‘Celos’ in translation



My first encounter with the earliest surviving Spanish opera, Celos, aun del aire matan (1660) was a concert performance in Vienna in 2001 with (mostly) Spanish singers directed by Jordi Savall, and sung in the original Spanish. In the same festival, The Harp Consort performed the Spanish and South American dances of Ribayaz’s Luz y norte (1677)Since then, I have directed the first productions of Celos in UK (2003) and (last night) in Russia with local singers. All these projects necessarily involved some kind of translation of Calderón’s verse drama, for the audience and/or for performers.

In Vienna, it was assumed that singers understood the libretto. Indeed, Calderón’s vocabulary is not difficult for native speakers. But behind the mostly simple choice of words lies a wealth of hidden meaning, historical and cultural references. English speakers might well make a comparison with Shakespeare’s plays: we probably understand nearly all the words, but there is much that we will fail to grasp without further study. For that concert performance, there was insufficient rehearsal time for detailed text work with the singers, or for detailed work on Hidalgo’s quicksilver Hispanic rhythms. [Jordi subsequently captured those rhythms marvelously in the on-going Folias Criollas project, in which he directs the combined forces of Hesperion XXI and Ensemble Tembembe (Mexico)].  The Viennese audience were provided a German-language translation to follow, but it is fair to say that performers and audence alike were largely baffled by Calderón and Hidalgo’s masterpiece.



In Sheffield, we had the advantage of a production team already familiar with Torrejon’s setting of Calderón’s (1659) libretto, La púrpura de la rosa (1701). [Hidalgo’s earlier setting is lost, though some of his music survives in Torrejon’s work.] Some of our English singers were fluent Spanish-speakers, and with a student cast we had plenty of time for painstaking language and text work, coached by university lecturer Dr Anthony Trippett. For my own study, and to assist the singers, I made a line-by-line English translation. This translation was not a thing of beauty; it was very dry, often clunky, but it did serve its purpose of helping us all understand Calderón’s words. Of course, this is only the first step towards understanding the libretto’s deeper meaning, and those more profound discussions continued throughout the production, and over the years afterwards. I translated the entire libretto, and then made cautious and carefully considered cuts to reduce the running time to manageable proportions, whilst preserving plot, musical forms and poetic structures.


Meanwhile, the head of the university’s Spanish department, Prof Nick Round dedicated many hours of his free time to making a singable English translation. We did not use this in performance, but Nick’s work sparked off a lively debate about the purposes and priorities of translation. Of course, there can never be a perfect translation: every translator has to make difficult, sometimes heart-breaking choices between dry accuracy and poetic beauty; between sound and meaning; between metre and fidelity to the original; between familiar idioms in the local language and exotic, even alienating, literal renditions; between the author’s and translator’s different poetical aesthics. Any singable translation faces the formidable challenges of doing all this and matching words to music. [See Andrew Porter’s fascinating introduction to his singing translation of Wagner’s Ring here].


To help the English-speaking audience follow Calderón’s complex plot, in which interwoven myths are told and retold in unexpected manner, whilst goddesses, heroes and idiots interact as main action and comic sub-plots collide, we introduced onto the stage an additional character, the poet himself. Our Pedro gave linking commentaries in English between scenes, and even during the most confusing scene (in which the clown, Rústico, is transformed into a bewildering sequence of different animals). I created Pedro’s texts in verse, matching Calderón’s metre and assonance (rhythming of vowels) with the surrounding Spanish poetry. But of course, I was not translating, merely summarising; and there was no demand to fit my content into a given number of lines. Apart from the self-inflicted technical challenge of imitating romance verse, my priority was clarity: the purpose of these speeches was to ensure that the audience would understand the story.

Yet another translation project ran in parallel: Tony Trippett worked on polished renditions of Calderón’s many refrain texts, repeated mottos that recur frequently during the drama: “A woman can be constant, without being cruel”; “Long live Love, death to Neglect”; and of course, “Jealousy, even of the air, kills”, the title of the opera, a refrain which is sung many times during the final Act. Posters with these texts in English and Spanish were posted around the public areas of the performance venues, to give audience members a chance to reflect on some of Calderón’s most thought-provoking pronouncements. Since then Tony and I have worked on several other Spanish Early Music projects, including the first Spanish Oratorio (1704) and Passion (1706), and we continue to discuss the aesthetics and practicalities of opera translation.


This season’s production in Russia is staged by the Moscow State Opera & Ballet Theatre, Natalya Sats. This is a theatre for families and young people, the original home of Peter and the Wolf, where Georgy Isaakian presents an enormous repertory ranging from popular classics (Nutcracker, Carmen) to award-winning productions of serious and challenging works (Love of Three Oranges, Rappresentatione di Anima e Corpo). Where else in the world could one perform baroque opera to an audience packed with teenagers and twenty-somethings?

In this context, it was a given that Celos would be sung in Russian. This reflects the early baroque priority that every word should be understood by the audience, but the technical task for translators is enormous. Calderón’s Spanish libretto uses mostly short simple words, which are often highly compressed by multiple elisions, packing lots of meaning into very few syllables. The Russian language tends towards longer words, with many more syllables required to express the same thought. And whilst Calderón’s words are often simple, he loads those ‘easy’ words with multiple layers of hidden meaning and added significance. He also repeats key words throughout the drama, making subtle cross-connections between different scenes and characters – connections which should be preserved in translation. As dialogue between characters gathers pace, he often splits a single line of verse between two or three speakers, with quick-fire question and answer.

Floreta           ¿Qué haces?

Clarín                        Huyo.

Floreta                           Oye, espera.

Coro                                    Guarda la fiera.

Floreta           ¿Qué haré?

Coro                        Guarda la fiera.

Floreta                             ¡Lindo consuelo!


Floreta           What are you doing?

Clarín                       Running away.

Floreta                               Hey, wait!

Coro                                             Watch out for the beast!

Floreta          What shall I do?

Coro                         Watch out for the beast.

Floreta                                Nice idea!


So the first challenge is to fit so much meaning into just a few syllables, line-by-line.

Hidalgo’s Spanish baroque musical style is based on the lively rhythms of popular songs and dances, accompanied by strumming guitars, harps and percussion. There is a lot of triple metre, rocking to and fro between hemiola and tripla, and many, many syncopations. The basic pattern accents the second beat of the bar. This requires the translator to match Calderón’s metric patterns of Good and Bad syllables very closely indeed, on almost every syllable of every line.

Calderón and Hidalgo join forces to create exquisitely balanced pairs of lines:

Pocris por quien muera,

Aura por quien vivo.


Pocris, for whom I die/ Aura for whom I live. Here, a translator has not only to translate line by line and metrically, but also preserve the balance and contrast of the verse-pair.

But perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is Calderón’s refrain texts, the famous mottos. These recur, and must be translated consistently. But Hidalgo sets them polyphonically, with rhythmic variants in different voices. And sometimes he sets the same motto text to a completely different melody, even in a different metre. Tony Trippet’s polished English motto-translations were not singable – this was not his purpose. But for our Russian production, we had to render the mottos not only consistently, but line-by-line, metrically, and as elegantly as possible, whilst ensuring that the same text would work for all Hidalgo’s varied settings of it. It had already been decided that the opera would be presented under the adapted, short title Любовь Убивает (Love Kills). But the title is sung many times during Act III, as the final words of one of Calderón’s motto-refrains, so we also had to reconcile the original meaning with the chosen short title.

Both Calderón and Hidalgo employ varying registers (literary, and musical) for the noble and comic characters, who often interact in the same scene. Whilst seeking to imitate Calderón’s simplicity of language throughout, Katerina Antonenko-King also sought to match his shifts in register, with more elegant vocabulary or rougher words, according to the character of each role. At appropriate moments, Calderón even introduces poetic cliches and homespun phrases:

Aura me hiela y me abrasa,

Aura makes me freeze and burn.


¡Y luego dirán que no hay

a perro viejo tustuses!

And then they’ll say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! This approximate English translation demonstrates the point: a literal translation would be unfamiliar, hard to understand, and certainly wouldn’t create the laugh that Calderón is trying for.

Our absolute priority, in line with historical aesthetics, was that the audience should understand the words. This required us to choose the simplest possible words for the required meaning, just as Calderón himself did. Hidalgo’s music required us to preserve the original meaning line-by-line, and the original metre syllable by syllable. Calderón’s mottos required especial care. We made a deliberate choice to avoid antiquarian language, to adopt a modern idiom that would be understood by our young audience. Nevertheless, we respected Calderón’s careful variation in poetic register, from elevated speech for the gods to rough barking from the clown. Sometimes these multiple demands were simply irreconcilable: where necessary, we made small changes to the music, in order to set the best possible Russian text. In this too, we followed the historical aesthetic, that in this style, the music is the servant of the words.

Katerina and I worked together. She is responsible for the Russian, as well as for some literary insights into Calderón’s witty treatment of the ancient myths. My duty was to care for Calderón’s Spanish and Hidalgo’s music (in that order of priority). Our work is not perfect: no translation can be perfect. But we approached the task with a clear set of priorities, in order to give audiences the best possible understanding of the drama as it happens before their eyes, and the best possible experience of the rhythms of Spanish music, as they listen. No doubt some readers of Calderón in flowery literary translations will be disappointed by the simplicity of language required for effective communication on stage: they might even be disappointed by the original, for Calderón was a master of elegant simplicity:


Esta, hermosa Diana … es Aura

“This, beautiful Diana… is Aura.” So Calderón begins his complex drama by introducing the two protagonists, in Spanish that would not trouble a first-year student. Katerina rendered this as “Это,  царица Диана … та Аура” [Eto, czarina Diana… ta Aura] “This, queen Diana… that’s Aura]. Even with my limited Russian, I can understand this, and the opening word  Это matches the original Esta almost perfectly.


I look forward to observing how our young (and not so young) audiences react to the show. So far, Calderón’s earthy humour has raised genuine belly-laughs, and his tragic drama has inspired strong emotions: if we can acheive this, we have succeeded.


Of course, there is another kind of translation, which we have chosen not to attempt. A fine poet can create in his own language a parallel work, not a slavish translation, but a re-imagining of the original in another language, in another culture, in another aesthetic. Such a work can be a thing of great beauty, but it would not meet the requirements of this particular production. I consider that the role of opera translators is not to present their own gusto, but rather, like a fine actor, to take on the mantle of the original author and convey his, perhaps different, aesthetic. In the 18th century, there was a fashion to ‘improve’ Shakespeare with flowery, more ‘elegant’ language: I do not believe that we should translate 17th-century opera libretti in this way.


After all, the world’s most famous line of 17th-century verse encapsulates the existential dilemma almost entirely in monosyllables:


To be, or not to be – that is the Question


Who could ever improve on such elegant simplicity?  On the other hand, who would ever want to be faced with translating Hamlet into modern Russian, whilst preserving syllable by syllable every metrical twist of Shakeseare’s iambic pentameters??? Something is always lost in translation: the translator’s choice is what to attempt to preserve.



The first Spanish opera: Speech, song and stories


Celos, aun del aire, matan

Russian premiere as “Любовь Yбивает”

14th October, 2016 at Moscow State Theatre Natalya Sats


How can singing a drama ever be ‘realistic’? This was the challenge facing the composers of the first operas, in Italy around 1600 and in Spain sixty years later. The Peace of the Pyrenees, which in 1659 ended the war between France and Spain, was sealed by the marriage of the Spanish Infanta, Maria Teresa to King Louis XIV of France. For the wedding celebrations in Madrid, the Marquis of Eliche produced two operas, the first fully-sung Spanish music-dramas:L a púrpura de la rosa (‘The Blood of the Rose’ lost, but later revived in Peru with music by Torrejón), and the following year, Celos, aun de aire, matan (Jealousy, even of the Air, Kills) which we now present on the Russian stage under the title Love Kills. Both operas were set by harpist and composer Juan Hidalgo to libretti by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, defining a new Spanish genre. Their fiesta cantada (sung celebration) was quite different from the Italian stilo rappresentativo of Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo, as well as from the Lully’s French comédie-ballet.

The first Italian operas imitate the rhythms and pitch-contours of serious, rhetorical speech in what we nowadays call Recitative. But within the Spanish tradition of realistic theatre, down-to-earth humour and popular songs established by Lope de Vega’s life-mirroring comedies, Calderón and Hidalgo sought alternative styles of representing everyday speech in music. The rhetorical artificiality of Recitative was suitable for gods and goddesses, but ordinary people should speak in a more natural style, and comic characters should have funny music for their skits. They found their solution in the Spanish tradition of story-telling ballad-songs with many strophes to the same tune, the famous and still-popular romances quoted and parodied in Cervantes’ Don Quijote (1615).

Hidalgo sets everyday speech to newly-composed strophic melodies – tonos humanos (secular tunes) – accompanied by a typically Spanish ensemble of guitars, harps and percussion. Spanish lyric traditions favoured refrain forms, encouraging Hidalgo to assemble elaborate musical structures from these simple, catchy tunes. In the first scene, he weaves together a martial tune for the heroine Pocris and a slow lament-refrain for her prisoner, Aura (guilty of the crime of Love) with the comments of the chorus. These tonos contrast with the goddess Diana’s recitative, and Aura’s cry for help, a dramatic invocation of all creation. As the hero, Cefalo comes to the rescue and confronts the goddess, the composer introduces a new sequence of tono and recitative.

Aura’s lover, Erostrato, encounters Diana’s gardiner, Rústico (literally ‘village idiot’, the traditional name for a theatrical clown). Rústico recounts the story so far, but in comic style: Hidalgo sets this to a popular song-and-dance tune, the seguidilla. The ensuing conversation, and Diana’s interrogation of Rústico’s wife, Floreta, are set to the next tono, alternating between duple and triple rhythms. But the music changes as Diana punishes Rústico by turning him into various wild animals. Cefalo comes to the rescue again, and under Aura’s influence, he and Pocris fall in love, to the sweet music of yet another tono and refrain. As the villagers gather outside Diana’s temple for the new moon celebrations, Cefalo’s servant, the cynical Clarín has his chance to summarise the plot, another comic song-and-dance number set to the low-style street-music of the xácara.

Calderón’s dramaturgy is also compounded from several elements. The mythological tragedy of Pocris, destined to be killed by her lover, Cefalo, is combined with the history of Eróstrato, destined to lose his identity after burning down the temple of Diana, and contrasted with the low comedy of Rústico (who also loses his identity), Floreta (attacked by her husband) and the anti-hero, Clarín. Poetical refrain-structures allow Calderón to emphasise certain mottos: Aura is transformed from condemned ‘victim of love’ to the gently inspiring ‘aura of Love’; she then changes Diana’s hymn ‘Death to Love’ into ‘Death to Indifference’. Another motto advises how to be ‘constant but not cruel’, and affirms that ‘love cannot be driven out by hate’. We hear many times that ‘if you are jealous of the air, jealous love kills’ and of course the hunters keep shouting “follow the beast!”. Cefalo is ‘dying for Pocris, living for Aura’, and both he and Erostrato ‘burn and freeze’ with passion. The final motto is wise advice to the young Infanta, about to marry a notorious womaniser: ‘although vengeance seems noble, once achieved, it disappoints’.

The incidental music in this production represents the Spanish baroque tradition of diferencias – improvised variations on popular dances, amongst them the famously wild folias. Like Hidalgo’s tonos, this instrumental music is structured as theme-and-variations or verses-and-refrain, in the lively, syncopated rhythms of Iberian and Latin-American dances. This blend of high art and popular traditions complements Calderón’s mix of tragedy and comedy to create a music-drama that remains highly relevant today, with its entertaining but profound exploration of how young people might manage questions of personal identity and emotions of jealousy and love.



Ut pictura: reverse-engineering Baroque gesture

Boulougne cathedral


Following on from previous posts on Historical Action – Start Here, How to Act and Baroque Gesture  – this article offers a new approach to period acting that is utterly historical, but significantly different from the coaching methods usually applied today. 


The oft-repeated dictum ut pictura musica (music is like a painting) is often recognised in the 16th- and 17th-century practice of madrigalism or ‘word-painting’, in which the composer carefully matches musical effects to elements of visual detail described in the text. But this is only one manifestation of the renaissance concept of Enargeia, the emotional power of detailed visual description. And in turn, this connects to the historical science of emotions, with the idea that imagined Visions in the mind send Energia,the  Spirit of Passion down into the body, altering the balance of the Four Humours and producing the physiological changes of emotional response.


In vocal music, the emotional content of the text – affetto – is matched by an effective turn of phrase or an ornamental ‘special effect’ – effetto – which in turn can move the listeners’ emotions – muovere gli affetti. Similarly, visual detail in the text – enargeia – allows composer and performer to ‘paint the words’ in music. The audience receive this vision via many channels – the sung text, the composed music, vocal timbre, the performer’s gestures and Action, even by direct beams of energia flashing from the performer’s eyes – and the energia of their own minds converts the poet’s enargeia into a physically evident emotional response. The two pairs of words, affetto and effettoenargeia and energia, are closely inter-related.

The listener’s visual perception is crucial to this period understanding of emotional communication. So poets call for attention with such words as “Behold!” or “See!”, and performers employ gestures to emphasise visual details in the text. Those gestures have intrinsic beauty, variety and drama of their own, with contrasts of height and direction, all carefully coordinated with facial expressions and the focus of the performer’s gaze.

There is a historical notation for all this complexity of gesture, and a good way to study is to learn that notation in order to perform surviving examples of gestured texts. In The Art of Gesture(1987), Dene Barnett explains the notation and reproduces some early 19th-century examples, recommending this course of study. A four-letter code specifies the action of the right hand: phfd indicates prone horizontal forward descending; seqn means supine elevated oblique noting. Two groups of three letters describe both hands: phq—pdb has the right hand prone horizontal oblique with the left hand prone downwards backwards. There are additional markings for the attitude of the head, the direction of the gaze, the position and movements of the feet.

Use of notation also allows modern-day performers and directors to fix a particular realisation of gesture. Following Barnett’s lead, many directors, especially those with a background in baroque dance, have taken the approach of fixing the gestures, and coaching performers to reproduce a carefully constructed realisation.

This approach has certain advantages. Gestures can be closely modelled on period sources and can be drilled repeatedly in rehearsal. Repetition and certainty help performers feel confident. Performers of lesser ability are given clear guidance to follow.

Fixing the gestures also has disadvantages. It can lead to a false concentration on the movement of the gesture itself, on the sign, rather than on the underlying meaning, what is being signified. It can disconnect gesture from text and meaning. Performers have less sense of ‘ownership’ of their gestures. The spontaneity that we prize in historically informed musical improvisation is entirely absent. Audience members intuit that such gestures are produced not by passion but by well-intended instruction. At worst, this becomes a ‘ballet of the hands’, beautiful to watch, historically accurate in superficial appearance but in a more profound sense, inauthentic and emotionally unconvincing.

These disadvantages have been observed and commented on, even in some of today’s finest productions ‘with baroque gesture’. They represent the most serious criticism of the entire practice of historical action, and the challenge to which Historically Informed Performers must now rise. This article offers an evidence-based solution: the ut pictura approach.


Gray's Elegy

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Thomas Gray’s famous (1751) poem was re-printed as one of the examples of notated gesture in Gilbert Austin’s (1806) Chironomia. Austin fixes every minute detail of his gestures to correspond to the Enargeia (detailed visual description) of Gray’s pastoral scene. There is a wealth of variation: different vertical levels, different horizontal angles, different directions and speed of hand-movements.
To attempt to follow Austin’s annotated text  is to become, inevitably, a clumsily articulated automaton, a mechanized monster of crippling self-consciousness.
[Brian Dillon (2007) in Cabinet Magazine here] This would-be historical performer cannot possibly be convincing:
Such an orator, like the hysteric, is the anxious object of an abstracting gaze, made to perform his every natural affect and impulse according to a predetermined plot.
But there is a solution, a short-cut to elegantly varied and highly specific gestures, a way to cut the Gordian knot of fixed, notated action. The purpose of Austin’s gestures is to bring to life the scene described, as if it were right in front of your eyes. This is the fundamental principle of Enargeia, to move the audience’s emotions by facilitating their visual imagination, facilitating the listeners’ Vision of the words being spoken or sung.
My ut pictura approach invites performers to concentrate not on the precise positioning and movement of their hands, but on the precise positioning and movement of what is being described. Performers create a detailed Vision, a picture in their own imagination, a picture specified by every word in the performed text. Once the picture has been established, the appropriate gestures simply point out the various objects, locations and movements in that picture. Instead of worrying about our hands, we use the text to create a picture; from there, we can reverse-engineer the gestures that will bring that picture to life for spectators.

Ut pictura: make a picture

and point out (to the audience)

what you see (in your mind’s eye).


The work of rehearsal is then changed. Rather than fixing each gesture, directors will lead a discussion with performers in order to fix the location/movement of each object in the imaginary picture. Of course, the picture needs to be consistent from one performer to another, and throughout the duration of the performance. It should also be consistent with baroque principles, e.g. Good Things are to the performer’s right, Bad Things are to the left. Period paintings can feed the imagination and inform the judgement.


The question I ask most frequently in gesture rehearsals is “Where?”


So in rehearsal with La Musica for the beginning of the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo: Del mio Permesso amato, a voi ne vengo [From my beloved Permesso, I come to you…], I would ask: “Where is Permesso?” (presumably behind the scene, as the performer walks forwards towards the audience, on the right since it is Good, and moving from high to low, since it is a river flowing from Mount Helicon into the Copaic lake). “Where are voi, the people the performer moves towards and addresses?” (presumably, the audience, directly in front, perhaps angled slightly to the right, to show respect for Good). Monteverdi sets mio as a long note, giving time for a gesture to oneself.


This is how to refer to oneself

This is how to refer to oneself

153 Refer to self - Bond


The more vivid your imagined picture is, the easier it is to point appropriately, and the more convincing your gestures will be. Once a detailed Vision is established in the performer’s imagination, coordination of gesture and eye movement/focus becomes automatic. You may find you need to take a half-step back, to take in a wider panorama, or half-step forwards to focus on some foreground detail: go ahead. But don’t shift your feet too much or too often – save it for key moments.




Here is a worked example of the Ut Pictura method, applied to a well-known Elizabethan poem, a rhetorical discussion of poetry and music. In The Passionate Pilgrim (1840) the verses were attributed to Shakespeare, but are now known to be by his contemporary, Richard Barnfield. For teaching purposes, I have taken the liberty of substituting Shakespeare’s name for Spencer’s in line 7. Lutenist, singer and composer John Dowland is referred to in line 5. 


If Music and sweet Poetry agree,


We can envisage Music as an English equivalent of Monteverdi’s La Musica, the personification of music. A beautiful women, holding a lyre, standing in classical pose. Similarly, Poetry is a personification, a handsome young man. Following the baroque convention of starting with the right hand, we might place our Music-woman to the right of our picture, and our Poetry-man to the left. As the opposing subjects of the rhetorical discussion to follow, these two should be placed opposite each other, separated, rather than together in the centre.


Music and Sweet Poetry 1


The imaginary picture-frame keeps our gesturing hands within natural and historical limits, more or less between waist and shoulders.


As they must needs, the Sister and the Brother,

Sister and Brother confirm the genders of the two personifications, and also their relative locations. Conventionally, the woman is accorded the respect of being placed to the right, as Good. These two gestures will (logically) repeat the precise direction and distance, since they refer to the same figures in the same positions as before.

Then must the love be great ’twixt thee and me,

Great invites the conventional gesture to show immensity. To help performers remember this gesture, I often make the joke that it’s the gesture of a fisherman describing the one that got away: it was this big!


Immensitatem aperit

Thee, the person addressed, represents the audience, straight ahead, and further away than Ms Music and Mr PoetryMe invites the usual gesture to self. The speaker and the person addressed are opposite one another, but on the forward/back axis, corresponding to Poetry and Music as opposites on the left/right axis.

Music and Sweet Poetry 2


Because thou lov’st the one and I the other.

Thou is the listener again, ahead and distant; the one is Music, right. encourages the speaker to gesture to self; the other is Poetry, left.

The locations of the personages are obvious and fixed. But a performer can choose, spontaneously, how to deploy the hands to point them out. For example, Thou and Music with the right hand, and Poetry with the left, makes elegant movements and leaves the hands attractively outspread. Leading the right hand is a good general rule.

Dowland to thee is dear,

Dowland appears here as the champion of Music, so on the right side, but not as far right as Music herself, in order to give the woman the honoured position to the right of the man. As a lute-player, he is seated, whereas Music and Poetry are standing. Thee is the addressee, in the audience, forward and further away.

whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;

The touch is Dowland’s fingers on the Lute, which presumably is on his lap.


Music and Sweet Poetry 3

Shakespeare to me,

As the champion of poetry, Shakespeare should be placed to the left, in the corresponding position to Dowland’s on the right. I imagine him holding a manuscript script and a quill-pen. There might be sufficient time for a self-referring gesture for me, but the intention could also be clarified by a smaller movement of the hand, and/or a change of gaze.


Music and Sweet Poetry 4


It’s important to keep it clear for the audience that the following lines refer to Shakespeare and not to me, so if the point of the lines is to characterise Shakespeare, the pointing hand should be directed towards Shakespeare too. In both meanings of the word, directing the audience’s attention is the point of baroque gesture.

whose deep conceit is such,
As passing all conceit, needs no defence.


[The Elizabethan word conceit does not mean pride, but rather ‘artistic concept’.] 

These lines at first appear very abstract, a rhetorical flourish that does not suggest any specific gesture. Certainly, one could employ the Default Gesture (see How to Act here), and allow one’s mindful concentration on the words being spoken shape that gesture appropriately. However, there are three metaphors here that contain visual description, elements that could be assembled in a temporary picture. Shakespeare’s ideas are deep, they go past all other ideas, and they do not need any defence. This suggests a temporary picture, an inset within the larger picture of the whole poem, in which something goes deep, moves to pass other similar things, followed by an mental image of defence. Hand-to-hand fighting, 17th-century rapier, or an Elizabethan castle perhaps. What is your historical image for the word defence?


It is the mind that creates a picture here. The hands might point to elements of the picture, to the deep place, or to whatever defending is going on. But the hands do not mimic those elements – this is a subtle but essential distinction that many historical sources emphasise. And we need not be daunted by the abstract nature of conceit (in its period sense of ‘idea’, ‘concept’). It is typical of the 17th-century mode of thought to characterise abstract qualities as personifications. Just as we have beautiful La Musica, so we can have clever Master Conceit.


Also, note that although the clause concerning defence is negative, the gesture nevertheless corresponds to defence rather than to the absence of it. Try for yourself what gesture you make when you say “I don’t have my phone“: do you make a sign for a phone, or for an empty space?


Thou lov’st to hear the sweet melodious sound


Thou is the addressee once again. Sweet melodious sound might seem difficult to imagine visually, until we remember that 17th-century science considered sound as travelling invisibly through that mysterious invisible substance, the Aether. So the eyes and pointing hand search for something that cannot be seen, but which travels towards the ear. If you sharpen your ears to listen for this invisible melody, you will find yourself tilting your head and turning one ear towards the origin of the sound. This is a gesture described in period sources, but (like the pointing gestures) it works better if you imagine the sound and listen for it intently, than if you focus on reproducing the mechanics of the gesture.


That Phoebus’ lute, the queen of music, makes;


Music and Sweet Poetry 5


Phoebus is Apollo, the god of music and of poetry. Stage conventions put the most important personage of a larger group front and centre, so this would be an appropriate placement for Phoebus. We envisage him seated – a symbol of kingly power – and holding his Lute, and perhaps turning towards Music. We might create a temporary ‘inset’ picture for the Queen – although this is just a metaphor, the poetic imagery calls forth a mental image.


Queen Elizabeth I


And I in deep delight am chiefly drowned

I suggests another self-referring gesture. The poetic imagery here characterises delight as a something like a tidal-wave that sweeps over the speaker. Again, one should not mimic, but rather point to what is described. Eye-, head- and body-movement might be more effective than a hand-gesture, but in any case the speaker’s focus should not be on the execution of such movements, but rather on the imagery of the words being spoken.

Whenas himself to singing he betakes:

The key word here is Singing. Phoebus-Apollo is the god of music (represented by the lute) and of poetry (represented by singing). So we should now imagine Apollo as a singer, perhaps now turned towards the left, towards the personification of Poetry. One might even imagine Apollo putting down his lute, and standing up to sing- this would add movement to the picture and increase the power of the resulting gesture.


eyes - mourinho 2


As often in a Sonnet, the final couplet reveals the underlying meaning, sums up the message, the conceit of the whole poem, and sends that message winging towards its recipient. 

One god is god of both, as poets feign,

The number one can be shown with the vertically extended index finger (the same gesture also calls for Attention for these last two lines). Apollo is the god (front and centre) of both (simultaneously indicating Music far right and Poetry far left). As poets feign politely concedes lesser strength on the pro-poetry speaker’s own team, and disperses the attention to a wider audience (perhaps behind the addressee and to the left, as less important) of Poets.


Music and Sweet Poetry 6

One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.


The one knight is the speaker himself: there could be another counting gesture, or a referral to self. There is probably insufficient time to make both those gestures without unseemly haste, but the missing meaning can be conveyed by the eyes. Again, the performer’s focus should not be on “how do I show this meaning?” but on “what is the meaning I’m trying to show?”. So have some fun, imagine yourself as the one-and-only Elizabethan knight, complete with shining armour. 


Elizabethan Armour


Both refers again to Music and Poetry simultaneously (right and left, respectively). Thee is the addressee, and this final clause underlines the point made earlier  – ‘then must the love be great ‘twixt thee and me’. The one knight loves the music and poetry which are to be found within the soul of his beloved. This is consistent with the period philosophy of the Music of the Spheres, which sees heavenly music reflected in the microcosm of the harmony of human nature.

The final line invites the orator to conclude with eyes and hands directed towards the beloved addressee, and to remain there. Then as the vision dissolves and fades, leaving ‘not a rack behind’, the hands fall relaxed to the sides.



All this work of detailed positioning would be done by any competent director of baroque gesture, placing the hands at the appropriate angle and elevation to indicate each of the persons or objects referred to in the text. The crucial difference in my Ut Pictura approach is that the work is carried out not on the gestures, not on the hands themselves, but rather on the imagined picture of the scene. In period theory of emotions, it is the audience’s visions that produce an emotional response. Those visions are conjured up by the actor’s words and gestures: gestures create visions. The ‘reverse engineering’ of my title and method is to use the actor’s own visions to produce the gestures that will move the audience’s passions: visions create gesture.


I encourage actors to consider not “where do I put my hand?” but “where is Apollo?”. And this question is particularly effective as a rehearsal tool, because when as gesture coach I ask, “Where is Dowland?”, the actor will usually reply with a pointing gesture to accompany the word “There!”. That pointing gesture will be perfectly positioned, as long as Dowland is precisely located in the imagined picture. 


Of course, the pointing has to be done with a well-shaped hand, the orator has to assume a historical posture. Plenty of rehearsal will be needed, to bring the imagined picture into sharp focus, and to time detailed envisioning to coincide with mindful attention on the word being spoken right now. Coaching must discreetly improve the historicity of the gestures, whilst ensuring that performers’ attention remain on the picture, not on their hands. But this method allows actors to ‘own’ their gestures, and to vary them spontaneously, or at the very least to choose spontaneously between several (well-rehearsed) options. And concentration on the picture will ensure that the gesture, be it thoroughly historical or work-in-progress, will strike the spectator as being honest and genuine – authentic. 

Ideally, audience members will not even notice the gesture as such. Their attention too will be directed away from the hand itself, and towards wherever the hand is pointing. That‘s the point!


Point - Wenger


Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

www.TheHarpConsort.com  [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com   [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone  [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.



The Perfect Musical Director Mattheson by ALK

The Perfect Musical Director: Music inspires me!

Updated May 25th 2016 – please revisit this page for further updates, or LIKE our Facebook page here to receive updates automatically.


Art, crown, refreshment, heavenly language, pleasure of gods and men – all these speak to me in words!


The Perfect Musical Director


No, before I’m drowned out with howls of derision, that’s not me! Rather it’s Johann Mattheson’s Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739). Mattheson’s weighty tome is a key source for baroque performance practice, pre-dating the three great Essays of the 1750s (CPE Bach, Quantz & Leopold Mozart).


The book is famous, famously long, and famously long-winded: how many of us have read it all through? I confess that I hadn’t, and so now I’ve started. My personal selection and summary of Mattheson’s ideas will be posted in progressively updated versions of this post, with extended commentary in future postings.


Meanwhile, please LIKE the Perfect Musical Director Facebook page here to receive real-time messages from the year 1739!


You can find Mattheson’s complete original here.


Mattheson title page


Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, Principal Guest Director of Concerto Copenhagen, and visiting director for modern and baroque orchestras throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Awards include the Golden Masque (Russia’s highest music-theatre prize) for baroque opera, the USA Handel Society Prize for best opera CD, and the German Echo Prize for baroque orchestral concertos. He is also Director of Baroque Opera and Historical Action at the Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Satz’.

From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.




The Power of Tactus: A hands-on approach

Hand of God supernova


Tactus is the slow, steady beat that guides Early Music, shown by a down-up movement of the hand, approximately one second each way. In previous posts, I’ve introduced the concept Rhythm – what really counts?, explored the philosophical background Quality Time: how does it feel?and summarised the implications for Historically Informed Performance Tempus Putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s Time


In this article the focus is on the Tactus Hand itself, on the practicalities of embodying a mystic concept that links everyday music-making with the divine power of the cosmos. And we should not underestimate that power, since, for renaissance and baroque musicians, the Tactus Hand was the Hand of God made visible in microcosm.


Hand as cosmos


Tactus in the 1980s


Since the 1980s, as co-director of ensemble Tragicomedia and in my own teaching and directing, I have frequently used a simple arm-waving exercise to give participants a practical experience of Tactus. I emphasise the significance of a two-way motion with a sense of ‘swing’, as opposed to the hammering effect of a one-way beat. I recommend using the entire arm, a long pendulum for a slow swing. And already in those days, I noticed that this kind of Tactus work brought to the group a special atmosphere of calm and concentration. After just a minute or so of beating Tactus, the room seems quieter, each of us  more aware of small sounds and as a group, better able to find a united sense of rhythm and timing.


In my own playing, I notice that keeping my mind on the Tactus allows me to stay calm, even in demanding fast passage-work. No matter how fast my fingers need to move, my inner focus is on that slow swing: even the fast bits still feel slow and steady. Working with singers, I encourage them to feel the embodied power of the Tactus, to realise that they could hold the entire ensemble in their own hands, and to feel (like a physical weight) the responsibility that this entails.  The Tactus-movement can’t be a trivial flip of the wrist, it needs the gravity of a long, weighty pendulum.


Foucault pendulum 1851


George Houle’s most useful survey of Metre in Music: 1600-1800 was published in 1987, though I didn’t come across it until many years later. Houle wondered what a tactus-directed ensemble would sound like: my work ever since has been devoted to answering that question.


Since the 1990s, with my own ensemble, The Harp Consort, we continue to apply Tactus to many different repertoires, to Spanish dances in Luz y Norte, to German high baroque in Italian Concerto, to the medieval Ludus Danielis and the first South American opera, La púpura de la rosa, to folk-music from Guernsey, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, to Purcell’s theatrical and chamber music in Musick’s Hand-Maid, to medieval popular songs Les Miracles de Notre Dame and Latin-American religious music, Missa Mexicana. In these and many other projects, Tactus is the organising principle that unites the whole ensemble in music, dance and improvisation.

Tactus in the 2010s


In this current decade, with my renewed focus on early opera, Tactus has been a key concept in the award-winning Text, Rhythm, Action! program of international research, experiment, training and performance. I’ve re-opened the investigation of Tactus in the context of the Historical Science of Time itself, and applied the latest research findings to my work on Baroque Gesture and Historical Action. Fascinating connections have emerged: the 18th-century love of fermata and cadenza seems to match the contemporaneous fashion for striking Attitudes on the theatrical stage.


(c) The Holburne Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

David Garrick as Richard III in 1759


Some findings would seem glaringly obvious, but have previously escaped attention. Monteverdi, Shakespeare and their contemporaries circa 1600 did not share our present-day intuitive understanding of Absolute Time: that idea was introduced in Newton’s Principia (1687). The seicento concept of Time was Aristotelian, depending on movement to define ‘before’ and ‘after’. In music, that movement is embodied in the Tactus Hand.



What is Time


Gradually, I’ve been able to reach a more refined understanding of Tactus as Time, Tactus as Movement, with the goal of applying all that pre-Newtonian philosophy to down-to-earth practicalities. How do we move our hands to create Tactus, and what does it mean?


For Italian music around the year 1600, the Tactus hand is indeed like a pendulum, swinging for about one second each way (i.e. two seconds for the complete there-and-back-again). The complete (reciprocal) movement corresponds to a semibreve, so each individual (one-way) beat corresponds to a minim, at approximately minim = 60. Of course, in Monteverdi’s day, although there were clocks that ticked approximate seconds accurate to about 15 minutes per day, clocks were not capable of defining those seconds accurately. So Tactus Time is only as accurate as you can humanly make it.


The precise Quantity of Time therefore can’t be defined: rather Tactus relies on each musician to remember how it feels, to recall the Quality of Time.  So try these tests: can you remember the sound of a ticking clock? How fast does it tick (according to your memory)? Can you recall the speed of some particular piece of music that you’ve often performed with the same team? How accurately can you estimate a one-second pulse? If you hear a church clock strike noon, how good is your estimate of 1215?


Of course, nowadays, you can check your estimates against Absolute Time (well, at least against a digital stopwatch!). But the point of these experiments is to get used to the idea that


You are trying to feel the right Time


This is very different from the modern musical practice of performers choosing their own time. Seicento tempo is not a matter of personal choice!. You would not get much sympathy if you turned up late for rehearsal, saying “Although most people take it faster, in my interpretation, it is not yet 10 o’clock.” Toby Belch, in Shakespeare’s As you like it (1603) makes a similar connection between good time-keeping in everyday life (‘to go to bed betimes’) and keeping time in music. In reply to Malvolio’s accusation that he shows no respect of time, he retorts that ‘we did keep time, sir, in our catches’ (witty part-songs).


Keep Time


Your estimate of time will naturally be influenced by your surroundings and your own state of mind: if you are in a hectic mood, you might err on the fast side; if you are feeling particularly relaxed, you might err on the slow side. If you play a piece of music in a generous acoustic, you might play it slower; in a dry acoustic, you might play it faster to get the same feeling.


The precise Quantity cannot be defined – you are trying to find the right Quality


Fixing Tactus at the order of magnitude of one second (for C time in Italian seicento: in other repertoires, there are significant pulse-rates somewhat faster at approx 80 beats per minute or somewhat slower at around 45 bpm) does not imply a ‘metronomic’ performance. There is room inside that slow, steady minim beat for the subtle difference between Good and Bad syllables (in crotchets) or the dance-like swing of French inegalite (in quavers). There are also symmetries on longer time-scales, and good musicians will be sensitive to these too. Nevertheless, Tactus provides a particular time-scale, a calibration that synchronises musical notation with real-world time, with physical movement, and with the human body. That time-scale is approximately one second, corresponding to a pendulum-length of approximately one metre, which is approximately the length of an outstretched arm (measured to the centre of the body).


Narrowing down the historical sense of musical time to an order of magnitude might not seem like much progress towards the question of “what is the historical tempo for Monteverdi’s Orfeo?”. But even this very approximate measure can help unify an ensemble, by ensuring that everyone is feeling the same beat (as opposed to some counting in crotchets, others counting in minims). There has been some discussion along the lines that if a slow Tactus beat is good, then feeling a super-slow pulse (say 30, or even just 15 beats per minute) might be even better. But whilst there is evidence for very slow pulse in some medieval music, around the year 1600 ensemble unity was definitely organised on the Tactus time-scale at around 60 bpm.


Establishing an approximate calibration of real-world time to the speed of a minim in common time is also a vital first step towards understanding seicento Proportions. Whether or not a certain interpretation of the relationship between common and triple time is plausible, depends crucially on the starting tempo in common time. Somewhat illogically, current debate on Proportions recognises that historical notation was intended to fix the speed of triple metres (even if we do not yet have a consensus agreement about how to understand that notation), but resists the idea that the speed of common time was also fixed (as precisely as humanly possible). But Roger Mathew Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music shows how the entire system of Proportional notation depends crucially on common-time Tactus. The various Proportions are linked, like cog-wheels in a 17th-century clock, and calibrated to real-world time by setting common-time Tactus at the rate of one minim = one second (as precisely as humanly possible).


Galileo Pendulum



The pendulum effect, discovered by Galileo in the late 16-century but not built into a clock until 1656, was used to measure musical time by means of Loulié’s chronomètre (1696) and as late as 1840, in Bunting’s transcriptions of ancient Irish harp-music. With students from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, we tried playing to a pendulum beat at Scoil na gClairseach: the experience is nothing like playing to a metronome click. Try it for yourself, and you’ll immediately appreciate the differences.


The movement of a pendulum, pausing momentarily at the end of each swing, leaves musicians a certain margin for subtle choice of where to ‘place’ the beat. To use the vocabulary of jazz, you can be ‘on the front of the beat’ or ‘laid back’. In this sense, a pendulum feels more ‘human’, less ‘mechanical’. However, the pendulum does not allow those subtle choices to pile up cumulatively: it checks any general tendency to rush or drag. Meanwhile, the strong but gentle movement of a pendulum has the same mesmeric effect of inducing relaxed concentration that we notice with the Tactus hand itself.


Down & Up


Re-reading seicento treatises reminded me that the Tactus movement is always described as down-up. So when using the Tactus hand as a rehearsal exercise, or in performances of Cavalieri’s (1600) Anima e Corpo at the Theatre Natalya Sats in Moscow, we abandoned the side-to-side swing in favour of the historical, vertical movement. This creates a subtle distinction between the two directions of movement, with Down having added significance, and facilitates awareness of the complete Tactus cycle, from Down to Down.


From my studies of historical swordsmanship, modern Feldenkrais Method and ancient Tai Chi, I can now appreciate that the sensation of ‘soft strength’ appropriate to beating musical time can be found by connecting the Tactus Hand down through the whole body. This requires a body-posture that maintains structural integrity with minimal tension. We can see such postures in period paintings and sculptures: a good posture for Tactus is also the starting point for Baroque Gesture, and for historically informed instrumental playing.


My training as a Hypnotist provides an explanation for the special sense of relaxation and concentration that focus on the Tactus can evoke. Following the lead of Milton H. Erickson (the father of modern hypnotism) and of Joe Griffin (theorist of the Origin of Dreams), it is now recognised that any experience of calm concentration can induce a particular state of mind. We can call this an Altered State of Consciousness, we can call it Flow or being in the Zone, we can call it Mindfulness or Meditatation: the labels don’t really matter. This phenomenon of heightened awareness is the key to optimal performance not only in music, but also in many other creative and sporting activities.


The Flow Zone mashup 2015


Preparing for the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, we encountered many instances of slow triple-metre, notated as 3 Sesquialtera semibreves in the time of the 2 common-time minims. This can be a tricky Proportional change, but Tactus helps us manage it, especially with a vertical motion of the hand. The duration of the complete cycle from Down to Down continues unchanged: the only adjustment is that Down now lasts longer than Up.


Sesquialtera: Down – Up becomes Down – 2 – Up


In Spanish baroque music, the same adjustment happens even more frequently, whenever we find the cross-rhythm of Hemiola amongst a regular metre of Tripla. A well-known modern example is I wanna live in America: two units of Tripla, I wanna / live in A- / (Down Up) have the same duration as one unit of Hemiola me-ri-ca (Down – 2- Up).


One way to negotiate such shifts is to de-emphasise the Up stroke so that it simply doesn’t matter whether it is equal (Down Up) or unequal (Down – 2- Up). Instead, the focus is on preserving the equality of measure in the complete cycle, a consistent time between Down strokes. This focus on the complete Tactus-cycle, on the common-time semibreve rather than on the minim of each stroke, is mentioned in some period treatises, and works well for us in practice.


Divided Choirs

Towards the end of last year, working with multiple Tactus-beaters for polychoral music, I suddenly noticed a small detail of Tactus-beating that had previously escaped my attention. In the three-choir piece illustrated on the frontispiece of Praetorius’  Theatrum Instrumentorum, the Tactus Hands are shown palm outwards.


Praetorius Theatrum Instrumentorum


I immediately searched through other period images and consulted with colleagues. Though no-one else had noticed it before either, it became apparent that Tactus-beating was usually, perhaps always, palm-outwards. (Do let me know if you find evidence to the contrary, or if you would like to add to the mountain of evidence in favour of palm-out).




The historical movement of the Tactus Hand, down-up with the palm outwards, feels different, and subtly alters the relationship between the two strokes. And the connections to Baroque Gesture are highly significant. The starting position of Tactus (hand high, palm outwards) corresponds to the orator’s preparatory gesture, commanding the audience to be silent and listen. The powerful Down movement of the Tactus stroke corresponds to a gesture of authority, quelling and directing subordinates.


Silentium postulo


The period philosophy of the Music of the Spheres connects the perfect movement of the cosmos with the harmonious nature of the human body and with practical music-making. Similarly, heavenly Time directed by the Hand of God is reflected in the microcosm of the Human hand beating Tactus and in the perfection (to the limits of human ability) of musical rhythm. That rhythm is found by dividing the slow Tactus beat in various Proportions, just as the movement of the stars and planets are derived from the Primum Mobile. This concept is beautifully described in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXVII. Here is the classic Longfellow translation:


The nature of the universe, which holds
the center still and moves all else around it,
begins here as if from its turning-post.

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.

No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion,
but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten;

and now it can be evident to you
how time has roots within this vessel and,
within the other vessels, has its leaves.


Primum Mobile


The Tactus Hand embodies the divine Hand of God; maintaining Tactus symbolises the turning of the cosmos; the movements of the Tactus Hand embody earthly authority and command listeners’ attention. However, the authority of Tactus is not located in the whims and fancies of an individual Tactus-beater: Tactus-beating is utterly different from modern conducting. The responsibility of a Tactus-beater is to recall and preserve the perfection of heavenly time, not to make personal choices. So it is that multiple Tactus-beaters can collaborate simultaneously, as Praetorius showed.


No-one is trying to make a personal interpretation of Time: everyone is trying to unite in finding the right time.


Some musicians feel a deep sense of responsibility to arrive at rehearsal on time. This is part of the respect we owe to the beauty and ineffable nature of Music itself. If you can understand such respect, then you might begin to understand the sense of high duty and precise timeliness that renaissance musicians felt about rhythm.


Dowland Above all things original


Music and other arts offer us earth-born creatures a glimpse of a world beyond the everyday. In period philosophy, the Tactus Hand allows musicians to touch the stars. We all know that Early Music was directed not by conductors, but by Tactus beaters. So why not try the Power of Tactus for yourself! I’m sure you’ll have a Good Time.


Hand touching the stars



Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.


Baroque Gesture: what’s the Point?

Barcelona Colon Monument


At the seaward end of Barcelona’s Ramblas, Colombus points the way not only to America, but also towards good Baroque Gesture: weight on the back foot, front leg elegantly bent (more about historical posture here). Head erect, eyes focused in coordination with a strong pointing gesture, other fingers held in by the thumb (as shown by Bulwer, see below). The arm is not locked straight, but has a nice curve at the elbow, the shoulders are nicely dropped, the left hand lower than the right and relaxed.

Notice that he holds his music/script in his left hand, leaving the right hand free to gesture. The Historical Action workshop is THIS way!


Golden Hand


This is the third in a series of posts on Historical Action and Baroque Gesture, following on from Start Here: How to study and How to Act: Preliminary ExercisesFor this post, I will use examples from Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607): the first edition (1609) is here, together with the second (1615) print, which corrects some errors from 1609 but also introduces new mistakes.


Sistine Chapel God points


In an excellent article on Monteverdi’s parole sceniche for the journal of the Society of Seventeenth-Century music here,  Mauro Calcagno studies text/music relationships in Orfeo from the perspective of Deixis, the “pointing” function of language analysed in Karl Bühler’s  1934 Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Bühler is translated into English as Theory of Language. The Representational Function of Language, trans. Donald Fraser Goodwin (Amsterdam-Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1990).


Deictics are words that indicate person, time and place. They are prominent in Striggio’s libretto for Orfeo and, Calcagno argues, are musically highlighted by Monteverdi.  Deixis (Greek) or demonstratio (Latin) can be

  1. Spatial: this, that, here, there
  2. Temporal: now, then
  3. Personal: I, you, my, yours


Three deictics are quite literally central in space-time and for each character personated: here, now, I


Pointing is the first and most fundamental human gesture,

which connects body and mind to the external world


In the theatre, pointing gestures connect the actor’s body with the spectators’ minds, and create a illusion of a mind/body connection with the imaginary world of the drama. Perhaps for this reason, early opera libretti often include visual descriptions that correspond with the real-life external world, just outside the theatre. Pointing to queste rive ‘these shores’ in lakeside Mantua takes poetic imagery and visions of the dramatic scene conjured up in actors’ and audience’s minds, and connects those imaginary visions to an external world that the courtiers knew as real and close at hand.


Renaissance Enargeia (the emotional power of detailed visual description) was often energised (Energia is the spirit of passion communicated via the eyes) by the powerful word Ecco (look!).




Calcagno introduces his argument with a discussion of oratory, and briefly mentions the link between pointing words and physical gestures. He then demonstrates the prominence of deictics in Striggio’s libretto, and points out the significance of deictics in Monteverdi’s musical setting. Around 1600, gesture was a key element of oratory, of rhetorical delivery. We can therefore be confident that pointing gestures should be a prominent and significant part of the Historical Action. Prominent, in that there will be many pointing gestures, and audiences should notice them. Significant, in that these pointing gestures should carry meaning and weight, so that the imaginary vision is convincing.


According to Quintilian, it is these visiones – ‘fantastic… daydreams… whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be before our very eyes’ – that move the audience’s passions. Calcagno shows that Deictics draw attention to movement, physical movement across the stage and within the imaginary field of view of the dramatic scene, and the to-and-fro of emotional communication between actor and audience. Deictic words connect with pointing gestures to create visiones and muovere gli affetti (to move the passions).


John_Bulwer_Chironomia_frontispiece_1644 (1)


So it is no surprise that John Bulwer’s (1644) survey of gesture, Chironomia, includes many pointing gestures. In my approach to Historical Action, I encourage actors to begin with these simple but powerful gestures, not only because they are so prominent and significant in circa-1600 theatre, but also because pointing is


the first and most fundamental human gesture, which connects body and mind


There are two challenges for modern-day performers of Baroque Gesture. One is to root a historical gesture in the full-body structure (that body-structure founded on period posture of course): otherwise the gesture seems disembodied. The other is to connect each specific gesture to the concept in mind (inspired by each word of the text, in real time): otherwise the gesture seems mindless. The difficulty is that learning unfamiliar gestures from a historical treatise tends to focus attention on the arm and hand, disconnecting the gesture from body and mind. This misplaced attention on the gesture itself, rather than on the embodied action and mental vision it signs, is a potential danger for actors and spectators alike.


Training Exercise for Pointing Gestures


The remedy is to connect each gesture to body and mind. The exercises in my two previous articles are designed to wire-up connections to posture and text, ready to empower the pointing gestures below. Pointing is indeed a fundamental, instinctive action, so once a specific hand-shape has been learnt, an excellent way for a training partner or rehearsal coach to call forth a well-connected gesture is to ask (with assumed innocence):

Where is that?

When is that?

Who is that?

as appropriate, for Spatial, Temporal or Personal deictics.


If you can make the question seem spontaneous, it has a good chance of triggering a spontaneous response from the actor, who will point with a gesture that is both historical and also mind/body connected.  The observer should now check for technical errors in the historicity of the gesture (too high, too low, wrong hand-shape) or for tell-tale signs of lack of connection (gesture looks weak, eyes are not appropriately directed and focused, gesture seems ‘artificial’, wrong timing of eye-movement and hand-gesture) and give feedback.


If the actor did well, the observer should say so, and add a gesture of approval, why not!. After all, if we believe that baroque gestures can move the passions, then shouldn’t we use them in real life too? Or at least, in that transitional space between real life and dramatic fantasy, the rehearsal room!


Magnanimitatem ostendit


Pointing gestures in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

As Calcagno points out (did you get that?), Deictics are prominent right from the beginning of the Prologue. “Striggio strategically places the three most primitive deictics (Io, qui[nci], and ora) at the beginning of strophes 2 to 5. But the first strophe also emphasizes the function of the “pointing words.” The deictics mio and voi, appearing in the first line … [establish] a channel of communication with the public.”


In that very first line, Monteverdi extends the word mio (my) for more than one second, giving time and prominence to the significant ‘refer to self’ pointing gesture.


This is how to refer to oneself

This is how to refer to oneself


As we would expect, this fundamental and central gesture is seen frequently in period iconography and in modern-day life.




153 Refer to self - Bond


‘From MY beloved Permesso’  a VOI ne vegno  ‘to YOU I come’, La Musica continues. ‘You’ refers to the audience, ‘great heroes, noble blood of Kings’. To point directly with the index finger would not show the respect such an audience deserves; a more elegant pointing gesture is required.


Bulwer shows a gesture ‘suitable for pointing’, which is a simple variation on the Default Gesture studied in the first article of this series, here.  Starting with your hand in the default rest position, close to the body and between chest and belly, middle two fingers together, little finger curved in, index curved out somewhat…


056 Barnett 1


let the thumb fall into the hand slightly, in order to give slightly more prominence to the extended index finger. Now extend your arm outwards, in an elegant pointing gesture. You could time the Stroke of this gesture to give added significance to ‘you’ or to the movement of ‘I come’: try both options. A voi ne vegno.


Ad monstradum valet

Suitable for pointing


Contrary to Dene Barnett and other directors who have actors learn a fixed ‘choreography’ of gesture for each speech, I believe strongly that some element of improvisation can be of great help in giving performers a sense of ‘ownership’ of the gestures they make, in connecting the gesture more securely to the actor’s body and to a mental vision of the text. Yes, improvisation does entail the danger of a loss of historicity in precise details of the gesture, but I consider that the gain in credibility far outweighs the risk. And ‘improvisation’ need not be a daunting challenge: a good first step is to give the actor a spontaneous choice between two well rehearsed options, as with the two options for timing the gesture described above.


Bulwer’s Ad Monstrandum way of pointing is also convenient when you want to indicate a wider field of reference, for which the direct point with the index finger would be too narrowly focused. So you can use this pointing hand to indicate an area of the dramatic scene – in queste rive (on these shores) – an extended interval of time – in questo lieto e fortunato giorno (on this happy and auspicious day) – or a group of people – Muse, honor di parnasso (Muses, honour of Parnassus).  In the Prologue, gestures connected La Musica and the audience. In Act I, the to-and-fro words discussed by Calcagno call forth gestures that connect musicians (the Muses have cetre sonore, sonorous lyres) and singers (sia il NOSTRO canto al VOSTRO suon concorde, may OUR song and YOUR instrumental sound meet in concord).


But I have a minor disagreement with one detail of Calcagno’s article. Simple logic and the theatrical necessities of the original production with just a few singers dictate that it is the actors who are singing and the musicians who represent the muses with their instruments. Nostro and vostro must be this way around. As proof, the 1609 print calls for an ensemble suono of a 5-part violin-band, 3 theorboes, 2 harpsichords, harp, violone and small flute: presumably these represent Apollo with the 12 muses.




This small point of difference (got it?) with Calcagno illustrates a vital rule for pointing gestures. You have to know what you are pointing at.  This calls for some decisions, which should ideally be consistent for the whole production. Where is the temple? Where are the woods? Who are the Muses? Which way leads to Hell? A vaguely outstretched arm pointing at nothing in particular shows a disconnect between mind and body that will undermine any attempt to move the audience’s passions.


So whilst there is room for academic debate about vostro and nostro in this phrase, on stage a decision needs to be made. All the actors and musicians involved need to know who’s who, and where’s what, so that they can point with confidence and conviction.


Another way of pointing seems to show an elegant casualness, a sprezzatura in gesture, by pointing with the thumb.




This is convenient for pointing to the right side or behind, less suited for something central or left. Bulwer classes this as a Rhetorical (rather than ‘natural’) gesture, but his only comment is that this ‘act of Demonstration’ is a ‘received custom’.



As a Rhetorical gesture, the pointing index finger is ‘most demonstrative’. If the other fingers are compressed in by the thumb, ‘and the Index displayed in full length’ this gesture ‘upbraides’ (reprimands, rebukes, scolds).



For more respectful pointing, the turned-over default position of the hand should be used, with the index still slightly curved, and the other fingers not held in too much.  In this way, Art refines a Natural gesture into the elegance that we observe in period iconography.


057 Barnett 2


Pointing gestures become stronger as the arm is extended more. This extends the gesture for more distant objects (on stage, or imagined as part of the envisioned scene), or makes the gesture more forceful for an object in the middle distance.  Nearly always, the arm remains somewhat bent, as if it remains relaxed in its own weight whilst being lifted from the wrist. A rigid, straight arm lacks elegance.


Pointing Murillo


As the speaker points, fellow-actors may well react by pointing too. At any time, non-speaking actors may also point to the speaker, or to the object under discussion. Many period paintings show pointing gestures of all kinds, and it’s well worth studying and imitating these. Notice the long-range and short-range pointing in Caravaggio’s St Matthew.


Caravaggio Calling of St Matthew


In Rhetoric, the index finger pointing downwards (with the rest of the hand as a fist) is very strong, used to ‘urge’ and ‘drive the point into the heads’ of the listeners. It might be used for an emphatic ‘here’ or ‘now’.




The index finger pointing upwards is a most useful gesture, calling for the audience’s Attention. The same principles apply: the gesture is strengthened by compressing in the other fingers and by extending the arm; it is made more elegant by retaining some curvature in fingers and arm. The emotional power of visual detail, the force of Enargeia is often invoked with Ecco! (behold, look): this attracts the listeners attention, which can then be directed to the object of discussion with one or other pointing gesture.


Attentionem poscit and art


An upward pointing gesture is also called for if the text mentions God or Heaven (as seicento texts often do). This is one of the exceptions to the general rule of decorous gesture that the hand should not rise higher than the shoulder. Here Régnier demonstrates the divine inspiration of Music: the arm is strongly extended, yet elegantly curved.


Divine inspiration of Music c1640 Nicolas Régnier


Pointing can be a convenient way to start using baroque gesture in rehearsal and performance. The actual movements are quite intuitive, so there is less chance of getting distracted by the mechanics of the gesture and ‘losing sight’ of the significance of the text. Neither the actor nor the audience should be looking at the pointing arm, attention should be fixed on what is being pointed out. Pointing is indeed a fundamental gesture, but it is not necessarily simple. A good pointing gesture will be rooted in whole-body posture, and will recruit the face and (especially) the eyes.


eyes - mourinho


As Bühler reminds us, pointing words connect the speaker to the object under discussion. A pointing gesture does not merely show what the actor is talking about, it also demonstrates the nature of the relationship between pointer and object.


Consider how the shepherds in Monteverdi’s Orfeo might point at Silvia, as they first recognise her (‘elegant Silvia, the sweetest companion of beautiful Euridice’), as they react in shock to her demeanour (‘Oh, how sad her face is!’), during her narration of Euridice’s death, and as she departs to exile (like an ‘ill-omened bat, hateful to the shepherds and the nymphs’). Period conventions discourage actors from moving around the stage whilst they are singing, so the direction of the shepherds’ pointing might not change at all, but the affetto certainly will. And how will this Messaggiera’s Refer to Self gesture be transformed at the words odiosa a me stessa, ‘hateful to myself’?


Calcagno draws his readers attention to the to-and-fro between actor and audience. Period texts often set up contrasts between stage left and right: “on one hand …. on the other hand”. The historical convention is that anything good is to the actor’s right, everything bad is to the left. This convention dictates the relative positions of the actors on-stage, as well as the imagined locations of everything that is mentioned in the play-text or operatic libretto. The next post in this series, on my Ut Pictura technique for applying historical gesture in modern-day performance,  continues from this point…


Pointing hand

Click on the pointing hand, or here, to read more.

For now, well done, everyone!



Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]


Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.





Happy New Year 2016





2016 Happy New Year



Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]


Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

Look Bach on 2015

ALK & Peri


Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.

Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!



Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!


Peri Euridice Preface vale


Please join me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]


Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.



Keep calm & concentrate: may the Force be with you!

In a paper I presented earlier this year at the 2nd Oxford Conference on Music & Consciousness (the first part of that paper is written up here), I identified remarkable similarities in mind/body/spirit processes across many skilled and creative disciplines. There seems to be a special state of relaxed concentration that is found in the best music-making, drama, sports play, martial arts, Feldenkrais Method, creative writing, painting and many other creative activities. It is sometimes labelled as Flow or the Zone, and it has the double function of optimising learning during training/rehearsal/experiment as well as facilitating top-quality performance/execution in crucial situations.


Keep Calm and Concentrate


My Oxford paper offered a structured study of these similarities according to a well-known scientific model. There is an extensive academic literature on the subject, with evidence-based research on experiential, neurological, psychological, physiological and social aspects of the phenomenon. But, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I won’t use its scientific name in this article. For now, let’s just call it ‘the Force’.


Experts in Force-ology, let’s call them Jedi, recognise the Power of the Force at work wherever there is focused concentration. This Force has its Dark Side, where concentration without accompanying relaxation leads to increased nervousness or a sense of being under threat, described in different contexts as ‘performance anxiety’, ‘writer’s block’ or ‘choking’. Anxiety, trying too hard or an over-aggressive attitude towards fellow competitors can all lead to this dark side.


Fear is the path to the dark side


Less frequently, a strange and inappropriate excess of relaxation leads to dreamy contemplation, when focused action is needed. A friend of mine just watched, frozen to the spot, as her young baby fell into a swimming pool. Her only conscious thought was: how beautiful he is! In contrast, her husband experienced that Time Distortion which is a feature of the Force: it seemed that time itself slowed down as he dived into the pool and rescued the child. Effective use of the Power of the Force requires a fine balance between concentration and relaxation.


In his classic descriptions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies a balance between high levels of Skill and Challenge as a defining characteristic.



If the Challenge exceeds your Skill, you are frustrated. If your Skill exceeds the Challenge, you are bored. If Challenge and Skill are balanced, at a high level, you can enjoy the experience of Flow, the Force is with you.


Flow diagram transit of Venus


My own Jedi-research shows that the various characteristics of Flow (and of other similar manifestations of the Force), first identified by Csikszentmihalyi, operate as apparently opposing pairs, balanced at high level. Challenge & Skill, Concentration & Relaxation, Control & Unselfconsciousness, Goals & Feedback, Awareness & Action, Delayed Gratification & Time Distortion. See Csikszentmihalyi’s Classic Flow & Lawrence-King’s Flow Pairs here.


I also identify a new Flow-pair, also apparently opposing and balanced at high-level: Spontaneity and Precision. The Power of the Force allows musicians and actors to improvise elegantly; sports players and martial artists to react quickly, flexibly and accurately; writers and speakers to frame a new idea in just the right words. Indeed, ‘precise spontaneity’ captures the very essence of a performer in full Flow.




Csikszentmihalyi associates the ability to use Flow with a basic personality trait, autotelism. Read more about the Autotelic personality here. But what if you were not born autotelic? Are you excluded from Flow? Csikszentmihalyi’s viewpoint seems close to the (now exploded) Talent myth, the mistaken idea that great performers are born, not made. See Matthew Syed’s Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice here, in support of the idea that even the highest-level skills can be learned.


The Jedi recognise that, whilst some people might be born with abundant midichlorians, about 10,000 hours of concentrated & relaxed training is required to learn to use the Force. (See Malcolm Gladwell Outliers here & Daniel Coyle The Talent Code here for more on long-term learning through ‘deliberate practice’.) Whatever the application, wielding a light-sabre or piloting a space-ship, the Jedi are experts in training would-be knights to know the Force itself.


Of course, that long Jedi training is not just something you do, it is something you become (I borrow this idea from Sifu John Ding’s introduction to Tai Chi, here.) So, as you continue learning, you may well acquire many of the traits of Csikszentmihalyi’s autotelic personality. One part of the autotelic outlook is that learning is continuous and never-ending.


Skill is not a destination, but a journey.


The Shakespeare Rose

The Shakespeare Rose


What is in a name?


Since the same Force is at work in so many applications, in one way it doesn’t matter what you call it. Flow, the Zone, Altered State of Conscious, Mindfulness, Awareness through Movement, whatever. But Jedi practitioners are acutely aware of the power of language, and of the fact that each knight is an individual. Particular vocabulary resonates with some people and not with others; certain words evoke strong resistance from some individuals. Some are repelled by the idea that there could be some mystic or spiritual mumbo-jumbo involved in their craft, others react against dry scientific terms for such holistic mind/body/spirit processes.


One colleague of mine, an internationally renowned expert in music-pedagogy and a Flow-researcher, draws attention to ancient practices of Shamanism which use the power of the Force. It is therefore important to him that the word ‘Magic’ is linked to the concept of Flow. I am sure that this will work for some people, and I support his enthusiasm for the nomenclature that is meaningful for him and the groups he works with. But I’m not surprised that some of his academic colleagues are appalled by references to Magic in his formal papers and publications.


Since people react strongly for or against particular names, it matters very much what name you choose. That is why I’m trying to maintain a light touch of humour, even in this discussion of profoundly serious matters, by using ‘the Force’. Nevertheless, even this name offends some: there are dedicated Star Wars fans who heartily object to the whole notion of the Force.


All this controversy over names is hardly surprising. When you start to alter your state of consciousness, you are delving deep into your innermost self, into that area of mind/body/spirit interactions that is outside your normal awareness. In order to do this, you have to relax and ‘let go’; you have to relinquish conscious control and let the magic happen.  ‘Invest in loss’ is the Tai Chi version of this idea. This can be scary.


We have to learn to trust the Force. When we are nervous or threatened – the big concert, a world-championship – there is strong pressure to cling onto control, with the disastrous results of choking. So it’s no wonder that we are suspicious of any name that appears to threaten our most profound personal equilibrium, or that it takes time to learn to let go, to allow ourselves to enter that special zone.


Yoda let go


Meanwhile, scientific research into what I’m calling ‘the Force’ shows that the precise choice of language has great effect on our holistic, mind/body/spirit processes. Powered by the Force, a tiny change of wording results in utterly different neurological and physiological responses and startlingly diverse physical results in the outer, real world. In this sense too, names matter very much. Each application of the Force – performing arts, sports, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais, Mindfulness etc – has developed its own specialised vocabulary, optimised for the particular needs of that application.


Words matter in another way, too. The mental focus required to consider the complex, holistic meaning – mind/body/spirit – of unusual technical terms is itself conducive to this balance of relaxation and concentration that we seek. In this way, what appears to be insider jargon within particular applications (Chinese language for Tai Chi, antique language for Early Music, individual coach’s pet made-up words in any sport) is actually a mantra, a magic spell for calling down the Force.


So if scientific terms can be off-putting, and the specific vocabulary of particular applications can be useful, do we even need the Jedi and their specialised knowledge of the Force? One might as well ask if we need Mathematicians, as well as experts in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, Biology, Geography and all the many other disciplines that depend on Mathematics. Masters of each application are experts in that application, whilst the Jedi are experts in harnessing the power of the Force itself. But you too can learn the Jedi secrets, how to find the Force within yourself: it’s then up to you how you want to use it.


Inducting a Knight into the Order

Inducting a Knight into the Order


So how do you perform an Induction into the order of the Force, how can you transform yourself into a Jedi knight? Experts in the Force describe countless methods, but I suggest that they all share a common feature. You deliberately (one could almost say, artificially) create some outward Jedi symptoms, and the Force itself will then reverse-engineer the altered state of consciousness required to produce those symptoms for real. In short,


Fake it till you make it.


But what we are faking here is not a specific application, though this can also be a useful exercise: pretend to perform as a master, as a way of reaching your personal best. Rather we are ‘faking’ the experience of the Force itself, so that (once the real magic kicks in) we can then apply that Force to our chosen application.


Thus across all disciplines, many warm-up routines aim to produce focused relaxation, as well as rehearsing particular skills and actions relevant to the particular application. Start-up rituals, established in training and then invoked again at the crucial moment, are vital for another reason too.


In the Star Wars films, Jedi knights can activate their light-sabres at the flick of a switch. For our individual applications, we all need a short-cut to the Force, that will work effectively just when we need it most. This might also be the critical juncture when we need to beware the power of the Dark Side, not allowing fear to divert us into disastrous over-control. Like everything else, the short-cut must also be trained, by linking a specific action (perhaps a standard opening move in your particular application) to the experience of feeling the flow of the Force.


A musician can link relaxed concentration on rhythm itself (the rock beat, the jazz groove, Tactus in Early Music) to previous experience of Flow. Performers of all kinds can create a chain of trusted actions (putting on special clothes, a warm-up routine, walking into the magic space) that anchor their state of mind securely to the bed-rock of focused calm, so that they can access the learned skills required to meet the challenge at hand. If you create these links in advance, and build their strength with many positive repetitions in training, the anchor will hold you safe, when you most need it.




To reach a high level of performance, you need acquired skills, long experience and plenty of serious training in your chosen application. But whatever your level, the Force will help you perform at your best in any application. The Force also helps make your training, all that ‘deliberate practice’ optimally effective. And the links you forge in training can anchor you to the source of the Force, so that fear cannot sweep you away to the Dark Side.


Paradoxical Pairs & Short-Cut


Of course, each application of ‘the Force’ uses the power in subtly different ways. In particular, Flow (the optimal state for learning and creative work over a long period) is similar to, but different from the Zone (optimised for high performance in a limited time-frame, i.e. ‘against the clock’). Read more at www.TheFlow.Zone


Read about applying the Force to Shakespearian theatre and Baroque Opera in The Theatre of Dreams here.



The Flow Zone mashup 2015



If you haven’t already guessed, the proper scientific name for what I’ve called ‘the Force’ in the article above is Hypnosis. For an accessible, authoritative and multi-perspective survey see Michael R. Nash Amanda J. Barnier, The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis: Theory, Research and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). For a more practical approach aimed at clinical applications see Michael D. Yapko, Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis 4th edition (Hove: Routledge, 2012). For a ‘friendly and brief guide to the essentials’ see Bill O’Hanlon, A Guide to Trance Land: A Practical Handbook of Ericksonian and Solution-Oriented Hypnosis (New York: Norton, 2009).


The art of persuasive language, using the power of words to activate the Force, is the study of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). This is a name that many react against very strongly: some believe it is the Dark Side of Hypnosis. I see it simply as the Force of words, which can be used for good or ill, with scientific caution or to wild excess. In many ways, NLP resembles 17th-century Rhetoric. Read more from the Yoda of NLP, Richard Bandler, in Guide to Trance-Formation: How to Harness the Power of Hypnosis (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 2008).


Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]


Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.


Lord of the Strings

Modus Agendi, or How to Act: preliminary exercises for Baroque Gesture

This article is Part 2 of a series on Historical Action, following on from Start Here: How to study Baroque Gesture and Historical Action here.

The rehearsal and training exercises I describe in this article are ‘stepping stones’ towards historical gestures that you can use in performance. They are also designed to bring specific benefits to the music/speech. So the exercises are well worth trying in rehearsal, even if you choose not to use gesture in the final performance. The exercises are designed for 17th-century recitar cantando – the first Italian operas, English masquing airs, declamatory songs, recitative songs by Lawes, Purcell, etc. – but can of course be adapted for other repertoires, or for spoken drama, including Shakespearian blank verse.


Modus agendi


Before starting these exercises, choose a song (or opera excerpt) that you already know well, written in duple time. I will take as my working examples two solos from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers: Nigra sum and the opening solo of Pulchra es, but it should be clear how you can apply these exercises to whatever piece you want to work on.


To start with, keep things simple with a song in duple time. I’ll cover Tactus-beating for triple meters in a future post, but you can read my suggestions about Proportions in general here, and about Proportions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo here.


For a song lasting, say, three minutes, I’d recommend trying each of these exercises for the whole text, perhaps twice through for each exercise. The idea is to build up general familiarity with and fluency in these hand movements, rather than to perfect any one particular moment within the song. But it can be helpful to have a training partner or rehearsal director to observe and give you feedback about anything that could be improved. If you don’t have an observer, then use a mirror, and/or video yourself and watch the playback.



Start here


Click the START HERE image above to revise the fundamentals of Historical Stance (contrapposto), Hand Position, and Visions (Ut Pictura: creating an imagined vision of what you are talking about in the text to be performed). If the text includes any kind of visual description, plan ahead where in your field of (imaginary) vision each element of the picture will be situated.

So now you are standing diagonally on to your audience, weight on one leg, the other leg elegantly bent. You are holding your music in your left hand, and your right hand rests palm upwards, midway between your belly button and your chin. Fingers gently curved, middle two fingers brought close together, little finger curved more inwards, index finger less curved. Imagine you are holding a tennis ball in your hand – that gives a feeling for the right amount of curve and strength (just enough, no excess tension) in the fingers.

Exercise I: TACTUS

Lift up your hand, palm outwards. Now let your arm swing gently and slowly down-up, about one second in each direction, i.e. two seconds for the complete down-up movement. This is how 17th-century musicians understood the measurement of rhythm: down for one minim, up for another, so that the complete down-up cycle last a semibreve. Your best human estimate of the duration of one second will be sufficiently precise: they didn’t have stop-watches and digital metronomes in Monteverdi’s time!

Tactus beaters

The quality of the movement should be smooth and ’rounded’, like a pendulum swing, rather than jerky or “pointed”, like a modern conductor’s beat. There is a subtle difference between down and up strokes, arsis  and thesis. (Which is which is a knotty question, see the introduction here.)


As you move your hand, consider that musical rhythm (musica instrumentalis) was a symbol also for the harmonious nature of the human body (musica humana): let your arm swing with the quiet constancy of a heart-beat. Rhythm also symbolised the perfect motion of the stars and planets (musica mondana), moved by the hand of God: let your hand move gently, but with the profound significance of cosmic force, and with divinely-ordained authority.


What is music


This period philosophy of Music does not make you, the Tactus-beater, a demi-god who can alter Time and divert the sun on its course, at your whim. Rather, it gives you a weighty responsibility, to maintain a steady beat so that the heavens do not collapse, to sustain the pulse for the sake of the health of all humanity.



Nigra sum with Tactus_0001


Now sing your song through, paying attention to keeping the Tactus beat as constant as you possibly can. Don’t let your hand follow the voice! Rather, use the gentle power of Tactus to keep your singing in rhythm. It should feel rather like singing jazz, in that there is a strong, steady swing as the foundation for whatever longer or shorter notes you actually sing.

Pulchra es for Tactus_0001


What to check for

Your observer (or you yourself, watching the mirror or video playback) should check for steady, smooth hand movements, and for a clear sense that the ‘hand of God’ is in command, with the human voice conforming to the Tactus pulse.

Purpose of the exercise

Even with a song you know well, it is quite possible that this exercise might reveal some places where your rhythm was not steady, as measured by the Tactus beat. You may well find that the composer’s note-values are more varied than you had realised. Without the discipline of a steady Tactus, most ‘free’ performances tend to reduce contrast: long notes are cut short, short notes are not fast enough, rests are disregarded.


As a preliminary exercise for Baroque Gesture, Tactus-beating gets you accustomed to moving your right hand, and breaks the connection between hand-movement and voice-production, a connection which is often created by modern singing teachers or by gestural practices in romantic music, but which is unhelpful for Early Music.


Advanced use of Tactus


Nevertheless, there are certain freedoms, inside this slow Tactus beat. If the music is set syllable by syllable, then note-values notated equally can be subtly varied, according to the weight of each syllable. Where note-values are unequal, it is often good to emphasise that difference: make the long notes extra-long, the short notes extra-short. If there is a melisma (several notes on one syllable), you are free to play around with the note-values: see Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (original print here, my translation and commentary here) for examples of how to do this. All of these freedoms operate within the bounds of the steady Tactus.


Finally, there is a stylish special effect, which is to maintain the Tactus pulse, but deliberately to sing off the beat, like a jazz singer making syncopations. Read more about Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz here. I recommend strongly that you leave this for later, concentrating to begin with on establishing and maintaining the steady Tactus.


Tactus in Historical Performance

The images above show a recorder-player using Tactus-beating to study a piece, and singers using Tactus-beating for songs and ensembles. In his seventh (1619) book of Madrigals, entitled Concerto and full of varied ensembles here, Monteverdi marks the dramatic solo recitatives as ‘in theatrical style’ in genere rappresentativo and ‘to be sung without beating Tactus ‘& si canta senza battuta’. The implication, of course, is that conventional madrigals and other ensemble-pieces would have Tactus-beating.

Senza battuta


The anonymous c1630 MS Il Corago here agrees that Tactus-beating was not used in dramatic recitative, but that in a staged show, the principle continuo-player might beat Tactus for large-scale ensemble music. Music with ‘divided choirs’ (Gabrieli, Schütz, the Monteverdi Vespers etc) would have multiple Tactus-beaters to unify the Tactus across large spaces.



So this Tactus-exercise is something that can also be used in performance, but would not be used in a dramatic solo recitative, especially not on stage. For Nigra sum and Pulchra es, it would not be wrong to beat Tactus, but there are probably better and more beautiful things to do with your hands. Read on….


Exercise II: Good & Bad

Early Music is Rhetorical – it is based upon words. Those words should be clear, delightful and passionately moving. As an element of Historical Action, Baroque Gesture is also Rhetorical – it springs from the words. Shakespeare has Hamlet instruct the Players to:

Suit the Action to the Word

Word-based musical phrasing, and word-based baroque gesture starts at the fundamental level of syllables, accented and unaccented – or to use the period terminology, Good and Bad. Read about The Good, the Bad and the Early Music phrase here.

The Good & the Bad

The idea of this exercise is very simple: move your hand on the Good syllable, not on the Bad. It is more difficult to do, than you might think. Most singers find it easy to move the hand on a Good syllable, but harder to do nothing on the Bad syllable.


The hand movement, with the Right hand, begins from the Start Here neutral position, with the hand resting palm upwards, midway between your belly button and your chin, holding that imaginary tennis ball. On the good syllable, move your hand outwards, and slightly upwards, as if offering the tennis-ball to another player, standing in front of you and slightly to your right.


On the Bad syllables, let your hand remain still. Not tense, as if the tennis-ball has become a lead weight, and you are desperate for your partner to take it from you! Just relaxed and still, with nothing happening. This is perhaps the hardest element of the exercise, to learn who to do nothing.


On the next Good syllable, let your hand move again, either a little further outwards, or back towards the central resting position. Whatever feels natural – you don’t want your arm to end up too extended, but if there are several Good syllables in quick succession, you might not want to reverse the movement for every one.


At the end of a strophe, or at the end of the whole piece, let your hand fall gently to your side. This shows the end of a section.

Try this exercise several times, just speaking the text.


Nigra sum Good and Bad_0001

Good syllables are marked in RED


Then try with singing. Particularly when singing, the temptation to move on a Bad syllable can be hard to resist. Practice until it is easy and natural to move your hand appropriately.


Pulchra es with Good and Bad_0001

Good syllables are marked in RED

What to check for

It’s fairly easy to make a movement on each Good syllable. Check for false movements (or attempted movements) on Bad syllables, in particular small unaccented words (e.g. et) or final syllables (e.g. fi-li-A). Check also for unnecessary tension during Bad syllables, when the hand should be resting.


Singers will find it helpful to shorten unaccented final syllables, rather than sustaining them for the full written value of the note. This is anyway good style.


Purpose of the Exercise

I invented this exercise as an aid to the musical performance, to help singers establish a clear sense of Good and Bad syllables. In that context, the hand-movement is merely an outward and visible sign of the inward thought-processes. Using a hand-movement helps singers concentrate on this question, and allows both singers and directors to observe the level of success.


But Gesture was itself described in period treatises as ‘an outward and visible sign’ of the inward movements of the passions of the spirit. So this exercise is also useful preliminary training for gesture, establishing the connection between Word and Action, between a Good syllable and the Stroke (the well-timed focus of movement) of a gesture. By doing the exercise first whilst speaking, the non-period connection between hand-movements and vocal production are broken, and a new connection made between Text and Action. Make sure that the gestures remain text-based, even when you start to sing.

Advanced Good & Bad

This next variation of the exercise develops the ability to ‘shape’ long notes with a messa di voce, as well as increasing one’s awareness of subtle shaping and the Stroke of gestures.


Plain note (with messa da voce), Waived note (with messa da voice and late-arriving vibrato) Trillo (with accelerating trill and diminuendo) Roger North (1695) cited in Greta Moens-Hanen "Das Vibrato in der Musick des Barock"

Plain note (with messa da voce),
Waived note (with messa da voice and late-arriving vibrato)

Roger North (1695)
cited in Greta Moens-Hanen
“Das Vibrato in der Musick des Barock”



Sing your song once again, moving your right hand on the Good syllables (and not on the Bad). But now, move your hand slowly and further, making a long gesture for a long note; move your hand less and somewhat faster, for a short note. For a very long note, the gesture should match the ‘shape’ of the note by starting slowly, and moving to a Stroke at the moment where the bloom of the crescendo and vibrato happens.


Good and Bad in Performance

Although this is not yet completely historical gesture, I suggest that it can already be effective in performance, helping the performers focus on Good syllables and beautifully-shaped long notes. But if you can incorporate the results of the next exercise, so much the better. Read on….


Exercise III: Meaning

Renaissance Theory of Visions


Try this exercise several times, speaking, before attempting to combine everything at once with singing as well.


As you pronounce the Good syllable of each word, focus your mind on the meaning of that particular word. This soon becomes a Mindfulness exercise, in which you seek to keep focussed on each particular word in that very moment, without being distracted by what happened previously, or what is about to happen next.


Two historical concepts can help you with this: Enargeia (the emotional power of detailed visual description) and Visions (an imagined picture of what you are describing in the performed Text). As you sing formosa filia, imagine how the the ‘beautiful daughter’ looks, and locate this imagined figure precisely in your field of vision. An appropriate place, keeping in mind the etiquette of a renaissance court, which carried over into the conventions of theatrical practice, would be in front and to your right side. Similarly for amica mea: you can locate your imaginary ‘friend’ forward right.


Courtly lady Italian c1600


Ut Pictura


The combination of all these elements is what I call the Ut Pictura technique, borrowing from a favourite period expression, ut pictura musica (music is like a picture). As you sing the Good syllable of each word, you concentrate on the meaning of that particular word, and you imagine, with as much detail and precision as you can, how the resulting ‘scene’ looks, with a specific location for the particular elements you are currently describing.


Caravaggio Calling of St Matthew

What to check for

For an attentive observer, it quickly becomes very obvious, whether the singer has a specific meaning and a detailed picture in mind as they pronounce a certain word, or not. Sometimes singers have the translation of the text written into the score, or buried somewhere in their memory, but not available to them in the moment of performance. Sometimes, under pressure, one can be distracted away from the particular word at hand, perhaps thinking about a difficult note in the next bar, or whatever. Sometimes, singers will pronounce a word meaningfully, but have no specific visual imagination of it, or no particular location for it.


It’s worth considering that attentive audience members will also be able to notice whether or not you are fully committed to the meaning of each word, and have an inspiring Vision of it. This applies even when singing in your native language.


Purpose of the Exercise


This exercise too was invented as an aid to musical delivery, attaching deep meaning to each word being sung. As singers start to acquire the skill to do this, you will notice the enormous difference focus on Meaning makes for passionate performance, and you will probably be unwilling to accept anything less, in the future!


As an exercise for Gesture, establishing connections to the Meaning of each word is an obvious pre-requisite for satisfying Shakespeare’s demand, Suit the Action to the Word. But the resulting hand-movements are more than just a well-completed exercise, they are themselves a basic, Default Gesture, that is thoroughly historical and can be used in performance.


Default Gesture in Performance


Although the actual hand-movement is just a basic to and fro, this is now ‘real’ baroque gesture, and can be used with confidence in performance. Of course, there are other specific gestures to be learnt and added later, but this basic movement of the hand gently back and forth every few words, is a Default Gesture described by Quintilian (1st cent AD), Shakespeare (Hamlet c1600) and Bulwer (1644).



Default Gesture demonstrated by Moliere: initial position. From here, the right hand moves outwards.


However, what makes this Default Gesture work is not what you do with your hand, but what you do with your mind. If you fill your concentration with the meaning of the word and an imaginary vision of the scene, all that Enargeia (the emotional power of detailed visual description) will turn to Enargeia (the spirit of passion) transmitted from your eyes and hands to your audience. The force of your own concentration and imagination will change your facial expression, the look in your eyes, and (in indescribably subtle ways) the movement of the hand gesture.


Moliere crop

Default Gesture (2) Moliere again: the right hand has moved outwards, and is now ready to return again to the initial position.


Advanced Default Gesture


For total success, you need to synchronise all these elements – pronunciation, meaning and vision, the gaze of your eyes and the movement of your hand – with the music, i.e. with the steady beat of the Tactus.


So try the song again, with a partner to beat Tactus for you. Or you could ask your accompanist to play in absolutely steady Tactus, to keep you in time. According to Agazzari in 1607 (original here, my commentary here), the role of the continuo is to direct the entire ensemble. If you can synchronise all of this, you really have unlocked the secrets of early Baroque performance, and you are ready to go on to more advanced gestures.


Just for Fun

This last variation is really only a party-trick, but it might help you realise that combining all these elements is quite a challenge, a challenge which deserves sustained practice over months and years. Try beating Tactus with left hand, and doing Default Gesture (Good syllables only, coordinated with the length of the note, synchronised with the meaning of the word and supported by a precise Vision of the scene) with your right hand.


This would not be done in historical performance, but it is a (very demanding) drill that combines everything you should have learnt from the exercises in this post.


Good luck!


The next article in this series, Baroque Gesture: What’s the Point? is here.


Magnanimitatem ostendit


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www.TheHarpConsort.com  [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

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http://www.TheFlow.Zone  [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.