The ‘enargetic’ approach to the arts may be described as rhetoric of presence and display, or aesthetics of evidence and imagination. Visual imagination plays a major role in the concepts of effect in oratory, poetry, and drama of … the Early Modern Age, above all in the works of William Shakespeare.
Heinrich F. Plett Enargeia in Classical Antiquity and the Early Modern Age: The Aesthetics of Evidence (Brill, Leiden 2012)
Enargeia (Greek εναργεια, in Latin evidentia, in 17th-century English visions) is one of many artistic and performance concepts taken into 17th-century aesthetics from Classical Antiquity. It is of fundamental importance in the performing arts, but there has so far been almost no attempt to study its historical meaning in order to shape a modern approach to the practicalities in performance in Early Music and period drama.
As a literary device, Enargeia seeks to heighten emotional effect by intense, richly detailed visual description, so that the listener sees what is described, as if it is there, before their own eyes. Perhaps the best-known examples are Shakespeare’s detailed descriptions of imagined scenes, performed on the bare stage of the Globe Theatre. Enargetic writing is often introduced by the cernas (you see) formula – Behold! Ecce! Siehe! Ecco! – or by deictics – Here! There!
In music, Enargeia is realised by composers ‘painting the words’ with high notes for paradiso, low notes for inferno etc. Such ‘madrigalism’ is scorned by modern musicologists, but was fundamental to the period Art of composition: it is far more effective in performance, than on the page, especially when coupled to historical Action and baroque Gesture.
According to the anonymous (c1630) Il Coragohere, Enargeia is also expressed by the changing tone-colours of the singer or speaker, a subtlety difficult to acquire and easily lost, unless vocalising prioritises transmission of the text over beauty of sound, constant vibrato, or maximum volume.
Enargeia presents emotions as if in passionate story-telling, reminding us of the importance of narration and messenger-scenes in early opera, and of the original designation of Monteverdi’s Orfeo as favola in musica: a Story in Music. 17th-century libretti often link visual details of the imagined scene to actual sights close by the theatre, helping the audience make the visionary connection between art and reality.
Enargeia is central to the period theory of emotional communication. Visions are created in the audience’s minds by poetic imagery in the sung/spoken text, by watching an embodied performance, and by the visual spectacle of stage set and action. Meanwhile, music creates emotional sound-effects that underline those same Visions, articulating changes from one Vision to another.
It is these fleeting Visions in the minds of performers and audience alike that inspire changes in the balance of the Four Humours, producing the physical signs and feelings of emotion.
My investigation of Enargeia followed on from the previous project of Text, Rhythm, Action!, in which we studied the performance priorities of the period, priorities which differ sharply from those of today’s early music practitioners. That study redefined the practical processes of performance and revealed the fundamental importance of Visions.
This ongoing investigation of Enargeia looks beyond the act of performance itself to examine pre-performance processes of libretto-writing and musical composition (processes which in this repertoire are nevertheless shared with improvising performers), real-time synthesis of vision and performance, and postperformance outcomes, the effect of enargetic Visions on audiences.
Significant themes that have emerged are Mindfulness – the need for performers to remain ‘in the moment’, synchronising their reception of Visions from the Text with their projection of those Visions in Action, that synchronisation controlled by musical Rhythm – and Detail.
According to the Rhetorical requirement for Decorum, attention to detail and coherence of small detail with the ‘big picture’ are vital. This suggests a contrast between Romantic ‘artistry’ and Early Modern ‘Good Delivery’. In earlier repertoires new Art is created by passionate attention to small detail, rather than by a blinding flash of ‘genius’ or by some invented, foreign concept, applied with a broad brush.
Thus Leonardo da Vinci enargetically uses highly detailed observation and scientific investigation to produce utterly new concepts (e.g. helicopters) as well as emotionally powerful art (the Mona Lisa).
Many period texts link Enargeia (vivid description) with energia, the lively Spirit of passion, an animated energy that is transmitted especially from the performer’s eyes. Both energia and Enargeia associate passion in musical performance with inspirational vision.
As with Text, Rhythm, Action!, investigation of, training in, and performances using Enargeia – Visions in Performance are expected to reveal new insights not so much from the discovery of hitherto unknown source-material, but rather by close reading of known sources within the new contexts established by TRA and other recent research; by the thorough and uncompromising application of period philosophy to the practical necessities of rehearsal and performance; and by reflective analysis of the results.
My vision is to extend the concept of Historically Informed Performance beyond period instruments, techniques and performance styles, to encompass also the emotional framework within which the act of performance takes place, and within which an audience receives that performance.
In today’s Early Music, a musician might well play baroque violin with period technique and style, but within a 19th-century framework of emotional performance, in which the audience is expected to admire the performer’s ‘emotionality’ and ‘expressiveness’. In contrast, Enargeia offers us a detailed view of a period framework within which a performer’s emotions and their transmission are of less interest than the poet’s Visions and their reception, i.e. the audience’semotional reactions.
We musicians and musicologists need to re-focus our questions, away from self-centred “How did the performer do?”, and towards our audiences: “How did it feel to you?”.
My approach so far has been to investigate the historical theory of Enargeia, in order to develop rehearsal methodologies, workshopped with students and tested in professional productions of early music-drama with live audiences. As we progress, the focus is gradually shifting from experimental & educational projects to cutting-edge international-level professional productions of major repertoire in mainstream venues, a shift already accomplished in the context of Text, Rhythm, Action!, with award-winning results at international levels –read more here.
It also returns to some fundamental questions that I posed in my very first post for this series, back in 2013: Music expresses emotions?
As Historically Informed Performers, we may be teaching or coaching others, but we should all be perpetual students, for there are always new discoveries from period evidence, new challenges to our previous assumptions, new ways to apply the information we already have. Meanwhile our teachers are primary sources of all kinds, as well as modern-day musicians.
So here I widen the scope to include both sides of the teaching/learning process, whilst simultaneously focussing in on how the ideas in Dr Kageyama’s discussion might apply to the particular context of Early Music.
The Bullet-Proof Musician
Based in New York City, performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course.
I’ve followed his posts over several years, and I admire his evidence-based approach. Typically, he presents an expert and well-argued summary of one or more scientific studies, showing how they might be relevant to the real-life situations of music-students and teachers.
This is very similar to what I aim to do in my own articles, by presenting translations and discussions of historical sources, and showing how these can be applied in today’s Early Music. So I thank Dr Nageyama for all his contributions, especially the particular post under discussion here, and warmly recommendThe Bullet-Proof Musician to you.
Students were given a musical phrase to play, and then given coaching on how to make their performance more expressive. One approach was auditory, listening to a fine performance. Another approach was detailed, using written instructions, expressive markings in the score. The third approach was imaginative, suggesting an image or metaphor to shape the emotional Affekt.
All three strategies were successful. The auditory approach led to close imitation of the expert performance. Detailed instructions required more practice-time to be assimilated. Imagery led to significantly more expressive playing, which sometimes broke out of the accepted style-boundaries.
Dr Kageyama’s main conclusion was that an ‘artful mashup’ of all three strategies might work best. But please read his whole article, there’s more to it!
What is ‘Expressive’?
This question lurks behind Woody’s original study, and is briefly answered by Kagemaya as “measurable changes in dynamics, tempo, articulation”. My attempt at a short answer for HIP is here: Terms of Expression. In academic studies of listeners’ reactions to recorded performances, reported perceptions of “expressiveness” have often been linked to noticeable rubato. See for example the work of Dorottya Fabian.
In Early Music, we discuss emotional communication in terms of affetto, of frequent and highly contrasted changes in Affekt (this loan-word from German has subtly different shades of meaning in the academic contexts of HIP and Psychology: we won’t go there for now!).
We often cite the Rhetorical Aim of
muovere gli affetti
to ‘move the Passions’. It’s not just one emotion, it’s many different, strong passions. And they ‘move’, they shift frequently and significantly.
Most important of all, it is the listener’s passions that are to be moved. Performers might be emotionally hot, or cool and in control. This does not matter, though there is an increasing tendency to suggest more self-conscious performer-passion as the 18th-century progresses. For a thorough over-view of historical changes in the period Science of performer emotions see Roach The Player’s Passion (1993), very highly recommended.
Tears & Laughter
What matters is the audience’s response. So I would like to see more studies linked to Early Music repertoire that go beyond reported perceptions. Even the best reporter tends to confuse the performer’s signalling of ‘emotion’ [vibrato, rubato, body/head/hand-movements, facial expressions etc] with their own emotional response.
The historical test, familiar from many seicento reports, is whether audience members “laughed and cried”. Avoiding the subjectivity of reported perceptions, we could observe listeners’ physiological responses, tracking even short-duration, subtle reactions with a polygraph (aka lie-detector).
And there is a reminder here that we HIP -merchants should not be too deadly serious, we should not aim only for tears. Laughter is wanted too, and another Rhetorical Aim is to Delight the audience.
We could even link modern-day scientific observations to historical categories of emotion, by exploring the period concept of the Four Humours in modern-day performance, as experienced by listeners.
Read more about The Four Humours here: Emotions in Early Opera. And see project reports from my 5-year international program for Australian Centre for the History of Emotions: Text, Rhythm, Action. There are plenty of excellent research strands linking Early Music and Music Psychology, just waiting for investigators to follow up…
Three ways to learn: Listening
Each of Woody/Kageyama’s approaches has its equivalent in Historical Performance Practice studies. Many students and mature professionals are inspired by modern-day Early Music performances, live and recorded – this is the auditory approach, which tends to lead to close imitation. For Early Music, this raises the question of what we are imitating.
Since we don’t have Monteverdi’s or Bach’s own CDs, when we listen to fine performances we are dealing exclusively with secondary sources. Secondary sources can be illuminating, even inspiring, but we must test them rigorously against primary sources, against period evidence. Otherwise, there is a very real danger of 20th-century quirks being passed from one recording to another.
For example, the passaggio ristretto in Monteverdi’s (1624) Combattimento is very often performed staccato until the last phrase. But this is contradicted by the general rule that melodies moving by step tend to be legato. The staccato habit seems to have been picked up from a pioneering recording (Harnencourt perhaps?) and passed on through the generations, without further thought.
Nevertheless, we musicians are trained to listen and imitate, and we must find strategies that allow those aural skills to be applied, whilst staying closer to period sources. See my suggestions on how to Re-purpose Early Music skillsand, for example, Helen Robert’s marvellous Passaggi app for improvisation and ornamentation in HIP.
This is the ‘classic’ approach of our discipline of Historically Informed Performance. We take every possible tiny detail from period sources, and painstakingly apply it to our own playing/singing/directing. It’s rather like trying to assembe a jigsaw-puzzle, without knowing in advance what the complete picture will be. It certainly is time-consuming.
And in the area of emotional content, there is always the danger that this academic approach leaves us so much ‘in our heads’ that we lose touch with our hearts, and (more importantly) with our listeners’ hearts.
Nevertheless, a detailed, historical approach provides a much-needed corrective to the imitation of modern-day performances. And contrariwise, listening to well-informed performers helps ‘connect the dots’ of all the small details gleaned from period studies. But the overview we obtain from such listening is inevitably someone else’s modern-day perspective.
So is there a better way to rise above the nitty-gritty, and see the whole wood, not just the trees?
Pre-1800 Science of Emotions relies strongly on the theory of Visions expounded by Quintilian (1st cent.), whose writings on Rhetoric remained fundamental throughout the renaissance and baroque periods. Poetic imagery or a vivid metaphor in detailed verbal description (Enargeia, read more) creates an imaginary Vision in the listener’s mind, and it is this Vision that sends the Spirit of Passion (Energia) from the mind to the body, creating a physiological reaction (a smile, a frown, a blush, a chill, a tear, a laugh).
The interplay of psychological emotions and physiological reactions was understood within the period Science of the Four Humours. See againThe Player’s Passion.
Energia, the mind-body link, is also the lively Spirit of Passion that communicates emotion directly from performer to listener. So, especially in baroque opera, the listener gets bombarded by multiple rays of energia, from the words, the music, and the performer’s Action: their posture, movement, facial expressions and rhetorical gestures.
The concept of Enargeia implies that the metaphors and imagery are detailed, precise and accurate. The Rhetorical demand for Decorum requires all the various energetic elements to convey the same emotional information, down to the last enargetic detail. And our discipline of Historically Informed Performance challenges us to line-up all that emotional detail with period aesthetics and primary sources.
Music of the Spheres
This Aristotelean concept still held force in the 18th century. The perfect movement of the stars and planets creates a heavenly music – musica mondana – brought into sound by the Divine Hand. This ancient Science is reflected in microcosm by the harmonious nature of the human being – musica humana – and imitated in our everyday music-making – musica instrumentalis – both instrumental and vocal.
The cosmic, mystical aspect of music is itself a Vision, a metaphor for that ineffable beauty and profound significance that goes beyond quotidian concerns. However we might describe it, to be a musician is to believe that music is somehow special, with a significance beyond mere wood, strings, reeds, metal and organised noise.
In the 18th century and earlier, the Art of music was specified at the human level by detailed principles, complex sets of rules.
By long and painstaking study, musicians can find what Quantz, CPE Bach and others called the True Way to play in each of the many period and national styles of the past.
The technical management of sound was historically termed Use, the mechanical procedures that serve the higher purposes of period Art and ancient Science. Read more about historical Science, Art & Use here: What is Music?
Musical sounds that result from such beautiful visions, detailed study and sonic expertise are one outcome, but only within the lowest sphere of the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, we hope for our audiences not only to hear interesting sounds and appreciate fine details, but to be moved by music-borne visions.
These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits… We are such stuff as dreams are made on
Shakespeare The Tempest IV i (1611)
Last of All
There is a strong temptation for modern-day Early Musicians to begin with Sound. We love distinctive sound-worlds, that’s how many of us got into HIP in the first place. But in Le Nuove MusicheCaccini sets the period priorities as
Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around!
Caccini Le nuove musiche (1601)
The Music of the Spheres challenges us to seek a higher vision than mere sound.
So, whether we are instrumentalists or singers, we need to begin with inspiring imagery suggested by period texts. This is historical Science, the study of what is profound, cosmic, even divine (in whatever sense meaningful to us).
We should continue via the contrasts of tone-colour, dynamics, articulations and (especially) affetti required by each specific word or image. We should maintain a steady Tactus (see Tactus Workshopand search this blog for Tactus.) All this detail is Rhetorical Art.
And – last of all – we should experience – in real-world Use – the Sound that is produced by our detailed and imaginative historical work.
For HIP as for mainstream music-making, we need all three approaches. And for Early Music, we might do well to begin with Vision and Detail, and study Sound ‘last of all’.
There are significant differences in music-making, not only between mainstream and Early Music approaches, but also between today’s Early Music and what musicians of former centuries actually did back then.
Most of us recognise that Historically Informed performers should renounce any claims to ‘authenticity’: we will never know everything about earlier styles of performance, and there are some historical practices (e.g. producing castrati to sing soprano) that we would not wish to repeat, historical attitudes to race, gender or religion that have no place in modern-day society. But whilst researchers continue to unearth and decipher ancient sources of new information, there is already a considerable gap between what we know about Historical Performance Practice and what we do in the standard practices of Early Music today.
In the context of modern-day performances of 19th-century repertoire, Clive Brown referred to ‘the yawning chasm between contemporary practice and historical evidence’. His critique was aimed not at mainstream musicians, but at the current Early Music approach, and it could apply equally well to many performances of renaissance and baroque repertoires.
In my very first post back in 2013, I compared the hot topics of modern-day Early Music debates – vibrato, pitch, temperaments – with (more inspiring) historical priorities proclaimed by Caccini:
Music is Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around!
‘The historical priorities are Text, Rhythm, Action – and the audience’s emotions. Text (not vibrato), Rhythm (not rubato), Action for the Audience (not how the performers themselves feel).’ Read more here…
In this article, I make two (interlinked) case-studies of modern-day practices that are so familiar as to be almost beyond question, but that we all know to be un-historical. Beyond calling out ‘Mind the gap’, my purpose is to consider how the musical skills we have acquired to handle an anachronistic approach might be adapted to facilitate performances that better apply the historical information we already have.
The only essential pre-requisite is having the courage to try something different from what is experienced in nearly all modern-day performances, from what is heard in nearly every recording. Read on, if you dare!
For renaissance polyphony and baroque opera, singers nowadays use scores, as opposed to the individual parts used for nearly all repertoire pre-1800.
Our best consort singers have acquired high levels of skill in score-reading. This skill facilitates ensemble unity, entry making, pitch finding etc, and underpins two commonplace directorial interventions: at phrase ends, unifying the duration of final notes and/or pronunciation of final consonants; adjusting the ensemble balance from phrase to phrase by having individual singers switch from one part to another.
I was privileged to observe one of the UK’s most experienced Early Music singers, tenor John Potter, coaching vocal ensembles in the subtle interactions of one-voice-to-a-part consort singing. He encouraged singers to scan the score, and “wait for your colleague to sing his bit, before you move on to sing your bit”. Even when there is a conductor, today’s elite vocal ensembles acheive their high-precision unity of timing by such ‘give and take’ between individual singers, combining attentive listening with skilled score-reading.
That is all very well, but none of it is historical. Not only did Monteverdi’s singers not have scores, but Zacconi (1596) describes clearly that “vertical alignment”, the unanimity of timing seen in modern scores and demanded by record producers, was not desired circa 1600. Rather, each individual singer was allowed the liberty of arriving late on an expressive note, whilst the underlying Tactus continued steadily: like Ella Fitzgerald syncopating around a steady beat. Read more about ‘Making Time for Beautiful Singing’ here.
And when we stop to think about it, it is unlikely that musicians of the period would have prioritised ‘consistent vocal balance’ (is that even desirable?) over the traceable self-consistency of individual polyphonic strands within the strict rules of renaissance counterpoint. Rather than switching parts to boost a quieter voice, perhaps the other singers listened harder, or sang more softly themselves.
Singing from individual parts creates a different set of listening skills within the ensemble, and imposes new demands for rhythmic clarity: your colleagues don’t know what you are supposed to sing, so you have to communicate the underlying Tactus, whatever the superficial notes might be. And once you add the period practice of spontaneous Divisions (melodic ornamentation in shorter note-values), then even the partial scores that the continuo might have (for example for the Monteverdi (1610) Vespers) will not show visually what is actually happening aurally.
In fact, the continuo scores for some solo moments in the Vespers are significantly different from the vocal part-books, even before the singers add spontaneous Divisions and Zacconi-style delays. If the continuo attempt to “follow”, placing their bass-notes as seen vertically underneath the appropriate solo-notes as heard, a train-wreck inevitably ensues [ok, there were no trains in 1610, but you know what I mean]!
Reading from scores, those with long notes end up ‘following’ the voice with the most activity, whereas historically, it was the voices with notes in Tactus-values (minims and semibreves) that determined the rhythm: fast-moving Divisions must fit in (read more about Passaggi).
Historically, soloists were guided by the accompaniment [see Peri (1600) here]. If this seems controversial (and it is controversial in mainstream choirs and most of today’s Early Music), compare it to jazz, where the rhythm section keeps the groove steady whilst soloists syncopate, “having fun and improvising counterpoint” [Agazzari sopra’l basso1607, more on Agazzari here]
Conducting in Early Music is the elephant in the room, the emperor’s new clothes, the glaring anachronism that no-one dares name, the dinosaur waiting for an incoming comet of historical information.
Period treatises, eye-witness reports and iconographical evidence [see also Peter Holman’s recent book on the subject] show beyond all possible doubt that before c1800, ensemble music was not conducted in the modern sense, but was guided by Tactus (which is quite different, read more about Tactus here and in many articles within this blog).
That ‘yawning chasm’ between modern-day habits and historical practice is seen all too clearly in the current phenomenon of the ‘director from the keyboard’, who conducts modern-style whilst using a harpsichord or chamber organ as something between a fig-leaf and a very expensive music-stand.
Working with conductors, today’s Early Music performers have developed the skills to follow a varying beat and – when the going gets tough – to stay together by reference to the score. In particular, continuo-players have learnt to play without committing themselves to any clear rhythmic impulses, in order to follow soloists and/or accommodate themselves to a conductor’s interpretation of the beat. Deprived of their historical role of ‘guiding the whole ensemble’ (Agazzari 1607) and ‘directing the singers’ (Gagliano 1608), today’s continuo-players amuse themselves with divisions and embellishments, often simultaneously (but not quite together) amongst several performers, a horror condemned by Agazzari as ‘soup and confusion’ or a ‘flock of noisy sparrows’.
Historically, there was Tactus-beating for solo lute-songs, vocal consorts and polychoral ensembles, but no hand-waving at all for opera and dramatic music (in genere rappresentativo). The steady down-up of Tactus-beating imitates the stability of the cosmos and creates Time itself (according to Aristotelean philosophy, read more here). Just to read Zacconi’s list of Tactus qualities will assure any consort-musician that it differs fundamentally from modern conducting:
Tactus is regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation
Zacconi ‘Prattica di Musica’ (1592/1596)
Of course, we can get Early Music onto the stage (or into the recording studio) fast, by using vocal scores and modern conducting. But if we want to apply Historical Information to our performance, there needs to be time for experimentation, acquiring new skills, and consolidating experience in unfamiliar modes of musicking. Indeed, this kind of re-imagining how to make music is what HIP is all about.
Nevertheless, it is especially challenging to deal with individual ensemble members’ fundamental habits of ensemble practice. How much easier just to conduct everything, just to continue with those social media debates about vibrato, pitch and temperament!
If tomorrow’s Early Music is to be Historically better Informed than today’s, we must invest time in experiment and training for subtly different musicianship skills. This cannot be done within a normal rehearsal: we need to create un-pressured time and a safe space for individual musicians to let go their normal habits and take the risk of trying something fundamentally different. But perhaps we can progress more quickly by re-purposing the (slightly off-target) skills we already have…
Today’s Early Musicians are highly skilled at following a visual beat (no matter how unreliable or unsteady!), at listening to each other with reference to a vocal score, and at using aural cues to follow wayward soloists.
Historically Informed Tactus-beating is both a visual cue and an embodied practice: musicians need to become familiar with both aspects. We can practise with the whole group simultaneously beating Tactus: relaxed arm hinged at the elbow, palm outwards, down for one second, up for one second. There is no leader, no followers, the group mission is to remain together.
We can play through some (not too demanding) ensemble music, with each member of the group taking their turn to beat Tactus, whilst the others play to the beat. The role of the Tactus-beater is not to “interpret the music”, but to give the steadiest, most equal beat they possibly can. A wise coach can use this exercise to re-balance relationships of “leaders” and “sheep” within the ensemble…
Working alone, a musician can synchronise their Tactus-beating, and (later) their playing/singing to a home-made pendulum. A 1-metre length of string will produce a 1 second beat (Mersenne, 1636). Notice that the movement of a pendulum, and the feeling this movement creates, is quite different from the sharp click of a metronome.
Just as jazz singers swing their arms and/or snap their fingers, not to conduct each other, but in order to inhabit, embody, to make physical the shape of Time itself, the groove of Music, so these simple exercises help us internalise the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Some musicians may need frequent reminders and extra practice, to think and move in a slow minim = 60 pulse, rather than sub-dividing into today’s more typical crotchet = 120.
We listen in a different way, when we do not have the visual reference of a score to guide us. When I teach a master-class, I always listen to the piece the first time without looking at the score. This places me in a similar position to an audience-member, who should understand the performance aurally, without a score, perhaps without any previous knowledge of the work.
For Early Music consorts, listening without a score invites us to maintain ensemble unity by understanding the underlying Tactus, since we cannot know the significance of individual notes (which might anyway have been ornamented or otherwise changed spontaneously). Playing/singing to colleagues who have no score challenges performers to show more clearly how those individual notes relate to the underlying Tactus, shaping long-notes across several Tactus beats, lightening-up fast-moving ornamentation so that it flows without disrupting the Tactus beat, articulating syncopations appropriately so that they are correctly understood.
An elementary, but surprisingly powerful exercise, is to ask the whole group to beat Tactus (without seeing a score) whilst one person plays/sings their individual part (this also works for solo pieces, e.g. a harpsichord or harp solo). Everyone becomes more aware of Tactus, more skilled at maintaining it in spite of aurally suggested changes (this is the Tactus-beaters’ role) and at avoiding unwanted changes (this is the performer’s task).
When this becomes too easy, then the performer can be invited to add divisions and impromptu variations, and/or to apply Zacconi’s expressive delay, the accento. Read more here.
Meanwhile, everyone is getting more (much needed) experience of the visual and embodied practice of Tactus. Period musicians would have been beating Tactus all their lives, from their first lessons to learning new material as full professionals even as elite soloists and ensemble directors. For Early Musicians today, Tactus cannot be learned by studying historical treatises, not even by reading my blog! You have to Do It Yourself.
Another way to add complexity is to combine two performers, whilst the majority of the group continue to beat steady Tactus. This builds the habit of trusting the embodied movement of Tactus, not following wayward aural cues. The crucial assumption is that the music continues in steady Tactus, rather than ‘follow anything that moves!’.
Alternating playing/listening exercises between different members of the group prepares for the next level.
Who directs, and how? Historically, and (it would be desirable) also for our modern-day Early Music, the role of coaching an ensemble and making artistic decisions (maestro di capella) should be distinguished from the role of administering the Tactus-beat (summinstrar il tatto). Coaching and making artistic decisions happens in rehearsal. In performance (including playing-through during rehearsals) the primary task of the Tactus-beater is to maintain a steady beat, and not to be swayed by any temporary aural deviations.
This does not mean an aggressive tug-of-war between leader and followers, but a mutual recognition of the cosmic, humanist and practical significance of the Tactus (i.e. the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, in which the entire universe is turned in slow steady rhythm by the hand of God, the primum mobile).
Nevertheless, there is freedom for an individual performer to depart momentarily from the Tactus, providing they rejoin it promptly. Zacconi expects accento-singers to be back on Tactus-track by the next beat.
Taking turns to beat Tactus, and with the director/coach observing, ensemble members can experiment with maintaining unity by visual cues from the Tactus-beater, by their own embodied experience of Tactus-beating, and by listening to aural cues that indicate the underlying Tactus (not the movement of individual notes).
Listen to the bass (in polyphony), to the continuo, to a simple or slow-moving part, to what appears to be ‘accompaniment’ rather than to ‘soloists’. Basses, continuo-players, performers of simple slow-moving parts and anyone who might be (temporarily) ‘accompaniment’ must learn to maintain Tactus reliably, to guide and direct the whole ensemble, and (a tough call) not to ‘follow’ the soloist, a fast-moving or complex part.
This ensemble skill of maintaining Tactus rather than following soloists takes a lot of practice. The aim is to go beyond any initial stiffness or sense of confrontation, and find a flowing, embodied sense of rhythm in the slow steady Tactus beat. The mantra is: “soloists are free to depart from the beat, but the beat will not change to accommodate them”. Be inspired by Ella Fitzgerald.
As the whole ensemble gets good at this, soloists can throw in deliberate ‘bending’ of the rhythm, around the steady beat. Indeed, soloists should only ever bend the rhythm deliberately, not by accident or mis-management. If a tricky moment cannot be performed accurately, then it needs more practice. It’s always worth learning a crucial turn of phrase precisely as notated, before adding any rhythmic alteration. (See Caccini for suggestions of rhythmic alteration to short notes, within the steady Tactus).
Solo players, who often have to present a complete polyphonic texture within a single instrument (harpsichord, lute, harp, even violin in J. S. Bach’s Partitas), need to learn first the basic skill of maintaining Tactus whilst they play a single line. The temptation is for the beat (maintained perhaps by the foot if your hands are busy) to follow the performance, but it should be the other way around! Use a pendulum if necessary, to control this.
The more advanced skill is to have Tactus in the bass, in the continuo, in the accompaniment, direct the solo line in Measure. This requires significant mental re-organisation and artistic re-prioritising. When you can do this well, then you can add Caccini-style or Zacconi-style rhythmic alterations to the solo line, whilst keeping the accompaniment steady.
Students – and many experienced performers – like to learn from aural examples. But we have very few aural examples of Tactus in today’s Early Music that we can imitate. This well-documented historical practice is not yet reflected in most modern-day recordings or concert performances. Nevertheless, we can still benefit by learning from, and practising with, aural examples.
Make your own home recording of the accompaniment of your piece, check that it really is in Tactus (this is itself an educational exercise, which may need repeated attempts!), and then play the solo line along with your own Tactus-measured accompaniment.
If you are making a lock-down-style multi-track ensemble recording, record the bass first. Or even create a “Historical Click Track” (to be removed from the final mix), not with a click, but with an aural signal that is more akin to a pendulum swing. For example, just say ONE…. TWO with a sustained, slow-articulated ‘one’ and a crisper ‘two’ (the sounds of the English language work well for this). Or a drum track, DUM-bak.
Many modern-day performances use a slow, resonant large drum to create a steady groove, and the steady-calm-strong feeling of renaissance rhythm (think Pavan, for example). I would say that this feeling is historically appropriate, and certainly following an aural cue works well for today’s musicians. Nevertheless, period evidence shows that pavan percussion was a more active rhythm in shorter note-values on a small, less resonant, tabor-like drum. See Arbeau Orchesographie here. The slow-steady-calm-strong beat is the appropriate feeling for historical Tactus, but we need to create it for ourselves rather than relying on the wrong kind of drum!
But we could use that modern pavan-drum as a training aid for high-style polyphony, or seicento monody, to instill that sense of Measure, of reliable Tactus that is needed even when the beat is not dancing to the beat of shorter note-values. This distinction (Tactus in long note-values for serious music, happy dances with regularity extended even to short note-values) is what lies behind Peri’s remark about differing circumstances in which the soloist should not, or should ‘dance to the rhythm of the bass’. More about Peri’s Tactus bass here.
In order to begin this development, and move today’s Early Music one step closer to Historically Informed Performance, individual musicians need to hone their Tactus skills, their ability to control rhythm with a slow, steady count. And conductors need to learn the essential historical skill required for their role: a simple down-up beat maintained equally and reliably, without any pertubation (Zacconi, Il Corago c1630 etc).
In Monteverdi’s (1610) Vespers, we would not play continuo on a Steinway, we would not play baroque violin with a modern bow, we would not admit a cornettist who had not learnt the basic fingering-system of his instrument. Why should we accept conducting that eschews the fundamental period technique of the Tactus-hand, that is Historically Un-informed about the historical role of Tactus-beater?
A key pre-requisite for better Informed Performance is proper Historical training for Early Music ensemble directors: no more dinosaurs, no more modern-interpretative-dance in front of a keyboard instrument!
Time-beating lays down the tracks that the perfomance will follow. As Early Musicians, we can make Historically Informed decisions about how to lay down those tracks, and we can follow those tracks in newly-discovered and period-creative ways, offering our listeners a thrilling and surprising ride. Until then,
This posts continues my study of a very particular repertoire featuring female composers, works by Milanese nuns in the mid/late 17th century. This investigation is associated with the performance projects of Kajsa Dahlbeck’s Earthly Angels ensemble (read more here), which are underpinned by Kajsa’s own research.
My previous article The Soul of Music in Women’s Hands discusses compositions by Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704). Now I turn my attention to Rosa Giancinta Badalla (c1660-c1710).
Badalla’s book of solo motets with continuo accompaniment, Motetti a voce sola (1684) – 10 for soprano, 2 for alto – contains pieces for Christmas, Easter, for any Saint’s day, and for the patron saint of her convent, Santa Radegunda. This fascinating collection has many interesting features for researchers and performers alike, and I’m looking forward to Kajsa’s forthcoming performances. In the meantime, this post takes Badalla’s publication as a case-study in the period notation of Tempo.
The priorities of the early seicento were encapsulated by Caccini in Le Nuove Musiche (1601): “music is Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all.” More on Caccini here. Considering rhythm, the role of the performer – all the way from the mid-16th century to the late 18th – is to find the ‘correct’ tempo, not to invent their own arbitrary speed.
During the long 17th-century, composers indicate rhythm and tempo with precise notations, and those notations change during the course of the century. Certain rhythmic freedoms are clearly described in the early seicento, notably by Caccini and Frescobaldi. Frescobaldi Rules OK here.
The steady, slow duple beat of Tactus (around 1 beat per second) is like the pendulum of the clock, which drives the various cogs at different, but interlocked, speeds. Those cogs are the various Proportions of ternary measure.
The mathematical precision of this system is an earthly imitation of the perfect movement of the heavens, driven by the hand of God. Nevertheless, humanist music-making allowed subtle adjustments to the (theoretically ever-constant) Tactus, creating time-changes between contrasting sections – i.e. contrasting movements.
Nowadays, we use the word tempo to mean the ‘speed’ of the music, how fast does it go. But circa 1600, tempo meant Time itself, the measurement of real-world time in seconds. And this is not Newton’s (1687) Absolute Time, it is Aristotelean Time, which does not flow of its own accord, but is dependent on movement, and upon an observing Soul. More on Aristotelean Time here.
Aristotelean Time calibrates the musical notation of the mensural system to the real world, so that the note-values on the page “come to life” with sound and duration. More about Time, the Soul of Music here.
The essential movement, without which Time cannot be counted, is provided by a human hand, imitating the hand of God to administer a constant, equal and unchanging beat – battuta – also known as the light touch of Tactus. Zacconi explains that misura, the measuring of music time in mensural notation, battuta, and Tactus are all the same thing, Time itself.
A century later, this has changed. Whilst note-values are still seen as Quantitatively precise, the subjective Quality of how the music feels is understood to be variable, and it is this emotional Quality that is now called tempo (or in French, mouvement). More about Quality Time here.
This first conceptual shift in the meaning of the word tempo – from real-world Time to emotional Quality – is happening during the period under discussion in this article.
The second paradigm shift – from Aristotelean to Newtonian Time – happens much later. Sustained, fierce resistance to Newton’s ideas prevented them becoming effective in music-making until probably the early 1900s. Newtonian Time is a pre-requisite for the modern concept of tempo as the ‘speed’ of music, since we need Absolute Time as a benchmark to measure variable speeds.
The late 17th century is a less familiar transitional phase between two contrasting notational systems that have been more intensively studied by modern-day researchers: the mensural marks of Monteverdi’s (and in Milan, Cima’s) generation; and the time signatures of Bach and Handel. This transition was gradual: some features of the mensural system were already obselete for Monteverdi; but the 16th-century concept of a ‘standard’ or ‘correct’ time – tempo ordinario or tempo giusto – remained in force throughout the 18th century.
Nevertheless, one crucial change can be seen in the nuns’ publications: that change is underway in Leonarda’s notations, and is complete in Badalla’s publication.
This change affects the notation of ternary meter. At the slow extreme, movements in three semibreves fall out of use: at the fast extreme, such markings as 3/8, 6/8 and 12/8 appear. Thus far, I have not seen the old and new notations appear simultaneously in a single work; and only once within a single publication.
Monteverdi notates Proportions with what are undeniably mensuration marks, though much of their meaning has evaporated by the early 1600s. I have argued elsewhere that Roger Bowers’ theory that these marks retain their full and complex medieval significance is incompatible with the need for performers (working from part-books, and often with minimal or no rehearsal) to come to rapid and unanimous decisions at each change of Proportion.
Scholars agree that bar-lengths are arbitrary in this period. Note that in the 17th century battuta means ‘beat’, and not ‘bar’ as in modern Italian.
The key feature of Monteverdi’s Proportional notation is the choice of note-values. Three semibreves show the slowest Proportion (Sesquialtera); three minims show a medium-fast Proportion (Tripla); six semi-minims shows the very fast (Sestupla) Proportion. Read more about Monteverdi’s Proportions here.
Whatever Proportion is in use (and different voices may be in different meters and/or different mensuration marks), the duration of any particular note-value, a minim say, is the same in all Proportions. Carissimi (Ars Cantandi, 1696) puts it very simply: “the triple-metres all agree with regard to quantity, division and proportion, as is easily understood.” Bowers mentions this principle in passing but failed to follow up its implications.
Proportions are like the cog-wheels of a clock, regulated by the steady pendulum-like swing of Tactus. Once the Tactus is set (around minim = 1 second), there are only these three Proportions available: slow sesquialtera (3 semibreves in 2 tactus beats); medium-fast tripla (3 minims in 1 tactus beat); fast sestupla (6 semi-minims in 1 tactus beat). Any further multiples would be ridiculously slow or impossibly fast.
During the early seicento, composers increasingly used written instructions and/or such words as adagio, allegro, presto etc. to modify the basic information given by the note-values. Often, those modifiers exaggerate the contrast in activity already shown. Always, these modifiers indicate subtle gradations around a ‘ball-park’ tempo shown by the note-values.
Triple Proportion uses mostly long note-values, which proceed proportionately faster than in duple time. So we recognise the final Moresca of Monteverdi’s Orfeo as Tripla Proportion (organised in units of three minims, structured as semibreve-minim), even though the ternary mensuration mark is missing. It would make no sense to play this in duple time at minim = 60.
The note-values of ternary proportions can be written in ‘white notation’ or ‘black’.
Under a ternary mensuration mark, a white semibreve might sometimes be ‘perfected’ to be worth three minims. A black semibreve – a black blob – is always worth only two minims.
In white notation, a semi-minim might look like a ‘white quaver’, but more often it looks like a regular crotchet. In black notation, a black minim looks like a regular crotchet, and a black semi-minim looks like a regular quaver.
Sometimes black notation is introduced in the middle of a section of white notation. This can produce ambiguities: is this thing that looks like a regular crotchet, i.e. a blob with a stick, a ‘black minim’ or a ‘white semi-minim’? But – once you get used to the two notations – this is less confusing that it might seem at first.
Moving on from Monteverdi and Cima to Badalla’s Motetti, we again see three sets of note-values for the three ternerary Proportions. But there has been a change. For Badalla, the alternative notations of ‘white’ and ‘black’ note-values have simplified into something that looks more like modern usage, though we still need to be careful in understanding the significance.
We can see this change in progess within Leonarda’s oeuvre: three old-style ‘black minims’ under a mensuration mark of 3 or 3/2 are replaced with (identical-looking) crotchets and a time signature of 3/4: this is the new-style Tripla.
In Badalla’s 1684 publication, the slowest ternary metre is now shown with three white minims and 3 or 3/2. This is the new notation for slow Sesquialtera: the old notation with three semibreves has fallen out of use. A new fast notation appears: six quavers with a time signature of 6/8. This is the new Sestupla.
Both Leonarda and Badalla use the mensuration mark 3 to indicate ternary Proportion in general. Since the choice of proportion is governed by note-values, this mark is not ambiguous.
Leonarda’s publications vary between old and new styles of notation. I have only seen one example of both notations within the same collection, and the two styles are never used in a single piece. Movements in three semibreves identify the old style, time signatures of 6/8 etc identify the old style. We need to know which style is at work, in order to understand the meaning of three minims (old-style Tripla, new- style Sesquialtera).
Any of these strict Proportions can be subtly altered by modifying words: adagio, risoluto, allegro, presto [from slow to fast]. And in a section notated in duple time, C, the Tactus can also be modified by these words. The effect of Proportional changes between duple and triple is often exaggerated: e.g. from standard C [ordinario] to 6/8 presto. Sometimes the contrast is reduced: .e.g from C [ordinario] to 3/4 adagio.
There can also be subtle changes whilst keeping the same mensuration, e.g. in C from ordinario to adagio and then back to risoluto.
I have not seen the terms giusto or ordinario in the nun’s repertoire. This is unsurprising: if we see C (or any other marking of time) without any modifying word, then the tempo should be ordinario, giusto (correct).
Following some temporary modification, a return to tempo ordinario is shown by plain C (or a proportional mark). In Badalla’s Tacete o la, Tacete it is not clear whether risoluto signifies here an entirely new ‘resolute’ feeling, or a return to what we would nowadays call tempo primo. I would suggest that it hardly matters in this case, since a risoluto delivery of the opening phrase would be perfectly appropriate.
The words giusto and ordinario are also rare in Handel’s ouevre, though he sometimes writes them (as a warning against excess, or in order to emphasise a return to normality after some dramatic extreme).
20th-century Ur-text editors often supply [Allegro] where a first movement has no modifying word: we can now understand that this is incorrect. The proper editorial comment would be [Tempo Ordinario] or [Tempo Giusto]. Allegro is not the default choice for an opening movement, rather it is somewhat faster than the usual ordinario.
It’s generally agreed amongst specialist scholars investigating high baroque notation of tempo that 18th-century composers continued – even increased their ability – to indicate tempo as precisely as possible. See for example Julia Doktor’s Tempo & Tactus in the German Baroque here. Indeed, very fine details of subtle differences could be indicated, by combining three levels of gradation: coarse, medium and fine.
This fine-meshed array of possible tempi was calibrated to tempo ordinario (normal time). The alternative name of tempo giusto (correct time) reminds us that composers indicated the correct tempo, it is not the performer’s role to make arbitrary decisions. Nevertheless, tempo ordinario is not defined by any mechanical device, but by the subjective, human feeling for Time itself.
Proportions (3/2, 3/4, 6/8) define the broad parameters for relating one movement to another. A quaver in 6/8 is nominally twice as fast as a crotchet in 3/4, which in turn is twice as fast as a minim in 3/2. In practice however, those 6/8 quavers might be significantly faster than 3/4 crotchets, but not as much as twice the speed. Similarly 3/2 minims are significantly slower than 3/4 crotchets, but perhaps not as much as twice the duration.
C and C/ are similarly a 2:1 ratio in theory, but not so far apart in practice. If we consider the minim Tactus in C as the standard, then the semibreve Tactus in C/ can be somewhat slower.
Two opposing principles are at work. Smaller note-values are expected to have shorter duration, maintaining contrast. This principle tends to favour a slower beat if the Tactus is on a greater note-value.
Contrariwise, practical considerations discourage excessively slow tempi for long note-values, or exaggeratedly fast tempi for short note-values. So the Tactus beat might be slower, if there is a lot of surface activity in small note-values (reducing contrast).
These two opposing tendencies can be traced back to the early seicento. It seems the preference is to maintain or indeed exaggerate contrasts in surface activity at proportional changes, whilst taking a slower beat for a section with decorative passage-work, for practical convenience. Within each section, the Tactus is steady.
In theory, 18th-century Tripla Proportion still assumes constant Tactus, with C minim = 3/4 dotted minim. In practice, this sets up two alternative sets of Proportions, depending on whether the fundamental duple Tactus is based on C or C/.
In French-influenced music, a great variety of subtly different triple metre tempi are found, defined by dance-type. Each dance-type has its own mouvement, which specifies not only the speed of the Tactus beat, but also the rhythmic structure within that beat, and the emotional feeling associated with music and dance-steps.
Thus Tempo di Minuetto is poorly translated as ‘Minuet-speed’. Rather, the music should ‘move’ like a minuet, ‘swing’ like a minuet, ‘feel’ like a minuet. Carissimi’s declaration that tempo and mouvement convey the Quality of music must be linked to Muffat’s explanation, in Florilegium (1698) here, of vrai mouvement in Lully’s dance-music.
Handel’s Time Signatures
In the first half of the 18th century, variant time signatures within each Proportion give medium-level information. 3/8 goes faster than 6/8, which goes faster than 12/8.
The information given by time-signatures is thus already quite precise. And tempo-words give the last fine adjustment. Composers are able to show both clarity and subtlety in their markings.
There are two essential principles to guide modern performers towards late-17th- and 18th-century composers’ intended tempi.
1. The same notation [time signature and tempo word] implies the same tempo.
So we can compare similarly-notated movements, to find the speed that “works” for all of them
2. There is general agreement about the ORDER (slow to fast) of the various notations.
So we can rank the various movements in order, and compare near-neighbours to establish subtle differences.
The entire spectrum might be moved one way or another, according to the size of the ensemble, venue acoustic etc. But these two principles still hold. And, combined, they leave very little ‘wiggle room’, (especially in the 18th-century).
We can have a very good idea of composer’s wishes. We do NOT need to invent our own tempi.
Modern performers need to be aware of a crucial difference between our own ‘instinctive’ assumptions and baroque practice. We tend to look first at the tempo word, and take little notice of the time-signature as a source of tempo-information.
Baroque practice was the opposite: the time-signature gives the basic information, which is modified only in a subtle way by any tempo word. And that tempo word influences the character of the movement, more than the raw speed.
Badalla’s Time Signatures
Badalla’s use of proportions (the “denominator” of each time signature) and tempo-modifying words is clear. Her practice lies on the pathway from Monteverdi and Cima via Leonarda towards Handel.
But it is less certain how we should understand her use of variants (the ‘numerator’ of each time signature). These time signatures were not part of earlier practice, but we have a good understanding of how they are used by generations of composers following Leonarda and Badalla (see Handel’s Time Signatures above).
My suggestion for Badalla’s generation is based on the experience of studying this repertoire with actual, physical Tactus-beating. And I assume that late 17th-century practices are likely to represent a transition between early seicento and early 18th-century practices (each of which is better understood in current scholarship than the transition in-between them).
I suggest that Badalla’s 6/8 (standard Sestupla) could be beaten with a down-stroke on the down-beat of each 6/8 bar. This is approximately 1 down-beat per second at tempo ordinario.
In 3/8, the note-values have the same duration, but the beat is now a down-stroke on the down-beat of each 3/8 bar. This is a very fast (about 2 down-beats per second), vigorous beat, creating a very different feeling.
In 12/8, the note-values again have the same duration, but with a down-stroke on the down-beat of each 12/8 bar. This is a slow, steady beat (down for one second, up for one second).
Try beating each of these in turn – 6/8, 3/8, 12/8 – to appreciate the physicality of Tactus. Physical Tactus-beating produces strong contrasts in emotional Quality, even though a quaver has the same Quantitative duration in each case (as Carissimi tells us).
In theory, the note-values have exactly the same Quantity, only the Tactus beat and the subjective Quality changes. In practice, a very energetic 3/8 beat might produce a faster speed than the calm 12/8 beat. And over the years, this tendency would lead towards to the conventions that we observe in early-18th-century usage.
This article has been concerned with rhythmic notation. But we should always keep in mind the other top priority of baroque music: Rhetoric, which in vocal music can be studied directly via the sung text. Even in instrumental music, the concept of music as a Rhetorical Art implies that we play as if there is a text being sung. .
Text defines articulations from syllable to syllable; and also affetti, emotions, from word to word; and the general mood from movement to movement. Thus Frescobaldi characterised his harpsichord Toccatas as having vocal affetti and a variety of movements, passi.
To find the affetto of an instrumental movement, Frescobaldi recommends that you play it through (at standard tempo), which will reveal the emotional character. This emotional character will then subtly adjust the standard speed in the appropriate direction. Tempo-modifying words work similarly, to adjust the basic significance of mensural notation. More on Frescobaldi here.
As we have seen, Badalla has at her command a sophisticated system of proportions, time-signatures and modifying words to indicate her intentions for tempo. As modern performers, we need to reconcile our understanding of the sung text with these details of musical notation.
We can assume that the composer has already responded to the affetto of the text, so that her tempo-indications can help us appreciate how she is responding to that text. Notations of tempo help us understand the emotional content.
We can also examine the affetto directly from the text in order to understand how the music, and our performance of it, might respond. This can guide us to changes of tone-colour, intensity etc, within the steady Tactus of each movement. It might even suggest moments where the singer is early or late on the beat, whilst the Tactus continues steadily. Read more about the baroque ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’, here.
The text can also help us understand the tempo required for an entire movement, though we should not lightly abandon the composer’s own tempo-indications. If we think that the text requires a different tempo from that indicated by the musical notation, it is probably we who are wrong, rather than Badalla!
Word by word, movement by movement
Two techniques can help us avoid imposing our own preconceptions, in order to approach the text from a period perspective.
Word by word, the appropriate manner of performance is defined by the word itself. Amore does not imply singing piano, or slow, or legato: we should sing the word lovingly. Fuoco does not necessarily imply singing forte, or fast, or staccato: we should sing the word in a fiery manner.
We should avoid blurring meanings by substuting generalised musical instructions, rather we can take the word itself and turn it into a specific adverb, the precise way to sing this particular word.
Movement by movement, we can study frequently repeated and emotionally significant words, in order to determine which of the Four Humours is in play. This reveals subtle distinctions (love is Sanguine, desire is Choleric, unrequited love is Melancholy), and also gives general guidance to prevent us being misled by modern-day assumptions.
Leonarda’s dulcis flamma et ignis es (you [Jesus] are sweet flame and fire) might lull us into the expectation of a sweet, gentle mood, if we focus exclusively on the word dulcis, ‘sweet’. And certainly that individual word should be sung sweetly. But flamma and ignis clearly define the Choleric Humour, as the mood for this phrase and its repetitions as a whole.
17th-century music thrives on such short-term emotional contrasts dulcis flamma, whilst it is structured on the longer-term mood contrasts. This phrase is Choleric, but the movement (and the entire motet) ends in Sanguine hope, spes.
The baroque priorities of Rhetoric (i.e. text) and Rhythm were carefully observed and precisely notated by Badalla, as well as by previous and later generations, albeit in slightly different ways.
As performers, we do not have to summon up our own emotional response to the words nor choose our own tempo for the music. The text itself defines the emotions on both short and long-term levels, and the music notates the appropriate tempo.
The challenge, in this and all HIP music-making, is to understand historical information, rather than inventing our own ‘truth’!
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.
When we study Ornamentation c1600, it is an over-simplification to view Divisions (also known as Diminutions, passaggi – replacing a long note, or a phrase in long notes with many short or very short notes) as ‘Renaissance’, Graces (effetti – trills etc applied to a single note) as ‘Baroque’. Caccini’s Le nuove musiche (1601) read more argues against pasaggi and in favour of effetti, but his written-out musical examples include substantial passaggi. Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo (see The Orfeo Pageby Il Corago) famously presents an aria passeggiata at the heart of the drama, when Orpheus attempts to persuade Caronte to grant him admission into Hell. Conversely, there are 16th-century indications of expressive vocal effects being applied to a single note (see Zacconi on the accento, here).
But it is useful – I would say, essential – to keep the distinction between these two types of Ornamentation constantly in mind. Divisions fulfilled one of the three aims of Rhetoric by delighting the ear – delectare. But they risked spoiling communication of the text – the aim of docere. And they were regarded as emotionally unpersuasive – ruining the aim of movere gli affeti (moving the emotions). Significantly, Caronte is ‘delighted’ by Orpheus’ passaggi, but is not moved to pity. Graces, (effetti, vocal special effects), were used sparingly, so as not to compromise transmission of the text. And effetti were so closely linked to emotions (affetti) that the two words came to used almost interchangably: effetti produce affetti. Only when we understand this difference between pasaggi and effetti can we make appropriate choices of when to apply each type (see Ornamenting Monteverdi here).
Too often, we attempt to add Ornamentation in rehearsal, a day or so before the performance, encouraged, guided or resrained by the Musical Director. But Divisions require specific techniques of execution, and skills of invention/application, which cannot be acquired in a few minutes of rehearsal time, with the whole ensemble sitting there waiting for you. You need to prepare in advance. And if you intend to improvise, even more advance preparation will be needed.
Studying Ornamentation by ear is certainly a valid historical approach – many period sources recommend this – but CDs are not primary sources. Learning from CDs carries a high risk of copying everyone else’s mistakes and misunderstandings. If you want to learn by ear, then record yourself (or a trusted teacher) performing examples from period treatises, and listen to those. And this is a good moment to recommend Helen Robert’s Passaggi App, which brings the historical method of aural study into the 21st century.
Certainly, you can only learn about Divisions by practising how to do them, in advance. This article introduces two essential late-16th-century sources, and summarises their approach.
Dalla Casa was a cornetto-player at St Mark’s, Venice. His (1584) Vero modo di diminuir(True Way to make Diminutions) focuses on wind instruments, but is also offered to keyboard- string- and bowed-string-players and to singers. A particular feature are settings for viola da gamba that move around within the polyphonic texture, ornamenting any of the voices or adding an extra voice., in a style called viola bastarda. Bovicelli was a boy-chorister and later sopranist at Milan Cathedral. HIs (1594) Regole, Passaggi (Rules, musical Divisions, Ornamented madrigals and motets) concentrates on vocal Divisions. The first part of his Rules deals with the sung text, often displacing syllables from the original underlay to make more graceful Divisions. The second part deals with the notes: the arrival on the written note is often delayed.
Dispositione – technique
Bovicelli does not offer any advice to help singers acquire the dispositione – what we would nowadays call ‘vocal technique’ required to execute these ornaments. For wind instruments, Dalla Casa describes and gives musical examples of various tonguing syllables, and modern-day singers might try these with the voice. Otherwise, the best period advice comes from Caccini, who identifies the single note trillo (speeding up from slow to fast) as the gateway to any kind of ornamentation.
I coach singers to put Caccini’s method into practice, by repeating the same note on the syllable a, going from slow to fast. We can understand his ribattere con la gola (literally, beating with the throat) as creating fast repetitions by relaxing the throat whilst maintaining steady support from the diaphragm. Don’t try to sing loud, but rather cultivate a feeling of fun – Bovicelli describes such fast singing as the Art of playing around with nature.
Once you can switch the fast notes on and off, on a single pitch, step two is to move the pitch up and down. And step three is to synchronise the changing pitches with the ‘beating’. This is the same challenge of synchronisation that awaits wind-players (fingers and tongue) or bowed strings (left and right hands).
Dalla Casa similarly leads his wind-players through divisions in crome – quavers (8 to the semibreve – whole-note beat), semicrome semiquavers (16), treplicate triplet semiquavers (24 to the semibreve) and quadruplicate (32). His ‘true way’ leads to Mixed Diminuitions applying all four note-values.
Both writers provide countless short examples of Divisions, taking long notes across each interval (second, third, fourth etc) upwards and downwards and dividing the first long note into many shorter notes. These short examples are to be learnt, applied and imitated, and the student can combine several of them to create longer divisions.
Such combinations of many individual divisions are demonstrated in the books by ornamented settings of complete pieces, madrigals by Rore, motets by Palestrina and Vittoria. We are accustomed to hearing these sacred repertoires nowadays with the “pure lines”, extreme legato and stand-alone conductor of the 19th/20th-century aesthetic. Bovicelli refers to performing divisions not only as da concerto – as concert-pieces – but also da capella – in church. Just imagine the effect of this soprano-line in Palestrina’s Ave verum corpus…
Style in peformance
In Early Music studies, we try to avoid the modern binary of Technique/Interpretation. Nevertheless, these two sources offer valuable advice for good style in performance, discussed as portar la voce or portar la minuta – delivering (literally ‘carrying’) the voice, or the Division. Bovicelli’s Rules gives many specific style indications, all worth studying in detail. Dalla Casa’s Preface to his second book is short, just four paragraphs. The first paragraph offers his work to all kinds of musicians, and repeats his preference for Mixed Diminutions, and there is a paragraph each for the Viola da Gamba and the Human Voice.
The longest paragraph emphasises the importance of ‘Performing the Divisions in Tempo
Del portar la minuta a tempo.
Our modern-day understanding of tempo as the ‘speed of music’ differs from the period concept in which musical tempo means Time itself. Time is measured by a human estimate of how long one second lasts, it is notated by the written note-values within the duration of a semibreve, it is shown by the slow steady beat of Tactus. For Zacconi Time, Measure, Beat and Tactus (tempo, misura, battuta, tatto) are synonymous (read more here). Dalla Casa’s words and musical notation confirm a semibreve beat, notated with the mensuration mark C/.
For Zacconi, Time is the Soul of Music, and Dalla Casa gives tempo similar importance in his music of Divisions.
“About delivering the dimunition in time.
“I say it is a difficult thing to deliver the diminution in time, and this is the most important for everyone who follows this profession of making diminutions with all kinds of instruments. Therefore let each person take notice in their study to beat Tactus, and never to study without this regulation, and to accustom themselves to the beat; because doing otherwise would not be a good thing. And take notice of the four note-values, that the semiquaver (as is known) is performed twice as fast as the quaver, i.e. 16 to 8; the triplet-semiquavers – treplicate – are performed as 24 to 16, which is a third more than the semiquaver; and the demisemiquavers – quadruplicate – are performed still once again as fast, i.e. 32 to 24. Everyone should take note to accommodate themselves to the Tactus, and beat their diminution note by note; like this for those who play a wind instrument and also for those play keyboard instruments, and not to rush ahead as many wind-players do who make runs with a dead tongue (slurring), without tonguing the diminution, in order to make it easier; or those who cannot keep a brake on their tongue, as with reverse tonguing (see the Preface to Book 1) which is difficult to brake. Therefore let everyone beat the diminution note by note, and deliver the four note-values with their proper timing, if they want to do well.” [Dalla Casa]
Beating ‘note by note’ refers to the Tactus-value of the semibreve in the original composition: there is no suggestion of beating time for every 32nd note! Bovicelli also recommends nel Passeggiare star obligato al tempo giusto – to keep to the correct Time when making Divisions. Within the semibreve beat, quavers can be taken long-short:
Caccini (1601) suggests short-long:
Bovicelli shapes a long run of semiquavers elegantly, by sustaining the first note:
Hold the first note, then run!
In modern-day performances, we often hear the contrary, where performers rush the beginning of the division and then wait before moving to the next note. But Bovicelli mentions several times that it is more graceful to flow directly from the fast notes into the following principal note: often, he adjusts the underlay, or continues the run into medium-fast notes to get a smoother transition.
Another option is to hold the top note:
Sustained notes in the midst of short notes can be given a tremolo, marked as /\ :
The general tendency is for ornaments to go from slow to fast – this habit is instilled from the first exercise that Caccini teaches, and Bovicelli applies it to a two-note trill gropetto that crams in more and more little notes before arriving at the following principal note. The effect is that – as the notes go faster and faster – the subsequent arrival feels ‘delayed’ – rafrenato.
The much-desired quality of leggiadria (lightness) comes from the contrast of sustained long notes and lightly-touched short notes. We can summarise this principle as “long notes long, short notes short”.
“But in this, take note, that the more you hold the first note, and the second is faster, the more gracefulnessis given to the voice. This gracefulness cannot exist, if the notes all have the same value. For leggiadria of singing, as we said above, is nothing other than the varation of notes of greater and lesser value, as you will also see below.” [Bovicelli]
Caccini is guided by the same principles of gratia and leggiadria in his examples of rhythmic alteration within the steady Tactus.
Bovicelli requires that Diminutions suit the character of the words, whether bold or tender.
“Just as it would be most reprehensible for a composer, if the words are sad [this must be a typo for meste] , to set them with happy notes, or to set sad notes under happy words: similarly in singing we must as much as possible imitate the words: that is, sad words must not be decorated with Passaggi, but set (as we might say) with accenti and a tenderly emotional, lamenting voice; if the words are happy, use Passaggi, and give them extra vivacity, making varied notes (dotted notes, leaps, diverse note-values), as you see.” [Bovicelli]
Ave! means ‘Hail!’ – As a cathedral chorister, Bovicelli is probably thinking of the liturgical texts Ave Maria, gratia plena, or Ave verum corpus (see above).
Bovicelli’s linking of bold texts with passaggi, tender words with accenti is supported by Zacconi’s advice to avoid accenti where the words are powerful (read more here). And Bovicelli’s ’emotional voice’ voce flebile hints at Caccini’s oft-repeated recommendation of crescendo and/or diminuendo on a single note as the most effective way to convey emotions (read more here).
Zacconi explains that the expressive accento produces a delay in the arrival of the second note, but the Tactus itself (and therefore the accompaniment) is not altered (readmore here). And after being late on one beat, the singer is expected to be back on the beat for the next semibreve. Bovicelli and Monteverdi notate similar delays and anticipations for solo singers.. Their clear explanations and precise notation seem to clarify Caccini’s evocative but enigmatic use of the terms sprezzatura and senza misura which [in the context of expressive syllabic setting, as opposed to melismatic Divisions] he links also to a ‘cool’ style of voice-production, something ‘between singing and speaking’. Read more here.
In contrast to the soft flebile effect and ‘cool’ rhythm of accenti for tender words, Bovicelli characterises Passaggi as on the beat semibreve by semibreve, impressing the audience ‘stupendous’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘having fun’ scherzando. This is supported by Aggazari (1607), who describes two ways of improvising from a bass-line: his ‘fundamental’ style is continuo accompaniment, and he characterises the ‘ornamental’ style as ‘having fun and improvising counterpoint’. Read more here. In circa-1600 music-drama,an aria passeggiata (a strophic song over a ground bass, with elaborate passaggi) heralds the entrance of some god or mortal with superhuman powers: Caccini’s sorceress who makes the moon fall from the sky; Peri’s dolphin-riding super-hero-singer Arion (both in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi), Orpheus arriving at the gateway to Hell in Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607).
Tactus for Divisions
It is clear that Divisions are not performed with the malleable tempo and vacillating rhythm of 20th-century rubato. Both Bovicelli and Dalla Casa insist on Tactus. Indeed Tactus is so essential that it is the only question of style in delivery (what we would nowadays call ‘interpretation’ as opposed to ‘technique’) that Dalla Casa addresses. Nevertheless, that Tactus might be faster or slower in particular circumstances. Whilst discussing disjunct quavers, Bovicelli informs us that the Tactus for passaggi was slower in a chamber performance – da concerto – than in church – da capella.
“… singing not in church, but in concert, where the Tactus should be slow.” [Bovicelli]
There are other period sources that indicate a slower-than-usual Tactus for passaggi. We gain a very different impression when we read their remarks, not in the context of 20th-century rubato, but in the light of Zacconi’s, Dalla Casa’s and Bovicelli’s insistence on Tactus. Read more in my next article: How il Signor Organista waits for il Cantate.
It’s one of the best-loved and most well-known pieces in the Early Music canon, but what would you focus on, if you were asked to direct it, with the first rehearsal starting in a few hours time?
Finding myself in precisely this situation, I went to the autograph MS (here), in order to strip back all the accretions of generations of editors, and to check the original tempo markings: at the beginning of each movement, where there are any changes within a movement, and whether there is any fermata for a cadenza, or perhaps a final adagio [both these last surprisingly infrequent].
There are many movements of course, and Handel uses a large number of fine gradations of tempo-detail: andante larghetto, andante & andante allegro; allegro larghetto, allegro moderato, allegro.
This grand spectrum of tempo-marks is centred on tempo ordinario and time-signature C. There are cross-links to alla breve C/, and to triple 3/4, and 3/8, and to compound 6/8 and 12/8. In principle, we expect to find proportional relationships: smaller note-values indicate definitely faster tempi, so 3/8 is significantly faster than 3/4, perhaps twice as fast. Tempo-words might also produce a proportional change: in the Overture, allegro moderato might be twice as fast as the opening grave. But in practice more beats in the bar suggest a slightly slower tempo, so 12/8 is somewhat slower than 6/8. And subtle shifts in character or changes in articulation create small adjustments to mathematical proportions.
Given all this information, there is a simple, but surprisingly powerful performance-research technique: take all the markings, and assemble a list, in order from slowest to fastest. Handel uses so many different markings, that once you have them in order, there is not much ‘room for manouevre’ in deciding the actual tempo for each marking. Read more about Handel’s tempo-markings Of course, you may want to bias the whole spectrum to the slow end, or to the fast end, depending on performing forces and venue acoustics. See a recent international discussion about 18th-century tempi.
Most significant of all, and a good way to apply this research-technique in first rehearsal, are the groups of movements that have precisely the same combination of time-signature and tempo-word.
Simply trying each of these movements, and searching for the tempo that “works” for all of them, produces some surprising results, surprises which clearly reflect Handel’s wishes.
So last night I made the ordered list, and this afternoon I compared several groups of movements that share the same combination of tempo-information.
And now I’m off to first rehearsal. Where’s the dog?
Published just before the year 1600, Luduvico Zacconi’s monumental treatise on Practical Music – Prattica di Musica (1592/1596) here – straddles the divide between the prima prattica of Palestrina’s renaissance polyphony and the emerging new style, Monteverdi’s seconda prattica of dramatic solo singing accompanied by basso continuo. The virtuoso singers of the first ‘operas’ of the early seicento – Jacopo Peri, Vittoria Archilei, Giulio Caccini, Francesco Rasi etc – were trained in the 16th-century traditions of eleborate ornamentation – passaggi – and of cantar con gratia (singing with grace; i.e. beautiful singing), a concept of vocal beauty described in detail by Zacconi.
A fundamental, but unwritten, element of beautiful singing, analysed by Zacconi and carried forward into dramatic monody, is a way of ‘adding beauty and decorum’ with certain ornaments ’caused by sustaining and delaying the voice’. Read more about Zacconi’s accento here
Whether in renaissance polyphony or in baroque monody, the fact that such frequent ‘delays’ were introduced by individual singers begs the question: how was ensemble-unity maintained? Nowadays, singers of Palestrina, Vittoria and Lassus are not permitted to decide for themselves when to add a beautiful delay to their particular voice-line, even if modern conductors sometimes slow down the whole ensemble (which is not what Zacconi describes).
Singers of Monteverdi often expect the continuo to follow their free rhythm, but this is contradicted explicitly by Agazzari(1607: continuo instruments ‘guide/drive’ the entire ensemble) & Gagliano (1608: continuo players rule/direct the singers), and implictly by Peri (1600) (more about Peri’s bass-lines here).
And Zacconi himself describes the Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation’. So how can we reconcile this steady beat (somewhere around 60 bpm) with the requirement for ‘beautiful delays’ from this or that singer?
Zacconi’s answer offers exciting new possibilites for renaissance polyphony and – hallelujah! – an end to the arguments between singers and continuo-players which have rumbled on for the last half-century of HIP Monteverdi, even to the point that some modern-day performers treat Rhythm and Rhetoric as the opposing horns of a dilemma.
Singers can sing off the beat
In Chapter XXXIII, concerned with delivering the Tactus, Zacconi confirms what we have already understood from his remarks on cantar con gratia, that singers can delay their pronunciation of a certain note, for the sake of vocal beauty, and that this is always a possibility. Discussing the accento, he warns singers not to delay too often, but the word sempre (always) in this chapter confirms that delays were nevertheless very frequently employed (see how and when to do this, here).
Tactus (and continuo) continue steadily
Zacconi instructs ‘the person delivering the Tactus’ clearly. Whatever delays the singers might introduce, the role of the Tactus-beater is to maintain the steady beat, and to bring the singers back onto that beat. In renaissance polyphony, the Tactus is delivered with an down-and-up movement of the hand. In baroque monody, there is no visual tactus-beating, and the role of maintaining Tactus, of guiding and directing the whole ensemble, is taken by the continuo.
We might think of this as the ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’. Like the rhythm-section of a jazz-band, the role of the continuo is to maintain the steady swing, whilst the singer floats elegantly around the reliable beat.
There is more to it than this, of course. Frescobaldi describes how the beat itself can change, in specific situations, between sections of a piece (more Frescobaldi here). There may be reasons to take a generally slower Tactus, or to slow down the Tactus where there are elaborate passaggi. Caccini describes how singers can stylishly enhance rhythmic contrasts within the steady pulse of the Tactus (more Caccini here). Zacconi associates delays with gentle Affekts, and requires the singer to re-connect to the Tactus soon afterwards. Delays would seem to be associated with the Good syllable.
Chapter LXIII characterisescertain delays as a fundamental element of good singing, and chapter XXXIII specifies how to manage these delays within the steady swing of Tactus. Zacconi provides us with a penetrating insight into the general sound, the rhythmic feeling and the ensemble communication that operates throughout late renaissance and early baroque music-making.
Zacconi’s sound-world is very different from what we have become accustomed to in modern-day performances and recordings of circa 1600 repertoire. Polyphonic lines are not always vertically aligned – soloists might not be “together” with the continuo, a vocal ensemble might not pronounce consonants unanimously. But – like good jazz – it has a strong sense of swing, and everyone knows where the beat is, even if they choose not to be on it.
There are profound implications for continuo-playing. We have brought up a generation of continuo-players with two impressive, but un-historical skills: fitting-in discreetly with the results produced by a modern conductor, and following solo singers. We need to retrain continuo-players to show the Tactus boldly and clearly, and to guide and regulate, to maintain steady swing, whatever the singers might do over the top. In short, we need continuo-players to acquire the skills and habits of a good jazz rhythm-section. More about Monteverdi, Caccini and jazz here.
And to make this work, we probably need to remove that gross anachronism in today’s Early Music, the modern conductor. Otherwise, we might as well accompany Monteverdi on a Steinway piano.
Meanwhile, which renaissance vocal ensemble is ready to attempt Palestrina with passaggi and accenti, with beautiful delays AND with steady Tactus? I’m very eager to hear this.
Around the year 1600, singers were expected to deliver more than just the bare notes written by the composer. There was a well-established practice of dividing up long notes into elaborate swirls of short and very short notes – passaggi. The new aesthetic of solo song accompanied by a plucked instrument favoured short-range vocal effects – effetti – the one-note trillo, the two-note trill and turn grupetto etc. These effetti were intended to convey emotions – affetti – and were used sparingly: period sources show less frequent application of effetti than we hear in most modern-day performances. The change from old-style polyphony and passaggi to seconda prattica monody and effetti was gradual, so that these four categories overlapped considerably during the early seicento.
But in his (1596) Prattica di Musica (Libro Primo, Chapter LXIII) here Ludovico Zacconi describes in detail a way to ‘sing gracefully’ that is not merely an ornament, but rather an essential characteristic of fine vocal delivery. First he emphasises the importance of pronouncing the words schiette, intelligibile & chiare (cleanly, intelligibly and clearly), and intoning the musical notes accurately (giuste – in tune) and briskly (allegre), not forced or slow. Loud high notes should not be shouted; it’s better to take a high piano notes in falsetto (fingerle – fake them) than to strain. All this takes about a quarter-page.
The remainder of the chapter (more than 2 pages) is introduced as a detailed analysis of how to carry the voice across intervals of a third or more, a particular skill in repertoires that generally favours movement by step. Zacconi’s goal is the ‘grace and poise … demonstrated by the ability to perform effortlessly, and with agility, adding beauty and decorum.’ (si ricerca gratia & attitudine…quando in fare un attione dimostrano di farla senza fatica & all’ agilita, aggiungano le vaghezze e’l garbo).
‘This can be recognised as akin to the difference between seeing on horseback a Cavalier, a Capitan, or a ditch-digger and a porter; and with what ease an expert and fine standard-bearer handles, displays and moves the flag, compared to a shoe-maker. (In questo si conosce quanta differenza sia nel vedder star a cavallo un Cavaliere, un Capitano o un Zappaterra & un Facchino: & con quanta leggiadria tenghi in mano, spieghi e mova lo stendardo perito & buono Alfiero: che vedendola in mano a un Calzolaio…)
Highlight by delaying & sustaining
Intervals of a third or more ‘are delivered with certain accenti caused by some delays and sustaining of the voice’.
(Le dette figure s’accompagnano con alcuni accenti causati d’alcune rittardanze & sustentamenti di voce) The term accento does not mean ‘accent’ in the usual modern sense of a sharp, hard intensification of the start of a note – Zacconi is looking for a ‘beautiful… sweet’ effect, and his accento is not applied to strong, powerful texts. Nor is it a particular way of pronouncing words, a ‘foreign accent’. Nor does it mean the accented syllable of the word – the period terminology for this crucial concept is the Good or Long syllable. Nevertheless, we would expect to find the accento on a Good syllable.
Rather, accento means a “turn of phrase” in poetry or music, a brush-stroke in fine art, or a “highlight”. We recognise this meaning in the lines ‘O let me hear Thee speaking / in accents clear and still’ from an 1869 hymn by John E Bode. And we hear it also in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo: ‘I am Music, who with sweet accents can make tranquil every troubled heart’. Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti so far tranquillo ogni turbato core.
Zacconi’s characterisation of the accento as a fundamental element of vocal delivery explains why scholars have struggled to understand it fully in studies of treatises on ornamentation. Bruce Dickey’s excellent survey of Italian ornamentation in The Performer’s Guide to 17th-century Music (1997) here admits that ‘the actual form of the accento is somewhat elusive’ but continues to give several illuminating examples from Zacconi, emphasising that the period intention is ‘rhythmically vague and subjective’. Zacconi’s description of ‘delays’ and ‘sustaining’ defines the essential nature of this practice, giving a broad hint that we should include such rhythmic subtleties in our realisations of accenti from ornamentation treatises.
Zacconi states explicitly that this accento is an unwritten obligation: ‘the composer who writes the notes is only concerned with managing those notes according to what is convenient for harmonious progressions; but the singer who delivers them is obliged to perform them with the voice and make them resound according to Nature and the decorum of the words’. Il cantore nel sumministrarle e obligato d’accompagnarle con la voce, & farle rissonar secondo la natura & la proprieta delle parole. We should expect to hear these accenti frequently across intervals of a third or more, even though we do not see any indication in the written composition. Although Zacconi warns against excess, and mentions particular words that are unsuitable for accenti, it is clear that they were used more often than not.
Actually, there are some notations of accento-like delays in dramatic monody, in the published scores of the first ‘operas’. And this customary practice from the 1590s would have been part of the training and vocal habitus of the singers who performed in genere rappresentativo (in theatrical style) during the following decades. ’17th-century ornamentation practice is a blending of traditional of traditional practices bequeathed from the 16th century and innovative techniques developed in connection with the new monodic singing style fashionable after the turn of the century.’ [Dickey 1997]
Although we can certainly apply accenti to early-17th-century dramatic monody, the context in which Zacconi writes is prima prattica polyphony.
Nowadays, the best-known ensembles for renaissance a capella polyphony – many of them English and strongly influenced by their singers’ training in Oxford & Cambridge college choirs – maintain an aesthetic of “pure vocal lines”, homogeneity and legato that has its origins in the late 19th century. We rarely hear Palestrina, Lassus or Victoria with florid divisions, and the highlighted delays of Zacconi’s accento are unfamiliar even to historically informed performers.
Even though he warns against excessive sustain, the subtle delaying effect that Zacconi finds so beautiful must also strike modern ensemble-directors with alarm: how can the singers keep together, if one or another part frequently sustains the written note to arrive late on the next one, and even ‘highlights’ this effect? The insistence on vertical alignment that has been a central tenet of modern-day Early Music (particularly amongst CD-producers) seems to be contradicted by this unwritten, but fundamental and obligatory element of period practice.
How to carry the voice
Since Zacconi’s context is vocal polyphony, it is well worth considering text (which he has emphasised in the previous paragraphs). In the transcriptions that follow, I have added a plausible text to Zacconi’s untexted examples. My assumption is that the note that takes the accento also carries a Good syllable. The shift in text-pronunciation produced by these accenti further highlights the effect of delaying.
We can expect that instrumentalists would have imitated singers in all these unwritten subtleties. ‘Singers… were the model for instrumentalists as well, who were to imitate the human voice as much as possible’. [Dickey 1997]
I have also added examples from Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo of written-out accento-like ornaments, and of situations when an accento might possibly be applied.
The accento is not applied to Ut-mi, nor between two hexachords sol-mi (e.g. G – B natural). But it can be applied to the major third fa-la (i.e. F-A, C-E, Bb-D, depending on which hexachords are available).
As Dickey (1997) remarks, the rising-third accento is similar to the intonazione on a good-syllable initial note, described by Caccini and notated by Cavalieri. In both practices, accento and intonazione, the central semiquaver is touched only very lightly.
Zacconi’s notated durations are approximate: the desired effect is ‘delightful and sweet’. The delay should not be excessive or heavy. The accento is subtle, beyond the limits of notation.
‘I’ve put a dotted quaver and semi-quaver so that singers see how to ascend; because there are some who – even though these beauties should seem natural – in pronouncing them, pronounce them so slow and late that by their languor they make a strange effect and do not give any good satisfaction to the ear. These are things that are difficult to demonstrate and make understood in writing. It’s necessary for the alert and diligent singer to adjust them according to what their own ears tell them is delivered well or badly.’
The accento should not be applied to every possible note.
‘This way of singing is a delightful and sweet way, and sweetness – although a friend to nature – is also cloying, and used too many times will produces disgust and boredom. Therefore it is not a good idea to use them always, in order to avoid giving listeners disgust and dissatisfaction.’
Accenti for seconds
Nevertheless, Zacconi moves on immediately to show how to apply accenti even to the the interval of a second, i.e. to notes that move by step! However, he rules out mi-fa and ut-re ascending, similarly avoiding fa-mi and re-ut descending.
My underlay is conjectural – other solutions are available! Where I have indicated alternative rhythms, the ideal may lie in subtlety of rhythm somewhere in-between the two notated versions.
Accenti for fourths & fifths
For wider intervals, Zacconi requires a different style. The running semiquaver in the middle of the previous examples only works if it runs to an adjacent note, not across a leap. Again, Zacconi struggles to describe in words the subtle effect that he intends: ‘the little notes in the middle are pronounced beautifully without making them resound like a real note.’ Nel mezzo pronuntiarli con la voce quelle vaghezze senza farle rissonar per figure.
Whilst the accento delays the composer’s second note, the whole thing (i.e. both written notes) fits into the regular Tactus. ‘From beginning to end, the notes do not have more duration than they normally require’. Dal principio al fine non habbiano piu valore di quello che per natura ricercano.
Zacconi adapts his running formula for a rising fourth to give an alternative for a rising second mi-fa.
Zacconi concludes: ‘All these examples can be adapted and used as models for further possibilites. But as I have said, it is difficult to make these things understood without a sung example. For this reason, I will skip many vague things that might be said around this subject to say only this: when the Singer hears the beauties of a performer (I’m not talking about gorgie and passaggi…) he should try to imitate them as far as possible.
‘Singers should be warned that in imitative polyphony- fughe or fantasie – one should not delay any note, so as not to break and spoil the well-ordered imitation. Rather one should sing on the beat – equale – without any ornamentation.
‘There are also some notes that for the sake of the words do not need any accento, but only their natural and lively force, as when one has to sing Intonuit de Celo Dominus; Clamavit; Fuor fuori Cavalieri uscite; Al arme al arme [God thundered from heaven; he cried out; Go out, go out Cavaliers; To arms, to arms] and many other things.The discreet and judicious singer must decide’
This should remind modern readers that the accento is not a sharp accent, nor bravura display, but a sweet and subtle beauty.
‘On the contrary, there are other words that from their own nature demand these beauties and these lovely accenti, as when one is to say Dolorem meum; misericordia mea; affanni e morte [my sadness, have mercy on me, sorrow and death]. Without any further sign to the singer, these indicate how they must be sung.’
This instruction reinforces the impression that accenti are used very frequently, even if not always.
Other ways to beautify
The accento gives a subtle, soft highlight by delaying the main note. Zacconi now considers how to enliven the written notes, with simple divisions, which do not require the full inventiveness and technical proficiency of more extended passaggi.
‘We can also break up the notes with vivacity and force, which makes a very grand good effect on the Music’.
My assumption would be that these divisions would usually produce no shift of word-underlay, and certainly not the delaying effect of the accento. But in Zacconi’s second example (four notes descending by step), a lively effect might be created by anticipating the new syllable, placing it on the previous short-note.
Zacconi comments that these are just a few examples, many others could be given. Nature itself is the best teacher, and this is just an ABC for beginners. But since some students leave school not knowing these beauties and these accenti, Zacconi wants to get a few things down on paper for those who don’t have any decorum, or any good way of singing. He writes them down, not because they should be notated, but so that they can be added with the voice.
‘Finally, I must say that masters who teach these accenti and beauties should be warned to control the scholar so that they do not apply them too often, as if they would be done always. Because just as too much sugar spoils a fine, delicate meal, similarly so much sweetness and beauty placed together produces boredom and disgust. And for this reason we add so many dissonances to the Music, just because they redouble the sweetness of the consonances.’
Published at the very moment that the Baroque aesthetic of dramatic monody and continuo emerges from renaissance polyphony, and positioned in this crucial treatise as the first step towards beautiful singing (with a quick reminder to take care of the text, not to shout, not to strain) this chapter has enormous significance for today’s Historically Informed Performance. But it has been almost totally forgotten.
Although Zacconi warns us not to use the accento on every possible occasion, and limits it to words that do not contradict its natural property of sweetness. it is clear that around the year 1600 it was used very frequently indeed. In training and in performance, our modern-day Early Music seems to have lost sight of this fundamental element of beautiful singing – and playing.
It is also clear that the essential features of the accento are sustain and delay, even in polyphonic music. So how is ensemble synchronicity to be managed, if any voice might introduce a delay on any note (even if not on every note)?
Zacconi’s answer to this practical question of timing calls for a revolution in our understanding of ensemble music-making in this period, and – at last! – an end to the early 21st-century struggle between proponents of rhythm and of rhetoric. See my next post.
After this article about a forgotten ornament, you might like to read about another ornament, that perhaps we wish we could forget. Yes, THAT ornament.
Of course, there are plenty of alternatives available from historical sources, but if we are looking for better cadential ornaments, might we be asking the wrong question? Read more about ornamenting Monteverdi here.
More than a century after Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905, in which he published four paradigm-shifting papers on Quantum Theory, Brownian Motion, Mass/Energy Equivalence and Relativity, most of us still consider the implications of Relativistic Time to be paradoxical.
We live our everyday lives and make music within a pre-1900 understanding of Time ‘like an ever-rolling stream’. This is Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, first published in his 1687 Principia, and bitterly contested amongst mathematicians for decades afterwards. Amongst 18th-century musicians and the general public, acceptance of Newtonian ideas must have lagged even further behind, just as for most of us today, Hawking’s Brief History of Time (1988) remains counter-intuitive.
In this sense, the works of Josquin, Dowland & Monteverdi, even Lully & Purcell, are ‘music of an earlier Time’. Until Newton, Time was defined by Aristotle’s Physics (4th cent. BC) as ‘a number of change/motion in respect of before and after’.
At this participatory workshop, everyone is sure to have a Good Time. Andrew leads some mind-games and musical practice, exploring how it might feel to make pre-Newtonian music. What can we discover, not just quantitively, but about the quality of Aristotelean Time? Dare we follow Phaeton’s example, and seize the reins of Apollo’s time-chariot? What about ‘unmeasured’ genres? What really counts in Early Music?
Open to singers and all instrumentalists, relevant to all repertoires up to at least 1800. Instruments are optional, but please bring with you an open mind and a free hand (or foot)!