The Wrong Trousers: can new training re-purpose Early Music skills for Historically Informed Performance?

There are significant differences in music-making, not only between mainstream and Early Music approaches, but also between today’s Early Music and what musicians of former centuries actually did back then.

Most of us recognise that Historically Informed performers should renounce any claims to ‘authenticity’: we will never know everything about earlier styles of performance, and there are some historical practices (e.g. producing castrati to sing soprano) that we would not wish to repeat, historical attitudes to race, gender or religion that have no place in modern-day society. But whilst researchers continue to unearth and decipher ancient sources of new information, there is already a considerable gap between what we know about Historical Performance Practice and what we do in the standard practices of Early Music today.

In the context of modern-day performances of 19th-century repertoire, Clive Brown referred to ‘the yawning chasm between contemporary practice and historical evidence’. His critique was aimed not at mainstream musicians, but at the current Early Music approach, and it could apply equally well to many performances of renaissance and baroque repertoires.

The search for Authenti-City: abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

In my very first post back in 2013, I compared the hot topics of modern-day Early Music debates – vibrato, pitch, temperaments – with (more inspiring) historical priorities proclaimed by Caccini:

Music is Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around!

Caccini ‘Le nuove musiche’ (1601)

More on Caccini here.

‘The historical priorities are Text, Rhythm, Action – and the audience’s emotions. Text (not vibrato), Rhythm (not rubato), Action for the Audience (not how the performers themselves feel).’ Read more here…

In this article, I make two (interlinked) case-studies of modern-day practices that are so familiar as to be almost beyond question, but that we all know to be un-historical. Beyond calling out ‘Mind the gap’, my purpose is to consider how the musical skills we have acquired to handle an anachronistic approach might be adapted to facilitate performances that better apply the historical information we already have.

The only essential pre-requisite is having the courage to try something different from what is experienced in nearly all modern-day performances, from what is heard in nearly every recording. Read on, if you dare!

Are you brave enough to go off the rails?

Vocal Scores

For renaissance polyphony and baroque opera, singers nowadays use scores, as opposed to the individual parts used for nearly all repertoire pre-1800.

‘Pulchra es’ from Monteverdi’s (1610) Vespers: Cantus 1 part-book incipit

Our best consort singers have acquired high levels of skill in score-reading. This skill facilitates ensemble unity, entry making, pitch finding etc, and underpins two commonplace directorial interventions: at phrase ends, unifying the duration of final notes and/or pronunciation of final consonants; adjusting the ensemble balance from phrase to phrase by having individual singers switch from one part to another.

I was privileged to observe one of the UK’s most experienced Early Music singers, tenor John Potter, coaching vocal ensembles in the subtle interactions of one-voice-to-a-part consort singing. He encouraged singers to scan the score, and “wait for your colleague to sing his bit, before you move on to sing your bit”. Even when there is a conductor, today’s elite vocal ensembles acheive their high-precision unity of timing by such ‘give and take’ between individual singers, combining attentive listening with skilled score-reading.

That is all very well, but none of it is historical. Not only did Monteverdi’s singers not have scores, but Zacconi (1596) describes clearly that “vertical alignment”, the unanimity of timing seen in modern scores and demanded by record producers, was not desired circa 1600. Rather, each individual singer was allowed the liberty of arriving late on an expressive note, whilst the underlying Tactus continued steadily: like Ella Fitzgerald syncopating around a steady beat. Read more about ‘Making Time for Beautiful Singing’ here.

And when we stop to think about it, it is unlikely that musicians of the period would have prioritised ‘consistent vocal balance’ (is that even desirable?) over the traceable self-consistency of individual polyphonic strands within the strict rules of renaissance counterpoint. Rather than switching parts to boost a quieter voice, perhaps the other singers listened harder, or sang more softly themselves.

Singing from individual parts creates a different set of listening skills within the ensemble, and imposes new demands for rhythmic clarity: your colleagues don’t know what you are supposed to sing, so you have to communicate the underlying Tactus, whatever the superficial notes might be. And once you add the period practice of spontaneous Divisions (melodic ornamentation in shorter note-values), then even the partial scores that the continuo might have (for example for the Monteverdi (1610) Vespers) will not show visually what is actually happening aurally.

‘Pulchra es’: differences between score for BC and individual part-books



In fact, the continuo scores for some solo moments in the Vespers are significantly different from the vocal part-books, even before the singers add spontaneous Divisions and Zacconi-style delays. If the continuo attempt to “follow”, placing their bass-notes as seen vertically underneath the appropriate solo-notes as heard, a train-wreck inevitably ensues [ok, there were no trains in 1610, but you know what I mean]!

Reading from scores, those with long notes end up ‘following’ the voice with the most activity, whereas historically, it was the voices with notes in Tactus-values (minims and semibreves) that determined the rhythm: fast-moving Divisions must fit in (read more about Passaggi).

Historically, soloists were guided by the accompaniment [see Peri (1600) here]. If this seems controversial (and it is controversial in mainstream choirs and most of today’s Early Music), compare it to jazz, where the rhythm section keeps the groove steady whilst soloists syncopate, “having fun and improvising counterpoint” [Agazzari sopra’l basso1607, more on Agazzari here]

Conductors

Conducting in Early Music is the elephant in the room, the emperor’s new clothes, the glaring anachronism that no-one dares name, the dinosaur waiting for an incoming comet of historical information.

Period treatises, eye-witness reports and iconographical evidence [see also Peter Holman’s recent book on the subject] show beyond all possible doubt that before c1800, ensemble music was not conducted in the modern sense, but was guided by Tactus (which is quite different, read more about Tactus here and in many articles within this blog).

That ‘yawning chasm’ between modern-day habits and historical practice is seen all too clearly in the current phenomenon of the ‘director from the keyboard’, who conducts modern-style whilst using a harpsichord or chamber organ as something between a fig-leaf and a very expensive music-stand.

Working with conductors, today’s Early Music performers have developed the skills to follow a varying beat and – when the going gets tough – to stay together by reference to the score. In particular, continuo-players have learnt to play without committing themselves to any clear rhythmic impulses, in order to follow soloists and/or accommodate themselves to a conductor’s interpretation of the beat. Deprived of their historical role of ‘guiding the whole ensemble’ (Agazzari 1607) and ‘directing the singers’ (Gagliano 1608), today’s continuo-players amuse themselves with divisions and embellishments, often simultaneously (but not quite together) amongst several performers, a horror condemned by Agazzari as ‘soup and confusion’ or a ‘flock of noisy sparrows’.


Historically, there was Tactus-beating for solo lute-songs, vocal consorts and polychoral ensembles, but no hand-waving at all for opera and dramatic music (in genere rappresentativo). The steady down-up of Tactus-beating imitates the stability of the cosmos and creates Time itself (according to Aristotelean philosophy, read more here). Just to read Zacconi’s list of Tactus qualities will assure any consort-musician that it differs fundamentally from modern conducting:

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

Zacconi ‘Prattica di Musica’ (1592/1596)

Transferrable skills

Of course, we can get Early Music onto the stage (or into the recording studio) fast, by using vocal scores and modern conducting. But if we want to apply Historical Information to our performance, there needs to be time for experimentation, acquiring new skills, and consolidating experience in unfamiliar modes of musicking. Indeed, this kind of re-imagining how to make music is what HIP is all about.

Nevertheless, it is especially challenging to deal with individual ensemble members’ fundamental habits of ensemble practice. How much easier just to conduct everything, just to continue with those social media debates about vibrato, pitch and temperament!

If tomorrow’s Early Music is to be Historically better Informed than today’s, we must invest time in experiment and training for subtly different musicianship skills. This cannot be done within a normal rehearsal: we need to create un-pressured time and a safe space for individual musicians to let go their normal habits and take the risk of trying something fundamentally different. But perhaps we can progress more quickly by re-purposing the (slightly off-target) skills we already have…

Today’s Early Musicians are highly skilled at following a visual beat (no matter how unreliable or unsteady!), at listening to each other with reference to a vocal score, and at using aural cues to follow wayward soloists.

Visual beat

Historically Informed Tactus-beating is both a visual cue and an embodied practice: musicians need to become familiar with both aspects. We can practise with the whole group simultaneously beating Tactus: relaxed arm hinged at the elbow, palm outwards, down for one second, up for one second. There is no leader, no followers, the group mission is to remain together.

We can play through some (not too demanding) ensemble music, with each member of the group taking their turn to beat Tactus, whilst the others play to the beat. The role of the Tactus-beater is not to “interpret the music”, but to give the steadiest, most equal beat they possibly can. A wise coach can use this exercise to re-balance relationships of “leaders” and “sheep” within the ensemble…

Working alone, a musician can synchronise their Tactus-beating, and (later) their playing/singing to a home-made pendulum. A 1-metre length of string will produce a 1 second beat (Mersenne, 1636). Notice that the movement of a pendulum, and the feeling this movement creates, is quite different from the sharp click of a metronome.

The chandelier in Pisa cathedral where Galileo supposedly first observed the steady beat of the pendulum effect.

Just as jazz singers swing their arms and/or snap their fingers, not to conduct each other, but in order to inhabit, embody, to make physical the shape of Time itself, the groove of Music, so these simple exercises help us internalise the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Some musicians may need frequent reminders and extra practice, to think and move in a slow minim = 60 pulse, rather than sub-dividing into today’s more typical crotchet = 120.

See the Tactus Workshop Manual for more suggestions.

Listening without a score

We listen in a different way, when we do not have the visual reference of a score to guide us. When I teach a master-class, I always listen to the piece the first time without looking at the score. This places me in a similar position to an audience-member, who should understand the performance aurally, without a score, perhaps without any previous knowledge of the work.

For Early Music consorts, listening without a score invites us to maintain ensemble unity by understanding the underlying Tactus, since we cannot know the significance of individual notes (which might anyway have been ornamented or otherwise changed spontaneously). Playing/singing to colleagues who have no score challenges performers to show more clearly how those individual notes relate to the underlying Tactus, shaping long-notes across several Tactus beats, lightening-up fast-moving ornamentation so that it flows without disrupting the Tactus beat, articulating syncopations appropriately so that they are correctly understood.

An elementary, but surprisingly powerful exercise, is to ask the whole group to beat Tactus (without seeing a score) whilst one person plays/sings their individual part (this also works for solo pieces, e.g. a harpsichord or harp solo). Everyone becomes more aware of Tactus, more skilled at maintaining it in spite of aurally suggested changes (this is the Tactus-beaters’ role) and at avoiding unwanted changes (this is the performer’s task).

When this becomes too easy, then the performer can be invited to add divisions and impromptu variations, and/or to apply Zacconi’s expressive delay, the accento. Read more here.

Meanwhile, everyone is getting more (much needed) experience of the visual and embodied practice of Tactus. Period musicians would have been beating Tactus all their lives, from their first lessons to learning new material as full professionals even as elite soloists and ensemble directors. For Early Musicians today, Tactus cannot be learned by studying historical treatises, not even by reading my blog! You have to Do It Yourself.

Another way to add complexity is to combine two performers, whilst the majority of the group continue to beat steady Tactus. This builds the habit of trusting the embodied movement of Tactus, not following wayward aural cues. The crucial assumption is that the music continues in steady Tactus, rather than ‘follow anything that moves!’.

Alternating playing/listening exercises between different members of the group prepares for the next level.

Directing

Who directs, and how? Historically, and (it would be desirable) also for our modern-day Early Music, the role of coaching an ensemble and making artistic decisions (maestro di capella) should be distinguished from the role of administering the Tactus-beat (summinstrar il tatto). Coaching and making artistic decisions happens in rehearsal. In performance (including playing-through during rehearsals) the primary task of the Tactus-beater is to maintain a steady beat, and not to be swayed by any temporary aural deviations.

This does not mean an aggressive tug-of-war between leader and followers, but a mutual recognition of the cosmic, humanist and practical significance of the Tactus (i.e. the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, in which the entire universe is turned in slow steady rhythm by the hand of God, the primum mobile).

The perfect movement of the heavens is reflected in microcosm in the harmonious nature of the human body, and imitated in earthly music-making.

If your pulse stops, the music also dies…

Nevertheless, there is freedom for an individual performer to depart momentarily from the Tactus, providing they rejoin it promptly. Zacconi expects accento-singers to be back on Tactus-track by the next beat.

Taking turns to beat Tactus, and with the director/coach observing, ensemble members can experiment with maintaining unity by visual cues from the Tactus-beater, by their own embodied experience of Tactus-beating, and by listening to aural cues that indicate the underlying Tactus (not the movement of individual notes).

Listen to the bass (in polyphony), to the continuo, to a simple or slow-moving part, to what appears to be ‘accompaniment’ rather than to ‘soloists’. Basses, continuo-players, performers of simple slow-moving parts and anyone who might be (temporarily) ‘accompaniment’ must learn to maintain Tactus reliably, to guide and direct the whole ensemble, and (a tough call) not to ‘follow’ the soloist, a fast-moving or complex part.

This ensemble skill of maintaining Tactus rather than following soloists takes a lot of practice. The aim is to go beyond any initial stiffness or sense of confrontation, and find a flowing, embodied sense of rhythm in the slow steady Tactus beat. The mantra is: “soloists are free to depart from the beat, but the beat will not change to accommodate them”. Be inspired by Ella Fitzgerald.

As the whole ensemble gets good at this, soloists can throw in deliberate ‘bending’ of the rhythm, around the steady beat. Indeed, soloists should only ever bend the rhythm deliberately, not by accident or mis-management. If a tricky moment cannot be performed accurately, then it needs more practice. It’s always worth learning a crucial turn of phrase precisely as notated, before adding any rhythmic alteration. (See Caccini for suggestions of rhythmic alteration to short notes, within the steady Tactus).

Solo players, who often have to present a complete polyphonic texture within a single instrument (harpsichord, lute, harp, even violin in J. S. Bach’s Partitas), need to learn first the basic skill of maintaining Tactus whilst they play a single line. The temptation is for the beat (maintained perhaps by the foot if your hands are busy) to follow the performance, but it should be the other way around! Use a pendulum if necessary, to control this.

The more advanced skill is to have Tactus in the bass, in the continuo, in the accompaniment, direct the solo line in Measure. This requires significant mental re-organisation and artistic re-prioritising. When you can do this well, then you can add Caccini-style or Zacconi-style rhythmic alterations to the solo line, whilst keeping the accompaniment steady.

Aural training

Students – and many experienced performers – like to learn from aural examples. But we have very few aural examples of Tactus in today’s Early Music that we can imitate. This well-documented historical practice is not yet reflected in most modern-day recordings or concert performances. Nevertheless, we can still benefit by learning from, and practising with, aural examples.

Make your own home recording of the accompaniment of your piece, check that it really is in Tactus (this is itself an educational exercise, which may need repeated attempts!), and then play the solo line along with your own Tactus-measured accompaniment.

If you are making a lock-down-style multi-track ensemble recording, record the bass first. Or even create a “Historical Click Track” (to be removed from the final mix), not with a click, but with an aural signal that is more akin to a pendulum swing. For example, just say ONE…. TWO with a sustained, slow-articulated ‘one’ and a crisper ‘two’ (the sounds of the English language work well for this). Or a drum track, DUM-bak.

Many modern-day performances use a slow, resonant large drum to create a steady groove, and the steady-calm-strong feeling of renaissance rhythm (think Pavan, for example). I would say that this feeling is historically appropriate, and certainly following an aural cue works well for today’s musicians. Nevertheless, period evidence shows that pavan percussion was a more active rhythm in shorter note-values on a small, less resonant, tabor-like drum. See Arbeau Orchesographie here. The slow-steady-calm-strong beat is the appropriate feeling for historical Tactus, but we need to create it for ourselves rather than relying on the wrong kind of drum!

But we could use that modern pavan-drum as a training aid for high-style polyphony, or seicento monody, to instill that sense of Measure, of reliable Tactus that is needed even when the beat is not dancing to the beat of shorter note-values. This distinction (Tactus in long note-values for serious music, happy dances with regularity extended even to short note-values) is what lies behind Peri’s remark about differing circumstances in which the soloist should not, or should ‘dance to the rhythm of the bass’. More about Peri’s Tactus bass here.

Pre-requisites

In order to begin this development, and move today’s Early Music one step closer to Historically Informed Performance, individual musicians need to hone their Tactus skills, their ability to control rhythm with a slow, steady count. And conductors need to learn the essential historical skill required for their role: a simple down-up beat maintained equally and reliably, without any pertubation (Zacconi, Il Corago c1630 etc).

In Monteverdi’s (1610) Vespers, we would not play continuo on a Steinway, we would not play baroque violin with a modern bow, we would not admit a cornettist who had not learnt the basic fingering-system of his instrument. Why should we accept conducting that eschews the fundamental period technique of the Tactus-hand, that is Historically Un-informed about the historical role of Tactus-beater?

A key pre-requisite for better Informed Performance is proper Historical training for Early Music ensemble directors: no more dinosaurs, no more modern-interpretative-dance in front of a keyboard instrument!



Time-beating lays down the tracks that the perfomance will follow. As Early Musicians, we can make Historically Informed decisions about how to lay down those tracks, and we can follow those tracks in newly-discovered and period-creative ways, offering our listeners a thrilling and surprising ride. Until then,

Mind the Gap!

Laying down new tracks?
Who follows what?
The chase-scene from ‘The Wrong Trousers’

You can watch a video of the train-chase scene that inspired the title of this post here I hope you’ll enjoy the sequence where Gromit the dog lays down new tracks to shape his own journey, despite fierce resistance from the villainous penguin, FakeHip McBaton (or whatever the baddie’s name really is).

Altri canti senza battuta: Madrigals of Love, War & Tactus

Altri canti d’Amor, tenero Arciero… di Marte io canto.
Others sing of Love, the tender Archer… I sing of Mars!

Altri canti di Marte e di sua schiera… io canto amor.
Others sing of Mars and of his army… I sing of Love!

set by Claudio Monteverdi

Others sing without Tactus…

ALK

Modern-day performances of the concerted madrigals of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book Madrigali Guerrieri ed Amorosi (1638) usually adopt one of two strategies: a modern onductor; or no conductor at all, perhaps with some leading from the first violin. Tempi are chosen at the performers’ whim. None of this corresponds to period practice.

This repertoire is precisely the ‘difficult’ genre of ‘modern madrigals’ discussed by Frescobaldi, where there are contrasting movements (passi) and passionate vocal effects. Frescobaldi Rules, OK? here.

In this period, rhythm was almost always directed by Tactus-beating from within the ensemble. The Tactus-beater is usually a singer, because instrumentalists’ hands are occupied.

Nevertheless continuo-players have the role of ‘guiding and supporting’ the entire ensemble of voices and instruments [Agazzari 1607, here]. And Frescobaldi’s rules – formulated for keyboard players – remind us that Tactus is present as a guiding concept even when it is not physically realised. Many sources recommend that instrumentalists beat Tactus with a foot.

All this matters because the sound and feeling of Tactus-led music-making are very different from modern conducting AND from modern-day chamber-music playing. Tactus-beating maintains a minim-pulse that is “regular, solid, stable, firm, clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation.”

In contrast, most modern conductors make a free choice of which note-value to beat, and apply rallentando and other speed variations (deliberately, or otherwise!). The requirement to synchronise with a steady Tactus guards ensembles against rushing or dragging, and against the lurching changes associated with the oft-heard comment “this phrase goes towards such-and-such a note”. The concept of “goes towards” is not found in period sources: rather the Tactus is stable, and within that stable beat individual notes are Good or Bad, Long or Short. The Good, the Bad and the Early Music phrase, here.

So much for the canti senza gesto – the songs without action. But Monteverdi’s Book VIII also includes some ‘short episodes’ in genere rappresentativo, in show-style, in theatrical style. For those pieces, the convention was not to use any visible Tactus-beating, since the singers were representing dramatic characters. They might well use their hands to gesture expressively, but nobody beats time. This devolves the responsibility for time-keeping to the continuo, who in this style ‘rule’ or ‘regulate’ (reggono) ‘guide’ or ‘drive’ (guidano) the singers.

The genere rappresentativo in Monteverdi’s Book VII Concerto (1619)

Read about the difference between the ‘tempo of the hand’ and the ‘tempo of the heart’ in the Lamento della Ninfa, here.

Fundamental Tactus: minim = 60

In all these pieces, in both chamber-music and dramatic genres, Monteverdi’s notation indicates a basic tempo which might be tweaked to exaggerate contrasts of affetto (mood, emotion) and of musical activity. This basic tempo is regulated by a fundamental Tactus in mensuration mark C of approximately minim = 60: a human (and therefore subjective) feeling for the misura of Time itself. The usual way to beat was simple: down for a minim, up for a minim.

Proportions

Altri canti d’amor is one of the few pieces to include all three triple-metre Proportions: slow Sesquialtera, medium-fast Tripla and fast Sestupla. As Carissimi observed, the note-values in each of these proportions have the same quantitative duration, but the emotional quality of the movement is very different. More on Quality Time here.

Sesquialtera Semibreve = 90 Movement based on semibreves

Others sing of love…

Tripla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on minims

The proud choir…

Sestupla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on semi-minims

The audacious battles…

Binary Tactus – ternary metre

Altri canti di Marte has a short section with an unusual notation that creates the impression of ternary metre, but in the steady speed and black notation of regular crotchets.

The triumphs of death…

The Tactus beat here is the standard down-up at minim = 60, but the word-accents do not coincide with the Tactus beats. Reading from unbarred part-books, singers are not threatened by the ‘tyranny of the bar-line’. Similarly in the choral recitation of Hor che ciel e la terra.

Now that heaven and earth and the wind are silent…

Another binary notation with ternary effect is seen in Act II of Orfeo. Again, the beat is the standard minim = 60, producing a slower movement than would result from Proportional notation.

Look, I really do return to you, dear woods and beloved shores…

Tweaking the Tactus

Frescobaldi recommends listening to the music (with the standard Tactus and Proportions) before deciding how to tweak the Tactus between sections, according to the emotional quality, or affetto. In Monteverdi’s madrigals, we can discern the intended affetto not only from the sound of the music, but also directly from the sung text.

Words with particular emotional content can help us position the affetto within the historical framework of the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope, enjoyment of good things), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (pensive, unlucky in love, sleepless, ‘the blues’), Phlegmatic (cold, damped-down, a ‘wet blanket’).

The composer will already have responded to the affetto, with appropriate melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Jacopo Peri explains that in dramatic monody, the affetto is composed into the continuo bass: the singer’s pitches and rhythms represent (in musical notation) the way this text would be declaimed by a fine actor in the spoken theatre. More on Peri here.

None of this is ‘improvisatory’: it is not a ‘sketch’ to be completed by the performer. Rather, the composer has written down in musical notation the period conventions of dramatic delivery. Monteverdi, ‘the divine Claudio’, was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be the master of moving the audience’s passions by his expressive harmonies and precisely notated rhythms. Much more about Monteverdi’s genius for word-setting and theatre in Tim Carter’s inspiring book on Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre, here.

Changing the Tactus according to the affetto

When we (as performers) respond to the affetto, we should expect to find ourselves adding to the contrasts that the composer has already written in. If the affetto of the text is agitated, the composer will have written fast notes, and we should perform these with a faster Tactus. If the affetto of the text is calm, the composer will have written slow notes, and we should perform these with a slower Tactus.

Even (especially) if the affetto is extreme, the change to the Tactus can only be small, since the composer will already have used extreme note-values, This famously agitated moment in Monteverdi’s Combattimento simply cannot be taken very much faster than standard Tactus, which is already 16 syllables per second!

Offence irrates anger into revenge….

So the performers’ tweaking of the Tactus is subtle, and should be percieved by the listener as an emotional change, rather than an alteration of tempo as such. These changes happen between contrasting movements passi – section by section, not word by word.

The change of Tactus between sections is managed by means of the Tactus itself. Frescobaldi explains how: the Tactus hand is momentarily suspended on the upstroke, and then the new beat begins ‘resolutely’. No rallentando or accelerando, rather a decisive ‘gear-change’. Exciting, disturbing…. this is how to muovere gli affetti, move the listeners’ passions.

Change of affetto word by word

Zacconi explains how to manage changes of affetto for a particular word, within one movement, i.e. within a section at steady Tactus. The singer can delay the expressive syllable, but the Tactus (and the continuo) continue steadily. The singer should be back on track by the next Tactus beat. Read more about this c1600 ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’ here.

A tender affetto is expressed with accenti (read more here). A robust affetto avoids acccenti, but might encourage passaggi (though not in theatrical music, where passaggi were generally discouraged). It is important to sing passaggi in tempo, i.e. according to Tactus. More on passaggi here.

Words full of expressive affetto can be ornamented with effetti: the single note trillo, an exclamatione (diminuendo-crescendo on a single note), a gruppo (two-note trill and turn). These ornaments are used sparingly in the theatrical style.

And we should avoid not only that ornament, but the entire modern-day habit of ornamenting the final cadence. What? Really? Yes, really! Read more here.

Caccini explains how to manage small notes within the steady Tactus: in syllabic melody, the good syllable is slightly longer, the bad syllable slightly shorter; in melismatic passaggi, long notes can be extra long, short notes exta short; ornaments accelerate from slow to fast. More on Caccini here.

Caccini also defines the priorities for music-making in this style: “text and rhythm, with sound last of all (and not the other way around!)”. So instead of obsessing over vibrato, pitch and temperament, let’s engage with the period priorities of text and rhythm. Read how Music expresses Emotions here.

My advice to modern-day rehearsal directors is to begin with the text, and coach performers to manage that text in Tactus-rhythm. When the music is difficult, follow Frescobaldi’s Rules, and use the omnipresent Tactus to facilitate the performance, tweaking that Tactus (subtly) when a new movement starts, when the mood (affetto) changes..

In a forthcoming series of short articles, I’ll apply that advice, i.e. these historical principles to some favourite Libro VIII Madrigals. LInks will be posted below.

ALTRI CANTI D’AMOR

HOR CH’EL CIEL E LA TERRA

LAMENTO DELLA NINFA

MOVETE AL MIO BEL SUON

ALTRI CANTI Di MARTE

GIRA IL NEMICO

COMBATTIMENTO DI TANCREDI E CLORINDA

BALLO DELLE INGRATE

Madrigals: Warlike, Amorous & Theatrical

Passaggi: Della Casa & Bovicelli on the True Way to make Divisions

When we study Ornamentation c1600, it is an over-simplification to view Divisions (also known as Diminutions, passaggi – replacing a long note, or a phrase in long notes with many short or very short notes) as ‘Renaissance’, Graces (effetti – trills etc applied to a single note) as ‘Baroque’. Caccini’s Le nuove musiche (1601) read more argues against pasaggi and in favour of effetti, but his written-out musical examples include substantial passaggi. Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo (see The Orfeo Page by Il Corago) famously presents an aria passeggiata at the heart of the drama, when Orpheus attempts to persuade Caronte to grant him admission into Hell. Conversely, there are 16th-century indications of expressive vocal effects being applied to a single note (see Zacconi on the accento, here).

But it is useful – I would say, essential – to keep the distinction between these two types of Ornamentation constantly in mind. Divisions fulfilled one of the three aims of Rhetoric by delighting the ear – delectare. But they risked spoiling communication of the text – the aim of docere. And they were regarded as emotionally unpersuasive – ruining the aim of movere gli affeti (moving the emotions). Significantly, Caronte is ‘delighted’ by Orpheus’ passaggi, but is not moved to pity. Graces, (effetti, vocal special effects), were used sparingly, so as not to compromise transmission of the text. And effetti were so closely linked to emotions (affetti) that the two words came to used almost interchangably: effetti produce affetti. Only when we understand this difference between pasaggi and effetti can we make appropriate choices of when to apply each type (see Ornamenting Monteverdi here).

Too often, we attempt to add Ornamentation in rehearsal, a day or so before the performance, encouraged, guided or resrained by the Musical Director. But Divisions require specific techniques of execution, and skills of invention/application, which cannot be acquired in a few minutes of rehearsal time, with the whole ensemble sitting there waiting for you. You need to prepare in advance. And if you intend to improvise, even more advance preparation will be needed.

Studying Ornamentation by ear is certainly a valid historical approach – many period sources recommend this – but CDs are not primary sources. Learning from CDs carries a high risk of copying everyone else’s mistakes and misunderstandings. If you want to learn by ear, then record yourself (or a trusted teacher) performing examples from period treatises, and listen to those. And this is a good moment to recommend Helen Robert’s Passaggi App, which brings the historical method of aural study into the 21st century.

Certainly, you can only learn about Divisions by practising how to do them, in advance. This article introduces two essential late-16th-century sources, and summarises their approach.

Dalla Casa was a cornetto-player at St Mark’s, Venice. His (1584) Vero modo di diminuir (True Way to make Diminutions) focuses on wind instruments, but is also offered to keyboard- string- and bowed-string-players and to singers. A particular feature are settings for viola da gamba that move around within the polyphonic texture, ornamenting any of the voices or adding an extra voice., in a style called viola bastarda. Bovicelli was a boy-chorister and later sopranist at Milan Cathedral. HIs (1594) Regole, Passaggi (Rules, musical Divisions, Ornamented madrigals and motets) concentrates on vocal Divisions. The first part of his Rules deals with the sung text, often displacing syllables from the original underlay to make more graceful Divisions. The second part deals with the notes: the arrival on the written note is often delayed.

Dispositione – technique

Bovicelli does not offer any advice to help singers acquire the dispositione – what we would nowadays call ‘vocal technique’ required to execute these ornaments. For wind instruments, Dalla Casa describes and gives musical examples of various tonguing syllables, and modern-day singers might try these with the voice. Otherwise, the best period advice comes from Caccini, who identifies the single note trillo (speeding up from slow to fast) as the gateway to any kind of ornamentation.

I coach singers to put Caccini’s method into practice, by repeating the same note on the syllable a, going from slow to fast. We can understand his ribattere con la gola (literally, beating with the throat) as creating fast repetitions by relaxing the throat whilst maintaining steady support from the diaphragm. Don’t try to sing loud, but rather cultivate a feeling of fun – Bovicelli describes such fast singing as the Art of playing around with nature.

Once you can switch the fast notes on and off, on a single pitch, step two is to move the pitch up and down. And step three is to synchronise the changing pitches with the ‘beating’. This is the same challenge of synchronisation that awaits wind-players (fingers and tongue) or bowed strings (left and right hands).

Dalla Casa similarly leads his wind-players through divisions in crome – quavers (8 to the semibreve – whole-note beat), semicrome semiquavers (16), treplicate triplet semiquavers (24 to the semibreve) and quadruplicate (32). His ‘true way’ leads to Mixed Diminuitions applying all four note-values.

Both writers provide countless short examples of Divisions, taking long notes across each interval (second, third, fourth etc) upwards and downwards and dividing the first long note into many shorter notes. These short examples are to be learnt, applied and imitated, and the student can combine several of them to create longer divisions.

Dalla Casa: Example of semibreve ascending by step divided into semiquavers

Such combinations of many individual divisions are demonstrated in the books by ornamented settings of complete pieces, madrigals by Rore, motets by Palestrina and Vittoria. We are accustomed to hearing these sacred repertoires nowadays with the “pure lines”, extreme legato and stand-alone conductor of the 19th/20th-century aesthetic. Bovicelli refers to performing divisions not only as da concerto – as concert-pieces – but also da capella – in church. Just imagine the effect of this soprano-line in Palestrina’s Ave verum corpus

Style in peformance

In Early Music studies, we try to avoid the modern binary of Technique/Interpretation. Nevertheless, these two sources offer valuable advice for good style in performance, discussed as portar la voce or portar la minuta – delivering (literally ‘carrying’) the voice, or the Division. Bovicelli’s Rules gives many specific style indications, all worth studying in detail. Dalla Casa’s Preface to his second book is short, just four paragraphs. The first paragraph offers his work to all kinds of musicians, and repeats his preference for Mixed Diminutions, and there is a paragraph each for the Viola da Gamba and the Human Voice.

The longest paragraph emphasises the importance of ‘Performing the Divisions in Tempo

Del portar la minuta a tempo.

Our modern-day understanding of tempo as the ‘speed of music’ differs from the period concept in which musical tempo means Time itself. Time is measured by a human estimate of how long one second lasts, it is notated by the written note-values within the duration of a semibreve, it is shown by the slow steady beat of Tactus. For Zacconi Time, Measure, Beat and Tactus (tempo, misura, battuta, tatto) are synonymous (read more here). Dalla Casa’s words and musical notation confirm a semibreve beat, notated with the mensuration mark C/.

For Zacconi, Time is the Soul of Music, and Dalla Casa gives tempo similar importance in his music of Divisions.

“About delivering the dimunition in time.

“I say it is a difficult thing to deliver the diminution in time, and this is the most important for everyone who follows this profession of making diminutions with all kinds of instruments. Therefore let each person take notice in their study to beat Tactus, and never to study without this regulation, and to accustom themselves to the beat; because doing otherwise would not be a good thing. And take notice of the four note-values, that the semiquaver (as is known) is performed twice as fast as the quaver, i.e. 16 to 8; the triplet-semiquavers – treplicate – are performed as 24 to 16, which is a third more than the semiquaver; and the demisemiquavers – quadruplicate – are performed still once again as fast, i.e. 32 to 24. Everyone should take note to accommodate themselves to the Tactus, and beat their diminution note by note; like this for those who play a wind instrument and also for those play keyboard instruments, and not to rush ahead as many wind-players do who make runs with a dead tongue (slurring), without tonguing the diminution, in order to make it easier; or those who cannot keep a brake on their tongue, as with reverse tonguing (see the Preface to Book 1) which is difficult to brake. Therefore let everyone beat the diminution note by note, and deliver the four note-values with their proper timing, if they want to do well.” [Dalla Casa]

Beating ‘note by note’ refers to the Tactus-value of the semibreve in the original composition: there is no suggestion of beating time for every 32nd note! Bovicelli also recommends nel Passeggiare star obligato al tempo giusto – to keep to the correct Time when making Divisions. Within the semibreve beat, quavers can be taken long-short:


Caccini (1601) suggests short-long:

Bovicelli shapes a long run of semiquavers elegantly, by sustaining the first note:

Hold the first note, then run!

In modern-day performances, we often hear the contrary, where performers rush the beginning of the division and then wait before moving to the next note. But Bovicelli mentions several times that it is more graceful to flow directly from the fast notes into the following principal note: often, he adjusts the underlay, or continues the run into medium-fast notes to get a smoother transition.

Another option is to hold the top note:

Sustained notes in the midst of short notes can be given a tremolo, marked as /\ :

The general tendency is for ornaments to go from slow to fast – this habit is instilled from the first exercise that Caccini teaches, and Bovicelli applies it to a two-note trill gropetto that crams in more and more little notes before arriving at the following principal note. The effect is that – as the notes go faster and faster – the subsequent arrival feels ‘delayed’ – rafrenato.

The much-desired quality of leggiadria (lightness) comes from the contrast of sustained long notes and lightly-touched short notes. We can summarise this principle as “long notes long, short notes short”.

“But in this, take note, that the more you hold the first note, and the second is faster, the more gracefulnessis given to the voice. This gracefulness cannot exist, if the notes all have the same value. For leggiadria of singing, as we said above, is nothing other than the varation of notes of greater and lesser value, as you will also see below.” [Bovicelli]

Caccini is guided by the same principles of gratia and leggiadria in his examples of rhythmic alteration within the steady Tactus.

Bovicelli requires that Diminutions suit the character of the words, whether bold or tender.

A

“Just as it would be most reprehensible for a composer, if the words are sad [this must be a typo for meste] , to set them with happy notes, or to set sad notes under happy words: similarly in singing we must as much as possible imitate the words: that is, sad words must not be decorated with Passaggi, but set (as we might say) with accenti and a tenderly emotional, lamenting voice; if the words are happy, use Passaggi, and give them extra vivacity, making varied notes (dotted notes, leaps, diverse note-values), as you see.” [Bovicelli]

Ave! means ‘Hail!’ – As a cathedral chorister, Bovicelli is probably thinking of the liturgical texts Ave Maria, gratia plena, or Ave verum corpus (see above).

Bovicelli’s linking of bold texts with passaggi, tender words with accenti is supported by Zacconi’s advice to avoid accenti where the words are powerful (read more here). And Bovicelli’s ’emotional voice’ voce flebile hints at Caccini’s oft-repeated recommendation of crescendo and/or diminuendo on a single note as the most effective way to convey emotions (read more here).

Zacconi explains that the expressive accento produces a delay in the arrival of the second note, but the Tactus itself (and therefore the accompaniment) is not altered (read more here). And after being late on one beat, the singer is expected to be back on the beat for the next semibreve. Bovicelli and Monteverdi notate similar delays and anticipations for solo singers.. Their clear explanations and precise notation seem to clarify Caccini’s evocative but enigmatic use of the terms sprezzatura and senza misura which [in the context of expressive syllabic setting, as opposed to melismatic Divisions] he links also to a ‘cool’ style of voice-production, something ‘between singing and speaking’. Read more here.

In contrast to the soft flebile effect and ‘cool’ rhythm of accenti for tender words, Bovicelli characterises Passaggi as on the beat semibreve by semibreve, impressing the audience ‘stupendous’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘having fun’ scherzando. This is supported by Aggazari (1607), who describes two ways of improvising from a bass-line: his ‘fundamental’ style is continuo accompaniment, and he characterises the ‘ornamental’ style as ‘having fun and improvising counterpoint’. Read more here. In circa-1600 music-drama, an aria passeggiata (a strophic song over a ground bass, with elaborate passaggi) heralds the entrance of some god or mortal with superhuman powers: Caccini’s sorceress who makes the moon fall from the sky; Peri’s dolphin-riding super-hero-singer Arion (both in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi), Orpheus arriving at the gateway to Hell in Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607).

Tactus for Divisions

It is clear that Divisions are not performed with the malleable tempo and vacillating rhythm of 20th-century rubato. Both Bovicelli and Dalla Casa insist on Tactus. Indeed Tactus is so essential that it is the only question of style in delivery (what we would nowadays call ‘interpretation’ as opposed to ‘technique’) that Dalla Casa addresses. Nevertheless, that Tactus might be faster or slower in particular circumstances. Whilst discussing disjunct quavers, Bovicelli informs us that the Tactus for passaggi was slower in a chamber performance – da concerto – than in church – da capella.

“… singing not in church, but in concert, where the Tactus should be slow.” [Bovicelli]

There are other period sources that indicate a slower-than-usual Tactus for passaggi. We gain a very different impression when we read their remarks, not in the context of 20th-century rubato, but in the light of Zacconi’s, Dalla Casa’s and Bovicelli’s insistence on Tactus. Read more in my next article: How il Signor Organista waits for il Cantate.

How il Signor Organista waits for il Cantante?

Making Time for beautiful singing: a lost practice

From renaissance to early Baroque

Published just before the year 1600, Luduvico Zacconi’s monumental treatise on Practical Music Prattica di Musica (1592/1596) here – straddles the divide between the prima prattica of Palestrina’s renaissance polyphony and the emerging new style, Monteverdi’s seconda prattica of dramatic solo singing accompanied by basso continuo. The virtuoso singers of the first ‘operas’ of the early seicento – Jacopo Peri, Vittoria Archilei, Giulio Caccini, Francesco Rasi etc – were trained in the 16th-century traditions of eleborate ornamentation – passaggi – and of cantar con gratia (singing with grace; i.e. beautiful singing), a concept of vocal beauty described in detail by Zacconi.

A fundamental, but unwritten, element of beautiful singing, analysed by Zacconi and carried forward into dramatic monody, is a way of ‘adding beauty and decorum’ with certain ornaments ’caused by sustaining and delaying the voice’. Read more about Zacconi’s accento here

Whether in renaissance polyphony or in baroque monody, the fact that such frequent ‘delays’ were introduced by individual singers begs the question: how was ensemble-unity maintained? Nowadays, singers of Palestrina, Vittoria and Lassus are not permitted to decide for themselves when to add a beautiful delay to their particular voice-line, even if modern conductors sometimes slow down the whole ensemble (which is not what Zacconi describes).

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594)

Singers of Monteverdi often expect the continuo to follow their free rhythm, but this is contradicted explicitly by Agazzari (1607: continuo instruments ‘guide/drive’ the entire ensemble) & Gagliano (1608: continuo players rule/direct the singers), and implictly by Peri (1600) (more about Peri’s bass-lines here).

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)


And Zacconi himself describes the Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation’. So how can we reconcile this steady beat (somewhere around 60 bpm) with the requirement for ‘beautiful delays’ from this or that singer?

Zacconi’s answer offers exciting new possibilites for renaissance polyphony and – hallelujah! – an end to the arguments between singers and continuo-players which have rumbled on for the last half-century of HIP Monteverdi, even to the point that some modern-day performers treat Rhythm and Rhetoric as the opposing horns of a dilemma.

Singers can sing off the beat

In Chapter XXXIII, concerned with delivering the Tactus, Zacconi confirms what we have already understood from his remarks on cantar con gratia, that singers can delay their pronunciation of a certain note, for the sake of vocal beauty, and that this is always a possibility. Discussing the accento, he warns singers not to delay too often, but the word sempre (always) in this chapter confirms that delays were nevertheless very frequently employed (see how and when to do this, here).

Tactus (and continuo) continue steadily

Zacconi instructs ‘the person delivering the Tactus’ clearly. Whatever delays the singers might introduce, the role of the Tactus-beater is to maintain the steady beat, and to bring the singers back onto that beat. In renaissance polyphony, the Tactus is delivered with an down-and-up movement of the hand. In baroque monody, there is no visual tactus-beating, and the role of maintaining Tactus, of guiding and directing the whole ensemble, is taken by the continuo.

We might think of this as the ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’. Like the rhythm-section of a jazz-band, the role of the continuo is to maintain the steady swing, whilst the singer floats elegantly around the reliable beat.

There is more to it than this, of course. Frescobaldi describes how the beat itself can change, in specific situations, between sections of a piece (more Frescobaldi here). There may be reasons to take a generally slower Tactus, or to slow down the Tactus where there are elaborate passaggi. Caccini describes how singers can stylishly enhance rhythmic contrasts within the steady pulse of the Tactus (more Caccini here). Zacconi associates delays with gentle Affekts, and requires the singer to re-connect to the Tactus soon afterwards. Delays would seem to be associated with the Good syllable.

Chapter LXIII characterises certain delays as a fundamental element of good singing, and chapter XXXIII specifies how to manage these delays within the steady swing of Tactus. Zacconi provides us with a penetrating insight into the general sound, the rhythmic feeling and the ensemble communication that operates throughout late renaissance and early baroque music-making.

Implications

Zacconi’s sound-world is very different from what we have become accustomed to in modern-day performances and recordings of circa 1600 repertoire. Polyphonic lines are not always vertically aligned – soloists might not be “together” with the continuo, a vocal ensemble might not pronounce consonants unanimously. But – like good jazz – it has a strong sense of swing, and everyone knows where the beat is, even if they choose not to be on it.

There are profound implications for continuo-playing. We have brought up a generation of continuo-players with two impressive, but un-historical skills: fitting-in discreetly with the results produced by a modern conductor, and following solo singers. We need to retrain continuo-players to show the Tactus boldly and clearly, and to guide and regulate, to maintain steady swing, whatever the singers might do over the top. In short, we need continuo-players to acquire the skills and habits of a good jazz rhythm-section. More about Monteverdi, Caccini and jazz here.




And to make this work, we probably need to remove that gross anachronism in today’s Early Music, the modern conductor. Otherwise, we might as well accompany Monteverdi on a Steinway piano.

Meanwhile, which renaissance vocal ensemble is ready to attempt Palestrina with passaggi and accenti, with beautiful delays AND with steady Tactus? I’m very eager to hear this.






Cantar con gratia – a forgotten ornament?

How to ‘add beauty’

Around the year 1600, singers were expected to deliver more than just the bare notes written by the composer. There was a well-established practice of dividing up long notes into elaborate swirls of short and very short notes – passaggi. The new aesthetic of solo song accompanied by a plucked instrument favoured short-range vocal effects – effetti – the one-note trillo, the two-note trill and turn grupetto etc. These effetti were intended to convey emotions – affetti – and were used sparingly: period sources show less frequent application of effetti than we hear in most modern-day performances. The change from old-style polyphony and passaggi to seconda prattica monody and effetti was gradual, so that these four categories overlapped considerably during the early seicento.

But in his (1596) Prattica di Musica (Libro Primo, Chapter LXIII) here Ludovico Zacconi describes in detail a way to ‘sing gracefully’ that is not merely an ornament, but rather an essential characteristic of fine vocal delivery. First he emphasises the importance of pronouncing the words schiette, intelligibile & chiare (cleanly, intelligibly and clearly), and intoning the musical notes accurately (giuste – in tune) and briskly (allegre), not forced or slow. Loud high notes should not be shouted; it’s better to take a high piano notes in falsetto (fingerle – fake them) than to strain. All this takes about a quarter-page.

The remainder of the chapter (more than 2 pages) is introduced as a detailed analysis of how to carry the voice across intervals of a third or more, a particular skill in repertoires that generally favours movement by step. Zacconi’s goal is the ‘grace and poise … demonstrated by the ability to perform effortlessly, and with agility, adding beauty and decorum.’ (si ricerca gratia & attitudine…quando in fare un attione dimostrano di farla senza fatica & all’ agilita, aggiungano le vaghezze e’l garbo).

‘This can be recognised as akin to the difference between seeing on horseback a Cavalier, a Capitan, or a ditch-digger and a porter; and with what ease an expert and fine standard-bearer handles, displays and moves the flag, compared to a shoe-maker. (In questo si conosce quanta differenza sia nel vedder star a cavallo un Cavaliere, un Capitano o un Zappaterra & un Facchino: & con quanta leggiadria tenghi in mano, spieghi e mova lo stendardo perito & buono Alfiero: che vedendola in mano a un Calzolaio…)

Highlight by delaying & sustaining

Intervals of a third or more ‘are delivered with certain accenti caused by some delays and sustaining of the voice’.

(Le dette figure s’accompagnano con alcuni accenti causati d’alcune rittardanze & sustentamenti di voce) The term accento does not mean ‘accent’ in the usual modern sense of a sharp, hard intensification of the start of a note – Zacconi is looking for a ‘beautiful… sweet’ effect, and his accento is not applied to strong, powerful texts. Nor is it a particular way of pronouncing words, a ‘foreign accent’. Nor does it mean the accented syllable of the word – the period terminology for this crucial concept is the Good or Long syllable. Nevertheless, we would expect to find the accento on a Good syllable.

Rather, accento means a “turn of phrase” in poetry or music, a brush-stroke in fine art, or a “highlight”. We recognise this meaning in the lines ‘O let me hear Thee speaking / in accents clear and still’ from an 1869 hymn by John E Bode. And we hear it also in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo: ‘I am Music, who with sweet accents can make tranquil every troubled heart’. Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti so far tranquillo ogni turbato core.

Zacconi’s characterisation of the accento as a fundamental element of vocal delivery explains why scholars have struggled to understand it fully in studies of treatises on ornamentation. Bruce Dickey’s excellent survey of Italian ornamentation in The Performer’s Guide to 17th-century Music (1997) here admits that ‘the actual form of the accento is somewhat elusive’ but continues to give several illuminating examples from Zacconi, emphasising that the period intention is ‘rhythmically vague and subjective’. Zacconi’s description of ‘delays’ and ‘sustaining’ defines the essential nature of this practice, giving a broad hint that we should include such rhythmic subtleties in our realisations of accenti from ornamentation treatises.

Zacconi states explicitly that this accento is an unwritten obligation: ‘the composer who writes the notes is only concerned with managing those notes according to what is convenient for harmonious progressions; but the singer who delivers them is obliged to perform them with the voice and make them resound according to Nature and the decorum of the words’. Il cantore nel sumministrarle e obligato d’accompagnarle con la voce, & farle rissonar secondo la natura & la proprieta delle parole. We should expect to hear these accenti frequently across intervals of a third or more, even though we do not see any indication in the written composition. Although Zacconi warns against excess, and mentions particular words that are unsuitable for accenti, it is clear that they were used more often than not.

Actually, there are some notations of accento-like delays in dramatic monody, in the published scores of the first ‘operas’. And this customary practice from the 1590s would have been part of the training and vocal habitus of the singers who performed in genere rappresentativo (in theatrical style) during the following decades. ’17th-century ornamentation practice is a blending of traditional of traditional practices bequeathed from the 16th century and innovative techniques developed in connection with the new monodic singing style fashionable after the turn of the century.’ [Dickey 1997]

Although we can certainly apply accenti to early-17th-century dramatic monody, the context in which Zacconi writes is prima prattica polyphony.

Nowadays, the best-known ensembles for renaissance a capella polyphony – many of them English and strongly influenced by their singers’ training in Oxford & Cambridge college choirs – maintain an aesthetic of “pure vocal lines”, homogeneity and legato that has its origins in the late 19th century. We rarely hear Palestrina, Lassus or Victoria with florid divisions, and the highlighted delays of Zacconi’s accento are unfamiliar even to historically informed performers.

Even though he warns against excessive sustain, the subtle delaying effect that Zacconi finds so beautiful must also strike modern ensemble-directors with alarm: how can the singers keep together, if one or another part frequently sustains the written note to arrive late on the next one, and even ‘highlights’ this effect? The insistence on vertical alignment that has been a central tenet of modern-day Early Music (particularly amongst CD-producers) seems to be contradicted by this unwritten, but fundamental and obligatory element of period practice.

How to carry the voice

Since Zacconi’s context is vocal polyphony, it is well worth considering text (which he has emphasised in the previous paragraphs). In the transcriptions that follow, I have added a plausible text to Zacconi’s untexted examples. My assumption is that the note that takes the accento also carries a Good syllable. The shift in text-pronunciation produced by these accenti further highlights the effect of delaying.

We can expect that instrumentalists would have imitated singers in all these unwritten subtleties. ‘Singers… were the model for instrumentalists as well, who were to imitate the human voice as much as possible’. [Dickey 1997]

I have also added examples from Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo of written-out accento-like ornaments, and of situations when an accento might possibly be applied.

‘s (1607)

Subtleties

The accento is not applied to Ut-mi, nor between two hexachords sol-mi (e.g. G – B natural). But it can be applied to the major third fa-la (i.e. F-A, C-E, Bb-D, depending on which hexachords are available).

As Dickey (1997) remarks, the rising-third accento is similar to the intonazione on a good-syllable initial note, described by Caccini and notated by Cavalieri. In both practices, accento and intonazione, the central semiquaver is touched only very lightly.

Zacconi’s notated durations are approximate: the desired effect is ‘delightful and sweet’. The delay should not be excessive or heavy. The accento is subtle, beyond the limits of notation.

‘I’ve put a dotted quaver and semi-quaver so that singers see how to ascend; because there are some who – even though these beauties should seem natural – in pronouncing them, pronounce them so slow and late that by their languor they make a strange effect and do not give any good satisfaction to the ear. These are things that are difficult to demonstrate and make understood in writing. It’s necessary for the alert and diligent singer to adjust them according to what their own ears tell them is delivered well or badly.’

The accento should not be applied to every possible note.

‘This way of singing is a delightful and sweet way, and sweetness – although a friend to nature – is also cloying, and used too many times will produces disgust and boredom. Therefore it is not a good idea to use them always, in order to avoid giving listeners disgust and dissatisfaction.’

Accenti for seconds

Nevertheless, Zacconi moves on immediately to show how to apply accenti even to the the interval of a second, i.e. to notes that move by step! However, he rules out mi-fa and ut-re ascending, similarly avoiding fa-mi and re-ut descending.

My underlay is conjectural – other solutions are available! Where I have indicated alternative rhythms, the ideal may lie in subtlety of rhythm somewhere in-between the two notated versions.

Accenti for fourths & fifths

For wider intervals, Zacconi requires a different style. The running semiquaver in the middle of the previous examples only works if it runs to an adjacent note, not across a leap. Again, Zacconi struggles to describe in words the subtle effect that he intends: ‘the little notes in the middle are pronounced beautifully without making them resound like a real note.’ Nel mezzo pronuntiarli con la voce quelle vaghezze senza farle rissonar per figure.

Whilst the accento delays the composer’s second note, the whole thing (i.e. both written notes) fits into the regular Tactus. ‘From beginning to end, the notes do not have more duration than they normally require’. Dal principio al fine non habbiano piu valore di quello che per natura ricercano.

Zacconi adapts his running formula for a rising fourth to give an alternative for a rising second mi-fa.

Zacconi concludes: ‘All these examples can be adapted and used as models for further possibilites. But as I have said, it is difficult to make these things understood without a sung example. For this reason, I will skip many vague things that might be said around this subject to say only this: when the Singer hears the beauties of a performer (I’m not talking about gorgie and passaggi…) he should try to imitate them as far as possible.

‘Singers should be warned that in imitative polyphony- fughe or fantasie – one should not delay any note, so as not to break and spoil the well-ordered imitation. Rather one should sing on the beat – equale – without any ornamentation.

‘There are also some notes that for the sake of the words do not need any accento, but only their natural and lively force, as when one has to sing Intonuit de Celo Dominus; Clamavit; Fuor fuori Cavalieri uscite; Al arme al arme [God thundered from heaven; he cried out; Go out, go out Cavaliers; To arms, to arms] and many other things.The discreet and judicious singer must decide’

This should remind modern readers that the accento is not a sharp accent, nor bravura display, but a sweet and subtle beauty.

‘On the contrary, there are other words that from their own nature demand these beauties and these lovely accenti, as when one is to say Dolorem meum; misericordia mea; affanni e morte [my sadness, have mercy on me, sorrow and death]. Without any further sign to the singer, these indicate how they must be sung.’

This instruction reinforces the impression that accenti are used very frequently, even if not always.

Other ways to beautify

The accento gives a subtle, soft highlight by delaying the main note. Zacconi now considers how to enliven the written notes, with simple divisions, which do not require the full inventiveness and technical proficiency of more extended passaggi.

‘We can also break up the notes with vivacity and force, which makes a very grand good effect on the Music’.

My assumption would be that these divisions would usually produce no shift of word-underlay, and certainly not the delaying effect of the accento. But in Zacconi’s second example (four notes descending by step), a lively effect might be created by anticipating the new syllable, placing it on the previous short-note.

Zacconi comments that these are just a few examples, many others could be given. Nature itself is the best teacher, and this is just an ABC for beginners. But since some students leave school not knowing these beauties and these accenti, Zacconi wants to get a few things down on paper for those who don’t have any decorum, or any good way of singing. He writes them down, not because they should be notated, but so that they can be added with the voice.

‘Finally, I must say that masters who teach these accenti and beauties should be warned to control the scholar so that they do not apply them too often, as if they would be done always. Because just as too much sugar spoils a fine, delicate meal, similarly so much sweetness and beauty placed together produces boredom and disgust. And for this reason we add so many dissonances to the Music, just because they redouble the sweetness of the consonances.’

Significance

Published at the very moment that the Baroque aesthetic of dramatic monody and continuo emerges from renaissance polyphony, and positioned in this crucial treatise as the first step towards beautiful singing (with a quick reminder to take care of the text, not to shout, not to strain) this chapter has enormous significance for today’s Historically Informed Performance. But it has been almost totally forgotten.

Although Zacconi warns us not to use the accento on every possible occasion, and limits it to words that do not contradict its natural property of sweetness. it is clear that around the year 1600 it was used very frequently indeed. In training and in performance, our modern-day Early Music seems to have lost sight of this fundamental element of beautiful singing – and playing.

It is also clear that the essential features of the accento are sustain and delay, even in polyphonic music. So how is ensemble synchronicity to be managed, if any voice might introduce a delay on any note (even if not on every note)?

Zacconi’s answer to this practical question of timing calls for a revolution in our understanding of ensemble music-making in this period, and – at last! – an end to the early 21st-century struggle between proponents of rhythm and of rhetoric. See my next post.

After this article about a forgotten ornament, you might like to read about another ornament, that perhaps we wish we could forget. Yes, THAT ornament.

Of course, there are plenty of alternatives available from historical sources, but if we are looking for better cadential ornaments, might we be asking the wrong question? Read more about ornamenting Monteverdi here.

Introduction to French Baroque Dance: Muffat on ‘Vrai Mouvement’

This article was written for a course on HIP for Harps taught for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It offers a very brief introduction based on Muffat (1698) and focussed on the typical movements of baroque suites.

Period discourse about music around the year 1700 was much concerned with contrasts in National Style, specifically Italian and French. Italian style (imitated also outside Italy, of course) favoured drama and virtuoso display in such genres as Opera, Toccata, Sonata & Concerto. French style (also imitated abroad) preferred descriptive character pieces to abstract sonatas and celebrated above all the noble art of Dance.



French theatrical music (especially Ballets), chamber music (in particular, Suites) and social activities were unified by the elegance and energy of dance, and depended for variety on the contrasting characters of distinctive dance-types. As modern-day performers of these repertoires, our understanding of the music is enormously increased if we know something of the dancing that inspired it.

I strongly recommend every student of Historically Informed Performance to go to class and learn some dances from the appropriate period of music. It isn’t necessary to become a great dancer: right from the beginning you will start to notice from the inside what it feels like to dance the music you love. No amount of teaching or demonstration can replace this personal, embodied experience.

At the very least, watch as much baroque dancing as you can, so that you have a clear visual inspiration to guide your playing. Play for dance rehearsals, in order to learn what their art requires of your delivery. The ideal in this period was that the music should appear to be produced by the action of the dancers’ feet striking the floor. Strong moments in the dance move upwards, preparatory energy is gathered by sinking in order to expand and rise again. And watching good baroque dancers, we can imagine that our sustained notes are similarly suspended in the air as if weightless, like a elegantly poised dancer, balanced and seeming to float almost off the ground.

Watch here 1: Introduction

Watch here 2: Suite

Watch here 3: Minuet etc

For a more substantial audio/visual introduction, I warmly recommed Paige Whitley-Baugess’ Introduction to Baroque D ance videos, available here.  

French period sources suggest that many subtleties of le bon gout – Good Taste – can only be acquired by studying with a fine teacher, born into the culture of Louis XIV’s France. As foreigners from the 21st century, we can all be thankful for Georg Muffat’s (1698) systematic analysis of French style, describing le bon gout in terms of a coherent set of principles, just as grammar-books describe the use of language. Indeed, this concept of a collection of rules is precisely how Art itself was defined, in this period. Read more about period philosophy of art here.


Muffat’s First Observations on the French style of playing dance-tunes according to the method of Monsieur Lully are presented in four languages (Latin, German, Italian, French) as the introduction to his second Florilegium collection, available free online here. The four versions are not identical, and it is worth studying fine points of detail across all four texts. David Wilson’s English translation is here. My summary below follows the French text.

For an alternative path through Muffat & French Baroque Dance, see my 2020 article here.

 

“Here you can discover the principal secrets in a few words”

 

“Two functions admirably well linked together:

  • “To charm the ear
  • “Simultaneously, to mark so well the movements of the dance, that one recognises immediately which type each tune represents, and one feels irresistibly inspired to dance.”

This is Muffat’s reworking of the classic Three Aims of Rhetoric: to delight, to explain and to move the passions. The musician’s purpose is literally to move listeners’ feet, and thereby to affect their emotions.

The word mouvement has a wide semantic field that includes the physical movements of dancing, contrasting formal sections (e.g. the movements of a suite), the speed of the music, the emotional Affekt of the music and the dancing, and the rhythmic structure of a particular dance-type. All these elements are interdependent.

“Five requirements:

  1. “To play in tune”
  2. “Bowing”
  3. “To keep constantly/constant the True Movement of each piece”
  4. “To observe certain usages of repeats, notations, style and dancing”
  5. “Ornamentation”

Muffat’s insistence on le vrai Mouvement  – True Movement – goes further than simply keeping the beat and maintaining constant tempo. This mouvement is also what a jazz musician would call the ‘groove’ of the dance, a characteristic rhythmic pattern, not necessarily strictly mathematical (often the first beat of the bar needs to be long), but established from the beginning and maintained until the end, and strongly linked to the particular physical movements and emotional Affekts associated with each dance-type.

For example, the Chaconne is usually a celebratory, festive, theatrical ‘party’ dance often marking the happy ending of a music-drama, or associated with the comedy clown, Harlequin. It is usually constructed in double-units of four-bar phrases featuring a descending bass-line, with hemiola at significant cadences, and a groove running across the bar-lines: 2 3 1, 2 3 1. The first beat is long, giving space either for a breath between mini-phrases, or for an expressive dissonance on the first beat resolved on the second.

The Minuet is a formal social dance, often marking the presentation of a couple to the assembled company. It is usually constructed with a great deal of symmetry: four-bar and eight-bar phrases; eight-bar or sixteen-bar repeated sections etc. The basic unit is two bars, which corresponds to one minuet-step. The groove mixes, often alternately,  rhythmic patterns of crotchet-minim [short-long] and minim-crotchet [long short].

Both these dances are usually notated in 3/4, and could plausibly be played within a similar range of tempi according to circumstances. In this, they might appear very alike. But once you’ve played a few of each type, and (ideally) learnt to dance them too, you will be able to distinguish them from the very first few notes, just as Muffat writes. This is the significance of vrai mouvement, much more than just ‘constant speed’.

“Play in tune”

Muffat singles out the diatonic semitone mi-fa as the usual source of problems for inexperienced players. At an elementary level, violinists have to learn to position their fingers to create a narrower spacing for the semitone than for the tones. Failure here is a serious assault on the listener’s ears.

At a higher level of sophistication, Muffat’s hint to raise the mi may be linked to the ongoing transition from the pure thirds of Quarter-comma Meantone towards the slightly wider thirds of Sixth-comma Meantone, as the accepted practice for ‘being in tune’. Most 18th-century ‘circulating temperaments’ (for keyboard instruments) were derived from Sixth-comma Meantone, so it is highly plausible that slightly wider thirds became generally accepted.

Muffat also mentions that ornaments should not be false. Sometimes ornaments require chromatic alteration to fit within the local harmonies, and whichever notes one chooses to play, they must be in tune, of course. Playing an ornament in the wrong place also offends the ear. Squeaks and noises are also to be avoided.

In contrast to the lengthy debates amongst today’s Early Musicians on the subject of Temperament, Muffat writes that there is only one accepted way of being in tune. He deals with the whole subject in 14 lines.

Bowing

Muffat devotes about 100 lines – more than two pages, plus two pages of musical examples to this crucial topic. Bowing for string instruments corresponds to tonguing syllables for wind-players and fingering for keyboards, harp, lutes and guitars. Strict rules of style create characteristic patterns of articulation: Good and Bad notes, legato or separation between one note and the next, contrasting qualities of onset-attack for individual notes.  

Muffat states that unanimity of bowing is essential. This translates for harpists and others into a requirement for intense scrutiny of note-by-note articulation patterns.

In this French style, the first beat is always given a down-bow, even if the previous note was also down-bow. This creates silences of articulation before some down-beats. But Muffat marvels how, “in spite of so many down-bows and retakes” (lifting the bow up again, to facilitate two successive down-bows with the very short French Baroque bow), “one never hears anything disagreeable or coarse, but rather a wonderful combination of speed and the length of the bow-strokes; of admirable equality of measure and diversity of phrasings; of tender sweetness and vivacity of playing”

What I have translated here as ‘phrasings’ is yet another appearance of the word mouvemens, here suggesting the movement of the bow, as well as of the notes and of the dancers’ feet, and of the emotions that all these work together to produce.

This rule of “first-beat = down-bow” takes precedence. After this, Good and Bad notes get down- and up-bows respectively, as far as possible. In triple metre, three crotchets to the bar (for example), the last note could be taken down-bow (in slow tempo) or up-bow (in fast tempo). Two successive up-bows can be divided – craquer – to articulate the final note clearly. In very fast tempo, a group of notes can be played ‘upside-down’ if necessary.  In a passage of dotted notes alternating with short notes, one should not slur short-long, but might slur long-short.

If you have any skill at all on the violin, it’s worth playing through Muffat’s examples to see how they feel and sound. If not, you can create a similar effect by singing Frank Sinatra style with dooby-doo. Use ‘doo’ for a Good note, down-bow. Use ‘bee’ for a Bad note, up-bow. Advancing in sophistication, you can imitate craquer with the syllables ‘beeper’, making more or less of a seperation between ‘beep’ and ‘per’ as you judge appropriate.

Muffat avoids down-bow on the second beat, so the combination crotchet and two quavers at the beginning of a bar forces you to craquer the two quavers. Thus the famous Minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch would not go “Doo dooby dooby / doo dooby” but (more elegantly) “Doo beeper dooby / doo beeper”, when played in the French style. 

 

 

Muffat gives a few examples of how Italian violinists played Minuets, often starting with an upbow on the first note. The Anna Magdalena Minuet comes out very nicely with alternate bows, starting up-bow, but sounding very different in that Italian style: “Bee dooby dooby / doo-bee-doo”

Groove

The mesure (a bar, yes, but also the time-span measured by the regular down-up movement of the Tactus hand-beat) can have different mouvements. A jazz-musician might express this by saying “a steady count can have all kinds of different grooves”. 

Muffat gives “three requirements:

  1. “Understand well the vrai mouvement  – the groove – of each piece
  2. “Once you’ve understood it, be able to keep it for as long as you play the same piece, always with the same regularity, without changing, slowing or rushing it.
  3. “Give certain notes some swing, to make it sound more cool.”

“To understand better the groove of each piece… knowing how to dance is a great help. Most of the best violinists in France are very good dancers, so it’s not surprising that they are so well able to find and maintain the groove of the beat.”

“Having understood and started the beat, not everyone is able to keep it precisely constant for the entire duration of the piece.”

Muffat does not accept playing the whole piece slower or faster one time than another [his next paragraph suggests that this refers to playing a dance several times through consecutively, rather than to separate performances on different occasions] He also disapproves of alterations to the groove bar by bar or note by note. 

  1. “Reject the abuse of playing whatever kind of piece the first time very gently, then gradually faster and faster, and the last time very fast and rushing”
  2. “Don’t wait at the cadence more or less than the note-values indicate”
  3. “Don’t rush the ending”
  4. “Don’t panic when you see short note-values”
  5. “Don’t shorten the last note of the bar”

Playing for dancers is an excellent way to learn how to ‘phrase-off’ and ‘breathe’ at cadences, without disturbing the vrai mouvement. Muffat’s 5th rule is equivalent to ‘Don’t crowd the downbeat’. 

Muffat defines precisely – “diminutions of the first order” – which note-values should be ‘swung’, with examples for various metres. A succession of short notes written as equal are performed long-short, approximately as if the first, third, fifth note etc were dotted, and the following notes shortened accordingly. We should keep in mind that a Baroque Dot is itself a variable quality, according to context we might over-dot or under-dot. The appropriate amount of swing varies with the dance-type: more vigorous for a fast dance with popular origins, more subtle for a slow, courtly dance. 

I consider that Muffat’s insistence on conserving the vrai mouvement implies maintaining the same swing for the duration of a particular piece, as jazz-musicians tend to do nowadays. Many of my illustrious colleages disagree with me on this, but it must be said that most of them choose not to maintain vrai mouvement at all. Muffat makes it abundantly clear that vrai mouvement must be maintained: but there is room for legitimate debate as to whether the ‘swing’ of notes inégales comes under this rule or not.

The complete rhythmic identity of a given dance – its characteristic vrai mouvement – is thus constructed on several levels. The slow count of Tactus, the mesure, is steady (as in all Baroque music, with the exception of préludes non mesurées and plainchant). The principal division of the bar (into two or three) also carries the groove. So a Gavotte typically has two minim beats per bar, and the principal division structures the groove as short-short-long (crotchet crotchet minim). If you tap your feet and clap to this groove, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to sing We will, we will rock you! The quavers are swung – waving your banner all over the place. The emotional power comes from the dance-energy, which is stoked by maintaining the count, groove and swing steady from beginning to end. Temps di Gavotte Anglais (1977) here.

Because they experienced Lully’s airs as dance-music, violinists of Muffat’s time were more likely to rush towards the end. Modern-day early musicians regard Lully as art-music, and are more in danger of applying inappropriate 19th-century rallentando. Muffat is crystal-clear: keep the vrai mouvement from beginning to end. And just as I do here, Muffat repeats this point many times (otherwise, he rarely repeats any of his remarks).

 

Good Delivery

  1. “Finish tuning before the audience arrrive.”
  2. “Dont make noise” nor practise your party pieces before the show starts
  3. “French pitch is a tone, or for opera a minor third, lower than German pitch”
  4.  “Balance up the band”, “don’t have everyone play first violin!”
  5. There are usually two viola parts: “viola 1 is better on a small viola than on a violin”. Viola 2 is played by a large viola. Muffat approves adding a double-bass, but the French were not yet using double-basses in dance-music in 1698.
  6. “Observe the repeats” (notice the French habit of a short repeat – petite reprise – at the end of the last section)
  7. “It is very useful for keeping the precision of the mesure to give each [downbeat] with a small movement of the foot, as the Lullists do.”

 

It is interesting to notice how difficult modern-day players find it, to tap their feet on the down-beat (and only on the down-beat). I recommend it to students, and frequently request it from my ensembles, just as Muffat does. 

Ornaments

Instrumental ornaments for dance-music are mostly derived from vocal ornamentation. There are many more than one would imagine, and Muffat gives only a brief introduction. Nevertheless, this is the largest chapter of his essay, occupying three pages of text and another three pages of music examples.

Pincement – lower mordent, starts and ends on the written note, usually descending by a semitone, usually short, usually without additional repercussions.

Tremblement  – short trill from above, starts from the upper auxiliary, can be simple, or turned, may end early or continue into the next written note

Both these are played on the beat.

Muffat describes many more ornaments and how to execute them. He then addresses the question of where each ornament-type can be applied. His ten detailed rules depend on whether the note is Good or Bad, ascending or descending, moving by step or leaping, with exceptions for a mi and special conditions for the first note of a piece, of a significant section, of an ascent or descent. At cadences certain notes require a tremblement, others refuse it.

He gives some examples of diminutions (improvised variations), and warns that two tremblements are generally not used in succession, though he lists specific exceptions to this rule.

Muffat asserts that the whole secret of French ornamentation is codified in his 10 rules. These ornaments bring the “sweetness, vigour and beauty” of the Lullian method. 

“The melody suffers if ornaments are omitted, inappropriate, excessive or badly executed. Omission leaves the melody and harmony naked and undecorated; inappropriate playing is rough and barbaric; excessive ornamentation sounds confused and ridiculous; poor execution sounds heavy and constrained.” 

“The slightest failure in ornamentation betrays the would-be Lullist as inexperienced in this style.”

Muffat’s approximately ten ornament types (it depends how you count the sub-types) and ten rules are an amazingly concise encapsulation of the bon gout of the subtle and elegant French Baroque style. And if you apply his rules to Lully’s (sparsely marked) orchestral scores, the result is strongly consistent with (very detailed) ornament-markings in D’Anglebert’s harpsichord transcriptions of those same scores. 

See also Quantz on ornamentation, here.

The Suite

Many Suites are not intended to be danced. It is acceptable to take a different speed (a complex piece of chamber music may need to be played slower than the corresponding movement would be danced), but whatever the chosen tempo might be, it is maintained throughout. In late 17th-century England, Mace details a practice of making pauses and then an a tempo conclusion to (fast) Sarabandes, but otherwise there is no period evidence to support the application of tempo rubato to Baroque dance-music.

The Allemande that begins many Baroque suites was not danced. I speculate that the title refers to a German way of playing with arpeggios (the modern term is style brisé) dance-music of the type that the French used for Entrées. Characteristic figures include the short upbeat “Ta-dah!” found as a head-motive in many dance-types, alternations of dotted and short notes, and a three-note upbeat figure.

The Courante was an old-fashioned, noble dance – ‘the dance of Kings’. It has the most complex rhythms of all, contrasting, combining and creating ambiguity between 3/2 and 6/4, with a “Ta-Dah” opening; groups of crotchet, dotted crotchet, quaver ambiguously accented on first or second note; and a decisive shift to 6/4 at significant cadences. 

The Italian Corrente is different, with continuous running notes in the melody, and without the complex cross-rhythms of the French type.

The Sarabande was a fast dance that slowed down over the decades. Choreographies are characterised by held balances and sudden spins or leaps into a new pose. Often the music has a similar sharp contrast in note-values and amount of activity. The groove has a strong and/or sustained second beat of three.

Gigues vary in speed and groove – see Quantz and others for details. French Gigues often begin with imitation between treble and bass, and have a strong sense of the upbeat. The Italian Giga tends to flow more continuously, and without marking the upbeats. 

The Loure is a slow-motion Gigue.

The Passpied is a high-speed Minuet.

Bourée and Rigaudon might have had their origins in popular, rural traditions, but had become a highly sophisticated, courtly protrayal of Pastoral. Looking at the musical notation, it is impossible for us to distinguish between the two types, but in the period they were sharply differentiated: we don’t know how. Two quavers on the upbeat, groove (often in the bass) with three crotchets and a rest, final bars with crotchet, two quavers, crotchet (or four quavers & crotchet) over that groove; all of this with strong duple (minim) count and vigorous swing on the quavers.

Period writers disagreed as to whether Passacaille and Chaconne could be distinguished, and if so how. You are in good company if you consider Chaconnes to be major mode, Passacailles minor, but perhaps the most famous Chaconne of all is from Bach’s D minor Partita. 

The Musette is a courtly imitation of a pastoral bagpipe tune, usually in 6/8. The Tambourin imitates a tambourine. 

The Sicilienne is a slow 6/8 with groups of dotted quaver, semiquaver, quaver. The Canarie is a fast 6/8 with the same rhythmic grouping.


Conclusion

If you are studying a dance-movement, I strongly recommend that before starting to “interpret” the particular piece at hand, you first become familiar with the general characteristics of that dance-type. So before going too deeply into Bach’s famous violin Chaconne, first play lots of (simpler) Chaconnes (and Passacailles), watch Chaconnes being danced, learn to dance one yourself, and generally make yourself at home with the identity of the Chaconne as a dance-type. 

Work through Muffat’s 10 ornament rules and apply them to your particular piece. 

You will now have a much clearer idea of how Bach’s composition resembles all Chaconnes, and where its particular individuality lies. Above all remember Muffat’s two essential functions: the listeners have to recognise the dance from the very first notes, and they have to feel inspired to dance themselves. Even in such complex and profound music as Bach’s, this spirit of the dance must live, energised by the constant flow of vrai mouvement.

It’s some 20 years since I recorded dance-music from Feuillet’s (1700) Chorégraphie. CD here. My research for that recording started me on the paths that I have followed since, of Rhythm & Rhetoric; Tactus, Text, Gesture and Ornamentation. And in the intervening years I’ve had the opportunity to play this repertoire with fine orchestras (both modern and early), and see it danced by experts. Nowadays, I would play some of the movements a little faster, and most of them with more dance energy, a little less chamber-music reticence, and with – I hope – a stronger and truer sense of mouvement.  

Writing this article also gave me the opportunity to re-read Muffat, and glean a little more detail of his bowing rules, resulting in ‘Doo beeper dooby’ above and a rewrite of the discussion of the same Minuet in my 2020 article, here. It’s always worth re-reading a source that you think you know already. What you have discovered since the previous reading will have changed your viewpoint, and you may well notice something that you previously overlooked. 

 

 

Tubae mirae sonus: Mozart & Latin, Gesture & Enargeia

The wondrous trumpet – not!

It’s the most famous solo of all time for this instrument, representing the Last Trumpet on the Day of Judgement, and Mozart’s autograph score gives the short title by which we all know it: Tuba mirum, the wondrous trumpet. 



Unfortunately, that’s quite wrong.

 

 

The well-known fact that Mozart wrote this sombre fanfare for trombone, not for trumpet, is not the only problem. Tuba mirum simply does not mean “wondrous trumpet”.

In Latin, tuba (nominative case) is a feminine noun meaning trumpet. But mirum is the masculine-accusative form of the adjective ‘wondrous’. Gramatically, the two words do not agree. It is not the trumpet that is wondrous.

When we compare another famous solo, representing the very same Biblical scene, we have to ask two questions. Why did Mozart choose a trombone, and why does his fanfare go downwards?


Handel’s trumpet


Handel’s well-known setting of The Trumpet shall sound in Messiah features an actual trumpet playing upward-directed fanfares, with a thrilling ascent to high A in the second phrase. That’s more like it, isn’t it?

The expressivity of 18th-century music is rooted in the ancient Greek concept of Enargeia, the emotional power of detailed description. Read more about Enargeia. Enargeia employs Rhetorical language to describe a scene so vividly, that the audience feel they can almost see it with their own eyes. The visions in their imagination send the energia – the energetic spirit of emotional communication – from the mind to the body, producing the physical and emotional responses, the physiological and psychological manifestations of Affekt.

Composers aligned their music as closely as possible to the detailed imagery of the text, creating aural Enargeia, like the sound effects in a stage or cinematic drama. These Effects were intended to induce emotional response, to instill Affekt amongst listeners. So rhetorical Enargeia creates embodied Energia, sound Effects create emotional Affekt.

The power of Enargeia is in the detail. So when we hear the words ‘The Trumpet shall sound’, the emotional communication is reinforced when we indeed hear the sound of a trumpet. And when the dead are ‘raised’, the vocal and instrumental sounds are also raised in pitch. The powerful connection created by this Word-Painting (also known as Madrigalism) is further reinforced by the gestures with which a singer (in the theatre, or in concert) or a preacher (in church) would accompany the text.

At ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ the right hand would be extended from its resting position at the waist, probably to shoulder height. Since ‘Dead’ were still in their graves, the gesture on this word would be downward, perhaps even with the left hand. And then both hands ‘shall be raised’ (the right hand leading), and (the text repeats) raised again, perhaps beyond the normal limit of shoulder-height, lifting eyes and hands towards heaven. The crucial word ‘incorruptible’ might be pointed out with the gesture for ‘pay attention’. 



Every detail of text, each baroque gesture of the hand, is paralleled in Handel’s music. Enargeia will have its effect. 

The biblical text itself is from Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians, powerfully declaring the Gospel which he preaches (verse 1). The sound of the trumpet (verse 52) is introduced by the recitative ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’ (verse 51). ‘Behold’ – look! – is the defining signal that Enargeia is about to be employed. The audience is literally commanded to see the ‘mystery’ that they are told by the words and music.



Mozart’s trombone

Mozart’s tuba provides sound effects for a scene described in the Sequence Dies irae, part of the Requiem Mass. ‘The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes’. The context is not the good news of Paul’s declaration of the Gospel, but a dark prophecy from Zephania 1, verse 15.

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness; a day of the trumpet and alarm…

The third stanza of the Requiem Sequence describes how the trumpet’s sound is heard in the graves all around, to summon everyone to the Final Judgement. When we consider the image in detail, as if we could see it in front of our own eyes, it becomes evident [the Latin term for Enargeia is Evidentia] that this Last Trumpet sounds below, in the graves, even in Hell itself.

Whereas the Baroque Trumpet is associated with glorious majesty, heraldry and heaven, the Trombone (in English, Sackbut) was associated with solemnity and the underworld. Trombones accompany the lower voices in Monteverdi’s settings of liturgical psalms, and set the scene in Hell for Act III of Orfeo (1607). Trombones represent the Furies of Hell in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and the supernatural power of the statue of the Commandatore in the cemetery scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787).

The blast of this solemn instrument is appropriately directed downwards in Mozart’s Requiem (1791, incomplete), to resound per sepulchra regionum – throughout the regions’ graves. So whilst we hear the word Tuba, we simultaneously hear that ‘dread Trumpet’ sustaining a low note – as if down amongst the graves. 

Whilst the Gesture for these words might commence medium-high for tuba, it will inevitably descend (and probably leftwards) towards sepulchra regionum. So Mozart’s choice of Trombone and a downward-directed fanfare are perfectly in keeping with the principles of Enargeia.

Two bars later, listeners find themselves down in the graves with the singer on low Bb, whilst the dread sound is diffuse, scattered from way above, solemn even mournful with expressive Ab and even Gb. The picture is complete and detailed, and the emotional effect for the vision-imagining listener is very different from that of Handel’s trumpet.

Handel’s listeners are triumphant, given the promise of eternal life: “… and we shall be changed. We shall … be changed!”. Mozart’s congregation are called to be judged for their sins, whilst they reflect on death.

Every detail of the texts, each baroque gesture of the hand, two contrasting imagined visions are paralleled in Handel’s and Mozart’s musics. Enargeia will have its effects. 


Detail 

Enargeia is all about detail, and there still remains one niggling difficulty with Mozart’s setting. Tuba mirum does not mean ‘wondrous Trumpet’, or even ‘dread Trumpet’. The adjective mirum is gramatically attached to the noun sonum, the object of the verb (present participle) spargens. The trumpet, scattering its dread sound throughout the regions’ graves, calls everyone before the Throne [of Judgement].

It is not the trumpet itself, but its sound, that is wondrous. In terms of Enargeia, the effect of sound is to create Affekt. The instrument itself is a real-world 18th-century trombone, but the Enargeia of its sound creates the emotional effect of the Day of Judgement.

Why does this nit-picking of Latin grammar matter? In a word, punctuation. In music, that means phrasing.

The English word-order makes it clear that a comma needs to be understood, between ‘The trumpet’ and ‘scattering its dread sound’. Latin allows spargens sonum mirum to be re-ordered as mirum spargens sonum (for the sake of the rhymed verse), but that comma still needs to be understood after tuba.

But ever since 1791, the well-known short title has encouraged us to think of the text as Tuba mirum. Whoops! The sense of the text suggests rather the musical phrasing Tuba // mirum spargens so………num with the word for ‘sound’ extended for great Enargeatic effect. If that phrasing sounds strange to your ears, that’s entirely the point of this article.

Phrasing


A frequently-encountered 18th-century principle of phrasing [see Quantz for example] is that notes which move by step tend to be legato, jumps suggest staccato or a break in the phrase. At first glance, the sound of Mozart’s wondrous trumpet [in Latin, that would be Tubae mirae sonus] seems to be all jumps, there is no step-wise movement at all. But if we consider that the trombone is representing a trumpet, then (in the 18th century) adjacent notes in the harmonic series could count as ‘steps’, not jumps.

In this sense, Tuba is linked as two adjacent notes, and there is a marked jump upwards (wondrously: the gesture to open the hands palms upwards and raise the eyes to heaven in awe, admiratio) for mirum, from where the harmonics continue smoothly downwards.

(OK, the harmonic series more-or-less continues: depending on which octave you imagine has the fundamental Bb, the descending phrase either includes a low D which is not strictly in the series, or wondrously avoids middle C. But poetic imagery does allow some poetic license!)





Every detail of text, each historical gesture of the hand, is paralleled in Mozart’s music. Enargeia will have its effect. 


Tactus and Tempo


 

In the 18th-century, tempo defines not just speed, but the emotional quality of the movement, conveyed not by modern conducting, but by Tactus-beating. The dramatic timing of the Enargeatic visions depends on musical rhythm. As many period writers expressed it: Tactus is the Soul of Music.

Although Mozart clearly wrote C-slash, Andante, many printed editions show the time-signature C. See this article by Douglas Yeo on the wondrously-named blog The Last Trombone for more. 



Congaudentes (Happy Together)

This post reports on an open, free online multi-track recording project, presented by OPERA OMNIA Moscow, coming out of an online workshop on Medieval Improvisation organised in collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. Thank you to everyone who took part: this article is one way of showing appreciation.

Participants from all over the world (see below) sent in their improvised tracks, which were mixed into the sound of a medieval Conductus. The workshop and recording-project are linked to the International Baroque Opera Studio’s training production of LUDUS DANIELIS, planned for the end of August 2020. As always, that production will be Historically Informed not only in the musical approach, but also in the staging. You can follow OPERA OMNIA on Facebook.

Here is a video of the Workshop.

Here is an illustrated video discussion of  Performance Practice questions for Ludus Danielis, with clips from the 2011 production in Copenhagen.

Here is a video summary of  Medieval Improvisation Techniques for Conductus.

And here is the final audio/video multi-track mix of the Gaudentes project.

Additional links to various sectional mixes are below.

 

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Ludus Danielis

The Play of Daniel, Ludus Danielis, was created in the late 12th century at Beavais Cathedral in northern France, and notated in the early 1200s in the Egerton MS 2615, now in the British Library. William Smoldon, who edited it for the Plainsong and Medieval Musical Society in 1960, described it as a ‘medieval opera’: academically, it would be categorised as Liturgical Drama. The work was made famous in the USA in Noah Greenberg’s operatic production, premiered in Washington’s National Cathedral in 1958, which gave many spectators their first experience of Early Music. [In another context, I’m honoured to be a recipient of the Noah Greenberg prize for musicological/performance collaboration.]

Whilst the Play certainly is medieval, and does have all the ingredients we would expect to find in opera – script, music, action, plot, drama, characters, costumes, illusion, pathos, humour, entertainment – it can only be understood in the context of its liturgical setting. As the monks chanted the long night-office of Mattins, suddenly a chorister interrupts the service and sparks off a participatory drama in which clerics and children act out to lively popular melodies the Bible stories of Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on the Wall and Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

Daniel is of course saved from the Lions, who devour the Evil Counsellors instead. The prophet foretells the coming of Christ, and an Angel announces the glad tidings of Christmas. The Angel’s music was the finale to earlier dramas too, and it neatly leads into a joyful Te Deum, picking up the thread of the liturgy again.

So ‘this medieval opera’ takes it narrative from the Bible, has clerics and choristers as actors, and the cathedral itself as stage and scenery. Most likely, the Bishop’s seat became the Throne for King Belshazzar.

Certainly, it was tripudium – a party. The rubric (liturgical instructions written in red ink) requires a monk to dress as the Queen, the apparent ‘murder’ of King Belshazzar, a running race between two monks in the role of invading soldiers, and the prophet Habakkuk to be dragged by the hair of his head to bring refreshment to Daniel in the Lions’ Den, as well as the Lions (presumably played by young choristers) eating up the Evil Counsellors (senior clerics). When messengers (probably the teenage Sub-Deacons who managed the whole production) were sent to find Daniel (perhaps the Choirmaster), we can readily imagine an extended game of Hide & Seek in the darkness of the Cathedral. In the long nights of early January, there was plenty of time…

Nevertheless, all this fun was for a sacred purpose, celebrating yet another feastday in the exhausting cycle of Christmas holy days. For this special day, there was lively enaction of colourful Bible episodes, helping to teach youngsters to know their Saints, understand their Latin, and comprehend the complex doctrine of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gospel, which the Play presents from the divine perspective of a ‘now’ that unites Past and Future in the eternal Present.

Modern-day History of Emotions studies help us understand the psychological function of this (carefully ordered) foolery. The ceaseless round of the Daily Office, singing psalms, reciting scripture and chanting prayers even through the night, intensifies with Advent’s rich music and liturgy, long dark nights of solemn chant with little to eat during the traditional fast. Then comes Christmas, with a blaze of candle-light and even longer services, singing joyfully all day and all night, and continuing with celebrations of saints’ days all week.

The accumulated social tensions of sleep deprivation, intermittent nutrition, and overwork, all within a strictly disciplined and hierarchical single-sex institution could be released, under control, in a party that was not chaos, but ordo: a form of liturgy, literally keeping order, maintaining the social and mental health of a religious Order.

 

 

Producing the Play

I first produced Ludus Danielis in the 1970s, in Guernsey’s Town Church, the Cathedral of St Peter Port, performed by members of the church choir. This production thus had something of the medieval group dynamic of a set of teenage choristers within the small community of a religious institution, and featured the many processions in which the historical action bursts out of the confines of the choirstalls to occupy the whole building.

The Harp Consort’s CD recording in 1998 was inspired by Margot Fassler’s research into popular traditions of the Feast of Fools, in Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony (1992), which showed connections between medieval party-games and Biblical episodes enacted in the Play. The Kalamazoo publication (1996) of Critical Essays on the Play included a monochrome facsimile of the MS and a neutral transcription (which however followed all previous editions in assigning the wrong octaves to the Queen’s speech and to Daniel’s lament, see below.)

 

Our recording project also established the outline of a historical informed pronunciation of c1200 northern French Latin, guided by Harold Copeman. With a superb ensemble of instrumental and vocal soloists, we extended to the whole group the techniques of medieval improvisation I had developed playing harp and psaltery in Paul Hillier’s Trobador and Trouvère recordings.

This concept of ensemble improvisation was taken even further in The Harp Consort’s Edison Award-winning CD (2003) of written and improvised polyphony from the closely related repertoire of Gautier de Coincy’s Les Miracles de Notre Dame.

 

 

In 2007, The Harp Consort’s musical approach and my processions-production combined with director Akemi Horie’s exquisite Japanese minimalist design for performances in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge and Southwark Cathedral, London.

 

 

Many of the same cast performed in a fully HIP production in York Minster for the 2008 York Early Music Festival, broadcast live by BBC Radio Three. A BBC sound engineer followed our processions around the church with an array of microphones mounted cross-wise on a long pole, like some kind of high-tech crucifer. In place of the usual pre-concert talk, we taught audience members the basics of medieval improvisation in the splendid acoustic of the Chapter House.

 

 

By 2011, we had added a lot of detail to the historical action, and developed a new dramatic ‘frame’ for a production in collaboration with Ars Nova, Denmark. To the essential elements of processions and partying were added medieval gesture, including St Benedict’s seven postures of prayer, and better stylised, more sharply defined movement styles for monks, courtiers and soldiers. See Schmitt La Raison des gestes (1991).  Medieval art provided inspiring images of powerful gestures, for example when Darius commands that Daniel be brought out of the Lions’ Den, and the Evil Counsellors thrown in!

 

A possible gesture for “Danielem educite, et emulos immitite!”

 

As the audience entered, the endless chanting of the year-long liturgy was already in progress, and at the end of the play, kings and queen, soldiers and courtiers faded back into their daily lives, under the strict control of monastic discipline. As one of the cast commented: “Game over.”

In a resonant acoustic, we found that just three multi-instrumentalists from The Harp Consort (plus a sinfonye-playing Daniel) could provide all the support and variety of colour needed for the entire choir.  I made a new edition, and thought anew about questions of pitch and pitch relations. This project also marked the first performance in modern times of Daniel’s famous Lament, in the written octave: all previous editions had transposed it down an octave.

In this medieval Psalter, God hands down from heaven musical intervals, perhaps even specific pitches, to bell ringers, to King David and to more lowly instruments. Ladders represent hexachord scales.

In 2014, the production came to the Galway Early Music Festival, with St Nicholas’ Church as the venue and the church choir as the core cast. So once again there was that sense of medieval community and, for the first time, the show involved a large number of youngsters, who brought wonderful energy to the performance. I will never forget one of the junior choristers leaping to grab the scholar’s hat off the head of one of Belshazzar’s none-too-clever Wise Men, played by the Choirmaster, nor the sight of some two dozen young Lions waiting to devour the hapless Evil Counsellors.

 

 

Enargeia – the emotional power of detailed description

 

In that same year of 2014, Max Harris’ book on Sacred Folly re-assessed source materials for Feast of Fools practices, downplaying the extent of louche behaviour and emphasising the religious message behind all the dramatised action. Harris re-interpreted Fassler’s work on medieval games and religious ordo as a response to secular New Year celebrations in the city, rather than as a reaction against depraved behaviour in church.

Harris singles out The Harp Consort’s recording of Ludus Danielis for special praise, and also recommends another version in which the singers are accompanied only by ‘discreet percussion’. Whilst I’m grateful for his kind words about our work, it must be pointed out that there is no logic in allowing drums rather than harps! The rubric specifically calls for harpers, but not for drums.

Drums are mentioned in the sung text that describes King Darius’ entrance Ecce Rex Darius. ‘Look, here comes King Darius with his nobles; and his court resounds with happiness and partying…. Let all celebrate as the drums resound: the harpists strike the strings, and musical instruments resound to herald him!’ The usual assumption in historical drama is that stage action represents, within the limits of practicality, what is spoken/sung in the script/libretto.

Indeed, this is the period principle of Enargeia, by which detailed verbal description (often signalled with Ecce!, Ecco! Siehe! Behold! etc) creates mental images for the audience, the emotionally affective Visions described by Quintilian. To the spectators’ ‘imaginary puissance’ is added the visual detail enacted by the performers and the aural effects of appropriate tone-colours of speech, music and stage noise. All this unites (according to Rhetorical Decorum) and combines to ‘move the passions’ with Energia, the spirit of emotional communication that links mental and physical responses to emotion. Visions and sound-effects produce emotional Affekt; performed details of enargeia produce emotional energia. Following this principle, in Ludus Danielis we would expect to see and hear drums, harps and other musical instruments in Darius’ procession; clapping and dancing at Belshazzar’s Feast.

With an unconvincing argument relying on 20th-century Anglicanism, Harris considered rejecting the principle of Enargeia. But this would rule out the drum, whilst the rubric confirms the presence of harps. And any medieval hierarchy of liturgical and clerical instruments would begin with bells and King David’s harp, and descend to via fiddles and sinfonyes to lowly wind instruments and drums. See Christopher Page Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (1987) [sadly, this is out of print, and I could find no online access or purchase options: try academic libraries].

 

Medieval hierarchy of instruments: King David, crowned in gold, sits with his harp on a golden throne; a lowly piper sits on the ground.

 

In short, for Ludus Danielis harps are obligatory, and drum-only makes no sense at all.

 

Controversy

Two crucial questions about Ludus Danielis remain controversial. Did instruments take part at all? And, to put it simply, how much fun did the monks allow themselves?

At a Medieval Events conference in Budapest in 2015, the standard of music-scholarship was woefully low, and I was disappointed that the chairman of the Daniel session gave – as if with authority – simplistic answers, “no” and “not much”, to these deep questions. Perhaps he was still following the musicological mood of the 1990s, or had too hastily skimmed Harris’ conclusions, but it must be said that he offered neither academic arguments nor historical evidence.

And there is evidence. The rubric of the Egerton MS clearly requires harpists. Statim apparebis Darius Rex cum Principibus suis venientque ante eum cythariste et Principes sui psallentes hec. ‘Suddenly King Darius appears with his nobles, and the harpists and nobles come before him ‘psalming’ like this.’ Psallentes (which I translate literally as ‘psalming’) suggests singing and playing instruments associated with King David the Psalmist: harps and psalteries. The real-life Norman tradition of medieval harpists striking the first blow at battles (read Wace on Taillesfer at the Battle of Hastings) supports the identification of cythara specifically with Harp.

The Egerton rubric also gives ‘stage directions’ for many other actions that would be unthinkable within the normal order of the liturgy. So we may well ask: in an enactment that includes pretending to kill King Belshazzar, a monk dressing up as the Queen, and Counsellors being utterly devoured by Lions, would it be utterly out of the question for King Darius’ harpers – we know they are there – actually to play? The notion that the harps are silent stage props seems out of keeping with the straightforward and energetic (one might say, enargetic) story-telling required by the rubric throughout.

Furthermore, it can be argued that psallentes is an instruction for singing to instrumental accompaniment. For King Belshazzar’s procession, the rubric is different: Dum venerit Rex Balthasar, Principes sui cantabant ante eum haec prosam. ‘When King Belshazzar comes, his nobles sing before him this prose’. Prose and singing for one King, psalms and harpistry for another?

Later in 2015, scholars opposed to what has been dubbed the ‘English a cappella heresy’ sent me references to use of instruments in medieval churches, many of them associated with liturgical enactments for particular feasts. Unfortunately I can’t cite these references here, because my notes from these years were lost when my laptop was stolen in 2018. So I’ve started that search again. In the meantime, Daniel Leech Wilkinson The modern invention of medieval music (2002) explains how and why the topic of instrumental participation occasioned such passionate scholarly and artistic disagreements.

 

 

Widening our gaze beyond the narrow question of musical instruments, it is very difficult to define in detail what behaviours, normally proscribed, would have been permitted, even required, for this unique outburst of medieval religious energy. We may never know what actually happened. But the investigative lens of History of Emotions Studies focuses on a different question: how did it feel for those medieval monks to participate in this Play? Fassler’s and Harris’ work shows that there was a social and artistic tension between dramatic shock and religious awe, between tripudium and ordo. There is no doubt that, whatever it was that happened back then, it must have stretched the limits of monastic habitus.

Certainly therefore, a bland or discreetly tasteful performance is inauthentic. As Harris writes: “a little controlled disorder can sometimes enhance rather than diminish devotional effect…. the Play of Daniel was inspired, at least in part, by the same creative impulse [as in other less complex plays] to employ ludic means for devotional ends”. Circa 1200, the novices’ religious duty was to enact immorality and violence, as part of the sacred ritual and of their religious instruction. In medieval dramas, as in any school nativity play today, someone might have to play an evil character, notably Herod. In such a role, you are required to behave badly. So were the actors playing Belshazzar’s courtiers and Darius’ Evil Counsellors.

To appreciate Ludus Danielis, modern-day performers and audiences need to perceive the sanctity of the regular liturgy, the ludic energy of the Play, and the tension between these two elements. It is not enough for them to read a learned article about the Daily Office or Feast of Fools celebrations: they should feel the impact of this collision of values. A HIP production has to search for ways to convey an experience of what was appropriate in the medieval cathedral, and (more challengingly) what might have been appropriately inappropriate!

For the upcoming production with OPERA OMNIA, I hope to explore further another paradox of this ‘medieval opera’. There was no ‘audience’ at Mattins in medieval Beauvais. For a liturgical drama enacted in the middle of the night in early January, there might not even have been any lay congregation. Most probably, Ludus Danielis was a participatory ‘happening’, in which the entire monastic community took part, singing the well-known melodies, joining the processions, taking on the ‘chorus’ roles of courtiers and soldiers, even if they did not play a principal character. In previous productions, I invited audience members to imagine themselves as time-tourists, visiting medieval Beauvais and witnessing the extraordinary events there, one certain night of the year. But perhaps the audience can themselves become medieval monks, and feel the shock of transforming themselves into courtiers and soldiers, and the indescribable emotions of returning to the ceaseless daily round of prayer when the Play is over.

 

 

This video illustrates and expands on some of the performance practice questions discussed in this article.

 

Conductus

Many medieval liturgical dramas feature a procession. The episodes dramatised in Ludus Danielis are punctuated by no less than eight formal processions accompanied by music: for King Belshazzar, the Sacred Vessels, the Queen, Daniel, the Queen’s exit, Daniel’s exit, Darius’ invasion, and Daniel’s re-entrance. In addition the Wise Men have to make an entrance, and the rubric suggests considerable comings and goings of messengers, Habbakuk’s flying visit to the Lions’ Den, and the Evil Counsellor’s repeated spying missions, going to and fro between Darius’ throne and Daniel’s house, wherever these might have been located within the cathedral.

When clergy had to move solemnly around the chancel, for example to the position for reading the Gospel, they would process as a group. Latin conductus is the past participle of conducere, from con = with, and ducere = to lead. Conductus was a way to sing with clear rhythm that would unify everyone’s steps. Conductus poetry was written with short lines and strong, regular metrics, suiting this kind of rhythmic singing.

Once the rhythm was stable, it became easier to improvise additional voices over the written melody, and the words remained clear, since the independent voices moved in the same rhythm. So conductus became a particular type of polyphony, usually in two or three parts.

At major feasts, singers would return to their home town, bringing with them the latest polyphonic ideas from Notre Dame de Paris and the Paris University. And the region around Beauvais was famous for Trouvère lyrics and for Gautier de Coincy’s transformations of popular songs into religious conductus in Les Miracles de Notre Dame. In this atmosphere of experiment and creativity, it is highly plausible that singers introduced unwritten polyphony into the conductus processionals of Ludus Danielis.

As historical models for such improvised polyphony, surviving written sources are almost certainly intended for performance one-to-a-part. We can only speculate whether the singers of Ludus Danielis reserved certain passages for duos or trios (the classic sound of Parisian early polyphony), if one or two soloists provided improvised discants over the massed voices on the written tenor, or if there was a rich heterophony of simultaneous improvisation, unified by the note-against-note syllabic style and strong rhythm of conductus.  The raison d’etre of the event, dramatising Bible history and religious doctrine, keeping sufficient order whilst enacting appropriate inpropriety, suggests that limits might have been stretched in this area of performance, as in others.

 

 

In our May 2020 workshop, we rehearsed the essential period techniques: parallel organum in octaves and fifths and a constant drone. Jerome of Moravia’s fiddle treatise suggests that one can create a harmony for occasional notes, otherwise remaining on the written tune. [Note that this is quite different from an alternating drone, in the fashion of Irish ‘double-tonic’ tunes] We rehearsed typical movement at cadences, with a dissonant third or sixth resolving to a consonant fifth, unison or octave.

Jerome of Moravia also suggests a more demanding option, providing a harmony for every note of the written tune, i.e. a entire new polyphonic voice. We practised ways to do this using ‘fifthing’ – moving from unison towards a drone fifth, or parallel fifths, and back to unison; and by contrary motion, ‘mirroring’ the contours of the written melody.

We discussed the use and abuse of thirds, and attitudes to dissonance/resolution generally. Historical examples show that a lot of passing dissonance seems to have been accepted, sometimes even at the ends of intermediate phrases.

Here is a video summary of medieval improvisation techniques for Conductus.

 

Free, open, online multi-track recording project

For the recording project, I provided as a backing track a neutral harp-solo version of the second Conductus Danielis, which has the appropriate incipit Congaudentes – rejoicing together. Each participant listened to this track on headphones, whilst recording their own performance around it. Some played in duo, some sent in multiple tracks, one singer recorded 7 independent tracks. The project was free and open, and everyone who submitted a track had their work included. The list of participants is below, and I thank them all again!

Here is the same Congaudentes chorus, from The Harp Consort’s 1998 recording.

Here is the backing track for the May 2020 multi-track project, in case you would like to practise with it.

Participants came from many countries. Some are internationally known, one made her first ever recording for this project. This authentically reproduces the situation in c1200 Beavais, where experienced singers of polyphony and senior clerics sang alongside the young choiristers who presented the show.

The standard of all the tracks was remarkably high; all the more so, if one bears in mind that individual performers did not hear each other until the whole thing was mixed and uploaded. In the following report, I attempt to offer some academic analysis and helpful comments, without exposing anyone to personal criticism or undue individual exposure in what was from beginning to end an ensemble project.

Recording yourself and listening critically, and repeating this process intensively, as one does in a professional CD recording, creates a very steep learning curve. I greatly appreciate the work of record producers who have guided me through this process, and I would recommend it to any student or professional who is keen to improve, at whatever level.

For this project, in the course of many, many hours of audio and video editing, I listened to every individual track several times, and also heard how different combinations of soloists fitted together. All of the improvisations were plausible and fitted well with the stylistics we had studied, and there was a delightful variety of individual approaches, all with a lively energy appropriate to the context within the Play. The following comments are therefore from the perspective of a listening editor.

 

 

There were in the end 56 audio tracks (Audacity) and 38 video tracks (Nero video) to be mixed. For anyone else who might be contemplating a similarly large-scale multi-track project, I would recommend the technique that I fell upon only at the end, when I needed a technical fix. Trying to manage more than 30 video tracks simultaneously, my video editing software and/or my laptop had slowed to a crawl, and I could no longer review the results of my edits reliably. So I mixed 7 video tracks into one block, which I rendered as a single track. I should have done this from the outset for both audio and video mixes: group the tracks into  blocks by sections (high voices, low voices, bowed, plucked and percussion instruments) and mix each block first. Then mix just 5 blocks into the final print.

I asked participants to record (audio/video) a clap synchronised with a click on the backing track, but in the end this was not really needed. The quickest way to synchronise audio tracks was by playing them simultaneously, and lining them up by trial and error. And the quickest way to synchronise video to audio was also by ear, using the audio track associated with each video simultaneously with the full audio mix. Once the tracks are synched, you can lock them and silence the individual audio tracks to leave only the proper audio-mix.

Since everything was synched to the original backing track, the major limitation of Audacity for ‘classical’ audio editing, that you cannot easily drop-in patches from alternative takes of slightly different duration, was not a factor. Most of the problems I had to fix were temporary disturbances of rhythmic precision, and Audacity’s sophisticated “change tempo without changing pitch” function allowed me to make the necessary adjustments.  As I often find in live music-making, rhythmic precision is a very high priority, and good rhythm leads to confidence and to improvements in other performance variables. This is especially relevant to Conductus, of course.

For anyone who hasn’t tried it before, it’s surprisingly difficult to keep precisely together with a backing track heard through headphones. So I make no criticism of those who needed a helping hand during audio editing: all of us who ever made a CD are eternally grateful to the skills of professional producers. With the advantage of ‘hindsight’ and repeated listening, I noticed that some performers maintained ensemble by ‘checking in’ with the backing track every so often, for example at phrase-breaks, but sometimes drifted apart for a while in the middle of a phrase. This suggests that the operating strategy was attention-switching between listening and playing, rather than continous monitoring while playing.

I did not find this problem with vocal tracks, which might indicate that the sound of the harp’s backing track was easier for singers to hear, contrasting more with their own sounds, than for instrumentalists.

 

 

I also used Audacity’s ‘change pitch without changing tempo’ and reverb functions to transform Tanja Skok’s small frame drum into a mighty medieval battle drum.

 

 

There were two pairs of performers who sent duo tracks. I’m very happy that they could enjoy the chance to make music in company, during this time of social distancing, and this was an important element of our project, reflecting also the medieval performers’ celebrations of community spirit as they met, some of them perhaps only once a year, in Beauvais. But – obviously – if there is any moment when a duo track is not precisely together, there is no way to re-align the two individuals in post-production! This is a problem regularly faced by editors trying to clean up live performances, where the sound of one instrument spills onto another player’s microphone. As far as possible, editors want to have each instrument/voice isolated on its own track, even though project directors prefer to have happy participants!

 

 

There were few problems of tuning that showed through seriously, once everything was aligned and everyone was playing, though I discreetly faded out a couple of murky moments. Where tuning was off, a common feature seemed to be notes stopped further up the fingerboard of bowed and plucked instruments with necks (with or without frets). Open strings, index and middle stopping fingers were noticeably more reliable than ring fingers and pinkies. There are many factors here: finger position, fret position, string quality, as well as the bowing/plucking action.

In spite of the challenge of – sometimes quite adventurous – improvisation, most of the invented material was delivered accurately. The most difficult moment is between phrases, where, in addition to all the usual demands of solo performance and ensemble music-making, one has to decide what to do next and get fingers/voice to some newly invented note, precisely on time. This is an area I would focus on, in face-to-face rehearsal of live ensemble improvisation.

This connects to another element that can only be practised in real-time ensemble work: overall texture. Ideally, each performer should be assessing the culmulative result of all the improvising, and adjusting their own contribution accordingly. Is there enough basic melody? Too much drone? Enough high, mid-range and low? Is it too bland, or over-complicated? Such monitoring and adjusting requires enough rehearsal time for a group to learn to work together, to communicate and negotiate not by discussing, but by singing/playing and listening.

 

Ms 638 Paris 1244-11254

 

The plethora of multi-track projects that have been created during the current health crisis make an interesting contribution to the study of rhythm in Historically Informed Performance. Suddenly, principles of steady Tactus and reliable rhythm have become practical, even essential. Even though we cannot work together in real time – perhaps, because of this – listening has become more important than watching a conductor. Paradoxically, we are also more aware of the emotional power of making music as a group, since we cannot actually meet.

At the original happenings of the medieval Play (for a liturgical action without audience, I shy away from the word ‘performance’), there would have been no modern conductor, also no renaissance/baroque tactus. The misura technique of early polyphony, where a singer on the slow moving tenor-part, standing at the back, taps on the shoulder of a fast-moving cantus-part singer in front of him, is also impractical during processions and dramatic action.

But in Conductus all the singers pronounce the words simultaneously, even if some improvise polyphony. [And by the way, as a practical point, instrumentalists have to find a way to play on the move, for all these processions around a cathedral-sized building.] Meanwhile, the beat is given by everyone’s feet, shuffling, walking, dancing or marching (according to character roles) in procession.

The other meaning of conduct (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), as a noun signifying the way one behaves, is also present in the medieval French word conduis. In the context of processions, this recalls psalm verses about ‘walking with God… not in the way of the ungodly’. In the Miracles, Gautier de Coincy endlessly explores connections between similar-sounding words with different meanings, and multiple meanings of the same word, so that continual repetitions of a certain sound become a hypnotic mantra, leading the mind into a semantic maze of meditative suggestion. In Ludus Danielis, the way to behave, the way to walk, the way to ‘do conductus‘ in every sense, varies from one procession to another, as the monks embody Belshazzar’s courtiers, the Queen’s handmaidens, Daniel’s co-religionists, or an invading army.

For a HIP staged production, there is much work to be done in exploring the connections between character, movement, text and music for each procession; as well as in presenting the dramatic action of each scene, once the actors have reached ‘centre stage’.

 

Links

 

Full ensemble final mix with video

High voices

Low voices

Plucked strings

Bowed strings

Tutors

Giulia Amoretti x 7 with video

 

 

 

List of Participants

OPERA OMNIA TUTORS

Anastasia Bondareva [Russia]

Xavier Diaz-Latorre [Catalunya]

Ekaterina Liberova [Russia]

Tanya Skok [Slovenia]

Wolodymyr Smishkewych [Republic of Ireland]

Evgeny Skurat [Russia]

Andrew Lawrence-King – Director [Guernsey]

 

[*track = audio only, no video]

 

WOMEN’S VOICES

Giulia Amoretti – voice x 6, *voice [Russia]

Anastasia Bondareva – voice [Russia]

Lyubov Denisova – voice, *voice [Russia]

Olga Domagatskaya – *voice [Russia]

Alexandra Grebenyukova – voice, *voice [Russia]

Ekaterina Liberova – *voice [Russia]

Daniela Rico – *voice [Mexico]

 

MEN’S VOICES

Aleksandr Grebenyukov – voice [Russia]

Andrew Lawrence-King – *voice x 2 [Guernsey]

Timur Musaev – *voice [Russia]

Evgeny Skurat – voice [Russia]

Wolodymyr Smishkewych – “Daniel”, voice x 3 [Republic of Ireland]

 

BOWED STRINGS

Barbara Ceron – Harp x 3 [Mexico]

Alexandra Maglevanaya – Bass Viol x 2 [Russia]

Daria Maglevanaya – Medieval Fiddle x 3 [Russia]

Patricia Ann Neely – Medieval Fiddle [USA]

Wolodymyr Smishkewych – Sinfonye [Republic of Ireland]

Olga Zhukova – *Treble Viol [Russia]

 

PLUCKED STRINGS

Hannah Brockow – Irish harp, *Irish harp x 5 [Canada]

Barbara Ceron – Harp x 3 [Mexico]

Xavier Diaz-Latorre – Medieval lute [Catalunya]

Julia Grab – Rebec [Russia]

Atsuko Kunishige – *Medieval harp [Japan]

Andrew Lawrence-King – Harp, *Harp [Guernsey]

Ekaterina Pripuskova – Mandolin x 2 [Russia]

Evgeny Skurat – Medieval harp x 2 [Russia]

Boris Steinberg – Ud [Russia]

 

PERCUSSION

Xavier Diaz-Latorre – Tambourine [Catalunya]

Tarkviniy Gramsci – Darabuka [Russia]

Tanya Skok – Frame drum [Slovenia]

 

The OPERA OMNIA training production of Ludus Danielis for the International Baroque Opera Studio is planned for August-September 2020. At the time of writing, we still hope to be able to go ahead.

To beguile, or not to beguile: Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’

Music for a while is one of Purcell’s best-known and most loved songs, published posthumously in Orpheus Britannicus, Book 2 (1702). Listen here.

The tortured chromaticism of the ground bass and dark references to Alecto, the Fury from Hell with snakes for hair and a whip in her hand. indicate that there is more here than just a pretty melody.  So it comes as no surprise to discover that the song was written for a revival in 1692 of Dryden & Lee’s 1679 Tragedy Oedipus, loosely based on Sophocles.

But what was the function of this music in the play? What is happening on stage ‘for a while’? And what happens next, when Music can no longer ‘beguile’? Whose ‘cares’ and ‘pains were eas’d’?  The clue is that Alecto should indeed ‘free the dead from their eternal bands’.

At the time of writing, the best secondary sources freely available online were a couple of GCSE commentaries, which fail to address these questions and mislead on the placement of the song within the play, as well as by hinting that Alecto might even be a character in the drama. She is not, but the mythological reference to her is utterly appropriate for the dramatic situation.

 

 

A dark Grove

Fortunately, a primary source is only a click away. The library of the University of Michigan has made the full play-script of Oedipus, including the song-text (divided amongst several singers), available free online.

Purcell’s Music was composed for Act III, set in a dark Grove.

 

 

Following an argument and sword-duel between Creon and Adrastus, Haemon sets the scene:

Nor Tree, nor Plant

Grows here, but what is fed with Magick Juice,

All full of humane Souls; that cleave their barks

To dance at Midnight by the Moons pale beams:

At least two hundred years these reverened Shades

Have known no blood, but of black Sheep and Oxen,

Shed by the Priests own hand to Proserpine.

 

The blind prophet Tiresias enters with a group of aged Priests, all clothed in black habits. In rites “full of horrour” Tiresias invokes the ghost of Lajus (Oedipus’ father) to declare who it was who murdered him. A trench is dug near Lajus’ grave and a black, barren heifer is sacrificed. Blood and milk are boiled together.

And now a sudden darkness covers all,

True genuine Night: Night added to the Groves;

The Fogs are blown full in the face of Heav’n.”

Tiresias calls for “such sounds as Hell ne’re heard / Since Orpheus brib’d the Shades” and the Priests’ first song evokes tormenting demons:

 

Taskers of the dead,

You that boiling Cauldrons blow,

You that scum the molten Lead.

You that pinch with Red-hot Tongs;

You that drive the trembling hosts

Of poor, poor Ghosts,

With your Sharpen’d Prongs;

Music for a While itself is addressed to the rising ghosts, who are then ordered to “Come away… obey, while we play”. Sure enough, in a flash of lightning, ‘Ghosts are seen passing betwixt the trees‘.

The Priests and Tiresias call on Lajus to “hear and obey”, and ‘The Ghost of Lajus rises arm’d in his Chariot, as he was slain. And behind his Chariot sit the three who were murdered with him.’ Lajus refers to his “pains” in hell  (recalling the line from the song, ‘wondering how your pains were eas’d”), and accuses Oedipus of parricide.

 

 

The Ghost descends, as Oedipus enters asking “tell me why My hair stands bristling up, why my flesh trembles.

 

To beguile, or not to beguile

 

 

 

In this play and in this scene, there are many parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c1600). Dryden’s introduction make it clear that public taste insisted upon a Ghost and a Murder, and Oedipus was a great success.

In The Player’s Passion (1985) published by the same University of Michigan whose library makes Dryden’s play available online, Joseph Roach describes Shakespeare’s ‘most celebrated scene played by the greatest actor of his time, perhaps of all time’:

The name of Perkins, hair-dresser and wig-maker, enters into the history of the eighteenth-century stage on the strength of a technical contribution to David Garrick’s Hamlet… When other spectators marvelled that Hamlet’s hair actually seemed to stand on end as the ghost appeared, they testified to a fact. The ingenious Perkins had engineered a mechanical wig to simulate the precise physiognomy of mortal dread. On the line “Look, my lord, it comes”, the hairs of this remarkable appliance rose up obligingly at the actor’s command.

 

 

In Purcell’s semi-operas and incidental music for plays, incantation scenes are often the excuse for songs, and ‘priests’ with few or no spoken lines are brought on stage to do the singing. The first scene of King Arthur is a good example: “Woden, first to thee a milk-white steed in battle won, we have sacrificed“. And like the Ghost of Lajus, the Cold Genius similarly comes  “from below“, is made to “rise, unwillingly and slow’ in chromatic harmonies, and then allowed to “freeze again to death“.

 

The power of music to ‘beguile’ cares and ‘soothe the savage breast’ is part of the historical Science of the Four Humours. Music is Sanguine: the live-giving flow of warm blood, open-handed and generously offering love, courage and hope. Music frees us from the cold, dry grip of Melancholy cares and pains.

At least, for a while…

 

Listen here.

 

 

 

 

Vrai mouvement – Introduction to French Baroque dance-music

This is another in a series of posts following up a course on Early Music for Modern Harpists that I am teaching for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, but it should serve any performer as a first introduction to French baroque dance-music and the movements of the Suite. See also Introduction to 18th-century Ornamentation, Principles & Practice, and Online Resources.

 

To a great extent, Baroque dance-music is French, and French Baroque music is dances. French style is also associated with the delicate subtlety of ornamentation, so that the energy and physicality of the dance co-exists with the intricate sophistication of precise control. As Muffat writes for violinists in Florilegium Secundum (1698),

‘In spite of so many retakes and down-bows, one never hears anything harsh or crude, but on the contrary one finds a marvellous combination of great speed and long bow-strokes; of an admirable consistency of Tactus and a diversity of movements; and of a tender sweetness and vivacity of Play.’

Muffat’s essay, originally printed in French, Latin, Italian and German, is probably the best period Introduction to this style, which he associates with Lully’s violinists. In spite of the preference of modern opera houses and baroque orchestras for Rameau (1683-1764)  and Rebel (1666-1747), Lully’s music remained the reference in 18th-century France. And the instrument most associated with the noble style of French baroque dance was the violin: the dancing-master’s minature pochette or the 24-strong violin band (with all sizes of violin-family instruments).

Even if you are not a string player, consideration of the implications of Muffat’s rules for Lulliste bowing is a fast-track to creating appropriate short-term phrasing (what Early Music players call ‘articulation’) for French dance-music on any instrument.

Each dance-type has its own characteristics, and in performing this repertoire, getting a feel for the family resemblance between all Menuets (for example) is more important than trying to ‘interpret’ the particular minuet at hand. Muffat again:

Concerning the different dance-movements, three things are required. 1: To know well the true movement of each piece. 2: Having recognised it, knowing how to keep it as long as one plays the same piece, always with the same consistency, without change of slowing or accelerating. 3: To adjust and compensate for the value of certain notes, for greater beauty.

Muffat’s vrai mouvement is much more than just the speed, though finding a suitable speed is important. Quantz (see Online Resources) gives tempi based on a notional MM 80 ‘pulse’ for various dance-types in Versuch (1752) from page 268 , and Saint-Lambert (Lully’s father-in-law) calibrates his indications to an average walking pace, see Les Principes du Clavecin (1702).

The French term mouvement also implies the Affekt, the emotional character, and (as Muffat’s requirements indicate) this depends on finding rhythmic subtleties and maintaining them consistently all the way through each piece. So in addition to the regularity of Tactus, in dance-music we have additional consistency of patterning within the Tactus. And this patterning is subtle – every note is not the same, smaller-note values may be unequal within the beat – but it is maintained consistently from bar to bar. We can think of this as the rhythmic “groove” of each dance-type: the pattern is distinctive, possibly assymmetrical, often subtle, and this pattern is established from the outset and kept strongly throughout.

There are four levels of rhythmic patterning. Often the whole bar corresponds to the early 17th-century concept of Tactus, and you can beat time one bar down, one bar up. This beat is equal and regular, though with the subtlety of arsis/thesis, see The Practice of Tactus.

Phrases are nearly always symmetrically organised in 4-, 8-, 16-bar groups, with repeats of each section. Don’t omit repeats, and don’t vary them either. Rather play the whole dance a second time, with repeats again, but in a varied version – French sources call this a Double.

Within the bar, the individual beats (often crotchets) have a characteristic organisation of good/bad and join/separate. So in a Sarabande beats 1 and 2 are Good; in a Chaconne one links together beats  2-3-1. These beats usually correspond to dance-steps, and the connection between feet and beat in French music led to a concentration on this level of rhythmic organisation. So the Menuet can also be beaten with an unequal (but reguarly maintained beat), 1-2 down, 3 up.

At the next subsidiary level of rhythmic organisation (often quavers), equally-written note-values are performed unequally, pair-wise, usually long-short. The amount of swing in this inégalité is crucial for establishing (and maintaining) the character of each dance: robust country-dances get a vigorous swing, sad noble dances get a very subtle swing. The bible of baroque swing is Betty Bang Mather Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque (1997).

Muffat’s word mouvement also reminds us that Baroque dances were not just music: there was dancing, too! The best way to understand any dance-type is to learn to dance it, even if you think you have two left legs! I would regard an introduction to historical dancing as an essential element to any HIP musician’s training – and as great fun, too! The standard introduction to the physical embodiment of this music is Hilton Dance and Music of Court and Theatre (1997).

Court and Theatre were the principal milieux for the noble style of dancing, but many of these dances had their origins in the street or the countryside. Mattheson describes the contrasting characters of various dance-types. You can develop your own feeling for the area of emotions associated with each dance-type by reading song-texts set to particular dance-metres, and simply by playing many examples of the type you wish to study.

For each dance-type, you need to have a feeling for tempo, metre (duple or triple), groove, social milieu, area of Affekt and typical dance-steps. Some dances are essentially stylised walking, others are mostly leaps, others mix leaps, spins and held balances. The New Grove Dictionary entry on a particular dance-type can be a good jumping-off point for further reading.

Dance-music was often published and performed as chamber-music in Suites, linked by a common tonality. The core of the baroque suite is the AllemandeCouranteSarabande group, often with a Gigue afterwards. A Chaconne might be added at the end; a Prélude or Ouverture at the beginning; Bourée, Rigaudon and other country-dances towards the end; and theatrical or programmatic pieces were introduced for variety. For social dancing, long sets of a single dance-type (especially minuets) were often needed.

Handel’s first opera, Almira (1705), listen here has a ball-room scene, set at a French-style Assemblée, in which a sequence of dances is interspersed with conversational recitatives and arias, a theatrical presentation of social dancing at court.

Case-study: the Menuet

The Menuet was a court dance, each couple would have to dance their formal minuet in front of the judgemental gaze of their aristocratic superiors, as they entered the hall of an Assemblée. The step is a stylised walk, and the dancers’ paths trace out geometrical patterns on the floor. There are also many theatrical minuets, and many pieces that feel minuet-like, even though they are not actually dances: the slow movement of Handel’s Harp Concerto would be an example.

 

 

Muffat’s rules for violin-bowing can help us find the vrai mouvement, the ‘groove’ of this dance, and I take Christian Petzold’s well-known menuet copied into the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch as a case-study.

 

 

Baroque violins have lower string-tension than modern instruments. And French baroque violins had even lower string-tension. French violins were significantly smaller, but had lighter strings and were tuned a tone or a minor-third lower than in Italy. All these differences combine to produce very low string tension: it’s like playing on rubber-bands!  And to coax these slack strings into sound, they had very short bows.

Long & Short notes

At this point, you can experiment for yourself, by using a pencil as an imaginary, short French-style violin bow. To sustain a long note, you will have to be very sparing with the bow, and the string will take some time to ‘speak’. The result is a very drawn-out messa di voce, with a lot of intensity and a sensation of tension waiting to be released as you hope that you can get through such a long note with such a short bow.

For a short note, you’ll have to move the bow with a sprightly action, to get the floppy string to speak promptly – it’s almost like a bowed pizzicato. So the first result is that long and short notes are utterly different from one another: a long note is not just a short note sustained, it’s a completely different animal!

Bowing and inégalité

Muffat’s detailed bowing rules can be summarised as

1. Down-bow on the down-beat;

2. Down/Up bows for Good/Bad notes, respectively.

So French violinists would take the first note of Petzold’s minuet with a down-bow (Italians would play it Up). The next note is a Good, so it might seem also to require a Down-bow.  With a short bow, two successive Downs will require lifting the bow back Up again in-between (what violinists call a Retake), and this necessarily shortens the first note, creating a staccato effect. Nevertheless, this is acheived with elegant lightness, like a dancer leaping high but landing lightly.

However, in the fine detail of Muffat’s bowing rules, he gives precisely this rhythmic pattern (crotchet quaver-quaver) at the beginning of the bar, marked ‘down up push’. The preference for up-bow on the second note of the bar outweighs the desirability of down-bow on a Good note. Nevertheless, the downward leap of the fifth d’-g supports a detached first note.

The quavers that follow would be played pair-wise long/short, good/bad and down/up, quite legato within each pair, but with a small separation between one pair and the next. Within each pair, the second note is unaccented – the swing is gentle and elegant, not spiky!

Groove: le vrai mouvement

We  can beat Tactus bar by bar, down/up. This gives us the first level of equal movement, corresponding to the dotted minims that we find in the bass from bar 2 onwards. In general, we expect to find the fundamental rhythmic structure in the bass, and subdivisions in the treble.

We can also beat Tactus in crotchets, 1 2 down, 3 up. This gives us minim-crotchet unequal movement, that we see in the bass of the first bar and elsewhere.

The harmonic rhythm of bar 15 is the reverse of this: crotchet-minim. The mixture of these two patterns, long-short and short-long, is characteristic of the Minuet.

Baroque theorists linked these structural patterns, often heard in the bass-line of dance-music, with the metrical “feet” of poetic scansion. Long-short is Trochaic, and short-long is Iambic: the combination of these two feet creates the essential structure of the minuet’s vrai mouvement.

In the melody, the initial leap followed by stepwise movement produces a crotchet-minim Iambic structure for the first bar, with the minim sub-divided into swung quavers. So in this bar, the minim-crotchet, Trochaic bass has one of the Minuet’s two typical structures, whilst the melody has the other.

In bar 2, the bowing would be Muffat’s standard: down-up push. This might tend to create a joining between beats 1-2, and a separation before beat 3. But the downward leap again suggests a detached first note. Although I’m accustomed to hearing this bar structured Trochaically minim-crotchet, perhaps the downward leap should encourage us towards Iambic crotchet-minim again.

Bars 3-4 have the same structure in the melody as the first two bars. The ornament on the second note of bar 3 confirms the Iambic crotchet-minim structure of this bar, so similar to bar 1.

The next three bars have the note-values of the first bar, but without the initial leap. This suggests more legato between first and second note, whilst the harmonic shift on the second note of each bar implies a crotchet-minim Iambic structure.

In bar 8, Quantz’s rule for Appoggituras tells us to make the ornamental note two thirds of the length of the written note, and to resolve quietly and smoothly into the written note. The structure is therefore Trochaic minim-crotchet, breaking the pattern of the previous 3 bars. There are couple of bars with swung quavers all the way through in the melody and a Trochaic minim-crotchet structure in the bass, and the harmonies show the structure of the penultimate bar also to be Trochaic minim-crotchet.

There are no other patterns in this minuet. Muffat’s strictly maintained mouvement can be understood by superimposing all the allowed patterns, and ‘weighting’ them according to how often each is heard. You can listen to the result here.

As you listen, imagine yourself dancing with elegant steps and graceful balances along the floor, in smoothly curved patterns, wearing 18th-century courtly dress, and with the assembled aristocracy looking on, and subdued conversation in polite French, with period pronunciation of course. By now you are well on the path towards developing a feel for the vrai mouvement of the menuet.

 

Beyond Versailles

 

We find French dances in English, German and even Italian music, and of course in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, see Jenne & Little Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach (1991/2009). Their first publication addressed works by Bach that bore the names of dances―a considerable corpus. In the second, expanded version they study also a great number of his works that use identifiable dance rhythms but do not bear dance-specific titles.

There is a glossy online Introduction to French Baroque Music presented in English by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Their view appropriately contrasts French and Italian approaches, but they seem unaware of the richness of Spanish dance-culture, which brought together Old and New World, even African music, popular and courtly styles.

Hispanic culture contributed one of the most famous dances of Baroque France, Les Folies d’Espagne as well as the Canaries dance-type. As in France, so in Spain, Portugal and the New World, standard dance-types and (more than in France) the ground basses associated with them defined the territory for much chamber, theatrical and (also more than in France) even sacred music. Ribayaz’s 1677 book Luz y Norte offers a ‘guiding light and North star by which to explore all Spanish music’ – listen here.

English late-17th-century Country Dances became well-known in the 20th-century folk music revival. With simple steps and formulaic group choreographies, they were much, much easier for amateur dancers than the technically demanding solo dances in which French aristocrats emulated professonal theatre dancers. Country dances became popular in France as contredansesLes manches vertes is Greensleeves.

This article can only be a brief Introduction. The next step is to become familiar with various dance-types, by reading more about them, and – even better – by playing and dancing them.

For a slightly different take on Muffat and French Baroque Dance, see the 2021 approach to this subject here.