Mapping Emotions in Eighteenth Century Italian Opera

Prof. Dr. Álvaro Torrente (ICCMU-UCM)

The belief that ‘the end of music is to move human affections’ (Descartes, Compendium musicae) has been a central issue in European musical thought since Plato. Opera was invented to recover the power of Ancient music to move the human heart, and its history is a permanent exploration of the capacity of action, words and music to convey emotions.

In the eighteenth century a new type of opera consolidated with the chief concern of expressing the character’s emotions as they changed throughout the drama, inspired by Descartes’ theory of human passions. The key expressive medium was the aria col da capo, where a single, distinct passion was represented, like a concentrated pill of emotional meaning. The ideal corpus to study this issue are the 1,000+ operas set to music by more than 300 composers on the 26 dramas by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). It contains a comprehensive catalogue of emotions in music.

The Didone Project, funded by an ERC Advanced Grant, presents an innovative approach to unveil these conventions: the creation of a corpus of 3,000 digitized arias from some 200 opera scores based on Metastasio’s five most popular dramas, to be analyzed using computer technology. The project team has developed ‘musif’, a Python library designed to massively extract features from MusicXML and MuseScore files that can be analyzed and studied statistically. The comparative scrutiny of dozens of different musical settings of the same librettos is revealing how composers correlate specific dramatic circumstances and emotions with distinct poetic and musical features. The aim of this session is to present the Didone Project, describing the creation of the digital corpus, the historical, theoretical and analytical methodology, as well as some preliminary results.


Álvaro Torrente holds a degree in Musicology from the Universidad de Salamanca (1993) and a PhD from the University of Cambridge (1997). He is Professor in Music History at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and Director of the Instituto Complutense de Ciencias Musicales.

His research focuses on Italian opera and Spanish vocal music of the 17th and 18th centuries. His publications include 'La ópera en España e Hispanoamérica' (with E. Casares, 2001), 'Devotional music in the Iberian World' (with T. Knighton, 2007), which received the Stevenson Award of the American Musicological Society (2008), and 'Historia de la Música en España e Hispanoamérica: La música en el siglo XVII' (2016).

Álvaro is Associate Editor of 'The Operas of Francesco Cavalli' (Bärenreiter), and his editions early operas have been performed at the Royal Opera House, Bayerische Staatsoper, Frankfurt Opera, Theater Basel, Teatro Real and Nederlandse Oper. His edition of 'La Calisto' by Francesco Cavalli (with N. Badolato  earned the the Deustche Musikeditionpreis (2013).

He is Principal Investigator of the project DIDONE. The Sources of Absolute Music: Mapping Emotions in Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera, funded by an ERC Advanced Grant.