Writing for nine distinct voices in opera is rare. I can only think of two examples without a deep dive into opera arcana [If there are other examples, let me know]. First, Act 1 scene 2 of Verdi’s Falstaff. And if that’s not enough Verdi goes on to write for 10. This complex writing occurs in scenes 2 of both Acts 2 and 3. Verdi’s genius makes the action and music so fluid that the listener is swept along without needing to recognize the compositional complexity that underpins the structure of these scenes.
I’ve written here about Falstaff several times before. I won’t repeat too much of what I’ve previously said. The opera was only a success d’estime for decades after its premiere in 1893. Arturo Toscanini who thought the work the finest that Verdi had ever done, and by extension, the best anyone had done, kept the work alive by frequently programming it. Such was his prestige during the first half of the last century that he could do it as often and wherever he wished. Eventually audiences caught up to the mercurial excellence of Verdi’s final opera and it’s now a part of the standard repertory, assuming theaters recover from the terrors of 2020 and there still is a standard repertory.
Falstaff is a sport. There’s nothing like it in opera or for any other form of music, for that matter. Musicians have always been dazzled by it. Richard Strauss (who was in thrall to Wagner) was so impressed by it that he wrote Verdi to ask for permission to dedicate his first opera Guntram to him. Verdi had never heard of Strauss, though he was was already famous, wrote his publisher Riccordi to find out who the young German composer was. When informed that he was the real thing he gave Strauss the requested permission.
If you visit the Villa Verdi in Sant’Agata outside of Busseto you’ll notice in the composer’s study shelves of scores by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Verdi said he was not a learned composer, just an experienced one. Of course, by the time he wrote his last opera he was both.
There are 10 solo parts in Falstaff. All save Falstaff himself appear in the second scene of Act 1. The nine part writing during the final half of the scene is brilliant. The men are plotting as are the women, while the lovers are aware of only themselves. This excerpt is taken from Carlo Maria Giulini’s recording of the complete opera. Falstaff Act 2 scene 2
All 10 soloists appear in the second scene of the second act. This is the scene where the men think their catching Falstaff seducing Alicia. The lovers once again are too busy to notice. The scene ends with the fat knight dumped into the Thames along with the dirty laundry. The recording is Toscanini’s famous reading in 1950. Falstaff Act 2 scene 2
Donizetti wrote a beautiful nonetto for his rarely performed opera L’assedio Di Calais. There is a complete recording of the work by Opera Rara; it was performed in 2017 both at Odyssey Opera Boston and at the Glimmerglass Festival. There are buried treasures scattered throughout the composers scores of neglected works.
Louis Spohr (1784-1859) set the standard for the nonet. He scored his work in F major (1813) for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The nonet was so successful that its instrumentation became the standard for subsequent nonets.
George Onslow (1784-1853) is noted for his chamber music. He was born and died in the French city of Clermont-Ferrand. The son of a French mother and English father, he was well known during his life. After his death his music largely faded. Only recently has interest in his formidable output returned. His Nonet in A-minor, Op 77a (1848) is is also written for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, double bass.
The German composer and conductor Franz Lachner (1803-90) wrote a nice nonet in 1875. It’s rarely performed, but has been recorded. There are more, but this will do for now.