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

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

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

What’s different now?

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

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

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

What was different in 1607?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

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

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

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

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE REPORT

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

ALK comments:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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?

 

iL Corago – The Baroque Opera Director

The essential guide to Early Opera

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Fake News? Early Opera, aka Seicento Dramatic Monody

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

FAKE NEWS??

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

READ THE SOURCES FOR YOURSELF!

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

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

 

One of these statements might be true:

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

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

 

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

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

Period sources contradict all the other statements.

 

FACTS CHECKED

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

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

 

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

There was no conductor: you knew that already!

 

 

Singers should add ornamentation – gorgi and passaggi

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rhythm is not significant?

“Music is text and rhythm”Caccini.

Recitative imitates the natural speech-rhythms of Italian conversation?

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

 

The harpsichordist should beat time in Tactus?

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

 

The most important consideration is beautiful vocal sound?

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

 

Rubato is the key to ‘moving the passions’?

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

 

Caccini frequently recommends sprezzatura?

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

See also these links:

Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

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

The wedding dance: Monteverdi’s Lasciate i monti

Emotions in Early Opera

Lamento della ninfa

Re-making Arianna

Monteverdi Vespers

How to Act: preliminary exercises for Baroque Gesture

The Philosophy of La Musica

and many other articles in this blog.

Measuring a shepherdess’ heart-rate: Lamento della ninfa

Havendo considerato le nostre passioni, od’ affettioni, del animo…

Monteverdi begins the Preface to his Eighth Book, Madrigals of Love & War (1638), by considering Passions (or Affections) of the Spirit – in modern parlance, Emotions. And one of the most emotionally moving pieces in the collection is the Lamento della Ninfa, in which the Nymph’s Lament is framed and accompanied by male-voice trios, accompanied by continuo. This article examines Monteverdi’s performance instructions for the Lament, revewing the original printed parts with an updated understanding of the historical performance practice context.

 

Lamento della Ninfa BC

 

The original publication is in part-books, with the Preface printed in each book. The “framing” trios set the scene initially, and offer a commentary, in the manner of a Greek chorus, afterwards.

Non havea Febo ancora

“Phoebus [the sun] had not yet brought day to the world, when a young girl went out from her own dwelling. In her delicately pale face could be seen her sadness. Often there came bursting out a great sigh from her heart. Treading on flowers, she wandered here and there, crying for her lost love as she went.”

Si tra sdegnosi pianti

“Thus with angry cries she cast her voice to heaven. Like this, in the hearts of lovers, Amor [Cupid] mixes flames and ice.”

Amor, Amor dicea

This central section is the Lament itself, set for solo soprano over a four-note descending ground bass, with the accompanying trio both narrating  – “she said” “looking at heaven, her footsteps stopped” and commenting “poor girl”, “no, no!”, “so much ice cannot be suffered”.  Monteverdi distinguishes this section (but not the framing trios) as rappresentativo ‘in show style’ or ‘acted out’.

This distinction is anticipated on the title page, which promises:

Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo, che saranno per brevi episodi fra i canti senza gesto

“Warlike and amorous madrigals, with some small works in show style, which will make short episodes amidst the songs without action.”

Whilst singers would use at least some hand gestures in any performance context, madrigals were normally sung as chamber music, i.e. the (occasionally gesturing) performers did not attempt to embody a role, they were not ‘representing’ a character in a dramatic scene. In contrast, the ‘staged’ pieces, including the Combattimento di Tancredi & Clorinda also found in this book, were intended as a dramatic surprise during a courtly soiree of madrigals and instrumental music.  These elements of contrast, surprise and drama are missing when the Lamento is performed as a conventional concert-piece.

The distinctive nature of theatrical music calls for particular elements of historical performance practice, and Monteverdi provides specific information for the central, dramatised Amor section, distinct from the framing trios. In this article, that oft-quoted advice is re-assessed, considering other information from the part-books, and in the context of an improved understanding of Monteverdi’s assumptions about rhythm.

 

How to stage this song

 

The three parts that sing outside the cries of the Nymph are placed separately like this, because they sing in the time of the hand; the other three parts, which go in soft voice commiserating the Nymph are placed in score, in order to follow the crying of that girl, which is sung in the time of the affection of the spirit, and not in that of the hand.

 

Clearly, Monteverdi is putting into practice the consideration of the ‘passions of the spirit’, of emotions, mentioned in his Preface. But how are his instructions to be realised in performance? In the 20th century,  the answer seemed self-evident: this is ‘expressive’ music, and ‘expressive’ performance suggests rhythmic freedom, tempo rubato. In this view, the framing trios would be sung in strict time (tempo della mano) whilst the central Lamento would be sung in free rhythm (tempo del’affetto del animo) and not in strict time (non a quello della mano).  Performers found this rather counter-intuitive: triple metre and the regular bass of the central Lamento seemed more suited to structured rhythm, and 20th-century habits resisted strict time and a steady tempo for the framing trios.

Another 20th-century misunderstanding should be quickly mentioned: ‘the three parts’ which ‘are placed separately’ means that the three individual voice-parts and continuo accompaniment were placed in four different part-books, whereas the central Lament is printed in score. There is no suggestion that the three singers should be ‘placed separately’, i.e occupy another area of the stage, at some great distance from the solo Nymph!

As Monteverdi writes, the arrangement of the individual parts and score can be seen in the part-books: it is ‘like this’:

 

Non havea Febo ancora T1

Si tra sdegnosi pianti T1

The framing trios are separated into individual voice-parts, in three different part-books: Tenore Primo, Tenore Secondo, Basso Primo.

 

The three parts for the accompanying trio are in vocal score, in another part-book, Alto Primo. This score shows the continuo bass only at the beginning, otherwise STTB.

 

Lamento vocal score in A1

 

The Canto Primo part-book has the soprano solo, in short score, soprano & continuo bass. The trio parts are not included in this short score.

Lamento short score in C1

 

The Continuo part-book has the instructions, and the music is printed as promised: bass-line only (with very few figures) for the framing trios; a full score for the Lamento. This score has STTB & BC throughout (no figures). [See above]

If one wished to perform the piece from a set of part books, two or three continuo-players could read from the one book. The accompanying trio could all three read from the Alto Primo book. (The name Alto Primo does not imply that an alto voice-type is required: instrumental and vocal parts for particular pieces are routinely placed in whichever part-book has space, and is not otherwise in use). The framing trio would read from three individual books T1 T2 B1. And the soprano soloist would read from the Canto Primo book.

The arrangement of the material strongly suggests that there are six male singers, i.e. two trios: one trio for the framing sections, a different trio for the central Lament. True, it’s not impossible for the framing singers to put aside their individual part-books at the end of the intro, cluster around the score in the Alto Primo book for the Lament proper, and then pick up their individual books again for the coda. But there is additional evidence in the part-books supporting the six-men option. In the individual part-books for the framing trios, the central Lament is mentioned, with the indication tacet.

Amor – Tacet in B1

 

Similarly, before and after the vocal score, the framing trios are mentioned with the indication tacet. The index pages of the partbooks are consistent with this.

 

Tavola (index) in T1

 

And Monteverdi’s instructions specify ‘three parts’ and ‘the other three parts’. All of this is consistent with the six-men version, and inconsistent with a three-man performance.

It is interesting to consider whether the soprano and accompanying trio might have memorised their parts: this would be effective in the ‘staged’ section of the piece, and would remove some of the practical difficulties of three-man performance. But the markings of tacet remain a stumbling block: if the three men were supposed to switch part-books (at least in rehearsal), one would have hoped for an indication that this should be done, and of where to find the required score.

There is also the question of how much rehearsal time was available. Monteverdi’s letters include several pleas to try a new piece through at least once, before performance (even for very complex music): this does not give the impression that there would be sufficient rehearsal time to memorise parts without additional effort. A decade or so earlier, a ‘little priest’, the male soprano hired to act the role of Euridice in Orfeo (1607) had great difficulty learning ‘so many notes’: as an experienced singer of religious polyphony, his difficulty was not ‘note-learning’ per se, but memorisation. However, the skills of court chamber-music singers might have changed with the introduction of professional singing-actors into ‘baroque opera’, beginning with La Florinda’s triumph in Arianna (1608).

Hand & Heart

Act with the hand, act with the heart!

The interplay between music, gesture and emotions is frequently mentioned in period discussions of music-drama, i.e. what we nowadays call ‘early opera’. Although Monteverdi’s instructions for the Lamento contrast  ’emotional time’ and ‘hand time’, the preface and libretto of Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e Corpo (1600) here as well as many other sources connect emotional impulses with visible action. The designation rappresentativo implied a particular set of performance practices, coordinating text, music and action into a unified spectacle. Here are Monteverdi’s instructions for Combattimento, in the warlike part of Book VIII.

 

 

“Combat of Trancredi & Clorinda in Music, described by Tasso, which needs to be done in show style: they enter suddenly (after some madrigals without action have been sung)…. They make their steps and gestures just as the delivery of the text expounds, neither more nor less, observing carefully the tempi, sword-strikes and foot-work; the instrumentalists [observe carefully] the violent and soft sounds; and the Narrator [observes] the well-timed pronunciation of the words – in such a way that the three actions come to meet in a unified representation. ”

 

“The ‘three actions’ to be ‘unified’ are the protagonists’ movements, the music, and the narrator’s text.  When Clorinda or Tancredi speak, the Narrator is silent. The voice of the Narrator should be clear, firm and well pronounced… so that it is better understood. He should not make divisions [literally ‘throat’, i.e. fast-moving ornamental passage-work] or trills except in the Aria that begins Notte, all the rest should be given a delivery similar to the passions of the oratory. ”

The instruction to avoid ornamentation (both divisions and graces) is found in many sources, including Cavalieri’s Preface to Anima & Corpo. Many sources also require the continuo to avoid ornamentation and play grave – low register and slow notes. Cavalieri also emphasises the importance of whole-body acting, not just hand gestures. Monteverdi asks for a variety of tone-colours from the instruments, Cavalieri makes a similar request to the singers.

The silencing of the Narrator, when there is direct speech from characters onstage, suggests that the six-man version of the Lamento might better distinguish between narration and direct speech, by keeping the narrating trio silent whilst the commiserating trio are heard within the staged scene.

Monteverdi’s call to unify text, music and action reminds us of Shakespeare’s instructions to the players in Hamlet:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

And Shakespeare’s admonition against ‘mouthing’ the speech, like a town-cryer, is consistent with Cavalieri’s warning to singers not to force the voice.

Monteverdi’s Preface makes a similar link between theatrical music, spoken oratory, and emotions:

Tasso, come poeta che esprime con ogni proprieta e naturalezza con la sua oratione quelle passioni, che tende a voler descrivere

“Tasso, as a poet… expresses with all propriety and naturalness in his oratory the passions which he wants to describe.” The connection between detailed description and emotional power is the period concept of Enargeia. Read more about Enargeia here Enargeia VIP.

Meanwhile, many early 17th-century sources compare the new style of singing to speaking (Caccini 1601, here) , to the pitch-contours of spoken delivery (Peri 1600, here) , and to the variety of tone adopted by a fine actor in the spoken Theatre (the anonymous c1638 guide for a music-theatre director, Il Corago here).

Suiting the stage action to the words of the libretto implies that the sung text can serve almost as Stage Directions for the actors. The Nymph should enter at the same moment as the narrating trio sing una donzella…. usci. Her face should be made up to look pale, and she should sigh heavily as she treads on flowers, wandering erractically across the stage.  She might make a hand gesture for dolor. 

 

As she begins to sing, her footseps halt and she looks up at heaven. This is consistent with Gagliano’s instructions in the Preface to Dafne (1608) for singers to enter making an interesting path across the stage, but to stand still whilst singing.  In another Monteverdi madrigal the love-sick protagonist similarly addresses heaven:  Sfogava con le stelle (Book IV, 1603).

 

Il Tempo della mano

 

Such close agreement between many period sources encourages us to attempt to reconcile Monteverdi’s remarks about tempo in the Lament with all that we now know about early 17th-century time and rhythm. The word tempo has many historical meanings: Time itself, musical rhythm, the psychological effect of perceived musical rhythm. This last meaning comes close to our modern usage of tempo to mean the speed of musical performance, measured in beats per minute. There is also another area of period meaning linked to the Greek distinction between chronos (chronological time) and kairos (the moment of opportunity). For sword-fighters, a tempo is the opportune moment to strike. This meaning is relevant in theatrical music as ‘dramatic timing’ and might be particularly significant in Monteverdi’s instructions for Combattimento (above).

Monteverdi died in same the year (1643) that  Isaac Newton was born.  So the composer’s concept of Time was not the Newtonian model of Absolute Time so familiar to us today, but rather Aristotle’s understanding of Time as dependent on motion. Monteverdi’s musical rhythms were organised by the slow, steady pulse of Tactus (about one beat per second), with triple metre measured by simple ratios – Proportions. The notation of the Lamento indicates Sesquilatera (one and a half) Proportion, with three triple-metre semibreves in the time of two duple-metre minims, something around semibreve = MM90.  Read more about Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time.

 

In practice, Tactus was shown by a simple down-up movement of the hand. Tactus-beating was usually done by a performer, not by a stand-alone conductor, and was very different from modern conducting. The job was not to make one’s own personal choice of tempo, nor to interpret the music by changing the tempo, but to find and maintain the correct tempo. According to Zacconi’s Prattica di Musica (1592),

Tactus is regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation

Quite unlike modern conducting!

Of course, most instruments are played with two hands, so musicians would study using a Tactus hand-beat, in order to play with an internalised sense of Tactus. Frescobaldi confirms this, by discussing keyboard toccatas entirely in terms of Tactus. Even though he specifies certain situations where the Tactus may change between movements of a single piece, and even though keyboard players cannot physically beat Tactus whilst playing, Frescobaldi insists that the performance is still facilitated by, actioned by, Tactus. And he links his Tactus Rules also to ‘modern madrigals’, the kind of music found in Monteverdi’s later books. Frescobaldi rules, OK:  here.

Applying Frescobaldi’s rules, we might try a small change of speed where the ‘movement’ changes, i.e. between the frame and central Lament, perhaps even within the introduction (a pause after dolor and a slightly faster speed for the new rhythmic structure of si calpestando fiori; slower again for cosi piangendo va). Such small changes follow the changing emotions of the text, and therefore would tend to exaggerate the composer’s change of note-values. The notation of si calpestando fiori already responds to the text with short note-values, any change in Tactus would increase the contrast. But within what Frescobaldi calls a passo (literally step or movement: i.e. a self-contained section or movement of a single work), the Tactus remains “regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure and fearless”. Frescobaldi limits ‘any perturbation’ to very specific situations.

For theatrical music, Il Corago discusses the question of whether or not the omni-present Tactus should be shown with hand-beating. Obviously, the singing-actor cannot beat time on stage, and Il Corago considers that the continual waving of a Tactus-hand at the side of the stage would be distracting for the spectators, taking away the sense of naturalezza that Monteverdi so admired in Tasso’s poetry-reading. So he recommends that the principal continuo-player should beat Tactus where required in ensemble music, but there should be no time-beating in dramatic solos. We might therefore expect the leader of the continuo to give a couple of Tactus-beats to start the framing trios, but that there would be no Tactus-beating during the central Lament. Of course, the Tactus is still maintained during the Lament solo, “regular, solid, stable… clear, sure, fearless”, but felt, rather than seen.

This advice from Il Corago is consistent with Monteverdi’s marking for another acted-out soprano solo, the Lettera Amorosa in Book VII (1619) Se i languidi miei sguardi, which has the instruction:

in genere rappresentativo e si canta senza battuta

“In dramatic style, and to be sung without beating time.”

It is also consistent with Agazzari’s advice that the continuo (his word is fondamento, emphasising the structural, rather than decorative role of bass-playing) ‘supports and directs the whole ensemble’. The directing is done not by beating time, but in the manner of playing, by providing clear structural rhythm in the improvised realisation of the accompaniment. This contrasts with 20th-century assumptions and practices, in which the continuo is supposed to follow, whilst the singer (perhaps a conductor too) destabilise the rhythm with rubato.

The early-17th-century assumption is clear from Peri: singers are normally guided by the continuo. If the text is sad or serious, the singing should not ‘dance’ to the rhythm of the bass, so the bass itself is reduced to Tactus values of minims and semibreves. This guiding role of the continuo affects not only the rhythm but also the emotions, so Peri is careful to compose the entire bass-part according to the words. Agazzari agrees: ‘true and good music’ doesn’t require lots of fugues and imitative polyphony, but rather the imitation of the emotion and similitude of the words, affetto e somiglianza delle parole.  

This seems very close to Monteverdi’s a similitudine delle passioni del’oratione in his instructions for Combattimento (above). Even instruments are expected to imitate words – especially the Basso Continuo (according to the Preface to Book VIII):

Le maniere di sonare devono essere di tre sorti, oratorie, Armonicha & Rithmicha

“There are three elements of playing: oratory, harmony and rhythm.” What an inspiring definition of continuo!

But in his discussion – also in the Preface to Book VIII – of  repeated semiquavers in the bass-line of Combattimento, Monteverdi’s assumption is tha the continuo-realisation would normally reduce such fast notes to structural values of minim or semibreve, were it not for his specific instructions to play what is written in this particular piece. This is consistent with Landi’s notation of two bass-lines in the sinfonias of Sant’ Alessio (1631), a complex line for harps, lutes, theorboes & bowed strings, and a simplified, structural line for continuo harpsichords.

So the continuo maintained the Tactus, even whilst responding to the emotions of the text. Nevertheless, there was a seicento practice of rhythmic freedom for singers, which Caccini describes as senza misura (unmeasured). Many examples in Monteverdi’s works show how this works: the singer anticipates the beat, or arrives late, but the continuo maintain Tactus –  “regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation”. This baroque practice is similar to jazz, where the singer floats freely over a steady Iin the rhythm section. It remained in use throughout the 18th century (clearly described by Leopold Mozart) and even later. In Chopin’s style of playing ‘timeless melody over a timed bass’, he kept the bass as steady as the trunk of a tree, whilst the melody can sway like the leaves and branches. Chopin here.

 

Senza misura over a Tactus bass – Caccini

 

Soloist floating around a Tactus bass – Monteverdi

 

Solo tenor and Tactus – Monteverdi

 

In this context, we can understand Monteverdi’s intention that the framing trios would be directed by a hand-beat in Tactus, il tempo della mano, whereas no-one would beat time during the acted-out Lamento. But we would still expect the Lamento to be sung in (unseen) Tactus.  The “regular, solid, stable, firm” Tactus of the Lamento movement might be a little different from that of the framing trio. The text of the coda summarises the Lament as ‘angry cries’  sdegnosi pianti which might suggest a faster, more passionate tempo, rather than slowing down for a Romantic ideal of lamenting. Baroque laments – includingly the famous Lamento di Arianna (1608) and Act V of Orfeo (1607) – often alternate sadness with anger.

 

The Four Humours – changes of ‘humour’ move the passions

Il Tempo dell’affetto del animo

 

 

But what was Monteverdi’s ‘time of the affection of the spirit’, his ’emotional tempo’, and why did it require the singers to read from a score? The 20th-century assumption was Romantic rubato. But nowadays, we know that if the singer floats freely around the (unseen) beat, the continuo would maintain the Tactus groove ‘without any perturbation’.

There are several instances in the (1610) Vespers where the rhythms for the singers differ between the individual part-books and the continuo-book short score. This is not problematic, because the continuo-players did not follow such small details of ornamentation; rather they led with the slow steady pulse of Tactus. Continuo-players were accustomed to singers’ improvising diminutions and graces, and would not follow these or be upset by them: they would just continue in Tactus “regular, solid, stable, firm… fearless”.

So if the lamenting Nymph employed some rhythmic freedom, in the manner described by Caccini and notated by Monteverdi, there would be no unfamiliar demands on the continuo players, or on other members of the vocal ensemble, and no special need for a score. Indeed, continuo-players were accustomed to scores that showed different ornamentation from what the soloist was actually singing!

Perhaps the answer can be found not in the anachronism of Romantic rubato, but in that wonderfully practical source for historical music-theatre, Il Corago. The anonymous writer explains precisely how continuo-players did ‘follow’ the singing-actor in staged performance. If some extra time was needed for some stage ‘business’, the continuo should just repeat the chord they are playing. We see this notated in Monteverdi’s Ulisse (1640) and described in Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo.

Si replica tante volte

Monteverdi Ulisse: “This Sinfonia (a C minor chord for the basso continuo, played twice, long-short) is repeated as many times as necessary, until Penelope arrives on stage and starts to sing.”

Cavalier Anima & Corpo: “The instruments that have to accompany the singers wait, playing the first chord, until he [the actor in the role of Tempo] begins.”

In this performance practice of historical music-theatre, a stage-wait is managed by having the continuo repeat a chord, in Tactus. Although everything waits until the actor is ready, the Tactus-clock is still ticking.  So we can reconcile instructions that continuo-players should follow actors in staged works with the overwhelming weight of evidence that Tactus was “regular, solid, stable, firm ” in all seicento music. Indeed, the period term is musica mensurata, measured music, which applied to all music, except unmeasured liturgical chant.

So even if the Nymph felt she had to wait for the passion of her spirit to motivate her speech, the tempo of her emotions would be measured by Tactus, even if it was not shown by a hand-beat.

But it is not plausible that the continuo players would repeat one of their four chords indefinitely, whenever the soprano decided to wait! Again, Il Corago suggests a practical solution: if the continuo know how long they should wait, they can play a little chord sequence. instead of just repeating one chord. In the context of the Lamento’s ground-bass, it’s obvious that the continuo would just repeat the four-note descending ground, as many times as necessary, until the singer started, or (in the middle of the piece) re-started.

Now we understand why scores are necessary. The soprano needs a short score, so that if she waits, she can make her entry at the correct point in the repeating harmonic sequence. (She only needs her part and the bass, since the trio will follow her). The accompanying trio need a vocal score, so that they can be aware if the soprano waits, and make their entries according to her part. (They don’t need the ground bass, since they coordinate their entries with the soprano).

Seicento singers were accustomed to managing misprinted rests in polyphonic music: their familiarity with the style and their general musicianship skills allowed them to sense the right moment to make their entry, in order to fit with the general harmonic movement around them. But in the Lamento, these skills would be no help in dealing with the extra time imposed by an emotionally inspired soprano: the trio polyphony would work on any given iteration of the ground bass. The trio singers needed a score to know whether they should wait four bars, or eight bars, extra: their ears alone could not solve this problem.

In the end, this kind of performance would not sound very shocking to us today. So the continuo put in a few extra rounds of the ground bass, here and there? Probably quite a few modern performances have already done this. But this is easy for us to do, because we are accustomed to reading from scores, and (all too often!) being conducted. If there are only part-books, no conductor, but regular Tactus, it would be difficult for a soprano to wait spontaneously, according to the emotions, without the trio getting lost: without a score, much rehearsal would be needed before the soprano could safely be given this freedom. Monteverdi’s solution was practical, but unusual for his period: give the singers a score!

What does remain shocking for today’s performers is the idea of keeping Tactus; that singers might float around the beat, but the continuo will maintain the groove; the idea that even large-scale music was led by continuo-playing, not by conducting. What is the point of providing early instruments and historically informed performers, only to have them anachronistically conducted. We might as well realise the continuo on a 20th-century pianoforte!

To sum up: baroque music is measured by Tactus and directed by continuo-playing. But a soloist has freedom to float around the steady groove of that Tactus. In staged performance, additional time can be taken for dramatic action, but the ticking clock of Tactus continues. In this Lamento (a staged piece written over a ground bass), the continuo could repeat the ground as many times as necessary, until the singer is emotionally ready to sing.

Monteverdi’s tempo dell’affetto dell’animo is not some kind of ‘free rhythm’, but rather an emotionally-driven sense of dramatic timing, to a steady heart-beat.

 

 

If your pulse stops, the music also dies [ALK]

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

Video clip of the 2012 premiere of Anima & Corpo here

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The famous challenge from director to actor

I don’t believe you!

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

 

More about Emotions in Early Opera here.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More about learning Monteverdi’s operatic roles here.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Breathe as often as you can!

 

Long notes long, short notes short!

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

Good & bad

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn

– and that includes the tutors!

 

More about baroque gesture and historical acting here.

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

The Practice of Tactus – Owners Workshop Manual

 

A Practical Guide – Part 1

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

 

Science, Art & Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Share the Power of Tactus

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

1. Prerequisites

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

Those fundamentals are:

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

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

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

2. Development exercises.

 

 

Rule 1: do NOT use a metronome.

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

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

Rule 3: do NOT use a metronome.

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

Exercise One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Exercise Three

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

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

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

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

Exercise Three with music

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

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

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

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

3. Maintenance exercises

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

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

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

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

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

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

4. Rehearsal techniques

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Last note short! 

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

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

Long notes long, short notes short!

 

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

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

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

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