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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

In 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.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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).

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

Eternal Hieroglyphs?

 

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

Gieroglifici eterni,

Che in zifre luminose ogn’or splendete     

Ah! Che alla mente umana                                      

Altro che belle oscurità non siete.              

Pure il mio spirto audace                            

Crede veder scritto là su nelle stelle…

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

 

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

Andante Allegro

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

 

Beautiful obscurity?

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

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

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1981)

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

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

 

Well-established facts

 

Opera rehearsal

 

  • Baroque music was not conducted

 

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

 

 

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

 

Handel’s tempo indications

 

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

 

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

 

Handel’s specific instructions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Notation indicates tempo relationships.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Gavotte in the Anna Magdalena Bach ‘Notenbuch’

 

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

 

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

 

 

Initial assumption

 

 

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

 

  • Circa 1600, Tactus is approximately minim = 60

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Hypothesis

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

 

  • Tempo words modify the default Tactus

 

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

 

Historical Principle

 

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

 

Methodological Test

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: tempo ordinario

 

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

 

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

 

Tempo ordinario

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: Recitative

 

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

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

 

Recit – tempo ordinario – grave

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Hypothesis: recitative & tempo ordinario

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

 

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

 

Handel’s Tempo words: faster or slower?

 

Harrison sea clock H1 c1736

 

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

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

 

Handel’s tempi table 1

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

 

Fast duple, Triple and Compound metres

 

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

 

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

 

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

Handel tempi Table 2

 

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

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

Handel tempi Table 3

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Candlemas: A Tudor Mass & an Elizabethan Enigma

Candlemas in context

On 5th January 2019, Kamarikuoro Utopia (directed by Andrew Lawrence-King, organ & harp) will present in Helsinki’s German Church the choral music of a Tudor Candlemas, which in private households and secret Catholic ceremonies might have been sung by women and men, rather than by the boys’ choirs of the Anglican rite. Avoiding the now discredited 20th-century musicology that suggested this repertoire should be sung at very high pitch and with the fake solemnity of slow tempi and romantic legato, we recognise and revel in the rhythmic drive of William Byrd’s counterpoint, and share the robust strength of his commitment to the meaning of Latin and English texts, no less dramatic than the plays of his literary contemporary, William Shakespeare.

 

William Byrd (1538-1623)

 

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Whilst this glorious polyphony might be heard in our performance as a plausible reconstruction, the interspersed solo songs, poems and instrumental pieces are most definitely not part of the sacred liturgy. Rather they offer a glimpse of the historical context, the inner world of the Tudor mind, full of cultural cross-connections: European cosmopolitanism and English boldness, Catholic complexity and Protestant sincerity, faith and fire, rich poetry and complex polyphony, secret allusions and enigmatic references, luminous joy and hidden melancholy.

This (updated) post can be downloaded as a pdf (including illustrations) here.

Twelfth Night & Candlemas

January 5th 2019 is Twelfth Night, the traditional end of Christmas celebrations, and the religious feast of Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the Three Wise Men. But in Shakespeare’s England, the festive mood continued until the feast of Candlemas (February 2nd), at which the liturgy completes the story of the Nativity with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The old man, Simeon, lifts up the Baby and declares him to be “a Light to lighten the Gentiles” – his words became the evening canticle Nunc Dimittis, one of the cornerstones of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662, and still current).

The Presentation
of Christ in the Temple
by Hans Holbein (c1500)

 

The liturgical texts appointed to be sung at  Mass on this day, known as the Proper of the Mass, explore many inter-related themes: the sanctity of the church building  as a symbol of the holy Temple; the dual nature of the Child, both human and divine; the purity of the Virgin Mary (and by analogy, of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen); Simeon’s peaceful departure in old age; the faithfulness of God’s promises, ‘according to Thy word’; the spreading of light through the building (and by analogy the lengthening days of Spring) as a symbol for the spreading of the Gospel.

 

St Anne Line

Light & Darkness

But in the year 1601, English Catholics had to celebrate Candlemas in secret. Services in Latin were forbidden, Catholic Priests would be captured and killed. Father John Gerard, a Jesuit secret agent in England, had set up a safe house for Catholics in London, managed by Anne Line, a widow and ‘a woman of much prudence and good sense’. There, as Father Francis Page was about to begin the ceremony of Blessing the Candles, the watchmen arrived and arrested Anne. She and two priests were hanged the next day; Father Francis was executed a year later. All four martyrs were later canonised as Saints.

In such difficult and dangerous times, certain elements of the liturgy took on new significance. Worship of Mary was discouraged by Protestantism  and became an identifying feature of Catholic piety and Catholic religious music. The Christmas Child, vulnerable amidst Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, symbolised the precarious situation of the Catholic faith in Protestant England. Catholics hoped that they, like Simeon, would see the glory of salvation – i.e. a return to State Catholicism –  before they died, and that the Light of their true faith would enlighten the ‘Gentiles’ – i.e. the  Protestants.

Some Catholics – notably the musicians  Byrd and Tallis – were protected by Elizabeth. Others, such as singer, lutenist and composer  John Dowland, were discriminated against and chose to emigrate. Many were forced to keep their sympathy secret: William Shakespeare might have been one such.

 

The Phoenix & the Turtle

 

The Phoenix & the Turtle

Shakespeare’s enigmatic (1601) poem of mystical love between the legendary Phoenix (a fire-bird reborn from its own ashes) and the faithful Turtledove (symbol of love) remains a subject of academic debate. Perhaps it continues the Catholic mystic tradition of the Soul’s spiritual love for Christ, but one theory is that it celebrates the secret love between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Another interpretation is that it commemorates the Candlemas martyrs, referring to Anne Line’s love for her late husband Roger. In this pro-Catholic reading, the poem’s opening line ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ alludes to England’s most famous Catholic composer, William Byrd. There is a useful introduction to the poem here.

 

The Earl of Essex’ castle at Kenilworth

Byrd & Tallis

In 1575 Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Thomas Tallis a monopoly to ‘set songe or songes in parts’, and, as life-long Catholics, their first publication was a set of Latin motets. Byrd’s three settings of the Latin Ordinary (the fixed texts sung at every Mass) in three, four and five parts, together with his Gradualia (settings of the Propers for each religious feast) provided Catholics in Elizabethan England with all the music needed for the complete liturgical year.

The Masses have long been recognised as some of the finest examples of Tudor polyphony, and are widely performed today, both liturgically and in concert. For many listeners, the sound of this repertoire is inescapably associated with English Cathedral and College choirs, i.e. with boys’ voices, slow tempi, legato phrasing, highly resonant acoustics, transposition a third upwards, and modern conducting.  Many concert ensembles have emerged from this milieu, replacing boys with female sopranos, but (with few exceptions) preserving all the trappings of 20th-century style, in particular that gross anachronism in Early Music, the conductor!

The Latin music heard in our performance was edited by David Fraser here. Modern scholarship recognises that Byrd’s Masses and Propers, written in a remote Catholic enclave at Stondon Massey in Essex, are far removed from the Anglican establishment’s boys’ choirs. The composer writes short phrases articulated by the words, and the small parish church of St Peter and Paul has modest acoustics. Historical information has exploded the myth of high pitch for Tudor music, and the latest scholarship confirms that the rhythmic notation of renaissance music indicates the composer’s intended tempo, controlled not by a modern conductor but by the steady measure of Tactus and the lively dance of triple-time Proportions.

 

“Above all things, keep the Equality of Measure; for to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself.” proclaimed John Dowland in 1609. “Keep Time!”, thunders Shakespeare’s King Richard: “How sour sweet music is, when time is broke and no proportion kept”.  The dramatic passion of Byrd’s music comes not from romantic rubato, but from the powerful drive of Tactus and detailed attention to the words.

 

 

The Ordinary of the Mass

In Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, the first Kyrie begins with the voices imitating each other’s circling melody, an opening that will be heard again as the ‘head-motive’ of the Gloria, Credo and Agnus. Soon, the Christe introduces a characteristic element of Byrd’s counterpoint, syncopated entries that add either rhythmic energy, or (as here) emotional poignancy. In the second Kyrie, tenor and soprano chant the text on monotones, amidst melancholy descending phrases.

In the Gloria, as throughout his oeuvre, Byrd is careful to clarify the structure and meaning of the text: an angel choir of high voices prays for ‘peace on earth’, all the singers ‘praise thee’ and ‘give thanks for thy great glory’. Various smaller ensembles (‘Verses’ in the English tradition) pray for ‘mercy’, there are of course high notes for ‘most high’, and attention to the details of dogma in careful enumeration of the three Persons of the Trinity.

Byrd’s Credo is a masterpiece of concise story-telling worthy of any Elizabethan madrigalist, combined with all the pathos and solemnity that the liturgical text demands. Clouds of syncopations make the Tactus almost ‘invisible’, but the name of Jesus Christ shines clearly. Two voices represent two Persons, ‘God of God’; a shift to sharps spreads the Candlemas ‘light of light’; Byrd’s sudden change to long notes produces the effect of slower tempo within the constant Tactus for the Incarnatus, and the Crucifixus finds pathos in the Eb and Bb of the ‘soft hexachord’. Et ascendit ascends, and the cadences of non erit finis seem to last forever, until a trio represents the third Person at Et in Spiritum Sanctum.

The word secundum (‘according to’, or ‘following’) which occurs frequently at Candlemas is an invitation to the composer to write imitative polyphony, where one voices ‘follows’ another. Such literal reflection of the words in music, heard in the gestures of Byrd’s ‘madrigalism’ and ‘word-painting’, is an audible expression of the renassaince concept of Enargeia: the emotional effect of detailed verbal description.

The Sanctus begins with a new point of imitation in three long notes; in the Verse, melodic gestures point upwards and then downwards for caeli et terra, ‘heaven and earth’: of course ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ has high notes for all voices. The Benedictus Verse, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’ might be heard as a homage to those Catholic priests who made the dangerous journey from the continent to celebrate Mass in England.

The three-fold structure of the Agnus is beautifully observed. Byrd begins in trio with the head-motive and descending phrases for ‘miserere’. The second Agnus is in four parts, with an arch-shape melody for the ‘misere’. The third Agnus opens in full five-part harmonies, with extended melismata on pacem, ‘give us peace;’ a heartfelt prayer for English Catholics.

The Proper of Candlemas

The immense collection of motets in the Gradualia is perhaps Byrd’s greatest achievement. For practicality, texts that recur at different times in the liturgy are set only once, so that (as with a plainchant Missal) singers turn back and forth within the collection to find the music required at each moment. So when the liturgy for Candlemas calls for the introductory words Suscepimus Deus to be sung twice, leading to different verses each time, the partial repeat of the opening motives creates for the listener the effect of musical structure in the Propers, in parallel to the head-motives of the Ordinary.

In strict liturgical use, some verses required at other feasts would be omitted at Candlemas. But in order to appreciate Byrd’s music to the full, we have indulged in the luxury of singing all the verses, in particular the gloriously extended praise of the Virgin in the extra verses of Diffusa est gratia. Similarly, the Tract would not normally be sung when Candlemas falls before Septuagesima (as it does this year), but Byrd’s extraordinary setting of ‘Lumen’, the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’, is too beautiful to be missed.

English Anthems

Both Byrd and Tallis also wrote anthems and canticles on English texts for the Anglican church, and in either language, their settings show the poignancy of certain words in the context of religiously-divided Tudor England: Byrd’s significant pause between unam sanctam catholicam and apostolicam ecclesiam [one holy, catholic… and apostolic church]; Tallis’ descending scales, bringing ‘the Spirit of Truth’ down from heaven. Byrd’s prayer that his patroness, Queen Elizabeth be given ‘a long life, even for ever and ever’ is repeated passionately and at length.

Just as on the bare boards of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Byrd’s Catholic music creates powerful drama with minimal resources.  In contrast, his Great Service for the Anglican rite exploits the opulent resources of the largest Tudor cathedral choirs, divided into two 5-part ensembles on the Dean’s (decani) and Cantor’s (cantoris) sides of the Chancel. The singers combine and re-combine in a variety of ‘Verse’ scorings, contrasting with the imposing ‘Full’ sound of Byrd’s sonorous 5-part writing.

 

Elizabeth I – the Armada Portrait, recently restored

There is a helpful introduction to George Peele’s poem for Sir Henry Lee, retiring from public life at the Elizabethan court here. John Dowland set the poem as a lute-song.

 

HIP & the Scientific Method: Musicology & Artistic Experiment

As a discipline within Musicology, Historically Informed Performance Practice is supposed to be ‘scientific’. In Universities and Conservatoires, when we research and teach Early Music, it is expected that our work should be ‘evidence-based’.

 

In the hard Sciences, our knowledge and understanding are advanced by the Scientific Method: you observe some natural phenomenon; you develop a Hypothesis; you test your hypothesis in the laboratory. If your hypothesis fails, you develop a better one. If  your hypothesis works, you continue testing. Eventually, a robust hypothesis deserves a status-upgrade: you call it a Theory, and you invite other researchers to review it and test it.

Science advances when some researcher (often a junior) tests an old theory to destruction, showing that a new theory is needed. Think of Galileo and the Pope. Think of Einstein and Newton. Think of Robert Donnington (The Interpretation of Early Music, 1963 free online here) – and others of his generation – and mainstream performance practice.

If we want to be ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence-based’ in our HIP music-making, then the Scientific Model is a powerful tool. Period treatises are the data-sets we must study, rehearsal and performance are our laboratory. We need to develop strong hypotheses, and try them out on the test-bench. Only the fittest theories will survive!

 

A PROBLEM

17th-century Italian music – Monteverdi etc. It’s generally agreed that the relationship between duple- and triple-time (white notation or coloration, with a variety of mensuration marks) is determined by proportions. But how, exactly?

 

THE VARIABLES

There is scholarly debate about precisely how these proportions are to be understood. But there is academic agreement that a slow pulse (the Tactus) is maintained, whereas the quick-ticking internal beats will change. In modern terminology, the feeling is “bar=bar” (or half-bar becomes bar) rather than “beat=beat”.

THE CONSTRAINTS

Since there is no academic consensus on the precise rules, HIP performers are free to make reasonable choices for themselves. But for a choice to be respected as reasonable, it should satisfy these conditions:

1. The choice should be determined by notation. Given the same set of mensuration marks and note-values in another instance, the same decision should be made.

2. Once [your personal take on] the rule is understood, it should be possible for all performers to make an instant and unanimous decision, looking at their own part only. This is the only way 17th-century performers could have done proportional music with minimal or no rehearsal.

If your decisions are inconsistent, or produce beat=beat outcomes, you need to think again.

 

FORM A HYPOTHESIS

Actually, although the mensuration signs look complex, the situation is really quite simple. Once you have your steady Tactus beat (I would say something around minim=60, but you go ahead and take whatever tempo you find convincing), there are only three viable options. From slow to fast:

1. Sesquialtera (3 beats to 2 Tactus pulses, slow and difficult)

2. Tripla (3 beats to 1 Tactus pulse, medium-fast and easy)

3. Sestupla (6 beats to 1 Tactus pulse, very fast)

All you have to do is decide which of these works for the given example

TEST YOUR HYPOTHESIS

The next time you get the same notational situation, check that you are happy to take the same musical decision.

If a new instance of the same situation makes you dissatisfied with your previous decision, that’s the sign that your hypothesis needs to be modified.

But if your hypothesis continues to work in one instance after another, you can become increasingly confident about it. After a while, you could even call it a Theory, and invite others to test it too.

 

DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN

In Early Music, there are certain facts that are widely known, and about which there is no academic debate (e.g. music of Monteverdi’s period was not conducted, it was guided by Tactus-beating and/or by the continuo [Agazzari 1607]). But even where there is genuine debate amongst specialist scholars, there is usually a substantial area of common ground with which students and professional HIP performers should be familiar.

Of course, just as in the hard sciences, no one individual can know everything. But in the average HIP ensemble, there is a huge amount of expertise available for the wise director to make use of, when he steps outside his own specialist area.

Even when I’m directing, I’m never ashamed to say “I don’t know”. And with colleagues, this is the best way to get high-quality advice: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

MY THEORY

I’ve been refining and testing my ideas about proportions for some 30 years. For 5 years, early 17th-century Italian rhythm was a major strand of my investigation as Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions. Read more here…   My hypothesis continues to work well, it hasn’t yet failed me. So I’m ready to call it a Theory now, and invite academics and performers to test it for themselves.

Have a look at this article, and let me know: “What do you think?”. Tempus putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s time

LEARNING BY EXPERIMENT

If Musicology is a Science (in German, it’s called Musikwissenschaft), then rehearsal and performance are our experimental laboratory. Theory must be tested in Practice. This is the trendy new discipline of Performance Studies and Artistic Experiment, and Early Music leads the way, evidence-based and artistically tested since long before the 1960s. Read more about pioneering experiments in the late 19th century and George Bernard Shaw’s enthusiasm for Arthur Dolmetsch’s historical approach, here: Morris and Early Music: the Shaw/Dolmetsch).

But if you don’t have a theory, not even a tentative hypothesis, if you just make it up as you go along, or if you can’t even be bothered to take the notation seriously, then don’t expect to be respected as Historically Informed.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN: testing the latest hypotheses in Theoretical Physics

 

The Philosophy of La Musica

THE PHILOSOPHY OF LA MUSICA

 

 

Monteverdi’s setting of the Prologue to Striggio’s (1607) Orfeo is justly popular, not only as the opening of that famous favola in musica [story in music], but also as a concert-piece and as an introduction for student singers and continuo-players to the art of monody.

Documentary film and other articles about Orfeo on The Orfeo Page by IL Corago, here.

The music is just what we expect a baroque Prologue to be: a ground-bass, subtly varied from strophe to strophe according to the words; the vocal line a simple reciting-formula, but also varied from strophe to strophe. Whilst Cavalieri, Viadana, Peri, Caccini, the anonymous Il Corago, and Monteverdi himself (in the Preface to Combattimento) agree that neither singers nor continuo-players should make divisions in the ‘new music’ of the early 17th-century, Prologues and the entrances of allegorical personifications are an exception. Indeed, the repeating harmonic structure of Monteverdi’s music defines this Prologue as an Aria, and passeggi as well as ornaments on a single note (gruppetto – two-note trill with turn, zimbalo – restriking from the upper note, trillo – on one note, accelerating) would be appropriate, though they are seldom heard in modern-day performances. Nevertheless, the emotional effect comes first from the words, then from the steady rhythm, and finally from crescendos, diminuendos or exclamationi (sforzando, subito piano, crescendo) on single notes, as described by Caccini (1601). Caccini’s priorities, here.

Striggio’s five short stanzas summarise some of the most important philosophical concepts that guide baroque music in general and (what we now call) ‘early opera’ in particular. Perhaps we have been so charmed by the surface detail of La Musica’s song that we have missed her deeper message: but in the central stanza, all is revealed. And right from the start, Striggio proclaims two essential tenets of seicento aesthetics.

  1. Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno

Incliti Eroi, sangue gentil di Regi

Di cui narra la fama eccelsi pregi

Ne giunge al ver, perch’è tropp’ alto il segno.

 

From my beloved Permesso I come to you

Great heroes, noble blood of kings

Of whom Fame tells heavenly praises

Yet does not reach the truth, for the sign is too high.

 

Music comes from somewhere far-off,  from a beautiful pastoral landscape associated with the lost golden age of classical antiquity and with the divine inspiration and cultural melody of the Muses. With her opening line, La Musica evokes a mythological location, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. Listen to a fascinating discussion on BBC Radio on the Muses as guardians of the Arts and of Memory, here. 

 

The performance is offered to the audience: they (not the performers!) are the ‘great heroes’ whose fame is beyond telling. This is the reverse of the Romantic idea of ‘the great artistic genius in the temple of culture, receiving the worship of ordinary mortals’. Baroque music privileges the listeners: we performers come to tell them a story, to delight them with music, and to move their emotions.

 

In 1607, some of the audience (not all!) were indeed noble aristocrats. But today, anyone can be a king or a princess for the evening: this exquisite culture and the work of elite performers are on offer to everyone, at ticket prices that compare favourably to professional football!

The first baroque opera, here.

  1. Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti

So far tranquillo ogni turbato core

Et hor di nobil ira et hor d’Amore

Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.

 

I am Music, who with sweet accents

Can calm every troubled heart,

And now with noble anger, now with Love,

Can enflame the most frozen minds.

 

Music can ‘soothe the savage breast’, but the special feature of seicento performance is the rapid change between contrasting, even opposing emotions. Cavalieri also draws attention to this, in the Preface to Anima & Corpo (1600), here. This differs from the Romantic tendency to intensify a single emotion more and more, in the search for catharsis.

 

Period Science classified the Passions according to the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (sad, unlucky in love, sleepless, over-intellectual) Phlegmatic (unmoved by anything, a ‘wet blanket’).  Anger is Choleric, Love is Sanguine and the frozen minds are Phlegmatic. The Melancholy Humour, so typical in English period culture, in Dowland’s music and Shakespeare’s dramas, is absent from this Italian Musica, though it emerges in Striggio’s Act II. Emotions in Early Opera, here.

  1. Io su Cetera d’or cantando soglio

Mortal orrecchio lusingar tal’hora

E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora

De la lira del ciel piu l’alme invoglio

 

Singing to the golden cetra as usual

I charm mortal ears for a while

And in this way with the sonorous harmony

Of the lyre of heaven I can even influence souls.

The strange and beautiful musical instruments of the early 17th-century, the large triple-harp, the long-necked theorbo and the bowed lirone, were all real-life imitations of the mythical cetra, the ancient and magical lyre of Apollo. With such instruments, baroque music can titillate the listener’s ears. But when this charming sound is coupled with music’s mysterious, cosmic power, the effect is far more profound.

 

This is the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, a medieval concept that remained current until the end of the 18th century. Music, as we play and sing it every day, is an earthly imitation of that perfect music created by the movement of the stars, moon and planets in their orbits. The link is made by the harmonious nature of the human body, a microcosm with ears to hear, a tongue to sing, hands to play instruments, and a mind that senses the ineffable perfection and otherworldly power that our everyday music-making seeks to evoke.

This three-fold nature (cosmic, human and actual) is also characteristic of period Dance, which imitates the perfect movement of the heavenly bodies. In the early 17th-century (before Newton), Time itself was similarly understood to be set by the cosmological clock, observed in the human pulse and heartbeat, and shown by the steady down-up movsement of the hand, beating the (approximately one-per-second) Tactus that structures 17th-century music.

Period medical science modelled a mystic breath, something like oriental chi, networked through the mind-body holism (akin to the ‘meridians’ of Chinese traditional medicine) to facilitate proprioception, motor-control, psychological and physiological reactions. This pneuma was the same mysterious energy that transferred emotions from performer to listener, and was also the spiritual breath of life, activating each human being with the divine inspiration of the breath of creation.

Significantly, all this philosophy of heaven and humanity plays out at the practical level of historical performance. Musical rhythm imitates the steadiness and reliability of astronomical movement, driven by the slowest beat, the innermost sphere, the primum mobile. The Tactus-hand embodies the Hand of God, not wilful or capricious, but all-powerful and eternally constant. If musical time were to falter, the heavens might collapse, and your body rhythms would fail. If the pulse stops, the music also dies.

Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time, here.

 

The communication of emotions is linked to the healthy posture and elegant movements of Baroque Gesture, and to the invocation of the mysterious power of pneuma. Something like the Star Wars ‘Force’, pneuma can be with you, strong in someone, and you can use its power. Just as in oriental martial arts, the performance power of pneuma is associated with inner calm and precise timing, with a profound slow, steady control, even if surface movements are fast.

  1. Quinci a dirvi d’Orfeo desio mi sprona

D’Orfeo che trasse al suo cantar le fere

E servo fe l’Inferno a sue preghiere

Gloria immortal di Pindo e d’Elicona

 

Therefore to tell you about Orfeo is the desire that spurs me

Orfeo who tamed wild beasts with his singing

And made Hell a servant by his prayers

The immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.

With this stanza, Striggio introduces the subject of his music-drama, a super-hero whose powers are wielded through the medium of song. Music has power over Nature, and can melt the hardest hearts. If battle-heroes go to Valhalla, then poets and musicians have the eternal glory of the homes of Epic verse and the Lyrical arts.

The sequence of ideas continues from the previous strophe into these lines, as signalled by the rhetorical link-word, quinci. Music is not just ear-tickling noise, it has cosmic power, and (in the current strophe) power over nature, power to persuade. Aristotle defined rhetoric itself as the Art of Persuasion, and Striggio’s Musica is, therefore, a rhetorical art.

 

Music is also storytelling – Monteverdi’s opera is designated favola, a fable. And it is desire that spurs us on tell such tales, to make such music. The Italian urge to sing, play, dance, act, recite poetry and tell stories is not English Melancholy but the Choleric Humour: a hunger, a thirst, a passionate desire.

 

  1. Hor mentre i canti alterno, hor lieti, hor mesti,

Non si mova Augellin fra queste piante

Ne s’oda in queste rive onda sonante

Et ogni auretta in suo camin s’arresti.

 

Now, while I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad,

Not even a bird will move amongst these plants

Nor will there be heard in these rivers the sound of waves

And every little breeze will stop in its tracks.

The traditional function of a theatrical Prologue is to command the audience’s attention and call for silence. Striggio’s choice of imagery reinforces the Orphic connection between music and nature, and emphasises changes between contrasting emotions. As her song ends, La Musica holds the spectators spell-bound for 9 minim-beats, 9 seconds of musical rests, 9 seconds of dramatic silence (on-stage, this feels like eternity!). If the performer can command the moment, this both creates and demonstrates the power of music to influence the listeners’ most profound spiritual experience.

If the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, the staged drama that follows can be deeply moving. La Musica’s Prologue, in particular the hypnotic effect of drifting half-sentences and dreamy silences in this final strophe, gets the audience into the right state of mind for attentive listening and passionate response. Indeed, Striggio’s introduction to the opera can be analysed as an induction into hypnotic trance, an altered state of consciousness in which the conventional limits of reality are blurred and emotional responses are heightened, lulled into dream-world by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the heroes, here.

So now, be still, and hear the Philosophy of La Musica:

 

  1. Music comes from an ancient, distant, golden, pastoral otherworld.
  2. Music pleasantly alters your state of mind.
  3. Music is more than sound, it uses the Power of the Force.
  4. Music is storytelling, and the Rhetorical Art of Persuasion.
  5. As Music sings, your mind flows… you relax… concentrate… in deep silence…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technique & Terminology (The Cremona papers: John McKean)

This is the first in a series of posts responding to papers given at the 18th Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music in Cremona, 10-15 July 2018. I offer my personal summary of the paper, some commentary, and links to related articles.

 

John McKean of the Longy School of Music speculated whether we can find evidence of ‘schools of technique’, as opposed to the various period and national styles which tend to set boundaries in historically informed performance practice. He began by problematising the word ‘technique’ in the context of Early Music, showing that the term first appears in English in 1817, and in French and German only slightly earlier, towards the end of the 18th century. Measuring appearances in print, the word comes into frequent use only in the 20th century, peaking sharply in the 1960s and dropping off noticeably towards the year 2000.

The period word that comes closest to our modern understanding of technique is Art. But McKean noted that the ‘conceptual packaging’ of the historical meaning of Art both overlaps and differs from our modern understanding of Technique.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s definition contrasted Art with Nature: to walk is natural, to dance is an art. Art is compared to science, a trade, artfulness, skill and dexterity. [I would point out that this is quite a late source, in which science has taken on much of its modern meaning of ‘knowledge’, the earlier meaning is different.]

COMMENTS

It’s long been a tenet of Early Music that the mainstream binary of Technique & Interpretation does not fit the discourse and ‘conceptual packaging’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here is a possible framework of mainstream concepts, contrasted with period terms. Right from the start, it’s noticeable that historical concepts are more inter-connected, the period framework functions more holistically.

Modern

 

 

Technique – Interpretation – Inspiration – Freedom – Expression – Physical Health – Mental Health

The question of ‘Inspiration’ is little discussed in conservatoire teaching, though Performance Studies projects sometimes document processes that seek to facilitate inspirational moments. Freedom and Expression are often equated with rubato by listeners and performers alike. Academic theory of musical communication of emotions usually adopts a Romantic model that privileges the performer’s search for their own emotional response.

Physical Health is receiving more attention in music education, as teachers realise that it is wiser to prevent injuries in advance than try to repair the damage afterwards. Alexander Technique is available in many conservatoires, Feldenkrais Method (which has the advantage of being less judgemental and can studied in group sessions, or from freely available mp3 downloads) in some. Mental Health similarly requires preventitive strategies: the link between creativity and Depression, the pressures on early career musicians of the Facebook generation, recent studies of alcoholism amongst older professionals – all these factors indicate the need for Mental Health to be a significant consideration in music education and practice. Tai Chi, Mindfulness and similar practices can facilitate both physical and mental well-being.

Historical

 

Art – Science  – Use – Improvisation – Music of the Spheres – Pneuma – Enargeia – Musica Humana

Around the year 1600, writers on swordsmanship were anxious to define their expertise as an art. Such treatises as Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro dell’ Arte e dell’ Uso della Scherma (1610) read more here provide clear definitions of historical terms.

Art is a system of organised principles or rules. Science is the study of divine or occult matters, beyond everyday experience. Use is the nitty-gritty of what is actually done in practice, to satisfy the demands of the artistic rules. Those rules take Nature and refine it systematically into something Artifical (meaning, done with artifice or expertise, the word is utterly positive).

Understanding these three key concepts in their historical meanings helps defuse many modern-day arguments about ‘the true artist who breaks the rules’, whether HIP ‘limits artistic expression’ etc. Freedom in Early Music is not so much a licence to break rules, but an invitation to improvise (e.g. diminutions, variations over a ground, or free preludes) within the style boundaries of a particular repertoire.

The doctrine of the Music of the Spheres connects our human music-making with the perfect music made by the movement of the stars and other heavenly bodies, linking sound to cosmic, divine power to influence the most profound part of our being. As La Musica sings in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo: “Singing to a golden continuo-instrument as usual, I can titillate mortal ears; but like this, with the sonorous harmony of the heavenly lyre, I can influence souls.”

Inspiration is the divine breath, the original creative force, literally “breathing into” our human frames, into our everyday music-making. This mystic breath was called Pneuma, and it is also identified as the mysterious energy that conveys emotions from performer to listener. This Energia is powered by the force of poetry and rhetorical texts, named Enargeia – the emotional power of detailed visual description. Through words, gesture and music, the poetic image is brought into the spectators’ minds, as if they were seeing with their own eyes whatever is being described. Pneuma (again) mediates between each individual’s mind and body, so that poetic images set off physiological reactions.

Musica Humana links the perfect heavenly music (‘inspiration’) to the harmonious (i.e. healthy) nature of the human body-mind holism. Dissonance must be resolved, just as illness will be cured. Pneuma is also a networked energy within the body, rather like oriental Chi, that facilitates health, active movement, strength and vigour.

Even from this brief description, it is obvious that there are many interactions between these various concepts, and that the historical framework prefers linked threefold manifestations to binary contrasts.

Other period concepts, notably Time, also show a threefold framework, linking heavenly perfection, human nature, and everyday actions.

LINKS

This careful defining of terms in their period meanings was fundamental to my research 2010-2015 for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, and was outlined in my first blog posts in 2013. My paper to the World Harp Congress in 2014 looks at the different meanings of similar terms in mainstream and period usage, and a 2017 post relates all these concepts to my current work at OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance.

Following on from the Text, Rhythm, Action! project for Australia, my research continued with Enargeia: Visions in Performance leading up to the re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece Arianna in 2017.

Emotions in Early Opera (2017) 

How did it feel? (2014)

What is Music? (2013)

Terms of Expression (2013)

Music expresses Emotions? (2013) 

Enargeia: Visions in Performance

 

The investigation of Enargeia (the emotional power of visual description) follows on from our previous project of Text, Rhythm, Action! That study of the first ‘operas’ redefined the practical processes of performance and revealed the fundamental importance of Visions. Now, in the investigation of Enargeia we look beyond the act of performance to examine pre-performance processes of libretto-writing and musical composition (processes which in this repertoire are nevertheless shared with improvising performers), real-time synthesis of vision and performance, and post-performance outcomes, the effect of enargetic Visions on audiences.

A HIP musician today might well play baroque violin with period technique and style, but within a 19th-century framework of emotional performance, in which the audience is expected to admire the performer’s ‘expressiveness’. Can we frame a historical understanding of Performance, that can be taught to musicians and put into practice in front of modern audiences?

From a multi-disciplinary approach that unites Historical Performance Practice with Music & Consciousness studies, the study of Enargeia views a period context within which the composer’s Music and performer’s Action serve the poet’s Text and inspire the listener’s Visions.

 

OPERA OMNIA – Music of the Past for Audiences of the Future

Celebrating the European Day of Early Music and the first anniversary of OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance, Institute at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, here is my article presented by Katerina Antonenko at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Reflective Conservatoire conference, which has become perhaps the most significant forum of its kind, for discussing new developments in tertiary music education.

 

OPERA OMNIA offers a new model for Early Music: linking Research, Training and Performance; connecting Music and Drama; and hosted not by a conservatoire, but by an opera house. We believe this model can be more historical, more accessible, more practical, and more relevant to the 21st century than the standard approach of trying to squeeze historical aesthetics into 19th-cent performance ideals and previous millenium educational structures!

 

 

A year ago we founded OPERA OMNIA, creating a formal institution and unified branding for a variety of collaborative projects developed during the previous five years. We link Research, Training and Performance of Early Music, in an evolving model adapted for the opportunities and constraints of cultural life in 21st-century Russia.

 

 

Natalya Sats was founder and director of the Moscow State Children’s Theatre, pioneering Synthesised Theatre, a combination of music and other media. In 1936, she commissioned Prokofiev to write Peter and the Wolf. Statues of characters and instruments from that story adorn the entrance to the present Theatre, built in 1979. Nowadays, her daughter, Roksana continues the Sats tradition of speaking to young audiences before each performance.

 

 

The present Artistic Director, Georgiy Isaakyan has extended the programming for young adults and multi-generational audiences: not only family favourites, but also challenging work, including new and early music.

There are two Early Opera productions, both rarely staged today. Celos, the first Spanish opera, is now in its third season. And the very first opera, Anima & Corpo, which won Russia’s highest music-theatrical award, The Golden Mask, has had 55 performances so far.

 

 

These two 17th-century operas required collaborations between the Theatre’s resident performers and guests from Moscow’s nascent early music scene. Over the last five years, the Theatre obtained specialist instruments – more are on order and planned for – and in training workshops and performance projects, teams of players acquired the necessary skills.

In cooperation with other institutions, those projects included the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s Vespers. More about Vespers here. Each performance was linked to public lectures, advanced masterclasses, academic seminars etc. Continuing performances of Anima & Corpo at Theatre Sats are also a training ground, with new company members each season.

 

 

17th-century music requires singers to have both solo and ensemble skills. Polyphonic vocal consorts, 2 or 3 to a part, were a new challenge to singing-actors schooled in the grand Russian tradition. Vocal ensembles in Anima & Corpo are now shared between the Small Choir (a consort of soloists who do most of the dramatic commentary) and members of the Theatre Chorus (who represent a Choir of Angels and swell the numbers to about 80 in the finale.)

 

 

As in Rome in 1600, so in 21st-century OPERA OMNIA: no conductor! Instead, there are multiple Tactus-beaters, relaying a consistent beat between separate groups of performers, so-called cori spezzati. More about Tactus here, and about how to do it here.

Anima & Corpo also provided an opportunity for final-year students from the Russian Institute of Theatrical Arts, who took part in workshops with Lawrence-King and Isaakyan, rehearsed with OPERA OMNIA continuo-players, and performed selected roles alongside professional colleagues in public performances at Theatre Sats. The best graduates were amongst September’s new intake into the professional company.

These performances involving students helped the Theatre reach out to new audience members in their late teens and twenties. But one of the delights of working at Theatre Sats is that we regularly have children, teenagers, and young adults in the audience. The Theatre has front of house staff dedicated to meeting and greeting young visitors, offering informal guidance for individuals, or a short introductory talk for groups.

 

 

Theatre Sats is also the administrative centre for the annual ВИДЕТЬ МУЗЫКУ (Seeing Music) Festival of the Association of Russian Theatres, which invites to Moscow directors and performers from all around the Russian Federation, uniting an artistic community that spans nine time-zones! The opening ceremonies last September featured an experimental production with historical staging by the young professionals and advanced students of OPERA OMNIA’s International Baroque Opera Studio: Andrew Lawrence-King’s re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), composed around the surviving Lamento. More about Arianna here.

 

 

The astounding visual contrast between the famous Lament scene and the tumultuous arrival of Bacchus immediately afterwards is made audible in Lawrence-King’s work, as the ‘violins and viols’ of the Lament are blown away by ‘hundreds of trumpets, timpani and the raucous cry of horns’. More about how Arianna was re-made, here.

Although most professional ensembles in Europe substitute sackbuts for mid-range and low baroque trumpets, we were able to train up a full consort of natural trumpets, led by guest coach, Mark Bennett.

 

 

To close the Festival a month later, OPERA OMNIA provided the orchestra for a gala concert of baroque music at the Bolshoy Theatre, bringing together soloists from Sats, other Moscow theatres, and opera houses throughout Russia. This event provided a fascinating snapshot of the state of Baroque Music in mainstream institutions across the nation.

Alongside Moscow’s offering of Handel arias and the Triumph of Bacchus from Arianna, the choices from regional theatres were strongly influenced by mid-20th-century Russian anthologies of baroque favourites: Lascia ch’io pianga of course, but also arias mis-attributed to Pergolesi and Caccini.

We re-edited these, and made a clean ending with the Sauna scene from Lawrence-King’s Kalevala opera.

 

 

 

OPERA OMNIA enjoys close relations with the Moscow Conservatoire, for whom we provide conference speakers and master-classes. We also coach keyboard teachers within the Tchaikovsky School’s program of Continuing Professional Development.

Some of our best Early Music singers were initially trained at the Moscow Choir Academy ‘Papov’, emerging with a good mix of vocal, musical and ensemble skills. Our master-classes also welcome visitors from Stanislavsky, Bolshoy and other mainstream opera houses, singers with excellent voices and rich stage experience, for whom Historically Informed Performance is new territory.

Our production of Celos has led to close collaboration with the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish embassy and theatres in Spain. We also contribute musically to charitable concerts given by the ensemble of Singing Diplomats at the German embassy.

 

 

The rhythmic energy and visual appeal of Spanish baroque has attracted considerable TV and radio exposure, and internet streaming of selected performances.

 

 

What remains of the former State education system continues to produce instrumentalists and singers with dazzling virtuosity and rich knowledge of mainstream repertoire. Some baroque aficionados have managed to educate themselves in Early Music with help from visiting teachers, achieving high levels of performance and refreshingly independent academic perspectives. Others studied in Europe, returning to found independent festivals and ensembles in Russia.

With public funding, ensemble Madrigal at the Moscow Philharmonic preserves the style of communist-era Early Music, and Musica Aeterna in Perm brings in most of its players from abroad to play period instruments under a post-modernist baton, but Insula Magica does sterling work in far-off Novo Sibirsk.

 

 

In 2012, Theorbo was almost unknown in Moscow. We guided the first generation of theorbists as they transitioned from other instruments.

 

Video clip of the 2012 premiere of Anima & Corpo here

 

We are now victims of our own success, in that our theorbists are greatly in demand with other ensembles, so we have had to find a second generation of continuo-players to train up… and this is just how it should be!

 

 

Russian theatres have a traditional working practice in which members of the company or orchestra learn repertoire, by sitting-in and observing. We combine that Russian tradition with the baroque concept of apprenticeship.

New-entrant continuo-players begin their studies in a relaxed environment at open workshops. When they reach intermediate standard, they are invited to sit-in and play alongside the professionals at Theatre rehearsals, offering them real-world experience and advanced training on a show which will soon provide them with paid employment.

In the wider arena of the Russian Early Music scene, we measure success not only by absolute standards achieved by young professionals, but also by value added for keen baroque musicians at any level.

 

Authenti-City: Abandon hope all ye who enter here!

 

The much-debated question of “What is Authenticity?” requires fresh answers in the post-communist oligarchy of modern-day Russia.

In Europe, Performance Practice theories are often circulated by a system of ‘Chinese whispers’, teacher to student, director to musician, CD to listener, and in heated (rather than illuminating) debates on social media. Some performers believe it’s impossible to assimilate enough historical information. Others feel that period practice has been thoroughly worked out, and it’s time to invent something new.

 

 

OPERA OMNIA’s message to Russia (and to the wider world) is that HIP is not what some famous person says, nor is it what you hear on your favourite CD! We encourage everyone to check primary sources for themselves – most of the crucial treatises and many original scores are freely available online.

 

 

Our take on HIP focuses on practicalities. But before we look for answers, we interrogate period documents for the right questions to ask. Caccini’s (1601) priorities –

Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all, and not the other way around!

encourage us to look beyond modern-day obsessions with pitch, temperament and vibrato, and far beyond the old-fashioned notion of ‘on period instruments’. More about the Text, Rhythm, Action! project here. The Sats orchestra mixes Early and modern instruments, the training Studio is Baroque only.

 

Whilst the training Studio works in original languages, the professional Theatre productions of Anima & Corpo and Celos are sung in Russian. Supertitles and printed translations are little used in Russia, and the gain in direct communication between our singing actors and young people in the audience far outweighs the loss of the sound of a foreign language.

We worked very carefully to unite Russian text and Mediterranean music, seeking to achieve natural language, appropriate rhythmic fit, and a perfect match of the word-painting that is so characteristic of this period.

 

 

We rehearse the interplay of Text, Rhythm and Meaning with simple but effective hand-exercises, that are themselves fundamental elements of period pedagogy.

In Early Music, Rhythm is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat symbolically linked to the hand of God turning the cosmos, and to the human pulse.

In an exercise for Text, the hand (now palm up, in the default gesture called ‘how to act’) moves with each accented syllable – Good syllables, in period terminology. More about How to Act here.

We ask singers to think of the meaning of the word, each time they move their hand. Leading questions can then draw out more specific gestures. “Where is that?” prompts singers to connect their gesture to a specific – imagined – location. More about pointing gestures here.

Fixing singers’ attention on the particular word they are singing right now, is also a Mindfulness exercise, which – like the steady beat of Tactus – encourages a state of Flow. More about Flow here. It’s how Monteverdi composed, word by word, and it sits well within the Stanislavsky tradition of Russian theatrical education.

The famous challenge from director to actor

I don’t believe you!

cannot be answered by exaggerated histrionics, by a gesture that is more historical, or by wider vibrato! It demands profound interior work from the actor. Caccini characterised the new, 17th-century style of singing as ‘like speaking in harmony’. Too much singerly attention on The Voice must be challenged immediately with “I don’t believe you”.

 

More about Emotions in Early Opera here.

 

Daily Schedule of Performances at Theatre Sats in Moscow, in the same week that this paper was delivered at GSMD in London.

 

At Theatre Sats, permanent members of the resident company perform all the different shows in a vast repertoire, and each of these shows comes around again every month or so. Singers and musicians have an immense daily work-load, often with two or more performances on the same day, plus rehearsals to revive old shows and yet more rehearsals to prepare new productions.

A typical day might begin with rehearsals for Rimsky-Korsakov, continue with a performance of Puccini and end with 17th-century baroque. To ensure continuity and provide a reserve for any eventuality, every show is double- or triple-cast: similarly for the orchestra.

Our first rehearsal for the violin band in Anima & Corpo was a delicate moment, introducing highly-experienced modern players to an utterly different aesthetic – straight tone, open strings and first position, slow bow-strokes. By lunchtime, we’d got through most of the material, and the musicians began to feel convinced by the unfamiliar sounds they were being asked to make. The afternoon rehearsal would go smoothly, we thought… until we saw a completely different group of string-players sit down for the second session!

A subtle feeling for a different kind of music-making is not something that can be marked into the parts – it has to be acquired through patient coaching and shared ensemble experience. It takes time. But once instilled in the whole company, it can be “absorbed” by new recruits more quickly, thanks to the ‘sitting-in’ tradition mentioned earlier.

Learning new material goes very slowly at the beginning, and then the final days of stage and technical rehearsal pass all too quickly: there is almost no time available in the middle for ‘artistic’ work.

It’s therefore crucial to engage with preliminary rehearsals, assisting repetiteurs as they drill notes into the singers’ heads. What is taught in these sessions tends to become up hard-wired, so mistakes must be ruthlessly eliminated. But this is also an opportunity to build-in fundamental elements of style, so a wise director will not be too proud to do a lot of the donkey-work themselves.

 

More about learning Monteverdi’s operatic roles here.

 

 

With limited time, and performers who spend most of their time working in quite a different style, our rehearsals focus on training general principles which can be re-applied in many different situations. Teaching principles, rather than imposing the director’s personal interpretation, leaves each individual with space to add their own artistic touches, and fits well with the historical concept of Art as a organised set of rules.

Of course, 17th-century aesthetics were also acutely concerned with the beauty and mysterious power of music: this is historical Science. We teach this in workshops, but for daily rehearsals we have to encapsulate complex ideas in punchy catch-phrase1s.

Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast 19th- or 20th-century practice with earlier styles, showing respect for musicians’ normal approach and for the coaching they receive from the Theatre’s mainstream conductors, whilst empowering them to do something very different with us, in the historical context.

The long legato lines of Romantic opera are contrasted with our mnemonic,

Breathe as often as you can!

 

Long notes long, short notes short!

brings rhythmic clarity, and encourages varied articulations. Subtleties of Tactus rhythm here.

Good & bad

does the same job for text syllables. More on Good & Bad here.

Ornamentation is not always relevant, and it’s certainly not a priority. Some visiting early musicians add ornaments, or ask about them; some resident musicians are keen to try for themselves. They all receive encouragement and advice. We will be more proactive as we come to French and later operas, for which ornamentation is an essential ingredient, like spices in cooking.

 

 

There is more time available at weekend workshops, where we explore links between period philosophy and the nitty-gritty of what one actually does in performance. Workshops also offer a ‘safe space’, a chance to try something utterly new. It’s a ‘safe space’ in the sense that we don’t have to demand instant success, and suitably-cushioned failure is accepted as an inevitable part of the learning process.

This training space is essential, not only for beginners acquiring fundamental skills, but– perhaps even more so – for professionals learning a new approach. These workshops are also the experimental laboratory that complements our academic research by providing a test-bed for new ideas.

Supposedly, Early Music is always trying out new performance practice ideas, but in the real world, there is a strong tendency to stay within everyone’s comfort-zone. It is much easier for a director to implement even quite radical decisions, than to change individual musicians’ deeply-ingrained habits.

New research findings demand new skills; new skills require new training methodologies; new methods have to be optimised and applied. All of this has to happen before new research can be applied in rehearsal, and polished for performance.

 

 

Our workshop formats vary. Our teaching style is to expound fundamental historical principles, and then guide participants towards making their own choices, within the style-boundaries. We usually have a wide range of abilities. Our motto is

Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn

– and that includes the tutors!

 

More about baroque gesture and historical acting here.

 

 

Many European conservatoires host a Historical Performance department, and most of those departments have partnerships with professional HIP ensembles. But we are working the other way around. We are hosted by a Theatre, so involvement with professional productions is a powerful, built-in “pull-factor” that sets our educational priorities. The complementary “push-factor” is new academic research, which drives our training agenda.

This is quite a different, and more integrated relationship between research, training and performance than one finds in most conservatoires.

Our Early Music focus on chamber-music skills, rhythmic accuracy and empowering individual performers is also beneficial to the Theatre’s mainstream work.

 

 

In today’s Russia, public funding comes from the State of Russia, or the City of Moscow. The City is richer than the State. Our host Theatre is State funded, and we do not expect additional public funding for this new venture against the current background of annual cuts in arts budgets, international sanctions etc.

Commercial sponsorship is focussed entirely on the highest slice of elite mainstream activity: there is no tradition of small or medium businesses supporting regional or local culture. But we have found some private support from enthusiastic individuals, and there are State and City funds available for specific activities, such as travelling productions.

The funding gap is covered by informal cross-subsidies that in Europe would be managed by assigning itemised costs to specific budgets, with cross-payments between departments. Performance fees, whilst smaller than European expectations, encourage directors to spend time on blue-skies research, and encourage musicians to invest in their own continued professional training.

Theatre Sats supports the Academy by providing resources off-budget. In return, OPERA OMNIA’s activities support the Theatre’s artistic, educational and outreach aims. We are blessed with senior management who take the long and wide view of this. We are also blessed with good team spirit, powerful ‘start-up’ energy, and a strong sense of involvement from all participants.

When money does change hands, it is rigorously controlled. But we devote less time to formal meetings and paperwork than in Europe. We can get things done quickly when there is a need or an opportunity.

 

 

We don’t pretend to be a full-time educational institution, rather we try to complement the work of conservatoires with our specialist focus on cutting-edge research, new training methods, new skill-sets and professional performance. We take a pragmatic approach, trying to fill gaps in knowledge and experience for each individual, leading towards specific performances.

Our concept of training as a ‘safe space’ and an experimental lab encourages us to respond continuously to new research findings. If there is a tendency for some conservatoires to educate for the past, for the world in which teachers themselves grew up, we are training for the demands of performances now and in the future, creating skill-sets beyond the limits of today’s Early Music habits.

 

 

Making baroque music in modern-day Moscow is often challenging. But the vibrant cultural scene, the energy and talent of Russian performers, enthusiasm from young audiences, and the Theatre’s support, create unique opportunities.

Last year, Theatre Sats was honoured with the European Opera prize for Education and Outreach. We at OPERA OMNIA are excited about our plans for the next few years. And we are proud to be developing performers and audiences for the Early Music of the future.

Organised Chaos – Rebel with a Source

Celebrating the European Day of Early Music 2018, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra’s concert of The Four Elements with Andrew Lawrence-King Saturday 17th March 6pm at Mustpeade Maja (Tallinn, Estonia) links Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Élémens (1737) to music from

  • France – Rebel’s teacher, Lully, of course
  • England – Henry Purcell
  • Spain – the Madrid serenade scene from Campra’s L’Europe Galante (1697)
  • Turkey – the harem scene from L’Europe Galante

The Turkish scene features the Sultan’s favourite girl, Zaide, and the palace gardener, the Bostangi, represented in this instrumental concert by the orchestra’s flautist and bassoonist respectively.

I’m happy to have this chance to revisit L’Europe Galante, which I first directed at the Amherst Festival. Surely this is the perfect choice for the European Day of Early Music, and we are planning to start a staged production of the full opera with OPERA OMNIA at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’.

Meanwhile, here in Tallinn, our Spanish Entrée also includes variations on Les Folies d’Espagne, and the choice of movements for each of the ‘Suites’ we have constructed favours dances for which period choreographies survive, many of them published in Feuillet’s Chorégraphie (1700).

 

See also ALK’s solo recording here.

Rebel by Watteau c1710

Whilst French baroque music poses technical challenges for performers – intricate bowings, complex ornamentation – it offers easily appreciated delights to listeners: elegant dances with a lively swing, dramatic contrasts of theatrical characters. The complete program and program-note is below, but as the title promises, this post takes a closer look at the first movement of Rebel’s elemental suite, his famous depiction of Chaos.  Many listeners will know this from Christopher Hogwood’s (1980) recording with the Academy of Ancient Music here.

When I first performed Les Élémens, I had to work from the published Ur-text edition. As always, such editions are a mixed blessing. No matter how scholarly the editor, no matter how carefully they own up to their own editorial interventions, there is always more to be discovered in the primary sources. There is also the subtle question of whether variant sources should be conflated into a single version: perhaps these variants are neither ‘better’ nor ‘worse’, but just different. It would be historically appropriate to perform any one particular variant, but any conflated version is a modern construction! So, whilst secondary sources offer valuable commentary, any serious performer will prefer to see the original material for themselves.

I have seen mention of surviving instrumental parts, but if these exist, I haven’t been able to study them. So if some Rebel specialist can point me in the right direction, I’d be delighted to know more. I’ve also seen a statement that no score exists. However – God bless IMSLP! – the original (undated) printed score and Rebel’s c1737 MS are now freely available online (print of the complete suite and manuscript of Chaos only).

 

 

As you can see, the print is beautifully clear. It designates the work as Symphonie Nouvelle, and presents the suite of dances in a different order to that chosen by Hogwood: Chaos – Air pour l’Amour – Air & Chaconne – Ramage – Rossignols – Loure – Tambourins – Sicillienne – Caprice.  The Chaconne is clearly notated to continue directly from the preceding Air, and that Air has nothing of Loure (Hogwood’s title) about it. Rather, the rhythmic structure of the Air corresponds to a triple-metre Chaconne (phrases go across the bar-line, 2 3 / 1), though the harmonies and four-bar patterning of Chaconne are not present.

The print includes Rebel’s explanatory article, which reminds us of the close links between music and dance in baroque France: the concept of the four Elements offers a ‘pleasing variety’  of different music genres as well as costumes and dance-steps. Rebel describes the introductory movement, Chaos, as ‘natural’. In baroque terms, this implies an absence of artistry, the abandoning of the organising principles that would normally guide the transformation of raw nature into sophisticated art. And thus the famous first chord, containing every note of the scale simultaneously. Little by little, in 7 sections (suggesting the 7 days of Creation), musical organisation, principles of dissonance and resolution are imposed, and once the fog of Chaos is dispersed, a well-constructed final cadence brings this movement to a harmonious close.

In parallel, Rebel uses particular instruments to represent each element: Water (flute), Earth (low strings), Air (piccolo), Fire (violins). To begin with, the four elements are entangled and misplaced, but gradually they find their proper places, so that at the debrouillement (de-misting), each instrument, each element is correctly ordered.

 

If the print is clear, the manuscript gives an impression of primeval Chaos before the fog cleared.

Obviously, an earlier version of the piece is being adapted, with instructions to play certain bars twice, to add an extra bar of minims etc. But even when all the last-minute instructions are applied, the MS remains quite different from the print. The famous, shocking dissonance of the print’s first chord is delayed until bar 4: the MS begins doux (softly), with a single note, low D, in unison.

The flute part is given separately, on another page, leaving more space for the violas. And there are two staves for the bass section, shared between celli, bassoons, basses and continuo. Both bass staves feature low A (a third below a modern cello C-string), also seen in the single bass stave of the print. But there is no hope of filling in from the MS the viola parts missing in the print: the two versions are too different. At most, the MS gives an example of the composer’s viola writing, that can be imitated by present-day editors/directors. But the viola staves show frequent confusion of clefs, and many problematic passages defy any neat solution.

So the MS is a fascinating snapshot of Rebel’s creative process, of work in progress, but has limited use as a supporting source for the print. One could edit up the MS version, trying to make sense of all the additional instructions and reconciling this with the separate flute parts. Perhaps once audiences have become accustomed to the surprise of the chaotic opening dissonance, one could shock them anew by performing the MS version, with its soft, unison start!

 

What does emerge from parallel study of both versions is that Rebel’s work can be played by a standard French baroque line-up of five-part string ensemble, 1 bassoon and 2 high-wind players (who double flute, piccolo and oboe). Although the scores suggest multiple ‘flutes’ and ‘petites flutes’ (piccolos), only two high wind parts are notated at any given moment. With one player making a quick change from flute to piccolo and back, two musicians can manage everything. Usually, oboe and flute parts were played by the same musicians, and oboes are not mentioned at all in the Chaos. There is one horn part and one trumpet part – the D trumpet part includes the note treble c#, which is not part of the harmonic series. The violin and viola parts include many chords – it’s not clear if these would have been double-stops or divisi: in my own parties de remplissage I chose to make all chords playable as double-stops.

 

So that was my task for this month – organising Chaos!  My Creation – the program and note – follows below.

 

 

 

 

 

THE FOUR ELEMENTS

 

Jean-Féry Rebel Les Élémens (1737)

 

Baroque Dance-Music from France, England, Spain & Turkey

by Lully, Purcell & Campra

TALLINN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

directed by

Andrew Lawrence-King (baroque harp, harpsichord)

 

The word ‘Baroque’ suggests to us today the thrilling virtuosity of Vivaldi’s concertos and Italian operas; the intricate complexity of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art of Fugue; perhaps even the exotic rhythms of Spanish and South-American music. But in the late 17th century, a fourth national style was the dominant element across most of Europe: the noble art of French dance.

 

It was the French who defined the dance-types that form the conventional baroque Suite – Allemande (originally an actual dance, but later a dance-like prelude), Courante (the noble entrance dance of Kings), Sarabande (elegant poses balanced on one leg, alternating with sudden fast turns and jumps), and Gigue (a lively leaping dance). The Loure is an elegant, slow version of the Gigue. The Chaconne and its minor-mode cousin, the Passacaille were grand ensemble-dances for the end of an opera, in which solo dancers and corps de ballet, solo singers and chorus, solo instruments and the full orchestra, would alternate in choreographically complex and harmonically expressive variations on a four-note descending ground-bass.

 

Composers and performers were free to assemble sequences of all kinds of dances, united by tonality, but contrasting in every other way. Each dance is quite short, and instantly recognisable, so that the audience can enjoy rapidly changing contrasts from one dance to the next. At a formal ball or Assemblée, courtiers would dance couple by couple, changing place in strict order of aristocratic precedence. In the theatre, each dance would feature different characters, in brightly coloured and contrasting costumes.

 

The Sun-King, Louis XIV himself, was a superb dancer, leading the way at court and dancing alongside the top professionals on stage. The beginning of his personal rule was dramatized as the Ballet de la Nuit, a ballet that lasted all night, culminating in Louis’ appearance at dawn as Apollo. “Now I alone guide the chariot of light. A divine hand has given me the reins, and a great goddess sustains my rights. I am the Star among Kings!”

 

French composers and playwrights linked sequences of dances with spoken or sung dialogue to create a variety of dance-based theatrical genres. As the 17th century progressed, plots became more serious. Dances were no longer merely entertainment, but became central to the dramatic story and to the artistic structure. Around 1700, however, the trend from charming comédie-ballet to serious tragédie en musique was reversed with a new genre, the opera-ballet, dramatically unified and formally structured, but more light-hearted than the tragedies.

 

Each dance-type has a characteristic rhythm, corresponding to its particular dance-step. This vrai mouvement  – true movement – guides not only tempo and rhythm, but also ‘swing’. 17th-century French musicians played medium-fast notes inégales – with a subtle swing – just as jazz musicians do today. The vrai mouvement is the ‘groove’ of each dance, giving a specific identity and feeling: courtly, theatrical or rustic; tragic, happy or comic.

 

In France, dancing and music were inseparably linked. The best violinists were also the best dancing-masters. Jean-Baptiste Lully was an expert dancer, violinist and singer, as well as the most famous composer of the age. Bow-strokes for the violin were light and airy, just like a dancer’s leaping feet. A flourish of the dancer’s wrist, or a brilliant swivel of the feet in mid-air correspond to the many trills and ornaments in French music. Dance choreographies transform a simple straight-line walk into an elegant and stylish display: similarly, underneath all the decoration of French baroque music there is a straightforward melody, often taken from folk-music.

 

In 1698, composer Georg Muffat summarised Lully’s violin style, cataloguing bow-strokes and left-hand ornaments for violinists. Dancing-masters published collections of choreographies, detailing every step of the most admired theatre and social dances. Muffat’s Florilegium and Feuillet’s Chorégraphie fed an insatiable public demand for new dances, new entertainments, as the dance-craze spread across Europe. Campra’s L’Europe Galante (1697) reflects the latest international fashions with scenes set Spain (the Sarabande, Chaconne and Folies d’Espagne were Spanish imports) as well as France itself. Campra’s finale is set in exotic Turkey, contrasting the passionate love-affairs of beautiful girls in the Sultan’s harem, with the wild exuberance of the palace gardeners, the comic Bostangis. In England, Purcell’s music combined Italian counterpoint with the ‘gaiety and fashion’ of French dance-styles, presenting Dido & Aeneas at the girls’ school founded by dancing-master Josias Priest.

 

This was also a period of change in the scientific understanding of the natural world, from Galileo’s Mecaniche (1599) to Newton’s Principia (1687, 1713 & 1726). New theories had to be reconciled with older models and with religious doctrine. The concept of Four Elements was expounded by Plato and Aristotle and survives today as the four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas and plasma). The classical Four Elements are Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These were all mixed together in the primordial Chaos, but during the Seven Days of Creation, they were disentangled so that each Element could find its proper place.

 

Lully’s pupil, Jean-Féry Rebel associates each element with particular instruments. As they emerge from primeval Chaos,  the characters of his ballet are: Water (L’Eau – Flute), Fire (Le Feu – violins), Air (L’Air – Piccolos),  Earth (La Terre – cellos and basses). String tremolos and bassoon create the sound-effect of Fremissage (earthquakes). In the following dances, low violins also represent Earth, and flutes represent Water. The piccolos create the stage scene of Ramage (green-leaved trees), where we hear Rossignols (nightingales) represented by the flute. Meanwhile, when harmony emerges from chaos on the seventh day of Creation, a fifth character appears in the circle-dance of a Rondeau: L’Amour (Love).

 

A fifth Element, the Quintessential or aether, occupied the highest, heavenly sphere. 17th-century writers identify the Quintessential as the Divine, as Love, or as the mysterious Spirit that communicates emotion from performer to audience. This baroque idea survives as our modern sensibility that music is more than just a physical process of vibrating strings and sound-waves in the air; that music, dancing and other arts can have some additional, indefinable, spiritual quality,

 

French baroque music was created by the collaborative work of dramatists, choreographers and composers. It was performed by singing actors, dancers and instrumentalists. So as you listen to these Suites, imagine casts of actors and troupes of dancers. See elaborate stage sets and thrilling machine-effects. Place yourself amidst the splendour of Louis XIV’s Versailles and the delights of André Le Nôtre’s formal gardens. Look for birds singing in the trees; for the enchanted palace of the witch, Armide, being consumed by fire; for the chivalric knight Amadis; for beautiful princesses in love and a noble Queen lamenting; and for a Turkish gardener busy with his shovel!

THE FOUR ELEMENTS

 

FRANCE

Overture: Le Retour des Plaisirs                           Jean-Baptiste Lully Alceste (1674)

Courante: La Bocane (Jaques Cordier c1625)     Marin Mersenne Harmonie Universelle 1636

Sarabande                                                                 Lully Une nopce de village (1663)

Gigue: La Vignonne                                                 Wilhelm Brade Neue Lustige Volten (1621)

Passacaille d’Armide (Pécour 1713)                     Lully  Armide (1786)

 

ENGLAND

A new Ground                                                          Henry Purcell Welcome to all the Pleasures (1683)

Lament                                                                      Purcell Dido & Aeneas (1689)

Round-O                                                                   Purcell Abdelazer (1695)

 

SPAIN

Sommeil                                                                    André Campra L’Europe Galante (1697)

Entrée Espagnole (Pécour 1704)                           Campra L’Europe Galante

Les Folies D’Espagne (Feuillet 1700)                   after Jean-Henri D’Anglebert

 

TURKEY

Prélude: Zaide                                                          Campra L’Europe Galante

Entree des Bostangis

 

INTERVAL

 

LES ÉLÉMENS                                                     Jean-Féry Rebel (1737)

Le Cahos

Air pour l’Amour

 

Air [La Terre, L’Eau, Le Feu]

Chaconne [Le Feu]

 

Ramage [L’Air]

Rossignols [L’Air]

Loure [La Terre]

Tambourins [L’Eau]

 

Sicillienne

Caprice

 

CHACONNE

Prélude                                                                      D’Anglebert (1689)

Fantasie de Chaconne                                             Francesco Corbetta La Guitare Royalle (1671)

Chaconne d’Amadis (L’Abbée 1725)                      Lully Amadis (1684)

 

 

 

 

The Practice of Tactus – Owners Workshop Manual

 

A Practical Guide – Part 1

There are many posts on this blog about Tactus, a key concept in Early Music. For an introduction, try Rhythm, what really counts; for technical details, Monteverdi’s Time; for inspiration, The Power of Tactus. This post is different – it is the first in a series of practical guides to help you do Tactus for yourself and with your ensembles. So I start from the assumption that you know what Tactus is, and that you are keen to put it into practice.

 

Science, Art & Use

In mainstream music, there is a conventional distinction between Technique and Interpretation. In Early Music, we avoid that binary, because many aspects of historical techniques are designed to produce specific elements of style, and because the word Interpretation is itself problematic. We prefer to talk about Style, style boundaries, and Choices within those boundaries. The historical categories are different again – Science, Art & Use – and each of these terms has a period significance that differs from our modern understanding.

Renaissance Science is the study of mysteries beyond the everyday worldly experience: according to the Science of the Music of the Spheres, our earthly music-making is connected to mysterious cosmic forces that influence our souls and bodies. That same  connection operates also within the phenemenon of Time itself. This historical Science covers some of the territory that we would nowadays call Art, the mysterious beauty of music, the power of the arts to take us beyond ourselves into some higher realm. There are many posts in this blog dealing with the Science of Tactus, e.g. Emotions in Early Opera.

Renaissance Art refines Nature according to a set of organised principles. This concept is hard for some modern-day musicians to accept, since it lays down a set of rules that guide creativity within the boundaries of a specific style. We might compare such musical ‘rules’ to the rules of grammar: they do not dictate what you want to say, but they do guide how you say it. Specifically, they offer choices between different pathways you might follow, from a given starting point. In music, these principles include concepts of Rhetoric & Poetics, as well as Harmony & Counterpoint, Articulation (i.e. short-term phrasing), Melody and Rhythm. The Art of musical Rhythm is guided by the principles of Tactus. Again, there are many posts in this blog on those principles, e.g. Tactus & Proportions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

Period Use is the ‘down & dirty’ of what one actually does, putting the principles of Art into practice, in order to realise the beauties of Science. This post is about the Use of Tactus.

To become proficient in the Use of Tactus, it’s not enough to read Zacconi & my blog-posts, any more than reading Bassano and articles by Bruce Dickey is enough to make you an expert cornetto-player, unless you also put in many hours of focussed individual practice and ensemble experience. The 10,000 hour rule and beyond. To read about Tactus and then perform Early Music with modern conducting is comparable to researching cornetto and then performing the Monteverdi Vespers with soprano saxophones: the input is no doubt informative, but the output is not the real thing.

Like proprioception and postural balance, awareness and management of Tactus is more than a technique that you learn and practice: ultimately it becomes a quality that you have. But to have Tactus, you have to do Tactus a lot. And to do Tactus, you have to practise Tactus first. The decision to play in Tactus is similar to the decision to play in a historical temperament, say quarter-comma meantone; or for a modern string orchestra to adopt baroque bows. Ensemble members have to acquire new skills, both individually and as a group, and some rehearsal time will have to be devoted to specific training.  You have to build skills, deepen experience with progressive drills, and trouble-shoot problems in rehearsal, so as to have confidence in performance.

This post suggests a practical approach and training exercises, to get you started.

 

 

Share the Power of Tactus

This “start here” article is divided into four sections: Prerequisites; Development exercises; Maintenance exercises; Rehearsal techniques. Remember, it’s not enough to read this advice: you need to do it, if you want to make progress.

1. Prerequisites

Each member of the ensemble has to understand the fundamentals of Tactus, and be ready and willing to base their music-making on Tactus (at least, for the duration of the experiment!).

Those fundamentals are:

  1. Early Music is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat, around one pulse per second.
  2. Tactus is practised with a slow steady movement of the hand, down for one second, up for the next second.
  3. It is the responsibility of every individual to maintain the Tactus steadily, and to coordinate it with everyone else: there is no conductor who takes precedence, no-one is allowed to change the Tactus.
  4. Shorter notes and complex rhythms have to conform to the Tactus.

Each member of the ensemble also has to agree that a certain amount of rehearsal time will be devoted to Tactus exercises: say half an hour initially, and five minutes at the beginning of the next few rehearsals. And that the following rehearsal will be run on Tactus principles.

Just like learning to play in mean-tone, you need every individual member to ‘buy into’ the experiment. You can give it a try, and review the outcome after several rehearsals. But you do need everyone’s support. By the way, it’s an infallible rule that the people who most resist doing the hand-exercises are the people who most need to do them.

2. Development exercises.

 

 

Rule 1: do NOT use a metronome.

It is helpful to have an objective reference, so that group sessions don’t degenerate into “I’m right, you’re wrong” arguments. But the sharp click of a metronome gives the wrong kind of information (this is the first practical illustration of the fact that playing Tactus is not ‘metronomic’). Instead…

Rule 2: make a simple 1 metre pendulum (a piece of string with something tied to the end to make a weight). This will “tick” at one beat per second (Mersenne Harmonie Universelle 1636)

Rule 3: do NOT use a metronome.

I hope you will find that the following exercises are not difficult. As in Feldenkrais Method’s Awareness through Movement exercises, these drills are intended to be easy, so that you can manage them without effort. But doing these simple drills, whilst keeping your concentration strongly on the Tactus, will gradually change the way your body/mind/hands/ears manage rhythm, installing Tactus awareness and Tactus skills at a deep level.

Exercise One

Give the pendulum to a person in the group who tends not to be a ‘leader’. Pass the pendulum to another person every five minutes or so. (This will encourage the ‘leaders’ to follow more, and the ‘followers’ to lead more, counter-balancing out any inherent tendencies within the group).

Set the pendulum going, and using it as a reference, everyone waves their arms down/up, with the hand palm outwards/downwards, mostly flexing at the elbow, but using the whole arm. Synchronise to the pendulum and maintain the Tactus movement. Imitate the movement of the pendulum, coming gently to momentary rest at the end of each movement, then moving smoothly away again.

The concept of arsis and thesis describes a subtle difference between down and up. Imagine that you are in a swimming-pool, holding a beachball under the water. As you push the beachball downwards, you have to give some extra effort against the buoyancy provided by the water; it comes up again by itself. Think about this, as you maintain the Tactus movement.

After a while, ask everyone in the group to close their eyes. Keep the eyes closed for ten seconds, and then ask everyone to open the eyes again. Calmly re-synchronise with each other and with the pendulum, and repeat. 10 seconds eyes closed, 10 seconds eyes open. Continue for a minute or two.

Stop and rest. Notice the atmosphere in the room. Typically, the feeling will have subtly changed. The room is quieter, people are calmer and more concentrated. You might be more aware of small background noises. This is one of the hidden benefits of Tactus – it has an almost hypnotic effect, giving you calm, concentration and heightened awareness of small acoustic signals: what a perfect set-up for making music!

Enjoy the feeling for a moment, and then repeat Exercise One, with a new pendulum operator. Give a reminder about the subtle difference between down/up.

When you feel that the whole group is ready, repeat Exercise One again without pendulum, synchronising with eachother.

Most trained musicians find this exercise easy. Nevertheless, it sweetens the atmosphere if you give some appreciative comments along the way: “Good! Well done! That went better!” etc. If people are having difficulty staying together, shorten the time with the eyes closed. If some people still don’t get it, try mentioning that one of the ‘secrets’ is that as everyone moves their arms, there are tiny sounds, and you can synchronise with those.

Exercise Two

Now you are going to use your new-found awareness of Tactus to guide the creation of different rhythms, dividing the slow Tactus beat to find the shorter note-lengths. This is crucially different from the modern practice of adding up the various note-lengths in your part to see what results as a bar-length. In mathematical theory, you would come out with the same answer, but in practical music-making, there is a crucial difference between dividing the Tactus and adding up the little notes. So this exercise practises dividing the Tactus.

Use the pendulum as a reference. Everyone beats Tactus together. Synchronising to the Tactus, say the following rhythms together, repeating each one perhaps three times.

We meet syllables on semiquavers (sixteenth notes) in Monteverdi’s Combattimento, for example. The text can be tricky to pronounce at such speed, but I hope you find the underlying concept easy to understand and practise. Here you are dividing the slow beat of a complete Tactus (down and up again) into 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16. This is closely related to the concept of Diminutions as a way of ornamenting a slow melody: there you divide a long note into many smaller notes. In both cases, it is the slow beat that guides, and the short notes that must fit in.

Once the exercise is going well, do this variant: The whole group maintains Tactus continuously with the hand and by saying “Tea”. Each individual takes a turn to speak a divided rhythm. Enjoy changing unexpectedly from one division to a contrasting one.

The concept of Divisions is closely related to the principle of Proportional Notation. Academics disagree on precisely how the notation of Monteverdi’s period should be de-coded, but the underlying principle is clear: the Tactus remains constant across each change. However, in the slow ternary rhythm of Sesquialtera, the movement of the hand is ‘unequal’: you spend longer on the Down than on the Up, whilst the complete Down/Up cycle takes the same time as before (about 2 secs). Try these Proportional changes, at first with the whole group, and then individually, as with the previous exercise.

Once you have the feeling for these changes in your Tactus Hand, and listening ears, try the same exercise again, reading from period notation. To keep things simple, my transcription has a complete Tactus movement (down-up) for each bar. This Tactus (and my bars) remain constant. In real 17th-century notation, the bar lengths may vary, or there might not be any bar-lines at all: it is the Tactus (not any arbitrary bar-length) that remains constant.

You can download Exercise Two as a pdf here: Tactus: Divisions & Proportions.

 

You can also make up your own words and rhythms. As the text changes, the phrasing will change too, within the steady beat of the constant Tactus. In my first example, notice the difference between Pour me a large cuppa and Pour it out steadily. That’s what it’s all about – this is how Tactus is ‘not metronomic’, how we can observe subtle Rhetorical (i.e. text-based) freedoms within the steady Tactus beat.

 

Exercise Three

Take a short polyphonic piece from your repertoire, something you already know, not too difficult, but with rhythmic differences between the parts. Ideally, a short movement or section of vocal polyphony.

Everyone beats Tactus, with the pendulum as a reference if required. Part by part, beginning with the bass and working upwards, the whole group speaks the rhythms of each individual part, guided by Tactus. If the music has text, speak those words; otherwise use doo-bee-doo, like Frank Sinatra. [Doo-bee-doo has Good and Bad syllables, so it produces text-like articulations, whereas Dah Dah Dah does not]

Then repeat the exercise, with the whole group maintaining Tactus, and each individual speaking their part in turn, beginning with the bass and working upwards.

Finally, repeat the exercise, with the whole group still maintaining Tactus, combining the individual parts: first bass alone, then bass and the next part up, then a trio of the three lowest parts, and so on until everyone is speaking.

Exercise Three with music

If your ensemble is a vocal consort, now repeat Exercise Three (in unison, individually, building up the polyphony from the bass) singing, whilst maintaining Tactus with your hands.

For instrumentalists, it’s rather more difficult, because you need your hands to play. Experiment with pushing your foot into the floor (down) and releasing (up) – not a light tap, but a slow throb. As you become accustomed to this, you can minimise and internalise the movement, into a sense of sinking into the floor (down) and floating free (up). Choosing a specific, small, subtle, and somewhat unusual movement helps your subconscious mind focus on those physical sensations, and link them to the focus on Tactus. Ultimately, your sense of Tactus is fully internalised, but can be instantly externalised into a foot-tap or hand-movement or a nod of the head, whenever needed (for example, to communicate with other ensemble members, or during rests).

Once instrumentalists have found and practised their “Look, no hands!” Tactus, then repeat Exercise Three (in unison, individually, building up the polyphony from the bass) playing, whilst maintaining Tactus internally, and with the pendulum.

In your first Tactus Training session, spend about 10 minutes on each exercise, half an hour in total. If you are properly focussed, that will be demanding (and rewarding) enough. Try to run the rehearsal that follows according to Tactus principles (see #4 below).

3. Maintenance exercises

You might need to repeat the Development Exercises over two or thee sessions. After that, you can incorporate a brief moment of Tactus work into your warm-up (just as you take a moment to tune together carefully at the start of the rehearsal).

Exercise One (Beat Tactus, eyes open/shut) 2 minutes

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

Exercise Three (Whichever piece you are working on) 2 minutes

If there is any feeling of agitation or stress, extending Exercise One will help you find calm and focus.

Run the rehearsal according to Tactus principles (see below).

4. Rehearsal techniques

The exercises above help you practise Tactus. But if you are going to have Tactus in your performance, you have to do Tactus throughout your rehearsals.

  • Use the pendulum as a reference. If you need a different tempo for a particular section, adjust the pendulum accordingly. However, the strong theory of Tactus suggests that (approximately) the same tempo should work for an entire piece, even for the entire repertoire, in this period.

 

  • Give frequent reminders to yourself and colleagues to ‘think in Tactus’. To begin with, it’s tempting to return to the modern habit of controlling each note-length as it comes along. Use some external movement, and/or the pendulum to reinforce your awareness of Tactus.

 

  • Word-accents (or musical accents) often, but not always, coincide with Tactus beats. The period terminology is not ‘accent’ (which has other meanings) but Good (for an accented syllable/note) and Bad (for an unaccented one). The Good, the Bad, and the Early Music phraseWhere you have a Good note, avoid a sharp ‘hammer-blow’ accent – rather look for a slow intensification: singers can be coached to intensify the vowel (not the intial consonant); string players can be asked to use a slow bow; anyone can be asked to make the note “slow developing” or “late blooming”.

 

  • Good/Bad should not be loud/soft. But they can be (subtly) long/short: Caccini’s terms for Good/Bad are Long/Short. More about Caccini.

 

  • The down-stroke of the Tactus will often (but not always) be associated with a slow-developing Good note.

 

  • If something is not together, resist the temptation to micro-analyse. Don’t get everyone’s minds focussed on tiny note-values. Rather check the Good/Bad notes, and then rehearse the difficult moment with everyone focussed on synchronising to the Tactus.

 

The two coaching hints that I repeat most often combine the Tactus principle (constant, steady Tactus) with the Rhetorical (i.e. text-based) concept of Good/Bad notes. In 17th-century poetry, the last syllable is nearly always Bad. Thus in 17th-century music, the last note is nearly always Bad.

Last note short! 

Hanging on to the last note results in a late entry on the new phrase, and shows the audience that the singer has lost touch with the words. After all, when you are speaking, you would not sustain the last, weak sylla-BLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLE…

17th-century composers will set a Good syllable onto a Good note. Just as observance of Good/Bad syllables brings poetry to life, so observance of Good/Bad notes creates fascinating articulation patterns, in contrast to the constant legato (or consistent mezzo-staccato) of mainstream playing.

Long notes long, short notes short!

 

In the next post in this series, we’ll work on Advanced Tactus Skills, using the subtle freedoms of the Tactus principle to create the Shape of Time.

Meanwhile, this video shows a vocal consort working with Tactus principles and the Good/Bad concept. They are using two different hand-techniques: some are using a simple gesture on the Good syllable; others are maintaining steady Tactus. At the time of this project, we had not fully realised the significance of the particular movement of historical Tactus (down/up, palm outwards): some singers are beating Tactus side-to-side, or palm up. And ultimately, all this movement should be internalised, with only one singer per choir actually beating Tactus with the hand. Nevertheless, I hope you will enjoy watching their work in progress, and listening to the result.  Video: Monteverdi in Tactus.

Praetorius (1620): three choirs, each with its own Tactus beater. The three Tactus-beaters face inwards, watching each other to synchronise the Tactus.

The next article in this series introduces Advanced Tactus Skills, with which you can create the Shape of Aristotelean Time.

Emotions in Early Opera

As a student in London in the early 1980s, I was told by some tutors (who should have known better) that there was no place for emotion in early music. But nowadays, in a development that owes more to changes in current social norms than to improved historical awareness, emotion has become a buzz-word amongst academics and performers aiike. Nevertheless, even amongst Early Music practitioners, the search for emotional intensity is often neither historical, nor informed.

Many directors and teachers do not work directly with performers’ emotional engagement. But handling emotions is a performance skill that must be taught, learnt, rehearsed and practised, like any other element of a well-rounded delivery. And, like every other aspect of musical and dramatic presentation, the performance practice of emotions changed over time, and between one location and another.

Most conservatoires, even those with a Historical Performance department, teach emotions (if at all) within a late romantic framework, focussing on the intensity of the performer’s emotional engagement, and modelled on the concept of the performer “expressing” their emotions through the medium of the composed score. But we have plenty of easily accessible and self-consistent period evidence as the basis for a more historically-informed approach.

In some debates amongst singers, an argument is sometimes advanced that seems dangerously close to saying: “just use more vibrato”! I am all in favour of historically informed use of vibrato, but let’s all agree that there is more to the rich inner world of human emotions than a wobble in the voice! Singing louder is also not the answer: in Cavalieri’s preface to the very first baroque music-drama, Anima & Corpo, he warns against forcing the voice, which would be detrimental to emotional communication. Rather, he (and many other sources) ask for frequent changes between forte and piano, and between contrasting emotions. Act with the heart, act with the hand: Motion and E-motion in  Cavalieri’s preface

In the urge to convey baroque passions, many performers reach for the Romantic tool of rubato. Nearly all of us were taught this in our initial training, but in earlier periods, Rhetorical emotions were framed within the structure of measured rhythm, guided by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Yes, this tactus could be tweaked according to changing emotions, but if you are not using Tactus in the first place, then you have no idea what you are tweaking! Frescobaldi Rules, OK? Caccini’s much-cited sprezzatura is even more misunderstood and mis-applied. The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura. It’s certainly not the secret of emotional vocals (read below what Cacinni says that secret actually is).

In this post, I offer a brief introduction to the vast topic of Historically Informed Performance of Emotions. The post is dedicated to participants in Opera Omnia’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608) from which only the famously emotional Lamento survives. But I hope the information will be useful to anyone working in early opera, indeed in any genre of baroque music.

 

 

There is ample historical evidence that emotions were highly significant in 17th-century music. The principal aim of Rhetoric is

 

muovere gli affetti – to move the Passions

 

From this well-known phrase, we should note two all-important points. Firstly, the historical discourse is not about “emotion” (singular), but about “Passions” (plural) and about “moving” from one Passion to another. All too often, modern-day coaches will ask for “more emotion!”. The performer might well ask in reply: “Which one?”. Emotion is not an all-purpose sauce that can be poured over any performance! In the historical context, we need to study various emotions, and practice moving between them.

Also, the concept of ‘moving the Passions’ begs the question: whose emotions are we trying to change? As soon as we ask the question, the answer is obvious: the audience’s. Here is the vital difference between Rhetorical (say, pre-1800) and Romantic concepts of emotional performance. In baroque opera, the purpose is to move emotions from the text and music into the hearts and minds of the audience; we do not really care about the performer’s own feelings. This is a world apart from the romantic cliché of the ‘genius performer, expressing emotions beyond those of the ordinary folk in the audience’!

Which Emotion?

Modern studies of emotions, facial expressions etc,  attempt various classifications, based on 6 or more principal emotions. In the Rhetorical age, emotions were understood within the concept of the Four Humours. Although this model does not entirely match modern medical science, psychologically it works very well and can be used very effectively in modern-day performance of early music, just as singers use suggestive imagery (alongside hard science) to guide vocal technique. Of course, the vast array of human emotions cannot be mapped onto just four types. But the Four Humours provide general directions for moving the Passions, just as the four cardinal points (North, South, East, West) provide general directions for travel.

The Four Humours are at work in poetry, music and visual arts; in personality traits, moods and emotional impulses; in performance; and in psychological and physiological responses. The four well-known types are Sanguine (love, courage, hope: a warm, moist, outward passion associated with generosity, enjoyment of music, good food and red wine); Choleric (anger, desire: a hot, dry, outward passion associated with violence and strong drink); Melancholy (thinking too much, unlucky in love, sleepless: a cold, dry inward passion associated with what we would today call ‘the blues’); Phlegmatic (passive acceptance: a cold, moist inward passion, the feeling one has when influenza seems to have filled the entire head and body with green phlegm).

 

Character roles and individual lines of text often combine subtle mixtures of Humours. Dramatic speeches and operatic scenes often move from one Humour to another. But in this style, there are often frequent changes from one Humour to its contrary, word by word: this was considered to be the most powerful way to ‘move’ the audience’s passions.

 

How to move the Passions

 

I use simple exercises to help performers experience and convey each of the Four Humours, spending time on exploring each Humour individually by words, postures and movements. Then we practise moving from one Humour to another: slowly at first, and then faster, so that we can snap from one Passion to its contrary.

Working with a specific text (dramatic speech, poem, opera libretto, song-text etc), we identify which Humour (or which blend of Humours) is at play, word by word. It’s very important to bring this analysis right down to the word-by-word level at which baroque emotions operate. The first exercise is to determine how to perform each word: what colour of voice, what facial expression, what physical posture etc? All of this goes far beyond ‘changes in dynamics’, the simple contrast of forte, piano etc. Rather, each individual word gives a wealth of nuanced information, making it unnecessary for the composer to indicate such ‘dynamic markings’, which would in any case be facile and shallow.

To optimise the delivery of each word, we have to match the precise meaning of each specific word. At first, students tend to suggest approximations: “let’s sing this word loud, warmly, with more vibrato, brightly etc.” But there is a better way, what I call

the  -LY principle

If the word is dolce ‘sweet’, sing it sweet-ly! If the word is amore ‘love’, sing it loving-ly! If the word is crudel ‘cruel’, sing it cruel-ly! And so on. The idea is simple, but powerful, and utterly historical. Try it! Experimental-ly!

 

Baroque Gesture is not merely a hand-ballet, though it should look elegant. Gesture is Rhetorical, i.e. based on the structure and passion of the words. And it’s always painfully apparent, when an actor puts their hand precisely where the director instructed, in the perfect historical position: it comes over to the audience academical-ly! Rather, each well-chosen and historically appropriate gesture has to be connected to, motivated (literally, set in motion) by the text, passionate-ly!

All this intense focus  – on the specific word being sung at the particular time  – results in increased Mindfulness, being ‘in the moment’. You don’t need to plan ahead or review backwards what you have just performed: stay intently in the present moment, and trust the librettist and composer to have done their job with (that previous element of Rhetoric), long-term structural planning.

 

 

The renaissance concept of the Music of the Spheres linked cosmic energy to the harmony of the human body and to practical  music-making. In parallel, period Science considered that emotions were communicated from performer to audience by Pneuma (the mystic spirit of creation, also the mystical energy of the body – like oriental chi – the mystical spirit of dramatic communication), transmitted as Enargeaia (the emotional power of detailed verbal description, poetic imagery, word-painting in baroque music), and carried by Energia (emotional energy) emitted from the actor’s eyes. You can practise believing this, whilst you perform: it will change what you are doing, in subtle, hard-to-describe, but powerful ways.

How to sing the Passions

The secret is not rubato, nor ornamentation (discouraged in the reciting style, according to Cavalieri, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and many other early 17th-century sources), and certainly not vibrato. So what is it? How can we use the voice in this repertoire, passionately, appropriately, effectively?

 

Caccini’s preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) (here’s the link again) encapsulates the priorities, the method, and the technique, if you want to move your audience’s passions, in this repertoire. The priorities are Text and Rhythm: focus on the text, stay in the steady rhythm of Tactus. The method is a vocal production that is ‘between singing and speaking’ – see also Peri’s preface to Euridice (1600): you are not there to sing, your task is to help the audience understand every single word.

 

Don’t sing at me, speak to me!

 

By the way, the quickest way to destroy the illusion that you are ‘speaking’ in song, is to sustain the weak final syllable of the line. Amarilli, mia bel-LAAAAAA. So a very useful general rule is

 

Last note short!

Caccini’s recommended technique when there is a sustained note on a Good syllable, is to use crescendo/diminuendo on that single note. Caccini repeats this advice many times within his Preface, and he gives detailed examples of how to apply messa di voce (starting a long note softly, with crescendo) and exclamatione (starting a word like Ahi! or Deh! loud, then going immediately soft, and then crescendo). The standard way to present a long note is what I call

 

The Long Note Kit

 

Start softly and wait – then add crescendo – at the peak of the crescendo, relax and allow vibrato. Time this carefully with the Tactus, and with the typical process of Preparation-Dissonance-Resolution in a suspension. See How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles for more detail.

 

And that’s it. The crucial concepts are not academically complex, just remember SSS:

  • Speak each word according to its meaning
  • Stay in tactus
  • Shape long notes.

 

The challenge is that these simple ideas demand constant Mindfulness and intense concentration on Caccini’s priorities of Text and Rhythm. So of course, it’s much easier just to add vibrato and mess up the rhythm with rubato, and to create a false pretence of generalised emotion, without any particular link to what you are talking about. But the audience will see through that pretence, just as easily as we spot the insincerity of a fake politician!  So let your Passions be strong, your Tactus stable: don’t rely on weak rubato and wobbly vibrato!

 

 

For further reading, I highly recommend Joseph Roach The Player’s Passion, which analyses theories of acting in light of the history of science, examining acting styles from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and measuring them against prevailing conceptions of the human body. The author explores how dominant theories of emotion, from the Galenic humor to the Pavlovian reflex, have shaped the critic’s changing standards of the natural order of life and the actor’s physical embodiment of it. The Player’s Passion has become a classic among theater historians and students of acting, and received the prestigious Barnard Hewitt Award for outstanding research in theater history.

For an analysis of the use of 17th-century Rhetoric to ‘move the passions’  in terms of modern medical science, try The Theatre of Dreams, which takes the Prologue for La Musica, in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as a case-study.