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

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

Recitative – NOT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Doni & the first “operas”

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

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

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

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

 

Songs for a single voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

In the style called Dramatic…

[Annotationi pages 60-62]

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dramatic

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

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

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


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

canto scenico –  ‘stage singing’. 

 

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

 

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


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

 

Euridice Act I incipit, in Peri’s setting

 

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

 

Euridice Act I incipit, in Caccini’s setting

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prologue to Euridice in Peri’s setting.

 

The Prologue to Euridice in Caccini’s setting

 

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

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

Expressive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion (ALK)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Comparing the libretti

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing the scores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Combining the information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

How HIP is your Monteverdi?

 

  • Chitarrone  1960s Robert Spencer

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Violini alla francese  ?
  • 5 trumpets  ?

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

 

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)

 

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

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

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

What’s different now?

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

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

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

What was different in 1607?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

The Minister’s Conditions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

This article is posted in connection with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo for Vaasa Baroque Festival in October 2019.

Read more about Monteverdi’s ‘story in music’ and watch a documentary film here: The Orfeo page by Il Corago

 

 

When Pluto, King of the Underworld, declares that Orpheus can recover his beloved Eurydice, two of his infernal Ministers comment. In the musical score, the first speech is marked to be sung a tone higher, perhaps reflecting changes in the distribution of vocal roles during the rehearsal period for the 1607 first production.

O de gli habitator de l’ombre eterne
Possente Re, legge ne fia tuo cenno
Che ricercar altre cagioni interne
Di tuo voler nostri pensier non denno.

O, the inhabitants’ of the eternal shadows
Powerful King, the law will be made from your gesture
For to search out other deeper reasons
For your wishes our thoughts are not worthy.

Striggio’s verses recall Giovanbatisto Strozzi’s lyrics for the Hell scene in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, set by Giovanni de Bardi Miseri habitator del ciec’ averno (Wretched inhabitants of blind Avernus). The architecture and social structures of Striggio’s Hell would be instantly recognisable to the 1607 audience: within a landscape familiar from Dante’s Inferno, Pluto presides over an infernal court, just as Orpheus presided over the pastoral shepherds in Arcadia. And amidst the Minister’s courtly flattery we are reminded of the importance of the cenno – Gesture – as signifying a binding decision in a court of law, as a manner of royal proclamation to attending courtiers, and as communication to the audience from performers on the baroque stage. See Bonifacio’s 1616 L’Arte de’ Cenni (The Art of Gesture) here.

 

 

Monteverdi’s setting uses the coding of dramatic Monody to send listeners two important signals. Long notes in the continuo bass-line, in the Tactus values of semibreves and minims show that this is a serious subject, as explained by Peri in the Preface to his 1600 setting of Euridice. More about the coding of ‘recitative’ here. And the first words are recited on a monotone, categorised in Doni’s 1640 Annotazioni, additional notes to his Compendium of the Genres and Styles of Music (1635) as the Narrative style. This signals that infernal Spirit has a story to tell, that the audience is being addressed directly with significant information about the plot of this ‘fable in music’.

More on Rhetoric, Rhythm and Passions in Monteverdi’s favola in musica here. together with links to the 1607 Libretto, and original scores from 1609 and 1615. 

Striggio presents these two speeches of the two infernal Ministers as a single Chorus (in the Greek sense of commentary on the action of the principal characters), a Choro di Spiriti Infernali in 8 continuous 11-syllable lines of rhyming couplets, contrasting with the blank verse of Plutone and Proserpina’s speeches. And the significant information comes in the second half of this Chorus, allocated by Monteverdi to a second, lower-voiced singer. Striggio’s poetical structures would  usually have cued the composer to write ensemble or song-like music, but Monteverdi declines that invitation, choosing the more serious texture of Monody. Monteverdi’s choice – not to cloak the words in attractive melody but rather to deliver them in stark declamation – is another signal to the audience that this moment is highly significant, not just pretty music!

Trarrà da queste orribili caverne
Sua sposa Orfeo, s’adoprerà suo senno,
Si che no’l vinca giovenil desio,
Ne i gravi imperi tuoi sparga d’oblio.

He will lead out from these horrible caves
His wife, [he] Orfeo, if he uses his wisdom,
If he is not overcome by juvenile desire,
Nor forgets your grave commands.

The conventional rhetorical phrase for ‘forget’ is to ‘scatter into oblivion’. In the libretto, the commands are tuoi = yours, i.e. Pluto’s commands given. But in the scores they are suoi – his, i.e. Orfeo’s commands received. And for ‘wisdom’ the scores have ingegno – ingenuity: here the libretto seems the better choice, suggesting mature wisdom as opposed to juvenile impetuosity. The word senno also appears elsewhere in the drama, and here it makes the better rhyme.

 

 

Monteverdi directs the continuo to play their solemn D minor for an extra beat before the singer breathes, another marker of heightened significance. Plutone similarly has two extra beats, and we see notations in other operas for the continuo to repeat opening chords as many times as necessary, if a character is making a grand entrance: Penelope in the first scene of Monteverdi’s Ulisse, Tempo in the first scene of Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo. More about Anima & Corpo here.

The pitch contours of the opening line step upwards in thirds, imitating the opening line of the first Spirto. This kind of repeating structure is what was called aria in this repertoire, not necessarily a melody, but any kind of repeated structure in words, rhythm or music. This movement in thirds is characteristic of the earliest Spanish recitado, where it represents the speech of divine characters/ Almost certainly Monteverdi intends a similar characterisation here, for the powerful ministers of hell.

The vital message that all these markers point towards is the threefold condition, under which Orpheus’ mission to Hell might succeed. The singer-hero must employ wisdom, not be overcome by passion, and he must remember the command not to turn and look at Eurydice. Of course, the 17th-century audience knows the story already, and so – as very often in early opera – they are ahead of the characters on stage, enjoying an almost god-like capacity to see the future.

This frequent use of dramatic irony is just one more aspect of the period attitude that privileges the audience as high-status courtiers, noble guests for whom the whole spectacle is provided. As La Musica sings in the Prologue, the audience are praised as ‘noble heroes, noble blood of kings’ – more about the Philosophy of La Musica here.

Since the audience are already with, if not even ahead of, the plot. all this emphasis on the Minister’s Conditions highlights what will become the message of the whole drama, the moral of the tale, summarised in the chorus at the end of this Act (after Orpheus’ disastrous turn):

Orfeo vinse l’Inferno e vinto poi
Fu da gl’affetti suoi

Orpheus conquered Hell, and then was conquered
by his own passions.

and reiterated by Apollo in one of the two surviving endings to the show:

Non e consiglio di generoso petto
Servir al proprio afftetto.

It is not wise for a generous heart
To be a slave to its own passions.

Thus in a music-drama that celebrates the power of music to move the passions, the audience is nevertheless guided towards moderation in their emotional response. Or at least, this is the message, if the Apollo ending (from the musical scores) is performed. The alternative Bacchic ending in the libretto concludes the show with a glorious paean to the ‘divine fury’ of inspiration and inebriation, ‘the spice of all human pleasure and the comfort of every troubled heart’.

 

Cheers!

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…

 

 

 

The Art of Time: Tomas de Santa Maria on performing renaissance Fantasia

Tomas de Santa Maria’s Arte de tañer Fantasia (1565) free to download here is a teaching book for keyboard instruments and vihuela. Like Milán’s (1536) book for vihuela El maestro read more here, this publication is intended not only to teach the rudiments of notation and instrumental technique, but also to give detailed information for high-quality performance and to empower students to improvise their own Fantasias, in the strict polyphonic style of the late renaissance. Thus, the second part download part 2 here offers a complete introduction to 16th-century counterpoint.

In this post, I offer a brief overview of the contents of the two volumes of the Art of playing Fantasia, and analyse in detail Tomas’ comments on his highest priorities, Time and Rhythm, as well as his remarks on Ornamentation and on Performance Practice in general.

 

 

The Art of Fantasia

 

Tomas presents improvised Fantasia-playing as a renaissance Art, a term which had quite a different flavour almost half a millennium ago. Whilst the 20th century has taught us to regard art as the triumph of a lone genius over rules and restrictions applying only to ordinary folk, in the 16th and 17th centuries Art was defined as a system of coherent principles that transformed raw nature into artful creativity, full of life and grace. More about the period meaning of Art and period terminology here.

As Renaissance Art, Tomas’ fantasia is improvised within the rigorous structures of Franco-flemish polyphony, inherited and developed by such composers as Antonio de Cabezon (who checked and approved Tomas’ work), and his arte is indeed a book of rules: 78 chapters of detailed prescriptions, plus several bonus sections on key Performance Practice topics.

The remainder of this article consists mostly of extensive quotes from Tomas’ book, so for clarity my brief comments below are in blue.

Prologo: principles & fundamentals

El fin de este libro es arte de tañer fantasia – “the aim of this book is rules for improvising, divided into two parts. The first deals with all the pre-requisites that are necessary to begin improvising… the second part deals with everything necessary for this purpose, which is to improvise counterpoint, all put into a system (puesto en arte) and into universal rules (reglas universales)…

“In this first part we proceed by way of easier and clearer matters, beginning with the names of the notes (signos), but our principal intention is only to teach young professionals in this discipline (arte) what they need to put into practice, step by step from the most obvious and lightest matters, towards greater matters, and not [beginning] with the most demanding and difficult matters, which would tend to confuse and intrigue experts in such questions rather than enlightening and educating those new beginners, who like children should be nourished with light sustenance, easily digested, and later with more solid food!”

“In all the sciences and disciplines such order is essential… we see the same in Nature, which proceeds from imperfection to perfection… This has been the reason and motivation for our setting out to begin the first part with the notes, not as they have previously been analysed, but from first principles and fundamentals.”

Science, Art & Use

Tomas’ Prologue also includes a discussion of the need for arte – a coherent set of principles, contrasting this with uso – use, i.e. the habitual way of ‘just doing it’. Such use is not necessarily bad – a good habit can be a useful skill – but it must be guided by arte – rules. Our modern-day understanding of ‘art’ as the engagement with mysterious beauties beyond everyday rules is Renaissance Science.

Tomas’s personal connection to the ineffable, divine aspect of Music is proclaimed in a lengthy exposition of the role of Music in the Bible and in Christian doctrine. Reluctantly, he leaves this topic, to focus on the subject of his book – arte as a set of principles.

‘But I wish to leave this [Science], about which much more could be said, so as not to depart from my main purpose. And I say that although I have served the institution of my Order by playing organ wherever my duties took me, I considered many times the great effort required until now, and the many years taken up by learning singing and playing. Moved by emotions of love and charity, I began to investigate and re-examine how all this might be expressed as arte – a set of principles, so that in a short time and with less effort one could acheive the goal, and not merely as uso – habit, ‘just doing it’.

‘Because habit is broad and risky, whereas principles are narrow and sure. And so we see from experience that no-one without principles is perfect in their skilled discipline (facultad); because those who go without principles are like those don’t know the way and go without a guide; and like those who go in the dark without light. Since principles are the guide and the light, then it’s quite fair to say that those who do creative work (obran) without observing principles are ignorant.

‘This is the declaration of the Philosopher, who was asked what knowledge is; and who replied that knowledge is understanding the matter from its causes and first principles (primeros principios), which is what arte consists of.’

And so Tomas spent 16 years of ‘incalculable and incredible work‘, consulting with high-level colleagues, in particular Antonio de Cabezon, in order to perfect his set of principles, and teach his arte as ‘universal rules‘.

Contents

Part 1 begins with the names of the notes in plainchant (canto llano) and staff-notation (canto de organo); the three Hexachords (propriedades); the contradiction between the hard and soft Hexachords (see below); changing Hexachord (mutacion); the two pre-requisites for singing from staff-notation.

Then follows an extra section with ‘advice for maintaining the Tactus (compas) well, analysed in detail below.

Chapter 6 continues with note-values; introduction to the keyboard; semitones; black and white keys; intervals etc. Chapter 13 deals with Performance Practice, setting out eight conditions for fine playing (see below), which are discussed point by point in the following chapters.

From Chaper 20, Tomas explains how to perform polyphonic works on vihuela or keyboard, including advice on ornamentation. Then he analyses the Church Tones, Renaissance Modes, use of remote tonalities and Cadences.

Part 2 is devoted to the rules of counterpoint in 51 chapters: dissonance and consonance; suitable progressions, ascending and descending, whether in slow notes or faster; voice-leading; formal design. Chapter 52 has advice for new players (see below). The final chapter shows how to tune keyboard instruments and vihuela (in meantone).

Hexachords

Whilst every musician understands that one shouldn’t mix up B-flat and B-natural, Tomas’ comments on the contradiction of the hard and soft Hexachords – la contradicion que ay entre las dos propriedades de bequadrado y bemol (Part 1, Chapter 3) are interesting in the context of musical expression and History of Emotions.

‘Of the three Hexachords, the two that are B-natural and B-flat are notorious for being mutually repugnant and contrary – muy notorio ser repugnantes y contrarias entre si – and to such a degree that in no way can they suit or conform one to another nor vice versa, unless there is a particular necessity to make some perfect fifth or perfect fourth, or to excuse some dissonance of fa against mi… Finally, if we are singing or playing in B-natural, we must necessarily avoid singing or playing with B-flat [and vice versa].

‘The reason and cause of this contradiction and repugnance is because song with B-flat is a soft, sweet and smooth song (blando, dulce y soave), and on the contrary, song with B-natural is hard, strong and bitter (duro, rezio y aspero), and so – like soft and hard  – they are manifestly opposites and contraries.’

The natural Hexachord [C D E F G A, containing neither B-flat nor B-natural] is halfway between the hard and soft Hexachords, conforming with either of them’. Tomas links this ‘convenience and conformity’ to the structure of eight-note modes, which combine notes from two six-note Hexachords. ‘The natural Hexachord is halfway, a tempering and concord … with which every mode (tono) can complete its perfect operation.’

Pre-requisites

Part 1, Chapter 5 De dos documentos para en brevemente cantar canto de organo – two pre-requisites for quickly [learning] to sing from staff-notation

‘It is certain and evident that staff-notation – canto de organo – is highly important and necessary for the player, both to understand what they are playing as well as to set a work [i.e. arrange polyphony for solo instrument] and gain advantage from [studying] it. Just as a scholar to complete his diploma has to read many learned writers every day… so the player should… set works in staff-notation by selected composers every day, enriching his knowledge of new and fine things… Por falta de fundamentos se gastava mucho tiempo…

If you lack fundamental skills, you’ve been wasting a lot of time!

Tomas’ emphasis on staff-notation and deep understanding of counterpoint takes his book into territory beyond that explored by Milán in El maestro (1536). Milán uses tablature notation, which tells the vihuela-player which string to pluck with the right hand and which fret to stop with the left hand, note by note, and with careful control of rhythm. But this notation does not show the movement of the individual polyphonic voices, and Milán allows more freedom than Tomas de Santa Maria in adapting the strict rules of counterpoint to the exigencies of a particular instrument. Although Milán requires basic knowledge of staff-notation, his students learn to improvise polyphony mostly by ear and by ‘muscle memory’, by learning the stops and plucks that create the progressions and cadences of each mode. Tomas teaches staff-notation in detail and wants his students to learn counterpoint as an academic, as well as practical, exercise. But both writers encourage students to play good music, in order to learn by example, reproducing and imitating learnt musical fragments in their own improvised fantasias.

Tomas gives ‘two very brief and comprehensive rules (reglas), with which in a very short time one can easily learn and understand in depth: the first deals with  compas and the second with written note-values.’

As for Milán (read more here), so also for Tomas, the term compas combines the philosophical concept of Tactus (the slow, steady pulse governing renaissance and baroque rhythm) with the practical, physical representation of that pulse as a down-up movement of the hand (or foot) and with the notation of the duration of a down-up pulse unit by the note-value of a semibreve and by a bar of staff-notation enclosed by bar-lines. Tomas distinguishes clearly between Tactus (the complete down-up movement, corresponding to a semibreve) and semi-Tactus – medio compas (downbeat only, or upbeat only, corresponding to the duration of a minim).

Tactus

Quanto al compas, que es como fundamento del canto de Organo, por quanto siempre estriva en el, sea mucho de notar que la llave y govierno de toda la musica, assi del cantar como del tañer, es el compas y medio compas, de los quales el que bien supiere usar, terna bien fundamento para bien cantar y tañer, por que el compas es ciera guia en toda la musica mensurable que por su certidumbre le dezimos ser el freno de la musica, porque nos detiene para no cantar ni tañer desatinada y desconcertadamente, sino conforme a razon, por peso y medida, y por preceptos y reglas de musica. Y assi con justo titolo el compas es llamado el govierno con que se concierta y rige toda la musica, assi del cantar como del tañer, dandole toda gracia y ser. 

‘Regarding Tactus, which is like the foundation of staff-notation, since it is always based on Tactus, it should be carefully noted that the key and government of all music, whether sung or played, is the Tactus and semi-Tactus. If you know well how to use them, you’ll have a good foundation for singing and playing well, for Tactus is a sure guide in all measured music [i.e. not plainchant], which for its certitude we can say is the musical brake which restrains us from singing or playing recklessly and in disorder, but instead rationally, by weight and measure, and by precepts and rules of music. And so it is the appropriate title to call Tactus the government with which all music (both sung and played) is brought together and ruled, giving it all its grace and its very existence.’

Tomas now links the practical purpose of Tactus as the basis of musical ensemble to its formal definition in relation to Aristotelean Time: ‘a number of movement in respect of before and after’ Physics (4th cent. BC). We should keep in mind that Isaac Newton’s theory of Absolute Time was not published until more than a century later.

‘Compas es medida, en la cantoria tomado a intento que las bozes concurren en consonancia a un mesmo tiempo. Tactus is Measure, used in choir so that the voices come together in consonance at the same time.’

‘Compas es la cantidad a tardanca de tiempo que ay del golpe que hiere en baxo a otro siguente baxo. Tactus is the amount of duration of time from one down-beat to the following down-beat.’

In the next paragraph, he links the physical hand-movement and practical purpose of Tactus-beating to the notation of musical time with bars and note-values.

‘El compas con que se mide toda la musica practica assi del cantar como del tañer fue sacado del compas con que se mide y inivela la cantidad a cuya semejança el compas de la musica practica mide el tiempo que se gasta en las figuras del canto de Organo… The Tactus that measures all practical music-making both vocal and instrumental is taken from the Tactus that measures and determines the quantity represented by a bar of musical notation which measures the time taken up by the note-values of staff-music.’

Tomas makes it abundantly clear that all measured music (i.e. all music except chant) is governed by Tactus, and the music has to conform to the Tactus, not vice versa.

‘El compas, en el qual estriva toda la musica practica… Tactus, on which all music-making is founded. ‘Toda la musica, assi del cantar como del tañer, esta subjectada y atajada al compas, y no la compas ala musica. All music, both vocal and instrumental, is governed by and founded on Tactus, and not the other way around.

About this, students who want to excel in this art should be well admonished.

‘The Tactus is divided into two equal parts, that is into two semi-Tactus… by the upbeat, so that the Tactus is always on the downbeat and the semi-Tactus on the upbeat’. Tomas emphasises that in binary metre every semi-Tactus is of equal duration.

‘There are two different types of compas in music-making – in one the Tactus is divided (as above) into two equal parts. In the other type into three equal parts: this is the compas of Proportion, also known as Triple metre, in which of the three parts that it has, two are spent on the down-stroke and the other one on the up-stroke. This is done singing two Semibreves on the downstroke  and one on the upstroke [slow, Sesquialtera proportion] or two Minims on the downstroke and one on the upstroke [fast, Tripla proportion].

Four requirements for maintaining Tactus perfectly

  • Beat time with the hand, down-up, with each stroke of equal duration

‘Even though the upstroke should not have a ‘bump’ [topar] as the down-stroke does, nevertheless the down-beat must hit as if it struck something.’ He mentions two faults to avoid: ‘often we see imprecise Tactus-beating without any ‘bump’ neither on the down nor the up, or hitting with the hand as if it struck something on down and up’. This subtle difference between down- and up-strokes is the concept of arsis and thesis.   ‘Every bar has these two beats.’

  • The hand stays down for the entire duration of the semi-Tactus

‘It is not lifted until the note on the upstroke. Similarly on the upstroke the hand stays up for the entire duration of the semi-Tactus, until the downstroke.

‘For this it is necessary to raise and lower the hand with equal regularity – una misma ygualdad.

  • The up- or down-beat and the note on which it falls are struck together simultaneously – juntamente a un mesmo tiempo 

‘The beat is not before or after the note, the note is not before or after the beat, but absolutely together at once. For this, it’s necessary that each beat, both down and up, should be struck with a certain force or impetus, and in addition both should be struck equally, that is one doesn’t strike the downbeat harder than the up, nor the up harder than the down.

  • Every bar goes as measured and determined by the measure of the first bar

‘The measure of tempo maintained in the first bar is maintained in every bar that follows, by reason, that one doesn’t take more time for one bar than for another.

‘We give this advice to new players,  that they basically count by semi-Tactus [minims] … and this way they cannot fail to play in Tactus with all the rigour that is required. because by experience we see that those who don’t play in Tactus err in the semi-Tactus.’

Note that Tomas is encouraging beginners to count relatively quickly, in minims [about MM 60], whereas more experienced players might count the whole Tactus [semibreve ~ MM30]. Modern-day musicians are so used to a fast count, that even Tomas’ easy option of 60 bpm is challengingly slow for many nowadays

.

 

 

‘If you want to maintain Tactus and semi-Tactus well, practise a lot maintaining it for yourself [i.e. within your own body] with the hand and with the foot… for players, maintain Tactus & semi-Tactus with your foot, since whilst playing you can’t do it with your hand.’

 

Mensuration signs & note-values

Part 1, Chapter 6 De las figuras

We are discussing the figuras – written notes – according to their note-value sung in compasete [indicated by C, modern ‘common time’], which is  now commonly used by everyone…. even though  [C-slash, modern ‘alla breve’] is also called compasete by many, which if taken strictly we would have to sing by whole compas [down-up Tactus, and also bar-length], which is breve or two semibreves.  Nevertheless we use it [in the same way] as C, a half-circle without the slash, with the result that using one or the other [mensuration sign, ‘time signature’] we now sing in compasete. What is strictly called compasete  in this period, which is C without slash… the Semibreve is one compas [down-up Tactus, and also bar-length]’

So by Tomas’ time, the strict definition of compasete (Milán calls it by another dimunuitive, compasillo) as C is informally extended by many to include C-slash; and the realisation of C-slash strictly according to theory, i.e. counting by breve and semibreve (which would suggest double tempo, though Tomas does not clarify this explicitly), seems to have been abandoned in practice.

Bar-length

Although period use of the term compas often includes the meaning ‘a bar of notated music’, Tomas’ basic explanation of note-lengths clearly shows that bar-lengths can be varied in practice. In his table, the numbers viii, iv, ii and 1 count the number of Tactus beats.

 

 

This defining exemplo shows:

  • Bar-lengths are expanded as necessary to accommodate large note-values

 

  • The primary meaning of compas is Tactus (as a duration of time corresponding to the movement of the Tactus-hand)

 

  • Note-values are defined in relation to Tactus

In theory, the relationship depends on mensuration sign, but the theoretical distinction between C and C-slash no longer applies in practice.

 

  • A single mensuration sign (i.e. C) allows varying bar-lengths

This contrasts with the modern use of C as a time signature requiring a consistent bar-length of one semibreve.

 

  • There is no assumption of maintaining duration as bar = bar.

This has implications for triple-metre proportions, which today’s performers sometimes describe as ‘bar=bar’. That might be an accurate description in some circumstances, but ‘bar = bar’ is not a period principle that can be used to determine proportions.

Tomas’ (1565) principles of rhythmic notation are entirely consistent with Milan’s theory and practice in El maestro, three decades earlier.

The fundamental quantity is Tactus. Relative durations are specified by note-lengths. The notated bar-length framed by bar-lines  is essentially a visual convenience, no more.

Two Principal Requirements for singing from staff notation

Dos cosas se reguieren principalmente para saber cantar canto de Organo.

  1. Give each note its written time-value
  2. Know which note is on the up- or down-beat, and which is not

For minims it’s easy… with each beat down or up, you sing a minim… if one minim comes with the downbeat, the next is with the upbeat and vice versa.

Tomas now gives examples for various note-values of how notation is linked to Tactus beats.

8 conditions for playing with total perfection and beauty

Book 1, Chapter 13 ‘So that all music might have that grace and essence (ser – literally, ‘being’) which it deserves, it’s necessary to play with all the delicacy that is required, which is repaid in much gold and creates yet more essence and grace. Without this, all that is played, however good it might be, will not have grace nor brilliance. Here is the clear difference between the same work played by a perfect and refined player, or played by another, imperfect and coarse; because played by the expert it will appear to be delicate and high art, and played inexpertly it seems low-class and coarse, as if it were two different pieces.

‘The conditions which thus beautify the music can be reduced to eight:

  1. Play in Tactus (compas)
  2. Place your hands well.
  3. Strike the keys well.
  4. Play cleanly and distinctly.
  5. Let the hands run well up and down the keyboard.
  6. Use appropriate fingering
  7. Play with good groove (ayre)
  8. Make good ornaments and trills (redobles y quiebros)’

‘Playing in Tactus … is the first condition’

For more on Tactus, Tomas refers his readers back to his previous remarks (analysed above).

Chapters 14-18 are specific to keyboard, in particular clavichord, technique. Chapter 14: Fingers are numbered from thumb 1 to little finger 5. Hands are curved like cat’s paws, fingers close together, thumb underneath and close to the 5th finger. All this is close to period harp-technique too. Elbows are dropped, relaxed and close to the body.

Chapter 15: strike the keys with the flesh of the finger; with impetus; equally strongly with both hands; don’t strike from too high above the key; press down into the key, but not so much as to raise the pitch; don’t raise the fingers too much away from the keys.

Chapter 16: for clarity, release one key before playing the next. Lift the finger a little after playing, but don’t take them too far away from the keys.

Chapter 17: for facility throughout the whole range, keep the hand compact, turn the hand slightly in the direction of movement (especially for fast notes), keep the active fingers close to the keys.

Chapter 18 defines Principal Fingers as those that strike the first note of trills. Thumbs are not used for black notes, except for octaves in one hand, or when there is no possible alternative. One should not use the same finger twice in succession for crotchets or (especially) quavers. Consecutive semibreves, on the contrary, are played with one finger repeating. Melodic crotchets are taken pair-wise, alternating two fingers. This is the familiar Renaissance concept of Good and Bad notes, corresponding to the accented and unaccented syllables of a song-text: more on Good & Bad here. Quavers and semiquavers are fingered four-by-four. 

Tomas analyses fingering in considerable detail, confirming the importance of fingering in creating short-term phrasing and articulation. His fingerings for two-note chords require changing fingering on consecutive thirds, which has implications for facilitating particular ornaments (page 45). 

Groove and Swing

 

Chapter 19 introduces the concept of ayre – particular ways to apply rhythmic freedom to fast notes, within the regular pulse of the Tactus. Ayre sometimes refers to melodic tunefulness, but more often to subtle rhythmic patterning. Depending on context, I translate it as ‘groove’ (dance patterns and/or medium- term patterning) or ‘swing’ (changeable, short term patterns), in the jazz sense of subtle rhythmic adjustments that give a particular character or elegant shape without disturbing the fundamental beat.  

‘The way to play with good ayre… requires playing the Crotchets in one way [groove] and the Quavers in three [alternative options for three different ways to swing].’ Thus these adjustments are within the fundamental steady pulse of Tactus (semibreve, down-up) and semi-Tactus (minim, down or up).

‘The manner – manera – you must have for playing Crotchets is to wait – detenerse –  on the first and hurry – correr –  the second; and neither more nor less wait on the third and hurry the fourth; and in this way for all the Crotchets. As if the first Crotchet were dotted, and the second a Quaver… and take note that the Crotchet that hurries should not be very hurried, but a little moderate – un poco moderada.

 

 

‘Of the three manners of [playing] Quavers, two are done almost the same way, which is waiting on one quaver and hurrying the other one… In one manner you begin by waiting on the first Quaver, hurrying the second; and neither more nor less waiting on the third and hurrying the fourth; and in this way all of them… As if the first were dotted and the second a Semiquaver. This manner is suitable for works that are contrapuntal throughout – todas de contrapunto – and for passages of decorative fast notes both long and short – passos largos y cortos de glosas.

 

 

The second manner is done by hurrying the first Quaver and waiting on the second; and neither more nor less hurrying the third and waiting on the fourth; and in this way all of them… As if the first were a Semiquaver and the second a dotted Quaver. In this manner, the dotted Quavers are never on the beat, but in-between. This manner is suitable for short decorations – glosas cortas – which are done like this in [composed, contrapuntal] works as well as in [improvised] fantasia.  And note that this manner is very much more galana (elegant, showy) than the other one, above.’

 

 

The noun gala and its related adjective galana occupy an area of meaning that extends from ‘decorative’ or ‘elegant’ to ‘luxury’ or ‘ostentation’. Milán discusses tañer de gala, which seems to be well towards the ‘showy’ end of this semantic spectrum, as suggested by my translation ‘bravura playing’. More on Milán here.

‘The third manner is done by hurrying three Quavers and waiting on the fourth; and be warned that the waiting has to be all the time that is necessary so that the fifth Quaver comes to be struck in time on the semi-Tactus; and in this way all of them. With the result that they go four by four… as if the three Quavers were Semiquavers and the fourth a dotted Quaver. This third manner is the most galana of all, and is suitable for long and short decorations – glosas largas y cortas.

‘Take note that the waiting on the Quavers should not be much, but just enough to show and be understood a little, because waiting a lot causes great gracelessness and ugliness – desgracia y fealdad – in the music. And similarly for the same reason, the three Quavers that hurry should not hurry too much, but with moderation, conforming to the waiting on the fourth Quaver.

 

The soundscape of Renaissance rhythm

Tomas’ instructions for Renaissance ayre create a rhythmic soundscape that differs sharply from 20th-century assumptions about art-music and improvisatory fantasias. He demands that the player count in minims, which should be completely steady. From other evidence, it is plausible that this count would be somewhere around minim = 60. Within that slow steady beat, crotchets are good/bad (i.e. subtly long/short), quavers are subtly shaped in one of three specific ways, the choice depending on the genre of music and the length of the decorative passagework. Whichever groove or swing is applied, it is maintained consistently throughout the passage in question.

There is no trace of 20th-century rubato, nor of its early-music derivative, phrasing that ‘goes towards’ a certain point. There is none of the hesitancy and pauses that often characterise modern-day performances of ‘improvisatory’ music: on the contrary, even if the player is genuinely improvising, Tomas and his advisers, the Cabezon brothers (as well as Luys Milán before them) expect Tactus, Groove and Swing to be maintained.

Nowadays, one might describe Tomas’ sound-world as steady pulse at approximately 60 bpm, with regular groove at the subordinate level around 120 bpm, and various options for swing at the most rapid level of rhyhmic activity, around 240 bpm. But in that pre-Newtonian age, Tomas has no concept of Absolute Time on which to base such a description; he has no clock precise enough to measure such short durations: rather, he has Tactus, which counts Aristotelean Time as ‘a number of movement in respect of before and after’ (Aristotle, Physics). The essential quality of that Tactus movement is that it is consistent – within the limits of human perception – so that Tomas’ minim is always about one second in duration (though he has no machine to measure it, and no conceptual framework for comparing it to anything more objective than his own feeling of consistency).

It is this essential consistency that allows Tomas to map specific performance practice instructions onto particular note-values (minims are steady, crotchets groove good/bad, quavers swing in one of three ways). Such linkage, which is seen also in Ortiz’s instructions for viola da gamba,  strongly implies that the absolute duration in time of any given note-value is approximately fixed within the whole repertoire:  e.g. minims are approximately one second. If the durations of note-values could vary arbitrarily (as they can in modern practice), this linkage would be meaningless.

Nevertheless, Milan indicates subtle changes in tempo from one piece to another, centred on a default tempo of ‘well measured Tactus’ that is ‘neither very fast nor very slow’. But these changes are not imposed arbitrarily by performers’ artistic choice: performers are required to follow the composer’s directions. So – in contrast to the 20th-century concept of ‘artistic freedom’ for performers, the period attitude is that there is a correct tempo, and that it is the performers’ job to find it.

Ornamentation 1: Graces

Chapter 20: How to make redobles and quiebros 

Summarising Tomas’ definitions & examples: Redoble is a reiterated upper-note trill, starting on the written note, and turned at the beginning.

 

Quiebro is an upper- or lower-note trill, starting on the written note, but without initial turn. Quiebros can be senzillos (simple, i.e. one flip) or reyterados (reiterated).

 

The difference between redoble and quiebro is that the redoble has the initial turn through its lower note.

 

 

‘Redobles are only made on complete bars, i.e. on Semibreves. And Quiebros are made on MInims and on Crotchets and, as a marvel, on Quavers. Reiterated quiebros are made on Minims, simple quiebros on Crotchets; except for one which is not reiterated, and always made on Minims on the [hexachord] pitches sol fa mi fa. This is called the Quiebro de Minima.

‘Reiterated quiebros are made on every Minim where the fingering permits. But simple ones are not made on every Crotchet, but alternately yes and no.

‘There is only one way to make Redoble … with whole-tone and semitone combined. Quiebros are made with tone or semitone, except for the Quiebro de Minima, which is always made … with the lower semitone and upper tone.  The other way would produce gracelessness and displeasure – desgracia y desabrimiento – to the ears, for which reason it must not be made where it would finish on mi…. But it can finish on any other note ut, re, fa, sol, la.

Redobles can have the semitone above or below, ‘but note that in no way is it permitted to make a Redoble with two whole-tones combined, because this is very graceless and displeasing to the ear.’

Redobles permitted and prohibited

 

Tomas gives specific fingerings for each ornament, for the keyboard, left and right hands.

‘These styles of redobles and quiebros … are very new and very elegant – galanos – causing such grace and tunefulness – melodia – in the music, which bears them in so many degrees – grados – and with such contentment to the ears, that it seems something quite different from playing without them, so much so that there is every reason to use them always, and not others which are old-fashioned and not graceful.

‘Simple quiebros … for ascending are made with tone or semitone below. Those for descending are made with tone or semitone above.’

Tomas describes a very fast ornament, in which the principal note is not actually repeated, but sustained whilst the auxiliary is played almost simultaneously and quickly released. There is no conventional notation for this technique (described also in some harp sources), so he does not provide an example. With this type of fast mordent, Tomas prefers the descending version (with upper auxiliary) to the little-used ascending version. 

Quiebros on Crotchets, both ascending and descending, are sometimes made on the beat, and sometimes on the off-beat, and this [on the off-beat] is the better and more elegant – galana – manner, because it gives more grace to what is played.

Tomas gives keyboard fingerings for each option, for each hand.

The upper-auxiliary Minim quiebro normally used for descending can be used ascending if the principal note is a mi.

‘Sometimes, and only descending, one can make quiebros on two consecutive Crotchets. which is done for grace and elegance. This occurs when after an ascent to a Semibreve there are two Crotchets descending. 

‘When there are ascending Crotchets which then descend, one must always make a quiebro on the highest note, which is done for descending [upper auxiliary]’ ‘Similarly, when there are descending Crotchets which then ascend, one must always make a quiebro on the lowest note, which is done for ascending [lower auxiliary].

‘Similarly, to give more grace to the music, one must always make quiebros on every Crotchet that follows immediately after a dotted Minim.’

‘So that the music should have more grace and thus give more contentment to the ears, it’s necessary that redobles and quiebros de minimas should be done by either hand, a redoble with one hand, another redoble with the other; and similarly a quiebro with one hand, another quiebro with the other; responding to each other.’ The fingerings for consecutive thirds (above) facilitate a similar effect between two voices in one hand.  ‘This is heard when both hands play Semibreves or Minims which can have redobles or quiebros, playing them one after another, which greatly adorns the music and gives it grace, especially when there is a chain of Semibreves or Minims.’

‘When the Mode – tono – avoids certain notes … the ornaments should also avoid them.’

Tomas gives technical advice for executing ornaments at the keyboard, repeating his earlier comments about keeping the fingers close to the keys. That advice might well be adapted for vihuela and harp, as keeping the fingers close to the strings.

Tomas characterises his ornamentation as ‘new’, and it is intended for the relatively short sustain of the clavichord. Fewer, or different ornaments might be appropriate to Milán’s period and/or to other instruments. Nevertheless, it seems likely that all renaissance music was ornamented considerably more than the raw notation suggests.

Tomas demands almost ceaseless ornamentation, more-or-less on every second note, as well as strict adherence to rules of ‘grammar’ for ornamentation. Such florid playing in regular Tactus, and with the groove and swing of ayre, creates a sound-world for the late 16th century that contrasts notably with 20th-century assumptions about art-music, the ‘purity’ of polyphony and what ‘improvisatory’ playing might mean.

 

Setting polyphonic works

Chapter 20. ‘Playing polyphonic works on the clavichord is the font and origin from which are born and proceed all the fruits and benefits, and all the art of playing for players.’

‘It should be noted that in whatever work of any kind, all the voices are interdependent and linked one to another, that no individual voice can move a single note without having specific respect and regard for all the other voices. And similarly voices are measured and counted, linking voices Tactus by Tactus, semi-Tactus by semi-Tactus.’

‘Two things have to be kept with all rigour, which rule and govern the arranger so that they never err: these are count and measure, which are interdependent… Measure is the same as compas (Tactus, also bar-length), by which all practical Music is ruled and governed.’

Tomas also explains vihuela tablature, and how to set polyphonic works for vihuela.

Tips for understanding polyphonic works

Chapter 21. ‘Brief advice for new players to master quickly any kind of work’

‘Three things are necessary to understanding any kind of work quickly, and thus to play it more perfectly.

1. Play in Tactus

‘maintaining it always with the same equality of time, i.e. not changing it from more to less nor from less to more. For this, it’s necessary to maintain Tactus with the foot and similarly to take great care with the semi-Tactus… in addition, it’s necessary to understand note-values and give each of them their full duration.’

2. Sing through each individual voice in turn

3. Understand all the Consonances and Dissonances in the work, whether in 2, 3 or 4 voices.

How to obtain benefit from studying polyphonic works

Chapter 22. ‘Five things have to be noted:

1. Understand profoundly the invention and artfulness in the contrapuntal progressions – passos – whether the response or repeat is at the fourth, fifth, octave or other interval… in two, three, four or more voices; with or without imitation. The Art of Fantasia consists of all this, which above all one has to get to know; because in everything it is only arte [i.e. a coherent system of rules]  that makes a Master. And from that it follows that all those who ignore the rules are imperfect.

2. Note the entrance of each voice, to know if it enters before the cadence, in the cadence, or after the cadence; with what invention or subject it enters; for the entry of each voice is the most delicate matter, of greatest subtlety and arte that there is in music. So this must receive great attention and care, in order to apply it in the works.’

3. Note all the styles of Cadences which are used in the works, undersanding them profoundly and memorising them, in order to make similar cadences when improvising [fantasia].

4. Note all the Consonances and Dissonances… and memorise them, in order to create varied progressions, for this is of great benefit in acheiving flow and abundance of spontaneity [fantasia].

5. When a progression is repeated, note the differences in the repeated version, whether in 2, 3 or 4 voices.

‘For new students to apply these benefits in improvisation – fantasia – it’s necessary that they practise constantly with the same progressions that they have learnt, so that with this practice – uso – they become accustomed to the [rules of] arte, and then they can easily play other progressions. Similarly, it is very advantageous to transpose a particular progression into all possible keys. For this, take note that wherever you want to transpose them, they must keep the same [Hexachord] solmization.

‘To gain the great fruits and benefit for improvising of all the above, it’s necessary to practise many times each day, with great perseverance, never mindlessly – desconsiando – but trusting for certain that work and constant practice – uso – conquers all and creates a maestro… A drop of water can carve out stone, not in one or two droplets, but falling constantly.’

Tomas recommends frequent, mindful practice, repeating the same material many times in order to perfect, memorise and internalise it. Although his comments are consistent with the modern-day understanding of learning elite skills, he expresses himself through the period meaning of such terms as uso (practical techniques) and arte (a coherent set of rules for effective creativity). What we mean nowadays by ‘art’, the ineffable mystery of the emotional power of music, is Renaissance Science. More about period terminology here and here.

Tomas’ emphasis on learning progressions and cadences echoes the approach of Milán’s El Maestro.

 

Ornamentation 2: Divisions

How to add divisions to polyphonic works. Chapter 23 Del glosar las obras

Renaissance ornamentation is categorised as Graces on a single note (the redobles and quiebros discussed above) and Divisions or Diminuitions – glosas –  where the interval between two long notes is ‘divided’ into many shorter notes. Tomas gives several examples for each interval, ascending and descending.

‘To add divisions – glosar – to polyphonic works one must be advised that glosas are only made on three note-values – Semibreves, Minims and Crotchets – even so, least often on Crotchets.

‘To glosar a work well, there are two things to note:

  1. All the voices should have equal amounts of glosas
  2. If the voices repeat something, the glosas are also repeated in all the voices

unless something prevents this, which is often the case.

If it is necessary to glosar Crotchets ascending or descending [four by four, stepwise], one must take the glosas for Semibreves ascending or descending a fifth. 

Helpful Hints & Improvisation

Book 2, Chapter 52.  Useful advice for new players.

Tomas’ purpose is not only to teach the instrument and basic musicianship, he also gives advice on how to learn to improvise within the demanding style of 4-voice Renaissance polyphony.

1. Practise running the hands throughout the whole range of the instrument, with appropriate fingerings, observing all the conditions and circumstances already discussed.

2. Practise making redobles and quiebros with both hands.

3. Maintain Tactus very well with hand or foot… give each note-value its precise value

4. After studying a piece well in a class, write it out just as the master taught it, with the glosas etc. Similarly, sing through each individual voice.

5. Understand well how to play the instrument

6. Take as your foundation and guide the Eight Conditions for playing perfectly [above].

7. Understand and be able to play in all possible keys

8. Practise easy works first, and then progressively more difficult ones

9. Practise transposing works into every possible key.

Similarly, try to take from each work those progressions which have graceful melodies, and memorise them, so that afterwards you can improvise on them spontaneously.

Once you are expert in all these things, try to start to play improvisations, based on some melodious progressions. In addition, try to play the progressions with different imitative counterpoints – fugas – i.e. at the fourth, fifth and octave, which greatly beautifies the music.

Similarly, try taking one voice from a work (whichever you want, soprano, alto, tenor or bass), and play it as the treble in four-voice harmony, making up three voices in your head… with a variety of harmonies, which greatly exalts and beautifies the music.

Similarly, once you are already a little expert in playing a given voice like this as the treble, trying playing it as the alto, tenor or bass [with three new voices created around it]. This suggests the Renaissance technique of composing a Parody Mass, in which the counterpoint of a pre-extant motet is re-worked and greatly extended to create an entire mass setting. This technique could be a model for improvisation in Tomas’ style, as could the fantasias compiled for keyboard, harp and vihuela by Henestrosa, ‘cutting and pasting’ contrapuntal progressions from various works into a new creation.

If you want to be a perfect player, try to apply yourself and practise little by little, playing counterpoint that has a good feeling – ayre – and graceful melody; on plainchant; and especially polyphonic music, until you are perfect at it. For this is the root and source from which grow and proceed all the skills applicable to the keyboard, and also the perfection and grace which it gives to all the music that is played.’

Tomas final words perfectly capture the essence of Renaissance improvisation: Practise by playing good music well; strive for total perfection; this will improve your skills, your improvisation and your playing of written music.

Modern-day performance

Three significant differences stand out from Tomas’ rules of arte, when compared to today’s HIP approach to fantasia and renaissance polyphony.

  1. Many modern-day performers choose not to play in rhythm.
  2. Few modern-day performers add much ornamentation.
  3. Few modern-day improvisers maintain correct counterpoint to Tomas’ standards.

Tomas’ comments on Tactus are so strongly worded that it is beyond any doubt that all the music of this period should be played in Tactus, counting regularly on a minim beat, and controlling this with the physical movement of hand or foot. Unless you frequently practise and problem-solve with a physical Tactus-beat, you are out of touch (sic) with Renaissance rhythm.

This insistence on Tactus is certainly fundamental, but it is not merely elementary. On the contrary, Tomas associates it witha perfect and refined … expert’, and with playing that is ‘delicate and high art’. 

The amount and detail of ornamentation specified by Tomas is alarming for those of us accustomed to ‘the pure lines of renaissance polyphony’. Our ears, as well as our fingers, will need plenty of practice with so many redoblesquiebros and glosas in all the voices, on almost every second note.

We might assume that improvisation excuses sloppy rhythm and bad counterpoint, even that ‘art has no rules’: Tomas’ book exists to teach the contrary!

 

El Maestro on Tactus: Luys Milán’s renaissance instructions for well-measured Tempo

 

 

Luys Milán’s (1536) book of music for the vihuela de mano entitled El maestro is the first collection of music for this renaissance instrument, tuned like a lute but shaped like a guitar and played similarly to the lute by plucking rather than strumming. It is also the first teaching book for any instrument, intended for complete beginners (a basic knowledge of singing from staff-notation is assumed) and structured progressively from the rudiments of tablature notation to elementary solo pieces, more demanding fantasias and dance-music, and song accompaniment in various styles.

 

Milán’s purpose is not only to teach how to play the instrument, but to show his students how to create their own fantasias in the formal contrapuntal style of the high renaissance. Right from the first example, his tientos (musical ‘essays’) are of the highest artistic quality, beautifully expressive as well as gramatically correct.

 

Of particular interest are his detailed comments for each piece, holding firmly to his declared priorities: tempo and tones. His renaissance ‘tones’ are the eight modal scales which define the ‘key note’, progressions and final cadence of each piece.

Freely available online, you can download the original print (full colour, high resolution, Spanish language and tablature) and also a transcription into staff notation, transposed for modern guitar (with some errors and omissions, without Milán’s tempo indications, with note-values halved or otherwise reduced) My recording, with Jordi Savall, is here, but it does not reflect my more recent research into Tactus.

 

 

 

Compas, mesura & ayre

In this post I analyse Milán’s remarks on Tempo, his highest priority. His Spanish terms are mesura (the ‘measuring’ of music in time); ayre (musical ‘feel’, rhythmic patterning, we might well translate this as ‘groove’); and (most frequently) compas. The significance of compas is broad, combining the philosophical concept of Tactus (the slow, steady pulse governing renaissance and baroque rhythm) with the practical, physical representation of that pulse as a down-up movement of the hand (or foot) and with the notation of the duration of a down-up pulse unit by the note-value of a semibreve and by a bar of tablature enclosed by bar-lines.

 

 

The pre-requisite for studying with El maestro is that the student should understand as a singer, how one must keep Tactus and Measure: basta que sepa cantando entender como se ha de traer el compas y mesura.

Tactus is the slow, steady underlying pulse, Measure is the sub-division of that slow pulse into all the various rhythmic combinations of differing note-values. Milán’s ygual compas is remarkably parallel to lutenist John Dowland’s insistence on the ‘equality of measure’ in his (1609) translation of Ornithoparcus’  (1515) Micrologus. 

 

It is also consistent with baroque lute/theorbo-player Thomas Mace’s (1676) Rule of Time-keeping, requiring ‘Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion… like the Balance of a good Clock… in all musical performances whatever’ read more, and with such theorists as Zacconi (1592), who characterised Tactus as r’egular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation.’

 

 

Contrary to the present-day fashion for artistic freedom, Milán’s language (in common with most period sources) is strongly prescriptive. His oft-repeated formula is se ha de… – one has to: se ha de tañer con el compas – you have to play with the Tactus. This theoretical understanding and practical skill in maintaining steady Tactus should similarly be the pre-requisite for all modern-day HIP performances of renaissance and baroque music.

Milán begins with this essential requirement:  es menester que sepays que mesura y ayre se ha de dar a la musica – you need to know what measure and groove have to be given to the music. Pues sabemos que cosa es compas, vengamos a saber quantas de las sobredichas cifras entran en un compas: pues por esto se ha de saber el ayre y mesura – once we know what Tactus is, we can learn how many note-values fit into one Tactus: then from that you have to know the groove and measure.

In the detailed comments that follow, Milán’s starting assumption and ‘default setting’ is steady Tactus, maintained throughout the piece: ‘you have to play it all with an equal Tactus, without making any change’ – la [musica] aveys de tañer toda a un igual compas sin hazer mutacion.  That Tactus should be well-measured, neither very fast (rushed) nor very slow (spacious) – con un compas bien mesurado… ni muy apriessa  ni muy a espacio.  In practice, the Tactus is shown by a down-up movement of the hand or (more conveniently while playing) an up-down movement of foot, in steady time – El compas en la musica no es otra cosa … sino un alçar y abaxar la mano o pie por un ygual tiempo.

As notated in tablature, the combined up-down movement corresponds to the standard bar-length of a semibreve, so a single beat (either down or up) corresponds to a minim. This is consistent with many other sources, and in Spanish practice was referred to as compasillo. Milán shows one piece with bars of double length, which is a notational convenience designed to be easier on the eye, but seems to have no implications for the beat or the tempo.

 

Default Tactus: ‘ygual tiempo’ & ‘compas bien mesurado’

 

The ‘equality of measure’ characteristic of Tactus is certainly the default setting for any particular piece. This ‘equality’ probably continues between one piece and another across the whole repertoire, since Milán is careful to specify when any piece goes even slightly faster or slower. And it is these painstakingly described exceptions to the default tempo that make this vihuela book a crucial source for anyone working with renaissance music.

From the very outset, Milán is clear that the performer should not select their own tempo at will, but should respect the composer’s intentions. se ha de considerar en las siguentes fantasias la una: que se ha de tañer con el compas apressurado o espacioso como el auctor quiere – the first thing one has to consider in the following fantasias is that one must play with the Tactus fast or slow as the composer wants. [His second priority is to identify the tone].

The default setting for any given piece is an equal Tactus for the whole piece. But Milán asks for that Tactus to be selected (according to his wishes, not the performer’s whim!) within a range centred on ‘well-measured, neither very fast nor very slow.’

 

Milán’s range of tempo indications

 

compas a espacio – slow Tactus

compas bien mesurado– well-measured Tactus

compas algo apressurado – slightly fast Tactus

compas apressurado – fast Tactus

quanto mas se tañera con el compas apressurado mejor parecera – the faster the Tactus, the better

Note that it is the Tactus itself that goes slow, well-measured, slightly fast, fast or ‘the faster, the better’. The note-values within the Tactus can be anything from breve to quaver. The physical action of beating time with the hand makes even a small change of Tactus feel quite different – a different groove or ayre. And we can assume that even the biggest change of Tactus is distinctly less than a doubling/halving of tempo, since this could be better shown by halving/doubling note-values.

I suggest that Milán’s compas bien mesurado might be approximately minim ~ MM60, and that his other tempi would be subtle adjustments to that default setting. In the language of jazz, Milán’s apressurado could be ‘up-tempo’ and his a espacio ‘laid back’.

Milán states that compas batido (literally, ‘beaten’) means the same as apressurado (literally, ‘pushed’), i.e. ‘fast’.

Changes of Tactus within a piece

The reader should experience a frisson of shock at the above sub-heading: in the renaissance context of equal, steady Tactus ‘without any perturbation’, the idea of changing Tactus at all is surprising, and changing it within a piece is almost alarming. Milán recognises that to play like this ‘has litttle respect for Tactus or for most music’: it is appropriate only in a certain bravura style, tañer de gala, with long passages of fast notes, redobles, contrasted against slow harmonies, consonancias. 

This is musica con diversos redobles … y tiene mas respecto a tañer de gala, que de mucha musica ni compas – music with various fast notes… and it has more respect for bravura playing than for formal musical construction or Tactus.

Its particular style is tañer de gala con estos redobles largos – bravura playing with these long passages of fast notes.

The noun gala and its related adjective galana occupy an area of meaning that extends from ‘decorative’ or ‘elegant’ to ‘luxury’ or ‘ostentation’. Milán’s tañer de gala with its disregard for the normal rules of Tactus and musical structure would seem to be well towards the ‘showy’ end of this semantic spectrum, as suggested by my translation ‘bravura’.

Writing his own Arte de tañer Fantasia for keyboards and vihuela in 1565, Tomas de Santa Maria similarly emphasises steady Tactus in all music, and offers suggestions in Book 1, Chapter 19 for the ‘groove’ – buen ayre – of crotchets and quavers within the regular minim (semi-Tactus) beat. Crotchets always go long-short (i.e. good-bad), with the long crotchet on the Tactus beat. Quavers can go long-short, or short-long. This second style is only suitable for short passages of fast notes – glosas – but is much more galana (elegant) than the first. The third way is in groups of four quavers, short-short-short-long: this is suitable for long or short glosas and is the most galana (showy) of all. Perhaps Tomas’ third style would be appropriate for Milán’s tañer de gala. Whichever style is chosen, it should be maintained consistently through that particular glosa. More on Tomas de Santa Maria in another post.

Milán repeats many times and with small variations in wording his instructions for changing Tactus, but only in this context of tañer de gala – music which is like ‘trying out’ the vihuela, mixing harmonies with fast notes:  una musica la cual es como un tentar la vihuela a consonancias mescladas con redobles…

para tañerla con su natural ayre haveys os de regir desta maniera. Todo lo que sera consonancias tañerlas con el compas a espacio y todo lo que sera redobles tañerlos con el compas apriessa. ‘To play it with its natural groove, you have to rule yourself in this way: everything which will be harmonies you have to play with the Tactus slow and everything which will be fast notes you must play with the Tactus fast.’

Milán is quite specific that he asks for something beyond normal rhythmic accuracy – it’s not enough for him that the small note-values are faster notes anyway. He insists (many, many times) on changing the Tactus itself, so that the written contrast in note-values is exaggerated by the change in Tactus.

Modern performers might be tempted to interpret ‘fast’ as ‘twice as fast’, but this robs the listener of the sensation of a change of pulse, since the doubling of speed will be heard as halved note-values within the same underlying pulse. The shock of changing Tactus is greater if the change is noticeable, but small, and not proportional.

Similarly, modern performers might want to add accelerando or rallentando, but Milán does not suggest this, and again, the effect of an abrubt change is greater. I tell my students to

use the gear-shift, not the accelerator or brakes!

Milán is very clear that change of Tactus is only allowed in particular circumstances: Esta fantasia que sigue es de la misma arte de la passada fantasia tentando la vihuela con redobles y consonancias; y que vos he dicho de que manera y compas se han de tañer estas fantasias que mas propriamente se pueden dezir tentos – This fantasia that follows is in the same style as the preceding fantasia, trying out the vihuela with fast passages and harmonies: and I have told you in what style and Tactus you have to play these fantasias, which more properly might be called tientos [essays].

Y por esta mutacion de compas os dire que no la aveys de tañer como tañereys esta musica que de aqui adelante torna a proseguir la qual es como la del principio que la aveys de tañer toda a un igual compas sin hazer mutacion. And about this change of Tactus, I tell you that you must not play like that in the music that returns in the following pieces, which is like the pieces at the beginning, which you have to play all in an equal Tactus without making any change.

 

Technique & Phrasing

Milán distinguishes between two different techniques for playing fast notes. Both techniques produce an alternating pattern, but with different sound-quality: alternating two fingers dos dedos is considered more elegant than back-and-forth with a single finger dedillo, but particular melodic patterns suit one or the other technique.

y parar de tañer en cada coronado un poco – and stop playing a bit at each fermata mark.  This could be interpreted in the modern sense of breaking the time and waiting longer at the pause mark, but is more likely to imply creating a silence (literally, stop playing for a bit) within the notated value. This is consistent with the Rhetorical (i.e. word-based) principle of making the last note of the phrase ‘bad’, i.e. short/un-accented, and with period use of this sign (historically not a pause but signum congruentiae – the sign of harmonic resolution, the end of a phrase). More on good/bad notes here.

In the slow tempo that Milán requires, the vihuela’s final chord would need to be sustained for more than four seconds. There is little hope that a vihuela-player could prolong this even further, as a modern fermata: it is almost inevitable that the sound will stop before the notated duration – the usual situation for final notes in this period.

 

Romances

Some songs – romances – have similar passages of instrumental redobles between the vocal phrases, for which Milán suggests a variety  of performance options. The passages in fast notes can be omitted entirely, or the song can be performed with two different Tactus speeds, in the bravura tañer de gala style described for those particular fantasias. han se de tañer lo que fuere consonancias a espacio, y los redobles que ay a las finales quando acaba la boz muy apriessa – it has to be played with the harmonies slow, and the passages at the end of phrases when the voice stops very fast.

For the first romances in the book, Milán requires the singer to sing llano – plain, sustained – whilst the vihuela shouldn’t go very fast, nor very slow: la vihuela ni ha de yr muy apriessa ni muy a espacio. This might rule out the tañer de gala approach, or it might be an instruction applying to the vocal episodes only.

For each vocal genre, there are specific instructions song-by-song for the differing roles of singer/instrumentalist. Sometimes the singer may improvise ornamentation whilst the vihuela plays slow chords, and sometimes the voice is ‘plain’ and the instrument has discanto – counterpoint.

The alternative version of the first villancio has the instruction: el cantor ha de cantar llano y la vihuela algo apriessa – the singer has to sing plain and the vihuela slightly fast. Note that this is not an instruction about the compas (Tactus), it clarifies the different levels of activity in the voice-line and instrumental-part respectively. Singer and vihuela must keep the same Tactus (of course!), but within that Tactus there can be various levels of activity.

Similarly, the second villancio has the instruction: el cantor puede hazer garganta y la vihuela ha de yr muy espacio – the singer can make throat-ornamentation and the vihuela has to go very slowly. This song also has an alternative version with the singer llano and the vihuela apriessa.

For the first soneto (sonnet), Milán writes that the singer can add some trills- algun quiebro – whilst the vihuela goes at moderate pace. Other sonnets have similar instructions: el cantor glose donde huviere lugar con la boz y donde no cantar llano – the singer ornaments where he has an opportunity with the voice, and otherwise sings plain. El cantor ha de cantor llano. Y donde cabera glosar con la boz sea quiebro o trinar que dizen – the singer has to sing plain. And where it fits, to ornament with the voice, which should be quiebros or trills as they are called. The last sonnet has to be played algun tanto regozijado – with rather much rejoicing.

It’s worth noting that Milán distinguishes carefully between different genres – Spanish or Portuguese villancico, Italian soneto and the romance.  Each genre has its own performance practice. Milán leaves no doubt that romances are a special case, and the fast instrumental solo passage-work within them has to be treated differently from the rest of the song: lo que de musica se sigue despues de las finales es para solo tañer y ha de callar la boz donde acaba la cifra colorada – the music which continues after the end of phrases is instrumental only and the voice has to be silent where the coloured notation ends.

Pavan

The Italian Pavan is also a particular genre with its own performance style. Milán presents 4 of his own compostions, and 2 Italian melodies set by him for the vihuela. The first pavan-like fantasia se ha de tañer ni muy a espacio ni muy apriessurado: sino con un compas bien mesurado has to be played neither very slow nor very fast, but with a well-measured Tactus. el ayre della remeda al ayre de las pavanas que tañen en ytalia – Its groove resembles the groove of the Pavans that are played in Italy.

The Pavans that follow are to be played with a slightly fast Tactus, algo apressurado. Milán asks for this dance-music to be played two or three times through. The last Pavan is in triple metre (often found in Spain, not in Italy) with the [slow, sesquialtera] proportion of three semibreves.

 

Proportions

Milán shows two triple-metre proportions, notated with three minims to the bar and three semibreves to the bar. We can observe the notated bar-lengths of Milán’s two proportions, but there is no explanation of how to measure those triple-metre bars in time, i.e. with the hand-movement of the Tactus.

Most of the pieces (in common time), and the examples of proportions in the introduction, have no mensuration sign (time signature) at all. For changes between duple and triple metre, Milán uses these signs without explanation:

 

The modern reader might well wish that the Maestro would have distinguished more clearly between the inter-linked concepts of compas as bar-length, hand-movement and time-duration.  But whatever significance might be read into the mensuration signs, the musical content seems to argue against the hypothesis of  “bar = bar” as a universal rule for linking compas as notated bar-length to compas as time-duration/Tactus. A large variety of rhythms, including short note-values, is found in Milán’s proportion of 3 semibreves to the bar; whereas the episodes in 3 minims to the bar are almost entirely in the jig (canario) rhythm of dotted minim, quarter, minim. This suggests a fast proportion for 3 minims (tripla, 3 minims to one tactus beat, 6 minims to the complete down-up cycle: minim ~ MM180), and a slow proportion for 3 semibreves (sesquialtera, 3 semibreves to two tactus beats = the complete down-up cycle: semibreve ~ MM 90).

This would be consistent with what appears to be Monteverdi’s practice in the early 17th-century: read more.

 

 

Temperament

For certain pieces, Milán asks for the 4th fret to be adjusted. Alçareys un poco el quarto traste de la vihuela para que el punto del dicho traste sea fuerte y no flaco – raise the 4th fret a bit so that the stop at this fret might be strong and not weak. This appears ambiguous: which way is ‘up’? Moving a fret towards the bridge raises the pitch of the note and might seem to be Milan’s meaning. But when he repeats the instruction later for a song accompaniment, he clarifies: haveys de alçar el quarto traste un poco hasta las clavijas de la vihuela – you must raise the 4th fret a bit towards the tuning-pegs. This has the effect of lowering the pitch of the stopped note, which is what we would expect for the sharps and hard-hexachord notes on this fret in the meantone temperament typical of the period.

 

From a History of Emotions perspective, it is interesting that the low (i.e. in-tune) major third is characterised as fuerte, and the out-of-tune high third (characteristic of modern Equal Temperament) is ‘flaccid’.

 

Zarambeques: Encounters between Spanish Baroque & African Traditions

Andrew Lawrence-King & Ballaké Sissoko perform Zarambeques in the Festival de Fontfroide, 16 July 2019…

 

 

The Kora

The African Kora defies categorisation in Western organology. Like a double-harp, it has two ranks of strings stretched along a long hard-wood neck, but secured on a bridge, like a lute; the bridge is supported on a leather-covered calabash which functions as a resonator. Played by jali (griots), the poets, story-tellers and musicians of the West African Mandinka people, the Kora enjoyed similar high status and associations with royalty as the medieval harp and renaissance lute in Europe.

Traditionally, the nyenmyemo, a leaf-shaped metal plate clamped to the bridge enhanced the sound of antelope-hide strings, tuned with leather tuning-rings, but modern-day players use nylon strings, machine-head tuning pegs and electronic amplification. Kora music is characterised by repeating poly-rhythmic chord-sequences – kumbengo – and brilliantly ornamented melodic flourishes – birimintingo.

 

 

According to Mandinka history, the Kora’s origins are linked to the jali Mady Fouling Cissoko in the 16th century. Its music has been transmitted by oral tradition, and the first recorded album, Mali: cordes anciennes, was released in 1970, featuring Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimadi Sissoko. Album here. Their sons, Toumani and Ballaké, recorded Nouvelles Cordes Anciennes in 1999 as homage. The new generation album here.

 

The new generation, Ballaké & Toumani

 

 

 

Spanish Baroque Harp

 

 

The Spanish arpa doblada has two ranks of strings, that cross over between neck and sound-box in the way that your fingers interlace when you clasp your hands. One row has the diatonic ‘white’ notes, the other has the chromatic sharps and flats. Harps played solo, to accompany singers, in church-music and in the first Spanish and South American operas. The Spanish harp enjoyed similar high status to the renaissance lute and baroque harpsichord in Italy and France.

 

 

The gut strings are attached to a tall sound-box, which is narrow and shallow in the treble, wide and deep in the bass. This shape, and the playing technique with the right hand high up near the neck, the left hand about half-way down the strings, produce a characteristic contrast of sound: bright and punchy in the treble, rich and resonant in the bass. Spanish harp-music shares a common repertoire with the baroque guitar, consisting of written and improvised variations – flowing diferencias – over the repeating ostinato-bass of dance-rhythm grounds – formal danzas and popular bailes.

According to Juan Bermudo’s (1555) Declaración de instrumentos musicales, some harpists had already added a complete set of chromatic strings to the one-rank renaissance harp. Surviving 17th-century instruments and such publications as Ribayaz’s Luz y norte (1677) show how widespread the double-harp became. Nevertheless, single-rank harps were even more numerous, and the various national instruments of Central and South America are the descendants of particular harps brought from Spain in colonial times.

The first Spanish harp CD album, Luz y norte, was recorded in 1994, featuring The Harp Consort directed by Andrew Lawrence-King. Album here. The same ensemble recorded the first South American opera, Torrejón’s La púrpura de la rosa (1701) – opera here – and accompanied baroque guitarist Paul O’Dette’s recording of Santiago de Murcia.

 

Pat O’Brien, ALK & other founder-members of The Harp Consort, at the recording sessions of Luz y Norte in 1994.

 

Zarambeques

 

 

The Spanish harp-book Luz y norte and guitar intabulations by Murcia contain fascinating hints of baroque African music, identified by such titles as zarambeques, cumbées, paracumbé etc. These names [read more here], containing the characteristically African mb phoneme, are associated with dancers’ swaying hips, with harmonies in ‘blue note’ sevenths, and with rhythmic patterns that avoid the accent on the downbeat. Similar rhythms and harmonies characterise the chacona, which may have been brought along the slave routes from Africa to South America before re-crossing the Atlantic back to Spain. Certainly, Afro-Caribbean influences produced the Cuban guaracha, preserved in Juan Garcia de Zéspedes 17th-century setting as a Christmas music-drama for Puebla Cathedral, Mexico. Afro-Cuban/Mexican guaracha here. Murcia’s sub-title zarambeques o muecas hints at open-mouthed facial expressions of dramatic emotions or ritual dance.

 

 

This project brings together the splendours of African and Spanish harps, the noble history of baroque Spain and the rich traditions of ancient Africa, two distinct styles of improvised variations over ground basses, two world-renowned performers, and four centuries of artistic exchanges, to produce a unique cross-cultural, time-travelling musical encounter…

… or perhaps a distant echo of that long-lost meeting which first brought the zarambeques to Europe.

Zarambeques:

Encounters between Spanish Baroque & African Traditions

 

Andrew Lawrence-King Spanish Baroque Harp
Ballaké Sissoko Kora

 

PARACUMBEES
Fantasia de Luduvico Alonso Mudarra (Sevilla, 1546)
Zarambeques o Muecas Santiago de Murcia (Madrid, 18th cent.)
Guarachas Juan García de Zéspedes (Puebla, 17th cent.)
Cumbées Murcia

KORA
Futur Ballaké Sissoko
Maimouna

LUZ Y NORTE
Fantasía de consonancias y redobles Luys Milán (Valencia, 1536)
Xacaras & Gallardas Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz (Madrid, 1677)
Folias portuguesas Anon (Cancioneiro de Paris, 16th cent.)
Paradetas Improvised after Ribayaz Luz y norte

MUECAS
Niandou Ballaké Sissoko
Passa Quatro Vicent Segal
Samba Tomora Ballaké Sissoko

… and perhaps, there might be a visit to the Isla de la Chacona…

 

It’s Recitative, but not as we know it

We all know what Baroque Recitative is, don’t we?

the boring bit between the nice tunes!

And we all know how to perform it –

free rhythm,

conversational style,

get through the text quickly,

ornament the cadences [Monteverdi],

eliminate all those silly rests in the middle of sentences [Handel]

NOT!

 

All these 20th-century assumptions are roundly contradicted by period evidence.  [See also Fake news & Early Opera.] Today’s Historically Informed Performers need a re-set, in which we abandon what we think we already know, and start afresh in the spirit of scientific enquiry. We must assume that we do not know what Recitative is, and we must seek period information on how to perform it.

Because all too often, rehearsal discussion relies solely on all those 20th-century wrong assumptions, evoked by the comment:

But it’s recitative, isn’t it?

The short answer is: No, it isn’t.

A long answer is coming soon, with the publication of the formal write-up of my 2017 conference paper for the Society for Seventeenth Century Music Redefining Recitative for academics, and a practical book for performers, Recitative & Rhetoric that I hope to finish next year.

This post offers a medium-length answer, clarifying what 17th-century recitative really is, and summarising period evidence on how to perform it.

 

What is ‘Baroque Recitative’?

The word ‘baroque’ itself is problematic: it is not a 17th-century term. In the sense of a period or style of music or art, it first appears in 1765. So whenever we use this word, we should be aware that we are imposing a later viewpoint on the earlier period.

The word ‘Recitative’ is even more difficult, because although it is a 17th-century term (in various languages), like many words, its meaning has changed over the centuries.

What is Recitative, in modern-day musicology?

The standard academic definition of

syllabic declamation over a static bass-line

works well for 18th-century opera seria, in which the contrast between Recitative and melodious or virtuosic Aria is a fundamental element of formal construction.

 

 

 

But when we try to apply this to the ‘first operas’ of the early seicento, it is a poor fit for what composers actually wrote. Typically we find a fluid mix of changing textures, and a great deal of music that is hard to categorise within that binary system, encouraging musicologists to apply such anachronistic terms as ‘arioso’ as they attempt to analyse music-theatrical works by Cavalieri, Monteverdi and their contemporaries.

Part of the problem is that although the contrasting use of certain kinds of Aria (see below) was a matter of formal construction – usually pre-determined by the poetic structures of the libretto – the ever-changing textures of dramatic Monody (solo singing accompanied by basso continuo) express varying emotions, whether or not those contrasts in Affekt coincide with structural units.

The modern musicological definition of 17th-century Aria is strictly limited to strophic songs over a repeating ground bass. This is a good fit with period nomenclature, aria di passacaglia, aria di romanesca etc, as well as with such formal structures as La Musica’s Prologo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo.  However, this category intersects with – but does not map onto – what is usually referred to as Aria passeggiata, a floridly decorated song which may or may not have a repeating harmonic structure. Before and after the year 1600, this kind of virtuosic vocal display characterised supernatural powers: Harmony’s Prologue, Arion’s rescue by the dolphin and the Sorceress striking the moon from the sky [Victoria Archilei, Jacopo Peri and a composition by Giulio Caccini in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi] do not have a ground bass; Orfeo’s aria in Hell, Possente Spirto (1607) does; Caronte’s challenge and riposte has a ground bass but – befitting his more limited powers and lowly status – no decoration.

Nevertheless, the period definition of aria is rather different, and much more wide-ranging. And – here our modern categorisation breaks down completely – we frequently encounter aria inside a 17th-century Recitative.

 

 

 

 

What does recitare mean in the early 17th-century?

The earlist dictionaries published by the Accademia della Crusca in 1612 and 1623 define recitare in terms of reciting: reading, narrating, saying from memory.  Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary includes a specific reference to spoken theatre:

to recite, to rehearse, to relate, to tell by heart or without book, as players do their parts in Comedies.

For Florio, a recitante is also ‘an interlude player’.

The anonymous (c1630) guide for Il Corago Il Corago – The Baroque Opera Director uses recitare almost interchangeably with rappresentare (‘to represent or show, to play Comedies or Tragedies’ – Florio). In 17th-century theatre, as today,

recitare means ‘to act’.

And to act is ‘to imitate actions human, angelic or divine with voice and gestures’ [Il Corago]

For the Corago there are ‘three ways to act’ [recitare and rappresentare are used interchangeably in the title and body-text of Chapter VI]: without singing, just speaking; the same actions singing in a suitable style; expressing all this without the voice – i.e. mime. The existence of these ‘three ways’ confirms that recitare means ‘to act’ and not ‘to sing Recitative’.

recitativo does NOT mean ‘Recitative’ 

 

 

Our starting point is acting and the speaking voice of a fine actor.

The Corago confirms the simple meaning of the phrases musica recitativa – acting music  – and stile recitativo – acting style.  The stile musico recitativo – acting style of music – requires Monody (rather than complex polyphony), consisting of rhythmic sound articulated with regulated proportions of high and low.

The Corago again: the variety and conciseness of Monody should come as close as possible to the ordinary way of speaking, or ‘to put it better’

the way of speaking of the best actors or passionate speakers.

We should not confuse formal 17th-century speech with the ‘kitchen-sink’ style of 1960s acting, nor with the clichéd ‘naturalism’ of TV sit-coms. Historically Informed Performance of Monteverdi should imitate a great actor on the theatrical stage of Shakespeare’s own time. Handelian recitative is modelled on the grandiose style of a Georgian statesman, preacher or actor.

Addressing a large audience without amplification demands a measured delivery, with short sense-groups separated by rhetorical silences. Samuel Pepys admired Henry Lawes’ careful rhythmic notation, which he compared to printed punctuation.

The Corago examines the precise notation of Monody in terms of both pitch and rhythm. This is supported by Peri’s  (1600) account of how he notates theatrical monody with pitches derived from the ‘course of speech’; and rhythms guided (as Agazzari writes in 1607) by the continuo-bass. If the matter is ‘sad or serious’, the continuo moves in note-values of minims and semibreves, maintaining the Tactus without making the voice ‘dance’ to an inappropriately lively rhythm in the bass.

What is 17th-century aria?

The period meaning of aria is not limited to ‘melodiousness’ in the everyday, modern sense,  nor to a repeating ground bass in the modern musicological definition.

17th-century aria is any kind of patterning, especially rhythmic patterning

In this sense Shakespeare’s ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ is an aria in the appropriate rhythmic patterning of a galloping anapaeste, within the recitativo [acting] of the entire speech. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Proserpina includes a moment of aria at the crucial words of her recitativo speech, persuading Plutone to release Euridice from Hell. The composer’s patterning in both voice and continuo is cued by metrical patterning in short poetic lines: fa ch’Euridice torni / a goder di quei giorni

in contrast to the declamation over Tactus note-values in the previous and subsequent lines. This is 17th-century aria in the midst of – indeed, within – 17th-century recitativo.

Monteverdi’s genere rappresentativo [theatrical genre] – for example the Lamento della Ninfa – does not indicate a device of formal structure (e.g. ‘Recitative’ as opposed to ‘Aria’ in the later, 18th-century sense) nor a musical texture (declamation over a static bass):  the Lamento della Ninfa contains an aria over a ground bass in triple metre. Rather, it defines a genre: theatrical music, intended to be performed in ‘show style’ stile rappresentativo, to be ‘acted out’ – recitativo.

What is the 17th-century terminology?

It’s worth being careful with terminology, in order to avoid imposing modern categories onto period creativity.

The music-dramas of Monteverdi’s period were not called ‘opera’, and even the designation musica recitativa was rarely used: ‘the adjective rappresentativo was the term most widely employed.’ [F.W. Sternfield A note on the stile recitativo, RMA 1983/1984]  Cavalieri’s (1600)  Anima & Corpo is a Rappresentatione; Peri wrote Le Musiche sopra l’Euridice del Signor Ottavio Rinuccini Rappresentate: Caccini’s setting of the same libretto is composta in stile rappresentativo; Monteverdi’s Orfeo is favola in musica (a story in music), the printed libretto adds that favourite word rappresentata.

The great variety of Monody that we find in the ‘acting music’ of this ‘show’ style is named (and analysed in depth) by the Corago as modulazione. Peri describes ‘the flow of speech’, il corso della favella that this modulazione imitates in musical notation.

Peri explains that the bass moves – more or less, or remains static, depending on the affetti [contrasting passions, emotions] – in the time of those modi and accenti [short melodic figures] which are used in being sad, in being happy again and similar. So all the fast-changing variety of textures in the rich spectrum from declamation over a static bass to lively dance-tunes are best analysed as expressions of affetto, rather than as building blocks of formal construction.

We should be alert to the various types of aria that occur within all the various textures of Monody in the ‘acting style’. Any patterning of melody, bass or rhythm is a moment of aria; little dance-like patterns repeated a few times are ariette; a singer or super-human character (Orfeo is both, of course) may sing a strophic aria; similarly, Prologues usually have a strophic design with intervening ritornelli.

Most of this musica rappresentativa represents characters’ speech. But we should also recognise diegetic songs – where stage-characters act out the singing of a song as part of the drama. Such songs are often, but not always aria. In Orfeo, the triumphant marching song Qual honor with its walking bass is an aria in praise of the cetra (the mythical lyre, and inspiration for real-life continuo instruments) over a ground-bass. But the protagonist’s love-song to Euridice begins with declamation over a static bass: nowadays we might (confusingly) call this Recitative, but it represents a character singing a song in the most up-to-date vocal style of Monteverdi’s time, the ‘new music’ of Monody.

 

 

Better modern-day terminology

It’s worth side-stepping familiar, but misleading modern terms, to avoid leaping from unexamined assumptions to false conclusions.

 

 

Not Opera, but Music-drama

Not Recitative, but Monody (for modulazione) or Dramatic Music (for musica recitativa)

Patterning, walking-bass, ground bass, dance-rhythms etc are all examples of 17th-century aria. It’s helpful to have words available for these features, so that we can recognise and respond to any kind of aria that might be present.

Similarly, we need to have academic analysis and practical discussions in rehearsals linking changes of affetto with changes of texture – in particular, changes in the movement of the bass.  The phrases “movement of the bass” and “flow of speech” usefully characterise continuo and vocal lines respectively, avoiding the less appropriate term ‘melody’.

All too often, Rhythm is not discussed at all! So let’s all have a Good Time (sic) by correcting that fatal omission. The concepts of Tactus and of Good & Bad syllables/notes are fundamental,

Consonance and Dissonance are essential in Monody, even though some of the normal rules of harmony are not observed in this style.

The interplay of Rhythm and Dissonance, and the collaboration between singer and continuo are especially important for Suspensions.

What do we find in 17th-century music-drama?

Once we are equipped with appropriate terminology, it’s much easier to recognise what we see in the music of Cavalieri, Caccini, Peri, Monteverdi and their contemporaries. In the best-known early music-drama, Orfeo (1607), Monteverdi’s music follows the formal design of the libretto and expresses passions that change from line to line, sometimes from word to word.

The Prologue features the Personification of Music, and is a strophic aria over the repeating structure of a ground bass.  The static bass at the beginning indicates a serious matter.

In the second strophe, the bass moves fast for nobil’ ira [noble anger], moderately for amore, is static for the serious power of posso, moves moderately in strange harmonies for ‘the most frozen minds’.

 

 

In the final strophe, the bass stops moving at non si mova. 

 

 

See also The Philosophy of La Musica and La Musica hypnotises the Heroes.

The beginning of Act I has a static bass, indicating a serious matter.

 

Monteverdi ‘Orfeo’ Act I

Faster changes in harmony (even though the bass-note remains static) suggest more urgent passions at oggi fatto e pietosa l’alma gia si sdegnosa de la bell’ Euridice [now the soul of beautiful Euridice – previously so spiteful – has become merciful]. Movement of the bass through bitter sharps characterises Orfeo’s sighing and crying for her in the Arcadian woods.

 

 

The Nymph evokes the Muses over a static bass, indicating another serious matter, made more gentle by the change to the soft Hexachord (modern F major).

 

 

But the steady movement of the continuo-bass at Ma tu gentil cantor indicates a more relaxed mood, inviting Orfeo himself to sing.

 

 

Orfeo’s song is in the latest style of rhetorical monody – not an Aria – and begins with a static bass, as he evokes Apollo with appropriate seriousness. The bass moves happily at lieto e fortunato amante [happy and fortunate lover]. The parallel rhetorical structures of the text Fu ben felice il giorno …. e piu felice l’hora [Happy was the day… and happier was the hour] receive the musical patterning of 17th-century aria, a repeated figure in both the Flow of Speech and the Movement of the Bass.

 

Act II begins with a charming sequence of diegetic songs, in dance-like arias with strophic repeats and instrumental ritornelli. The movement of the bass is slow for Orfeo’s Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno [this is notated in steady C, even though many modern performers take it much too fast, as if it were in tripla 3/2] suggesting a certain melancholy of nostalgia, but the movement increases for the shepherds’ duets, as the passions become more active.

 

 

 

The arrival of the Messaggiera, announcing Euridice’s death, is marked by the sudden change to a slow-moving bass (indicating a sad and serious matter) in hard-hexachord harmonies.

 

 

I suggest that such historically informed description, linking the movement of the bass to changes in affetto, is more revealing for academic analysis and more useful to performers than any anachronistic discussion of ‘Recitative’ and ‘Aria’.

How should we perform 17th-century dramatic monody?

Equipped with appropriate terminology, we are better able to recognise typical features of the rappresentativo style, and can more readily understand how to respond as performers, linking what we see in musical scores to what we read in performance practice treatises.

In many performances today, there is little or no respect for composers’ notated rhythms. But just as we admire Monteverdi’s ensemble writing and the brilliant ornamentation of Possente Spirto, so we should recognise his genius for setting the Italian language, comparable to Lully’s excellence in setting French and Purcell’s skill in setting English.

How to perform ‘Recitative’???

 

Of course, period performers did take certain liberties with composed material. For example, they added their own graces and divisions to songs and ensemble-music [though generally not in rappresentativa music]. Such ornamentation is guided by principles explained in period treatises, and must remain with the rules of counterpoint and the underlying rhythm of Tactus.

So it should be for our modern-day performances of dramatic music: there are certain liberties that are permitted, even encouraged, by historical sources. But we must be guided by period principles, inspired by notated examples, and remain within the boundaries of style and the measure of Tactus.

Musica rappresentativa is NOT ‘do as you please’!

 

Priorities

Caccini (1601) declares the priorities of the Nuove musiche [new music] to be Text & Rhythm. Many sources prioritise the Rhetorical concept of Action – gesture, facial expression, contrasts of vocal tone-colour, body posture and movement.

The composers’ notation is a rich source of information. When we choose to depart from it, we should double-check that our personal input follows period principles.

Imitation of Speech

Dramatic Monody imitates the speaking style of a fine actor in a baroque theatre. The composed score indicates an ideal declamation by describing (as precisely as notation allows) the rhythms and pitch contours of such stylised speaking. We do not have to create our own ‘speech rhythms’, and we should certainly not  re-model the Flow of 17th-century Speech in imitation of modern-day conversation or film dialogue.

Baroque speech-making was highly Rhetorical. Declamation was pitched and timed to carry without amplification in a theatre seating up to a thousand [Cavalieri]. This need not imply vibrato in the (speaking) voice, but it does require frequent silences as the long sentence is broken up into short sense-groups. If we think of the Shakespearian style of the generation of John Gielgud, or even the portentious – and memorable! – declarations of movie super-heroes – “I’ll be back!”; “No, I am your father!”; “Space, the final frontier…” we can begin to move away from conversational and microphone styles towards vocal and text-based charisma.

Text

We need to understand every single word of the Text, not just the overall meaning of sentences, but the function of each individual word.

The articulation of musica rappresentativa demands special attention to good/bad syllables and single/double consonants. In particular, we should avoid false accents on bad syllables, especially the weak final syllable at cadences.

Singers should vary their tone-colour according to the meaning of the words. Il Corago recognises that this can be difficult for some singers, and modern vocal training emphasises consistency, rather than variety, of tone-colour. A good starting exercise is to imagine telling a fairy-story to young children.

Tactus

The dramatic timing of musica rappresentativa is measured by Tactus, even though singers should not actually beat Tactus with their hand whilst they are acting. [Singers did routinely beat Tactus in madrigals, even in solo songs, but not when representing a character in music-drama – Il Corago.]

Tactus is ‘regular, solid, stable, firm … clear, sure, fearless, and without any perturbation” [Zacconi 1592]. Almost all period images of vocal performance (and many of instrumentalists studying their part in advance) show the Tactus hand, palm outwards, ready to move up and down in the slow, steady minim beat typical of the early 17th century.

There was no conductor in 17th century music – of course! It is the continuo who ‘guide and direct the whole ensemble of voices and instruments’ [Agazzari 1607, here].

 

 

Driving the Time

Nevertheless, in such expressive genres as Toccatas, continuo-madrigals and dramatic music, the Tactus could change according to the affetto. These changes were still managed by Tactus (see Frescobaldi Rules) and were almost certainly small (see Houle 1987 Meter in Music 1600-1800). Caccini uses a slower Tactus only once, in all his example songs, Frescobaldi specifies very limited situations where changes can occur – essentially between different movements. Since the composer would already have set agitated texts to short notes, and languid texts to long notes, any Affekt-based change in Tactus will tend to exaggerate written contrasts in note-values.

What can be used more frequently is the kind of rhythmic alteration within the regular Tactus, for which Caccini gives many examples. The common feature of these examples is that long notes are made extra-long, short notes extra-short. Once again, the composer’s contrasts in note-values are exaggerated.

Sprezzatura

Caccini’s ‘cool’ manner of singing is a style of vocal production, halfway between speech and song. [The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura] In just one instance in his example songs, he combines this with senza misura, where the voice-part floats freely over the measured bass. This jazz-like effect is notated clearly by Monteverdi, usually only once or twice per song. [Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz]

No Ornamentation

Cavalieri, Caccini, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and other period sources advise both singers and continuo-players to avoid ornamentation in dramatic music.  Cavalieri and Caccini give examples of simple cadential ornaments which are used very sparingly. The trillo – and almost all 17th-century ornamentation – accelerates towards the final note rather than slowing down. The modern cliché of a tenor cadence decorated with a upwards jump of a fourth, linear descent, and a slowing trillo is not supported by period evidence.

 

 

Prologue-roles, aria-singers and characters with divine or supernatural powers can add more ornamentation.

Expression

Many 17th-century sources emphasise the supreme importance of clear communication of the text, in order to convey emotions to the audience. Monteverdi is frequently praised for his expressive word-setting (harmonies and rhythms!). Caccini advises crescendo and/or diminuendo on a single note on exclamatory words, Ahi! Deh! etc.  Emotions in Early Opera.

Action

From Demosthenes via Cicero and Quintilian to the 17th century, Rhetoricians prioritise Action: posture and movement, facial expressions and what we nowadays call Baroque Gesture. Although we tend to view Gesture as a bolt-on extra, a special option for a particularly HIP production, period sources regard Action as fundamental, built-in to composers’ notation and performers’ training. Rhetorical gestures and stylised posture were an everday part of courtly etiquette, and can be observed in many baroque images.

 

 

This is a complex subject that requires considerable study and practice, but it’s easy to add some fundamental principles into any vocal performance:

  1. Stand still, diagonally-on (not square) to your audience, with your weight on one leg
  2. Hold your music with the LEFT hand, leaving your elegantly shaped RIGHT hand free to gesture
  3. Imagine that you see in front of you the scene you are describing, and point at what you talk about.

For my free on-line course in Historical Action and Baroque Gesture, start here! 

Conclusion

So now we can all be ready for the next time a singer or stage director says:

But it’s recitative, isn’t it?