This is the second post inspired by an April Fools’ Day joke, for which I faked up the title page of an imaginary Baroque treatise on The Practice of Rhetoric in Music, starting several trains of thought: Why does such a book not exist? What might it have contained? What would we hope to learn from it? What is lacking in modern-day writing on Musical Rhetoric? And why shouldn’t I try writing it for myself?
The first post in this series, Prattica di Retorica in Musica – Inventio, introduces the project by means of the Five Canons of Rhetoric and imagines the first pages of our Unicorn-Book, which might include an Address to the Reader and a Dedicatory Poem.
The next pages would probably consist of the Table of Contents, i.e. an ordered list of chapter-headings. For a book-printer, this table would only be assembled once the main body-text was complete. But for a rhetorical writer, these chapter-headings are advance planning of the structural organisation of the material: they present that second Canon of Rhetoric, the Dispositio (Arrangement).
In an endlessly recursive process, the structuring of any writing on Rhetoric is itself a work of Rhetoric. My material for this project is the Practice of Rhetoric in Music, and the organisation of this material is inspired by the Modes of Rhetoric, in the style of a list of book-chapters, which I have considered – consciously and subconsciously – over the last month. Turning ideas over in your mind is linked to the processes of memory, which (as modern science tells us) is not merely the recall of fixed data, but a creative process of apprehending, reviewing, connecting and reassembling complex understandings. And now I deliver this structure to you…
In this blog-post, the Dispositio is now my material, which I have organised into two sections (this discursive article, and – below – the presentation of the list itself), in two contrasting styles (modern-day semi-formal prose and 17th-century formal list), carefully considered, and delivered in this blog-post.
The style – a list of chapters – has also become material to be discussed here, and functions as an organising device that delivers new thoughts.
The processes of memory and thought likewise are now material to be written about, functioning to organise themselves by thinking about thoughts, to refine style, and (by remembering memories) to deliver results.
Those results are the material that will be organised, stylised, considered and delivered as the output of the entire project.
And – just in case you didn’t notice – that 5-paragraph description of the nested processes of writing rhetorically about Rhetoric was itself rhetorically made: its material was the rhetoric of Rhetoric, its organisation was iteratively rhetorical, the style was as rhetorically clear as I could make it, it seemed to spring from my mind as if I were remembering something I already knew, and I delivered it in a happily spontaneous flow.
So now you have a rhetorical account of a rhetorically made description of the rhetorical process of writing about Rhetoric. And we could continue this all night, unless you counter with a refutatio or I reach a peroratio!
One of the period delights of Rhetoric was the enjoyment of rhetorical discourse for its own sake, like an athlete enjoying the working of their own muscles during training, or a spectator watching that athlete. If the spectator is also an athlete, there is an opportunity to learn, or to sharpen ones analytical insight. Which muscle moved there, and what effect did it have? We can compare the trained and untrained body, we can notice the physical results and competetive benefits of particular training exercises for specific applications. If we are fans or practitioners of Rhetoric, we can observe its work whenever we encounter words.
I will probably re-organise this Dispositio as I go along. But it is currently linked to these thoughts:
The ‘original book’ does not exist, perhaps because Rhetoric was so deeply internalised for musicians of this period that they applied it, without needing further instruction, to any means of expression. In another sense, every period treatise on music discusses the Practice of Rhetoric because music itself is a rhetorical art: to practise music is to practise rhetoric. My task is then not to invent new principles, but to identify (from amongst well-researched historical practices) instances where rhetoric is at work in music.
As musicians, we hope for clear practical advice, for tools that can be applied in the rehearsal room and in performance. As performers, we hope for ideas that will be effective with our audiences.
This is perhaps what is lacking in the modern literature on musical rhetoric. After reading some scholarly tome, we may think “how interesting, how beautiful!”, but we may not have a clear strategy of how to apply its ideas in our next rehearsal. At best, we might hope that it has given us some inspiration that will emerge in our musicking, by some mysterious process. I do believe in inspiration and mysterious processes, but in the rehearsal room (or as an individual’s pre-performance mantra), we usually need concise, precisely encapsulated suggestions, rather than yards of woffle and dollops of hope.
What period sources there are, and also much modern writing on musical rhetoric, tend to concentrate on Figures and Tropes. And whilst knowing stuff is fun, and knowing what anaphora is helps one notice when anaphora is at work, that doesn’t necessarily let you know what to do with anaphora, no matter how many times you see or hear anaphora in an aphorism, no, no! And even if you know that the use of adnominations and homophones is not strictly anaphora, this doesn’t necessarily help your audience. So although it is not wrong to define Rhetoric in terms of Figures and Tropes (and indeed, this definition becomes increasingly relevant during our period), it is not the most direct path towards practical application in music.
Since Rhetoric is directed outwards – to persuade the listener; to delight, teach and move the passions of the audience – and since we, as performers, want to put it into practice, the book we need must tell us how to apply Rhetoric to good effect. So my dispositio focuses on fundamentals of good Oratory in musicking, ideas that performers can apply in order to produce results that audiences will appreciate.
Words: Readers would expect the introduction to discuss what Rhetoric is. But we also need to consider what Music is – and what Science, Art and Practice are too – because our modern assumptions differ from period understandings.
Ethos: Rhetoric is delivered by one person to others: we must consider who does what.
Logos: The most important section of the book should link the performance of music to Good Delivery in Oratory. The more our musicking deals with words, the more eloquent its oratory will be.
Pathos: The most profound result we hope for is to move the passions of our listeners. This Part tells you how to do it.
Kairos: How does the moment of opportunity for Rhetoric present itself? Shifting the focus from historical practices to the ephemeral instant of performance, Plato’s eternal now, this Part attempts to reconcile period understandings of Rhetoric and Humours with 21st-century neuro-science. What is the structure of magic in music?
The vital heart of Rhetoric, which sends the life-giving Sanguinity of passion to the singer’s voice and the instrumentalist’s hands, is structure. How dry that might seem, how Melancholy! But this sturdy, earthborne structure supports a mighty tower, rising proudly as if with Choleric ambition to reach the highest heavens of eloquent beauty.
The achievement of our art must be to conceal the scaffolding and reveal the architecture. But the process of building begins with a well-wrought foundation. Dispositio precedes elocutio.
What is Rhetoric?
What is Grammar?
What is Logic?
What is Music?
What is Practice?
What is Art?
What is Science?
What is the Practice of Rhetoric in Music?
What is the Art of Rhetoric in Music?
What is the Science of Rhetoric in Music?
The Practice in Music of the Five Canons of Rhetoric
The Practice in Music of the Three Aims of Rhetoric
The Practice in Music of the Topics of Rhetoric
The Practice in Music of the Four Modes of Rhetoric
The Practice in Music of the Decorum of Rhetoric
Of Joining & Separating
The Practice in Music of the Four Humours of Rhetoric
The Practice in Music of the Gestures of Rhetoric
The Practice in Music of the Figures of Rhetoric
Of the Mind
Of New Language of Persuasion
This article, published in shorter form as the introduction to a concert streamed online, discusses the current relevance of Baroque affetti [emotions] and the Rhetorical aims of delectare, docere, movere [to delight, to teach, to move the Passions].
Concert listings, song texts & translations
The link to the concert may become temporarily unavailable, whilst the recording goes through post-production. And new concerts in the series may appear at the top of the broadcaster’s list. I hope to provide a permanent, direct link, soon.
Italian Baroque Music: Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Corbetta, Handel
“That smile heals me…”
Monteverdi’s musical fun – scherzi musicali – and beautiful arias – ariose vaghezze – are offered to the public in music-books printed by Bartholomeo Magni in Venice almost four hundred years ago. These are not madrigals requiring an ensemble of singers, but solo songs with basso continuo accompaniment which could be realised on any instrument: harpsichord, lute, guitar, baroque harp. Composed during the time of the very first ‘operas’, these minatures appeal to the emotions as theatrical fragments, instantly recognisable dramatic scenes.
But that emotionality is subtly different from the Romantic ideal of an artistic genius, expressing with ever-greater intensity a sublime feeling, that will impress and even overwhelm his audience. Rather, Baroque music contrasts ever-changing emotions and seeks to move your passions, as La Musica proclaims in Monteverdi’s Orfeo:
Accompanied by the golden harp, my singing
can always charm mortal ears for a while.
And in this way, with the sonorous harmony
Of the lyre of the cosmos, I can even move your souls.
The ‘lyre of the cosmos’ represents the mysterious power of music. In metaphors of Cupid’s love-arrows and stormy seas of passion, we see poetic images as depicting real emotions. And no doubt, listeners can find in these verses from Shakespeare’s time words that still speak to us today: sanatemi col riso…
Heal me with a smile…
The renaissance Science of emotions models the Senses (in this case, eyes and ears) taking in the energia (energetic spirit) of a performance (delivered by Rhetorical actio) and the coordinated affetti of music and text (delivered by Rhetorical pronuntiatio), to create ever-changing Visions in the mind. These Visions send energia down into the body, producing the physiological changes associated with changing pyschological emotion. Mind, Body and Spirit exchange energia, so that thoughts, (spiritual) emotions and (physical) feelings are interconnected – ideally, in Harmony.
For Monteverdi, an aria is not just a nice tune, it is a repeating structure of poetry, rhythm and harmony, on which words and music make elegant rhetorical variations. The dramatic situation is understood: the poet is in love, the beloved is ‘cruel’; the poet is wounded by the arrows of love, but the beloved’s smile can turn his prison into paradise. The rhetorical appeal is to the mind and the heart, as well as to the ears. The emotional power is embedded in contrasts: in Tempro la cetra the poet tunes his lyre to sing of War, but it only resounds with Love.
Tempro la cetra, e per cantar gli onori
di Marte alzo talor lo stil e i carmi.
Ma invan la tento e impossibil parmi
ch’ella già mai risoni altro ch’amore.
Così pur tra l’arene e pur tra’ fiori
note amorose Amor torna a dettarmi,
né vuol ch’io prend’ ancora a cantar d’armi,
se non di quelle, ond’egli impiaga i cori.
Or l’umil plettro e i rozzi accenti indegni,
musa, qual dianzi, accorda, in fin ch’al canto
de la tromba sublime il Ciel ti degni.
Riedi a i teneri scherzi, e dolce intanto
lo Dio guerrier, temprando i feri sdegni,
in grembo a Citerea dorma al tuo canto.
I tune the lyre, and to sing the honour
Of Mars, now I raise my style and my song.
But in vain I try, and it seems impossible
That it will ever resound except with love.
Thus in the arena itself and just amongst flowers
Amorous notes Love returns to dictate to me.
And does not want me to start to sing of arms again,
Unless of those, with which Cupid wounds hearts.
Now, the humble plectrum and the unworthy, broken accents
Muse, as before, tune them, so that to the song
Of the sublime trumpet Heaven honours you.
Come back to tender games, and sweetly for a while
The warrior God, tempering his fierce anger,
In the lap of Venus will be lulled to sleep by your song.
Contrasts of affetti were categorised by the renaissance concept of the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholy (careful thought), Phlegmatic (unemotional). Throughout this poem, Sanguine love is contrasted with Choleric war. Ideally one’s humours would be balanced, tempered. Poetic and musical composition are usually characterised as works of the careful (and care-full) concentrated inward thought processes of Melancholy, whereas performance, directed outward, is often Sanguine. In this poem the Melancholy art conceals itself – ars celare artem – and in the lap of Sanguine Venus, Choleric Mars surrends to the power of music and is lost in Phlegmatic sleep.
This piece, and renaissance Philosophy in general, links period medical science (the Four Humours) with metaphysics (the Music of the Spheres), and to the artistic principle of contrasting affetti. The Science of the Music of the Spheres (musica mondana) connected that perfect movement of the heavens with the harmonious nature of the human being (musica humana) , and with actual music (musica instrumentalis) played or sung. The contrasts of the third stanza are of Earth and Heaven: the humble, unworthy accents of musica instrumentalis will finally find accord with the sublime song of the Last Trumpet – musica mondana.
Supported by this philosophy, classical mythology is made to work as a metaphor for Christian doctrine. The implication is that the poet/singer himself will also be redeemed, as his own nature (musica humana) ‘resounds’ to the music of the Spheres.
Ohimè, ch’io cado begins with a firmly constructed ‘walking bass’, but the singer crashes in with a downward plunge: the poet has fallen head-over-heels in love, just when everything seemed to be safe. Images and emotions are presented in clever contrasts: ‘the withered flower of fallen hope’ and ‘the water of fresh tears’; the ‘would-be warrior’ is ‘now a coward’ who cannot withstand ‘the gentle impact of a single glance’. The poet’s attempt at Choleric sdegno (anger) is easily diverted to a Sanguine love-paradise.
Over a descending bass-line, Si dolce ‘l tormento juxtaposes contrasts even more closely, to sway the listener’s emotions line by line: sweet torment, happy, cruel, beauty, ferocity, mercy, a wave-swept rock – all this in the first strophe alone! As the momentary affetti swirl around, the minor mode, tender dissonances and descending bass communicate a pervasive sense of Melancholy.
That glance from the lover’s eyes – Quel sguardo sdegnosetto – is no real threat: we might paraphrase the first line as “You’re so cute when you’re angry!” And the bass-line variations on the ciacona dance reveals that the lovers are fooling around, playing risqué party-games: “When I die, your lips will quickly revive me”.
In this song, contrasts of affetti are perhaps less cerebral, less melancholic, but rather charming and delightful, and the pervasive mood is Sanguine. There is little doubt that the poet is confident that his hopes of love will be enjoyed!
Baroque contrasts can be extreme: In the Ballo delle Ingrate women emerge from the ‘wild, hot prison’ of Hell, to take a brief respite in the ‘serene, pure air’ of the upper world.
The furore of divine anger provides an excuse for Vivaldi’s favourite seasonal storms, tempered by the calm of clemency, but returning with the delicious inevitability and ornamental surprises of the Da Capo Aria. A Recitative makes it personal: “Spare me, sad and languishing”. The central Aria, with its contrasts of fletus… laetus (weeping… happy), corresponds to the slow movement of a violin concerto, with an Alleluia as the virtuosic finale.
The instrumental compositions that follow are variations on descending bass-lines. The fun of Corbetta’s Caprice, played on a modern copy of the Stradivarius Harp (1681, the year of Corbetta’s death) more about Rainer Thurau’s Strad Harp here, lies in its contrast of the gentle nobility of the French chaconne with the more energetic celebrations of an Italian ciacona.
Handel’s Andante, with its variations on a walking-bass, was published posthumously as an Organ Concerto. A Baroque listener described how the composer would improvise an introduction to the concerto, with a polyphonic fantasia “which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression.”
A fine and delicate touch, a volant finger, and a ready delivery of passages the most difficult, are the praise of inferior artists: they were not noticed in Handel, whose excellencies were of a far superior kind; and his amazing command of the instrument, the fullness of his harmony, the grandeur and dignity of his style, the copiousness of his imagination, and the fertility of his invention were qualities that absorbed every inferior attainment.
When he gave a concerto, his method in general was to introduce it with a voluntary movement on the diapasons, which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression; the harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly be expressed; the passage s concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity. This kind of prelude was succeeded by the concerto itself, which he executed with a degree of spirit and firmness that no one ever pretended to equal.
Sir John Hawkins General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776)
Handel’s Messiah and that glorious Aria of Sanguine hope, Rejoice greatly, need no introduction. But in Jennens’ carefully chosen biblical excerpts the characters of the Daughter of Sion and the Heathen are also coded symbols for the politics of the Hannoverian monarchy, of another King who “cometh unto thee”. So whether or not we can identify with the rejoicing daughter, the Messiah offers Peace for those who believe differently.
From Monteverdi’s and Vivaldi’s Venice to Handel’s London, the grand architecture of Baroque music adopted a variety of fashions. But the building blocks remained similar: the sighing slurs of Vivaldi’s calms also create Handel’s peace; bass-lines still walk steadily; a jump in the melodic line always makes the heart leap, whether falling in love with Monteverdi, or rising to rejoice with Handel. And the ancient power of Music’s rhetoric still charms the ears, communicates between minds, and consoles your hearts.
We have a tradition in our theatre…
For the last four years, Celos, aun del aire, matan the earliest surviving Spanish Baroque Opera has been running in repertoire at Moscow State Theatre Natalya Sats, with performances each month during the winter season. The performers are the soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Theatre, supported by members of Opera Omnia, the research, training and performance Academy for Baroque Opera and Dance. More about OPERA OMNIA here.
On the eve of the online broadcast – Friday 3rd April 2020, 19.00 Moscow time (5pm UK time: there is no summer time in Russia) on http://www.cultura.com and direct link to the opera broadcast here – this post is a slightly expanded version of the introduction I have given to live audiences at each show.
In most theatres, if someone walks on stage to speak before the show starts, it usually means bad news: a singer is indisposed, or whatever. But as a theatre for young people, we always welcome our audience with an informal greeting.
We have a tradition in our theatre to say a few words before the show begins. And so tonight it’s my pleasure to welcome you, on behalf of our Director Georgy Isaakyan, to Theatre Sats and to this performance of Celos, aun del aire matan (1660) translated into Russian by Katerina Antonenko as любовь убивает – Love Kills!
When we think of Baroque opera, we might first think of Handel and Vivaldi, but ‘opera’ began in Italy a hundred years earlier, and Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo and the very first opera, Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo (1600) both run in regular repertoire in our Theatre – you will be very welcome at those shows too!
Tonight’s performance is different again – the earliest surviving Spanish Opera.
Calderón’s verse-drama draws on the strengths of Spanish spoken theatre, with a fast-changing combination of exquisite poetry, complex plot, powerful emotions and hilarious comedy. As in a Shakespeare play, romantic and tragic scenes are parodied by the antics of the comic characters. who also interact with the principal protagonists. Calderón weaves together two mythological stories, which his audience would already have known: the spectators’ pleasure came from appreciating how cleverly, beautifully, passionately and entertainingly those familiar stories were unexpectedly brought together.
The plot is dominated by the powerful figure of Diana, goddess of hunting and of chastity. One of her nymphs, Aura, has broken the rules by falling in love with Eróstrato.
His mythological destiny is to burn down the temple of Diana and – as a punishment – to have his name forgotten forever.
In the opening scene, another nymph, Pocris presents Aura to be judged and punished.
The hero of the opera is Céfalo, who arrives in the nick of time to rescue the damsel in distress. His servant, Clarín, is the anti-hero: he would rather flirt with a pretty girl than assist in any rescues.
Diana wants to know who left the garden gate open, allowing Aura and Eróstrato to meet. She cross-examines her maid-servant, Floreta, who lets slip that it was her husband, the gardiner Rustico‘s fault. In revenge [and revenge becomes a theme in this drama], Diana transforms Rustico into various different animals.
Aura escapes by being magically transformed into an airy spirit. And her revenge on Pocris is to make her fall in love (against Diana’s rules) with Céfalo. But Céfalo’s mythicological destiny is that he will kill his own wife.
Halfway through Act I, and again in Act II, Calderón helps and entertains his audience, by having a comic character – first Rustico, then Clarín – re-tell the story so far, each in their own comically-warped version. The interval in our show comes before Act III.
In that final Act, Diana takes three revenges for the burning down of her temple, despatching three Furies to destroy Eróstrato (who loses his humanity and runs like a hunted beast), Pocris (who loses her trust in Céfalo) and Céfalo (whose spear, stolen from Diana, kills Pocris).
But at the darkest moment, Aura reappears to avert Tragedy… And meanwhile, just as Rustico has come to understand that he is an animal, he regains human form, to his, Clarín’s and Floreta’s utter confusion, and for the audience’s gleeful delight!
Watch out for the motto-refrains that punctuate the action and colour each scene – these were ‘take-home messages’ for the 1660 audience. These are just some of them:
Ah, alas for the girl who makes it true that someone dies of love!
The aura of love softly inspires…
Hate does not erase love.
If the air causes jealousy, jealousy – even of the air – kills!
Hidalgo’s music is also characteristically Spanish, with strophic songs and syncopated dance-rhythms. The most important instruments are the continuo section of harps, percussion, organ, regal and baroque guitars. The guitar ensemble of different sizes and pitches – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – is the essential element of Spanish Baroque theatrical music, and the smallest and largest guitars (tuned an octave apart, in D) were specially built for this production at Theatre Sats. The Spanish Baroque harps are by master luthier Rainer Thurau.
The Theatre orchestra brings together modern strings, woodwind and trumpets with a consort of baroque sackbuts.
Hidalgo’s score calls for two choruses, who represent the Nymphs of Diana and the local Villagers, respectively.
You can download the original Spanish text (in the version performed in our production) and an English translation. A detailed synopsis of the plot, in English is here. The Theatre’s English language information page is here.
I wish you all a very enjoyable, and very Spanish, Baroque evening!
Giovanni Battista Doni (1593-1647), grand theoretician of Baroque Opera, loves Idiots – or so he says. And with a little digging, we can find out which particular Idiots he was referring to, and which Opera. So no-one need be offended by the title of this post. But do be warned: the word Doni says we should not misuse is R*c*t*t*v*.
The word Recitative is problematic for today’s performers of early 17th-century music-drama, the ‘first operas’. Historically, it was not the preferred term. Nowadays, it evokes all kinds of unexamined assumptions, in particular the 20th-century imposition of free rhythm, instead of period Tactus. See Frescobaldi for subtle details of the application of Tactus to ‘modern madrigals’ and other genres of ‘difficult’ music.
The period meaning of recitare is ‘to act’, and the anonymous author of Il Corago – The Opera Director – (c1630) discusses three genres of theatrical shows – rappresentationi: spoken plays, music-drama and silent pantomime, which in seicento practice all consist of ‘acting’ recitare. More on Il Corago here. The approach of Il Corago is highly pragmatic: he describes the meaning of the word in common parlance, and links that meaning to three categories of drama in current theatrical usage. Silent pantomime is rather out of fashion in Italian theatre, but dumbshows are a significant feature of English Elizabethan drama, e.g. the play within the play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In Doni’s Annotationi (1640) here, ‘Annotations’ to his Compendio del Trattato de’ generi e de’ modi della Musica (1635) here, there is a highly significant discussion [page 60-62] of different types of dramatic monody, sub-categories of what we nowadays call Recitative.
Doni addresses here ‘the musical style called recitativo‘, i,e. dramatic monody. He too recognises that in normal usage the word recitare means ‘to act’, to ‘present a theatrical show’ rappresentare , even though – as a theorist – he would have liked to restrict the word to declamation of the text, as opposed to physical acting and embodiment of the role. Doni’s approach is that of a critical theorist and utopian: he rails against common parlance. tries to impose a ‘better’ terminology on current usage, and attempts to reassign the offending word to an idealised musical genre that is more-or-less a figment of his imagination.
At this point, the attentive reader might accuse me of being as impractical as Doni himself, as I rail in vain against modern misuse of the word Recitative. That would be a fair point, touché! But my practical purpose is not to stop today’s musicians using the word, since it is the obvious cognate of the seicento term recitativo. Rather, I hope to raise awareness that a 20th-century understanding of the English word ‘Recitative’ does not map onto the 17th-century understanding of the Italian word recitativo, and that this term was already problematic in Monteverdi’s time. Just as we need to add what Americans call “scare-quotes” around the word “Opera” in this period – Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione and Monteverdi’s favola in musica were not designated ‘opera’ and do not correspond to a later understanding of that term – so also for the word “Recitative”.
The take-home message is that the word “Recitative” is highly problematic, and should not be applied thoughtlessly. It’s Recitative, but not as we know it!
Doni’s examples look back to the earliest surviving secular ‘opera’, Euridice. Ottavio Rinuccini’s verse-drama was staged – rappresentata – in 1600 in a musical setting by Jacopo Peri, with a few numbers contributed by his arch-rival Giulio Caccini. Caccini hastily set the rest of the libretto and rushed his composition into print in 1601, a few weeks before the publication of Peri’s version (now updated with his own settings replacing Caccini’s work). However, Caccini’s music-drama was not performed until 1602, and is usually considered to have been overshadowed by the prior success of Peri’s composition. More on Peri here.
Meanwhile, Cavalieri’s religious music-drama, Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) was performed and published even earlier, more on Cavalieri here.
In this post, I consider Doni’s remarks in the light of both settings of Euridice, and I add some comments of my own, related to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1610), see The Orfeo Page.
In what follows, the translation of Doni’s remarks is in black, with my commentary in blue.
ALK: On page 100 of the Compendio, Doni ends his criticism of Diminutione ne’ Contrapunti – singing divisions (improvised, ornamental passage-work) in polyphonic compositions – by blaming wayward singers of Church Music, since (in his opinion) the practice came later to Madrigals and other vernacular poetry.
GBD: In all this, I like to call it the Madrigalian style; because it is especially significant in Madrigals: under this name is included similarly musical settings of Sonnets, Canzonas, Masquerades etc; and perhaps also Villanelle [rustic Peasant Songs] even though they are closer to the simplicity of what are properly called Arias or Canzonets, and to the Ballate [Ballads] and Canzoni a ballo [Dance-Songs] that the Ancients called Hyporchemata.
Then, very different and almost contrary to this is the Song for a single voice accompanied by the sound of some instrument; brought back, one might say, from death to life in this century especially by the work of Giulio Caccini, nicknamed Il Romano; but with the guidance and direction of those virtuosi (noble amateurs) Florentine Academicians; as I have discussed at greater length in the Trattato della Musica Scenica [Treatise on Stage Music here] and he himself admits.
And although there has always been a practice of some kind of Melody for a single Voice with the accompaniment of instruments; there should not be included in this category those vulgar Tunes – Cantilene – which almost without any art or grace were formerly sung by simple persons and idiots, and by blind men, and even today are heard cheaply in every country.
The improvement that Music has made in this sort of Melody is most notable; because apart from the refinement of Composition (in which by the example of Caccini it has acheived more than ever before), there have been musical settings – modulate – of Dramatic Actions and unstaged Dialogues; which give great delight in the style called Dramatic [Recitativo]…
ALK: Doni’s remarks in the Annotationi are a commentary on this ‘style called Dramatic’, and I translate them below. But first here is the conclusion of the principal text from the Compendio.
GBD: … and the quality of expression – a very important part of Musica operativa [practical music-making, or music with a practical function; this is too early for any reference to ‘opera’ as a musical genre] – has been greatly refined and the Decorum [a Rhetorical term – how the music fits with the text] increased by the drying-up of many of those [ornamented] Repeats; and the ornamentations of this Singing, which are accenti, passaggi, trilli, gorgheggiamenti etc, have been perfected, first by the effort of the same Caccini and then by the experience and good dispositione [technique, especially in singing fast ornamentation] of other singers, especially of this city [Rome] and in particular Giuseppe Cenci, nicknamed Giuseppino.
ALK: ‘Little Joe’ Cenci was a composer of artistic monodies and scandalous popular songs admitted into the Papal choir as a tenor in 1598 and praised alongside Caccini also by aristocratic art-collector and intellectual, Vincenzo Giustiani, for his contributions to ‘Recitative’.
Doni list combines two different classes of ornamentation associated with two distinct styles of solo singing. Accenti & trilli are so-called vocal Effects – Effetti – added especially at cadences to express and induce emotions – Affetti – and associated with expressive, dramatic monody (what we might today call “Recitative”). Passaggi & gorgheggiamenti are fast passage-work, divisions within the main body of the phrase, intended to charm the ear and associated with song-like melodies (what we might call “Arias”). Part of Doni’s purpose in the Annotation that follows is to distinguish more precisely between these different types of solo singing, within the broad category of Dramatic Music. See also Ornamenting Monteverdi: Add, alter or Divide?
[Annotationi pages 60-62]
GBD: There is a great diversity of Melodies, which I’ve discussed elsewhere [in the Compendio]. However, out of love for the idiots here I want to declare in more detail what the Dramatic style really is.
ALK: Doni’s “idiots” are those ‘simple persons’ mentioned in the Compendio, singers of cheap, vulgar tunes. This affectionate joke points out the contrast: here, Doni is making subtle intellectual distinctions within the high-art genre of Dramatic music for a single voice. His first categorisation, made explicit below, is to exclude song-like – canzonesco – styles. So he is not discussing diegetic songs (when a character sings a song ‘realistically’ within the staged story), nor what we might nowadays call ‘Arias’. And one attribute of modern Opera can perhaps be traced all the way back to the first fully-sung dramas in the early seicento: from the outset this genre was regarded as the highest form of music-theatre, satisfying not only the eye and ear with its sights and sounds, but also the mind and soul by its intellectual profundity and emotional power. In this, the first ‘operas’ sought to acheive all three aims of Rhetoric – docere, delectare, movere – to teach, to delight, and to move the passions.
GBD: It’s commonly believed that any music is in this style, if it is composed for a single voice. But in truth it’s not like this, because – leaving aside the inflections of ecclesiastical plain-chant, which is sung by a solo voice and nevertheless is not categorised as Dramatic – even more artistically complex music, including theatrical music, is of various types.
ALK: Nevertheless, some listeners to Peri’s (1600) Euridice compared the sound of the new style of dramatic monody to the chanting of the Passion-story in church during Holy Week. That comment is usually taken as negative, but it shows an attempt to place a genuinely new practice within a familiar context of existing sound-worlds and emotional experiences. It also suggests that the accompanying instruments might have been quieter, in relation to the voice, than we are accustomed to today.
GBD: Some people assign two types: the Narrative style narrativo, which others call Story-Telling raccontativo, and the Expressive style espressivo, which others call Theatrical rappresentativo. But I add as a third type, that which is more strictly called Dramatic recitativo, declaring that there are three styles of Monody in use onstage today (from which I exclude Choral and Song styles).
First, the Narrative mentioned above, which is named thus for being used in Narrations and long re-telling of messages and suchlike. This is easily distinguished from the others by its restricting itself to a single note (the Greeks call it monotone), and almost always that of the fundamental tone, with fast pacing tempi veloci [short note values] similar to the pacing of speech. For example where in Euridice the death of Euridice is told.
ALK: Doni gives only the text, no music, for this example. And as an enthusiastic admiror of Peri’s compositions, at first I blithely assumed that Doni was referring to this setting. But in the linked passage from the Compendio (above), Doni singles out Giulio Caccini for special praise as composer, singer and reformer of ornamentation, whereas Peri is not mentioned at all. So I also checked each example in Caccini’s setting. In this case, Peri’s version corresponds to Doni’s description of the Narrative style on a monotone, but Caccini’s does not.
GBD: The second style is the specially Dramatic recitativo, called this because it is particularly suitable for someone who acts/declaims recita [the common meaning is ‘acts’, even though Doni would prefer it to mean ‘declaims a text’] with music, as the Rhapsodes did in ancient times. For presenting a show onstage rappresentare in scena people incorrectly say ‘acting’ recitare, [but] this [representing] is rather an imitation or embodiment atteggiare, which in Latin is called agere [acting].
ALK: The fifth Canon of Rhetoric, which we would nowadays call Performance, combines Pronuntatio (Delivery of the text) with Actio (Action, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, changes of posture etc). In addition, early 17th-century theatre was concerned with a new approach to Personation (the Embodiment of a character-role). These three elements – delivery of the text, physical action, portrayal of a role – are all contained within our modern concept of ‘acting’ and also within early 17th-century usage of the word recitare (as Il Corago confirms). However, Doni – grumpy theorist that he was – finds this ‘incorrect’, and he tries to draw a theoretical distinction between recitare as rhapsodic delivery of the text in the style of the ancient Greeks, and rappresentare as stage-acting. Here we see clearly the contrast in approach between Doni and Il Corago, commented on by Fabbri & Pompilio (editors of Il Corago in 1983): Doni theorises and speculates about the ancient Greeks, Il Corago tells it like it is in seicento Italy. But, in support of Doni’s academic precision, 17th-century title pages show that recitativo is rarely mentioned in the context of the ‘first operas’, rappresentatione is the preferred term. See Sternfeld A note on ‘stile recitativo’ here [paywall, unless you have institutional access]
In the Trattato della musica scenica Doni himself uses the word recitare in its usual meaning of ‘to act’ or to ‘declaim in speech’ (so not in the idealised way he calls for in the Annotationi, which would be ‘to act/declaim poetry as chamber-music’). At the end of Chapter IV, discussing Seneca’s Medea: “che si recitassero senza canto’ [that they acted/declaimed, without singing]. At the end of Chapter V, he argues that long narrations of messengers, descriptions of places etc were all spoken in Classical Antiquity: “it would not been elegant if some of these speeches were sung – si cantassero – whilst others were declaimed in speech – si recitassero. In Chapter VI, he again opposes recitata and cantata, writing that perfection can be found in Rappresentationi spirituale (dramas on sacred subjects: Cavalieri’s pioneering Anima & Corpo would be an example, and Doni’s own example is Landi’s Il Sant’ Alessio) in two ways: ‘if they are recitata (acted/declaimed) by the most experienced Actors, full of elegance and lightness in their gestures and carriage of the body… or when they are canata (sung) with sweet and appropriate melody’. Note in this last example that ‘gestures and carriage of the body’ are what ‘experienced Actors’ bring to recitare – declamation is only one part of acting, and the word recitare also includes those elements of embodiment.
In short, recitare means ‘to act’, with hand-gestures and body-movement. This may include declamation of a text (spoken or sung). Recitare can be used to mean ‘spoken acting’, as opposed to cantare (singing). Doni would like to re-define it to mean ‘singing Rhapsodic poetry as chamber-music’, but this meaning is not employed in the real world, not even by Doni himself! All of this is very far from the modern English word Recitative. So we must not translate (even mentally) recitare, musica recitativa etc as ‘singing Recitative, or Recitative music’ etc , in the familiar way. We can better appreciate the period meaning of these terms from Doni’s alternative phrase (beginning of Chapter V of Musica Scenica):
canto scenico – ‘stage singing’.
All this matters, because we assume that we know how to do Recitative. But the music of Cavalieri, Peri, Caccini and Monteverdi is not Recitative, not as we know it…
GBD: The quality of its melody is midway between the Narrative and the Expressive, because it is more tuneful arioso [aria in this period also suggests rhythmic patterning, dance-metres etc] than the other two, and and has less pathos than the latter. There is very often heard in it certain desinenze [designs, melodic figures] which serve as clichés for composers and generate a certain tedium for listeners, for example:
ALK: I searched in vain for this exact melody in Peri’s and Caccini’s settings of Euridice. However, Doni is not wrong, there are many, many figures at the beginning of phrases that sound just like this in Peri. It is indeed a recognisable phrase-opening cliché, in the easy-flowing pastoral dialogues that Peri contrasts against extended narrations and passionate speeches, fitting very well with Doni’s three categories. In particular, it is a very close match to the first notes of Peri’s Act I, and this might well be what Doni was remembering.
I did not find Doni’s cliché so frequently in Caccini’s version. But the incipit of his Act I is strikingly similar to Peri’s (just one more note differing from Doni), although the two settings diverge markedly immediately after this first phrase.
I speculate that Peri’s first phrase might have made so strong an impression that both Caccini and Doni cited it with only minor mis-rememberings. If so, it would seem that both Caccini and Doni were remembering something heard, rather than consulting a score, since the small differences (especially in Doni) do not look like copyist’s or printer’s errors. One could even imagine that Caccini thought the phrase to have been notated as he prints it, since Peri’s unexpected (and beautiful) lower note on the word crin has the character of a singer’s improvised accento – an ornament that creates an emotional accent by descending in order to ascend afterwards (or vice versa).
For comparison, here is the notated accento in Monteverdi’s La Musica Prologue to Orfeo. At the words dolci accenti (sweet accents) the singer first ascends in order then to descend onto an expressive Bb on the good syllable.
In Orfeo, Monteverdi avoids Doni’s melodic/rhythmic cliché, even though many phrases, including the beginning of the Prologue Del mio permesso amato and the opening of Act I In queto lieto e fortunato giorno, start with three upbeats. The closest he comes to it is in Orfeo’s first song (a diegetic song, but not an aria in 17th-century terms):
and twice in the following phrase, but with only two upbeats:
or in the Pastore’s invitation to the Temple Ma s’il nostro gioir del ciel deriva, with three upbeats and altered rhythm:
For Doni, the risk of tedium comes from the overuse of similar melodic figures at the beginning of phrases. But modern-day commentators and performers are more anxious about the cadences in long notes at the end of each phrase in this style. I first encountered Doni’s commentary in lecture notes handed out at Yale by eminent musicologist, the late Claude Palisca, Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor Emeritus of Music at Yale University and an internationally recognized authority on early music, especially opera of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Palisca translates desinenze as ‘endings’, but even a cursory glance at Doni’s example reveals it to be an incipit, not a cadence.
I mean absolutely no disrespect to the memory of this revered musicologist. But the mistranslation would seem to be a Freudian slip, revealing hidden assumptions of which researchers themselves cannot be consciously aware. The notion that cadences are a ‘problem’ is a firmly embedded, deeply hidden – and hitherto unexamined – assumption in 20th-century musicology, that still influences modern-day performances. But Doni is not at all concerned with cadences: his focus is on incipits. This startling difference reinforces my impression that we have fundamentally misunderstood something in our treatment of cadences. See Ornamenting Monteverdi.
GBD: The principal use of this style is for Prologues. There it really is more tolerable than elsewhere, even though its true place is in the pulpit and not onstage. But it is optimally suited to Rhapsodies and similar recitations recitationi with song of Heroic Poems, or structured poems of a certain type, such as the Heroics of Antiquity, and modern blank verse verso sciolto [Hendecasyllables], or verses of various types like the Idylls, or set out in stanzas like ottava rima and extended songs. And so it seems to me that we could include in this type also many of the tunes arie for ottava rima that are sung throughout Italy.
ALK: Peri’s Preface to Euridice here also makes the connection between his ‘new manner of singing for music onstage’ [he does not use the word recitativo] which is midway between speech and song, and Hendecasyllables (the Italian equivalent of Shakespeare’s blank verse), which are midway between prose and poetry. The connection between the new mondoy and improvising street-singers, cantastorie, singing ballads of heroes and battles to reciting formulae for ottava rima was extensively discussed in the late 20th-century writings of James Haar and Nino Pirotta. It’s difficult to imagine how this musical style might be used literally from the preacher’s pulpit, but in sacred music we can recognise it in the motets of Monteverdi’s (1610) Vespers – Nigra sum, Audi coelum etc. Doni later describes his ideal of Rhapsodic singing, as chamber-music accompanied by the harp.
These various contexts all address what Peri calls ‘sad or serious matters’, in which the slow-moving bass does not force the singer to ‘dance’. Even the singers of improvised arie and street cantastorie are far from the realm of Doni’s villanelle-singing Idiots.
GBD: As an example of this style one could mention the Prologue to Euridice.
ALK: The two settings are very similar in pitch contours of the voice-part and of the bass-melody for the ritornello. But Peri has the more interesting rhythms and harmonies, and to my ears (though I admit to a pro-Peri bias) Caccini’s version seems to be a pale imitation of Peri’s original. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that Peri was the champion of sparsely ornamented expressivity, whereas Caccini’s performance would certainly have been heightened by the elaborate ornamentation for which he was renowned.
Monteverdi’s La Musica Prologue is written out with careful attention to the words and emotional contrasts of each strophe, but its basic structure is clearly a strophic aria, variations on a ground bass. We might imagine that Peri’s and Caccini’s Prologues would have been performed with some improvised variation of the melody, possibly also of the bass, from one strophe to another: Monteverdi’s notated variations might even be a model for bold improvisation.
GBD: The third type is what we call Expressive, which is the only one truly appropriate and suitable for the stage, for in our opinion [Doni uses the ‘royal we’] the other two types should stay away. The first [Narrative] is too cloying, and should be reduced to simple speech. And the second has too much sing-song cantilena, and would be better suited to poems of a mixed genre.
So, in the Expressive we proffess to express well the emotions affetti and – in some places – the natural accents of emotional speech parlare patetico.
ALK: This matches Peri’s analysis, in which the various emotions shape the bass and harmonies, whereas the pitch-contours of the voice-line follow the rise and fall of spoken declamation in the theatre. Il Corago also insists that dramatic monody should imitate the delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre.
GBD: Both these elements have very great force upon the human spirits animi humani [animo refers to the mind-body communication of affetti, i.e. the pyschological and physiological aspects of emotion]. It is evident that when this is combined with lively stage-action vivace attione and a poetic text parlare appropriate proportionato to the subject, it marvellously induces commove laughter, tears, anger etc.
ALK: In spite of Doni’s enthusiasm for Caccini’s contributions to composition, singing and the reform of ornamentation, it seems that his memories of Euridice are of Peri’s setting. Certainly Peri’s version better matches the arguments Doni wishes to advance by his examples. And perhaps Peri’s ideals of dramatic expression, rather than Caccini’s song-like ear-tickling, fits better with Doni’s intellectual concept of baroque opera as carrying forward the theatrical power of Classical Antiquity.
GBD: Here there is the opportunity for all those contrasts of Tone, Genre and Rhythm [mode and hexachord – soft or hard; diatonic/chromatic; syllabic speed, word-accents on/off Tactus etc] which are the the greatest riches and impressive display of music. As an example, one could mention the Lamento d’Arianna, still today admired by everyone, which is the most beautiful composition which has ever been seen amongst dramatic and theatrical music.
ALK: One of the most attractive features of Orfeo is Monteverdi’s rich store of varied melodic and rhythmic figures for the ‘middle ground’ of dramatic monody that Doni identifies as neither Narrative nor passionately Expressive: the Prologue of La Musica, the dialogues of Shepherds, dance-songs in Act II, Speranza’s description of the gateway to Hell, Caronte’s aria, Prosperina’s persuasion, Plutone’s pronouncements, and Orfeo’s dialogue with Apollo. But many of these examples have at least some moments that could be categorised as Expressive – Monteverdi takes the liberty to move freely between one type and another, setting Striggio’s text ‘verse by verse, even word by word’ [as Monteverdi writes in his letters, and we read also in the Il Corago MS]
As well as all this delightful monody, there are Orfeo’s set-piece arias – the dance-song Vi ricorda just before the Messaggiera’s entrance with the news of Euridice’s death, Possente Spirto with its elaborate passaggi and Qual honor over a walking bass; the song-like Ecco pur, ch’a voi ritorno [the original notation implies a slow tempo around minim = 60, not a fast Proportion] and the diegetic song Rosa del Ciel in the most artful style of monody; as well as all the charming ensemble-music.
The Messaggiera’s narration perfectly fits Doni’s category of Narrative, and there are of course and many moment of heightened passion and exquisite composition in the style Doni distinguishes as Expressive.
Two of these passionate moments, Dove, ah dove te’n vai and Ahi, sventurato amante are often performed nowadays as fast, free declamation, but are notated in longer note-values, quavers rather than semiquavers for passing syllables (only the first words sventurate amante are fast). Performed in Tactus rather than rattled through freely, these speeches become more song-like in their expressivity, and would seem to satisfy the requirement (remarked on by many modern-day commentators as ‘unfulfilled’) for Orfeo to sing songs of lamenting when he descends to Hell, as we read in the classical myth and hear reported in Proserpina’s speech.
If we wish to avoid falling into Doni’s category of Idiots, we must pay careful attention to the genre distinctions he defines so precisely. Within all the rich variety of theatrical solo singing in the “first Operas” there are songs, arias, song-like moments, and three different types of dramatic monody. We miss vital contrasts if we simply label all of this ‘Recitative’ and disregard the composers’ detailed notation of Tactus and word-rhythms. We lose contact with text and changing emotions if we sing everything too much. We lose the ebb and flow of contrasting passions if we apply emotionality indiscriminately throughout. We remove a special dimension of theatricality if we try too hard to embody every moment, every character with the full power of Personation: early music-drama was fluid enough to switch seamlessly between action, narration and almost naively-staged music-making (often derided by today’s opera directors as ‘just a concert’).
Doni’s intellectual details might seem to be the dryest of academic nit-picking, but in seicento music-theatre, they can become the key to powerful emotions and dramatic contrasts.
How did Baroque ‘opera’ develop in the first decade of the 1600s?
And how have our modern-day performances of early music-drama advanced in a half-century of Historically Informed Performances?
This post is based on an interview for Radio Orpheus (Moscow) in which the presenter, Russian poet, novelist and dramaturg, Alexey Parin asked me to compare and contrast two of the earliest surviving baroque operas: Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo (1600) and Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). Both operas can be seen in regular repertoire at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, in award-winning productions by Georgy Isaakyan, and in collaboration with OPERA OMNIA, the Academy for Early Opera & Dance.. My thanks to Alexey for his profound enthusiasm for opera, for his translation of the libretto of Anima & Corpo, and for his provocative questions in this interview.
I think the first thing that strikes us, looking at the scores and listening to the music, is the similarity between the two works. Both composers are starting from the text, as if they were setting a spoken play to music.
But Monteverdi’s subject gives him the possibility for a lot more music, arising ‘realistically’ out of the drama. Since the protaganist is Orpheus, the great musician, the famous singer, of course we want to hear him sing and make music. And so he sings a magnificent Aria in Hell, accompanied by all the latest instruments of the early 17th-century Italian baroque. These are actually the same instruments that we hear in Cavalieri – violins, cornetti and the double-harp – but what’s now very different, is that with the excuse of Orpheus, Monteverdi writes virtuosi solos for these instruments. So although we have similar instruments, the sound of Monteverdi’s music begins to change.
Also in the earlier scenes, we are in pastoral Arcadia, and the shepherds of Arcadia all sing. They invite the Muses to descend from Parnassus to play instruments. So once again, Monteverdi has the chance to bring in a lot more ensemble music, proceeding ‘realistically’ from the mythological story.
Another difference between the two works comes also from the text. With Orfeo, we are following one protagonist, we could almost say that the other characters are two-dimensional, only Orfeo is truly ‘there’. So while earlier operas exist on the same story, called Euridice, this drama is really the story of Orpheus. Eurydice has only two lines in the whole opera, but nevertheless what she says is extremely important, and perhaps her lines are the clue for understanding the whole opera. More about Eurydice here.
At the beginning when Orpheus sings beautifully of all his love for Euridice, her reply is that she cannot speak, and we should just ask Love, in order to know her feelings. And so we realise that Orpheus is perhaps speaking too much.
And this suspicion is reinfored with Eurydice’s second speech at the crucial moment in the drama, when Orpheus fatally turns to look at her. She says that the sight of him is too sweet, but also too bitter, and for the sake of too much love, he is going to lose her. And so in this very short speech, the word troppo, too much, comes three times. The poet is making it very clear for us here: this is the message. Orpheus was ‘too much’: too happy, too sad, too much love, too excessive in every way.
And so the message of the opera is then to look for the golden mean, for the perfect balance. But nevertheless, I think that Striggio as librettist and Monteverdi as composer both know that the audience enjoy the excesses. More about the message of Orfeo here.
And this brings us right back to Cavalieri again, because in his Preface, Emilio de’ Cavalieri says that the emotions in this kind of music come from rapid contrasts of opposites. More about Cavalieri’s Preface here.
It’s important to realise that a score in the early 17th-century had a very different purpose. It was not there for musicians like me to create a performance four hundred years later. More than anything, it was a souvenir for the public who had been to the performance and wanted to study the work further.
This reminds us how new this style of music-drama was. Cavalieri’s religious music-drama was so different from what had gone before, that he wanted to give his audience a chance to look at it again.
Nowadays, if we go to an opera we like, we might listen to the CD afterwards, as a nice memory of the real theatrical experience. So in Cavalieri’s score there is a lot of detail to help the reader remember the whole experience. He prints the music and the libretto and cross-references one to the other with numbers, number 1 in the music corresponds to number 1 in the libretto.
But, from the performers point of view, other information is missing. Many musical details are not specified in the score, and must be decided by the performers. In particular, the score provides no information about the orchestration of the instrumental parts, which instruments should play where.
In contrast, Monteverdi working at the Ducal court, wants to show off not only the opera, but also the court orchestra. So in his score, which is also a kind of souvenir-edition, he includes not only details of the drama but also a lot of information about the instruments. Especially at very strong dramatic moments…
This focus on moments of high drama shows us the purpose of publication. It’s not a score for musicians to work from. It’s to help audience members remember the show they saw. And so the score makes a kind of ‘close-up shot’ of the orchestra when it comes to the most dramatic moments. This gives us today, as musicians working with this historical material, vital information.
From the score, we know that in the original production of Orfeo, the instrumentalists appeared in different positions around the stage. We know that sometimes the instruments were part of the stage action. In a new piece of research, part of my investigation reveals that in one particular scene, when the Muses appear and the character La Ninfa says “you Muses have come with your instruments, so we’ll sing and you play, and everyone’s happy”, the score describes precisely which instruments play, and there are 10 of them – Apollo and the 9 Muses. So here the instruments are not just the accompaniment, they are part of the stage picture, and essential to the poetic concept.
But these differing levels of information in the two scores make today’s artistic process different for historically informed performers. Often Monteverdi writes details about the instrumentation that we don’t know from Cavalieri. For example, at the beginning of Act III, Monteverdi is extremely clear: the scene changes to Hell, the violins, the theorbos, the harp and the beautiful organs stop playing, and instead we have the cornetti, trombones and the regal. And so we can understand the two worlds, Hell and Arcadia, in Monteverdi’s opera. And this gives us a suggestion for the two worlds of Cavalieri’s opera, again Hell, and (now) Heaven. So from the point of view of a researcher and music director working with the score, it’s good to combine the information from both scores, to help us understand the cultural context of the period.
We don’t know if the Maenad ending was ever composed or not, but for sure it’s now lost. There’s a hint of how the lost music might have been, in the Moresca that survives as the finale of the happy ending with Apollo. This Moresca starts in the score without time signature – there is no 3/2. This is very strange, and perhaps it’s because this Moresca was the continuation of something else, and that something else, whatever it was,is now lost. A Moresca, which is a danced battle, would also be an appropriate finale after the Bacchic ending with the Maenads. On the other hand, we should remember that often they would put a dance at the end that had no relation to the rest of the drama. After one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the actors – including characters who had died – would all stand up and dance a jig. Cavalieri says that you can put whatever dance at the end of a show, but then what he actually writes is the perfect dance finale, actually, yes, very connected to the show. More about dancing in Orfeo and Anima & Corpo here.
Personally, I’m fascinated by this question of the end of Orfeo. In another production, in Helsinki, we showed both endings (with my reconstruction of the Maenad scene from the 1607 libretto), and I’m intrigued by the idea of letting the audience vote: should the final triumph be for Apollo, or for Bacchus?
Here in Moscow, in this production, in Georgy Isaakyan’s particular style, it seems to me that he doesn’t tell the audience what happens, he encourages them to ask themselves: does Orpheus live or die?
As we work on Orfeo at OPERA OMNIA, we now have the advantage of 7 years of work together in Theatre Sats on the baroque style of Cavalieri. More about how to study early operatic roles here. No doubt 17th-century musicians also developed their ideas in the 7 years between Anima & Corpo and Orfeo. And I think it’s also fair to say that Monteverdi is musically more difficult than Cavalieri. In our production of Orfeo, we have the opportunity to sing in the Italian language, which makes some things easier for the music, but challenges the actors to make that direct contact with the audience that we have when we sing Anima & Corpo in Russian. More about OPERA OMNIA here,
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the musical approach for the Orfeo production is that we have effectively two musical directors, in the same way that Monteverdi effectively had two orchestras: the orchestra of the violins and wind instruments who play written parts; and the orchestra of the continuo who improvise their parts. And just as Georgy Isaakyan’s staging is an encounter between Monteverdi’s 17th-century story, and Russia of the 1970s and 1980s; so there is a similar contrast within the musical realisation. Amongst the continuo and soloists, we share the latest ideas of Monteverdi’s baroque style; whilst in the orchestra and chorus the audience are presented with the Russian way to play baroque from the 1970s.
This juxtaposition of fundamentally differing approaches to early opera within one production has led to me reflect on how Historically Performed Performance of Monteverdi has changed in my own lifetime. In the table below, I attempt to identify some key topics and trail-blazing pioneers associated with significant re-discoveries. Any serious early opera production should at least consider these topics. Nevertheless, even decades later, some findings are still considered too “radical”, whilst others are routinely ignored, even by ‘historically informed’ ensembles.
How HIP is your Monteverdi?
Of course, this list reflects my own personal experiences and fortunate encounters with individual experts. So I look forward to your comments, corrections and additions. And most importantly, I look forward to new research findings in the 2020s, which will provide new impetus for re-thinking, re-imagining and re-working Monteverdi’s theatrical music.
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…
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.
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.
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…
Many heartfelt thanks to all who took part!
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 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.
And the full orchestra lurches into 5/8 metre as Orlando imagines himself rowing Charon’s boat into the underworld.
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.
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.
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.
The rhythmic drive of the giga is disrupted with broken phrases to depict Dorinda’s misplaced faith in ‘sweet little lies’.
The step-and-jump rhythms of a French gigue are heard in Medoro’s second Act aria;
the slow swing of an Italian folk-dance, the siciliano characterises Dorinda’s wistful longing;
Orlando’s lament in hell is sung to a French passacaille.
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.
Instrumentalists similarly have few written phrasing-marks, but imitate the crisp articulation of the Italian language with a great variety of bow-strokes.
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.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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!