By the turn of the 18th century serenatas performed in Rome's urban squares as political or dynastic propaganda were a well-established ritual. In this public forum the effect of sound produced by large instrumental forces was a central feature, yet the serenata was a complex performance in which music was but one element in a series of other displays. Though undoubtedly an important part of the serenata, music's role in this multifaceted performance and its effect on audiences remain unclear. Part of that ambiguity stems from the serenata's ability to service both public and private consumption. Patrons exploited this dual nature, using the more spectacular elements of the serenata to influence the public at large, while also relying on other elements (primarily word and sound) to sway elite audiences.
In the context of Rome and its dynastic politics, Giacomo Buonaccorsi's and Pietro Paolo Bencini's serenata Le gare festive in applauso alla Real Casa di Francia (1704) demonstrates how the serenata's dichotomous structures and multiplicity of meaning were deeply linked to larger cultural frameworks and social tensions——in this case, brewing over the War of Spanish Succession. The serenata was both a musical work and a performed event effectively shaped by the genre's ritual practice and by history and politics in late 17th- and early 18th-century Rome. The logic of the serenata's ritual practice shows significant correspondences to the genre's narrative strategies. Within the serenata, allegory served as the catalyst to express layers of meaning to diverse audiences. But more than that, allegory provided the means by which music was contained and its delivery marked. For public audiences, sound was as much visual as it was aural, an immediate and palpable special effect. For privileged listeners, music required reflection as to how spectacular effects acquired deeper meaning when anchored in the significance of the poetic text. Thus music in the serenata was not merely an element in a multifaceted performance but was multidimensional in itself, uniquely straddling both sides of the public/private divide.
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