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Cavatina in Opera and instrumental music: definition, form and famous examples

cavatina in opera and instrumental music
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Mario Friscia

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Meaning and Definition

If you’re wondering: what does cavatina mean in music?, I think the first thing to do is to step back and examine the literal meaning of the word cavatina.

Let’s start by saying that the term ‘cavatina’ is an Italian word, derived from the verb ‘cavare’, which in English can be translated as ‘to extract’. As a result, the noun cavatina means ‘that which can be extracted’.

A pretty generic and vague term, isn’t it?

When we move from the literal meaning to its actual musical meaning, the situation seems to get better, at least a little bit, and I can provide you with a more concrete definition of cavatina:

a simple and short vocal piece performed, without the repetition of its sections, within an opera or a cantata; in the realm of instrumental music, it’s been used to indicate a song like movement contained in a larger instrumental work such as a string quartet or a symphony.

Having said that we can take a step forward and begin to examine the form and function of a cavatina within the Opera and instrumental music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, through the analysis of a series of famous examples of cavatina contained in the artistic production of various authors such as Mozart, Verdi, Bellini, Beethoven, William and Myers.

Let’s get started!

 

The function of a cavatina in vocal music

As I told you in the opening section of this article, the term cavatina has been used both in opera and cantatas and, occasionally, in some works of instrumental music that will be discussed in detail later on.

J.S. Bach was used to call ‘cavatina’ those short vocal sections contained in a cantata, more precisely, those melodic passages presented after a recitative and before the aria.

In the sphere of operatic music, composers like Rossini, Weber and Mozart seemed to resort to this term whenever they wanted to craft an aria that was characterized by the simplicity of the structure, the lyricism of the melody and the vivacity of the rhythm.

Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi used the word cavatina in a slightly different way, that is, to refer to a specific type of aria, the one that was sung by the principal characters at the beginning of an opera.

They did not mean to associate this musical term with a predetermined idea of simplicity or exuberance; to them, writing a cavatina did not imply any specific qualitative connotation, just a positional function within the overall narrative structure of an opera.

 

Famous examples of Cavatina in Opera

Among the most famous examples of cavatina in opera we find the following masterpieces:

 

  • Porgi amor”, “L’ho perduta, me meschina!” and “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786)
  • Ecco, ridente in cielo” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
  • Glöcklein im Tale” from Weber’s Euryanthe (1823)
  • Questa o quella” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851) and “D’Egitto là sui lidi” from Nabucco
  • Regnava nel silenzio” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)
  • Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma (1831)

 

The list could go on but I believe that the above examples are more than enough to give you a more concrete idea of ​​the variety of forms taken by cavatina in the history of music, of the singing styles adopted by the various composers and of the type of scenes in which a cavatina was usually used in the opera productions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 

“Porgi amor”, “Se vuol ballare” and “L’ho perduta, me meschina!” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786)

One of the first composers to use the term cavatina in opera is Mozart.

The cavatina “Se vuol ballare” presents a clear and catchy melody, characterized by the almost complete absence of ornaments and virtuosity. Written in a ternary rhythm and in a syllabic style, it perfectly reflects the brilliant, ironic and dynamic atmospheres typical of Mozart’s comic operas.

Worthy of note is the sudden change of meter, from three quarters to two quarters, and of time, from allegretto to presto, which take place in the middle of the cavatina:

 

 

In the cavatina “Porgi amor“, also contained in the work The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart maintains a predominantly syllabic singing style, purified of any vocal acrobatics and free from the ostentation of technical skill.

The composer’s aim, in fact, is to directly communicate the emotion of the protagonist through the intensity of the voice, the clear declamation of the poetic text and the use of a slow tempo:

 

 

L’ho persa, me meschina! ” is another Mozartian cavatina that perfectly reflects the main characteristics of this type of aria: the brevity, it lasts just 1:47 seconds, the intensity of the singing, the absence of vocal exhibitionism, the catchiness and the clarity of the melodic line:

 

 

On the basis of the three examples just heard, Mozart seems to understand the cavatina as a short aria, variable in meter and time, as well as in the atmospheres, sometimes bright and ironic and sometimes melancholy and poignant, written with the intent to bring out the interpretative skill of the singers rather than their technical skills.

 

“Questa o quella” from Verdi’s Rigoletto and “D’Egitto là sui lidi” from Nabucco

Let’s start immediately by saying that Verdi, like Bellini and Donizetti, uses the term cavatina to indicate mainly that vocal piece, also called “aria di sortita”, with which a certain character comes out of the wings, enters the scene and presents himself for the first time to the public.

Questa o quella” is the opening cavatina of the opera Rigoletto, sung by the Duke of Mantua in praise of his superficial and lustful approach towards the female gender:

 

 

Let’s now analyze another cavatina, entitled “D’ Egitto là sui lidi“, taken from the opera Nabucco and sung by the priest Zaccaria.

Verdi inserts this cavatina (1:59) in between a recitative, also performed by Zaccaria, and a more rhythmic section called cabaletta (5:51):

 

 

It is interesting to note how in this specific example the soloist dialogues with the choir, a confirmation of the fact that the cavatina in Verdi’s opera is not a vocal piece isolated from the rest but is linked organically, and in a fluid way, with the other sections of the acting and the story narrated.

 

“Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma

What makes Bellini’s cavatina “Casta Diva” unique compared to the other examples analyzed in the previous sections of this article is the duration and the way in which the Italian composer alternates syllabic and melismatic singing:

 

 

As you can hear, the vocal line is full of melismatic passages and gets enriched with ascending and descending scales; the words of the text, blurred by the numerous vocalizations, are often repeated and the main melody returns at the end of the cavatina, combined with different words.

The choir plays a significant role and overlaps with the solo singer.

In addition, “Casta Diva” is not short at all, considering that it lasts for 5 minutes.

 

Difference between aria and cavatina

Once we have understood the typical form of a cavatina in the context of operatic music, I think it’s time to examine how it differs from an aria.

Technically, a cavatina is nothing but an aria (air) in one or two sections that unfolds freely and without the repetition of its constituing parts.

Therefore, the main difference between aria and cavatina lies in the fact that an aria, more precisely a ‘da capo aria’, is generally in the form A-B-A, whereas a cavatina presents itself in the form A-B, which means that it does not include the repetition of the opening section (A).

To give you a better sense of how a da capo aria differs from a cavatina, I’ve selected a well-known da capo aria, “He was despised”, written by Handel and included in the Messiah (1742):

 

 

Difference between cavatina and cabaletta

There’s another question I hear often among opera enthusiasts:

what is the difference between a cavatina and a cabaletta?

Let’s start by saying that the word cabaletta was adopted by 19th century composers to indicate just another type of aria, strategically placed right after the cavatina.

The difference between a cavatina and a cabaletta lies in the fact that the cavatina is usually slow and contemplative, whereas the cabaletta is set in a faster tempo and aims to showcase the technical skills of the solo singer, through a series of vigorous melismatic passages and other vocal tricks.

A perfect example of the melodic and rhythmic differences between a cavatina and a cabaletta can be found in Bellini’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

Here you can listen to the cavatina “Regnava nel silenzio”, immediately followed by “Quando rapito in estasi”, the cabaletta (4:40):

 

 

Some examples of Cavatina in instrumental music

Now, let me share with you some examples of cavatina in the field of instrumental music contained in the following compositions:

  • 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major
  • 3rd movement of Williams’ Symphony No. 8 in D minor
  • Myers’ classical guitar piece included in the movies “The Walking Stick” and “The Deer Hunter”

The list is evidently shorter than the one provided in the previous chapter and the reason is this:

the word cavatina, even though originates from the world of instrumental music, finds its main application within the sphere of vocal music such as cantata and opera.

As regards Beethoven and Williams, the decision of calling a section of their instrumental works ‘cavatina’ probably lies in the fact that the composers wanted to highlight the song-like nature of these movements.

Myers’ choice of entitling his guitar piece cavatina is perfectly in line with the general mood and simple structure of the composition, as you will see in the section of this article dedicated to this work.

 

Beethoven’s cavatina in the String Quartet in B-flat major

Beethoven’s cavatina corresponds to the fifth movement of the String Quartet in B-flat major Op. 130 composed in 1825.

Among the many versions uploaded on Youtube, I’ve selected the live performance organized in 2016 by the Heifetz International Music Institute:

 

 

As you can immediately notice, the tempo is slow, the melodic lines are clear and singable, and the general structure of the piece is quite regular and simple.

The Cavatina written by Beethoven has been included in the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of mankind’s sounds, music and languages sent into space in 1977 with the goal of sharing a sample of our cultural heritage with the Universe and, hopefully, with any other civilization.

If you’re interested in seeing the music score of Beethoven’s cavatina and listening to the original record that has been put on the Voyager probe, I suggest you to examine the resources uploaded on the Petrucci Music Library.

 

Williams’ cavatina in the Symphony no. 8 in D minor

Vanaugh William’s cavatina appears in the third movement of the Symphony no.8 in D minor, written by the British composer in 1956.

Although this cavatina is part of a symphony, a genre that employs a great number of instrument families, the musical instruments actually involved in its performance are only the strings.

This shrinking in the instrumentation seems to derive from a precise plan:

to create the most appropriate atmosphere for a cavatina, characterized by a simple and colloquial interaction between the instruments, as if the composer wanted to evoke those intimate moods typical of a string quartet’s performance.

Here you can listen to the 3rd movement of William’s Symphony directed by Andrew Manze and recorded in 2016:

 

 

Both Beethoven’s cavatina and William’s cavatina have in common the fact that they’ve been written in a slow tempo and are characterized by a poignant lyricism.

 

Myers’ cavatina in the Deer Hunter

In 1970, Stanley Myers composed a classical guitar piece called cavatina, which became the main theme of the movie “The Walking Stick.

However, the composition achieved its greatest commercial success only eight years later, when it was used as the main theme for another film: “The Deer Hunter”.

In this video, you can watch a sublime solo performance of Stanley Myers’ cavatina by the British guitarist John Williams (1979):

 

 

The sweetness of the melody, combined with its clear structure and the slow tempo, make this guitar piece a perfect embodiment of the spirit of an instrumental cavatina, that is, a composition specifically designed to evoke a kind of melodious singing.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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