Passaggi: Della Casa & Bovicelli on the True Way to make Divisions

When we study Ornamentation c1600, it is an over-simplification to view Divisions (also known as Diminutions, passaggi – replacing a long note, or a phrase in long notes with many short or very short notes) as ‘Renaissance’, Graces (effetti – trills etc applied to a single note) as ‘Baroque’. Caccini’s Le nuove musiche (1601) read more argues against pasaggi and in favour of effetti, but his written-out musical examples include substantial passaggi. Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo (see The Orfeo Page by Il Corago) famously presents an aria passeggiata at the heart of the drama, when Orpheus attempts to persuade Caronte to grant him admission into Hell. Conversely, there are 16th-century indications of expressive vocal effects being applied to a single note (see Zacconi on the accento, here).

But it is useful – I would say, essential – to keep the distinction between these two types of Ornamentation constantly in mind. Divisions fulfilled one of the three aims of Rhetoric by delighting the ear – delectare. But they risked spoiling communication of the text – the aim of docere. And they were regarded as emotionally unpersuasive – ruining the aim of movere gli affeti (moving the emotions). Significantly, Caronte is ‘delighted’ by Orpheus’ passaggi, but is not moved to pity. Graces, (effetti, vocal special effects), were used sparingly, so as not to compromise transmission of the text. And effetti were so closely linked to emotions (affetti) that the two words came to used almost interchangably: effetti produce affetti. Only when we understand this difference between pasaggi and effetti can we make appropriate choices of when to apply each type (see Ornamenting Monteverdi here).

Too often, we attempt to add Ornamentation in rehearsal, a day or so before the performance, encouraged, guided or resrained by the Musical Director. But Divisions require specific techniques of execution, and skills of invention/application, which cannot be acquired in a few minutes of rehearsal time, with the whole ensemble sitting there waiting for you. You need to prepare in advance. And if you intend to improvise, even more advance preparation will be needed.

Studying Ornamentation by ear is certainly a valid historical approach – many period sources recommend this – but CDs are not primary sources. Learning from CDs carries a high risk of copying everyone else’s mistakes and misunderstandings. If you want to learn by ear, then record yourself (or a trusted teacher) performing examples from period treatises, and listen to those. And this is a good moment to recommend Helen Robert’s Passaggi App, which brings the historical method of aural study into the 21st century.

Certainly, you can only learn about Divisions by practising how to do them, in advance. This article introduces two essential late-16th-century sources, and summarises their approach.

Dalla Casa was a cornetto-player at St Mark’s, Venice. His (1584) Vero modo di diminuir (True Way to make Diminutions) focuses on wind instruments, but is also offered to keyboard- string- and bowed-string-players and to singers. A particular feature are settings for viola da gamba that move around within the polyphonic texture, ornamenting any of the voices or adding an extra voice., in a style called viola bastarda. Bovicelli was a boy-chorister and later sopranist at Milan Cathedral. HIs (1594) Regole, Passaggi (Rules, musical Divisions, Ornamented madrigals and motets) concentrates on vocal Divisions. The first part of his Rules deals with the sung text, often displacing syllables from the original underlay to make more graceful Divisions. The second part deals with the notes: the arrival on the written note is often delayed.

Dispositione – technique

Bovicelli does not offer any advice to help singers acquire the dispositione – what we would nowadays call ‘vocal technique’ required to execute these ornaments. For wind instruments, Dalla Casa describes and gives musical examples of various tonguing syllables, and modern-day singers might try these with the voice. Otherwise, the best period advice comes from Caccini, who identifies the single note trillo (speeding up from slow to fast) as the gateway to any kind of ornamentation.

I coach singers to put Caccini’s method into practice, by repeating the same note on the syllable a, going from slow to fast. We can understand his ribattere con la gola (literally, beating with the throat) as creating fast repetitions by relaxing the throat whilst maintaining steady support from the diaphragm. Don’t try to sing loud, but rather cultivate a feeling of fun – Bovicelli describes such fast singing as the Art of playing around with nature.

Once you can switch the fast notes on and off, on a single pitch, step two is to move the pitch up and down. And step three is to synchronise the changing pitches with the ‘beating’. This is the same challenge of synchronisation that awaits wind-players (fingers and tongue) or bowed strings (left and right hands).

Dalla Casa similarly leads his wind-players through divisions in crome – quavers (8 to the semibreve – whole-note beat), semicrome semiquavers (16), treplicate triplet semiquavers (24 to the semibreve) and quadruplicate (32). His ‘true way’ leads to Mixed Diminuitions applying all four note-values.

Both writers provide countless short examples of Divisions, taking long notes across each interval (second, third, fourth etc) upwards and downwards and dividing the first long note into many shorter notes. These short examples are to be learnt, applied and imitated, and the student can combine several of them to create longer divisions.

Dalla Casa: Example of semibreve ascending by step divided into semiquavers

Such combinations of many individual divisions are demonstrated in the books by ornamented settings of complete pieces, madrigals by Rore, motets by Palestrina and Vittoria. We are accustomed to hearing these sacred repertoires nowadays with the “pure lines”, extreme legato and stand-alone conductor of the 19th/20th-century aesthetic. Bovicelli refers to performing divisions not only as da concerto – as concert-pieces – but also da capella – in church. Just imagine the effect of this soprano-line in Palestrina’s Ave verum corpus

Style in peformance

In Early Music studies, we try to avoid the modern binary of Technique/Interpretation. Nevertheless, these two sources offer valuable advice for good style in performance, discussed as portar la voce or portar la minuta – delivering (literally ‘carrying’) the voice, or the Division. Bovicelli’s Rules gives many specific style indications, all worth studying in detail. Dalla Casa’s Preface to his second book is short, just four paragraphs. The first paragraph offers his work to all kinds of musicians, and repeats his preference for Mixed Diminutions, and there is a paragraph each for the Viola da Gamba and the Human Voice.

The longest paragraph emphasises the importance of ‘Performing the Divisions in Tempo

Del portar la minuta a tempo.

Our modern-day understanding of tempo as the ‘speed of music’ differs from the period concept in which musical tempo means Time itself. Time is measured by a human estimate of how long one second lasts, it is notated by the written note-values within the duration of a semibreve, it is shown by the slow steady beat of Tactus. For Zacconi Time, Measure, Beat and Tactus (tempo, misura, battuta, tatto) are synonymous (read more here). Dalla Casa’s words and musical notation confirm a semibreve beat, notated with the mensuration mark C/.

For Zacconi, Time is the Soul of Music, and Dalla Casa gives tempo similar importance in his music of Divisions.

“About delivering the dimunition in time.

“I say it is a difficult thing to deliver the diminution in time, and this is the most important for everyone who follows this profession of making diminutions with all kinds of instruments. Therefore let each person take notice in their study to beat Tactus, and never to study without this regulation, and to accustom themselves to the beat; because doing otherwise would not be a good thing. And take notice of the four note-values, that the semiquaver (as is known) is performed twice as fast as the quaver, i.e. 16 to 8; the triplet-semiquavers – treplicate – are performed as 24 to 16, which is a third more than the semiquaver; and the demisemiquavers – quadruplicate – are performed still once again as fast, i.e. 32 to 24. Everyone should take note to accommodate themselves to the Tactus, and beat their diminution note by note; like this for those who play a wind instrument and also for those play keyboard instruments, and not to rush ahead as many wind-players do who make runs with a dead tongue (slurring), without tonguing the diminution, in order to make it easier; or those who cannot keep a brake on their tongue, as with reverse tonguing (see the Preface to Book 1) which is difficult to brake. Therefore let everyone beat the diminution note by note, and deliver the four note-values with their proper timing, if they want to do well.” [Dalla Casa]

Beating ‘note by note’ refers to the Tactus-value of the semibreve in the original composition: there is no suggestion of beating time for every 32nd note! Bovicelli also recommends nel Passeggiare star obligato al tempo giusto – to keep to the correct Time when making Divisions. Within the semibreve beat, quavers can be taken long-short:

Caccini (1601) suggests short-long:

Bovicelli shapes a long run of semiquavers elegantly, by sustaining the first note:

Hold the first note, then run!

In modern-day performances, we often hear the contrary, where performers rush the beginning of the division and then wait before moving to the next note. But Bovicelli mentions several times that it is more graceful to flow directly from the fast notes into the following principal note: often, he adjusts the underlay, or continues the run into medium-fast notes to get a smoother transition.

Another option is to hold the top note:

Sustained notes in the midst of short notes can be given a tremolo, marked as /\ :

The general tendency is for ornaments to go from slow to fast – this habit is instilled from the first exercise that Caccini teaches, and Bovicelli applies it to a two-note trill gropetto that crams in more and more little notes before arriving at the following principal note. The effect is that – as the notes go faster and faster – the subsequent arrival feels ‘delayed’ – rafrenato.

The much-desired quality of leggiadria (lightness) comes from the contrast of sustained long notes and lightly-touched short notes. We can summarise this principle as “long notes long, short notes short”.

“But in this, take note, that the more you hold the first note, and the second is faster, the more gracefulnessis given to the voice. This gracefulness cannot exist, if the notes all have the same value. For leggiadria of singing, as we said above, is nothing other than the varation of notes of greater and lesser value, as you will also see below.” [Bovicelli]

Caccini is guided by the same principles of gratia and leggiadria in his examples of rhythmic alteration within the steady Tactus.

Bovicelli requires that Diminutions suit the character of the words, whether bold or tender.


“Just as it would be most reprehensible for a composer, if the words are sad [this must be a typo for meste] , to set them with happy notes, or to set sad notes under happy words: similarly in singing we must as much as possible imitate the words: that is, sad words must not be decorated with Passaggi, but set (as we might say) with accenti and a tenderly emotional, lamenting voice; if the words are happy, use Passaggi, and give them extra vivacity, making varied notes (dotted notes, leaps, diverse note-values), as you see.” [Bovicelli]

Ave! means ‘Hail!’ – As a cathedral chorister, Bovicelli is probably thinking of the liturgical texts Ave Maria, gratia plena, or Ave verum corpus (see above).

Bovicelli’s linking of bold texts with passaggi, tender words with accenti is supported by Zacconi’s advice to avoid accenti where the words are powerful (read more here). And Bovicelli’s ’emotional voice’ voce flebile hints at Caccini’s oft-repeated recommendation of crescendo and/or diminuendo on a single note as the most effective way to convey emotions (read more here).

Zacconi explains that the expressive accento produces a delay in the arrival of the second note, but the Tactus itself (and therefore the accompaniment) is not altered (read more here). And after being late on one beat, the singer is expected to be back on the beat for the next semibreve. Bovicelli and Monteverdi notate similar delays and anticipations for solo singers.. Their clear explanations and precise notation seem to clarify Caccini’s evocative but enigmatic use of the terms sprezzatura and senza misura which [in the context of expressive syllabic setting, as opposed to melismatic Divisions] he links also to a ‘cool’ style of voice-production, something ‘between singing and speaking’. Read more here.

In contrast to the soft flebile effect and ‘cool’ rhythm of accenti for tender words, Bovicelli characterises Passaggi as on the beat semibreve by semibreve, impressing the audience ‘stupendous’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘having fun’ scherzando. This is supported by Aggazari (1607), who describes two ways of improvising from a bass-line: his ‘fundamental’ style is continuo accompaniment, and he characterises the ‘ornamental’ style as ‘having fun and improvising counterpoint’. Read more here. In circa-1600 music-drama, an aria passeggiata (a strophic song over a ground bass, with elaborate passaggi) heralds the entrance of some god or mortal with superhuman powers: Caccini’s sorceress who makes the moon fall from the sky; Peri’s dolphin-riding super-hero-singer Arion (both in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi), Orpheus arriving at the gateway to Hell in Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607).

Tactus for Divisions

It is clear that Divisions are not performed with the malleable tempo and vacillating rhythm of 20th-century rubato. Both Bovicelli and Dalla Casa insist on Tactus. Indeed Tactus is so essential that it is the only question of style in delivery (what we would nowadays call ‘interpretation’ as opposed to ‘technique’) that Dalla Casa addresses. Nevertheless, that Tactus might be faster or slower in particular circumstances. Whilst discussing disjunct quavers, Bovicelli informs us that the Tactus for passaggi was slower in a chamber performance – da concerto – than in church – da capella.

“… singing not in church, but in concert, where the Tactus should be slow.” [Bovicelli]

There are other period sources that indicate a slower-than-usual Tactus for passaggi. We gain a very different impression when we read their remarks, not in the context of 20th-century rubato, but in the light of Zacconi’s, Dalla Casa’s and Bovicelli’s insistence on Tactus. Read more in my next article: How il Signor Organista waits for il Cantate.

How il Signor Organista waits for il Cantante?

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