There are significant differences in music-making, not only between mainstream and Early Music approaches, but also between today’s Early Music and what musicians of former centuries actually did back then.
Most of us recognise that Historically Informed performers should renounce any claims to ‘authenticity’: we will never know everything about earlier styles of performance, and there are some historical practices (e.g. producing castrati to sing soprano) that we would not wish to repeat, historical attitudes to race, gender or religion that have no place in modern-day society. But whilst researchers continue to unearth and decipher ancient sources of new information, there is already a considerable gap between what we know about Historical Performance Practice and what we do in the standard practices of Early Music today.
In the context of modern-day performances of 19th-century repertoire, Clive Brown referred to ‘the yawning chasm between contemporary practice and historical evidence’. His critique was aimed not at mainstream musicians, but at the current Early Music approach, and it could apply equally well to many performances of renaissance and baroque repertoires.
In my very first post back in 2013, I compared the hot topics of modern-day Early Music debates – vibrato, pitch, temperaments – with (more inspiring) historical priorities proclaimed by Caccini:
Music is Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around!
‘The historical priorities are Text, Rhythm, Action – and the audience’s emotions. Text (not vibrato), Rhythm (not rubato), Action for the Audience (not how the performers themselves feel).’ Read more here…
In this article, I make two (interlinked) case-studies of modern-day practices that are so familiar as to be almost beyond question, but that we all know to be un-historical. Beyond calling out ‘Mind the gap’, my purpose is to consider how the musical skills we have acquired to handle an anachronistic approach might be adapted to facilitate performances that better apply the historical information we already have.
The only essential pre-requisite is having the courage to try something different from what is experienced in nearly all modern-day performances, from what is heard in nearly every recording. Read on, if you dare!
For renaissance polyphony and baroque opera, singers nowadays use scores, as opposed to the individual parts used for nearly all repertoire pre-1800.
Our best consort singers have acquired high levels of skill in score-reading. This skill facilitates ensemble unity, entry making, pitch finding etc, and underpins two commonplace directorial interventions: at phrase ends, unifying the duration of final notes and/or pronunciation of final consonants; adjusting the ensemble balance from phrase to phrase by having individual singers switch from one part to another.
I was privileged to observe one of the UK’s most experienced Early Music singers, tenor John Potter, coaching vocal ensembles in the subtle interactions of one-voice-to-a-part consort singing. He encouraged singers to scan the score, and “wait for your colleague to sing his bit, before you move on to sing your bit”. Even when there is a conductor, today’s elite vocal ensembles acheive their high-precision unity of timing by such ‘give and take’ between individual singers, combining attentive listening with skilled score-reading.
That is all very well, but none of it is historical. Not only did Monteverdi’s singers not have scores, but Zacconi (1596) describes clearly that “vertical alignment”, the unanimity of timing seen in modern scores and demanded by record producers, was not desired circa 1600. Rather, each individual singer was allowed the liberty of arriving late on an expressive note, whilst the underlying Tactus continued steadily: like Ella Fitzgerald syncopating around a steady beat. Read more about ‘Making Time for Beautiful Singing’ here.
And when we stop to think about it, it is unlikely that musicians of the period would have prioritised ‘consistent vocal balance’ (is that even desirable?) over the traceable self-consistency of individual polyphonic strands within the strict rules of renaissance counterpoint. Rather than switching parts to boost a quieter voice, perhaps the other singers listened harder, or sang more softly themselves.
Singing from individual parts creates a different set of listening skills within the ensemble, and imposes new demands for rhythmic clarity: your colleagues don’t know what you are supposed to sing, so you have to communicate the underlying Tactus, whatever the superficial notes might be. And once you add the period practice of spontaneous Divisions (melodic ornamentation in shorter note-values), then even the partial scores that the continuo might have (for example for the Monteverdi (1610) Vespers) will not show visually what is actually happening aurally.
In fact, the continuo scores for some solo moments in the Vespers are significantly different from the vocal part-books, even before the singers add spontaneous Divisions and Zacconi-style delays. If the continuo attempt to “follow”, placing their bass-notes as seen vertically underneath the appropriate solo-notes as heard, a train-wreck inevitably ensues [ok, there were no trains in 1610, but you know what I mean]!
Reading from scores, those with long notes end up ‘following’ the voice with the most activity, whereas historically, it was the voices with notes in Tactus-values (minims and semibreves) that determined the rhythm: fast-moving Divisions must fit in (read more about Passaggi).
Historically, soloists were guided by the accompaniment [see Peri (1600) here]. If this seems controversial (and it is controversial in mainstream choirs and most of today’s Early Music), compare it to jazz, where the rhythm section keeps the groove steady whilst soloists syncopate, “having fun and improvising counterpoint” [Agazzari sopra’l basso1607, more on Agazzari here]
Conducting in Early Music is the elephant in the room, the emperor’s new clothes, the glaring anachronism that no-one dares name, the dinosaur waiting for an incoming comet of historical information.
Period treatises, eye-witness reports and iconographical evidence [see also Peter Holman’s recent book on the subject] show beyond all possible doubt that before c1800, ensemble music was not conducted in the modern sense, but was guided by Tactus (which is quite different, read more about Tactus here and in many articles within this blog).
That ‘yawning chasm’ between modern-day habits and historical practice is seen all too clearly in the current phenomenon of the ‘director from the keyboard’, who conducts modern-style whilst using a harpsichord or chamber organ as something between a fig-leaf and a very expensive music-stand.
Working with conductors, today’s Early Music performers have developed the skills to follow a varying beat and – when the going gets tough – to stay together by reference to the score. In particular, continuo-players have learnt to play without committing themselves to any clear rhythmic impulses, in order to follow soloists and/or accommodate themselves to a conductor’s interpretation of the beat. Deprived of their historical role of ‘guiding the whole ensemble’ (Agazzari 1607) and ‘directing the singers’ (Gagliano 1608), today’s continuo-players amuse themselves with divisions and embellishments, often simultaneously (but not quite together) amongst several performers, a horror condemned by Agazzari as ‘soup and confusion’ or a ‘flock of noisy sparrows’.
Historically, there was Tactus-beating for solo lute-songs, vocal consorts and polychoral ensembles, but no hand-waving at all for opera and dramatic music (in genere rappresentativo). The steady down-up of Tactus-beating imitates the stability of the cosmos and creates Time itself (according to Aristotelean philosophy, read more here). Just to read Zacconi’s list of Tactus qualities will assure any consort-musician that it differs fundamentally from modern conducting:
Tactus is regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation
Zacconi ‘Prattica di Musica’ (1592/1596)
Of course, we can get Early Music onto the stage (or into the recording studio) fast, by using vocal scores and modern conducting. But if we want to apply Historical Information to our performance, there needs to be time for experimentation, acquiring new skills, and consolidating experience in unfamiliar modes of musicking. Indeed, this kind of re-imagining how to make music is what HIP is all about.
Nevertheless, it is especially challenging to deal with individual ensemble members’ fundamental habits of ensemble practice. How much easier just to conduct everything, just to continue with those social media debates about vibrato, pitch and temperament!
If tomorrow’s Early Music is to be Historically better Informed than today’s, we must invest time in experiment and training for subtly different musicianship skills. This cannot be done within a normal rehearsal: we need to create un-pressured time and a safe space for individual musicians to let go their normal habits and take the risk of trying something fundamentally different. But perhaps we can progress more quickly by re-purposing the (slightly off-target) skills we already have…
Today’s Early Musicians are highly skilled at following a visual beat (no matter how unreliable or unsteady!), at listening to each other with reference to a vocal score, and at using aural cues to follow wayward soloists.
Historically Informed Tactus-beating is both a visual cue and an embodied practice: musicians need to become familiar with both aspects. We can practise with the whole group simultaneously beating Tactus: relaxed arm hinged at the elbow, palm outwards, down for one second, up for one second. There is no leader, no followers, the group mission is to remain together.
We can play through some (not too demanding) ensemble music, with each member of the group taking their turn to beat Tactus, whilst the others play to the beat. The role of the Tactus-beater is not to “interpret the music”, but to give the steadiest, most equal beat they possibly can. A wise coach can use this exercise to re-balance relationships of “leaders” and “sheep” within the ensemble…
Working alone, a musician can synchronise their Tactus-beating, and (later) their playing/singing to a home-made pendulum. A 1-metre length of string will produce a 1 second beat (Mersenne, 1636). Notice that the movement of a pendulum, and the feeling this movement creates, is quite different from the sharp click of a metronome.
Just as jazz singers swing their arms and/or snap their fingers, not to conduct each other, but in order to inhabit, embody, to make physical the shape of Time itself, the groove of Music, so these simple exercises help us internalise the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Some musicians may need frequent reminders and extra practice, to think and move in a slow minim = 60 pulse, rather than sub-dividing into today’s more typical crotchet = 120.
We listen in a different way, when we do not have the visual reference of a score to guide us. When I teach a master-class, I always listen to the piece the first time without looking at the score. This places me in a similar position to an audience-member, who should understand the performance aurally, without a score, perhaps without any previous knowledge of the work.
For Early Music consorts, listening without a score invites us to maintain ensemble unity by understanding the underlying Tactus, since we cannot know the significance of individual notes (which might anyway have been ornamented or otherwise changed spontaneously). Playing/singing to colleagues who have no score challenges performers to show more clearly how those individual notes relate to the underlying Tactus, shaping long-notes across several Tactus beats, lightening-up fast-moving ornamentation so that it flows without disrupting the Tactus beat, articulating syncopations appropriately so that they are correctly understood.
An elementary, but surprisingly powerful exercise, is to ask the whole group to beat Tactus (without seeing a score) whilst one person plays/sings their individual part (this also works for solo pieces, e.g. a harpsichord or harp solo). Everyone becomes more aware of Tactus, more skilled at maintaining it in spite of aurally suggested changes (this is the Tactus-beaters’ role) and at avoiding unwanted changes (this is the performer’s task).
When this becomes too easy, then the performer can be invited to add divisions and impromptu variations, and/or to apply Zacconi’s expressive delay, the accento. Read more here.
Meanwhile, everyone is getting more (much needed) experience of the visual and embodied practice of Tactus. Period musicians would have been beating Tactus all their lives, from their first lessons to learning new material as full professionals even as elite soloists and ensemble directors. For Early Musicians today, Tactus cannot be learned by studying historical treatises, not even by reading my blog! You have to Do It Yourself.
Another way to add complexity is to combine two performers, whilst the majority of the group continue to beat steady Tactus. This builds the habit of trusting the embodied movement of Tactus, not following wayward aural cues. The crucial assumption is that the music continues in steady Tactus, rather than ‘follow anything that moves!’.
Alternating playing/listening exercises between different members of the group prepares for the next level.
Who directs, and how? Historically, and (it would be desirable) also for our modern-day Early Music, the role of coaching an ensemble and making artistic decisions (maestro di capella) should be distinguished from the role of administering the Tactus-beat (summinstrar il tatto). Coaching and making artistic decisions happens in rehearsal. In performance (including playing-through during rehearsals) the primary task of the Tactus-beater is to maintain a steady beat, and not to be swayed by any temporary aural deviations.
This does not mean an aggressive tug-of-war between leader and followers, but a mutual recognition of the cosmic, humanist and practical significance of the Tactus (i.e. the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, in which the entire universe is turned in slow steady rhythm by the hand of God, the primum mobile).
Nevertheless, there is freedom for an individual performer to depart momentarily from the Tactus, providing they rejoin it promptly. Zacconi expects accento-singers to be back on Tactus-track by the next beat.
Taking turns to beat Tactus, and with the director/coach observing, ensemble members can experiment with maintaining unity by visual cues from the Tactus-beater, by their own embodied experience of Tactus-beating, and by listening to aural cues that indicate the underlying Tactus (not the movement of individual notes).
Listen to the bass (in polyphony), to the continuo, to a simple or slow-moving part, to what appears to be ‘accompaniment’ rather than to ‘soloists’. Basses, continuo-players, performers of simple slow-moving parts and anyone who might be (temporarily) ‘accompaniment’ must learn to maintain Tactus reliably, to guide and direct the whole ensemble, and (a tough call) not to ‘follow’ the soloist, a fast-moving or complex part.
This ensemble skill of maintaining Tactus rather than following soloists takes a lot of practice. The aim is to go beyond any initial stiffness or sense of confrontation, and find a flowing, embodied sense of rhythm in the slow steady Tactus beat. The mantra is: “soloists are free to depart from the beat, but the beat will not change to accommodate them”. Be inspired by Ella Fitzgerald.
As the whole ensemble gets good at this, soloists can throw in deliberate ‘bending’ of the rhythm, around the steady beat. Indeed, soloists should only ever bend the rhythm deliberately, not by accident or mis-management. If a tricky moment cannot be performed accurately, then it needs more practice. It’s always worth learning a crucial turn of phrase precisely as notated, before adding any rhythmic alteration. (See Caccini for suggestions of rhythmic alteration to short notes, within the steady Tactus).
Solo players, who often have to present a complete polyphonic texture within a single instrument (harpsichord, lute, harp, even violin in J. S. Bach’s Partitas), need to learn first the basic skill of maintaining Tactus whilst they play a single line. The temptation is for the beat (maintained perhaps by the foot if your hands are busy) to follow the performance, but it should be the other way around! Use a pendulum if necessary, to control this.
The more advanced skill is to have Tactus in the bass, in the continuo, in the accompaniment, direct the solo line in Measure. This requires significant mental re-organisation and artistic re-prioritising. When you can do this well, then you can add Caccini-style or Zacconi-style rhythmic alterations to the solo line, whilst keeping the accompaniment steady.
Students – and many experienced performers – like to learn from aural examples. But we have very few aural examples of Tactus in today’s Early Music that we can imitate. This well-documented historical practice is not yet reflected in most modern-day recordings or concert performances. Nevertheless, we can still benefit by learning from, and practising with, aural examples.
Make your own home recording of the accompaniment of your piece, check that it really is in Tactus (this is itself an educational exercise, which may need repeated attempts!), and then play the solo line along with your own Tactus-measured accompaniment.
If you are making a lock-down-style multi-track ensemble recording, record the bass first. Or even create a “Historical Click Track” (to be removed from the final mix), not with a click, but with an aural signal that is more akin to a pendulum swing. For example, just say ONE…. TWO with a sustained, slow-articulated ‘one’ and a crisper ‘two’ (the sounds of the English language work well for this). Or a drum track, DUM-bak.
Many modern-day performances use a slow, resonant large drum to create a steady groove, and the steady-calm-strong feeling of renaissance rhythm (think Pavan, for example). I would say that this feeling is historically appropriate, and certainly following an aural cue works well for today’s musicians. Nevertheless, period evidence shows that pavan percussion was a more active rhythm in shorter note-values on a small, less resonant, tabor-like drum. See Arbeau Orchesographie here. The slow-steady-calm-strong beat is the appropriate feeling for historical Tactus, but we need to create it for ourselves rather than relying on the wrong kind of drum!
But we could use that modern pavan-drum as a training aid for high-style polyphony, or seicento monody, to instill that sense of Measure, of reliable Tactus that is needed even when the beat is not dancing to the beat of shorter note-values. This distinction (Tactus in long note-values for serious music, happy dances with regularity extended even to short note-values) is what lies behind Peri’s remark about differing circumstances in which the soloist should not, or should ‘dance to the rhythm of the bass’. More about Peri’s Tactus bass here.
In order to begin this development, and move today’s Early Music one step closer to Historically Informed Performance, individual musicians need to hone their Tactus skills, their ability to control rhythm with a slow, steady count. And conductors need to learn the essential historical skill required for their role: a simple down-up beat maintained equally and reliably, without any pertubation (Zacconi, Il Corago c1630 etc).
In Monteverdi’s (1610) Vespers, we would not play continuo on a Steinway, we would not play baroque violin with a modern bow, we would not admit a cornettist who had not learnt the basic fingering-system of his instrument. Why should we accept conducting that eschews the fundamental period technique of the Tactus-hand, that is Historically Un-informed about the historical role of Tactus-beater?
A key pre-requisite for better Informed Performance is proper Historical training for Early Music ensemble directors: no more dinosaurs, no more modern-interpretative-dance in front of a keyboard instrument!
Time-beating lays down the tracks that the perfomance will follow. As Early Musicians, we can make Historically Informed decisions about how to lay down those tracks, and we can follow those tracks in newly-discovered and period-creative ways, offering our listeners a thrilling and surprising ride. Until then,
This posts continues my study of a very particular repertoire featuring female composers, works by Milanese nuns in the mid/late 17th century. This investigation is associated with the performance projects of Kajsa Dahlbeck’s Earthly Angels ensemble (read more here), which are underpinned by Kajsa’s own research.
My previous article The Soul of Music in Women’s Hands discusses compositions by Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704). Now I turn my attention to Rosa Giancinta Badalla (c1660-c1710).
Badalla’s book of solo motets with continuo accompaniment, Motetti a voce sola (1684) – 10 for soprano, 2 for alto – contains pieces for Christmas, Easter, for any Saint’s day, and for the patron saint of her convent, Santa Radegunda. This fascinating collection has many interesting features for researchers and performers alike, and I’m looking forward to Kajsa’s forthcoming performances. In the meantime, this post takes Badalla’s publication as a case-study in the period notation of Tempo.
The priorities of the early seicento were encapsulated by Caccini in Le Nuove Musiche (1601): “music is Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all.” More on Caccini here. Considering rhythm, the role of the performer – all the way from the mid-16th century to the late 18th – is to find the ‘correct’ tempo, not to invent their own arbitrary speed.
During the long 17th-century, composers indicate rhythm and tempo with precise notations, and those notations change during the course of the century. Certain rhythmic freedoms are clearly described in the early seicento, notably by Caccini and Frescobaldi. Frescobaldi Rules OK here.
The steady, slow duple beat of Tactus (around 1 beat per second) is like the pendulum of the clock, which drives the various cogs at different, but interlocked, speeds. Those cogs are the various Proportions of ternary measure.
The mathematical precision of this system is an earthly imitation of the perfect movement of the heavens, driven by the hand of God. Nevertheless, humanist music-making allowed subtle adjustments to the (theoretically ever-constant) Tactus, creating time-changes between contrasting sections – i.e. contrasting movements.
Nowadays, we use the word tempo to mean the ‘speed’ of the music, how fast does it go. But circa 1600, tempo meant Time itself, the measurement of real-world time in seconds. And this is not Newton’s (1687) Absolute Time, it is Aristotelean Time, which does not flow of its own accord, but is dependent on movement, and upon an observing Soul. More on Aristotelean Time here.
Aristotelean Time calibrates the musical notation of the mensural system to the real world, so that the note-values on the page “come to life” with sound and duration. More about Time, the Soul of Music here.
The essential movement, without which Time cannot be counted, is provided by a human hand, imitating the hand of God to administer a constant, equal and unchanging beat – battuta – also known as the light touch of Tactus. Zacconi explains that misura, the measuring of music time in mensural notation, battuta, and Tactus are all the same thing, Time itself.
A century later, this has changed. Whilst note-values are still seen as Quantitatively precise, the subjective Quality of how the music feels is understood to be variable, and it is this emotional Quality that is now called tempo (or in French, mouvement). More about Quality Time here.
This first conceptual shift in the meaning of the word tempo – from real-world Time to emotional Quality – is happening during the period under discussion in this article.
The second paradigm shift – from Aristotelean to Newtonian Time – happens much later. Sustained, fierce resistance to Newton’s ideas prevented them becoming effective in music-making until probably the early 1900s. Newtonian Time is a pre-requisite for the modern concept of tempo as the ‘speed’ of music, since we need Absolute Time as a benchmark to measure variable speeds.
The late 17th century is a less familiar transitional phase between two contrasting notational systems that have been more intensively studied by modern-day researchers: the mensural marks of Monteverdi’s (and in Milan, Cima’s) generation; and the time signatures of Bach and Handel. This transition was gradual: some features of the mensural system were already obselete for Monteverdi; but the 16th-century concept of a ‘standard’ or ‘correct’ time – tempo ordinario or tempo giusto – remained in force throughout the 18th century.
Nevertheless, one crucial change can be seen in the nuns’ publications: that change is underway in Leonarda’s notations, and is complete in Badalla’s publication.
This change affects the notation of ternary meter. At the slow extreme, movements in three semibreves fall out of use: at the fast extreme, such markings as 3/8, 6/8 and 12/8 appear. Thus far, I have not seen the old and new notations appear simultaneously in a single work; and only once within a single publication.
Monteverdi notates Proportions with what are undeniably mensuration marks, though much of their meaning has evaporated by the early 1600s. I have argued elsewhere that Roger Bowers’ theory that these marks retain their full and complex medieval significance is incompatible with the need for performers (working from part-books, and often with minimal or no rehearsal) to come to rapid and unanimous decisions at each change of Proportion.
Scholars agree that bar-lengths are arbitrary in this period. Note that in the 17th century battuta means ‘beat’, and not ‘bar’ as in modern Italian.
The key feature of Monteverdi’s Proportional notation is the choice of note-values. Three semibreves show the slowest Proportion (Sesquialtera); three minims show a medium-fast Proportion (Tripla); six semi-minims shows the very fast (Sestupla) Proportion. Read more about Monteverdi’s Proportions here.
Whatever Proportion is in use (and different voices may be in different meters and/or different mensuration marks), the duration of any particular note-value, a minim say, is the same in all Proportions. Carissimi (Ars Cantandi, 1696) puts it very simply: “the triple-metres all agree with regard to quantity, division and proportion, as is easily understood.” Bowers mentions this principle in passing but failed to follow up its implications.
Proportions are like the cog-wheels of a clock, regulated by the steady pendulum-like swing of Tactus. Once the Tactus is set (around minim = 1 second), there are only these three Proportions available: slow sesquialtera (3 semibreves in 2 tactus beats); medium-fast tripla (3 minims in 1 tactus beat); fast sestupla (6 semi-minims in 1 tactus beat). Any further multiples would be ridiculously slow or impossibly fast.
During the early seicento, composers increasingly used written instructions and/or such words as adagio, allegro, presto etc. to modify the basic information given by the note-values. Often, those modifiers exaggerate the contrast in activity already shown. Always, these modifiers indicate subtle gradations around a ‘ball-park’ tempo shown by the note-values.
Triple Proportion uses mostly long note-values, which proceed proportionately faster than in duple time. So we recognise the final Moresca of Monteverdi’s Orfeo as Tripla Proportion (organised in units of three minims, structured as semibreve-minim), even though the ternary mensuration mark is missing. It would make no sense to play this in duple time at minim = 60.
The note-values of ternary proportions can be written in ‘white notation’ or ‘black’.
Under a ternary mensuration mark, a white semibreve might sometimes be ‘perfected’ to be worth three minims. A black semibreve – a black blob – is always worth only two minims.
In white notation, a semi-minim might look like a ‘white quaver’, but more often it looks like a regular crotchet. In black notation, a black minim looks like a regular crotchet, and a black semi-minim looks like a regular quaver.
Sometimes black notation is introduced in the middle of a section of white notation. This can produce ambiguities: is this thing that looks like a regular crotchet, i.e. a blob with a stick, a ‘black minim’ or a ‘white semi-minim’? But – once you get used to the two notations – this is less confusing that it might seem at first.
Moving on from Monteverdi and Cima to Badalla’s Motetti, we again see three sets of note-values for the three ternerary Proportions. But there has been a change. For Badalla, the alternative notations of ‘white’ and ‘black’ note-values have simplified into something that looks more like modern usage, though we still need to be careful in understanding the significance.
We can see this change in progess within Leonarda’s oeuvre: three old-style ‘black minims’ under a mensuration mark of 3 or 3/2 are replaced with (identical-looking) crotchets and a time signature of 3/4: this is the new-style Tripla.
In Badalla’s 1684 publication, the slowest ternary metre is now shown with three white minims and 3 or 3/2. This is the new notation for slow Sesquialtera: the old notation with three semibreves has fallen out of use. A new fast notation appears: six quavers with a time signature of 6/8. This is the new Sestupla.
Both Leonarda and Badalla use the mensuration mark 3 to indicate ternary Proportion in general. Since the choice of proportion is governed by note-values, this mark is not ambiguous.
Leonarda’s publications vary between old and new styles of notation. I have only seen one example of both notations within the same collection, and the two styles are never used in a single piece. Movements in three semibreves identify the old style, time signatures of 6/8 etc identify the old style. We need to know which style is at work, in order to understand the meaning of three minims (old-style Tripla, new- style Sesquialtera).
Any of these strict Proportions can be subtly altered by modifying words: adagio, risoluto, allegro, presto [from slow to fast]. And in a section notated in duple time, C, the Tactus can also be modified by these words. The effect of Proportional changes between duple and triple is often exaggerated: e.g. from standard C [ordinario] to 6/8 presto. Sometimes the contrast is reduced: .e.g from C [ordinario] to 3/4 adagio.
There can also be subtle changes whilst keeping the same mensuration, e.g. in C from ordinario to adagio and then back to risoluto.
I have not seen the terms giusto or ordinario in the nun’s repertoire. This is unsurprising: if we see C (or any other marking of time) without any modifying word, then the tempo should be ordinario, giusto (correct).
Following some temporary modification, a return to tempo ordinario is shown by plain C (or a proportional mark). In Badalla’s Tacete o la, Tacete it is not clear whether risoluto signifies here an entirely new ‘resolute’ feeling, or a return to what we would nowadays call tempo primo. I would suggest that it hardly matters in this case, since a risoluto delivery of the opening phrase would be perfectly appropriate.
The words giusto and ordinario are also rare in Handel’s ouevre, though he sometimes writes them (as a warning against excess, or in order to emphasise a return to normality after some dramatic extreme).
20th-century Ur-text editors often supply [Allegro] where a first movement has no modifying word: we can now understand that this is incorrect. The proper editorial comment would be [Tempo Ordinario] or [Tempo Giusto]. Allegro is not the default choice for an opening movement, rather it is somewhat faster than the usual ordinario.
It’s generally agreed amongst specialist scholars investigating high baroque notation of tempo that 18th-century composers continued – even increased their ability – to indicate tempo as precisely as possible. See for example Julia Doktor’s Tempo & Tactus in the German Baroque here. Indeed, very fine details of subtle differences could be indicated, by combining three levels of gradation: coarse, medium and fine.
This fine-meshed array of possible tempi was calibrated to tempo ordinario (normal time). The alternative name of tempo giusto (correct time) reminds us that composers indicated the correct tempo, it is not the performer’s role to make arbitrary decisions. Nevertheless, tempo ordinario is not defined by any mechanical device, but by the subjective, human feeling for Time itself.
Proportions (3/2, 3/4, 6/8) define the broad parameters for relating one movement to another. A quaver in 6/8 is nominally twice as fast as a crotchet in 3/4, which in turn is twice as fast as a minim in 3/2. In practice however, those 6/8 quavers might be significantly faster than 3/4 crotchets, but not as much as twice the speed. Similarly 3/2 minims are significantly slower than 3/4 crotchets, but perhaps not as much as twice the duration.
C and C/ are similarly a 2:1 ratio in theory, but not so far apart in practice. If we consider the minim Tactus in C as the standard, then the semibreve Tactus in C/ can be somewhat slower.
Two opposing principles are at work. Smaller note-values are expected to have shorter duration, maintaining contrast. This principle tends to favour a slower beat if the Tactus is on a greater note-value.
Contrariwise, practical considerations discourage excessively slow tempi for long note-values, or exaggeratedly fast tempi for short note-values. So the Tactus beat might be slower, if there is a lot of surface activity in small note-values (reducing contrast).
These two opposing tendencies can be traced back to the early seicento. It seems the preference is to maintain or indeed exaggerate contrasts in surface activity at proportional changes, whilst taking a slower beat for a section with decorative passage-work, for practical convenience. Within each section, the Tactus is steady.
In theory, 18th-century Tripla Proportion still assumes constant Tactus, with C minim = 3/4 dotted minim. In practice, this sets up two alternative sets of Proportions, depending on whether the fundamental duple Tactus is based on C or C/.
In French-influenced music, a great variety of subtly different triple metre tempi are found, defined by dance-type. Each dance-type has its own mouvement, which specifies not only the speed of the Tactus beat, but also the rhythmic structure within that beat, and the emotional feeling associated with music and dance-steps.
Thus Tempo di Minuetto is poorly translated as ‘Minuet-speed’. Rather, the music should ‘move’ like a minuet, ‘swing’ like a minuet, ‘feel’ like a minuet. Carissimi’s declaration that tempo and mouvement convey the Quality of music must be linked to Muffat’s explanation, in Florilegium (1698) here, of vrai mouvement in Lully’s dance-music.
Handel’s Time Signatures
In the first half of the 18th century, variant time signatures within each Proportion give medium-level information. 3/8 goes faster than 6/8, which goes faster than 12/8.
The information given by time-signatures is thus already quite precise. And tempo-words give the last fine adjustment. Composers are able to show both clarity and subtlety in their markings.
There are two essential principles to guide modern performers towards late-17th- and 18th-century composers’ intended tempi.
1. The same notation [time signature and tempo word] implies the same tempo.
So we can compare similarly-notated movements, to find the speed that “works” for all of them
2. There is general agreement about the ORDER (slow to fast) of the various notations.
So we can rank the various movements in order, and compare near-neighbours to establish subtle differences.
The entire spectrum might be moved one way or another, according to the size of the ensemble, venue acoustic etc. But these two principles still hold. And, combined, they leave very little ‘wiggle room’, (especially in the 18th-century).
We can have a very good idea of composer’s wishes. We do NOT need to invent our own tempi.
Modern performers need to be aware of a crucial difference between our own ‘instinctive’ assumptions and baroque practice. We tend to look first at the tempo word, and take little notice of the time-signature as a source of tempo-information.
Baroque practice was the opposite: the time-signature gives the basic information, which is modified only in a subtle way by any tempo word. And that tempo word influences the character of the movement, more than the raw speed.
Badalla’s Time Signatures
Badalla’s use of proportions (the “denominator” of each time signature) and tempo-modifying words is clear. Her practice lies on the pathway from Monteverdi and Cima via Leonarda towards Handel.
But it is less certain how we should understand her use of variants (the ‘numerator’ of each time signature). These time signatures were not part of earlier practice, but we have a good understanding of how they are used by generations of composers following Leonarda and Badalla (see Handel’s Time Signatures above).
My suggestion for Badalla’s generation is based on the experience of studying this repertoire with actual, physical Tactus-beating. And I assume that late 17th-century practices are likely to represent a transition between early seicento and early 18th-century practices (each of which is better understood in current scholarship than the transition in-between them).
I suggest that Badalla’s 6/8 (standard Sestupla) could be beaten with a down-stroke on the down-beat of each 6/8 bar. This is approximately 1 down-beat per second at tempo ordinario.
In 3/8, the note-values have the same duration, but the beat is now a down-stroke on the down-beat of each 3/8 bar. This is a very fast (about 2 down-beats per second), vigorous beat, creating a very different feeling.
In 12/8, the note-values again have the same duration, but with a down-stroke on the down-beat of each 12/8 bar. This is a slow, steady beat (down for one second, up for one second).
Try beating each of these in turn – 6/8, 3/8, 12/8 – to appreciate the physicality of Tactus. Physical Tactus-beating produces strong contrasts in emotional Quality, even though a quaver has the same Quantitative duration in each case (as Carissimi tells us).
In theory, the note-values have exactly the same Quantity, only the Tactus beat and the subjective Quality changes. In practice, a very energetic 3/8 beat might produce a faster speed than the calm 12/8 beat. And over the years, this tendency would lead towards to the conventions that we observe in early-18th-century usage.
This article has been concerned with rhythmic notation. But we should always keep in mind the other top priority of baroque music: Rhetoric, which in vocal music can be studied directly via the sung text. Even in instrumental music, the concept of music as a Rhetorical Art implies that we play as if there is a text being sung. .
Text defines articulations from syllable to syllable; and also affetti, emotions, from word to word; and the general mood from movement to movement. Thus Frescobaldi characterised his harpsichord Toccatas as having vocal affetti and a variety of movements, passi.
To find the affetto of an instrumental movement, Frescobaldi recommends that you play it through (at standard tempo), which will reveal the emotional character. This emotional character will then subtly adjust the standard speed in the appropriate direction. Tempo-modifying words work similarly, to adjust the basic significance of mensural notation. More on Frescobaldi here.
As we have seen, Badalla has at her command a sophisticated system of proportions, time-signatures and modifying words to indicate her intentions for tempo. As modern performers, we need to reconcile our understanding of the sung text with these details of musical notation.
We can assume that the composer has already responded to the affetto of the text, so that her tempo-indications can help us appreciate how she is responding to that text. Notations of tempo help us understand the emotional content.
We can also examine the affetto directly from the text in order to understand how the music, and our performance of it, might respond. This can guide us to changes of tone-colour, intensity etc, within the steady Tactus of each movement. It might even suggest moments where the singer is early or late on the beat, whilst the Tactus continues steadily. Read more about the baroque ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’, here.
The text can also help us understand the tempo required for an entire movement, though we should not lightly abandon the composer’s own tempo-indications. If we think that the text requires a different tempo from that indicated by the musical notation, it is probably we who are wrong, rather than Badalla!
Word by word, movement by movement
Two techniques can help us avoid imposing our own preconceptions, in order to approach the text from a period perspective.
Word by word, the appropriate manner of performance is defined by the word itself. Amore does not imply singing piano, or slow, or legato: we should sing the word lovingly. Fuoco does not necessarily imply singing forte, or fast, or staccato: we should sing the word in a fiery manner.
We should avoid blurring meanings by substuting generalised musical instructions, rather we can take the word itself and turn it into a specific adverb, the precise way to sing this particular word.
Movement by movement, we can study frequently repeated and emotionally significant words, in order to determine which of the Four Humours is in play. This reveals subtle distinctions (love is Sanguine, desire is Choleric, unrequited love is Melancholy), and also gives general guidance to prevent us being misled by modern-day assumptions.
Leonarda’s dulcis flamma et ignis es (you [Jesus] are sweet flame and fire) might lull us into the expectation of a sweet, gentle mood, if we focus exclusively on the word dulcis, ‘sweet’. And certainly that individual word should be sung sweetly. But flamma and ignis clearly define the Choleric Humour, as the mood for this phrase and its repetitions as a whole.
17th-century music thrives on such short-term emotional contrasts dulcis flamma, whilst it is structured on the longer-term mood contrasts. This phrase is Choleric, but the movement (and the entire motet) ends in Sanguine hope, spes.
The baroque priorities of Rhetoric (i.e. text) and Rhythm were carefully observed and precisely notated by Badalla, as well as by previous and later generations, albeit in slightly different ways.
As performers, we do not have to summon up our own emotional response to the words nor choose our own tempo for the music. The text itself defines the emotions on both short and long-term levels, and the music notates the appropriate tempo.
The challenge, in this and all HIP music-making, is to understand historical information, rather than inventing our own ‘truth’!
Altri canti d’Amor, tenero Arciero… di Marte io canto. Others sing of Love, the tender Archer… I sing of Mars!
Altri canti di Marte e di sua schiera… io canto amor. Others sing of Mars and of his army… I sing of Love!
set by Claudio Monteverdi
Others sing without Tactus…
Modern-day performances of the concerted madrigals of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book Madrigali Guerrieri ed Amorosi (1638) usually adopt one of two strategies: a modern onductor; or no conductor at all, perhaps with some leading from the first violin. Tempi are chosen at the performers’ whim. None of this corresponds to period practice.
This repertoire is precisely the ‘difficult’ genre of ‘modern madrigals’ discussed by Frescobaldi, where there are contrasting movements (passi) and passionate vocal effects. Frescobaldi Rules, OK? here.
In this period, rhythm was almost always directed by Tactus-beating from within the ensemble. The Tactus-beater is usually a singer, because instrumentalists’ hands are occupied.
Nevertheless continuo-players have the role of ‘guiding and supporting’ the entire ensemble of voices and instruments [Agazzari 1607, here]. And Frescobaldi’s rules – formulated for keyboard players – remind us that Tactus is present as a guiding concept even when it is not physically realised. Many sources recommend that instrumentalists beat Tactus with a foot.
All this matters because the sound and feeling of Tactus-led music-making are very different from modern conducting AND from modern-day chamber-music playing. Tactus-beating maintains a minim-pulse that is “regular, solid, stable, firm, clear, sure, fearless and without any perturbation.”
In contrast, most modern conductors make a free choice of which note-value to beat, and apply rallentando and other speed variations (deliberately, or otherwise!). The requirement to synchronise with a steady Tactus guards ensembles against rushing or dragging, and against the lurching changes associated with the oft-heard comment “this phrase goes towards such-and-such a note”. The concept of “goes towards” is not found in period sources: rather the Tactus is stable, and within that stable beat individual notes are Good or Bad, Long or Short. The Good, the Bad and the Early Music phrase, here.
So much for the canti senza gesto – the songs without action. But Monteverdi’s Book VIII also includes some ‘short episodes’ in genere rappresentativo, in show-style, in theatrical style. For those pieces, the convention was not to use any visible Tactus-beating, since the singers were representing dramatic characters. They might well use their hands to gesture expressively, but nobody beats time. This devolves the responsibility for time-keeping to the continuo, who in this style ‘rule’ or ‘regulate’ (reggono) ‘guide’ or ‘drive’ (guidano) the singers.
In all these pieces, in both chamber-music and dramatic genres, Monteverdi’s notation indicates a basic tempo which might be tweaked to exaggerate contrasts of affetto (mood, emotion) and of musical activity. This basic tempo is regulated by a fundamental Tactus in mensuration mark C of approximately minim = 60: a human (and therefore subjective) feeling for the misura of Time itself. The usual way to beat was simple: down for a minim, up for a minim.
Altri canti d’amor is one of the few pieces to include all three triple-metre Proportions: slow Sesquialtera, medium-fast Tripla and fast Sestupla. As Carissimi observed, the note-values in each of these proportions have the same quantitative duration, but the emotional quality of the movement is very different. More on Quality Time here.
Sesquialtera Semibreve = 90 Movement based on semibreves
Tripla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on minims
Sestupla Dotted semibreve = 60 Movement based on semi-minims
Binary Tactus – ternary metre
Altri canti di Marte has a short section with an unusual notation that creates the impression of ternary metre, but in the steady speed and black notation of regular crotchets.
The Tactus beat here is the standard down-up at minim = 60, but the word-accents do not coincide with the Tactus beats. Reading from unbarred part-books, singers are not threatened by the ‘tyranny of the bar-line’. Similarly in the choral recitation of Hor che ciel e la terra.
Another binary notation with ternary effect is seen in Act II of Orfeo. Again, the beat is the standard minim = 60, producing a slower movement than would result from Proportional notation.
Tweaking the Tactus
Frescobaldi recommends listening to the music (with the standard Tactus and Proportions) before deciding how to tweak the Tactus between sections, according to the emotional quality, or affetto. In Monteverdi’s madrigals, we can discern the intended affetto not only from the sound of the music, but also directly from the sung text.
Words with particular emotional content can help us position the affetto within the historical framework of the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope, enjoyment of good things), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (pensive, unlucky in love, sleepless, ‘the blues’), Phlegmatic (cold, damped-down, a ‘wet blanket’).
The composer will already have responded to the affetto, with appropriate melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Jacopo Peri explains that in dramatic monody, the affetto is composed into the continuo bass: the singer’s pitches and rhythms represent (in musical notation) the way this text would be declaimed by a fine actor in the spoken theatre. More on Peri here.
None of this is ‘improvisatory’: it is not a ‘sketch’ to be completed by the performer. Rather, the composer has written down in musical notation the period conventions of dramatic delivery. Monteverdi, ‘the divine Claudio’, was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be the master of moving the audience’s passions by his expressive harmonies and precisely notated rhythms. Much more about Monteverdi’s genius for word-setting and theatre in Tim Carter’s inspiring book on Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre, here.
Changing the Tactus according to the affetto
When we (as performers) respond to the affetto, we should expect to find ourselves adding to the contrasts that the composer has already written in. If the affetto of the text is agitated, the composer will have written fast notes, and we should perform these with a faster Tactus. If the affetto of the text is calm, the composer will have written slow notes, and we should perform these with a slower Tactus.
Even (especially) if the affetto is extreme, the change to the Tactus can only be small, since the composer will already have used extreme note-values, This famously agitated moment in Monteverdi’s Combattimento simply cannot be taken very much faster than standard Tactus, which is already 16 syllables per second!
So the performers’ tweaking of the Tactus is subtle, and should be percieved by the listener as an emotional change, rather than an alteration of tempo as such. These changes happen between contrasting movements – passi – section by section, not word by word.
The change of Tactus between sections is managed by means of the Tactus itself. Frescobaldi explains how: the Tactus hand is momentarily suspended on the upstroke, and then the new beat begins ‘resolutely’. No rallentando or accelerando, rather a decisive ‘gear-change’. Exciting, disturbing…. this is how to muovere gli affetti, move the listeners’ passions.
Change of affetto word by word
Zacconi explains how to manage changes of affetto for a particular word, within one movement, i.e. within a section at steady Tactus. The singer can delay the expressive syllable, but the Tactus (and the continuo) continue steadily. The singer should be back on track by the next Tactus beat. Read more about this c1600 ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’ here.
A tender affetto is expressed with accenti (read more here). A robust affetto avoids acccenti, but might encourage passaggi (though not in theatrical music, where passaggi were generally discouraged). It is important to sing passaggi in tempo, i.e. according to Tactus. More on passaggi here.
Words full of expressive affetto can be ornamented with effetti: the single note trillo, an exclamatione (diminuendo-crescendo on a single note), a gruppo (two-note trill and turn). These ornaments are used sparingly in the theatrical style.
And we should avoid not only that ornament, but the entire modern-day habit of ornamenting the final cadence. What? Really? Yes, really! Read more here.
Caccini explains how to manage small notes within the steady Tactus: in syllabic melody, the good syllable is slightly longer, the bad syllable slightly shorter; in melismatic passaggi, long notes can be extra long, short notes exta short; ornaments accelerate from slow to fast. More on Caccini here.
Caccini also defines the priorities for music-making in this style: “text and rhythm, with sound last of all (and not the other way around!)”. So instead of obsessing over vibrato, pitch and temperament, let’s engage with the period priorities of text and rhythm. Read how Music expresses Emotions here.
My advice to modern-day rehearsal directors is to begin with the text, and coach performers to manage that text in Tactus-rhythm. When the music is difficult, follow Frescobaldi’s Rules, and use the omnipresent Tactus to facilitate the performance, tweaking that Tactus (subtly) when a new movement starts, when the mood (affetto) changes..
In a forthcoming series of short articles, I’ll apply that advice, i.e. these historical principles to some favourite Libro VIII Madrigals. LInks will be posted below.
When we study Ornamentation c1600, it is an over-simplification to view Divisions (also known as Diminutions, passaggi – replacing a long note, or a phrase in long notes with many short or very short notes) as ‘Renaissance’, Graces (effetti – trills etc applied to a single note) as ‘Baroque’. Caccini’s Le nuove musiche (1601) read more argues against pasaggi and in favour of effetti, but his written-out musical examples include substantial passaggi. Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo (see The Orfeo Pageby Il Corago) famously presents an aria passeggiata at the heart of the drama, when Orpheus attempts to persuade Caronte to grant him admission into Hell. Conversely, there are 16th-century indications of expressive vocal effects being applied to a single note (see Zacconi on the accento, here).
But it is useful – I would say, essential – to keep the distinction between these two types of Ornamentation constantly in mind. Divisions fulfilled one of the three aims of Rhetoric by delighting the ear – delectare. But they risked spoiling communication of the text – the aim of docere. And they were regarded as emotionally unpersuasive – ruining the aim of movere gli affeti (moving the emotions). Significantly, Caronte is ‘delighted’ by Orpheus’ passaggi, but is not moved to pity. Graces, (effetti, vocal special effects), were used sparingly, so as not to compromise transmission of the text. And effetti were so closely linked to emotions (affetti) that the two words came to used almost interchangably: effetti produce affetti. Only when we understand this difference between pasaggi and effetti can we make appropriate choices of when to apply each type (see Ornamenting Monteverdi here).
Too often, we attempt to add Ornamentation in rehearsal, a day or so before the performance, encouraged, guided or resrained by the Musical Director. But Divisions require specific techniques of execution, and skills of invention/application, which cannot be acquired in a few minutes of rehearsal time, with the whole ensemble sitting there waiting for you. You need to prepare in advance. And if you intend to improvise, even more advance preparation will be needed.
Studying Ornamentation by ear is certainly a valid historical approach – many period sources recommend this – but CDs are not primary sources. Learning from CDs carries a high risk of copying everyone else’s mistakes and misunderstandings. If you want to learn by ear, then record yourself (or a trusted teacher) performing examples from period treatises, and listen to those. And this is a good moment to recommend Helen Robert’s Passaggi App, which brings the historical method of aural study into the 21st century.
Certainly, you can only learn about Divisions by practising how to do them, in advance. This article introduces two essential late-16th-century sources, and summarises their approach.
Dalla Casa was a cornetto-player at St Mark’s, Venice. His (1584) Vero modo di diminuir(True Way to make Diminutions) focuses on wind instruments, but is also offered to keyboard- string- and bowed-string-players and to singers. A particular feature are settings for viola da gamba that move around within the polyphonic texture, ornamenting any of the voices or adding an extra voice., in a style called viola bastarda. Bovicelli was a boy-chorister and later sopranist at Milan Cathedral. HIs (1594) Regole, Passaggi (Rules, musical Divisions, Ornamented madrigals and motets) concentrates on vocal Divisions. The first part of his Rules deals with the sung text, often displacing syllables from the original underlay to make more graceful Divisions. The second part deals with the notes: the arrival on the written note is often delayed.
Dispositione – technique
Bovicelli does not offer any advice to help singers acquire the dispositione – what we would nowadays call ‘vocal technique’ required to execute these ornaments. For wind instruments, Dalla Casa describes and gives musical examples of various tonguing syllables, and modern-day singers might try these with the voice. Otherwise, the best period advice comes from Caccini, who identifies the single note trillo (speeding up from slow to fast) as the gateway to any kind of ornamentation.
I coach singers to put Caccini’s method into practice, by repeating the same note on the syllable a, going from slow to fast. We can understand his ribattere con la gola (literally, beating with the throat) as creating fast repetitions by relaxing the throat whilst maintaining steady support from the diaphragm. Don’t try to sing loud, but rather cultivate a feeling of fun – Bovicelli describes such fast singing as the Art of playing around with nature.
Once you can switch the fast notes on and off, on a single pitch, step two is to move the pitch up and down. And step three is to synchronise the changing pitches with the ‘beating’. This is the same challenge of synchronisation that awaits wind-players (fingers and tongue) or bowed strings (left and right hands).
Dalla Casa similarly leads his wind-players through divisions in crome – quavers (8 to the semibreve – whole-note beat), semicrome semiquavers (16), treplicate triplet semiquavers (24 to the semibreve) and quadruplicate (32). His ‘true way’ leads to Mixed Diminuitions applying all four note-values.
Both writers provide countless short examples of Divisions, taking long notes across each interval (second, third, fourth etc) upwards and downwards and dividing the first long note into many shorter notes. These short examples are to be learnt, applied and imitated, and the student can combine several of them to create longer divisions.
Such combinations of many individual divisions are demonstrated in the books by ornamented settings of complete pieces, madrigals by Rore, motets by Palestrina and Vittoria. We are accustomed to hearing these sacred repertoires nowadays with the “pure lines”, extreme legato and stand-alone conductor of the 19th/20th-century aesthetic. Bovicelli refers to performing divisions not only as da concerto – as concert-pieces – but also da capella – in church. Just imagine the effect of this soprano-line in Palestrina’s Ave verum corpus…
Style in peformance
In Early Music studies, we try to avoid the modern binary of Technique/Interpretation. Nevertheless, these two sources offer valuable advice for good style in performance, discussed as portar la voce or portar la minuta – delivering (literally ‘carrying’) the voice, or the Division. Bovicelli’s Rules gives many specific style indications, all worth studying in detail. Dalla Casa’s Preface to his second book is short, just four paragraphs. The first paragraph offers his work to all kinds of musicians, and repeats his preference for Mixed Diminutions, and there is a paragraph each for the Viola da Gamba and the Human Voice.
The longest paragraph emphasises the importance of ‘Performing the Divisions in Tempo
Del portar la minuta a tempo.
Our modern-day understanding of tempo as the ‘speed of music’ differs from the period concept in which musical tempo means Time itself. Time is measured by a human estimate of how long one second lasts, it is notated by the written note-values within the duration of a semibreve, it is shown by the slow steady beat of Tactus. For Zacconi Time, Measure, Beat and Tactus (tempo, misura, battuta, tatto) are synonymous (read more here). Dalla Casa’s words and musical notation confirm a semibreve beat, notated with the mensuration mark C/.
For Zacconi, Time is the Soul of Music, and Dalla Casa gives tempo similar importance in his music of Divisions.
“About delivering the dimunition in time.
“I say it is a difficult thing to deliver the diminution in time, and this is the most important for everyone who follows this profession of making diminutions with all kinds of instruments. Therefore let each person take notice in their study to beat Tactus, and never to study without this regulation, and to accustom themselves to the beat; because doing otherwise would not be a good thing. And take notice of the four note-values, that the semiquaver (as is known) is performed twice as fast as the quaver, i.e. 16 to 8; the triplet-semiquavers – treplicate – are performed as 24 to 16, which is a third more than the semiquaver; and the demisemiquavers – quadruplicate – are performed still once again as fast, i.e. 32 to 24. Everyone should take note to accommodate themselves to the Tactus, and beat their diminution note by note; like this for those who play a wind instrument and also for those play keyboard instruments, and not to rush ahead as many wind-players do who make runs with a dead tongue (slurring), without tonguing the diminution, in order to make it easier; or those who cannot keep a brake on their tongue, as with reverse tonguing (see the Preface to Book 1) which is difficult to brake. Therefore let everyone beat the diminution note by note, and deliver the four note-values with their proper timing, if they want to do well.” [Dalla Casa]
Beating ‘note by note’ refers to the Tactus-value of the semibreve in the original composition: there is no suggestion of beating time for every 32nd note! Bovicelli also recommends nel Passeggiare star obligato al tempo giusto – to keep to the correct Time when making Divisions. Within the semibreve beat, quavers can be taken long-short:
Caccini (1601) suggests short-long:
Bovicelli shapes a long run of semiquavers elegantly, by sustaining the first note:
Hold the first note, then run!
In modern-day performances, we often hear the contrary, where performers rush the beginning of the division and then wait before moving to the next note. But Bovicelli mentions several times that it is more graceful to flow directly from the fast notes into the following principal note: often, he adjusts the underlay, or continues the run into medium-fast notes to get a smoother transition.
Another option is to hold the top note:
Sustained notes in the midst of short notes can be given a tremolo, marked as /\ :
The general tendency is for ornaments to go from slow to fast – this habit is instilled from the first exercise that Caccini teaches, and Bovicelli applies it to a two-note trill gropetto that crams in more and more little notes before arriving at the following principal note. The effect is that – as the notes go faster and faster – the subsequent arrival feels ‘delayed’ – rafrenato.
The much-desired quality of leggiadria (lightness) comes from the contrast of sustained long notes and lightly-touched short notes. We can summarise this principle as “long notes long, short notes short”.
“But in this, take note, that the more you hold the first note, and the second is faster, the more gracefulnessis given to the voice. This gracefulness cannot exist, if the notes all have the same value. For leggiadria of singing, as we said above, is nothing other than the varation of notes of greater and lesser value, as you will also see below.” [Bovicelli]
Caccini is guided by the same principles of gratia and leggiadria in his examples of rhythmic alteration within the steady Tactus.
Bovicelli requires that Diminutions suit the character of the words, whether bold or tender.
“Just as it would be most reprehensible for a composer, if the words are sad [this must be a typo for meste] , to set them with happy notes, or to set sad notes under happy words: similarly in singing we must as much as possible imitate the words: that is, sad words must not be decorated with Passaggi, but set (as we might say) with accenti and a tenderly emotional, lamenting voice; if the words are happy, use Passaggi, and give them extra vivacity, making varied notes (dotted notes, leaps, diverse note-values), as you see.” [Bovicelli]
Ave! means ‘Hail!’ – As a cathedral chorister, Bovicelli is probably thinking of the liturgical texts Ave Maria, gratia plena, or Ave verum corpus (see above).
Bovicelli’s linking of bold texts with passaggi, tender words with accenti is supported by Zacconi’s advice to avoid accenti where the words are powerful (read more here). And Bovicelli’s ’emotional voice’ voce flebile hints at Caccini’s oft-repeated recommendation of crescendo and/or diminuendo on a single note as the most effective way to convey emotions (read more here).
Zacconi explains that the expressive accento produces a delay in the arrival of the second note, but the Tactus itself (and therefore the accompaniment) is not altered (readmore here). And after being late on one beat, the singer is expected to be back on the beat for the next semibreve. Bovicelli and Monteverdi notate similar delays and anticipations for solo singers.. Their clear explanations and precise notation seem to clarify Caccini’s evocative but enigmatic use of the terms sprezzatura and senza misura which [in the context of expressive syllabic setting, as opposed to melismatic Divisions] he links also to a ‘cool’ style of voice-production, something ‘between singing and speaking’. Read more here.
In contrast to the soft flebile effect and ‘cool’ rhythm of accenti for tender words, Bovicelli characterises Passaggi as on the beat semibreve by semibreve, impressing the audience ‘stupendous’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘having fun’ scherzando. This is supported by Aggazari (1607), who describes two ways of improvising from a bass-line: his ‘fundamental’ style is continuo accompaniment, and he characterises the ‘ornamental’ style as ‘having fun and improvising counterpoint’. Read more here. In circa-1600 music-drama,an aria passeggiata (a strophic song over a ground bass, with elaborate passaggi) heralds the entrance of some god or mortal with superhuman powers: Caccini’s sorceress who makes the moon fall from the sky; Peri’s dolphin-riding super-hero-singer Arion (both in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi), Orpheus arriving at the gateway to Hell in Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607).
Tactus for Divisions
It is clear that Divisions are not performed with the malleable tempo and vacillating rhythm of 20th-century rubato. Both Bovicelli and Dalla Casa insist on Tactus. Indeed Tactus is so essential that it is the only question of style in delivery (what we would nowadays call ‘interpretation’ as opposed to ‘technique’) that Dalla Casa addresses. Nevertheless, that Tactus might be faster or slower in particular circumstances. Whilst discussing disjunct quavers, Bovicelli informs us that the Tactus for passaggi was slower in a chamber performance – da concerto – than in church – da capella.
“… singing not in church, but in concert, where the Tactus should be slow.” [Bovicelli]
There are other period sources that indicate a slower-than-usual Tactus for passaggi. We gain a very different impression when we read their remarks, not in the context of 20th-century rubato, but in the light of Zacconi’s, Dalla Casa’s and Bovicelli’s insistence on Tactus. Read more in my next article: How il Signor Organista waits for il Cantate.
It’s one of the best-loved and most well-known pieces in the Early Music canon, but what would you focus on, if you were asked to direct it, with the first rehearsal starting in a few hours time?
Finding myself in precisely this situation, I went to the autograph MS (here), in order to strip back all the accretions of generations of editors, and to check the original tempo markings: at the beginning of each movement, where there are any changes within a movement, and whether there is any fermata for a cadenza, or perhaps a final adagio [both these last surprisingly infrequent].
There are many movements of course, and Handel uses a large number of fine gradations of tempo-detail: andante larghetto, andante & andante allegro; allegro larghetto, allegro moderato, allegro.
This grand spectrum of tempo-marks is centred on tempo ordinario and time-signature C. There are cross-links to alla breve C/, and to triple 3/4, and 3/8, and to compound 6/8 and 12/8. In principle, we expect to find proportional relationships: smaller note-values indicate definitely faster tempi, so 3/8 is significantly faster than 3/4, perhaps twice as fast. Tempo-words might also produce a proportional change: in the Overture, allegro moderato might be twice as fast as the opening grave. But in practice more beats in the bar suggest a slightly slower tempo, so 12/8 is somewhat slower than 6/8. And subtle shifts in character or changes in articulation create small adjustments to mathematical proportions.
Given all this information, there is a simple, but surprisingly powerful performance-research technique: take all the markings, and assemble a list, in order from slowest to fastest. Handel uses so many different markings, that once you have them in order, there is not much ‘room for manouevre’ in deciding the actual tempo for each marking. Read more about Handel’s tempo-markings Of course, you may want to bias the whole spectrum to the slow end, or to the fast end, depending on performing forces and venue acoustics. See a recent international discussion about 18th-century tempi.
Most significant of all, and a good way to apply this research-technique in first rehearsal, are the groups of movements that have precisely the same combination of time-signature and tempo-word.
Simply trying each of these movements, and searching for the tempo that “works” for all of them, produces some surprising results, surprises which clearly reflect Handel’s wishes.
So last night I made the ordered list, and this afternoon I compared several groups of movements that share the same combination of tempo-information.
And now I’m off to first rehearsal. Where’s the dog?
Published just before the year 1600, Luduvico Zacconi’s monumental treatise on Practical Music – Prattica di Musica (1592/1596) here – straddles the divide between the prima prattica of Palestrina’s renaissance polyphony and the emerging new style, Monteverdi’s seconda prattica of dramatic solo singing accompanied by basso continuo. The virtuoso singers of the first ‘operas’ of the early seicento – Jacopo Peri, Vittoria Archilei, Giulio Caccini, Francesco Rasi etc – were trained in the 16th-century traditions of eleborate ornamentation – passaggi – and of cantar con gratia (singing with grace; i.e. beautiful singing), a concept of vocal beauty described in detail by Zacconi.
A fundamental, but unwritten, element of beautiful singing, analysed by Zacconi and carried forward into dramatic monody, is a way of ‘adding beauty and decorum’ with certain ornaments ’caused by sustaining and delaying the voice’. Read more about Zacconi’s accento here
Whether in renaissance polyphony or in baroque monody, the fact that such frequent ‘delays’ were introduced by individual singers begs the question: how was ensemble-unity maintained? Nowadays, singers of Palestrina, Vittoria and Lassus are not permitted to decide for themselves when to add a beautiful delay to their particular voice-line, even if modern conductors sometimes slow down the whole ensemble (which is not what Zacconi describes).
Singers of Monteverdi often expect the continuo to follow their free rhythm, but this is contradicted explicitly by Agazzari(1607: continuo instruments ‘guide/drive’ the entire ensemble) & Gagliano (1608: continuo players rule/direct the singers), and implictly by Peri (1600) (more about Peri’s bass-lines here).
And Zacconi himself describes the Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation’. So how can we reconcile this steady beat (somewhere around 60 bpm) with the requirement for ‘beautiful delays’ from this or that singer?
Zacconi’s answer offers exciting new possibilites for renaissance polyphony and – hallelujah! – an end to the arguments between singers and continuo-players which have rumbled on for the last half-century of HIP Monteverdi, even to the point that some modern-day performers treat Rhythm and Rhetoric as the opposing horns of a dilemma.
Singers can sing off the beat
In Chapter XXXIII, concerned with delivering the Tactus, Zacconi confirms what we have already understood from his remarks on cantar con gratia, that singers can delay their pronunciation of a certain note, for the sake of vocal beauty, and that this is always a possibility. Discussing the accento, he warns singers not to delay too often, but the word sempre (always) in this chapter confirms that delays were nevertheless very frequently employed (see how and when to do this, here).
Tactus (and continuo) continue steadily
Zacconi instructs ‘the person delivering the Tactus’ clearly. Whatever delays the singers might introduce, the role of the Tactus-beater is to maintain the steady beat, and to bring the singers back onto that beat. In renaissance polyphony, the Tactus is delivered with an down-and-up movement of the hand. In baroque monody, there is no visual tactus-beating, and the role of maintaining Tactus, of guiding and directing the whole ensemble, is taken by the continuo.
We might think of this as the ‘Ella Fitzgerald rule’. Like the rhythm-section of a jazz-band, the role of the continuo is to maintain the steady swing, whilst the singer floats elegantly around the reliable beat.
There is more to it than this, of course. Frescobaldi describes how the beat itself can change, in specific situations, between sections of a piece (more Frescobaldi here). There may be reasons to take a generally slower Tactus, or to slow down the Tactus where there are elaborate passaggi. Caccini describes how singers can stylishly enhance rhythmic contrasts within the steady pulse of the Tactus (more Caccini here). Zacconi associates delays with gentle Affekts, and requires the singer to re-connect to the Tactus soon afterwards. Delays would seem to be associated with the Good syllable.
Chapter LXIII characterisescertain delays as a fundamental element of good singing, and chapter XXXIII specifies how to manage these delays within the steady swing of Tactus. Zacconi provides us with a penetrating insight into the general sound, the rhythmic feeling and the ensemble communication that operates throughout late renaissance and early baroque music-making.
Zacconi’s sound-world is very different from what we have become accustomed to in modern-day performances and recordings of circa 1600 repertoire. Polyphonic lines are not always vertically aligned – soloists might not be “together” with the continuo, a vocal ensemble might not pronounce consonants unanimously. But – like good jazz – it has a strong sense of swing, and everyone knows where the beat is, even if they choose not to be on it.
There are profound implications for continuo-playing. We have brought up a generation of continuo-players with two impressive, but un-historical skills: fitting-in discreetly with the results produced by a modern conductor, and following solo singers. We need to retrain continuo-players to show the Tactus boldly and clearly, and to guide and regulate, to maintain steady swing, whatever the singers might do over the top. In short, we need continuo-players to acquire the skills and habits of a good jazz rhythm-section. More about Monteverdi, Caccini and jazz here.
And to make this work, we probably need to remove that gross anachronism in today’s Early Music, the modern conductor. Otherwise, we might as well accompany Monteverdi on a Steinway piano.
Meanwhile, which renaissance vocal ensemble is ready to attempt Palestrina with passaggi and accenti, with beautiful delays AND with steady Tactus? I’m very eager to hear this.
Around the year 1600, singers were expected to deliver more than just the bare notes written by the composer. There was a well-established practice of dividing up long notes into elaborate swirls of short and very short notes – passaggi. The new aesthetic of solo song accompanied by a plucked instrument favoured short-range vocal effects – effetti – the one-note trillo, the two-note trill and turn grupetto etc. These effetti were intended to convey emotions – affetti – and were used sparingly: period sources show less frequent application of effetti than we hear in most modern-day performances. The change from old-style polyphony and passaggi to seconda prattica monody and effetti was gradual, so that these four categories overlapped considerably during the early seicento.
But in his (1596) Prattica di Musica (Libro Primo, Chapter LXIII) here Ludovico Zacconi describes in detail a way to ‘sing gracefully’ that is not merely an ornament, but rather an essential characteristic of fine vocal delivery. First he emphasises the importance of pronouncing the words schiette, intelligibile & chiare (cleanly, intelligibly and clearly), and intoning the musical notes accurately (giuste – in tune) and briskly (allegre), not forced or slow. Loud high notes should not be shouted; it’s better to take a high piano notes in falsetto (fingerle – fake them) than to strain. All this takes about a quarter-page.
The remainder of the chapter (more than 2 pages) is introduced as a detailed analysis of how to carry the voice across intervals of a third or more, a particular skill in repertoires that generally favours movement by step. Zacconi’s goal is the ‘grace and poise … demonstrated by the ability to perform effortlessly, and with agility, adding beauty and decorum.’ (si ricerca gratia & attitudine…quando in fare un attione dimostrano di farla senza fatica & all’ agilita, aggiungano le vaghezze e’l garbo).
‘This can be recognised as akin to the difference between seeing on horseback a Cavalier, a Capitan, or a ditch-digger and a porter; and with what ease an expert and fine standard-bearer handles, displays and moves the flag, compared to a shoe-maker. (In questo si conosce quanta differenza sia nel vedder star a cavallo un Cavaliere, un Capitano o un Zappaterra & un Facchino: & con quanta leggiadria tenghi in mano, spieghi e mova lo stendardo perito & buono Alfiero: che vedendola in mano a un Calzolaio…)
Highlight by delaying & sustaining
Intervals of a third or more ‘are delivered with certain accenti caused by some delays and sustaining of the voice’.
(Le dette figure s’accompagnano con alcuni accenti causati d’alcune rittardanze & sustentamenti di voce) The term accento does not mean ‘accent’ in the usual modern sense of a sharp, hard intensification of the start of a note – Zacconi is looking for a ‘beautiful… sweet’ effect, and his accento is not applied to strong, powerful texts. Nor is it a particular way of pronouncing words, a ‘foreign accent’. Nor does it mean the accented syllable of the word – the period terminology for this crucial concept is the Good or Long syllable. Nevertheless, we would expect to find the accento on a Good syllable.
Rather, accento means a “turn of phrase” in poetry or music, a brush-stroke in fine art, or a “highlight”. We recognise this meaning in the lines ‘O let me hear Thee speaking / in accents clear and still’ from an 1869 hymn by John E Bode. And we hear it also in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo: ‘I am Music, who with sweet accents can make tranquil every troubled heart’. Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti so far tranquillo ogni turbato core.
Zacconi’s characterisation of the accento as a fundamental element of vocal delivery explains why scholars have struggled to understand it fully in studies of treatises on ornamentation. Bruce Dickey’s excellent survey of Italian ornamentation in The Performer’s Guide to 17th-century Music (1997) here admits that ‘the actual form of the accento is somewhat elusive’ but continues to give several illuminating examples from Zacconi, emphasising that the period intention is ‘rhythmically vague and subjective’. Zacconi’s description of ‘delays’ and ‘sustaining’ defines the essential nature of this practice, giving a broad hint that we should include such rhythmic subtleties in our realisations of accenti from ornamentation treatises.
Zacconi states explicitly that this accento is an unwritten obligation: ‘the composer who writes the notes is only concerned with managing those notes according to what is convenient for harmonious progressions; but the singer who delivers them is obliged to perform them with the voice and make them resound according to Nature and the decorum of the words’. Il cantore nel sumministrarle e obligato d’accompagnarle con la voce, & farle rissonar secondo la natura & la proprieta delle parole. We should expect to hear these accenti frequently across intervals of a third or more, even though we do not see any indication in the written composition. Although Zacconi warns against excess, and mentions particular words that are unsuitable for accenti, it is clear that they were used more often than not.
Actually, there are some notations of accento-like delays in dramatic monody, in the published scores of the first ‘operas’. And this customary practice from the 1590s would have been part of the training and vocal habitus of the singers who performed in genere rappresentativo (in theatrical style) during the following decades. ’17th-century ornamentation practice is a blending of traditional of traditional practices bequeathed from the 16th century and innovative techniques developed in connection with the new monodic singing style fashionable after the turn of the century.’ [Dickey 1997]
Although we can certainly apply accenti to early-17th-century dramatic monody, the context in which Zacconi writes is prima prattica polyphony.
Nowadays, the best-known ensembles for renaissance a capella polyphony – many of them English and strongly influenced by their singers’ training in Oxford & Cambridge college choirs – maintain an aesthetic of “pure vocal lines”, homogeneity and legato that has its origins in the late 19th century. We rarely hear Palestrina, Lassus or Victoria with florid divisions, and the highlighted delays of Zacconi’s accento are unfamiliar even to historically informed performers.
Even though he warns against excessive sustain, the subtle delaying effect that Zacconi finds so beautiful must also strike modern ensemble-directors with alarm: how can the singers keep together, if one or another part frequently sustains the written note to arrive late on the next one, and even ‘highlights’ this effect? The insistence on vertical alignment that has been a central tenet of modern-day Early Music (particularly amongst CD-producers) seems to be contradicted by this unwritten, but fundamental and obligatory element of period practice.
How to carry the voice
Since Zacconi’s context is vocal polyphony, it is well worth considering text (which he has emphasised in the previous paragraphs). In the transcriptions that follow, I have added a plausible text to Zacconi’s untexted examples. My assumption is that the note that takes the accento also carries a Good syllable. The shift in text-pronunciation produced by these accenti further highlights the effect of delaying.
We can expect that instrumentalists would have imitated singers in all these unwritten subtleties. ‘Singers… were the model for instrumentalists as well, who were to imitate the human voice as much as possible’. [Dickey 1997]
I have also added examples from Monteverdi’s (1607) Orfeo of written-out accento-like ornaments, and of situations when an accento might possibly be applied.
The accento is not applied to Ut-mi, nor between two hexachords sol-mi (e.g. G – B natural). But it can be applied to the major third fa-la (i.e. F-A, C-E, Bb-D, depending on which hexachords are available).
As Dickey (1997) remarks, the rising-third accento is similar to the intonazione on a good-syllable initial note, described by Caccini and notated by Cavalieri. In both practices, accento and intonazione, the central semiquaver is touched only very lightly.
Zacconi’s notated durations are approximate: the desired effect is ‘delightful and sweet’. The delay should not be excessive or heavy. The accento is subtle, beyond the limits of notation.
‘I’ve put a dotted quaver and semi-quaver so that singers see how to ascend; because there are some who – even though these beauties should seem natural – in pronouncing them, pronounce them so slow and late that by their languor they make a strange effect and do not give any good satisfaction to the ear. These are things that are difficult to demonstrate and make understood in writing. It’s necessary for the alert and diligent singer to adjust them according to what their own ears tell them is delivered well or badly.’
The accento should not be applied to every possible note.
‘This way of singing is a delightful and sweet way, and sweetness – although a friend to nature – is also cloying, and used too many times will produces disgust and boredom. Therefore it is not a good idea to use them always, in order to avoid giving listeners disgust and dissatisfaction.’
Accenti for seconds
Nevertheless, Zacconi moves on immediately to show how to apply accenti even to the the interval of a second, i.e. to notes that move by step! However, he rules out mi-fa and ut-re ascending, similarly avoiding fa-mi and re-ut descending.
My underlay is conjectural – other solutions are available! Where I have indicated alternative rhythms, the ideal may lie in subtlety of rhythm somewhere in-between the two notated versions.
Accenti for fourths & fifths
For wider intervals, Zacconi requires a different style. The running semiquaver in the middle of the previous examples only works if it runs to an adjacent note, not across a leap. Again, Zacconi struggles to describe in words the subtle effect that he intends: ‘the little notes in the middle are pronounced beautifully without making them resound like a real note.’ Nel mezzo pronuntiarli con la voce quelle vaghezze senza farle rissonar per figure.
Whilst the accento delays the composer’s second note, the whole thing (i.e. both written notes) fits into the regular Tactus. ‘From beginning to end, the notes do not have more duration than they normally require’. Dal principio al fine non habbiano piu valore di quello che per natura ricercano.
Zacconi adapts his running formula for a rising fourth to give an alternative for a rising second mi-fa.
Zacconi concludes: ‘All these examples can be adapted and used as models for further possibilites. But as I have said, it is difficult to make these things understood without a sung example. For this reason, I will skip many vague things that might be said around this subject to say only this: when the Singer hears the beauties of a performer (I’m not talking about gorgie and passaggi…) he should try to imitate them as far as possible.
‘Singers should be warned that in imitative polyphony- fughe or fantasie – one should not delay any note, so as not to break and spoil the well-ordered imitation. Rather one should sing on the beat – equale – without any ornamentation.
‘There are also some notes that for the sake of the words do not need any accento, but only their natural and lively force, as when one has to sing Intonuit de Celo Dominus; Clamavit; Fuor fuori Cavalieri uscite; Al arme al arme [God thundered from heaven; he cried out; Go out, go out Cavaliers; To arms, to arms] and many other things.The discreet and judicious singer must decide’
This should remind modern readers that the accento is not a sharp accent, nor bravura display, but a sweet and subtle beauty.
‘On the contrary, there are other words that from their own nature demand these beauties and these lovely accenti, as when one is to say Dolorem meum; misericordia mea; affanni e morte [my sadness, have mercy on me, sorrow and death]. Without any further sign to the singer, these indicate how they must be sung.’
This instruction reinforces the impression that accenti are used very frequently, even if not always.
Other ways to beautify
The accento gives a subtle, soft highlight by delaying the main note. Zacconi now considers how to enliven the written notes, with simple divisions, which do not require the full inventiveness and technical proficiency of more extended passaggi.
‘We can also break up the notes with vivacity and force, which makes a very grand good effect on the Music’.
My assumption would be that these divisions would usually produce no shift of word-underlay, and certainly not the delaying effect of the accento. But in Zacconi’s second example (four notes descending by step), a lively effect might be created by anticipating the new syllable, placing it on the previous short-note.
Zacconi comments that these are just a few examples, many others could be given. Nature itself is the best teacher, and this is just an ABC for beginners. But since some students leave school not knowing these beauties and these accenti, Zacconi wants to get a few things down on paper for those who don’t have any decorum, or any good way of singing. He writes them down, not because they should be notated, but so that they can be added with the voice.
‘Finally, I must say that masters who teach these accenti and beauties should be warned to control the scholar so that they do not apply them too often, as if they would be done always. Because just as too much sugar spoils a fine, delicate meal, similarly so much sweetness and beauty placed together produces boredom and disgust. And for this reason we add so many dissonances to the Music, just because they redouble the sweetness of the consonances.’
Published at the very moment that the Baroque aesthetic of dramatic monody and continuo emerges from renaissance polyphony, and positioned in this crucial treatise as the first step towards beautiful singing (with a quick reminder to take care of the text, not to shout, not to strain) this chapter has enormous significance for today’s Historically Informed Performance. But it has been almost totally forgotten.
Although Zacconi warns us not to use the accento on every possible occasion, and limits it to words that do not contradict its natural property of sweetness. it is clear that around the year 1600 it was used very frequently indeed. In training and in performance, our modern-day Early Music seems to have lost sight of this fundamental element of beautiful singing – and playing.
It is also clear that the essential features of the accento are sustain and delay, even in polyphonic music. So how is ensemble synchronicity to be managed, if any voice might introduce a delay on any note (even if not on every note)?
Zacconi’s answer to this practical question of timing calls for a revolution in our understanding of ensemble music-making in this period, and – at last! – an end to the early 21st-century struggle between proponents of rhythm and of rhetoric. See my next post.
After this article about a forgotten ornament, you might like to read about another ornament, that perhaps we wish we could forget. Yes, THAT ornament.
Of course, there are plenty of alternatives available from historical sources, but if we are looking for better cadential ornaments, might we be asking the wrong question? Read more about ornamenting Monteverdi here.
More than a century after Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905, in which he published four paradigm-shifting papers on Quantum Theory, Brownian Motion, Mass/Energy Equivalence and Relativity, most of us still consider the implications of Relativistic Time to be paradoxical.
We live our everyday lives and make music within a pre-1900 understanding of Time ‘like an ever-rolling stream’. This is Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, first published in his 1687 Principia, and bitterly contested amongst mathematicians for decades afterwards. Amongst 18th-century musicians and the general public, acceptance of Newtonian ideas must have lagged even further behind, just as for most of us today, Hawking’s Brief History of Time (1988) remains counter-intuitive.
In this sense, the works of Josquin, Dowland & Monteverdi, even Lully & Purcell, are ‘music of an earlier Time’. Until Newton, Time was defined by Aristotle’s Physics (4th cent. BC) as ‘a number of change/motion in respect of before and after’.
At this participatory workshop, everyone is sure to have a Good Time. Andrew leads some mind-games and musical practice, exploring how it might feel to make pre-Newtonian music. What can we discover, not just quantitively, but about the quality of Aristotelean Time? Dare we follow Phaeton’s example, and seize the reins of Apollo’s time-chariot? What about ‘unmeasured’ genres? What really counts in Early Music?
Open to singers and all instrumentalists, relevant to all repertoires up to at least 1800. Instruments are optional, but please bring with you an open mind and a free hand (or foot)!
This article is a personal summary and commentary on the Colloquium presented online on Sunday May 2nd 2021 by Aapo Häkkinen and Domen Marinčič and hosted under the aegis of the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra in collaboration with the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts – more details, and a video of the live event, here. Where I have reproduced citations given by presenters, I ask the reader to bear in mind that I was taking hasty notes from a live talk, and to consult the video and the original sources for authoritative details.
The event’s subtitle Tempo Rubato – Use, Flexibility and Modification of Time deserves further comment (see below), appearing to threaten a presentation of only one side of a debate which – like discussions of Vibrato in Early Music – all too often features campaigning for fixed personal opinions, rather than investigation of historical evidence. But as various speakers gave their papers, there was ample consideration of temporal structures, and if anything was missing, it was investigation of how rhythm might be ‘malleable’ (to use a word that emerged during the event).
In general, questions of What and When were examined carefully, and Jed Wentz gave an impeccably concise and impressively persuasive account of ‘How to do Affekt‘ in the mid-18th century: otherwise, questions of how to apply the rich information provided were left for another occasion.
One such future occasion might be my presentation on Music of an Earlier Time for Amherst Early Music, which will offer participatory exercises exploring how the period philosophy of Time can be applied to practical music-making, using historical terminology, conceptual frameworks and embodied practices: Saturday June 5th 2021, read more here.
The event image was an 1851 illustration of the motto Tempus fugit (Time flies). The metaphor dates back at least to Classical Antiquity, and is cited in the opening phrase of the first ‘baroque opera’, Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo (1600) read more here. The context of this motto, in Virgil’s Georgics (29 BC), Cavalieri’s drama, and in general (including this 19th-century illustration) is memento mori, a reminder that our life-time is short, with the implied challenge to use time well.
Other images from earlier periods address the specific question of the relation of Time and Music (significantly, Movement is usually – always? – also featured). One of my favourites is Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time (c1635), rich with iconographical symbolism: you’ll notice Time playing his music on Earth, but don’t miss Apollo’s Time-Chariot in the sky above.
I also have a favourite early 20th-century image which would seem to express most aptly the ‘malleability’ of Tempo Rubato in this period, Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). And indeed the first paper at this Colloquium examined the strong focus on metronomic precision in this very period, but with little mention of the strong advocacy of Tempo Rubato in precisely the same period.
We should take great care with the term Rubato. Paderewski’s views on Tempo Rubato were first published in 1909: the term is also strongly associated with Chopin (1810-1849). In a very quick online search, the earliest dictionary reference I found was 1883.
The standard work on the subject is Hudson Stolen Time. Hudson (from page 43) declares Tosi (1723) to the be the first to use the term, in the phrase rubamento di tempo, and in the context of the aria patetica (passionate aria): Tosi specifies that this happens ‘exactly on the true motion of the bass’ (as translated by Galliard in 1743). Hudson cites Roger North’s terminology of “breaking and yet keeping time”, found in several sources, the earliest being an untitled MS c1695, shortly after Tosi’s visit to London.
It is clear that these citations c1700 refer to occasional freedom for a soloist to anticipate or (more usually) delay, whilst the bass continues steadily. Galliard’s mid-18th-century footnote draws attention to Tosi’s repeated insistence on regard for, and strictness of Time, and to the ‘singular’ [rare, unusual, isolated] application of ‘stealing the time’: again we read that “the bass goes an exactly regular pace” and that the soloist “returns to exactness, to be guided by the bass”.
The bass goes an exactly regular pace (Tosi/Galliard 1743)
Hudson also cites Quantz Versuch (1752) illustrating eine Art vom Tempo rubato, again with anticipations and delays to the solo flute, whilst the continuo-bass remains steady.
Froberger’s c1710 marking a discretion and the notation of preludes non mesurées show that some music was indeed unmeasured, and more work is needed to explore how such music would have been realised, for example by careful examination of sources that combine specific note-values with (seemingly contradictory) indications of being ‘un-measured’. See my take on Senza misura in baroque music, here (scroll down the article until you see the Cuisenaire Rods!)
Even with an improved understanding of how to play unmeasured music, the case has certainly not been proven that such an approach should be applied to measured music. Indeed, the quality of being ‘measured’ is the essential defining quality of most early music. See Time:the Soul of Music, here.
Before 1800, the concept of ‘using Time’ seems to be found exclusively in the context ofhow one makes best use of one’s lifetime, rather than in music-making. Thus Herrick’s (1648) Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may / Old Time is still a-flying concludes …. use your time for love and marriage, following the motto carpe diem. In the musical context, Time is characterised as measuring music, indeed for Zacconi (1592) the terms tempo, misura, battuta and tatto (Tactus) are synonomous.
But the word ‘use’ also had a particular meaning in the context of 17th-century Arts. ‘Art’ itself was defined as a collection of rules, a set of organising principles. What we nowadays mean by ‘art’ – those mysterious, ineffable beauties that transcend everyday experience is renaissance ‘Science’. In this period terminology, ‘Use’ is the nitty-gritty of what was actually done in practice – we might almost think of it as ‘technique’. In general, period sources tell us more about period ‘art’ – the rules – than about period ‘use’ – how to do it. More about Science, Art, Use here.
In this particular sense of ‘techniques related to Time’, the ‘use of Time’ is a fascinating topic for historical investigation: we should be careful not to equate this with any period assumption that Time was a commodity available for musicians to use as they chose to.
Historical discourse rarely (if ever?) characterises Time as ‘flexible’, before the period Paderewski, Dali and Bergson, whose interlinking of psychological Time and Freewill dominated the philosophy of culture in the early 20th century. Read more here.
Although ‘modification’ of Time has come to be an accepted phrase in modern-day discussions of Metre in Music (see for example George Houle’s essential book (1987) here), this is not historical terminology nor a period concept of the relationship between humans and Time. There is no doubt that something of this nature was practised – as Domen Marinčič showed in his presentation – but the period phraseology was of “guiding” or even “driving” Time: the Italian word guidare is also used for driving a chariot. We can catch a glimpse of the period concept when we consider the myth of Phaeton, who seized the reins of Apollo’s time-chariot, but was unable to control it and crashed spectactularly. Early Music welcomes careful drivers…
Careful consideration of terminology is vital, if we are to avoid imposing modern-day assumptions when we glibly apply modern-day vocabulary to earlier periods; and if we wish to understand how the rules of period ‘Art’ were embedded in historical philosophies, in order to appreciate how those old rules felt ‘natural’ to musicians back then.
In discussions of Historical Performance Practices related to Musical Time, there is also a need to distinguish clearly between two – interlinked – questions: tempo as the ‘speed’ of music; tempo as the regularity or otherwise of rhythm at any given speed. In both these aspects, tempo is closely related to Affekt. And underlying all of this, but not addressed in this Colloquium, is the question of Time itself, since Science, Philosophy and general perceptions have changed significantly over the centuries that separate Aristotle, Newton, Einstein and Hawking.
Alexander Bonus on ‘metronomic’ Tempo
This paper was concerned with the use of the metronome to establish rhymthic regularity, not with questions of ascertaining musical speed. Although Maelzel’s metronome was patented in 1815, and Loulié’s chronometre was describle in 1696, AB made the point well that the use of machines to train musicians to play in ‘metronomic rhythm’ became prominent only in the early 20th century. He did not address the prominence of discussions of Tempo Rubato in this very same period: surely these two phenomena are closely interlinked.
AB’s message seemed rather to be that ‘metronomic’ playing is undesirable, but is a phenomenon of the 20th century. It is hard to disagree with those points, although I readily confess that I greatly appreciate the excitement and emotional power of late 20th-century rock music (but my favourite vintage pre-dates the routine use of click-tracks in popular music, and this may well be crucially significant).
AB was greatly concerned that “the belief that tempo is defined by clock technology” is “so central… to performance… even to the reading of notation”. I would agree that this is largely a 20th-century phenomenon, as is the contermporary (over-) reaction against any kind of rhythmic regularity. Both are a feature of modern-day Early Music, and that is regrettable in both instances.
Citing Hofmann in 1905 “keeping of absolutely strict time is thoroughly unmusical and deadlike”, AB also gave highly negative spin to such phrases as “the inexorable beat”, and “the beat is the steady pulse”, even to the whole notion of musicians being beholden to “external tempo”, to rhythm “not depending on the will”,
Here AB went too far, in trying to limit regularity to the 20th-century alone. The inexorable character of Time itself is expressed by Virgil (the tempus that fugit – flies – does so inreparabile, unrecoverably), and the steadiness of the renaissance Tactus beat is strongly characterised in many period sources, for example Zacconi.
Zacconi’s person who administers the Tactus’ would create an ‘external tempo’ for all other members of an ensemble. And the ancient concept of the Music of the Spheres, still current in the 17th century, implies that human ‘free will’ is a lower priority than the divine perfection of heavenly music, which we should imitate in our earthly performances. According to the religious views of the time, “free will” is in general a concept fraught with dangers.
The concept of the Music of the Spheres also connects good music-making to physical, spiritual and moral health. AB noted that in 1895 regular rhythm “equates to good, healthy behaviour”. No doubt, Dowland would approve.
AB also mentioned a crucial distinction: in 1889 “by accurate rhythm is not meant metronomic accuracy”.
Here is the gateway towards a much more productive approach than mere trash-talk about metronomes. In what way was Zacconi’s and Dowland’s measure ‘equal’, and precisely where was there room for what we would nowadays call ‘freedom’?
Julia Dokter on German organ music c1700
Julia Dokter’s presentation outlined the central conclusions of her book, published in the last few days, Tempo & Tactus in the German Baroque, here. Her approach was an exhaustive survey of theoretical sources, applied to case-studies of various musical compositions, all within a specific genre. She was most properly cautious about extending specifics from this particular repertoire and genre to other countries, periods or genres. Nevertheless, the concepts she introduced seem to reflect fundamental practices related to musical time in this period. Notably, her results were strikingly parallel to those presented in Aapo Häkkinen’s paper, addressing another repertoire and with different methodology.
JD focussed on Tempo transitions, informed by three types of period notation: time-signatures, note-values and tempo-words.
Looking at Baroque time-signatures, as they evolved from renaissance mensuration marks, she first cited Michael Praetorious in the early 17th century, explaining two notational systems for duple metre: Motets in C/ time, counted as two semibreves; and Madrigals in C time, counted as two minims. These two notations are NOT proportional: the minim-beat in C is neither twice as fast, nor the same as the semibreve-beat in C/. Rather, the difference is ‘about one and a half’: we should bear in mind that the period concept of a ‘half’ is not necessarily as strictly 50%, but rather more loosely as some part less than the whole and more than nothing. So we beat C/ somewhat slower (and that beat represents semibreves), and C somewhat faster (and this beat represents minims). This is similar to what we read in Zacconi, who warns that the Tactus-beater should not mistake his mensuration marks and give the beat at the ‘other speed’, as this would probably crash the entire ensemble.
JD explained that this is consistent with a general principle in Baroque practice, that time signatures denominated in smaller note-values (i.e. 3/8 compared to 3/4) have a slower Tactus, so that the small note-values go faster, but not twice as fast. Her later examples extended this principle to a general principle that passages in very small note-values would be assumed to require a slower Tactus – in order to be playable at all!
JD applied another early 17th-century practice, the triple-time proportions of Sesquialtera (slow), Tripla (medium fast) and Sestupla (very fast) to her case-studies in high Baroque organ-music.
Her conclusion is that there were effectively two systems of notation (and execution) of duple Tactus, each with its three associated triple-time Proportions. Similarly, each faster Proportion might be only somewhat faster, not necessarily twice as fast as the slower Proportion.
So whether in duple or triple, smaller denominations of time-signatures and smaller note-values in what JD calls the ‘surface activity’ both suggest a slower Tactus. The result is faster surface activity, but not so much as twice as fast.
This is a principle we see at work as early as Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, where at Et exultavit in the Magnificat there is the marking va sonato tardo, perche li doi tenori cantano di semicroma (will be played slowly, because the two tenors are singing semiquavers).
Nevertheless, as became clear in Domen Marinčič’s presentation (below), this period principle is contra-indicated by other early 17th-century indications also observed by Julia Dokter in the later repertoire, that changes to faster surface activity may require a faster Tactus, to heighten the contrast.
JD noted that the “demise of the Proportional system” described by Kirnberger in 1776 can already be seen in the music of J.S. Bach c1740. As C becomes a quadruple metre, with four crotchet beats (whereas c1600 it was a duple metre with two minim beats, see above), the old system of proportions collapses. I would add that the emergence of fashionable French dances, many of them in triple metre but with subtly different speeds, rhythmic structures and subjective affekts, also contributed to the slipping of the gears of the old Proportional system.
Nevertheless, JD proposed strict proportions for JSB’s Eb Major “St Anne” Organ fugue (the associated Prelude has passages in alla Francese ‘overture’ style), with the constant beat transferring from semibreve to dotted minim to dotted crotchet.
I would add to this, citing Carissimi’s comment in Ars cantandi published in German translation in many editions around 1700, about the affektive quality of proportions:
The triple-metres all agree with regard to quantity, division and proportion, as is easily understood, but in the slow or fast quality, known by the Italians as tempo and by the French as mouvement, they are utterly different.
Carissimi Ars Cantandi (1692 etc)
Here Carissimi contrasts the quantitative – “mathematical” – elements of beat (constant), note-values (consistent between different triple mensurations), proportion (simple ratios of the underlying duple metre) with the affektive quality that results. Although the duration of any given note-value (e.g. a minim) is the same in Sesquialtera, Tripla or Sestupla, the contrasts in harmonic motion and surface activity create very different feelings for triple metres of three semibreves, three minims, or twice-three crotchets. And this qualitative, affektive element is ‘known by the Italians as tempo and by the French as mouvement‘. And in German, Bewegung.
So we are considering not only speed of beat, and the surface activity within that beat, but also the affektive quality that results. Read more on Quality Time here.
Depending on context, we may choose (or be encouraged by tempo words) to exaggerate contrasts by over-doing Proportional changes (see DM below). Or we may need (with the support of tempo words) to reduce the contrast as calculated mathematically, whilst (presumably) still acheiving an effective contrast of Affekt.
In the conference, JD expressed the opinion that – in the later repertoires she studied – tempo words that appear to suggest heightened contrast merely warn against a more common practice of automatically reducing contrast. DM gave clear evidence – mostly in earlier repertoires – that tempo words exaggerate the expected contrasts. I would suggest that we have evidence to show that proportions could be precise, lessened or heightened in various contexts, and that tempo words help us judge which way to go, with affektive contrasts as the end-goal, and playability as an inevitable limitation.
Domen Marinčič on variations in Tactus speed
Domen Marinčič summarised his excellent paper on Now faster, now slower, citing sources that incontravertibly show changes of Tactus speed, starting with Vicentino (1555) changing measure according to the text. He suggested that this practice of changing the Tactus was only one of many options, such as “agogic freedom”, “rubato”, “managing rhythm expressively”, but he did not cite evidence for or discuss in detail these other options.
Whilst Mersenne (1636) gives a default tempo of around one beat per second (i.e. a one-metre pendulum), DM reminded us that Mersenne also considered the pendulum an ineffective tool, since so many different lengths would be required for the slightly different speeds that are required. Nevertheless, DM’s suggestion that it is left up to performers to choose their own tempo is unsatisfactory: the period discourse asssumes that there is a correct tempo, and the performers’ job is to find it, not choose their own. Of course, we don’t always have enough, and clear enough, information to find the tempo for sure, but nevertheless, that is what we are supposed to try to do!
I would add here that Frescobaldi gives us a practical method for finding the correct tempo, a method that is quite different from the mathematical calculations and abstract musical analysis that we tend to use nowadays. Frescobaldi’s instructions are to play the music through (in some default tempo, presumably considering a standard Tactus and the apparent surface activity): as one listens, one will understand what Affekt the music has. And for how to proceed from Affekt to execution, see Jed Wentz’s paper (below). More on Frescobaldi Rules OK?, here.
Frescobaldi also gives us vital information and essential practical advice. The information is that even ‘difficult’ music with changes of Tactus is facilitated by using a Tactus beat. This contra-indicates any assumption of general rubato in this repertoire, replacing it with highly specific instructions for when and how to change the beat. The practical advice is therefore to study by physically beating Tactus with the hand, and play keyboards etc whilst physically beating Tactus with the foot. Tactus is not just a theoretical concept, it is an embodied practice.
DM cited Glareanus increasing the speed (not necessarily in strict mathematical proportion) by changing mensuration mark. Banchieri beats both C and C/ with a minim-beat, but at different speeds. Other sources change the note-value associated with the Tactus beat (e.g. Zacconi, who also changes the beat-speed accordingly). Praetorius uses a variety of time-signatures to indicate different tempi. An Entrée in L’Amour Malade has exceptionally many changes of time signature, and therefore, tempo.
DM pointed out exampes in very well-known repertoires where even highly respected modern editions have ‘rationalised’ or suppressed differences in time signatures that would seem to indicate tempo contrasts: between successive Minuets and Bourées in J.S. Bach’s Cello suites, and the Minuets in the first Brandenburg Concerto. This idea was echoed, from a very different approach, in Jed Wentz’s paper.
In discussion amongst the presenters, AB reiterated his central points, that the intense application of the metronome to music education, the mimicking of the ticking metronome as the model of rhythm, and the concept that a mechanical standard should be followed, are all 20th-century phenomena.
JD added a fascinating observation from her comparisons of sources of J.S. Bach’s works, that the composer seems to have changed his priority from trying to notate speed, to trying to notate Affekt. This fits well with Carissimi’s ideas of durational Quantity and affecktive Quality (see above).
JD also suggested that strict mathematical proportions might be just the outline structure and the theoretical basis: “in practice, it becomes more malleable”. In the sense that the proportional change itself might be slightly greater or less than the mathematical ratio, this suggestion is thoroughly supported by period evidence, including many citations presented during this event.
A written comment by an online listener expressed disappointment at so much talk of notation and structure, opining that all this had been heard before from Willem Retze Talsma in 1980, and interested to hear about “freedom, departing from those “absolute” tempi… that is the accelerando and ritardando from the basic tempo, gradually”.
Certainly, all the evidence heard during this Colloquium fitted excellently with the notion of well-structured Tempo Giusto, though with different quantitative speeds according to mensuration marks; and with systems of Proportional relationships for triple metre, but with the possibility of ‘tweaking’ those mathematical ratios one way or another in particular circumstances. No evidence was presented at this event for any general “freedom”, nor for gradual changes of accelerando/ritardando. Indeed Frescobaldi clearly states that changes of Tactus are executed by suspending the Tactus momentarily in the air, and then starting the new movement resolutely. Based on all the evidence I have seen, my coaching mnemonic for ensembles and students is “use the gear-shift, not the accelerator/brake”.
I had the opportunity to meet, hear and talk with Talsma in the early 1980s, and this was my first encounter with the concept of Tempo Giusto. Of course, the ‘double-beat metronome’ theory for Beethoven etc has by now been totally exploded more here, but my research findings utterly support the fundamental concept of a (more-or-less) fixed speed (but ‘fixed’ subjectively, not with any kind of clock) in mensuration mark C [although this changes during the 17th-century from a duple to a quadruple measure, see above]. Indeed, Beethoven himself comments on this concept, wishing to be free from it (and thus confirming its strong presence until then).
But, in spite of the remarks of the online listener, the application of Tempo Giusto nowadays differs sharply from Talsma’s version in the 1980s, in that we measure the ‘correct tempo’ with a slow Tactus, avoiding the ‘sewing-machine’ effect of Talsma’s measuring of small note-values. During recent decades, there was even an idea that counting in ever-larger note-values might be better and better (still supported by Robert Hill amongst others). Roger Mathew Grant’s excellent book on Beating TIme and Measuring Music (2014) shows that measuring (by the Tactus hand) was done at a particular note-value (c1600 the minim in C, and the semibreve in C/; c1700 the crotchet in C).
Inja Stanovic‘s paper on the technologies of early recording, though valuable and interesting, seemed to me to belong to another occasion. Of course, the recording industry has had a most powerful effect on modern-day Early Music, supporting it immensely, especially with the arrrival of the CD in the 1980s. But my personal experience is that the technologies of the late 20th century had less influence on performer choices than did record producers. Almost invariably, young HIP ensembles making their first recordings were supervised by more senior ‘classical’ producers, and the process was dominated by seeking to control tuning, vertical unanimity of rhythm, and the avoidance of any surprises. We used to joke that our task was to play until something woke up the producer and he called “Cut”.
By the time a new generation of producers with Early Music experience emerged, the expectations of record companies, the listening public, and even of performing musicians, had been firmly set in a certain path. Seriously, we can well consider how today’s Early Music might have turned out, if all those thousands of CDs had been commanded by jazz producers, who might have prioritised groove and swing over vertical unanimity, drama and emotion over bland smoothness.
One of the presenters (AB?) cited Roger North’s remark that chronometers are very ‘whimmish’, that there is nothing better than a roll of paper in the [human] hand. Daniel Friderici (editor of the 1625 print of the Finnish Piae Cantiones, more here, and recent Finnish recording here) was also cited “some beat time like a clock, and this is an error”. All this encourages us to investigate precisely how the practice of Tactus-beating differed from clockwork, given the overwhelming weight of evidence that the character of the Tactus was steady, equal, unchanging etc.
Jed Wentz on ‘the Art of Acting’ (1753)
This was an inspiring and well-structured presentation, summarising Aaron Hill’s instructions to mid-18th-century actors on how to acheive the appropriate body, facial and vocal expression for a particular Affekt. JW began with Kirnberger’s re-iteration of the doctrine of ‘moving the Passions’ i.e. that motion and emotion are connected (in German, Bewegung and Gemüthsbewegung], with Bewegung as ‘what the French call mouvement‘ i.e. musical Tempo (see my remarks on Carissimi, above): “and the composer must properly hit on this Movement, according to the nature of the feeling” – Die Kunst Part II page 106 – and my thanks for JW for his exemplary citations during a speedy online session). “This is a study that lies outside the music.”, a study which “the composer shares with the poet and orator”.
Hidden in these citations is a vital point: whilst both composers and performers must employ the art of Rhetoric, they each have different responsibilities. The determining of Tempo (in response to the Affekt of the text) is the responsibility of the composer, who notates it as precisely as the period systems allow (and though more precise indications by chronometres were available, it seems they were not wanted): the performer’s responsibility is to understand the composer’s notation and follow it. We read in Quantz that the performer should also be like an orator, and Quantz’s highly detailed instructions on how to do this do not suggest altering the notated tempo, or any kind of general rubato, but rather explain how to structure musical time with a ‘pulse’ around 80 bpm.
JW cited Coeffeteau’s requirement in A Table of Human Passions (1621) page 17 that there should be ‘perceptible changes to the body and voice” of the person feeling the emotion. JW then showed the methodology of theatrical director Aaron Hill, who also produced Handel’s Rinaldo in 1711, as published in the first (posthumous) edition of his Art. The actor should not attempt to ‘imitate a passion’ (by speaking his lines) until “fancy has conceived so strong an image or idea of it…. as to move the same impressive springs within his mind”. Imagination must conceive a strong idea, which (by the action of Energetic Spirits of Passion transmitting from the brain to the body) impresses its form on the muscles of the face; instantly the same impression is felt in the muscles of the body; and the those muscles (whether ‘braced’ or ‘slack’) transmit their own sensation to the sound of the voice and the disposition of the gesture.
Extending the ancient doctrine of the Four Humours, Hill categorises 10 Dramatic Passions (and Love, the ancient Quintessential, can be mixed with any of these): Joy, Grief, Fear, Anger, Pity, Scorn, Hatred, Jealousy, Wonder, Love. JW referred to Hill’s concept of the “quality of the eye”, and the sequence of this technique: reflecting on the idea in the mind, feeling it idea in the body; a physical response of the eyes and nerves; only then should the actor speak.
In this way, the actor avoids the danger of “overleaped distinctions” – missing emotional contrasts. And on stage, these “beautiful and pensive pausing places will appear to be the natural attitudes of thinking”. Without the application of this technique, the audience will remain unmoved.
JW concludes that pauses in performance are therefore essential.
I would comment that Hill’s methodology contrasts sharply with the usual operating procedure in most modern-day HIP productions of ‘early opera’. Usually the focus is on teaching hand, and perhaps body, movements, with the danger that these – however beautiful – strike the audience as being ‘stylised’ and passionless, not genuine expressions of emotion. But Hill’s concepts are ancient, based on Quintilian’s theory of “visions” and the doctrine of Enargeia. Rather than manipulating the voice or the body directly, the first step is to create an imagined Vision of what is described in the text.
In first rehearsals of a new play, actors often struggle to ‘change gear’ quickly enough. But good coaching, effective private practice and sufficient rehearsal should empower an actor to make strong changes of Affekt as quickly as needed. Indeed, many sources on Early Opera emphasise how powerful an effect such sudden strong contrasts have on the audience, see Cavalieri for example. It requires careful judgement to decide how much ‘beautiful and pensive pausing’ to allow in performance.
And in theatrical music (or indeed any passionate musical performance), that careful judgement has already been exercised by the composer, and the appropriate amount of pause has been notated. Samuel Pepys praised Henry Lawes for his precise notation in musical rhythm of ‘every pointing comma’. Monteverdi varies how each speech starts: with the continuo directly, before the continuo, shortly after, after a longer pause. Cavalieri notates the space for affektive changes during the silences at the end of each phrase [last notes notated long are conventionally sung short, seeDoni – giving time for reflection, gesture etc within the regular Tactus].
I would argue that since the composer has already notated the appropriate Movement for the emotion at hand (as described by Kirnberger, also in 1600 by Peri and by Pepys in the late 17th-century), the performer’s task is as Hill requires, to create the response in his body and voice before singing, yet to do so within the dramatic timing carefully notated by the composer. Otherwise, we risk spoiling the pauses and continuations carefully notated by the composer: think of a waiter enthusiastically adding salt to potatoes that were already salted to perfection by the chef! More on Pavans and Potatoes here.
But see also JW’s discussion on Mattheson, below.
Aapo Häkkinen on 18th-century tempo relationships
It was most interesting to note that AH reached very similar conclusions to Julia Dokter, albeit in somewhat different repertoire and with an utterly different, yet properly thorough, methodology. His approach was to examine large-scale works and construct – not a pyramid of tempi, based on the slowest tempo – but what he called an ‘hour-glass’ of tempi, centred on a fundamental Tempo Giusto in C-time in the area of 60 to 80 bpm.
From this starting point, the denominators of time-signatures indicate for example that 3/8 is faster than 3/4. And then Tempo words modify (to a lesser extent) the broad indication given by the time-signature. Both these principles are well accepted in modern-day musicology, and the speed-order of the Tempo words is not significantly in doubt. And during the course of say a Handel opera, there are so many movements, each carefully marked with time-signature with or without additional tempo word, that we end up with a large number of tempi in a well-defined order.
If we seek the central speed of Tempo Giusto, and avoid impossible extremes of fast or slow, yet create an appreciable distinction (at least a few bpm) between each and every tempo, there is, as AH put it “very little leeway in choosing tempi if one takes all the tempo words into account”.
And his findings indicated sets of tempi related by proportions, just as JD found by her, rather different, investigation.
For the application of this methodology – ordering the tempi of a large-scale work, and hence determining a fairly precise tempo for every movement – to Handel’s Orlando see here.
In their parallel, but independent, investigations, JD and AH implicitly relied upon two essential period principles, which have guided all serious study in this area, but which many performers are reluctant to accept. Firstly, the historical role of performers was not to choose their own tempo, but to find the correct tempo, which the composer’s notation was intended to convey. And secondly, two movements from the same large-scale work, or two pieces from the same repertoire, that have the same indications of tempo (mensuration marks or time signatures, level of activity i.e. characteristic note-values, time words, dance type etc) are intended to have the same tempo, as near as humanly possible.
One can make a lot of progress in any well-defined repertoire, by looking for as many pieces as possible with the same indications, and finding the range of tempi in which all of them work. As AH put it, if you have enough data, there is usually very little “leeway”. It is possible to find the correct tempo, if we take the trouble to look hard enough, rather than just inventing our own.
The Colloquium’s halfway point was marked with a musical performance from Domen and Aapo, before each presenter gave a second talk. In this segment there was also discussion between the various presenters, and some questions posted by online listeners were answered.
Jed Wentz again
JW warmed to his theme, emphasising the embodied experience of affektive performance. “The Actor feels the Affket in his body”.
JW looked at Mattheson’s discussion of Affekts. I note that Mattheson, as with Hill and other 18th-century sources, goes beyond and even contradicts the 17th-century categorisation into Four Humours. As JW reported, Mattheson describes Joy as a spreading out of our animal spirits (an outward, sanguine humour – ALK), whereas Sorrow is a contraction (ALK – inward, Melancholy); Love is based on a scattering of the spirits (outward, sanguine – ALK).
JW turned to Mattheson’s analysis of Hope, famously applied to an innocent little Courante. Hope is an elevation of feeling, whereas Desperation a complete collapse of the same [outward, warm sanguine humour, inward cold phlegmatic – ALK]. These Affekts can be very naturally represented with sounds, above all when the other factors, especially Zeitmasse (the amount of Time, a different word for a different shade of meaning of Tempo – ALK) play their part.
Mattheson shows how the Affekt might change to Desire in certain phrases of the Courante, which as JW pointed out, might suggest a pause for transition and/or a different tempo for the new Affekt. JW was also properly cautious with this suggestion, since it contradicts the instructions for dance-music found in many period sources. I would also mention that Mattheson’s switch to Desire implies a gross change to a Choleric Humour, that earlier sources would not regard as consistent with (Sanguine) Hope.
One possible approach that might square these circles is to follow JW’s advice and apply the historical technique for creating Affektive contrasts. Modern-day performers tend to make an intellectual decision to change the tempo, “because there is a change of Affekt”. But the historical practice was to feel the Affekt in the body, and allow changes of timbre, tempo etc to happen as a consequence. I would translate this as “you try to keep steady measure, and you genuinely believe you are doing so; but the changes of Affekt you experience create a change of tempo, as measured by a dispassionate observer (or indeed, a metronome, that most dispassionate observer of all!”
Sources cited by JW are very firm that conventional tactics (e.g. changing tempo) alone will have little emotional effect on the listeners. The essential first step is for the performer to change their own affektive state, and this is what moves the passions of the listeners. My comment is that if this goes well, both performer and audience will feel that the tempo was the constant, it was their affektive state that changed.
JW continued with various citations: one can form an emotional [Sinnliche] idea of all the emotions [Regungen] and form one’s inventions to it – this was directed to composers.
Dealing with Sorrow, much more than with the other emotions, anyone [ALK, this is addressed to composers, but could well be apposite for performers also] who would represent sorrow in sound must feel and experience it himself; otherwise all the so called loci topici [musical clichés] are useless. I would read this as a warning against the kind of Rhetorical Studies that focus on finding and naming those clichés, as if this alone will make the performance more communicative for listeners. Very few courses on Rhetoric spend time teaching students to imagine and feel within the body each of the Four Humours: though I consider this essential fundamental training in Historical Performance.
For example, coaching Continuo-players (on theorbos, lutes, harps etc) to respond to text, I show how obvious cues from the text can be realised with simple changes to instrumental timbre (corresponding to Hill’s “braced” or “slack” muscles!): nearer the bridge/soundboard (more gritty) or further up the string (sweeter); relaxed or tensed fingers etc. But the more significant technique is just to create mental visions of the text as it goes by, as if creating a video-film to the sung text as a script, and allow those mental visions to change the physical aspect of your fingers, so that the sound of the instrument changes as a result. This is hard to specify in technical detail, but has a stronger effect for listeners.
JW cited Diderot Memoires (1748) page 192 as opposing the use of clock-like tempo devices for anything more than a few bars to establish the tempo. After that the player should continue alone: “nothing more than the pleasure of the harmony suspends him”. I’m reminded of Frescobaldi’s advice: if you want to know how a piece of music feels, than just play it (see above).
Domen Marinčič on Tempo words
DM referred to Milan El Maestro (1536) as an early example of tempo words that modify the effect of the musical notation. This is in the context of a particular style of fantasia, that contrasts harmonies in long notes – consonancias – with fast passagework – redobles. As DM mentioned, vihuela sources contain a lot of information on tempo, and Milan gives a specific tempo – in words – for each of his fantasias. More on Milan here. More on the 16th-cent Spanish Art of Time here.
DM cited sources stating that purely mathematical proportions fail to observe decorum, text, or harmony.
Decorum is a technical term of Rhetoric, the requirement that every detail be consistent with the Rhetorical purpose – ALK.
In some English 17th-century sources, ‘soft’ is linked to ‘drag’. In 1619, Praetorius links ‘piano’ to slowly. A 1613 source asks for certain passages to be softer and faster. Türk (1789) asks for certain passages to be softer and slower.
Much more in DM’s published article.
Julia Dokter on Tempo words
JD had a slightly different take on the effect of Tempo words. “Tempo words either reiterate or modify information otherwise communicated” i.e. by changes of time-signature and/or note values.
This idea, that Tempo words might merely reiterate what the musical notation has already told us, is controversial. DM considers that a tempo word that ‘goes the same way’ as a change of notation does not simply reiterate, but rather intensifies the change. I am inclined to agree with DM, as I see this usage going back all the way to Milan 1536, where the wording is unambiguously about changing the Tactus to exaggerate the change in note-values.
It could be interesting to look for examples of a single work with proportional changes, some with modifying tempo-words, others without such words, to see whether proportional changes were always ‘tweaked’, or might sometimes be left plain and ‘mathematical’.
And perhaps this is the moment for me to add that the sung text itself can be full of “tempo-modifying words”. It would indeed lack decorum, to sing ‘Drop, drop slow tears’ in a ‘default tempo’ un-modified by slow, lacrimose affekt. My take on this is the “LY” principle: how do you sing any given text? Take the emotionally significant word and add “LY”. So we sing “Drop, drop slow tears” not necessarily softly, but certainly slowly and tearfully. We sing “Awake sweet love” not necessarily louder, but certainly wakefully, sweetly and lovingly. And so on.
Conventional dynamics, mp, mf, piano and forte are hopelessly gross and unrefined – no wonder they are little used in 17th-century music. But the sung text provides highly specific performance instructions. And – as reported by JW – treatises on the Art of Acting tell us how to put those instructions to work, by applying techniques of Vision and Enargeia (the emotional power of detailed description).
JD emphasised that in passages of Stylus Phantasticus, the Tactus Tempo is drastically slower, whilst note-values are much shorter.
I questioned JD’s assumption that Sytlus Phantasticus should be performed with ‘malleable tempo’. She mentioned Mattheson’s characterisation of the style as full of all kinds of surprises and changes, including temporal effects. But surely – these are notated already. Nobody is proposing to create additional harmonic surprises by treating the notated pitches as ‘malleable’…
And I think this comparison of notated pitch, and notated rhythm, is most useful. There is a 20th-century tendency to treate notated pitches seriously, whereas tempo and rhythm are the performer’s free choice. Rather like Autobahn driving: we respect the one-way signs, but choose our own speed, unless the Authenticity Police are present. 🙂
Seriously, we now understand that the written pitches can be changed historically (history of A) systematically (transposition according to chiavette) or creatively (divisions, according to style rules and historical models). I would suggest that tempo and rhythm are notated to a similar extent, and that any changes a performer introduces should be historical (the changing speed of Tempo Giusto etc over the centuries), and within one repertoire either systematic (as JD, AH and DM all showed) or – if creative – should follow style rules and historical models (as JD and DM are investigating). There is no ‘freedom’ for rhythm, any more than there is for pitch: just a lot of historical information to be understood and applied.
JD’s other argument for ‘malleability’ in Stylus Phantasticus was subjective, and none the worse for that, based on her rich experience of this repertoire. When you play this stuff, some adjustments seem necessary, to make sense of the wierd music. I’m sure she is right. But I suspect that those adjustments can be made within a steady Tactus – there is plenty of space to do this, since the note-values are so very small and the Tactus beat (crotchet, presumably) so very slow. Indeed, with such very slow Tactus, and so much surface activity, one’s perception/control of the Tactus diminishes.
DM noted a sequence of markings adagio – a battuta, which might imply ‘malleability’ in the adagio. I would be inclined to take this literally, that the singer would not beat time with the hand during the adagio, and would start again – for beating time was the standard practice – afterwards. I would link this to the prohibition on beating time in theatrical music (since it distracts from the stage action, and from believing that the onstage character is ‘real’), which is gradually extended to passionate solo songs in general. And it’s also practical – whilst you are singing small note-values and/or affektive ornaments etc, you don’t want to be beating a super-slow Tactus with your hand, it’s physically inconvenient and distracting for everyone.
Alexander Bonus mentioned the boom in sales of pocket-watches in the time of Roger North. There is a far bigger story here of the circa 1800 glorification of machines, musical machines, dolls etc that moved by mechanical means, and the imitation of natural and human movement by machines. The admiration of the semitone mechanism of the late 18th-century pedal harp, harpe organisée is part of this story. Such machines were prized because they successfully imitated the perfection of the Clockwork of the Heavens. This is an uncomfortable topic for the anti-metronome brigade, as is the desire of earlier philosophers to make astronomy more regular than it really is. The wish that planetary orbits be circular blocked scientific advance until Kepler established ellipses beyond doubt, and Newton provided a mathematical model for this.
Just as with the Vibrato debate, we cannot hide behind over-simplistic black-and-white positions. Historical Tempo was both regular and irregular – we have to understand how this worked in each repertoire, and we are unlikely to find a ‘one size fits all’ solution. But just as Jed Wentz made the case for an embodied approach to Affekt, I would suggest that we can only begin to understand Tempo if we embody it as they did back then, with the physical movement of the Tactus Hand. If we try to solve problems only by abstract thinking, we are certainly going to ‘overleap distinctions’…
AB cited Brower (1929) advocating a “metronome in one’s head”. I’m not so appalled by this: but what I want to have in my head is a vision/memory of a Tactus Hand, with visions of the changing, text-based Affekts projected onto it!
Descartes comments on the particular significance of ‘first part of the measure’ were cited. Good stuff, and let’s also keep in mind the influence of French dance, Lully’s down-bow on the down-beat etc on how time felt for his contemporaries. We cannot generalise 18th-century concepts of the hierarchy of the bar back into the early 17th-century, when most music was unbarred anyway.
Nevertheless, we do need to seek an (embodied) understanding of how time felt for musicians of the past. This Colloquium made a valuable contribution to advancing such understanding, and the organisers and contributers should be warmly thanked for their work.
This article was written for a course on HIP for Harps taught for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It offers a very brief introduction based on Muffat (1698) and focussed on the typical movements of baroque suites.
Period discourse about music around the year 1700 was much concerned with contrasts in National Style, specifically Italian and French. Italian style (imitated also outside Italy, of course) favoured drama and virtuoso display in such genres as Opera, Toccata, Sonata & Concerto. French style (also imitated abroad) preferred descriptive character pieces to abstract sonatas and celebrated above all the noble art of Dance.
French theatrical music (especially Ballets), chamber music (in particular, Suites) and social activities were unified by the elegance and energy of dance, and depended for variety on the contrasting characters of distinctive dance-types. As modern-day performers of these repertoires, our understanding of the music is enormously increased if we know something of the dancing that inspired it.
I strongly recommend every student of Historically Informed Performance to go to class and learn some dances from the appropriate period of music. It isn’t necessary to become a great dancer: right from the beginning you will start to notice from the inside what it feels like to dance the music you love. No amount of teaching or demonstration can replace this personal, embodied experience.
At the very least, watch as much baroque dancing as you can, so that you have a clear visual inspiration to guide your playing. Play for dance rehearsals, in order to learn what their art requires of your delivery. The ideal in this period was that the music should appear to be produced by the action of the dancers’ feet striking the floor. Strong moments in the dance move upwards, preparatory energy is gathered by sinking in order to expand and rise again. And watching good baroque dancers, we can imagine that our sustained notes are similarly suspended in the air as if weightless, like a elegantly poised dancer, balanced and seeming to float almost off the ground.
French period sources suggest that many subtleties of le bon gout – Good Taste – can only be acquired by studying with a fine teacher, born into the culture of Louis XIV’s France. As foreigners from the 21st century, we can all be thankful for Georg Muffat’s (1698) systematic analysis of French style, describing le bon gout in terms of a coherent set of principles, just as grammar-books describe the use of language. Indeed, this concept of a collection of rules is precisely how Art itself was defined, in this period. Read more about period philosophy of art here.
Muffat’s First Observations on the French style of playing dance-tunes according to the method of Monsieur Lully are presented in four languages (Latin, German, Italian, French) as the introduction to his second Florilegium collection, available free online here. The four versions are not identical, and it is worth studying fine points of detail across all four texts. David Wilson’s English translation is here. My summary below follows the French text.
“Here you can discover the principal secrets in a few words”
“Two functions admirably well linked together:
“To charm the ear
“Simultaneously, to mark so well the movements of the dance, that one recognises immediately which type each tune represents, and one feels irresistibly inspired to dance.”
This is Muffat’s reworking of the classic Three Aims of Rhetoric: to delight, to explain and to move the passions. The musician’s purpose is literally to move listeners’ feet, and thereby to affect their emotions.
The word mouvement has a wide semantic field that includes the physical movements of dancing, contrasting formal sections (e.g. the movements of a suite), the speed of the music, the emotional Affekt of the music and the dancing, and the rhythmic structure of a particular dance-type. All these elements are interdependent.
“To play in tune”
“To keep constantly/constant the True Movement of each piece”
“To observe certain usages of repeats, notations, style and dancing”
Muffat’s insistence on le vrai Mouvement – True Movement – goes further than simply keeping the beat and maintaining constant tempo. This mouvement is also what a jazz musician would call the ‘groove’ of the dance, a characteristic rhythmic pattern, not necessarily strictly mathematical (often the first beat of the bar needs to be long), but established from the beginning and maintained until the end, and strongly linked to the particular physical movements and emotional Affekts associated with each dance-type.
For example, the Chaconne is usually a celebratory, festive, theatrical ‘party’ dance often marking the happy ending of a music-drama, or associated with the comedy clown, Harlequin. It is usually constructed in double-units of four-bar phrases featuring a descending bass-line, with hemiola at significant cadences, and a groove running across the bar-lines: 2 3 1, 2 3 1. The first beat is long, giving space either for a breath between mini-phrases, or for an expressive dissonance on the first beat resolved on the second.
The Minuet is a formal social dance, often marking the presentation of a couple to the assembled company. It is usually constructed with a great deal of symmetry: four-bar and eight-bar phrases; eight-bar or sixteen-bar repeated sections etc. The basic unit is two bars, which corresponds to one minuet-step. The groove mixes, often alternately, rhythmic patterns of crotchet-minim [short-long] and minim-crotchet [long short].
Both these dances are usually notated in 3/4, and could plausibly be played within a similar range of tempi according to circumstances. In this, they might appear very alike. But once you’ve played a few of each type, and (ideally) learnt to dance them too, you will be able to distinguish them from the very first few notes, just as Muffat writes. This is the significance of vrai mouvement, much more than just ‘constant speed’.
“Play in tune”
Muffat singles out the diatonic semitone mi-fa as the usual source of problems for inexperienced players. At an elementary level, violinists have to learn to position their fingers to create a narrower spacing for the semitone than for the tones. Failure here is a serious assault on the listener’s ears.
At a higher level of sophistication, Muffat’s hint to raise the mi may be linked to the ongoing transition from the pure thirds of Quarter-comma Meantone towards the slightly wider thirds of Sixth-comma Meantone, as the accepted practice for ‘being in tune’. Most 18th-century ‘circulating temperaments’ (for keyboard instruments) were derived from Sixth-comma Meantone, so it is highly plausible that slightly wider thirds became generally accepted.
Muffat also mentions that ornaments should not be false. Sometimes ornaments require chromatic alteration to fit within the local harmonies, and whichever notes one chooses to play, they must be in tune, of course. Playing an ornament in the wrong place also offends the ear. Squeaks and noises are also to be avoided.
In contrast to the lengthy debates amongst today’s Early Musicians on the subject of Temperament, Muffat writes that there is only one accepted way of being in tune. He deals with the whole subject in 14 lines.
Muffat devotes about 100 lines – more than two pages, plus two pages of musical examples to this crucial topic. Bowing for string instruments corresponds to tonguing syllables for wind-players and fingering for keyboards, harp, lutes and guitars. Strict rules of style create characteristic patterns of articulation: Good and Bad notes, legato or separation between one note and the next, contrasting qualities of onset-attack for individual notes.
Muffat states that unanimity of bowing is essential. This translates for harpists and others into a requirement for intense scrutiny of note-by-note articulation patterns.
In this French style, the first beat is always given a down-bow, even if the previous note was also down-bow. This creates silences of articulation before some down-beats. But Muffat marvels how, “in spite of so many down-bows and retakes” (lifting the bow up again, to facilitate two successive down-bows with the very short French Baroque bow), “one never hears anything disagreeable or coarse, but rather a wonderful combination of speed and the length of the bow-strokes; of admirable equality of measure and diversity of phrasings; of tender sweetness and vivacity of playing”
What I have translated here as ‘phrasings’ is yet another appearance of the word mouvemens, here suggesting the movement of the bow, as well as of the notes and of the dancers’ feet, and of the emotions that all these work together to produce.
This rule of “first-beat = down-bow” takes precedence. After this, Good and Bad notes get down- and up-bows respectively, as far as possible. In triple metre, three crotchets to the bar (for example), the last note could be taken down-bow (in slow tempo) or up-bow (in fast tempo). Two successive up-bows can be divided – craquer – to articulate the final note clearly. In very fast tempo, a group of notes can be played ‘upside-down’ if necessary. In a passage of dotted notes alternating with short notes, one should not slur short-long, but might slur long-short.
If you have any skill at all on the violin, it’s worth playing through Muffat’s examples to see how they feel and sound. If not, you can create a similar effect by singing Frank Sinatra style with dooby-doo. Use ‘doo’ for a Good note, down-bow. Use ‘bee’ for a Bad note, up-bow. Advancing in sophistication, you can imitate craquer with the syllables ‘beeper’, making more or less of a seperation between ‘beep’ and ‘per’ as you judge appropriate.
Muffat avoids down-bow on the second beat, so the combination crotchet and two quavers at the beginning of a bar forces you to craquer the two quavers. Thus the famous Minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch would not go “Doo dooby dooby / doo dooby” but (more elegantly) “Doo beeper dooby / doo beeper”, when played in the French style.
Muffat gives a few examples of how Italian violinists played Minuets, often starting with an upbow on the first note. The Anna Magdalena Minuet comes out very nicely with alternate bows, starting up-bow, but sounding very different in that Italian style: “Bee dooby dooby / doo-bee-doo”
The mesure (a bar, yes, but also the time-span measured by the regular down-up movement of the Tactus hand-beat) can have different mouvements. A jazz-musician might express this by saying “a steady count can have all kinds of different grooves”.
Muffat gives “three requirements:
“Understand well the vrai mouvement – the groove – of each piece
“Once you’ve understood it, be able to keep it for as long as you play the same piece, always with the same regularity, without changing, slowing or rushing it.
“Give certain notes some swing, to make it sound more cool.”
“To understand better the groove of each piece… knowing how to dance is a great help. Most of the best violinists in France are very good dancers, so it’s not surprising that they are so well able to find and maintain the groove of the beat.”
“Having understood and started the beat, not everyone is able to keep it precisely constant for the entire duration of the piece.”
Muffat does not accept playing the whole piece slower or faster one time than another [his next paragraph suggests that this refers to playing a dance several times through consecutively, rather than to separate performances on different occasions] He also disapproves of alterations to the groove bar by bar or note by note.
“Reject the abuse of playing whatever kind of piece the first time very gently, then gradually faster and faster, and the last time very fast and rushing”
“Don’t wait at the cadence more or less than the note-values indicate”
“Don’t rush the ending”
“Don’t panic when you see short note-values”
“Don’t shorten the last note of the bar”
Playing for dancers is an excellent way to learn how to ‘phrase-off’ and ‘breathe’ at cadences, without disturbing the vrai mouvement. Muffat’s 5th rule is equivalent to ‘Don’t crowd the downbeat’.
Muffat defines precisely – “diminutions of the first order” – which note-values should be ‘swung’, with examples for various metres. A succession of short notes written as equal are performed long-short, approximately as if the first, third, fifth note etc were dotted, and the following notes shortened accordingly. We should keep in mind that a Baroque Dot is itself a variable quality, according to context we might over-dot or under-dot. The appropriate amount of swing varies with the dance-type: more vigorous for a fast dance with popular origins, more subtle for a slow, courtly dance.
I consider that Muffat’s insistence on conserving the vrai mouvement implies maintaining the same swing for the duration of a particular piece, as jazz-musicians tend to do nowadays. Many of my illustrious colleages disagree with me on this, but it must be said that most of them choose not to maintain vrai mouvement at all. Muffat makes it abundantly clear that vrai mouvement must be maintained: but there is room for legitimate debate as to whether the ‘swing’ of notes inégales comes under this rule or not.
The complete rhythmic identity of a given dance – its characteristic vrai mouvement – is thus constructed on several levels. The slow count of Tactus, the mesure, is steady (as in all Baroque music, with the exception of préludes non mesurées and plainchant). The principal division of the bar (into two or three) also carries the groove. So a Gavotte typically has two minim beats per bar, and the principal division structures the groove as short-short-long (crotchet crotchet minim). If you tap your feet and clap to this groove, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to sing We will, we will rock you! The quavers are swung – waving your banner all over the place. The emotional power comes from the dance-energy, which is stoked by maintaining the count, groove and swing steady from beginning to end. Temps di Gavotte Anglais (1977) here.
Because they experienced Lully’s airs as dance-music, violinists of Muffat’s time were more likely to rush towards the end. Modern-day early musicians regard Lully as art-music, and are more in danger of applying inappropriate 19th-century rallentando. Muffat is crystal-clear: keep the vrai mouvement from beginning to end. And just as I do here, Muffat repeats this point many times (otherwise, he rarely repeats any of his remarks).
“Finish tuning before the audience arrrive.”
“Dont make noise” nor practise your party pieces before the show starts
“French pitch is a tone, or for opera a minor third, lower than German pitch”
“Balance up the band”, “don’t have everyone play first violin!”
There are usually two viola parts: “viola 1 is better on a small viola than on a violin”. Viola 2 is played by a large viola. Muffat approves adding a double-bass, but the French were not yet using double-basses in dance-music in 1698.
“Observe the repeats” (notice the French habit of a short repeat – petite reprise – at the end of the last section)
“It is very useful for keeping the precision of the mesure to give each [downbeat] with a small movement of the foot, as the Lullists do.”
It is interesting to notice how difficult modern-day players find it, to tap their feet on the down-beat (and only on the down-beat). I recommend it to students, and frequently request it from my ensembles, just as Muffat does.
Instrumental ornaments for dance-music are mostly derived from vocal ornamentation. There are many more than one would imagine, and Muffat gives only a brief introduction. Nevertheless, this is the largest chapter of his essay, occupying three pages of text and another three pages of music examples.
Pincement – lower mordent, starts and ends on the written note, usually descending by a semitone, usually short, usually without additional repercussions.
Tremblement – short trill from above, starts from the upper auxiliary, can be simple, or turned, may end early or continue into the next written note
Both these are played on the beat.
Muffat describes many more ornaments and how to execute them. He then addresses the question of where each ornament-type can be applied. His ten detailed rules depend on whether the note is Good or Bad, ascending or descending, moving by step or leaping, with exceptions for a mi and special conditions for the first note of a piece, of a significant section, of an ascent or descent. At cadences certain notes require a tremblement, others refuse it.
He gives some examples of diminutions (improvised variations), and warns that two tremblements are generally not used in succession, though he lists specific exceptions to this rule.
Muffat asserts that the whole secret of French ornamentation is codified in his 10 rules. These ornaments bring the “sweetness, vigour and beauty” of the Lullian method.
“The melody suffers if ornaments are omitted, inappropriate, excessive or badly executed. Omission leaves the melody and harmony naked and undecorated; inappropriate playing is rough and barbaric; excessive ornamentation sounds confused and ridiculous; poor execution sounds heavy and constrained.”
“The slightest failure in ornamentation betrays the would-be Lullist as inexperienced in this style.”
Muffat’s approximately ten ornament types (it depends how you count the sub-types) and ten rules are an amazingly concise encapsulation of the bon gout of the subtle and elegant French Baroque style. And if you apply his rules to Lully’s (sparsely marked) orchestral scores, the result is strongly consistent with (very detailed) ornament-markings in D’Anglebert’s harpsichord transcriptions of those same scores.
Many Suites are not intended to be danced. It is acceptable to take a different speed (a complex piece of chamber music may need to be played slower than the corresponding movement would be danced), but whatever the chosen tempo might be, it is maintained throughout. In late 17th-century England, Mace details a practice of making pauses and then an a tempo conclusion to (fast) Sarabandes, but otherwise there is no period evidence to support the application of tempo rubato to Baroque dance-music.
The Allemande that begins many Baroque suites was not danced. I speculate that the title refers to a German way of playing with arpeggios (the modern term is style brisé) dance-music of the type that the French used for Entrées. Characteristic figures include the short upbeat “Ta-dah!” found as a head-motive in many dance-types, alternations of dotted and short notes, and a three-note upbeat figure.
The Courante was an old-fashioned, noble dance – ‘the dance of Kings’. It has the most complex rhythms of all, contrasting, combining and creating ambiguity between 3/2 and 6/4, with a “Ta-Dah” opening; groups of crotchet, dotted crotchet, quaver ambiguously accented on first or second note; and a decisive shift to 6/4 at significant cadences.
The Italian Corrente is different, with continuous running notes in the melody, and without the complex cross-rhythms of the French type.
The Sarabande was a fast dance that slowed down over the decades. Choreographies are characterised by held balances and sudden spins or leaps into a new pose. Often the music has a similar sharp contrast in note-values and amount of activity. The groove has a strong and/or sustained second beat of three.
Gigues vary in speed and groove – see Quantz and others for details. French Gigues often begin with imitation between treble and bass, and have a strong sense of the upbeat. The Italian Giga tends to flow more continuously, and without marking the upbeats.
The Loure is a slow-motion Gigue.
The Passpied is a high-speed Minuet.
Bourée and Rigaudon might have had their origins in popular, rural traditions, but had become a highly sophisticated, courtly protrayal of Pastoral. Looking at the musical notation, it is impossible for us to distinguish between the two types, but in the period they were sharply differentiated: we don’t know how. Two quavers on the upbeat, groove (often in the bass) with three crotchets and a rest, final bars with crotchet, two quavers, crotchet (or four quavers & crotchet) over that groove; all of this with strong duple (minim) count and vigorous swing on the quavers.
Period writers disagreed as to whether Passacaille and Chaconne could be distinguished, and if so how. You are in good company if you consider Chaconnes to be major mode, Passacailles minor, but perhaps the most famous Chaconne of all is from Bach’s D minor Partita.
The Musette is a courtly imitation of a pastoral bagpipe tune, usually in 6/8. The Tambourin imitates a tambourine.
The Sicilienne is a slow 6/8 with groups of dotted quaver, semiquaver, quaver. The Canarie is a fast 6/8 with the same rhythmic grouping.
If you are studying a dance-movement, I strongly recommend that before starting to “interpret” the particular piece at hand, you first become familiar with the general characteristics of that dance-type. So before going too deeply into Bach’s famous violin Chaconne, first play lots of (simpler) Chaconnes (and Passacailles), watch Chaconnes being danced, learn to dance one yourself, and generally make yourself at home with the identity of the Chaconne as a dance-type.
Work through Muffat’s 10 ornament rules and apply them to your particular piece.
You will now have a much clearer idea of how Bach’s composition resembles all Chaconnes, and where its particular individuality lies. Above all remember Muffat’s two essential functions: the listeners have to recognise the dance from the very first notes, and they have to feel inspired to dance themselves. Even in such complex and profound music as Bach’s, this spirit of the dance must live, energised by the constant flow of vrai mouvement.
It’s some 20 years since I recorded dance-music from Feuillet’s (1700) Chorégraphie. CD here. My research for that recording started me on the paths that I have followed since, of Rhythm & Rhetoric; Tactus, Text, Gesture and Ornamentation. And in the intervening years I’ve had the opportunity to play this repertoire with fine orchestras (both modern and early), and see it danced by experts. Nowadays, I would play some of the movements a little faster, and most of them with more dance energy, a little less chamber-music reticence, and with – I hope – a stronger and truer sense of mouvement.
Writing this article also gave me the opportunity to re-read Muffat, and glean a little more detail of his bowing rules, resulting in ‘Doo beeper dooby’ above and a rewrite of the discussion of the same Minuet in my 2020 article, here. It’s always worth re-reading a source that you think you know already. What you have discovered since the previous reading will have changed your viewpoint, and you may well notice something that you previously overlooked.