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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

Compas, mesura & ayre

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Milán’s range of tempo indications

 

compas a espacio – slow Tactus

compas bien mesurado– well-measured Tactus

compas algo apressurado – slightly fast Tactus

compas apressurado – fast Tactus

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

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

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

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

Changes of Tactus within a piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Technique & Phrasing

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

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

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

 

Romances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pavan

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

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

 

Proportions

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Temperament

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

 

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

 

Zarambeques: Encounters between Spanish Baroque & African Traditions

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

 

 

The Kora

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

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

 

 

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

 

The new generation, Ballaké & Toumani

 

 

 

Spanish Baroque Harp

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Zarambeques

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

Zarambeques:

Encounters between Spanish Baroque & African Traditions

 

Andrew Lawrence-King Spanish Baroque Harp
Ballaké Sissoko Kora

 

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

KORA
Futur Ballaké Sissoko
Maimouna

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

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

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

 

It’s Recitative, but not as we know it

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

the boring bit between the nice tunes!

And we all know how to perform it –

free rhythm,

conversational style,

get through the text quickly,

ornament the cadences [Monteverdi],

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

NOT!

 

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

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

But it’s recitative, isn’t it?

The short answer is: No, it isn’t.

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

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

 

What is ‘Baroque Recitative’?

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

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

What is Recitative, in modern-day musicology?

The standard academic definition of

syllabic declamation over a static bass-line

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

recitare means ‘to act’.

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

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

recitativo does NOT mean ‘Recitative’ 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is 17th-century aria?

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

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

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

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

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

What is the 17th-century terminology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Better modern-day terminology

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

 

 

Not Opera, but Music-drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Monteverdi ‘Orfeo’ Act I

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

How should we perform 17th-century dramatic monody?

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

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

How to perform ‘Recitative’???

 

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

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

Musica rappresentativa is NOT ‘do as you please’!

 

Priorities

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

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

Imitation of Speech

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

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

Text

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

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

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

Tactus

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

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

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

 

 

Driving the Time

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

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

Sprezzatura

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

No Ornamentation

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

 

 

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

Expression

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

Action

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

 

 

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

But it’s recitative, isn’t it?

 

Time & Free Will – Historical & Psychological Time

Musical Rhythm connects our human, Psychological Experience of the Duration of Time to the Quality of Emotions, going beyond the scientific precision of Quantitative Clock-Time, con-fusing or permeating our perception of the spacious Present with an awareness of the Past.

 

 

Persuasive though this view might be for today’s performers, it is not an aesthetic absolute. It’s just my summary of Bergson, whose views dominated the philosophy of culture in the early 20th century. It’s easy to see how Tempo Rubato fits neatly into this view, and why Bergson’s fusing together of Time and Free Will still resonates for modern-day musicians.

 

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

 

A Philosophy of its Time

My point is that Bergson’s philosophy was part of the aesthetic of his period, the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His ideas were opposed (though Bergson himself might have said, complementary) to Einstein’s concepts of Relativisitic & Quantum Time, and depended on (as a limited, out-dated concept, to be argued against) Newtonian Absolute Time, the ‘ever-rolling stream’ that had come to be the dominant view during the late 18th century. (This was long after the publication of ‘Principia”: Newton’s radical new concept met with heavy resistance from late-baroque philosophers).

The Aristotelian Time of The 16th and 17th centuries (and earlier) was utterly different… Monteverdi’s operas & Vespers, Frescobaldi’s Toccatas, Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle,  even Mace’s Practical Music are

Music of an Earlier Time.

 

Is Rubato an Absolute? Or is it one of many performance variables that are subject to changing performance practices over the centuries? Read more…

Water has no taste?

 

As Historically Informed Performers and Researchers, we must try to separate our intuitive sympathy for persuasive philosophies of the recent past … even if they seem to speak to us as “absolutes” (because we imbibed them uncritically at an early stage in our cultural education)… from historical, source-based evidence of chronological changes in the aesthetics of performance.

 

 

There’s very little History of Philosophy on the early 20th century, surprisingly little.

Now… there’s sufficient distance between ‘now’ and ‘then’, it’s as if Bergson has finally and properly entered the canon of the History of Philosophy and we are now treating the beginning of the 20th century as an object of historical enquiries in philosophy.

Quotes from the May 2019 BBC Radio Four “In our Time” discussion on Bergson & Time here.

We think that water has no taste, because we were born with it in our mouths.

Can anyone help me identify this last quote? I read it, I didn’t make it up myself, but it perfectly sums up the Early Music dilemma, in which our present-day investigation of Historical Practice is itself embedded in the aesthetic of the recent past.

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend – Bergson

 

iL Corago – The Baroque Opera Director

The essential guide to Early Opera

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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…