An aria is a solo vocal piece, usually found in an opera or oratorio.
The Italian word ‘aria’ simply means ‘air’ – as any linguistically curious visitor to an Italian petrol station will have discovered. It’s in the 16th century that we first find it used in connection with song.
First the phrase ‘l’aere veneziano’ (‘in the Venetian manner’) came to signify any kind of self-contained melodic solo number. Then in opera it became customary to use the term ‘aria’ to distinguish this kind of formally rounded song – the kind of thing you could extract and sing on its own – from the fluid, dramatic, speech-imitating recitativo style.
In England, however, you could still find the word ‘air’ used as a simple synonym for melody until the early 19th century.
In opera, and in certain kinds of oratorio, the aria tends to stand apart from the psychological drama. The action halts, the singer turns to face the audience, and delivers his or her thoughts in a kind of ‘aside’. Naturally arias soon began to obey their own structural rules.
They could be simply ‘strophic’ (in verses, the melody more or less the same for each), or in a balanced A-B-A form.
The latter came to dominate in 17th- and 18th-century opera seria. Instead of writing out the second A section in full, composers would usually insert the phrase ‘da capo’ (‘repeat from the beginning’) at the end of the B section. Rather than just repeat the A melody, however, the singer would normally add embellishments and improvised cadenzas.
As Romanticism began to stir, arias began to incorporate new forms, and here, strikingly, it was subversive comic opera that led the way.
Now arias might be A-B-A-B, like the dynamic new arguments of the rising ‘sonata form’. Introductory recitatives and semi-arias (‘arioso’) might be added, soon termed ‘scena’ (‘scene’). There might also be a faster coda, or ‘stretta’ (‘tightening’) to provide a brilliant exit: the 19th-century cantabile-cabaletta aria derives from this.
Wagnerian music drama, with its emphasis on psychological realism, blew all these forms apart. Yet, fascinatingly, the ghost of the aria still returns to haunt Wagner’s later works: Siegmund’s ‘Winterstürme’ in Die Walküre, or Walther’s ‘Prize Song’ in Die Meistersinger.
John Adams’s Nixon in China, a rare example of a successful modern opera, also features arias. Coincidence?
This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine