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…

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE REPORT

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

ALK comments:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

iL Corago – The Baroque Opera Director

The essential guide to Early Opera

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Fake News? Early Opera, aka Seicento Dramatic Monody

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

FAKE NEWS??

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

READ THE SOURCES FOR YOURSELF!

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

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

 

One of these statements might be true:

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

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

 

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

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

Period sources contradict all the other statements.

 

FACTS CHECKED

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

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

 

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

There was no conductor: you knew that already!

 

 

Singers should add ornamentation – gorgi and passaggi

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rhythm is not significant?

“Music is text and rhythm”Caccini.

Recitative imitates the natural speech-rhythms of Italian conversation?

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

 

The harpsichordist should beat time in Tactus?

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

 

The most important consideration is beautiful vocal sound?

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

 

Rubato is the key to ‘moving the passions’?

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

 

Caccini frequently recommends sprezzatura?

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

See also these links:

Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

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

The wedding dance: Monteverdi’s Lasciate i monti

Emotions in Early Opera

Lamento della ninfa

Re-making Arianna

Monteverdi Vespers

How to Act: preliminary exercises for Baroque Gesture

The Philosophy of La Musica

and many other articles in this blog.