Zarambeques: Encounters between Spanish Baroque & African Traditions

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

 

 

The Kora

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

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

 

 

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

 

The new generation, Ballaké & Toumani

 

 

 

Spanish Baroque Harp

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Zarambeques

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

Zarambeques:

Encounters between Spanish Baroque & African Traditions

 

Andrew Lawrence-King Spanish Baroque Harp
Ballaké Sissoko Kora

 

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

KORA
Futur Ballaké Sissoko
Maimouna

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

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

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

 

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It’s Recitative, but not as we know it

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

the boring bit between the nice tunes!

And we all know how to perform it –

free rhythm,

conversational style,

get through the text quickly,

ornament the cadences [Monteverdi],

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

NOT!

 

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

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

But it’s recitative, isn’t it?

The short answer is: No, it isn’t.

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

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

 

What is ‘Baroque Recitative’?

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

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

What is Recitative, in modern-day musicology?

The standard academic definition of

syllabic declamation over a static bass-line

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

recitare means ‘to act’.

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

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

recitativo does NOT mean ‘Recitative’ 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is 17th-century aria?

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

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

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

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

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

What is the 17th-century terminology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Better modern-day terminology

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

 

 

Not Opera, but Music-drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Monteverdi ‘Orfeo’ Act I

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

How should we perform 17th-century dramatic monody?

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

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

How to perform ‘Recitative’???

 

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

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

Musica rappresentativa is NOT ‘do as you please’!

 

Priorities

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

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

Imitation of Speech

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

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

Text

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

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

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

Tactus

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

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

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

 

 

Driving the Time

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

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

Sprezzatura

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

No Ornamentation

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

 

 

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

Expression

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

Action

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

 

 

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

But it’s recitative, isn’t it?

 

Time & Free Will – Historical & Psychological Time

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

 

 

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

 

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

 

A Philosophy of its Time

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

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

Music of an Earlier Time.

 

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

Water has no taste?

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Best Practical Musick: Thomas Mace’s Rule of Time-Keeping

 

The Best Practical Music

 

In a recent online discussion in the Historical Performance Research group, I gave

a timely warning to anyone who might be tempted by the idea that Rhetorical Eloquence is somehow contrary to rhythmical or harmonic structure.

My provocation drew the hoped-for riposte, with a suggestion that 17th-century lutenist Thomas Mace thought that ‘playing in time is [only] for beginners’. This suggestion, and the mis-reading of period texts as if they supported it, is so commonly encountered, that I took up the challenge, and re-read the whole of Mace’s 1676 treatise Musick’s Monument to find out what Thomas actually wrote.

 

 

Time-keeping

 

The book includes many music examples, even complete pieces and suites, in tablature. Its 272 pages are divided into three parts, on the Necessity of Singing, the Noble Lute and the Generous Viol. Concerning time-keeping, Mace’s instructions for beginners and comments for advanced players are found in the The Civil Part: or the Lute made Easie, starting at page 78:

In all musical performances whatever, if they be done according to Art, they are done according to the Rule of Time-Keeping

This alone should be enough to settle any debate. And Mace gives us plenty of further detail of how to keep time.

 

 

The inter-dependence of Time and Motion is rooted in Aristotle’s definition of Time as ‘a number of motion, in respect of before and after’. Not until a century or so later would Newton’s concept (Principia, 1687) of Absolute Time gain general acceptance. Mace’s Aristotelean time requires steady motion to drive it, and – according to the philosophy of the Music of the Spheres – the motion of music imitates the perfect movement of the stars and the harmonious nature of the human body.

On the lute, ‘an instrument on which both are hands are employed, we must therefore keep time with a foot’. Muffat gives the same advice for violinists in his preface to Florilegium Secundum (1698).

 

 

Mace’s requirement for

Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion… like the Balance of a good Clock

carries forward from 1592 the principles of Zacconi’s (hand-beating) Tactus:

regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation

 

 

Mace’s time-keeping foot moves just like Zacconi’s tactus-hand: down for one minim, up for the next minim, so that the complete tactus-motion occupies a semibreve.

 

 

The instruction (page 79) that there should not be ‘the least Difference’ during the piece is supported by Muffat’s repeated insistence that the vrai mouvement (true movement) of French dances should continue from the beginning to the end. And as a good teacher, Mace recommends that beginners ‘carefully practise; so that the good habi acquired ‘at the first’ will ‘ever continue’ for the rest of the player’s career.

In contrast, many of us who nowadays play Early Music, received our first training in the post-romantic school of the 20th-century, with its tacit assumption that the vacillating rhythm and wayward tempi of Rubato are the secret of advanced expression. We have to read Mace’s words carefully, if we are to escape our own assumptions and inhabit his world of Aristotelean time.

In chapter XI, Mace recommends a pendulum as an aid to learning how to keep time ‘by the most Exact, Easie and Infallible Way’, and as a test for ‘masters’ even for an ‘Artist of the Highest Form… a very Master’ that should ‘be able to keep Exact True Time’. The length of the pendulum should be adjusted so that one can count from one to four ‘with Deliberation, as a Man would speak Gravely or Soberly, and not Hastily or Huddlingly; yet not Drawlingly or Dreamingly; but in an Ordinary Familiar way of Speaking’. These four crotchet-beats, i.e. one semibreve, occupy the time for the pendulum to swing one way and then the other way, i.e. a complete oscillation.  The pendulum, as an ‘assured time-keeper’ should be the musician’s Director.

Mace’s advice for students concludes with a reminder (page 81) that

The Exact Motion of True Time-Keeping is one of the most Necessary and Main Things in Musick

Liberty

In this familiar 17th-century context of true time-keeping, which is supported so strongly by period French and Italian sources, Mace’s next remark might well seem contradictory:

Although in our First Undertakings we ought to strive for the most Exact Habit of Time-Keeping that we can possibly attain unto (and for several good Reasons) yet, when we come to be Masters, so that we can command all manner of Time, at our own Pleasures, we then take Liberty (and very often for Humour and good Adornment-sake, in certain places) to break time; sometimes faster and sometimes slower, as we perceive the nature of the thing requires, which often adds much Grace and Lustre to the performance.

How are we to reconcile such Liberty with Mace’s uncompromising remarks on the ‘Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion’ of Time-Keeping’ … ‘in all musical performances whatever;?  Mace, a cleric in divine orders, greatly admired the lute-playing of John Dowland, who similarly preached

Above all things, keep the Equality of Measure. For to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself.

 

 

And according to Shakespeare’s Richard II, sweet music becomes sour ‘when time is broke’.

 

 

It would be foolhardy to turn a blind eye to all this period context of ‘exact Time-Keeping’, and leap to the conclusion that Mace’s Liberty is an invitation to apply 20th-century rubato indiscriminately to 17th-century music. Rather we must search for evidence of precisely where the ‘certain places’ are, and of how to ‘perceive the nature of the thing’.

 

Humour

Above all, we need to understand Mace’s concept of Humour – not as a modern performer’s personal ‘interpretation’, but as a quality that already resides within the composition, and which the performer must perceive, so that the listener may understand, enjoy and be moved. In a philosophy of performance that goes back to the trobadors and trouveres, Mace requires players to find the Humour, not invent it.

17th-century ‘Humour‘ does not mean comedy: we might roughly define it as ‘Emotion’, ‘Mood’, or (to use another period English term) ‘Passion’. As a term for musical performance, Humour is rooted in period Science, where the doctrine of the Four Humours offers a self-consistent and practicable system for understanding and working with the psychological and physiological effects of emotions. Words and music that are heard and understood in the mind (see Enargeia, Visions in Performance) send signals (Energia) down to the body, creating changes in various body-fluids. The changing balance of those fluids creates the physiological effects of emotional change.

The Sanguine Humour is linked to blood, associated with healthy red cheeks, or a delicate blush, with love, courage, hope, with the enjoyment of music, good food and red wine. The Choleric Humour is linked to yellow bile, associated with desire, anger and the urge for strong drink. The Melancholy Humour (beloved of John Dowland and Shakespeare’s Jacques) is linked to black bile, paleness in the face (lack of Sanguinity, the opposite humour), associated with sleeplessness, too much study, unlucky love-affairs, and academic precision! The Phlegmatic Humour is linked to green phlegm, and lack of any emotional response: a wet blanket.

 

Of course, these four Humours are not a complete catalogue of the vast array of human emotion; rather, like the four cardinal points, North, South, East & West, they indicate primary directions within the whole area being mapped.

Like those cardinal points, the Four Humours focus attention on opposites: North & South, Sanguine & Melancholic. This supports the tendency in 17th-century music to contrast one Humour (in Italian, affetto) with its opposite (oposto) – see Motion and E-motion in the First Opera. In common with opera- and ballo-composer Cavalieri’s advice for singers, Mace’s instructions for lutenists ask for contrasts of loud and soft.

And Mace’s linking of three concepts: specific musical situations (‘certain places’), affetto (Humour), and subtleties of Time recalls Frescobaldi’s (1615) Rules for toccatas (applicable also to madrigals and other genres with contrasting movements). All too often, modern performers take Frescobaldi’s remarks as an encouragement to rhythmic anarchy and Rubato; but close reading of his carefully formulated Rules reveals both the underlying assumption of steady Tactus, and the precisely delimited circumstances under which the Tactus can change. See Frescobaldi Rules – OK?

To summarise, Frescobaldi advocates using Tactus to control the music, even if that Tactus sometimes changes. He limits the opportunities for change to the break between contrasting movements with contrasting emotions. He also allows a momentary pause, on the upbeat. Caccini suggests, and Monteverdi notates another practice of rhythmic freedom, where the accompaniment continues in steady measure, but the solo melody drifts around, like a jazz singer syncopating against the rhythm section. See sprezzatura.

And 17th-century musical Time has its own special shape, described by the concept of Arsis & Thesis and illustrated by the non-linear movement of a pendulum swing. Tactus is not ‘metronomic’, in the perjorative sense. See The Shape of Time

Time & Humour

So now let’s study Mace’s remarks about Time and Humour – all of them – and see what we can discover about the ‘certain places’ where the music might go ‘faster or slower’, and how it might thus go.

Page 97 – Brisk

In describing the character – we might well say, Humour – of the key of B major ( not Bb!), rarely encountered in 17th-century lute-music, Mace uses for this Key the words ‘Noble, Brave and Brisk-Lively’. This usage reminds us that, for Mace, the words Brisk and Lively convey character, not merely speed. It would be nonsense to write that B major is a ‘fast key’, but the quality of Brisk-Liveliness is shown by the dotted notes that Mace uses in the music example that follows.

Mace’s focus in these chapters is on correct left-hand fingering and right-hand strokes, preparing “by setting your Left Hand upon the Stops, and your Right Hand upon the String, ready to strike. yet

 

Strike them in their due time… according to their true Quantities

Page 101-102 – gentle

In his discussion of Full Plays (chords using many strings, for example at cadences – Full Stops), Mace describes the ‘Fashionable way of Playing them (now used)’ which ‘is much more easie’, in which the thumb plays the bass note, and the forefinger rakes down all the other strings, rather than playing each string with a different finger. He defines the word ‘rake’ as ‘smoothly stroke… very gently’. There is no suggestion of slowness, indeed Mace emphasises that an intervening short note ‘will not admit of any delay’.

From this, and my previous citation, it is apparent that Mace perceives two opposing types of Humour, in which Brisk Lively is contrasted with Smoothly Gentle, but without linking these qualities to any change between Fast and Slow.  As readers of modern English, we should be careful not to add any present-day connotations of brisk = fast, gentle = slowly, when we see these words in Mace’s next pages.

Page 103-104

Mace gives a ‘General and Certain Rule (never to be altered)’ for ornamentation – Graces or the Adorning of your Play (note the use of the word ‘adorn’, which he links also to the concept of Liberty), that ‘All Shakes’ must be made according to

The Aire and Humour of your Tuning and Lesson

He then sets down the Aire as a scale, determined by the nature of the tuning of the lute, not by the tonality of the piece at hand.

He rules out the idea that rhythm might be bent for the sake of prolonging ornaments – whatever his concept of Liberty might be, it is not this.

When I have thus continued Beating, so long as my Time will allow me

Page 109 – vibrato

I can’t resist this brief digression to note that Mace’s Sting, ‘a very Neat and Pritty Grace’… ‘for some sorts of Humours very Excellent’ is vibrato, “as to make the Sound seem to Swell with pritty unexpected Humour, and gives much Contentment, upon Cases”. Thomas believes that vibrato adds a pleasing emotional quality, but only in certain circumstances.

But the Sting is ‘not Modish in these days’.  It would seem that Dowland used more vibrato than Mace….

Page 109 – Loud & Soft

Mace gives great importance to dynamic contrasts:

Play some part of the Lesson loud and some part soft

‘which gives much more Grace and Lustre to Play, than any other Grace, whatsoever: therefore I commend it, as a Principal and Chief-Ornamental Grace (in its Proper Place)

Page 109 – the Pause

At the end of this chapter on ornamentation, we have the first mention of modification of Time.

‘The thing to be done is but only to make a kind of Cessation, or standing still, sometimes Longer and sometimes Shorter, according to the Nature, or requiring of the Humour of the Musick’

If this is done ‘in its due Place’, it is a ‘a very excellent Grace’.

In subsequent pages, Mace gives many examples of ‘due Places’ for the Pause. The effect recalls Frescobaldi’s description of the Tactus hand ‘hesitating in the air’  at certain moments. For both writers, the effect is used very sparingly, and as a one-off event. It is not applied repeatedly or continuously throughout a passage, in the manner of 20th-century Rubato. There is no suggestion of rallentando approaching the Pause, indeed Mace’s words ‘but only to make a kind of Cessation’ seem to rule out any anticipatory slowing-down.

Page 115-116 – touch, humour, key, conceit

In this discussion of improvisation, Mace celebrates the ability to manage contrasts in four inter-related qualities: touch (the sounding of one or more notes), Humour (emotional quality), key (what we would today call tonality), conceit (a musical idea, subject or theme). Once the particular key is established, ‘some little Humour’ (a few more notes, a fragment of melody) allows the listener to ‘discern some Shape or Form of Matter’.

The ‘Shape or Form’ is also called a Fugue, i.e. a contrapuntal point, a fragment of melody suitable for polyphonic imitation.

‘This term Fuge is a Term used among Composers, by which they understand a certain intended Order, Shape or Form of Notes, signifying such a Matter, or such an Extention; and is used in Musick as a theme, or as a subject-matter in Oratory, on which the Orator intends to discourse.

‘And this is the Nature and Use of a Fuge in Musick.’

‘Maintain a Fuge or Humour’

In this context of improvised playing, ‘maintaining’ seems to combine the compositorial skill of working a point of counterpoint (Fugue) and the performer’s skill of maintaining an emotional mood (Humour).

Page 117 – Fuge & Humour

‘As to the Humour of It, you may observe that it all tastes of, or similises with the first bar in some small kind; yet not too much of the same Humour…the last part is a little akin to the Fuge; yet perculiarly a Humour by itself. For you may carry on and maintain several Humours and Conceits in the same Lesson, provided they have some affinity or agreement one to the other.’

Mace criticises composers of the previous generation for too many contrasts of Humour in one piece. But in the following page (118) he declares that music is a language that can express any emotion, and that it is even more powerful than rhetorical words.

In Musick any Humour, Conceit or Passsion may be expressed, and so significantly as any Rhetorical Words or Expressions are able to do

‘If any difference be, it is in that Music speaks so transcendently, and communicates its notions so intelligibly to the internal, intellectual and incomprehensible Faculties of the Soul, so far beyond all language of words…. Those Influences that come along with it, may aptly be compared to Emanations, Communications or Distillations of some sweet and heavenly Genius or Spirit, mystically and unapprehensibly  (yet efectually) dispossessing the Soul and Mind of all irregular disturbing and unquiet Motions; and stills and fills it with quietness, joy and peace. absolute tranquillity and inexpressible satisfaction.’

 

On page 120, he observes the ‘Fugues, Orders and Forms’ of his first three examples, in which the Humour of the first two bars is maintained in the next two bars, then for the remainder of the piece there is ‘another Humour or Fuge’, distinct from the opening, ‘but alluding to it’.  Mace’s ideal contrast in Humour is subtle and simple, rather than dramatic or manifold.

Page 120 – Suite

 

A Sett or a Suit of Lessons… may be of any number as you please, yet commonly are about half a dozen. The first always … in the nature of … [an improvised] Prelude…. Then Allmaine, Ayre, Coranto, Saraband, Toy or what you please, provided that they be all in the same key; yet (in my opionion)… they ought to be something akin, or to have some kind of resemblance in their Conceits, Natures or Humours.

 

In the example prelude that follows, ‘the whole Lesson alludes to the same thing, and yet with pleasant variety.’  We might therefore assume that in such a piece , with no significant change of Humour, there will be no need for the Liberty of making any significant change in tempo.

 

Page 121-124 – The Author’s Mistress

Mace tells a touching personal story about the inspiration for the composition of this piece, 40 years previously, in passionate longing for his wife-to-be. He considers it ‘the Best Lesson in the book’ and its powerful emotional associations make it an important test-case for the realisation of Humours in performance.

 

Mace declares that the first two bars give the Fugue, which is maintained through the whole Lesson. The Form and Shape consists of two uniform and equal strains, but the Humour of it ‘which you may perceive by the marks and directions is not common’.  The only marks and directions in the tablature are contrasts of loud/soft, ornaments and slurs.

These three terms ought to be considered in all performances of this Nature (Ayres and the like): Fugue, Form & Humour

The Fugue is Lively, Airy, Neat, Curious and Sweet – like my Mistress.
The Form is Uniform, Comely, Substantial, Grave and Lovely – like my Mistress.
The Humour is singularly Spruce, Amiable, Pleasant, Obliging and Innocent – like my Mistress.

Mace’s verbal directions are ‘to Play Soft and Loud, as you see it marked’; ‘use the Sting (vibrato) where you see it set, and the Spinger after it’; ‘observe the slides and slurs, and you cannot fail to know My Mistress’s Humour, provided you keep True Time, which you must be extremely careful to do in all lessons:

For Time is One Half of Musick.

Thus in his best composition, a work of powerful emotions and deep personal meaning, Mace looks for expression of passions by dynamic contrasts, by subtle use of vibrato and by elegant slurs, whilst insisting on ‘True Time’.  There is no place here for Rubato. Even contrasting tempi for the two sections are not suggested, probably because the nature of the piece is uniform, without contrasts between the sections.

 

Page 125-126 – The Offspring

 

This piece was composed to create a consort, combining with My Mistress as a lute-duo. It can also be played as a solo, continuing on from a solo performance of My Mistress. When it is played as a solo:

 

You must for the Humour’s sake make Pauses

 

Mace marks where the three pauses should be made, in the last strain of the piece: on each of the pause-notes, vibrato should be added. As previously, he emphasises the need for ‘soft and loud, as you see it marked’, and to ‘take notice of the Fugues, which are … maintained to the end, yet various from each other’. The Fugues determine the Humour, the Humour requires dynamic contrasts, and (for the first time) here Mace applies his concept of Liberty, for the sake of Humour.

As we would expect, the Pauses come at the end of (short, internal) phrases, on a consonant, sustained harmony, and on the up-stroke of the lutenist’s time-keeping foot. This corresponds closely to Frescobaldi’s identification of consonant, sustained harmonies as the mark of the end of a section, and with the hesitations of his Tactus hand being also on the up-stroke.

Page 126-129 – Uniformity & Contrast

Mace is teaching the student to improvise, as well as to perform composed music. So he emphasises that renaissance compositorial skill, of working out a contrapuntal point (managing a fugue) and creating ‘a True and Handsome Form or Shape’. Uniformity of Form consists of matching the number of bars between strains, and having an even number of bars in each.

The Fugue or Humour may be whatever one wants, yet they should be neat and spruce, and they should be maintained uniformly and evenly.

Uniformity is especially desirable in short dance movements: Allmaines, Ayres, Corantoes, Sarabands should always be Uniform and Even. But longer pieces – Preludes, Fancies, Pavans etc – often have ‘Humours of Pauses and Flourishes in a wild way, according to their Nature’.

Some pieces have ‘Fansical, Humorous or Conceited Names’ yet have regular ‘Forms, Shapes, and Order of their Time, or Proportion’ and may be called Allmaines or Ayres.

Mace now describes the various movement-types in a suite, He criticises some improvised Preludes as ‘confused-wild-shapeless-kind of intricate-play … in which no perfect Form, Shape or Uniformity can be perceived…. and has an unlimited and unbounded Liberty … of Forms, Shapes and all the rest.’

Pavans are ‘very Grave and Sober; full of Art and Profundity’.

Allmaines are ‘very Airy and Lively’;

Galliards ‘are performed in a Slow and Large Triple Time …. grave and sober’.

Corantoes are ‘shorter … and quicker triple-time, full of sprightfulness and vigour, lively, brisk, cheerful’.

‘Sarabands are of the shortest triple-time, but are more toyish and light than Corantoes’

A Tattle de Moy ‘is much like a Sarabande, only it has more of Conceit in it’ as if ‘speaking the word Tattle de Moy, and of Humour.

‘Chiconas are only a few conceited humorous notes at the end of a suite, very short … commonly of a Grave kind of Humour’

‘Toys or Jiggs are light-squibbish things, only fit for Fantastical and Easy-Light-Headed people’

Common Tunes are popular street songs: Mace praises them as ‘very excellent and well-contrived, neat and spruce’.

‘The Ground is a set number of slow notes, very Grave and Stately … expressed once or twice very plainly … then several Divisions upon it.’

We must understand the word ‘conceited’ in its period meaning, as ‘full of clever and witty ideas’.

Page 130 – Another Liberty

Mace calls the fourth lesson a Coranto, ‘and properly…. by the Time and Shape of it.  However [Mace] would have it played played in a Slow and Long proportion, for the Nature of it is far more Sober than a Coranto.’

‘The Fugue is seen in the first 3 notes, and perceptible’ throughout. ‘The Form is Even, Uniform and Perfect. The Humour is a kind of sorrowing, pitying and bemoaning.’

We can see something of Mace’s underlying assumptions from these instructions. He considers that there is a standard tempo for a Coranto, but that for the sake of the Humour one should adopt a different tempo, in this case slower. His ‘slow and long proportion’ might be a specific tempo, Sesquialtera proportion (rather than the usual Tripla) based on a standard tempo of common time.

Here we see one ‘certain place’ where Liberty is appropriate: for the sake of the Humour, a particular piece may be played slower (or faster) than the standard speed. Nevertheless, within that piece, the (unusual) tempo would be maintained. This application of Liberty still satisfies the absolute requirement for accurate time-keeping. Mace mentions the possibility of varying the length of the tempo-pendulum, and Frescobaldi allows certain movements to be faster or slower, but still ‘facilitated by Tactus’.

In short, performers may take an unusual tempo, if the Humour suggests it, but that tempo should be maintained accurately.

Without contradicting his insistence on ‘vrai mouvement‘ from beginning to end of a given movement, Muffat describes an interesting practice for fast dance-types, which can be played three times through: each time, the tempo is faster. Perhaps this is how we should perform some of the thrice-repeated dance-movements in Handel’s Fireworks and Water Music.

 

Page 130 – Finding the Humour

One short paragraph gives valuable advice for finding the ‘General Humour of any Lesson’,

by observing ‘its Form or Shape’. If it is ‘Uniform and Retortive’ with ‘Short Sentences’, then ‘you will find it very easy to humour a lesson by playing some sentences loud, and others again soft, according as they best please your own Fancy; some very Briskly and Couragiously and some again Gently, Lovingly Tenderly and Smoothly’.

Here the performer has free choice of where to apply Loud and Soft. But there is no indication of contrasting tempi. From Mace’s usage in previous chapters, we know that ‘Brisk’ and ‘Gently’ do not imply changes of tempo, but are character words, linked here and elsewhere in the treatise to Courage or to Love, Tenderness and Smoothness. Notice that according to the doctrine of the Four Humours, these are all aspects of the one, Sanguine Humour. So the contrast of Loud and Soft is not so great, as to require change of tempo.

 

Page 130 – The Pause

 

The ‘choicest lustre… in such Humours’ is given by making ‘your Pauses at Proper Places, which are commonly at the end of such sentences, where there is a Long note.’

This advice correlates well with Mace’s own practice, as observed in earlier chapters.

 

Page 131 – A Humour

This is another coranto-like piece, which Mace calls ‘A Humour’.

 

The Fugue or Subject-Matter … is throughout maintained. with handsome and various intermixtures. The Form is Uniform (each Strain within itself), though not all of the same number of bars’.

 

Here, the strains vary in humour.

‘Sometimes (for Humour-Sake) more Pleasant and Delightful… Humorous and Conceited… and seems to mock, or mowe, or jest; to be blyth or merry, as if it were telling some jiggish story, and pointing at this or that body … In the four last bars … you must pause and use the stinging Grace [vibrato] a pretty while; and then softly whirl away and conclude.’

This delightfully whimsical description conveys a vivid impression of the character of the piece, without resort to any suggestion of tempo change, until the Pause just before the end. Notice that the Pause is all the more prolonged in this witty and active piece; and that after the pause the ending ‘whirls away’ softly, but not slowly.

In this piece, the Liberty is not that the time is altered, but that the Humour is so witty that the performance departs from the normal mood of a Coranto.

‘And although it be Coranto-Time, yet (in regard of the Conceitedness of the Humour) I give it that name.

The title over the tablature reads ‘The fifth lesson of the first set, being a Coranto, but called I like my Humour well

Page 132 – A perfect Coranto

‘This … perfect Coranto … has its Fuge ,,, throughout maintained. Its Form is Uniform … the Humour is Solid, Grave and very Persuasive… Expostulating the Matter with great Ferventness, which you must humour by performing Soft and Loud-Play in Proper Places, where you may easily perceive such Humour to lie’.

 

Page 133 – Tattle de Moy

 

Mace helps students to find out for themselves Fugue, Form and Humour. But notice that students should find these elements, and not invent them for themselves.

The Fugue is in the first two bars. The Form is absolutely Perfect and Uniform … Its Humour is Toyish, Jocond, Harmless and Pleasant, and as if it were one playing with or tossing a ball up and down; yet it seems to have a very Solemn Countenance, and like unto one of a Sober and Innocent condition or disposition; not Antic, Apish or Wild etc’.

‘Remember [as always] to play Loud and Soft …  Briskly and Gently, Smoothly, as your fancy will (no doubt) prompt you’

Memento, that Soft and Loud play is a Chief Grace.

Mace encourages students to persist, even if his advice at first seems strange – this is welcome support for today’s Early Music performers too!

These ways of discourse will seem strange to very many at the first, because they are unusual.

 

Page 142 & 147 – Observations

The Humour must be found out, by playing Soft and Loud, and making your Pauses

‘When you meet with such Seeming-Single-Moving-Walking things; and find Affinity between parts and parts, or bars and bars… then Soft and Loud play is the most necessary for to Humour it…

In modern English: if you find a movement that seems rhythmically consistent, with affinity between one part, or one bar and another, then the way to Humour it is by dynamic contrasts.

‘Many drudge and take great pains to play their lessons very … fast [but] you will perceive little Life or Spirit in them…. they do not labour to find out the Humour, Life or Spirit’

 

Page 149 – a Grave Galliard

For the preceding Coranto, Mace writes ‘Loud and Soft, which is enough’.

The next piece has the form of a Galliard, but should be played ‘in a very Sober and Grave Proportion; for it has a most singular Humour in the way of Expostulating Grief and Sorrow’. Here again, the Humour suggests taking the Liberty to play in an unusual tempo, but there is no suggestion of rhythmic irregularity.

The Galliard on page 171 is marked ‘Play this Lesson in very slow time’

 

Page 152 – Slow with Pauses

‘Play it slow, make your pauses, and observe the Humour’

Otherwise, pauses seem to be used mostly in fast pieces.

 

Page 153 – Tattle de Moy

 

‘Find the Humour yourself, by Soft and Loud play’

 

Page 170 – Crackle the crotchets

This special effect on three-note chords consists of arpeggiating each chord, causing them to ‘sob’ by slacking the left hand grip as soon as the note is struck, suddenly deadening the sound. Mace is careful to specify that this is all done in such a way

‘so as not to lose time, but give each crotchet its due quantity’

 

Conclusion

It is beyond debate that the underlying context for all Mace’s advice is of regular Time-Keeping. That time-keeping is by Tactus, counting by minims in common time, and with proportions for triple time. There are standard expectations for the speed of common time, and for the appropriate proportion for particular dance-types.

The model of perfect time-keeping is the Pendulum. The practical means of time-keeping is by moving the foot, down for one minim, up for the next.

The performers’ role is not to impose their own ‘interpretation’ on the piece, but to find out the Humours that are already there. Keeping Time is essential, for finding out the Humours.

The principle means of expressing changes in Humour is dynamic contrast.  A secondary means of expression is the Pause, in particular places.

Dfferent movements can have different tempi, even tempi that are unexpected for the dance-type that the piece seems to resemble, if the Humour demands it.

Fast pieces, and even some slow pieces, can have one or pauses before the end, but the conclusion ‘whirls away’ without rallentando.

I see no evidence at all for Rubato within a phrase or movement.  Mace’s Liberty of ‘fast and slow’ is between one movement and another, or between the standard tempo for a certain dance-type and the specific tempo for a piece in a particular humour. The only other Liberty in time-keeping that he mentions is the Pause.

All this is consistent with what we read in other sources of this period, whether English, Italian or French.

I give Thomas the last word:

Keep True Time

 

In modern English: Keep True Time, which you must be extremely careful to do, in everything you play (page 124).

 

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.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

Eternal Hieroglyphs?

 

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

Gieroglifici eterni,

Che in zifre luminose ogn’or splendete     

Ah! Che alla mente umana                                      

Altro che belle oscurità non siete.              

Pure il mio spirto audace                            

Crede veder scritto là su nelle stelle…

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

 

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

Andante Allegro

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

 

Beautiful obscurity?

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

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

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1981)

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

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

 

Well-established facts

 

Opera rehearsal

 

  • Baroque music was not conducted

 

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

 

 

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

 

Handel’s tempo indications

 

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

 

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

 

Handel’s specific instructions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Notation indicates tempo relationships.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Gavotte in the Anna Magdalena Bach ‘Notenbuch’

 

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

 

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

 

 

Initial assumption

 

 

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

 

  • Circa 1600, Tactus is approximately minim = 60

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Hypothesis

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

 

  • Tempo words modify the default Tactus

 

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

 

Historical Principle

 

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

 

Methodological Test

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: tempo ordinario

 

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

 

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

 

Tempo ordinario

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: Recitative

 

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

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

 

Recit – tempo ordinario – grave

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Hypothesis: recitative & tempo ordinario

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

 

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

 

Handel’s Tempo words: faster or slower?

 

Harrison sea clock H1 c1736

 

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

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

 

Handel’s tempi table 1

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

 

Fast duple, Triple and Compound metres

 

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

 

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

 

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

Handel tempi Table 2

 

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

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

Handel tempi Table 3

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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