Musing allowed – Reflecting on Music, Time & Play

This article reports on my work-in-progress to create an Explorer’s Guide to Early Opera, under the title The Play of Music & Time. More about the project here. Written within the discipline of Reflective Practice, this post simultaneously documents the on-going process and is itself part of that process, a considered “thinking-aloud” that helps establish a blue-print for continuing the design. And no doubt, that blue print will be adapted, along the way…

Listening again to Peter & the Wolf (1936) – score herevideo with animations here – and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945) – sound with animated score here – was an experience both inspiring and somewhat daunting. I feel a palpable sense of awe at the achievements of Prokofiev and Britten in creating these expertly crafted and artistically powerful works.

These two models are of course, very different. Peter would fit into Monteverdi’s concept of favola in musica, a story in music. More about Monteverdi’s Orfeo here. Prokofiev’s fable resembles the Grimm brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen: underneath the charming fairy tale of a young boy, his grandad and various animals there is an undercurrent of danger and violence. As in an opera, music and action are united, the spoken narration is like recitatives that link the instrumental ‘arias’ and duos, the final tutti is a rousing chorus.

Although by 1946 Britten had already written two operas, Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes, as well as many settings of thought-provoking poetry, his Guide is presented not as a story, but as a set of Variations, creating a certain abstract quality, in contrast to Prokofiev’s naïve, but vivid realism. Britten seems to write for more sophisticated listeners, and formal construction is part of his educational message. Not only are we introduced to the instruments of a much larger orchestra, but those instruments are categorised into sections (strings, woodwind, brass, percussion), individually itemised, and then re-assembled in – who else would have dared to aim such a thing at Young Persons? – a thrilling double-fugue.

The power of Prokofiev’s art is hidden underneath what seems to be innocent pastoral: Peter is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Britten’s intellectual explorations proclaim both the seriousness and the fun of symphonic writing: his large orchestra with its close-knit team of elite soloists becomes a playground of the mind, a space-time for rhythmic and colourful music-games.

“La Joie de Vivre” by Picasso (1946)

The Play’s the Thing

We play music. And opera is also a play: a theatrical drama in music, and an act of playfulness that romps across multiple media. The first baroque ‘operas’ were often called rappresentatione: a show, a Play.

So I still like my title The Play of Music & Time, with its echo of the very first baroque music-drama, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima & Corpo (1600) – introduction to the first opera hereCavalieri’s Preface here. Following Monteverdi and Cavalieri, my two protagonists are La Musica and Il Tempo, the personifications of Music and Time – female and male. Soul and Body are united in a third character, Life, also embodied onstage in many early operas.

But I’m puzzling over how to reconcile 17th-century aesthetics with a design that will speak to young audiences and to listeners unfamiliar with Orfeo, Celos, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or even Dido & Aeneas. What is the appropriate Rhetorical Decorum, an artistic structure of what is suitable? What compositorial Voice will by its Nature be understood by all, at once charming the senses and captivating their minds?

Music & Time in the models

The common features of Peter and the Guide are extreme economy of material, tight control of the balance between unity and variety, and masterful orchestration.

Britten confines himself to variations on an eight-bar theme taken from Purcell’s music for the play, Abdelazar (1695): the only new material is the pair of fugue subjects, introduced just before the final recapitulation of the Purcellian theme. Each variation lasts about a minute, there is strong contrast between successive variations, and though the theme is hard to perceive in some variations, it reappears triumphantly at the end. Within each variation, the sequence-structure of Purcell’s melody encourages Britten to use many short-term repeats.

Prokofiev works with different time-scales, inventing many themes (one for each character in the story), and with many (and more obvious) reappearances of those themes. Variation is mostly confined to changes of tonality and accompaniment, allowing the original melody to shine through clearly. Each thematic statement lasts fifteen seconds or less; often there is an immediate repeat before moving on another theme, but each melody returns every time the corresponding character re-appears in the story. There is some directly descriptive music for various action-scenes, and a new march-tune is introduced for the finale, which also reprises the character-melodies with touches of light counterpoint.

In operatic terms, we meet most of the dramatis personae in what might be thought of as Act I. This concludes with Grandad shutting the garden gate to protect Peter from the Wolf lurking nearby in the forest. Act II is all action, as the Wolf attacks and is captured by Peter, with help from the Bird. New characters enter for Act III, the Huntsmen. Exposition – action – new characters and resolution: this is a schema that could fit many three-act operas.

Both composers have superlatively keen ears for orchestral colour, matching varied orchestrations with appropriate musical material to offer young listeners memorable examples of just how each instrument sounds at its best. What could be more perfect than Prokofiev’s chalumeau-register clarinet-cat, or his quacking oboe-duck? And then Britten’s exchanges of gravity-defying two-octave arpeggios turn a pair of cats into acrobats who always land on their feet. Meanwhile both composers effortlessly loop the loop with flute-bird aerobatics.

One can be equally enthusiastic about both treatments of bassoon-grandad, wolf-horns, and hunter-timpani. Trumpets are used to good effect in both scores, and one might even wish that Prokofiev had invented a character-role for his solo trumpet.

 

 

 

Rhetoric at Play

For my own piece, I have some ideas about orchestration of 17th-century continuo-instruments. But the challenges I am grappling with are the balance of unity/variety and the question of how to introduce repeats of material previously heard – this seems essential for my audience – whilst remaining true to the early baroque aesthetic.

The first ‘operas’ were verse-plays set to music in a text-based style that imitated the declamation of a fine actor in spoken theatre. The poet’s choice of strophic or refrain structures might lead to some short-term musical repeats; dance-songs will repeat each phrase and instrumental ritornelli unify an entire scene. But since the same lines of poetry are unlikely to be repeated frequently from scene to scene, so the music also avoids long-term repeating structures. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the first pastoral ritornello reappears to identify scenes in Arcadia, but no other melody is carried forward from one of the five Acts to any other. Listening to the Rhetoric of Orfeo here. The leitmotifs heard (repeatedly, and very effectively) throughout Peter and also in Prokofiev’s (1919) Love of Three Oranges are not part of the seicento style.

I’m planning to use ground basses to give unity within each scene as well as contrast between one scene and another. Grounds are certainly an essential, and very attractive, feature of baroque music. But I haven’t yet decided on an appropriate solution for creating a sense of familiarity for a first-time listener and unity from one scene to another, i.e. some kind of long-term repeating structure.

Meanwhile, in my search for baroque models, my Facebook survey

What are your top ten 17th-century operas?

the survey results are here – has provided an embarrassment of riches beyond my wildest nightmares. I already knew that it was an impossible task, to introduce new listeners to all the early music-dramas I know and love, within a suitable duration for a children’s opera. Now I have a list of many more baroque operas to listen to, learn from, and learn to love!

Britten’s dedication of the Guide to the four Maud children “for their edification and enjoyment” reminded me of two of the three aims of Rhetoric. Perhaps Prokofiev goes even further in hitting all three rhetorical targets – docere, delectare, movere – to teach, to delight and to move the emotions. Even as a composer sets out to teach, he can only touch his audience’s hearts if he first captures their ears with delightful sounds.

La Musica declaims in the Prologue to Orfeo:

With a golden continuo-instrument
My singing usually
Beguiles mortal ears for a while;
And in this way
With the structured harmony
of the Music of the Spheres,
I can even move your souls.

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here.

So how might those heavenly orbits circle round in ear-charming repeats? That’s what I want to know….

Facebook: @PlayMusicTime

The Young Person’s Guide to Early Opera – What are the Top Ten 17th-century operas?

The Play of Music & Time

I’m working on a new project, inspired by Peter & the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, to introduce young audiences to Early Opera. The working title is The Play of Music & Time. So in the search for expert opinions and enthusiastic recommendations, I posted a question on Facebook, which was shared widely in Baroque and Operatic chat-groups.

WHAT ARE THE TOP TEN 17th-century OPERAS?

I received many replies, from performers, academics, baroque opera fans, CD-listeners, You-Tube viewers, audience members from staged productions, and (most importantly) some reports of the preferences of young persons aged 5 to 10.  Many agreed on the favourite works in this repertoire, and counting the votes was for me something like watching the Eurovision Song Contest (except with better music), as two front runners (one by Purcell, one by Monteverdi) took an initial sprint away from the peloton and then fought it out every inch of the way to the chequered flag (have I mixed enough metaphors here?)…

But there were also many lesser-known suggestions, including several works that I haven’t heard. So I now have a substantial reading/listening list to work through, as well as welcome reminders of some fine operas that had slipped my memory.

The aim of my project is both to introduce the accepted canon of Early Operas to new listeners, and to expand the repertoire for those who already have knowledge and experience of 17th-century music-drama. So I’m very grateful to everyone who commented. Thanks to your expertise and enthusiasm, I now have a much wider knowledge-base from which to assess what is essential and what might be fascinating, but as yet little-known.

And as a thank you in return, I now present the results of this online survey, so that you can see how the votes came in.

And the winner is…

Methodology

The posted question was informal, designed to provoke enthusiastic answers. It is not a scientific survey, and should be read in the spirit of fun with which it was carried out. The sample group was self-selecting (those who chose to reply) from within an online community of over 15,000 FB readers (my own Friends and members of the Historical Performance Practice group were the two largest targets for the initial post).

Although I asked for a ‘top 10’, some responders gave fewer, or more than ten suggestions: I counted all these votes equally. For this reason, it isn’t possible to give a clear indication of the sample size, but over 50 operas are listed and some 140 votes were cast.

Some suggested “anything by such-and-such a composer”: for this response, I gave an extra vote to each work by that composer that was mentioned by another respondent.

Quite a few allowed their enthusiasm to carry them beyond the 17th-century: I allowed the first decade of the 18th century, and include here in this commentary Handel’s Acis & Galatea (1718), about which two respondents were very enthusiastic, as especially suitable for young audiences. Handel’s Alcina (1735) was also warmly supported. But I have not recorded the many 18th-century operas that were suggested by only one person: to do so would have been misleading.

I did not define ‘opera’ more specifically, and there was some discussion as to whether English Semi-Opera, Masques and Oratorios could be included. I accepted a vote for any kind of music-drama, and one might well consider that some famous works that do not fit neatly into the ‘opera’ category might have received more votes if my question had been worded more inclusively: Monteverdi Combattimento and Cavalieri Anima & Corpo come to mind.

I did not ask for specific arias.

One respondent argued that the 17th-century opera that was most famous in its own time was Cesti’s Il Pomo d’Oro (1668), a huge production that is little known today. But there are other candidates for that position, not least Monteverdi’s Arianna (1608).

Although some respondents strayed into the 1700s, no-one mentioned the most famous ‘opera’ prior to the 17th-century, the multi-composer spectacular Florentine Intermedi (1589), which is usually considered an essential element of what we now call The History of Opera.

Results

Arias

Although I did not ask for specific 17th-century arias, three music-drama excerpts aroused so much enthusiasm that respondents mentioned them anyway:

Pur ti miro  (Poppea ) – this is not the moment to discuss whether this is by Monteverdi or Cavalli.

Purcell Music for a While (1692, Oedipus) – which my respondent compared to a rock anthem!

Lamento d’Arianna (1608) – In 2017, I wrote what might be called ‘the fourth opera in the Monteverdi trilogy’, composing a setting of the complete 1608 libretto ‘in Claudio’s voice’, around the sole surviving fragment of the famous Lament. Read about Arianna a la recherche here.

Music Dramas

I present the list of works grouped by how many votes they received. Within each group, the ordering is chronological, from the earliest to the later. Some dates are disputed, this is not the place to argue about them!

In the best traditions of such ‘contests’,

I shall present the results in reverse order…

Your Top Ten 17th-century Operas

Many heartfelt thanks to all who took part!

Orlando Orlando: Drama and dance-rhythms

1st November 2019:
To celebrate Orlando Orlando‘s being nominated for Russia’s highest theatrical award, the Golden Mask, in 6 categories – best production Georgij Isaakyan, best design Hartmut Schörghofer, best musical direction Andrew Lawrence-King, best lighting design Alexey Nikolaev , best female soloist Maria Mashulia, best male soloist Kiril Novakhatko – this article has been updated with additional commentary on Handel’s techniques of Drama & Dance-rhythms.

This article was first posted in connection with the premiere of Handel’s Orlando at the Helikon Theatre in Moscow, 27th March 2019, entitled Orlando, Orlando: Handel’s Orlando (1733) in memory of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (2016). Music by George Frideric Handel, Libretto adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece L’Orlando (1711) after Ludovico Ariosto Orlando Furioso (1516/1532). Concept & Adaptation by Georgij Isaakyan (Director), Edition by Andrew Lawrence-King (Musical Director), Techno episodes by Gabriel Prokofiev, Design by Hartmut Schörghofer.

Synopsis of Georgy Isaakyan’s version (read online and/or download pdf)

Orlando Orlando libretto (includes English translation: read online and/or download pdf)

This production is not an ‘authentic’ reconstruction of baroque opera, but a new work of music-theatrical creativity in which 18th-century music tells a 21st-century story, bringing together Gabriel Prokofiev’s specially composed electronic music and the most modern understanding of how George Frideric’s score would have sounded at the King’s Theatre, London in 1733.

For Orlando, Handel assembled an unusually large orchestra with a powerful bass-section, and the dance-rhythm of the fashionable Gavotte is heard several times, representing Orlando’s fury.

In his madness, Orlando identifies Angelica as the mythological godess Persephone: “Beautiful eyes, no, do not weep, no”

In his madness, Orlando mistakes Dorinda for the goddess Venus, or an enemy warrior: “Already, I wrestle him; already I embrace him  with the force of my arm”

In the extraordinary mad-scene created for the famous Italian castrato Senesino, bass instruments play alone as the protagonist descends into a hell of jealous rage.

“I am my own spirit, cut off from myself. I am a ghost, and like a ghost I want to make the journey down there to the kingdom of sorrow!”

And the full orchestra lurches into 5/8 metre as Orlando imagines himself rowing Charon’s boat into the underworld.

“There is boat across the river Styx! In spite of Charon, already I’m rowing over the waves”

Handel freely borrowed from other composers’ (and his own) work, and the previous season he re-wrote two earlier dramas, expanding the chamber-opera Acis & Galatea and transforming a one-act staged masque into the first English oratorio, Esther, performed as a three-act concert with the addition of solo harp, trumpets, drums and a chorus. For Orlando, Handel adapted Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s (1711) story of mad jealousy, itself a re-working of episodes from Ariosto’s 16th-century classic, Orlando furioso. Bernard Picart’s (1710) engraving of the giant Atlas, republished in 1733 as Le Temple des Muses, was re-interpreted as the stage set for the opening scene with the magician Zoroastro.

Perhaps this 1731 print inspired the first scene of Handel’s ‘Orlando’

Handel’s audience were thrilled by several spectacular stage transformations, utilising the full resources of period stage machinery and dramatically presented as the result of Zoroastro’s magic, assisted by his demons. In our production, Schörghofer’s design employs modern stage technology to offer the audience surprise and spectacle, whilst clarifying the subtly interwoven stories as characters from medieval romances (Chanson de Roland, 11th cent) are re-drawn by Boiardo (Orlando innamorato, 1495) Capece, Handel and Isaakyan.

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

A German musician producing Italian opera in England, Handel writes a conventional French-style overture, but surprises the audience with up-to-date dance-music, a fast Italian giga.

This Italian giga has characteristically continuous movement in the melody line, with a driving bass.

Listen to how Gabriel Prokofiev transforms Handel’s giga, the height of fashion in 1733, into 21st-century electronic dance-music.

 

The rhythmic drive of the giga is disrupted with broken phrases to depict Dorinda’s misplaced faith in ‘sweet little lies’.

In spite of trills and rests, this Aria still shows the characteristics of an Italian giga: “Oh dear little words, sweet glances; even if you are lies, how I will believe you!”

The step-and-jump rhythms of a French gigue are heard in Medoro’s second Act aria;

The restrained movement of a French gigue characterises Medoro’s hesitation: “I would like to be able to love you, but…”

the slow swing of an Italian folk-dance, the  siciliano characterises Dorinda’s wistful longing;

More gentle than a giga, the tender siciliano characterises Dorinda’s nostalgia for a love that never was: “If I return to the meadow, I am made to see my Medoro in every flower”

Orlando’s lament in hell is sung to a French passacaille.

In French operas the descending bass of the minor-mode passacaille suggests tragic passions and creates opportunities for expressive dissonances and chromatic variations: “For from tears even in the kingdom of Hell, pity can be aroused in everyone”. The audience come to realise that this text is ironic: in his madness, Orlando shows no pity for Angelica, and changes his Gavotte-refrain to “Yes, eyes, weep, yes, yes!”

The composer’s bold strokes of dramaturgical re-designing and contrasting musical styles were further transformed by unwritten baroque performance practices. Continuo-players spontaneously realised the written bass-line with rich harmonies and strong rhythms; singers added their own variations to the repeated section of a da capo aria; sometimes time would stop whilst singers  or instrumentalists improvised a final cadenza. Handel did not conduct, but directed by playing the harpsichord, alongside the theorbo (bass lute). The expression of the vocal line was not indicated with markings of piano and forte, but follows from the accentuation and emotions of the words.

This Recitative is not just rapid patter, look at all the rhetorical detail: A long note and glorious high notes for “As custodian of your glory…”. Strong dissonance for “I stimulate you to follow it”. Another long note for “Urge.. ” and the highest notes and thrilling contrasts of short notes for “…your heart to great works!”. A long sigh “Ah!” with an intake of breath afterwards, dissonance and Orlando’s voice dropping “love takes it all away from me”. Zoroastro’s voice rises with long notes and an unexpected sharp in the melody-line for “It will be given back to you by valour!”. Orlando’s falling phrase (which would be given the conventional drooping appoggiatura) “It languishes in my breast”. Zoroastro’s strong retort with high notes “Scorned…”, snappily broken phrases “is that what you want to be…” and a suitably horrible melodic tritone “by a vile little boy?”. The “little boy” is Cupid as the flute’s flapping wings show in the following bars.

Instrumentalists similarly have few written phrasing-marks, but imitate the crisp articulation of the Italian language with a great variety of bow-strokes.

What might appear to be just a series of equal quavers acquires subtle rhythmic patterning from the long/short, accented/un-accented syllables of the Italian text, imitated in this English-language metrical paraphrase: “Respond to it for me; your heart might tell you that.. I discard all your love”. Today’s performers might usefully channel a jazz-singer’s approach to text and rhythm, rather than classical training.

For the eerie calm of Orlando’s final aria we added baroque harp, which in Handel’s dramatic works suggests a vision of heavenly peace. Trumpets and drums represent royal authority and military power; horns and oboes a pastoral idyll; the flute an amorous nightingale or Cupid’s fluttering wings. Modern scholarship has revealed the subtle structure of Handel’s recitatives, which imitate the pitch contours and speech rhythms of a great actor in the baroque theatre.

Studying the text as dramatic speech in the grandiose style of baroque spoken theatre reveals how accurately Handel notates [what Il Corago first described c1630 as] ‘the declamation of a fine actor’, in the generation between Thomas Betterton and David Garrick. As shown in my English-language metrical paraphrase: Zoroastro barks out his anger with the urgency of poetic anapests followed by the characteristic contrast of short and long notes “To what risks you’re exposed now, you reckless lovers, by blinded love!”. Angelica’s reply is a languid drawl “We only have to get free from Orlando.” Zoroastro barks again with the upward intonation of an abrupt question “And if he comes here?” – singers can appropriately add an upward appoggiatura. Medoro tries to assert himself, but Handel’s downward inflections betray the character’s weakness “My heart is also valiant!” and Angelica interrupts with powerful rhythm and a strong upward leap “P’haps for my sake, he would not be so cruel” – the conventional appoggiatura makes a harsh dissonance here. Zoroastro mimics her phrase with the slow tempo of bitter sarcasm “And he’ll be nice… to his unfaithful lover?”. With a wonderfully dramatic contrast, he switches back to fast anapests “Hurry up and get running, fly away from his anger…”. The notated rhythms of Handel’s music work perfectly as dramatic speech.

See my previous article on tempo and rhythm for Handel, here.

We added a chorus, whose members (in the manner of Handel’s oratorios or Bach’s Passions) comment on and drive forward the events of which, in the end, they are the victims. Their music is borrowed from Handel’s drama of cultural identity and religious conflict, Israel in Egypt (1739): Handel himself re-worked one of these choruses for Messiah (1741).

In Isaakyan’s reworking of the story, the magician Zoroastro appears in different guises, always as an authority figure: a star news-presenter, a domineering father, a bible-preacher, a populist politician. The choruses I selected show the public’s various reactions: unchallenging acceptance “Great was the company of the preachers”; anxious forboding “The people shall hear and be afraid… they shall be as still as a stone”; belated understanding “There came a thick darkness”; and a fascination with destructive power “He gave them hailstones for rain, fire mingled with the hail”.

“Orlando Orlando” Premiere Left to right: Hartmut Schörghofer, Gabriel Prokofiev, Georgy Isaakyan, Andrew Lawrence-King, Dmitry Bertman

Orlando, Orlando: Nominated  for the Golden Mask in 6 categories (2019)

 

Understand, enjoy and be moved! Listening to the Rhetoric of Orfeo

This article is based on a pre-performance talk for the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Vaasa Baroque Festival and in Helsinki, October 2019.

Many audience members seeing performances of Orfeo in 2019 will encounter a more-or-less familiar situation: a baroque opera with Historically Informed Performance of the music, shown in a thoughtful and sympathetic modern production. Nevertheless, a staged production of Monteverdi’s 1607 music-drama is a special event. This beautiful and moving work is justly famous as one of the very first operas, admired by Early Music fans for its varied ensembles and rich instrumental writing. But it is not often staged: Opera Houses tend to favour more the austere scoring and stark psychodrama of Poppea (1643).

What’s different now?

In this particular production, some features that are different from mainstream opera reflect the situation at the first performance in Mantua. The venue is a hall (originally a room within the Ducal Palace) not a purpose-built theatre. The performing space is small, there is no stage machinery. The cast is just 9 singers, some of them doubling roles, and all of them combining to form various vocal ensembles – there is no separate chorus.

Other features of this project reflect the latest research findings in Historical Performance Practice. The instruments are distributed in contrasting ensembles (strings, flutes, continuo, cornetti & sackbuts) across various positions behind and to the sides of the stage. Cello and violone play with the string ensemble, not with the continuo. The default scoring for continuo is organ & theorbo. Singers and continuo alike avoid ornamentation in this stilo rappresentativo – theatrical style.

There is no conductor, not even someone waving their hands whilst using a harpsichord as a very expensive music-stand!  The anonymous writer of a c1630 manuscript for a Baroque Opera Director, Il Corago, rules out even the Tactus-beating that would be usual in madrigals and religious music. Nevertheless, as Frescobaldi describes in 1615, the whole performance is ‘facilitated by Tactus‘, a slow, steady pulse around one beat per second, which changes slightly according to the emotional affetto from one movement to another.

What was different in 1607?

But if the concept of Baroque Opera is familiar to us, then we might question how today’s situation differs from the experience of the audience in 1607. Certainly, they would not have viewed Orfeo as the beginning of a ‘History of Opera’. They could not know the future, but they were well informed about the recent past and excited at the on-going development of new genres of music-drama.

These were not yet called opera. Orfeo is favola in musica, a story in music. That music was only rarely called recitativo: the usual word (as for Orfeo) was rappresentata, a show, a theatre-piece. In the following year, 1608, librettist Ottavio Rinuccini made the bold move to claim for Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece Arianna the grand status of Tragedia (Tragedy) rappresentata in musica.

There was not yet any specific training for opera-singers. The 1607 cast were court and chapel musicians, all male, who brought to the stage their rhetorical skills of presenting poetry, of narrating stories, of expressive gestures and court decorum – how to stand, where to position oneself, how to behave in the presence of a Prince, or (in this case) in the presence of the demi-god Orpheus, or of Pluto, King of the Underworld. This all changed the following year, when professional actresss Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, known as La Florinda, brought her stage-skills to Arianna, performing the famous Lament to great acclaim.

But even though there was no word for it, by 1607 opera was already a ‘thing’. Peri describes in the Preface to Euridice (1600) how to turn theatrical speech into music; Cavalieri gives detailed instructions for opera-composers and performers in the Preface to Anima & Corpo (1600), the earliest surviving such work. In 1601, Caccini proclaims the priorities of the nuove musiche – new music – as Text and Rhythm.

Research into ancient Greek drama and experiments with new genres were supported by renaissance Academies, including the Mantuan  Accademia degli Invaghiti (music-lovers) who promoted Orfeo. The aristocratic and artistic membership of the Academy would have regarded the work as Striggio’s verse-drama set to music by Monteverdi. And much of what we might today analyse as Musical Forms comes from the poetical of the libretto. But Monteverdi sometimes chooses to disregard Striggio’s blue-print, tending to prefer expressive Monody even where the design of the verses suggests Aria.

As Tim Carter writes in his survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), Academy members’ chief delight was in a show of Rhetoric.  Rhetoric is the use of persuasive speech to explain, to entertain and to stir up the emotions. This focus on words might surprise us, as a way of listening to Monteverdi’s music, but if we think of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Anthony and Cleopatra, also in 1607), then we can understand such delight in the powerful use of heightened language.

So in the Prologue to Orfeo, as La Musica tells the story of Orfeo, the sound of instruments tickles your ears, and the supernatural power of Music moves your soul. At the gates of Hell, Orpheus’ song delights Charon’s heart, but does not arouse any emotion of pity in this tough male. Several decades before Descartes, period Medical Science did not consider a mind/body dualism, but more complex models with mind, spirit, soul, heart and lower-body emotions all interacting.

Academicians admired ancient Greek drama for its capacity to move the audience’s passions ‘to tears or laughter’. And Monteverdi’s reputation as ‘the divine Claudio’ was precisely for his ability to compose music that profoundly affected listeners, even if such contemporaries as Artusi complained about technical breaches of the rules of counterpoint.

As music, Monteverdi’s Orfeo was rappresentata – staged, a show. As literature, Striggio’s Favola d’Orfeo was rappresentata in musica. And according to the new concept of Personation – the ‘realistic’ embodiment of a character on stage, for example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c1600) – Orpheus himself is ‘represented’ in this drama. We listen to the words, we hear the music, we watch the action, and we are moved also by seeing Orpheus’ reactions.

But the decorum of Greek drama would not allow death to be enacted, and in Classical Theatre the most dramatic events were presented as Narration. This tradition of stage Messengers suited baroque singers’ skills in presenting Rhetorical speech in music: telling a story, delighting in detail, moving the listeners’ passions.

We tend to hear baroque opera as Recitative and Aria, in which Recitative is the ‘boring bit between the nice tunes’. This is problematic, since Monteverdi writes only a few ‘nice tunes’. His audience was – of course – unaware of Mozart, Handel and Vivaldi’s operatic recitative, or the story-telling Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. The words Recitative and Aria were used. but around 1600 they had different meanings. New scholarship on this subject is crucial for a better understanding, not only of how to perform, but also of how the 1607 audience would have heard Orfeo.

Recitare means ‘to act’. According to Doni’s (1640) Annotazioni it is incorrect to apply this word to dramatic Monody.  Il Corago explains that there are three ways to act – recitare: with music, with plain speech, and in silent mime. So musica recitativa simply means ‘music for acting’, everything that is delivered by a soloist. including Aria. Aria in this period is any repeated structure in music, rhythm or words. So in period terms, Shakespeare’s ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ [Richard III (c1593)] is an Aria within the Recitative of the whole speech.

In the 20th century, it was assumed that expressive recitative required romantic rubato. But Monteverdi’s rhetorical purpose is not to express the performer’s emotions, but to move the audience’s passions. He does this with subtly composed and carefully notated contrasts of pitch, harmony, rhythm and speed of declamation, controlled by the steady pulse of the Tactus beat.

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

Let the poetic imagery create Visions in your imagination, as if the events were happening before your very eyes.

Let the power of your own imaginative Visions be supported and enhanced by what you see on stage and what you hear in the music.

What does it mean?

In Monteverdi’s dramatic Monody – music for acting – contrasts in pitch represent the impassioned speech of a great actor. Speaking on a monotone is code for ‘Let me tell you a story’ – if there is no music, concentrate on the words.

Contrasts of syllabic speed indicate heightened passion. Crescendo on a single note carries the emotion to the listener. Speaking on the Tactus beat suggests stability, whilst being off the beat or syncopated shows agitation.

The continuo bass is structured to convey emotions: a sustained pedal-point signifies seriousness; slow movement of the bass accompanies a serious or sad subject; fast movement creates the lightness of happiness and dancing. Dissonances of many different types show varied emotions.

Typically, there are many changes of emotions, often with rapid contrasts between opposites.

Ensemble music, vocal or instrumental, on stage represents diegetic, ‘real life’ music. The string ensemble symbolises the mythical Lyre, associated with boh Orpheus and Apollo. Strings, flute and harp are played by the nine Muses. A pair of flutes suggest pastoral pan-pipes. The snarling Regal is the organ from Hell. Cornetti and sackbuts evoke the horror of Hell or the power of sacred music.

In a humanist opera, we might well ask, to Whom is music sacred? To Apollo? Apollo and Orpheus were understood as allegorising God and Christ. Or to Bacchus? Whilst the 1609 and 1615 prints of Monteverdi’s music have a happy ending in which Apollo rescues Orpheus from despair, Striggio’s 1607 libretto ends with a glorious triumph for the opposing team, Bacchus and his hard-drinking, hot-loving Maenads. Andrew Lawrence-King has reconstructed music for the original ending, and you will have to wait till the end of the show to find out who triumphs in the end.

So, in the best traditions of Rhetoric, I hope that this Explanation helps the music move your Emotions, and that you Enjoy the show!

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

Fratres: Arvo Pärt, Gia Kantšeli, Andres Mustonen

On Saturday 5th October, I was privileged to be invited to the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa (Song- land), Estonia for an extraordinary and memorable concert of new, 20th-century and early music.

The Arvo Pärt Centre

The concert was dedicated to the memory of a good friend of Pärt, composer Gia Kantšeli, born in Georgia in 1935, who died few days ago on 2nd October. It was given by Andres Mustonen’s legendary ensemble, Hortus Musicus, and featured compositions by Pärt and Kantšeli, as well as by Hortus Musicus singer Tõnis Kaumann.

Kantšeli’s Helesa (2005) and Valentin Silvestrov’s Three pieces for violin and piano were written in memory of the ensemble-director’s wife, Helle Mustonen: 2nd October was the anniversary of her birthday. Early Music was represented by the anonymous c1300 Missa Tournai and two pieces by Monteverdi; two newly composed pieces were added to the program to commemorate Kantšeli: Kaumann’s In paradisum and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Kirjutamata kiri (Unwritten letter). 

Under the appropriate title of Fratres (Brothers) – the title also of Pärt’s 1977 composition for Hortus Musicus – the concert thus celebrated a brotherhood (including one soprano!) of composers and performers of our times and of the past, whose work has been closely intertwined since the 1970s.

The mood is set already as you arrive at the Centre, located amidst pine-woods on a long peninsular surrounded by the Baltic Sea. The car-park is deliberately somewhat distant, so that the final approach is by a forest footpath, with the sounds and scents of the forest surrounded by deep silence. And as Estonians love to build towers from which to survey their land- and sea-scapes, so the Centre features a tall tower, as well as a tiny Orthodox chapel, with three bells installed close by in one of several inner courtyards.

The ambience is almost that of a medieval monastery, with a library, chapel and never-ending music all in close proximity to the simple beauty of nature.

Prominently displayed within the main building are photographs of this concert’s and other ‘Brothers’, including my old friends the Hilliard Ensemble, whose then director, Paul Hillier was a champion for Pärt’s work in the West.  Paul subsequently wrote a biography of Pärt, and was for many years director of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

It was at the Hilliard Ensemble’s summer school in the 1980s, in Paul’s home-town of Lewes, that I met Arvo, and had the unforgettable experience of playing piano-duet with him whilst the students rehearsed under Paul’s direction.

Another ‘Brother’ has his photo displayed at the Centre, in conversation with Pärt. This is Manfred Eicher, whose ECM record-label brought Arvo’s music to millions of listeners around the world.

Also on display are painted flowerpots. In 1974,  as Pärt was searching for inspiration, for a way out of the artistic block that he felt modernist music had reached, another ‘Brother’, icon-painter and creative psychologist Viktor Krivorotov suggested that the composer might experiment “with different types of art – precisely the ones you do not know or command. You just have to have the courage to do poorly and fail, and even have a certain impudence…”. So his wife, Nora Pärt relates here

So Nora and Arvo ended up decorating hundreds of flowerpots, and – somehow – this simple handicraft opened the way to his famous tintinnabuli composing technique, his distinctive sound and his unique ability to touch the listener’s emotions. More on tintinnabuli here

The Centre’s concert-hall is simply built in wood, with an intimate atmosphere and warm acoustic that favours performers positioned at the front of the stage. It was packed to (at least) its 140-seat capacity for this special event, and such was the interest in this concert that an extra performance was arranged for the following day, also sold out. Saturday’s audience listened with great attention, with pieces received in profoundly appreciative silence, or with happy applause, depending on the mood of the moment. Arvo himself sat, listening intently, in the midst of the public, which  included at least one member of the Estonian ensemble, Vox Clamantis, who have also had a close association with his work.

Arvo Pärt

In the Cold War years, Andres Mustonen’s work behind the iron curtain with Hortus Musicus paralleled to a certain extent Jordi Savall’s with Hesperion XX in the West. Both are charismatic personalities, passionate performers and extraordinary soloists on bowed strings. Both lead close-knit ensembles of musicians who accept their highly idiosyncratic working styles and understand their highly individual approaches to music-making. To this day, both prefer to trust their personal intuition, honed in the hot-house atmosphere of the 1970s, over later developments in historical musicology and period performance practice. Both were married to sopranos who became artistic partners, but who died early: Jordi’s first wife, Montserrat Figueras, died in 2011.

Both favour an approach to early music characterised by kaleidoscopic changes of tone-colour and generous use of percussion. Both can happily combine medieval shawm, renaissance viol, baroque trombone, modern double-bass and Armenian duduk in the same piece of medieval polyphony or Jewish traditional music.

But until this weekend, I was unaware of the significance of Mustonen’s work in contemporary music, and of the close collaboration between Arvo Pärt and Hortus Musicus. Having first encountered Pärt’s music in the exquisitely controlled ensemble and cool timbres of Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter’s tenor voices, and the sustained intensity of David James’ counter-tenor, it was a revelation for me to hear the same music in the rich, warm, vibrant colours of the Hortus Musicus instruments, and with rapid changes of instrumentation from phrase to phrase.

The performances of medeival and early baroque music supplied the key to this puzzle. The medieval Tournai Kyrie & Gloria (marvellously paired here with Kaumann’s Credo, written as a companion piece), which the Hilliards and other performers informed by recent scholarship would perform with 3 voices a capella, was here presented in glorious technicolour, a thrilling experience which channelled Carl Orff to powerful emotional effect. In this context, Hortus Musicus’ approach to Pärt’s Arbos (1977), with its strictly mathematical structure reminiscent of Dufay’s iso-rhythmic motets, showed the close connection between composers ancient and modern and between the Estonian composer and ensemble. 

In 1977, Arvo’s tintinnabuli-style, influenced by Gregorian Chant and early polyphony, and the nascent Early Music movement were united in their opposition to the dominant (and in Estonia, Soviet-imposed) mainstream of modernist composition and post-romantic performance. Pärt and Mustonen formed a close collaboration, with many pieces written for Hortus Musicus.

A decade later in the West, Early Music had itself become part of the musical establishment. So when Savall and Figueras founded La Capella Reial de Catalunya in 1987 they chose ‘mediterranean voices’ in reaction against the dominance of English and German singers. 

In Estonia on Saturday, Mustonen was also a persuasive ambassador for Silvestrov’s ‘metaphorical’ or ‘metamusical’ style. The opening phrases, which could almost have been 1930s salon-music, were delivered – incongruously – with the straight tone and unweighted bow-strokes that one might associate with baroque violin, and in impeccably accurate tuning; in the next, the piano (which both accompanied and often doubled the violin) ladled out great dollops of romantic harmony; and then in the next phrase, as the composition returned to restraint, the violin sound warmed up and vibrato increased; later, the bow moved with all the robust accentuation of modern virtuoso violin-playing. In these short pieces, the ever-changing sonic collage and the episodic structure of the composition were equally fragmentary, presented as a sequence of non-sequiturs in thought-provoking disconnects.

And in a program full of artistic and deeply personal connections, when in the last bars of Kantšeli’s piece for the death of Helle Mustonen, Andres’ violin was left all alone…  I have no words to express the poignancy of this moment.

Andres Mustonen in 1984

As a Monteverdi specialist (I have reconstructed the lost Arianna and I’m directing two productions of Orfeo this month, one reflecting the latest HIP  scholarship, the other with a staging set in 1970s Moscow!), I was fascinated to hear Mustonen’s approach to the early baroque. In these pieces, as throughout the program, tenor Anto Õnnis was superb, with sweet tone, precise diction, accurate intonation, thrilling high notes, impressive breath-control and a clear gaze direct towards the audience.

Although Mustonen’s program-note emphasised that he was not reconstructing his original performances of Pärt, his Monteverdi struck me as authentically 1970s. That is, in all honesty, an observation, not a criticism. And it started me thinking about the differences between Mustonen’s first performances of Pärt, and those performances by the Hilliards a decade or so later, which I grew up with. And about current performances by Vox Clamantis, an Estonian ensemble founded in 1996.

Even for a living composer with such a distinctive ‘voice’,  we are offered widely differing sound-worlds for Pärt, all plausibly ‘authentic’: the rich variety of Hortus Musicus and the restrained minimalism of the Hillard Ensemble;  Estonians in the 1970s and 1990s, and English singers in the 1980s. Meanwhile, both Hortus Musicus and Vox Clamantis, as well as Paul Hillier continue to present their authoritative, but very different versions of Pärt’s compositions all around the world today.

We might equally well question what is the ‘authentic’ sound of Monteverdi: the richly orchestrated ensembles of  Mantuan Orfeo in 1610 or the restrained instrumental palate but intense drama of Venetian Poppea in 1643?

For certain, we should be aware of, and celebrate such differences. And we should respect each performer’s commitment to the composer’s creation, as well as to their own vision of it. In his program-note for this concert, Mustonen boldly proclaims his passion for Early Music and for Arvo’s compositions:

This is music that can save the world

The day had begun for me with a private performance of a new song – simple, but deeply moving – by another Estonian composer. The concert ended with Pärt’s Da Pacem, written for Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI in 2004: I played in the first recording.

And, perhaps appropriately, (for the Estonian word part, as pronounced by an English or Spanish speaker without ä, means ‘duck’) we finished off the evening with a fine dinner of Duck in Honey,  Thai-style, but cooked from authentically Estonian ingredients!

The Chapel Bells at the Arvo Pärt Centre

The Arvo Pärt Centre

Hortus Musicus

 

 

I won’t say too much… the role of Euridice in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

This article is posted in connection with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo for Vaasa Baroque Festival in October 2019.

See also The Orfeo Page by Il Corago for further articles and a documentary film.

Whilst Rinuccini’s verse-drama, set by Peri and Caccini in 1600, has the title L’Euridice, Striggio’s 1607 libretto for Monteverdi presents the same mythological ‘fable in music as a theatrical show’ – favola in musica rappresentata – as L’Orfeo, and the focus is almost exclusively on the protagonist. Following the trend towards Personation – increasingly ‘realistic’ embodiment of theatrical roles – seen also in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and other dramas circa 1600, Striggio seeks to move the audience’s passions by encouraging them to watch how each event affects the central character, Orpheus himself.

As Rhetoric,  baroque music-drama persuades by Logos (word), Pathos (emotions) and Ethos (character). Details of poetic imagery in the text use the power of Energeia not only to express, but to induce listeners to share in ever-changing emotions, from the very beginning of the first Act: In questo lieto e fortunato giorno (happy and lucky)… sospirato e pianto (sighing and crying)… lieto e fortunato (happy and lucky again). As the first Pastore delivers those words and sends out waves of Energia (the communicative spirit of passion), he also mentions and gestures towards nostro semideo (our demigod)… Orfeo, directing the spectator’s attention to the protagonist. The audience then sees the present happiness and good fortune as well as the past melancholy and tears, all mirrored in the face and gestures of the principal actor, reflecting and amplifying the emotional Energia. This amplification is all the more effective, because that actor embodies a character renowned for his divine ability to convey emotions in music. Logos, Pathos and Ethos thus unite to convert poetic Enargeia into emotional Energia, with music as the catalyst.

Also, Orpheus is the presiding figure at the pastoral court of Arcadia. Renaissance courtiers were accustomed to watching their Prince, to gauge his reactions to any event. As the audience at a performance, they would divide their attention between the performers and their Lord: their appreciation of the show depended on his approval. So the split-screen effect on stage (simultaneously showing the action, and Orpheus’ reaction to it) takes advantage of the audience’s real-life experience to super-charge the emotional impact.

This is most obvious in the long Messenger scene, where Eurydice’s death (too terrible to be enacted, and too impractical to show on stage effectively) is narrated in every detail, with almost cinematic changes of pace from the girls fussing around her dying body with cold water and powerful charms to the heroine’s languid eyes and last deep sigh. (There are similar contrasts of pace, with slow-motion effects and rich poetic detail, for the death of Clorinda in Monteverdi’s Combattimento.)

As we hear detailed narration, we envisage the scene. And the 1607 audience also saw Orpheus’ reactions: at the bitter news, the unhappy man is like a mute stone, who for too much grief cannot grieve. A l’amara novella rassembla l’infelice un muto sasso, che per troppo dolor non puo dolersi.

Nevertheless, it does seem surprising that Eurydice herself has only two speeches in the entire music-drama. In the original production, the part was played by a male soprano (perhaps the little priest who had so much difficulty memorising words), but this in itself would not have been an obstacle to extending the role. Shakespeare’s plays, even the great love stories of Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra were originally performed by all-male casts, and the Mantuan audience would have been accustomed to this convention.

The result of the concentration of Eurydice’s entire role into just a dozen lines (six in Act I and another six in Act IV) is to invite us to weigh carefully every word she utters, and to listen attentively to Monteverdi’s realisation of her emotions in the most expressive genre of dramatic monody. More about Monteverdi’s monody here.

I won’t say…

Io non diro qual sia
Nel tuo gioir Orfeo la gioa mia,
Che non ho meco il core,
Ma teco stassi in compagnia d’Amore.
Chiedilo dunque a lui, s’intender brami
Quanto lieta gioisca, e quanto t’ami.

I won’t say what might be
In your joy, Orpheus, my own joy,
For I don’t have my heart with me,
But it is with you, in the company of Love.
Ask this therefore of my heart, if you desire to understand
How happily I rejoice, and how much I love you.

Whereas Orpheus’s love song Rosa del ciel is a rhetorical and musical tour de force, opening with the solemn dignity of an invocation of Apollo over a sustained bass on Gamut (the foundation of all music), Eurydice begins plainly. Her first words show the feminine modesty expected at the time, and Monteverdi’s music obediently takes up the D harmonies from the end of Orpheus’ song. And in spite of the structured poetry in rhyming couplets, she does not sing, but speaks (in the convention of expressive Monody).

But what expression Monteverdi introduces! The harmonic shift to the hard hexachord in the continuo-bass C#6 – E major – A minor foreshadows the harmonies of the Messaggiera’s despairing wail Ahi, caso acerbo!, of Orpheus’ tragic wrong turn in Hell ma qual eclissi, ohime, v’oscura? and of his last request to Apollo Ma non vedro piu mai  de l’amata Euridice i dolci rai? (But won’t I ever see again beloved Eurydice’s sweet eyes?)

Euridice does not say much, but with her words “I will not say..”, Monteverdi says all that could be said.

Now the harmonies turn to the natural hexachord, C major, with Orpheus’ joy and hers too. But a strange melodic leap and high dissonance highlight the poetic imagery “I have no heart” – this conventional trope will gain uncanny power in Act III when Orpheus argues that since his heart (Eurydice) is no longer with him, without a heart he cannot be alive, so he must qualify for passage on Caronte’s ferry to the underworld.

In a speech artfully crafted to appear naive, the rhetorical term dunque stands out as an unexpected connector …therefore… Perhaps Striggio is marking connections to other appearances of this word: in the first Pastore’s opening speech (where it underlines a rhetorical repeat of the first lines); in the second Pastore’s reminder that joy comes from heaven; in the Shepherds’ praise of Orpheus and his Lyre in Act II; and in Apollo’s formal invitation to heaven at the end of the whole drama.

In Eurydice’s first speech, by the time we reach the word Amore, we have returned to the soft hexachord and to the harmonies of Orpheus’ song. And her last words are the simplest possible declaration, “I love you”, all on one note. This is a musical code: the absence of melody tells the audience to pay attention to the words. And if we listen carefully, two words are repeated in this short speech, emphasising the emotional tone: love and joy.

But nevertheless there was a hard hexachord hint of trouble ahead when Orpheus’ desire is coloured by B natural, whilst Eurydice’s love has soft hexachord Bb. Bramare (to desire) evokes the Choleric humour associated also with anger, violence and Bacchic excess; whereas amare (to love) is associated with the generosity, joy and hope of the Sanguine humour. With delicate choice of similar but contrasting words and notes, Striggio and Monteverdi drop a subtle hint that Eurydice’s feelings are appropriately warm, but Orpheus’ passions are already too hot.

Too much!

Ahi, vista troppo dolce e tropp’ amara!
Cosi per troppo amor, dunque mi perdi?
Ed io, misera, perdo
Il poter piu godere e di luce
E di vita, e perdo insieme
Te, d’ogni ben piu caro, o mio consorte!

Ah, sight too sweet and too bitter!
Thus through too much love, therefore you lose me?
And I, wretched girl, lose
The power anymore to enjoy light
And life, and I also lose
You, of every good thing the most dear, Oh my husband!

Only one word from Eurydice’s first speech is heard when she speaks again: that word is Amor – love. But two new words dominate this short but emotionally searing lament: troppo – too much, and perdere – to lose, and they are connected by another rhetorical dunque. The message could not be clearer: it is Orpheus’ excessive emotions that have resulted in total loss.

This verdict will be underlined by the commenting chorus at the end of the Act: Degno d’eterna gloria fia sol colui ch’avra di se vittoria. (Worthy of eternal glory is only he who will have victory over himself.)

And at the end of the story, Apollo hammers home the lesson, arriving when Orpheus is ‘in greatest need, driven to a desperate end with extreme grief by anger and love’. Al maggior uopo arrivi, ch’a disperato fine con estremo dolore m’havean condotto gia sdegno ed Amore.

Apollo’s message is stern and clear:

Troppo, troppo gioisti
Di tua lieta ventura,
Hor troppo piangi
Tua sorte acerba e dura.

Too much, too much you rejoiced
In your happy luck,
Now you cry too much
For your bitter and harsh fate.

But with the following dunque (the last one), drawn out and high in the voice, Apollo connects his severe judgement to an invitation to eternal life in heaven, and Orpheus is saved to admire Eurydice’s beautiful face in the sun and the stars.

Euridice’s Act IV music is also loaded with information and emotion. The expressive exclamatione in the soft hexachord, “Oh!”, with a tender dissonance against Eb (compare Grandi’s O quam tu pulchra es here) twists unexpectedly to hard hexachord and the fatal harmony of E major on dolce, an ominously troubled sweetness. Amara returns to soft hexachord Eb again, but with the bitterest dissonance this hexachord allows.

The crucial verse is heralded by the use of narrative style – speaking on a monotone F# warns the audience to pay attention to the words, without being distracted by pretty tunes. And with the genius for expressing emotions that the ‘divine Claudio’ was famous for, this story-telling F# collides heartbreakingly with Orpheus’ love-music of G minor, on the word Amor itself. Monteverdi even manages to convey Eurydice’s disbelief by turning Striggio’s statement into a question, with an upwardly inflected cadence. This musical gesture corresponds to the actor’s upturned hand, indicating a question.

The dissonance on misera (wretched) stabs harsh G# into soft hexachord F, leading inevitably to fatal E major and the Messaggiera’s C# 6. The word caro is given soft hexachord Bb, and another tender exclamatione expresses unhappy Eurydice’s last sigh, before the Infernal Spirit thunders (in E major, of course) Return to the shadow of death! Torna a l’ombra di morte, infelice Euridice!

17th-century poets and poetry-fans would collect beautiful verses in isolation, to admire them, and to insert them into a longer poem when opportunity arose. In the centre of this speech, at the crucial moment in the whole drama, here surely is one such line from Striggio, shining sadly like a dark gemstone in Monteverdi’s artfully bitter-sweet setting:

Cosi per troppo amor dunque mi perdi!

 

The Minister’s Conditions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

This article is posted in connection with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo for Vaasa Baroque Festival in October 2019.

Read more about Monteverdi’s ‘story in music’ and watch a documentary film here: The Orfeo page by Il Corago

 

 

When Pluto, King of the Underworld, declares that Orpheus can recover his beloved Eurydice, two of his infernal Ministers comment. In the musical score, the first speech is marked to be sung a tone higher, perhaps reflecting changes in the distribution of vocal roles during the rehearsal period for the 1607 first production.

O de gli habitator de l’ombre eterne
Possente Re, legge ne fia tuo cenno
Che ricercar altre cagioni interne
Di tuo voler nostri pensier non denno.

O, the inhabitants’ of the eternal shadows
Powerful King, the law will be made from your gesture
For to search out other deeper reasons
For your wishes our thoughts are not worthy.

Striggio’s verses recall Giovanbatisto Strozzi’s lyrics for the Hell scene in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, set by Giovanni de Bardi Miseri habitator del ciec’ averno (Wretched inhabitants of blind Avernus). The architecture and social structures of Striggio’s Hell would be instantly recognisable to the 1607 audience: within a landscape familiar from Dante’s Inferno, Pluto presides over an infernal court, just as Orpheus presided over the pastoral shepherds in Arcadia. And amidst the Minister’s courtly flattery we are reminded of the importance of the cenno – Gesture – as signifying a binding decision in a court of law, as a manner of royal proclamation to attending courtiers, and as communication to the audience from performers on the baroque stage. See Bonifacio’s 1616 L’Arte de’ Cenni (The Art of Gesture) here.

 

 

Monteverdi’s setting uses the coding of dramatic Monody to send listeners two important signals. Long notes in the continuo bass-line, in the Tactus values of semibreves and minims show that this is a serious subject, as explained by Peri in the Preface to his 1600 setting of Euridice. More about the coding of ‘recitative’ here. And the first words are recited on a monotone, categorised in Doni’s 1640 Annotazioni, additional notes to his Compendium of the Genres and Styles of Music (1635) as the Narrative style. This signals that infernal Spirit has a story to tell, that the audience is being addressed directly with significant information about the plot of this ‘fable in music’.

More on Rhetoric, Rhythm and Passions in Monteverdi’s favola in musica here. together with links to the 1607 Libretto, and original scores from 1609 and 1615. 

Striggio presents these two speeches of the two infernal Ministers as a single Chorus (in the Greek sense of commentary on the action of the principal characters), a Choro di Spiriti Infernali in 8 continuous 11-syllable lines of rhyming couplets, contrasting with the blank verse of Plutone and Proserpina’s speeches. And the significant information comes in the second half of this Chorus, allocated by Monteverdi to a second, lower-voiced singer. Striggio’s poetical structures would  usually have cued the composer to write ensemble or song-like music, but Monteverdi declines that invitation, choosing the more serious texture of Monody. Monteverdi’s choice – not to cloak the words in attractive melody but rather to deliver them in stark declamation – is another signal to the audience that this moment is highly significant, not just pretty music!

Trarrà da queste orribili caverne
Sua sposa Orfeo, s’adoprerà suo senno,
Si che no’l vinca giovenil desio,
Ne i gravi imperi tuoi sparga d’oblio.

He will lead out from these horrible caves
His wife, [he] Orfeo, if he uses his wisdom,
If he is not overcome by juvenile desire,
Nor forgets your grave commands.

The conventional rhetorical phrase for ‘forget’ is to ‘scatter into oblivion’. In the libretto, the commands are tuoi = yours, i.e. Pluto’s commands given. But in the scores they are suoi – his, i.e. Orfeo’s commands received. And for ‘wisdom’ the scores have ingegno – ingenuity: here the libretto seems the better choice, suggesting mature wisdom as opposed to juvenile impetuosity. The word senno also appears elsewhere in the drama, and here it makes the better rhyme.

 

 

Monteverdi directs the continuo to play their solemn D minor for an extra beat before the singer breathes, another marker of heightened significance. Plutone similarly has two extra beats, and we see notations in other operas for the continuo to repeat opening chords as many times as necessary, if a character is making a grand entrance: Penelope in the first scene of Monteverdi’s Ulisse, Tempo in the first scene of Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo. More about Anima & Corpo here.

The pitch contours of the opening line step upwards in thirds, imitating the opening line of the first Spirto. This kind of repeating structure is what was called aria in this repertoire, not necessarily a melody, but any kind of repeated structure in words, rhythm or music. This movement in thirds is characteristic of the earliest Spanish recitado, where it represents the speech of divine characters/ Almost certainly Monteverdi intends a similar characterisation here, for the powerful ministers of hell.

The vital message that all these markers point towards is the threefold condition, under which Orpheus’ mission to Hell might succeed. The singer-hero must employ wisdom, not be overcome by passion, and he must remember the command not to turn and look at Eurydice. Of course, the 17th-century audience knows the story already, and so – as very often in early opera – they are ahead of the characters on stage, enjoying an almost god-like capacity to see the future.

This frequent use of dramatic irony is just one more aspect of the period attitude that privileges the audience as high-status courtiers, noble guests for whom the whole spectacle is provided. As La Musica sings in the Prologue, the audience are praised as ‘noble heroes, noble blood of kings’ – more about the Philosophy of La Musica here.

Since the audience are already with, if not even ahead of, the plot. all this emphasis on the Minister’s Conditions highlights what will become the message of the whole drama, the moral of the tale, summarised in the chorus at the end of this Act (after Orpheus’ disastrous turn):

Orfeo vinse l’Inferno e vinto poi
Fu da gl’affetti suoi

Orpheus conquered Hell, and then was conquered
by his own passions.

and reiterated by Apollo in one of the two surviving endings to the show:

Non e consiglio di generoso petto
Servir al proprio afftetto.

It is not wise for a generous heart
To be a slave to its own passions.

Thus in a music-drama that celebrates the power of music to move the passions, the audience is nevertheless guided towards moderation in their emotional response. Or at least, this is the message, if the Apollo ending (from the musical scores) is performed. The alternative Bacchic ending in the libretto concludes the show with a glorious paean to the ‘divine fury’ of inspiration and inebriation, ‘the spice of all human pleasure and the comfort of every troubled heart’.

 

Cheers!

Challenge your assumptions

 

 

 

This motivational text popped up in my FB feed. Not withstanding the split infinitive, this is what high-quality academic research should be about… and it’s not a bad motto for political opinions either.

 

Learning from errors

The realisation “Aha, I made a mistake” is the first step towards self-improvement. We musicians do this all the time when we practise, athletes and martial artists do this when they train… but it’s harder to do in the academic or personal context.

In the context of Historical Performance Practice, “I don’t know” is the first step towards becoming more Historically Informed. Whereas “I can’t be bothered to find out” is a step backwards, in any context.

In a leadership role, it can feel awkward to admit to errors. But whatever respect you lose or gain from declaring an honest mistake, it cannot compare to how foolish you look when your colleagues know that you are bluffing.

I can’t pretend I manage 100% compliance with this ideal. But I do try… And I think this principle is so important for intellectual research, that I’ve devoted this entire post to it.

 

Accept the challenge

I’m well aware of the phenomenon of ‘researcher bias’, whereby investigators subconsiously select evidence that will support their pet theory. To combat this inevitable tendency, I have made a point of following up citations posted by my academic opponents, and investigating their chosen sources in detail. This allows me to use their researcher bias to counter-balance my own, and has been a most fruitful way to extend my reading list. In academic research as in martial arts, your fiercest opponent can be your best training partner!

If we consider that Musicology – in German Musikwissenschaft – is a science, then the scientific method demands that we constantly test our hypotheses experimentally, and that we re-test frequently, to find out if our initial findings hold consistently.

In this sense, every rehearsal, every practice session, as well as each performance is a new experiment. We should hope that we learnt something from the previous experiment, so we are already in a new situation, even if we tread what might seem to be a well-worn path.

For this reason, I consider it very worth while to re-read familiar and “obvious” historical sources, just as often as I look for a “new” source to read.  Those familiar texts, which were perhaps our first steps into Early Music, can reveal startling new insights, if we approach them with an updated understanding of the context, and with the readiness to re-consider, to challenge our assumptions.

 

 

Challenge the accepted

Scientific scepticism is the aittitude that everything should be experimentally tested, and verified as replicable. The musicalogical equivalent in Historical Performance Pract ice is being ready to question the ‘standard operating procedures’ of today’s Early Music, whilst constantly challanging our own assumptions. What is even more difficult is to become aware of assumptions that we didn’t even know we had made, until some piece of period evidence proves them false…

 

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

 

The past is a foreign country; there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language and understood its assumptions.

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

 

One of the challenges of Historically Informed Performance is to try to catch a glimpse of our own assumptions, to notice where something seems so ‘obvious’ and ‘absolute’ that we don’t even question it. The worst decisions in Early Music are the decisions that we don’t even realise we are making, because we don’t even notice there is a question to be addressed. But as soon as we become aware of an assumption, we can look for evidence of whether the same assumption held good in the past, or if attitudes might have changed with the centuries.

Andrew Lawrence-King A Baroque History of Time (2014)

Rhetoric, Rhythm & Passions: Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2019

This article is posted in connection with the production of Orfeo in Vaasa and Helsinki, October 2019.

With the golden harp I charm mortal ears,
With the powerful harmony of the cosmos I touch your soul.

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the Heroes here…

Monteverdi’s music is Rhetoric that tells a story, delights the senses and stirs your emotions. Although it is one of the earliest music-dramas to be presented in today’s Opera Houses, L’Orfeo was not the ‘first opera’. The designation in Striggio’s (1607)  libretto here… as favella in musica… (a story in music) …rappresentata ( a theatrical show) in Mantua, associates this music-drama with Cavalieri’s (1600) Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo in Rome, and with Peri and Caccini’s Euridice,  performed in Florence later that same year.

 

 

Monteverdi’s Score was printed in 1609 here…, not to facilitate future performances, but as a souvenir of the original production, with many details of instrumentation and staging not often found in early baroque sources. There were three groups of instruments distributed around the stage: strings and flutes, cornetti and sackbuts, and the Basso Continuo who ‘supported and guided the whole ensemble of voices and instruments’ (Agazzari, 1607). There was no conductor: rhythmic precision was based on the steady pulse of Baroque Tactus more about Monteverdi’s rhythm here…; rehearsals were led by the Corago (opera director) more about Il Corago here… 

For this new genre of music-drama, the performers were not theatre actors but court singers, with star tenor Francesco Rasi in the title-role. And the first performance was not in a purpose-built theatre, but in a small hall inside the Ducal Palace, without the grandiose stage-machinery used in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi. Nevertheless, the show was a great success, and the following year the spirit of this music led to the birth of the Tragedy, Arianna, Monteverdi’s  lost masterpiece (reconstructed by Lawrence-King in 2017 from the surviving Lamento). More about Arianna a la Recherche here…

Libretto and Score offer alternative endings, in which Orpheus either encounters a gang of Bacchus’ followers, or is rescued by Apollo. In the 2019 staging in Finland, you must wait and see who triumphs in the end: Apollo (Monteverdi’s original setting) or Bacchus (in Lawrence-King’s reconstruction for this production)?

 

 

Whilst we might today view L ‘Orfeo as a symbolic journey, 17th-century audiences appreciated it as an allegory of music-drama’s power ‘move the passions’. They experienced the emotional impact of hearing the story narrated by La Musica and the Messaggiera, watching the same story dramatised  by actors on stage, whilst both seeing and hearing how Orpheus himself reacts to each new  event. As courtiers, the Mantuan spectators were accustomed to watching their Duke, in order to gauge his reaction to any happening. On stage, Orpheus’ Shepherds represent a pastoral ‘court’ surrounding the semi-divine singer.

 

A stage court, a dramatised wedding more about the Ballo for Orpheus’ wedding here…, and a mythical singer as protagonist all serve to make music ‘realistic’ within this story. The Muses themselves appear from Parnassus, and baroque audiences were thrilled by the horrors of Hell. Striggio’s inferno is deliberately modelled on Dante. Ordinary speech is represented not by the Recitative more about Recitative here… that we know from Handel and Vivaldi, but by earlier modulatione, Monody, in which Monteverdi’s precisely notated rhythms and pitch-contours imitate the rhetorical delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre (Peri, 1600, Il Corago c1630). More about Peri’s monody here…

Tim Carter’s survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre here…

 

Caccini defines this ‘new music’ (1601) as “words and rhythm, with sound last of all, and not the other way around”.  More about Caccini here…  Monteverdi, Caccini and Jazz here… Cavalieri (1600) alerts us to abrupt contrasts in emotion. More about Cavalieri here… Monteverdi declares (1638) that his purpose was to bring narration, action and music together into ‘a unified representation’. In this Gesamtkunstwerk, centuries before Nietzsche and Wagner, Apollo and Bacchus contend to charm your ears and touch your soul.

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

Baroque Opera & Rhetoric: audience reaction to Landi’s ‘Il Sant’ Alessio’

This article is posted in connection with the first production in Russia of Landi’s opera, performed by the advanced students and young professionals of the International Baroque Opera Studio, and presented by OPERA OMNIA with historically informed music and staging directed by Andrew Lawrence-King and Tanja Skok, August 29th-September 8th 2019.

 

 

In 2013, the Internatioanl Baroque Opera Studio OPERA OMNIA also presented the first staged performance in modern times of Landi’s (1619) La Morte d’Orfeo, at the St Petersburg Philharmonic, directed by Andrew Lawrence-King and Xavier Diaz-Latorre,  and choreography by ensemble Vento del Tempo.

 

Anton Varentsov as the river Hebro mourns the Death of Orpheus, in a scene from Landi’s ‘La Morte d’Orfeo’ (1619)

 

Il Sant’ Alessio shows Landi’s genius for rich vocal ensembles, dramatic contrasts and lively humour, already evident 12 years earlier in La Morte d’Orfeo. This  representation of a saintly man, living incognito under his father’s stairs, whilst all the family lament for his absence is celebrated nowadays as the first opera with a historical figure as protagonist, rather than Orpheus, Euridice, Dafne or other mythological characters. Beautiful engravings published along with the score show spectacular images of the original production.

 

Prologo to Il Sant’ Alessio: The personification of Rome as a Queen on a victory-throne of trophies.

 

In addition to sinfonias and ritornelli for the unusual combination of three violins, Landi’s score calls for a rich continuo section, giving lutes, theorboes and harps the more active line, whilst keyboard instruments provide a fundamental bass. See Agazzari’s (1607) comments on continuo-playing…

 

 

Delighting the seventeenth-century Roman audience, Landi and his librettist, Rospigliosi present a dazzling sequence of drama and scenographic contrasts, including all the most popular topoi of contemporary music-drama:  Classical Antiquity and urban sophistication, fashionable Pastoralism and exotic Africa, Heaven and Hell;  laments, comedy, letter-reading, disguisings, messengers, Angels and Demons, and even two Commedia dell’Arte zanni, clowns in the role of servants who disrupt their master’s household.

 

Landi “La Morte d’Orfeo” (1619) First staged production in modern times,  International Baroque Opera Studio (2013)

 

The success of Monteverdi’s (1608) Arianna was greatly influenced by the performance of Commedia actress Virginia Ramponi-Andreini ‘La Florinda’ in the title-role, her dramatic skills in lament-scenes complementing the musical skills of the court singers in ensemble music and arias. More about Arianna

 

 

More than two decades later, Landi integrates dramatic and musical expressivity, acting and aria into various laments for St Alessio, and  brings in the physical energy of the Commedia’s notorious clowns as hilarious contrast: one of them leads an expedition to the countryside to play games, the other even tries to wrestle the Demon.

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

As in many early music-dramas, the pleasure for the audience is often in knowing more than characters on stage do. So even as father, mother and wife lament for St Alessio’s absence, the audience know that he is right there, in disguise. And when an old Hermit tries to divert the Saint from his religious path, the audience recognises the Demon in disguise. Even the humour gains much from anticipation: from the beginning of the scene, we can guess that the encounter between a clown and the disguised Demon will lead to trouble. More subtly, we can enjoy hidden meanings, as when the Demon offers the warmest room in the house, if you would like to visit him at home!

 

Marco Scavazza as the Devil in Orgambide’s ‘Oratorio del nacimiento’

 

Nicole Jordan as the Angel in Ordambide’s Oratorio del Nacimiento

 

Promoted by the Pope’s nephew, Francesco Barberini, nicknamed cardinal padrone, Landi’s music-drama presents a clear religious message. The stairway to heaven is steep and difficult, but Religion is a true guide and Angels welcome the victorious soul with music and dancing in a glorious happy ending.

 

Il Sant’ Alessio: La Religione, the personification of Religion

 

Steffano Landi wrote Il Sant’ Alessio in 1631 on a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi and it was first performed the following February (1632, in the modern calendar). The opera seems to have been revived in 1634, for which occasion the score was printed. It is designated Dramma Musicale … fatto rappresentare: ‘Music-Drama… presented by the most Eminent and Reverend Signor Cardinal Barberini for the most Serene Prince Alessandro Carlo of Poland’.

 

 

The word opera occurs several times in the preliminary pages and in the sung text: the meaning is probably general, ‘work’, but nevertheless it remains undeniable that this term is beginning to be used in connection with music-drama. The term dramma musicale contrasts with the literary genres designated to earlier music-dramas: Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo is a Tragicomedia [I co-directed the first performance in modern times as well as the ensemble that arose from that event]; Monteverdi’s (1608) Arianna is a TragediaOrfeo one year earlier is famously favola per musica (story in music). But the term rappresentata – presented – indicates continuity from the very first ‘baroque opera’, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) .More about Anima & Corpo…

 

 

Emilio de Cavalieri’s ‘Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo’ (1600) is indeed the ‘first opera’. Jacopo Peri, whose ‘Euridice’ was performed later the same year, acknowledges Cavalieri’s role as originator of the style. (Earlier music-dramas by these two composers, notably Peri’s ‘Dafne’, have not survived.)

This word rappresentare and its derivatives – rather than recitativo – characterises the various genres of theatrical music in the early seicento.

It’s Recitative, but not as we know it….

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

A letter printed in the 1634 publication provides an insight into how Landi’s audience received the performance:

Una lettera all’hora  scritta da huomo litteratissimo, la cui penna fece senza colori un Ritratto dell’opera; e se bene con attestatione troppo cortese forse lo figure alquanto piu bello del naturale, non e pero, che ne perdesse la somiglianza.

“A letter written at that time by a most literary gentleman, whose pen makes without colour a Report of the opera; and although with too courteous remarks, perhaps his description is somewhat more beautiful than the reality, it does not, however, fail to resemble it.”

This letter is itself ‘most literary’ and rhetorical, evaluating the opera’s success in terms of the Canons of Rhetoric:

 

  • Inventio – the story
  • Dispositio – the organisation of the material
  • Elocutio – the appropriate style for each part
  • Memoria – not only memorisation, but deep study
  • Pronuntatio & Actio – performance, vocal delivery dramatic action

As leading scholar Tim Carter has commented in connection with Monteverdi’s musical theatre, period audiences enjoyed opera not only for music, drama, dancing and spectacle in general, but appreciated in particular the presentation of Rhetoric: narrating the story, delighting with subtle word-play, and moving the listener’s passions.

 

 

THE REPORT

“The opera seemed to me perfect in every part: the structure and the Composition, which Aristotle calls favola (story), well united, not episodic, concise and not wandering: the arrangement (costume) so well fitting, that there was nothing there, that lacked what it was to be made with; the style (sentenza) proportionate to the arrangement, witty, serious, surprising, as needed and conforming to appropriateness. The elocution effective, not affected, not coarse; but either grand, or moderate or intimate, as required by the subject, or by the person who was speaking. The action and the performance of the actors flexible, suitable and corresponding to the meaning of the words, so that also the gestures and movements seemed as harmonious and consonant as the voices.

ALK comments:

Indeed, Rospigliosi and Landi are to praised for their organisation of the story into the more up-to-date three-Act structure (Orfeo, Arianna & La Morte d’Orfeo are all in five Acts), into a glittering sequence of contrasting scenes, and with witty contrasts and clever use of dramatic irony.

Sentenza – the use of rhetorical devices and grandly constructed sentences is closely related to the elocutio also praised by the writer: this would be the poetic choice of particular words, according to the register (elevated or everyday style) and the ever-changing emotions.

 

As the Demon (disguised as a Hermit) leaves St Alessio, the Angel flies in to comfort the Saint.

 

“But about the Scenic equipment, which Aristotle truly takes account of as the last part, but nevertheless is so important, which – as he says – very often carries off the prize, what shall I say? The first introduction of new Rome, the Angel flying through the clouds, the appearance of Religion in mid-air – this was ingenious and technical creativity, that competed with nature itself  (opera furono d’ingegno e di machina, ma gareggianti con la natura). The Scenery most artful; the appearances of Heaven and Hell marvellous; the changes of the flats (lati) and of the Perspective ever more beautiful: but the last scene of the [protagonist’s] disappearance with the illuminated cupola of the portico with the appearance of the garden in the far distance, incomparable.

ALK: The visual highlights mentioned in the letter correspond closely to the engraved scenes printed in the score. These in turn correspond with the descriptions of each scene in the libretto and score. It might even be possible to read from the scene listings the position of each actor, scene by scene, as Dene Barnett did from later French theatrical sources.

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

“The costumes sumptuous, showy, beautiful, varied, historic, appropriate and fitting well the people who wore them, the entrances onto the stage (nel palco) and the exits to backstage/wings (dentro alla Scena), measured and well timed (misurati, ed a tempo): the balli ingenious and lively; everything and every part well integrated one with another, and with the body technically able and well managed (col suo corpo ben disposte e ben governate. This might be read as referring not to the physical body, but to the corps de ballet for each particular dance: ‘with each dance-troupe well choreographed and well organised’).

ALK: The actors’ performance is viewed through their physical actions: movements, the quality of their entrances and exits, rhetorical gestures. The writer silently adopts the underlying assumptions of this period, that character and emotions are revealed by movement and gesture, and that such movements and gestures also awake corresponding emotions for onlookers. More about “How to Act” in 17th-century theatre…

 

I Sant Alessio – a country-dance comprised of various games

 

“Seeing this [performance] confirmed the judgement of an Article (Discorso) of mine that I already made, in which I approve of Tragedy that takes as its Subject a Personage of eminent goodness and sanctity, even if it seems contrary to what Aristotle decreed. The article is dedicated to the Most Eminent Signor Cardinal, on whose authority I have been happy to have it printed several times. Seeing this so devout and spiritual [performance] so well received in the Theatre, I’m inclined to make it [the article] public; the only thing holding me back is that for a while (un passo) I’m working to rediscover the Author of the Tragedia di Christo Patiente (Tragedy of Suffering Christ, i.e. a dramatized Passion), commonly ascribed to The Nazianzeno.  When I’m out of this mess, I’ll bring it  immediately his Eminence, and Your Lordship will be pleased to have it received.”

 

Il Sant Alessio: the final scene with Angel musicians and dancing Virtues.