Prattica di Retorica in Musica – Inventio

What started out as a bit of fun for April Fools’ Day – faking up the frontispiece of an imaginary 17th-century treatise on the Practice of Rhetoric in Music – got me thinking more seriously. This is just the kind of book I would love to study – many other Early Music scholars and performers too, I’m sure. So why doesn’t it exist? And, what would it say, if we were to find it after all? 

 

 

What’s the Use?

Those are deep questions to consider carefully, but after three weeks the title of my imaginary treatise – stolen from Zacconi (1596) read more here – which I chose quickly, on impulse from the Subconcious, has revealed to my Conscious mind the gap in HIP sources and practice. We have an overwhelming abundance of primary sources to tell us what Rhetoric is, and some fine modern-day writing that describes how Rhetoric was written into renaissance and Baroque Music. The vital question is how we can apply the Art of Musical Rhetoric in Practice – in individual study, ensemble rehearsals and public performance. We have studied the Science of Music, we are learning the Art of Rhetoric, but we want to acquire practical skill in its Use. More on the period concepts of Science, Art and Use here

To bridge this gap, since the late renaissance or early baroque Prattica di Retorica in Musica seems not to exist, I decided to write it myself. Remembering medieval trobadors and trouvères,  ‘such as found out musical tunes and recited verses in writing’; and inspired by the rhetorical canon of Inventio, by which one seeks to discover the best arguments for the case at hand; my aim is not to invent but to search for a true resemblance of this unicorn-book. 

Clearly, there is some serious work of Dispositio (organisation of the material) to be done. Perhaps the most effective format – Elocutio – could be to adopt the position of a blog-poster, discussing the Prattica chapter by chapter, supported by ‘citations of the original’. My hope is to instill Memoria, as if recalling an elusive memory; for my Retorica should deliver nothing new, but should rather be a declaration – a oratorical Pronuntiatio – of truths that we already hold to be self-evident. And all this should lead to Actio: putting rhetoric into practice in Musica

So perhaps you can imagine what follows as a modern editor’s commentary on a recently discovered historical source…

 

 

Foreword 

 

It was Monteverdi scholar Tim Carter (don’t miss his inspiring yet thoroughly practical survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre ) who first guided me towards an unorthodox and creative way of investigating historical performance practice: beyond the analysis of surviving works, have a go at creating (re-constructing would be too strong a word) what is missing. The idea is to confront the same questions and challenges that creative musicians encountered back then, starting from a tabula rasa and testing, questioning, reviewing everything you create, to complement the standard approach of gazing at the beauty of an extant masterpiece.

It’s like lifting the bonnet of the car and tinkering with the engine – you will learn from your mistakes, and you’ll certainly learn more than by merely reading the workshop manual. After all, mathematics students have to solve problems themselves, as well as studying worked examples by famous mathematicians of the past. And Rhetoric itself begins with three Canons of creativity, and continues with the reflective process of Memorisation, before culminating in the final Canon of Delivery.

 



In 2017, with expert guidance and thought-provoking challenges from Tim, I re-made Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece Arianna based on the surviving libretto, a musical fragment – the famous Lamento – letters and other music from the time of the first performance in 1608.  The resulting work, Arianna a la recherche was performed at the OPERA OMNIA International Baroque Opera Studio, re-establishing Rinuccini’s Tragedia as the fourth opera in the Monteverdi trilogy. Why re-make Monteverdi’s Arianna? here

 

 


And now, for this project on the Practice of Rhetoric in Music, I’m once again investigating by creating. Of course, Creative Research is no longer a new concept, and it has already been applied to Early Music, but usually by creating something new out of old material. My aim is different – I want to supply new material that will fill a gap in what has come down to us, like a restorer patching a threadbare section of an old tapestry, weaving strands of carefully researched threads into a plausible picture that fits well with the old stuff.  Or like a luthier, who constructs a ‘historical instrument’ that is simultaneously a carefully researched ‘replica’ of a period original, and a creative work of art in its own right. 

In the workshop of Rhetoric, my power-tool is energia – the communicative spirit that energises the mind in performance. To drive forward the research process, I imagine how such a historical treatise might have been read aloud by a fine orator, and how we today might apply its period pedagogy to training and rehearsal for future concerts, recordings and opera productions.

 

Teaching Rhetoric in a Knight-academy. The listener in the foreground left (as seen by the viewer: this is the privileged position forward-right on stage) leans his head on his left hand in the classic gesture of Melancholy: not sadness here, but deep thought, careful concentration on precise detail.

 

Exordium


Before I can look for answers to the big questions of Musical Rhetoric in Historical Practice, I first have to find out what those questions are. See Deep Thought. In the search for better questions, I’ve started by pondering why we, today’s Early Musicians, want this book. And why was it not written back then?  These deceptively simple questions are fundamental to the project, and need careful consideration.

 

John Bulwer scratches his head in Deep Thought (1644). Another historical gesture of intense cogitation is to chew on your finger (not the thumb, that means something different!).

 

For now, I decided just to have some more fun, by cooking-up an ‘original Preface’. Don’t panic, I have no intention of switching permanently to Ye Olde Worlde style. But I am thinking seriously about how a 17th-century writer would frame his address To the Reader, and taking the opportunity to practise a bit of Rhetoric myself. 

So how would you feel, if you discovered an exciting, hitherto unknown, historical source in the original? You might savour the promises offered by the Frontispiece, and get a first taste of food for thought from the formal Dedication and Preface, before settling down to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the detailed chapters of the principal text.  In that spirit, I invite you to consider this ‘modern editor’s introduction’ and the ‘original Preface’ below as hors d’oeuvres. Bon appetit! 

Adieu, good Monsieur Melancholy!  This cheerful chap might be good Signior Love. Certainly, he embodies the Sanguine Humour: warm red colours in his ruddy cheek and in the curtain behind him, abundant red-brown hair and bright eyes, a generous gesture, a confident smile, a jaunty feather in his cap, outward-directed energy, red wine and perhaps offering the hope of dance-music soon.

 

To the Reader

Transcriber’s note: We are fortunate that a period translation survives, apparently made from a holograph now lost. Sadly, the original date is indecipherable. Nevertheless, the handwritten annotations in faded red ink appear to be contemporary with the document itself.


 

PRATTICA DI RETORICA IN MUSICA

To the musicall Reader

Exordium

In the beginning was the WORD, & the Word was spoken in the ORATORY of the Holy Prophets, & the same was sung in the MUSIC of King David, whose Harp could soothe the wrath of Saul; and in the image of the Word was man created: wherefore my Heart is inditing of good Matter, whence I do make the Things of which I speak & sing;  the  Instrument of my Tongue being like unto the Pen of a ready Writer: for, as my Mind  was taught by the Orators of Ancient Greece & Rome, as my Ears delight in Dante, Shakespeare & other Poets of our times, and as the affections of my Soul are moved by the Music of Heaven, by the Harmony of Human Hearts, & by the Sound of earthly Instruments and Voices; so am I persuaded that such a Book as this was never seen, though greatly needed: and Necessity is the Mother of INVENTION.

Partitio

Thus may my Words, though few and unworthy, light the true Way, & illumine certain sure Principles, by which you may make practicall Use of the ancient Art of Rhetoric, even in the very  Science of Music: fitting the Pronouncing & the Action of your Delivery to the Matter of the Invention, as well as to the Arrangement of the Verses, & the Eloquence of the Music; and through the Mystery of Memory, from time to time both recalling & re-creating what hath been already made: according to the Aims & Canons of Rhetoric, the Virtues & Graces of Writing, the Devices & Figures of Speech, & the Art of Gesture: and such will be this Book’s ARRANGEMENT.

Confirmatio

The ancient Poet sang of Arms and of a Man, & this my Book will speak of Instruments as well as of Voices; for Rhetoric may be expressed with the sound of the Trumpet, with the Psaltery & Harp, with the Timbrel and Dance, with stringed Instruments and Organs, and upon loud Cymbals & high Cymbals, as well as by everything that hath Breath: for Love of the Word maketh sounding Brass to become the tongues of Men & Angels; and giveth even a tinkling Cymbal ELOQUENCE.

Confutatio

And let none say that Rhetoric & Rhythm are not Brethren, nor that they cannot dwell together in Unity; for the Master cannot teach, who comes not betimes to School; the very  Whirlwind of Passion cannot move, if the Actor misseth his Entrance; the Dancers cannot delight, who reel to & fro, and stagger like a drunken man: for the Eloquent Orator is like unto a Knight on Horseback, whose one Hand must hold the Reins of Rhythm, that the Steps and Pace be in good Measure; whilst the other Hand doth strike with the Sword of Rhetorick, that toucheth even unto the Heart: and this in Music requireth great Skill, & diligent Study, whether the Song be pricked on Paper, or printed in the MEMORY.

Peroratio

The End of all this my RHETORICK being Practicall, let the attentive Reader also take Pains to practise the Examples that follow, pronouncing them in Action; that, by sowing the Seeds of Rhetorick in the fertile Ground of Music, ye may know the Fruit of good DELIVERY,

And live happily!

Dedicatory Poem

As in many such treatises, the following page contains a poem in support of the author’s work. The content of this sonnet strongly supports the indicated connection to Richard Barnfield, whose most famous work was attributed to Shakespeare in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), though it had previously appeared in Barnfield’s Poems in Divers Humours (1598). 

A SONNET

on

THE PRACTICE

OF RHETORIC IN MUSIC

By a Friend of Mr Richard Barnfield

 

If MUSIC & sweet POETRY agree,
As they must needs, the Sister & the Brother.
Then let this Book create twixt me and Thee
Accord, pronouncing one alike the other.

Dowland to us is dear, whose heavenly Touch
Upon the Lute doth ravish human Sense;
Shakespeare strikes Hearts, for Plays of Words are such,
As playing Instruments need no defence.

We practise the high Art of charming Sound
That Phoebus’ Lute, the Queen of Musick, makes,
Yet Listeners in deep Delight are chiefly drowned
Whenas our Musick moveth Passions for their sake.

Guard Harmony & Verse, mark the Words well,
That RHYTHM & RHETORIC as one may dwell.

 

 

                                       

 

 

 

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

Giovanni Battista Doni (1593-1647), grand theoretician of Baroque Opera, loves Idiots – or so he says. And with a little digging, we can find out which particular Idiots he was referring to, and which Opera. So no-one need be offended by the title of this post.  But do be warned: the word Doni says we should not misuse is R*c*t*t*v*.

Recitative – NOT!

The word Recitative is problematic for today’s performers of early 17th-century music-drama, the ‘first operas’. Historically, it was not the preferred term. Nowadays, it evokes all kinds of unexamined assumptions, in particular the 20th-century imposition of free rhythm, instead of period Tactus.  See Frescobaldi for subtle details of the application of Tactus to ‘modern madrigals’ and other genres of ‘difficult’ music.

The period meaning of recitare is ‘to act’, and the anonymous author of Il Corago – The Opera Director – (c1630) discusses three genres of theatrical shows – rappresentationi: spoken plays, music-drama and silent pantomime, which in seicento practice all consist of ‘acting’ recitare. More on Il Corago here. The approach of Il Corago is highly pragmatic: he describes the meaning of the word in common parlance, and links that meaning to three categories of drama in current theatrical usage. Silent pantomime is rather out of fashion in Italian theatre, but dumbshows are a significant feature of English Elizabethan drama, e.g. the play within the play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In Doni’s Annotationi (1640) here, ‘Annotations’ to his Compendio del Trattato de’ generi e de’ modi della Musica (1635) here, there is a highly significant discussion [page 60-62] of different types of dramatic monody, sub-categories of what we nowadays call Recitative.

Doni addresses here ‘the musical style called recitativo‘, i,e. dramatic monody.  He too recognises that in normal usage the word recitare means ‘to act’, to ‘present a theatrical show’ rappresentare , even though – as a theorist – he would have liked to restrict the word to declamation of the text, as opposed to physical acting and embodiment of the role. Doni’s approach is that of a critical theorist and utopian: he rails against common parlance. tries to impose a ‘better’ terminology on current usage, and attempts to reassign the offending word to an idealised musical genre that is more-or-less a figment of his imagination.

At this point, the attentive reader might accuse me of being as impractical as Doni himself, as I rail in vain against modern misuse of the word Recitative. That would be a fair point, touché! But my practical purpose is not to stop today’s musicians using the word, since it is the obvious cognate of the seicento term recitativo. Rather, I hope to raise awareness that a 20th-century understanding of the English word ‘Recitative’ does not map onto the 17th-century understanding of the Italian word recitativo, and that this term was already problematic in Monteverdi’s time. Just as we need to add what Americans call “scare-quotes” around the word “Opera” in this period – Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione and Monteverdi’s favola in musica were not designated ‘opera’ and do not correspond to a later understanding of that term – so also for the word “Recitative”.

The take-home message is that the word “Recitative” is highly problematic, and should not be applied thoughtlessly. It’s Recitative, but not as we know it!

 

 

Doni & the first “operas”

Doni’s examples look back to the earliest surviving secular ‘opera’, Euridice. Ottavio Rinuccini’s verse-drama was staged – rappresentata – in 1600 in a musical setting by Jacopo Peri, with a few numbers contributed by his arch-rival Giulio Caccini. Caccini hastily set the rest of the libretto and rushed his composition into print in 1601, a few weeks before the publication of Peri’s version (now updated with his own settings replacing Caccini’s work). However, Caccini’s music-drama was not performed until 1602, and is usually considered to have been overshadowed by the prior success of Peri’s composition. More on Peri here.

Meanwhile, Cavalieri’s religious music-drama, Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) was performed and published even earlier, more on Cavalieri here.

In this post, I consider Doni’s remarks in the light of both settings of Euridice, and I add some comments of my own, related to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1610), see The Orfeo Page.

In what follows, the translation of Doni’s remarks is in black, with my commentary in blue.

 

Songs for a single voice

ALK: On page 100 of the Compendio, Doni ends his criticism of Diminutione ne’ Contrapunti – singing divisions (improvised, ornamental passage-work) in polyphonic compositions – by blaming wayward singers of Church Music, since (in his opinion) the practice came later to Madrigals and other vernacular poetry.

GBD: In all this, I like to call it the Madrigalian style; because it is especially significant in Madrigals: under this name is included similarly musical settings of Sonnets, Canzonas, Masquerades etc; and perhaps also Villanelle [rustic Peasant Songs] even though they are closer to the simplicity of what are properly called Arias or Canzonets, and to the Ballate [Ballads] and Canzoni a ballo [Dance-Songs] that the Ancients called Hyporchemata

Then, very different and almost contrary to this is the Song for a single voice accompanied by the sound of some instrument; brought back, one might say, from death to life in this century especially by the work of Giulio Caccini, nicknamed Il Romano; but with the guidance and direction of those virtuosi  (noble amateurs) Florentine Academicians; as I have discussed at greater length in the Trattato della Musica Scenica [Treatise on Stage Music here] and he himself admits.

And although there has always been a practice of some kind of Melody for a single Voice with the accompaniment of instruments; there should not be included in this category those vulgar Tunes – Cantilene – which almost without any art or grace were formerly sung by simple persons and idiots, and by blind men, and even today are heard cheaply in every country.

The improvement that Music has made in this sort of Melody is most notable; because apart from the refinement of Composition (in which by the example of Caccini it has acheived more than ever before), there have been musical settings – modulate – of Dramatic Actions and unstaged Dialogues; which give great delight in the style called Dramatic [Recitativo]

ALK:  Doni’s remarks in the Annotationi are a commentary on this ‘style called Dramatic’, and I translate them below. But first here is the conclusion of the principal text from the Compendio.

GBD:  … and the quality of expression – a very important part of Musica operativa [practical music-making, or music with a practical function; this is too early for any reference to ‘opera’ as a musical genre] – has been greatly refined and the Decorum [a Rhetorical term – how the music fits with the text] increased by the drying-up of many of those [ornamented] Repeats; and the ornamentations of this Singing, which are accenti, passaggi, trilli, gorgheggiamenti etc, have been perfected, first by the effort of the same Caccini and then by the experience and good dispositione [technique, especially in singing fast ornamentation] of other singers, especially of this city [Rome] and in particular Giuseppe Cenci, nicknamed Giuseppino.

ALK: ‘Little Joe’ Cenci was a composer of artistic monodies and scandalous popular songs admitted into the Papal choir as a tenor in 1598 and praised alongside Caccini also by aristocratic art-collector and intellectual, Vincenzo Giustiani, for his contributions to ‘Recitative’.

Doni list combines two different classes of ornamentation associated with two distinct styles of solo singing. Accenti & trilli are so-called vocal Effects – Effetti – added especially at cadences to express and induce emotions – Affetti – and associated with expressive, dramatic monody (what we might today call “Recitative”). Passaggi & gorgheggiamenti are fast passage-work, divisions within the main body of the phrase, intended to charm the ear and associated with song-like melodies (what we might call “Arias”). Part of Doni’s purpose in the Annotation that follows is to distinguish more precisely between these different types of solo singing, within the broad category of Dramatic Music. See also Ornamenting Monteverdi: Add, alter or Divide?  

 

 

In the style called Dramatic…

[Annotationi pages 60-62]

GBD: There is a great diversity of Melodies, which I’ve discussed elsewhere [in the Compendio]However, out of love for the idiots here I want to declare in more detail what the Dramatic style really is.

ALK: Doni’s “idiots” are those ‘simple persons’ mentioned in the Compendio, singers of cheap, vulgar tunes.  This affectionate joke points out the contrast: here, Doni is making subtle intellectual distinctions within the high-art genre of Dramatic music for a single voice. His first categorisation, made explicit below, is to exclude song-like – canzonesco – styles. So he is not discussing diegetic songs (when a character sings a song ‘realistically’ within the staged story), nor what we might nowadays call ‘Arias’. And one attribute of modern Opera can perhaps be traced all the way back to the first fully-sung dramas in the early seicento: from the outset this genre was regarded as the highest form of music-theatre, satisfying not only the eye and ear with its sights and sounds, but also the mind and soul by its intellectual profundity and emotional power. In this, the first ‘operas’ sought to acheive all three aims of Rhetoric – docere, delectare, movere – to teach, to delight, and to move the passions. 

GBD: It’s commonly believed that any music is in this style, if it is composed for a single voice. But in truth it’s not like this, because  – leaving aside the inflections of ecclesiastical plain-chant, which is sung by a solo voice and nevertheless is not categorised as Dramatic – even more artistically complex music, including theatrical music, is of various types.

ALK: Nevertheless, some listeners to Peri’s (1600) Euridice compared the sound of the new style of dramatic monody to the chanting of the Passion-story in church during Holy Week. That comment is usually taken as negative, but it shows an attempt to place a genuinely new practice within a familiar context of existing sound-worlds and emotional experiences. It also suggests that the accompanying instruments might have been quieter, in relation to the voice, than we are accustomed to today.

GBD: Some people assign two types:  the Narrative style narrativo,  which others call Story-Telling raccontativo, and the Expressive style espressivo, which others call Theatrical rappresentativo. But I add as a third type, that which is more strictly called Dramatic recitativo, declaring that there are three styles of Monody in use onstage today (from which I exclude Choral and Song styles).

Narrative

First, the Narrative mentioned above, which is named thus for being used in Narrations and long re-telling of messages and suchlike. This is easily distinguished from the others by its restricting itself to a single note (the Greeks call it monotone), and almost always that of the fundamental tone, with fast pacing tempi veloci [short note values] similar to the pacing of speech. For example where in Euridice the death of Euridice is told.

 

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

 

ALK: Doni gives only the text, no music, for this example. And as an enthusiastic admiror of Peri’s compositions, at first I blithely assumed that Doni was referring to this setting. But in the linked passage from the Compendio (above), Doni singles out Giulio Caccini for special praise as composer, singer and reformer of ornamentation, whereas Peri is not mentioned at all. So I also checked each example in Caccini’s setting. In this case, Peri’s version corresponds to Doni’s description of the Narrative style on a monotone, but Caccini’s does not.

 

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

Dramatic

GBD: The second style is the specially Dramatic recitativo, called this because it is particularly suitable for someone who acts/declaims recita [the common meaning is ‘acts’, even though Doni would prefer it to mean ‘declaims a text’] with music, as the Rhapsodes did in ancient times.  For presenting a show onstage rappresentare in scena people incorrectly say ‘acting’ recitare, [but] this [representing] is rather an imitation or embodiment atteggiare, which in Latin is called agere [acting].

ALK: The fifth Canon of Rhetoric, which we would nowadays call Performance, combines Pronuntatio (Delivery of the text) with Actio (Action, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, changes of posture etc). In addition, early 17th-century theatre was concerned with a new approach to Personation (the Embodiment of a character-role). These three elements – delivery of the text, physical action, portrayal of a role – are all contained within our modern concept of ‘acting’ and also within early 17th-century usage of the word recitare (as Il Corago confirms). However, Doni – grumpy theorist that he was – finds this ‘incorrect’, and he tries to draw a theoretical distinction between recitare as rhapsodic delivery of the text in the style of the ancient Greeks, and rappresentare as stage-acting.  Here we see clearly the contrast in approach between Doni and Il Corago, commented on by Fabbri & Pompilio (editors of Il Corago in 1983):  Doni theorises and speculates about the ancient Greeks, Il Corago tells it like it is in seicento Italy.  But, in support of Doni’s academic precision, 17th-century title pages show that recitativo is rarely mentioned in the context of the ‘first operas’, rappresentatione is the preferred term. See Sternfeld A note on ‘stile recitativo’ here [paywall, unless you have institutional access]

In the Trattato della musica scenica Doni himself uses the word recitare in its usual meaning of ‘to act’ or to ‘declaim in speech’ (so not in the idealised way he calls for in the Annotationi, which would be ‘to act/declaim poetry as chamber-music’). At the end of Chapter IV, discussing Seneca’s Medea: “che si recitassero senza canto’ [that they acted/declaimed, without singing]. At the end of Chapter V, he argues that long narrations of messengers, descriptions of places etc were all spoken in Classical Antiquity: “it would not been elegant if some of these speeches were sung – si cantassero – whilst others were declaimed in speech – si recitassero. In Chapter VI, he again opposes recitata and cantata, writing that perfection can be found in Rappresentationi spirituale (dramas on sacred subjects: Cavalieri’s pioneering Anima & Corpo would be an example, and Doni’s own example is Landi’s Il Sant’ Alessio) in two ways: ‘if they are recitata (acted/declaimed) by the most experienced Actors, full of elegance and lightness in their gestures and carriage of the body… or when they are canata (sung) with sweet and appropriate melody’. Note in this last example that ‘gestures and carriage of the body’ are what ‘experienced Actors’ bring to recitare – declamation is only one part of acting, and the word recitare also includes those elements of embodiment. 


In short, recitare means ‘to act’, with hand-gestures and body-movement. This may include declamation of a text (spoken or sung). Recitare can be used to mean ‘spoken acting’, as opposed to cantare (singing). Doni would like to re-define it to mean ‘singing Rhapsodic poetry as chamber-music’, but this meaning is not employed in the real world, not even by Doni himself! All of this is very far from the modern English word Recitative. So we must not translate (even mentally) recitaremusica recitativa etc as ‘singing Recitative, or Recitative music’ etc , in the familiar way. We can better appreciate the period meaning of these terms from Doni’s alternative phrase (beginning of Chapter V of Musica Scenica):

canto scenico –  ‘stage singing’. 

 

All this matters, because we assume that we know how to do Recitative. But the music of Cavalieri, Peri, Caccini and Monteverdi is not Recitative, not as we know it…

 

GBD: The quality of its melody is midway between the Narrative and the Expressive, because it is more tuneful arioso [aria in this period also suggests rhythmic patterning, dance-metres etc] than the other two, and and has less pathos than the latter. There is very often heard in it certain desinenze [designs, melodic figures] which serve as clichés for composers and generate a certain tedium for listeners, for example:


ALK: I searched in vain for this exact melody in Peri’s and Caccini’s settings of Euridice. However, Doni is not wrong, there are many, many figures at the beginning of phrases that sound just like this in Peri. It is indeed a recognisable phrase-opening cliché, in the easy-flowing pastoral dialogues that  Peri contrasts against extended narrations and passionate speeches, fitting very well with Doni’s three categories. In particular, it is a very close match to the first notes of Peri’s Act I, and this might well be what Doni was remembering.

 

Euridice Act I incipit, in Peri’s setting

 

I did not find Doni’s cliché so frequently in Caccini’s version. But the incipit of his Act I is strikingly similar to Peri’s (just one more note differing from Doni), although the two settings diverge markedly immediately after this first phrase.

 

Euridice Act I incipit, in Caccini’s setting

 

I speculate that Peri’s first phrase might have made so strong an impression that both Caccini and Doni cited it with only minor mis-rememberings. If so, it would seem that both Caccini and Doni were remembering something heard, rather than consulting a score, since the small differences (especially in Doni) do not look like copyist’s or printer’s errors. One could even imagine that Caccini thought the phrase to have been notated as he prints it, since Peri’s unexpected (and beautiful) lower note on the word crin has the character of a singer’s improvised accento – an ornament that creates an emotional accent by descending in order to ascend afterwards (or vice versa). 

For comparison, here is the notated accento in Monteverdi’s La Musica Prologue to Orfeo. At the words dolci accenti (sweet accents) the singer first ascends in order then to descend onto an expressive Bb on the good syllable.

 

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

 

In Orfeo, Monteverdi avoids Doni’s melodic/rhythmic cliché, even though many phrases, including the beginning of the Prologue Del mio permesso amato and the opening of Act I In queto lieto e fortunato giorno, start with three upbeats. The closest he comes to it is in Orfeo’s first song (a diegetic song, but not an aria in 17th-century terms):

 

and twice in the following phrase, but with only two upbeats:

or in the Pastore’s invitation to the Temple Ma s’il nostro gioir del ciel deriva, with three upbeats and altered rhythm:

 

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

For Doni, the risk of tedium comes from the overuse of similar melodic figures at the beginning of phrases. But modern-day commentators and performers are more anxious about the cadences in long notes at the end of each phrase in this style. I first encountered Doni’s commentary in lecture notes handed out at Yale by eminent musicologist, the late Claude Palisca, Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor Emeritus of Music at Yale University and an internationally recognized authority on early music, especially opera of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Palisca translates desinenze as ‘endings’, but even a cursory glance at Doni’s example reveals it to be an incipit, not a cadence.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to the memory of this revered musicologist. But the mistranslation would seem to be a Freudian slip, revealing hidden assumptions of which researchers themselves cannot be consciously aware. The notion that cadences are a ‘problem’ is a firmly embedded,  deeply hidden – and hitherto unexamined – assumption in 20th-century musicology, that still influences modern-day performances. But Doni is not at all concerned with cadences: his focus is on incipits. This startling difference reinforces my impression that we have fundamentally misunderstood something in our treatment of cadences. See Ornamenting Monteverdi.  

GBD: The principal use of this style is for Prologues. There it really is more tolerable than elsewhere, even though its true place is in the pulpit and not onstage. But it is optimally suited to Rhapsodies and similar recitations recitationi with song of Heroic Poems, or structured poems of a certain type, such as the Heroics of Antiquity, and modern blank verse verso sciolto [Hendecasyllables], or verses of various types like the Idylls, or set out in stanzas like ottava rima and extended songs. And so it seems to me that we could include in this type also many of the tunes arie for ottava rima that are sung throughout Italy.

ALK: Peri’s Preface to Euridice here also makes the connection between his ‘new manner of singing for music onstage’ [he does not use the word recitativo] which is midway between speech and song, and Hendecasyllables (the Italian equivalent of Shakespeare’s blank verse), which are midway between prose and poetry. The connection between the new mondoy and improvising street-singers, cantastorie, singing ballads of heroes and battles to reciting formulae for ottava rima was extensively discussed in the late 20th-century writings of James Haar and Nino Pirotta. It’s difficult to imagine how this musical style might be used literally from the preacher’s pulpit, but in sacred music we can recognise it in the motets of Monteverdi’s (1610) Vespers – Nigra sum, Audi coelum etc. Doni later describes his ideal of Rhapsodic singing, as chamber-music accompanied by the harp.

These various contexts all address what Peri calls ‘sad or serious matters’, in which the slow-moving bass does not force the singer to ‘dance’. Even the singers of improvised arie and street cantastorie are far from the realm of Doni’s villanelle-singing Idiots. 

GBD: As an example of this style one could mention the Prologue to Euridice.

The Prologue to Euridice in Peri’s setting.

 

The Prologue to Euridice in Caccini’s setting

 

ALK: The two settings are very similar in pitch contours of the voice-part and of the bass-melody for the ritornello. But Peri has the more interesting rhythms and harmonies, and to my ears (though I admit to a pro-Peri bias) Caccini’s version seems to be a pale imitation of Peri’s original. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that Peri was the champion of sparsely ornamented expressivity, whereas Caccini’s performance would certainly have been heightened by the elaborate ornamentation for which he was renowned.

Monteverdi’s La Musica Prologue is written out with careful attention to the words and emotional contrasts of each strophe, but its basic structure is clearly a strophic aria, variations on a ground bass. We might imagine that Peri’s and Caccini’s Prologues would have been performed with some improvised variation of the melody, possibly also of the bass, from one strophe to another: Monteverdi’s notated variations might even be a model for bold improvisation.

Expressive

GBD: The third type is what we call Expressive, which is the only one truly appropriate and suitable for the stage, for in our opinion [Doni uses the ‘royal we’] the other two types should stay away. The first [Narrative] is too cloying, and should be reduced to simple speech. And the second has too much sing-song cantilena, and would be better suited to poems of a mixed genre. 

So, in the Expressive we proffess to express well the emotions affetti and – in some places – the natural accents of emotional speech parlare patetico.  

ALK: This matches Peri’s analysis, in which the various emotions shape the bass and harmonies, whereas the pitch-contours of the voice-line follow the rise and fall of spoken declamation in the theatre. Il Corago also insists that dramatic monody should imitate the delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre.

GBD: Both these elements have very great force upon the human spirits animi humani [animo refers to the mind-body communication of affetti,  i.e. the pyschological and physiological aspects of emotion]. It is evident that when this is combined with lively stage-action vivace attione and a poetic text parlare appropriate proportionato to the subject, it marvellously induces commove laughter, tears, anger etc.

ALK: In spite of Doni’s enthusiasm for Caccini’s contributions to composition, singing and the reform of ornamentation, it seems that his memories of Euridice are of Peri’s setting. Certainly Peri’s version better matches the arguments Doni wishes to advance by his examples. And perhaps Peri’s ideals of dramatic expression, rather than Caccini’s song-like ear-tickling, fits better with Doni’s intellectual concept of baroque opera as carrying forward the theatrical power of Classical Antiquity.

GBD: Here there is the opportunity for all those contrasts of Tone, Genre and Rhythm [mode and hexachord – soft or hard; diatonic/chromatic; syllabic speed, word-accents on/off Tactus etc] which are the the greatest riches and impressive display of music. As an example, one could mention the Lamento d’Arianna, still today admired by everyone, which is the most beautiful composition which has ever been seen amongst dramatic and theatrical music.

ALK: One of the most attractive features of Orfeo is Monteverdi’s rich store of varied melodic and rhythmic figures for the ‘middle ground’ of dramatic monody that Doni identifies as neither Narrative nor passionately Expressive: the Prologue of La Musica, the dialogues of Shepherds, dance-songs in Act II, Speranza’s description of the gateway to Hell, Caronte’s aria, Prosperina’s persuasion, Plutone’s pronouncements, and  Orfeo’s dialogue with Apollo. But many of these examples have at least some moments that could be categorised as Expressive – Monteverdi takes the liberty to move freely between one type and another, setting Striggio’s text ‘verse by verse, even word by word’ [as Monteverdi writes in his letters, and we read also in the Il Corago MS] 

As well as all this delightful monody, there are Orfeo’s set-piece arias – the dance-song Vi ricorda just before the Messaggiera’s entrance with the news of Euridice’s death, Possente Spirto with its elaborate passaggi and Qual honor over a walking bass; the song-like Ecco pur, ch’a voi ritorno [the original notation implies a slow tempo around minim = 60, not a fast Proportion] and the diegetic song Rosa del Ciel in the most artful style of monody; as well as all the charming ensemble-music.

The Messaggiera’s narration perfectly fits Doni’s category of Narrative, and there are of course and many moment of heightened passion and exquisite composition in the style Doni distinguishes as Expressive.

Two of these passionate moments, Dove, ah dove te’n vai and Ahi, sventurato amante are often performed nowadays as fast, free declamation, but are notated in longer note-values, quavers rather than semiquavers for passing syllables (only the first words sventurate amante are fast). Performed in Tactus rather than rattled through freely, these speeches become more song-like in their expressivity, and would seem to satisfy the requirement (remarked on by many modern-day commentators as ‘unfulfilled’) for Orfeo to sing songs of lamenting when he descends to Hell, as we read in the classical myth and hear reported in Proserpina’s speech.

 

Conclusion (ALK)

If we wish to avoid falling into Doni’s category of Idiots, we must pay careful attention to the genre distinctions he defines so precisely. Within all the rich variety of theatrical solo singing in the “first  Operas” there are songs, arias, song-like moments, and three different types of  dramatic monody. We miss vital contrasts if we simply label all of this ‘Recitative’ and disregard the composers’ detailed notation of Tactus and word-rhythms. We lose contact with text and changing emotions if we sing everything too much. We lose the ebb and flow of contrasting passions if we apply emotionality indiscriminately throughout. We remove a special dimension of theatricality if we try too hard to embody every moment, every character with the full power of Personation: early music-drama was fluid enough to switch seamlessly between action, narration and almost naively-staged music-making (often derided by today’s opera directors as ‘just a concert’).

Doni’s intellectual details might seem to be the dryest of academic nit-picking, but in seicento music-theatre, they can become the key to powerful emotions and dramatic contrasts.

 

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

How did Baroque ‘opera’ develop in the first decade of the 1600s?

And how have our modern-day performances of early music-drama advanced in a half-century of Historically Informed Performances?

This post is based on an interview for Radio Orpheus (Moscow)  in which the presenter, Russian poet, novelist and dramaturg, Alexey Parin asked me to compare and contrast two of the earliest surviving baroque operas: Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo (1600) and Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). Both operas can be seen in regular repertoire at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, in award-winning productions by Georgy Isaakyan, and in collaboration with OPERA OMNIA, the Academy for Early Opera & Dance.. My thanks to Alexey for his profound enthusiasm for opera, for his translation of the libretto of Anima & Corpo, and for his provocative questions in this interview.

 

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

 

I think the first thing that strikes us, looking at the scores and listening to the music, is the similarity between the two works. Both composers are starting from the text, as if they were setting a spoken play to music.

But Monteverdi’s subject gives him the possibility for a lot more music, arising ‘realistically’ out of the drama. Since the protaganist is Orpheus, the great musician, the famous singer, of course we want to hear him sing and make music. And so he sings a magnificent Aria in Hell, accompanied by all the latest instruments of the early 17th-century Italian baroque. These are actually the same instruments that we hear in Cavalieri – violins, cornetti and the double-harp – but what’s now very different, is that with the excuse of Orpheus, Monteverdi writes virtuosi solos for these instruments. So although we have similar instruments, the sound of Monteverdi’s music begins to change.

Also in the earlier scenes, we are in pastoral Arcadia, and the shepherds of Arcadia all sing. They invite the Muses to descend from Parnassus to play instruments. So once again, Monteverdi has the chance to bring in a lot more ensemble music, proceeding ‘realistically’ from the mythological story.

Comparing the libretti

Another difference between the two works comes also from the text. With Orfeo, we are following one protagonist, we could almost say that the other characters are two-dimensional, only Orfeo is truly ‘there’. So while earlier operas exist on the same story, called Euridice, this drama is really the story of Orpheus. Eurydice has only two lines in the whole opera, but nevertheless what she says is extremely important, and perhaps her lines are the clue for understanding the whole opera. More about Eurydice here.

At the beginning when Orpheus sings beautifully of all his love for Euridice, her reply is that she cannot speak, and we should just ask Love, in order to know her feelings. And so we realise that Orpheus is perhaps speaking too much.

And this suspicion is reinfored with Eurydice’s second speech at the crucial moment in the drama, when Orpheus fatally turns to look at her. She says that the sight of him is too sweet, but also too bitter, and for the sake of too much love, he is going to lose her. And so in this very short speech, the word troppo, too much, comes three times. The poet is making it very clear for us here: this is the message. Orpheus was ‘too much’: too happy, too sad, too much love, too excessive in every way.

And so the message of the opera is then to look for the golden mean, for the perfect balance. But nevertheless, I think that Striggio as librettist and Monteverdi as composer both know that the audience enjoy the excesses. More about the message of Orfeo here.

And this brings us right back to Cavalieri again, because in his Preface, Emilio de’ Cavalieri says that the emotions in this kind of music come from rapid contrasts of opposites. More about Cavalieri’s Preface here.

Comparing the scores

It’s important to realise that a score in the early 17th-century had a very different purpose. It was not there for musicians like me to create a performance four hundred years later. More than anything, it was a souvenir for the public who had been to the performance and wanted to study the work further.

This reminds us how new this style of music-drama was. Cavalieri’s religious music-drama was so different from what had gone before, that he wanted to give his audience a chance to look at it again.

Nowadays, if we go to an opera we like, we might listen to the CD afterwards, as a nice memory of the real theatrical experience. So in Cavalieri’s score there is a lot of detail to help the reader remember the whole experience. He prints the music and the libretto and cross-references one to the other with numbers, number 1 in the music corresponds to number 1 in the libretto.

But, from the performers point of view, other information is missing. Many musical details are not specified in the score, and must be decided by the performers. In particular, the score provides no information about the orchestration of the instrumental parts, which instruments should play where.

In contrast, Monteverdi working at the Ducal court, wants to show off not only the opera, but also the court orchestra. So in his score, which is also a kind of souvenir-edition, he includes not only details of the drama but also a lot of information about the instruments. Especially at very strong dramatic moments…

This focus on moments of high drama shows us the purpose of publication. It’s not a score for musicians to work from. It’s to help audience members remember the show they saw. And so the score makes a kind of ‘close-up shot’ of the orchestra when it comes to the most dramatic moments. This gives us today, as musicians working with this historical material, vital information.

From the score, we know that in the original production of Orfeo, the instrumentalists appeared in different positions around the stage. We know that sometimes the instruments were part of the stage action. In a new piece of research, part of my investigation reveals that in one particular scene, when the Muses appear and the character La Ninfa says “you Muses have come with your instruments, so we’ll sing and you play, and everyone’s happy”, the score describes precisely which instruments play, and there are 10 of them – Apollo and the 9 Muses. So here the instruments are not just the accompaniment, they are part of the stage picture, and essential to the poetic concept.

 

Combining the information

But these differing levels of information in the two scores make today’s artistic process different for historically informed performers. Often Monteverdi writes details about the instrumentation that we don’t know from Cavalieri. For example, at the beginning of Act III, Monteverdi is extremely clear: the scene changes to Hell, the violins, the theorbos, the harp and the beautiful organs stop playing, and instead we have the cornetti, trombones and the regal. And so we can understand the two worlds, Hell and Arcadia, in Monteverdi’s opera. And this gives us a suggestion for the two worlds of Cavalieri’s opera, again Hell, and (now) Heaven. So from the point of view of a researcher and music director working with the score, it’s good to combine the information from both scores, to help us understand the cultural context of the period.

We don’t know if the Maenad ending was ever composed or not, but for sure it’s now lost. There’s a hint of  how the lost music might have been, in the Moresca that survives as the finale of the happy ending with Apollo. This Moresca starts in the score without time signature – there is no 3/2. This is very strange, and perhaps it’s because this Moresca was the continuation of something else, and that something else, whatever it was,is now lost. A Moresca, which is a danced battle, would also be an appropriate finale after the Bacchic ending with the Maenads. On the other hand, we should remember that often they would put a dance at the end that had no relation to the rest of the drama. After one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the actors – including characters who had died – would all stand up and dance a jig. Cavalieri says that you can put whatever dance at the end of a show, but then what he actually writes is the perfect dance finale, actually, yes, very connected to the show. More about dancing in Orfeo and Anima & Corpo here.

Personally, I’m fascinated by this question of the end of Orfeo. In another production, in Helsinki, we showed both endings (with my reconstruction of the Maenad scene from the 1607 libretto), and I’m intrigued by the idea of letting the audience vote: should the final triumph be for Apollo, or for Bacchus?

Here in Moscow, in this production, in Georgy Isaakyan’s particular style, it seems to me that he doesn’t tell the audience what happens, he encourages them to ask themselves: does Orpheus live or die?

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

As we work on Orfeo at OPERA OMNIA, we now have the advantage of 7 years of work together in Theatre Sats on the baroque style of Cavalieri. More about how to study early operatic roles here. No doubt 17th-century musicians also developed their ideas in the 7 years between Anima & Corpo and Orfeo. And I think it’s also fair to say that Monteverdi is musically more difficult than Cavalieri. In our production of Orfeo, we have the opportunity to sing in the Italian language, which makes some things easier for the music, but challenges the actors to make that direct contact with the audience that we have when we sing Anima & Corpo in Russian. More about OPERA OMNIA here,

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the musical approach for the Orfeo production is that we have effectively two musical directors, in the same way that Monteverdi effectively had  two orchestras: the orchestra of the violins and wind instruments who play written parts; and the orchestra of the continuo who improvise their parts. And just as Georgy Isaakyan’s staging is an encounter between Monteverdi’s 17th-century story, and Russia of the 1970s and 1980s; so there is a similar contrast within the musical realisation. Amongst the continuo and soloists, we share the latest ideas of Monteverdi’s baroque style; whilst in the orchestra and chorus the audience are presented with the Russian way to play baroque from the 1970s.

 

 

This juxtaposition of fundamentally differing approaches to early opera within one production has led to me reflect on how Historically Performed Performance of Monteverdi has changed in my own lifetime. In the table below, I attempt to identify some key topics and trail-blazing pioneers associated with significant re-discoveries. Any serious early opera production should at least consider these topics. Nevertheless, even decades later, some findings are still considered too “radical”, whilst others are routinely ignored, even by ‘historically informed’ ensembles.

 

How HIP is your Monteverdi?

 

  • Chitarrone  1960s Robert Spencer

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Violini alla francese  ?
  • 5 trumpets  ?

Of course, this list reflects my own personal experiences and fortunate encounters with individual experts. So I look forward to your comments, corrections and additions. And most importantly, I look forward to new research findings in the 2020s, which will provide new impetus for re-thinking, re-imagining and re-working Monteverdi’s theatrical music.

 

The Young Person’s Guide to Early Opera – What are the Top Ten 17th-century operas?

The Play of Music & Time

I’m working on a new project, inspired by Peter & the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, to introduce young audiences to Early Opera. The working title is The Play of Music & Time. So in the search for expert opinions and enthusiastic recommendations, I posted a question on Facebook, which was shared widely in Baroque and Operatic chat-groups.

WHAT ARE THE TOP TEN 17th-century OPERAS?

I received many replies, from performers, academics, baroque opera fans, CD-listeners, You-Tube viewers, audience members from staged productions, and (most importantly) some reports of the preferences of young persons aged 5 to 10.  Many agreed on the favourite works in this repertoire, and counting the votes was for me something like watching the Eurovision Song Contest (except with better music), as two front runners (one by Purcell, one by Monteverdi) took an initial sprint away from the peloton and then fought it out every inch of the way to the chequered flag (have I mixed enough metaphors here?)…

But there were also many lesser-known suggestions, including several works that I haven’t heard. So I now have a substantial reading/listening list to work through, as well as welcome reminders of some fine operas that had slipped my memory.

The aim of my project is both to introduce the accepted canon of Early Operas to new listeners, and to expand the repertoire for those who already have knowledge and experience of 17th-century music-drama. So I’m very grateful to everyone who commented. Thanks to your expertise and enthusiasm, I now have a much wider knowledge-base from which to assess what is essential and what might be fascinating, but as yet little-known.

And as a thank you in return, I now present the results of this online survey, so that you can see how the votes came in.

And the winner is…

Methodology

The posted question was informal, designed to provoke enthusiastic answers. It is not a scientific survey, and should be read in the spirit of fun with which it was carried out. The sample group was self-selecting (those who chose to reply) from within an online community of over 15,000 FB readers (my own Friends and members of the Historical Performance Practice group were the two largest targets for the initial post).

Although I asked for a ‘top 10’, some responders gave fewer, or more than ten suggestions: I counted all these votes equally. For this reason, it isn’t possible to give a clear indication of the sample size, but over 50 operas are listed and some 140 votes were cast.

Some suggested “anything by such-and-such a composer”: for this response, I gave an extra vote to each work by that composer that was mentioned by another respondent.

Quite a few allowed their enthusiasm to carry them beyond the 17th-century: I allowed the first decade of the 18th century, and include here in this commentary Handel’s Acis & Galatea (1718), about which two respondents were very enthusiastic, as especially suitable for young audiences. Handel’s Alcina (1735) was also warmly supported. But I have not recorded the many 18th-century operas that were suggested by only one person: to do so would have been misleading.

I did not define ‘opera’ more specifically, and there was some discussion as to whether English Semi-Opera, Masques and Oratorios could be included. I accepted a vote for any kind of music-drama, and one might well consider that some famous works that do not fit neatly into the ‘opera’ category might have received more votes if my question had been worded more inclusively: Monteverdi Combattimento and Cavalieri Anima & Corpo come to mind.

I did not ask for specific arias.

One respondent argued that the 17th-century opera that was most famous in its own time was Cesti’s Il Pomo d’Oro (1668), a huge production that is little known today. But there are other candidates for that position, not least Monteverdi’s Arianna (1608).

Although some respondents strayed into the 1700s, no-one mentioned the most famous ‘opera’ prior to the 17th-century, the multi-composer spectacular Florentine Intermedi (1589), which is usually considered an essential element of what we now call The History of Opera.

Results

Arias

Although I did not ask for specific 17th-century arias, three music-drama excerpts aroused so much enthusiasm that respondents mentioned them anyway:

Pur ti miro  (Poppea ) – this is not the moment to discuss whether this is by Monteverdi or Cavalli.

Purcell Music for a While (1692, Oedipus) – which my respondent compared to a rock anthem!

Lamento d’Arianna (1608) – In 2017, I wrote what might be called ‘the fourth opera in the Monteverdi trilogy’, composing a setting of the complete 1608 libretto ‘in Claudio’s voice’, around the sole surviving fragment of the famous Lament. Read about Arianna a la recherche here.

Music Dramas

I present the list of works grouped by how many votes they received. Within each group, the ordering is chronological, from the earliest to the later. Some dates are disputed, this is not the place to argue about them!

In the best traditions of such ‘contests’,

I shall present the results in reverse order…

Your Top Ten 17th-century Operas

Many heartfelt thanks to all who took part!

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

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

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

What’s different now?

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

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

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

What was different in 1607?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

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

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

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

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE REPORT

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

ALK comments:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

iL Corago – The Baroque Opera Director

The essential guide to Early Opera

 

I’m honoured and delighted to have been invited by Elam Rotem, editor of EarlyMusicSources.com, to contribute to their PIE (Please In English) project a translation of a key text for singers, continuo-players, ensemble directors and Early Opera fans, the anonymous c1630 treatise, Il Corago.

My translation and commentary will be published by OPERA OMNIA, in various formats – as an e-book, budget price paper-back and high quality hard-back – and the translation alone will subsequently be made available online through EarlyMusicSources and IMSLP. You can pre-order the book here.

 

 

A Corago is what we might nowadays call a theatrical Producer or Artistic Director, responsible for every aspect of the production, but required to respect the text, the poet’s libretto (or in spoken theatre, the play-script). Under his direction, various maestri would direct music, dancing, sword-fights and military displays, whilst others would construct and decorate the scenery, make costumes etc.

 

 

The anonymous writer’s remarks show a wealth of experience of many different dramatic genres, with a special interest in what we would nowadays call ‘baroque opera’, the first fully-sung court music-dramas in the decades before the establishment of public opera in Venice: Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo, Peri’s and Caccini’s settings of Euridice, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Arianna, Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo etc.  Fabbri & Pompilio’s (1983) Italian edition of Il Corago is here.

 

Aimed at making the show varied, entertaining and emotionally moving, his practical advice can be immediately applied by today’s singers, continuo-players and musical directors.

 

 

Whilst the job-title Corago is perhaps unfamiliar yet easily understood, another key concept for baroque music seems familiar, but was disastrously  misunderstood in the 20th century. Il Corago radically revises our understanding of Recitative, and clarifies any doubts about continuo-playing and conducting in baroque music-theatre.

 

 

This translation and commentary is founded on period dictionaries (Italian and Italian-English), with references and comparisons to other early 17th-century treatises as well as to secondary literature on dramatic music and baroque theatre. As was the case for the original Corago-writer, my comments are informed by my personal and practical experience of continuo-playing, of stage & musical direction, of Corago-style and modern productions and by my academic research into the practical consequences of renaissance philosophy and historical science.

Please visit the iL Corago website to reserve your pre-order option for the pre-publication special offer.

 

 

Fake News? Early Opera, aka Seicento Dramatic Monody

Monteverdi would have preferred a modern concert grand piano to the continuo instruments of his own time.

FAKE NEWS??

Don’t believe what conductors tell you, don’t take on trust what your teacher says, don’t accept what I write in this blog:

READ THE SOURCES FOR YOURSELF!

This blog includes many links to original sources, and you can find many more at Early Music Sources .com

Meanwhile, one of the following twelve statements about early opera, i.e. seicento dramatic monody, might be true: but which one?

 

One of these statements might be true:

  1. Monteverdi would have preferred a modern concert grand piano to the continuo instruments of his own time.
  2. In early opera, conductors used their hands, not a modern baton.
  3. Singers should add ornamentation – gorgi and passaggi.
  4. Harpsichordists should create a decorative accompaniment from the written bass-line, with improvised ornamentation.
  5. Rhythm is not significant.
  6. Recitative imitates the natural speech-rhythms of Italian conversation.
  7. The harpsichordist should beat time in Tactus.
  8. The most important consideration is beautiful vocal sound.
  9. Rubato is the key to ‘moving the passions’.
  10. Caccini frequently recommends sprezzatura.
  11. Frescobaldi dismisses the concept of Tactus: in this kind of music you can change the tempo whenever you want.
  12. The audience’s passions are moved by making an emotion more and more intense.

While you are thinking, here’s a quick advert for a forthcoming publication:

 

And now, here’s the answer to the quiz:

The first statement might be true: unlikely, but we have no evidence either way.

Period sources contradict all the other statements.

 

FACTS CHECKED

Monteverdi would have preferred a modern concert grand piano to the continuo instruments of his own time?

Maybe! I consider it unlikely, but we don’t have any evidence either way, so it’s hardly worth arguing about.

 

In early opera, conductors used their hands, not a modern baton?

There was no conductor: you knew that already!

 

 

Singers should add ornamentation – gorgi and passaggi

No ornamentation in this style: Cavalieri, Il Corago, Monteverdi Combattimento etc

 

Harpsichordists should create a decorative accompaniment from the written bass-line, with improvised ornamentation?

 

Harpsichords should provide a fundamental accompaniment grave , continuo should not ornament in this style. – Agazzari, Cavalieri.

 

Rhythm is not significant?

“Music is text and rhythm”Caccini.

Recitative imitates the natural speech-rhythms of Italian conversation?

It imitates the stylised, rhetorical declamation of a great actor in the spoken theatre – Il Corago , Peri

 

The harpsichordist should beat time in Tactus?

The principal continuo-player can beat time to start ensemble music, but not in theatrical monody. – Il Corago.

 

The most important consideration is beautiful vocal sound?

“Sound last of all, and not the contrary” – Caccini

 

Rubato is the key to ‘moving the passions’?

Caccini writes many times that it’s crescendo/diminuendo  on a single note– exclamatione.

 

Caccini frequently recommends sprezzatura?

He mentions it twice, applies it only once; whereas  exclamatione is mentioned and applied many, many times.

 

Frescobaldi dismisses the concept of Tactus: in this kind of music you can change the tempo whenever you want?

He writes that toccatas and ‘modern madrigals’ are ‘facilitated by Tactus’, and prescribes  very specific circumstances under which the tempo can change.

The audience’s passions are moved by making an emotion more and more intense?

Not just one emotion, but by frequent changes between contrasting emotions. Cavalieri.

 

See also these links:

Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

How did it feel? A history of heaven, hearts & harps

The wedding dance: Monteverdi’s Lasciate i monti

Emotions in Early Opera

Lamento della ninfa

Re-making Arianna

Monteverdi Vespers

How to Act: preliminary exercises for Baroque Gesture

The Philosophy of La Musica

and many other articles in this blog.

Measuring a shepherdess’ heart-rate: Lamento della ninfa

Havendo considerato le nostre passioni, od’ affettioni, del animo…

Monteverdi begins the Preface to his Eighth Book, Madrigals of Love & War (1638), by considering Passions (or Affections) of the Spirit – in modern parlance, Emotions. And one of the most emotionally moving pieces in the collection is the Lamento della Ninfa, in which the Nymph’s Lament is framed and accompanied by male-voice trios, accompanied by continuo. This article examines Monteverdi’s performance instructions for the Lament, revewing the original printed parts with an updated understanding of the historical performance practice context.

 

Lamento della Ninfa BC

 

The original publication is in part-books, with the Preface printed in each book. The “framing” trios set the scene initially, and offer a commentary, in the manner of a Greek chorus, afterwards.

Non havea Febo ancora

“Phoebus [the sun] had not yet brought day to the world, when a young girl went out from her own dwelling. In her delicately pale face could be seen her sadness. Often there came bursting out a great sigh from her heart. Treading on flowers, she wandered here and there, crying for her lost love as she went.”

Si tra sdegnosi pianti

“Thus with angry cries she cast her voice to heaven. Like this, in the hearts of lovers, Amor [Cupid] mixes flames and ice.”

Amor, Amor dicea

This central section is the Lament itself, set for solo soprano over a four-note descending ground bass, with the accompanying trio both narrating  – “she said” “looking at heaven, her footsteps stopped” and commenting “poor girl”, “no, no!”, “so much ice cannot be suffered”.  Monteverdi distinguishes this section (but not the framing trios) as rappresentativo ‘in show style’ or ‘acted out’.

This distinction is anticipated on the title page, which promises:

Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo, che saranno per brevi episodi fra i canti senza gesto

“Warlike and amorous madrigals, with some small works in show style, which will make short episodes amidst the songs without action.”

Whilst singers would use at least some hand gestures in any performance context, madrigals were normally sung as chamber music, i.e. the (occasionally gesturing) performers did not attempt to embody a role, they were not ‘representing’ a character in a dramatic scene. In contrast, the ‘staged’ pieces, including the Combattimento di Tancredi & Clorinda also found in this book, were intended as a dramatic surprise during a courtly soiree of madrigals and instrumental music.  These elements of contrast, surprise and drama are missing when the Lamento is performed as a conventional concert-piece.

The distinctive nature of theatrical music calls for particular elements of historical performance practice, and Monteverdi provides specific information for the central, dramatised Amor section, distinct from the framing trios. In this article, that oft-quoted advice is re-assessed, considering other information from the part-books, and in the context of an improved understanding of Monteverdi’s assumptions about rhythm.

 

How to stage this song

 

The three parts that sing outside the cries of the Nymph are placed separately like this, because they sing in the time of the hand; the other three parts, which go in soft voice commiserating the Nymph are placed in score, in order to follow the crying of that girl, which is sung in the time of the affection of the spirit, and not in that of the hand.

 

Clearly, Monteverdi is putting into practice the consideration of the ‘passions of the spirit’, of emotions, mentioned in his Preface. But how are his instructions to be realised in performance? In the 20th century,  the answer seemed self-evident: this is ‘expressive’ music, and ‘expressive’ performance suggests rhythmic freedom, tempo rubato. In this view, the framing trios would be sung in strict time (tempo della mano) whilst the central Lamento would be sung in free rhythm (tempo del’affetto del animo) and not in strict time (non a quello della mano).  Performers found this rather counter-intuitive: triple metre and the regular bass of the central Lamento seemed more suited to structured rhythm, and 20th-century habits resisted strict time and a steady tempo for the framing trios.

Another 20th-century misunderstanding should be quickly mentioned: ‘the three parts’ which ‘are placed separately’ means that the three individual voice-parts and continuo accompaniment were placed in four different part-books, whereas the central Lament is printed in score. There is no suggestion that the three singers should be ‘placed separately’, i.e occupy another area of the stage, at some great distance from the solo Nymph!

As Monteverdi writes, the arrangement of the individual parts and score can be seen in the part-books: it is ‘like this’:

 

Non havea Febo ancora T1

Si tra sdegnosi pianti T1

The framing trios are separated into individual voice-parts, in three different part-books: Tenore Primo, Tenore Secondo, Basso Primo.

 

The three parts for the accompanying trio are in vocal score, in another part-book, Alto Primo. This score shows the continuo bass only at the beginning, otherwise STTB.

 

Lamento vocal score in A1

 

The Canto Primo part-book has the soprano solo, in short score, soprano & continuo bass. The trio parts are not included in this short score.

Lamento short score in C1

 

The Continuo part-book has the instructions, and the music is printed as promised: bass-line only (with very few figures) for the framing trios; a full score for the Lamento. This score has STTB & BC throughout (no figures). [See above]

If one wished to perform the piece from a set of part books, two or three continuo-players could read from the one book. The accompanying trio could all three read from the Alto Primo book. (The name Alto Primo does not imply that an alto voice-type is required: instrumental and vocal parts for particular pieces are routinely placed in whichever part-book has space, and is not otherwise in use). The framing trio would read from three individual books T1 T2 B1. And the soprano soloist would read from the Canto Primo book.

The arrangement of the material strongly suggests that there are six male singers, i.e. two trios: one trio for the framing sections, a different trio for the central Lament. True, it’s not impossible for the framing singers to put aside their individual part-books at the end of the intro, cluster around the score in the Alto Primo book for the Lament proper, and then pick up their individual books again for the coda. But there is additional evidence in the part-books supporting the six-men option. In the individual part-books for the framing trios, the central Lament is mentioned, with the indication tacet.

Amor – Tacet in B1

 

Similarly, before and after the vocal score, the framing trios are mentioned with the indication tacet. The index pages of the partbooks are consistent with this.

 

Tavola (index) in T1

 

And Monteverdi’s instructions specify ‘three parts’ and ‘the other three parts’. All of this is consistent with the six-men version, and inconsistent with a three-man performance.

It is interesting to consider whether the soprano and accompanying trio might have memorised their parts: this would be effective in the ‘staged’ section of the piece, and would remove some of the practical difficulties of three-man performance. But the markings of tacet remain a stumbling block: if the three men were supposed to switch part-books (at least in rehearsal), one would have hoped for an indication that this should be done, and of where to find the required score.

There is also the question of how much rehearsal time was available. Monteverdi’s letters include several pleas to try a new piece through at least once, before performance (even for very complex music): this does not give the impression that there would be sufficient rehearsal time to memorise parts without additional effort. A decade or so earlier, a ‘little priest’, the male soprano hired to act the role of Euridice in Orfeo (1607) had great difficulty learning ‘so many notes’: as an experienced singer of religious polyphony, his difficulty was not ‘note-learning’ per se, but memorisation. However, the skills of court chamber-music singers might have changed with the introduction of professional singing-actors into ‘baroque opera’, beginning with La Florinda’s triumph in Arianna (1608).

Hand & Heart

Act with the hand, act with the heart!

The interplay between music, gesture and emotions is frequently mentioned in period discussions of music-drama, i.e. what we nowadays call ‘early opera’. Although Monteverdi’s instructions for the Lamento contrast  ’emotional time’ and ‘hand time’, the preface and libretto of Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e Corpo (1600) here as well as many other sources connect emotional impulses with visible action. The designation rappresentativo implied a particular set of performance practices, coordinating text, music and action into a unified spectacle. Here are Monteverdi’s instructions for Combattimento, in the warlike part of Book VIII.

 

 

“Combat of Trancredi & Clorinda in Music, described by Tasso, which needs to be done in show style: they enter suddenly (after some madrigals without action have been sung)…. They make their steps and gestures just as the delivery of the text expounds, neither more nor less, observing carefully the tempi, sword-strikes and foot-work; the instrumentalists [observe carefully] the violent and soft sounds; and the Narrator [observes] the well-timed pronunciation of the words – in such a way that the three actions come to meet in a unified representation. ”

 

“The ‘three actions’ to be ‘unified’ are the protagonists’ movements, the music, and the narrator’s text.  When Clorinda or Tancredi speak, the Narrator is silent. The voice of the Narrator should be clear, firm and well pronounced… so that it is better understood. He should not make divisions [literally ‘throat’, i.e. fast-moving ornamental passage-work] or trills except in the Aria that begins Notte, all the rest should be given a delivery similar to the passions of the oratory. ”

The instruction to avoid ornamentation (both divisions and graces) is found in many sources, including Cavalieri’s Preface to Anima & Corpo. Many sources also require the continuo to avoid ornamentation and play grave – low register and slow notes. Cavalieri also emphasises the importance of whole-body acting, not just hand gestures. Monteverdi asks for a variety of tone-colours from the instruments, Cavalieri makes a similar request to the singers.

The silencing of the Narrator, when there is direct speech from characters onstage, suggests that the six-man version of the Lamento might better distinguish between narration and direct speech, by keeping the narrating trio silent whilst the commiserating trio are heard within the staged scene.

Monteverdi’s call to unify text, music and action reminds us of Shakespeare’s instructions to the players in Hamlet:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

And Shakespeare’s admonition against ‘mouthing’ the speech, like a town-cryer, is consistent with Cavalieri’s warning to singers not to force the voice.

Monteverdi’s Preface makes a similar link between theatrical music, spoken oratory, and emotions:

Tasso, come poeta che esprime con ogni proprieta e naturalezza con la sua oratione quelle passioni, che tende a voler descrivere

“Tasso, as a poet… expresses with all propriety and naturalness in his oratory the passions which he wants to describe.” The connection between detailed description and emotional power is the period concept of Enargeia. Read more about Enargeia here Enargeia VIP.

Meanwhile, many early 17th-century sources compare the new style of singing to speaking (Caccini 1601, here) , to the pitch-contours of spoken delivery (Peri 1600, here) , and to the variety of tone adopted by a fine actor in the spoken Theatre (the anonymous c1638 guide for a music-theatre director, Il Corago here).

Suiting the stage action to the words of the libretto implies that the sung text can serve almost as Stage Directions for the actors. The Nymph should enter at the same moment as the narrating trio sing una donzella…. usci. Her face should be made up to look pale, and she should sigh heavily as she treads on flowers, wandering erractically across the stage.  She might make a hand gesture for dolor. 

 

As she begins to sing, her footseps halt and she looks up at heaven. This is consistent with Gagliano’s instructions in the Preface to Dafne (1608) for singers to enter making an interesting path across the stage, but to stand still whilst singing.  In another Monteverdi madrigal the love-sick protagonist similarly addresses heaven:  Sfogava con le stelle (Book IV, 1603).

 

Il Tempo della mano

 

Such close agreement between many period sources encourages us to attempt to reconcile Monteverdi’s remarks about tempo in the Lament with all that we now know about early 17th-century time and rhythm. The word tempo has many historical meanings: Time itself, musical rhythm, the psychological effect of perceived musical rhythm. This last meaning comes close to our modern usage of tempo to mean the speed of musical performance, measured in beats per minute. There is also another area of period meaning linked to the Greek distinction between chronos (chronological time) and kairos (the moment of opportunity). For sword-fighters, a tempo is the opportune moment to strike. This meaning is relevant in theatrical music as ‘dramatic timing’ and might be particularly significant in Monteverdi’s instructions for Combattimento (above).

Monteverdi died in same the year (1643) that  Isaac Newton was born.  So the composer’s concept of Time was not the Newtonian model of Absolute Time so familiar to us today, but rather Aristotle’s understanding of Time as dependent on motion. Monteverdi’s musical rhythms were organised by the slow, steady pulse of Tactus (about one beat per second), with triple metre measured by simple ratios – Proportions. The notation of the Lamento indicates Sesquilatera (one and a half) Proportion, with three triple-metre semibreves in the time of two duple-metre minims, something around semibreve = MM90.  Read more about Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time.

 

In practice, Tactus was shown by a simple down-up movement of the hand. Tactus-beating was usually done by a performer, not by a stand-alone conductor, and was very different from modern conducting. The job was not to make one’s own personal choice of tempo, nor to interpret the music by changing the tempo, but to find and maintain the correct tempo. According to Zacconi’s Prattica di Musica (1592),

Tactus is regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation

Quite unlike modern conducting!

Of course, most instruments are played with two hands, so musicians would study using a Tactus hand-beat, in order to play with an internalised sense of Tactus. Frescobaldi confirms this, by discussing keyboard toccatas entirely in terms of Tactus. Even though he specifies certain situations where the Tactus may change between movements of a single piece, and even though keyboard players cannot physically beat Tactus whilst playing, Frescobaldi insists that the performance is still facilitated by, actioned by, Tactus. And he links his Tactus Rules also to ‘modern madrigals’, the kind of music found in Monteverdi’s later books. Frescobaldi rules, OK:  here.

Applying Frescobaldi’s rules, we might try a small change of speed where the ‘movement’ changes, i.e. between the frame and central Lament, perhaps even within the introduction (a pause after dolor and a slightly faster speed for the new rhythmic structure of si calpestando fiori; slower again for cosi piangendo va). Such small changes follow the changing emotions of the text, and therefore would tend to exaggerate the composer’s change of note-values. The notation of si calpestando fiori already responds to the text with short note-values, any change in Tactus would increase the contrast. But within what Frescobaldi calls a passo (literally step or movement: i.e. a self-contained section or movement of a single work), the Tactus remains “regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure and fearless”. Frescobaldi limits ‘any perturbation’ to very specific situations.

For theatrical music, Il Corago discusses the question of whether or not the omni-present Tactus should be shown with hand-beating. Obviously, the singing-actor cannot beat time on stage, and Il Corago considers that the continual waving of a Tactus-hand at the side of the stage would be distracting for the spectators, taking away the sense of naturalezza that Monteverdi so admired in Tasso’s poetry-reading. So he recommends that the principal continuo-player should beat Tactus where required in ensemble music, but there should be no time-beating in dramatic solos. We might therefore expect the leader of the continuo to give a couple of Tactus-beats to start the framing trios, but that there would be no Tactus-beating during the central Lament. Of course, the Tactus is still maintained during the Lament solo, “regular, solid, stable… clear, sure, fearless”, but felt, rather than seen.

This advice from Il Corago is consistent with Monteverdi’s marking for another acted-out soprano solo, the Lettera Amorosa in Book VII (1619) Se i languidi miei sguardi, which has the instruction:

in genere rappresentativo e si canta senza battuta

“In dramatic style, and to be sung without beating time.”

It is also consistent with Agazzari’s advice that the continuo (his word is fondamento, emphasising the structural, rather than decorative role of bass-playing) ‘supports and directs the whole ensemble’. The directing is done not by beating time, but in the manner of playing, by providing clear structural rhythm in the improvised realisation of the accompaniment. This contrasts with 20th-century assumptions and practices, in which the continuo is supposed to follow, whilst the singer (perhaps a conductor too) destabilise the rhythm with rubato.

The early-17th-century assumption is clear from Peri: singers are normally guided by the continuo. If the text is sad or serious, the singing should not ‘dance’ to the rhythm of the bass, so the bass itself is reduced to Tactus values of minims and semibreves. This guiding role of the continuo affects not only the rhythm but also the emotions, so Peri is careful to compose the entire bass-part according to the words. Agazzari agrees: ‘true and good music’ doesn’t require lots of fugues and imitative polyphony, but rather the imitation of the emotion and similitude of the words, affetto e somiglianza delle parole.  

This seems very close to Monteverdi’s a similitudine delle passioni del’oratione in his instructions for Combattimento (above). Even instruments are expected to imitate words – especially the Basso Continuo (according to the Preface to Book VIII):

Le maniere di sonare devono essere di tre sorti, oratorie, Armonicha & Rithmicha

“There are three elements of playing: oratory, harmony and rhythm.” What an inspiring definition of continuo!

But in his discussion – also in the Preface to Book VIII – of  repeated semiquavers in the bass-line of Combattimento, Monteverdi’s assumption is tha the continuo-realisation would normally reduce such fast notes to structural values of minim or semibreve, were it not for his specific instructions to play what is written in this particular piece. This is consistent with Landi’s notation of two bass-lines in the sinfonias of Sant’ Alessio (1631), a complex line for harps, lutes, theorboes & bowed strings, and a simplified, structural line for continuo harpsichords.

So the continuo maintained the Tactus, even whilst responding to the emotions of the text. Nevertheless, there was a seicento practice of rhythmic freedom for singers, which Caccini describes as senza misura (unmeasured). Many examples in Monteverdi’s works show how this works: the singer anticipates the beat, or arrives late, but the continuo maintain Tactus –  “regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation”. This baroque practice is similar to jazz, where the singer floats freely over a steady Iin the rhythm section. It remained in use throughout the 18th century (clearly described by Leopold Mozart) and even later. In Chopin’s style of playing ‘timeless melody over a timed bass’, he kept the bass as steady as the trunk of a tree, whilst the melody can sway like the leaves and branches. Chopin here.

 

Senza misura over a Tactus bass – Caccini

 

Soloist floating around a Tactus bass – Monteverdi

 

Solo tenor and Tactus – Monteverdi

 

In this context, we can understand Monteverdi’s intention that the framing trios would be directed by a hand-beat in Tactus, il tempo della mano, whereas no-one would beat time during the acted-out Lamento. But we would still expect the Lamento to be sung in (unseen) Tactus.  The “regular, solid, stable, firm” Tactus of the Lamento movement might be a little different from that of the framing trio. The text of the coda summarises the Lament as ‘angry cries’  sdegnosi pianti which might suggest a faster, more passionate tempo, rather than slowing down for a Romantic ideal of lamenting. Baroque laments – includingly the famous Lamento di Arianna (1608) and Act V of Orfeo (1607) – often alternate sadness with anger.

 

The Four Humours – changes of ‘humour’ move the passions

Il Tempo dell’affetto del animo

 

 

But what was Monteverdi’s ‘time of the affection of the spirit’, his ’emotional tempo’, and why did it require the singers to read from a score? The 20th-century assumption was Romantic rubato. But nowadays, we know that if the singer floats freely around the (unseen) beat, the continuo would maintain the Tactus groove ‘without any perturbation’.

There are several instances in the (1610) Vespers where the rhythms for the singers differ between the individual part-books and the continuo-book short score. This is not problematic, because the continuo-players did not follow such small details of ornamentation; rather they led with the slow steady pulse of Tactus. Continuo-players were accustomed to singers’ improvising diminutions and graces, and would not follow these or be upset by them: they would just continue in Tactus “regular, solid, stable, firm… fearless”.

So if the lamenting Nymph employed some rhythmic freedom, in the manner described by Caccini and notated by Monteverdi, there would be no unfamiliar demands on the continuo players, or on other members of the vocal ensemble, and no special need for a score. Indeed, continuo-players were accustomed to scores that showed different ornamentation from what the soloist was actually singing!

Perhaps the answer can be found not in the anachronism of Romantic rubato, but in that wonderfully practical source for historical music-theatre, Il Corago. The anonymous writer explains precisely how continuo-players did ‘follow’ the singing-actor in staged performance. If some extra time was needed for some stage ‘business’, the continuo should just repeat the chord they are playing. We see this notated in Monteverdi’s Ulisse (1640) and described in Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo.

Si replica tante volte

Monteverdi Ulisse: “This Sinfonia (a C minor chord for the basso continuo, played twice, long-short) is repeated as many times as necessary, until Penelope arrives on stage and starts to sing.”

Cavalier Anima & Corpo: “The instruments that have to accompany the singers wait, playing the first chord, until he [the actor in the role of Tempo] begins.”

In this performance practice of historical music-theatre, a stage-wait is managed by having the continuo repeat a chord, in Tactus. Although everything waits until the actor is ready, the Tactus-clock is still ticking.  So we can reconcile instructions that continuo-players should follow actors in staged works with the overwhelming weight of evidence that Tactus was “regular, solid, stable, firm ” in all seicento music. Indeed, the period term is musica mensurata, measured music, which applied to all music, except unmeasured liturgical chant.

So even if the Nymph felt she had to wait for the passion of her spirit to motivate her speech, the tempo of her emotions would be measured by Tactus, even if it was not shown by a hand-beat.

But it is not plausible that the continuo players would repeat one of their four chords indefinitely, whenever the soprano decided to wait! Again, Il Corago suggests a practical solution: if the continuo know how long they should wait, they can play a little chord sequence. instead of just repeating one chord. In the context of the Lamento’s ground-bass, it’s obvious that the continuo would just repeat the four-note descending ground, as many times as necessary, until the singer started, or (in the middle of the piece) re-started.

Now we understand why scores are necessary. The soprano needs a short score, so that if she waits, she can make her entry at the correct point in the repeating harmonic sequence. (She only needs her part and the bass, since the trio will follow her). The accompanying trio need a vocal score, so that they can be aware if the soprano waits, and make their entries according to her part. (They don’t need the ground bass, since they coordinate their entries with the soprano).

Seicento singers were accustomed to managing misprinted rests in polyphonic music: their familiarity with the style and their general musicianship skills allowed them to sense the right moment to make their entry, in order to fit with the general harmonic movement around them. But in the Lamento, these skills would be no help in dealing with the extra time imposed by an emotionally inspired soprano: the trio polyphony would work on any given iteration of the ground bass. The trio singers needed a score to know whether they should wait four bars, or eight bars, extra: their ears alone could not solve this problem.

In the end, this kind of performance would not sound very shocking to us today. So the continuo put in a few extra rounds of the ground bass, here and there? Probably quite a few modern performances have already done this. But this is easy for us to do, because we are accustomed to reading from scores, and (all too often!) being conducted. If there are only part-books, no conductor, but regular Tactus, it would be difficult for a soprano to wait spontaneously, according to the emotions, without the trio getting lost: without a score, much rehearsal would be needed before the soprano could safely be given this freedom. Monteverdi’s solution was practical, but unusual for his period: give the singers a score!

What does remain shocking for today’s performers is the idea of keeping Tactus; that singers might float around the beat, but the continuo will maintain the groove; the idea that even large-scale music was led by continuo-playing, not by conducting. What is the point of providing early instruments and historically informed performers, only to have them anachronistically conducted. We might as well realise the continuo on a 20th-century pianoforte!

To sum up: baroque music is measured by Tactus and directed by continuo-playing. But a soloist has freedom to float around the steady groove of that Tactus. In staged performance, additional time can be taken for dramatic action, but the ticking clock of Tactus continues. In this Lamento (a staged piece written over a ground bass), the continuo could repeat the ground as many times as necessary, until the singer is emotionally ready to sing.

Monteverdi’s tempo dell’affetto dell’animo is not some kind of ‘free rhythm’, but rather an emotionally-driven sense of dramatic timing, to a steady heart-beat.

 

 

If your pulse stops, the music also dies [ALK]