic imagination before both Romanticism and Symbolism in poetry. His paintings were highly stylized, depicting fgures at elegant festivals or gallant parties, sometimes wearing masks, a la the commedia.

(14.) Paul Grifths, "Verlaine, Paul," Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press; (accessed November 13, 2014).

(15.) Sherri Weiler, "Hector Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete," Journal of Singing 61, no. 4 (March/April 2005): 360.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Arthur Graham, "A Short and Pragmatic Approach to Poetry for Singers," Journal of Singing 54, no. 4 (March/April 1998): 19.

(18.) Algis Valiunas, The Cursed Poets and their Gods; (accessed December 27, 2014). NB: The "cursed" poets were Tristan Corbiere, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Villers de L'Isle-Adam, and Pauvre Lelian (an anagram of Paul Verlaine).

(19.) Grifths.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Susan Youens, "Excavating an Allegory: The Text of Pierrot Lunaire," Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 8 (1984): 94-115.

(22.) Klingvall.

(23.) "Applaud, friends, the comedy is fnished," the phrase traditionally spoken at the play's end.


       Character                    Costume/Mask

Pantalone (Magnifico)       Hooked nose, wrinkled face, and bushy,
VECCHI                      prominent eyebrows;
                            baggy red pants.

Il Dottore (Balanzone)      Huge black suit, often with a ruff and
VECCHI                      notary's beret or doctor's cap. Half
                            mask that highlights his bulbous nose,
                            chubby cheeks, often a mustache.

Il Capitano                 Long pointy (handlebar) mustache,
CAPITANI                    wide eyes, huge sword never used.
                            Dressed in colorful, exaggerated uniform:
                            suit with multicolored stripes and
                            gilt buttons, feathered cap.

Scaramouche                 Always dressed in black and carrying a
CAPITANI                    pointed sword; Robin Hood of his day.

Pulcinella (Polichinelle,   White, simple, poor costume.
Pierrot)                    Dwarfish humpback, crooked or
ZANNI                       beaked nose.

Brighella (Briga=quarrel,   Costume of a servant, but with several
trouble) Buffet, Flautino,  short green stripes on a white background.
Bagatino, Gandolino,        Sometimes cloak and cap with green
Mezzettino, Fenocchio,      stripes.

Arlecchino (Harlequin)      Cat-like mask, short nose, motley colored
ZANNI                       clothing, tight fitting pants and tunic,
                            white felt hat with rabbit or fox tail,
                            carried wooden bat. Mask has piggish nose,
                            sometimes a bump on the forehead, with
                            devilish and feline features.
ZANNI (means Giovanni in    Original mask was full face with a long
Bergamo dialect)            nose, but developed into a half mask with
                            an extended, long nose. The longer the
                            nose, the more stupid the character.

Female: Isabella,           Dress simple, no mask (as with all
Colombina, Aurelia,         female characters). Low cut maid's uniform,
Lucrezia, Flaminia,         representing what maids wore at the time.
Celia, Lidia, Valeria,      Colombina sometimes wore colorful patches
Florinda, Clarice, Angela,  like Arlecchino, set off by small white
Graziosa, Diana, Silvia,    cuff and apron.
Male: Lelio, Flavio,
Orazio, Silvio, Leandro,
Vittorio, Orazio, Fulvio,
Ottavio, Aurelio, Lindoro

       Character                          Personality

Pantalone (Magnifico)       Venetian merchant, rich, greedy, naive,
VECCHI                      always fears theft of his gold, always
                            loses against wit/improvisation. Always
                            about to lose his young wife or
                            adventurous daughter. Old but athletic,
                            ideal counterpart of Arlecchino (who never
                            has money), the Zanni, Brighella.
                            Caricature of merchant.
Il Dottore (Balanzone)      Pretends to have total knowledge
VECCHI                      supported by science; arrogant despite
                            ignorance; always dressed in black, well
                            groomed, rich looking, talks ad infinitum,
                            ostentatious. Serves to put break in the
                            action with empty, prefabricated, supposedly
                            erudite monologues.
                            Quotes Latin or Greek, never correctly. On
                            stage usually impersonates a Lawyer, Judge,
                            Notary Public-rarely medical doctor.
                            Caricature of learning, from Bologna.
Il Capitano                 Vainglorious, deceitful. Very brave in
CAPITANI                    words, but runs off stage when Arlecchino
                            appears with a short wooden club. Boasting
                            but fraudulent war hero. Usually has
                            bombastic name: Capitano Spavento della
                            Valle Inferno (created by IsabellaAndreini's
                            husband Francesco). Spanish character.
                            Captain disappeared from the commedia's
                            usual cast beginning of 18th century.
Scaramouche                 Began as Il Capitano, by 1680 had become
CAPITANI                    Scaramouche. Means "small, fast fray," a
                            soldier who doesn't involve himself too much
                            in battle; more of a woman hunter than a
                            soldier, great friend of Pulcinella, less
                            boasting than Il Capitano and more adroit
                            and clever. Lucky in love, always finds a
                            way to reverse the consequences on someone
                            else. Strong, agile, graceful, sings with
                            good voice and plays lute/guitar.
Pulcinella (Polichinelle,   Philosophic, eternally melancholy, dreamer.
Pierrot)                    Approach to life allows him to float through
ZANNI                       problems, situations, adventures simply
                            getting out of everything exactly as he got
                            involved. Positive approach to life.
Brighella (Briga=quarrel,   Choleric, violent, exaggerated behavior,
trouble) Buffet, Flautino,  womanizer. Liar and persuader in love
Bagatino, Gandolino,        events, always ready for intrigue, in search
Mezzettino, Fenocchio,      of next fight. Arrogant, not well respected.
Scapino                     Arlecchino's crony, roguish and
ZANNI                       sophisticated, cowardly villain who would do
                            anything for money.
Arlecchino (Harlequin)      Acrobatic, witty, childlike, and amorous.
ZANNI                       Character traced back to 1593. Role of
                            faithful valet or servant, but also the
                            clown. Absurd actions and words alternate
                            between flashes of brilliance and idiocy.
ZANNI (means Giovanni in    Servants; represents emigrant populations
Bergamo dialect)            that must survive in hostile environment.
                            Poor, desperate, ignorant but street smart.
                            From Bergamo. Constantly hungry, constantly
                            exploited. Friend/antagonist of Arlecchino.
Female: Isabella,           Always bring a touch of the soap opera to
Colombina, Aurelia,         the commedia; other action develops around
Lucrezia, Flaminia,         these two. Elegantly dressed, but flat
Celia, Lidia, Valeria,      personalities; they help public to identify
Florinda, Clarice, Angela,  with and sink deeply into the story. Create
Graziosa, Diana, Silvia,    situations of contrasted love, envy, gossip.
Corallina                   Simple at heart, witty, vain, chatty,
Male: Lelio, Flavio,        somewhat clumsy, always counterpoint to the
Orazio, Silvio, Leandro,    more defined and cherished characters
Vittorio, Orazio, Fulvio,   (Arlecchino, Pantalone). Very often are the
Ottavio, Aurelio, Lindoro   son and daughter of two Vecchi(Pantalone or
INNAMORATI                  Dottore).
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Title Annotation:commedia dell'arte's influence on French Symbolist poetry; The Song File
Author:Weiler, Sherri
Publication:Journal of Singing
Date:May 1, 2015
Previous Article:Notes on Garcia's Memoir on the Human Voice.
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