Altri canti d’Amor, tenero Arciero… di Marte io canto. Others sing of Love, the tender Archer… I sing of Mars!
Altri canti di Marte e di sua schiera… io canto amor. Others sing of Mars and of his army… I sing of Love!
set by Claudio Monteverdi
Others sing without Tactus…
Modern-day performances of the concerted madrigals of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book Madrigali Guerrieri ed Amorosi (1638) usually adopt one of two strategies: a modern onductor; or no conductor at all, perhaps with some leading from the first violin. Tempi are chosen at the performers’ whim. None of this corresponds to period practice.
This repertoire is precisely the ‘difficult’ genre of ‘modern madrigals’ discussed by Frescobaldi, where there are contrasting movements (passi) and passionate vocal effects. Frescobaldi Rules, OK? here.
In this period, rhythm was almost always directed by Tactus-beating from within the ensemble. The Tactus-beater is usually a singer, because instrumentalists’ hands are occupied.
Nevertheless continuo-players have the role of ‘guiding and supporting’ the entire ensemble of voices and instruments [Agazzari 1607, here]. And Frescobaldi’s rules – formulated for keyboard players – remind us that Tactus is present as a guiding concept even when it is not physically realised. Many sources recommend that instrumentalists beat Tactus with a foot.
All this matters because the sound and feeling of Tactus-led music-making are very different from modern conducting AND from modern-day chamber-music playing. Tactus-beating maintains a minim-pulse that is “regular, solid, stable, firm, clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation.”
In contrast, most modern conductors make a free choice of which note-value to beat, and apply rallentando and other speed variations (deliberately, or otherwise!). The requirement to synchronise with a steady Tactus guards ensembles against rushing or dragging, and against the lurching changes associated with the oft-heard comment “this phrase goes towards such-and-such a note”. The concept of “goes towards” is not found in period sources: rather the Tactus is stable, and within that stable beat individual notes are Good or Bad, Long or Short. The Good, the Bad and the Early Music phrase, here.
So much for the canti senza gesto – the songs without action. But Monteverdi’s Book VIII also includes some ‘short episodes’ in genere rappresentativo, in show-style, in theatrical style. For those pieces, the convention was not to use any visible Tactus-beating, since the singers were representing dramatic characters. They might well use their hands to gesture expressively, but nobody beats time. This devolves the responsibility for time-keeping to the continuo, who in this style ‘rule’ or ‘regulate’ (reggono) ‘guide’ or ‘drive’ (guidano) the singers.
In all these pieces, in both chamber-music and dramatic genres, Monteverdi’s notation indicates a basic tempo which might be tweaked to exaggerate contrasts of affetto (mood, emotion) and of musical activity. This basic tempo is regulated by a fundamental Tactus in mensuration mark C of approximately minim = 60: a human (and therefore subjective) feeling for the misura of Time itself. The usual way to beat was simple: down for a minim, up for a minim.
Altri canti d’amor is one of the few pieces to include all three triple-metre Proportions: slow Sesquialtera, medium-fast Tripla and fast Sestupla. As Carissimi observed, the note-values in each of these proportions have the same quantitative duration, but the emotional quality of the movement is very different. More on Quality Time here.
Sesquialtera Semibreve = 90 Movement based on semibreves
Tripla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on minims
Sestupla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on semi-minims
Binary Tactus – ternary metre
Altri canti di Marte has a short section with an unusual notation that creates the impression of ternary metre, but in the steady speed and black notation of regular crotchets.
The Tactus beat here is the standard down-up at minim = 60, but the word-accents do not coincide with the Tactus beats. Reading from unbarred part-books, singers are not threatened by the ‘tyranny of the bar-line’. Similarly in the choral recitation of Hor che ciel e la terra.
Another binary notation with ternary effect is seen in Act II of Orfeo. Again, the beat is the standard minim = 60, producing a slower movement than would result from Proportional notation.
Tweaking the Tactus
Frescobaldi recommends listening to the music (with the standard Tactus and Proportions) before deciding how to tweak the Tactus between sections, according to the emotional quality, or affetto. In Monteverdi’s madrigals, we can discern the intended affetto not only from the sound of the music, but also directly from the sung text.
Words with particular emotional content can help us position the affetto within the historical framework of the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope, enjoyment of good things), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (pensive, unlucky in love, sleepless, ‘the blues’), Phlegmatic (cold, damped-down, a ‘wet blanket’).
The composer will already have responded to the affetto, with appropriate melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Jacopo Peri explains that in dramatic monody, the affetto is composed into the continuo bass: the singer’s pitches and rhythms represent (in musical notation) the way this text would be declaimed by a fine actor in the spoken theatre. More on Peri here.
None of this is ‘improvisatory’: it is not a ‘sketch’ to be completed by the performer. Rather, the composer has written down in musical notation the period conventions of dramatic delivery. Monteverdi, ‘the divine Claudio’, was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be the master of moving the audience’s passions by his expressive harmonies and precisely notated rhythms. Much more about Monteverdi’s genius for word-setting and theatre in Tim Carter’s inspiring book on Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre, here.
Changing the Tactus according to the affetto
When we (as performers) respond to the affetto, we should expect to find ourselves adding to the contrasts that the composer has already written in. If the affetto of the text is agitated, the composer will have written fast notes, and we should perform these with a faster Tactus. If the affetto of the text is calm, the composer will have written slow notes, and we should perform these with a slower Tactus.
Even (especially) if the affetto is extreme, the change to the Tactus can only be small, since the composer will already have used extreme note-values, This famously agitated moment in Monteverdi’s Combattimento simply cannot be taken very much faster than standard Tactus, which is already 16 syllables per second!
So the performers’ tweaking of the Tactus is subtle, and should be percieved by the listener as an emotional change, rather than an alteration of tempo as such. These changes happen between contrasting movements – passi – section by section, not word by word.
The change of Tactus between sections is managed by means of the Tactus itself. Frescobaldi explains how: the Tactus hand is momentarily suspended on the upstroke, and then the new beat begins ‘resolutely’. No rallentando or accelerando, rather a decisive ‘gear-change’. Exciting, disturbing…. this is how to muovere gli affetti, move the listeners’ passions.
Change of affetto word by word
Zacconi explains how to manage changes of affetto for a particular word, within one movement, i.e. within a section at steady Tactus. The singer can delay the expressive syllable, but the Tactus (and the continuo) continue steadily. The singer should be back on track by the next Tactus beat. Read more about this c1600 ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’ here.
A tender affetto is expressed with accenti (read more here). A robust affetto avoids acccenti, but might encourage passaggi (though not in theatrical music, where passaggi were generally discouraged). It is important to sing passaggi in tempo, i.e. according to Tactus. More on passaggi here.
Words full of expressive affetto can be ornamented with effetti: the single note trillo, an exclamatione (diminuendo-crescendo on a single note), a gruppo (two-note trill and turn). These ornaments are used sparingly in the theatrical style.
And we should avoid not only that ornament, but the entire modern-day habit of ornamenting the final cadence. What? Really? Yes, really! Read more here.
Caccini explains how to manage small notes within the steady Tactus: in syllabic melody, the good syllable is slightly longer, the bad syllable slightly shorter; in melismatic passaggi, long notes can be extra long, short notes exta short; ornaments accelerate from slow to fast. More on Caccini here.
Caccini also defines the priorities for music-making in this style: “text and rhythm, with sound last of all (and not the other way around!)”. So instead of obsessing over vibrato, pitch and temperament, let’s engage with the period priorities of text and rhythm. Read how Music expresses Emotions here.
My advice to modern-day rehearsal directors is to begin with the text, and coach performers to manage that text in Tactus-rhythm. When the music is difficult, follow Frescobaldi’s Rules, and use the omnipresent Tactus to facilitate the performance, tweaking that Tactus (subtly) when a new movement starts, when the mood (affetto) changes..
In a forthcoming series of short articles, I’ll apply that advice, i.e. these historical principles to some favourite Libro VIII Madrigals. LInks will be posted below.
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.
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).
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 Andantinofrom 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 Chaconneby 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 andFundamental, because it is easy.
This article is the mid-term review from a course about Early Music on Modern Harp that I’m teaching for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. And as a general introduction, it could be relevant for any student of 18th-century music. Our case-studies are movements by J.S. Bach, Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Pescetti and Mozart.
The previous article in this series looked at online source materials and the significance of tempoas more than just ‘musical speed’. In baroque music, tempo is rather the emotional quality of music, produced by the act of beating Tactus for a particular note-value.
“Versuch über die wahre Art”
Historically Informed Performance is not a matter of personal interpretation. There is a true way, that we attempt to find. That way changes according to period and culture/language.
Before 1800, Art is not the ‘freedom of the artistic genius’, but rather a set of organising principles. Within those principles, there is space for individuals to make personal choices.
We know what is correct, not by imitating CDs or listening to modern-day Early Music gurus, but by finding a broad consensus amongst relevant historical sources.
Probably, an original source of the music will be accessible and legible. But compared to a modern edition, some information will be “missing”. We supply that information from historical treatises.
Yes, a 19th, 20th or 21st century edition will give more information, but how reliable is that information? Fortunately, we can check for ourselves: usually easily, free and online.
For example: circa 1750, we need an indication of speed. We reframe the question in terms of historical Tactus: “Which note-value goes with the beat in Allegro, and in Adagio?”. And – approximately – how fast is that beat?” The answers are in Quantz, whose ‘pulse’ is around 80 beats per minute. See Tactus, Tempo & Affekt.
“Time is the Soul of Music.”
We count with a Tactus pulse, around 60 (1630s) to 80 (1750s). But during this same period, the feeling was that music had become slower, with some up-tempo markings like 6/8 being played slower, and with more feeling (Empfindsamkeit), according to Mattheson. Quantz gives new information about which note-value goes with the pulse, according to the tempo-words.
The physical feeliing of beating Tactus is linked to the emotional feeling of the quality of the music: if you haven’t studied your music whilst beating Tactus, you have missed a vital insight into its emotional quality.
Bowing (for violins, viols etc), tonguing (flutes, oboes etc) and fingering (keyboards, harp, lute etc) mimick Good/Bad syllables, or (later) the joining/separating of syllables into sense groups, say 2-5 notes at a time (perhaps even a few more, if there is continuous fast stepwise movement, i.e. a scale). We could call this the ‘mini-phrase’.
Harmony is the result of weaving together the strands of individual polyphonic ‘voices’. In how many ‘voices’ is your piece written? How strictly is this maintained?
From a post-modern perspective we can see that whereas mainstream performance looks for consistency and evenness, baroque music is all about contrast. That contrast can be on the short-term level, note-by-note. It’s all held together by stable rhythm at the Tactus level. Inside the regular Tactus, there can be (carefully organised) irregularity in shorter note-values.
We can use Quantz’s flute-tonguing syllables, e.g. didll-di, to sing the phrases of the piece we are studying. This helps us use our subconscious awareness of language rules to decide questions of fingering.
We have to integrate each element of contrast with the steady beat of the Tactus.
Find the Tactus/note-value connection for the movement at hand.
Take a few notes and consider Good/Bad (also known as Long/Short)
Play Good/Bad with Tactus
In later music, there is the idea of moto perpetuo – remember The Flight of the Bumble Bee? And frequently, mainstream performance looks for the longest possible phrase without breathing in-between.
For Early Music, it’s better to think the opposite way. What is the shortest possible sense-group? This is the ‘mini-phrase’, or in HIP-speak Figure. Try singing, but NOT with da da da. Use Frank Sinatra dooby-doo, or Quantz diddle-dee, so that you apply Good/Bad syllables: not every note the same!.
You may find that notes written in equal note-values become quite dissimilar, in order to stay with the Tactus. In order to maintain the Tactus, the last note needs to be short and light.
Once a pattern is established in the first mini-phrase, preserve that pattern. If something happens to change the pattern, change and try to preserve the new pattern.
Mini-phrases in JS Bach “Prelude”
Miniphrases in Handel “Concerto”
Miniphrases are notated in CPE Bach “Sonata”, and implied (red slur) by instructions for performing ornaments in his “Versuch”.
Notes that move by step tend to be more legato, perhaps joined within the mini-phrase. Notes that jump tend to be more staccato, perhaps indicating the separation between one mini-phrase and the next.
The break or breath between phrases is often ‘after the 1’.
Late 18th-centuring bowing, tonguing and (harp or keyboard) fingering often joins together the notes of a mini-phrase.
Miniphrases, staccato & legato, repeating pattern A & contrast B, in Pescetti “Sonata VI”
Breaks & Breaths
The mini-phrase might be very short, so that you don’t necessarily breathe at every break. Imagine yourself speaking, powerfully and slowly, to a large audience in a grand hall with a big acoustic:
“You would… break up…. the words… into short…. sense-groups. [BREATH] But you might not…. actually breathe…. at every break.”
For the piece of music at hand, test your ideas about where to breathe, by singing with Good/Bad syllables, Tactus, and real breaths (actually taking in oxygen). You will probably find it’s too much to breathe at every mini-phrase. Experiment… Keep the Tactus! Perhaps 2 or 3 mini-phrases go to a breath.
Remember the goal is contrast, not homogeneity. So we can allow a pattern to develop where there is a consistent irregularity of note-lengths within each mini-phrase, repeated from one mini-phrase to the next for as long as the pattern persists, with breaths every 2 or 3 mini-phrases… and all unified by steady Tactus.
Breath /, every 2 miniphrases in JSB
Breath / every 4 miniphrases A, then every 2 A, then change of pattern B; legato & staccato in GFH
Miniphrases, breaths /, and patterning A, in CPE
Breaths /, in Pescetti
Just as we learned in Harmony 1.01, there are three elements: Preparation, Dissonance, Resolution. We need to perform these three elements: understand them, feel them, communicate them.
Preparation: we bring our attention, and we alert the audience, to a certain note, to one particular polyphonic voice.
Dissonance: ouch! Another voice collides with the prepared note, creating a dissonance.
What is the emotional flavour of this particular clash? How intense is it? Sometimes ‘it hurts so good’…
Resolution: relax…. The pain is eased.
Chained dissonances: Sometimes the resolution produces another dissonance. How are the two emotional flavours different? Which is more intense?
Baroque Tempo is a huge subject, bringing together three of the key concepts of Baroque music: the interplay between the notation and performance of rhythm (Tactus as it relates to note-values, and as it is shown by the hand); the speed of that beat and of the music it regulates; the emotional quality of the beat itself (as a physical movement) and of the music that it produces. Even within a narrowly defined period and culture – German music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example – a thorough survey would be way beyond the scope of a doctoral thesis. And as soon as we shift even to the following generation – CPE Bach and Quantz – there are significant changes to practices and aesthetics. So a 1-hour class and this short summary can only hope to scratch the surface.
The challenge is not that we lack sufficient historical information, nor that such questions are unanswerable. Rather, we have so much information that it is daunting to start working through it all. And – even amongst some Early Music performers – there is some reluctance to accept certain hard truths: the period dialectic is of the true way, and not of personal interpretations and free choices. Within a given period and culture, there are some minor differences of opinion between different writers, but the consensus on fundamentals is clear. There is a Wahre Art (true way) and we have to make our best attempt (Versuch) to find it!
In the 18th century, the (physical & emotional) feeling of Tempo is not just a matter of speed (mathematical quantity) but of character (emotional quality). So we need to avoid a simplistic focus on “what is the right speed” and examine original notation, historical practices of beating time, and the subtle relationship between Tempo and Affekt.
Early 18th-century notation is intended to indicate which note-value corresponds to the Tactus beat. That beat varies only a little in absolute speed (around one beat per second), but the emotional quality of the beat (as physical movement of the hand) and of the music that is produced, varies greatly. Notation gives detailed information: JS Bach’s D minor Prelude (from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) is notated in C, with triplet semiquavers: had it been notated with the same note-values, but with a time-signature of 24/16, a different beat-tempo would be implied. If he had added a tempo word, such as Allegro, this would modify the beat-tempo-Affekt from the default setting indicated by the notation. This is the concept of Tempo Ordinario (also known as Tempo Giusto): a default beat and beat-speed indicated by the notation, which can be modified by words.
We must therefore be careful to check what the original note-values, time signature and tempo words are, so that we are not misled by well-intentioned editorial interventions.
This practice is explained, with more detail than most of us can manage, in Mattheson’s Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1719) & Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (1739) and Walther’s Lexicon(1741). But nobody is expected to memorise the complete writings of these authors: these are reference-books. It doesn’t take long to look up 24/16 and read how it is different from C.
The underlying principle is that Compound time-signatures suggest a slower tempo with a “hop” on the last of three short notes; whereas Duple time-signatures suggest a faster tempo, with less (or no) “hop”.
The most important lesson of all is that we don’t need to invent answers: clear answers are available, if we know where to look for them.
In 1752, Quantz gives details of an emerging practice, in which such tempo-words as allegro or adagio indicate which note-value has the “pulse”, adjusting (but not abandoning) the previous system based on time-signatures. The Adagio un poco of CPE Bach’s Sonata for harp might be counted in steady quavers, with a “slightly relaxed” feel to the quaver-beat, rather than in three very drawn-out crotchets.
Quantz defines his pulse as approximately 80 beats per minute (whereas a century previously, Mersenne’s default was 60 beats per minute).
Again, we don’t have to make guesses, or memorise an entire book. We can look up specific instructions for the particular notations at hand.
Online Resources – Scores
A mighty modern resource for answering questions about baroque music lies in the easily-accessible power of free online music-libraries, in particular IMSLP. There is no longer any excuse for using some crappy mid-20th-century edition, when original prints and holographs (manuscript in the composer’s own hand) are available free. Faster, cheaper, better! IMSLP is expanding so fast, that its own index struggles to keep pace: the most effective way to search is using Google. As an example, a Google search on “Bach 48 IMSLP” led me instantly to the Book 1 holograph, with the Prelude in question.
Harpists (and guitarists) are very attached to their old-fashioned editions, but the time has come to realise that most of what many editors have added is unhelpful or misleading, if not simply wrong. Cluttered scores (with zillions of additional pencil-markings prompted by teachers) lead to a micro-controlling mindset, which is very different from the two-point focus of baroque practice: Tactus and Text. [In instrumental music, we play in Tactus and as if we were singing some Text, with syllables, sense-groups, and meaning]
Some years ago, I stopped accepting the Grandjany arrangement as the basis for a lesson on Handel’s Harp Concerto. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and should still be played, with all the accoutrements of 1940s style. But as a lens through which to study Handel, it has so much of its own character that it utterly distorts the long view. The original Walsh print of the Handel Concerto is free online at TheHarpConsort.com: Study Early Harps, easy to read, clear and uncluttered. Mozart’s (1778) holograph of the Flute & Harp Concerto is free online at IMSLP, easy to read, clear and uncluttered. The holograph of CPE Bach’s Sonata is also clear to read, and the library holding it has recently made it available online.
For any other piece, you should check IMSLP for the best available free edition, before you turn up for a lesson with some crappy edition.
Crappy, clunky, expensive or free?
How do you know if the edition you are using is crappy? “Arranged for harp” is already a warning sign, and the death-sentence is confirmed by anachronistic editorial additions [metronome marks; implausible tempo markings; long phrase-lines; such romantic favourites as legato, sostenuto, cantabile etc; other anachronisms e.g. mention of ‘pianoforte’ in a work by JSB] unless acknowleged [by being placed inside brackets].
Good old 19th-century complete editions are often available on IMSLP. These are clunky, but better than crappy mid-20th century arrangements. Recent Ur-text editions reflect the latest scholarship, but only if you take the trouble to read the prefaces, and they are so expensive that they mostly languish in institutional libraries. Original prints and manuscripts are not hard to read: in this period the only significant hurdle might be an unfamiliar clef. And on IMSLP, they are free and faster to access than that crappy edition we had to make do with 50 years ago.
Of course, there are many questions to be answered, when one starts from an original source. But those questions are not answered (or worse still, they are answered wrong) if you start from a crappy edition. So…. it’s time to give up that crappy habit! From now on, I’m going to encourage all my students to look up their piece on IMSLP, before they come to a lesson or class.
I recommend EarlyMusicSources.com as a huge resource of free online historical treatises and expert modern commentary (including entertaining videos on hot issues in Historically Informed Perforamnce). The famous mid-18th-century treatises are all freely available online.
Links to Mattheson and Walther (first half of the 18th-century) are above. Click from this article, or just Google.
Yeah, the books are long and in foreign languages. So use the index of chapters and Google Translate. And maybe there is an English translation online, or a text-only version [i.e. searchable with Ctrl-F] from Project Gutenberg or wherever. Several key sources are translated on this blog, and every article here includes links to free-online original sources.
And of course, ask for help from your teacher, but after you have tried for yourself, and reached some road-block…
“Historically Informed” does not mean imitating CDs or gleaning guesses from geeky gurus. It means using Historical Information, and that information is freely available. Just Google a historical treatise or an original manuscript!
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 inmusica, 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 masterpieceArianna 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.
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!
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…
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.
Celebrating the European Day of Early Music and the first anniversary of OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance, Institute at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, here is my article presented by Katerina Antonenko at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Reflective Conservatoire conference, which has become perhaps the most significant forum of its kind, for discussing new developments in tertiary music education.
OPERA OMNIA offers a new model for Early Music: linking Research, Training and Performance; connecting Music and Drama; and hosted not by a conservatoire, but by an opera house. We believe this model can be more historical, more accessible, more practical, and more relevant to the 21st century than the standard approach of trying to squeeze historical aesthetics into 19th-cent performance ideals and previous millenium educational structures!
A year ago we founded OPERA OMNIA, creating a formal institution and unified branding for a variety of collaborative projects developed during the previous five years. We link Research, Training and Performance of Early Music, in an evolving model adapted for the opportunities and constraints of cultural life in 21st-century Russia.
Natalya Sats was founder and director of the Moscow State Children’s Theatre, pioneering Synthesised Theatre, a combination of music and other media. In 1936, she commissioned Prokofiev to write Peter and the Wolf. Statues of characters and instruments from that story adorn the entrance to the present Theatre, built in 1979. Nowadays, her daughter, Roksana continues the Sats tradition of speaking to young audiences before each performance.
The present Artistic Director, Georgiy Isaakyan has extended the programming for young adults and multi-generational audiences: not only family favourites, but also challenging work, including new and early music.
There are two Early Opera productions, both rarely staged today. Celos, the first Spanish opera, is now in its third season. And the very first opera, Anima & Corpo, which won Russia’s highest music-theatrical award, The Golden Mask, has had 55 performances so far.
These two 17th-century operas required collaborations between the Theatre’s resident performers and guests from Moscow’s nascent early music scene. Over the last five years, the Theatre obtained specialist instruments – more are on order and planned for – and in training workshops and performance projects, teams of players acquired the necessary skills.
In cooperation with other institutions, those projects included the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s Vespers. More about Vespers here. Each performance was linked to public lectures, advanced masterclasses, academic seminars etc. Continuing performances of Anima & Corpo at Theatre Sats are also a training ground, with new company members each season.
17th-century music requires singers to have both solo and ensemble skills. Polyphonic vocal consorts, 2 or 3 to a part, were a new challenge to singing-actors schooled in the grand Russian tradition. Vocal ensembles in Anima & Corpo are now shared between the Small Choir (a consort of soloists who do most of the dramatic commentary) and members of the Theatre Chorus (who represent a Choir of Angels and swell the numbers to about 80 in the finale.)
As in Rome in 1600, so in 21st-century OPERA OMNIA: no conductor! Instead, there are multiple Tactus-beaters, relaying a consistent beat between separate groups of performers, so-called cori spezzati. More about Tactus here, and about how to do it here.
Anima & Corpo also provided an opportunity for final-year students from the Russian Institute of Theatrical Arts, who took part in workshops with Lawrence-King and Isaakyan, rehearsed with OPERA OMNIA continuo-players, and performed selected roles alongside professional colleagues in public performances at Theatre Sats. The best graduates were amongst September’s new intake into the professional company.
These performances involving students helped the Theatre reach out to new audience members in their late teens and twenties. But one of the delights of working at Theatre Sats is that we regularly have children, teenagers, and young adults in the audience. The Theatre has front of house staff dedicated to meeting and greeting young visitors, offering informal guidance for individuals, or a short introductory talk for groups.
Theatre Sats is also the administrative centre for the annual ВИДЕТЬ МУЗЫКУ (Seeing Music) Festival of the Association of Russian Theatres, which invites to Moscow directors and performers from all around the Russian Federation, uniting an artistic community that spans nine time-zones! The opening ceremonies last September featured an experimental production with historical staging by the young professionals and advanced students of OPERA OMNIA’s International Baroque Opera Studio: Andrew Lawrence-King’s re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), composed around the surviving Lamento. More about Arianna here.
The astounding visual contrast between the famous Lament scene and the tumultuous arrival of Bacchus immediately afterwards is made audible in Lawrence-King’s work, as the ‘violins and viols’ of the Lament are blown away by ‘hundreds of trumpets, timpani and the raucous cry of horns’. More about how Arianna was re-made, here.
Although most professional ensembles in Europe substitute sackbuts for mid-range and low baroque trumpets, we were able to train up a full consort of natural trumpets, led by guest coach, Mark Bennett.
To close the Festival a month later, OPERA OMNIA provided the orchestra for a gala concert of baroque music at the Bolshoy Theatre, bringing together soloists from Sats, other Moscow theatres, and opera houses throughout Russia. This event provided a fascinating snapshot of the state of Baroque Music in mainstream institutions across the nation.
Alongside Moscow’s offering of Handel arias and the Triumph of Bacchus from Arianna, the choices from regional theatres were strongly influenced by mid-20th-century Russian anthologies of baroque favourites: Lascia ch’io pianga of course, but also arias mis-attributed to Pergolesi and Caccini.
We re-edited these, and made a clean ending with the Sauna scene from Lawrence-King’s Kalevala opera.
OPERA OMNIA enjoys close relations with the Moscow Conservatoire, for whom we provide conference speakers and master-classes. We also coach keyboard teachers within the Tchaikovsky School’s program of Continuing Professional Development.
Some of our best Early Music singers were initially trained at the Moscow Choir Academy ‘Papov’, emerging with a good mix of vocal, musical and ensemble skills. Our master-classes also welcome visitors from Stanislavsky, Bolshoy and other mainstream opera houses, singers with excellent voices and rich stage experience, for whom Historically Informed Performance is new territory.
Our production of Celos has led to close collaboration with the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish embassy and theatres in Spain. We also contribute musically to charitable concerts given by the ensemble of Singing Diplomats at the German embassy.
The rhythmic energy and visual appeal of Spanish baroque has attracted considerable TV and radio exposure, and internet streaming of selected performances.
What remains of the former State education system continues to produce instrumentalists and singers with dazzling virtuosity and rich knowledge of mainstream repertoire. Some baroque aficionados have managed to educate themselves in Early Music with help from visiting teachers, achieving high levels of performance and refreshingly independent academic perspectives. Others studied in Europe, returning to found independent festivals and ensembles in Russia.
With public funding, ensemble Madrigal at the Moscow Philharmonic preserves the style of communist-era Early Music, and Musica Aeterna in Perm brings in most of its players from abroad to play period instruments under a post-modernist baton, but Insula Magica does sterling work in far-off Novo Sibirsk.
In 2012, Theorbo was almost unknown in Moscow. We guided the first generation of theorbists as they transitioned from other instruments.
We are now victims of our own success, in that our theorbists are greatly in demand with other ensembles, so we have had to find a second generation of continuo-players to train up… and this is just how it should be!
Russian theatres have a traditional working practice in which members of the company or orchestra learn repertoire, by sitting-in and observing. We combine that Russian tradition with the baroque concept of apprenticeship.
New-entrant continuo-players begin their studies in a relaxed environment at open workshops. When they reach intermediate standard, they are invited to sit-in and play alongside the professionals at Theatre rehearsals, offering them real-world experience and advanced training on a show which will soon provide them with paid employment.
In the wider arena of the Russian Early Music scene, we measure success not only by absolute standards achieved by young professionals, but also by value added for keen baroque musicians at any level.
Authenti-City: Abandon hope all ye who enter here!
The much-debated question of “What is Authenticity?” requires fresh answers in the post-communist oligarchy of modern-day Russia.
In Europe, Performance Practice theories are often circulated by a system of ‘Chinese whispers’, teacher to student, director to musician, CD to listener, and in heated (rather than illuminating) debates on social media. Some performers believe it’s impossible to assimilate enough historical information. Others feel that period practice has been thoroughly worked out, and it’s time to invent something new.
OPERA OMNIA’s message to Russia (and to the wider world) is that HIP is not what some famous person says, nor is it what you hear on your favourite CD! We encourage everyone to check primary sources for themselves – most of the crucial treatises and many original scores are freely available online.
Our take on HIP focuses on practicalities. But before we look for answers, we interrogate period documents for the right questions to ask. Caccini’s (1601) priorities –
Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all, and not the other way around!
encourage us to look beyond modern-day obsessions with pitch, temperament and vibrato, and far beyond the old-fashioned notion of ‘on period instruments’. More about the Text, Rhythm, Action! project here. The Sats orchestra mixes Early and modern instruments, the training Studio is Baroque only.
Whilst the training Studio works in original languages, the professional Theatre productions of Anima & Corpo and Celos are sung in Russian. Supertitles and printed translations are little used in Russia, and the gain in direct communication between our singing actors and young people in the audience far outweighs the loss of the sound of a foreign language.
We worked very carefully to unite Russian text and Mediterranean music, seeking to achieve natural language, appropriate rhythmic fit, and a perfect match of the word-painting that is so characteristic of this period.
We rehearse the interplay of Text, Rhythm and Meaning with simple but effective hand-exercises, that are themselves fundamental elements of period pedagogy.
In Early Music, Rhythm is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat symbolically linked to the hand of God turning the cosmos, and to the human pulse.
In an exercise for Text, the hand (now palm up, in the default gesture called ‘how to act’) moves with each accented syllable – Good syllables, in period terminology. More about How to Act here.
We ask singers to think of the meaning of the word, each time they move their hand. Leading questions can then draw out more specific gestures. “Where is that?” prompts singers to connect their gesture to a specific – imagined – location. More about pointing gestures here.
Fixing singers’ attention on the particular word they are singing right now, is also a Mindfulness exercise, which – like the steady beat of Tactus – encourages a state of Flow. More about Flow here. It’s how Monteverdi composed, word by word, and it sits well within the Stanislavsky tradition of Russian theatrical education.
The famous challenge from director to actor
I don’t believe you!
cannot be answered by exaggerated histrionics, by a gesture that is more historical, or by wider vibrato! It demands profound interior work from the actor. Caccini characterised the new, 17th-century style of singing as ‘like speaking in harmony’. Too much singerly attention on The Voice must be challenged immediately with “I don’t believe you”.
Daily Schedule of Performances at Theatre Sats in Moscow, in the same week that this paper was delivered at GSMD in London.
At Theatre Sats, permanent members of the resident company perform all the different shows in a vast repertoire, and each of these shows comes around again every month or so. Singers and musicians have an immense daily work-load, often with two or more performances on the same day, plus rehearsals to revive old shows and yet more rehearsals to prepare new productions.
A typical day might begin with rehearsals for Rimsky-Korsakov, continue with a performance of Puccini and end with 17th-century baroque. To ensure continuity and provide a reserve for any eventuality, every show is double- or triple-cast: similarly for the orchestra.
Our first rehearsal for the violin band in Anima & Corpo was a delicate moment, introducing highly-experienced modern players to an utterly different aesthetic – straight tone, open strings and first position, slow bow-strokes. By lunchtime, we’d got through most of the material, and the musicians began to feel convinced by the unfamiliar sounds they were being asked to make. The afternoon rehearsal would go smoothly, we thought… until we saw a completely different group of string-players sit down for the second session!
A subtle feeling for a different kind of music-making is not something that can be marked into the parts – it has to be acquired through patient coaching and shared ensemble experience. It takes time. But once instilled in the whole company, it can be “absorbed” by new recruits more quickly, thanks to the ‘sitting-in’ tradition mentioned earlier.
Learning new material goes very slowly at the beginning, and then the final days of stage and technical rehearsal pass all too quickly: there is almost no time available in the middle for ‘artistic’ work.
It’s therefore crucial to engage with preliminary rehearsals, assisting repetiteurs as they drill notes into the singers’ heads. What is taught in these sessions tends to become up hard-wired, so mistakes must be ruthlessly eliminated. But this is also an opportunity to build-in fundamental elements of style, so a wise director will not be too proud to do a lot of the donkey-work themselves.
With limited time, and performers who spend most of their time working in quite a different style, our rehearsals focus on training general principles which can be re-applied in many different situations. Teaching principles, rather than imposing the director’s personal interpretation, leaves each individual with space to add their own artistic touches, and fits well with the historical concept of Art as a organised set of rules.
Of course, 17th-century aesthetics were also acutely concerned with the beauty and mysterious power of music: this is historical Science. We teach this in workshops, but for daily rehearsals we have to encapsulate complex ideas in punchy catch-phrase1s.
Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast 19th- or 20th-century practice with earlier styles, showing respect for musicians’ normal approach and for the coaching they receive from the Theatre’s mainstream conductors, whilst empowering them to do something very different with us, in the historical context.
The long legato lines of Romantic opera are contrasted with our mnemonic,
Ornamentation is not always relevant, and it’s certainly not a priority. Some visiting early musicians add ornaments, or ask about them; some resident musicians are keen to try for themselves. They all receive encouragement and advice. We will be more proactive as we come to French and later operas, for which ornamentation is an essential ingredient, like spices in cooking.
There is more time available at weekend workshops, where we explore links between period philosophy and the nitty-gritty of what one actually does in performance. Workshops also offer a ‘safe space’, a chance to try something utterly new. It’s a ‘safe space’ in the sense that we don’t have to demand instant success, and suitably-cushioned failure is accepted as an inevitable part of the learning process.
This training space is essential, not only for beginners acquiring fundamental skills, but– perhaps even more so – for professionals learning a new approach. These workshops are also the experimental laboratory that complements our academic research by providing a test-bed for new ideas.
Supposedly, Early Music is always trying out new performance practice ideas, but in the real world, there is a strong tendency to stay within everyone’s comfort-zone. It is much easier for a director to implement even quite radical decisions, than to change individual musicians’ deeply-ingrained habits.
New research findings demand new skills; new skills require new training methodologies; new methods have to be optimised and applied. All of this has to happen before new research can be applied in rehearsal, and polished for performance.
Our workshop formats vary. Our teaching style is to expound fundamental historical principles, and then guide participants towards making their own choices, within the style-boundaries. We usually have a wide range of abilities. Our motto is
Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn
Many European conservatoires host a Historical Performance department, and most of those departments have partnerships with professional HIP ensembles. But we are working the other way around. We are hosted by a Theatre, so involvement with professional productions is a powerful, built-in “pull-factor” that sets our educational priorities. The complementary “push-factor” is new academic research, which drives our training agenda.
This is quite a different, and more integrated relationship between research, training and performance than one finds in most conservatoires.
Our Early Music focus on chamber-music skills, rhythmic accuracy and empowering individual performers is also beneficial to the Theatre’s mainstream work.
In today’s Russia, public funding comes from the State of Russia, or the City of Moscow. The City is richer than the State. Our host Theatre is State funded, and we do not expect additional public funding for this new venture against the current background of annual cuts in arts budgets, international sanctions etc.
Commercial sponsorship is focussed entirely on the highest slice of elite mainstream activity: there is no tradition of small or medium businesses supporting regional or local culture. But we have found some private support from enthusiastic individuals, and there are State and City funds available for specific activities, such as travelling productions.
The funding gap is covered by informal cross-subsidies that in Europe would be managed by assigning itemised costs to specific budgets, with cross-payments between departments. Performance fees, whilst smaller than European expectations, encourage directors to spend time on blue-skies research, and encourage musicians to invest in their own continued professional training.
Theatre Sats supports the Academy by providing resources off-budget. In return, OPERA OMNIA’s activities support the Theatre’s artistic, educational and outreach aims. We are blessed with senior management who take the long and wide view of this. We are also blessed with good team spirit, powerful ‘start-up’ energy, and a strong sense of involvement from all participants.
When money does change hands, it is rigorously controlled. But we devote less time to formal meetings and paperwork than in Europe. We can get things done quickly when there is a need or an opportunity.
We don’t pretend to be a full-time educational institution, rather we try to complement the work of conservatoires with our specialist focus on cutting-edge research, new training methods, new skill-sets and professional performance. We take a pragmatic approach, trying to fill gaps in knowledge and experience for each individual, leading towards specific performances.
Our concept of training as a ‘safe space’ and an experimental lab encourages us to respond continuously to new research findings. If there is a tendency for some conservatoires to educate for the past, for the world in which teachers themselves grew up, we are training for the demands of performances now and in the future, creating skill-sets beyond the limits of today’s Early Music habits.
Making baroque music in modern-day Moscow is often challenging. But the vibrant cultural scene, the energy and talent of Russian performers, enthusiasm from young audiences, and the Theatre’s support, create unique opportunities.
Last year, Theatre Sats was honoured with the European Opera prize for Education and Outreach. We at OPERA OMNIA are excited about our plans for the next few years. And we are proud to be developing performers and audiences for the Early Music of the future.
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.
Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.
Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.