A closed lyrical piece for solo voice (exceptionally, for more than one), either independent or forming part of an opera or other large work.
Aria (sometimes anglicised as air and occasionally pluralized as arie) is a fairly all encompassing term that captures vast swathes of music across multiple genres including oratorios, cantatas and musicals. From the Baroque right through to the Romantic period (albeit to a steadily declining degree) operas were packed to the brim with arias. From the late Romantic period to today many operas (most even) have few to none.
No arias doesn’t mean no singing, quite the opposite in fact, most works from this more recent period were written as sung-through works. This means no talking or recitative at all.
How are we to define an aria in the context of opera? In these terms an aria is perhaps easier to understand in the context of the function it fulfils rather than its dictionary definition. As you dive into opera and come across a vast range of aria types (some of which we’ll cover below) you’ll notice arias are often defined by their emotional content rather than their musical form. So here goes...
An aria in an opera is a set-piece song for a solo singer in which the character expresses an emotion or ideal that doesn’t necessarily drive the story forward. It is a formalized song, often highly structured and full of repetition, that is designed as much to display the virtues of the singer as to enhance the narrative.
This is a far from comprehensive definition but certainly for pre-Gluck music (roughly pre-1760) it covers most of our bases and despite Gluck’s innovations really covers us right through into early Verdi (the 1840s or so) and a bit beyond.
Prior to Verdi, operas were essentially a huge collection of arias with maybe a duet or quartet tossed in for good measure (up to 40 or 50 arias in some, exceptionally long, operas!). Narrative drive took a back seat to semi-formal rules on what type, how many and which arias were to appear in an opera.
This formality of aria distribution was followed to an almost absurd degree during the 18th Century, a period when opera was dominated by the opera seria genre. Opera seria is a topic for another day, but suffice to say that for most of the 1700s almost all non-comic operas were opera seria. This orthodoxy was designed with rigid rules:
- Top singers got four or five arias, at least one in each act.
- All the subordinate singers got fewer but every singer must have at least one.
- No singer could sing two arias in a row
- No aria could be followed by another aria of the same type.
- Each aria ends with the singer leaving the stage
If that all seems faintly ludicrous to you then we agree, and to top it off almost every aria was in one musical form: da capo (which we’ll explore below).
This aria jigsaw had one major effect on most operas of this period: a composer's control over an opera was limited to individual arias. They had little concept of creating a coherent whole because there was no guarantee it would be performed anyway. This was an age when operas were chopped up and reassembled to suit differing tastes, arias from one opera could be shoved into another (with or without the composer's permission). A whole operatic genre developed called the pasticcio: new operas constructed from a collection of pre-existing arias from other operas!
So with that short background into the history of operatic arias we can divide our exploration of arias into two chunks, arias defined by their musical structure and arias defined by their emotional content.