A la recherche du TEMPO perdu: principles and practice in Baroque music

This article is the mid-term review from a course about Early Music on Modern Harp that I’m teaching for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. And as a general introduction, it could be relevant for any student of 18th-century music. Our case-studies are movements by J.S. Bach, Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Pescetti and Mozart.

The previous article in this series looked at online source materials and the significance of tempo as more than just ‘musical speed’. In baroque music, tempo is rather the emotional quality of music, produced by the act of beating Tactus for a particular note-value.

 

Principles

 

 

“Versuch über die wahre Art”

 

Historically Informed Performance is not a matter of personal interpretation. There is a true way, that we attempt to find. That way changes according to period and culture/language.

Before 1800, Art is not the ‘freedom of the artistic genius’, but rather a set of organising principles. Within those principles, there is space for individuals to make personal choices.

We know what is correct, not by imitating CDs or listening to modern-day Early Music gurus, but by finding a broad consensus amongst relevant historical sources.

 

Historically Informed?

Probably, an original source of the music will be accessible and legible. But compared to a modern edition, some information will be “missing”. We supply that information from historical treatises.

Yes, a 19th, 20th or 21st century edition will give more information, but how reliable is that information? Fortunately, we can check for ourselves: usually easily, free and online.

For example: circa 1750, we need an indication of speed. We reframe the question in terms of historical Tactus: “Which note-value goes with the beat in Allegro, and in Adagio?”. And – approximately – how fast is that beat?” The answers are in Quantz, whose ‘pulse’ is around 80 beats per minute. See Tactus, Tempo & Affekt.

“Time is the Soul of Music.”

We count with a Tactus pulse, around 60 (1630s) to 80 (1750s). But during this same period, the feeling was that music had become slower, with some up-tempo markings like 6/8 being played slower, and with more feeling (Empfindsamkeit), according to Mattheson. Quantz gives new information about which note-value goes with the pulse, according to the tempo-words.

The physical feeliing of beating Tactus is linked to the emotional feeling of the quality of the music: if you haven’t studied your music whilst beating Tactus, you have missed a vital insight into its emotional quality.

Read Time: the Soul of Music

The Practice of Tactus 

 

 

Fingering ~ Language

Bowing (for violins, viols etc), tonguing (flutes, oboes etc) and fingering (keyboards, harp, lute etc) mimick Good/Bad syllables, or (later) the joining/separating of syllables into sense groups, say 2-5 notes at a time (perhaps even a few more, if there is continuous fast stepwise movement, i.e. a scale). We could call this the ‘mini-phrase’.

 

Polyphony

Harmony is the result of weaving together the strands of individual polyphonic ‘voices’. In how many ‘voices’ is your piece written? How strictly is this maintained?

 

Practice

 

From a post-modern perspective we can see that whereas mainstream performance looks for consistency and evenness, baroque music is all about contrast. That contrast can be on the short-term level, note-by-note. It’s all held together by stable rhythm at the Tactus level. Inside the regular Tactus, there can be (carefully organised) irregularity in shorter note-values.

 

Good & Bad

 

Good & Bad syllables in the language are set to Good/Bad notes in music, and played with Good/Bad fingers (bowing or tonguing). See Good, Bad & the Early Music Phrase.

We can use Quantz’s flute-tonguing syllables, e.g. didll-di,  to sing the phrases of the piece we are studying. This helps us use our subconscious awareness of language rules to decide questions of fingering.

 

Integrate

We have to integrate each element of contrast with the steady beat of the Tactus.

  1. Find the Tactus/note-value connection for the movement at hand.
  2. Take a few notes and consider Good/Bad (also known as Long/Short)
  3. Play Good/Bad with Tactus

 

The ‘mini-phrase’

In later music, there is the idea of moto perpetuo – remember The Flight of the Bumble Bee? And frequently, mainstream performance looks for the longest possible phrase without breathing in-between.

For Early Music, it’s better to think the opposite way. What is the shortest possible sense-group? This is the ‘mini-phrase’, or in HIP-speak Figure. Try singing, but NOT with da da da. Use Frank Sinatra dooby-doo, or Quantz diddle-dee, so that you apply Good/Bad syllables: not every note the same!.

You may find that notes written in equal note-values become quite dissimilar, in order to stay with the Tactus. In order to maintain the Tactus, the last note needs to be short and light.

Once a pattern is established in the first mini-phrase, preserve that pattern. If something happens to change the pattern, change and try to preserve the new pattern.

 

Mini-phrases in JS Bach “Prelude”

 

Miniphrases in Handel “Concerto”

 

Miniphrases are notated in CPE Bach “Sonata”, and implied (red slur) by instructions for performing ornaments in his “Versuch”.

 

Join/Separate

Notes that move by step tend to be more legato, perhaps joined within the mini-phrase. Notes that jump tend to be more staccato, perhaps indicating the separation between one mini-phrase and the next.

The break or breath between phrases is often ‘after the 1’.

Late 18th-centuring bowing, tonguing and (harp or keyboard) fingering often joins together the notes of a mini-phrase.

Miniphrases, staccato & legato, repeating pattern A & contrast B, in Pescetti “Sonata VI”

 

Breaks & Breaths

The mini-phrase might be very short, so that you don’t necessarily breathe at every break. Imagine yourself speaking, powerfully and slowly, to a large audience in a grand hall with a big acoustic:

“You would… break up…. the words… into short…. sense-groups.  [BREATH]  But you might not…. actually breathe…. at every break.”

For the piece of music at hand, test your ideas about where to breathe, by singing with Good/Bad syllables, Tactus, and real breaths (actually taking in oxygen). You will probably find it’s too much to breathe at every mini-phrase. Experiment… Keep the Tactus! Perhaps 2 or 3 mini-phrases go to a breath.

Remember the goal is contrast, not homogeneity. So we can allow a pattern to develop where there is a consistent irregularity of note-lengths within each mini-phrase, repeated from one mini-phrase to the next for as long as the pattern persists, with breaths every 2 or 3 mini-phrases… and all unified by steady Tactus.

 

Breath /, every 2 miniphrases in JSB

 

Breath / every 4 miniphrases A, then every 2 A, then change of pattern B; legato & staccato in GFH

 

Miniphrases, breaths /, and  patterning A, in CPE

 

Breaths /, in Pescetti

 

Dissonance

Just as we learned in Harmony 1.01, there are three elements: Preparation, Dissonance, Resolution. We need to perform these three elements: understand them, feel them, communicate them.

Preparation: we bring our attention, and we alert the audience, to a certain note, to one particular polyphonic voice.

Dissonance: ouch! Another voice collides with the prepared note, creating a dissonance.

What is the emotional flavour of this particular clash? How intense is it? Sometimes ‘it hurts so good’…

Resolution: relax…. The pain is eased.

Chained dissonances: Sometimes the resolution produces another dissonance. How are the two emotional flavours different? Which is more intense?

 

Quantz categorises dissonances

 

Quantz shows the intensity of dissonances

 

Read Evan Jones’ article on Quantz’ dissonances.

Read David Ledbetter’s article on Quantz’s Adagio.

  1. Play through Quantz’s example.
  2. Find, and taste the dissonances in your piece.

 

Quiz

Here (below) is an unreliable edition of perhaps Mozart’s best-known Piano Sonata. It’s good harp-repertoire too.

 

  1. What is the date of composition?
  2. And of the first edition?
  3. What is the earliest edition available on IMSLP?
  4. What is the best edition available on IMSP?
  5. Why is the autograph MS not on IMSLP?
  6. What is the exact marking for the tempo of the first movement, in Mozart’s own handwriting?
  7. What is the time signature in the first edition?
  8. What is Quantz’s pulse-tempo recipe for this?

Bonus Question

9. How much mis-information can you find in the bad edition above?

All answers are available free online with just couple of clicks. No advanced research techniques are needed for questions 1-7.

Hint for Q1,2

Hint for Q5, 6, 7

Hint for Q8

 

“Deep Thought” from Bulwer’s (1644) gesture-book

 

 

 

 

Tactus, Tempo & Affekt: Historical Principles & Online Resources

Baroque Tempo is a huge subject, bringing together three of the key concepts of Baroque music: the interplay between the notation and performance of rhythm (Tactus as it relates to note-values, and as it is shown by the hand); the speed of that beat and of the music it regulates; the emotional quality of the beat itself (as a physical movement) and of the music that it produces. Even within a narrowly defined period and culture – German music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example – a thorough survey would be way beyond the scope of a doctoral thesis. And as soon as we shift even to the following generation – CPE Bach and Quantz – there are significant changes to practices and aesthetics. So a 1-hour class and this short summary can only hope to scratch the surface.

The challenge is not that we lack sufficient historical information, nor that such questions are unanswerable. Rather, we have so much information that it is daunting to start working through it all. And – even amongst some Early Music performers – there is some reluctance to accept certain hard truths: the period dialectic is of the true way, and not of personal interpretations and free choices. Within a given period and culture, there are some minor differences of opinion between different writers, but the consensus on fundamentals is clear. There is a Wahre Art (true way) and we have to make our best attempt (Versuch) to find it!

 

In the 18th century, the (physical & emotional) feeling of Tempo is not just a matter of speed (mathematical quantity) but of character (emotional quality). So we need to avoid a simplistic focus on “what is the right speed” and examine original notation, historical practices of beating time, and the subtle relationship between Tempo and Affekt.

 

Before 1750

 

Early 18th-century notation is intended to indicate which note-value corresponds to the Tactus beat. That beat varies only a little in absolute speed (around one beat per second), but the emotional quality of the beat (as physical movement of the hand) and of the music that is produced, varies greatly. Notation gives detailed information: JS Bach’s D minor Prelude (from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) is notated in C, with triplet semiquavers: had it been notated with the same note-values, but with a time-signature of 24/16, a different beat-tempo would be implied. If he had added a tempo word, such as Allegro, this would modify the beat-tempo-Affekt from the default setting indicated by the notation. This is the concept of Tempo Ordinario (also known as Tempo Giusto): a default beat and beat-speed indicated by the notation, which can be modified by words.

We must therefore be careful to check what the original note-values, time signature and tempo words are, so that we are not misled by well-intentioned editorial interventions.

This practice is explained, with more detail than most of us can manage, in Mattheson’s Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1719) & Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (1739)  and Walther’s Lexicon (1741). But nobody is expected to memorise the complete writings of these authors: these are reference-books. It doesn’t take long to look up 24/16 and read how it is different from C.

 

 

 

The underlying principle is that Compound time-signatures suggest a slower tempo with a “hop” on the last of three short notes; whereas Duple time-signatures suggest a faster tempo, with less (or no) “hop”.

The most important lesson of all is that we don’t need to invent answers: clear answers are available, if we know where to look for them.

 

After 1750

In 1752, Quantz gives details of an emerging practice, in which such tempo-words as allegro or adagio indicate which note-value has the “pulse”, adjusting (but not abandoning) the previous system based on time-signatures. The Adagio un poco of CPE Bach’s Sonata for harp might be counted in steady quavers, with a “slightly relaxed” feel to the quaver-beat, rather than in three very drawn-out crotchets.

Quantz defines his pulse as approximately 80 beats per minute (whereas a century previously, Mersenne’s default was 60 beats per minute).

 

 

Again, we don’t have to make guesses, or memorise an entire book. We can look up specific instructions for the particular notations at hand.

Online Resources – Scores

A mighty modern resource for answering questions about baroque music lies in the easily-accessible power of free online music-libraries, in particular IMSLP. There is no longer any excuse for using some crappy mid-20th-century edition, when original prints and holographs (manuscript in the composer’s own hand) are available free. Faster, cheaper, better! IMSLP is expanding so fast, that its own index struggles to keep pace: the most effective way to search is using Google. As an example, a Google search on “Bach 48 IMSLP” led me instantly to the Book 1 holograph, with the Prelude in question.

Harpists (and guitarists) are very attached to their old-fashioned editions, but the time has come to realise that most of what many editors have added is unhelpful or misleading, if not simply wrong. Cluttered scores (with zillions of additional pencil-markings prompted by teachers) lead to a micro-controlling mindset, which is very different from the two-point focus of baroque practice: Tactus and Text. [In instrumental music, we play in Tactus and as if we were singing some Text, with syllables, sense-groups, and meaning]

 

Some years ago, I stopped accepting the Grandjany arrangement as the basis for a lesson on Handel’s Harp Concerto. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and should still be played, with all the accoutrements of 1940s style. But as a lens through which to study Handel, it has so much of its own character that it utterly distorts the long view. The original Walsh print of the Handel Concerto is free online at TheHarpConsort.com:  Study Early Harps, easy to read, clear and uncluttered. Mozart’s (1778) holograph of the Flute & Harp Concerto is free online at IMSLP, easy to read, clear and uncluttered.  The holograph of CPE Bach’s Sonata is also clear to read, and the library holding it has recently made it available online.

 

 

For any other piece, you should check IMSLP for the best available free edition, before you turn up for a lesson with some crappy edition.

 

Crappy, clunky, expensive or free?

 

How do you know if the edition you are using is crappy? “Arranged for harp” is already a warning sign, and the death-sentence is confirmed by anachronistic  editorial additions [metronome marks; implausible tempo markings; long phrase-lines; such romantic favourites as legato, sostenuto, cantabile etc; other anachronisms e.g. mention of ‘pianoforte’ in a work by JSB] unless acknowleged [by being placed inside brackets].

Good old 19th-century complete editions are often available on IMSLP. These are clunky, but better than crappy mid-20th century arrangements. Recent ­Ur-text editions reflect the latest scholarship, but only if you take the trouble to read the prefaces, and they are so expensive that they mostly languish in institutional libraries. Original prints and manuscripts are not hard to read: in this period the only significant hurdle might be an unfamiliar clef. And on IMSLP, they are free and faster to access than that crappy edition we had to make do with 50 years ago.

Let this be your motto:

I Must Search [the free, online] Library before Playing [from some crappy edition]”

Online Resources – Treatises

 

Of course, there are many questions to be answered, when one starts from an original source. But those questions are not answered (or worse still, they are answered wrong) if you start from a crappy edition. So…. it’s time to give up that crappy habit! From now on, I’m going to encourage all my students to look up their piece on IMSLP, before they come to a lesson or class.

I recommend EarlyMusicSources.com as a huge resource of free online historical treatises and expert modern commentary (including entertaining videos on hot issues in Historically Informed Perforamnce). The famous mid-18th-century treatises are all freely available online.

 

Links to Mattheson and Walther (first half of the 18th-century) are above. Click from this article, or just Google.

Yeah, the books are long and in foreign languages. So use the index of chapters and Google Translate.  And maybe there is an English translation online, or a text-only version [i.e. searchable with Ctrl-F] from Project Gutenberg or wherever. Several key sources are translated on this blog, and every article here includes links to free-online original sources.

 

And of course, ask for help from your teacher, but after you have tried for yourself, and reached some road-block…

“Historically Informed” does not mean imitating CDs or gleaning guesses from geeky gurus. It means using Historical Information, and that information is freely available. Just Google a historical treatise or an original manuscript!

Rhetorical contrasts in Crisis: charm, communicate, console?

This article, published in shorter form as the introduction to a concert streamed online, discusses the current relevance of Baroque affetti [emotions] and the Rhetorical aims of delectare, docere, movere [to delight, to teach, to move the Passions]. 

Concert listings, song texts & translations

Online Concert

The link to the concert may become temporarily unavailable, whilst the recording goes through post-production. And new concerts in the series may appear at the top of the broadcaster’s list. I hope to provide a permanent, direct link, soon.

Scherzi Musicali

Italian Baroque Music: Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Corbetta, Handel

“That smile heals me…”

Monteverdi’s musical fun – scherzi musicali – and beautiful arias – ariose vaghezze – are offered to the public in music-books printed by Bartholomeo Magni in Venice almost four hundred years ago. These are not madrigals requiring an ensemble of singers, but solo songs with basso continuo accompaniment which could be realised on any instrument: harpsichord, lute, guitar, baroque harp. Composed during the time of the very first ‘operas’, these minatures appeal to the emotions as theatrical fragments, instantly recognisable dramatic scenes.

 

 

Affetti


But that emotionality is subtly different from the Romantic ideal of an artistic genius, expressing with ever-greater intensity a sublime feeling, that will impress and even overwhelm his audience. Rather, Baroque music contrasts ever-changing emotions and seeks to move your passions, as La Musica proclaims in Monteverdi’s Orfeo:


Accompanied by the golden harp, my singing
can always charm mortal ears for a while.
And in this way, with the sonorous harmony
Of the lyre of the cosmos, I can even move your souls.

Read more: The Philosophy of La Musica

Read more: contrasts of affetti in the ‘first opera’


The ‘lyre of the cosmos’ represents the mysterious power of music. In metaphors of Cupid’s love-arrows and stormy seas of passion, we see poetic images as depicting real emotions. And no doubt, listeners can find in these verses from Shakespeare’s time words that still speak to us today: sanatemi col riso…

Heal me with a smile…

The renaissance Science of emotions models the Senses (in this case, eyes and ears) taking in the energia (energetic spirit) of a performance (delivered by Rhetorical actio) and the coordinated affetti of music and text (delivered by Rhetorical pronuntiatio), to create ever-changing Visions in the mind. These Visions send energia down into the body, producing the physiological changes associated with changing pyschological emotion. Mind, Body and Spirit exchange energia, so that thoughts, (spiritual) emotions and (physical) feelings are interconnected – ideally, in Harmony.

 

 

Rhetoric: structure & contrasts…

For Monteverdi, an aria is not just a nice tune, it is a repeating structure of poetry, rhythm and harmony, on which words and music make elegant rhetorical variations. The dramatic situation is understood: the poet is in love, the beloved is ‘cruel’; the poet is wounded by the arrows of love, but the beloved’s smile can turn his prison into paradise. The rhetorical appeal is to the mind and the heart, as well as to the ears. The emotional power is embedded in contrasts: in Tempro la cetra the poet tunes his lyre to sing of War, but it only resounds with Love.

Tempro la cetra, e per cantar gli onori
di Marte alzo talor lo stil e i carmi.
Ma invan la tento e impossibil parmi
ch’ella già mai risoni altro ch’amore.

Così pur tra l’arene e pur tra’ fiori
note amorose Amor torna a dettarmi,
né vuol ch’io prend’ ancora a cantar d’armi,
se non di quelle, ond’egli impiaga i cori.

Or l’umil plettro e i rozzi accenti indegni,
musa, qual dianzi, accorda, in fin ch’al canto
de la tromba sublime il Ciel ti degni.

Riedi a i teneri scherzi, e dolce intanto
lo Dio guerrier, temprando i feri sdegni,
in grembo a Citerea dorma al tuo canto.

I tune the lyre, and to sing the honour
Of Mars, now I raise my style and my song.
But in vain I try, and it seems impossible
That it will ever resound except with love.

Thus in the arena itself and just amongst flowers
Amorous notes Love returns to dictate to me.
And does not want me to start to sing of arms again,
Unless of those, with which Cupid wounds hearts.

Now, the humble plectrum and the unworthy, broken accents
Muse, as before, tune them, so that to the song
Of the sublime trumpet Heaven honours you.

Come back to tender games, and sweetly for a while
The warrior God, tempering his fierce anger,
In the lap of Venus will be lulled to sleep by your song.

 

 

Contrasts of affetti were categorised by the renaissance concept of the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholy (careful thought), Phlegmatic (unemotional). Throughout this poem, Sanguine love is contrasted with Choleric war. Ideally one’s humours would be balanced, tempered. Poetic and musical composition are usually characterised as works of the careful (and care-full) concentrated inward thought processes of Melancholy, whereas performance, directed outward, is often Sanguine. In this poem the Melancholy art conceals itself – ars celare artem – and in the lap of Sanguine Venus, Choleric Mars surrends to the power of music and is lost in Phlegmatic sleep.

This piece, and renaissance Philosophy in general, links period medical science (the Four Humours) with metaphysics (the Music of the Spheres), and to the artistic principle of contrasting affetti. The Science of the Music of the Spheres (musica mondana) connected that perfect movement of the heavens with the harmonious nature of the human being (musica humana) , and with actual music (musica instrumentalis) played or sung. The contrasts of the third stanza are of Earth and Heaven: the humble, unworthy accents of musica instrumentalis will finally find accord with the sublime song of the Last Trumpet – musica mondana.

Supported by this philosophy, classical mythology is made to work as a metaphor for Christian doctrine. The implication is that the poet/singer himself will also be redeemed, as his own nature (musica humana) ‘resounds’ to the music of the Spheres. 
  

 

…for mind (docere)

Ohimè, ch’io cado begins with a firmly constructed ‘walking bass’, but the singer crashes in with a downward plunge: the poet has fallen head-over-heels in love, just when everything seemed to be safe. Images and emotions are presented in clever contrasts: ‘the withered flower of fallen hope’ and ‘the water of fresh tears’; the ‘would-be warrior’ is ‘now a coward’ who cannot withstand ‘the gentle impact of a single glance’. The poet’s attempt at Choleric sdegno (anger) is easily diverted to a Sanguine love-paradise.

 

 

… heart (movere)

Over a descending bass-line, Si dolce ‘l tormento juxtaposes contrasts even more closely, to sway the listener’s emotions line by line: sweet torment, happy, cruel, beauty, ferocity, mercy, a wave-swept rock – all this in the first strophe alone!  As the momentary affetti swirl around, the minor mode, tender dissonances and descending bass communicate a pervasive sense of Melancholy.

 

 

…and ears (delectare)

That glance from the lover’s eyes – Quel sguardo sdegnosetto – is no real threat: we might paraphrase the first line as “You’re so cute when you’re angry!” And the bass-line variations on the ciacona dance reveals that the lovers are fooling around, playing risqué party-games: “When I die, your lips will quickly revive me”.

In this song, contrasts of affetti are perhaps less cerebral, less melancholic, but rather charming and delightful, and the pervasive mood is Sanguine. There is little doubt that the poet is confident that his hopes of love will be enjoyed!

 

 

Come Hell or High Water

 

Fury in the Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno

 

Baroque contrasts can be extreme: In the Ballo delle Ingrate women emerge from the ‘wild, hot prison’ of Hell, to take a brief respite in the ‘serene, pure air’ of the upper world.

The furore of divine anger provides an excuse for Vivaldi’s favourite seasonal storms, tempered by the calm of clemency, but returning with the delicious inevitability and ornamental surprises of the Da Capo Aria. A Recitative makes it personal: “Spare me, sad and languishing”. The central Aria, with its contrasts of fletus… laetus (weeping… happy), corresponds to the slow movement of a violin concerto, with an Alleluia as the virtuosic finale.

 


The instrumental compositions that follow are variations on descending bass-lines. The fun of Corbetta’s Caprice, played on a modern copy of the Stradivarius Harp (1681, the year of Corbetta’s death) more about Rainer Thurau’s Strad Harp here, lies in its contrast of the gentle nobility of the French chaconne with the more energetic celebrations of an Italian ciacona.

 

Handel’s Organ, Whitchurch; Bushey Museum and Art Gallery;

 

Handel’s Andante, with its variations on a walking-bass, was published posthumously as an Organ Concerto. A Baroque listener described how the composer would improvise an introduction to the concerto, with a polyphonic fantasia “which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression.”

A fine and delicate touch, a volant finger, and a ready delivery of passages the most difficult, are the praise of inferior artists: they were not noticed in Handel, whose excellencies were of a far superior kind; and his amazing command of the instrument, the fullness of his harmony, the grandeur and dignity of his style, the copiousness of his imagination, and the fertility of his invention were qualities that absorbed every inferior attainment.

When he gave a concerto, his method in general was to introduce it with a voluntary movement on the diapasons, which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression; the harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly be expressed; the passage   s concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity. This kind of prelude was succeeded by the concerto itself, which he executed with a degree of spirit and firmness that no one ever pretended to equal.

Sir John Hawkins General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776)

 

Iconographical coding characterises Handel as composer (pen and scores), performer (keyboard) and – unmistakeably – as Melancholy (head leaning on left hand).



Handel’s Messiah and that glorious Aria of Sanguine hope, Rejoice greatly, need no introduction. But in Jennens’ carefully chosen biblical excerpts the characters of the Daughter of Sion and the Heathen are also coded symbols for the politics of the Hannoverian monarchy, of another King who “cometh unto thee”. So whether or not we can identify with the rejoicing daughter, the Messiah offers Peace for those who believe differently.

 

18th-century London

 

Rhetorical Structure: architecture & building blocks

 

From Monteverdi’s and Vivaldi’s Venice to Handel’s London, the grand architecture of Baroque music adopted a variety of fashions. But the building blocks remained similar: the sighing slurs of Vivaldi’s calms also create Handel’s peace; bass-lines still walk steadily; a jump in the melodic line always makes the heart leap, whether falling in love with Monteverdi, or rising to rejoice with Handel. And the ancient power of Music’s rhetoric still charms the ears, communicates between minds, and consoles your hearts.

 

17th-century Venice

Welcome to Spanish Baroque Opera

We have a tradition in our theatre…

 

 

For the last four years, Celos, aun del aire, matan the earliest surviving Spanish Baroque Opera has been running in repertoire at Moscow State Theatre Natalya Sats, with performances each month during the winter season. The performers are the soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Theatre, supported by members of Opera Omnia, the research, training and performance Academy for Baroque Opera and Dance. More about OPERA OMNIA here.

On the eve of the online broadcast – Friday 3rd April 2020, 19.00 Moscow time (5pm UK time: there is no summer time in Russia) on http://www.cultura.com and  direct link to the opera broadcast here – this post is a slightly expanded version of the introduction I have given to live audiences at each show. 

In most theatres, if someone walks on stage to speak before the show starts, it usually means bad news: a singer is indisposed, or whatever. But as a theatre for young people, we always welcome our audience with an informal greeting.

 

 

Introduction


We have a tradition in our theatre to say a few words before the show begins. And so tonight it’s my pleasure to welcome you, on behalf of our Director Georgy Isaakyan, to Theatre Sats and to this performance of Celos, aun del aire matan (1660) translated into Russian by Katerina Antonenko as любовь убиваетLove Kills! 

When we think of Baroque opera, we might first think of Handel and Vivaldi, but ‘opera’ began in Italy a hundred years earlier, and Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo and the very first opera, Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo (1600) both run in regular repertoire in our Theatre – you will be very welcome at those shows too! 

Tonight’s performance is different again – the earliest surviving Spanish Opera.

 

 

Drama

 

Calderón’s verse-drama draws on the strengths of Spanish spoken theatre, with a fast-changing combination of exquisite poetry, complex plot, powerful emotions and hilarious comedy. As in a Shakespeare play, romantic and tragic scenes are parodied by the antics of the comic characters. who also interact with the principal protagonists. Calderón weaves together two mythological stories, which his audience would already have known: the spectators’ pleasure came from appreciating how cleverly, beautifully, passionately and entertainingly those familiar stories were unexpectedly brought together.

 

Diana



The plot is dominated by the powerful figure of Diana, goddess of hunting and of chastity. One of her nymphs, Aura, has broken the rules by falling in love with Eróstrato.

 

Erostrato & Chorus of Villagers

 

His mythological destiny is to burn down the temple of  Diana and – as a punishment – to have his name forgotten forever.

Nymphs of Diana



In the opening scene, another nymph, Pocris presents Aura to be judged and punished. 

Céfalo

 

The hero of the opera is Céfalo, who arrives in the nick of time to rescue the damsel in distress. His servant, Clarín, is the anti-hero: he would rather flirt with a pretty girl than assist in any rescues. 

 

Floreta (Pocris) Clarín



Diana wants to know who left the garden gate open, allowing Aura and Eróstrato to meet. She cross-examines her maid-servant, Floreta, who lets slip that it was her husband, the gardiner Rustico‘s fault. In revenge [and revenge becomes a theme in this drama], Diana transforms Rustico into various different animals.

 

Rustico



Aura escapes by being magically transformed into an airy spirit. And her revenge on Pocris is to make her fall in love (against Diana’s rules) with Céfalo. But Céfalo’s mythicological destiny is that he will kill his own wife.

Halfway through Act I, and again in Act II, Calderón helps and entertains his audience, by having a comic character – first Rustico, then Clarín – re-tell the story so far, each in their own comically-warped version. The interval in our show comes before Act III.

 

Diana with the green moon-stone

 

In that final Act, Diana takes three revenges for the burning down of her temple, despatching three Furies to destroy Eróstrato (who loses his humanity and runs like a hunted beast), Pocris (who loses her trust in Céfalo) and Céfalo (whose spear, stolen from Diana, kills Pocris).

 

Furies

 

But at the darkest moment, Aura reappears to avert Tragedy… And meanwhile, just as Rustico has come to understand that he is an animal, he regains human form, to his, Clarín’s and Floreta’s utter confusion, and for the audience’s gleeful delight!

 

Floreta



Watch out for the motto-refrains that punctuate the action and colour each scene – these were ‘take-home messages’ for the 1660 audience. These are just some of them:

Ah, alas for the girl who makes it true that someone dies of love!

The aura of love softly inspires… 

Hate does not erase love.

If the air causes jealousy, jealousy – even of the air – kills!

 

Aura


Music

 

Hidalgo’s music is also characteristically Spanish, with strophic songs and syncopated dance-rhythms. The most important instruments are the continuo section of harps, percussion, organ, regal and baroque guitars. The guitar ensemble of different sizes and pitches  – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – is the essential element of Spanish Baroque theatrical music, and the smallest and largest guitars (tuned an octave apart, in D) were specially built for this production at Theatre Sats. The Spanish Baroque harps are by master luthier Rainer Thurau.

The Theatre orchestra brings together modern strings, woodwind and trumpets with a consort of baroque sackbuts. 

Hidalgo’s score calls for two choruses, who represent the Nymphs of Diana and the local Villagers, respectively. 

 

 

Downloads


You can download the original Spanish text (in the version performed in our production) and an English translation. A detailed synopsis of the plot, in English is here. The Theatre’s English language information page is here.

I wish you all a very enjoyable, and very Spanish, Baroque evening! 



 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Il Sant Alessio: The Infernal Choir summons the Demon

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Un Ritratto dell’ opera

 

Nutrice, Sposa, Madre, Eufemiano & Adrasto

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE REPORT

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

ALK comments:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Madre Sposa & Nutrice lament for St Alessio

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Art of Time: Tomas de Santa Maria on performing renaissance Fantasia

Tomas de Santa Maria’s Arte de tañer Fantasia (1565) free to download here is a teaching book for keyboard instruments and vihuela. Like Milán’s (1536) book for vihuela El maestro read more here, this publication is intended not only to teach the rudiments of notation and instrumental technique, but also to give detailed information for high-quality performance and to empower students to improvise their own Fantasias, in the strict polyphonic style of the late renaissance. Thus, the second part download part 2 here offers a complete introduction to 16th-century counterpoint.

In this post, I offer a brief overview of the contents of the two volumes of the Art of playing Fantasia, and analyse in detail Tomas’ comments on his highest priorities, Time and Rhythm, as well as his remarks on Ornamentation and on Performance Practice in general.

 

 

The Art of Fantasia

 

Tomas presents improvised Fantasia-playing as a renaissance Art, a term which had quite a different flavour almost half a millennium ago. Whilst the 20th century has taught us to regard art as the triumph of a lone genius over rules and restrictions applying only to ordinary folk, in the 16th and 17th centuries Art was defined as a system of coherent principles that transformed raw nature into artful creativity, full of life and grace. More about the period meaning of Art and period terminology here.

As Renaissance Art, Tomas’ fantasia is improvised within the rigorous structures of Franco-flemish polyphony, inherited and developed by such composers as Antonio de Cabezon (who checked and approved Tomas’ work), and his arte is indeed a book of rules: 78 chapters of detailed prescriptions, plus several bonus sections on key Performance Practice topics.

The remainder of this article consists mostly of extensive quotes from Tomas’ book, so for clarity my brief comments below are in blue.

Prologo: principles & fundamentals

El fin de este libro es arte de tañer fantasia – “the aim of this book is rules for improvising, divided into two parts. The first deals with all the pre-requisites that are necessary to begin improvising… the second part deals with everything necessary for this purpose, which is to improvise counterpoint, all put into a system (puesto en arte) and into universal rules (reglas universales)…

“In this first part we proceed by way of easier and clearer matters, beginning with the names of the notes (signos), but our principal intention is only to teach young professionals in this discipline (arte) what they need to put into practice, step by step from the most obvious and lightest matters, towards greater matters, and not [beginning] with the most demanding and difficult matters, which would tend to confuse and intrigue experts in such questions rather than enlightening and educating those new beginners, who like children should be nourished with light sustenance, easily digested, and later with more solid food!”

“In all the sciences and disciplines such order is essential… we see the same in Nature, which proceeds from imperfection to perfection… This has been the reason and motivation for our setting out to begin the first part with the notes, not as they have previously been analysed, but from first principles and fundamentals.”

Science, Art & Use

Tomas’ Prologue also includes a discussion of the need for arte – a coherent set of principles, contrasting this with uso – use, i.e. the habitual way of ‘just doing it’. Such use is not necessarily bad – a good habit can be a useful skill – but it must be guided by arte – rules. Our modern-day understanding of ‘art’ as the engagement with mysterious beauties beyond everyday rules is Renaissance Science.

Tomas’s personal connection to the ineffable, divine aspect of Music is proclaimed in a lengthy exposition of the role of Music in the Bible and in Christian doctrine. Reluctantly, he leaves this topic, to focus on the subject of his book – arte as a set of principles.

‘But I wish to leave this [Science], about which much more could be said, so as not to depart from my main purpose. And I say that although I have served the institution of my Order by playing organ wherever my duties took me, I considered many times the great effort required until now, and the many years taken up by learning singing and playing. Moved by emotions of love and charity, I began to investigate and re-examine how all this might be expressed as arte – a set of principles, so that in a short time and with less effort one could acheive the goal, and not merely as uso – habit, ‘just doing it’.

‘Because habit is broad and risky, whereas principles are narrow and sure. And so we see from experience that no-one without principles is perfect in their skilled discipline (facultad); because those who go without principles are like those don’t know the way and go without a guide; and like those who go in the dark without light. Since principles are the guide and the light, then it’s quite fair to say that those who do creative work (obran) without observing principles are ignorant.

‘This is the declaration of the Philosopher, who was asked what knowledge is; and who replied that knowledge is understanding the matter from its causes and first principles (primeros principios), which is what arte consists of.’

And so Tomas spent 16 years of ‘incalculable and incredible work‘, consulting with high-level colleagues, in particular Antonio de Cabezon, in order to perfect his set of principles, and teach his arte as ‘universal rules‘.

Contents

Part 1 begins with the names of the notes in plainchant (canto llano) and staff-notation (canto de organo); the three Hexachords (propriedades); the contradiction between the hard and soft Hexachords (see below); changing Hexachord (mutacion); the two pre-requisites for singing from staff-notation.

Then follows an extra section with ‘advice for maintaining the Tactus (compas) well, analysed in detail below.

Chapter 6 continues with note-values; introduction to the keyboard; semitones; black and white keys; intervals etc. Chapter 13 deals with Performance Practice, setting out eight conditions for fine playing (see below), which are discussed point by point in the following chapters.

From Chaper 20, Tomas explains how to perform polyphonic works on vihuela or keyboard, including advice on ornamentation. Then he analyses the Church Tones, Renaissance Modes, use of remote tonalities and Cadences.

Part 2 is devoted to the rules of counterpoint in 51 chapters: dissonance and consonance; suitable progressions, ascending and descending, whether in slow notes or faster; voice-leading; formal design. Chapter 52 has advice for new players (see below). The final chapter shows how to tune keyboard instruments and vihuela (in meantone).

Hexachords

Whilst every musician understands that one shouldn’t mix up B-flat and B-natural, Tomas’ comments on the contradiction of the hard and soft Hexachords – la contradicion que ay entre las dos propriedades de bequadrado y bemol (Part 1, Chapter 3) are interesting in the context of musical expression and History of Emotions.

‘Of the three Hexachords, the two that are B-natural and B-flat are notorious for being mutually repugnant and contrary – muy notorio ser repugnantes y contrarias entre si – and to such a degree that in no way can they suit or conform one to another nor vice versa, unless there is a particular necessity to make some perfect fifth or perfect fourth, or to excuse some dissonance of fa against mi… Finally, if we are singing or playing in B-natural, we must necessarily avoid singing or playing with B-flat [and vice versa].

‘The reason and cause of this contradiction and repugnance is because song with B-flat is a soft, sweet and smooth song (blando, dulce y soave), and on the contrary, song with B-natural is hard, strong and bitter (duro, rezio y aspero), and so – like soft and hard  – they are manifestly opposites and contraries.’

The natural Hexachord [C D E F G A, containing neither B-flat nor B-natural] is halfway between the hard and soft Hexachords, conforming with either of them’. Tomas links this ‘convenience and conformity’ to the structure of eight-note modes, which combine notes from two six-note Hexachords. ‘The natural Hexachord is halfway, a tempering and concord … with which every mode (tono) can complete its perfect operation.’

Pre-requisites

Part 1, Chapter 5 De dos documentos para en brevemente cantar canto de organo – two pre-requisites for quickly [learning] to sing from staff-notation

‘It is certain and evident that staff-notation – canto de organo – is highly important and necessary for the player, both to understand what they are playing as well as to set a work [i.e. arrange polyphony for solo instrument] and gain advantage from [studying] it. Just as a scholar to complete his diploma has to read many learned writers every day… so the player should… set works in staff-notation by selected composers every day, enriching his knowledge of new and fine things… Por falta de fundamentos se gastava mucho tiempo…

If you lack fundamental skills, you’ve been wasting a lot of time!

Tomas’ emphasis on staff-notation and deep understanding of counterpoint takes his book into territory beyond that explored by Milán in El maestro (1536). Milán uses tablature notation, which tells the vihuela-player which string to pluck with the right hand and which fret to stop with the left hand, note by note, and with careful control of rhythm. But this notation does not show the movement of the individual polyphonic voices, and Milán allows more freedom than Tomas de Santa Maria in adapting the strict rules of counterpoint to the exigencies of a particular instrument. Although Milán requires basic knowledge of staff-notation, his students learn to improvise polyphony mostly by ear and by ‘muscle memory’, by learning the stops and plucks that create the progressions and cadences of each mode. Tomas teaches staff-notation in detail and wants his students to learn counterpoint as an academic, as well as practical, exercise. But both writers encourage students to play good music, in order to learn by example, reproducing and imitating learnt musical fragments in their own improvised fantasias.

Tomas gives ‘two very brief and comprehensive rules (reglas), with which in a very short time one can easily learn and understand in depth: the first deals with  compas and the second with written note-values.’

As for Milán (read more here), so also for Tomas, the term compas combines the philosophical concept of Tactus (the slow, steady pulse governing renaissance and baroque rhythm) with the practical, physical representation of that pulse as a down-up movement of the hand (or foot) and with the notation of the duration of a down-up pulse unit by the note-value of a semibreve and by a bar of staff-notation enclosed by bar-lines. Tomas distinguishes clearly between Tactus (the complete down-up movement, corresponding to a semibreve) and semi-Tactus – medio compas (downbeat only, or upbeat only, corresponding to the duration of a minim).

Tactus

Quanto al compas, que es como fundamento del canto de Organo, por quanto siempre estriva en el, sea mucho de notar que la llave y govierno de toda la musica, assi del cantar como del tañer, es el compas y medio compas, de los quales el que bien supiere usar, terna bien fundamento para bien cantar y tañer, por que el compas es ciera guia en toda la musica mensurable que por su certidumbre le dezimos ser el freno de la musica, porque nos detiene para no cantar ni tañer desatinada y desconcertadamente, sino conforme a razon, por peso y medida, y por preceptos y reglas de musica. Y assi con justo titolo el compas es llamado el govierno con que se concierta y rige toda la musica, assi del cantar como del tañer, dandole toda gracia y ser. 

‘Regarding Tactus, which is like the foundation of staff-notation, since it is always based on Tactus, it should be carefully noted that the key and government of all music, whether sung or played, is the Tactus and semi-Tactus. If you know well how to use them, you’ll have a good foundation for singing and playing well, for Tactus is a sure guide in all measured music [i.e. not plainchant], which for its certitude we can say is the musical brake which restrains us from singing or playing recklessly and in disorder, but instead rationally, by weight and measure, and by precepts and rules of music. And so it is the appropriate title to call Tactus the government with which all music (both sung and played) is brought together and ruled, giving it all its grace and its very existence.’

Tomas now links the practical purpose of Tactus as the basis of musical ensemble to its formal definition in relation to Aristotelean Time: ‘a number of movement in respect of before and after’ Physics (4th cent. BC). We should keep in mind that Isaac Newton’s theory of Absolute Time was not published until more than a century later.

‘Compas es medida, en la cantoria tomado a intento que las bozes concurren en consonancia a un mesmo tiempo. Tactus is Measure, used in choir so that the voices come together in consonance at the same time.’

‘Compas es la cantidad a tardanca de tiempo que ay del golpe que hiere en baxo a otro siguente baxo. Tactus is the amount of duration of time from one down-beat to the following down-beat.’

In the next paragraph, he links the physical hand-movement and practical purpose of Tactus-beating to the notation of musical time with bars and note-values.

‘El compas con que se mide toda la musica practica assi del cantar como del tañer fue sacado del compas con que se mide y inivela la cantidad a cuya semejança el compas de la musica practica mide el tiempo que se gasta en las figuras del canto de Organo… The Tactus that measures all practical music-making both vocal and instrumental is taken from the Tactus that measures and determines the quantity represented by a bar of musical notation which measures the time taken up by the note-values of staff-music.’

Tomas makes it abundantly clear that all measured music (i.e. all music except chant) is governed by Tactus, and the music has to conform to the Tactus, not vice versa.

‘El compas, en el qual estriva toda la musica practica… Tactus, on which all music-making is founded. ‘Toda la musica, assi del cantar como del tañer, esta subjectada y atajada al compas, y no la compas ala musica. All music, both vocal and instrumental, is governed by and founded on Tactus, and not the other way around.

About this, students who want to excel in this art should be well admonished.

‘The Tactus is divided into two equal parts, that is into two semi-Tactus… by the upbeat, so that the Tactus is always on the downbeat and the semi-Tactus on the upbeat’. Tomas emphasises that in binary metre every semi-Tactus is of equal duration.

‘There are two different types of compas in music-making – in one the Tactus is divided (as above) into two equal parts. In the other type into three equal parts: this is the compas of Proportion, also known as Triple metre, in which of the three parts that it has, two are spent on the down-stroke and the other one on the up-stroke. This is done singing two Semibreves on the downstroke  and one on the upstroke [slow, Sesquialtera proportion] or two Minims on the downstroke and one on the upstroke [fast, Tripla proportion].

Four requirements for maintaining Tactus perfectly

  • Beat time with the hand, down-up, with each stroke of equal duration

‘Even though the upstroke should not have a ‘bump’ [topar] as the down-stroke does, nevertheless the down-beat must hit as if it struck something.’ He mentions two faults to avoid: ‘often we see imprecise Tactus-beating without any ‘bump’ neither on the down nor the up, or hitting with the hand as if it struck something on down and up’. This subtle difference between down- and up-strokes is the concept of arsis and thesis.   ‘Every bar has these two beats.’

  • The hand stays down for the entire duration of the semi-Tactus

‘It is not lifted until the note on the upstroke. Similarly on the upstroke the hand stays up for the entire duration of the semi-Tactus, until the downstroke.

‘For this it is necessary to raise and lower the hand with equal regularity – una misma ygualdad.

  • The up- or down-beat and the note on which it falls are struck together simultaneously – juntamente a un mesmo tiempo 

‘The beat is not before or after the note, the note is not before or after the beat, but absolutely together at once. For this, it’s necessary that each beat, both down and up, should be struck with a certain force or impetus, and in addition both should be struck equally, that is one doesn’t strike the downbeat harder than the up, nor the up harder than the down.

  • Every bar goes as measured and determined by the measure of the first bar

‘The measure of tempo maintained in the first bar is maintained in every bar that follows, by reason, that one doesn’t take more time for one bar than for another.

‘We give this advice to new players,  that they basically count by semi-Tactus [minims] … and this way they cannot fail to play in Tactus with all the rigour that is required. because by experience we see that those who don’t play in Tactus err in the semi-Tactus.’

Note that Tomas is encouraging beginners to count relatively quickly, in minims [about MM 60], whereas more experienced players might count the whole Tactus [semibreve ~ MM30]. Modern-day musicians are so used to a fast count, that even Tomas’ easy option of 60 bpm is challengingly slow for many nowadays

.

 

 

‘If you want to maintain Tactus and semi-Tactus well, practise a lot maintaining it for yourself [i.e. within your own body] with the hand and with the foot… for players, maintain Tactus & semi-Tactus with your foot, since whilst playing you can’t do it with your hand.’

 

Mensuration signs & note-values

Part 1, Chapter 6 De las figuras

We are discussing the figuras – written notes – according to their note-value sung in compasete [indicated by C, modern ‘common time’], which is  now commonly used by everyone…. even though  [C-slash, modern ‘alla breve’] is also called compasete by many, which if taken strictly we would have to sing by whole compas [down-up Tactus, and also bar-length], which is breve or two semibreves.  Nevertheless we use it [in the same way] as C, a half-circle without the slash, with the result that using one or the other [mensuration sign, ‘time signature’] we now sing in compasete. What is strictly called compasete  in this period, which is C without slash… the Semibreve is one compas [down-up Tactus, and also bar-length]’

So by Tomas’ time, the strict definition of compasete (Milán calls it by another dimunuitive, compasillo) as C is informally extended by many to include C-slash; and the realisation of C-slash strictly according to theory, i.e. counting by breve and semibreve (which would suggest double tempo, though Tomas does not clarify this explicitly), seems to have been abandoned in practice.

Bar-length

Although period use of the term compas often includes the meaning ‘a bar of notated music’, Tomas’ basic explanation of note-lengths clearly shows that bar-lengths can be varied in practice. In his table, the numbers viii, iv, ii and 1 count the number of Tactus beats.

 

 

This defining exemplo shows:

  • Bar-lengths are expanded as necessary to accommodate large note-values

 

  • The primary meaning of compas is Tactus (as a duration of time corresponding to the movement of the Tactus-hand)

 

  • Note-values are defined in relation to Tactus

In theory, the relationship depends on mensuration sign, but the theoretical distinction between C and C-slash no longer applies in practice.

 

  • A single mensuration sign (i.e. C) allows varying bar-lengths

This contrasts with the modern use of C as a time signature requiring a consistent bar-length of one semibreve.

 

  • There is no assumption of maintaining duration as bar = bar.

This has implications for triple-metre proportions, which today’s performers sometimes describe as ‘bar=bar’. That might be an accurate description in some circumstances, but ‘bar = bar’ is not a period principle that can be used to determine proportions.

Tomas’ (1565) principles of rhythmic notation are entirely consistent with Milan’s theory and practice in El maestro, three decades earlier.

The fundamental quantity is Tactus. Relative durations are specified by note-lengths. The notated bar-length framed by bar-lines  is essentially a visual convenience, no more.

Two Principal Requirements for singing from staff notation

Dos cosas se reguieren principalmente para saber cantar canto de Organo.

  1. Give each note its written time-value
  2. Know which note is on the up- or down-beat, and which is not

For minims it’s easy… with each beat down or up, you sing a minim… if one minim comes with the downbeat, the next is with the upbeat and vice versa.

Tomas now gives examples for various note-values of how notation is linked to Tactus beats.

8 conditions for playing with total perfection and beauty

Book 1, Chapter 13 ‘So that all music might have that grace and essence (ser – literally, ‘being’) which it deserves, it’s necessary to play with all the delicacy that is required, which is repaid in much gold and creates yet more essence and grace. Without this, all that is played, however good it might be, will not have grace nor brilliance. Here is the clear difference between the same work played by a perfect and refined player, or played by another, imperfect and coarse; because played by the expert it will appear to be delicate and high art, and played inexpertly it seems low-class and coarse, as if it were two different pieces.

‘The conditions which thus beautify the music can be reduced to eight:

  1. Play in Tactus (compas)
  2. Place your hands well.
  3. Strike the keys well.
  4. Play cleanly and distinctly.
  5. Let the hands run well up and down the keyboard.
  6. Use appropriate fingering
  7. Play with good groove (ayre)
  8. Make good ornaments and trills (redobles y quiebros)’

‘Playing in Tactus … is the first condition’

For more on Tactus, Tomas refers his readers back to his previous remarks (analysed above).

Chapters 14-18 are specific to keyboard, in particular clavichord, technique. Chapter 14: Fingers are numbered from thumb 1 to little finger 5. Hands are curved like cat’s paws, fingers close together, thumb underneath and close to the 5th finger. All this is close to period harp-technique too. Elbows are dropped, relaxed and close to the body.

Chapter 15: strike the keys with the flesh of the finger; with impetus; equally strongly with both hands; don’t strike from too high above the key; press down into the key, but not so much as to raise the pitch; don’t raise the fingers too much away from the keys.

Chapter 16: for clarity, release one key before playing the next. Lift the finger a little after playing, but don’t take them too far away from the keys.

Chapter 17: for facility throughout the whole range, keep the hand compact, turn the hand slightly in the direction of movement (especially for fast notes), keep the active fingers close to the keys.

Chapter 18 defines Principal Fingers as those that strike the first note of trills. Thumbs are not used for black notes, except for octaves in one hand, or when there is no possible alternative. One should not use the same finger twice in succession for crotchets or (especially) quavers. Consecutive semibreves, on the contrary, are played with one finger repeating. Melodic crotchets are taken pair-wise, alternating two fingers. This is the familiar Renaissance concept of Good and Bad notes, corresponding to the accented and unaccented syllables of a song-text: more on Good & Bad here. Quavers and semiquavers are fingered four-by-four. 

Tomas analyses fingering in considerable detail, confirming the importance of fingering in creating short-term phrasing and articulation. His fingerings for two-note chords require changing fingering on consecutive thirds, which has implications for facilitating particular ornaments (page 45). 

Groove and Swing

 

Chapter 19 introduces the concept of ayre – particular ways to apply rhythmic freedom to fast notes, within the regular pulse of the Tactus. Ayre sometimes refers to melodic tunefulness, but more often to subtle rhythmic patterning. Depending on context, I translate it as ‘groove’ (dance patterns and/or medium- term patterning) or ‘swing’ (changeable, short term patterns), in the jazz sense of subtle rhythmic adjustments that give a particular character or elegant shape without disturbing the fundamental beat.  

‘The way to play with good ayre… requires playing the Crotchets in one way [groove] and the Quavers in three [alternative options for three different ways to swing].’ Thus these adjustments are within the fundamental steady pulse of Tactus (semibreve, down-up) and semi-Tactus (minim, down or up).

‘The manner – manera – you must have for playing Crotchets is to wait – detenerse –  on the first and hurry – correr –  the second; and neither more nor less wait on the third and hurry the fourth; and in this way for all the Crotchets. As if the first Crotchet were dotted, and the second a Quaver… and take note that the Crotchet that hurries should not be very hurried, but a little moderate – un poco moderada.

 

 

‘Of the three manners of [playing] Quavers, two are done almost the same way, which is waiting on one quaver and hurrying the other one… In one manner you begin by waiting on the first Quaver, hurrying the second; and neither more nor less waiting on the third and hurrying the fourth; and in this way all of them… As if the first were dotted and the second a Semiquaver. This manner is suitable for works that are contrapuntal throughout – todas de contrapunto – and for passages of decorative fast notes both long and short – passos largos y cortos de glosas.

 

 

The second manner is done by hurrying the first Quaver and waiting on the second; and neither more nor less hurrying the third and waiting on the fourth; and in this way all of them… As if the first were a Semiquaver and the second a dotted Quaver. In this manner, the dotted Quavers are never on the beat, but in-between. This manner is suitable for short decorations – glosas cortas – which are done like this in [composed, contrapuntal] works as well as in [improvised] fantasia.  And note that this manner is very much more galana (elegant, showy) than the other one, above.’

 

 

The noun gala and its related adjective galana occupy an area of meaning that extends from ‘decorative’ or ‘elegant’ to ‘luxury’ or ‘ostentation’. Milán discusses tañer de gala, which seems to be well towards the ‘showy’ end of this semantic spectrum, as suggested by my translation ‘bravura playing’. More on Milán here.

‘The third manner is done by hurrying three Quavers and waiting on the fourth; and be warned that the waiting has to be all the time that is necessary so that the fifth Quaver comes to be struck in time on the semi-Tactus; and in this way all of them. With the result that they go four by four… as if the three Quavers were Semiquavers and the fourth a dotted Quaver. This third manner is the most galana of all, and is suitable for long and short decorations – glosas largas y cortas.

‘Take note that the waiting on the Quavers should not be much, but just enough to show and be understood a little, because waiting a lot causes great gracelessness and ugliness – desgracia y fealdad – in the music. And similarly for the same reason, the three Quavers that hurry should not hurry too much, but with moderation, conforming to the waiting on the fourth Quaver.

 

The soundscape of Renaissance rhythm

Tomas’ instructions for Renaissance ayre create a rhythmic soundscape that differs sharply from 20th-century assumptions about art-music and improvisatory fantasias. He demands that the player count in minims, which should be completely steady. From other evidence, it is plausible that this count would be somewhere around minim = 60. Within that slow steady beat, crotchets are good/bad (i.e. subtly long/short), quavers are subtly shaped in one of three specific ways, the choice depending on the genre of music and the length of the decorative passagework. Whichever groove or swing is applied, it is maintained consistently throughout the passage in question.

There is no trace of 20th-century rubato, nor of its early-music derivative, phrasing that ‘goes towards’ a certain point. There is none of the hesitancy and pauses that often characterise modern-day performances of ‘improvisatory’ music: on the contrary, even if the player is genuinely improvising, Tomas and his advisers, the Cabezon brothers (as well as Luys Milán before them) expect Tactus, Groove and Swing to be maintained.

Nowadays, one might describe Tomas’ sound-world as steady pulse at approximately 60 bpm, with regular groove at the subordinate level around 120 bpm, and various options for swing at the most rapid level of rhyhmic activity, around 240 bpm. But in that pre-Newtonian age, Tomas has no concept of Absolute Time on which to base such a description; he has no clock precise enough to measure such short durations: rather, he has Tactus, which counts Aristotelean Time as ‘a number of movement in respect of before and after’ (Aristotle, Physics). The essential quality of that Tactus movement is that it is consistent – within the limits of human perception – so that Tomas’ minim is always about one second in duration (though he has no machine to measure it, and no conceptual framework for comparing it to anything more objective than his own feeling of consistency).

It is this essential consistency that allows Tomas to map specific performance practice instructions onto particular note-values (minims are steady, crotchets groove good/bad, quavers swing in one of three ways). Such linkage, which is seen also in Ortiz’s instructions for viola da gamba,  strongly implies that the absolute duration in time of any given note-value is approximately fixed within the whole repertoire:  e.g. minims are approximately one second. If the durations of note-values could vary arbitrarily (as they can in modern practice), this linkage would be meaningless.

Nevertheless, Milan indicates subtle changes in tempo from one piece to another, centred on a default tempo of ‘well measured Tactus’ that is ‘neither very fast nor very slow’. But these changes are not imposed arbitrarily by performers’ artistic choice: performers are required to follow the composer’s directions. So – in contrast to the 20th-century concept of ‘artistic freedom’ for performers, the period attitude is that there is a correct tempo, and that it is the performers’ job to find it.

Ornamentation 1: Graces

Chapter 20: How to make redobles and quiebros 

Summarising Tomas’ definitions & examples: Redoble is a reiterated upper-note trill, starting on the written note, and turned at the beginning.

 

Quiebro is an upper- or lower-note trill, starting on the written note, but without initial turn. Quiebros can be senzillos (simple, i.e. one flip) or reyterados (reiterated).

 

The difference between redoble and quiebro is that the redoble has the initial turn through its lower note.

 

 

‘Redobles are only made on complete bars, i.e. on Semibreves. And Quiebros are made on MInims and on Crotchets and, as a marvel, on Quavers. Reiterated quiebros are made on Minims, simple quiebros on Crotchets; except for one which is not reiterated, and always made on Minims on the [hexachord] pitches sol fa mi fa. This is called the Quiebro de Minima.

‘Reiterated quiebros are made on every Minim where the fingering permits. But simple ones are not made on every Crotchet, but alternately yes and no.

‘There is only one way to make Redoble … with whole-tone and semitone combined. Quiebros are made with tone or semitone, except for the Quiebro de Minima, which is always made … with the lower semitone and upper tone.  The other way would produce gracelessness and displeasure – desgracia y desabrimiento – to the ears, for which reason it must not be made where it would finish on mi…. But it can finish on any other note ut, re, fa, sol, la.

Redobles can have the semitone above or below, ‘but note that in no way is it permitted to make a Redoble with two whole-tones combined, because this is very graceless and displeasing to the ear.’

Redobles permitted and prohibited

 

Tomas gives specific fingerings for each ornament, for the keyboard, left and right hands.

‘These styles of redobles and quiebros … are very new and very elegant – galanos – causing such grace and tunefulness – melodia – in the music, which bears them in so many degrees – grados – and with such contentment to the ears, that it seems something quite different from playing without them, so much so that there is every reason to use them always, and not others which are old-fashioned and not graceful.

‘Simple quiebros … for ascending are made with tone or semitone below. Those for descending are made with tone or semitone above.’

Tomas describes a very fast ornament, in which the principal note is not actually repeated, but sustained whilst the auxiliary is played almost simultaneously and quickly released. There is no conventional notation for this technique (described also in some harp sources), so he does not provide an example. With this type of fast mordent, Tomas prefers the descending version (with upper auxiliary) to the little-used ascending version. 

Quiebros on Crotchets, both ascending and descending, are sometimes made on the beat, and sometimes on the off-beat, and this [on the off-beat] is the better and more elegant – galana – manner, because it gives more grace to what is played.

Tomas gives keyboard fingerings for each option, for each hand.

The upper-auxiliary Minim quiebro normally used for descending can be used ascending if the principal note is a mi.

‘Sometimes, and only descending, one can make quiebros on two consecutive Crotchets. which is done for grace and elegance. This occurs when after an ascent to a Semibreve there are two Crotchets descending. 

‘When there are ascending Crotchets which then descend, one must always make a quiebro on the highest note, which is done for descending [upper auxiliary]’ ‘Similarly, when there are descending Crotchets which then ascend, one must always make a quiebro on the lowest note, which is done for ascending [lower auxiliary].

‘Similarly, to give more grace to the music, one must always make quiebros on every Crotchet that follows immediately after a dotted Minim.’

‘So that the music should have more grace and thus give more contentment to the ears, it’s necessary that redobles and quiebros de minimas should be done by either hand, a redoble with one hand, another redoble with the other; and similarly a quiebro with one hand, another quiebro with the other; responding to each other.’ The fingerings for consecutive thirds (above) facilitate a similar effect between two voices in one hand.  ‘This is heard when both hands play Semibreves or Minims which can have redobles or quiebros, playing them one after another, which greatly adorns the music and gives it grace, especially when there is a chain of Semibreves or Minims.’

‘When the Mode – tono – avoids certain notes … the ornaments should also avoid them.’

Tomas gives technical advice for executing ornaments at the keyboard, repeating his earlier comments about keeping the fingers close to the keys. That advice might well be adapted for vihuela and harp, as keeping the fingers close to the strings.

Tomas characterises his ornamentation as ‘new’, and it is intended for the relatively short sustain of the clavichord. Fewer, or different ornaments might be appropriate to Milán’s period and/or to other instruments. Nevertheless, it seems likely that all renaissance music was ornamented considerably more than the raw notation suggests.

Tomas demands almost ceaseless ornamentation, more-or-less on every second note, as well as strict adherence to rules of ‘grammar’ for ornamentation. Such florid playing in regular Tactus, and with the groove and swing of ayre, creates a sound-world for the late 16th century that contrasts notably with 20th-century assumptions about art-music, the ‘purity’ of polyphony and what ‘improvisatory’ playing might mean.

 

Setting polyphonic works

Chapter 20. ‘Playing polyphonic works on the clavichord is the font and origin from which are born and proceed all the fruits and benefits, and all the art of playing for players.’

‘It should be noted that in whatever work of any kind, all the voices are interdependent and linked one to another, that no individual voice can move a single note without having specific respect and regard for all the other voices. And similarly voices are measured and counted, linking voices Tactus by Tactus, semi-Tactus by semi-Tactus.’

‘Two things have to be kept with all rigour, which rule and govern the arranger so that they never err: these are count and measure, which are interdependent… Measure is the same as compas (Tactus, also bar-length), by which all practical Music is ruled and governed.’

Tomas also explains vihuela tablature, and how to set polyphonic works for vihuela.

Tips for understanding polyphonic works

Chapter 21. ‘Brief advice for new players to master quickly any kind of work’

‘Three things are necessary to understanding any kind of work quickly, and thus to play it more perfectly.

1. Play in Tactus

‘maintaining it always with the same equality of time, i.e. not changing it from more to less nor from less to more. For this, it’s necessary to maintain Tactus with the foot and similarly to take great care with the semi-Tactus… in addition, it’s necessary to understand note-values and give each of them their full duration.’

2. Sing through each individual voice in turn

3. Understand all the Consonances and Dissonances in the work, whether in 2, 3 or 4 voices.

How to obtain benefit from studying polyphonic works

Chapter 22. ‘Five things have to be noted:

1. Understand profoundly the invention and artfulness in the contrapuntal progressions – passos – whether the response or repeat is at the fourth, fifth, octave or other interval… in two, three, four or more voices; with or without imitation. The Art of Fantasia consists of all this, which above all one has to get to know; because in everything it is only arte [i.e. a coherent system of rules]  that makes a Master. And from that it follows that all those who ignore the rules are imperfect.

2. Note the entrance of each voice, to know if it enters before the cadence, in the cadence, or after the cadence; with what invention or subject it enters; for the entry of each voice is the most delicate matter, of greatest subtlety and arte that there is in music. So this must receive great attention and care, in order to apply it in the works.’

3. Note all the styles of Cadences which are used in the works, undersanding them profoundly and memorising them, in order to make similar cadences when improvising [fantasia].

4. Note all the Consonances and Dissonances… and memorise them, in order to create varied progressions, for this is of great benefit in acheiving flow and abundance of spontaneity [fantasia].

5. When a progression is repeated, note the differences in the repeated version, whether in 2, 3 or 4 voices.

‘For new students to apply these benefits in improvisation – fantasia – it’s necessary that they practise constantly with the same progressions that they have learnt, so that with this practice – uso – they become accustomed to the [rules of] arte, and then they can easily play other progressions. Similarly, it is very advantageous to transpose a particular progression into all possible keys. For this, take note that wherever you want to transpose them, they must keep the same [Hexachord] solmization.

‘To gain the great fruits and benefit for improvising of all the above, it’s necessary to practise many times each day, with great perseverance, never mindlessly – desconsiando – but trusting for certain that work and constant practice – uso – conquers all and creates a maestro… A drop of water can carve out stone, not in one or two droplets, but falling constantly.’

Tomas recommends frequent, mindful practice, repeating the same material many times in order to perfect, memorise and internalise it. Although his comments are consistent with the modern-day understanding of learning elite skills, he expresses himself through the period meaning of such terms as uso (practical techniques) and arte (a coherent set of rules for effective creativity). What we mean nowadays by ‘art’, the ineffable mystery of the emotional power of music, is Renaissance Science. More about period terminology here and here.

Tomas’ emphasis on learning progressions and cadences echoes the approach of Milán’s El Maestro.

 

Ornamentation 2: Divisions

How to add divisions to polyphonic works. Chapter 23 Del glosar las obras

Renaissance ornamentation is categorised as Graces on a single note (the redobles and quiebros discussed above) and Divisions or Diminuitions – glosas –  where the interval between two long notes is ‘divided’ into many shorter notes. Tomas gives several examples for each interval, ascending and descending.

‘To add divisions – glosar – to polyphonic works one must be advised that glosas are only made on three note-values – Semibreves, Minims and Crotchets – even so, least often on Crotchets.

‘To glosar a work well, there are two things to note:

  1. All the voices should have equal amounts of glosas
  2. If the voices repeat something, the glosas are also repeated in all the voices

unless something prevents this, which is often the case.

If it is necessary to glosar Crotchets ascending or descending [four by four, stepwise], one must take the glosas for Semibreves ascending or descending a fifth. 

Helpful Hints & Improvisation

Book 2, Chapter 52.  Useful advice for new players.

Tomas’ purpose is not only to teach the instrument and basic musicianship, he also gives advice on how to learn to improvise within the demanding style of 4-voice Renaissance polyphony.

1. Practise running the hands throughout the whole range of the instrument, with appropriate fingerings, observing all the conditions and circumstances already discussed.

2. Practise making redobles and quiebros with both hands.

3. Maintain Tactus very well with hand or foot… give each note-value its precise value

4. After studying a piece well in a class, write it out just as the master taught it, with the glosas etc. Similarly, sing through each individual voice.

5. Understand well how to play the instrument

6. Take as your foundation and guide the Eight Conditions for playing perfectly [above].

7. Understand and be able to play in all possible keys

8. Practise easy works first, and then progressively more difficult ones

9. Practise transposing works into every possible key.

Similarly, try to take from each work those progressions which have graceful melodies, and memorise them, so that afterwards you can improvise on them spontaneously.

Once you are expert in all these things, try to start to play improvisations, based on some melodious progressions. In addition, try to play the progressions with different imitative counterpoints – fugas – i.e. at the fourth, fifth and octave, which greatly beautifies the music.

Similarly, try taking one voice from a work (whichever you want, soprano, alto, tenor or bass), and play it as the treble in four-voice harmony, making up three voices in your head… with a variety of harmonies, which greatly exalts and beautifies the music.

Similarly, once you are already a little expert in playing a given voice like this as the treble, trying playing it as the alto, tenor or bass [with three new voices created around it]. This suggests the Renaissance technique of composing a Parody Mass, in which the counterpoint of a pre-extant motet is re-worked and greatly extended to create an entire mass setting. This technique could be a model for improvisation in Tomas’ style, as could the fantasias compiled for keyboard, harp and vihuela by Henestrosa, ‘cutting and pasting’ contrapuntal progressions from various works into a new creation.

If you want to be a perfect player, try to apply yourself and practise little by little, playing counterpoint that has a good feeling – ayre – and graceful melody; on plainchant; and especially polyphonic music, until you are perfect at it. For this is the root and source from which grow and proceed all the skills applicable to the keyboard, and also the perfection and grace which it gives to all the music that is played.’

Tomas final words perfectly capture the essence of Renaissance improvisation: Practise by playing good music well; strive for total perfection; this will improve your skills, your improvisation and your playing of written music.

Modern-day performance

Three significant differences stand out from Tomas’ rules of arte, when compared to today’s HIP approach to fantasia and renaissance polyphony.

  1. Many modern-day performers choose not to play in rhythm.
  2. Few modern-day performers add much ornamentation.
  3. Few modern-day improvisers maintain correct counterpoint to Tomas’ standards.

Tomas’ comments on Tactus are so strongly worded that it is beyond any doubt that all the music of this period should be played in Tactus, counting regularly on a minim beat, and controlling this with the physical movement of hand or foot. Unless you frequently practise and problem-solve with a physical Tactus-beat, you are out of touch (sic) with Renaissance rhythm.

This insistence on Tactus is certainly fundamental, but it is not merely elementary. On the contrary, Tomas associates it witha perfect and refined … expert’, and with playing that is ‘delicate and high art’. 

The amount and detail of ornamentation specified by Tomas is alarming for those of us accustomed to ‘the pure lines of renaissance polyphony’. Our ears, as well as our fingers, will need plenty of practice with so many redoblesquiebros and glosas in all the voices, on almost every second note.

We might assume that improvisation excuses sloppy rhythm and bad counterpoint, even that ‘art has no rules’: Tomas’ book exists to teach the contrary!