Baroque FAQs for Modern Musicians

This is the last in a series of articles following up classes on Early Music on Modern Harps that I taught this semester for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. Although our case-studies come from harp repertoire, the principles we explored are relevant for any Historically Informed performer. This article could make a useful introduction for any modern instrumentalist or singer.

Previous articles in the series discuss Historical Principles & Online ResourcesPrinciples & Practice, Ornamentation and Dance Music. Our focus was on the 18th century (specific works by J. S. Bach, Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart) and the principal sources consulted were the three Versuch publications around the middle of the century (Quantz, CPE Bach, Leopold Mozart), the Essai for harp by Meyer, and (back in 1698) Muffat’s remarks on French dance-style in Florilegium Secundum. Links to all of these sources and more, in the previous posts.

The questions below were asked by students in the final class, and/or arose from work-in-progress recordings of their baroque pieces that they sent me for private comments. Whereas in previous articles, the agenda was set by the historical priorities of period sources, in this post the questions were posed by today’s students. This is a significant distinction: what we today think is a high priority may not have been so important back then. It’s always good to assess from historical sources how significant your question was, in the dialetic of the period.

 

What are Good & Bad notes, are they just loud & soft?

The concept of Good/Bad notes is fundamental to renaissance and baroque music, and is given a lot of attention in historical sources. The underlying principle is that instrumental music imitates the human voice, playing as if the music had a text. In vocal music, the sung text is of paramount importance. Caccini (1601) writes that Music is “text & rhythm, with sound last of all. And not the other way around”. The structure of each mid-18th-century Versuch is a short introduction to musical fundamentals, followed by a large section on what Early Musicians call “articulation”: how to start a note, how to join or separate notes into short groups. For flute, this articulation is done with tonguing syllables; string instruments do it with bow-strokes; keyboard and harp do it with fingering patterns. This is a high priority question for period writers. See Principles & Practice.

 

Good & Bad Syllables

Good/Bad notes in music correspond to Good/Bad syllables in speech. In music and in poetics, these syllables are sometimes called Long/Short: Good is Long, Bad is Short. In modern terms, we would say accented and unaccented syllables. In the mediterranean languages, the accented syllable is not hit suddenly on the intial consonant, but gets its accent from a sustained weight on the vowel: this corresponds to Leopold Mozart’s description of a slow start to the bow-stroke, even on a loud note.

Thus, baroque violin teachers will often coach modern string-players to use a slow bow-stroke where an “accent” is needed. Similarly on the low-tension strings of early harps, a Good note can have a slow finger-movement. This is not so easy to apply to modern harp, where the heavy strings need a certain amount of snap in the finger-action. But imagining that the note has a slow bloom, rather than a percussive attack is already very helpful.

Comparing Good/Bad to language gives us the clue that it does not have to be exaggerated: it just has to be the right way around. When we say the word “around”, we do not make a large, or conscious accent on the second syllable. But we would notice immediately if someone accented the first syllable instead. This is what is needed for our Good/Bad notes too.

Good & Bad Beats

During the 18th century, the idea developed of an intrinsic heirarchy of the bar. Today, we learn this in our elementary music education. In common time, beat 1 is strong, beat 2 is weak. Beat 3 is medium-strong, but less than beat 1. Beat 4 is weak, or could be energised as an upbeat. This is the basic shape of Time, although particular pieces will make artistic variations around this underlying structure. The principle extends to sub-divisions of the beats: ONE + two + THREE + four + And to the next level of subdivision:  ONE a + a two a + a THREE a + a four a + a. In 3/4 time: ONE a + a two a + a THREE a + a.

Good/Bad is definitely not forte/piano. But there is something of Long/Short about it, in two inter-related ways: how long is the note, and how long is the time-space it can occupy.

If we think about the repeated quavers in the Left Hand of CPE Bach’s Sonata, we could beat Tactus as quaver-down, quaver-up. These gives a pair-wise groove of Good-Bad. Time itself has this groove, so that ONE is imperceptibly longer than +. This intrinsic hierarchy of the bar gradually becomes the main focus of 18th-century discussions of Good/Bad, for example in Marpurg (1755).

Good & Bad Notes

Meanwhile, the notes we play into this grooved Time have a patterning of their own, the ONE is definitely a long note and the + is a short note. This relationship between notes was the focus of 17th-century discussion of Good/Bad, for example in Muffat  (1698).

These two effects combine so that ONE is a long note fully occupying a long space; whilst + is a short note only partially occupying what is anyway a shorter space.

Quantz gives two ways of counting a slow 3/4, in quavers or in crotchets. If we count in crotchets, the groove is ONE two THREE, or Long Passive Short. So the downbeat quaver is a long note in the longest space; beat two has a long passivity; beat three is a long note in a short, actively upbeat space. All the offbeat quavers are short/bad. We could pronounce as a mantra something like the words “PLAYer, Silence, BEATer” to get the feeling of the combination of pairwise quavers with triple-metre crotchets.

And we need to practise the Left Hand, with any continuo realisation we might add, until this fundamental rhythm is absolutely correct.

Whilst it’s easy to grasp the intellectual idea of Good/Bad, it needs lots of practice to acheive it effortlessly and without exaggeration. That practice is training the ears to listen for Good/Bad and to spot any wrong-way-around relationships; and training the fingers to execute the phrasing as if automatically, and at a very subtle level. Ears and fingers must be trained in partnership.

A particular case of Good/Bad, and similarly linked to the scansion of poetry, is the idea that the last Good note in a phrase has the Principal Accent. Usually, this is not the very last note of the phrase, one or more Bad notes follow. A useful general rule therefore, is that for almost every phrase, the Last note is short and un-accented.

 

How to create ‘mini-phrases’?

In Baroque music, long passages of semiquavers are not ‘moto perpetuo‘, but are built-up from many short phrases. CPE Bach calls these Figuren (figures) the most short-term units (say 3 to 5 notes), and Gedanken (thoughts, ideas), perhaps linking two or three Figuren. One passage of semiquavers may contain several Gedanken, each containing several Figuren. Just as in Rhetorical Speech, we need to join together what belongs together, and separate each group of notes from the next group. These words occur very frequently in the Versuch, this is an important concept in this period.

Typically, this joining and separating creates rhythmic patterns that are maintained until there is a clear change. But from one unit to the next, even whilst the basic pattern is maintained (i.e. the same number of notes starting with the same relation to the Tactus, on-beat, after the beat, or before the beat) the sequence often continues by contrasts. A legato group is followed by an arpeggio group, a staccato group etc. See Principles & Practice.

Useful guide-lines are: “Last note short“, “Breathe after the one“, “Stepwise motion ~ legato, jumps ~ staccato“. A jump can also show the place for a mini-break. The mini-phrases are defined by mini-breaks, often between two successive semiquavers: the Tactus beat in crotchets or minims continues without faltering.

If the notes are not whizzing by too quickly, it may be possible to shorten the last note of a mini-phrase by damping, create an actual silence, and start the next mini-phrase with the appropriate Bad or Good articulation.

In allegro semiquavers, there will not be time for this. But the separation between one mini-phrase and the next can be communicated with an unaccented last note of the old phrase, a sliver of time for a mini-breath (but without disturbing the Tactus), an energised re-start of the new phrase, and a clear sense of repeating a unit, and of any contrast between the previous unit and the new one.

 

What about historical fingering?

This is another crucial concept for this period. After a short introduction, CPE Bach’s Versuch devotes almost a third of the book, pages 15-50, to fingering.

For harps and keyboards, 18th-century fingerings often clarify join/separate: the principle is to move the hand only in the mini-breaks, and keep each mini-phrase ‘in the hand’. This principle is utterly different from the modern concept of fingering, which seeks to make a passage as safe and efficient as possible. On the contrary, historical fingerings introduce deliberate ‘inefficiencies’, in order to discourage smooth joining of what is supposed to be separate.

In the following examples of harp-fingerings, I apply the principles of historical fingerings (from Meyer 1763 – see Online Resources – and  – specially recommended, and now available free online – Cousineau 1784)  to examples from CPE Bach’s harp Sonata and Mozart’s flute & harp Concerto.

[My Cousineau link takes you to the second ‘imperial’ edition, c1803. The Fuzeau facsimile publication states 1784 for the first edition, the US Library of Congress (who have online images of each page) says ‘1786?’ The title pages are undated. At the time of writing, an original second edition was being sold for €1,000]

An efficient modern fingering for CPE Bach second movement facilitates joining the third note D to the next G, with a hand-movement before the B [as shown by the square brackets].

EXAMPLE 1 CPE Bach

 

The guideline “breathe after the one”  would suggest a separation after the D, making three upbeats to the middle of the bar. This is supported by the Figur in the LH, which has three upbeats at the end of the bar. So my historically informed fingering moves the hand “after the one”.

EXAMPLE 2 CPE Bach/Cousineau

 

In red, I show the Abzug (phrase-off, forte/piano, see below) in the Appoggiatura, recommended by many sources. CPE himself says that it is the most important element. Quantz gives detailed dynamic contrasts for each note within ornaments. Leopold Mozart instructs violinists to hineinschleifen (sneak into, slide into) the main note (piano).

After the second appoggiatura, we should also observe the good/bad relationship of F#-G, especially because the ornamented F# is the Principal Accent of the phrase, after which the guideline applies: “last note short, no accent”.

For a scale, Meyer gives two alternative fingerings. If there is nothing else afterwards, the standard fingering jumps the thumb to make the long note different from the run of short notes. Notice that within the scale, the hand jumps “after the one”. This is his default fingering. The alternative, more familiar to modern eyes, can be applied when the notes are very fast, but it lacks the detailed phrasing of the default option.

EXAMPLE 3 after Meyer & Cousineau

 

But the alternative becomes preferable, if the top note is not to be distinguished as ‘different’, but joined into the scale, with a break “after the one”. See Example 4.

In this passage from the first movement of the Mozart, the first note of the scale (treble C) is on the beat, so it is a Good. The next note D is also a good. For flautists (after Quantz): “Di diddle”, for – old fashioned – violinists (after Muffat): Down, down-up. (Leopold Mozart would probably apply some interesting slurred bowing). For harp, perhaps 4 4321321 encouraging a separation after the first note; rather than the ‘more efficient’  4 3214321, which would join irrevocably after the first note.

EXAMPLE 4 Mozart

 

 

 

I have adjusted the beaming. The fingering follows the smallest units of Figuren, and // marks the caesura between one Gedanke and the next.

The pattern of “breathe after the one” continues with a caesura after the high a, facilitated by fingering, and similarly after the g in the third bar. But the music imposes a new pattern, also clarified by my historically informed fingering,  at the beginning of the last bar. Red f_p shows two more examples of Abzug.

Between the 1760s and the 1780s, the standard Good/Bad descending fingering for harp 12323232 (familiar also from 17th-century Spanish harp technique) is gradually superseded by Join/Separate fingerings using all four fingers. You start with the thumb, and the last, lowest four notes get 1234. In between, you use as many fingers as needed for the number of notes you have. So a seven-note descent would be 123 1234.

The adjustment takes place at the upper end of the scale, so that the last, lowest notes use all four fingers 1234. This results in a distinctive fingering for a five-note descent, in which you hop the thumb: 1 1234. [Fully-fingered sources feature a LOT of repeated thumb-strokes in this period.]

 

EXAMPLE 5 Mozart/Cousineau

 

In Example 5, I apply Cousineau’s (1784) fingering principles to Mozart’s (1778) descending scales in parallel tenths: This fingering encourages “breathe after the one” between the two Figuren of the first bar, shown by my changes to the beaming. The octave leap indicates a stronger “breathe after the one” between two Gedanken, shown by my // caesura mark.

It would not be inappropriate to use ‘old-fashioned’ 32 descending fingerings. These would ensure correct Good/Bad relationships, but would leave the player to create Join/Separate between Figuren.

EXAMPLE 6 Mozart/Meyer

Contrariwise, ‘fashionable’ Cousineau-type fingerings (mentioned as an alternative by Meyer 20 years earlier, so certainly not excluded from Mozart’s Concerto) prioritise Join/Separate, and leave the player to take care of Good/Bad. As Leopold Mozart makes clear in his detailed instructions for varying the pressure from note to note, within a single bow-stroke, 18th-century music requires both Good/Bad and Join/Separate.

What about the Bass?

Period sources pay great atttention to the continuo bass. The second edition of CPE Bach’s Versuch has an additional and longer book, 355 pages entirely devoted to Generalbass, including a final chapter which extends realisation of a continuo-bass towards improvisation of a free Fantasia.

Modern harpists tend to focus on the right-hand melody, viewing the music from the top down. Baroque music is constructed from the bottom upwards: the bass is no mere accompaniment, but rather provides the fundamental framework of rhythm and harmony that defines the structure for the ornamental melody. The heritage of Renaissance polyphony is that music is woven from the strands of individual ‘voices’; each strand has its own integrity, character and logic. The typical texture of Baroque music is the polarisation of treble and bass, i.e. 2-voice polyphony with a continuo-realisation filling-in the mid-range.

From the beginning of the Baroque period (Agazzari 1607) to the transition into the Classical (Leopold Mozart 1756), period sources assign to the bass the role of maintaining Tactus.  The continuo does not follow the soloist, rather the bass creates a dependable rhythmic structure – like the rhythm section of a jazz-band. As with a jazz-band, it is acceptable for a baroque soloist not to be together with the bass, for the sake of elegant expressiveness around the steady groove: it is not acceptable for the groove to falter. See Monteverdi & Jazz. This is of course the opposite of today’s standard practice, even amongst most Early Music ensembles.

Harpists, lutenists and keyboard players must combine the roles of soloist and bass-section in one person. Modern players might need reminding to play the bass more strongly (as an equal partner), and to maintain the bass rhythm in Tactus (whatever technical challenges, complex ornaments, or expressive moments the melody might have).

Flow

My research in Consciousness Studies suggests that the optimal strategy could be to place one’s conscious attention on the bass, focussing on tight connection to the steady Tactus. Assuming sufficient advance practice, the melody can be better left to the unconscious mind, letting the fingers ‘do it for themselves’. Trills, for example, go better when you don’t think about them.  Like a hypnotist’s swinging pocket-watch, or a meditation mantra, the constant down-up of Tactus (physically enacted in rehearsal, or imagined in solo performance) entrains the mind into Flow.

The paradoxical instruction to “Listen more than you play” can help the mind find that state of consciousness where mindful Observing facilitates ‘personal best’ performance, without a conscious sense of Doing. In baroque music, you can achieve this by “being the continuo-player”, creating the rhythm whilst listening to the solo (even though, you are actually playing that solo yourself).

Imagining, or even physically beating, a complete Tactus (down-up) to start yourself off (i.e. give yourself “a bar for nothing”) is an excellent way to connect yourself to the power of Tactus, to the Music of the Spheres, as you start to play.

 

What to do with Long Trills?

In a word, practise. Long trills are described in detail in all the mid-18th-century sources under discussion here. Harp sources admit that they are difficult, and they are more difficult still on modern harp.

So practise. Practise trills non-metrically, with a long appoggiatura, and then repercussions accelerating from slow to fast and all the way into the final turn and last note.

Then practise this beautifully shaped trill, whilst playing a simple bass in crotchets. The bass maintains Tactus, the trill is not aligned note-for-note with the bass, but you find the last note simultaneously. If the trill is long enough, combine it with messa di voce. But don’t try to be super-loud whilst trilling, and don’t try for too many reiterations. Shapeliness in the trill, and Tactus in the bass, are the priorities.

 

Frederick the Great plays a flute concerto in Sans Souci Palace. CPE Bach accompanies at the harpsichord, Quantz looks on at his pupil’s performance.

 

 

What is Abzug?

This is another central concept in period discourse about ornamentation. Literally “pulling off”, Abzug is the forte/piano contrast between an appoggiatura and its main note.

Leopold Mozart describes it as sliding into, sneaking into the main note (see the music examples above). Quantz describes a slight swelling of the sound on the ornamental note (so not an aggressive attack, but a slow-blooming sound; for violin a slow bow-stroke), with a smooth, soft transition into the main note.

On lute, one could literally “pull-off” from the fingerboard with a left-hand finger, in order to play the main note without any plucking action of the right hand. On harp, we can imitate this with a slow but firm finger-movement on the ornamental note, and a very passive action on the main (second) note, avoiding any articulate start-noise whatsoever.

Practise it.

The same forte/piano effect is needed every time from dissonance to resolution, as well as for any melodic moment with a pair of notes that function like a written-out appoggiatura. In the first music example above, as well as the Abzüge marked in red for explicit appoggiaturas, a subtle version of the effect is needed in the second bar on the high c-b, a-g, and (especially) f#-e pairs, and on the b-a pair at the end of the previous bar.

You need Abzug again and again. CPE Bach considers this the most important element of ornamentation. Indeed, the entire repertoire of the Empfindsamkeit period is characterised by the sensitive gesture of Abzug: every piece is full of opportunities to apply it. A missed Abzug is like marching into San Souci Palace in your muddy boots – you have just trampled on what should have been an occasion for the most elegant sophistication.

 

Don’t forget to pull them off!

 

Appoggiatura onto a Triplet?

The standard rule is that the appoggiatura takes half of the value of the written note (two-thirds, if the written note is dotted). So the realisation of an appoggiatura onto a triplet divides the first note in half. But the more important element is – all together now: the Abzug. The appoggiatura itself needs a slow bloom, and the written note is soft; the remaining two notes of the triplet should be light, since they are Bad notes.  It should sound like “Play-a Trip-let”, not “Da doo-ron-ron”!

 

EXAMPLE 7 CPE Bach

 

The (appropriate) tendency to lengthen the appoggiatura results in a rhythm that approaches the sound of a quadruplet, though still with the first note louder and slurred to the second. Some sources recommend this quadruplet realisation, others condemn it. Best practice is probably to keep some semblance of a triplet, but with a nice long appoggiatura and plenty of Abzug.

 

How to play a Short Trill?

There are lots of short trills in this repertoire, and longer or turned trills can legimately be simplified into short trills. So it’s a significant element of the style and a most useful skill to acquire.

The historical fingering is 2311, and the Abzug requires a decrescendo from first note to last. CPE Bach recommends you to schnellern (quicken, enliven) the first note, to make the ornament crisp and light. It should sound like “Tickle my toes!” and not “before the beat“.

EXAMPLE 8 Short Trill

 

Short Trills in Mozart

Practise this until you can fire off a whole chain of ‘flying short trills’ as Genlis (1802) teaches and Mozart requires. [The link is to the second edition of 1811].

 

Genlis’ second example (above) is not a realisation of the first example, but a preliminary exercise for those ‘flying trills’, at half speed and with extra time between each Figur.

As Genlis explains: ‘the two slurred notes are done by sliding the thumb on these two strings’. What I deduce from the third thumb stroke that follows each time (where one might have expected finger 2), is that after the two slurred notes, the sliding thumb comes to rest against the next string (continuing the movement onto the next string helps the slide flow nicely). At this point the exercise takes extra time, to teach you to apply a caesura here, before starting the next Figur. When you do restart, your thumb is already placed on the string you are going to need.

For the real thing, the full speed ‘flying trills’, each Figur starts with an upbeat, continuing the pattern of the first two notes. As one would expect from Muffat and others, the trills are on the Good notes – this is confirmed at the end of the sequence.

EXAMPLE 9 Genlis/ALK

 

Mozart introduces his flying trills with a preliminary longer trill, turned so that its Figur ends on the second (crotchet) beat of the bar. The autograph staccato on this d indicates “Last note short”, allowing you to “Breathe after the one”. The staccato on the following c indicates it is an upbeat, and the Gedanke is now Genlis-style flying trills, each Figur having an upbeat to a Good-note trill.

EXAMPLE 10 Mozart/Genlis

This upbeat pattern continues into the next bar, which has rapid Alberti 64 harmonies in the left hand and bold downward leaps in the right (first you must “breathe after the one”), leading to a whole bar Long Trill over the same rapid Alberti pattern, now on the dominant seventh.

All these fireworks signal the end of the movement. After this comes the improvised cadenza (Quantz’s Easy and Fundamental Instructions show how 2 players can improvise together)  and final tutti.

 

Short Trills in Handel

There is a tricky short trill on a dotted note in the Handel Concerto. Although it is difficult to execute this correctly in the time available, it should start with upper auxiliary (not the main note) on the beat (not before), so that the complete Figur has the crisp sound of a demanding publisher: “Prrrint today!”  [the rolled r represents the repercussions of the trill] and not a lazy: “What about next week?”.

 

EXAMPLE 11 Handel

 

How should I damp?

This is a harp-specific question, and is discussed in several period Harp treatises, but with insufficient detail. The suggestions below are based on my personal experience.

For modern harpists, you might first consider threading a strip of felt through the very lowest strings – you don’t actually play these in Baroque pieces, and it might be better to lose the excessive resonance that they add.

Second, learn the Baroque way to damp by having your finger (and/or thumb) return to the string after playing (same finger, same string). This allows you to damp specific notes really quickly, rather than moving both hands to cuddle the strings and damp the whole instrument, which is very slow. You can damp individual notes or entire chords, in either hand.

Sometimes you can add rhythmic energy by damping where a rest is written on the beat. Damp crisply, precisely on the beat, even get some percussive noise from your fingers contacting the sounding strings.

 

EXAMPLE 12 Handel

 

Sometimes you need to damp to control bass resonance. If you damp between each note and the next, you produce a staccato effect: this would not be the optimum phrasing for movement by step.

But if you play, play the next note and then quickly damp the previous one, you produce a strong effect of legato.

You can mix these two ways to damp [legato, staccato] in order to create legato pairs, each pair separated from the next. This long-short sound is appropriate for Good/Bad.

EXAMPLE 13 Handel

The last note of any phrase could be damped, to make it short. If you play it without accent (as you nearly always should), the damping will be less abrupt, and might not even be necessary.

Any upbeat could be damped to create a “silence of articulation”, this throws the accent onto the next note.

Often you will need to damp to clarify a rising melody in the bass. This frequently applies at perfect cadences, if the dominant rises to the tonic; but it can also occur at the beginning of the phrase.

The bass cadence with an octave leap on the dominant implies staccati for that octave leap.

In every instance, you can adjust the damping [legato or staccato, and how much] to produce the most appropriate phrasing.

EXAMPLE 14 Handel

Combining all these techniques results in a LOT of damping, subtly adjusted, for various desired results. Such frequent damping is supported by the (limited) historical information available. The greater resonance of the modern instrument makes damping even more necessary than on baroque harp.

Damping with the left hand can establish the “groove” of a dance, or a dance-like movement. In the third movement of the Handel Concerto, the groove is the reverse triple metre, short-long, quaver-crotchet. You can make this energetic and clear by playing the downbeat strong and damping crisply, to produce a repeating groove effect that sounds like the words “Short Phrases”.

Notice how the semiquavers create a Figur across the bar-line, “breathe after the one”: both hands have a short note in the long space of the downbeat, but for different reasons.

EXAMPLE 15 Handel

All this takes practice. You need to train your ears and hands simultaneously, to hear the need for, and effect of damping, and to create the effects you want.

 

How to simplify Ornaments?

Period sources recognise that it is harder to play trills on harp, than on harpsichord. It’s even harder on modern harp than on baroque instruments. So it can be a great help to simplify ornaments. Certainly, it is better to simplify the composer’s ornament, than to omit it, to play it wrongly, to play the wrong type of ornament, or (heaven forbid!) to play an ornament without Abzug.

In place of a long trill with initial appoggiatura and final turn, you can make things easier for yourself with these three steps (in this order of application):

  1. Reduce the number of reiterations of the trill.
  2. Omit the final turn
  3. Omit the initial appoggiatura

If you needed to apply all three three steps, you will be left with a Short Trill, and you should have practised this sufficiently to be confident in it for any eventuality.

If you are really under pressure, you can convert a turned Trill into a simple Turn (upper auxilary, main-note, lower-auxiliary, main-note). Make the first (upper) note long and remember the Abzug.

It’s not so good to change a Short Trill into a simple Appoggiatura, because the Short Trill is meant to sound lively and brilliant, whereas the Appoggiatura should melt, languishing. A Turn could be a better solution: there are still four notes to play, but the fingers can manage them faster. For a fast Turn, try 1231, which should come out crisper than 1232.

 

How does Continuo-experience help one’s Solo-playing?

The great harpsichordists and composers of the baroque were also expert continuo-players: JS and CPE Bach lead the way!

The best way to progress rapidly as a harpist or keyboard-player studying baroque repertoire is first to acquire basic continuo skills. Playing in ensembles will inform your ears and mind, with the opportunity to hear the same fundamental principles applied in subtly different ways by different instruments and voices. Ensemble-playing also provides an energetic group dynamic and a supportive social group, and gives access to exciting large-scale projects. Don’t miss the chance to play in a baroque opera or orchestra.

As a continuo-player, you can adjust realisation to your (gradually increasing) level of skill, contributing something useful right from the start, without needing to be exposed as a soloist until you are ready.

For harpists, a single-action harp is likely to be accepted by HIP training-ensembles, even in 17th-century repertoire, and for a modern player presents less of a barrier to immediate gratification: double and triple harps are more challenging. It is to be hoped that an open-minded training ensemble would admit a keen student even on modern harp, either as a stepping stone towards baroque harp, or as a way to gather experience for solo-playing on the modern instrument.

The experience of playing continuo will transform your view of the role of your left hand. And the continuo-player’s view of ensemble music, from the bottom upwards, is the best approach to baroque solo-playing.

Familiarity with figured and un-figured basses will consolidate your understanding of baroque harmony, and help you recognise the character of dissonances and sequences: the excitement of rising 5 6, the subtleties 6 5 and 5b dissonances, the sweet melancholy of chains of 7s.

EXAMPLE 16 Handel

 

How can I give my performance more clarity and more character?

See above: Tactus, Good/Bad, Join/Separate.

For harpists: damping. For modern harpists, a basic position somewhat près de la table: for baroque harps, this position is standard.

For anyone: “Long notes long, short notes short”, and “Last note short, no-accent”. Ornaments on the beat. Contrast one Figur with the next.

 

How can I make my performance more expressive?

See above. Sensitise yourself to the flavour of each dissonance, and show the tension-release of each dissonance-resolution.

For harpists, move your fingers down, even more près de la table, for a dissonance, and up (higher than normal) for resolution. A basic position somewhat près de la table results in small changes down or up making a big difference to tone-colour.

Apply Abzug to appoggiaturas. Search for the particular character of each Figur.

 

Should I play marked Repeats?

Yes.

 

Should I add Rallentando?

No.

Muffat and Leopold Mozart clearly state that the same tempo should be maintained from beginning to end. There is historical evidence for rallentando, but not in dance-music, and perhaps only when it is specifically notated. It tends to occur where the note values get smaller and smaller at the end of a section; or where there is a final cadence after a silence (e.g. Hallelujah Chorus). Meanwhile, Leopold says simply, keep exactly the same tempo from beginning to end.

Remember, “what everyone does today” and “my favourite CD” are NOT historical evidence. Leopold Mozart is.

If you are keen to add rallentando, find a source to support your wish. [Student challenge!] But… also beware of the temptation to look into the sources to support a decision you have already taken. A better strategy is to read the sources with an open-mind, and then decide. If you read the whole of Leopold Mozart, you will have plenty to think about and apply, before you need to go looking for another source in order to explore exceptional cases and outlier opinions.

 

Summary

18th-century style calls for a enormous amount of short-term detail, many contrasted Figuren, many presentations of dissonance-resolution, and many, many Abzüge. All the while, you maintain the groove of steady Tactus in the bass.

Harpists: see my article on Empfindsamkeit and Single Action harp.

Historically Informed Performance is not what I say, not what Early Musicians do today, not what you hear on CDs, but performance based on historical information. Use IMSLP to get original scores, and use the mighty Versuch publications as reference books to answer your performance practice questions. Harpists: read Meyer, Cousineau and (for elite soloist-level skills) Genlis.

Try to establish a habit of checking what you are told (including what you have read here!), and checking your own assumptions. The state of knowlege advances when someone has the courage to question the status quo.

Dare to be different!

 

 

 

Congaudentes (Happy Together)

This post reports on an open, free online multi-track recording project, presented by OPERA OMNIA Moscow, coming out of an online workshop on Medieval Improvisation organised in collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. Thank you to everyone who took part: this article is one way of showing appreciation.

Participants from all over the world (see below) sent in their improvised tracks, which were mixed into the sound of a medieval Conductus. The workshop and recording-project are linked to the International Baroque Opera Studio’s training production of LUDUS DANIELIS, planned for the end of August 2020. As always, that production will be Historically Informed not only in the musical approach, but also in the staging. You can follow OPERA OMNIA on Facebook.

Here is a video of the Workshop.

Here is an illustrated video discussion of  Performance Practice questions for Ludus Danielis, with clips from the 2011 production in Copenhagen.

Here is a video summary of  Medieval Improvisation Techniques for Conductus.

And here is the final audio/video multi-track mix of the Gaudentes project.

Additional links to various sectional mixes are below.

 

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Ludus Danielis

The Play of Daniel, Ludus Danielis, was created in the late 12th century at Beavais Cathedral in northern France, and notated in the early 1200s in the Egerton MS 2615, now in the British Library. William Smoldon, who edited it for the Plainsong and Medieval Musical Society in 1960, described it as a ‘medieval opera’: academically, it would be categorised as Liturgical Drama. The work was made famous in the USA in Noah Greenberg’s operatic production, premiered in Washington’s National Cathedral in 1958, which gave many spectators their first experience of Early Music. [In another context, I’m honoured to be a recipient of the Noah Greenberg prize for musicological/performance collaboration.]

Whilst the Play certainly is medieval, and does have all the ingredients we would expect to find in opera – script, music, action, plot, drama, characters, costumes, illusion, pathos, humour, entertainment – it can only be understood in the context of its liturgical setting. As the monks chanted the long night-office of Mattins, suddenly a chorister interrupts the service and sparks off a participatory drama in which clerics and children act out to lively popular melodies the Bible stories of Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on the Wall and Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

Daniel is of course saved from the Lions, who devour the Evil Counsellors instead. The prophet foretells the coming of Christ, and an Angel announces the glad tidings of Christmas. The Angel’s music was the finale to earlier dramas too, and it neatly leads into a joyful Te Deum, picking up the thread of the liturgy again.

So ‘this medieval opera’ takes it narrative from the Bible, has clerics and choristers as actors, and the cathedral itself as stage and scenery. Most likely, the Bishop’s seat became the Throne for King Belshazzar.

Certainly, it was tripudium – a party. The rubric (liturgical instructions written in red ink) requires a monk to dress as the Queen, the apparent ‘murder’ of King Belshazzar, a running race between two monks in the role of invading soldiers, and the prophet Habakkuk to be dragged by the hair of his head to bring refreshment to Daniel in the Lions’ Den, as well as the Lions (presumably played by young choristers) eating up the Evil Counsellors (senior clerics). When messengers (probably the teenage Sub-Deacons who managed the whole production) were sent to find Daniel (perhaps the Choirmaster), we can readily imagine an extended game of Hide & Seek in the darkness of the Cathedral. In the long nights of early January, there was plenty of time…

Nevertheless, all this fun was for a sacred purpose, celebrating yet another feastday in the exhausting cycle of Christmas holy days. For this special day, there was lively enaction of colourful Bible episodes, helping to teach youngsters to know their Saints, understand their Latin, and comprehend the complex doctrine of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gospel, which the Play presents from the divine perspective of a ‘now’ that unites Past and Future in the eternal Present.

Modern-day History of Emotions studies help us understand the psychological function of this (carefully ordered) foolery. The ceaseless round of the Daily Office, singing psalms, reciting scripture and chanting prayers even through the night, intensifies with Advent’s rich music and liturgy, long dark nights of solemn chant with little to eat during the traditional fast. Then comes Christmas, with a blaze of candle-light and even longer services, singing joyfully all day and all night, and continuing with celebrations of saints’ days all week.

The accumulated social tensions of sleep deprivation, intermittent nutrition, and overwork, all within a strictly disciplined and hierarchical single-sex institution could be released, under control, in a party that was not chaos, but ordo: a form of liturgy, literally keeping order, maintaining the social and mental health of a religious Order.

 

 

Producing the Play

I first produced Ludus Danielis in the 1970s, in Guernsey’s Town Church, the Cathedral of St Peter Port, performed by members of the church choir. This production thus had something of the medieval group dynamic of a set of teenage choristers within the small community of a religious institution, and featured the many processions in which the historical action bursts out of the confines of the choirstalls to occupy the whole building.

The Harp Consort’s CD recording in 1998 was inspired by Margot Fassler’s research into popular traditions of the Feast of Fools, in Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony (1992), which showed connections between medieval party-games and Biblical episodes enacted in the Play. The Kalamazoo publication (1996) of Critical Essays on the Play included a monochrome facsimile of the MS and a neutral transcription (which however followed all previous editions in assigning the wrong octaves to the Queen’s speech and to Daniel’s lament, see below.)

 

Our recording project also established the outline of a historical informed pronunciation of c1200 northern French Latin, guided by Harold Copeman. With a superb ensemble of instrumental and vocal soloists, we extended to the whole group the techniques of medieval improvisation I had developed playing harp and psaltery in Paul Hillier’s Trobador and Trouvère recordings.

This concept of ensemble improvisation was taken even further in The Harp Consort’s Edison Award-winning CD (2003) of written and improvised polyphony from the closely related repertoire of Gautier de Coincy’s Les Miracles de Notre Dame.

 

 

In 2007, The Harp Consort’s musical approach and my processions-production combined with director Akemi Horie’s exquisite Japanese minimalist design for performances in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge and Southwark Cathedral, London.

 

 

Many of the same cast performed in a fully HIP production in York Minster for the 2008 York Early Music Festival, broadcast live by BBC Radio Three. A BBC sound engineer followed our processions around the church with an array of microphones mounted cross-wise on a long pole, like some kind of high-tech crucifer. In place of the usual pre-concert talk, we taught audience members the basics of medieval improvisation in the splendid acoustic of the Chapter House.

 

 

By 2011, we had added a lot of detail to the historical action, and developed a new dramatic ‘frame’ for a production in collaboration with Ars Nova, Denmark. To the essential elements of processions and partying were added medieval gesture, including St Benedict’s seven postures of prayer, and better stylised, more sharply defined movement styles for monks, courtiers and soldiers. See Schmitt La Raison des gestes (1991).  Medieval art provided inspiring images of powerful gestures, for example when Darius commands that Daniel be brought out of the Lions’ Den, and the Evil Counsellors thrown in!

 

A possible gesture for “Danielem educite, et emulos immitite!”

 

As the audience entered, the endless chanting of the year-long liturgy was already in progress, and at the end of the play, kings and queen, soldiers and courtiers faded back into their daily lives, under the strict control of monastic discipline. As one of the cast commented: “Game over.”

In a resonant acoustic, we found that just three multi-instrumentalists from The Harp Consort (plus a sinfonye-playing Daniel) could provide all the support and variety of colour needed for the entire choir.  I made a new edition, and thought anew about questions of pitch and pitch relations. This project also marked the first performance in modern times of Daniel’s famous Lament, in the written octave: all previous editions had transposed it down an octave.

In this medieval Psalter, God hands down from heaven musical intervals, perhaps even specific pitches, to bell ringers, to King David and to more lowly instruments. Ladders represent hexachord scales.

In 2014, the production came to the Galway Early Music Festival, with St Nicholas’ Church as the venue and the church choir as the core cast. So once again there was that sense of medieval community and, for the first time, the show involved a large number of youngsters, who brought wonderful energy to the performance. I will never forget one of the junior choristers leaping to grab the scholar’s hat off the head of one of Belshazzar’s none-too-clever Wise Men, played by the Choirmaster, nor the sight of some two dozen young Lions waiting to devour the hapless Evil Counsellors.

 

 

Enargeia – the emotional power of detailed description

 

In that same year of 2014, Max Harris’ book on Sacred Folly re-assessed source materials for Feast of Fools practices, downplaying the extent of louche behaviour and emphasising the religious message behind all the dramatised action. Harris re-interpreted Fassler’s work on medieval games and religious ordo as a response to secular New Year celebrations in the city, rather than as a reaction against depraved behaviour in church.

Harris singles out The Harp Consort’s recording of Ludus Danielis for special praise, and also recommends another version in which the singers are accompanied only by ‘discreet percussion’. Whilst I’m grateful for his kind words about our work, it must be pointed out that there is no logic in allowing drums rather than harps! The rubric specifically calls for harpers, but not for drums.

Drums are mentioned in the sung text that describes King Darius’ entrance Ecce Rex Darius. ‘Look, here comes King Darius with his nobles; and his court resounds with happiness and partying…. Let all celebrate as the drums resound: the harpists strike the strings, and musical instruments resound to herald him!’ The usual assumption in historical drama is that stage action represents, within the limits of practicality, what is spoken/sung in the script/libretto.

Indeed, this is the period principle of Enargeia, by which detailed verbal description (often signalled with Ecce!, Ecco! Siehe! Behold! etc) creates mental images for the audience, the emotionally affective Visions described by Quintilian. To the spectators’ ‘imaginary puissance’ is added the visual detail enacted by the performers and the aural effects of appropriate tone-colours of speech, music and stage noise. All this unites (according to Rhetorical Decorum) and combines to ‘move the passions’ with Energia, the spirit of emotional communication that links mental and physical responses to emotion. Visions and sound-effects produce emotional Affekt; performed details of enargeia produce emotional energia. Following this principle, in Ludus Danielis we would expect to see and hear drums, harps and other musical instruments in Darius’ procession; clapping and dancing at Belshazzar’s Feast.

With an unconvincing argument relying on 20th-century Anglicanism, Harris considered rejecting the principle of Enargeia. But this would rule out the drum, whilst the rubric confirms the presence of harps. And any medieval hierarchy of liturgical and clerical instruments would begin with bells and King David’s harp, and descend to via fiddles and sinfonyes to lowly wind instruments and drums. See Christopher Page Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (1987) [sadly, this is out of print, and I could find no online access or purchase options: try academic libraries].

 

Medieval hierarchy of instruments: King David, crowned in gold, sits with his harp on a golden throne; a lowly piper sits on the ground.

 

In short, for Ludus Danielis harps are obligatory, and drum-only makes no sense at all.

 

Controversy

Two crucial questions about Ludus Danielis remain controversial. Did instruments take part at all? And, to put it simply, how much fun did the monks allow themselves?

At a Medieval Events conference in Budapest in 2015, the standard of music-scholarship was woefully low, and I was disappointed that the chairman of the Daniel session gave – as if with authority – simplistic answers, “no” and “not much”, to these deep questions. Perhaps he was still following the musicological mood of the 1990s, or had too hastily skimmed Harris’ conclusions, but it must be said that he offered neither academic arguments nor historical evidence.

And there is evidence. The rubric of the Egerton MS clearly requires harpists. Statim apparebis Darius Rex cum Principibus suis venientque ante eum cythariste et Principes sui psallentes hec. ‘Suddenly King Darius appears with his nobles, and the harpists and nobles come before him ‘psalming’ like this.’ Psallentes (which I translate literally as ‘psalming’) suggests singing and playing instruments associated with King David the Psalmist: harps and psalteries. The real-life Norman tradition of medieval harpists striking the first blow at battles (read Wace on Taillesfer at the Battle of Hastings) supports the identification of cythara specifically with Harp.

The Egerton rubric also gives ‘stage directions’ for many other actions that would be unthinkable within the normal order of the liturgy. So we may well ask: in an enactment that includes pretending to kill King Belshazzar, a monk dressing up as the Queen, and Counsellors being utterly devoured by Lions, would it be utterly out of the question for King Darius’ harpers – we know they are there – actually to play? The notion that the harps are silent stage props seems out of keeping with the straightforward and energetic (one might say, enargetic) story-telling required by the rubric throughout.

Furthermore, it can be argued that psallentes is an instruction for singing to instrumental accompaniment. For King Belshazzar’s procession, the rubric is different: Dum venerit Rex Balthasar, Principes sui cantabant ante eum haec prosam. ‘When King Belshazzar comes, his nobles sing before him this prose’. Prose and singing for one King, psalms and harpistry for another?

Later in 2015, scholars opposed to what has been dubbed the ‘English a cappella heresy’ sent me references to use of instruments in medieval churches, many of them associated with liturgical enactments for particular feasts. Unfortunately I can’t cite these references here, because my notes from these years were lost when my laptop was stolen in 2018. So I’ve started that search again. In the meantime, Daniel Leech Wilkinson The modern invention of medieval music (2002) explains how and why the topic of instrumental participation occasioned such passionate scholarly and artistic disagreements.

 

 

Widening our gaze beyond the narrow question of musical instruments, it is very difficult to define in detail what behaviours, normally proscribed, would have been permitted, even required, for this unique outburst of medieval religious energy. We may never know what actually happened. But the investigative lens of History of Emotions Studies focuses on a different question: how did it feel for those medieval monks to participate in this Play? Fassler’s and Harris’ work shows that there was a social and artistic tension between dramatic shock and religious awe, between tripudium and ordo. There is no doubt that, whatever it was that happened back then, it must have stretched the limits of monastic habitus.

Certainly therefore, a bland or discreetly tasteful performance is inauthentic. As Harris writes: “a little controlled disorder can sometimes enhance rather than diminish devotional effect…. the Play of Daniel was inspired, at least in part, by the same creative impulse [as in other less complex plays] to employ ludic means for devotional ends”. Circa 1200, the novices’ religious duty was to enact immorality and violence, as part of the sacred ritual and of their religious instruction. In medieval dramas, as in any school nativity play today, someone might have to play an evil character, notably Herod. In such a role, you are required to behave badly. So were the actors playing Belshazzar’s courtiers and Darius’ Evil Counsellors.

To appreciate Ludus Danielis, modern-day performers and audiences need to perceive the sanctity of the regular liturgy, the ludic energy of the Play, and the tension between these two elements. It is not enough for them to read a learned article about the Daily Office or Feast of Fools celebrations: they should feel the impact of this collision of values. A HIP production has to search for ways to convey an experience of what was appropriate in the medieval cathedral, and (more challengingly) what might have been appropriately inappropriate!

For the upcoming production with OPERA OMNIA, I hope to explore further another paradox of this ‘medieval opera’. There was no ‘audience’ at Mattins in medieval Beauvais. For a liturgical drama enacted in the middle of the night in early January, there might not even have been any lay congregation. Most probably, Ludus Danielis was a participatory ‘happening’, in which the entire monastic community took part, singing the well-known melodies, joining the processions, taking on the ‘chorus’ roles of courtiers and soldiers, even if they did not play a principal character. In previous productions, I invited audience members to imagine themselves as time-tourists, visiting medieval Beauvais and witnessing the extraordinary events there, one certain night of the year. But perhaps the audience can themselves become medieval monks, and feel the shock of transforming themselves into courtiers and soldiers, and the indescribable emotions of returning to the ceaseless daily round of prayer when the Play is over.

 

 

This video illustrates and expands on some of the performance practice questions discussed in this article.

 

Conductus

Many medieval liturgical dramas feature a procession. The episodes dramatised in Ludus Danielis are punctuated by no less than eight formal processions accompanied by music: for King Belshazzar, the Sacred Vessels, the Queen, Daniel, the Queen’s exit, Daniel’s exit, Darius’ invasion, and Daniel’s re-entrance. In addition the Wise Men have to make an entrance, and the rubric suggests considerable comings and goings of messengers, Habbakuk’s flying visit to the Lions’ Den, and the Evil Counsellor’s repeated spying missions, going to and fro between Darius’ throne and Daniel’s house, wherever these might have been located within the cathedral.

When clergy had to move solemnly around the chancel, for example to the position for reading the Gospel, they would process as a group. Latin conductus is the past participle of conducere, from con = with, and ducere = to lead. Conductus was a way to sing with clear rhythm that would unify everyone’s steps. Conductus poetry was written with short lines and strong, regular metrics, suiting this kind of rhythmic singing.

Once the rhythm was stable, it became easier to improvise additional voices over the written melody, and the words remained clear, since the independent voices moved in the same rhythm. So conductus became a particular type of polyphony, usually in two or three parts.

At major feasts, singers would return to their home town, bringing with them the latest polyphonic ideas from Notre Dame de Paris and the Paris University. And the region around Beauvais was famous for Trouvère lyrics and for Gautier de Coincy’s transformations of popular songs into religious conductus in Les Miracles de Notre Dame. In this atmosphere of experiment and creativity, it is highly plausible that singers introduced unwritten polyphony into the conductus processionals of Ludus Danielis.

As historical models for such improvised polyphony, surviving written sources are almost certainly intended for performance one-to-a-part. We can only speculate whether the singers of Ludus Danielis reserved certain passages for duos or trios (the classic sound of Parisian early polyphony), if one or two soloists provided improvised discants over the massed voices on the written tenor, or if there was a rich heterophony of simultaneous improvisation, unified by the note-against-note syllabic style and strong rhythm of conductus.  The raison d’etre of the event, dramatising Bible history and religious doctrine, keeping sufficient order whilst enacting appropriate inpropriety, suggests that limits might have been stretched in this area of performance, as in others.

 

 

In our May 2020 workshop, we rehearsed the essential period techniques: parallel organum in octaves and fifths and a constant drone. Jerome of Moravia’s fiddle treatise suggests that one can create a harmony for occasional notes, otherwise remaining on the written tune. [Note that this is quite different from an alternating drone, in the fashion of Irish ‘double-tonic’ tunes] We rehearsed typical movement at cadences, with a dissonant third or sixth resolving to a consonant fifth, unison or octave.

Jerome of Moravia also suggests a more demanding option, providing a harmony for every note of the written tune, i.e. a entire new polyphonic voice. We practised ways to do this using ‘fifthing’ – moving from unison towards a drone fifth, or parallel fifths, and back to unison; and by contrary motion, ‘mirroring’ the contours of the written melody.

We discussed the use and abuse of thirds, and attitudes to dissonance/resolution generally. Historical examples show that a lot of passing dissonance seems to have been accepted, sometimes even at the ends of intermediate phrases.

Here is a video summary of medieval improvisation techniques for Conductus.

 

Free, open, online multi-track recording project

For the recording project, I provided as a backing track a neutral harp-solo version of the second Conductus Danielis, which has the appropriate incipit Congaudentes – rejoicing together. Each participant listened to this track on headphones, whilst recording their own performance around it. Some played in duo, some sent in multiple tracks, one singer recorded 7 independent tracks. The project was free and open, and everyone who submitted a track had their work included. The list of participants is below, and I thank them all again!

Here is the same Congaudentes chorus, from The Harp Consort’s 1998 recording.

Here is the backing track for the May 2020 multi-track project, in case you would like to practise with it.

Participants came from many countries. Some are internationally known, one made her first ever recording for this project. This authentically reproduces the situation in c1200 Beavais, where experienced singers of polyphony and senior clerics sang alongside the young choiristers who presented the show.

The standard of all the tracks was remarkably high; all the more so, if one bears in mind that individual performers did not hear each other until the whole thing was mixed and uploaded. In the following report, I attempt to offer some academic analysis and helpful comments, without exposing anyone to personal criticism or undue individual exposure in what was from beginning to end an ensemble project.

Recording yourself and listening critically, and repeating this process intensively, as one does in a professional CD recording, creates a very steep learning curve. I greatly appreciate the work of record producers who have guided me through this process, and I would recommend it to any student or professional who is keen to improve, at whatever level.

For this project, in the course of many, many hours of audio and video editing, I listened to every individual track several times, and also heard how different combinations of soloists fitted together. All of the improvisations were plausible and fitted well with the stylistics we had studied, and there was a delightful variety of individual approaches, all with a lively energy appropriate to the context within the Play. The following comments are therefore from the perspective of a listening editor.

 

 

There were in the end 56 audio tracks (Audacity) and 38 video tracks (Nero video) to be mixed. For anyone else who might be contemplating a similarly large-scale multi-track project, I would recommend the technique that I fell upon only at the end, when I needed a technical fix. Trying to manage more than 30 video tracks simultaneously, my video editing software and/or my laptop had slowed to a crawl, and I could no longer review the results of my edits reliably. So I mixed 7 video tracks into one block, which I rendered as a single track. I should have done this from the outset for both audio and video mixes: group the tracks into  blocks by sections (high voices, low voices, bowed, plucked and percussion instruments) and mix each block first. Then mix just 5 blocks into the final print.

I asked participants to record (audio/video) a clap synchronised with a click on the backing track, but in the end this was not really needed. The quickest way to synchronise audio tracks was by playing them simultaneously, and lining them up by trial and error. And the quickest way to synchronise video to audio was also by ear, using the audio track associated with each video simultaneously with the full audio mix. Once the tracks are synched, you can lock them and silence the individual audio tracks to leave only the proper audio-mix.

Since everything was synched to the original backing track, the major limitation of Audacity for ‘classical’ audio editing, that you cannot easily drop-in patches from alternative takes of slightly different duration, was not a factor. Most of the problems I had to fix were temporary disturbances of rhythmic precision, and Audacity’s sophisticated “change tempo without changing pitch” function allowed me to make the necessary adjustments.  As I often find in live music-making, rhythmic precision is a very high priority, and good rhythm leads to confidence and to improvements in other performance variables. This is especially relevant to Conductus, of course.

For anyone who hasn’t tried it before, it’s surprisingly difficult to keep precisely together with a backing track heard through headphones. So I make no criticism of those who needed a helping hand during audio editing: all of us who ever made a CD are eternally grateful to the skills of professional producers. With the advantage of ‘hindsight’ and repeated listening, I noticed that some performers maintained ensemble by ‘checking in’ with the backing track every so often, for example at phrase-breaks, but sometimes drifted apart for a while in the middle of a phrase. This suggests that the operating strategy was attention-switching between listening and playing, rather than continous monitoring while playing.

I did not find this problem with vocal tracks, which might indicate that the sound of the harp’s backing track was easier for singers to hear, contrasting more with their own sounds, than for instrumentalists.

 

 

I also used Audacity’s ‘change pitch without changing tempo’ and reverb functions to transform Tanja Skok’s small frame drum into a mighty medieval battle drum.

 

 

There were two pairs of performers who sent duo tracks. I’m very happy that they could enjoy the chance to make music in company, during this time of social distancing, and this was an important element of our project, reflecting also the medieval performers’ celebrations of community spirit as they met, some of them perhaps only once a year, in Beauvais. But – obviously – if there is any moment when a duo track is not precisely together, there is no way to re-align the two individuals in post-production! This is a problem regularly faced by editors trying to clean up live performances, where the sound of one instrument spills onto another player’s microphone. As far as possible, editors want to have each instrument/voice isolated on its own track, even though project directors prefer to have happy participants!

 

 

There were few problems of tuning that showed through seriously, once everything was aligned and everyone was playing, though I discreetly faded out a couple of murky moments. Where tuning was off, a common feature seemed to be notes stopped further up the fingerboard of bowed and plucked instruments with necks (with or without frets). Open strings, index and middle stopping fingers were noticeably more reliable than ring fingers and pinkies. There are many factors here: finger position, fret position, string quality, as well as the bowing/plucking action.

In spite of the challenge of – sometimes quite adventurous – improvisation, most of the invented material was delivered accurately. The most difficult moment is between phrases, where, in addition to all the usual demands of solo performance and ensemble music-making, one has to decide what to do next and get fingers/voice to some newly invented note, precisely on time. This is an area I would focus on, in face-to-face rehearsal of live ensemble improvisation.

This connects to another element that can only be practised in real-time ensemble work: overall texture. Ideally, each performer should be assessing the culmulative result of all the improvising, and adjusting their own contribution accordingly. Is there enough basic melody? Too much drone? Enough high, mid-range and low? Is it too bland, or over-complicated? Such monitoring and adjusting requires enough rehearsal time for a group to learn to work together, to communicate and negotiate not by discussing, but by singing/playing and listening.

 

Ms 638 Paris 1244-11254

 

The plethora of multi-track projects that have been created during the current health crisis make an interesting contribution to the study of rhythm in Historically Informed Performance. Suddenly, principles of steady Tactus and reliable rhythm have become practical, even essential. Even though we cannot work together in real time – perhaps, because of this – listening has become more important than watching a conductor. Paradoxically, we are also more aware of the emotional power of making music as a group, since we cannot actually meet.

At the original happenings of the medieval Play (for a liturgical action without audience, I shy away from the word ‘performance’), there would have been no modern conductor, also no renaissance/baroque tactus. The misura technique of early polyphony, where a singer on the slow moving tenor-part, standing at the back, taps on the shoulder of a fast-moving cantus-part singer in front of him, is also impractical during processions and dramatic action.

But in Conductus all the singers pronounce the words simultaneously, even if some improvise polyphony. [And by the way, as a practical point, instrumentalists have to find a way to play on the move, for all these processions around a cathedral-sized building.] Meanwhile, the beat is given by everyone’s feet, shuffling, walking, dancing or marching (according to character roles) in procession.

The other meaning of conduct (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), as a noun signifying the way one behaves, is also present in the medieval French word conduis. In the context of processions, this recalls psalm verses about ‘walking with God… not in the way of the ungodly’. In the Miracles, Gautier de Coincy endlessly explores connections between similar-sounding words with different meanings, and multiple meanings of the same word, so that continual repetitions of a certain sound become a hypnotic mantra, leading the mind into a semantic maze of meditative suggestion. In Ludus Danielis, the way to behave, the way to walk, the way to ‘do conductus‘ in every sense, varies from one procession to another, as the monks embody Belshazzar’s courtiers, the Queen’s handmaidens, Daniel’s co-religionists, or an invading army.

For a HIP staged production, there is much work to be done in exploring the connections between character, movement, text and music for each procession; as well as in presenting the dramatic action of each scene, once the actors have reached ‘centre stage’.

 

Links

 

Full ensemble final mix with video

High voices

Low voices

Plucked strings

Bowed strings

Tutors

Giulia Amoretti x 7 with video

 

 

 

List of Participants

OPERA OMNIA TUTORS

Anastasia Bondareva [Russia]

Xavier Diaz-Latorre [Catalunya]

Ekaterina Liberova [Russia]

Tanya Skok [Slovenia]

Wolodymyr Smishkewych [Republic of Ireland]

Evgeny Skurat [Russia]

Andrew Lawrence-King – Director [Guernsey]

 

[*track = audio only, no video]

 

WOMEN’S VOICES

Giulia Amoretti – voice x 6, *voice [Russia]

Anastasia Bondareva – voice [Russia]

Lyubov Denisova – voice, *voice [Russia]

Olga Domagatskaya – *voice [Russia]

Alexandra Grebenyukova – voice, *voice [Russia]

Ekaterina Liberova – *voice [Russia]

Daniela Rico – *voice [Mexico]

 

MEN’S VOICES

Aleksandr Grebenyukov – voice [Russia]

Andrew Lawrence-King – *voice x 2 [Guernsey]

Timur Musaev – *voice [Russia]

Evgeny Skurat – voice [Russia]

Wolodymyr Smishkewych – “Daniel”, voice x 3 [Republic of Ireland]

 

BOWED STRINGS

Barbara Ceron – Harp x 3 [Mexico]

Alexandra Maglevanaya – Bass Viol x 2 [Russia]

Daria Maglevanaya – Medieval Fiddle x 3 [Russia]

Patricia Ann Neely – Medieval Fiddle [USA]

Wolodymyr Smishkewych – Sinfonye [Republic of Ireland]

Olga Zhukova – *Treble Viol [Russia]

 

PLUCKED STRINGS

Hannah Brockow – Irish harp, *Irish harp x 5 [Canada]

Barbara Ceron – Harp x 3 [Mexico]

Xavier Diaz-Latorre – Medieval lute [Catalunya]

Julia Grab – Rebec [Russia]

Atsuko Kunishige – *Medieval harp [Japan]

Andrew Lawrence-King – Harp, *Harp [Guernsey]

Ekaterina Pripuskova – Mandolin x 2 [Russia]

Evgeny Skurat – Medieval harp x 2 [Russia]

Boris Steinberg – Ud [Russia]

 

PERCUSSION

Xavier Diaz-Latorre – Tambourine [Catalunya]

Tarkviniy Gramsci – Darabuka [Russia]

Tanya Skok – Frame drum [Slovenia]

 

The OPERA OMNIA training production of Ludus Danielis for the International Baroque Opera Studio is planned for August-September 2020. At the time of writing, we still hope to be able to go ahead.

To beguile, or not to beguile: Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’

Music for a while is one of Purcell’s best-known and most loved songs, published posthumously in Orpheus Britannicus, Book 2 (1702). Listen here.

The tortured chromaticism of the ground bass and dark references to Alecto, the Fury from Hell with snakes for hair and a whip in her hand. indicate that there is more here than just a pretty melody.  So it comes as no surprise to discover that the song was written for a revival in 1692 of Dryden & Lee’s 1679 Tragedy Oedipus, loosely based on Sophocles.

But what was the function of this music in the play? What is happening on stage ‘for a while’? And what happens next, when Music can no longer ‘beguile’? Whose ‘cares’ and ‘pains were eas’d’?  The clue is that Alecto should indeed ‘free the dead from their eternal bands’.

At the time of writing, the best secondary sources freely available online were a couple of GCSE commentaries, which fail to address these questions and mislead on the placement of the song within the play, as well as by hinting that Alecto might even be a character in the drama. She is not, but the mythological reference to her is utterly appropriate for the dramatic situation.

 

 

A dark Grove

Fortunately, a primary source is only a click away. The library of the University of Michigan has made the full play-script of Oedipus, including the song-text (divided amongst several singers), available free online.

Purcell’s Music was composed for Act III, set in a dark Grove.

 

 

Following an argument and sword-duel between Creon and Adrastus, Haemon sets the scene:

Nor Tree, nor Plant

Grows here, but what is fed with Magick Juice,

All full of humane Souls; that cleave their barks

To dance at Midnight by the Moons pale beams:

At least two hundred years these reverened Shades

Have known no blood, but of black Sheep and Oxen,

Shed by the Priests own hand to Proserpine.

 

The blind prophet Tiresias enters with a group of aged Priests, all clothed in black habits. In rites “full of horrour” Tiresias invokes the ghost of Lajus (Oedipus’ father) to declare who it was who murdered him. A trench is dug near Lajus’ grave and a black, barren heifer is sacrificed. Blood and milk are boiled together.

And now a sudden darkness covers all,

True genuine Night: Night added to the Groves;

The Fogs are blown full in the face of Heav’n.”

Tiresias calls for “such sounds as Hell ne’re heard / Since Orpheus brib’d the Shades” and the Priests’ first song evokes tormenting demons:

 

Taskers of the dead,

You that boiling Cauldrons blow,

You that scum the molten Lead.

You that pinch with Red-hot Tongs;

You that drive the trembling hosts

Of poor, poor Ghosts,

With your Sharpen’d Prongs;

Music for a While itself is addressed to the rising ghosts, who are then ordered to “Come away… obey, while we play”. Sure enough, in a flash of lightning, ‘Ghosts are seen passing betwixt the trees‘.

The Priests and Tiresias call on Lajus to “hear and obey”, and ‘The Ghost of Lajus rises arm’d in his Chariot, as he was slain. And behind his Chariot sit the three who were murdered with him.’ Lajus refers to his “pains” in hell  (recalling the line from the song, ‘wondering how your pains were eas’d”), and accuses Oedipus of parricide.

 

 

The Ghost descends, as Oedipus enters asking “tell me why My hair stands bristling up, why my flesh trembles.

 

To beguile, or not to beguile

 

 

 

In this play and in this scene, there are many parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c1600). Dryden’s introduction make it clear that public taste insisted upon a Ghost and a Murder, and Oedipus was a great success.

In The Player’s Passion (1985) published by the same University of Michigan whose library makes Dryden’s play available online, Joseph Roach describes Shakespeare’s ‘most celebrated scene played by the greatest actor of his time, perhaps of all time’:

The name of Perkins, hair-dresser and wig-maker, enters into the history of the eighteenth-century stage on the strength of a technical contribution to David Garrick’s Hamlet… When other spectators marvelled that Hamlet’s hair actually seemed to stand on end as the ghost appeared, they testified to a fact. The ingenious Perkins had engineered a mechanical wig to simulate the precise physiognomy of mortal dread. On the line “Look, my lord, it comes”, the hairs of this remarkable appliance rose up obligingly at the actor’s command.

 

 

In Purcell’s semi-operas and incidental music for plays, incantation scenes are often the excuse for songs, and ‘priests’ with few or no spoken lines are brought on stage to do the singing. The first scene of King Arthur is a good example: “Woden, first to thee a milk-white steed in battle won, we have sacrificed“. And like the Ghost of Lajus, the Cold Genius similarly comes  “from below“, is made to “rise, unwillingly and slow’ in chromatic harmonies, and then allowed to “freeze again to death“.

 

The power of music to ‘beguile’ cares and ‘soothe the savage breast’ is part of the historical Science of the Four Humours. Music is Sanguine: the live-giving flow of warm blood, open-handed and generously offering love, courage and hope. Music frees us from the cold, dry grip of Melancholy cares and pains.

At least, for a while…

 

Listen here.

 

 

 

 

Vrai mouvement – Introduction to French Baroque dance-music

This is another in a series of posts following up a course on Early Music for Modern Harpists that I am teaching for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, but it should serve any performer as a first introduction to French baroque dance-music and the movements of the Suite. See also Introduction to 18th-century Ornamentation, Principles & Practice, and Online Resources.

 

To a great extent, Baroque dance-music is French, and French Baroque music is dances. French style is also associated with the delicate subtlety of ornamentation, so that the energy and physicality of the dance co-exists with the intricate sophistication of precise control. As Muffat writes for violinists in Florilegium Secundum (1698),

‘In spite of so many retakes and down-bows, one never hears anything harsh or crude, but on the contrary one finds a marvellous combination of great speed and long bow-strokes; of an admirable consistency of Tactus and a diversity of movements; and of a tender sweetness and vivacity of Play.’

Muffat’s essay, originally printed in French, Latin, Italian and German, is probably the best period Introduction to this style, which he associates with Lully’s violinists. In spite of the preference of modern opera houses and baroque orchestras for Rameau (1683-1764)  and Rebel (1666-1747), Lully’s music remained the reference in 18th-century France. And the instrument most associated with the noble style of French baroque dance was the violin: the dancing-master’s minature pochette or the 24-strong violin band (with all sizes of violin-family instruments).

Even if you are not a string player, consideration of the implications of Muffat’s rules for Lulliste bowing is a fast-track to creating appropriate short-term phrasing (what Early Music players call ‘articulation’) for French dance-music on any instrument.

Each dance-type has its own characteristics, and in performing this repertoire, getting a feel for the family resemblance between all Menuets (for example) is more important than trying to ‘interpret’ the particular minuet at hand. Muffat again:

Concerning the different dance-movements, three things are required. 1: To know well the true movement of each piece. 2: Having recognised it, knowing how to keep it as long as one plays the same piece, always with the same consistency, without change of slowing or accelerating. 3: To adjust and compensate for the value of certain notes, for greater beauty.

Muffat’s vrai mouvement is much more than just the speed, though finding a suitable speed is important. Quantz (see Online Resources) gives tempi based on a notional MM 80 ‘pulse’ for various dance-types in Versuch (1752) from page 268 , and Saint-Lambert (Lully’s father-in-law) calibrates his indications to an average walking pace, see Les Principes du Clavecin (1702).

The French term mouvement also implies the Affekt, the emotional character, and (as Muffat’s requirements indicate) this depends on finding rhythmic subtleties and maintaining them consistently all the way through each piece. So in addition to the regularity of Tactus, in dance-music we have additional consistency of patterning within the Tactus. And this patterning is subtle – every note is not the same, smaller-note values may be unequal within the beat – but it is maintained consistently from bar to bar. We can think of this as the rhythmic “groove” of each dance-type: the pattern is distinctive, possibly assymmetrical, often subtle, and this pattern is established from the outset and kept strongly throughout.

There are four levels of rhythmic patterning. Often the whole bar corresponds to the early 17th-century concept of Tactus, and you can beat time one bar down, one bar up. This beat is equal and regular, though with the subtlety of arsis/thesis, see The Practice of Tactus.

Phrases are nearly always symmetrically organised in 4-, 8-, 16-bar groups, with repeats of each section. Don’t omit repeats, and don’t vary them either. Rather play the whole dance a second time, with repeats again, but in a varied version – French sources call this a Double.

Within the bar, the individual beats (often crotchets) have a characteristic organisation of good/bad and join/separate. So in a Sarabande beats 1 and 2 are Good; in a Chaconne one links together beats  2-3-1. These beats usually correspond to dance-steps, and the connection between feet and beat in French music led to a concentration on this level of rhythmic organisation. So the Menuet can also be beaten with an unequal (but reguarly maintained beat), 1-2 down, 3 up.

At the next subsidiary level of rhythmic organisation (often quavers), equally-written note-values are performed unequally, pair-wise, usually long-short. The amount of swing in this inégalité is crucial for establishing (and maintaining) the character of each dance: robust country-dances get a vigorous swing, sad noble dances get a very subtle swing. The bible of baroque swing is Betty Bang Mather Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque (1997).

Muffat’s word mouvement also reminds us that Baroque dances were not just music: there was dancing, too! The best way to understand any dance-type is to learn to dance it, even if you think you have two left legs! I would regard an introduction to historical dancing as an essential element to any HIP musician’s training – and as great fun, too! The standard introduction to the physical embodiment of this music is Hilton Dance and Music of Court and Theatre (1997).

Court and Theatre were the principal milieux for the noble style of dancing, but many of these dances had their origins in the street or the countryside. Mattheson describes the contrasting characters of various dance-types. You can develop your own feeling for the area of emotions associated with each dance-type by reading song-texts set to particular dance-metres, and simply by playing many examples of the type you wish to study.

For each dance-type, you need to have a feeling for tempo, metre (duple or triple), groove, social milieu, area of Affekt and typical dance-steps. Some dances are essentially stylised walking, others are mostly leaps, others mix leaps, spins and held balances. The New Grove Dictionary entry on a particular dance-type can be a good jumping-off point for further reading.

Dance-music was often published and performed as chamber-music in Suites, linked by a common tonality. The core of the baroque suite is the AllemandeCouranteSarabande group, often with a Gigue afterwards. A Chaconne might be added at the end; a Prélude or Ouverture at the beginning; Bourée, Rigaudon and other country-dances towards the end; and theatrical or programmatic pieces were introduced for variety. For social dancing, long sets of a single dance-type (especially minuets) were often needed.

Handel’s first opera, Almira (1705), listen here has a ball-room scene, set at a French-style Assemblée, in which a sequence of dances is interspersed with conversational recitatives and arias, a theatrical presentation of social dancing at court.

Case-study: the Menuet

The Menuet was a court dance, each couple would have to dance their formal minuet in front of the judgemental gaze of their aristocratic superiors, as they entered the hall of an Assemblée. The step is a stylised walk, and the dancers’ paths trace out geometrical patterns on the floor. There are also many theatrical minuets, and many pieces that feel minuet-like, even though they are not actually dances: the slow movement of Handel’s Harp Concerto would be an example.

 

 

Muffat’s rules for violin-bowing can help us find the vrai mouvement, the ‘groove’ of this dance, and I take Christian Petzold’s well-known menuet copied into the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch as a case-study.

 

 

Baroque violins have lower string-tension than modern instruments. And French baroque violins had even lower string-tension. French violins were significantly smaller, but had lighter strings and were tuned a tone or a minor-third lower than in Italy. All these differences combine to produce very low string tension: it’s like playing on rubber-bands!  And to coax these slack strings into sound, they had very short bows.

Long & Short notes

At this point, you can experiment for yourself, by using a pencil as an imaginary, short French-style violin bow. To sustain a long note, you will have to be very sparing with the bow, and the string will take some time to ‘speak’. The result is a very drawn-out messa di voce, with a lot of intensity and a sensation of tension waiting to be released as you hope that you can get through such a long note with such a short bow.

For a short note, you’ll have to move the bow with a sprightly action, to get the floppy string to speak promptly – it’s almost like a bowed pizzicato. So the first result is that long and short notes are utterly different from one another: a long note is not just a short note sustained, it’s a completely different animal!

Bowing and inégalité

Muffat’s detailed bowing rules can be summarised as

1. Down-bow on the down-beat;

2. Down/Up bows for Good/Bad notes, respectively.

So French violinists would take the first note of Petzold’s minuet with a down-bow (Italians would play it Up). The next note is a Good, so it also requires a Down-bow.  With a short bow, two successive Downs will require lifting the bow back Up again in-between (what violinists call a Retake), and this necessarily shortens the first note, creating a staccato effect. Nevertheless, this is acheived with elegant lightness, like a dancer leaping high but landing lightly.

The quavers that follow would be played pair-wise long/short, good/bad and down/up, quite legato within each pair, but with a small separation between one pair and the next. Within each pair, the second note is unaccented – the swing is gentle and elegant, not spiky!

Groove: le vrai mouvement

We  can beat Tactus bar by bar, down/up. This gives us the first level of equal movement, corresponding to the dotted minims that we find in the bass from bar 2 onwards. In general, we expect to find the fundamental rhythmic structure in the bass, and subdivisions in the treble.

We can also beat Tactus in crotchets, 1 2 down, 3 up. This gives us minim-crotchet unequal movement, that we see in the bass of the first bar and elsewhere.

The harmonic rhythm of bar 15 is the reverse of this: crotchet-minim. The mixture of these two patterns, long-short and short-long, is characteristic of the Minuet.

Baroque theorists linked these structural patterns, often heard in the bass-line of dance-music, with the metrical “feet” of poetic scansion. Long-short is Trochaic, and short-long is Iambic: the combination of these two creates the essential structure of the minuet’s vrai mouvement.

In the melody, Muffat’s bowing produces a crotchet-minim structure for the first bar, with the minim sub-divided into swung quavers. So in this bar, the bass has one of the two Minuet-typical structures, and the melody has the other.

In bar 2, the bowing would be Muffat’s standard: down-up push. This creates a joining between beats 1-2, and a seperation of beat 3. So the structure is minim-crotchet, in contrast to the previous bar.

Bars 3-4 have the same structure in the melody as the first two bars, and then the even-bar pattern is repeated every bar until bar 8.

In bar 8, Quantz’s rule for Appoggituras tells us to make the ornamental note two thirds of the length of the written note, and to resolve quietly and smoothly into the written note. The structure is therefore minim-crotchet, breaking the pattern of the previous 3 bars. There are couple of bars with swung quavers all the way through in the melody and a minim-crotchet structure in the bass, and the harmonies show the structure of the penultimate bar also to be minim-crotchet.

There are no other patterns in this minuet. Muffat’s strictly maintained mouvement can be understood by superimposing all the allowed patterns, and ‘weighting’ them according to how often each is heard. You can listen to the result here.

As you listen, imagine yourself dancing with elegant steps and graceful balances along the floor, in smoothly curved patterns, wearing 18th-century courtly dress, and with the assembled aristocracy looking on, and subdued conversation in polite French, with period pronunciation of course. By now you are well on the path towards developing a feel for the vrai mouvement of the menuet.

 

Beyond Versailles

 

We find French dances in English, German and even Italian music, and of course in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, see Jenne & Little Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach (1991/2009). Their first publication addressed works by Bach that bore the names of dances―a considerable corpus. In the second, expanded version they study also a great number of his works that use identifiable dance rhythms but do not bear dance-specific titles.

There is a glossy online Introduction to French Baroque Music presented in English by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Their view appropriately contrasts French and Italian approaches, but they seem unaware of the richness of Spanish dance-culture, which brought together Old and New World, even African music, popular and courtly styles.

Hispanic culture contributed one of the most famous dances of Baroque France, Les Folies d’Espagne as well as the Canaries dance-type. As in France, so in Spain, Portugal and the New World, standard dance-types and (more than in France) the ground basses associated with them defined the territory for much chamber, theatrical and (also more than in France) even sacred music. Ribayaz’s 1677 book Luz y Norte offers a ‘guiding light and North star by which to explore all Spanish music’ – listen here.

English late-17th-century Country Dances became well-known in the 20th-century folk music revival. With simple steps and formulaic group choreographies, they were much, much easier for amateur dancers than the technically demanding solo dances in which French aristocrats emulated professonal theatre dancers. Country dances became popular in France as contredansesLes manches vertes is Greensleeves.

This article can only be a brief Introduction. The next step is to become familiar with various dance-types, by reading more about them, and – even better – by playing and dancing them.

Movement & Baroque Music: Mind, Body & Spirit

MUSIC

In 17th-century philosophy, the movement of the stars creates a perfect Music of the Spheres, which is reflected in the harmonious nature of the Human body, and imitated in actual music, played or sung.

 

This is a hierarchical connection, with heaven at the highest level and performance at the lowest level: humans are in-between.

 

“Ex motu Armonia” – “The movement of the heavens creates Harmony” Detail from the frontispiece of Agazzari’s “Del sonare sopra ‘l basso” (1607).

Read more about Agazzari & continuo here.

TIME
The movement of the stars also defines Time, which is measured in musical notation, perceived as the feeling of tempo and the quality of movement, indicated in music-making by the Tactus-hand. [All of these were far more precise than period clocks.]

This connection is not hierarchical but one of identity: astronomical Time is the same as musical Measure, Tempo and the Tactus-Beat. (Zacconi 1596).

MOVEMENT & SOUL
Baroque Time is not Newton’s Absolute Time, “like an ever-rolling stream”, it is Aristotle’s “time as a number of motion”. In Aristotle’s Physics, this movement (and therefore, Time itself) can only be perceived by a Soul.

When Baroque writers call Time “the Soul of Music”, they mean that Time gives the dry numbers of musical-notation meaning in the real world, transforming them into living sound, what we would call ‘live Music’.

LIFE, MOVEMENT & PASSIONS
Music seeks to ‘move the Passions’, to sway emotions, which are ‘the affections of the Soul’, Affekt (German), affetti (Italian). The effects of soul-musical emotions are felt in the mind and in the body.

17th-century Pneuma, mystic breath, is the divine energy giving the breath of life (from heaven), and also the networked energy connecting mind, body and soul (human, rather like oriental Qi), and also the artistic Energia that communicates between musician and listener (in performance). This is the same hierarchy as in Music.

CAUSE & AFFEKT
Perfect heavenly Movement creates Time, which gives life to Music, which moves the Passions. Perfect heavenly Movement also creates Music. The heavens are turned, and the human soul created, by the Divine Hand. All these relations are causal: one creates another.

MIND, BODY & SPIRIT
If you keep this in mind, whilst you move your hand in the embodied time of Tactus, you may feel something of the baroque Spirit of Music, communicating Passions to listeners.

This connection is also causal. It’s not enough to think about it, you also have to beat Tactus, otherwise it won’t happen.

Prattica di Retorica in Musica – Inventio

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

 

 

What’s the Use?

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

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

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

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

 

 

Foreword 

 

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

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

 



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

 

 


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

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

 

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

 

Exordium


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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

To the Reader

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


 

PRATTICA DI RETORICA IN MUSICA

To the musicall Reader

Exordium

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

Partitio

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

Confirmatio

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

Confutatio

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

Peroratio

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

And live happily!

Dedicatory Poem

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

A SONNET

on

THE PRACTICE

OF RHETORIC IN MUSIC

By a Friend of Mr Richard Barnfield

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

                                       

 

 

 

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…