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!

Orlando Orlando: Drama and dance-rhythms

1st November 2019:
To celebrate Orlando Orlando‘s being nominated for Russia’s highest theatrical award, the Golden Mask, in 6 categories – best production Georgij Isaakyan, best design Hartmut Schörghofer, best musical direction Andrew Lawrence-King, best lighting design Alexey Nikolaev , best female soloist Maria Mashulia, best male soloist Kiril Novakhatko – this article has been updated with additional commentary on Handel’s techniques of Drama & Dance-rhythms.

This article was first posted in connection with the premiere of Handel’s Orlando at the Helikon Theatre in Moscow, 27th March 2019, entitled Orlando, Orlando: Handel’s Orlando (1733) in memory of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (2016). Music by George Frideric Handel, Libretto adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece L’Orlando (1711) after Ludovico Ariosto Orlando Furioso (1516/1532). Concept & Adaptation by Georgij Isaakyan (Director), Edition by Andrew Lawrence-King (Musical Director), Techno episodes by Gabriel Prokofiev, Design by Hartmut Schörghofer.

Synopsis of Georgy Isaakyan’s version (read online and/or download pdf)

Orlando Orlando libretto (includes English translation: read online and/or download pdf)

This production is not an ‘authentic’ reconstruction of baroque opera, but a new work of music-theatrical creativity in which 18th-century music tells a 21st-century story, bringing together Gabriel Prokofiev’s specially composed electronic music and the most modern understanding of how George Frideric’s score would have sounded at the King’s Theatre, London in 1733.

For Orlando, Handel assembled an unusually large orchestra with a powerful bass-section, and the dance-rhythm of the fashionable Gavotte is heard several times, representing Orlando’s fury.

In his madness, Orlando identifies Angelica as the mythological godess Persephone: “Beautiful eyes, no, do not weep, no”

In his madness, Orlando mistakes Dorinda for the goddess Venus, or an enemy warrior: “Already, I wrestle him; already I embrace him  with the force of my arm”

In the extraordinary mad-scene created for the famous Italian castrato Senesino, bass instruments play alone as the protagonist descends into a hell of jealous rage.

“I am my own spirit, cut off from myself. I am a ghost, and like a ghost I want to make the journey down there to the kingdom of sorrow!”

And the full orchestra lurches into 5/8 metre as Orlando imagines himself rowing Charon’s boat into the underworld.

“There is boat across the river Styx! In spite of Charon, already I’m rowing over the waves”

Handel freely borrowed from other composers’ (and his own) work, and the previous season he re-wrote two earlier dramas, expanding the chamber-opera Acis & Galatea and transforming a one-act staged masque into the first English oratorio, Esther, performed as a three-act concert with the addition of solo harp, trumpets, drums and a chorus. For Orlando, Handel adapted Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s (1711) story of mad jealousy, itself a re-working of episodes from Ariosto’s 16th-century classic, Orlando furioso. Bernard Picart’s (1710) engraving of the giant Atlas, republished in 1733 as Le Temple des Muses, was re-interpreted as the stage set for the opening scene with the magician Zoroastro.

Perhaps this 1731 print inspired the first scene of Handel’s ‘Orlando’

Handel’s audience were thrilled by several spectacular stage transformations, utilising the full resources of period stage machinery and dramatically presented as the result of Zoroastro’s magic, assisted by his demons. In our production, Schörghofer’s design employs modern stage technology to offer the audience surprise and spectacle, whilst clarifying the subtly interwoven stories as characters from medieval romances (Chanson de Roland, 11th cent) are re-drawn by Boiardo (Orlando innamorato, 1495) Capece, Handel and Isaakyan.

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

A German musician producing Italian opera in England, Handel writes a conventional French-style overture, but surprises the audience with up-to-date dance-music, a fast Italian giga.

This Italian giga has characteristically continuous movement in the melody line, with a driving bass.

Listen to how Gabriel Prokofiev transforms Handel’s giga, the height of fashion in 1733, into 21st-century electronic dance-music.

 

The rhythmic drive of the giga is disrupted with broken phrases to depict Dorinda’s misplaced faith in ‘sweet little lies’.

In spite of trills and rests, this Aria still shows the characteristics of an Italian giga: “Oh dear little words, sweet glances; even if you are lies, how I will believe you!”

The step-and-jump rhythms of a French gigue are heard in Medoro’s second Act aria;

The restrained movement of a French gigue characterises Medoro’s hesitation: “I would like to be able to love you, but…”

the slow swing of an Italian folk-dance, the  siciliano characterises Dorinda’s wistful longing;

More gentle than a giga, the tender siciliano characterises Dorinda’s nostalgia for a love that never was: “If I return to the meadow, I am made to see my Medoro in every flower”

Orlando’s lament in hell is sung to a French passacaille.

In French operas the descending bass of the minor-mode passacaille suggests tragic passions and creates opportunities for expressive dissonances and chromatic variations: “For from tears even in the kingdom of Hell, pity can be aroused in everyone”. The audience come to realise that this text is ironic: in his madness, Orlando shows no pity for Angelica, and changes his Gavotte-refrain to “Yes, eyes, weep, yes, yes!”

The composer’s bold strokes of dramaturgical re-designing and contrasting musical styles were further transformed by unwritten baroque performance practices. Continuo-players spontaneously realised the written bass-line with rich harmonies and strong rhythms; singers added their own variations to the repeated section of a da capo aria; sometimes time would stop whilst singers  or instrumentalists improvised a final cadenza. Handel did not conduct, but directed by playing the harpsichord, alongside the theorbo (bass lute). The expression of the vocal line was not indicated with markings of piano and forte, but follows from the accentuation and emotions of the words.

This Recitative is not just rapid patter, look at all the rhetorical detail: A long note and glorious high notes for “As custodian of your glory…”. Strong dissonance for “I stimulate you to follow it”. Another long note for “Urge.. ” and the highest notes and thrilling contrasts of short notes for “…your heart to great works!”. A long sigh “Ah!” with an intake of breath afterwards, dissonance and Orlando’s voice dropping “love takes it all away from me”. Zoroastro’s voice rises with long notes and an unexpected sharp in the melody-line for “It will be given back to you by valour!”. Orlando’s falling phrase (which would be given the conventional drooping appoggiatura) “It languishes in my breast”. Zoroastro’s strong retort with high notes “Scorned…”, snappily broken phrases “is that what you want to be…” and a suitably horrible melodic tritone “by a vile little boy?”. The “little boy” is Cupid as the flute’s flapping wings show in the following bars.

Instrumentalists similarly have few written phrasing-marks, but imitate the crisp articulation of the Italian language with a great variety of bow-strokes.

What might appear to be just a series of equal quavers acquires subtle rhythmic patterning from the long/short, accented/un-accented syllables of the Italian text, imitated in this English-language metrical paraphrase: “Respond to it for me; your heart might tell you that.. I discard all your love”. Today’s performers might usefully channel a jazz-singer’s approach to text and rhythm, rather than classical training.

For the eerie calm of Orlando’s final aria we added baroque harp, which in Handel’s dramatic works suggests a vision of heavenly peace. Trumpets and drums represent royal authority and military power; horns and oboes a pastoral idyll; the flute an amorous nightingale or Cupid’s fluttering wings. Modern scholarship has revealed the subtle structure of Handel’s recitatives, which imitate the pitch contours and speech rhythms of a great actor in the baroque theatre.

Studying the text as dramatic speech in the grandiose style of baroque spoken theatre reveals how accurately Handel notates [what Il Corago first described c1630 as] ‘the declamation of a fine actor’, in the generation between Thomas Betterton and David Garrick. As shown in my English-language metrical paraphrase: Zoroastro barks out his anger with the urgency of poetic anapests followed by the characteristic contrast of short and long notes “To what risks you’re exposed now, you reckless lovers, by blinded love!”. Angelica’s reply is a languid drawl “We only have to get free from Orlando.” Zoroastro barks again with the upward intonation of an abrupt question “And if he comes here?” – singers can appropriately add an upward appoggiatura. Medoro tries to assert himself, but Handel’s downward inflections betray the character’s weakness “My heart is also valiant!” and Angelica interrupts with powerful rhythm and a strong upward leap “P’haps for my sake, he would not be so cruel” – the conventional appoggiatura makes a harsh dissonance here. Zoroastro mimics her phrase with the slow tempo of bitter sarcasm “And he’ll be nice… to his unfaithful lover?”. With a wonderfully dramatic contrast, he switches back to fast anapests “Hurry up and get running, fly away from his anger…”. The notated rhythms of Handel’s music work perfectly as dramatic speech.

See my previous article on tempo and rhythm for Handel, here.

We added a chorus, whose members (in the manner of Handel’s oratorios or Bach’s Passions) comment on and drive forward the events of which, in the end, they are the victims. Their music is borrowed from Handel’s drama of cultural identity and religious conflict, Israel in Egypt (1739): Handel himself re-worked one of these choruses for Messiah (1741).

In Isaakyan’s reworking of the story, the magician Zoroastro appears in different guises, always as an authority figure: a star news-presenter, a domineering father, a bible-preacher, a populist politician. The choruses I selected show the public’s various reactions: unchallenging acceptance “Great was the company of the preachers”; anxious forboding “The people shall hear and be afraid… they shall be as still as a stone”; belated understanding “There came a thick darkness”; and a fascination with destructive power “He gave them hailstones for rain, fire mingled with the hail”.

“Orlando Orlando” Premiere Left to right: Hartmut Schörghofer, Gabriel Prokofiev, Georgy Isaakyan, Andrew Lawrence-King, Dmitry Bertman

Orlando, Orlando: Nominated  for the Golden Mask in 6 categories (2019)

 

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.

Orlando Orlando: 18th-century music tells a 21st-century story

1st November 2019:
To celebrate Orlando Orlando‘s being nominated for Russia’s highest theatrical award, the Golden Mask, in 6 categories – best production Georgij Isaakyan, best design Hartmut Schörghofer, best musical direction Andrew Lawrence-King, best lighting design Alexey Nikolaev , best female soloist Maria Mashulia, best male soloist Kiril Novakhatko – this article has been updated with additional commentary on Handel’s techniques of Drama & Dance-rhythms.

 

This article is posted in connection with the premiere of Handel’s Orlando at the Helikon Theatre in Moscow, 27th March 2019, entitled Orlando, Orlando: Handel’s Orlando (1733) in memory of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (2016). Music by George Frideric Handel, Libretto adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece L’Orlando (1711) after Ludovico Ariosto Orlando Furioso (1516/1532). Concept & Adaptation by Georgij Isaakyan (Director), Edition by Andrew Lawrence-King (Musical Director), Techno episodes by Gabriel Prokofiev, Design by Hartmut Schörghofer.

Synopsis of Georgy Isaakyan’s version (read online and/or download pdf)

Orlando Orlando libretto (includes English translation: read online and/or download pdf)

 

 

This production is not an ‘authentic’ reconstruction of baroque opera, but a new work of music-theatrical creativity in which 18th-century music tells a 21st-century story, bringing together Gabriel Prokofiev’s specially composed electronic music and the most modern understanding of how George Frideric’s score would have sounded at the King’s Theatre, London in 1733.

 

 

 

For Orlando, Handel assembled an unusually large orchestra with a powerful bass-section, and the dance-rhythm of the fashionable Gavotte is heard several times, representing Orlando’s fury.

 

In his madness, Orlando identifies Angelica as the mythological godess Persephone: “Beautiful eyes, no, do not weep, no”

 

In his madness, Orlando mistakes Dorinda for the goddess Venus, or an enemy warrior: “Already, I wrestle him; already I embrace him  with the force of my arm”

 

 

 

In the extraordinary mad-scene created for the famous Italian castrato Senesino, bass instruments play alone as the protagonist descends into a hell of jealous rage.

 

 

“I am my own spirit, cut off from myself. I am a ghost, and like a ghost I want to make the journey down there to the kingdom of sorrow!”

 

And the full orchestra lurches into 5/8 metre as Orlando imagines himself rowing Charon’s boat into the underworld.

 

“There is boat across the river Styx! In spite of Charon, already I’m rowing over the waves”

 

 

Handel freely borrowed from other composers’ (and his own) work, and the previous season he re-wrote two earlier dramas, expanding the chamber-opera Acis & Galatea and transforming a one-act staged masque into the first English oratorio, Esther, performed as a three-act concert with the addition of solo harp, trumpets, drums and a chorus. For Orlando, Handel adapted Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s (1711) story of mad jealousy, itself a re-working of episodes from Ariosto’s 16th-century classic, Orlando furioso. Bernard Picart’s (1710) engraving of the giant Atlas, republished in 1733 as Le Temple des Muses, was re-interpreted as the stage set for the opening scene with the magician Zoroastro.

 

Perhaps this 1731 print inspired the first scene of Handel’s ‘Orlando’

 

Handel’s audience were thrilled by several spectacular stage transformations, utilising the full resources of period stage machinery and dramatically presented as the result of Zoroastro’s magic, assisted by his demons. In our production, Schörghofer’s design employs modern stage technology to offer the audience surprise and spectacle, whilst clarifying the subtly interwoven stories as characters from medieval romances (Chanson de Roland, 11th cent) are re-drawn by Boiardo (Orlando innamorato, 1495) Capece, Handel and Isaakyan.

 

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

 

 

A German musician producing Italian opera in England, Handel writes a conventional French-style overture, but surprises the audience with up-to-date dance-music, a fast Italian giga.

 

This Italian giga has characteristically continuous movement in the melody line, with a driving bass.

 

The rhythmic drive of the giga is disrupted with broken phrases to depict Dorinda’s misplaced faith in ‘sweet little lies’.

In spite of trills and rests, this Aria still shows the characteristics of an Italian giga: “Oh dear little words, sweet glances; even if you are lies, how I will believe you!”

 

The step-and-jump rhythms of a French gigue are heard in Medoro’s second Act aria;

 

The restrained movement of a French gigue characterises Medoro’s hesitation: “I would like to be able to love you, but…”

 

the slow swing of an Italian folk-dance, the  siciliano characterises Dorinda’s wistful longing;

 

More gentle than a giga, the tender siciliano characterises Dorinda’s nostalgia for a love that never was: “If I return to the meadow, I am made to see my Medoro in every flower”

 

Orlando’s lament in hell is sung to a French passacaille.

 

In French operas the descending bass of the minor-mode passacaille suggests tragic passiona and creates opportunities for expressive dissonances and chromatic variations: “For from tears even in the kingdom of Hell, pity can be aroused in everyone”. The audience come to realise that this text is ironic: in his madness, Orlando shows no pity for Angelica, and changes his Gavotte-refrain to “Yes, eyes, weep, yes, yes!”

 

 

The composer’s bold strokes of dramaturgical re-designing and contrasting musical styles were further transformed by unwritten baroque performance practices. Continuo-players spontaneously realised the written bass-line with rich harmonies and strong rhythms; singers added their own variations to the repeated section of a da capo aria; sometimes time would stop whilst singers  or instrumentalists improvised a final cadenza. Handel did not conduct, but directed by playing the harpsichord, alongside the theorbo (bass lute). The expression of the vocal line was not indicated with markings of piano and forte, but follows from the accentuation and emotions of the words.

 

This Recitative is not just rapid patter, look at all the rhetorical detail: A long note and glorious high notes for “As custodian of your glory…”. Strong dissonance for “I stimulate you to follow it”. Another long note for “Urge.. ” and the highest notes and thrilling contrasts of short notes for “…your heart to great works!”. A long sigh “Ah!” with an intake of breath afterwards, dissonance and Orlando’s voice dropping “love takes it all away from me”. Zoroastro’s voice rises with long notes and an unexpected sharp in the melody-line for “It will be given back to you by valour!”. Orlando’s falling phrase (which would be given the conventional drooping appoggiatura) “It languishes in my breast”. Zoroastro’s strong retort with high notes “Scorned…”, snappily broken phrases “is that what you want to be…” and a suitably horrible melodic tritone “by a vile little boy?”. The “little boy” is Cupid as the flute’s flapping wings show in the following bars.

 

Instrumentalists similarly have few written phrasing-marks, but imitate the crisp articulation of the Italian language with a great variety of bow-strokes.

 

What might appear to be just a series of equal quavers acquires subtle rhythmic patterning from the long/short, accented/un-accented syllables of the Italian text, imitated in this English-language metrical paraphrase: “Respond to it for me; your heart might tell you that.. I discard all your love”. Today’s performers might usefully channel a jazz-singer’s approach to text and rhythm, rather than classical training.

 

 

 

For the eerie calm of Orlando’s final aria we added baroque harp, which in Handel’s dramatic works suggests a vision of heavenly peace. Trumpets and drums represent royal authority and military power; horns and oboes a pastoral idyll; the flute an amorous nightingale or Cupid’s fluttering wings. Modern scholarship has revealed the subtle structure of Handel’s recitatives, which imitate the pitch contours and speech rhythms of a great actor in the baroque theatre.

 

Studying the text as dramatic speech in the grandiose style of baroque spoken theatre reveals how accurately Handel notates [what Il Corago first described c1630 as] ‘the declamation of a fine actor’, in the generation between Thomas Betterton and David Garrick. As shown in my English-language metrical paraphrase: Zoroastro barks out his anger with the urgency of poetic anapests followed by the characteristic contrast of short and long notes “To what risks you’re exposed now, you reckless lovers, by blinded love!”. Angelica’s reply is a languid drawl “We only have to get free from Orlando.” Zoroastro barks again with the upward intonation of an abrupt question “And if he comes here?” – singers can appropriately add an upward appoggiatura. Medoro tries to assert himself, but Handel’s downward inflections betray the character’s weakness “My heart is also valiant!” and Angelica interrupts with powerful rhythm and a strong upward leap “P’haps for my sake, he would not be so cruel” – the conventional appoggiatura makes a harsh dissonance here. Zoroastro mimics her phrase with the slow tempo of bitter sarcasm “And he’ll be nice… to his unfaithful lover?”. With a wonderfully dramatic contrast, he switches back to fast anapests “Hurry up and get running, fly away from his anger…”. The notated rhythms of Handel’s music work perfectly as dramatic speech.

See my previous article on tempo and rhythm for Handel, here.

We added a chorus, whose members (in the manner of Handel’s oratorios or Bach’s Passions) comment on and drive forward the events of which, in the end, they are the victims. Their music is borrowed from Handel’s drama of cultural identity and religious conflict, Israel in Egypt (1739): Handel himself re-worked one of these choruses for Messiah (1741).

 

 

 

In Isaakyan’s reworking of the story, the magician Zoroastro appears in different guises, always as an authority figure: a star news-presenter, a domineering father, a bible-preacher, a populist politician. The choruses I selected show the public’s various reactions: unchallenging acceptance “Great was the company of the preachers”; anxious forboding “The people shall hear and be afraid… they shall be as still as a stone”; belated understanding “There came a thick darkness”; and a fascination with destructive power “He gave them hailstones for rain, fire mingled with the hail”.

 

 

“Orlando Orlando” Premiere Left to right: Hartmut Schörghofer, Gabriel Prokofiev, Georgy Isaakyan, Andrew Lawrence-King, Dmitry Bertman

 

 

Eternal Hieroglyphs: from Monteverdi’s Tactus to Handel’s Tempo Ordinario

Perhaps this 1731 print inspired the first scene of Handel’s 1733 opera ‘Orlando’

 

This article is posted in connection with the forthcoming production of Handel’s Orlando at the Helikon Theatre in Moscow, at the end of March 2019, entitled Orlando, Orlando: Handel’s Orlando (1733) in memory of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (2016). Music by George Frideric Handel, Libretto adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece L’Orlando (1711) after Ludovico Ariosto Orlando Furioso (1516/1532). Concept & Adaptation by Georgij Isaakyan (Director), Edition by Andrew Lawrence-King (Musical Director), Techno episodes by Gabriel Prokofiev, Design by Hartmut Schörghofer

Eternal Hieroglyphs?

 

In the opening scene of Handel’s opera Orlando (1733), the magician Zoroastro declares the stars to be ‘eternal hieroglyphs’ that he alone can interpret.

Gieroglifici eterni,

Che in zifre luminose ogn’or splendete     

Ah! Che alla mente umana                                      

Altro che belle oscurità non siete.              

Pure il mio spirto audace                            

Crede veder scritto là su nelle stelle…

Eternal hieroglyphs, which in luminous characters shine forever, Ah! To human minds you are nothing but beautiful obscurity. Only my audacious spirit believes it can see [what is] written, up there in the stars…

 

The essential challenge for Early Music performers is that the ‘hieroglyphs’ of musical notation are not at all ‘eternal’. Familiar-looking symbols have quite different meanings in earlier centuries, in various cultures, in particular contexts. This is particularly true for questions of tempo and rhythm, where Handel’s time-signatures, note-values and tempo-markings appear to correspond to modern usage, tempting performers to assume that there are no unknowns.

Andante Allegro

But a tempo-marking often used by Handel should alert us: what can he mean by andante allegro? In modern terms, this is nonsense: ‘slow fast’. Clearly, Handel’s language of tempo is different from our modern-day usage.

 

Beautiful obscurity?

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

J. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

The past is a foreign country; there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language and understood its assumptions.

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1981)

To learn the language of Handel’s Time, and to understand the assumptions underlying his rhythmic notation, we must begin by accepting that he was doing things differently there, almost 200 years into the past. And rather than peering backwards through history in an attempt to decipher those beautiful 18th-century ‘obscurities’, we might start from the 17th-century status quo¸and move forwards in time alongside Handel, as he brings his first-hand experiences of Italian music to Georgian England. Indeed, it could well be argued that applying updated 17th-century practices is more relevant to Handel than trying to work backwards (i.e. anachronistically) from Leopold Mozart (1756), Quantz and CPE Bach, with their mixed French/Italian taste, and later style.

I certainly don’t pretend to be an Early Music Zoroastro, the only spirit audacious enough to see what is written in Handel’s baroque hieroglyphs! But I do suggest that the methodology of this article can be applied, even if you do not share all my assumptions about the initial conditions circa 1600. For that reason, in the argument that follows, I’m very careful to separate method and established facts from my own historical assumptions and musicological hypotheses. Nevertheless, even well-established facts contrast somewhat alarmingly with current Early Music practices…

 

Well-established facts

 

Opera rehearsal

 

  • Baroque music was not conducted

 

We all know this, even though we routinely see ‘early music conductors’ in today’s performances. From Agazzari (1607) and the anonymous c1630 Il Corago to C. P. E Bach’s Versuch (1753 & 1762),  baroque sources are consistent that music is guided by the continuo, and that this guidance is given by the way of playing, rather than by hand-signals. There is no support for what today is sometimes called “directing from the harpsichord”, in which the full panoply of 20th-century hand-waving is employed, with the instrument functioning  as little more than an expensive music-stand!  Interpretative conducting, as we understand it today, was unknown. But large ensembles might be unified by the steadying hand of one or more Tactus-beaters.

 

 

  • Tempo is not the performer’s artistic choice, but is indicated by the composer

 

Handel’s tempo indications

 

From Monteverdi’s letters to Quantz’s 1752 Versuch, baroque sources are consistent that there is a correct tempo, and that it is the performer’s job to find this tempo, not to invent their own.

 

  • Default assumptions about tempo are modified by the composer’s specific instructions.

 

Handel’s specific instructions

 

By letter, Monteverdi instructed the performers of Ballo di  Tirsi & Clori not to take the piece too fast – good advice,  since the triple-metre sections have more polyphony than is usual for dance-music. This instruction reinforces the notation, which indicates (slow) Sesquialtera rather than (fast) Tripla proportions. In the Magnificat of the 1610 Vespers, a printed note instructs the continuo-players to take the movement Et exultavit slower, because the tenors have lots of semiquavers. This instruction is also reinforced in the basso continuo part-book by a change of ‘time signature’.

 

Frescobaldi’s (1615) rules for playing Toccatas (also applicable to the latest style of concerted madrigals) allow for the (normally constant) Tactus to be taken a little slower or faster, for different movements of a piece divided into sections. For certain types of movement, he gives specific details; for the rest, the player is left with the responsibility of finding the correct tempo. Significantly, Frescobaldi does not give the player liberty to choose his own tempo, but offers advice for finding the tempo giusto – correct tempo. Frescobaldi Rules here.

 

During the 17th century, such modifier-words as adagio, allegro etc. were used increasingly often, to clarify these small changes to the basic tempo, and to reinforce information already provided by the notation.

 

  • Notation indicates tempo relationships.

 

Handel’s notations: time signature, tactus & tempo words, note values

In the early 17th century, triple-time movements are related to the basic common-time tempo by proportions. Three proportional relationships were in regular use: Sesquialtera (2 tactus beats of common-time are equivalent to 3 slow triple-metre beats); Tripla (1 tactus beat is equivalent to 3 medium triple-metre beats); Sestupla (1 tactus beat is equivalent to 6 fast triple-metre beats).

 

Sometimes a very slow triple-metre is notated under the C signature ( i.e. without proportional change, 1 tactus beat is equivalent to 1 beat of very slow triple-metre). In Orfeo, Monteverdi uses this notation for the beginning of Act II: in modern performances, it is almost always misunderstood, and taken much too fast.

 

Monteverdi notates slow triple-metre under C ‘time-signature’

 

The strict mathematical relationships of proportional notation might be subtly modified by the composer’s written instructions (as with Tirsi & Clori), and in the second half of the century, the whole system of proportions was rocked by fashionable French dance-rhythms. Whilst Tactus links musical rhythm to the steady motion of the hand, dance links music to particular types of steps and jumps. The result was an increased tendency to think in terms of the individual beats of the bar, as opposed to the long slow Tactus. But even though each triple-metre dance-type might have a subtly different tempo, these tempi seem to cluster around the theoretical speed given by proportion.

 

Gavotte in the Anna Magdalena Bach ‘Notenbuch’

 

By 1700, as coloration and white notation for triple-metre fell into disuse and the proportional system began to fade, time-signatures indicate differences in tempo, though perhaps not strict mathematical proportions. 3/2 is slow, 3/4 is standard, 3/8 is fast.  6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 are compound time, with a triple sub-division of a  beat in 2, 3  or slow 2, respectively.

 

From the old days of Tactus and Proportions, the tendency remains to preserve a long, slow pulse and to create sesquialtera and tripla relationships, especially in Italianate music and polyphony.  Contrariwise, a new habit has emerged, to maintain a short beat, especially in French dance-music.

 

 

Initial assumption

 

 

My assumption of the initial conditions at the beginning of the 17th century is that the default tempo was a slow count in minims, around one beat per second, as consistently as humanly possible (but without the mechanical precision of a metronome, stop-watch etc).

 

  • Circa 1600, Tactus is approximately minim = 60

 

This is consistent with Zacconi’s (1592) characterisation of Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation’, with Frescobaldi’s concept of tempo giusto and Proportions, as well as with Mersenne’s (1636) calculation of a 1-metre pendulum for a 1-second Tactus beat.

 

I have written extensively about Tactus and Proportions for Monteverdi and his contemporaries. There is a summary here: Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time

 

 

 

 

Hypothesis

My hypothesis is that tempo modifiers (Monteverdi’s written instructions, tempo-words like Adagio, Allegro etc) apply to this default Tactus.

 

  • Tempo words modify the default Tactus

 

This seems to be so obvious as not to be worth saying. But applying tempo modifiers to a standard Tactus has a very different effect from the modern understanding of the same words. Nowadays, we expect an Allegro to feel fast, an Adagio to feel slow. But in the Tactus system, the level of activity is indicated by note-values, which may show fast or slow notes, as divisions of the (more-or-less) constant Tactus beat. We might well find quite different levels of activity, with the same tempo-marking.

 

Historical Principle

 

  • The combination of time signature and tempo- marking indicates a specific tempo.

 

Methodological Test

 

This principle creates a powerful test that allows us to use this initial assumption and working hypothesis to construct a scheme of tempo relationships for a particular work, or for the output of a particular composer, perhaps even for the whole repertoire in a given period, location and aesthetic culture:

 

  • Throughout the work, the same combination of time-signature and tempo-marking implies the same tempo.

 

So we can apply all this musicological theory to artistic practice by comparing as many movements as possible that have the same time-signature and tempo-marking, trying to find the one tempo that (subjectively) ‘works’ for all of them.

 

Given that we are all more accustomed to the modern approach of arbitrary choices of tempo, we should expect to encounter some surprises and challenges, as we put this test into operation with music that we think we already know, perhaps some of Handel’s most-loved operatic and oratorio favourites. We may find ourselves asking, how can these two movements really be at the same tempo??? Should another movement with different markings be slower or faster?

 

Of course, the historical basis for comparison is the human sense of pulse and Tactus, not a digital read-out or a metronome click. Even Loulié’s 1694 chronomètre, a calibrated pendulum, was little used in the 18th century, because musicians did not want an objective measurement of time, they wanted the music to feel right, the tempi to feel subjectively consistent. Nevertheless, we should respect the precision of their advanced Tactus skills, acquired over generations of music-making with a regular, slow beat and according to an Aristotelean understanding of Time as dependent on motion – in practice, the steady movement of the Tactus hand.

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: tempo ordinario

 

The two most significant features of Monteverdi’s and Frescobaldi’s Tactus/Proportions system seem to have been preserved in Handel’s Italianate operas and oratorios. There is a deep-rooted tendency to maintain a slow (minim) count – perhaps Quantz’s later practice of counting slow movements in crotchets has not yet taken hold. And the concept of a default tempo remains: it is now called Tempo Ordinario (the usual tempo) as well as Tempo Giusto (the right tempo).

 

This latter name strongly evokes the general baroque principle that there is a correct tempo, which performers must find, rather than inventing their own speed. Unfortunately, experiments with tempo giusto in the 1980s were linked to a ‘ticky-tacky’ way of playing, counting small note-values so that the music sounds like a sewing-machine, but this is contra-indicated by the historical tendency to count the tempo ordinario/guisto in minims, not in crotchets or (heaven forbid!) quavers.

 

Tempo ordinario

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: Recitative

 

The latest understanding of Monteverdi’s recitare cantando (literally, to act while singing) rejects the mid-20th-century view that his carefully notated word-setting should be performed in free-rhythm. Rather, this genere rappresentativo (theatrical style) uses contrasts of note-values to create contrasts of syllabic declamation, organised by a regular and stable Tactus. The Tactus of what we call ‘Recitative’ is the same default tempo as for other types of music.

Whereas early 17th-century operas move fluidly between what we now call Recitative and Aria (historically, aria meant any rhythmical structure within the recitativo dialogue of individual speakers), 18th-century opera separates the dramatic action of Recitative from the emotional commentary and musical delights of Aria. As a result, the declamation of Recitative is even more speech-like, and less ‘sung’, and we can expect the syllables to be less prolonged.

 

Recit – tempo ordinario – grave

Comparing Handel’s notation of recitative to Monteverdi’s a century earlier, 18th-century recitative shows greater use of short note-values (semi-quavers) and fewer long note-values (almost no minims, few crotchets). Either the declamatory style has changed, so that syllables mostly come faster, or the Tactus pulse has slowed: most probably, both of these. I find that a ground tempo of minim = 50 works well in this repertoire, allowing singers to ‘speak’ their Handelian recitatives. Of course, the speech-rhythms he notates are not those of everyday modern conversational Italian: they are modelled on the grandiose rhetorical declamation of a great actor on stage in an 18th-century theatre.

On the most basic level, respecting the shorter and longer note-values of Handel’s recitative notation produces a dramatic delivery, full of rhetorical contrasts. Probably the sense of Tactus is somewhat loosened, and certainly groups of equally notated semiquavers should be given the alternating patterns of Good and Bad syllables. But preserving a sense of rhythm and metre in  recitatives reveals the underlying metrical structures of the poetic libretto. Poetic feet (iambic, trochaic, spondaic etc) become a powerful means of dramatic expression, just as Mattheson recommends in Der vollkeommene Kapellmeister (The Perfect Musical Director, here).

In my case-study of Handel’s Orlando, close reading of Handel’s note-values shows his  sensitivity (hitherto un-noticed in recitatives) to the character of particular roles, for example Dorinda’s hesitancy to admit her own feelings.  And the composer’s use of rhetorical pauses and dramatic silences is masterful – the ghastly modern habit of ignoring notated rests utterly destroys the emotional effect of rhetorical delivery. Even the pitches of Handel’s recitative reflect appropriate speech-contours, just as Peri describes for the recitatives of his Euridice (1600).

 

 

I’m struck by Handel’s consideration of tempo ordinario and grave for his Recitative (see the illustration above): Peri’s Preface also links recitative to texts that are ‘serious’, grave. Translation of and commentary on Peri’s preface here.

 

 

Quite often in Arias, Handel notates a dotted rhythm for instrumentalists, with the same figure in equal note-values for the singer. Presumably, the singer would know from the Good and Bad syllables of the text, as well as by listening to the instrumentalists, that a dotted rhythm was required. But perhaps that rhythm might be subtly ‘under-dotted’, almost triplet-like. And if this response to Good and Bad syllables is expected in Aria, then it presumably applies also to the evenly-notated semiquavers of Recitatives. Good and Bad syllables here.

We might also presume that the senza misura effect described by Caccini, and notated by Monteverdi, still applies in Handel’s recitative. In this 17th-century practice, the singer is free to arrive before or after the beat, as the words and emotions suggest, whilst the continuo remain in Tactus. The result is rather like a jazz-singer’s laid-back syncopations against a steady rhythm-section. Monteverdi, Caccini  and jazz here.

 

Hypothesis: recitative & tempo ordinario

My second hypothesis is that, in the absence of any other tempo marking, the default speed of Recitative is the ‘usual tempo’. For Monteverdi, this would be Tactus at around minim = 60, for Handel this would be tempo ordinario, controlled with a Tactus-like minim pulse at around minim =50.

 

  • Handel Recitative = Tempo Ordinario = Tempo Guisto: minim = 50

 

Handel’s Tempo words: faster or slower?

 

Harrison sea clock H1 c1736

 

Once these principles have been established, the work of finding historically ‘correct’ tempi is fairly straightforward. The first step is to get Handel’s modifier words into the right order.  I take andante (going/walking) to be on the slow side of tempo ordinario, whereas andante allegro (going/walking happily) to be on the fast side. Larghetto is slow, largo slower still; allegro is fast, and furioso (Orlando’s characteristic passion) faster still.

Period sources disagree whether adagio is slower or less slow than largo – I think Handel’s adagio needs to be less slow, after testing this option by applying it consistently wherever he notates it. In this process, I noticed that Handel only infrequently notates adagio for the end of a solo aria, and even less frequently adds the conventional fermata to indicate an ad libitum cadenza. Many other fermatas scattered throughout the score simply show that something is ending, with no implication of any change of tempo or halting of rhythm.

 

Handel’s tempi table 1

The resulting table of tempi relationships is uncontroversial, but when it is put to work in conjunction with the principles of tempo ordinario and of consistent tempi wherever we find the same tempo- markings, the area of uncertainty ( i.e. the range of tempi that work for many different movements with the same markings) becomes insignificantly small. Within the limits of human consistency, we can establish what would seem to be Handel’s ‘correct’ tempi.

 

Fast duple, Triple and Compound metres

 

The question of triple time is more complex, and within one work, there are fewer examples to cross-test the hypotheses. In my work-in-progress, I am currently using these assumptions:

 

  • 12/8 is a compound metre corresponding to C, counted as a slow duple (Tactus-like) beat
  • ¾ is the standard triple-time, preserving the old tendency to create a proportional Tripla relationship with the standard tempo guisto
  • 6/8 is a compound metre corresponding to C/, counted as fast duple.
  • 3/8 is faster than ¾, but not twice as fast.

 

The only instance of C in Orlando is the famous Tempo di  Gavotta, which accompanies the protagonist’s mad fury. Some period sources suggest that C should be one and a half times as fast as C, rather than twice as fast. In practice, and measuring with modern-day electronic precision, I find one and a quarter, or one and a third already fast enough. This is consistent with the period meaning of ‘a half’ as “an approximately half-size part” rather than “precisely 50%”.  Similarly for 6/8, which should be faster than ¾, but not twice as fast.

Handel tempi Table 2

 

Encouragingly, all this results in tempi for the the Alla Gavotta and an obviously French-inspired Passacaille that are consistent with what would be needed to dance these styles. And transitions in and out of these French-style movements produce approximately beat = beat relationships, just as we would expect. Appropriately, the fluttering Cupid-wings of 3/8 in the first scene sound similar to the Cupid-music in the last scene, a Recitativo Accompagnato in tempio ordinario.

I’m currently preparing for Messiah later this year, which will give me a lot more material for further tests of these hypotheses. And it will be interesting to compare and contrast Quantz’s instructions for different kinds of pulse in various types of later, mixed-taste French/Italian movements. But for now, here is my complete table for Orlando, including some choruses from Messiah and Israel in Egypt that are to be added to the production at Helikon Opera, Moscow. Why mix oratorio and opera? See my next Orlando post, coming soon.

Handel tempi Table 3

 

Whilst there is certainly room for debate about the detailed conclusions of this article, it is beyond doubt that historical evidence contradicts the standard practice of today’s Early Music.

Baroque tempo was indicated by composers. There was a ‘default’ tempo, tempo ordinario; and the performer’s responsibility was to find the correct tempo, tempo giusto. Even in Handel’s day, musical time and rhythm were still understood in the context of Aristotelean physics and as a microcosm of the perfect, heavenly time given by the cosmos.

Without this understanding, the period-specific and context-dependent ‘hieroglyphs’ of baroque notation are nothing more than Zoroastro’s ‘beautiful obscurity’!

 

The Astronomical Clock in Prague. Notice on the right the musician and a skeleton holding an hour glass. According to the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, earthly music-making and human life itself are microcosms of the perfect, heavenly Time given by the movement of the stars and planets. There is a ‘right time’ for everything…

 

 

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]