Altri canti senza battuta: Madrigals of Love, War & Tactus

Altri canti d’Amor, tenero Arciero… di Marte io canto.
Others sing of Love, the tender Archer… I sing of Mars!

Altri canti di Marte e di sua schiera… io canto amor.
Others sing of Mars and of his army… I sing of Love!

set by Claudio Monteverdi

Others sing without Tactus…


Modern-day performances of the concerted madrigals of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book Madrigali Guerrieri ed Amorosi (1638) usually adopt one of two strategies: a modern onductor; or no conductor at all, perhaps with some leading from the first violin. Tempi are chosen at the performers’ whim. None of this corresponds to period practice.

This repertoire is precisely the ‘difficult’ genre of ‘modern madrigals’ discussed by Frescobaldi, where there are contrasting movements (passi) and passionate vocal effects. Frescobaldi Rules, OK? here.

In this period, rhythm was almost always directed by Tactus-beating from within the ensemble. The Tactus-beater is usually a singer, because instrumentalists’ hands are occupied.

Nevertheless continuo-players have the role of ‘guiding and supporting’ the entire ensemble of voices and instruments [Agazzari 1607, here]. And Frescobaldi’s rules – formulated for keyboard players – remind us that Tactus is present as a guiding concept even when it is not physically realised. Many sources recommend that instrumentalists beat Tactus with a foot.

All this matters because the sound and feeling of Tactus-led music-making are very different from modern conducting AND from modern-day chamber-music playing. Tactus-beating maintains a minim-pulse that is “regular, solid, stable, firm, clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation.”

In contrast, most modern conductors make a free choice of which note-value to beat, and apply rallentando and other speed variations (deliberately, or otherwise!). The requirement to synchronise with a steady Tactus guards ensembles against rushing or dragging, and against the lurching changes associated with the oft-heard comment “this phrase goes towards such-and-such a note”. The concept of “goes towards” is not found in period sources: rather the Tactus is stable, and within that stable beat individual notes are Good or Bad, Long or Short. The Good, the Bad and the Early Music phrase, here.

So much for the canti senza gesto – the songs without action. But Monteverdi’s Book VIII also includes some ‘short episodes’ in genere rappresentativo, in show-style, in theatrical style. For those pieces, the convention was not to use any visible Tactus-beating, since the singers were representing dramatic characters. They might well use their hands to gesture expressively, but nobody beats time. This devolves the responsibility for time-keeping to the continuo, who in this style ‘rule’ or ‘regulate’ (reggono) ‘guide’ or ‘drive’ (guidano) the singers.

The genere rappresentativo in Monteverdi’s Book VII Concerto (1619)

Read about the difference between the ‘tempo of the hand’ and the ‘tempo of the heart’ in the Lamento della Ninfa, here.

Fundamental Tactus: minim = 60

In all these pieces, in both chamber-music and dramatic genres, Monteverdi’s notation indicates a basic tempo which might be tweaked to exaggerate contrasts of affetto (mood, emotion) and of musical activity. This basic tempo is regulated by a fundamental Tactus in mensuration mark C of approximately minim = 60: a human (and therefore subjective) feeling for the misura of Time itself. The usual way to beat was simple: down for a minim, up for a minim.


Altri canti d’amor is one of the few pieces to include all three triple-metre Proportions: slow Sesquialtera, medium-fast Tripla and fast Sestupla. As Carissimi observed, the note-values in each of these proportions have the same quantitative duration, but the emotional quality of the movement is very different. More on Quality Time here.

Sesquialtera Semibreve = 90 Movement based on semibreves

Others sing of love…

Tripla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on minims

The proud choir…

Sestupla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on semi-minims

The audacious battles…

Binary Tactus – ternary metre

Altri canti di Marte has a short section with an unusual notation that creates the impression of ternary metre, but in the steady speed and black notation of regular crotchets.

The triumphs of death…

The Tactus beat here is the standard down-up at minim = 60, but the word-accents do not coincide with the Tactus beats. Reading from unbarred part-books, singers are not threatened by the ‘tyranny of the bar-line’. Similarly in the choral recitation of Hor che ciel e la terra.

Now that heaven and earth and the wind are silent…

Another binary notation with ternary effect is seen in Act II of Orfeo. Again, the beat is the standard minim = 60, producing a slower movement than would result from Proportional notation.

Look, I really do return to you, dear woods and beloved shores…

Tweaking the Tactus

Frescobaldi recommends listening to the music (with the standard Tactus and Proportions) before deciding how to tweak the Tactus between sections, according to the emotional quality, or affetto. In Monteverdi’s madrigals, we can discern the intended affetto not only from the sound of the music, but also directly from the sung text.

Words with particular emotional content can help us position the affetto within the historical framework of the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope, enjoyment of good things), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (pensive, unlucky in love, sleepless, ‘the blues’), Phlegmatic (cold, damped-down, a ‘wet blanket’).

The composer will already have responded to the affetto, with appropriate melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Jacopo Peri explains that in dramatic monody, the affetto is composed into the continuo bass: the singer’s pitches and rhythms represent (in musical notation) the way this text would be declaimed by a fine actor in the spoken theatre. More on Peri here.

None of this is ‘improvisatory’: it is not a ‘sketch’ to be completed by the performer. Rather, the composer has written down in musical notation the period conventions of dramatic delivery. Monteverdi, ‘the divine Claudio’, was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be the master of moving the audience’s passions by his expressive harmonies and precisely notated rhythms. Much more about Monteverdi’s genius for word-setting and theatre in Tim Carter’s inspiring book on Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre, here.

Changing the Tactus according to the affetto

When we (as performers) respond to the affetto, we should expect to find ourselves adding to the contrasts that the composer has already written in. If the affetto of the text is agitated, the composer will have written fast notes, and we should perform these with a faster Tactus. If the affetto of the text is calm, the composer will have written slow notes, and we should perform these with a slower Tactus.

Even (especially) if the affetto is extreme, the change to the Tactus can only be small, since the composer will already have used extreme note-values, This famously agitated moment in Monteverdi’s Combattimento simply cannot be taken very much faster than standard Tactus, which is already 16 syllables per second!

Offence irrates anger into revenge….

So the performers’ tweaking of the Tactus is subtle, and should be percieved by the listener as an emotional change, rather than an alteration of tempo as such. These changes happen between contrasting movements passi – section by section, not word by word.

The change of Tactus between sections is managed by means of the Tactus itself. Frescobaldi explains how: the Tactus hand is momentarily suspended on the upstroke, and then the new beat begins ‘resolutely’. No rallentando or accelerando, rather a decisive ‘gear-change’. Exciting, disturbing…. this is how to muovere gli affetti, move the listeners’ passions.

Change of affetto word by word

Zacconi explains how to manage changes of affetto for a particular word, within one movement, i.e. within a section at steady Tactus. The singer can delay the expressive syllable, but the Tactus (and the continuo) continue steadily. The singer should be back on track by the next Tactus beat. Read more about this c1600 ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’ here.

A tender affetto is expressed with accenti (read more here). A robust affetto avoids acccenti, but might encourage passaggi (though not in theatrical music, where passaggi were generally discouraged). It is important to sing passaggi in tempo, i.e. according to Tactus. More on passaggi here.

Words full of expressive affetto can be ornamented with effetti: the single note trillo, an exclamatione (diminuendo-crescendo on a single note), a gruppo (two-note trill and turn). These ornaments are used sparingly in the theatrical style.

And we should avoid not only that ornament, but the entire modern-day habit of ornamenting the final cadence. What? Really? Yes, really! Read more here.

Caccini explains how to manage small notes within the steady Tactus: in syllabic melody, the good syllable is slightly longer, the bad syllable slightly shorter; in melismatic passaggi, long notes can be extra long, short notes exta short; ornaments accelerate from slow to fast. More on Caccini here.

Caccini also defines the priorities for music-making in this style: “text and rhythm, with sound last of all (and not the other way around!)”. So instead of obsessing over vibrato, pitch and temperament, let’s engage with the period priorities of text and rhythm. Read how Music expresses Emotions here.

My advice to modern-day rehearsal directors is to begin with the text, and coach performers to manage that text in Tactus-rhythm. When the music is difficult, follow Frescobaldi’s Rules, and use the omnipresent Tactus to facilitate the performance, tweaking that Tactus (subtly) when a new movement starts, when the mood (affetto) changes..

In a forthcoming series of short articles, I’ll apply that advice, i.e. these historical principles to some favourite Libro VIII Madrigals. LInks will be posted below.









Madrigals: Warlike, Amorous & Theatrical

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