Ornamenting Monteverdi – Add, Alter or Divide?

How far do you and your ensemble go, when ornamenting music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries?

 



1) Go on, do some ornaments like on the CDs.

2) Not too much ornamention, [insert name here]!

3) Not THAT ornament!

4) Let’s study examples of ornamentation from period ornamentation manuals.

5) Let’s study how to apply those ornaments, by looking at scores and treatises.

I thought I was somewhere between steps 4 and 5, but in researching for this article, I began to realise that the typical approach of today’s Early Music is not just slightly off-target, it’s diametrically opposed to historical evidence. Even for such well-known works as Orfeo (1607) and the (1610) Vespers, our understanding of ornamentation needs a complete reset.

 

How should we ornament Cadences?

Often, the problem is expressed as a well-intended question:

What to do with all those cadences?

 

The Bass Cadence usually appears in the lowest voice. Tenor and Soprano cadences can be in any voice. The names Tenor and Soprano are used to identify the melodic shape, not the particular voice.

 

 

Cadence in La Musica

“Tenor Cadence” in the soprano voice. “Bass Cadence” in the continuo

 

In particular, in dramatic, sacred or courtly monody (let’s not muddy the waters by calling it Recitative  more here), how should we ornament what seem to be over-frequent cadences in long notes (minims or semibreves), especially the descending whole tone of the Tenor Cadence?

Diminution Manuals

When we look to the sources, there is an easy answer to this question. There are several historical treatises on the Art of Diminution, showing how any long note can be divided into shorter notes (hence the period English term for this practice, Division), with many examples of passaggi to be taken as models for prepared or spontaneous ornamentating. To ensure that the Diminution flows smoothly to the next note, these examples are categorised by the interval between the two long notes: up or down; unison, second, third, fourth etc. So all we have to do is select a treatise from the early 1600s (or a little earlier, representing the style that Monteverdi’s singers would have learnt from their teachers), and turn to the section on descending a second, and we can see a dozen or more historical solutions.

If a modern-day singer prefers to learn by ear (a reasonable and historical preference), then instead of studying recent CDs, it’s easy to record a selection of historical examples, or to transcribe period dimutions into Sibelius and export a sound-file. There are links at the end of this article for Divisions of the Descending Second by Virgiliano (1600) and Ortiz (1553). And this is a good moment to mention Helen Roberts’ excellent Passaggi app for improvisation and ornamentation, which offers a 21st-century learning approach using period sources. Practice your divisions here www.passaggi.co.uk


 

Making divisions on a descending second is an attractive and source-based answer for ornamenting Monteverdi’s monody. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong answer! And that’s because we have been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “how should we ornament cadences?”, we should ask “how should we apply ornamentation?”.

How should we apply ornamentation?

The difference between these two questions becomes clear if we look at Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601).  [Translation of the Preface and link to the original  print here.] For his ‘noble manner of singing’ Caccini seeks to update the 16th-century practice of diminutions by ‘avoiding the old-fashioned manner of passaggi‘, which is ‘more suitable for wind and string instruments than for the voice’. Nevertheless, his didactic examples and composed songs have plenty of diminutions, fitting into the continuing tradition of Arie Passaggiati [ornamented arias]. So in preparing this article, I thought I would be able to extract from Le Nuove Musiche a useful selection of models for ornamenting cadences, to compare and contrast with Ortiz and Virgiliano.

I was wrong. Firstly, there are few Tenor Cadences in Caccini’s songs: he uses many Imperfect Cadences (7 6, in continuo-speak), and at Perfect Cadences (4 3) he prefers to give the voice the Soprano Cadence. But even more significantly, when he does write a Tenor Cadence, he almost always leaves it plain. There might be plenty of diminutions earlier in the phrase, but at the cadence itself there is a plain long note (in a couple of instances, he adds a simple trillo).

 

Dolcissimo sospiro (Le Nuove Musiche, 1601) passaggi and plain cadence



Somewhat rattled by this, I turned back to Monteverdi’s most famous examples of written-out diminutions: Orfeo’s magnificent ornamented aria Possente Spirto , the famous Echo piece from the Vespers, Audi Caelum and Monteverdi’s take on the Three Tenors: Duo Seraphim. Here as in Caccini’s teaching examples and chamber-songs, it is clearly seen that the passaggi finish just before each cadence.

 

Possente Spirto (Orfeo, 1607) passaggi and plain cadence

 

Audi Coelum (1610 Vespers) passaggi and plain cadences

 

Duo Seraphim (1610 Vespers) passaggi and plain cadence



Standard modern practice – leaving a phrase plain and then dividing the long note at the cadence – is the opposite of what Caccini and Monteverdi notate.

 



Prefaces & Treatises

In addition to Diminution Manuals and composed Arie Passeggiati, there are written commentaries on ornamentation practices in several early seicento Prefaces and Treatises.

In the Preface to the earliest surviving baroque music-drama, Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600), Cavalieri’s instruction for singers is ‘senza passaggi‘ (and for the continuo, ‘senza diminutioni‘. In sacred music for solo voices and continuo, Cento Concerti Ecclesiastici (1602), Viadana warns singers not to add to the few melismas he writes. Caccini (1601) similarly remarks that he has notated all that is necessary for his chamber-songs.

Peri’s Preface to Euridice (1600) links, translation and commentary here emphasises the speech-like quality of his dramatic monody, in which intermediate syllables are sung so lightly that their pitch is almost indiscernible. He mentions that the famous soprano Vittoria Archilei has added diminutions to some of his previous compositions (‘more to obey the practice of our times, rather than because she thinks that therein lies the beauty and force of our singing’), and hints at ‘those beauties and delicacies which cannot be written, or if written cannot be learnt from notation’. Caccini also warns that the most exquisite touches – squisitezze – are beyond notation, but that they can be learnt from written examples combined with practice.

Effetti

Caccini describes and shows how to apply a new type of ’emotional ornaments’, vocal effetti (effects) that produce affetti (emotions), instead of old-fashioned passaggi. Most frequently mentioned are crescendi/diminuendi on a single note, especially such on exclamatory words as Ahi! Deh!  etc. Phrases can be started with an exclamatione (forte-subito piano -crescendo, all on one note), with piano-crescendo on the first note, or rising from a third below. In the middle of the phrase, rhythms are systematically altered to make long notes longer, short notes shorter. For cadences, Caccini gives two simple ornaments: the one-note trillo (for the Tenor Cadence) and the two-note gruppo (for the Soprano Cadence).

 

Both examples (contrary to some modern-day recordings and performances) accelerate from slow to fast.

Similar effetti were introduced by Cavalieri (1600) in his Preface, and are indicated in the score itself by the intial letter of each effect. G = groppolo, T = Trillo etc.

 


Listen to and learn by ear Cavalieri’s & Caccini’s effetti here.

Cavalieri applies these effetti infrequently, perhaps just three or four times for the largest role (Anima), and less often for each supporting role. There are just two indications of gruppo in ensemble music.

This way of ornamenting may not be as ‘new’ as Caccini suggests. Giustiani (1628) describes differing ornamentation practices for sacred polyphony (passaggi) and monody (effetti) amongst performers in Rome as early as 1570. See Timothy McGee’s “How one Learned to Ornament in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”. 

Rhythmic Alteration

 

Monteverdi notates rhythmic alterations in which the voice anticipates or lags behind the continuo accompaniment.

In bar 2, the singer’s “sed” is immediately after the Tactus-beat (just a quaver rest), ahead of the continuo-bass (which comes a crotchet after the beat)

In bar 4, the singer’s “Ni…” again enters  unexpectedly early, anticipating the continuo-bass which is played on the next Tactus-beat

In bar 5, the singer’s “sed” is immediately after the Tactus-beat, and the continuo-bass has a minim, played on the Tactus-beat. Although the singer’s syncopated rhythm is similar to bar 2, the effect here is of a delay, rather than an anticipation, because the structure-defining continuo-bass plays first. 

At the beginning of bar 4, notice also the effetto ornament on the final note of the Imperfect Cadence: Monteverdi uses this effetto also in Orfeo, but only a couple of times in the whole opera.

 

 

My esteemed colleague, Xavier Diaz-Latorre, makes the excellent suggestion that one can better understand these jazzy syncopations by first trying the “square” version, with voice and continuo together in the obvious way, in order to appreciate the subtle effect of the altered rhythm. Perhaps singers might introduce this effect spontaneously, even where it is not notated, whilst continuo-players maintain the steady groove of Tactus. Monteverdi, Caccini and Jazz here.

Caccini gives many examples of rhythmic alteration. The common feature is that long notes are extended to become extra long, and short notes are correspondingly adjusted to be even shorter, within the same Tactus-duration.

 

Rhythmic Alteration

 

Speech-like or Song-like?

In the Preface to Comboattimento (published in 1638, but first performed in 1624), Monteverdi writes that Testo, the Narrator, should avoid gorghe and trilli, except in the one Aria.

This is supported by the anonymous Il Corago (c1630),  who notes [at the end of Chapter X] that ‘there are only a few cadences appropriate to each voice, and these occur frequently’. Nevertheless, dramatic monody ‘lacks those ornaments and beauties which greatly embellish singing: I mean [a lack] of passaggi, trilli, gorghiggiamenti, because these are too far removed from the normal manner of speaking and work against moving the passions… and for this reason singers are forbidden to use these ornaments and adorments when they act [or perform, declaim] in this style.’ 

In Chapter XI section III, Il Corago explains that ornamentation can be applied to diegetic songs (representing on stage the act of singing). ‘To give the musician an opportunity to use all the artistry of music, such as gorge in passaggi and sweetly drawn-out melodies, the poet can have some of them represent singing… giving an opportunity to both composer and singer to make those passaggi and beauties which are absent from the current style recitativo‘.

For the whole genre of dramatic monody, Doni [Annotationi  pages 60-62] makes a similar broad distinction between speech-like and song-like music, and categorises speech-like monody into three types: Narrative, Expressive and Special. For Doni, (as for McGee and me), the word recitativo is problematic, but what he calls Special Recitative is closer to song (although he does not approve of that!) It is found in many pastoral scenes (Doni’s examples are from the opening scenes of Peri’s Euridice) as well as in Prologues. It is tempting to assume that Special Recitative might therefore allow some passaggi, but the evidence of seicento music-drama scores suggests that although there is plenty of music that Doni would categorise as Special Recitative, hardly any passaggi are notated.

Nevertheless, the Prologue to the 1589 Florentine Intermedi has wonderful passaggi, sung by Vittoria Archilei. These passaggi stop before each cadence.

 

 

There is also an Aria Passeggiata by Caccini, in which passaggi in the middle of the phrase lead seamlessly into gruppi at cadences.  The character-role is a Sorceress who will tear down the moon from the skies.

 

Most probably, the Intermedi reflect earlier practice, as yet less influenced by the northward spread of Neapolitan and Roman influences.

In 1607, Orfeo’s famous aria Possente Spirto shows the seicento application of the old-fashioned aria passeggiata genre , as the protagonist sings a diegetic song at the central moment of the drama. The divisions are spectacular and charm Caronte’s ears, even though they do not move his emotions. The passaggi end before each cadence, though Monteverdi adds effetti at some cadences.

 

Possente Spirto (Orfeo 1609) passaggi before the cadence, effetti at the cadence

 

Echoes

Echo scenes were a special case, where the poet cleverly answers his character’s questions with a responding Echo, whilst the composer provides short bursts of passaggi for the Echo to imitate in reply. There is nearly always a moment where the audience are led to expect an answer, but the Echo remains silent. Cavalieri’s Anima sets a musical challenge for the imitating Echo with ornamentation that aptly supports the meaning of each key word, and the poet triumphs at the end of the scene by creating a complete sentence from the Echo’s replies.

 

In Orfeo, Striggio’s Echo is less witty, but more expressive, and Monteverdi does not notate passaggi for the scene, perhaps because the key words are so emotionally loaded.

 

 

Audi Coelum brings the theatrical device of the Echo into the sacred domain, and enlivens the syllabic style of theatrical music with thrilling passaggi.

 

 

Genre distinctions – Phrases & Cadences – Passaggi Effetti


Putting all this information together, we can begin to understand in which genres, and at which moments within the phrase,  different types of ornamentation might be applied. We have to distinguish between song-like music and speech-like dramatic monody; between final cadences and the preceding phrase; between dividing long notes into elaborate passaggi and adding restrained effetti. 

Passaggi are associated with the main body of the phrase, with song-like music, and with ear-charming delight. Effetti are associated with cadences, with speech-like music, and with ‘moving the passions’. All kinds of musicial complexity, including passaggi, were considered inappropriate in dramatic monody, because they diminished the speech-like quality of the musical declamation, and therefore worked against emotional communication. But if an actor represents a character singing, then ornamentation becomes ‘realistic’ and appropriate.

Perhaps there was a slight tendency for song-like writing (Doni’s Special Recitative) to encourage small doses of passaggi even in theatrical music, but there is scant evidence for this. The reverse is evident: certainly there was a strong tendency for theatrical restraint (from ear-tickling divisions) and passion (in emotional effects) to be applied to chamber and sacred monody, especially where the text suggested a first-person embodiment of a character-role. In this sense, the soloist of Audi Coelum represents the character-role of a soul crying out to heaven for counsel; the tenor who sings Nigra sum sed formosa speaks the words of the Shulamite “I am a black girl, but beautiful”! 

Where passaggi were employed, they end before the cadence itself. Cadences can have trilli, gruppi etc, but only infrequently.


How to deal with cadences?


This leaves us wondering, what we should do with the cadences, if we don’t ornament them. Doni describes [Annotatione page 362] the standard practice of early seicento theatrical monody (even though as a theorist, he disapproves of it). He is shocked at the contrast between the fully sung penultimate syllable and the almost unpronounced final syllable.

The penultimate note (the accented syllable of the word, and the Principal Accent of the poetic verse) is nearly always a long note (minim or semibreve) and is really sung (in contrast to the speech-like delivery of the rest of the line, clearly described by Caccini and Peri as ‘something less than singing’). The final note (the unaccented final syllable) is short and unaccented, barely pronounced. Il Corago warns that final syllables should not be dropped entirely, but Cavalieri indicates a silence at the end of almost every phrase. Gagliano’s stage directions have the singer starting to move on the penultimate syllable of a strophe, so that they have already turned away from the audience for the final syllable. 

In sharp contrast to today’s standard practice, the period recipe is: almost speak in dramatic styles, or add passaggi to song-like phrases, but don’t ornament the cadence. At the cadence, really sing the penultimate note nice and long, and then the last note is short and unaccented.

Meanwhile, if you actually count the cadences, they are usually no more frequent in monody than in polyphony. Of course, prima prattica polyphony disguises cadences by avoiding simultaneous cadences in all the voices, whereas in monody voice and bass usually make the cadence together. But the percieved ‘problem’ of cadences may be one that modern performers have inflicted on themselves, by sustaining last notes and attempting to ornament in the one place they should not!

Ornaments or emotions?

Doni (from his viewpoint as a theorist) and the utterly practical Il Corago both distinguish between song-like music with passaggi that delights the ear, and speech-like music that focusses on the pronunciation and emotions of the text in order to move the listener’s passions. In Orfeo, La Musica can do both:

Io su cetera d’or cantando soglio

Mortal orrechio lusinghar talhora

E in questo guisa a l’armonia sonora

De la lira del ciel, piu l’alme involglio

Singing to the golden lyre as always,

I can beguile mortal ears for a while.

And in this way, with the sonorous harmony

of the lyre of heaven, I can even influence souls.

But significantly, Caronte is not moved by the passaggi of Possente Spirto. And Il Corago explains why [Chapter X]:  ornamentation ‘distracts from the material that is sung about, and transfers your attention to the simple aural delight in masterly singing’. Doni describes this same dichotomy in terms of the rhetorical purposes of music: to delight, or to move the emotions? Caccini similarly contrasts the old-fashioned delight in passaggi with a new focus on moving the passions by means of crescendo/diminuendo, esclamationi and other effetti.

In this context, our modern focus on ornamentation of Monteverdi’s Recitative misses the point entirely. Instead of trying to apply passaggi to the cadences of dramatic monody, we should be focussed on delivering text to and inducing emotional response amongst audience members. And that’s why I’ve utterly lost patience with that ornament: it’s the wrong answer to the wrong question in the wrong situation. 


Finally, as promised, here are links to Diminutions of the Descending Second by Ortiz (1553) transcription and soundfile and Vigiliano (1600) transcription and soundfile. But these files come with a HIP health-warning: the entire argument of this article is that it is not historical to apply these passaggi to the cadences of Monteverdi’s dramatic monody. 

Baroque Opera then and now: 1600 & 1607, 1970-2020

How did Baroque ‘opera’ develop in the first decade of the 1600s?

And how have our modern-day performances of early music-drama advanced in a half-century of Historically Informed Performances?

This post is based on an interview for Radio Orpheus (Moscow)  in which the presenter, Russian poet, novelist and dramaturg, Alexey Parin asked me to compare and contrast two of the earliest surviving baroque operas: Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo (1600) and Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). Both operas can be seen in regular repertoire at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, in award-winning productions by Georgy Isaakyan, and in collaboration with OPERA OMNIA, the Academy for Early Opera & Dance.. My thanks to Alexey for his profound enthusiasm for opera, for his translation of the libretto of Anima & Corpo, and for his provocative questions in this interview.

 

With his long experience of opera in Russia, Alexey Parin finds the audience’s experience of the two works very different from one another.  Both productions succeed admirably, but why are they musically so different?

 

I think the first thing that strikes us, looking at the scores and listening to the music, is the similarity between the two works. Both composers are starting from the text, as if they were setting a spoken play to music.

But Monteverdi’s subject gives him the possibility for a lot more music, arising ‘realistically’ out of the drama. Since the protaganist is Orpheus, the great musician, the famous singer, of course we want to hear him sing and make music. And so he sings a magnificent Aria in Hell, accompanied by all the latest instruments of the early 17th-century Italian baroque. These are actually the same instruments that we hear in Cavalieri – violins, cornetti and the double-harp – but what’s now very different, is that with the excuse of Orpheus, Monteverdi writes virtuosi solos for these instruments. So although we have similar instruments, the sound of Monteverdi’s music begins to change.

Also in the earlier scenes, we are in pastoral Arcadia, and the shepherds of Arcadia all sing. They invite the Muses to descend from Parnassus to play instruments. So once again, Monteverdi has the chance to bring in a lot more ensemble music, proceeding ‘realistically’ from the mythological story.

Comparing the libretti

Another difference between the two works comes also from the text. With Orfeo, we are following one protagonist, we could almost say that the other characters are two-dimensional, only Orfeo is truly ‘there’. So while earlier operas exist on the same story, called Euridice, this drama is really the story of Orpheus. Eurydice has only two lines in the whole opera, but nevertheless what she says is extremely important, and perhaps her lines are the clue for understanding the whole opera. More about Eurydice here.

At the beginning when Orpheus sings beautifully of all his love for Euridice, her reply is that she cannot speak, and we should just ask Love, in order to know her feelings. And so we realise that Orpheus is perhaps speaking too much.

And this suspicion is reinfored with Eurydice’s second speech at the crucial moment in the drama, when Orpheus fatally turns to look at her. She says that the sight of him is too sweet, but also too bitter, and for the sake of too much love, he is going to lose her. And so in this very short speech, the word troppo, too much, comes three times. The poet is making it very clear for us here: this is the message. Orpheus was ‘too much’: too happy, too sad, too much love, too excessive in every way.

And so the message of the opera is then to look for the golden mean, for the perfect balance. But nevertheless, I think that Striggio as librettist and Monteverdi as composer both know that the audience enjoy the excesses. More about the message of Orfeo here.

And this brings us right back to Cavalieri again, because in his Preface, Emilio de’ Cavalieri says that the emotions in this kind of music come from rapid contrasts of opposites. More about Cavalieri’s Preface here.

Comparing the scores

It’s important to realise that a score in the early 17th-century had a very different purpose. It was not there for musicians like me to create a performance four hundred years later. More than anything, it was a souvenir for the public who had been to the performance and wanted to study the work further.

This reminds us how new this style of music-drama was. Cavalieri’s religious music-drama was so different from what had gone before, that he wanted to give his audience a chance to look at it again.

Nowadays, if we go to an opera we like, we might listen to the CD afterwards, as a nice memory of the real theatrical experience. So in Cavalieri’s score there is a lot of detail to help the reader remember the whole experience. He prints the music and the libretto and cross-references one to the other with numbers, number 1 in the music corresponds to number 1 in the libretto.

But, from the performers point of view, other information is missing. Many musical details are not specified in the score, and must be decided by the performers. In particular, the score provides no information about the orchestration of the instrumental parts, which instruments should play where.

In contrast, Monteverdi working at the Ducal court, wants to show off not only the opera, but also the court orchestra. So in his score, which is also a kind of souvenir-edition, he includes not only details of the drama but also a lot of information about the instruments. Especially at very strong dramatic moments…

This focus on moments of high drama shows us the purpose of publication. It’s not a score for musicians to work from. It’s to help audience members remember the show they saw. And so the score makes a kind of ‘close-up shot’ of the orchestra when it comes to the most dramatic moments. This gives us today, as musicians working with this historical material, vital information.

From the score, we know that in the original production of Orfeo, the instrumentalists appeared in different positions around the stage. We know that sometimes the instruments were part of the stage action. In a new piece of research, part of my investigation reveals that in one particular scene, when the Muses appear and the character La Ninfa says “you Muses have come with your instruments, so we’ll sing and you play, and everyone’s happy”, the score describes precisely which instruments play, and there are 10 of them – Apollo and the 9 Muses. So here the instruments are not just the accompaniment, they are part of the stage picture, and essential to the poetic concept.

 

Combining the information

But these differing levels of information in the two scores make today’s artistic process different for historically informed performers. Often Monteverdi writes details about the instrumentation that we don’t know from Cavalieri. For example, at the beginning of Act III, Monteverdi is extremely clear: the scene changes to Hell, the violins, the theorbos, the harp and the beautiful organs stop playing, and instead we have the cornetti, trombones and the regal. And so we can understand the two worlds, Hell and Arcadia, in Monteverdi’s opera. And this gives us a suggestion for the two worlds of Cavalieri’s opera, again Hell, and (now) Heaven. So from the point of view of a researcher and music director working with the score, it’s good to combine the information from both scores, to help us understand the cultural context of the period.

We don’t know if the Maenad ending was ever composed or not, but for sure it’s now lost. There’s a hint of  how the lost music might have been, in the Moresca that survives as the finale of the happy ending with Apollo. This Moresca starts in the score without time signature – there is no 3/2. This is very strange, and perhaps it’s because this Moresca was the continuation of something else, and that something else, whatever it was,is now lost. A Moresca, which is a danced battle, would also be an appropriate finale after the Bacchic ending with the Maenads. On the other hand, we should remember that often they would put a dance at the end that had no relation to the rest of the drama. After one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the actors – including characters who had died – would all stand up and dance a jig. Cavalieri says that you can put whatever dance at the end of a show, but then what he actually writes is the perfect dance finale, actually, yes, very connected to the show. More about dancing in Orfeo and Anima & Corpo here.

Personally, I’m fascinated by this question of the end of Orfeo. In another production, in Helsinki, we showed both endings (with my reconstruction of the Maenad scene from the 1607 libretto), and I’m intrigued by the idea of letting the audience vote: should the final triumph be for Apollo, or for Bacchus?

Here in Moscow, in this production, in Georgy Isaakyan’s particular style, it seems to me that he doesn’t tell the audience what happens, he encourages them to ask themselves: does Orpheus live or die?

7 years of Early Opera, half a century of Historically Informed Performance

As we work on Orfeo at OPERA OMNIA, we now have the advantage of 7 years of work together in Theatre Sats on the baroque style of Cavalieri. More about how to study early operatic roles here. No doubt 17th-century musicians also developed their ideas in the 7 years between Anima & Corpo and Orfeo. And I think it’s also fair to say that Monteverdi is musically more difficult than Cavalieri. In our production of Orfeo, we have the opportunity to sing in the Italian language, which makes some things easier for the music, but challenges the actors to make that direct contact with the audience that we have when we sing Anima & Corpo in Russian. More about OPERA OMNIA here,

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the musical approach for the Orfeo production is that we have effectively two musical directors, in the same way that Monteverdi effectively had  two orchestras: the orchestra of the violins and wind instruments who play written parts; and the orchestra of the continuo who improvise their parts. And just as Georgy Isaakyan’s staging is an encounter between Monteverdi’s 17th-century story, and Russia of the 1970s and 1980s; so there is a similar contrast within the musical realisation. Amongst the continuo and soloists, we share the latest ideas of Monteverdi’s baroque style; whilst in the orchestra and chorus the audience are presented with the Russian way to play baroque from the 1970s.

 

 

This juxtaposition of fundamentally differing approaches to early opera within one production has led to me reflect on how Historically Performed Performance of Monteverdi has changed in my own lifetime. In the table below, I attempt to identify some key topics and trail-blazing pioneers associated with significant re-discoveries. Any serious early opera production should at least consider these topics. Nevertheless, even decades later, some findings are still considered too “radical”, whilst others are routinely ignored, even by ‘historically informed’ ensembles.

 

How HIP is your Monteverdi?

 

  • Chitarrone  1960s Robert Spencer

 

  • Cornetto  1970s Bruce Dickey
  • Vocal ornamentation    1970s Nigel Rogers
  • Quarter-comma meantone   1970s Mark Lindley
  • Negri/Caroso dance  1970s Julia Sutton
  • Renaissance recorders  1970s Bob Marvin, Martin Skowroneck

 

  • No conductor  1980s Roger Norrrington
  • Recit without bowed bass  1980s Graham Dixon
  • Baroque harp  1980s Frances Kelly, ALK
  • Led from continuo  1980s Ensemble Tragicomedia
  • Renaissance violin band  1980s David Douglass, Peter Holman
  • Count recit in minims  1980s Ensemble Tragicomedia
  • Metre in Music  1980s George Houle
  • Baroque Gesture  1980s Dene Barnett
  • Il Corago  1980s Fabbris & Pompilio
  • Chiavette  1980s Andrew Parrot
  • Vibrato  1980s Greta Moens-Haenen

 

  • Proportions  1990s Roger Bowers
  • Pitch  1990s  Bruce Haynes

 

  • Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre  2002 Tim Carter
  • 1615 print free online  2009 IMSLP

 

  • Tactus throughout  2010 ALK
  • Historical swordsmanship  2012 Guy Windsor
  • 1609 print free online  2013 IMSLP
  • Beating time & measuring music  2014 Roger Mathew Grant
  • Arianna a la recherche  2017 ALK

 

  • Violini alla francese  ?
  • 5 trumpets  ?

Of course, this list reflects my own personal experiences and fortunate encounters with individual experts. So I look forward to your comments, corrections and additions. And most importantly, I look forward to new research findings in the 2020s, which will provide new impetus for re-thinking, re-imagining and re-working Monteverdi’s theatrical music.

 

Musing allowed – Reflecting on Music, Time & Play

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

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

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

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

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

“La Joie de Vivre” by Picasso (1946)

The Play’s the Thing

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

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

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

Music & Time in the models

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Rhetoric at Play

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

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

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

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

What are your top ten 17th-century operas?

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

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

La Musica declaims in the Prologue to Orfeo:

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

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here.

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

Facebook: @PlayMusicTime

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

The Play of Music & Time

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

WHAT ARE THE TOP TEN 17th-century OPERAS?

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

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

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

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

And the winner is…

Methodology

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

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

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

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

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

I did not ask for specific arias.

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

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

Results

Arias

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

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

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

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

Music Dramas

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

In the best traditions of such ‘contests’,

I shall present the results in reverse order…

Your Top Ten 17th-century Operas

Many heartfelt thanks to all who took part!

Orlando Orlando: Drama and dance-rhythms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Orlando Orlando” at Helikon Theatre

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What’s different now?

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

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

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

What was different in 1607?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

I won’t say too much… the role of Euridice in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

This article is posted in connection with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo for Vaasa Baroque Festival in October 2019.

See also The Orfeo Page by Il Corago for further articles and a documentary film.

Whilst Rinuccini’s verse-drama, set by Peri and Caccini in 1600, has the title L’Euridice, Striggio’s 1607 libretto for Monteverdi presents the same mythological ‘fable in music as a theatrical show’ – favola in musica rappresentata – as L’Orfeo, and the focus is almost exclusively on the protagonist. Following the trend towards Personation – increasingly ‘realistic’ embodiment of theatrical roles – seen also in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and other dramas circa 1600, Striggio seeks to move the audience’s passions by encouraging them to watch how each event affects the central character, Orpheus himself.

As Rhetoric,  baroque music-drama persuades by Logos (word), Pathos (emotions) and Ethos (character). Details of poetic imagery in the text use the power of Energeia not only to express, but to induce listeners to share in ever-changing emotions, from the very beginning of the first Act: In questo lieto e fortunato giorno (happy and lucky)… sospirato e pianto (sighing and crying)… lieto e fortunato (happy and lucky again). As the first Pastore delivers those words and sends out waves of Energia (the communicative spirit of passion), he also mentions and gestures towards nostro semideo (our demigod)… Orfeo, directing the spectator’s attention to the protagonist. The audience then sees the present happiness and good fortune as well as the past melancholy and tears, all mirrored in the face and gestures of the principal actor, reflecting and amplifying the emotional Energia. This amplification is all the more effective, because that actor embodies a character renowned for his divine ability to convey emotions in music. Logos, Pathos and Ethos thus unite to convert poetic Enargeia into emotional Energia, with music as the catalyst.

Also, Orpheus is the presiding figure at the pastoral court of Arcadia. Renaissance courtiers were accustomed to watching their Prince, to gauge his reactions to any event. As the audience at a performance, they would divide their attention between the performers and their Lord: their appreciation of the show depended on his approval. So the split-screen effect on stage (simultaneously showing the action, and Orpheus’ reaction to it) takes advantage of the audience’s real-life experience to super-charge the emotional impact.

This is most obvious in the long Messenger scene, where Eurydice’s death (too terrible to be enacted, and too impractical to show on stage effectively) is narrated in every detail, with almost cinematic changes of pace from the girls fussing around her dying body with cold water and powerful charms to the heroine’s languid eyes and last deep sigh. (There are similar contrasts of pace, with slow-motion effects and rich poetic detail, for the death of Clorinda in Monteverdi’s Combattimento.)

As we hear detailed narration, we envisage the scene. And the 1607 audience also saw Orpheus’ reactions: at the bitter news, the unhappy man is like a mute stone, who for too much grief cannot grieve. A l’amara novella rassembla l’infelice un muto sasso, che per troppo dolor non puo dolersi.

Nevertheless, it does seem surprising that Eurydice herself has only two speeches in the entire music-drama. In the original production, the part was played by a male soprano (perhaps the little priest who had so much difficulty memorising words), but this in itself would not have been an obstacle to extending the role. Shakespeare’s plays, even the great love stories of Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra were originally performed by all-male casts, and the Mantuan audience would have been accustomed to this convention.

The result of the concentration of Eurydice’s entire role into just a dozen lines (six in Act I and another six in Act IV) is to invite us to weigh carefully every word she utters, and to listen attentively to Monteverdi’s realisation of her emotions in the most expressive genre of dramatic monody. More about Monteverdi’s monody here.

I won’t say…

Io non diro qual sia
Nel tuo gioir Orfeo la gioa mia,
Che non ho meco il core,
Ma teco stassi in compagnia d’Amore.
Chiedilo dunque a lui, s’intender brami
Quanto lieta gioisca, e quanto t’ami.

I won’t say what might be
In your joy, Orpheus, my own joy,
For I don’t have my heart with me,
But it is with you, in the company of Love.
Ask this therefore of my heart, if you desire to understand
How happily I rejoice, and how much I love you.

Whereas Orpheus’s love song Rosa del ciel is a rhetorical and musical tour de force, opening with the solemn dignity of an invocation of Apollo over a sustained bass on Gamut (the foundation of all music), Eurydice begins plainly. Her first words show the feminine modesty expected at the time, and Monteverdi’s music obediently takes up the D harmonies from the end of Orpheus’ song. And in spite of the structured poetry in rhyming couplets, she does not sing, but speaks (in the convention of expressive Monody).

But what expression Monteverdi introduces! The harmonic shift to the hard hexachord in the continuo-bass C#6 – E major – A minor foreshadows the harmonies of the Messaggiera’s despairing wail Ahi, caso acerbo!, of Orpheus’ tragic wrong turn in Hell ma qual eclissi, ohime, v’oscura? and of his last request to Apollo Ma non vedro piu mai  de l’amata Euridice i dolci rai? (But won’t I ever see again beloved Eurydice’s sweet eyes?)

Euridice does not say much, but with her words “I will not say..”, Monteverdi says all that could be said.

Now the harmonies turn to the natural hexachord, C major, with Orpheus’ joy and hers too. But a strange melodic leap and high dissonance highlight the poetic imagery “I have no heart” – this conventional trope will gain uncanny power in Act III when Orpheus argues that since his heart (Eurydice) is no longer with him, without a heart he cannot be alive, so he must qualify for passage on Caronte’s ferry to the underworld.

In a speech artfully crafted to appear naive, the rhetorical term dunque stands out as an unexpected connector …therefore… Perhaps Striggio is marking connections to other appearances of this word: in the first Pastore’s opening speech (where it underlines a rhetorical repeat of the first lines); in the second Pastore’s reminder that joy comes from heaven; in the Shepherds’ praise of Orpheus and his Lyre in Act II; and in Apollo’s formal invitation to heaven at the end of the whole drama.

In Eurydice’s first speech, by the time we reach the word Amore, we have returned to the soft hexachord and to the harmonies of Orpheus’ song. And her last words are the simplest possible declaration, “I love you”, all on one note. This is a musical code: the absence of melody tells the audience to pay attention to the words. And if we listen carefully, two words are repeated in this short speech, emphasising the emotional tone: love and joy.

But nevertheless there was a hard hexachord hint of trouble ahead when Orpheus’ desire is coloured by B natural, whilst Eurydice’s love has soft hexachord Bb. Bramare (to desire) evokes the Choleric humour associated also with anger, violence and Bacchic excess; whereas amare (to love) is associated with the generosity, joy and hope of the Sanguine humour. With delicate choice of similar but contrasting words and notes, Striggio and Monteverdi drop a subtle hint that Eurydice’s feelings are appropriately warm, but Orpheus’ passions are already too hot.

Too much!

Ahi, vista troppo dolce e tropp’ amara!
Cosi per troppo amor, dunque mi perdi?
Ed io, misera, perdo
Il poter piu godere e di luce
E di vita, e perdo insieme
Te, d’ogni ben piu caro, o mio consorte!

Ah, sight too sweet and too bitter!
Thus through too much love, therefore you lose me?
And I, wretched girl, lose
The power anymore to enjoy light
And life, and I also lose
You, of every good thing the most dear, Oh my husband!

Only one word from Eurydice’s first speech is heard when she speaks again: that word is Amor – love. But two new words dominate this short but emotionally searing lament: troppo – too much, and perdere – to lose, and they are connected by another rhetorical dunque. The message could not be clearer: it is Orpheus’ excessive emotions that have resulted in total loss.

This verdict will be underlined by the commenting chorus at the end of the Act: Degno d’eterna gloria fia sol colui ch’avra di se vittoria. (Worthy of eternal glory is only he who will have victory over himself.)

And at the end of the story, Apollo hammers home the lesson, arriving when Orpheus is ‘in greatest need, driven to a desperate end with extreme grief by anger and love’. Al maggior uopo arrivi, ch’a disperato fine con estremo dolore m’havean condotto gia sdegno ed Amore.

Apollo’s message is stern and clear:

Troppo, troppo gioisti
Di tua lieta ventura,
Hor troppo piangi
Tua sorte acerba e dura.

Too much, too much you rejoiced
In your happy luck,
Now you cry too much
For your bitter and harsh fate.

But with the following dunque (the last one), drawn out and high in the voice, Apollo connects his severe judgement to an invitation to eternal life in heaven, and Orpheus is saved to admire Eurydice’s beautiful face in the sun and the stars.

Euridice’s Act IV music is also loaded with information and emotion. The expressive exclamatione in the soft hexachord, “Oh!”, with a tender dissonance against Eb (compare Grandi’s O quam tu pulchra es here) twists unexpectedly to hard hexachord and the fatal harmony of E major on dolce, an ominously troubled sweetness. Amara returns to soft hexachord Eb again, but with the bitterest dissonance this hexachord allows.

The crucial verse is heralded by the use of narrative style – speaking on a monotone F# warns the audience to pay attention to the words, without being distracted by pretty tunes. And with the genius for expressing emotions that the ‘divine Claudio’ was famous for, this story-telling F# collides heartbreakingly with Orpheus’ love-music of G minor, on the word Amor itself. Monteverdi even manages to convey Eurydice’s disbelief by turning Striggio’s statement into a question, with an upwardly inflected cadence. This musical gesture corresponds to the actor’s upturned hand, indicating a question.

The dissonance on misera (wretched) stabs harsh G# into soft hexachord F, leading inevitably to fatal E major and the Messaggiera’s C# 6. The word caro is given soft hexachord Bb, and another tender exclamatione expresses unhappy Eurydice’s last sigh, before the Infernal Spirit thunders (in E major, of course) Return to the shadow of death! Torna a l’ombra di morte, infelice Euridice!

17th-century poets and poetry-fans would collect beautiful verses in isolation, to admire them, and to insert them into a longer poem when opportunity arose. In the centre of this speech, at the crucial moment in the whole drama, here surely is one such line from Striggio, shining sadly like a dark gemstone in Monteverdi’s artfully bitter-sweet setting:

Cosi per troppo amor dunque mi perdi!

 

The Minister’s Conditions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

This article is posted in connection with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo for Vaasa Baroque Festival in October 2019.

Read more about Monteverdi’s ‘story in music’ and watch a documentary film here: The Orfeo page by Il Corago

 

 

When Pluto, King of the Underworld, declares that Orpheus can recover his beloved Eurydice, two of his infernal Ministers comment. In the musical score, the first speech is marked to be sung a tone higher, perhaps reflecting changes in the distribution of vocal roles during the rehearsal period for the 1607 first production.

O de gli habitator de l’ombre eterne
Possente Re, legge ne fia tuo cenno
Che ricercar altre cagioni interne
Di tuo voler nostri pensier non denno.

O, the inhabitants’ of the eternal shadows
Powerful King, the law will be made from your gesture
For to search out other deeper reasons
For your wishes our thoughts are not worthy.

Striggio’s verses recall Giovanbatisto Strozzi’s lyrics for the Hell scene in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, set by Giovanni de Bardi Miseri habitator del ciec’ averno (Wretched inhabitants of blind Avernus). The architecture and social structures of Striggio’s Hell would be instantly recognisable to the 1607 audience: within a landscape familiar from Dante’s Inferno, Pluto presides over an infernal court, just as Orpheus presided over the pastoral shepherds in Arcadia. And amidst the Minister’s courtly flattery we are reminded of the importance of the cenno – Gesture – as signifying a binding decision in a court of law, as a manner of royal proclamation to attending courtiers, and as communication to the audience from performers on the baroque stage. See Bonifacio’s 1616 L’Arte de’ Cenni (The Art of Gesture) here.

 

 

Monteverdi’s setting uses the coding of dramatic Monody to send listeners two important signals. Long notes in the continuo bass-line, in the Tactus values of semibreves and minims show that this is a serious subject, as explained by Peri in the Preface to his 1600 setting of Euridice. More about the coding of ‘recitative’ here. And the first words are recited on a monotone, categorised in Doni’s 1640 Annotazioni, additional notes to his Compendium of the Genres and Styles of Music (1635) as the Narrative style. This signals that infernal Spirit has a story to tell, that the audience is being addressed directly with significant information about the plot of this ‘fable in music’.

More on Rhetoric, Rhythm and Passions in Monteverdi’s favola in musica here. together with links to the 1607 Libretto, and original scores from 1609 and 1615. 

Striggio presents these two speeches of the two infernal Ministers as a single Chorus (in the Greek sense of commentary on the action of the principal characters), a Choro di Spiriti Infernali in 8 continuous 11-syllable lines of rhyming couplets, contrasting with the blank verse of Plutone and Proserpina’s speeches. And the significant information comes in the second half of this Chorus, allocated by Monteverdi to a second, lower-voiced singer. Striggio’s poetical structures would  usually have cued the composer to write ensemble or song-like music, but Monteverdi declines that invitation, choosing the more serious texture of Monody. Monteverdi’s choice – not to cloak the words in attractive melody but rather to deliver them in stark declamation – is another signal to the audience that this moment is highly significant, not just pretty music!

Trarrà da queste orribili caverne
Sua sposa Orfeo, s’adoprerà suo senno,
Si che no’l vinca giovenil desio,
Ne i gravi imperi tuoi sparga d’oblio.

He will lead out from these horrible caves
His wife, [he] Orfeo, if he uses his wisdom,
If he is not overcome by juvenile desire,
Nor forgets your grave commands.

The conventional rhetorical phrase for ‘forget’ is to ‘scatter into oblivion’. In the libretto, the commands are tuoi = yours, i.e. Pluto’s commands given. But in the scores they are suoi – his, i.e. Orfeo’s commands received. And for ‘wisdom’ the scores have ingegno – ingenuity: here the libretto seems the better choice, suggesting mature wisdom as opposed to juvenile impetuosity. The word senno also appears elsewhere in the drama, and here it makes the better rhyme.

 

 

Monteverdi directs the continuo to play their solemn D minor for an extra beat before the singer breathes, another marker of heightened significance. Plutone similarly has two extra beats, and we see notations in other operas for the continuo to repeat opening chords as many times as necessary, if a character is making a grand entrance: Penelope in the first scene of Monteverdi’s Ulisse, Tempo in the first scene of Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo. More about Anima & Corpo here.

The pitch contours of the opening line step upwards in thirds, imitating the opening line of the first Spirto. This kind of repeating structure is what was called aria in this repertoire, not necessarily a melody, but any kind of repeated structure in words, rhythm or music. This movement in thirds is characteristic of the earliest Spanish recitado, where it represents the speech of divine characters/ Almost certainly Monteverdi intends a similar characterisation here, for the powerful ministers of hell.

The vital message that all these markers point towards is the threefold condition, under which Orpheus’ mission to Hell might succeed. The singer-hero must employ wisdom, not be overcome by passion, and he must remember the command not to turn and look at Eurydice. Of course, the 17th-century audience knows the story already, and so – as very often in early opera – they are ahead of the characters on stage, enjoying an almost god-like capacity to see the future.

This frequent use of dramatic irony is just one more aspect of the period attitude that privileges the audience as high-status courtiers, noble guests for whom the whole spectacle is provided. As La Musica sings in the Prologue, the audience are praised as ‘noble heroes, noble blood of kings’ – more about the Philosophy of La Musica here.

Since the audience are already with, if not even ahead of, the plot. all this emphasis on the Minister’s Conditions highlights what will become the message of the whole drama, the moral of the tale, summarised in the chorus at the end of this Act (after Orpheus’ disastrous turn):

Orfeo vinse l’Inferno e vinto poi
Fu da gl’affetti suoi

Orpheus conquered Hell, and then was conquered
by his own passions.

and reiterated by Apollo in one of the two surviving endings to the show:

Non e consiglio di generoso petto
Servir al proprio afftetto.

It is not wise for a generous heart
To be a slave to its own passions.

Thus in a music-drama that celebrates the power of music to move the passions, the audience is nevertheless guided towards moderation in their emotional response. Or at least, this is the message, if the Apollo ending (from the musical scores) is performed. The alternative Bacchic ending in the libretto concludes the show with a glorious paean to the ‘divine fury’ of inspiration and inebriation, ‘the spice of all human pleasure and the comfort of every troubled heart’.

 

Cheers!

Challenge your assumptions

 

 

 

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

 

Learning from errors

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

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

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

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

 

Accept the challenge

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

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

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

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

 

 

Challenge the accepted

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

 

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

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

 

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

 

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

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

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

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

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

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…