Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

This post responds to questions from two members of the International Baroque Opera Studio, singers of leading roles in the recent OPERA OMNIA production of my remake of Monteverdi’s lost (1608) masterpiece, Arianna.

 

The performances (and also my composition of the score ‘in Monteverdi’s voice’) were founded on the principle and practice of Tactus, the slow steady beat that (according to John Dowland) ‘directs a song according to measure’.

 

It’s quite radical to sing a baroque opera in Tactus. Most modern-day performances are not directed by Tactus, nor do the continuo-instruments ‘guide the entire ensemble of voices and instruments’ (as Agazzari advises Del sonare sopra’l basso in 1607). Rather, even performances that claim to be ‘historically informed’ are nowadays often conducted. We all know that this is unhistorical, and it is high time that professional critics began to complain about dinosaur-conductors!

 

So for many singers, the experience of singing a baroque opera in Tactus is new, and it raises legitimate questions:

  1. Now that you have explained to us about the Tactus, I had a problem with the concept of sprezzatura, I felt that the Tactus did not give us more to deal with sprezzatura, I felt like it limited us to involve Tactus and sprezzatura at the same time.
  2.  Opera is a mix of music and theatre. What is difficult for me is just this: Everything in music is subordinated to a Tactus, and that’s reasonable (and just cool). But what about theatre? How to combine this musical Tactus and theatrical freedom? What to do if it feels like you need some stop, some pause in reaction or the opposite, if you feel like you need something unexpectadly fast, I’m talking about drama, about the text, about meaning of words, and more – about situation of the heroes of the opera itself. What to do when you need more freedom than Tactus lets you have? Does it mean you actually were not inside tactus? Or shoud you make yourself feel and listen to a tactus only?

 

These are appropriate and serious questions, and I’m delighted that the Arianna project provoked such thoughtful and enquiring responses. This is precisely the interaction of performance and research, brought about by advanced training, that the Baroque Opera Studio aims for. Both writers address questions of rhythmic freedom, within a Tactus-driven performance style, but from subtly different perspectives of singing and acting in historical music-drama. And Arianna is the ideal test-bed for such experimental investigations, since the 1608 performance brought together court singers and the commedia dell’arte actress Virginia Ramponi-Andreini (in the title role) to create a musical/theatrical experience that moved the audience to tears, and which Monteverdi himself considered his best-ever approach to the ‘natural way’ of representing emotions in music.

Tactus & sprezzatura

 

What appears to be the simpler matter, how to combine Tactus with sprezzatura, needs the longer answer. Lurking behind this singer’s enquiry are at least two more, hidden questions: what was sprezzatura? And: how significant was it, how frequently was it used? The consensus assumptions nowadays are that sprezzatura was defined by Caccini as rhythmic freedom, that it is highly significant and was very frequently used. But these assumptions are not supported by period evidence, least of all by Caccini.

In the 20th century, the ‘vacillating rhythm’ of tempo rubato was an essential element of the Romantic aesthetic. In that cultural climate, the argument seemed reasonable that if Caccini’s ‘new music’ was especially expressive, then its rhythm must be especially free. So musicians and musicologists leapt to the conclusion that sprezzatura must mean rhythmic freedom, and blithely assumed that it would have been as essential for Caccini as rubato was for them. But Caccini does not say this, not at all. Rather, it is canto – singing, i.e. voice-production –  that is treated with sprezzatura, and (according to Castiglione, who first used the word in his 1528 Il Cortegiano) sprezzatura is only applied to some low-priority, less significant element of the total performance. Modern-day singers might be shocked, but voice-production was a low priority for Caccini: he put Sound ‘last of all: and not the other way around!’.

My detailed analysis of Caccini’s Preface to Le nuove musiche (1601) is here: Play it again, Sam! The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura To summarise from that article, Caccini’s sprezzatura is a ‘cool’ way of singing, a style of voice-production that is something between speech and song. And in a bold statement, backed by the full authority of the Florentine camerata, he defines music as ‘Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all’. Caccini’s unambiguous insistence on rhythm has received little attention from performance practice scholars, especially compared to all the ink spilled over discussions (often skewed) of sprezzatura.

Alongside his text, Caccini provides music examples. In these, the speech-like voice-production of sprezzatura is mentioned only once, in connection with the unique occurence of senza misura. This – without measure – is rhythmic freedom for the singer, but (as we see from many notated examples in Monteverdi’s compositions) the continuo maintains steady Tactus. The result is something like modern-day jazz, where the singer floats freely over steady rhythm in the rhythm/bass section. Such free melody over a timed bass is described clearly by Leopold Mozart as late as 1756, and was the secret even of Chopin’s piano style.

I’m grateful to Domen Marincic for bringing to my attention a letter written by Caccini, in which he links the word sprezzatura to the practice of senza misura. Otherwise, this word sprezzatura receives little attention in the 17th century. It is not part of the discourse of those key texts that establish the seconda prattica, the passionate style associated with early ‘opera’. There is no mention of sprezzatura in the writings of Cavalieri, Peri, Viadana, Gagliano, Monteverdi, or that wonderful ( but anonymous) source on music-theatre, Il Corago.

 

 

In contrast, Tactus is a fundamental element of renaissance practice in education, study and performance, a vital part of musical discourse in this period. Zacconi characterises it in Prattica di Musica (1592) here as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any pertubation’. And in all Caccini’s music examples, there is only one occurence of a change to the Tactus itself. Caccini indicates it as con misura piu larga (in measure, but with a slower beat). The idea is not discussed in the Preface text, at all. But such small and infrequent changes to the Tactus are codified in Frescobaldi’s famous Toccata rules (see Frescobaldi rules OK?) and will be discussed in a post I’m preparing on Tweaking the Tactus.

We can establish from simple word-counting that Caccini’s Preface is dominated by the concepts of affetto (passion, or a passionate ornament) and effetto (a passionate ornament or the effect of such an ornament on the listener’s passions). These interlinked concepts are mentioned 41 times, suggesting that what is really ‘new’ about the nuove musiche is Caccini’s focus on passion (affetto), combined with the linking of such passion to a particular class of ornaments (affetti/effetti) and to the emotional effect on the listener (effetto).

Moving beyond that principal focus, other concepts grazia (14), nobilita (8)buona maniera (7),  crescere (8), scemare (6) esclamazione (12),  trilli (9), giri and passaggi (5) are all mentioned far more often than sprezzatura (2).

In the music examples, there are 13 esclamazioni, 11 trilli, 4 gruppi. Sprezzatura occurs only once. Senza misura only once. Con misura piu larga also only once.

The conclusions are inescapable: sprezzatura means a speech-like voice-production, not rhythmic freedom. In any case, it is rather insignificant. Rhythmic freedom is mentioned only twice (though Monteverdi notates it more often, and mentions tweaking the Tactus in the Vespers). It’s worth noting that Caccini associates free melody over timed bass with shortening the written note-values (most singers today want to drag), but a change to the Tactus itself with a slower beat.

Caccini’s Preface was translated into English and published by Playford in 1664 (with many reprints). Samuel Pepys was inspired to practise the one-note trillo (recommended by Caccini as the key to mastering all kinds of florid ornamentation), but the question of sprezzatura did not attract significant attention until the mid-20th century, when (rather ironically) it resonated perfectly both with the mainstream aesthetic of tempo rubato and with the Early Music counter-culture of disdain for authority. That is to say, it resonated perfectly with the spirit of the 1960s, once it had been misunderstood as ‘rhythmic freedom’!

So much for the history of the word sprezzatura. But even when we’ve recognised the desire for rubato and the disdain for the authority of steady rhythm as characteristic of  Romantic and post-Romantic, rather than early Baroque, aesthetics, a legitimate question remains:

If rhythm is guided by Tactus, how can we make baroque music expressive?

 

It’s certainly true that circa 1600, composers and performers were searching for new ways to ‘move the passions’, stripping away the complexities of polyphony, introducing wild chromaticism and ‘forbidden’ dissonances, inventing new genres of music-drama which eventually led to what we now call ‘opera’. But there is a subtle difference between the Romantic notion of a performing “expressing” their own artistic genius, and the seicento aim of moving the audience‘s passions.  Baroque performance, with all its formal structures, requires discipline as well as intensity, inspiration but not self-indulgence.

 

If we consider the nature of conservatoire teaching, it’s understandable that modern-day, classically trained singers feel they have been disarmed, if their favourite device of rubato is ruled out. But a jazz singer does not feel constrained by the absolute requirement to swing: it don’t mean a thing, otherwise! Rather, jazz soloists are guided by their rhythm section, and they relish how words and emotions ride the groove. The best performers can even side-step the regular beat, in a way that adds grace and/or energy, without destabilising the tempo in the slightest. And no rock-band would ever consider that powerful rhythm reduces the emotional power of their greatest anthems!

 

 

So we can embrace the power of Tactus, and need not regret the loss of rhythmic freedom, any more than we should resent Shakespeare’s structure of the iambic pentameter. Rhythm is energy, rhythm is power, rhythm is the force that hammers home the emotions, deep into the listener’s soul. This goes back to the great orators of classical antiquity: as Cicero observed, the rhetorical ‘thunderbolts of Demosthenes could not have been been hurled with such force, had it not been for the rhythm with which he launched them. Quintilian thought that Cicero paid even more attention to rhythm than Demosthenes himself.

And in early baroque music, we have two other powerful and historically appropriate techniques for communicating emotions to our listeners. The first of these is the oft-repeated cycle of preparation-dissonance-resolution, which each time creates a build-up and release of artistic tension. With a good composer (and Monteverdi was acknowledged to be the best for this particular technique), the intensity of each dissonance will match the appropriate level of emotional force, and the flavour of the dissonance will correspond to the particular emotion  (or combination of emotions) evoked at that specific moment. Singers and continuo-players should work together to time the dissonance precisely, and to find the best way to bring out its flavour by choosing how best to bring the dissonant note to bear against the sustained preparatory note. [This exploration, in the particular case of the singer suspending over a change of harmonies in the basso continuo, was one of our exercises on the Music Skills study day at the beginning of the Arianna project]

Another technique, that works well in tandem with dissonance-resolution is what I call the LY principle. According to the Rhetorical principle of Decorum, every aspect of delivery should be suited to, fitting with, the rhetorical message. For singers, this means adapting the vocal colour from moment to moment so that

Every word sounds like what it means

 

So the word ‘happy’ should be sung happiLY; the word ‘sad’, sadLY; the word ‘love’, lovingLY etc. Sometimes singers try to reduce the rich meaning of the poet’s chosen word to the one-dimensional choice of forte or piano. But such an emotionally significant word as ‘joy’ is not communicated by mezzo-forte: it needs to be sung joyfulLY. Once this simple but powerful principle is understood, we realise that the sung text contains a wealth of high-precision coaching directions: almost every word demands a new vocal colour.

So to sum up, and answer the question about Tactus and sprezzatura, the fundamental and (circa 1600) much-discussed principle of Tactus takes precedence over the obscure reference to sprezzatura, little discussed in the seicento even by Caccini himself, and misinterpreted (as well as over-emphasised) in the 20th century. If there is some kind of rhythmic freedom, it is still framed by the stable Tactus (Froberger Rule 1: even when the Tactus is tweaked, you control the change by means of Tactus). Caccini’s senza misura is notated by Monteverdi as a rhythmically displaced vocal line over steady Tactus in the basso continuo. I haven’t yet done a rigorous analysis, but my impression from well-known instances of this rhythmic displacement in Orfeo and Vespers is that Monteverdi anticipates the beat more often than he delays until after the beat: this would be consistent with Caccini’s remark about shortening the written note-values.

 

 

It’s also worth noting that Caccini’s two isolated examples of rhythmic alteration are each cued by strong hints in the text. So rather than approaching an early baroque text with a particular technique (e.g. rhythmic alteration) in mind, it would be more appropriate to wait for the text itself to suggest the most suitable technique. In Arianna, Teseo’s festive and glorious rhythms at tra feste e pompe gloriose e belle contrast with the first speech of his Counsellor that follows. Langue mortal virtu (mortal virtue languishes…) suggests that the singer might languish in tempo, falling behind the continuo bass temporarily. A good composer (and Monteverdi was the best at this) will have done much of the work already by writing a languid long note for langueA good singer will find a suitably languid tone-colour, and might well stretch this word beyond the confines of the Tactus. Continuo-players will not wait for the singer, but will maintain a (suitably languid) swing, trusting that the singer will come back to join them, before too long!

Consigliero’s next speech does not have any word that suggests rhythmic displacement, but the burning torches faci accese would suggest to the composer the bright sound of sharps (hard hexachord), whereas the shadows ombre in Rinuccini’s next line would suggest naturals (soft hexachord on F): singers can help this contrast with a corresponding contrast between bright and shady vocal colouring. And the composer will probably provide a long note on tremolar (as Monteverdi does for this word in Combattimento), giving the singer the opportunity to sing tremulousLY.  This ever-present attention to the sonic implications of each word (realised within the rhythmic structure of Tactus) is where expressivity lies in this style, not in rubato for its own sake.

Tactus & drama

The anonymous (c1630) Il Corago offers (with his typically pragmatic approach) a simple, practical solution to the problem of extra time being needed to accommodate some stage business. The continuo players should simply repeat the harmony (in Tactus). If it is known in advance that quite a bit more time will be needed, a simple chord sequence can be played rather than simply repeating the same harmony. Monteverdi notates this practice twice, at the beginning of scenes in Ulisse. This may also be the explanation for the long G minor harmony notated whilst Orfeo climbs into Caronte’s boat in the 1609 print of Orfeo, but that note might just be a misprint, since it does not occur in the second edition (1615). This practice would solve a problem in Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo: when the Guardian Angel’s power strips Wordly Life of her glorious clothing to reveal wretched poverty beneath, the score leaves no time at all for the required stage action. A few chord from the continuo will fill the gap, and (crucially) maintain the Tactus until the singers are ready to continue.

But our actress’ question goes beyond practical necessities to artistic choices: what if the actors on stage feel the need for more (or less) time to negotiate some crucial change of mood, some decision or search for motivation? My first answer would be to trust the composer. Monteverdi notates different kinds of pacing in his transitions from one speech to another, or between sections or ideas within a single speech. For example, at the most dramatic moment of Combattimento, as Clorinda is fatally wounded by Tancredi’s sword, the composer alternates high-speed action with slow-motion contemplation, conveying both the sudden fury of Tancredi’s assault, and the slow, almost eroticised horror of blood filling the beautifully woven gold jacket that restrains Clorinda’s soft breasts… she sinks to the ground… and he rushes to follow up his victory with another strike! Here, the composer’s note-values are clearly carefully chosen to direct particular, and highly effective contrasts in dramatic timing.

In general, I would try to work with the composer’s notated timings, respecting his sensitivity to the expectations of the style of his own period. Where the notation at first seemed counter-intuitive, I would search for the hidden reason why the pacing is the way it is. For example, for the exit speech [I will conduct a life that my sadness suits] of the Messaggiera who informs Orfeo of Euridice’s death, Monteverdi writes a long slow ascent – menero vita al mio dolor – followed by an unexpectedly short cadence on conforme. Many modern-day singers drag out that cadence with tragic intensity, but they miss the point. As Monteverdi himself realised, the emotionally laden words end at mio dolor [my sadness], and the word conforme [it suits] is necessary to complete the sentence, but does not itself convey any emotion. Is this Striggio’s error then, to put such an empty word at the end of the phrase, where we expect something worthy of the Principal Accent of the verse scansion? The explanation is in Gagliano’s description of the singer’s movement around the stage for the Prologue to Dafne: the singer starts to walk away on the penultimate syllable con-for-me already. So after the peak of sadness on the word do-lor (an unresolved dissonance), the singer turns away and abandons herself to her fate on the exit word conforme: the short cadence propelling her off-stage. 

Nevertheless, there are moments of great dramatic intensity when the tempo dell’affetto del animo (the tempo of the emotion of the spirit) conflicts with the tempo della mano (the tempo of the hand, i.e. Tactus). Monteverdi anticipates this problem for his Lamento della Ninfa, written over a four-note ground bass. When the Nymph needs more time to manage a particular emotional transition, the continuo players can provide extra chords (as recommended by Il Corago), and obviously they will simply continue with an extra iteration of the four harmonies of the ground bass. This is easily done, but it poses a challenge for the male voice trio who also sing in this scene. If each singer has a part-book, containing only his own part (the norm for such madrigals), then he will not know whether or not an extra round of the four-note bass has been added, or not. The harmonies are the same, every four chords, there is nothing to inform him “where are we now?”! Monteverdi’s practical solution was to provide a score for the men’s trio, so that they could follow the solo voice, and would know if the Nymph had waited four bars, or even jumped four bars ahead.

The common feature of all these examples is that Tactus itself is maintained. There might be an extra beat, or even several extra beats, but ‘the clock keeps on ticking’.

 

 

The particular example of the Lamento in Arianna is problematic. MS sources, perhaps deriving from Virginia Ramponi-Andreini’s part book, offer variant readings for the rhythms of certain sections – always in Tactus, but with different syllabic speeds for the most agitated lines. Although some musicologists see this as the remnant of some kind of free rhythm, I disagree. I see the variants as alternative solutions for finding the required emotional intensity, whilst remaining in Tactus. If the singer could use free rhythm, there would be no need to adjust the notation between one solution and another.

It may well be that after the 1608 premiere, La Florinda chose another solution for certain lines when she performed the scene in contexts other than a full production of Monteverdi’s (now lost) score- this would explain the variant readings in the MSS. And in 1608, eye-witness accounts describe an accompanying string band, ‘violins and viols’: such a band would tend to be less flexible than a continuo-section, implying that whatever pacing was chosen, it would probably have been fixed in rehearsal, rather than improvised on-stage. Contrariwise, Emily Wilbourne’s 2016 book on Early Opera and the Sound of the commedia dell’ arte confirms that improvisation was usual in staged Laments within the commedia tradition, but usually to simpler accompaniments.

Most musicologists now assume that La Florinda and Monteverdi collaborated in some way to create the famous Lamento di Arianna. I would imagine that the composer would have listened to such an experienced actress’s advice on how to pace this most dramatic of speeches. So what has come down to us in the printed solo version presumably reflects the combined wisdom of the greatest actress and finest composer of the day. As a modern-day performer, I would be inclined to trust them, and to follow the dramatic timing they indicate.

 

On the other hand, in other scenes of our re-made Arianna where I had to supply the music, if performers tell me that they found themselves struggling to act the words within the rhythms I had specified, then I should follow Claudio’s example and be ready to listen to my Florinda, my Rasi and all the other participants. Actually, I already went through the score of my remake, and fixed every passage that performers had repeatedly found difficult. If my version was tripping them up too often, it clearly needed improvement to flow properly.

We know something of the history of spoken delivery in the theatre, especially for Shakespearian blank verse. Samuel Pepys’ personal song-book provides us with a reading of To be or not to be in musical notation, framed by the Tactus of a strumming guitar. Accounts of Garrick’s delivery contrast his style with that of James Quin, an actor of the previous generation. 18th-century delivery tended ever more towards rhythmic freedom, pauses for sustained poses (‘striking an attitude’) etc, a tendency that reached its zenith in the late 20th century with the silences and extended pauses of Pinter’s dialogue. This gradual shift from structure to freedom to dissolution, from Shakespeare to Garrick to Pinter, seems to parallel changes in musical performance practice from Monteverdi to CPE Bach to Paderewski. Since Il Corago and Peri tells us explicitly that early 17th-century ‘recitative’ is modelled on the spoken declamation of their finest actors, I would advise respecting Monteverdi’s rhythms as the closest we have to a time-chart notation of theatrical speech in this period.

This and other questions are discussed in one of my favourite books about performance practice history in the theatre, Roach’s The Player’s Passion (1985). In particular, Roach’s opening remarks warn us that the via naturale  – the natural way that Monteverdi found for his setting of Arianna would seem ‘natural’ only in the context of his period, his culture, his courtly etiquette and his theatrical expectations. Such ‘naturalness’ might seem very formal to us, for Arianna was a Queen and La Florinda a woman of the 17th-century.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

 

I would also like to acknowledge my huge debt to the scholarly and artistic inspiration for this project, provided by Emily Wilbourne’s Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’ Arte (2016) and Tim Carter’s Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), and to thank Professor Carter again for his generosity – still ongoing! – with comments and advice.

 

 

 

 

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Emotions in Early Opera

As a student in London in the early 1980s, I was told by some tutors (who should have known better) that there was no place for emotion in early music. But nowadays, in a development that owes more to changes in current social norms than to improved historical awareness, emotion has become a buzz-word amongst academics and performers aiike. Nevertheless, even amongst Early Music practitioners, the search for emotional intensity is often neither historical, nor informed.

Many directors and teachers do not work directly with performers’ emotional engagement. But handling emotions is a performance skill that must be taught, learnt, rehearsed and practised, like any other element of a well-rounded delivery. And, like every other aspect of musical and dramatic presentation, the performance practice of emotions changed over time, and between one location and another.

Most conservatoires, even those with a Historical Performance department, teach emotions (if at all) within a late romantic framework, focussing on the intensity of the performer’s emotional engagement, and modelled on the concept of the performer “expressing” their emotions through the medium of the composed score. But we have plenty of easily accessible and self-consistent period evidence as the basis for a more historically-informed approach.

In some debates amongst singers, an argument is sometimes advanced that seems dangerously close to saying: “just use more vibrato”! I am all in favour of historically informed use of vibrato, but let’s all agree that there is more to the rich inner world of human emotions than a wobble in the voice! Singing louder is also not the answer: in Cavalieri’s preface to the very first baroque music-drama, Anima & Corpo, he warns against forcing the voice, which would be detrimental to emotional communication. Rather, he (and many other sources) ask for frequent changes between forte and piano, and between contrasting emotions. Act with the heart, act with the hand: Motion and E-motion in  Cavalieri’s preface

In the urge to convey baroque passions, many performers reach for the Romantic tool of rubato. Nearly all of us were taught this in our initial training, but in earlier periods, Rhetorical emotions were framed within the structure of measured rhythm, guided by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Yes, this tactus could be tweaked according to changing emotions, but if you are not using Tactus in the first place, then you have no idea what you are tweaking! Frescobaldi Rules, OK? Caccini’s much-cited sprezzatura is even more misunderstood and mis-applied. The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura. It’s certainly not the secret of emotional vocals (read below what Cacinni says that secret actually is).

In this post, I offer a brief introduction to the vast topic of Historically Informed Performance of Emotions. The post is dedicated to participants in Opera Omnia’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608) from which only the famously emotional Lamento survives. But I hope the information will be useful to anyone working in early opera, indeed in any genre of baroque music.

 

 

There is ample historical evidence that emotions were highly significant in 17th-century music. The principal aim of Rhetoric is

 

muovere gli affetti – to move the Passions

 

From this well-known phrase, we should note two all-important points. Firstly, the historical discourse is not about “emotion” (singular), but about “Passions” (plural) and about “moving” from one Passion to another. All too often, modern-day coaches will ask for “more emotion!”. The performer might well ask in reply: “Which one?”. Emotion is not an all-purpose sauce that can be poured over any performance! In the historical context, we need to study various emotions, and practice moving between them.

Also, the concept of ‘moving the Passions’ begs the question: whose emotions are we trying to change? As soon as we ask the question, the answer is obvious: the audience’s. Here is the vital difference between Rhetorical (say, pre-1800) and Romantic concepts of emotional performance. In baroque opera, the purpose is to move emotions from the text and music into the hearts and minds of the audience; we do not really care about the performer’s own feelings. This is a world apart from the romantic cliché of the ‘genius performer, expressing emotions beyond those of the ordinary folk in the audience’!

Which Emotion?

Modern studies of emotions, facial expressions etc,  attempt various classifications, based on 6 or more principal emotions. In the Rhetorical age, emotions were understood within the concept of the Four Humours. Although this model does not entirely match modern medical science, psychologically it works very well and can be used very effectively in modern-day performance of early music, just as singers use suggestive imagery (alongside hard science) to guide vocal technique. Of course, the vast array of human emotions cannot be mapped onto just four types. But the Four Humours provide general directions for moving the Passions, just as the four cardinal points (North, South, East, West) provide general directions for travel.

The Four Humours are at work in poetry, music and visual arts; in personality traits, moods and emotional impulses; in performance; and in psychological and physiological responses. The four well-known types are Sanguine (love, courage, hope: a warm, moist, outward passion associated with generosity, enjoyment of music, good food and red wine); Choleric (anger, desire: a hot, dry, outward passion associated with violence and strong drink); Melancholy (thinking too much, unlucky in love, sleepless: a cold, dry inward passion associated with what we would today call ‘the blues’); Phlegmatic (passive acceptance: a cold, moist inward passion, the feeling one has when influenza seems to have filled the entire head and body with green phlegm).

 

Character roles and individual lines of text often combine subtle mixtures of Humours. Dramatic speeches and operatic scenes often move from one Humour to another. But in this style, there are often frequent changes from one Humour to its contrary, word by word: this was considered to be the most powerful way to ‘move’ the audience’s passions.

 

How to move the Passions

 

I use simple exercises to help performers experience and convey each of the Four Humours, spending time on exploring each Humour individually by words, postures and movements. Then we practise moving from one Humour to another: slowly at first, and then faster, so that we can snap from one Passion to its contrary.

Working with a specific text (dramatic speech, poem, opera libretto, song-text etc), we identify which Humour (or which blend of Humours) is at play, word by word. It’s very important to bring this analysis right down to the word-by-word level at which baroque emotions operate. The first exercise is to determine how to perform each word: what colour of voice, what facial expression, what physical posture etc? All of this goes far beyond ‘changes in dynamics’, the simple contrast of forte, piano etc. Rather, each individual word gives a wealth of nuanced information, making it unnecessary for the composer to indicate such ‘dynamic markings’, which would in any case be facile and shallow.

To optimise the delivery of each word, we have to match the precise meaning of each specific word. At first, students tend to suggest approximations: “let’s sing this word loud, warmly, with more vibrato, brightly etc.” But there is a better way, what I call

the  -LY principle

If the word is dolce ‘sweet’, sing it sweet-ly! If the word is amore ‘love’, sing it loving-ly! If the word is crudel ‘cruel’, sing it cruel-ly! And so on. The idea is simple, but powerful, and utterly historical. Try it! Experimental-ly!

 

Baroque Gesture is not merely a hand-ballet, though it should look elegant. Gesture is Rhetorical, i.e. based on the structure and passion of the words. And it’s always painfully apparent, when an actor puts their hand precisely where the director instructed, in the perfect historical position: it comes over to the audience academical-ly! Rather, each well-chosen and historically appropriate gesture has to be connected to, motivated (literally, set in motion) by the text, passionate-ly!

All this intense focus  – on the specific word being sung at the particular time  – results in increased Mindfulness, being ‘in the moment’. You don’t need to plan ahead or review backwards what you have just performed: stay intently in the present moment, and trust the librettist and composer to have done their job with (that previous element of Rhetoric), long-term structural planning.

 

 

The renaissance concept of the Music of the Spheres linked cosmic energy to the harmony of the human body and to practical  music-making. In parallel, period Science considered that emotions were communicated from performer to audience by Pneuma (the mystic spirit of creation, also the mystical energy of the body – like oriental chi – the mystical spirit of dramatic communication), transmitted as Enargeaia (the emotional power of detailed verbal description, poetic imagery, word-painting in baroque music), and carried by Energia (emotional energy) emitted from the actor’s eyes. You can practise believing this, whilst you perform: it will change what you are doing, in subtle, hard-to-describe, but powerful ways.

How to sing the Passions

The secret is not rubato, nor ornamentation (discouraged in the reciting style, according to Cavalieri, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and many other early 17th-century sources), and certainly not vibrato. So what is it? How can we use the voice in this repertoire, passionately, appropriately, effectively?

 

Caccini’s preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) (here’s the link again) encapsulates the priorities, the method, and the technique, if you want to move your audience’s passions, in this repertoire. The priorities are Text and Rhythm: focus on the text, stay in the steady rhythm of Tactus. The method is a vocal production that is ‘between singing and speaking’ – see also Peri’s preface to Euridice (1600): you are not there to sing, your task is to help the audience understand every single word.

 

Don’t sing at me, speak to me!

 

By the way, the quickest way to destroy the illusion that you are ‘speaking’ in song, is to sustain the weak final syllable of the line. Amarilli, mia bel-LAAAAAA. So a very useful general rule is

 

Last note short!

Caccini’s recommended technique when there is a sustained note on a Good syllable, is to use crescendo/diminuendo on that single note. Caccini repeats this advice many times within his Preface, and he gives detailed examples of how to apply messa di voce (starting a long note softly, with crescendo) and exclamatione (starting a word like Ahi! or Deh! loud, then going immediately soft, and then crescendo). The standard way to present a long note is what I call

 

The Long Note Kit

 

Start softly and wait – then add crescendo – at the peak of the crescendo, relax and allow vibrato. Time this carefully with the Tactus, and with the typical process of Preparation-Dissonance-Resolution in a suspension. See How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles for more detail.

 

And that’s it. The crucial concepts are not academically complex, just remember SSS:

  • Speak each word according to its meaning
  • Stay in tactus
  • Shape long notes.

 

The challenge is that these simple ideas demand constant Mindfulness and intense concentration on Caccini’s priorities of Text and Rhythm. So of course, it’s much easier just to add vibrato and mess up the rhythm with rubato, and to create a false pretence of generalised emotion, without any particular link to what you are talking about. But the audience will see through that pretence, just as easily as we spot the insincerity of a fake politician!  So let your Passions be strong, your Tactus stable: don’t rely on weak rubato and wobbly vibrato!

 

 

For further reading, I highly recommend Joseph Roach The Player’s Passion, which analyses theories of acting in light of the history of science, examining acting styles from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and measuring them against prevailing conceptions of the human body. The author explores how dominant theories of emotion, from the Galenic humor to the Pavlovian reflex, have shaped the critic’s changing standards of the natural order of life and the actor’s physical embodiment of it. The Player’s Passion has become a classic among theater historians and students of acting, and received the prestigious Barnard Hewitt Award for outstanding research in theater history.

For an analysis of the use of 17th-century Rhetoric to ‘move the passions’  in terms of modern medical science, try The Theatre of Dreams, which takes the Prologue for La Musica, in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as a case-study.

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Are you Arianna or Apollo? Orfeo or Euridice? Penelope or Ulisse? Nero or Poppea? Or are you fighting a Combattimento, writing a Lettera Amorosa, or dancing a Ballo?

Now you don’t have to go to Hell and back, to learn a baroque role. Here, to celebrate Monteverdi’s anniversary year, is a guide to studying his dramatic roles.

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. You can also read about WHY we are remaking Monteverdi’s Arianna.

This post was written to guide singing actors in that production, but is equally relevant to any of Monteverdi’s surviving music-dramas, including the three ‘operas’ [Monteverdi did not use the O-word] Orfeo, Ulisse Poppea as well as Combattimeno, the Balli and other works in genere rappresentativo [in show-style, i.e. meant for acting, not just singing].

 

 

Whilst our modern ideals of theatre might send us on a deep psychological investigation of the character of the role to be played, in this article I suggest an alternative, historically informed approach.

When, as modern HIP performers, we take on the role of Arianna or Apollo, there are two stages to our work. The first step is to acquire the skill-set of Francesco Rasi (the tenor who sang the roles of Orfeo in 1607 and Apollo & Bacco in 1608) or Virginia Andreini Ramponi, known as La Florinda (the commedia dell’arte actress who triumphed in the role of Arianna in 1608, surpassing all the court singers); the second task is for you-as-Rasi or you-as-La-Florinda to play your character role.

The first of these two stages – acquiring the skill-set of the best historical performers – is by far the more challenging. After all, it was hardly a stretch for Rasi (great singer, somewhat self-obsessed) to play Orfeo or for La Florinda (prima donna, fond of lamenting) to represent Arianna!

 

 

When the first ‘operas’ were performed, circa 1600, there was no such thing as an Opera Singer. Since the genre itself was new and experimental, there was no previously existing system for educating performers for new demands. Rather, the participants in these first fully-sung baroque music-dramas brought skill sets from other, related disciplines. Court and chapel singers (Euridice was played in 1607 by a ‘little priest’ castrato) had a high level of general musicianship, sight-reading and ensemble skills. Many of them were competent composers and skilled instumentalists. As courtiers, they would have been trained in Rhetoric and courtly Etiquette, and would know how to stand, move, gesture and how to comport themselves in courtly situations: in the presence of a Prince, in a duel, at a dance, on horseback etc. Much of what we would today consider to be historical stage-craft would have been understood in the period as everyday courtly behaviour.

A modern singer of baroque opera would do well to study Historical Dance, Historical Fencing, and for that matter horse-riding. For an introduction to courtly posture and gesture, i.e. the beginnings of period acting, Start HereCaccini sets out the priorities for singing c1600 as Text and Rhythm – read more from Caccini. Close study of the libretto is essential: the sung text includes many hints for movement, costume and characterisation, as well as a detailed map of ever-changing emotions – affetti. In this repertoire, the performer’s concentration is best kept ‘in the moment’, on the particularly word you are singing right now, on the affetto of this instant, ready for swift and bold changes from one affetto to its contrary, as Cavalieri recommends for the earliest surviving seicento music-drama, Anima e Corpo (1600), read more about how to Act with the Hand, Act with the Heart.

La Florinda’s success in Arianna (1608), surpassing all the star singers, reminds us of the basic meaning of the word recitare – it means ‘to act’. Musica recitativa is acted music, i.e. music-drama. Singers would do well to think less about the voce, and more about How to Act in this historical style. 

It is not your job, as performer, to create a big structure of emotions, drama or music for the whole work: trust the librettist and composer to have done their work in this area. Your job is to realise the text and music from moment to moment, structured by the slow, steady pulse of baroque rhythm – Tactus. This blog has many posts about 17th-century rhythm: here is a small selection. Rhythm – what really counts? introduces the concept of Tactus; the theory of Proportions is the secret to Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time and for a practical approach there is this Hands-on guide to Tactus

This post presents a step-by-step guide on how to study your role. If you go through these 10 exercises, you will be well on the path towards acquiring that 17th-century skill-set, your approach will be utterly historical and securely practical, and after at least 10 repetitions of each phrase, linking together text, music and gesture, the task of memorisation will also be well begun, if not yet completed.

Have fun – approach these exercises and your study in general in a spirit of enthusiastic but relaxed concentration. Learning a big role is not ‘a mountain to climb’, it’s a journey to experience and enjoy. And your first performance is not ‘the end of the road’, it’s just one more step on the path, a place from where there is a good view of the distance you have already covered, as well as of the endless road ahead.

 

 

HOW TO PREPARE

 

1. Hold the music in your left hand

An easy one to start with, but it’s a game-changer! Acquiring this habit will allow you to make gestures with your right hand, one of the most important principles of historical acting.

 

2. Take up the contrapposto posture

If you do all your practice standing in period posture, that posture will gradually become ‘normal’ for you, and you will feel relaxed and look good in it, on stage.

 

  1. Stand diagonally, rather than square-on to your audience
  2. With your weight all on one foot (doesn’t matter which one)
  3. Bend the other (unweighted) leg, and let it show.
  4. Relax at the hips, so that your whole body forms an elegant curve.
  5. Your right hand is somewhat raised/extended
  6. Your left hand relaxed by the body (or holding your music!)
  7. Look out into the audience.
  8. Relax.

 

 

The toga is optional!

At first, you might find it difficult to maintain this posture. Don’t get tense, just switch your weight from one foot to the other, moving through the hips.  Relax, and let your weight fall through the supporting leg into the floor.

But don’t move too often, and – in this style – you don’t walk and talk at the same time.

 

If your singing teacher has taught you to centre and relax, dropping the weight down into your feet, super! Do this, but allowing the weight to fall from that centre through ONE leg.

 

Don’t bounce up and down. If your singer teacher has taught you to bend your knees before high notes, don’t let this be seen by anyone, ever!

Don’t stand square-on to your audience, knees bent in the sumo-wrestler position of certain famous modern coloratura sopranos. That’s not baroque! Rather, look at and imitate period paintings. Be as beautiful as a picture!

 

TEXT

3. Speak the text, dramatically, like a great actor in a 1,000-seater hall.

3a. Paying close attention to Good/Bad syllables (this is period terminology for accented/unaccented syllables or notes: Caccini calls them Long/Short as in poetic analysis)
3b. And single/double consonants
3c. And the meaning of each individual word

You should be utterly comfortable with the text, ready to go on stage and act it in a spoken play. The anonymous 17th-century guide for a theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago (c1636) emphasises that singers should model their singing on the speech of a fine actor.

4. Speak the text again, waving your hand expressively on each Good syllable

 

 

On the final Bad syllable, just let your hand return to the body, relaxed.

 

 

5. Still speaking like a great actor, try to bring your spoken version close to the pitch-contours and rhythms of the music

 

In his preface to the first secular ‘opera’, Euridice (1600), Jacopo Peri explains that recitative is structured by the rhythm of the bass-line, and by the pitches of spoken declamation. Agazzari (1607) confirms that it is the continuo bass that ‘supports and guides the whole ensemble of instruments and voices’.

RHYTHM

Check #1 (music in your left hand) and #2 (baroque posture) again!

6. Sing the music, beating TACTUS

With the palm outwards, move your hand down and up, about 1 second down, 1 second up. Keep the movement steady, smooth, relaxed but with calm inner strength. Think of a big, slow-moving pendulum. Or the hand of God, turning the wheels of the cosmos.

 

  • In C-time, this represents minims: down for one minim, up for the next.
  • In 3/2 time – tripla, this represents three minims: down for three, up for the next three.
  • In 3/1 time – sesquialtera, the complete movement represents three semibreves: down for two, up for the next one. The complete movement occupies the same total duration of time, but the movement is now unequal, down for two, up for one. You might need to practise changing from C to 3/1 and back again.

According to Zacconi (1592), Tactus is “even, solid, stable, firm… clear, secure, without fear and without any kind of wobbling” [equale, saldo, stabile, e fermo … chiaro, sicuro, senza paura, & senza veruna titubatione]

 

If you have trouble maintaining a steady beat, you can easily make yourself a Tactus-pendulum. Take a long string and tie something heavy to one end, to make a simple pendulum. You need 1 metre to make a 1-second beat (Mersenne, 1636).

 

 

CONNECTING TEXT & RHYTHM

 

Whilst dramatic music is guided by Tactus, as the historical concept of rhythm, there was no conductor in early ‘opera’ (Il Corago specifically rules out beating time in recitative), and of course actors cannot beat Tactus on stage (nor even in a courtly performance in genere rappresentativo, as Monteverdi indicates for the Lettera amorosa]. So the next exercise asks you to feel the Tactus internally, whilst you use your hand in a new way, linked to the Text.

7. Sing the music, waving your hand on the Good syllables, not on the Bad

This is the same as #4, but singing, rather than speaking. Many singers find that their good speaking habits get overwhelmed by bad singer habits, as soon as they start to sing. So…

7a. Check that you do not wave your hand on any Bad syllable.

7b. Check that your hand is already relaxed on the last (Bad) syllable

7c. And sing this last note short, just as you would speak it.

The next exercise refines this, by taking into account the length of the composed notes. Some singers reduce the contrast between long and short notes: such laziness makes the performance boring. Don’t do that! A most useful reminder in this style is “Long notes long, short notes short”, within the steady pulse of the Tactus.

8. Sing the music, waving your hand slow/quick according to the length of Good syllables

If the note is long, move your hand slowly at the beginning, so that you have plenty of movement in reserve for the end of the note. You’ll find that doing this exercise changes the way you sing long notes – that’s the whole idea of the exercise!

8a. Apply the Long Note Kit to Good syllables on Long Notes

THE LONG-NOTE KIT

 

  • Start the note slowly and straight.
  • Wait as long as possible.
  • Crescendo towards the end of the note
  • At the very end, relax the crescendo and allow vibrato to happen

Plaine note (with messa da voce),
Waived note (with messa da voice and late-arriving vibrato)
Roger North (1695)
cited in Greta Moens-Hanen
“Das Vibrato in der Musick des Barock”

For a fine demonstration of baroque vibrato, listen to Whitney Houston And I will always love you

 

9. Alternating Tactus and Good/Bad hand-movements, alternating speaking and singing, bring the sung version as close to speech as possible, structured by Tactus.

In this exercise, as you change between various options (speech/song; Tactus/word-accents) the aim is to unify all these into a version that is ‘between speech and song’ [Peri & Caccini], with exciting contrasts of word-accents (the essential ingredient of good poetry) and steady Tactus (the essential ingredient of 17th-century music).

ACTION

Check #1 (music in the left hand) & #2 (baroque posture) again!

10. Perform the whole  speech, thinking of the meaning of the word, each time you wave your hand on a Good syllable.

Do this several times speaking, before you try to combine gesture with singing. The gestures you want are text-based, speech-based: quite different from typical gestures of modern singers.

One of the simplest, but most powerful gestures is simply to point (typically with the whole hand, rather than a single finger) at whatever you mention in your speech. See Baroque Gesture: what’s the Point? 

 

 

And the ut pictura principle encourages you to create a mental image of whatever you are talking about, so that your gestures are directed towards imaginary objects in your vision, as well as to real objects, dialogue partners etc, on stage with you.

 

But as Cavalieri reminds us, 17th-century Action is not only hand-gestures – it’s also movements of the whole body, the way you walk, and especially facial expressions and Energia from the eyes.

 

Two things you don’t have to worry about: ornaments (many sources, including Cavalieri & Monteverdi, warn against ornamenting in this style); your own emotions. The concept of ‘moving the Passions’ – muovere gli affetti – is concerned with changing the audience’s emotions: not yours. Some performers like to work ‘hot’, being very involved themselves in the emotions of the moment, others prefer to stay ‘cool’, keeping control of their own feelings so as to be better able to influence the audience: most people find a good balance between those two extremes. But in this style, we are not interested in the performer’s emotions, we are trying to sway the audience’s feelings. That’s what matters.

So now you are ready to perform, playing the role of Rasi playing the role of Bacco… or playing the role of La Florinda playing the role of Arianna.

And as Dorilla (Arianna’s irrepressibly positive maid-servant) would say:

ET VIVETE LIETI! 

(Don’t worry, be happy!)

 

 

Alessandro Turchi ‘Bacchus & Ariadne’ (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture.

How – by what techniques – to remake Monteverdi’s Arianna

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.

 

 

The first article in this series explores “WHY remake Arianna” here. There are two parts to the question of ‘HOW’ to remake a lost baroque opera, focussing respectively on result and process: how should the result come out, what kind of work should it be? And how should that result be achieved, by what methodology?  You can about the first part of this question, HOW – in what format – to remake Arianna? here.

 

In this present article I examine the second part of the HOW question: by what process. Having decided to make a new composition modelled on Monteverdi’s surviving c1608 works, I completed the score and uploaded it for participants last week. This post reveals my methodology: how I went about the job. In short, my motto throughout was

What might Claudio have done?

Prof Tim Carter’s inspiring book, Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), demonstrates solid academic techniques for investigating lost works, with considerable space given to his discussion of Arianna (1608), from which only the famous Lamento survives, published for solo voice and basso continuo, and in the composer’s arrangement for madrigal consort. It’s worth noting that neither of these versions matches descriptions of the 1608 production, in which the actress La Florinda performed the Lament accompanied by ‘violins & viols’, interspersed with commenting choruses from an ensemble of Fishermen. Thus, even the surviving music requires considerable compositorial intervention.

 

As analysed by Tim Carter, Monteverdi’s letters reveal his various ways of working: sometimes he would begin with set-piece arias (especially if he already knew who the singer would be), sometimes he worked through the libretto from the beginning, often he left dances to the end (waiting for more information about how the dances should be structured). Sometimes he negotiated with his librettist to make the text more suitable for music-drama, sometimes he made bold changes to the poet’s work.

More by chance than by plan, I ended up following all of these options. I began with a set-piece chorus and aria passeggiata at the beginning of Act V. By 1608, such a florid air is rather old-fashioned, but it remained the way for music-drama to demonstrate supernatural powers, at the entrance of a god -in this case, Amore (Cupid)  – or where magic is at work – Arion’s aria in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, or Orfeo’s display of the power of music, Possente spirto, in Orfeo (1607). We tried out this first sketch at an Opera Omnia workshop in Moscow, with an informal performance at Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’.

After that first try out, I reviewed this excerpt and made a few changes. Amore’s strali, the burning rays of his arrows of love, might fly in whatever direction, but seicento settings tend to use downward passaggi to depict them. I adjusted the ornamentation accordingly. The polished version was dedicated to Jordi Savall and Maria Bartels and performed at the celebration of their marriage in Cardona, on 3rd June 2017.

I then continued my composing with another set-piece aria, the Prologue for Apollo, modelled (as is the text, with all its references to the cetera d’amore) on La Musica’s prologue to Orfeo. Then I completed the choirs and dances for the remainder of the Act V finale. Later on I removed an introductory chorus I had added to this Act, replacing it with a Sinfonia and dances for the Entrance of Bacco, eloquently described in Follino’s eye-witness report:

Bacco, with the beautiful Arianna and Amore in front, were seen to enter onto the stage on the left side of the stage, surrounded in front and behind by many couples of Soldiers dressed with beautiful arms, with superb crests on their heads. Once they were on stage, the instruments that were within began a beautiful aria di ballo, one part of the Soldiersdanced a very delightful ballo, weaving in and out amongst themselves in a thousand ways; and whilst these danced, another part of the Soldiers took up the accompaniment of the sound and ballo with the following words: Spiega omai, giocondo Nume / L’auree piume;

 

This danced chorus has the same metric structure as the final chorus of Peri’s Euridice (1600), another Rinuccini libretto, similar also to Monteverdi’s setting of Striggio’s verses for Orfeo

 

Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno

Monteverdi and Peri set the triple-metre poetry under a ‘time-signature’  of C, which produces a slow measured dance, ideal for the solemn movements of this ‘ancient Greek’ style Chorus. More about Monteverdi’s proportional notation in Tempus putationis – getting back to Monteverdi’s Time here.

 

 

With the beginning and end of the show safely committed to paper (or rather, saved in Sibelius music-writing software), I then worked through the whole libretto in order. I also went back over my tracks several times, catching errors and revising. In pre-planning, I looked for Rinuccini’s indications of aria or dance-metres. There are diegetic songs, entrances of Gods and sententious statements (all cues for aria) as well as hints from poetic metre for dance-rhythms or triple-metre aria. [The period meaning of the word aria begins with any repeating structure, especially rhythmic patterning]. Expressions of movement (in this opera, walking, running and sailing!) or strong emotions similarly give an excuse for more regular rhythm, even for the extra impetus of triple metre.

Monteverdi’s practice in Orfeo was to reduce Striggio’s Act-end strophic choruses to a single strophe (sometimes this makes the text hard to understand). I considered this, since Rinuccini’s Arianna is much longer than Orfeo. But I was persuaded by Prof Carter (who has given generously of his time and energy to support this project), that with so much recitative implied by Rinuccini’s choice of styles, my remake would need every possible moment of musical interest, whether aria or chorus. After all, the first try-out in 1608 had been deemed “rather dry”, before the arrival of commedia dell’arte actress La Florinda in the title role, and various changes made by Rinuccini and Monteverdi.

I may have gone slightly too far, in creating brief moments of what we might today call arioso in the midst of the long recitative scenes. But Monteverdi himself reported that in this work he came closer than ever to ‘the natural way’ to handle dramatic scenes: closer even than in Ulisse and Poppea, where he separated aria from recitative more self-consciously. And Rinuccini gives occasional hints: Consigliero hears the note (notes, i.e. musical aria) of Teseo’s heart in a speech that one might otherwise have assumed to be recitative.

There was also something of a jigsaw-puzzle in distributing the various speeches of the Pescatori (Fishermen): which should be choral, which individual? This chorus has a similar function to the Pastori (Shepherds) in Orfeo, indeed Teseo’s first mention of them refers to a pastore. Prof Carter alerted me to subtle hints of contrasting character-types and awareness or lack of knowledge of previous action amongst individual members of this chorus. So I sketched out various distributions: my working notes refer to “Mr Happy = Tenor 1” and “Ms Miserable = Soprano” etc! I scored their speeches for 1-6 voices – the larger ensembles might well be doubled, according to contemporary information on the size of choruses.

After completing the score, I calculated the required company of singers: my version can be performed with 10 singers (with a lot of doubling), but would be better with 14 (with some doubling, as suggested by period reports). This would correspond to the nine singers of the all-male Mantuan capella (SSS AA TT BB) plus a mixed-gender group of five guest soloists (including La Florinda as Arianna and Francesco Rasi doubling Apollo in the Prologue and Bacco in the Finale).

 

MODELLING TECHNIQUES

 

I took as my models Monteverdi’s compositions circa 1608, which include madrigals, the opera Orfeo, the Ballo delle Ingrate, the surviving Lamento and other pieces inspired by it, and even the 1610 Vespers. Specific references in Rinuccini’s text sent me again to Orfeo, Ballo delle Ingrate and the madrigal Sfogava con le stelle as well as to Peri’s Euridice (1600) and the 1589 Intermedi. Peri’s description of his recitative, imitating the pitch contours of a declaiming actor over a bass defined by the changing emotions of the text, is reinforced by the latest work of musicologist Emily Wilbourne, which connects Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’Arte. I also took note of Tim Carter’s observation that whilst Peri’s recitative tends to circle around, Monteverdi’s tends to go either up or down, and (noted by Carter and Wilbourne alike) often first up and then decisively down, in the most passionate moments.

 

I deliberately pre-loaded my subconscious mind with lots of good examples, reviewing entire books of Monteverdi madrigals, directing a staged production of Ballo delle Ingrate, performing Orfeo, running a workshop on the Lamento and listening to live performances of Sfogava and other madrigals, in the three month period of thinking and composing. This time-period is comparable to Monteverdi’s speed of writing (although his work was often delayed by waiting for political and artistic decisions from his patrons). For the actual writing, I consciously employed techniques of cut-and-paste, pattern recognition, transformation, declamation and re-composition.

 

Cut and Paste

Monteverdi frequently uses precisely the same notes for particular words: the exclamation ohime! often falls from d to F# over an F# in the continuo bass. Where I recognised such words in Rinuccini’s libretto, I used the well-known formula. This procedure was applied only on the short term, usually a single word, perhaps a short phrase.

 

Monteverdi ‘Orfeo’ & ALK ‘Arianna a la recherche’

My setting of Arianna’s first speech borrows from Monteverdi’s setting of the same word as the opening speech for Proserpina in Act IV of Orfeo.

 

Pattern recognition

 

In the madrigal books, Monteverdi responds to texts that suggest (without necessarily citing precisely) verses he previously set, with music that recalls (without necessarily citing precisely) his earlier work. For example, the Lettera Amorosa with its paean to a woman’s red hair (La Florinda had red hair) frequently recalls moments from Arianna’s Lamento. Rinuccini’s libretto for the opera often suggests well-known texts, from his own work – Ballo delle Ingrate (also 1608), Euridice (1600) and the madrigal Sfogava con le stelle (1603) as well as from Striggio’s Orfeo (1607) and the Florentine Intermedi (1589). There are also very frequent cross-references within the libretto, with many parallel passages between Arianna’s Lament and the Nunzio’s description of her lamenting, Teseo’s meeting with Consigliero and the Pescatori’s report of that meeting, and images of sunrise and sunset.

Of course, there may well be other references that escaped me, and we cannot know how many references Monteverdi would have noticed, or chosen to act on. I deliberately took every opportunity I found to make use of this pattern recognition. My score may therefore have more (not necessarily precise) citations than Monteverdi’s practice, but Rinuccini’s libretto has more (sometimes subtle) citations than other early operas.

The words of Arianna’s Lament are referenced (in the previous scene ) by Nunzio Primo, and my setting follows Rinuccini’s lead.

Monteverdi ‘Lamento’ & ALK ‘Arianna a la recherche’

This technique of pattern recognition I used on various time-scales, single words, complete phrases or extended sections, according to the length of Rinuccini’s citation. His reference to the opening solo of the Florentine Intermedi is unmistakeable, and I similarly cite the corresponding music in my setting of Nunzio Secondo’s final speech.

 

Cavalieri ‘Florentine Intermedi 1589’ & ALK ‘Arianna a la recherche’

 

Transformation

 

There is, to my mind, an important distinction between modelling (my intention) and contrafactum (a valid approach, but not my choice). For both techniques, it’s important that if the listener recognises the original, any associations evoked will be thoroughly supportive of the new context. With this aim in mind, I modelled the opening Sinfonia of my Prologue on Monteverdi’s Tempro la cetra: both are songs for solo tenor, in which the singer’s lyre accompanies songs of love, not of war. I avoided direct copying by switching modes from Monteverdi’s “G major” to “G minor”, more suited to the opening of Rinuccini’s tragedia.

Monteverdi ‘Tempro la cetra’ & ALK ‘Arianna a la recherche’

Similarly, I took the walking bass from Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum in the 1610 Vespers as a model for Bacco’s triumphant appearance, transforming it from sacred G minor to an exuberant G major, which ends up recalling Orfeo’s triumphant return from hell, Qual honor.

 

Monteverdi ‘Vespers’ (1610) & ALK ‘Arianna a la recherche’

 

Cued by Rinuccini’s words Faran del tuo bel crin ghirlanda d’oro (They will make a golden garland of your hair), my violin-writing cites Monteverdi’s madrigal Chiome d’oro (Golden hair), which he himself borrowed from to set the Psalm Beatus Vir.

Declamation

 

I declaimed aloud every single line of the libretto, searching for the best rhythms and pitch contours, accompanying my spoken recitation with historical gestures. I had not previously realised how significant the ‘language of gesture’ was for composers in this repertoire, as well as for performers. But Monteverdi’s letters, cited by Tim Carter, emphasise the need for strong gestures if there is to be good music, and Rinuccini’s libretto has Nunzio Secondo describe the silent eloquence of Bacco’s confrontation with Arianna. I had to correct my initial errors, and wrestle with challenging gesture-puzzles: lightning must strike downwards of course, but an emergence out of the deep sea must move upwards, yet somehow allow a low hand-position for the final word profondo. Once the gestures are decided, the music has to correspond.

ALK ‘Arianna a la recherche’

Lampeggio l’aere, e fuor del mar profondo… (Lightning strikes through the air, and out from the deep sea…)

Out from the deep sea come Nymphs and Divas, whose music in my setting recalls the Nymphs coming out to dance in the Ballo Lasciate i monti (Leave the mountains) from Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

 

Re-composition

Although it is not specifically indicated in Rinuccini’s libretto, instrumental music is clearly required to delineate Act boundaries, to allow characters to enter or exit or as ritornelli between strophes of arias or choruses. Here, bolder compositorial action was necessary, since there was no text to inspire the modelling techniques described above. But the affetto (emotion) of the situation, and the identity of the characters onstage gives clear guidance: battaglia (battle) figures for Teseo and his Soldiers, pastoral recorders for the Pescatori (Fishermen), sad modes for Arianna. I wrote strophic variations on the romanesca ground for one chorus and imitated the extraordinary dissonances of Monteverdi’s madrigals for the Fishermen’s outburst of anger against Teseo Ma tu, superbo altero (But you, haughty and proud).

My setting of Arianna’s aria of hope Dolcissima speranza is modelled on Monteverdi’s well-known song Si dolce e’l tormento, and I rework that material again as exit music for the lamenting princess. In another sinfonia for the protagonist, I take the thematic material of Josquin’s 4-voice Mille Regretz (one of those earlier chansons which were remembered in the 17th century and performed in new, ornamented settings) and rework it as a polyphonic fantasia for string quintet in the style of Monteverdi’s prima prattica.

 

Perhaps the most delicate work was in Act IV Scene ii, where I had to compose new music for the commenting Pescatori as well as string accompaniments for Arianna herself, around the published music of Monteverdi’s Lamento. As a performer, I have always opposed the addition of editorial string accompaniments to basso continuo, so it was a strange experience to be tasked with writing such additional accompaniments myself. Modelling my work on Monteverdi’s string accompaniments to Clorinda’s speeches in Combattimento and on the last strophe of Possente Spirto in Orfeo, I gave Arianna the full complement of five strings (contemporary reports mention ‘violins and viols’ which probably means just small and large string instruments, but does suggest a full consort), but left sections with fast-changing harmonies to be accompanied by continuo alone. The resulting contrasts bring out both Arianna’s grandeur and her vulnerability, the essential elements of baroque tragedy.

 

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I eagerly await the reactions of performers and audiences as they experience for the first time in four centuries Monteverdi’s famous Lamento in its original scoring with strings, and in a historically informed operatic context.

 

How – in what format- to remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

ARIANNA a la recherche

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.

 

 

HOW to remake Monteverdi’s lost Arianna?

 

The first article in this series explores “WHY remake Ariannahere. Right now, I’m in the midst of the research and creative process of writing my own remake of Monteverdi’s lost Arianna: the prologue and finale have been composed, and I’m polishing the detailed plans for the many choruses and small ensembles.

There are two parts to the question of ‘how’ to remake a lost baroque opera: how should the result come out, what kind of work should it be? And how should that result be achieved, by what methodology? This post looks as the first part of the ‘how’ question: what is the remake intended to be?

Inspired by the impeccable scholarship, yet fundamentally practical approach of Tim Carter’s book, Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre here, I have a clear goal in mind. I’m not trying to re-create a lost musical masterpiece: I’m writing the score for a music-drama, for a performance in a theatre, with singers and musicians, and for an audience. Just as was the case for Monteverdi in Mantua in 1608, whatever ideas I might have of an ‘ideal’ composition, I have to write for the situation at hand, for particular performers, for a particular venue, for the anticipated audience.

If this project lives on, and my remade Arianna has a revival, perhaps with another cast, maybe in another venue, certainly with another audience, then there will need to be certain changes, for practical reasons. This is what we see, for example, in the two manuscript sources of Poppea, which reflect not only changes made after the premiere, but also further changes for two different productions, in two different cities, Venice and Naples.

Imitation

Keeping a practical outcome in mind encourages me to see the libretto not only as a text to be set to music, but also as the script for a theatrical performance, with hints of scenery, costumes, entrances and exits, of the emotional background and changing moods of the various characters. Without wanting to impose a Stanislavski-style, method-actor’s back-story on every anonymous chorus-member, there are nevertheless clear differences in character between the various soloists from the choir (I’m grateful to Tim Carter for the suggestion to investigate such differences). In Orfeo (1607), these ensemble-soloists are named as Pastori (idealised Shepherds in pastoral Arcadia); in Arianna (1608), they are members of a choir of Pescatori (similarly idealised Fishermen, who tend their nets just as the shepherds tend their sheep, and who – like the Pastori – spend their free time in love-affairs, singing and dancing). Following Professor Carter’s lead, and with his many helpful comments in private correspondence, my organisation of the various choirs – Soldiers of Teseo, Fishermen, and Soldiers of Bacchus – reflects cues and clues given by the sung texts.

Considering the end result as a theatrical performance, rather than merely a musical score, also encourages thinking about gesture, one of the most important aspects of rhetorical delivery and character acting. Indeed, the anonymous c1630 Il Corago  here defines acting as ‘imitating with gesture’.

Recitare … imitando le azioni umane, angeliche o divine con la voce e gesti… rappresentare le medisme azione cantando

To act… by imitating the human, angelic or divine actions with the voice and with gestures… to perform the same action singing.

[Notice that the 17th-century Italian word recitare means simply ‘to act’: it does not carry the baggage of our modern assumptions about Recitative. Indeed, Il Corago’s definition lists three ways of acting – tre maniere di recitare: spoken drama, sung ‘opera’, and wordless mime.]

Whilst there is tendency nowadays to think of gesture as a ‘bolt-on’ extra to historically informed musical performance, historical sources make it clear that Action (not only gestures of the hands, but facial expressions and movements of the whole body) was fundamental, ‘built-in’ from the outset. As he began work on a new project, Monteverdi himself searched through the libretto, looking for powerful emotions to express, and also for gestures (implied by the words) which could be imitated in instrumental music.

In a series of letters to Alessandro Striggio (who wrote the libretto for Orfeo) concerning an opera being planned in 1627, La finta pazza Licori (a few months later the project was abandoned), Monteverdi discusses and links the concepts of ‘imitation’ (dramatic representation, whether in acting, singing or instrumental music) and gesture.

The words [should] mimic either gestures or noises or any other kind of imitative idea that might suggest itself (24 May)

I am constantly aiming to have lively imitations of the music, gestures and tempi take place beind the scene (10 July)

So instrumental music (played di dentro, behind the scenic backdrop, as specified in Orfeo) would imitate not only the singer’s music (the lead role was to be sung by Margherita Basile), but also her acting, specifically her gestures. Monteverdi’s instructions for the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda similarly call for the actors’ passi & gesti, the instrumentalists’ varied sounds and the declamation of the text to be delivered in such a way that the three Actions (i.e. three ways of presenting drama) come together in a united representation.

che le tre ationi venghino ad’incontrarsi in una imitatione unita.

Rehearsing Combattimento in Andrew Lawrence-King’s production for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, incorporating swordplay from Capo Ferro (1610).

 

In both these works, Monteverdi’s aim was for his music to create effetti – not only a good effect in general, but also the ‘special effects’ of non-musical noises (e.g. the sounds of battle), and the emotional effect of ‘moving the passions’ – affetti. In this remake of Arianna, my aim is similarly to unite the essential concepts underlying Monteverdi’s vision of what we now call ‘opera’: drama as Action; acting as Gesture (of hands, face and the whole body); music and acting as Imitation; musical Effects that move the Affects (the audience’s emotions); all rooted in the communicative power (Energia) of detailed poetic imagery Enargeia.

Read more about affetti/effetti, Energia/Enargeia in Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche here.

 

 

Three ways to represent Monteverdi’s lost Arianna

 

Our project is certainly not the first attempt to construct an opera around the Lamento d’Arianna. Of course, many ensembles have programmed other baroque music around the Lament, in order to create structure and flow, perhaps even a dramatic plot, within a concert performance. But in 1995, Alexander Goehr composed a modernist score for an ensemble including extensive pitched percussion, saxophone, sampler etc, but preserving some of Monteverdi’s vocal lines. A couple of excerpts are available to listen to on YouTube, the Lament here and another scene here both from the 1998 recording. In spite of the talented cast of singers, critical reviews were unfavourable. Writing for both Musical Times and Opera News, Tom Sutcliffe dismissed the project as ‘perfunctory’: ‘The opera reached its nadir in Goehr’s setting of the great surviving fragment itself [..] the harmonic implications of Goehr’s bass-line distortions destroyed the dramatic build-up’.

In 2015, Claudio Cavina, director of the ensemble La Venexiana, presented a semi-staged performance of his assemblage of Monteverdi’s music, reset to the texts of Rinuccini’s Arianna libretto. Using contrafacta in this way is a thoroughly historical procedure – we have 17th-century settings of Monteverdi madrigals to devotional texts and even a contrafactum of Arianna’s Lamento with a religious text in Latin, the Pianto della Madonna. The proof of a good contrafactum is not only that the word-setting works in terms of accentuation, word-painting and changes of affetto, but also that any remembered associations connected to the original text complement the new function of the music. This requires careful consideration and adaptation of the new text and the pre-extant music. Whatever success the private performance in 2015 enjoyed was sadly eclipsed by Maestro Cavina’s subsequent illness, preventing any follow-up to the initial experiment. It is to be hoped that he will continue to make a full recovery, and perhaps even return to the challenges of Arianna.

 

Alessandro Turchi ‘Bacchus & Ariadne’ (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture!

 

My re-make differs from both these previous projects in that the final product is intended to be a Historically Informed baroque performance (not only musically, but in the stage production too), and that it is new-composed, rather than an assemblage of contrafacta. Nevertheless my writing is carefully modelled on Monteverdi’s c1608 compositions.

In a number of works of this period, a particular word or short phrase is set to precisely the same notes. A good example is Ohime!, often set falling through a ‘forbidden’ interval, c F#, syncopated against a strong bass D between the two syllables.Probably this is the musical representation of a conventional way of declaiming such words in the spoken theatre, which (as Peri tells us) is the model for seicento recitative. Where such words or short phrases occur in Rinuccini’s Arianna, I’m copying Monteverdi’s standard recipe for them. So the word mirate is set in my constructed final scene to the same rising third to which it is set in Monteverdi’s music for the Lamento.

In other instances, a similar poetic image within a longer phrase, calls forth a similar (but not identical) musical setting. This encourages me to take suitable models from Monteverdi’s oeuvre as inspiration for a similar (but not identical) parallel setting. Thus my string ritornello for Apollo’s Prologue, a tenor singing tenderly to the lyre of love – su cetera d’amor teneri carmi – takes its rhythmic structure and rising phrases from the ritornello to the tenor solo from Monteverdi’s Book VII (1619)  Tempro la cetra – I tune my lyre to sing the honour of Mars, god of war. But instead of the hard hexachord of G major harmonies and sharpened notes in Monteverdi’s melody, my music for Apollo’s cetra adopts the soft hexachord with G minor harmonies and melodies with Bb, Eb and F. Of course, it’s important that any associations my models evoke are appropriate: here, if the listener is reminded of another lyre being tuned, that’s all to the good, especially if the listener also appreciates the significance of the shift from warlike major to pastoral, even melancholy minor, from hard to soft hexachords in period terminology.

Of course, I’m taking care to provide appropriate word-painting, whenever the poetry calls for a gesture that can be imitated in music. Apollo’s first words Io che ne l’alto… (I, who on high…) naturally require a high note on alto, matching the actor’s upward extended right hand.

My next article will continue this theme of ‘How to remake Arianna’, with a detailed comparison between Monteverdi’s procedures in setting the libretto and the methodology I am evolving for this challenging (not to say, daunting) project!

 

It was Professor Carter, playing devil’s advocate, who first challenged my Arianna project with the question, “Why?”. Since then, he has been immensely generous with comments, guidance and historical information. Inevitably, we will disagree here and there, but this project could not succeed without him. Thank you, Tim.

 

Why remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

ARIANNA a la recherche

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.

 

WHY remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

 

Recalling the famous question, why climb Mount Everest, I’m tempted to answer for Arianna, “because it’s not there!”. All that survives of the original music is the famous Lamento, published for voice and continuo in 1623, also transcribed as a 5-voice madrigal and in religious contrafacta. As Tim Carter writes in Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), Monteverdi regarded Arianna, composed in Mantua the year after Orfeo, as his greatest work for the stage; he revived it as his first production for the public theatre in Venice (1640);  it came closest to the via naturale alla immitatione, ‘the natural way to represent’ drama in music.

Arianna was by all accounts a huge success, and its central lament for the protagonist reportedly moved the ladies in the audience to tears.

 

Certainly, the construction of almost the entire opera is a formidable challenge, a musicological and artistic mountain to climb, with a huge pile of text to set, including a Prologue for Apollo and a virtuoso final aria for Bacchus, both sung by Francesco Rasi, who also sang the title-role in Orfeo. Any half-way decent setting will present a similar challenge to performers and an intriguing experience for audiences, as well offering irresistible grist to the mill of critics and musicologists.

 

So ARIANNA a la recherche attempts to set the famous Lament in context, with all due humility that the exercise of imitating Monteverdi can never be more than an exploration, an Essay in music, a baroque Versuch.

 

It is the task of the historian to create appropriate frames of reference within which Monteverdi’s works might plausibly have been viewed and understood by competent members of their first audiences. We are helped by various more or less obvious signposts in the works themselves; we are hindered by the unclear nature of early seventeenth-century theatrical and musical semiotics. Much hangs on the question of how precisely the music both informs and shapes our understanding….

Constructing meaning is an exercise both challenging and fraught with danger. But it is an essential part of the theatrical experience.

 

And the investigation of this ‘lost opera’ is a fascinating research project, following Professor Carter’s lead once again:

 

The longest chapter in [Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre] concerns the ‘lost’ works, where Monteverdi’s music does not survive, for all that one can still say a good deal about it. In general, however, my approach tends to be less philosophical or aesthetic than pragmatic; I am not so much concerned with my own, or even Monteverdi’s grand statements as with the nuts and bolts of how a seventeenth-century musician might have written for, and worked within, the theatre.

 

Composing, rehearsing and performing a setting of Rinuccini’s libretto (which survives in several variant editions) is the ultimate practical investigation, a hands-on study that should complement traditional musicology and reveal new insights.

 

Treating Monteverdi’s operas … as being of and for the theatre does not diminish their stature.

The status of his operas as the first ‘great’ examples of the genre means that they are rarely studied in this more practical light: thus their careful design and even content made to suit his performers have not hitherto been fully appreciated. Not that these works suffer as a result; indeed, one is forced to recognise still more Monteverdi’s remarkable achievement as a man of the theatre.

 

 

It’s always possible that the publicity surrounding this ‘reconstruction’ might flush out of hiding an original source for Monteverdi’s setting, held perhaps by some private collector, or buried in some as yet un-catalogued archive. For performers and academics of the future, this would be a great result from our humble endeavour. And the investigatory effort would not be wasted: on the contrary, comparisons between original and reconstruction would reveal gaps in our knowledge and understanding.

 

Reverse-Engineering Arianna

 

Many of the world’s most inspiring teachers take the trouble also to study new disciplines, deliberately placing themselves at the other end of the teacher/pupil axis. For this, amongst other reasons, I began studying Tai Chi. In the academic study of any of the arts, the reverse side of the coin from analysis is creativity. Early Music, our discipline of Historically Informed Performance, is sometimes characterised as searching to understand and follow the composer’s intentions: the reverse of that process is to become the composer oneself, transforming the libretto not only into a musical score, but into a dramatic performance and an emotional experience for the audience.

 

In short, the journey ‘a la recherche’ of lost Arianna is empowered by the connections between Research, Training and Performance that define the theatrical mission of OPERA OMNIA, that have guided my academic and artistic work ever more strongly over the last decades. I hope that, in your different individual ways, you will be interested to join us on this unique journey.

 

[Pioneering musicologist, Nino] Pirrotta wished to dispel any lingering Romantic vision of Monteverdi as a transcendental genius, and the related claim that opera as a genre emerged fully formed and perfect in his hands. Rather, he sought to place the composer and his work for the theatre squarely in the context of his life and times. Monteverdi was a working musician… and his operas, for all their undoubted status as masterpieces, were the product of artistic struggle where problems were exposed and not always solved.

 

 

It was Professor Carter, playing devil’s advocate, who first challenged my Arianna idea with the question, “Why?”. Since then, he has been immensely generous with comments, guidance and historical information. All the musicological citations in this article are from Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre. Inevitably, we will disagree here and there, but this project could not succeed without him. Thank you, Tim.

 

 

So much for “Why?”. The next question is of course, “How?”. Watch for my next post!