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

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

 

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

Eternal Hieroglyphs?

 

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

Gieroglifici eterni,

Che in zifre luminose ogn’or splendete     

Ah! Che alla mente umana                                      

Altro che belle oscurità non siete.              

Pure il mio spirto audace                            

Crede veder scritto là su nelle stelle…

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

 

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

Andante Allegro

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

 

Beautiful obscurity?

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

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

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1981)

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

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

 

Well-established facts

 

Opera rehearsal

 

  • Baroque music was not conducted

 

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

 

 

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

 

Handel’s tempo indications

 

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

 

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

 

Handel’s specific instructions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Notation indicates tempo relationships.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Gavotte in the Anna Magdalena Bach ‘Notenbuch’

 

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

 

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

 

 

Initial assumption

 

 

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

 

  • Circa 1600, Tactus is approximately minim = 60

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Hypothesis

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

 

  • Tempo words modify the default Tactus

 

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

 

Historical Principle

 

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

 

Methodological Test

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: tempo ordinario

 

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

 

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

 

Tempo ordinario

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: Recitative

 

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

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

 

Recit – tempo ordinario – grave

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Hypothesis: recitative & tempo ordinario

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

 

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

 

Handel’s Tempo words: faster or slower?

 

Harrison sea clock H1 c1736

 

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

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

 

Handel’s tempi table 1

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

 

Fast duple, Triple and Compound metres

 

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

 

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

 

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

Handel tempi Table 2

 

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

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

Handel tempi Table 3

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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Measuring a shepherdess’ heart-rate: Lamento della ninfa

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

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

 

Lamento della Ninfa BC

 

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

Non havea Febo ancora

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

Si tra sdegnosi pianti

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

Amor, Amor dicea

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to stage this song

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Non havea Febo ancora T1

Si tra sdegnosi pianti T1

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

 

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

 

Lamento vocal score in A1

 

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

Lamento short score in C1

 

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

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

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

Amor – Tacet in B1

 

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

 

Tavola (index) in T1

 

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

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

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

Hand & Heart

Act with the hand, act with the heart!

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Il Tempo della mano

 

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

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

 

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

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

Quite unlike modern conducting!

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

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

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

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

in genere rappresentativo e si canta senza battuta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Senza misura over a Tactus bass – Caccini

 

Soloist floating around a Tactus bass – Monteverdi

 

Solo tenor and Tactus – Monteverdi

 

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

 

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

Il Tempo dell’affetto del animo

 

 

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

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

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

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

Si replica tante volte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Philosophy of La Musica

THE PHILOSOPHY OF LA MUSICA

 

 

Monteverdi’s setting of the Prologue to Striggio’s (1607) Orfeo is justly popular, not only as the opening of that famous favola in musica [story in music], but also as a concert-piece and as an introduction for student singers and continuo-players to the art of monody.

Documentary film and other articles about Orfeo on The Orfeo Page by IL Corago, here.

The music is just what we expect a baroque Prologue to be: a ground-bass, subtly varied from strophe to strophe according to the words; the vocal line a simple reciting-formula, but also varied from strophe to strophe. Whilst Cavalieri, Viadana, Peri, Caccini, the anonymous Il Corago, and Monteverdi himself (in the Preface to Combattimento) agree that neither singers nor continuo-players should make divisions in the ‘new music’ of the early 17th-century, Prologues and the entrances of allegorical personifications are an exception. Indeed, the repeating harmonic structure of Monteverdi’s music defines this Prologue as an Aria, and passeggi as well as ornaments on a single note (gruppetto – two-note trill with turn, zimbalo – restriking from the upper note, trillo – on one note, accelerating) would be appropriate, though they are seldom heard in modern-day performances. Nevertheless, the emotional effect comes first from the words, then from the steady rhythm, and finally from crescendos, diminuendos or exclamationi (sforzando, subito piano, crescendo) on single notes, as described by Caccini (1601). Caccini’s priorities, here.

Striggio’s five short stanzas summarise some of the most important philosophical concepts that guide baroque music in general and (what we now call) ‘early opera’ in particular. Perhaps we have been so charmed by the surface detail of La Musica’s song that we have missed her deeper message: but in the central stanza, all is revealed. And right from the start, Striggio proclaims two essential tenets of seicento aesthetics.

  1. Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno

Incliti Eroi, sangue gentil di Regi

Di cui narra la fama eccelsi pregi

Ne giunge al ver, perch’è tropp’ alto il segno.

 

From my beloved Permesso I come to you

Great heroes, noble blood of kings

Of whom Fame tells heavenly praises

Yet does not reach the truth, for the sign is too high.

 

Music comes from somewhere far-off,  from a beautiful pastoral landscape associated with the lost golden age of classical antiquity and with the divine inspiration and cultural melody of the Muses. With her opening line, La Musica evokes a mythological location, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. Listen to a fascinating discussion on BBC Radio on the Muses as guardians of the Arts and of Memory, here. 

 

The performance is offered to the audience: they (not the performers!) are the ‘great heroes’ whose fame is beyond telling. This is the reverse of the Romantic idea of ‘the great artistic genius in the temple of culture, receiving the worship of ordinary mortals’. Baroque music privileges the listeners: we performers come to tell them a story, to delight them with music, and to move their emotions.

 

In 1607, some of the audience (not all!) were indeed noble aristocrats. But today, anyone can be a king or a princess for the evening: this exquisite culture and the work of elite performers are on offer to everyone, at ticket prices that compare favourably to professional football!

The first baroque opera, here.

  1. Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti

So far tranquillo ogni turbato core

Et hor di nobil ira et hor d’Amore

Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.

 

I am Music, who with sweet accents

Can calm every troubled heart,

And now with noble anger, now with Love,

Can enflame the most frozen minds.

 

Music can ‘soothe the savage breast’, but the special feature of seicento performance is the rapid change between contrasting, even opposing emotions. Cavalieri also draws attention to this, in the Preface to Anima & Corpo (1600), here. This differs from the Romantic tendency to intensify a single emotion more and more, in the search for catharsis.

 

Period Science classified the Passions according to the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (sad, unlucky in love, sleepless, over-intellectual) Phlegmatic (unmoved by anything, a ‘wet blanket’).  Anger is Choleric, Love is Sanguine and the frozen minds are Phlegmatic. The Melancholy Humour, so typical in English period culture, in Dowland’s music and Shakespeare’s dramas, is absent from this Italian Musica, though it emerges in Striggio’s Act II. Emotions in Early Opera, here.

  1. Io su Cetera d’or cantando soglio

Mortal orrecchio lusingar tal’hora

E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora

De la lira del ciel piu l’alme invoglio

 

Singing to the golden cetra as usual

I charm mortal ears for a while

And in this way with the sonorous harmony

Of the lyre of heaven I can even influence souls.

The strange and beautiful musical instruments of the early 17th-century, the large triple-harp, the long-necked theorbo and the bowed lirone, were all real-life imitations of the mythical cetra, the ancient and magical lyre of Apollo. With such instruments, baroque music can titillate the listener’s ears. But when this charming sound is coupled with music’s mysterious, cosmic power, the effect is far more profound.

 

This is the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, a medieval concept that remained current until the end of the 18th century. Music, as we play and sing it every day, is an earthly imitation of that perfect music created by the movement of the stars, moon and planets in their orbits. The link is made by the harmonious nature of the human body, a microcosm with ears to hear, a tongue to sing, hands to play instruments, and a mind that senses the ineffable perfection and otherworldly power that our everyday music-making seeks to evoke.

This three-fold nature (cosmic, human and actual) is also characteristic of period Dance, which imitates the perfect movement of the heavenly bodies. In the early 17th-century (before Newton), Time itself was similarly understood to be set by the cosmological clock, observed in the human pulse and heartbeat, and shown by the steady down-up movsement of the hand, beating the (approximately one-per-second) Tactus that structures 17th-century music.

Period medical science modelled a mystic breath, something like oriental chi, networked through the mind-body holism (akin to the ‘meridians’ of Chinese traditional medicine) to facilitate proprioception, motor-control, psychological and physiological reactions. This pneuma was the same mysterious energy that transferred emotions from performer to listener, and was also the spiritual breath of life, activating each human being with the divine inspiration of the breath of creation.

Significantly, all this philosophy of heaven and humanity plays out at the practical level of historical performance. Musical rhythm imitates the steadiness and reliability of astronomical movement, driven by the slowest beat, the innermost sphere, the primum mobile. The Tactus-hand embodies the Hand of God, not wilful or capricious, but all-powerful and eternally constant. If musical time were to falter, the heavens might collapse, and your body rhythms would fail. If the pulse stops, the music also dies.

Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time, here.

 

The communication of emotions is linked to the healthy posture and elegant movements of Baroque Gesture, and to the invocation of the mysterious power of pneuma. Something like the Star Wars ‘Force’, pneuma can be with you, strong in someone, and you can use its power. Just as in oriental martial arts, the performance power of pneuma is associated with inner calm and precise timing, with a profound slow, steady control, even if surface movements are fast.

  1. Quinci a dirvi d’Orfeo desio mi sprona

D’Orfeo che trasse al suo cantar le fere

E servo fe l’Inferno a sue preghiere

Gloria immortal di Pindo e d’Elicona

 

Therefore to tell you about Orfeo is the desire that spurs me

Orfeo who tamed wild beasts with his singing

And made Hell a servant by his prayers

The immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.

With this stanza, Striggio introduces the subject of his music-drama, a super-hero whose powers are wielded through the medium of song. Music has power over Nature, and can melt the hardest hearts. If battle-heroes go to Valhalla, then poets and musicians have the eternal glory of the homes of Epic verse and the Lyrical arts.

The sequence of ideas continues from the previous strophe into these lines, as signalled by the rhetorical link-word, quinci. Music is not just ear-tickling noise, it has cosmic power, and (in the current strophe) power over nature, power to persuade. Aristotle defined rhetoric itself as the Art of Persuasion, and Striggio’s Musica is, therefore, a rhetorical art.

 

Music is also storytelling – Monteverdi’s opera is designated favola, a fable. And it is desire that spurs us on tell such tales, to make such music. The Italian urge to sing, play, dance, act, recite poetry and tell stories is not English Melancholy but the Choleric Humour: a hunger, a thirst, a passionate desire.

 

  1. Hor mentre i canti alterno, hor lieti, hor mesti,

Non si mova Augellin fra queste piante

Ne s’oda in queste rive onda sonante

Et ogni auretta in suo camin s’arresti.

 

Now, while I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad,

Not even a bird will move amongst these plants

Nor will there be heard in these rivers the sound of waves

And every little breeze will stop in its tracks.

The traditional function of a theatrical Prologue is to command the audience’s attention and call for silence. Striggio’s choice of imagery reinforces the Orphic connection between music and nature, and emphasises changes between contrasting emotions. As her song ends, La Musica holds the spectators spell-bound for 9 minim-beats, 9 seconds of musical rests, 9 seconds of dramatic silence (on-stage, this feels like eternity!). If the performer can command the moment, this both creates and demonstrates the power of music to influence the listeners’ most profound spiritual experience.

If the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, the staged drama that follows can be deeply moving. La Musica’s Prologue, in particular the hypnotic effect of drifting half-sentences and dreamy silences in this final strophe, gets the audience into the right state of mind for attentive listening and passionate response. Indeed, Striggio’s introduction to the opera can be analysed as an induction into hypnotic trance, an altered state of consciousness in which the conventional limits of reality are blurred and emotional responses are heightened, lulled into dream-world by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the heroes, here.

So now, be still, and hear the Philosophy of La Musica:

 

  1. Music comes from an ancient, distant, golden, pastoral otherworld.
  2. Music pleasantly alters your state of mind.
  3. Music is more than sound, it uses the Power of the Force.
  4. Music is storytelling, and the Rhetorical Art of Persuasion.
  5. As Music sings, your mind flows… you relax… concentrate… in deep silence…

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARIANNA a la recherche

Remaking the fourth opera in the Monteverdi trilogy

The Indiana paper – watch the video here.

In September 2017, OPERA OMNIA presented in Moscow a re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), setting Rinuccini’s libretto ‘in Claudio’s voice’ around the sole surviving musical fragment, the famous Lamento. Our aims were to offer performers and audiences an operatic context for this celebrated soliloquy; to reverse the standard processes of musicological investigation by applying new, rigorous creativity to previous analysis; and to re-assess Performance from the perspective of Historically Informed composition, initiated by period practices of improvisation.

With generous help from Tim Carter, we applied methodologies from Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002) and took inspiration from Wilborne’s exploration of Seventeenth-century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’Arte (2016). The practical challenges of re-composing and staging a lost work demanded a sharp focus on Monteverdi’s methods and word-by-word engagement with Rinuccini’s text. The Tragedia emerges as a powerfully effective theatre-piece, with sharp characterisations and dramatic twists in affetto. The visual impact of Bacchus’ arrival (Heller, Early Music October 2017) is matched by aural shock as lamenting strings are blown away by ‘hundreds of trumpets, timpani and the raucous cry of horns’.

Following the interdisciplinary learning methods of the period, Monteverdi’s circa 1608 works were closely imitated, identifying literary citations, and transforming composed models according to rhetorical principles and in steady Tactus. Channelling Peri, Monteverdi and the anonymous Il Corago, historically informed improvisations – basso continuo, declamatory speech and baroque gesture – guided re-composition towards the ‘natural way of imitation’, an ideal that Claudio felt he came closest to in his Arianna.

This article was written as a paper to be given at the Indiana University Historical Performance conference, May 2018. Music examples can be heard on the accompanying video here. In-line footnote numbers correspond to captions in that video.

Scores for the music examples are available for study here: by clicking you agree not to share these scores with anyone else, nor to perform them without first obtaining my written permission.

OPERA OMNIA (Director, Andrew Lawrence-King) is the new Academy for Early Opera & Dance, Institute at Moscow State Theatre Natalya Sats (Intendant, Georgy Isaakyan).

There are currently two early operas running in repertoire at Theatre Sats: Anima & Corpo (60th performance this season) and Celos, aun del aire matan (third season) as well as a mainstream production of Alcina and the anti-opera Guido d’Arezzo. In September 2017, the International Baroque Opera Studio presented the premiere of ARIANNA a la recherche, which is now being recorded for CD release. Future productions include L’Europe Galante and Andrew Lawrence-King’s Kalevala. The 2018 International Baroque Opera Studio will link training/ performances of Purcell’s King Arthur and the Round Table Academy research event.

 

OPERA OMNIA’s Anima & Corpo won Russia’s highest music-theatre award, the Golden Mask. Theatre Sats won the 2017 European Opera Award for Outreach and Education.

 

 

ARIANNA a la recherche:

re-making the fourth opera in the Monteverdi trilogy

 

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 1: Stampa il ciel con l’auree piante Utopia Chamber Choir, Helsinki

  1. On 28th & 29th September last year, OPERA OMNIA, the Academy for Early Opera & Dance recently founded at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, presented the premiere of ARIANNA a la recherche, Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1608 masterpiece. This setting of Ottavio Rinuccini’s tragedia ‘in Claudio’s voice’ was performed by the advanced students and young professionals of the International Baroque Opera Studio.

 

WHY?

 

I am immensely grateful to Prof Tim Carter for the valuable insights and helpful advice he contributed to this project. But his first comment to me played devil’s advocate: why reconstruct Arianna?

2. The entire opera takes place on a deserted beach, the libretto often repeats itself, there’s lots of recitative, and whole scenes are devoted to rhetorical debate on the well-worn subject of Love versus Duty. Even the original production’s aristocratic promoter herself described the first draft of the libretto as ‘rather dry’.

 

Recalling the famous question, why climb Mount Everest, I’m tempted to answer for Arianna, “because it’s not there!”. All that survives of the original music is the famous Lamento.

 

3. Lamento d’ Arianna published for voice and continuo in 1623, also transcribed as a 5-voice madrigal and in religious contrafacta.

But Monteverdi regarded Arianna, composed in Mantua the year after Orfeo, as his greatest work for the stage.

4. Monteverdi revived Arianna as his first production for the public theatre in Venice (1640); it came closest to his ideal of the ‘natural way to represent’ drama in music, via naturale alla immitatione.

“Arianna was by all accounts a huge success, and its central lament for the protagonist reportedly moved the ladies in the audience to tears.”

Tim Carter Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002)

Certainly, the construction of almost the entire opera was a formidable challenge. But any half-way decent setting will present an intriguing opportunity for  performers, audiences, critics and musicologists.

 

5. Re-making a ‘lost opera’ as a research project.

“It is the task of the historian to create appropriate frames of reference within which Monteverdi’s works might plausibly have been viewed and understood by competent members of their first audiences.”

“The longest chapter in [Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre] concerns the ‘lost’ works, where Monteverdi’s music does not survive, for all that one can still say a good deal about it. In general, however, my approach tends to be less philosophical or aesthetic than pragmatic; I am not so much concerned with my own, or even Monteverdi’s grand statements as with the nuts and bolts of how a seventeenth-century musician might have written for, and worked within, the theatre.”

Carter

 

In academic study of the arts, the reverse side of the coin from analysis is creativity. Historically Informed Performance searches to understand and follow the composer’s intentions: the reverse of that process is to become the composer oneself. Composing and performing a setting of Rinuccini’s libretto was perhaps the ultimate practical investigation.

I was inspired also by Emily Wilborne’s work, looking beyond surviving documents to the rich variety of sounds that period audiences would have heard.

6. Emily Wilborne Seventeenth-century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’Arte (2016), which examines Virginia Ramponi-Andreini’s performance in (and one might well say, creation of) the title role of Arianna. A professional actress brought into the 1608 production after the death of court singer Caterina Martinelli, La Florinda (to use her stage name) triumphed from first audition to final performance and may well have contributed her improvisatory skill to what became the published text and music of the famous Lamento.

Building on my 5-year Text, Rhythm, Action! program at the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, this realisation of Arianna with historically informed staging investigates not only lost sound, but the visual and emotional experience of that 1608 theatrical event.

It’s possible that publicising this project might flush out of hiding an original source for Monteverdi’s setting. For performers and academics of the future, this would be a great outcome. Meanwhile, the investigatory effort would not be wasted: on the contrary, comparisons between the original and my reconstruction would reveal gaps in knowledge and understanding.

So ARIANNA a la recherche attempts to set the famous Lament in its operatic context, with all due humility that the exercise of imitating Monteverdi can never be more than an exploration, an Essay in music, a baroque Versuch.

 

7. “Constructing meaning is an exercise both challenging and fraught with danger. But it is an essential part of the theatrical experience.”

Carter

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 2: Deh, se quel arco stesso Utopia Chamber Choir, Helsinki

The character Amore (Cupid) remains on-stage throughout the drama, invisible to the other, mortal characters. But when Bacco and Arianna fall in love, Amore becomes visible to mortal eyes, as Nunzio Secondo (the Second Herald) tells us. Meanwhile in this chorus, after Arianna’s Lament and the noise of Bacco’s arrival, the Fishermen are still hoping that Teseo might return. As they remain fixed in their previous opionions, so my music returns to the very first song they sang. This music is from Su l’orride paludi, one of two Act-end choruses that seems to require through-composition, even though the libretto prints strophes. Strophes 1 and 2 recount the Orpheus story; strophes 3 and 4 (another story of love and Hell) are discussed later in this article; this is the fifth and last strophe.

 

Alessandro Turchi ‘Bacchus & Ariadne’ (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture.

 

 

AIMS

 

I was not trying to ‘reconstruct’ the lost manuscript: I wrote a score for music-drama, for a performance in the theatre, with singers, musicians and an audience. Keeping this practical outcome in mind encouraged me to see the libretto not only as singable text, but also as a theatrical script, with hints of scenery, costumes, entrances and exits, of the emotional background and changing moods of the various characters, and of their baroque gestures.

  1. The anonymous c1630 Il Corago defines acting as ‘imitating with gesture’.

 

Recitare … imitando le azioni umane, angeliche o divine con la voce e gesti… rappresentare le medisme azione cantando

To act… by imitating the human, angelic or divine actions with the voice and with gestures… to perform the same action singing.

 

Notice that the 17th-century Italian word recitare means simply ‘to act’: it does not carry the baggage of our modern assumptions about Recitative. Indeed, Il Corago’s definition lists three ways of acting – tre maniere di recitare: spoken drama, sung ‘opera’, and wordless mime.

 

Historical Action is more than just ‘baroque gesture’, it includes not only gestures of the hands, but facial expressions and movements of the whole body. as well as conventions for onstage positions.

 

Whilst there is tendency nowadays to think of gesture as a ‘bolt-on’ extra to historically informed musical performance, period sources make it clear that Action (not only gestures of the hands, but facial expressions and movements of the whole body) was fundamental, ‘built-in’ from the outset. As he began work on a new project, Monteverdi searched the libretto for powerful emotions to express, and for gestures (implied by the words) which could be imitated in music.

  1. In a series of letters to Alessandro Striggio (librettist for Orfeo) concerning an opera being planned in 1627, La finta pazza Licori (a few months later the project was abandoned), Monteverdi discusses and links the concepts of ‘imitation’ (dramatic representation, whether in acting, singing or instrumental music) and gesture.

 

“The words [should] mimic either gestures or noises or any other kind of imitative idea that might suggest itself” (24 May)

 

“I am constantly aiming to have lively imitations of the music, gestures and tempi take place behind the scene (10 July)”

 

This implies instrumental music, played di dentro, behind the scenic backdrop, as specified in Orfeo. The lead role in La finta pazza was to be sung by Margherita Basile. Instruments would imitate not only the singer’s music, but also her acting, specifically her gestures.

After Carter

His instructions for the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda call for the actors’ passi & gesti, the instrumentalists’ varied sounds and the declamation of the text to be delivered in such a way that the three dramatic modalities come together in a united representation.

 

  1. Monteverdi Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda: ‘Three Actions’, i.e. three ways of presenting drama: gesti & passi (gestures and steps), music, text.

“che le tre ationi venghino ad’incontrarsi in una imitatione unita.”

 

In such works, Monteverdi’s aim was for to create effetti – not only good effect in general, but also the ‘special effects’ of non-musical noises (e.g. the sounds of battle), and the emotional effect of ‘moving the passions’ – affetti. In this remake of Arianna, my aim was similarly to unite the essential concepts underlying Monteverdi’s vision of what we now call ‘opera’.

 

  1. Effetti/Affetti, Energia/Enargeia

    Lawrence-King ARIANNA a la recherche: drama as Action; acting as Gesture; music and acting as Imitation; musical Effects that move the audience’s Affects; all rooted in the communicative power (Energia) of detailed poetic imagery (Enargeia).

 

Of course, many modern ensembles have programmed other baroque music around the Lament. And there have been two recent attempts to set Rinuccini’s libretto. In 1995, Alexander Goehr composed a modernist score for an ensemble including extensive pitched percussion, saxophone, sampler etc, but preserving some of Monteverdi’s vocal lines. In spite of a talented cast of singers, critical reviews were unfavourable.

 

In 2015, Claudio Cavina, director of the ensemble La Venexiana, presented a semi-staged performance of his assemblage of Monteverdi’s music, reset to Rinuccini’s verses.

 

  1. Contrafactum is a thoroughly historical procedure – we have 17th-century settings of Monteverdi madrigals to devotional texts and even a contrafactum of Arianna’s Lamento with a religious text in Latin, the Pianto della Madonna. The proof of a good contrafactum is not only that the word-setting works in terms of accentuation, word-painting and changes of affetto, but also that any remembered associations connected to the original text complement the new function of the music. This requires careful consideration and adaptation of pre-extant music to the new text.

 

Whatever success this private performance enjoyed was sadly eclipsed by Cavina’s  subsequent illness.

 

My re-make differs from both these previous projects in that the output is a HIP production of baroque opera that is new-composed, rather than a collage of contrafacta. Nevertheless my writing was carefully modelled on Monteverdi’s circa 1608 compositions.

 

METHODOLOGY

 

 

Monteverdi’s letters reveal his negotiations with librettists, and his bold changes to their poetical texts. I was unable to negotiate with Rinuccini, so most of the changes I experimented with in first drafts were removed in later versions. What remains is Monteverdi’s madrigalian technique of mashing-up text to create additional layers of meaning.

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 3: Ma tu, superbo altero Utopia Chamber Choir, Helsinki

This is the last strophe of the Act-end chorus Avventurose genti. As discussed below, there is a pattern of parallel changes of affect from strophe to strophe, until this last strophe breaks the pattern with an outburst of anger from the normally placid Fishermen.

 

I began with a set-piece aria passeggiata at the beginning of Act V. By 1608, such a florid air is rather old-fashioned, but it remained the way for music-drama to indicate supernatural powers.

 

  1. Aria passeggiata indicates supernatural powers, at the appearance of a god -in Arianna, Amore and Baccho – or where magic, especially the power of music, is at work –Harmony’s Prologue and Arion’s aria in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, and the aria Possente spirto, in Orfeo (1607).

 

 

After workshopping this first sketch at Opera Omnia, I made a few changes. Amore’s strali, the burning rays of his arrows of love, might fly in whatever direction, but seicento settings tend to use downward passaggi to depict them. The second draft was dedicated to Jordi Savall and Maria Bartels and performed at the celebration of their marriage.

 

Later, I deleted a text-refrain I’d introduced, and added a Sinfonia and Ballo for the Entrance of Bacco, eloquently described in Follino’s eye-witness report:

 

  1. Follino’s description of the Entrance of Bacchus, the final scene of Arianna (1608)

 

“Bacco with the beautiful Arianna, and Amore in front, were seen to enter onto the stage on the left side of the stage, surrounded in front and behind by many couples of Soldiers dressed with beautiful arms, with superb crests on their heads. Once they were on stage, the instruments that were within began a beautiful aria di ballo, one part of the Soldiers danced a very delightful ballo, weaving in and out amongst themselves in a thousand ways; and whilst these danced, another part of the Soldiers took up the accompaniment of the sound and ballo with the following words: Spiega omai, giocondo Nume / L’auree piume.”

 

The danced chorus has the same metric structure as the final chorus of Peri’s Euridice (1600), another Rinuccini libretto.

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 4: Spiega omai, giocondo nume

As Carter notes, the giocondo nume is Apollo, even though the celebrations are for the arrival of Bacco.

 

I also looked for Rinuccini’s coded indications of aria or dance-metres.

 

  1. Indications of Aria (any repeating structure, especially rhythmic patterning) within Recitative (acting):

 

Diegetic songs, entrances of Gods and sententious statements, as well as hints from poetic metre for dance-rhythms or triple-metre. Expressions of movement (in Arianna, walking, running and sailing!) or particular emotions similarly give an excuse for more regular patterning, even for the extra impetus of triple metre.

 

Monteverdi’s practice in Orfeo was to reduce Striggio’s Act-end choruses to a single strophe. I considered this option, since Rinuccini’s Arianna is much longer than Orfeo. But I was persuaded that with so much recitative (implied by Rinuccini’s choice of poetic styles), the remake would need every possible moment of musical interest, whether aria or chorus.

 

I may have gone slightly too far, in creating brief moments of what we might today call Arioso in the midst of long recitative scenes. But Rinuccini gives occasional hints: Consigliero hears the note (notes, i.e. musical aria) of Teseo’s heart in a speech that one might otherwise have assumed to be recitative. Was this Monteverdi’s ‘natural way’ to handle dramatic scenes, which he preferred over the more artificial separation of Aria and Recitative in Ulisse and Poppea?

 

  1. Models for composition of ARIANNA a la recherche: Monteverdi’s compositions circa 1608, including madrigals, Orfeo, the Ballo delle Ingrate, the surviving Lamento and other pieces inspired by it, and the 1610 Vespers.

 

ALK’s musical activities during the period of composition: re-reading books of Monteverdi madrigals, directing a staged production of Ballo delle Ingrate, performing Orfeo, running a workshop on the Lamento and listening to live performances of Sfogava con le stelle and other madrigals.

 

I deliberately pre-loaded my subconscious mind with lots of good examples, re-reading books of Monteverdi madrigals, directing a staged production of Ballo delle Ingrate, performing Orfeo, running a workshop on the Lamento and listening to live performances of Sfogava con le stelle and other madrigals, over a three-month period of thinking and composing. This is comparable to Monteverdi’s pace of composing. I drew on my skills as a continuo-player to think from the bass upwards, ‘improvising onto paper’; and on my theatrical experience to create melody from gestured declamation.

 

Cut-and-Paste

 

In a number of works of this period, a particular word or short phrase is often set to precisely the same notes.

 

For example, Ohime! is often set falling through a ‘forbidden’ interval, c F#, syncopated against a strong bass D between the two syllables. Or the same pattern, a tone higher.

Exclamations of “Oime!” in Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”

 

Almost certainly, this is the musical representation of a conventional way of declaiming such words in the spoken theatre, which (as Peri and Il Corago tell us) is the model for seicento recitative. Where such words or short phrases occur in Rinuccini’s Arianna, I copied Monteverdi’s standard recipes for them.

 

 

 

Transformation

 

There is, to my mind, an important distinction between modelling (my intention) and contrafactum (a valid approach, but not my choice). So when I took the walking bass from Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum in the 1610 Vespers as a model for Bacco’s show-stopping aria, I transformed it from sacred G minor to an exuberant G major, which ends up recalling Orfeo’s triumphant return from hell, Qual honor.

 

 

Cued by Rinuccini’s words Faran del tuo bel crin ghirlanda d’oro (They will make a golden garland of your hair), my violin-writing cites Monteverdi’s madrigal Chiome d’oro (Golden hair), which he himself borrowed from to set the Psalm Beatus Vir.

 

My string ritornello for Apollo’s Prologue, a tenor singing tenderly to the lyre of love – su cetera d’amor teneri carmi – takes its rhythmic structure and rising phrases from the ritornello to the tenor solo from Monteverdi’s Book VII (1619)  Tempro la cetra – I tune my lyre to sing the honour of Mars. But instead of the hard hexachord of G major harmonies and sharpened notes in Monteverdi’s melody, my music for Apollo’s cetra adopts the soft hexachord with G minor harmonies and melodies with flats.

 

It’s important that any associations such models evoke are appropriate. Here, if the listener is reminded of another lyre being tuned, that’s all to the good, especially if they also appreciate the significance of the shift from warlike major to pastoral, even melancholy minor.

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 5 Apollo ritornello OPERA OMNIA International Baroque Opera Studio

 

Word-painting

 

Apollo’s first words Io che ne l’alto… (I, who on high…) naturally require a high note on alto, matching the actor’s upward extended right hand. Rinuccini provides the grateful composer with many such cues.

  1. Original Italian texts:

 

They will make a golden garland of your hair – Faran del tuo bel crin ghirlanda d’oro

Singing tenderly to the lyre of love – su cetera d’amor teneri carmi

I who on high… – Io che ne l’alto…

Pattern recognition

 

In the madrigal books, Monteverdi responds to texts reminiscent of verses he previously set, with music that recalls his earlier work.

 

  1. Pattern recognition:

 

For example, the Lettera Amorosa with its paean to a woman’s red hair (La Florinda had red hair) frequently recalls moments from Arianna’s Lamento. Rinuccini’s libretto for the opera often suggests well-known texts, from his own work – Ballo delle Ingrate (also 1608), Euridice (1600) and the madrigal Sfogava con le stelle (1603) as well as from Striggio’s Orfeo (1607) and the Florentine Intermedi (1589).

 

There are also very frequent cross-references within the libretto, with many parallels between Arianna’s Lament and the Nunzio’s description of her lamenting, between Teseo’s meeting with Consigliero and the Pescatori’s report of that meeting, and recurring images of sunrise and sunset.

 

Arianna may well contain references that escaped me, and we cannot know how many references Monteverdi would have noticed, or chosen to link with musical citations. But I deliberately took every opportunity I found to make use of pattern recognition. My score may therefore have more citations than Monteverdi’s practice, but Rinuccini’s libretto has more citations than other early operas.

 

Musical Example 6: Or sappi figlio OPERA OMNIA International Baroque Opera Studio

 

 

Declamation

 

I declaimed aloud every single line of the libretto, searching for the best rhythms and pitch contours, accompanying my spoken recitation with historical gestures. Even though Rinuccini praises the eloquence of Bacco’s gestured conversation with Arianna, I had not previously realised how significant the ‘language of gesture’ was for composers in this repertoire, as well as for performers. Once the gestures are decided, the music has to correspond.

 

I had to correct my initial errors, and wrestle with challenging gesture-puzzles: lightning must strike downwards of course, but an emergence out of the deep sea must move upwards, yet somehow allow a low hand-position for the final word profondo. Out from that deep sea come Nymphs and Divas, whose music in my setting recalls the Nymphs coming out to dance in the Ballo Lasciate i monti from Orfeo.

 

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 7 Indi per l’alto ciel Victor Sordo & The Harp Consort

 

Re-composition

 

Although it is not specifically indicated in Rinuccini’s libretto, instrumental music is clearly required to delineate Act boundaries, to allow characters to enter or exit or as ritornelli between strophes of arias or choruses. Here, bolder compositorial action was necessary, since there was no text to inspire modelling techniques. But the affetto of the situation and the identity of the characters give clear guidance: battaglia figures for Teseo and his Soldiers, pastoral recorders for the nocturnal Fishermen, sad modes for Arianna.

 

  1. Recomposition:

 

My setting of Arianna’s aria of hope Dolcissima speranza is modelled on Monteverdi’s well-known song Si dolce e’l tormento, and I reworked that material again as exit music for the lamenting princess. In another sinfonia for the protagonist, I take the thematic material of Josquin’s 4-voice Mille Regretz (one of those earlier chansons which were remembered in the 17th century and performed in new, ornamented settings) and rework it as a polyphonic fantasia for string quintet in the style of Monteverdi’s prima prattica.

 

Realisation

 

None of the published versions of the Lamento matches descriptions of the 1608 production, in which La Florinda was accompanied by ‘violins & viols’, her outbursts interspersed with commenting choruses from the Fishermen. Thus, even the surviving music requires considerable intervention. This was perhaps the most delicate work of all.

 

  1. ‘Violins and viols’:

 

Modelling my work on Monteverdi’s string accompaniments to Clorinda’s speeches in Combattimento and on the last strophe of Possente Spirto in Orfeo, I gave Arianna the full complement of five strings. ‘Violins and viols’ probably means just small and large string instruments, but does suggest a full consort.    

 

As a performer, I have always opposed the addition of editorial string accompaniments to basso continuo, so it was a strange experience to write such additional accompaniments myself! Modelling my work on Monteverdi’s string accompaniments to Clorinda’s speeches in Combattimento and on the last strophe of Possente Spirto in Orfeo, I gave Arianna the full complement of five strings (‘violins and viols’ probably means just small and large string instruments, but does suggest a full consort), leaving sections with fast-changing harmonies to be accompanied by continuo alone. The resulting contrasts bring out both Arianna’s grandeur and her vulnerability, the essential elements of baroque tragedy.

 

Music Example 6: Lamento: Lasciatemi morire Opera Omnia and Trio: In van lingua mortale Utopia Chamber Choir

 

The period principle of Tactus structured contrasts in the speed of declamation, by notating changes of note-values within a constant pulse.

 

Music Example 7: Trio: Ahi! Che’l cor mi si sprezza Utopia Chamber Choir

 

The distribution of speeches by the Fishermen poses a question: what should be sung by the chorus, what should be ‘spoken’ by an individual?

 

  1. Pescatori – Fisherfolk

 

The Pescatori have a similar function to the Pastori (Shepherds) in Orfeo, indeed Teseo’s first mention of them refers to a pastore. Tim Carter alerted me to subtle hints of contrasting character-types, and of awareness or lack of knowledge of previous action, amongst individual members of this chorus. So I sketched out various distributions: my working notes refer to “Mr Happy = Tenor 1”, “Cassandra, aka Ms Miserable = Soprano” “Mr Sleepy = Bass” etc! I scored Rinuccini’s chorus speeches for 1-6 voices – the larger ensembles might well be doubled, according to contemporary information on the size of choruses.

 

 

 

 

OUTCOMES

 

  1. Outcomes

 

My version can be performed with 10 singers (with a lot of doubling), but would be better with 14 (with some doubling, as suggested by period reports). This would correspond to the nine singers of the all-male Mantuan capella (SSS AA TT BB) plus a mixed-gender group of five guest soloists (including La Florinda as Arianna and Francesco Rasi doubling Apollo in the Prologue and Bacco in the Finale).

 

Applying the principle of constant Tactus at around one beat per second, my setting takes 2 hours and 33 minutes, which fits well with Follino’s report of two and a half hours in 1608.

It isn’t for me to comment on the value of my own composition, but I can report with enthusiasm that Rinuccini’s tragedia makes wonderful music-theatre, full of emotional contrasts and dramatic twists. Teseo and his victorious soldiers enter happily, lieti, felici; Arianna is fearful and sighing, but Teseo declares himself fedelissimo, utterly faithful ‘till death us do part’. The audience, remembering classical mythology and forewarned by Venus and Cupid, knows better.

 

The opera is full of such dramatic irony. The Fishermen sing blithely of the happy dawn just as Teseo’s ship is sailing away; and even when they understand that he has abandoned Arianna, and rage against him, they persist in hoping for his eventual return.

 

Repetitions and cross-references help the audience follow the plot, connecting prediction, event and report.

  1. Emotions

 

Contrasts: Teseo and his victorious soldiers enter happily, lieti, felici; Arianna is fearful and sighing. 

 

Dramatic Irony:  The Fishermen sing blithely of the happy dawn just as Teseo’s ship is sailing away; and even when they understand that he has abandoned Arianna, and rage against him, they persist in hoping for his eventual return.

 

Repetitions and cross-references: As Teseo departs, bitter suffering asprissimo martire  will never leave him; even though Arianna, not yet realising her fate, tells the Fishermen how willingly she is deceived by dolcissima Speranza, sweetest but illusory  hope; they remember his gestures and dolorous emotion, i gesti e i dolorosi affetti.

Contrasts: Speaking to Cupid, Venus primes the audience to be sympathetic to Arianna’s plight Or sappi… e di pieta t’accendi. With an abundance of great anger, dove grand’ ira abbonda, the first Herald curses Teseo’s boat and calls down vengeance from heaven. In contrast, the second Herald will cheerily praise Love amidst heavenly joy.  But first Arianna must lament, despair, call for Teseo to be drowned, repent of her anger and resolve to die. And when the irrepressible Dorilla tries to jolly her along, Arianna proudly asserts her royal authority, in additional music preserved in manuscript sources of the Lament Nacque regina…al mio voler t’acqueta. Sweetest hope becomes malevolent Speranza iniqua serving only to feed bitter sorrow nudrir l’aspro dolore.

 

As Arianna’s emotions reach their lowest ebb, Rinuccini creates a coup de theatre, silencing the lamenting strings with noisy clamour ‘confused, rumbling voices and signal blasts, thousands of warlike trumpets, resounding timpani and raucous horns. The aural and dramatic contrast must have been shocking. Wendy Heller’s article in Early Music (written simultaneously with, but independent from, this project), evokes the visual spectacle of Bacchus’ triumphant arrival. The 1608 audience would have had the double shock, first hearing Bacchus’ arrival (the dozy Fishermen think it’s Teseo, of course), and then after the second Herald’s lengthy build-up, seeing his all-singing, all-dancing triumph.

 

MUSIC EXAMPLE 8: Bacco Fanfare OPERA OMNIA International Baroque Opera Studio

  1. The Triumph of Bacchus

    Sound: “confused, rumbling voices and signal blasts, thousands of warlike trumpets, resounding timpani and raucous horns”

Vision: Lions, tigers, Silenus and his donkey, and a horde of tambourine-playing Maenads.

 

Strophic choruses

 

25. The seemingly wide-focus lens of a ‘History of Emotions’ approach could also be narrowed down for the detailed work of setting Rinuccini’s many strophic choruses. Taking as my model the varied strophes over a ground bass of Alcun non sia – Che poi che nembo rio – E dopo l’aspro gel in Act I of Orfeo, my default-mode was to set the first strophe, and then re-compose variations for subsequent strophes, changing vocal scoring and word-rhythms as appropriate.

In many choruses, it became apparent that Rinuccini had structured parallel shifts of affetto in one strophe after another, so that musical gestures optimised for the first strophe could serve for similar emotional changes in subsequent strophes. But the abrupt shift from pastoral (or piscatorial) escapism to anger at Ma tu, superbo altero demanded a similarly abrupt break in the smooth sequence of strophic variation. And the complex imagery of Si l’orride paludi, evoking the power of love even in Hell, required through-composition. The third and fourth strophes of this chorus refer to the myth of Alcestis, who sacrificed herself to save her husband and was rescued from Hell by Hercules, leading to Rinuccini’s enigmatic line Cambio d’amato sposo (exchange of beloved husband).

 

Cambio d’amato sposo

Here is an explanation for the suitability of Arianna, a tragedy, at the celebrations of a dynastic marriage. Katerina Antonenko’s research for this project revealed that there was indeed an exchange of bridegrooms for Margaret of Savoy.

 

  1. Real-life historical parallels to the Arianna story (Katerina Antonenko):

 

Margherita’s father, Carlo of Savoy (dedicatee of the Prologue in one print of the libretto) hoped to strike a peace-treaty with Geneva on advantageous terms, sealed by marrying his daughter to Prince Henri of Geneva. Negotiations broke down, and Carlos switched allegiance decisively to Italy, marrying his daughters into the Mantuan Gonzaga and Modena’s Este families.

 

Rinuccini mentions ‘the enemy King’ (Geneva’s ally, Henri IV of France), theatrical Giove represents Pope Paul V, whose blessing was withheld for the Genevan “Teseo” and later given for the Mantuan “Bacchus”, Francesco Gonzaga.

 

The backstory of the Minotaur reminds us of animal-mask helmets worn by the Savoy troops.

Now we can understand how Teseo’s Counsellor could be allowed to insult Arianna onstage, in the presence of the real-life bride, Princess Margherita. The attempt at character assassination misfires: for the Mantuan audience, it is Teseo’s reputation that is permanently stained. Behind the conventional debate over Love and Duty, the dynastic fortunes of Geneva and Mantua are in play. From the very first scene, divine figures inform us that Arianna’s ultimate destiny is already settled: the Mantuan audience needed this reassurance that Teseo’s, i.e. Geneva’s suit was doomed to failure, that the Bacchic Francesco’s triumph was always pre-ordained.

 

Our Arianna project continues to progress, with an international CD recording in progress.  At Opera Omnia, in addition to ongoing baroque productions,  we continue to create new Baroque operas.

  1. ARIANNA a la recherche CD recording in collaboration with professional ensembles and conservatoires in Moscow, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Barcelona, London etc.

 

Current OPERA OMNIA productions:

 

  • Cavalieri Anima e Corpo
  • Hidalgo Celos aun del aire, matan
  • Monteverdi Orfeo
  • Purcell King Arthur
  • Landi La morte d’Orfeo
  • Handel Orlando

 

New Baroque operas by Andrew Lawrence-King:

 

  • Kalevala (linking Finnish traditional music to medieval organum and Vivaldi)
  • Carolan’s Travels (imagined encounters between the Irish harp-composer Turlough O’Carolan, Jonathan Swift and George Frideric Handel before the first performance of Messiah in Dublin)
  • Teatro a la moda (Vivaldian comedy)
  • New Ground (a baroque parallel to Britten’s Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra)
  • Pepys’ Hamlet (Morelli’s To be or not to be inspires the opera Purcell never wrote)

 

Amici, ecco…  spettacolo giocondo!

Musical Example 8: Nunzio Secondo Victor Sordo with The Harp Consort

 

  1. The Second Herald in Arianna:

 

My friends, behold this joyful spectacle!       Amici, ecco… spettacolo giocondo

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

Video clip of the 2012 premiere of Anima & Corpo here

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The famous challenge from director to actor

I don’t believe you!

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

 

More about Emotions in Early Opera here.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More about learning Monteverdi’s operatic roles here.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Breathe as often as you can!

 

Long notes long, short notes short!

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

Good & bad

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn

– and that includes the tutors!

 

More about baroque gesture and historical acting here.

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

The Shape of Time: Advanced Tactus skills for Early Music

 

Mid-20th-century Early Musicians faced a grim choice of rhythmic styles: Maelzel’s (1815) metronome, or Paderewski’s (1909) tempo rubato. Neither are historically appropriate for baroque music – Rameau and Quantz tell us that musicians simply didn’t use Loulie’s (1696) chronomètre , and Monteverdi’s notation suggests that Caccini’s senza misura was similar to Chopin’s rubato, a timeless melody over a timed bass.

Happily, there is rhythmic hope for Early Music, beyond that miserable modern binary of metronomic rigidity or vacillating rhythm: that hope is Tactus. Historically appropriate Tactus offers both structure and freedom, using which musicians can shape Time itself. For Monteverdi’s period, the structure is stabilised around a steady beat, minim = ~ 1 second, shown by the movement of the Tactus-hand: down for one second, up for the next second.  My previous post, The Practice of Tactus has links to articles on history, theory and philosophy; it also provides practical exercises for training yourself (and your ensemble) to work with Tactus. This post looks at advanced skills within that steady beat.

Further articles will introduce dance metres, even more subtle skills around the beat, and the difficult subject of tweaking the Tactus.

Warm-up

As a warm-up, repeat the Tactus Skills Maintenance exercises described in The Practice of Tactus:

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

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

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

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

You’ll find all the details you need to make sense of these cryptic reminders here.

 

Advanced Tactus Exercises

Exercise 1

This exercise introduces and strengthens a crucial, but subtle, Tactus-skill. The rhythms are taken from the setting by Morelli in Samuel Pepys’ music-book; the well-known words are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Pepys heard Thomas Betterton perform, in the declamatory style of the period.

 

 

 

Beat Tactus down/up with your hand (or use a 1-metre pendulum, but do NOT use a metronome), and say the words.

In modern, additive rhythmic practice, you would count from the beginning of the bar and sub-divide – “one two and” – in order to find the moment for the first word To. If you didn’t bother counting, you might well be early on the entry.  But the Tactus skills you acquired from the previous article (go on, you know you want to read it!) give you another option. Because you have steady Tactus, you know when the next beat will come, so you can place the word To just before Be on that next beat.

Tactus allows you to link phrases into the future.

And of course, in this example, the mini-phrase [or in CPE Bach’s terminology, ‘Thought’] To be belongs together. Similarly, the three-syllable Thought or not to be can be linked together, and placed so that this next be is also on the beat. And also with the four-syllable Thought that’s the Question: this is linked together, and placed so that Ques… comes on the beat.

Linking forwards to the next Tactus beat, rather than counting from the previous beat has many benefits: it allows you to keep your focus on the Tactus (without subdividing), it makes sure you don’t shorten the rests, it helps you keep the phrase linked together, and it gives you subtle freedom in where to place the little notes, as long as the main note is on the Tactus beat. You could make the upbeat on To short (‘overdot’) or very short (‘double dot’), not by counting, but by feeling what corresponds to speech-rhythm, aligning your freedom with the accompaniment by arriving at the main Tactus beat be on time. Try different versions of the short syllables in or not to be: there is a wealth of subtlety in the length you give to or.  But none of this subtlety disturbs the underlying beat, which remains

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

(Zacconi 1592)

 

Exercise Two

Staying with the Bard of Avon, here is a very structured line of blank verse:

When I do count the clock that tells the Time

Syllables in bold are on the strong beat of the iambic pentameter: syllables in red are accented. In this line, Shakespeare characterises the regularity of clockwork time by having every strong syllable coincide with the beat.

But in this line (formerly attributed to Shakespeare, now know to be by Richard Barnfield), the word-accents are not always on the beat, and the beat is not always accented.

If Music and sweet Poetry agree

The secret of good poetry, and of historical Tactus, is that word-accent and regular beat often, but not always, coincide. The interest and the beauty lies in the places where they diverge.

Shakespeare wrote plenty of blank verse. Try your favourite passage, and notice how the beats and the word-accents meet or diverge: that’s where meaning and beauty emerges from dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum.

Exercise Three

The next level of subtlety is to move beyond the crude binary accented/un-accented for each beat, and to investigate how each Good (i.e. accented) syllable sounds. Is it long or short? Slow developing or crisp? What is initial consonant? What is the vowel colour? What is the emotional flavour?

Now each of your Tactus beats can be regular yet subtly differentiated. You can find the extent and limit of these freedoms by working with a pendulum, which gives a subtle stillness at the beginning of each movement, rather than the sharp click of a metronome. Explore the particular flavour of each Tactus beat (as suggested by the sound and meaning of the words), in some more Shakespeare, as declaimed by Betterton and notated by Morelli for Pepys.

To ↓be; ↑_or not to ↓be; ↑_that’s the ↓Question. 

↓Whether ‘t be ↑nobler in the ↓mind; to ↑suffer
The ↓slings and ↑arrows ↓of outragious ↑fortune;
↓Or to take ↑arms a↓gainst a sea of ↑trouble,
↓And by op↑posing, ↓end them? 

To ↓die; ↑ _ to ↓sleep; ↑_
↓Noe ↑more. ↓ _ ↑And by a ↓sleep to ↑say we end
The ↓Heart-ake, ↑_and the ↓thousand nat’rall ↑shocks
That ↓flesh is ↑heir to, ↓is a consum-↑mation
De↓voutly *↑to be ↓wish’d. 

Notice, for example, the truly outrageous placement of the word-accents in ↓of outragious ↑fortune, and the unaccented down-beat of ↓And by op↑posing, in contrast to the sharp accent on ↓end themor the slow accents on ↓Noe ↑more.

This is what Tactus is all about – regular rhythm, with beautiful, subtle phrasing. And notice also that, in my text-only transcription, I haven’t notated anything at all inside the Tactus: this is an area where the soloist can suit the fine detail of syllabic timing to the sound and meaning of the words, without disturbing the regular pulse.

Exercise Four

The previous exercises were all syllabic, note-for-note. But where a single syllable is sustained as a melisma over several short notes, period sources give examples of how to vary the notated rhythms to create subtle beauty, within the steady beat of the Tactus. The following examples are from Caccini: the first of each pair shows how it would be notated, the second, how it could be sung, more beautifully.

 

 

Practise these examples with the Tactus-hand.

 

The Shape of Time

 

 

In the previous post, we already practised the subtle difference between the down- and up-strokes of the Tactus Hand (arsis & thesis). The downstroke is (almost imperceptibly) longer – notice in the illustration (above) that the down-curve is slightly longer than the up-curve. You can practice this by saying “L..O..N..G   / short” as you move your hand D..O..W..N / up.

The characteristically slow start to each pendulum movement also creates a kind of funnel-shape in Time, where the movement is slow at the beginning of the stroke and then accelerates. The regularity of the structure is maintained by the Tactus skill of linking to the next beat, and (with arsis and thesis) those two beats have a subtle LONG/short pattern: tick is not quite the same as tock. Notice in the next illustration that the down-funnel is subtly broader than the up-funnel.

This fits beautifully with the typical syllabic patterns of the Italian language. Simple two-syllable words have the pattern Good-Bad:  for-te, pia-no, piz-za, vi-no, dol-ce. This encourages a long-short shape in Time, whether on two minims (arsis and thesis on two successive Tactus beats) or on two crotchets (funnel-shape of Time within the Tactus beat). Some writers, for example Caccini, even refer to Good/Bad as Long/Short.

Further confirmation comes from Caccini’s fundamental exercise for learning the trillo, which he describes as the basis for all other ornamentation: in contrast to the tendency of many modern performances, Caccini insists that the trillo begins slowly, and accelerates all the way into the next beat.

 

Diminution treatises around the year 1600 show a general tendency for ornaments to accelerate from slow to fast, as Caccini teaches. See Bruce Dickey’s excellent introductory article in A Performers Guide to 17th-century Music.

 

Here are two simple exercises for practising the “funnel-shape” of 17th-century Time. You can tap your feet, or use a pendulum, to externalise your sense of Tactus, but – Rule 1 – do not use a metronome. We are now in a world of subtlety that Maelzel never dreamt of!

 

In the first exercise, experiment with different amounts of “funnel effect” – a strong effect gives strong forward energy towards the last note, but be careful not to arrive early, and not to accent the last note, which will be a Bad.

In modern performances, we often hear the opposite: a fast start to the ornament, a long delay before the final note whilst everyone waits for the conductor and each other, and then a catastrophic false accent on the last note. I’m sure you’ve all been there, got the T-shirt!

 

 

But now, this exercise will hone your skill in shaping Time together with the regular Tactus playing of the other (non-ornamenting) musicians. Nobody needs to wait, nobody needs to push, nobody should accent the last note: you just arrive there, beautifully in Time. As your ability to create balanced Shapes in Time increases, you will find that you do not need rallentando. Just let your awareness of Tactus continue, whilst you stop playing: now you can pass Time back to the Celestial Spheres, to continue in perfection and silence.

In the second exercise, you should breathe after each quaver, and be careful not to wait just before a quaver. The Shape of Time creates extra space for you to breathe, with the quaver following the Last-Note-Short rule to be a “short note in a long space”. The Funnel of Time helps the fast notes flow all the way into the unaccented final note, just as Caccini taught his pupils.

A breath just after the beat is a characteristic of baroque phrasing, so the Shape of Tactus Time has miraculous benefits for all musicians in giving extra space to show phrasing, and especially to wind-players and singers, in giving extra space to breathe. Any continuo-player who learns this skill will be much appreciated by their soloists – the soloist might not realise why, but with this way of accompanying, it just feels more comfortable, there is more breathing-space!

This article is perhaps the most important in the current series. Please take the time to read and practise it carefully. This is the subtle but essential skill-set that transforms rhythm from mechanically metronomic rigidity or flaccidly unstructured mush into something beautifully regular yet subtly structured. Each Tactus beat is like a snow-flake: symmetrically and regularly formed, yet unique in the exquisite detail of its realisation. This is the perfection of the Music of the Spheres, imitated by human hands, through the mystery of music.

 

 

P.S.  You can throw away your metronome now, I don’t think you’ll be wanting it again.

The Practice of Tactus – Owners Workshop Manual

 

A Practical Guide – Part 1

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

 

Science, Art & Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Share the Power of Tactus

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

1. Prerequisites

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

Those fundamentals are:

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

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

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

2. Development exercises.

 

 

Rule 1: do NOT use a metronome.

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

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

Rule 3: do NOT use a metronome.

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

Exercise One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Exercise Three

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

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

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

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

Exercise Three with music

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

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

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

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

3. Maintenance exercises

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

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

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

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

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

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

4. Rehearsal techniques

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Last note short! 

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

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

Long notes long, short notes short!

 

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

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

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

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

Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

This post responds to questions from two members of the International Baroque Opera Studio, singers of leading roles in the recent OPERA OMNIA production of my remake of Monteverdi’s lost (1608) masterpiece, Arianna.

 

The performances (and also my composition of the score ‘in Monteverdi’s voice’) were founded on the principle and practice of Tactus, the slow steady beat that (according to John Dowland) ‘directs a song according to measure’.

 

It’s quite radical to sing a baroque opera in Tactus. Most modern-day performances are not directed by Tactus, nor do the continuo-instruments ‘guide the entire ensemble of voices and instruments’ (as Agazzari advises Del sonare sopra’l basso in 1607). Rather, even performances that claim to be ‘historically informed’ are nowadays often conducted. We all know that this is unhistorical, and it is high time that professional critics began to complain about dinosaur-conductors!

 

So for many singers, the experience of singing a baroque opera in Tactus is new, and it raises legitimate questions:

  1. Now that you have explained to us about the Tactus, I had a problem with the concept of sprezzatura, I felt that the Tactus did not give us more to deal with sprezzatura, I felt like it limited us to involve Tactus and sprezzatura at the same time.
  2.  Opera is a mix of music and theatre. What is difficult for me is just this: Everything in music is subordinated to a Tactus, and that’s reasonable (and just cool). But what about theatre? How to combine this musical Tactus and theatrical freedom? What to do if it feels like you need some stop, some pause in reaction or the opposite, if you feel like you need something unexpectadly fast, I’m talking about drama, about the text, about meaning of words, and more – about situation of the heroes of the opera itself. What to do when you need more freedom than Tactus lets you have? Does it mean you actually were not inside tactus? Or shoud you make yourself feel and listen to a tactus only?

 

These are appropriate and serious questions, and I’m delighted that the Arianna project provoked such thoughtful and enquiring responses. This is precisely the interaction of performance and research, brought about by advanced training, that the Baroque Opera Studio aims for. Both writers address questions of rhythmic freedom, within a Tactus-driven performance style, but from subtly different perspectives of singing and acting in historical music-drama. And Arianna is the ideal test-bed for such experimental investigations, since the 1608 performance brought together court singers and the commedia dell’arte actress Virginia Ramponi-Andreini (in the title role) to create a musical/theatrical experience that moved the audience to tears, and which Monteverdi himself considered his best-ever approach to the ‘natural way’ of representing emotions in music.

Tactus & sprezzatura

 

What appears to be the simpler matter, how to combine Tactus with sprezzatura, needs the longer answer. Lurking behind this singer’s enquiry are at least two more, hidden questions: what was sprezzatura? And: how significant was it, how frequently was it used? The consensus assumptions nowadays are that sprezzatura was defined by Caccini as rhythmic freedom, that it is highly significant and was very frequently used. But these assumptions are not supported by period evidence, least of all by Caccini.

In the 20th century, the ‘vacillating rhythm’ of tempo rubato was an essential element of the Romantic aesthetic. In that cultural climate, the argument seemed reasonable that if Caccini’s ‘new music’ was especially expressive, then its rhythm must be especially free. So musicians and musicologists leapt to the conclusion that sprezzatura must mean rhythmic freedom, and blithely assumed that it would have been as essential for Caccini as rubato was for them. But Caccini does not say this, not at all. Rather, it is canto – singing, i.e. voice-production –  that is treated with sprezzatura, and (according to Castiglione, who first used the word in his 1528 Il Cortegiano) sprezzatura is only applied to some low-priority, less significant element of the total performance. Modern-day singers might be shocked, but voice-production was a low priority for Caccini: he put Sound ‘last of all: and not the other way around!’.

My detailed analysis of Caccini’s Preface to Le nuove musiche (1601) is here: Play it again, Sam! The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura To summarise from that article, Caccini’s sprezzatura is a ‘cool’ way of singing, a style of voice-production that is something between speech and song. And in a bold statement, backed by the full authority of the Florentine camerata, he defines music as ‘Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all’. Caccini’s unambiguous insistence on rhythm has received little attention from performance practice scholars, especially compared to all the ink spilled over discussions (often skewed) of sprezzatura.

Alongside his text, Caccini provides music examples. In these, the speech-like voice-production of sprezzatura is mentioned only once, in connection with the unique occurence of senza misura. This – without measure – is rhythmic freedom for the singer, but (as we see from many notated examples in Monteverdi’s compositions) the continuo maintains steady Tactus. The result is something like modern-day jazz, where the singer floats freely over steady rhythm in the rhythm/bass section. Such free melody over a timed bass is described clearly by Leopold Mozart as late as 1756, and was the secret even of Chopin’s piano style.

I’m grateful to Domen Marincic for bringing to my attention a letter written by Caccini, in which he links the word sprezzatura to the practice of senza misura. Otherwise, this word sprezzatura receives little attention in the 17th century. It is not part of the discourse of those key texts that establish the seconda prattica, the passionate style associated with early ‘opera’. There is no mention of sprezzatura in the writings of Cavalieri, Peri, Viadana, Gagliano, Monteverdi, or that wonderful ( but anonymous) source on music-theatre, Il Corago.

 

 

In contrast, Tactus is a fundamental element of renaissance practice in education, study and performance, a vital part of musical discourse in this period. Zacconi characterises it in Prattica di Musica (1592) here as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any pertubation’. And in all Caccini’s music examples, there is only one occurence of a change to the Tactus itself. Caccini indicates it as con misura piu larga (in measure, but with a slower beat). The idea is not discussed in the Preface text, at all. But such small and infrequent changes to the Tactus are codified in Frescobaldi’s famous Toccata rules (see Frescobaldi rules OK?) and will be discussed in a post I’m preparing on Tweaking the Tactus.

We can establish from simple word-counting that Caccini’s Preface is dominated by the concepts of affetto (passion, or a passionate ornament) and effetto (a passionate ornament or the effect of such an ornament on the listener’s passions). These interlinked concepts are mentioned 41 times, suggesting that what is really ‘new’ about the nuove musiche is Caccini’s focus on passion (affetto), combined with the linking of such passion to a particular class of ornaments (affetti/effetti) and to the emotional effect on the listener (effetto).

Moving beyond that principal focus, other concepts grazia (14), nobilita (8)buona maniera (7),  crescere (8), scemare (6) esclamazione (12),  trilli (9), giri and passaggi (5) are all mentioned far more often than sprezzatura (2).

In the music examples, there are 13 esclamazioni, 11 trilli, 4 gruppi. Sprezzatura occurs only once. Senza misura only once. Con misura piu larga also only once.

The conclusions are inescapable: sprezzatura means a speech-like voice-production, not rhythmic freedom. In any case, it is rather insignificant. Rhythmic freedom is mentioned only twice (though Monteverdi notates it more often, and mentions tweaking the Tactus in the Vespers). It’s worth noting that Caccini associates free melody over timed bass with shortening the written note-values (most singers today want to drag), but a change to the Tactus itself with a slower beat.

Caccini’s Preface was translated into English and published by Playford in 1664 (with many reprints). Samuel Pepys was inspired to practise the one-note trillo (recommended by Caccini as the key to mastering all kinds of florid ornamentation), but the question of sprezzatura did not attract significant attention until the mid-20th century, when (rather ironically) it resonated perfectly both with the mainstream aesthetic of tempo rubato and with the Early Music counter-culture of disdain for authority. That is to say, it resonated perfectly with the spirit of the 1960s, once it had been misunderstood as ‘rhythmic freedom’!

So much for the history of the word sprezzatura. But even when we’ve recognised the desire for rubato and the disdain for the authority of steady rhythm as characteristic of  Romantic and post-Romantic, rather than early Baroque, aesthetics, a legitimate question remains:

If rhythm is guided by Tactus, how can we make baroque music expressive?

 

It’s certainly true that circa 1600, composers and performers were searching for new ways to ‘move the passions’, stripping away the complexities of polyphony, introducing wild chromaticism and ‘forbidden’ dissonances, inventing new genres of music-drama which eventually led to what we now call ‘opera’. But there is a subtle difference between the Romantic notion of a performing “expressing” their own artistic genius, and the seicento aim of moving the audience‘s passions.  Baroque performance, with all its formal structures, requires discipline as well as intensity, inspiration but not self-indulgence.

 

If we consider the nature of conservatoire teaching, it’s understandable that modern-day, classically trained singers feel they have been disarmed, if their favourite device of rubato is ruled out. But a jazz singer does not feel constrained by the absolute requirement to swing: it don’t mean a thing, otherwise! Rather, jazz soloists are guided by their rhythm section, and they relish how words and emotions ride the groove. The best performers can even side-step the regular beat, in a way that adds grace and/or energy, without destabilising the tempo in the slightest. And no rock-band would ever consider that powerful rhythm reduces the emotional power of their greatest anthems!

 

 

So we can embrace the power of Tactus, and need not regret the loss of rhythmic freedom, any more than we should resent Shakespeare’s structure of the iambic pentameter. Rhythm is energy, rhythm is power, rhythm is the force that hammers home the emotions, deep into the listener’s soul. This goes back to the great orators of classical antiquity: as Cicero observed, the rhetorical ‘thunderbolts of Demosthenes could not have been been hurled with such force, had it not been for the rhythm with which he launched them. Quintilian thought that Cicero paid even more attention to rhythm than Demosthenes himself.

And in early baroque music, we have two other powerful and historically appropriate techniques for communicating emotions to our listeners. The first of these is the oft-repeated cycle of preparation-dissonance-resolution, which each time creates a build-up and release of artistic tension. With a good composer (and Monteverdi was acknowledged to be the best for this particular technique), the intensity of each dissonance will match the appropriate level of emotional force, and the flavour of the dissonance will correspond to the particular emotion  (or combination of emotions) evoked at that specific moment. Singers and continuo-players should work together to time the dissonance precisely, and to find the best way to bring out its flavour by choosing how best to bring the dissonant note to bear against the sustained preparatory note. [This exploration, in the particular case of the singer suspending over a change of harmonies in the basso continuo, was one of our exercises on the Music Skills study day at the beginning of the Arianna project]

Another technique, that works well in tandem with dissonance-resolution is what I call the LY principle. According to the Rhetorical principle of Decorum, every aspect of delivery should be suited to, fitting with, the rhetorical message. For singers, this means adapting the vocal colour from moment to moment so that

Every word sounds like what it means

 

So the word ‘happy’ should be sung happiLY; the word ‘sad’, sadLY; the word ‘love’, lovingLY etc. Sometimes singers try to reduce the rich meaning of the poet’s chosen word to the one-dimensional choice of forte or piano. But such an emotionally significant word as ‘joy’ is not communicated by mezzo-forte: it needs to be sung joyfulLY. Once this simple but powerful principle is understood, we realise that the sung text contains a wealth of high-precision coaching directions: almost every word demands a new vocal colour.

So to sum up, and answer the question about Tactus and sprezzatura, the fundamental and (circa 1600) much-discussed principle of Tactus takes precedence over the obscure reference to sprezzatura, little discussed in the seicento even by Caccini himself, and misinterpreted (as well as over-emphasised) in the 20th century. If there is some kind of rhythmic freedom, it is still framed by the stable Tactus (Froberger Rule 1: even when the Tactus is tweaked, you control the change by means of Tactus). Caccini’s senza misura is notated by Monteverdi as a rhythmically displaced vocal line over steady Tactus in the basso continuo. I haven’t yet done a rigorous analysis, but my impression from well-known instances of this rhythmic displacement in Orfeo and Vespers is that Monteverdi anticipates the beat more often than he delays until after the beat: this would be consistent with Caccini’s remark about shortening the written note-values.

 

 

It’s also worth noting that Caccini’s two isolated examples of rhythmic alteration are each cued by strong hints in the text. So rather than approaching an early baroque text with a particular technique (e.g. rhythmic alteration) in mind, it would be more appropriate to wait for the text itself to suggest the most suitable technique. In Arianna, Teseo’s festive and glorious rhythms at tra feste e pompe gloriose e belle contrast with the first speech of his Counsellor that follows. Langue mortal virtu (mortal virtue languishes…) suggests that the singer might languish in tempo, falling behind the continuo bass temporarily. A good composer (and Monteverdi was the best at this) will have done much of the work already by writing a languid long note for langueA good singer will find a suitably languid tone-colour, and might well stretch this word beyond the confines of the Tactus. Continuo-players will not wait for the singer, but will maintain a (suitably languid) swing, trusting that the singer will come back to join them, before too long!

Consigliero’s next speech does not have any word that suggests rhythmic displacement, but the burning torches faci accese would suggest to the composer the bright sound of sharps (hard hexachord), whereas the shadows ombre in Rinuccini’s next line would suggest naturals (soft hexachord on F): singers can help this contrast with a corresponding contrast between bright and shady vocal colouring. And the composer will probably provide a long note on tremolar (as Monteverdi does for this word in Combattimento), giving the singer the opportunity to sing tremulousLY.  This ever-present attention to the sonic implications of each word (realised within the rhythmic structure of Tactus) is where expressivity lies in this style, not in rubato for its own sake.

Tactus & drama

The anonymous (c1630) Il Corago offers (with his typically pragmatic approach) a simple, practical solution to the problem of extra time being needed to accommodate some stage business. The continuo players should simply repeat the harmony (in Tactus). If it is known in advance that quite a bit more time will be needed, a simple chord sequence can be played rather than simply repeating the same harmony. Monteverdi notates this practice twice, at the beginning of scenes in Ulisse. This may also be the explanation for the long G minor harmony notated whilst Orfeo climbs into Caronte’s boat in the 1609 print of Orfeo, but that note might just be a misprint, since it does not occur in the second edition (1615). This practice would solve a problem in Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo: when the Guardian Angel’s power strips Wordly Life of her glorious clothing to reveal wretched poverty beneath, the score leaves no time at all for the required stage action. A few chord from the continuo will fill the gap, and (crucially) maintain the Tactus until the singers are ready to continue.

But our actress’ question goes beyond practical necessities to artistic choices: what if the actors on stage feel the need for more (or less) time to negotiate some crucial change of mood, some decision or search for motivation? My first answer would be to trust the composer. Monteverdi notates different kinds of pacing in his transitions from one speech to another, or between sections or ideas within a single speech. For example, at the most dramatic moment of Combattimento, as Clorinda is fatally wounded by Tancredi’s sword, the composer alternates high-speed action with slow-motion contemplation, conveying both the sudden fury of Tancredi’s assault, and the slow, almost eroticised horror of blood filling the beautifully woven gold jacket that restrains Clorinda’s soft breasts… she sinks to the ground… and he rushes to follow up his victory with another strike! Here, the composer’s note-values are clearly carefully chosen to direct particular, and highly effective contrasts in dramatic timing.

In general, I would try to work with the composer’s notated timings, respecting his sensitivity to the expectations of the style of his own period. Where the notation at first seemed counter-intuitive, I would search for the hidden reason why the pacing is the way it is. For example, for the exit speech [I will conduct a life that my sadness suits] of the Messaggiera who informs Orfeo of Euridice’s death, Monteverdi writes a long slow ascent – menero vita al mio dolor – followed by an unexpectedly short cadence on conforme. Many modern-day singers drag out that cadence with tragic intensity, but they miss the point. As Monteverdi himself realised, the emotionally laden words end at mio dolor [my sadness], and the word conforme [it suits] is necessary to complete the sentence, but does not itself convey any emotion. Is this Striggio’s error then, to put such an empty word at the end of the phrase, where we expect something worthy of the Principal Accent of the verse scansion? The explanation is in Gagliano’s description of the singer’s movement around the stage for the Prologue to Dafne: the singer starts to walk away on the penultimate syllable con-for-me already. So after the peak of sadness on the word do-lor (an unresolved dissonance), the singer turns away and abandons herself to her fate on the exit word conforme: the short cadence propelling her off-stage. 

Nevertheless, there are moments of great dramatic intensity when the tempo dell’affetto del animo (the tempo of the emotion of the spirit) conflicts with the tempo della mano (the tempo of the hand, i.e. Tactus). Monteverdi anticipates this problem for his Lamento della Ninfa, written over a four-note ground bass. When the Nymph needs more time to manage a particular emotional transition, the continuo players can provide extra chords (as recommended by Il Corago), and obviously they will simply continue with an extra iteration of the four harmonies of the ground bass. This is easily done, but it poses a challenge for the male voice trio who also sing in this scene. If each singer has a part-book, containing only his own part (the norm for such madrigals), then he will not know whether or not an extra round of the four-note bass has been added, or not. The harmonies are the same, every four chords, there is nothing to inform him “where are we now?”! Monteverdi’s practical solution was to provide a score for the men’s trio, so that they could follow the solo voice, and would know if the Nymph had waited four bars, or even jumped four bars ahead.

The common feature of all these examples is that Tactus itself is maintained. There might be an extra beat, or even several extra beats, but ‘the clock keeps on ticking’.

 

 

The particular example of the Lamento in Arianna is problematic. MS sources, perhaps deriving from Virginia Ramponi-Andreini’s part book, offer variant readings for the rhythms of certain sections – always in Tactus, but with different syllabic speeds for the most agitated lines. Although some musicologists see this as the remnant of some kind of free rhythm, I disagree. I see the variants as alternative solutions for finding the required emotional intensity, whilst remaining in Tactus. If the singer could use free rhythm, there would be no need to adjust the notation between one solution and another.

It may well be that after the 1608 premiere, La Florinda chose another solution for certain lines when she performed the scene in contexts other than a full production of Monteverdi’s (now lost) score- this would explain the variant readings in the MSS. And in 1608, eye-witness accounts describe an accompanying string band, ‘violins and viols’: such a band would tend to be less flexible than a continuo-section, implying that whatever pacing was chosen, it would probably have been fixed in rehearsal, rather than improvised on-stage. Contrariwise, Emily Wilbourne’s 2016 book on Early Opera and the Sound of the commedia dell’ arte confirms that improvisation was usual in staged Laments within the commedia tradition, but usually to simpler accompaniments.

Most musicologists now assume that La Florinda and Monteverdi collaborated in some way to create the famous Lamento di Arianna. I would imagine that the composer would have listened to such an experienced actress’s advice on how to pace this most dramatic of speeches. So what has come down to us in the printed solo version presumably reflects the combined wisdom of the greatest actress and finest composer of the day. As a modern-day performer, I would be inclined to trust them, and to follow the dramatic timing they indicate.

 

On the other hand, in other scenes of our re-made Arianna where I had to supply the music, if performers tell me that they found themselves struggling to act the words within the rhythms I had specified, then I should follow Claudio’s example and be ready to listen to my Florinda, my Rasi and all the other participants. Actually, I already went through the score of my remake, and fixed every passage that performers had repeatedly found difficult. If my version was tripping them up too often, it clearly needed improvement to flow properly.

We know something of the history of spoken delivery in the theatre, especially for Shakespearian blank verse. Samuel Pepys’ personal song-book provides us with a reading of To be or not to be in musical notation, framed by the Tactus of a strumming guitar. Accounts of Garrick’s delivery contrast his style with that of James Quin, an actor of the previous generation. 18th-century delivery tended ever more towards rhythmic freedom, pauses for sustained poses (‘striking an attitude’) etc, a tendency that reached its zenith in the late 20th century with the silences and extended pauses of Pinter’s dialogue. This gradual shift from structure to freedom to dissolution, from Shakespeare to Garrick to Pinter, seems to parallel changes in musical performance practice from Monteverdi to CPE Bach to Paderewski. Since Il Corago and Peri tells us explicitly that early 17th-century ‘recitative’ is modelled on the spoken declamation of their finest actors, I would advise respecting Monteverdi’s rhythms as the closest we have to a time-chart notation of theatrical speech in this period.

This and other questions are discussed in one of my favourite books about performance practice history in the theatre, Roach’s The Player’s Passion (1985). In particular, Roach’s opening remarks warn us that the via naturale  – the natural way that Monteverdi found for his setting of Arianna would seem ‘natural’ only in the context of his period, his culture, his courtly etiquette and his theatrical expectations. Such ‘naturalness’ might seem very formal to us, for Arianna was a Queen and La Florinda a woman of the 17th-century.

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

 

I would also like to acknowledge my huge debt to the scholarly and artistic inspiration for this project, provided by Emily Wilbourne’s Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’ Arte (2016) and Tim Carter’s Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), and to thank Professor Carter again for his generosity – still ongoing! – with comments and advice.

 

 

 

 

Emotions in Early Opera

As a student in London in the early 1980s, I was told by some tutors (who should have known better) that there was no place for emotion in early music. But nowadays, in a development that owes more to changes in current social norms than to improved historical awareness, emotion has become a buzz-word amongst academics and performers aiike. Nevertheless, even amongst Early Music practitioners, the search for emotional intensity is often neither historical, nor informed.

Many directors and teachers do not work directly with performers’ emotional engagement. But handling emotions is a performance skill that must be taught, learnt, rehearsed and practised, like any other element of a well-rounded delivery. And, like every other aspect of musical and dramatic presentation, the performance practice of emotions changed over time, and between one location and another.

Most conservatoires, even those with a Historical Performance department, teach emotions (if at all) within a late romantic framework, focussing on the intensity of the performer’s emotional engagement, and modelled on the concept of the performer “expressing” their emotions through the medium of the composed score. But we have plenty of easily accessible and self-consistent period evidence as the basis for a more historically-informed approach.

In some debates amongst singers, an argument is sometimes advanced that seems dangerously close to saying: “just use more vibrato”! I am all in favour of historically informed use of vibrato, but let’s all agree that there is more to the rich inner world of human emotions than a wobble in the voice! Singing louder is also not the answer: in Cavalieri’s preface to the very first baroque music-drama, Anima & Corpo, he warns against forcing the voice, which would be detrimental to emotional communication. Rather, he (and many other sources) ask for frequent changes between forte and piano, and between contrasting emotions. Act with the heart, act with the hand: Motion and E-motion in  Cavalieri’s preface

In the urge to convey baroque passions, many performers reach for the Romantic tool of rubato. Nearly all of us were taught this in our initial training, but in earlier periods, Rhetorical emotions were framed within the structure of measured rhythm, guided by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Yes, this tactus could be tweaked according to changing emotions, but if you are not using Tactus in the first place, then you have no idea what you are tweaking! Frescobaldi Rules, OK? Caccini’s much-cited sprezzatura is even more misunderstood and mis-applied. The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura. It’s certainly not the secret of emotional vocals (read below what Cacinni says that secret actually is).

In this post, I offer a brief introduction to the vast topic of Historically Informed Performance of Emotions. The post is dedicated to participants in Opera Omnia’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608) from which only the famously emotional Lamento survives. But I hope the information will be useful to anyone working in early opera, indeed in any genre of baroque music.

 

 

There is ample historical evidence that emotions were highly significant in 17th-century music. The principal aim of Rhetoric is

 

muovere gli affetti – to move the Passions

 

From this well-known phrase, we should note two all-important points. Firstly, the historical discourse is not about “emotion” (singular), but about “Passions” (plural) and about “moving” from one Passion to another. All too often, modern-day coaches will ask for “more emotion!”. The performer might well ask in reply: “Which one?”. Emotion is not an all-purpose sauce that can be poured over any performance! In the historical context, we need to study various emotions, and practice moving between them.

Also, the concept of ‘moving the Passions’ begs the question: whose emotions are we trying to change? As soon as we ask the question, the answer is obvious: the audience’s. Here is the vital difference between Rhetorical (say, pre-1800) and Romantic concepts of emotional performance. In baroque opera, the purpose is to move emotions from the text and music into the hearts and minds of the audience; we do not really care about the performer’s own feelings. This is a world apart from the romantic cliché of the ‘genius performer, expressing emotions beyond those of the ordinary folk in the audience’!

Which Emotion?

Modern studies of emotions, facial expressions etc,  attempt various classifications, based on 6 or more principal emotions. In the Rhetorical age, emotions were understood within the concept of the Four Humours. Although this model does not entirely match modern medical science, psychologically it works very well and can be used very effectively in modern-day performance of early music, just as singers use suggestive imagery (alongside hard science) to guide vocal technique. Of course, the vast array of human emotions cannot be mapped onto just four types. But the Four Humours provide general directions for moving the Passions, just as the four cardinal points (North, South, East, West) provide general directions for travel.

The Four Humours are at work in poetry, music and visual arts; in personality traits, moods and emotional impulses; in performance; and in psychological and physiological responses. The four well-known types are Sanguine (love, courage, hope: a warm, moist, outward passion associated with generosity, enjoyment of music, good food and red wine); Choleric (anger, desire: a hot, dry, outward passion associated with violence and strong drink); Melancholy (thinking too much, unlucky in love, sleepless: a cold, dry inward passion associated with what we would today call ‘the blues’); Phlegmatic (passive acceptance: a cold, moist inward passion, the feeling one has when influenza seems to have filled the entire head and body with green phlegm).

 

Character roles and individual lines of text often combine subtle mixtures of Humours. Dramatic speeches and operatic scenes often move from one Humour to another. But in this style, there are often frequent changes from one Humour to its contrary, word by word: this was considered to be the most powerful way to ‘move’ the audience’s passions.

 

How to move the Passions

 

I use simple exercises to help performers experience and convey each of the Four Humours, spending time on exploring each Humour individually by words, postures and movements. Then we practise moving from one Humour to another: slowly at first, and then faster, so that we can snap from one Passion to its contrary.

Working with a specific text (dramatic speech, poem, opera libretto, song-text etc), we identify which Humour (or which blend of Humours) is at play, word by word. It’s very important to bring this analysis right down to the word-by-word level at which baroque emotions operate. The first exercise is to determine how to perform each word: what colour of voice, what facial expression, what physical posture etc? All of this goes far beyond ‘changes in dynamics’, the simple contrast of forte, piano etc. Rather, each individual word gives a wealth of nuanced information, making it unnecessary for the composer to indicate such ‘dynamic markings’, which would in any case be facile and shallow.

To optimise the delivery of each word, we have to match the precise meaning of each specific word. At first, students tend to suggest approximations: “let’s sing this word loud, warmly, with more vibrato, brightly etc.” But there is a better way, what I call

the  -LY principle

If the word is dolce ‘sweet’, sing it sweet-ly! If the word is amore ‘love’, sing it loving-ly! If the word is crudel ‘cruel’, sing it cruel-ly! And so on. The idea is simple, but powerful, and utterly historical. Try it! Experimental-ly!

 

Baroque Gesture is not merely a hand-ballet, though it should look elegant. Gesture is Rhetorical, i.e. based on the structure and passion of the words. And it’s always painfully apparent, when an actor puts their hand precisely where the director instructed, in the perfect historical position: it comes over to the audience academical-ly! Rather, each well-chosen and historically appropriate gesture has to be connected to, motivated (literally, set in motion) by the text, passionate-ly!

All this intense focus  – on the specific word being sung at the particular time  – results in increased Mindfulness, being ‘in the moment’. You don’t need to plan ahead or review backwards what you have just performed: stay intently in the present moment, and trust the librettist and composer to have done their job with (that previous element of Rhetoric), long-term structural planning.

 

 

The renaissance concept of the Music of the Spheres linked cosmic energy to the harmony of the human body and to practical  music-making. In parallel, period Science considered that emotions were communicated from performer to audience by Pneuma (the mystic spirit of creation, also the mystical energy of the body – like oriental chi – the mystical spirit of dramatic communication), transmitted as Enargeaia (the emotional power of detailed verbal description, poetic imagery, word-painting in baroque music), and carried by Energia (emotional energy) emitted from the actor’s eyes. You can practise believing this, whilst you perform: it will change what you are doing, in subtle, hard-to-describe, but powerful ways.

How to sing the Passions

The secret is not rubato, nor ornamentation (discouraged in the reciting style, according to Cavalieri, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and many other early 17th-century sources), and certainly not vibrato. So what is it? How can we use the voice in this repertoire, passionately, appropriately, effectively?

 

Caccini’s preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) (here’s the link again) encapsulates the priorities, the method, and the technique, if you want to move your audience’s passions, in this repertoire. The priorities are Text and Rhythm: focus on the text, stay in the steady rhythm of Tactus. The method is a vocal production that is ‘between singing and speaking’ – see also Peri’s preface to Euridice (1600): you are not there to sing, your task is to help the audience understand every single word.

 

Don’t sing at me, speak to me!

 

By the way, the quickest way to destroy the illusion that you are ‘speaking’ in song, is to sustain the weak final syllable of the line. Amarilli, mia bel-LAAAAAA. So a very useful general rule is

 

Last note short!

Caccini’s recommended technique when there is a sustained note on a Good syllable, is to use crescendo/diminuendo on that single note. Caccini repeats this advice many times within his Preface, and he gives detailed examples of how to apply messa di voce (starting a long note softly, with crescendo) and exclamatione (starting a word like Ahi! or Deh! loud, then going immediately soft, and then crescendo). The standard way to present a long note is what I call

 

The Long Note Kit

 

Start softly and wait – then add crescendo – at the peak of the crescendo, relax and allow vibrato. Time this carefully with the Tactus, and with the typical process of Preparation-Dissonance-Resolution in a suspension. See How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles for more detail.

 

And that’s it. The crucial concepts are not academically complex, just remember SSS:

  • Speak each word according to its meaning
  • Stay in tactus
  • Shape long notes.

 

The challenge is that these simple ideas demand constant Mindfulness and intense concentration on Caccini’s priorities of Text and Rhythm. So of course, it’s much easier just to add vibrato and mess up the rhythm with rubato, and to create a false pretence of generalised emotion, without any particular link to what you are talking about. But the audience will see through that pretence, just as easily as we spot the insincerity of a fake politician!  So let your Passions be strong, your Tactus stable: don’t rely on weak rubato and wobbly vibrato!

 

 

For further reading, I highly recommend Joseph Roach The Player’s Passion, which analyses theories of acting in light of the history of science, examining acting styles from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and measuring them against prevailing conceptions of the human body. The author explores how dominant theories of emotion, from the Galenic humor to the Pavlovian reflex, have shaped the critic’s changing standards of the natural order of life and the actor’s physical embodiment of it. The Player’s Passion has become a classic among theater historians and students of acting, and received the prestigious Barnard Hewitt Award for outstanding research in theater history.

For an analysis of the use of 17th-century Rhetoric to ‘move the passions’  in terms of modern medical science, try The Theatre of Dreams, which takes the Prologue for La Musica, in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as a case-study.

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Are you Arianna or Apollo? Orfeo or Euridice? Penelope or Ulisse? Nero or Poppea? Or are you fighting a Combattimento, writing a Lettera Amorosa, or dancing a Ballo?

Now you don’t have to go to Hell and back, to learn a baroque role. Here, to celebrate Monteverdi’s anniversary year, is a guide to studying his dramatic roles.

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. You can also read about WHY we are remaking Monteverdi’s Arianna.

This post was written to guide singing actors in that production, but is equally relevant to any of Monteverdi’s surviving music-dramas, including the three ‘operas’ [Monteverdi did not use the O-word] Orfeo, Ulisse Poppea as well as Combattimeno, the Balli and other works in genere rappresentativo [in show-style, i.e. meant for acting, not just singing].

 

 

Whilst our modern ideals of theatre might send us on a deep psychological investigation of the character of the role to be played, in this article I suggest an alternative, historically informed approach.

When, as modern HIP performers, we take on the role of Arianna or Apollo, there are two stages to our work. The first step is to acquire the skill-set of Francesco Rasi (the tenor who sang the roles of Orfeo in 1607 and Apollo & Bacco in 1608) or Virginia Andreini Ramponi, known as La Florinda (the commedia dell’arte actress who triumphed in the role of Arianna in 1608, surpassing all the court singers); the second task is for you-as-Rasi or you-as-La-Florinda to play your character role.

The first of these two stages – acquiring the skill-set of the best historical performers – is by far the more challenging. After all, it was hardly a stretch for Rasi (great singer, somewhat self-obsessed) to play Orfeo or for La Florinda (prima donna, fond of lamenting) to represent Arianna!

 

 

When the first ‘operas’ were performed, circa 1600, there was no such thing as an Opera Singer. Since the genre itself was new and experimental, there was no previously existing system for educating performers for new demands. Rather, the participants in these first fully-sung baroque music-dramas brought skill sets from other, related disciplines. Court and chapel singers (Euridice was played in 1607 by a ‘little priest’ castrato) had a high level of general musicianship, sight-reading and ensemble skills. Many of them were competent composers and skilled instumentalists. As courtiers, they would have been trained in Rhetoric and courtly Etiquette, and would know how to stand, move, gesture and how to comport themselves in courtly situations: in the presence of a Prince, in a duel, at a dance, on horseback etc. Much of what we would today consider to be historical stage-craft would have been understood in the period as everyday courtly behaviour.

A modern singer of baroque opera would do well to study Historical Dance, Historical Fencing, and for that matter horse-riding. For an introduction to courtly posture and gesture, i.e. the beginnings of period acting, Start HereCaccini sets out the priorities for singing c1600 as Text and Rhythm – read more from Caccini. Close study of the libretto is essential: the sung text includes many hints for movement, costume and characterisation, as well as a detailed map of ever-changing emotions – affetti. In this repertoire, the performer’s concentration is best kept ‘in the moment’, on the particularly word you are singing right now, on the affetto of this instant, ready for swift and bold changes from one affetto to its contrary, as Cavalieri recommends for the earliest surviving seicento music-drama, Anima e Corpo (1600), read more about how to Act with the Hand, Act with the Heart.

La Florinda’s success in Arianna (1608), surpassing all the star singers, reminds us of the basic meaning of the word recitare – it means ‘to act’. Musica recitativa is acted music, i.e. music-drama. Singers would do well to think less about the voce, and more about How to Act in this historical style. 

It is not your job, as performer, to create a big structure of emotions, drama or music for the whole work: trust the librettist and composer to have done their work in this area. Your job is to realise the text and music from moment to moment, structured by the slow, steady pulse of baroque rhythm – Tactus. This blog has many posts about 17th-century rhythm: here is a small selection. Rhythm – what really counts? introduces the concept of Tactus; the theory of Proportions is the secret to Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time and for a practical approach there is this Hands-on guide to Tactus

This post presents a step-by-step guide on how to study your role. If you go through these 10 exercises, you will be well on the path towards acquiring that 17th-century skill-set, your approach will be utterly historical and securely practical, and after at least 10 repetitions of each phrase, linking together text, music and gesture, the task of memorisation will also be well begun, if not yet completed.

Have fun – approach these exercises and your study in general in a spirit of enthusiastic but relaxed concentration. Learning a big role is not ‘a mountain to climb’, it’s a journey to experience and enjoy. And your first performance is not ‘the end of the road’, it’s just one more step on the path, a place from where there is a good view of the distance you have already covered, as well as of the endless road ahead.

 

 

HOW TO PREPARE

 

1. Hold the music in your left hand

An easy one to start with, but it’s a game-changer! Acquiring this habit will allow you to make gestures with your right hand, one of the most important principles of historical acting.

 

2. Take up the contrapposto posture

If you do all your practice standing in period posture, that posture will gradually become ‘normal’ for you, and you will feel relaxed and look good in it, on stage.

 

  1. Stand diagonally, rather than square-on to your audience
  2. With your weight all on one foot (doesn’t matter which one)
  3. Bend the other (unweighted) leg, and let it show.
  4. Relax at the hips, so that your whole body forms an elegant curve.
  5. Your right hand is somewhat raised/extended
  6. Your left hand relaxed by the body (or holding your music!)
  7. Look out into the audience.
  8. Relax.

 

 

The toga is optional!

At first, you might find it difficult to maintain this posture. Don’t get tense, just switch your weight from one foot to the other, moving through the hips.  Relax, and let your weight fall through the supporting leg into the floor.

But don’t move too often, and – in this style – you don’t walk and talk at the same time.

 

If your singing teacher has taught you to centre and relax, dropping the weight down into your feet, super! Do this, but allowing the weight to fall from that centre through ONE leg.

 

Don’t bounce up and down. If your singer teacher has taught you to bend your knees before high notes, don’t let this be seen by anyone, ever!

Don’t stand square-on to your audience, knees bent in the sumo-wrestler position of certain famous modern coloratura sopranos. That’s not baroque! Rather, look at and imitate period paintings. Be as beautiful as a picture!

 

TEXT

3. Speak the text, dramatically, like a great actor in a 1,000-seater hall.

3a. Paying close attention to Good/Bad syllables (this is period terminology for accented/unaccented syllables or notes: Caccini calls them Long/Short as in poetic analysis)
3b. And single/double consonants
3c. And the meaning of each individual word

You should be utterly comfortable with the text, ready to go on stage and act it in a spoken play. The anonymous 17th-century guide for a theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago (c1636) emphasises that singers should model their singing on the speech of a fine actor.

4. Speak the text again, waving your hand expressively on each Good syllable

 

 

On the final Bad syllable, just let your hand return to the body, relaxed.

 

 

5. Still speaking like a great actor, try to bring your spoken version close to the pitch-contours and rhythms of the music

 

In his preface to the first secular ‘opera’, Euridice (1600), Jacopo Peri explains that recitative is structured by the rhythm of the bass-line, and by the pitches of spoken declamation. Agazzari (1607) confirms that it is the continuo bass that ‘supports and guides the whole ensemble of instruments and voices’.

RHYTHM

Check #1 (music in your left hand) and #2 (baroque posture) again!

6. Sing the music, beating TACTUS

With the palm outwards, move your hand down and up, about 1 second down, 1 second up. Keep the movement steady, smooth, relaxed but with calm inner strength. Think of a big, slow-moving pendulum. Or the hand of God, turning the wheels of the cosmos.

 

  • In C-time, this represents minims: down for one minim, up for the next.
  • In 3/2 time – tripla, this represents three minims: down for three, up for the next three.
  • In 3/1 time – sesquialtera, the complete movement represents three semibreves: down for two, up for the next one. The complete movement occupies the same total duration of time, but the movement is now unequal, down for two, up for one. You might need to practise changing from C to 3/1 and back again.

According to Zacconi (1592), Tactus is “even, solid, stable, firm… clear, secure, without fear and without any kind of wobbling” [equale, saldo, stabile, e fermo … chiaro, sicuro, senza paura, & senza veruna titubatione]

 

If you have trouble maintaining a steady beat, you can easily make yourself a Tactus-pendulum. Take a long string and tie something heavy to one end, to make a simple pendulum. You need 1 metre to make a 1-second beat (Mersenne, 1636).

 

 

CONNECTING TEXT & RHYTHM

 

Whilst dramatic music is guided by Tactus, as the historical concept of rhythm, there was no conductor in early ‘opera’ (Il Corago specifically rules out beating time in recitative), and of course actors cannot beat Tactus on stage (nor even in a courtly performance in genere rappresentativo, as Monteverdi indicates for the Lettera amorosa]. So the next exercise asks you to feel the Tactus internally, whilst you use your hand in a new way, linked to the Text.

7. Sing the music, waving your hand on the Good syllables, not on the Bad

This is the same as #4, but singing, rather than speaking. Many singers find that their good speaking habits get overwhelmed by bad singer habits, as soon as they start to sing. So…

7a. Check that you do not wave your hand on any Bad syllable.

7b. Check that your hand is already relaxed on the last (Bad) syllable

7c. And sing this last note short, just as you would speak it.

The next exercise refines this, by taking into account the length of the composed notes. Some singers reduce the contrast between long and short notes: such laziness makes the performance boring. Don’t do that! A most useful reminder in this style is “Long notes long, short notes short”, within the steady pulse of the Tactus.

8. Sing the music, waving your hand slow/quick according to the length of Good syllables

If the note is long, move your hand slowly at the beginning, so that you have plenty of movement in reserve for the end of the note. You’ll find that doing this exercise changes the way you sing long notes – that’s the whole idea of the exercise!

8a. Apply the Long Note Kit to Good syllables on Long Notes

THE LONG-NOTE KIT

 

  • Start the note slowly and straight.
  • Wait as long as possible.
  • Crescendo towards the end of the note
  • At the very end, relax the crescendo and allow vibrato to happen

Plaine note (with messa da voce),
Waived note (with messa da voice and late-arriving vibrato)
Roger North (1695)
cited in Greta Moens-Hanen
“Das Vibrato in der Musick des Barock”

For a fine demonstration of baroque vibrato, listen to Whitney Houston And I will always love you

 

9. Alternating Tactus and Good/Bad hand-movements, alternating speaking and singing, bring the sung version as close to speech as possible, structured by Tactus.

In this exercise, as you change between various options (speech/song; Tactus/word-accents) the aim is to unify all these into a version that is ‘between speech and song’ [Peri & Caccini], with exciting contrasts of word-accents (the essential ingredient of good poetry) and steady Tactus (the essential ingredient of 17th-century music).

ACTION

Check #1 (music in the left hand) & #2 (baroque posture) again!

10. Perform the whole  speech, thinking of the meaning of the word, each time you wave your hand on a Good syllable.

Do this several times speaking, before you try to combine gesture with singing. The gestures you want are text-based, speech-based: quite different from typical gestures of modern singers.

One of the simplest, but most powerful gestures is simply to point (typically with the whole hand, rather than a single finger) at whatever you mention in your speech. See Baroque Gesture: what’s the Point? 

 

 

And the ut pictura principle encourages you to create a mental image of whatever you are talking about, so that your gestures are directed towards imaginary objects in your vision, as well as to real objects, dialogue partners etc, on stage with you.

 

But as Cavalieri reminds us, 17th-century Action is not only hand-gestures – it’s also movements of the whole body, the way you walk, and especially facial expressions and Energia from the eyes.

 

Two things you don’t have to worry about: ornaments (many sources, including Cavalieri & Monteverdi, warn against ornamenting in this style); your own emotions. The concept of ‘moving the Passions’ – muovere gli affetti – is concerned with changing the audience’s emotions: not yours. Some performers like to work ‘hot’, being very involved themselves in the emotions of the moment, others prefer to stay ‘cool’, keeping control of their own feelings so as to be better able to influence the audience: most people find a good balance between those two extremes. But in this style, we are not interested in the performer’s emotions, we are trying to sway the audience’s feelings. That’s what matters.

So now you are ready to perform, playing the role of Rasi playing the role of Bacco… or playing the role of La Florinda playing the role of Arianna.

And as Dorilla (Arianna’s irrepressibly positive maid-servant) would say:

ET VIVETE LIETI! 

(Don’t worry, be happy!)

 

 

Alessandro Turchi ‘Bacchus & Ariadne’ (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture.