Musing allowed – Reflecting on Music, Time & Play

This article reports on my work-in-progress to create an Explorer’s Guide to Early Opera, under the title The Play of Music & Time. More about the project here. Written within the discipline of Reflective Practice, this post simultaneously documents the on-going process and is itself part of that process, a considered “thinking-aloud” that helps establish a blue-print for continuing the design. And no doubt, that blue print will be adapted, along the way…

Listening again to Peter & the Wolf (1936) – score herevideo with animations here – and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945) – sound with animated score here – was an experience both inspiring and somewhat daunting. I feel a palpable sense of awe at the achievements of Prokofiev and Britten in creating these expertly crafted and artistically powerful works.

These two models are of course, very different. Peter would fit into Monteverdi’s concept of favola in musica, a story in music. More about Monteverdi’s Orfeo here. Prokofiev’s fable resembles the Grimm brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen: underneath the charming fairy tale of a young boy, his grandad and various animals there is an undercurrent of danger and violence. As in an opera, music and action are united, the spoken narration is like recitatives that link the instrumental ‘arias’ and duos, the final tutti is a rousing chorus.

Although by 1946 Britten had already written two operas, Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes, as well as many settings of thought-provoking poetry, his Guide is presented not as a story, but as a set of Variations, creating a certain abstract quality, in contrast to Prokofiev’s naïve, but vivid realism. Britten seems to write for more sophisticated listeners, and formal construction is part of his educational message. Not only are we introduced to the instruments of a much larger orchestra, but those instruments are categorised into sections (strings, woodwind, brass, percussion), individually itemised, and then re-assembled in – who else would have dared to aim such a thing at Young Persons? – a thrilling double-fugue.

The power of Prokofiev’s art is hidden underneath what seems to be innocent pastoral: Peter is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Britten’s intellectual explorations proclaim both the seriousness and the fun of symphonic writing: his large orchestra with its close-knit team of elite soloists becomes a playground of the mind, a space-time for rhythmic and colourful music-games.

“La Joie de Vivre” by Picasso (1946)

The Play’s the Thing

We play music. And opera is also a play: a theatrical drama in music, and an act of playfulness that romps across multiple media. The first baroque ‘operas’ were often called rappresentatione: a show, a Play.

So I still like my title The Play of Music & Time, with its echo of the very first baroque music-drama, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima & Corpo (1600) – introduction to the first opera hereCavalieri’s Preface here. Following Monteverdi and Cavalieri, my two protagonists are La Musica and Il Tempo, the personifications of Music and Time – female and male. Soul and Body are united in a third character, Life, also embodied onstage in many early operas.

But I’m puzzling over how to reconcile 17th-century aesthetics with a design that will speak to young audiences and to listeners unfamiliar with Orfeo, Celos, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or even Dido & Aeneas. What is the appropriate Rhetorical Decorum, an artistic structure of what is suitable? What compositorial Voice will by its Nature be understood by all, at once charming the senses and captivating their minds?

Music & Time in the models

The common features of Peter and the Guide are extreme economy of material, tight control of the balance between unity and variety, and masterful orchestration.

Britten confines himself to variations on an eight-bar theme taken from Purcell’s music for the play, Abdelazar (1695): the only new material is the pair of fugue subjects, introduced just before the final recapitulation of the Purcellian theme. Each variation lasts about a minute, there is strong contrast between successive variations, and though the theme is hard to perceive in some variations, it reappears triumphantly at the end. Within each variation, the sequence-structure of Purcell’s melody encourages Britten to use many short-term repeats.

Prokofiev works with different time-scales, inventing many themes (one for each character in the story), and with many (and more obvious) reappearances of those themes. Variation is mostly confined to changes of tonality and accompaniment, allowing the original melody to shine through clearly. Each thematic statement lasts fifteen seconds or less; often there is an immediate repeat before moving on another theme, but each melody returns every time the corresponding character re-appears in the story. There is some directly descriptive music for various action-scenes, and a new march-tune is introduced for the finale, which also reprises the character-melodies with touches of light counterpoint.

In operatic terms, we meet most of the dramatis personae in what might be thought of as Act I. This concludes with Grandad shutting the garden gate to protect Peter from the Wolf lurking nearby in the forest. Act II is all action, as the Wolf attacks and is captured by Peter, with help from the Bird. New characters enter for Act III, the Huntsmen. Exposition – action – new characters and resolution: this is a schema that could fit many three-act operas.

Both composers have superlatively keen ears for orchestral colour, matching varied orchestrations with appropriate musical material to offer young listeners memorable examples of just how each instrument sounds at its best. What could be more perfect than Prokofiev’s chalumeau-register clarinet-cat, or his quacking oboe-duck? And then Britten’s exchanges of gravity-defying two-octave arpeggios turn a pair of cats into acrobats who always land on their feet. Meanwhile both composers effortlessly loop the loop with flute-bird aerobatics.

One can be equally enthusiastic about both treatments of bassoon-grandad, wolf-horns, and hunter-timpani. Trumpets are used to good effect in both scores, and one might even wish that Prokofiev had invented a character-role for his solo trumpet.

 

 

 

Rhetoric at Play

For my own piece, I have some ideas about orchestration of 17th-century continuo-instruments. But the challenges I am grappling with are the balance of unity/variety and the question of how to introduce repeats of material previously heard – this seems essential for my audience – whilst remaining true to the early baroque aesthetic.

The first ‘operas’ were verse-plays set to music in a text-based style that imitated the declamation of a fine actor in spoken theatre. The poet’s choice of strophic or refrain structures might lead to some short-term musical repeats; dance-songs will repeat each phrase and instrumental ritornelli unify an entire scene. But since the same lines of poetry are unlikely to be repeated frequently from scene to scene, so the music also avoids long-term repeating structures. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the first pastoral ritornello reappears to identify scenes in Arcadia, but no other melody is carried forward from one of the five Acts to any other. Listening to the Rhetoric of Orfeo here. The leitmotifs heard (repeatedly, and very effectively) throughout Peter and also in Prokofiev’s (1919) Love of Three Oranges are not part of the seicento style.

I’m planning to use ground basses to give unity within each scene as well as contrast between one scene and another. Grounds are certainly an essential, and very attractive, feature of baroque music. But I haven’t yet decided on an appropriate solution for creating a sense of familiarity for a first-time listener and unity from one scene to another, i.e. some kind of long-term repeating structure.

Meanwhile, in my search for baroque models, my Facebook survey

What are your top ten 17th-century operas?

the survey results are here – has provided an embarrassment of riches beyond my wildest nightmares. I already knew that it was an impossible task, to introduce new listeners to all the early music-dramas I know and love, within a suitable duration for a children’s opera. Now I have a list of many more baroque operas to listen to, learn from, and learn to love!

Britten’s dedication of the Guide to the four Maud children “for their edification and enjoyment” reminded me of two of the three aims of Rhetoric. Perhaps Prokofiev goes even further in hitting all three rhetorical targets – docere, delectare, movere – to teach, to delight and to move the emotions. Even as a composer sets out to teach, he can only touch his audience’s hearts if he first captures their ears with delightful sounds.

La Musica declaims in the Prologue to Orfeo:

With a golden continuo-instrument
My singing usually
Beguiles mortal ears for a while;
And in this way
With the structured harmony
of the Music of the Spheres,
I can even move your souls.

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here.

So how might those heavenly orbits circle round in ear-charming repeats? That’s what I want to know….

Facebook: @PlayMusicTime

The Young Person’s Guide to Early Opera – What are the Top Ten 17th-century operas?

The Play of Music & Time

I’m working on a new project, inspired by Peter & the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, to introduce young audiences to Early Opera. The working title is The Play of Music & Time. So in the search for expert opinions and enthusiastic recommendations, I posted a question on Facebook, which was shared widely in Baroque and Operatic chat-groups.

WHAT ARE THE TOP TEN 17th-century OPERAS?

I received many replies, from performers, academics, baroque opera fans, CD-listeners, You-Tube viewers, audience members from staged productions, and (most importantly) some reports of the preferences of young persons aged 5 to 10.  Many agreed on the favourite works in this repertoire, and counting the votes was for me something like watching the Eurovision Song Contest (except with better music), as two front runners (one by Purcell, one by Monteverdi) took an initial sprint away from the peloton and then fought it out every inch of the way to the chequered flag (have I mixed enough metaphors here?)…

But there were also many lesser-known suggestions, including several works that I haven’t heard. So I now have a substantial reading/listening list to work through, as well as welcome reminders of some fine operas that had slipped my memory.

The aim of my project is both to introduce the accepted canon of Early Operas to new listeners, and to expand the repertoire for those who already have knowledge and experience of 17th-century music-drama. So I’m very grateful to everyone who commented. Thanks to your expertise and enthusiasm, I now have a much wider knowledge-base from which to assess what is essential and what might be fascinating, but as yet little-known.

And as a thank you in return, I now present the results of this online survey, so that you can see how the votes came in.

And the winner is…

Methodology

The posted question was informal, designed to provoke enthusiastic answers. It is not a scientific survey, and should be read in the spirit of fun with which it was carried out. The sample group was self-selecting (those who chose to reply) from within an online community of over 15,000 FB readers (my own Friends and members of the Historical Performance Practice group were the two largest targets for the initial post).

Although I asked for a ‘top 10’, some responders gave fewer, or more than ten suggestions: I counted all these votes equally. For this reason, it isn’t possible to give a clear indication of the sample size, but over 50 operas are listed and some 140 votes were cast.

Some suggested “anything by such-and-such a composer”: for this response, I gave an extra vote to each work by that composer that was mentioned by another respondent.

Quite a few allowed their enthusiasm to carry them beyond the 17th-century: I allowed the first decade of the 18th century, and include here in this commentary Handel’s Acis & Galatea (1718), about which two respondents were very enthusiastic, as especially suitable for young audiences. Handel’s Alcina (1735) was also warmly supported. But I have not recorded the many 18th-century operas that were suggested by only one person: to do so would have been misleading.

I did not define ‘opera’ more specifically, and there was some discussion as to whether English Semi-Opera, Masques and Oratorios could be included. I accepted a vote for any kind of music-drama, and one might well consider that some famous works that do not fit neatly into the ‘opera’ category might have received more votes if my question had been worded more inclusively: Monteverdi Combattimento and Cavalieri Anima & Corpo come to mind.

I did not ask for specific arias.

One respondent argued that the 17th-century opera that was most famous in its own time was Cesti’s Il Pomo d’Oro (1668), a huge production that is little known today. But there are other candidates for that position, not least Monteverdi’s Arianna (1608).

Although some respondents strayed into the 1700s, no-one mentioned the most famous ‘opera’ prior to the 17th-century, the multi-composer spectacular Florentine Intermedi (1589), which is usually considered an essential element of what we now call The History of Opera.

Results

Arias

Although I did not ask for specific 17th-century arias, three music-drama excerpts aroused so much enthusiasm that respondents mentioned them anyway:

Pur ti miro  (Poppea ) – this is not the moment to discuss whether this is by Monteverdi or Cavalli.

Purcell Music for a While (1692, Oedipus) – which my respondent compared to a rock anthem!

Lamento d’Arianna (1608) – In 2017, I wrote what might be called ‘the fourth opera in the Monteverdi trilogy’, composing a setting of the complete 1608 libretto ‘in Claudio’s voice’, around the sole surviving fragment of the famous Lament. Read about Arianna a la recherche here.

Music Dramas

I present the list of works grouped by how many votes they received. Within each group, the ordering is chronological, from the earliest to the later. Some dates are disputed, this is not the place to argue about them!

In the best traditions of such ‘contests’,

I shall present the results in reverse order…

Your Top Ten 17th-century Operas

Many heartfelt thanks to all who took part!

Orlando Orlando: Drama and dance-rhythms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Challenge your assumptions

 

 

 

This motivational text popped up in my FB feed. Not withstanding the split infinitive, this is what high-quality academic research should be about… and it’s not a bad motto for political opinions either.

 

Learning from errors

The realisation “Aha, I made a mistake” is the first step towards self-improvement. We musicians do this all the time when we practise, athletes and martial artists do this when they train… but it’s harder to do in the academic or personal context.

In the context of Historical Performance Practice, “I don’t know” is the first step towards becoming more Historically Informed. Whereas “I can’t be bothered to find out” is a step backwards, in any context.

In a leadership role, it can feel awkward to admit to errors. But whatever respect you lose or gain from declaring an honest mistake, it cannot compare to how foolish you look when your colleagues know that you are bluffing.

I can’t pretend I manage 100% compliance with this ideal. But I do try… And I think this principle is so important for intellectual research, that I’ve devoted this entire post to it.

 

Accept the challenge

I’m well aware of the phenomenon of ‘researcher bias’, whereby investigators subconsiously select evidence that will support their pet theory. To combat this inevitable tendency, I have made a point of following up citations posted by my academic opponents, and investigating their chosen sources in detail. This allows me to use their researcher bias to counter-balance my own, and has been a most fruitful way to extend my reading list. In academic research as in martial arts, your fiercest opponent can be your best training partner!

If we consider that Musicology – in German Musikwissenschaft – is a science, then the scientific method demands that we constantly test our hypotheses experimentally, and that we re-test frequently, to find out if our initial findings hold consistently.

In this sense, every rehearsal, every practice session, as well as each performance is a new experiment. We should hope that we learnt something from the previous experiment, so we are already in a new situation, even if we tread what might seem to be a well-worn path.

For this reason, I consider it very worth while to re-read familiar and “obvious” historical sources, just as often as I look for a “new” source to read.  Those familiar texts, which were perhaps our first steps into Early Music, can reveal startling new insights, if we approach them with an updated understanding of the context, and with the readiness to re-consider, to challenge our assumptions.

 

 

Challenge the accepted

Scientific scepticism is the aittitude that everything should be experimentally tested, and verified as replicable. The musicalogical equivalent in Historical Performance Pract ice is being ready to question the ‘standard operating procedures’ of today’s Early Music, whilst constantly challanging our own assumptions. What is even more difficult is to become aware of assumptions that we didn’t even know we had made, until some piece of period evidence proves them false…

 

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

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

 

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

 

One of the challenges of Historically Informed Performance is to try to catch a glimpse of our own assumptions, to notice where something seems so ‘obvious’ and ‘absolute’ that we don’t even question it. The worst decisions in Early Music are the decisions that we don’t even realise we are making, because we don’t even notice there is a question to be addressed. But as soon as we become aware of an assumption, we can look for evidence of whether the same assumption held good in the past, or if attitudes might have changed with the centuries.

Andrew Lawrence-King A Baroque History of Time (2014)

Rhetoric, Rhythm & Passions: Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2019

This article is posted in connection with the production of Orfeo in Vaasa and Helsinki, October 2019.

With the golden harp I charm mortal ears,
With the powerful harmony of the cosmos I touch your soul.

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the Heroes here…

Monteverdi’s music is Rhetoric that tells a story, delights the senses and stirs your emotions. Although it is one of the earliest music-dramas to be presented in today’s Opera Houses, L’Orfeo was not the ‘first opera’. The designation in Striggio’s (1607)  libretto here… as favella in musica… (a story in music) …rappresentata ( a theatrical show) in Mantua, associates this music-drama with Cavalieri’s (1600) Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo in Rome, and with Peri and Caccini’s Euridice,  performed in Florence later that same year.

 

 

Monteverdi’s Score was printed in 1609 here…, not to facilitate future performances, but as a souvenir of the original production, with many details of instrumentation and staging not often found in early baroque sources. There were three groups of instruments distributed around the stage: strings and flutes, cornetti and sackbuts, and the Basso Continuo who ‘supported and guided the whole ensemble of voices and instruments’ (Agazzari, 1607). There was no conductor: rhythmic precision was based on the steady pulse of Baroque Tactus more about Monteverdi’s rhythm here…; rehearsals were led by the Corago (opera director) more about Il Corago here… 

For this new genre of music-drama, the performers were not theatre actors but court singers, with star tenor Francesco Rasi in the title-role. And the first performance was not in a purpose-built theatre, but in a small hall inside the Ducal Palace, without the grandiose stage-machinery used in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi. Nevertheless, the show was a great success, and the following year the spirit of this music led to the birth of the Tragedy, Arianna, Monteverdi’s  lost masterpiece (reconstructed by Lawrence-King in 2017 from the surviving Lamento). More about Arianna a la Recherche here…

Libretto and Score offer alternative endings, in which Orpheus either encounters a gang of Bacchus’ followers, or is rescued by Apollo. In the 2019 staging in Finland, you must wait and see who triumphs in the end: Apollo (Monteverdi’s original setting) or Bacchus (in Lawrence-King’s reconstruction for this production)?

 

 

Whilst we might today view L ‘Orfeo as a symbolic journey, 17th-century audiences appreciated it as an allegory of music-drama’s power ‘move the passions’. They experienced the emotional impact of hearing the story narrated by La Musica and the Messaggiera, watching the same story dramatised  by actors on stage, whilst both seeing and hearing how Orpheus himself reacts to each new  event. As courtiers, the Mantuan spectators were accustomed to watching their Duke, in order to gauge his reaction to any happening. On stage, Orpheus’ Shepherds represent a pastoral ‘court’ surrounding the semi-divine singer.

 

A stage court, a dramatised wedding more about the Ballo for Orpheus’ wedding here…, and a mythical singer as protagonist all serve to make music ‘realistic’ within this story. The Muses themselves appear from Parnassus, and baroque audiences were thrilled by the horrors of Hell. Striggio’s inferno is deliberately modelled on Dante. Ordinary speech is represented not by the Recitative more about Recitative here… that we know from Handel and Vivaldi, but by earlier modulatione, Monody, in which Monteverdi’s precisely notated rhythms and pitch-contours imitate the rhetorical delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre (Peri, 1600, Il Corago c1630). More about Peri’s monody here…

Tim Carter’s survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre here…

 

Caccini defines this ‘new music’ (1601) as “words and rhythm, with sound last of all, and not the other way around”.  More about Caccini here…  Monteverdi, Caccini and Jazz here… Cavalieri (1600) alerts us to abrupt contrasts in emotion. More about Cavalieri here… Monteverdi declares (1638) that his purpose was to bring narration, action and music together into ‘a unified representation’. In this Gesamtkunstwerk, centuries before Nietzsche and Wagner, Apollo and Bacchus contend to charm your ears and touch your soul.

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE REPORT

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

ALK comments:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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…