Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Getz, Christine

First Committee Member

Biamonte, Nicole

Second Committee Member

Brown, Jennifer Williams

Third Committee Member

Eckert, Michael

Fourth Committee Member

Ketterer, Robert C.

Fifth Committee Member

Kimber, Marian Wilson


This study has been conceived to verify whether Francesco Cavalli (Crema, 1602--Venice, 1676), the most representative composer of seventeenth-century Venetian opera, used what is called "key symbolism." Key symbolism, or the association of one particular mood or meaning with one specific key, has been a topos in music theory literature ever since Plato and Aristotle. Many scholars maintain that early modern composers believed in the connotative power of the keys and selected them according to the "affect" they meant to convey. These assumptions are mostly based on the treatises of the time and significant examples, but key symbolism had never been investigated systematically as a poetic code.

This study on key symbolism focused on the identification of patterns in the associations of the expressive content ("affect" or "affection") and the key of Cavalli's arias. Arias represent the best place to investigate this association because they form semantic and musical units. Cavalli's twenty-seven extant operas include more than 850 arias and, thus, provide a sufficient sampling for testing the consistency of these patterns in the work of the same composer. My analysis and categorization of Cavalli's arias, which resulted in the compilation of a complete thematic catalogue, was based directly on the manuscript sources of the Contarini Collection held by the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, and the collection of librettos owned by the same library.

This study on Cavalli's key selection determined the following points: 1) the complete spectrum of the keys actually used by Cavalli, and how his tonal palette compares with the one proposed by contemporary theorists; 2) how practical factors, such as orchestration or the voice of the singer, influenced Cavalli's choice of the key; 3) the frequency with which the composer associated recurring topics in arias with particular tonalities; 4) whether Cavalli's usage is consistent with the connotations of the keys described in theoretical literature; and, finally, 5) whether the association of a topic with a key is systematic enough to be considered a poetical code. In the end it appears that Cavalli's choice of the key was certainly influenced but not determined by the content of the text. On the one hand, it is possible to identify some of the affective characteristics he attributed to keys; on the other hand, the link between the key (signifier) and the expressive content of the aria text (signified) cannot be codified as a system of meanings.


aria, Cavalli, ethos, key symbolism, opera, tonality


xvii, 405 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 393-405).


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Copyright 2011 Francesco Dalla Vecchia

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