Making Time for beautiful singing: a lost practice

From renaissance to early Baroque

Published just before the year 1600, Luduvico Zacconi’s monumental treatise on Practical Music Prattica di Musica (1592/1596) here – straddles the divide between the prima prattica of Palestrina’s renaissance polyphony and the emerging new style, Monteverdi’s seconda prattica of dramatic solo singing accompanied by basso continuo. The virtuoso singers of the first ‘operas’ of the early seicento – Jacopo Peri, Vittoria Archilei, Giulio Caccini, Francesco Rasi etc – were trained in the 16th-century traditions of eleborate ornamentation – passaggi – and of cantar con gratia (singing with grace; i.e. beautiful singing), a concept of vocal beauty described in detail by Zacconi.

A fundamental, but unwritten, element of beautiful singing, analysed by Zacconi and carried forward into dramatic monody, is a way of ‘adding beauty and decorum’ with certain ornaments ’caused by sustaining and delaying the voice’. Read more about Zacconi’s accento here

Whether in renaissance polyphony or in baroque monody, the fact that such frequent ‘delays’ were introduced by individual singers begs the question: how was ensemble-unity maintained? Nowadays, singers of Palestrina, Vittoria and Lassus are not permitted to decide for themselves when to add a beautiful delay to their particular voice-line, even if modern conductors sometimes slow down the whole ensemble (which is not what Zacconi describes).

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594)

Singers of Monteverdi often expect the continuo to follow their free rhythm, but this is contradicted explicitly by Agazzari (1607: continuo instruments ‘guide/drive’ the entire ensemble) & Gagliano (1608: continuo players rule/direct the singers), and implictly by Peri (1600) (more about Peri’s bass-lines here).

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)


And Zacconi himself describes the Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation’. So how can we reconcile this steady beat (somewhere around 60 bpm) with the requirement for ‘beautiful delays’ from this or that singer?

Zacconi’s answer offers exciting new possibilites for renaissance polyphony and – hallelujah! – an end to the arguments between singers and continuo-players which have rumbled on for the last half-century of HIP Monteverdi, even to the point that some modern-day performers treat Rhythm and Rhetoric as the opposing horns of a dilemma.

Singers can sing off the beat

In Chapter XXXIII, concerned with delivering the Tactus, Zacconi confirms what we have already understood from his remarks on cantar con gratia, that singers can delay their pronunciation of a certain note, for the sake of vocal beauty, and that this is always a possibility. Discussing the accento, he warns singers not to delay too often, but the word sempre (always) in this chapter confirms that delays were nevertheless very frequently employed (see how and when to do this, here).

Tactus (and continuo) continue steadily

Zacconi instructs ‘the person delivering the Tactus’ clearly. Whatever delays the singers might introduce, the role of the Tactus-beater is to maintain the steady beat, and to bring the singers back onto that beat. In renaissance polyphony, the Tactus is delivered with an down-and-up movement of the hand. In baroque monody, there is no visual tactus-beating, and the role of maintaining Tactus, of guiding and directing the whole ensemble, is taken by the continuo.

We might think of this as the ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’. Like the rhythm-section of a jazz-band, the role of the continuo is to maintain the steady swing, whilst the singer floats elegantly around the reliable beat.

There is more to it than this, of course. Frescobaldi describes how the beat itself can change, in specific situations, between sections of a piece (more Frescobaldi here). There may be reasons to take a generally slower Tactus, or to slow down the Tactus where there are elaborate passaggi. Caccini describes how singers can stylishly enhance rhythmic contrasts within the steady pulse of the Tactus (more Caccini here). Zacconi associates delays with gentle Affekts, and requires the singer to re-connect to the Tactus soon afterwards. Delays would seem to be associated with the Good syllable.

Chapter LXIII characterises certain delays as a fundamental element of good singing, and chapter XXXIII specifies how to manage these delays within the steady swing of Tactus. Zacconi provides us with a penetrating insight into the general sound, the rhythmic feeling and the ensemble communication that operates throughout late renaissance and early baroque music-making.

Implications

Zacconi’s sound-world is very different from what we have become accustomed to in modern-day performances and recordings of circa 1600 repertoire. Polyphonic lines are not always vertically aligned – soloists might not be “together” with the continuo, a vocal ensemble might not pronounce consonants unanimously. But – like good jazz – it has a strong sense of swing, and everyone knows where the beat is, even if they choose not to be on it.

There are profound implications for continuo-playing. We have brought up a generation of continuo-players with two impressive, but un-historical skills: fitting-in discreetly with the results produced by a modern conductor, and following solo singers. We need to retrain continuo-players to show the Tactus boldly and clearly, and to guide and regulate, to maintain steady swing, whatever the singers might do over the top. In short, we need continuo-players to acquire the skills and habits of a good jazz rhythm-section. More about Monteverdi, Caccini and jazz here.




And to make this work, we probably need to remove that gross anachronism in today’s Early Music, the modern conductor. Otherwise, we might as well accompany Monteverdi on a Steinway piano.

Meanwhile, which renaissance vocal ensemble is ready to attempt Palestrina with passaggi and accenti, with beautiful delays AND with steady Tactus? I’m very eager to hear this.






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