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The intermedio, in Italian Renaissance music, is a kind of music which was performed between acts of a play. It was one of the important predecessors to opera (two of the others were monody and madrigal comedy).

Intermedi were written and performed from the late 15th century through the 17th century, although the peak of development of the genre was in the late 16th century. After 1600 the form merged with opera, for the most part, though intermedi continued to be used in non-musical plays in certain settings (for example in academies), and also continued to be performed between the acts of operas.

Very little actual music for intermedi survives, although a lot of music which was written for other occasions, for example madrigals and instrumental pieces, was used in intermedi. Often the subject matter of the intermedio was a mythological or pastoral story, which could be told in mime, by costumed singers or actors, or by dance. Aristocratic weddings and state occasions were frequent places where intermedi might be performed, in cities such as Florence and Ferrara; some of the best documentation of intermedi comes from weddings in the Medici family. Numerous drawings and engravings of the stage sets survive, as well as descriptions of the music and action. The actual music, instrumentation, presence of singers, dancers, mime, or elaborate staging were highly variable throughout the period, and sometimes all of these features were present.

As the intermedio developed in the 16th century, it became more and more elaborate, often becoming a "play within a play"; for example during a five-act play, an intermedio would consist of four parts, which might be presented as a four-part metaphor of time passing in the play (as in Il commodo, from a performance in Florence in 1539, where the four parts were morning, noon, afternoon, and night, represented with an elaborate mechanical artificial sun, with singing and dancing appropriate to each time). Some critics of the time noted that the intermedi had become so elaborate that the play had begun to serve as intermedi to the intermedi. Eventually the form acquired a tradition and cohesiveness that allowed it to stand on its own, and it was thus a logical development to combine the existing features with sung, acted parts, and be absorbed into opera.

The similar form which developed in France at the same time was called the intermède; it was more reliant on dance than the Italian version. The masque in England also had many similarities to the intermedio, although its origin was as an outgrowth of independent social entertainment, unlike the intermedio.

References and further reading

  • Article "Intermedio", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0393095304
  • The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0674615255

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