Climax Building in Verismo Opera:
Archetype and Variants

Ji Yeon Lee

KEYWORDS: verismo opera, climax, highpoint, apotheosis, groundswell

ABSTRACT: This article examines the process of dynamic building and subsiding in verismo opera. Departing from groundswell originally drawn from Julian Budden’s analysis of bel canto opera, I propose a new dynamic paradigm, the climax archetype—consisting of initiation, intensification, highpoint, and abatement—and its operational parameters. To appropriately respond to diverse dynamic structures, variants of climax archetype—climax-stage fusion, high region, highpoint frustration, highpoint absence, climax succession, and climax nesting—are also suggested. These analytical paradigms are applied to works by Puccini, Giordano, Mascagni, and Zandonai, to clarify the mechanism of dynamic rise and fall in conjunction with the dramatic action. 

DOI: 10.30535/mto.26.2.8

PDF text | PDF examples
Received March 2019
Volume 26, Number 2, September 2020
Copyright © 2020 Society for Music Theory

1. Introduction

[1.1] In this article I examine climax building and its parameters in verismo opera.(1) Listeners (and audiences) encounter climax building as a common feature in this genre, and this is reflected in scholars’ descriptions: “a dynamic progress through climaxes of tension, orchestral build-ups and loud, excited vocal climaxes” (Corazzol 1993, 40); “violent vocal outbursts, heavy orchestration, big unison climaxes, and agitated duets” (Sansone 2001, 477–78); “a tendency to conclude acts with massive orchestral groundswells” (Schwartz 2008, 230). The prominence of such observations in the literature notwithstanding, little has been written about how these climaxes are constructed.(2)

[1.2] Two analytical concepts directly concern climax building in Italian opera, especially the early ottocento repertoire: the “Rossini crescendo” and “groundswell.” The former is a trademark of Rossini’s opera overtures, a climax typically found in the closing zone of the overture’s standard sonata form structure. Despite its seeming limitation to aspects of dynamic level, the Rossini crescendo is a comprehensive method of gaining energy through the collective actions of pace acceleration (via gradual shortening of phrase size), volume increase, added instrumentation, thickened texture, expanded register, and so on.(3) This bold and catchy musical process became popular among—and was frequently incorporated into the operas of—major Italian composers who followed Rossini, including Bellini, Donizetti, and the young Verdi.(4)

[1.3] The term “groundswell” is more widely applied to operas by early ottocento composers and Verdi.(5) Originally coined by Julian Budden, groundswell is a phrase pattern producing an impressive dynamic surge at the end of the ensemble finale (1973, 91). Kerman and Grey (1989) concretized the organizational and dramatic principles of groundswell, providing a more systematic explanation and incorporating specific musical examples, largely drawn from Verdi’s operas. They divided groundswell into two types, according to where the finale occurs in the opera—at the end of the opera (finale ultimo) or in a mid-opera finale—but the mechanism of the first type covers both:

(1) a regular alternation of tonic and dominant harmonies (normally a and a’); (2) a contrasting, tension-building phrase (b) involving sequential harmonic progressions with rising treble and bass lines; (3) a grandiose cadential descent, here capped by crashing cymbals on the downbeat; and (4) the repetition of the whole series for an added sense of weight and expansiveness. (Kerman and Grey 1989, 155)

Example 1. Reconstruction of Kerman and Grey’s Analysis of Groundswell in Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Act 2, finale (1989, 156)

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A prototypical example of the first type is in the final stretta of Bellini’s Norma (see Example 1). Kerman and Grey’s formal criterion for delineating the four stages of groundswell (a a’ b c) largely ignores phrase size and cadence (except for the final cadence), instead focusing on the changing dynamic momentum over the course of time:(6) exact repetition of a two-measure phrase (a a’); rising tension produced by phrase diminution, sequentially ascending melodies, and incalzando and crescendo (b); and cadential resolution ending with a PAC, with instrumental emphasis (c). The repetition is also defined by its grandiose quality.

[1.4] However, due primarily to its prescribed organization and location within the Italian conventional form (la solita forma), customary repetition of an entire passage, and association with early ottocento opera, any stringent application of the term “groundswell” to verismo falls short in trying to account for phrase structures modified and altered in the dissolution of the conventional form. Groundswell might provide rough descriptive models for dynamic arcs in verismo opera, but the sheer diversity of the ways composers departed from or challenged the conventional form requires rethinking the organizational and dramatic principle of groundswell. For example, the path to the highpoint in a dynamic swell in verismo opera may not proceed in distinct phases; highpoint is not always immediately preceded by pace acceleration or realized with gigantic sound; a dynamic swell can be expanded horizontally and vertically as part of compound dynamic structures; and so on.

[1.5] Creating an accurate analysis that responds first and foremost to the musical unfolding of a given piece requires attending flexibly to all possible scenarios. To approach these diverse possibilities with adequate versatility, I propose a new dynamic paradigm: climax archetype and its variants. These encompass a wide spectrum of dynamic building processes on the phrase level, from an archetypal pattern—which provides an accessible alternative to groundswell—to striking divergences from that archetype. The work begins with discussion of the methodological framework and operational parameters of the four-part climax archetype; a passage from Maddalena’s aria “La mamma morta” from Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is analyzed to illustrate the normative structure. Variants of the archetype are then examined in duets from the same opera, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Il tabarro, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, and Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.(7) The use of excerpts from the duets to illustrate non-normative climax structures is deliberate: the dramatic contexts in which two characters communicate directly with one another tend to involve an immediacy and energy well met with musical settings of tension and release, while the complex, ever-developing nature of such interactions calls for a flexible musical structure.

[1.6] Although the primary focus of the analyses is how musical climaxes are architecturally constructed and what parameters are key to assessing them, dramatic context will also be considered in interpreting the aesthetic ground for each climax example.

2. Climax Archetype

Example 2. Tension trajectory in the climax archetype: initiation, intensification, delay (optional), highpoint, and abatement (horizontal axis: climax progress over time; vertical axis: degree of dynamic intensity)

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Example 3. Climax archetype stages: features and operational parameters

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[2.1] Inspired by Agawu’s terminological distinction between climax and highpoint, “climax archetype” goes beyond the general understanding of “climax” as the most compelling moment in a dynamic arc; here I use the term to describe a systematized process of tension increase toward an apex and its ensuing decline.(8) Example 2 diagrams the climax archetype; the horizontal axis represents the progression of time, the vertical axis the aurally perceived dynamic intensity. The four integral stages are initiation, intensification, highpoint, and abatement; an optional delay may be added at the end of the intensification. Example 3 outlines the features and operational parameters of each stage. The overarching process presents a rise-peak-fall scheme, in which the rising phase comprises initiation, intensification, and delay, depending on the shifting degree of dynamic intensity. Note that some of the parameters observed in groundswell are adopted in the climax archetype: phrase repetition in initiation; pace acceleration, ascending melody, and incalzando and crescendo, in intensification; and cadential resolution in abatement. Compared with groundswell, the climax archetype involves more—and more precise—parameters for each stage, and it takes a more sophisticated approach to dynamic mechanisms, an approach that embraces deformation.(9)

[2.2] Initiation is the onset of the climax process, beginning the dynamic arc and priming listeners to expect further development. It establishes phrase periodicity through repetition of the initial unit—exact, sequential, or varied—or through presentation of a contrasting phrase of the same length.(10) Initiation is characterized by balance and stability: phrase unit regularity and a steady pace produce a non-accelerating kinetic quality that may include but does not prioritize mobility; harmony tends to be stationary on a deep structural level, although secondary dominants or chordal embellishments might be added to the harmonic or melodic skeleton. Radical changes in dynamic level or pace are rare, although a slight dynamic rise is possible as long as surface variation remains insignificant.

[2.3] In intensification listeners experience a significant increase of energy building up to the highpoint; this stage corresponds to the rising phase in Meyer’s statistical climax—a “gradual increase in the intensity of the more physical attributes of sound (1980, 189).”(11) Physical intensity grows through volume increase, pace acceleration, and ascending pitches. These developments cause listeners to perceive a degree of tension greater than that in the initiation, increasing with excitement.

[2.4] There are three essential parametric categories needed to create intensification—some of the parameters such as ascending melody, pace acceleration, and crescendo e incalzando are also present in the third phrase of the Norma example (the b phrase in Example 1). Although it is possible for any single parameter to produce intensification in a climax, they tend to work in combination, collectively boosting the drive toward a highpoint.

  1. Volume increase involves the physical intensity of sound; in addition to dynamic indications such as crescendo, increased volume can come from added instrumentation and textural reinforcement. According to Huron (2006, 323), volume increase may evoke a sense of spatial expansion as well, creating the impression of material enlargement.
  2. Pace acceleration produces a sense of quickening urgency, and this can be achieved in two ways. First, the phrase size may gradually diminish through harmonic acceleration or thematic fragmentation;(12) in this case, the acceleration pace can be assessed by tracing the reduction rate. Second, performance indications such as accelerando, stringendo, and incalzando are subjective devices enhancing mobility without statistically calculable unit diminution. Although volume increase and pace acceleration are independent parameters, there is a correlation between the two; as Cox summarizes, Eitan and Granot “found that when listeners were presented with a series of sounds of the same duration . . . they interpreted the rate of events as accelerating if volume or textural density progressively increased, and as decelerating if volume or textural density decreased” (2017, 98; see also Eitan and Granot 2006).
  3. Additional forward thrust may be provided by consistently ascending pitches, whose dynamic momentum provides a clear sense of directionality toward a goal point. The motion may progress note-by-note or over repeated units, and chromatically, diatonically, or a mix of the two; and it can occur in a single line or multiple lines.

[2.5] Although intensification causes expectation for an impending highpoint, there may be hesitation just before that highpoint is achieved. This is delay, a temporary sustaining or slowing down of the pace of the intensification, achieved through enlarging the unit size, inserting performance designations (e.g., ritardando, rallentando, allargando, ritenuto, etc.), or adding rests and fermatas. Delay is strictly about pace manipulation; this deceleration does not present itself as functionally separate from the overarching initiation-intensification process on the rising phase. As such, the delay will not involve abrupt interventions or drastic shifts in musical parameters, such as sudden dynamic changes or the entrance of a new theme; such methods would disrupt the continuity of the ongoing rising phrase.

[2.6] By slowing down the accumulating dynamic propulsion, delay seems counterintuitive at first glance. However, the effect of delay is to heighten the pressure to proceed to the highpoint by magnifying listener suspense and creating the emotional thrill and anticipation that causes.(13) Indeed, when present, delay is the most suspenseful part of the climax process: the effect is similar to a final breath or hesitation taken by a moderator at an awards ceremony, often accompanied by a drum roll and dimmed lighting, before announcing the winner’s name; in postponing the announcement at the last moment, the audience’s anxious anticipation builds to the extreme. Of course, the duration of this postponement should not be excessive, lest anticipation become exhaustion or frustration. The success of delay lies in its tantalizing timing, with the goal seemingly just out of reach.

[2.7] Highpoint is the aurally arresting pinnacle in the dynamic arc, a point—whether momentary or elongated—of highest energy. In general, highpoint is formed by the strongest dynamics, highest pitch, and maximum dissonance or the spectacularly decisive resolution thereof.(14) Where dynamics and pitch are straightforward as highpoint parameters, harmony is treated with great flexibility; rather than entailing a fixed harmonic quality, the primary harmonic mechanism for a given highpoint is whether it achieves the highest harmonic tension or releases it. On the one hand, maximum dissonance produces great tension at the moment of its occurrence due to its functional instability, corresponding to what Agawu classifies as “a point of extreme tension (2008, 61).”(15) On the other hand, a decisive harmonic resolution can produce a highpoint through its cathartic effect, which is then carried over into abatement as the aftermath of that release. This type of highpoint falls into Agawu’s “site of a decisive release of tension.” As in other stages, highpoint is often a synergistic confluence of some or all of these parameters. In some cases, one of the parameters appears separately from the highpoint—for instance, when the strongest dynamic and highest pitch are preceded by the decisive harmonic release. Determining where the highpoint is in such instances depends on its materialization alongside other parameters.

[2.8] A distinctive type of highpoint characteristic of verismo opera is defined by “apotheosis.” As formulated by Edward T. Cone, apotheosis is the final climactic statement of a theme after a series of less climactic statements.(16) Although Cone did not apply apotheosis to the analysis of verismo opera, the genre’s heavy use of recurring themes lends itself to apotheosis statements. Apotheosis-type highpoints cast the thematic statement into sharp relief; because a theme itself becomes the highpoint, an apotheosis-type highpoint is experienced over multiple measures, rather than an acute moment. Typically at the end of a scene or act, the grandiloquence is realized by the full orchestra at the loudest dynamic level, thickest texture, accentuation, (often) melodic unison between voice and orchestra, and singing a due.(17) Critically, by repeating thematic material, apotheosis-type highpoints can invoke dramatic meaning beyond the place where they occur; the original location and dramatic context of the returning theme is inevitably connected to its ultimate climactic flourishing. Because apotheosis-type highpoint extends well beyond a specific moment, it may be confused for a continuation of the intensification. However, because pace alteration—specifically, acceleration—is not a highpoint parameter, it will not be involved in the apotheosis statement. Furthermore, there is a functional difference between high pitch and/or loudest dynamic as highpoint parameters versus ascending pitch or increasing volume in the intensification; whatever its length, a highpoint will feature essentially stable energy, albeit typically maximal.

[2.9] The main task of abatement is to close the climax structure via cadence and tension-decreasing parameters; these include cadential resolution, decrescendo, a descending melodic line, deceleration, rhythmic deactivation, thinning texture, and bare instrumentation. Notably, cadential resolution is a necessary condition for abatement, as it syntactically completes the climax structure, thus setting it apart from the dynamic motions that follow. By contrast, decrescendo, melodic descent, and pace deceleration are not always required for abatement; the release of tension in abatement can be largely harmonic and can take place even with a loud dynamic and maintained pace. Such a forte-type abatement is found in operatic climaxes that maintain an ‘up’ mood through to the end of an aria or ensemble number; this can be traced back to the groundswell tradition, in which the final phase is characterized by a cadential resolution whose dynamic intensity creates a splendid peroration and prevents any loss of kinetic momentum toward the ending.

Example 4. Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chénier, Act 3, “La mamma morta,” A section: lyric form (a a' b a'')

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Example 5. Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chénier, Act 3, “La mamma morta,” A' section

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[2.10] The end of the Act 3 aria “La mamma morta” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is an example of the standard climax archetype. In this narrative aria (“racconto” as indicated by the composer), Maddalena goes through an emotional journey of catharsis. In the harmonically unstable recitative, she recounts her misfortune following the outbreak of the French Revolution; in the aria proper, she enthusiastically expresses the encouragement and fortitude Chénier has brought to her. The principal section of the aria is an ABA’ form in G major, in which the A section presents a standard lyric form (a a’ b a”; four four-measure phrases, Example 4).(18) The first four measures of A return for A’, prompting expectation for a standard full-scale repeat of A; A’, however, develops into a climactic peroration, recasting the aria as an end-accented dynamic form corresponding to the surge in her emotions (Example 5).

[2.11] The normative climax archetype here is comprised of the four integral components plus delay: initiation (mm. 48–55; four-measure basic idea and four-measure contrasting idea), intensification (mm. 55–58; four one-measure phrases), delay (mm. 59–60; unit augmentation to two measures), highpoint (mm. 61–62), and abatement (mm. 63–66/1; cadential resolution). This climax organization recalls that of groundswell in that the initiation can be equated with the first two phrases (a a’) of groundswell, intensification with the second phrase (b), and the highpoint and abatement with the last phrase (c).

[2.12] Despite this similarity to groundswell, and the clear sectionalization, the most conspicuous feature of the climax archetype in the A’ section is the continuous progression between adjacent phrases, producing consistent dynamism throughout the climax process. The A section is clearly divided by the four-square phrases; the phrases in A’, however, carry a progressive quality beyond their sectional boundaries. Rather than sequentially repeating the first phrase (I–V4 3/V–V7–I) over a structural-level tonic prolongation, the second phrase introduces new harmonies (V6 5/ii–ii–V7–I