Introduction to French Baroque Dance: Muffat on ‘Vrai Mouvement’

This article was written for a course on HIP for Harps taught for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It offers a very brief introduction based on Muffat (1698) and focussed on the typical movements of baroque suites.

Period discourse about music around the year 1700 was much concerned with contrasts in National Style, specifically Italian and French. Italian style (imitated also outside Italy, of course) favoured drama and virtuoso display in such genres as Opera, Toccata, Sonata & Concerto. French style (also imitated abroad) preferred descriptive character pieces to abstract sonatas and celebrated above all the noble art of Dance.



French theatrical music (especially Ballets), chamber music (in particular, Suites) and social activities were unified by the elegance and energy of dance, and depended for variety on the contrasting characters of distinctive dance-types. As modern-day performers of these repertoires, our understanding of the music is enormously increased if we know something of the dancing that inspired it.

I strongly recommend every student of Historically Informed Performance to go to class and learn some dances from the appropriate period of music. It isn’t necessary to become a great dancer: right from the beginning you will start to notice from the inside what it feels like to dance the music you love. No amount of teaching or demonstration can replace this personal, embodied experience.

At the very least, watch as much baroque dancing as you can, so that you have a clear visual inspiration to guide your playing. Play for dance rehearsals, in order to learn what their art requires of your delivery. The ideal in this period was that the music should appear to be produced by the action of the dancers’ feet striking the floor. Strong moments in the dance move upwards, preparatory energy is gathered by sinking in order to expand and rise again. And watching good baroque dancers, we can imagine that our sustained notes are similarly suspended in the air as if weightless, like a elegantly poised dancer, balanced and seeming to float almost off the ground.

Watch here 1: Introduction

Watch here 2: Suite

Watch here 3: Minuet etc

For a more substantial audio/visual introduction, I warmly recommed Paige Whitley-Baugess’ Introduction to Baroque D ance videos, available here.  

French period sources suggest that many subtleties of le bon gout – Good Taste – can only be acquired by studying with a fine teacher, born into the culture of Louis XIV’s France. As foreigners from the 21st century, we can all be thankful for Georg Muffat’s (1698) systematic analysis of French style, describing le bon gout in terms of a coherent set of principles, just as grammar-books describe the use of language. Indeed, this concept of a collection of rules is precisely how Art itself was defined, in this period. Read more about period philosophy of art here.


Muffat’s First Observations on the French style of playing dance-tunes according to the method of Monsieur Lully are presented in four languages (Latin, German, Italian, French) as the introduction to his second Florilegium collection, available free online here. The four versions are not identical, and it is worth studying fine points of detail across all four texts. David Wilson’s English translation is here. My summary below follows the French text.

For an alternative path through Muffat & French Baroque Dance, see my 2020 article here.

 

“Here you can discover the principal secrets in a few words”

 

“Two functions admirably well linked together:

  • “To charm the ear
  • “Simultaneously, to mark so well the movements of the dance, that one recognises immediately which type each tune represents, and one feels irresistibly inspired to dance.”

This is Muffat’s reworking of the classic Three Aims of Rhetoric: to delight, to explain and to move the passions. The musician’s purpose is literally to move listeners’ feet, and thereby to affect their emotions.

The word mouvement has a wide semantic field that includes the physical movements of dancing, contrasting formal sections (e.g. the movements of a suite), the speed of the music, the emotional Affekt of the music and the dancing, and the rhythmic structure of a particular dance-type. All these elements are interdependent.

“Five requirements:

  1. “To play in tune”
  2. “Bowing”
  3. “To keep constantly/constant the True Movement of each piece”
  4. “To observe certain usages of repeats, notations, style and dancing”
  5. “Ornamentation”

Muffat’s insistence on le vrai Mouvement  – True Movement – goes further than simply keeping the beat and maintaining constant tempo. This mouvement is also what a jazz musician would call the ‘groove’ of the dance, a characteristic rhythmic pattern, not necessarily strictly mathematical (often the first beat of the bar needs to be long), but established from the beginning and maintained until the end, and strongly linked to the particular physical movements and emotional Affekts associated with each dance-type.

For example, the Chaconne is usually a celebratory, festive, theatrical ‘party’ dance often marking the happy ending of a music-drama, or associated with the comedy clown, Harlequin. It is usually constructed in double-units of four-bar phrases featuring a descending bass-line, with hemiola at significant cadences, and a groove running across the bar-lines: 2 3 1, 2 3 1. The first beat is long, giving space either for a breath between mini-phrases, or for an expressive dissonance on the first beat resolved on the second.

The Minuet is a formal social dance, often marking the presentation of a couple to the assembled company. It is usually constructed with a great deal of symmetry: four-bar and eight-bar phrases; eight-bar or sixteen-bar repeated sections etc. The basic unit is two bars, which corresponds to one minuet-step. The groove mixes, often alternately,  rhythmic patterns of crotchet-minim [short-long] and minim-crotchet [long short].

Both these dances are usually notated in 3/4, and could plausibly be played within a similar range of tempi according to circumstances. In this, they might appear very alike. But once you’ve played a few of each type, and (ideally) learnt to dance them too, you will be able to distinguish them from the very first few notes, just as Muffat writes. This is the significance of vrai mouvement, much more than just ‘constant speed’.

“Play in tune”

Muffat singles out the diatonic semitone mi-fa as the usual source of problems for inexperienced players. At an elementary level, violinists have to learn to position their fingers to create a narrower spacing for the semitone than for the tones. Failure here is a serious assault on the listener’s ears.

At a higher level of sophistication, Muffat’s hint to raise the mi may be linked to the ongoing transition from the pure thirds of Quarter-comma Meantone towards the slightly wider thirds of Sixth-comma Meantone, as the accepted practice for ‘being in tune’. Most 18th-century ‘circulating temperaments’ (for keyboard instruments) were derived from Sixth-comma Meantone, so it is highly plausible that slightly wider thirds became generally accepted.

Muffat also mentions that ornaments should not be false. Sometimes ornaments require chromatic alteration to fit within the local harmonies, and whichever notes one chooses to play, they must be in tune, of course. Playing an ornament in the wrong place also offends the ear. Squeaks and noises are also to be avoided.

In contrast to the lengthy debates amongst today’s Early Musicians on the subject of Temperament, Muffat writes that there is only one accepted way of being in tune. He deals with the whole subject in 14 lines.

Bowing

Muffat devotes about 100 lines – more than two pages, plus two pages of musical examples to this crucial topic. Bowing for string instruments corresponds to tonguing syllables for wind-players and fingering for keyboards, harp, lutes and guitars. Strict rules of style create characteristic patterns of articulation: Good and Bad notes, legato or separation between one note and the next, contrasting qualities of onset-attack for individual notes.  

Muffat states that unanimity of bowing is essential. This translates for harpists and others into a requirement for intense scrutiny of note-by-note articulation patterns.

In this French style, the first beat is always given a down-bow, even if the previous note was also down-bow. This creates silences of articulation before some down-beats. But Muffat marvels how, “in spite of so many down-bows and retakes” (lifting the bow up again, to facilitate two successive down-bows with the very short French Baroque bow), “one never hears anything disagreeable or coarse, but rather a wonderful combination of speed and the length of the bow-strokes; of admirable equality of measure and diversity of phrasings; of tender sweetness and vivacity of playing”

What I have translated here as ‘phrasings’ is yet another appearance of the word mouvemens, here suggesting the movement of the bow, as well as of the notes and of the dancers’ feet, and of the emotions that all these work together to produce.

This rule of “first-beat = down-bow” takes precedence. After this, Good and Bad notes get down- and up-bows respectively, as far as possible. In triple metre, three crotchets to the bar (for example), the last note could be taken down-bow (in slow tempo) or up-bow (in fast tempo). Two successive up-bows can be divided – craquer – to articulate the final note clearly. In very fast tempo, a group of notes can be played ‘upside-down’ if necessary.  In a passage of dotted notes alternating with short notes, one should not slur short-long, but might slur long-short.

If you have any skill at all on the violin, it’s worth playing through Muffat’s examples to see how they feel and sound. If not, you can create a similar effect by singing Frank Sinatra style with dooby-doo. Use ‘doo’ for a Good note, down-bow. Use ‘bee’ for a Bad note, up-bow. Advancing in sophistication, you can imitate craquer with the syllables ‘beeper’, making more or less of a seperation between ‘beep’ and ‘per’ as you judge appropriate.

Muffat avoids down-bow on the second beat, so the combination crotchet and two quavers at the beginning of a bar forces you to craquer the two quavers. Thus the famous Minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch would not go “Doo dooby dooby / doo dooby” but (more elegantly) “Doo beeper dooby / doo beeper”, when played in the French style. 

 

 

Muffat gives a few examples of how Italian violinists played Minuets, often starting with an upbow on the first note. The Anna Magdalena Minuet comes out very nicely with alternate bows, starting up-bow, but sounding very different in that Italian style: “Bee dooby dooby / doo-bee-doo”

Groove

The mesure (a bar, yes, but also the time-span measured by the regular down-up movement of the Tactus hand-beat) can have different mouvements. A jazz-musician might express this by saying “a steady count can have all kinds of different grooves”. 

Muffat gives “three requirements:

  1. “Understand well the vrai mouvement  – the groove – of each piece
  2. “Once you’ve understood it, be able to keep it for as long as you play the same piece, always with the same regularity, without changing, slowing or rushing it.
  3. “Give certain notes some swing, to make it sound more cool.”

“To understand better the groove of each piece… knowing how to dance is a great help. Most of the best violinists in France are very good dancers, so it’s not surprising that they are so well able to find and maintain the groove of the beat.”

“Having understood and started the beat, not everyone is able to keep it precisely constant for the entire duration of the piece.”

Muffat does not accept playing the whole piece slower or faster one time than another [his next paragraph suggests that this refers to playing a dance several times through consecutively, rather than to separate performances on different occasions] He also disapproves of alterations to the groove bar by bar or note by note. 

  1. “Reject the abuse of playing whatever kind of piece the first time very gently, then gradually faster and faster, and the last time very fast and rushing”
  2. “Don’t wait at the cadence more or less than the note-values indicate”
  3. “Don’t rush the ending”
  4. “Don’t panic when you see short note-values”
  5. “Don’t shorten the last note of the bar”

Playing for dancers is an excellent way to learn how to ‘phrase-off’ and ‘breathe’ at cadences, without disturbing the vrai mouvement. Muffat’s 5th rule is equivalent to ‘Don’t crowd the downbeat’. 

Muffat defines precisely – “diminutions of the first order” – which note-values should be ‘swung’, with examples for various metres. A succession of short notes written as equal are performed long-short, approximately as if the first, third, fifth note etc were dotted, and the following notes shortened accordingly. We should keep in mind that a Baroque Dot is itself a variable quality, according to context we might over-dot or under-dot. The appropriate amount of swing varies with the dance-type: more vigorous for a fast dance with popular origins, more subtle for a slow, courtly dance. 

I consider that Muffat’s insistence on conserving the vrai mouvement implies maintaining the same swing for the duration of a particular piece, as jazz-musicians tend to do nowadays. Many of my illustrious colleages disagree with me on this, but it must be said that most of them choose not to maintain vrai mouvement at all. Muffat makes it abundantly clear that vrai mouvement must be maintained: but there is room for legitimate debate as to whether the ‘swing’ of notes inégales comes under this rule or not.

The complete rhythmic identity of a given dance – its characteristic vrai mouvement – is thus constructed on several levels. The slow count of Tactus, the mesure, is steady (as in all Baroque music, with the exception of préludes non mesurées and plainchant). The principal division of the bar (into two or three) also carries the groove. So a Gavotte typically has two minim beats per bar, and the principal division structures the groove as short-short-long (crotchet crotchet minim). If you tap your feet and clap to this groove, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to sing We will, we will rock you! The quavers are swung – waving your banner all over the place. The emotional power comes from the dance-energy, which is stoked by maintaining the count, groove and swing steady from beginning to end. Temps di Gavotte Anglais (1977) here.

Because they experienced Lully’s airs as dance-music, violinists of Muffat’s time were more likely to rush towards the end. Modern-day early musicians regard Lully as art-music, and are more in danger of applying inappropriate 19th-century rallentando. Muffat is crystal-clear: keep the vrai mouvement from beginning to end. And just as I do here, Muffat repeats this point many times (otherwise, he rarely repeats any of his remarks).

 

Good Delivery

  1. “Finish tuning before the audience arrrive.”
  2. “Dont make noise” nor practise your party pieces before the show starts
  3. “French pitch is a tone, or for opera a minor third, lower than German pitch”
  4.  “Balance up the band”, “don’t have everyone play first violin!”
  5. There are usually two viola parts: “viola 1 is better on a small viola than on a violin”. Viola 2 is played by a large viola. Muffat approves adding a double-bass, but the French were not yet using double-basses in dance-music in 1698.
  6. “Observe the repeats” (notice the French habit of a short repeat – petite reprise – at the end of the last section)
  7. “It is very useful for keeping the precision of the mesure to give each [downbeat] with a small movement of the foot, as the Lullists do.”

 

It is interesting to notice how difficult modern-day players find it, to tap their feet on the down-beat (and only on the down-beat). I recommend it to students, and frequently request it from my ensembles, just as Muffat does. 

Ornaments

Instrumental ornaments for dance-music are mostly derived from vocal ornamentation. There are many more than one would imagine, and Muffat gives only a brief introduction. Nevertheless, this is the largest chapter of his essay, occupying three pages of text and another three pages of music examples.

Pincement – lower mordent, starts and ends on the written note, usually descending by a semitone, usually short, usually without additional repercussions.

Tremblement  – short trill from above, starts from the upper auxiliary, can be simple, or turned, may end early or continue into the next written note

Both these are played on the beat.

Muffat describes many more ornaments and how to execute them. He then addresses the question of where each ornament-type can be applied. His ten detailed rules depend on whether the note is Good or Bad, ascending or descending, moving by step or leaping, with exceptions for a mi and special conditions for the first note of a piece, of a significant section, of an ascent or descent. At cadences certain notes require a tremblement, others refuse it.

He gives some examples of diminutions (improvised variations), and warns that two tremblements are generally not used in succession, though he lists specific exceptions to this rule.

Muffat asserts that the whole secret of French ornamentation is codified in his 10 rules. These ornaments bring the “sweetness, vigour and beauty” of the Lullian method. 

“The melody suffers if ornaments are omitted, inappropriate, excessive or badly executed. Omission leaves the melody and harmony naked and undecorated; inappropriate playing is rough and barbaric; excessive ornamentation sounds confused and ridiculous; poor execution sounds heavy and constrained.” 

“The slightest failure in ornamentation betrays the would-be Lullist as inexperienced in this style.”

Muffat’s approximately ten ornament types (it depends how you count the sub-types) and ten rules are an amazingly concise encapsulation of the bon gout of the subtle and elegant French Baroque style. And if you apply his rules to Lully’s (sparsely marked) orchestral scores, the result is strongly consistent with (very detailed) ornament-markings in D’Anglebert’s harpsichord transcriptions of those same scores. 

See also Quantz on ornamentation, here.

The Suite

Many Suites are not intended to be danced. It is acceptable to take a different speed (a complex piece of chamber music may need to be played slower than the corresponding movement would be danced), but whatever the chosen tempo might be, it is maintained throughout. In late 17th-century England, Mace details a practice of making pauses and then an a tempo conclusion to (fast) Sarabandes, but otherwise there is no period evidence to support the application of tempo rubato to Baroque dance-music.

The Allemande that begins many Baroque suites was not danced. I speculate that the title refers to a German way of playing with arpeggios (the modern term is style brisé) dance-music of the type that the French used for Entrées. Characteristic figures include the short upbeat “Ta-dah!” found as a head-motive in many dance-types, alternations of dotted and short notes, and a three-note upbeat figure.

The Courante was an old-fashioned, noble dance – ‘the dance of Kings’. It has the most complex rhythms of all, contrasting, combining and creating ambiguity between 3/2 and 6/4, with a “Ta-Dah” opening; groups of crotchet, dotted crotchet, quaver ambiguously accented on first or second note; and a decisive shift to 6/4 at significant cadences. 

The Italian Corrente is different, with continuous running notes in the melody, and without the complex cross-rhythms of the French type.

The Sarabande was a fast dance that slowed down over the decades. Choreographies are characterised by held balances and sudden spins or leaps into a new pose. Often the music has a similar sharp contrast in note-values and amount of activity. The groove has a strong and/or sustained second beat of three.

Gigues vary in speed and groove – see Quantz and others for details. French Gigues often begin with imitation between treble and bass, and have a strong sense of the upbeat. The Italian Giga tends to flow more continuously, and without marking the upbeats. 

The Loure is a slow-motion Gigue.

The Passpied is a high-speed Minuet.

Bourée and Rigaudon might have had their origins in popular, rural traditions, but had become a highly sophisticated, courtly protrayal of Pastoral. Looking at the musical notation, it is impossible for us to distinguish between the two types, but in the period they were sharply differentiated: we don’t know how. Two quavers on the upbeat, groove (often in the bass) with three crotchets and a rest, final bars with crotchet, two quavers, crotchet (or four quavers & crotchet) over that groove; all of this with strong duple (minim) count and vigorous swing on the quavers.

Period writers disagreed as to whether Passacaille and Chaconne could be distinguished, and if so how. You are in good company if you consider Chaconnes to be major mode, Passacailles minor, but perhaps the most famous Chaconne of all is from Bach’s D minor Partita. 

The Musette is a courtly imitation of a pastoral bagpipe tune, usually in 6/8. The Tambourin imitates a tambourine. 

The Sicilienne is a slow 6/8 with groups of dotted quaver, semiquaver, quaver. The Canarie is a fast 6/8 with the same rhythmic grouping.


Conclusion

If you are studying a dance-movement, I strongly recommend that before starting to “interpret” the particular piece at hand, you first become familiar with the general characteristics of that dance-type. So before going too deeply into Bach’s famous violin Chaconne, first play lots of (simpler) Chaconnes (and Passacailles), watch Chaconnes being danced, learn to dance one yourself, and generally make yourself at home with the identity of the Chaconne as a dance-type. 

Work through Muffat’s 10 ornament rules and apply them to your particular piece. 

You will now have a much clearer idea of how Bach’s composition resembles all Chaconnes, and where its particular individuality lies. Above all remember Muffat’s two essential functions: the listeners have to recognise the dance from the very first notes, and they have to feel inspired to dance themselves. Even in such complex and profound music as Bach’s, this spirit of the dance must live, energised by the constant flow of vrai mouvement.

It’s some 20 years since I recorded dance-music from Feuillet’s (1700) Chorégraphie. CD here. My research for that recording started me on the paths that I have followed since, of Rhythm & Rhetoric; Tactus, Text, Gesture and Ornamentation. And in the intervening years I’ve had the opportunity to play this repertoire with fine orchestras (both modern and early), and see it danced by experts. Nowadays, I would play some of the movements a little faster, and most of them with more dance energy, a little less chamber-music reticence, and with – I hope – a stronger and truer sense of mouvement.  

Writing this article also gave me the opportunity to re-read Muffat, and glean a little more detail of his bowing rules, resulting in ‘Doo beeper dooby’ above and a rewrite of the discussion of the same Minuet in my 2020 article, here. It’s always worth re-reading a source that you think you know already. What you have discovered since the previous reading will have changed your viewpoint, and you may well notice something that you previously overlooked. 

 

 

Isabella Leonarda 400th anniversary

Isabella Leonarda:

the Soul of Music in Women’s Hands



This article celebrates the 400th anniversary of Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) – Ursuline nun, singer & composer – in connection with the Earthly Angels performance and recording project.
Listen to her music here.

An extended version of this article will be published on this blog soon.



 

The Soul of Music

 

In 1601, song-composer Caccini proclaimed the Baroque priorities of his ‘New Music’ as ‘Speech and Rhythm’.

Tempo


The first character to sing in the first opera (1600) was Tempo – the personification of Time – commanding: “Act with the hand, act with the heart!” For us today, tempo is the speed of music, but for Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) it was Time itself, defined by Aristotle as a ‘number of movement’ perceived by the Soul.

The up-and-down hand-beat of Tactus connected musical notation to real-world Time. Period iconography shows singers beating Tactus, even in solo songs.

 

 

Zacconi (1592) characterises Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any perturbation’. Mersenne (1636) calibrates Tactus as 1 second per minim, shown by a 1m pendulum. At the end of the century, Carissimi (1696) defines tempo as subjective ‘quality’, the way time feels.

 

17th-century ‘time-signatures’ are relics of much older Mensural notation. Long notes are divided by 2 or 3 to create short notes. Signs of Proportion recalibrate note-values in triple time. Within these fixed multiples, Leonarda employs modifying words to specify fine gradations of tempo.

 

Amidst ‘passionate vocal effects and contrasting movements’ Frescobaldi (1615) shows how to ‘guide Time’, using Tactus. Transitions between movements are made by keeping steady Tactus (no tempo change, or strict Proportion), or by 

suspending the Tactus-hand in the air momentarily, then starting the new movement with modified Tactus, steady time that now feels adagio (literally ‘easy’) or allegro (happy).

 

For Leonarda’s contemporaries, ‘Time is the Soul of Music.’ Read more here.  Zacconi explains that Time breathes life into dry notation: a minim is a dead symbol, until we animate it with the Divine Hand, symbolised by Tactus. Carissimi’s tempo is perceived as an Aristotelian ‘affection of the Soul’, an emotion. Leonarda’s precise notation contradicts 20th-century assumptions that performers choose their own tempo, or that expressiveness requires rubato.

 

Rhetoric

In Baroque speech and music, Rhetoric aims to ‘move the passions’. Read more about musical rhetoric here. Sensual love-lyrics arouse fervour that Leonarda’s music re-directs towards the Divine. Delightful hand-gestures explain the text and communicate passionate contrasts. Rhetorical Delivery combines Pronunciation of words and music with Action of gestures and facial expressions, to channel Enargeia, the emotional power of detailed description. Read more about Enargeia here

 

 

Poetic imagery brings a scene to life, as if the audience could see it with their own eyes. ‘Here’, ‘Now’, ‘Behold!’: Gesture directs the audience’s attention to significant details of the imagined vision. In baroque Madrigalism (word-painting), the music sounds like what the words mean. Fragments of melody create ‘passionate vocal effects’ corresponding to gestures of the hand.

 

Period Medical Science categorises emotion into Four Humours: warm Sanguine (love, hope), dry Choleric (anger, desire), dark Melancholy and cold, wet Phlegmatic.

 

In Leonarda’s Volo Jesum (1670), ‘you fly’ (volate) up a triple-proportion fast-note scale to ‘love God’ on a long high note. After a tempo change to happy allegro, a contrasting 64 movement cites the love-sick Melancholy harmonies and descending bass-line of an operatic lament: ‘the heart is burning’ amidst Choleric ignis et flamma  (fire and flame) with high notes and flickering vocal effects. A ‘happy mountain’ of Sanguine ‘joys’ rises boldly, Phlegmatic ‘rivers’ flow smoothly down, Paradisi has the highest note of all. Descending notes move Choleric passion to Sanguine Humour – et in flammis es dulcis spes – whilst Leonarda’s hand shows the Holy Spirit coming down to earth as Christ: ‘in flames, You are sweet hope’.

 

 

Poetic detail, moving passions, vocal effects, contrasts of tempo, expressive gestures: Leonarda does ‘act with the hand, act with the heart’. The composer’s hand notates subtle tempo changes, in which the serene movement of the Divine Hand is reflected in the diverse pulse-rates of a lover’s human heart. Violinists’ and continuo-players’ hands give life to instrumental music, a microcosm of heavenly perfection, yet swayed by the human passions of the Four Humours. All this is guided by Tactus and expressed by gestures.

 

 

Invisible music

 

Nevertheless, all Leonarda’s handiwork – composition, Tactus, instrumental-playing and rhetorical gestures – remained unseen. Hidden from the congregation by the grille that closed nuns off from the world, the woman who simultaneously embodied an ardent lover and a religious mystic communicated energia (the baroque spirit of performance), by the aural Enargeia of detailed text and precise tempo. Unlike an opera or court singer, she ‘moved the passions’ and warmed her listeners’ hearts to love by evoking ‘affections of the soul’ in sensual visions that were entirely imagined, not seen.

 

Invisible to her 17th-century listeners, almost unnoticed by musicologists until recently, women’s hands are the heart and soul of Leonarda’s music.


Listen here

 

 

Introduction to mid-18th-century Ornamentation

This is another post related to a series of classes I am teaching at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama on Early Music for Modern Harpists: see also Principles & Practice and Online Resources.

I hope this article will be useful for any student approaching high Baroque and early Classical music. And before anyone even starts to think of exceptions to the simple guidelines I offer, let me emphasise that this is only an Introduction. Quantz has 12 pages on ornamentation for beginners (starting from p77), Leopold Mozart 59 pages of detail (from p193), CPE Bach 68 pages (p51 onwards), and even Meyer’s harp Method has two pages of text and four pages of music examples (including lots of arpeggios, of course). Links all these primary sources are in my Online Resources post.

So this short summary is necessarily simplified, but it is soundly based on these four mid-18th-century Essays. These mighty historical documents are pretty heavy going, if one tries to read them all the way through. Even a thorough survey of a general topic, such as Ornamentation, is a daunting project. But you can well use them as reference works, looking up the particular Ornament at hand and getting a quick answer to a specific question.

My focus here is on the mid-18th century, and the particular application is to modern harp. Fingerings, and some of my comments, are specific to harp, even to modern harp. But realisations and most of my comments should be useful as a starting-point for any performer.

Irish traditional music preserves a lively practice of ornamentation, which derives in part from local 18th-century styles. During and after the time of Carolan, the native tradition continued to flourish (even as it adapted to adversity), and available sources are fairly close (in time and milieu) to that tradition. [Inevitably, the information becomes more sketchy, as one goes further back in time]. So 18th-century Celtic repertoires (Scots and Welsh too) are ripe for exploration by today’s historical harpers, and I include some remarks on Ornamentation for Irish harp. Don’t apply these to European music!

Nomenclature is a challenge – the same ornament is given different names in different languages, and by different writers. And composers and printers use the same signs sometimes for quite different ornaments. So in this Introduction I use the simplest possible English names: if you have mastered Associated Board Grade V Theory, you will manage just fine.

 

Variations & Graces

 

There are two broad categories of ornamentation. Free variation, in which the player (spontaneously or with preparation in advance) changes the composer’s melody, usually by playing many short notes in the place of one long note. Such variations were called Divisions or Diminutions in the 17th-century, and in her 1802/1811 Method the Comptesse de Genlis calls them broderies (embroidery).

Improvised variations are beyond the scope of this Introduction, but Quantz’s Easy and Fundamental Instructions whereby either vocal or instrumental Performers … may learn how to introduce Extempore Embellishments or Variations as also Ornamental Cadences with Propriety, Taste and regularity were translated from his Versuch into English in 1780 – free download here.

According to Quantz and his translators, those Embellishments are the Productions of a momentary Invention or Fancy of the Performer, and in this Respect are different from those common Graces that are distinguish’d by particular Marks, such as Shakes [trills] and Beats [mordents] etc.

This article is concerned with ‘those common Graces‘ that might be marked in the score with signs, or should be added by the performer where necessary. Quantz and CPE Bach call them Manieren. These are what we normally think of today as Ornaments, applying to a particular note, rather than Variations that change the whole melody into different notes.

 

Ornament signs

German (and Austrian) 18th-century music explored a mixed style, influenced by earlier Italian and/or French aesthetics. Ornaments on a certain note, whether indicated by a sign or supplied by the performer, were regarded as part of the French heritage within the overall style. This fits neatly with the period characterisation of French style as subtle, tender, delicate, elegant, fashionable and balletic; as opposed to the directness, strength, passion, raw energy and drama of the Italian style. Thus there survives JS Bach’s handwritten copy of D’Anglebert’s table of ornaments from 17th-century France.

 

 

If your piece has ornament signs, you should not assume that they have the same meaning as modern signs, not even that they have the same meaning as signs from other historical sources. Many original publications included a specific table of ornaments, and you should look for a list of signs that is as close as possible to the piece you are studying.

Purcell’s 1696 table gives period English names for ‘Graces’: these names differ from modern terminology, and there are subtle differences in vocabulary between different sources even in the same language. Again, you should look for an explanatory source that is as close as possible to the piece you are studying.

 

 

JS Bach left a simplified table of ornaments for his 9-year-old son, Wilhelm Friedemann. This can be a good starting point for modern players.

 

 

For a particular piece or repertoire, it is well worth creating an ornament table of your own, using signs that give a visual representation of the ornament you have decided to apply. Write your signs into your score, and keep the table handy as a reminder, not only of the notes implied by each sign, but how to play them: fast/slow, loud/soft and fingering etc.

Jane Weidensaul’s edition of the CPE Bach Sonata for Harp applies information from his Versuch to suggest realisations of each ornament. This is a fine work of applied research, but it is only a first step. It fails to take into account differences between keyboard (the subject of the Versuch) and harp (the instrument for which the Sonata was written), or between baroque and modern harps.  Many of the suggested realisations are unplayable in an appropriate tempo. And the next step would be to apply CPE Bach’s and Quantz’s recommendations for subtle dynamic and timing contrasts within each ornament (see below).

This 2014 article by Colin Booth discusses ornamentation in JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations and is certainly helpful for the composer’s entire output, and as a discussion of the aesthetics of ornamentation for the whole period.

 

Beyond this Introduction

 

Amongst specialist performers and researchers, there is debate about changes in musical taste from one generation to another, from Johann Sebastian’s ornaments to Carl Philipp Emmanuel’s. That debate is beyond the scope of this introduction, and beyond the needs of most mainstream players. Indeed, one of the problems of today’s Early Music is that experts discuss abstruse corners of the field so passionately, examining exceptional cases and outlier opinions, with the result that historically informed (but non-specialist) musicians and mainstream performers can easily lose sight of standard period practice and the overwhelming historical consensus.

For Ornamentation, students will find a broad consensus between the four Essays discussed here, and need not worry – not yet, at least! – about subtle differences between CPE and JSB, or between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus, in their approach to Graces.

18-century Ornamentation for Irish harp has many similarities to European practices, and also some notable differences. There is a most interesting ornament table, supposedly based on 18th-century traditions, published in Bunting The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840). The two sections excerpted here resemble European Appoggiaturas and Trills, which Bunting categorises according to the period English names of fall and shake.

 

Ideals and Practicalities

 

There is a modern tendency to regard the harpsichord as the ideal of baroque music, to be emulated by other instruments. This is not unreasonable, for 20th-century harpsichordists and harpsichord-playing directors have been very influential in today’s Early Music, and we have the inspiring historical examples of JS and CPE Bach. But the sound of the harpsichord is certainly not a baroque ideal, for it is very far from the sound of the human voice (the philosophical ideal of all Baroque playing), and its mechanical nature limits the subtlety of its ornamentations. Probably the best modern-day examples of stylish ornamentation come from baroque flautists, applying all the subtleties of Quantz’s Versuch.

Listen here: CDs are not primary sources, but nevertheless I recommend listening to Laurence Dean’s flute-playing in mid-18th century repertoire, for example the Andantino from this trio Sonata by Georg Benda.

It is harder to play ornaments on baroque harp than on harpsichord, and 18th-century sources advise that harpists don’t have to play all the ornaments that a keyboard-player would execute. It’s even harder on modern harp, where thicker strings, higher string-tension and large-lever finger-movements work against speed and lightness in ornamentation. My advice is to reduce the number of ornaments where necessary, and to reduce the number of iterations in trills. In short: not too many twiddles!

But even modern harpists should add ornaments to the score, where they are essentially needed, for example at cadences (see below).

Amongst plucked-string instruments, lute-family and baroque guitar are able to realise the most elegant trills.

Listen here: I recommend Xavier Diaz-Latorre’s playing, for example this Chaconne by De Visée.  Notice that the resolutions of appoggiaturas and the iterations of trills are not  re-struck by the plucking fingers of the right hand, but are made by the left hand only. This is a subtle effect that harpists can only attempt to emulate.

The lower string-tension of baroque harps (French 18th-century ‘single-action’ pedal harps had especially low pitch and low string-tension) facilitates the speed, lightness and subtlety of ornamentation.

Listen here: Here is a Chaconne by Lully, with D’Anglebert’s principles of ornamentation applied, on 17th-century triple harp.

See also Single Action Harp: making Sensibility of the Méthodes.

Where to play What?

 

We might regard all these little twiddles as somewhat inessential. But some of them are part of the ‘grammar’ of Baroque music, and cannot be omitted. And if they are missing, they must be supplied.

We English speakers might regard the acute accent in the word café as a piece of French-style decoration, harmless enough, but not really essential. If we see cafe, we are neither confused nor offended. But for any Francophone, the é is essential: if it is missing, the word is wrong!  And so it is with French-style ornaments in Baroque music. Don’t go around saying “Kayf”!

The best historical Introduction to the French style of ornamentation in Lully’s time is in Muffat’s Florilegium Secundum (1698), as part of a general introduction to French baroque dance music in four languages: German, French, Latin, and Italian. Writing for ‘foreigners’ (i.e. not French), Muffat’s approach is very useful for us today, as ‘foreigners’ to this historical period. He gives detailed rules of which ornament to apply where.

The rules are indeed detailed. “It is uncouth to give a tremblement to an ascending good note… unless it is a mi or a note sharpened with #, which is almost always ornamented with a tremblement“. But in just 10 paragraphs, Muffat summarises “all the secrets of ornaments played a la francoise“. Highly recommended reading.

Some situations, in particular cadences, demand that the player supply an ornament, even if the composer has not notated it. Muffat: “At cadences, there are certain notes that demand a tremblement and others that refuse it”.

At a Perfect Cadence, with V-I harmonies, typical melodies require some kind of trill from the upper auxilary: Soprano Cadence (tonic, leading-note, tonic: trill on the leading-note); or Tenor Cadence (supertonic, tonic: trill on the supertonic). The Alto and Bass Cadences should not be given a trill.

 

 

See here for Cadential Shakes in Irish music.

 

Quantz and CPE Bach show instances where Appoggiaturas should be added, for example to melodies descending in thirds. We see such Appoggiaturas written, for example in the second bar of CPE Bach’s harp Sonata. It has not yet become standard practice amongst today’s Early Musicians to add these, but the historical evidence for them is clear. Read more in the Easy and Fundamental Instructions. 

 

CPE Bach’s melody descends in thirds through the principal notes G E C. Each is given an Appoggiatura, and the (longer) last note has a more complex Appoggiatura with Short Trill.

 

Repeated or varied ornaments?

Although Appoggiaturas are often repeated, as in CPE Bach’s example above, one element of subtlety can be the avoidance of an immediate repeat of precisely the same ornament. Muffat: “One certainly does not approve of two tremblements in a row”.

Instead, you can use a slightly different version of the same basic ornament type, a more elaborate or simpler trill for example. Usually, the basic type is defined by the situation and the degree of elaboration is up to you – see Muffat’s rules for details. Thus CPE Bach elaborates his third Appoggiatura, above.

Reluctance to repeat the same ornament seems not to be a feature of Irish 18th-century harp-playing. This transcription, based on the Forde MS, 154, shows the ornament that Bunting calls Striking Upwards applied three times in succession to the second strain of Ta me mo cholad, seen also in other sources for this tune.

 

 

In this context, the ornament seems to function as an Appoggiatura (perhaps slow) plus a Mordent (fast). Indeed, it looks like the mirror image, ascending, of CPE Bach’s elaborated descending Appoggiatura.

But Bunting’s description of Striking Upwards seems to indicate a brisk execution of the whole ornament. We might conclude that there can be subtleties of timing, even when an ornament is realised with the same pitches.

 

Timing

There are two, inter-related, questions of timing. How should we time the ornament within the note-value it is attached to? And how should we time individual notes within the ornament itself? Period sources gives us detailed answers.

Many sources emphasise that it is important to adapt your ornament to the note-value of the written note, and according to the tempo of the music. In general, ornaments should be longer and slower, if the note-value is longer; shorter and faster if the note-value is short.

For clavichord, with relatively little sustain, CPE Bach likes ornaments to fill up all the available space within the written note. Other sources leave the end of the written note plain: this works well on the harp with its long sustain (even more so for modern harp and historical Irish harp, with even longer sustain). On a dotted note, you can finish the ornament on the dot.

The timing of individual notes within the ornament is beyond the scope of this Introduction. But if the first note is an Appoggiatura, or functions like an Appoggiatura, it can be longer. The detailed information in Quantz and CPE Bach perhaps suggests a tendency to move from slow to fast within ornaments, which we can trace back to Caccini’s trillo in 1601. See this Introduction to ornamentation for Monteverdi’s period.

The most important timing rule is to begin the ornament on the beat, not before. You can practise this by playing a bass note, or tapping your foot, simultaneously with the start of the ornament.

There are some special case exceptions to this rule, and some outlier opinions in period sources and amongst 20th-century commentators. For today’s specialists, this is an area for debate and sophisticated subtlety, applied only in very particular circumstances. Read all 80 pages of Quantz’s and CPE’s remarks on ornaments, before you venture into this fascinating quagmire.

Long Trill

 

Begin on the beat, with the upper auxiliary (not the written note). Add a concluding turn if there is enough time. Add an initial appoggitura if there is enough time- hold the appoggitura as long as you can. A very long trill can start very slowly and gradually speed up.

Harpists – don’t try for too many reiterations!

Harpists, lutenists, keyboard-players – practise your ornaments with a bass accompaniment, to make sure that you start the ornament on the beat (as defined by the bass), not before the beat. Others can tap their foot with the first note of the ornament.

The alternative harp-fingering comes from Cousineau (1784).

 

We see something similar in 18th-century Irish Harp ornamentation, but using fingers 2324, without thumb; and beginning on the main note, rather than the upper auxiliary. See Irish Long Shake.

Lower mordent

Begin on the beat, with the written note. Play a slower ornament and/or add reiterations if there is time, and to have a gentler effect. Play fast and snappy, to make it bite.

Practise with a bass note or a foot-tap to define the beat. It should sound like the word “ORnament”, and not like “This is WRONG“!

The alternative execution from 18th-century Irish harp playing relies on the sustaining power of historical brass strings, or indeed of the thick strings of a modern harp. Two plucking actions and one damping movement create the illusion of three notes being played. Damp actively, a bit of string noise helps the illusion.

 

 

Short Trill

This has to start on the upper  auxiliary, so the shortest acceptable version has four notes.

Begin on the beat, with the upper auxiliary.  If there is more time, play a more gentle trill with more reiterations.

Practise with a bass note or a foot-tap to define the beat. It should sound like “RIGHT on the beat”, and not like “BeFORE the beat” nor “Before the BEAT“.

The harp fingering is from 18th-century French Methods. Slide the thumb from upper auxiliary to main note, moving the thumb itself, not the whole hand (too slow, too heavy).

The alternative execution is based on Irish techniques, but adapted (the Irish style for this ornament starts on the main note). It works surprisingly well, done fast and actively.

 

 

Appoggiatura

Many 18th-century sources define the Appoggiatura as the most important ornament of all. Luckily it is easy to play. As the Italian name suggests, “lean” on the auxiliary note, and ooze gently into the resolution, which is played softer.

Take the Appoggiatura on a long note, typically after shorter notes, and in the same direction (from below or above) as the approach to that long note.

Start on the beat. Sustain the appoggiatura for half the length of the written note (if it’s a dotted note, for two thirds of the length).

 

 

The most important thing about Ornaments

 

Quantz and CPE Bach concur that the most important element is the Abzug (literally, pulling away), diminuendo. An Appoggiatura is played with a little swelling on the auxiliary (louder still, if it makes a strong dissonance), and then gently and softly into the resolution.

In general, the use of loud/soft within an ornament gives lots of character. Often, ornaments go from loud to soft. The details are in CPE Bach and Quantz, and are most easily accessible for English-speakers in the period translation of Quantz, Easy and Fundamental Instructions (see above).

Subtle use of fast/slow within an ornament is also a vital expressive resource. The general rule is to go from slow to fast. The details are in CPE Bach and Quantz, and are most easily accessible for English-speakers in Easy and Fundamental Instructions.

Quantz gives a sample slow movement, Adagio with ornaments applied and links to his rules for realising them. It’s in the Versuch and included in the Easy and Fundamental Instructions too.

Summary

This is a very basic summary of a very short Introduction.  Handel with care! (sic)

  • Adjust to the tempo and note-value.
  • Start with the upper note.
  • On the beat.
  • From Loud to Soft [most important].
  • From Slow to Fast.

 

  • Cadences need trills

 

If you apply this summary you have made a brave start. Hurray! Now go and read Easy and Fundamental, because it is easy.

It is also Fundamental. So read it!

 

 

 

 

 

Rhetorical contrasts in Crisis: charm, communicate, console?

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

Online Concert

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.

Scherzi Musicali

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.

 

 

Affetti


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.

Read more: The Philosophy of La Musica

Read more: contrasts of affetti in the ‘first opera’


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.

 

 

Rhetoric: structure & contrasts…

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. 
  

 

…for mind (docere)

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.

 

 

… heart (movere)

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.

 

 

…and ears (delectare)

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!

 

 

Come Hell or High Water

 

Fury in the Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

 

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 Organ, Whitchurch; Bushey Museum and Art Gallery;

 

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)

 

Iconographical coding characterises Handel as composer (pen and scores), performer (keyboard) and – unmistakeably – as Melancholy (head leaning on left hand).



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.

 

18th-century London

 

Rhetorical Structure: architecture & building blocks

 

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.

 

17th-century Venice

Recitative for Idiots (but don’t use that word): three types of Dramatic Monody

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*.

Recitative – NOT!

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 & the first “operas”

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.

 

Songs for a single voice

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?  

 

 

In the style called Dramatic…

[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).

Narrative

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.

 

Dafne’s Narration of the Death of Euridice, set by Peri

 

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.

 

Dafne’s Narration of the Death of Euridice, set by Caccini

Dramatic

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) recitaremusica 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.

 

Euridice Act I incipit, in Peri’s setting

 

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.

 

Euridice Act I incipit, in Caccini’s setting

 

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.

 

Notated accento ornament on the words dolci accenti in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

 

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:

 

Catching a glimpse of the 20th-century mind-set

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.

The Prologue to Euridice in Peri’s setting.

 

The Prologue to Euridice in Caccini’s setting

 

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.

Expressive

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.

 

Conclusion (ALK)

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.

 

Baroque Opera then and now: 1600 & 1607, 1970-2020

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.

 

With his long experience of opera in Russia, Alexey Parin finds the audience’s experience of the two works very different from one another.  Both productions succeed admirably, but why are they musically so different?

 

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.

Comparing the libretti

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.

Comparing the scores

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.

 

Combining the information

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?

7 years of Early Opera, half a century of Historically Informed Performance

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?

 

  • Chitarrone  1960s Robert Spencer

 

  • Cornetto  1970s Bruce Dickey
  • Vocal ornamentation    1970s Nigel Rogers
  • Quarter-comma meantone   1970s Mark Lindley
  • Negri/Caroso dance  1970s Julia Sutton
  • Renaissance recorders  1970s Bob Marvin, Martin Skowroneck

 

  • No conductor  1980s Roger Norrrington
  • Recit without bowed bass  1980s Graham Dixon
  • Baroque harp  1980s Frances Kelly, ALK
  • Led from continuo  1980s Ensemble Tragicomedia
  • Renaissance violin band  1980s David Douglass, Peter Holman
  • Count recit in minims  1980s Ensemble Tragicomedia
  • Metre in Music  1980s George Houle
  • Baroque Gesture  1980s Dene Barnett
  • Il Corago  1980s Fabbris & Pompilio
  • Chiavette  1980s Andrew Parrot
  • Vibrato  1980s Greta Moens-Haenen

 

  • Proportions  1990s Roger Bowers
  • Pitch  1990s  Bruce Haynes

 

  • Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre  2002 Tim Carter
  • 1615 print free online  2009 IMSLP

 

  • Tactus throughout  2010 ALK
  • Historical swordsmanship  2012 Guy Windsor
  • 1609 print free online  2013 IMSLP
  • Beating time & measuring music  2014 Roger Mathew Grant
  • Arianna a la recherche  2017 ALK

 

  • Violini alla francese  ?
  • 5 trumpets  ?

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.

 

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

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

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

What’s different now?

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

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

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

What was different in 1607?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I won’t say…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too much!

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo’s message is stern and clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cosi per troppo amor dunque mi perdi!

 

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

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

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

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE REPORT

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

ALK comments:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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