Act with the hand, act with the heart: motion and e-motion in Cavalieri’s Preface to ‘Anima & Corpo’


On the occasion of the 50th performance in repertoire of Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo in George Isaakyan’s production Игра о душе и теле at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’ [Golden Mask award-winner in 2013], this article offers a translation of the Preface to the 1600 print, in which the publisher, Alessandro Guidotti, presents Cavalieri’s advice on ‘how to create a baroque opera’. Published in association with OPERA OMNIA Academy for Early Opera & Dance, read more here.


Emilio de Cavalieri’s ‘Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo’ (1600) is indeed the ‘first opera’. Jacopo Peri, whose ‘Euridice’ was performed later the same year, acknowledges Cavalieri’s role as originator of the style. (Earlier music-dramas by these two composers, notably Peri’s ‘Dafne’, have not survived.) So how did Cavalieri and his contemporaries seek to develop a new theatrical genre of fully-sung plays?


Guidotti’s original print with the full text of the Preface is available free online, here. More about Cavalieri’s music-drama here. Any (modern-day) debate about whether this work is ‘the first opera’ or ‘the first oratorio’ is icrrelevant, since neither genre existed in 1600. The original designation is Rappresentatione – a representation, a show. Cavalieri’s music-drama on a moral subject is the earliest surviving example of the genere rappresentativo: it is through-sung in three Acts with a spoken Prologue, two Sinfonias to separate the Acts and a final Ballo. We are very fortunate that this beautifully printed score was published, a sumptuous collector’s item for seicento music-lovers, as a souvenir of the original production.

The Preface has very little discussion of airy philosophy. This is a practical guide, drawing on Cavalieri’s long experience as a Corago (artistic director) for spectacular theatrical entertainments involving music. And clearly, in composing Anima & Corpo Cavalieri followed his own advice, so that his music-drama is a perfect example of how to put into practice the principles he recommends.

This practical approach is found again circa 1630 in the anonymous MS Il Corago, and the two sources are remarkably consistent in their advice. Framing the period of court ‘opera’ as they do [Venetian commercial opera  began in 1737], these two practical guides give us a clear understanding of the working priorities for the first ‘operas’ by Peri, Caccini, Gagliano and Monteverdi as well as offering insight into Roman music-dramas.

I’ve chosen a simple style of translation that stays close to Guidotti’s vocabulary and word-order, so that it’s easy to check the English version against the original Italian.  Difficult or old words, or words whose meaning has changed since 1600 have been been translated using John Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary. So that readers can distinguish my comments from Cavalieri’s text, my commentary appears below in red. 

One way to discover Cavalieri’s priorities is simply to count how often he mentions key words. Crucial concepts emerge clearly:

  • Contrast: diversi mutare varieta variare cambiar  and their derivatives, 9 hits
  • Passions: affetti and derivatives 6 hits;
  • Specific Passions: pieta giubilo painto riso mesto allegro feroce mite etc, 10 hits
  • Moving [the passions]: commova, muovere and derivatives 5 hits

This supports the argument that seicento music favours contrast, emotion, and contrasts of emotion. The importance of specific emotions and of changes one from emotion to another differs subtly from the Romantic aim for intensity of emotion. Sometimes, modern-day coaches ask singers for ‘more emotion’, as if emotion itself were a quality, as if one could pour all-purpose emotion into a performance, like pouring sauce. But in this repertoire, a request for ‘more emotion’ begs the question: ‘which one?’. A more appropriate coaching method for seicento opera is to look for, and intensify changes between specific emotions.

Other words also recur frequently:

  • Recitando: with its derivatives, 6 hits
  • Gesture: gesti, motivi, 5 hits
  • Rappresentatione: with its derivatives 4 hits, plus 6 more mentions of specific genres of theatrical show
  • Ballo: together with the verb ballare and their derivatives, 18 hits, plus 7 more mentions of specific genres/dance types, plus many mentions of specific steps

Recitare must be understood in its period meaning: certainly not ‘to sing Recitative’, and usually not as specific as ‘to Recite’ [whether singing or speaking]. The principle meaning is ‘to Act’. It’s important to keep this distinction in mind, and to avoid the modern assumption that there is a musical genre of ‘Recitative’, which has different rules from ‘normal’ seicento music. Cavalieri is discussing how to act in a stage show, specifically in a stage show that is through-sung (what we nowadays call ‘opera’).

Three decades later, Il Corago defines acting as ‘imitating with gesture’, whether silent, spoken or sung. Gesture is a vital part of early seicento acting, but as Cavalieri reminds us (below), it comprises not only gestures of the hand but motivi of the whole body. Period ‘body language’ is described in exhaustive detail in Bonifaccio’s L’Arte de Cenni (Vicenza, 1600), my English translation will be published later this year. My introduction to historical acting for the first operas, Shakespeare etc starts here.

We should keep in the back of our minds the academic nicety that Cavalieri’s music-drama was not called ‘opera’, with all the anachronistic expectations that word arouses, but rappresentatione: a show. And it’s quite a surprise to see how significant dancing is in Italian music-drama, conventionally regarded as text-based and opposed to later French ideals of dance-dramas. But in the context of Cavalieri’s experience as overall artistic director, his triumph with the dance-finale to the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, his practical insistence on variety and lively entertainment for the audience, and comparisons with the later Il Corago MS, as well as the popularity of social dancing in this period, dancing emerges as vital theme, often undervalued, in the development of the ‘first operas’.

All these key words – contrast, passion, acting, gesture, theatrical shows, dancing –  are encapsulated in the period phrase muovere gli affetti, ‘moving the passions’. Cavalieri’s practical guide is all about motion and E-motion.


If you want to present on stage this work or others similar to it, and follow the advice of Signor Emilio del Cavaliere, so that this type of music, which he has revived, moves [the listeners] to different passions, such as to pity and to joy; to crying and to laughter and to others similar, as has been seen to be effective in the modern scene of La Disperatione di Fileno [The Despair of Fileno], composed by him, in which the acting of Signora Vittoria Archilei, whose excellence in music is very well known to all moved [the listeners] to tears marvellously, whilst the role of Fileno moved [them] to laughter:

Cavaliere is described as having ‘revived’, not ‘invented’ this type of music – dramatic monody, the representation in music of speech on stage. This reflects the period interest in re-discovering the power of emotional communication they had read about in classical Greek and Latin drama. The idea of ‘moving the passions… to tears and laughter’ is therefore a key topic.

As I say, if you want to put the show on, necessarily every element should be excellent: the singer should have a beautiful, well-pitched voice, they should keep the voice steady, they should sing with passion, piano and forte, without divisions (ornamentation) and in particular that they should pronounce the words well so that they [the words] are understood, and they should accompany them with gestures and motions not only of the hands, but of steps as well – these are most effective aids in moving the passion.

This advice for singers is an excellent check list of essential skills. Keeping the voice ‘steady’ encourages solid, well-supported voice-production and reminds us that vibrato is welcomed as an ornament, or a special effect, rather than as constant. Some early-music singers may be surprised to read that ornamentation is very restricted in this genre: passagi  are prohibited, and cadential ornaments (discussed below) appear only infrequently. But Cavalieri’s restrictions on ornamentation are consistent with other sources, including Il Corago.

The instruments should be well played, and more or fewer in number according to the venue, whether a theatre or hall, which to be proportionate for this acting in music should not have a capacity of more than a thousand people, who should be comfortably seated, for greater silence and for their own satisfaction: since if you put on a show in a very large hall, it is not possible to make the words heard for everyone, and then it would be necessary for the singer to force, from which cause the passion is reduced; and so much music, lacking audible text, becomes boring.

Monteverdi’s Orfeo was played in a ‘small venue’, and most modern commentators are sceptical about period claims that Arianna  had an audience of 6,000 Nevertheless, Cavalieri’s ideal venue is rather larger than the 400/500-seater chamber-music halls we sometimes think of as typical for early opera. And there is plenty more about large-scale ensembles below. But two important concepts from are already getting their second mention: no forcing (singers should even sing piano, when appropriate); it’s essential that the audience understands the words. And (singers take note!) in this repertoire passion is reduced if you sing too loud – as every actor knows, over-playing lines, shouting, generally ‘chewing the carpet’ just turns the audience off.

The need for the audience to be silent reminds us of the last stanza of the Prologue to Orfeo, in which La Musica calls on all nature (and by techniques similar to modern-day NLP, the audience too) to be still and silent.  Read more about how La Musica hypnotises the heroes… 

And the instruments, so that they are not seen, should be played from behind the backcloth of the scene, and by people who go along with the singer, without diminutions [ornamentation] and full [sound]. And to throw some light on those that have been useful in similar places, a lirone, a harpsichord, a chitarrone or theorbo as it is called, together make a really good effect: like also a soft organ with a chitarrone.

Cavalieri seems to seek the illusion that characters on-stage are just speaking, by hiding the instruments. In this period, the continuo ‘supports’ singers, ‘guiding’ the whole ensemble [Agazzari 1608, further discussion here], rather than ‘accompanying’ or ‘following’ in the modern sense [more about Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz here]. Continuo-players should not add diminutions, but should play with full sound (to ‘support’ as Agazzari requires]. Many period sources ask the continuo to play grave.

Monteverdi also specifies organo di legno and theorbo in several places in Orfeo.

And Signor Cavaliere would praise changing instruments according to the passion of the actor; and he judges that similar music-dramas would not be good if they exceeded two hours, and should be divided up into Acts, and the characters should be dressed beautifully and with variety.

Changes of continuo instruments in Orfeo are according to the changing affetti: it’s not as simple as putting a certain instrument with each character (a solution sometimes favoured today).

Passing from one passion to another contrary, like from sad to jolly, from fierce to mild etc is enormously moving.

Cavalieri requires changes of emotion, and specific emotions – not just dollops of undifferentiated emotionality. And the importance of all kinds of contrast is beginning to emerge as a central principle.

When a soloist has sung for a bit, it’s good to sing some choruses, and to vary often the mode [tonality]; and that now the soprano sings, now bass, now contralto, now tenor: and that the rhythms and music should not be similar, but varied with many proportions [metres], which are Tripla , Sestupla [fast triple metre] and Binario [duple metre], and adorned with echos, and as many features [‘inventions’] as possible, like in particular [dances in varied metres], which bring these shows to life as much as possible, just as has been, in fact, the judgement of all the spectators;. and these Balli or Morescas if they can be made to appear out of the ordinary standard practice, they will have more beauty and novelty: like for example, the Moresca for a battle, and the Ballo based on a game or pastime: just like in  La Pastorale di Fileno [The Pastoral of Fileno] three Satyrs came to battle, and based on this they did the battle singing and dancing on the Moresca ground. And in the game of La Cieca  [Blind Man’s Buff] four Nymphs sang and danced, whilst they played around a blindfolded Amarilli, obeying the rules of the game of La Cieca.

Cavalieri calls for plenty of variety, contrast and novelty. He mentions Tripla and Sestupla, but not the slow triple-metre proportion of Sesquialtera [though all three triple-metres appear in Monteverdi’s Orfeo]. Given the strong correlation between the Preface and the music that follows, we would expect to find Tripla and Sestupla but not Sesquialtera when we realise Cavalieri’s notation of the proportional changes. My theory of proportions is supported by Cavalieri, some other modern-day theories are not. Read more about Monteverdi’s Time, here.

That’s certainly not to say that one shouldn’t do at the end with good reason a formal Ballo: but be well advised that the Ballo needs to be sung by the same [performers] who dance it, and with good reason to have instruments in their hands, which they themselves also play, for like this it will be more perfect and out of the ordinary, like that one which was put on by Signor Emilio in the great Comedy acted at the time of the wedding of the Most Serene Duchess of Tuscany in 1588.

The reference here is to Cavalieri’s spectacular success with the Ballo del Gran Duca, the finale to the Florentine Intermedi of 1589 [modern calendar]. There is more about performers simultaneously singing, dancing and playing below. The fact that singers simultaneously dance has implications for choice of dance steps and for proportions – leaping steps are impracticable for singers. See also this discussion of Cavalieri’s ideas applied to the Ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

When the composition is divided into three Acts, which according to experience gained should be sufficient, one would be able to add four fully-staged Intermedi, distributed so that the first would be before the Prologue, and each of the others at the end of its Act, observing this rule, that within the scene one makes small-scale music and a harmonious sinfonia of instruments, to the sound of which should be coordinated the movements of the Intermedio, having regard that there is no need for [sung or spoken] acting, as there would not be for example in showing the Giants who wanted to make war on Jupiter, or something similar.

Cavalieri’s term is intermedij apparenti – these include ‘sets and costumes, as well as recognisable narrative fragments, usually adapted from mythology; these are associated with the most spectacular of court entertainments… In contrast, intermedi non apparenti were far simpler, often consisting merely of a madrigal and performed without [changes of] costumes or sets.’  [Emily Wilbourne Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’ Arte (University of Chicago, 2016, page 37)

The impression of seamless continuity given by the printed scores of Anima & Corpo and Orfeo is probably misleading: Cavalieri is recommending inserting Intermedi into this kind of three-act music-drama. But – an important point – since the drama itself is sung, the intermedi should avoid singing, whereas in a spoken drama such as La Pellegrina (Florence 1589), sung intermedi provide contrast as well as spectacle. Within Anima & Corpo itself, there are episodes (e.g. the entrance of Piacere and the Companions) that come close to being intermedi non apparenti. Indeed, the dramatic structure of the whole work, as a series of entrances, linked by the characters of Soul and Body whose story we follow [Intellect and Consiglio also make repeat appearances]

And in each [Intermedio] one could make that change of scenery appropriate to the theme of the Intermedio: which, it should be advised,  would not be able to include descending from clouds [stage machines], which could not synchronise the movement with the tempo of the Sinfonia, which would happen beautifully when there are Moresca or other dance-steps.

In the Preface to La Dafne (1608), Gagliano advises singers to walk in time to the music of their Ritornelli. But nevertheless, this comment of Cavalieri’s is puzzling: when can a descending cloud be appropriate, since there will always be the difficulty of synchronising its movement to the accompanying music?

The libretto should not exceed 700 lines, and to be suitable it should be easy, and full of short lines, not just of 7 syllables, but of 5 and 8, and sometimes in sdruccioli [accent on the ante-penultimate syllable] and with close rhymes, through the beauty of the music it makes a graceful effect:

Cavalieri is arguing for relatively simple poetry – the music will supply whatever gracefulness that might be lacking. High-style poetry would be in 11 and 7 syllable lines, and close rhymes would be avoided. Again, Cavalieri’s preference is for entertaining variety.

And in the dialogues statements and replies should not be very long; and the narratives of one solo [character] should be as brief as possible. And there is no doubt that the variety of characters enriches the scene with great beauty; as is seen well observed in the Pastorals of Satiro and of  La Disperatione di Fileno, which, conforming with the intentions of Signor Emilio, the most noble Signora Laura Guidiccioni, of the Luchesini, noble lady of Lucca was happy to write; she also took the game of La Cieca from Signor Cavalier Guarini’s Pastor Fido, adapting that noble spirit very beautifully for her own purpose.

Once again, Cavalieri argues for contrast and variety.



Placed at the end [of the published book] are the words without music, and with numbers corresponding to those that are in the music, in order to make it easy to check the music, and from those numbers can be recognised the different scenes and the characters who speak alone and together. At the beginning, before the curtain falls, it will be good to do some full music with doubled voices and a great quantity of instruments: one could very well use the madrigal number 86, with the text O Signor santo & vero: which is in 6 parts.

Cavalieri’s earlier recommendation suggests that there would also be an Intermedio at the very beginning, presumably before this ‘full music’ that begins the music-drama proper. 

As the curtain falls, the two youths who have to act the Prologue will be onstage: and after delivering their material, Tempo [Time] will appear, and the instruments who have to accompany the singers, putting the first chord will wait for him to make a start.

The continuo repeat the first chord until Tempo is ready to start. Monteverdi’s Ulisse  has a similar introduction to a scene, and Il Corago also recommends the continuo to repeat the harmony if extra time is needed for stage action. This (I argue) is what is meant by the idea of accompanists going with the singer – they ‘vamp till ready’ when stage action requires it, but they do not ‘follow’ in the sense of breaking time, even if the singer chooses (temporarily) not to be on the beat. Monteverdi frequently notates the vocal line anticipating or delaying, over a continuo-bass that maintains Tactus, in the Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) Caccini  describes what seems to be the same practice, see here. Both practices (free vocal line over timed bass, and ‘vamp till ready’ maintaining steady rhythm) are standard practice in today’s jazz, whereas mainstream ‘classical’ music expects accompanists to follow singers by breaking time, in the tradition of circa 1910 rubato.

The Chorus should be onstage, some seated, some standing, getting to hear what is presented, and amongst them sometimes changing places and making movements; and when they have to sing, they stand up in order to make their gestures, and then they return to their places:

As any stage director knows, characters on-stage, even Chorus-members, must be active listeners to the drama. Period art gives an idea of gestures of reacting and listening.

And the music for the Chorus being in four parts, one can, if wanted, double them, singing now four, and another time [all] together, assuming the stage is large enough for eight.

This is consistent with our modern understanding that the default expectation in this period was one singer per part. Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first performed with about 8 singers taking all solo roles and singing the choruses.

It will be good if Piacere [Pleasure] with the two Compagni [Companions] have instruments in their hands, playing whilst they sing, and playing their ritornelli. One could have a chitarrone, the other a Spanish guitar, and the other a little tambourine with jingles in the Spanish style which make little noise, exiting then whilst they play the last ritornello.

The scene of Pleasure & Companions is musically charming, with lively alternations of Binario, Tripla and Sestupla from the trio, contrasted with comments from the Body and Soul in what we today call ‘Recitative’. Cavalieri’s recipe for simultaneous playing and singing brings the instruments on-stage, visible to the audience (remember that the continuo-group is hidden behind the back-cloth), and gives the scene the flavour of an intermedio within the second Act.

When Corpo [Body] says the words Si che hormai Alma mia and what follows, he could remove such vain ornament, like a gold necklace or a hairpin, or something else.

This crucial moment marks the denouement of Act I, the Body’s decision, after much questioning and introspection, to follow the lead of the Soul rather than seek for earthly gratification. As composer, Cavalieri draws attention to these words with a sudden change of pace and harmony; as corago he suggests an action that goes beyond the usual hand-gestures, to make a symbolic rejection of earthly vanity. Underlying this small item of advice are two profound concepts of seicento music-drama, which differ sharply from the approach of modern-day Regieoper [in which the stage director seizes the freedom to create whatever he wishes]: music and stage-action work in parallel to tell the same story; both music and action are based on the text of the libretto. These concepts are stated explicitly in the Preface to Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi & Clorinda here page 19, and also in the anonymous Il Corago MS, modern edition hereIl Corago explains that a corago [artistic director] has universal authority in the theatre, but must serve the poet’s text. Choice of text is therefore an important consideration for both Cavalieri [who was himself a corago] and for the anonymous c1630 writer. 

Mondo [World] and Vita Mondana [Wordly Life] in particular should be very richly costumed: and when they are divested, they should show that great poverty and ugliness underneath those costumes: this shows the body of death.

At the moments where each of these characters is divested, the score does not provide any extra time for the necessary stage action. These are examples of where the continuo would ‘vamp till ready’, either on a single harmony, or on a chord sequence, as recommended by Il Corago. Notice that the extra time is ‘quantised’ – the continuo will remain in Tactus.

The Sinfonias and Ritornelli can be done with a great quantity of instruments: and a violin, which plays the soprano part precisely, will make a very good effect.

This advice seems to look back to the kind of varied consorts heard in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, and reminds us that polyphonic ensemble music might be performed with diverse consorts of chordal and melody instruments, as well as with the more homogenous ensembles of melodic instruments that we know from Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo.

The ending can be done in two ways, with a Ballo or without: if you don’t want to do a Ballo, it should finish in eight parts with the line which is number 91, doubling the voices and instruments as much as possible: the verse goes Rispondono nel ciel scettri e corone. If you want to finish with the Ballo, you should leave this verse unsaid, and starting to sing Chiostri altissimi e stellati the Ballo starts with a reverence and continenza [dance step]: and then follow other passi gravi [steps, as opposed to jumps], with heys [the dancers weave around each other] and solemn steps for all the couples: in the ritornelli it’s done by four who dance exquisitely a jumping dance with capers and without singing: and like this it follows in all the stanzas with the dance always varying, one time galliard, another time canario, and another corrente, which in the ritornelli will come across very well. And if the stage is not large enough for four to dance, at least two should dance: and get this ballo choreographed by the best maestro that can be found.

The stanzas of the ballo should be sung tutti, on- and off-stage: and all possible instruments should be put into the ritornelli.

All this detailed advice throws light also on the ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo – Lasciate i monti – see here for further discussion.



In the vocal parts will be found sometimes written in front of some notes one of the four letters g m t z  which mean that which is shown in the example below.

Like this, for whomever is singing, as for whomever plays, it will be warned never to alter flats to sharps or sharps to flats except where the particular signs are placed: and similarly this should be understood for the notes that are raised with the sharp sign #, that only those specifically marked with # should be raised, even if the note is repeated.

The use of barlines was quite different in this period, our modern convention that accidentals apply within the same bar does not apply. This should be kept in mind, if working with a modern edition that imposes barlines.

The small figures placed above the notes of the instrumental Basso Continuo signify the consonances and dissonances according to the figuring: like 3 third, 4 fourth, and so on. When the sharp # is placed before or below a figure, that consonance will be raised: and in this way the flat b makes its own effect. When the sharp is placed above the notes [of the Basso Continuo] without any figure, it always means a major tenth.

Some dissonances and parallel fifths are made deliberately.

Some dissonances that are resolved ‘incorrectly’ are disguised in notation (but not in sound). Such transgressions of the rules of counterpoint are frequent in the ‘first operas’ – this is the ‘artistic licence’ that Peri requests, in his Preface to Euridice (also 1600) see here. Contrary to modern assumptions, there is no implication of rhythmic freedom.

The sign .S.  means coronata [the ‘crowned’ symbol, looking like a modern fermata sign], which is used to take breath and give a bit of time to make some gesture.

As in polyphonic music of this period, time for breathing (and gesture) is taken out of the last note of the phrase, maintaining the Tactus and starting the next phrase on time. The ‘fermata’ sign derives from the renaissance signum congruentiae, showing a consonance at the end of a phrase. In this period, the sign carries no implication of prolonging the note or breaking time: on the contrary, the assumption is that the note marked by this sign will be shortened, by default to approximately half-length.


Peri Preface to Euridice (1600) here

Caccini Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) here

Agazzari Del sonare sopra’l basso (1607) here

Monteverdi Orfeo (1607) here.

Gagliano Preface to La Dafne (1608)

Anonymous Il Corago (c1630) here

How to Act in Early Opera & Shakespeare here

The title of this article cites the libretto, the end of the first speech of Time: ‘opri con la man’, opri co’l core’. The meaning of the Italian is ‘act with the hand, act with the heart’, but in the sense of ‘do good works’ – operare is cognate with ‘operate’. But since period acting links passions to gestures of the hand, it is not inappropriate to read into this line a reference (whether or not intended by the librettist) to historical stage-craft.





Happy New Year 2016





2016 Happy New Year



Please join me on Facebook and visit our websites: [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music] [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]


Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

Look Bach on 2015

ALK & Peri


Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.

Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!



Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!


Peri Euridice Preface vale


Please join me on Facebook and visit our websites: [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music] [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]


Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.



Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz

The Rhythm Section by Suzanne Cerny

The Rhythm Section by Suzanne Cerny


Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) would find basic advice for today’s jazz singers rather familiar:

Your jazz singing voice should be a natural extension of your speaking voice.

In Le Nuove Musiche (1601), Caccini asks for una sorte di musica … quasi che in armonia favellare, usando … una certa nobile sprezzatura di canto. [A kind of music, almost like speaking in harmony, using a certain elegantly ‘cool’ vocal production.] Note that, contrary to received opinion, Caccini’s sprezzatura is not to do with rhythm, but with voice-production. See Play it again Sam, the truth about Caccini’s sprezzaturahere.  The complete original text of Le Nuove Musiche is here.

Your aim is to move an audience by conveying the lyrics of a song as if it were a poem.

The aim of music, and all the Rhetorical arts of the 17th century is muovere gli affetti [to move the emotions]. Caccini too searches for the forza di muovere l’affetto dell’animo [the force to move the emotions of the mind], noting that non potevano … muovere l’intelletto senza l’intelligenza delle parole [you can’t move feelings unless the words are understood]. Caccini proclaims la musica altro non essere che la favella e’l ritmo, & il suono per ultimo, e non per lo contrario. [Music is nothing other than Text and Rhythm, with sound last of all. And not the other way around!]

Now sing your song … exactly as it was originally written by the songwriter.

That should prevent you copying a particular interpretation off a recording by an admired artist: rather, you should create your own version of the song. This is very good advice for students of 17th-century song, too. It’s surprising how many interpretative touches have been passed through the Early Music movement, even when they are contradicted by well-known period sources. And all too often, Early Music singers begin introducing random rhythmic changes (in the name of ‘expressiveness’) before learning what the composer actually wrote!

Rhythmic displacement

Nevertheless, the subtle rhythmic displacement that is so important for Jazz is mentioned also by Caccini (but remember, this is not sprezzatura).

The freedom to loosen up the rhythm of a song spontaneously to add intensity is one of the joys of singing jazz. To practise rhythmic displacement, it is a good idea to begin by learning … the song. [Then], start subtly “loosening up” the timing of each phrase. The idea here is to sing the words rather like you might say them. Try shortening and lengthening different notes each time you sing a phrase and notice how playing about with the rhythm changes the emphasis on the words and can help you put your own stamp on a song. Your singing will also sound more like jazz if you leave a short space (about the length of a clap) before launching into every phrase.

For a few bars of one of his three example songs, Caccini applies senza misura [unmeasured, i.e. ‘loosened up’ timing], asking for this particular phrase to be quasi favellando in armonia con la suddetta sprezzatura [almost speaking in harmony with the above-mentioned sprezzatura]. The ‘above-mentioned sprezzatura‘ is a ‘cool’ vocal production.

The jazz citations above are from The Guardian’s online Jazz Singing Advice (2009), full text here, and having dealt with words, the anonymous columnist continues with a paragraph on Swing, paralleling Caccini’s priorities of Text and Rhythm.

Pamelia Phillips similarly mentions Rhythmic Displacement in Singing for Dummies 2nd Edition (2010). [You can read more of Phillips’ Training Requirements for Singing Jazz here.]

Jazz singers … usually change the notes and rhythms from the original music. Jazz singers create their style with rhythmic flexibility, and the singer and pianist don’t always have to be together note for note (called back phrasing).

But this rhythmic flexibility is certainly not anarchic or random. Like Caccini and the Guardian’s jazz expert, Phillips emphasises that

The jazz singer needs a great sense of rhythm.

Just as in renaissance Italy. The Anonymous swordmaster of Bologna writes in L’Arte della Spada [The Art of the Sword, MS Ravenna M-345 & M-346. There is a modern edition by Rubboli & Cesari, who date the treatise to the early 16th century, whilst the consensus view places it c1650] that swordsmen need the same sense of precision rhythm as a good singer!

L'Arte della Spada Anonimo Bolognese

The Hidden Assumption

But the Guardian, Phillips and Caccini all fail to mention (though Phillips hints at it) a vital, hidden assumption. Whilst the singer ‘loosens up the timing’ with rhythmic displacement, rhythmic flexibility or senza misura (whatever you want to call it), the accompaniment maintains a steady swing. We take this for granted in jazz, and the renaissance concept of Tactus similarly requires a steady slow pulse. (For Monteverdi, Caccini etc, evidence suggests a consensus Tactus speed of around minim = 60). The crucial point I’m making is that this concept of Tactus still pertains in the accompaniment, even when the singer is applying Caccini’s senza misura.

Monteverdi notates this practice, for example in the opening phrase of Orpheus’ aria in the underworld, Possente Spirto, from Act III of Orfeo (1607).

Possente Spirto incipit

Just as Phillips describes for jazz, singer and basso continuo are not always together.

Taking Monteverdi as a model, here is my realisation of Caccini’s example of senza misura from Le Nuove Musiche, showing how the singer might loosen up the timing, whilst the continuo maintain the Tactus.

Aure divine, ch'errate peregrine

Such a realisation fundamentally redefines the role of the continuo. Nowadays, continuo-players are asked to follow even the most random, rhythmically anarchic singers. It feels like that fairground game, where you wait, rifle (or theorbo) in hand, until a little yellow duck (the tenor) waddles into your sights, and then you fire off a chord, and hope to hit him in root position.

Duck shoot

But jazz singing, and Monteverdi’s notation of Caccini’s senza misura, require the accompaniment to maintain the swing, or Tactus. In jazz, those accompanists are called the Rhythm Section. In Monteverdi’s time, the continuo group are

Those who guide and sustain the whole body of singers and instruments of the ensemble.

quei, che guidano e sostengono tutto il corpo delle voci  e stromenti di detto concerto [Agazzari Del suonare sopra ‘l basso (1607)]. There is, of course, no conductor, so the continuo are indeed the Rhythm Section of seicento music.

None of this should be shocking to Early Music readers, except that the familiar role of the continuo as Rhythm Section, maintaining the swing of the Tactus, still pertains, even in what  Caccini calls lo nuovo stile [the new style] of what musicologists call early baroque Monody, and most performers (anachronistically) call Recitative.

[See Redefining Recitative here. Circa 1600, recitare just means ‘to act’, whether in spoken drama, opera, or silent pantomime. Musica recitativa is thus ‘acted music’, i.e. dramatic music. The period term for speech-like declamation over a slow-moving bass is modulazione. 18th-century Recitative is something else. In late 17th-century England, what Samuel Pepys calls ‘Recitative Music’ is rhythmically structured, Caccini-style. See Andrew Lawrence-King, ‘’Tis Master’s Voice: A Seventeenth-Century Shakespeare Recording?’ in R.S. White, Mark Houlahan & Katrina O’Loughlin, eds., Shakespeare and Emotions: Inheritances, Enactments, Legacies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).]

Heavenly Tactus or Hellish Duckshoot?

At the foot of the title page of Agazzari’s treatise, there are two Latin mottos. One shows a diagram of the cosmos, a model of armonia [which in this period means not only harmony, but music in general, in particular well-ordered or ‘goodly’ music].

Armonia comes from movement.

Specifically, well-ordered music comes from the perfect movement of the stars and planets, imitated on earth by the regular swing of the Tactus-beater’s arm, conceptualised as the authority of the Tactus itself.

Ex motu armonia

All this refers to the idea of the Harmony of the Spheres, the notion that earthly music-making, musica instrumentalis, is an imitation of the perfect music of the heavens, musica mondana; both of these symbolise musica humana, the harmonious nature of the human body. Well-ordered music is related to healthy well-being. Steady rhythm is a reflection of cosmic perfection.  Thus Dowland, translating Ornithoparcus’ Micrologus, declares that steady Tactus, “Equality of Measure” is a moral imperative.

Dowland Above all things original

Agazzari’s second motto is placed ‘stage left’, rhetorically the ‘bad’ area in contrast to the cosmos diagram placed in the ‘good’ area. It captions an image of the serpent in the pit of hell, and warns ominously:

And they don’t mess up, either!


Nec tamen inficiunt


If we view Caccini’s invitation for singers to apply senza misura and Agazzari’s description of the continuo ‘guiding the voices’ through the lens of these two mottos, we see a practice that today’s jazz-musicians would recognise: a singer is free to sing before or after the beat, whilst (in the Rhythm Section) the continuo-players maintain the Tactus. “And they don’t mess up, either!”.



Modern advice about jazz cannot prove anything, either way, about Early Music. But the parallels I’ve drawn here show the vital significance of underlying assumptions. Today’s performers approach Caccini and Monteverdi with the anachronistic label ‘Recitative’, which encourages them to abandon the period assumption of steady Tactus. Instead, they assume that the way to ‘express emotions’ is to use 20th-century rubato. But jazz and Caccini are not ‘expressing’ what the performer feels, they seek to move the audience‘s passions. Jazz does this by allowing the singer subtle rhythmic flexibility whilst the Rhythm Section maintains the swing; Monteverdi notates precisely this; I suggest this is what Caccini meant by suggesting senza misura for singers.

The underlying assumptions about music in the early 17th century are that Rhythm is a high priority, that there is a steady Tactus, and that this Tactus is maintained by the continuo.

Agazzari frontispiece

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2010 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions.





Logical, Captain! The implications of Peri’s Preface

Logical Captain


Before I offer you, dear Readers, this analysis of mine, I think I ought to bring to your attention what has led me to re-examine this well-known Preface, for in all human operations logic should be the beginning and source…

Peri Euridice Preface incipit




Here is a statement of my own, about Jacopo Peri’s Preface to his setting of Euridice (1600), the earliest surviving secular ‘opera’.


I reduced the Preface to its essential point, so that the process of reading should not need (in a kind of way) to ‘plough through’ every sentence. That’s the principle of a summary, whereas the  complete Preface naturally requires detailed examination.


I modelled this statement on Peri’s sentence structures, but working logically through the 17th-century formulations, it should be clear that:


  • I am discussing a summary.
  • There are differences between a summary and the complete Preface.
  • I made the summary by reducing the Preface to its essential argument.
  • The idea is to avoid ‘ploughing’ by means of the reduction of the Preface.


There are two further implications:


  • Normally, with the complete Preface, the attentive reader will indeed ‘plough through’ every sentence.
  • Even in a summary, readers will follow me, though they don’t ‘plough through’.


Now here is a summary of Peri’s most famous statement about the composition of dramatic music, explaining how he imitates ‘the course of speech’ in song [his complete text is below]:


I reduced the Bass to its essential pulse, so that the course of speaking should not seem (in a kind of way) to ‘dance’ to the movement of the Bass. That’s the principle for sad or serious material, whereas happier texts naturally require more movement in the Bass.

Working logically through Peri’s 17th-century formulations, it should be clear that:


  • Peri is discussing music for sad or serious texts.
  • There are differences between sad or serious material, and happier texts.
  • Peri made his serious music by reducing the Bass to its essential pulse.
  • The idea is to remove ‘dancing’ by means of the reduction of the Bass.


There are two further implications:


  • Normally, in happier texts, stylish singing will indeed ‘dance’ to the movement of the Bass.
  • Even in sad or serious material, singers will follow the Bass, though they don’t ‘dance’.


Peri’s Preface has often been misunderstood as an appeal for ‘rhythmic liberty’, and its most famous statement mis-interpreted as ‘singers should not follow the Bass’. Those frequently repeated distortions fit comfortably with the 20th-century notion of rubato and free rhythm as the epitome of expressiveness, and with the modern convention that accompanists must follow the soloist. But period sources from Agazzari to CPE Bach and Leopold Mozart insist that the Bass lays down the Tactus, and that soloists follow this essential pulse (just as in today’s jazz). Sometimes the singing ‘dances’, sometimes it is sad or serious, but it always has the essential pulse of Tactus, led by the Bass. Before the year 1800, soloists follow the accompaniment, because accompanists have particular responsibility for maintaining the Tactus.


Meanwhile, the ‘liberties’ Peri asks for are not to do with rhythm, but relate to musical ‘grammar’ – the rules of dissonance, l’uso delle false. When he does talk about rhythm, he draws attention to the great variety of note values he employs, linked to the emotions of the text. Contrasts in note-values would be destroyed, if there was no underlying pulse to structure all that variety: indeed such destruction of notated contrasts is just what happens in many modern ‘free’ performances of early 17th-century monody.


Throughout  Peri’s Preface, there is nothing to contradict the general (historical) assumptions for all music of this period:


  • There is a regular Tactus pulse.
  • Soloists follow the Bass.

You can read more about Tactus here. And you can read about how Tactus structured early 17th-century music here.


One last observation: Peri never uses the word ‘recitative’. His topic is nuova maniera di canto (a new kind of song, a new way of singing) for Musica su le scene (Theatrical Music). And he refers to even the most poignant speeches of Orpheus, of the lamenting shepherd Arcetro and of Dafne (the Messaggiera) as arie. The word aria in this period does not necessarily mean a ‘tuneful melody’, but rather refers to elements of repeated structure, for example a ground bass, or any repeated rhythmic fragment.


Peri’s complete text with my translation and commentary are below.

Peri Euridice Preface vale

And may you live happily!



Annotated translation:

Jacopo Peri Preface to Euridice (Florence, 1600)

The original Italian text is here, along with the music of Euridice (mostly by Peri himself, but with some items contributed by Caccini).


Editorial procedure: I have tried to stay close to Peri’s word-order, and to use English cognates whenever possible, to help the reader follow the Italian text in parallel. Any serious discussion of this key text has to be made using the original Italian text, since translation (and the specific 17th-century meaning) of Peri’s terms is inevitably open to question.

Jacopo Peri 

Before I offer you, dear Readers, this Music of mine, I think I ought to bring to your attention to what has led me to invent this new manner of song, for in all human operations, reason should be the beginning and source; And he who cannot show reason easily leads one to believe that he worked by chance.


Peri offers a Scholastic defence for the Humanist project of creating a new kind of music. Ritrovare, which I have translated as ‘invent’, also means ‘to find out again, or to retrieve’ (Florio Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues. London, 1611). Although Peri’s ‘manner of song; is ‘new’, the artistic endeavour was to re-discover Ancient music. This suggests interesting comparisons to today’s Early Music!


Although by Signor Emilio del Cavaliere, before any other that I know, with marvellous invention our Music was made to be heard on the Stage; nevertheless it pleased Signori Jacopo Corsi and Ottavio Rinuccini (at the end of the year 1594), that I should apply it [our music] in another guise, setting to notes the fable of Dafne, written by Signor Ottavio, to make a simple test of what singing could do in our era.


Peri properly acknowledges Cavalieri’s achievements, and presents his own previous experience. Corsi was a patron of ‘early opera’, Rinuccini one of the greatest libretto poets. Caccini is not mentioned, in spite of his strong claims to have invented the new style himself, but Peri quietly positions his 1594 Dafne well in advance of the rival settings of Euridice  and Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601/2). Peri’s Euridice, which includes some music by Caccini, was the first to be performed, but Caccini rushed his own complete setting into print before Peri’s was published.


From this it is seen that we were dealing with dramatic poetry, but if one should imitate in song how one speaks (and without doubt, no one ever actually spoke by singing), I esteem that the ancient Greeks and Romans (who according to the opinion of many sang entire Tragedies on the Stage) used a musical style, which going beyond that of ordinary speaking, descended so much from the melody of singing, that it took the form of something intermediate; And this is the reason by which we see in this Poetry there is a place for the Iambic, which is not exalted like the Hexameter, but merely is said to advance beyond the confines of everyday discourse.


There was no difficulty in setting to music diegetic songs and dances (theatrical scenes which represented the characters making music) and it was accepted as a convention that Prolouges, Choruses, Gods and similar other-worldly figures might sing. The question Peri grapples with here is the theatrical representation of speech. In the Platonic tradition, imitare implies also ‘artistic expression or representation’. Peri admits that people don’t normally sing when they speak, and looks to Ancient Greece and Rome for an intermediate form, something between speech and song. He compares this to blank verse, which is intermediate between prose and poetry..


Armonia can mean ‘harmony’, but often has a wider meaning as any kind of musical organisation, especially rhythmic, as well as melody: here, I translate it as ‘musical style’, for Peri is concerned with the melodic and rhythmic patterns of speech. Peri’s ‘something intermediate’ reminds us of Caccini’s sprezzatura, a nonchalant, ‘cool’  voice-production, something between singing and normal speech.


Contrary to received opinion. Caccini’s sprezzatura is NOT rhythmic freedom.  Read what Caccini actually wrote, here.      


And so, having rejected any other manner of song heard until now, I devoted myself totally to researching the representation needed for these Poems; and I consider that the sort of tones, which the Ancients assigned to singing, and which they called Diastematica (as if drawn out and suspended) could sometimes be taken faster, and take a moderate course between the movements of song (slow and suspended) and speech (speedy and fast), & be adapted to my proposition (as they [the Ancients] also adapted it [Diastematica] when reading Poetry and Epic verses) to approach that other [sort of tone] of speaking, which they called Continuous; This is what our modern people (although perhaps for another end) have already done in their music.


‘Researching’ translates Peri’s ricercare, which – like ritrovare – carries also the suggestion of rediscovering or searching again. The word reminds us of abstract polyphonic music designated ricercar, recalling the concept – of music being ‘found’ rather than invented – at the root of the word Troubador.  


‘Tones’ translates Peri’s voci: his word takes oin the concepts of ‘voice’, ‘note’, ‘syllable’, ‘vowel’.  Again, Peri proposes something ‘intermediate’ between slow singing and fast speech: he also suggests that that the syllable speed would vary.  He makes a parallel with different ways of reading lyric and epic verse. Around 1600, it was already customary, even in polyphonic music, to set text to varied note-values.    

Peri on Recitative

I know similarly that in our speaking some tones are pitched in such a way that there one could lay a musical foundation, and in the course of speech many other [tones] pass by, which are not pitched, until one returns to another [tone] suitable for movement of a new harmony, & having respect for those modes and those accents which are needed in lamenting and rejoicing & in similar matters, I made the Bass move in the time of these, sometimes more, sometimes less, according to the emotions, and kept it unmoving through the dissonances and through the correct consonances, until – running through various notes – the tone of the speaker arrives at that [syllable] which in ordinary speaking would be pitched: [this] opens the way to a new harmony;


Peri takes his inspiration from the sustained syllables of declamatory speech, for which a musical pitch can be assigned, and/or a harmonious accompaniment created. Again, the word ‘tones’ should be read to  include also the concepts of ‘the voice’, ‘syllables’ and ‘vowels’. The word accenti carries the meanings of  ‘expressive words’ and ‘expressive notes’: in this period it also means a particular expressive ornament. Armonia can mean the pitch of the sung note, or a harmony in the accompaniment.


Peri constructs a bass-line according to the musical requirements of varying emotions .Those emotions dictate the rhythm of the bass, which moves ‘sometimes more, sometimes less’. Sometimes he keeps the bass fixed in spite of some dissonances in the voice-part. After many quick, light, ‘unpitched’ syllables, the bass plays a new harmony with the next sustained, pitched syllable.     

Peri Euridice Preface 'dance' to the bass

And this is not only so that the course of speaking should not wound the ear (as if stumbling as it encounters the repeated strings of more frequent harmonies) or that [the course of speaking] should not seem in a kind of way to dance to the movement of the Bass, principally in matters  either sad or serious, other happier [matters] naturally requiring more frequent rhythms:


Peri’s word corde, ‘strings’ implies the notes played by the continuo-bass. The bass should not play too often, because this  would disrupt the proper course of speech. Here I think Peri refers to the pitch-level of the ‘course of speaking’ which would ‘stumble’ upon the dissonances created with an unchanging bass-note, if that note were repeated. It is significant that he associates the continuo-bass with the plucked string of a theorbo, harpsichord or harp (bowed strings and organ can sustain, they would not need to repeat their notes). Nevertheless, the word corda can also refer to a note played on the organ. This first sub-clause refers to problems of harmony, rather than rhythm. 


In the next sub-clause, Peri turns to the question of rhythm. His famous, and oft-quoted phrase that the course of speech should not ‘dance’ to the movement of the Bass needs to be read very closely. The implication is that the singer does follow the bass, and even ‘dances’ in other, happier, music. The singer still follows the bass in ‘sad and serious’ music, but the bass moves less and the singer does not ‘dance’. 


It is precisely because the singer expects to follow the bass that Peri has to reduce the amount of activity in that bass for ‘sad or serious’ music. The effect of ‘dancing’ is avoided, if the singer only has to coincide with the bass on those significant syllables that are properly pitched and accompanied with a new harmony, and when the bass only moves in long notes, i.e. at the Tactus level of minims and semibreves. In happy music, the bass is more active, the Tactus pulse is rhythmically sub-divided, leading to the effect of ‘dancing’.


But also, because the [correct] use of dissonances would either reduce or cover up the advantage we gain from the necessity of pitching every note, which perhaps the ancient Music did not need to do.


Peri’s phrase uso delle false carries the meaning of ‘the correct procedures of dissonance’. Peri knows that his proposed infrequent movement of the bass is contrary to the normal rules of counterpoint. Since, in the voice part, he has to set even light & quick syllables to some specific note, there are passing dissonances between voice and bass that are not properly prepared and resolved. He wonders if ‘ancient music’ didn’t actually pitch every single note!


But (although I do not dare to assert this to have been the song used in Greek and Roman fables), so I believe it to be the only [song] that can be given from our Music to accommodate to our speech.




In this famous description of his composing method, Peri presents several fundamental concepts of early 17th-century music, familiar to academics, but contrary to the standard operating procedures of many today’s early music performers:


  • The voice normally follows the rhythm of the bass
  • The voice follows the rhythm of the bass even in ‘sad or serious’ music
  • The emotion is built into the rhythm of the bass, as well as into harmonies and melodic figures
  • In sad, serious ‘recitative’ the fixed rhythmic points of the bass occur less frequently
  • In light, happy music the fixed rhythmic points of the bass occur more frequently
  • Between these fixed rhythmic points, the ‘song’ follows the ‘natural course of speaking’
  • The  ‘course of speech’ refers to the poetic metre of the syllables, & the approximate pitch of the speaking voice
  • The ‘in-between’ syllables should be passed over quickly and lightly, almost without musical pitch 
  • The ‘freedom Peri asks for in his speech-like music is the freedom to ignore the normal rules of counterpoint.


Peri’s ‘new style for theatrical music’ is ‘intermediate’ in several ways:

  • The syllabic speed is intermediate between normal speech (which is faster) and normal singing (which is slower).

This is exactly what results, if one performs the ‘new style’ music with a consistent Tactus at approximately minim = 60. Many modern performances are too slow, too ‘sung’.

  • The voice production is intermediate between normal speech (which is not pitched) and normal singing (which is fully pitched)

Most modern performances are fully sung: it is hard to re-create this voice production, but try lightening up the unaccented syllables, maintaining the Tactus, and not singing too loud! The early operas were sung softly, compared to contemporary church music.

  • The coordination with the bass is intermediate between normal speech (which has no Tactus) and normal singing (which might even ‘dance’ to the bass-line’s subdivision of the Tactus).

Peri’s ‘reduced’ bass typically moves in semibreves and minims,  corresponding to Tactus and semi-Tactus. So in ‘sad or serious’ music the singer fits ‘the course of speech’ within the framework of steady Tactus, in happy music, the singer ‘dances’ to the more active movement of the Bass.   

Peri describes a kind of music in which the bass moves infrequently, whilst the voice sustains significant syllables, and then passes lightly and rapidly over several less important syllables. We see this kind of music in his setting of Euridice, which follows this Preface. Today, we call this Recitative, but Peri does not use the words recitativo or musica recitativa. According to the anonymous (c1630) MS, Il Corago, what we nowadays call ‘Recitative’ was known as modulazione, and music with any kind of repeating structure (rhythmic, harmonic or melodic) was called aria.  Musica recitativa meant ‘dramatic music’ and it included both modulazione and aria. Recitare meant ‘to act’, whether in spoken drama, music-theatre, or even silent pantomime.


These differences in historical nomenclature remind us that we cannot apply our modern assumptions about ‘Recitative’, nor performance practice for 18th-century recitative, to Peri’s theatrical music. There is nothing to suggest that Peri’s ‘sad or serious’ music was rhythmically free. Rather, it is built on the foundation (Peri’s word is fondare) of a slow-moving bass, whereas happy music ‘dances’ to a fast-moving bass.


Having explained how he composed his modulazione, in the second part of the Preface Peri discusses how it was performed. I’ll translate and comment on that in another post.


Until then, “may you live happily!”

Peri Euridice Prologo

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2010 to 2o15 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.


Tempus putationis – Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time

tempus putationis


Monteverdi fans will recognise this snippet as part of the tenor solo, Nigra sum, from the 1610 Vespers. The text is usually given in English as ‘the time of the singing of birds is come’, translating direct from the original Hebrew of the Song of Solomon. Monteverdi’s setting creates a musical picture of the word tempus (time) with a succession of semibreves.

Cranes flock to Israel in early spring

Cranes in Israel in early spring


Around the year 1600, the semibreve is the note-value where Time as musical notation and Time in the real world meet. That meeting is governed by the Tactus, the physical movement of the hand, down-and-up. Down and up again corresponds to a semibreve, and lasts about 2 seconds. [Read more about how 17th-century notation was calibrated against real time in Quality Time, here]. So Monteverdi’s semibreves for tempus putationis are a musical picture of Time itself.

However, the Latin word putatio actually means ‘pruning’, so Monteverdi’s text actually refers to the early spring pruning of the vines [the Song of Solomon has more to say about the ‘vine with the tender grape’]. That might encourage some pruning of any bird-song ornaments from this phrase! And it inspires me to cut away all the excess foliage to show what I believe to be the essential structure of Time, in Monteverdi’s period.


pruning vines

For this ‘pruned down’ post, instead of arguing from original sources towards my personal conclusions, I’m going to begin by setting out (my take on) the starting assumptions of Monteverdi’s generation. Starting from these period assumptions (very different to those of today’s musicians), we’ll see what kind of music-making might grow, as buds from these particular shoots.




This post is also inspired by Bill Hunt’s comments and challenges to my article on Proportions in Monteverdi’s Ballo, here. Thank you, Bill for your thought-provoking remarks: my replies and ripostes are below!

So let’s start at the very beginning, with the ut re mi  of seicento Time. But keep in mind: this is not simply a matter of practical music-making. We are dealing here with renaissance ‘Science’, that is to say the Philosophy of splendid, cosmic, divinely-ordained things, the knowledge of what really counts.


Splendidora explicat


  1. Monteverdi understood Time (as a philosophical concept) in Aristotelian terms, as defined by motus (movement, or change). This is very different from Newton’s concept of Absolute Time (1687) that still today underpins our intuitive grasp of Time.
  2. Time in the real world was defined by the heavenly clock of the cosmos. Each day, the sun reaches its zenith and defines noon.
  3. The best clocks of Monteverdi’s period could indicate the passing seconds, but could not measure seconds accurately. They were only accurate to about 15 minutes a day.
  4. Smaller intervals of time could be measured by the human pulse, the heartbeat. Although the heart-beat varies from person to person, and according to the physical state of the individual, it offered higher precision than the best clocks. But there was no means of calibrating this accurately to clock-time, since clock-time itself was insufficiently precise.
  5. Even smaller intervals of time could be measured by musical rhythm, subdividing to, say, 1/8th of a second. This was the highest precision timing known in this period (renaissance swordfighters wished to emulate singers’ sense of precision timing). Again, there was no means of calibrating this accurately to clock-time, since clocks themselves were inadequate.
  6. There was a strong belief in the existence of a single, divinely ordained, correct Time, defined by the cosmos, e.g. by the noon-day sun.


  1. Music itself was cosmic [musica mondana, the Music of the Spheres], and human [musica humana, the harmonious nature of the human body], as well as sound [musica instrumentalis, music sung and played here on earth].
  2. Musical Time was measured by the Aristotelean motus of the perfect movement of the cosmos, of the steady beat of the human heart, by the down-and-up movement of the Tactus hand.
  3. Just as citizens tried to regulate their clocks to run steadily (for practical convenience, and as faithful microcosms of solar time), so musicians tried to keep Time as steadily as humanly possible.  This regulation was at the level of about one second of clock-time; in music, it was at the level of the Tactus beat.
  4. Smaller intervals of Musical Time were measured by sub-dividing the Tactus beat.
  5. Just as citizens tried to calibrate their clocks to agree with each other, and with Solar Time, so musicians tried to agree with each other about Musical Time. The various members of a musical ensemble needed to agree on Time, in order to play together, just as citizens had to agree on a time of day, in order to meet each other. From one day to another, from one place to another, citizens and musicians alike tried to keep a consistent sense of Time. However, they had no means of precise calibration: they could only make their best human estimate. Consistent Time was what felt consistent.
  6. There was a strong assumption of a single, heavenly-inspired, correct Musical Time. A musician’s job was to get it right, not to have a personal clock that ran unsteadily, or differently from everyone else’s.


  1. All this philosophy was put into practice using the Tactus, the down-up movement of the hand, which calibrated musical notation to real-world Time. The Tactus could be physically enacted, or just kept in mind as an organising concept: either way, it was compared to the heartbeat.
  2. Under mensuration symbol C, the complete Tactus cycle (down-up) corresponds to a semibreve. Down for a minim; up for a minim.
  3.  In Tripla Proportion, down corresponds to three minims, up to another three minims. The Tactus-beat is maintained without change.
  4. In Sestupla Proportion, down corresponds to six semi-minims (these look like crotchets in 6/4); up to another six semi-minims. The Tactus-beat is maintained without change.
  5. In Sesquialtera Proportion, down corresponds to two semibreves; up to one semibreve. The duration of the complete Tactus-cycle does not change, but now the down is longer than the up, the beat is ‘unequal’.


  1. Like the Cosmos, like a clock (but better!), like the heartbeat (but slower), the Tactus beats steadily and slowly.
  2. A musician’s job is to get it right, to keep it steady, to make it consistent from day to day and with everyone else’s.
  3. Like the stars in heaven, like a clock at the back of the room, the Tactus (as a concept) existed before the music started, will persist after the music stops, and continues across silences within the music. This Tactus-as-concept directs the music. The Tactus itself is the director, not the human who waves the Tactus-hand.


  1. Music was calibrated to the Tactus at the level of semibreve (complete cycle) and minim (down alone, or up alone).
  2. The Tactus shared many vital qualities with the heartbeat, but was not calibrated to it (the heartbeat was generally faster).
  3. The Tactus felt slow and steady, as perceived in the human arm. This sets some limits (a finger could wag faster, the entire body might sway slower), but does not offer precise calibration.
  4. There was no means to calibrate the Tactus accurately to clock-time. The best approximation was about 1 beat (down, or up) per second for minims, i.e. about 2 seconds for the complete down-up cycle, for the semibreve. Tactus was calibrated not by clocks, but by a feeling of consistency.
  5. The Tactus felt the same, whatever the circumstances. We can imagine that in a large resonant building, the Tactus might actually proceed a little slower, in order to get the same feeling as in a small rehearsal room. We can imagine that, at moments of great excitement, or deep, genuine emotion, musicians might feel their Tactus to be consistent with the rehearsal, but this subjective impression would be altered by their human emotions.


  1. Like the Cosmos, like the heartbeat, the Tactus has a conceptual existence and an authority that mere humans should not try to mess with. It is better than any clock, not in the sense of being ‘less mechanical’, but in the quality of being more accurate, more steady.
  2. A musician’s job is to maintain the Tactus steadily, consistently and in agreement with all colleagues.
  3. Within these assumptions, as a daring challenge to the stability of the Cosmos, and at the risk of upsetting one’s own heartbeat, performers began to flirt with the notion that the authority of the Tactus might not be wholly Absolute. In certain, strictly limited, situations, a human musician might intervene to alter (momentarily, minutely, infrequently) the way in which Tactus directs music.
  4. Caccini describes (and Monteverdi notates) a senza misura (out of measure) in which the singer temporarily ignores the Tactus. The Tactus continues as a concept, and in the continuo accompaniment. This is like a jazz singer floating elegantly around a steady beat in the rhythm section. This is a special effect, not to be over-used.
  5. Caccini and Frescobaldi describe (and Frescobaldi links to Monteverdi-type madrigals) ways to guidare il tempo (drive Time), in which the Tactus beats sometimes faster, sometimes slower, and even hesitates (momentarily) on the up-stroke. These changes are between sections (passi, movements), at the boundary of contrasting rhythmic structures and emotional content, not within one section. The alteration is a ‘step-change’, rather than a smooth acceleration/deceleration; it’s like changing gears, rather than using the accelerator/brake; it’s like the way a horse changes pace by changing gait (from walk to trot, canter and gallop), not the smooth acceleration of  jet-plane. This is a special effect, not to be over-used.
  6. When ‘driving the Time’ any change to the Tactus itself is small. The purpose is that the listener should perceive a change of emotion, not simply to turn the speed-dial up or down. When a noticeable change in the speed of the notes is wanted, the composer can notate this with changes in note-values, or changes in Proportion.


Golden Hand

Source references for these period assumptions can be found in many of my previous postings on Tactus, Time and Rhythm (use the Search button and Tags elsewhere on this page) and in Citations and Sources, below. There’ll be more in future posts, too. Tactus and the Philosophy of Time are discussed in great detail in Roger Matthew Grant Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era, hot off the Oxford University Press, and highly recommended, here.

But since this posting is pruned back to the essentials, I’m now going to apply these starting assumptions to Bill Hunt’s excellent list of  questions.

Galileo and the Philosophers

Galileo challenged by the Philosophers


In the discussion that follows, the challenges come from the eminent English viola-player, William Hunt, profile here. Three articles about the Ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo are under discussion: Roger Bowers on proportions here, Virginia Lamothe on dance here, ALK on tactus, proportions and dance here.

WH: I’d like to propose a contrary view. Part of the problem with Andrew’s fascinating discussion is that he sets up a number of straw men in order to arrive at his conclusions. Principal amongst these, in referring to the articles by Lamothe and Bowers on L’Orfeo, is the assertion “Their suggested metronome mark of approximately 50/60 as the Tactus Aequalis is certainly highly plausible. And Bowers agrees that the notation implies the same Tactus for the whole opera”. Bowers makes no such claim. 

ALK: (See ‘Citations and Sources’ below). I should first state clearly that I have great respect for Prof Bowers, and I agree with his points of principle. Indeed, I wish to go even further in the same direction of consistency that he recommends. I set up the assumption of  single Tactus for the whole opera, not as a ‘straw man’ to be cast away, but as a strong principle that I thoroughly agree with. Indeed, I believe that a particular notation implies the same Tactus wherever it is encountered in this entire repertoire (to the limits of subjective, human ability to maintain a single Tactus without any clock to confirm it).

For Orfeo, Bowers argues that the original notation conveys precise information that should be respected in performance. I agree. He argues that proportions are mathematically precise, and I agree. I disagree only on the detail of which mathematical ratio applies in certain instances.

In the Ballo, Bowers argues that there is no change in the meaning of note-values between the two triple-metre sections [3/2 and 6/4]. I agree. I go further to argue for equivalence of note-values between all triple-metre sections within the work [3/2 and 6/4 are the only triple-metre ‘time-signatures’ that occur in the whole of Orfeo]. I go further again, and argue for equivalence of note-values between sections in duple-metre too. Therefore, note-values only change, when the Proportion changes between duple and triple.

Bowers notes that all ‘time-signatures’ are governed by C throughout the whole work. He argues for a consistent Tactus from Sinfonia at the end of Act I to the entrance of the Messagiera. I agree, and I go further: I argue for a consistent Tactus throughout the whole work. I see no indication for a great increase of speed at the end of Act I, as the Sinfonia starts (Bowers’ argument requires a three-fold increase in speed at this moment). I see no evidence for doubling the speed (or more) between a “recitative” in C and the ballo also in C.

Bowers seems to be inconsistent about when he applies the principle of constant tactus, and when he does not. He wishes to apply it during the Ballo and through the Act I-Act II sequence, through many changes of ‘time-signature’, coloration etc. I agree. I go futher, I wish to apply it consistently throughout the work. But Bowers rejects the argument for constant tactus in general (see Bowers ‘footnote 33), without careful argument. Does he mean to say “Tactus is constant when I want it to be, and otherwise not”?

I say that Tactus is always constant, with only small and infrequent exceptions. I note Frescobaldi’s and Caccini’s discussions of when and how to change the tactus. They describe very restricted circumstances when tactus may be changed. And those changes should be small – if a composer wants double speed, he writes shorter note-values or switches to C-slash. [Some sources indicate that even C-slash is less than twice as fast as C]. If a composer wants a gear-shift of 3:2 or 3:1, proportional notation is available.

So I conclude that a performer’s personal choice of tempo-change would be within a small speed-range. And this personal choice would be exercised very infrequently. In his example madrigal, Caccini changes the Tactus only once (in response to an obvious cue from the words). Frescobaldi similarly sets specific conditions for change of Tactus: break between sections, change of rhythmic structure, change of affetto. Since they follow the affetto, these changes in tactus exaggerate what the composer has already notated: long note-values (for a sad affetto, say) are played in slower Tactus, short note-values (for a happy affetto) in faster Tactus. The affetto is determined on the short-scale, “line by line, even word by word” [Il Corago, Monteverdi and many other sources], but the Tactus only changes between sections, if at all.

Finally, when one considers the audience – it is after all their ‘affetti‘ we want to ‘muovere‘ – one realises that doubling or halving the speed has no effect. The listener perceives the same pulse, with different levels of activity. But a small increase in speed, in the context of precisely regular Tactus, has a strong emotional effect. It may even entrain the listener’s heartbeat, which was previously aligned with the regular, slow tactus, and increase it. As Renaissance theory of emotions describes, a performer might move the listener’s ‘affetto‘ and even create physiological changes in the body and blood (the doctrine of the Four Humours).

A fine example of this is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” which accelerates between sections (within the general context, throughout pop music of that period, of steady tactus). There is some fascinating interview material with the performers, where they discuss the general context (“getting faster was absolutely prohibited”) and the emotional effect of a few small, but perceptible changes, in this song. I hear echoes of Caccini and Frescobaldi….




WH: I do firmly believe, as Andrew clearly does, that tactus was an essential structural constant that could unite consecutive and contrasting passages in logically proportionate tempi. On the face of it, the section which Bowers identifies, running from the Sinfonia to Act 2 up to the entrance of Messaggiera, is exactly such an instance, because of the succession of mensural signatures and the absence of intervening double barlines or fermata (the same is not true of the passage from “Lasciate i monti” up to the end of Act 1). Here, if one follows through Bowers’ notational logic, one ends up with a pretty fast tempo for “Vi ricordi boschi ombrosi”, as he says. Personally, I find that persuasive both musically and dramatically, but I have yet to experience it in performance, due to directorial intervention.

ALK: The entire opera (indeed this whole repertoire) offers ‘a succession of mensural signatures’. And I know of no period evidence that a fermata or a double-bar implies a change of Tactus. In Orfeo, Monteverdi sometimes places a fermata in one voice, when simultaneously another voice has no fermata: the fermata sign simply indicates ‘the end of something’, and cannot imply any alteration in the motus of the Tactus. Double-bars are often used to seperate consecutive strains of a single dance-movement, where a change of Tactus would be most implausible.

I don’t accept the argument that the passage from Lasciate i monti up to the end of Act I is somehow ‘different’.. It too has a ‘succession of mensural signatures’. Sure, it has some fermatas and double bar-lines, but so what? If Tactus is ‘an essential structural constant that could unite consecutive and contrasting passages in logically proportionate tempi’ [and it surely is!], then why not for the passage after the Ballo, as well as for the Ballo itself? Why not for the end of Act I, as well as for the bridge from Act I into Act II?

Does WH wish to say that “Tactus is constant when I want it to be, and can be changed when I want”? Or does he know of evidence of a fermata or double-bar as an instruction to change Tactus?

I believe that Tactus is constant, with only small and infrequent changes. Frescobaldi and Caccini list the circumstances in which the Tactus might be changed: neither of them mention fermata or double-bar.

WH: Bowers … analysis of the notation is that … semibreve of the C equates to dotted semibreve of the 3/2.  I suggest a tempo of something like semibreve = 52 for the opening (not a minim tactus, for reasons which I am coming to) becoming dotted semibreve = 52 for the 3/2, and finally bar = 52 (i.e. the ‘new’ semibreve = 52) for the 6/4: in other words a constant tactus.

ALK: I agree with the principle of a pulse that is maintained, and I have no objection to approximately MM52 for that pulse. And this interpretation of the proportions works too, in this place, starting from semibreve = 52 at the beginning of the ballo. But how do we find this tempo at the beginning of the ballo? Semibreve = 52 cannot apply to the whole opera – just try it for the beginning of the opera, for the Toccata or the Ritornello to La Musica or for any recitative: it is about twice as fast as possible. Why pick this fast tempo for this place notated in C, and not for another, also notated in C?

According to modern assumptions, directors can choose their own tempo, whenever there is a reasonable excuse (a fermata, a double-bar, personal inspiration, whatever). But according to period assumptions, the Tactus itself directs the tempo, and that Tactus is as constant as we humans can make it. (Caccini and Frescobaldi list limited circumstances where small and infrequent changes of Tactus might occur). My approach is to take that Tactus (somewhere around minim = 60), apply it at the beginning of the work, and maintain it, as best I can, until the end. And I’ll try to establish and maintain the same Tactus tomorrow, to the limits of my subjective perceptions of musical tempo.

The movement of the hand in beating Tactus is specified in period sources: in C, down for a minim, up for a minim. I find semibreve = MM52, i.e. minim = MM104 inconveniently fast for this mode of time-beating. I also find the resultant motus incompatible with the qualities of slow, steadiness that are associated with Tactus. I’m more convinced by the motus of minim around 60.

My approach starts from a broad principle, of a constant tactus. I apply this general principle first, before I look for solutions to particular problems of Proportions. I then apply the same solution to parallel situations. Following the Ballo under discussion, the next Proportional change in Orfeo is between the recitative (C) Ma se il nostro goir and the Ritornello (3/2), which moves in dotted semibreves and minims. My solution to the Ballo is  C: minim = 60 leads to 3/2: dotted semibreve = 60. My solution to the following, parallel situation is the same.

Bill’s solution to the Ballo [C: semibreve = 52 leads to 3/2: dotted semibreve = 52] does work there. But it does not work for the parallel situation of Recitative & Ritornello. Either the 52 pulse or the proportional relationship (or both) have to be abandoned. Is it Bill’s argument that although the notation is parallel, the second situation allows a personal choice, whereas the first situation indicates the composer’s tempo intentions? Why?

My belief is that the entire concept of personal choice of tempo is foreign to this period and its repertoire. Mensural notation indicates the composer’s intentions.

WH. … treating the central section of the first “Lasciate” as not being repeated. (No repeat is marked, of course, but a second verse of text is underlayed. I subscribe to Andrew Parrott’s view that this is a printer’s error, and that the second text should have been printed in the second “Lasciate”, instead of the repeated underlay of “Qui miri il sole”. This would result in an ABC form for each chorus, though, as Andrew (LK rather than P) points out, the uninformed listener would hear it as AABCC, because of the written-out repeats in the outer sections. This has a perfectly satisfactory symmetry. What is hard to believe is the format as it is printed).

ALK: I agree that the sequence of movements in the Orfeo Ballo is ambiguous – Lamothe has much to say on this. Andrew Parrot’s suggestion of a printing error in the 1609 edition is plausible, though one might have expected the editor of the 1615 edition to have fixed the problem, since much smaller errors were corrected (albeit at the cost of introducing some new errors too!). Lamothe makes a good point that the opening section (with the associated choreography of reverences and passi gravi, slow steps on the ground) would not be repeated in a court social dance. My point is that a similar opening section (which is not danced) is repeated in Cavalieri’s theatrical ballo for Anima & Corpo. We do not know which sections of the Orfeo ballo were danced, though it is sure that the singers themselves could not have danced a galliard, with all its jumps, whilst singing. Consideration of the repeat scheme for the Orfeo ballo has include all these points, together with scholarship on the total number of singers (between 7 and 9), the possibility that dancing masters might have participated (as is specified by Cavalieri), and the prohibition against women acting on stage, still in force in Mantua in 1607.

Good arguments can be made to support several possible solutions.

WH: Having read many of the linked sites here with great interest, particularly the one on “Text, Rhythm, Action / Rhythm: what really counts?”, I am curious to know what Andrew thinks about the semibreve, which so many theorists describe as the fundamental unit of time. There is so much emphasis throughout all his articles on the minim and the fixing to it of a constant tempo, viz “Around 1600, typically the Tactus will be on minims (half-notes), somewhere around MM60. Down for one second, Up for the next second”

Leaving aside the massive nature of this generalisation (is this really supposed to be typical of all music around 1600?), what about the concepts of Thesis and Arsis? It seems to me that these are essential to an understanding of musical structure in this period, especially the setting of text. Unless the semibreve is the unit on which one is principally focussed, not the minim, a whole vocabulary of subtlety is missed, to my mind. But that is a huge subject for another occasion!

ALK: Bill is absolutely right to draw attention to the fundamental significance of the semibreve. The complete Tactus-cycle (down-up) corresponds to a semibreve. I could equally well, perhaps better, express my view as “The Tactus-cycle will last for a semibreve, approximately two seconds, i.e. somewhere around MM30 for the complete down-up.” In duple time, this results in the same “Down for one second, Up for the next second”.

But an advantage of the focus on the semibreve is that it allows you to negotiate the tricky change into Sesquialtera more easily. The complete Tactus-cycle (down-up) still lasts  two seconds, but the Down lasts longer than the Up. This is why triple time is described as ‘unequal’ in this period. I agree with Bill that there are interesting and beautiful subtleties to be found in a heightened focus on the semibreve.

However, period sources specify that the mode of beating time for Tactus is that the semibreve corresponds to the complete down-up cycle. There is no suggestion of beating Down for one semibreve, Up for the next: the Down and Up are on successive minims.  Thus a heightened focus on the semibreve implies a heightened focus on the complete cycle, as opposed to the individual down/up movements: it does not imply a different mode of beating time. The concept of Thesis and Arsis (Down and Up) is therefore located in the alternation of minims (under mensural sign C). See my discussion of ‘The Hobbit problem’ in Quality Time, here.

Of course, there are duple (or other) symmetries at semibreve and longer durations too. It’s very good to be aware of these.


Returning to the fundamental assumptions with which I began, I agree that it is a massive generalisation to state that musical tempo was consistent throughout the whole repertoire in circa-1600 Italy, to the limits of human perception. It is a generalisation that is hard for us post-Romantics to comprehend. But it fits well with the evidence, not only of musical treatises, but of period philosophy in general. And we can observe the gradual change through the later 17th and 18th centuries; the persistence of notions of tempo giusto or tempo ordinario as late as Beethoven; the developing presumption of personal choice that comes to characterise the 19th-century; the glorification of Rubato circa 1910 that is taken by some today as a musical absolute. Those changes in musical practice follow changes in the scientific and philosophical understanding of Time itself, from Aristotle and Plato via Galileo and then Newton to Einstein and then Hawking.

It helps to keep in mind the 17th-century identification of musical tempo with Time itself, alluded to in Monteverdi’s setting of the word tempus at the beginning of this post. The ideal is to keep Time. A musician does not seek to develop a personal opinion about tempo, just as he does not seek to acquire a clock that runs differently from everyone else’s.

The difficulty is that we tend to read historical treatises on Music in the light of our modern assumptions of Science and Philosophy. If we start by assuming period philosophy, musical treatises reveal new, quite surprising details. To do this, we must be ready to abandon some modern assumptions so familiar that we hardly even notice them.

Most modern directors assume they have the right to choose their own tempo, movement by movement, through a baroque opera:  most of those directors fail even to notice the anachronism of conducting, as a means of imposing those choices. But period sources tell us that music is directed by Tactus itself: not by the whim of a Tactus-beater!. And Il Corago tells us that operas are not conducted.


No conducting



At the opening of my article on the Orfeo Ballo, I tacitly linked up citations of Bowers and Lamothe with my own assumptions. So here are the individual elements:

Lamothe quotes Bowers on MM 50/60 (but identifies this with the semibreve, which  would not work for the whole opera. I  identify this sort of pulse with the minim). Bowers states that the notation implies the same Tactus for the lengthy excerpt from the end of Act I until the entrance of the Messaggiera halfway through Act II. Bowers remarks that the notation is the same throughout the rest of the opera too. I take the logical step that the same Tactus is implied for the whole opera.

George Houle’s (brief) discussion of constant tactus throughout the repertoire is on pages 3-5 of ‘Metre in Music’, citing Heyden, Mersenne and secondary sources. On page 2, Houle mentions (all too briefly) ‘degrees of change intermediate to those determined by diminution or proportion.’

Constant Tactus for the whole repertoire is supported by Il Corago, page 47 (see future postings on this blog).

Houle cites Dowland’s explanation of Tactus and Semi-Tactus on page 4. This is the ‘Hobbit Question’, aka ‘there and back again’: the semibreve corresponds to the complete down-up cycle. See Quality Time here.

Bowers cites Banchieri’s ‘Conclusioni’ chapter 14 “when there is no numerical sign”, in support of his Sesquialtera interpretation of proportional change. Of course, in Orfeo, there are numerical signs [3/2 and 6/4]. Banchieri addresses this situation in chapter 15, at the end of which he describes the Tripla interpretation that I propose.

I admit that Banchieri describes two interpretations, and does not discuss how to decide between them. But my general point is that we can approach such decisions by requiring consistency, not only of interpretations of Proportional relationships, but also in constancy of the underlying Tactus. If we consistently interpret the same notation the same way, if we apply a consistent tactus (perhaps allowing SMALL changes, but not doubling/halving the speed), we can rule out certain interpretations as impossible. [I try to distinguish carefully between ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘impossible’]. When – as in Orfeo and the Vespers – we have many proportions at work, the accumulated constraints of ‘impossibilities’ gradually reduce the number of possible solutions – ideally to a single answer.


Galileo Pendulum


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Play it again, Sam! The truth about Caccini’s ‘sprezzatura’

Casablanca Poster


Play it again, Sam!

As the well-informed readership of this blog will know already, in the 1942 film Casablanca, nobody ever says that most famous phrase “Play it again, Sam”. They use similar words, but somehow, the whole world has picked up the wrong version. In this post, I’m looking again at what Caccini actually wrote in his famous Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (Florence 1601/2), separating the facts from popular myths.

So let’s be clear from the outset that Caccini never mentions

sprezzatura di ritmo

Actually, he only mentions sprezzatura twice, in the whole Preface. He only uses it once, in all his extensive music examples. Sprezzatura was not his priority. Sprezzatura was applied only to whatever did not matter. In contrast, he talks much more about divisions and   exclamations, and he uses these much more in his example songs. His priorities were text and rhythm.

But there is one other concept that he discusses far more than any other. [You can see my summary of what Caccini did say, at the end of this post.]

If you perform early seicento music, don’t trust what your teacher once told you his teacher told him, don’t even accept what I write here without proper scientific scepticism: you will want to read Caccini for yourself. The standard modern edition (Giulio Caccini, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock, Le Nuove Musiche, A-R editions, 1970, second edition 2009) is widely available, and includes an English translation of the Preface. That translation has a few questionable moments, but it includes well-researched additional notes. But be careful with Hitchcock’s transcriptions of the songs themselves: not all the printed time-signatures – vital for establishing Proportions – are original.

English translations from the Preface have been printed in many source-book anthologies, beginning with an excerpt in John Playford Introduction to the Skill of Music 1664. This is available free online in the 1683 reprint here. (See Directions for singing after the Italian manner, pages 34-39)

Probably the most influential English translation is Oliver Strunk (editor) Source Readings in Music History (1950), page 370. The 1942 translation by Alfred Ashfield Finch has many editorial additions, and cannot be trusted: I mention it only because it is available online. The extract translated by Zachariah Victor is better (though he mistranslates sprezzatura di canto), it can be downloaded free here.

But best of all, the original print can be downloaded free, with the full Italian text of the Preface, Caccini’s worked examples (in which he applies his own advice to three sample songs), and all the songs themselves, including his greatest hit, Amarilli mia bella. It’s all here.

Caccini Nuove Musiche title page


Re-assessing Le Nuove Musiche

In Baroque Music 1.0, we all learnt that Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche represents the paradigm-shift that brought about a musical revolution, defined Basso Continuo, ushered in the Baroque Age, and led to the Development of Opera. That over-simplistic view has been re-assessed: Caccini was a clever self-promoter, and in this book as in his hasty publication of his music for the ‘first opera’ Euridice (1602), he was deliberately positioning himself as the hero of a new style. Caccini’s Musiche are not really so nuove (new); in many ways, he was less innovative than his rival, Jacopo Peri, principal composer of the first-performed version Euridice (1600). Similarly, Caccini’s advice on performance practice is a summary of developments over the last decades, rather than an ‘epoch-making’ breakthrough. Again, Peri is more daring, in the Preface to his Euridice, which I will discuss in a future post.


The songs of Le Nuove Musiche include 12 strophic Arias which Caccini calls  canzonette a aria, ‘Canzonets’, and plenty of ‘old-fashioned’ diminutions, even in the 12, supposedly more modern, ‘Madrigals’. These madrigals look very much like the ornamented solo versions of four-voice part-songs heard in the Florentine Intermedi (1589). Indeed, it’s so simple an exercise to construct a four-voice madrigal from the solo and figured bass of Amarilli mia bella, that I suspect Caccini originally wrote the piece as a part-song. As Victor Coelho writes, “we know now through the work of Claude Palisca, Tim Carter, John Walter Hill, Howard Brown, and others, that Caccini’s works were closely connected to earlier and long-standing musical traditions”. Coelho’s article in the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music here places Le Nuove Musiche in the context of the previous century and of a manuscript containing intabulated accompaniments of works by Caccini, Peri, and Rasi .


Sprezzatura in the 16th century


Caccini’s sprezzatura is also a 16th-century concept, discussed in Baldassare Castiglione’s Libro del Cortegiano (1528), transcribed into modern Italian here Castiglione was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561 as The Courtyer here. It’s known in English today as The Book of the Courtier. In Chapter XXVI, Castiglione introduces the idea:

per dir forse una nova parola, usar in ogni cosa una certa sprezzatura, che nasconda l’arte e dimostri cio che si fa e dice venir senza fatica e quasi senza pensarvi. Da questo credo io che derivi assai la grazia

Here is Hoby’s 1561 translation:

(to speak a new word) to use in every thyng a certain Reckelessness, to cover art withall, and seeme whatsoever he doth and sayeth to do it wythout pain, and (as it were) not myndyng it. And of thys do I beleve grace is muche deryved 

In modern editions, sprezzatura is translated as ‘disdain’ [which is literal, but unhelpful] or ‘nonchalance’ [better]. I like the translation ‘cool’. Castiglione links sprezzatura to grazia (grace, elegance), a word so evocative of the qualities of an ideal Courtier that it occurs 150 times. Sprezzatura occurs a further 8 times, in connection with dancing, as not to be overdone, as praiseworthy in itself, in contrast to attillatura (neatness of dress, also seen as praiseworthy in itself), in contrast to affectation (seen as highly negative), in contrast to ‘pestiferous affectation’ and linked to the ‘extreme grace of simplicity’, and in the context of playing a character role in costume.

This last mention is not often cited in the secondary literature, but it seems especially relevant to Caccini’s use of sprezzatura in the musical context of singing in the period of the first operas, so here it is in full, from Book II Chapter XI:

esser travestito porta seco una certa liberta e licenzia, la quale tra l’altre cose fa che l’omo po piglare forma di quella in che si sente valere, ed usar diligenzia ed attillatura circa la principal intenzione della cosa in che mostrar si vole, ed una certa sprezzatura circa quello che non importa, il che accresce molto la grazia:

Hoby translates this section in 1561 as:

To be in a maske bringeth with it a certaine libertie and lycence, that a man may emong other thinges take uppon him the fourme of that he hath best skill in, and use bente studye and preciseness about the principall drift of the matter wherin he will shewe himselfe, and a certaine Reckelesness aboute that is not of importaunce, whiche augmenteth the grace of the thinge

Hoby’s translation of valere as ‘to have skill’ is doubtful in this context: the principal meaning according to Florio’s 1598 dictionary here reprinted and extended in 1611 is ‘to be worth, to be of value, to be much or greatly esteemed’. So here is my translation:

To wear a character costume brings with it a certain liberty and licence. Amongst other things, it allows a man to take the form of something that he feels to be of great worth, and to exercise careful attention and preciseness about the principal purpose of the event in which he wants to appear, but a certain ‘cool’ about whatever doesn’t matter. This greatly increases his elegance.

Attillatura usually refers to preciseness in dressing, but it seems that Castiglione intends this example to illustrate a more general concept: even when you are doing something very important, you can be attentive and precise about the important things, and show a certain ‘cool’ in whatever does not matter.

Il Cortegiano frontispiece 1562


Caccini’s Preface


Returning to the 17th century and Le Nuove Musiche, we can hear echoes of Castiglione in Caccini’s use of such words as sprezzatura, grazia and nobil (noble, which with its derivatives occurs 122 times in Il Cortegiano). But which words and phrases does Caccini use most often, what is his ‘principal purpose’?

[Square brackets like this separate my commentary from excerpts of Caccini’s text, which I report in the third person, and shorten to focus on Caccini’s discussion of style. My summary is at the end of this post]

Good Style


Caccini calls his practice la nobile maniera di cantare (the noble manner of singing), and says he learnt it from Scipione del Palla, who was active in Naples at the time of Caccini’s birth, 50 years earlier.

He claims for himself the development of lunghi giri di voci semplici, e doppie, cioe raddoppiate, intrecciate l’una nell l’altra (long turns of notes, simple and double, i.e. re-doubled, interwoven one with another). He positions these as the modern alternative to quella antica maniera di passaggi (that old-fashioned manner of divisions), which he considers more suitable for wind or string instruments than for voices.

He associates la buona maniera di cantare (the good way of singing) with crescere e scemare della voce, l’esclamazione, trilli e gruppi (crescendo and diminuendo of the note, exclamation, single-note trills, two-note trills with final turn). As the Preface continues and in the example songs, it becomes clear that crescendo and diminuendo are on one note, not throughout a whole phrase, and precisely what is meant by trillo and gruppo.

He now discusses the advantages of canto per una voce sola (solo songs, as opposed to polyphonic part-songs). He claims that recent times (moderni tempi passati) were not accustomed to musiche da quella intera grazia (music of that complete grace) that he himself hears nel mio animo resonare (resonating in his spirit). Grazia has connotations of divine, spiritual qualities as well as of artistic beauty and sweetness. Animo is the mind or spirit, as opposed to anima (the spirit or soul, in the religious sense), core (heart, fount of emotions), and the lower body, vita. 

Caccini values what he learnt at Bardi’s Florentine Camerata, with its membership of noble amateurs, musicians, intellectuals, poets and philosophers, above his long training in counterpoint. These intendentissimi gentilhuomini (gentlemen of great understanding) convinced him not to prize that kind of music which does not allow the words to be understood well (non lasciando bene intendersi le parole), because it spoilt the meaning and the poetry and distorted the Long and Short syllables. [Long and Short syllables correspond to Good and Bad notes; more about Good and Bad here].

Caccini and the Camerata follow a Platonic, philosophical ideal that:

La musica altro non essere che la favella e’l rithmo, & il suono per ultimo, e non per lo contrario.

Music is text and rhythm, & sound last of all, and not the other way around.

[Hitchcock’s translation is misleading here, ignoring the effect of seicento conventions of punctuation, and disregarding that ultimo is singular. His ‘speech’ is a reasonable translation of favella but since Caccini wishes to distinguish this favella from sound, ‘text’ is probably better. His mangled version –  ‘speech, with rhythm and tone coming after’  – seems to me symptomatic of 20th-century musicians’ refusal to accept the possibility that rhythm could be noble, another mistake resulting from the unquestioning assumption that expression must be linked to 20th-century rubato.]

[Caccini’s bold statement of priorities – text and rhythm – backed up with the full authority of the Florentine Camerata, has received little attention from performance practice scholars, especially compared to all the ink spilled over discussions (often skewed) of sprezzatura. But I find these priorities inspiring and noble, a breath of fresh air amongst all the arguments over vibrato, pitch and temperament that clog today’s Early Music. Caccini’s priorities (combined with the Rhetorical priority of Action, i.e. persuasive, fully embodied delivery with gestures, facial expressions, contrasts of timbre) gave the title and rehearsal methodology for my three-year project Text, Rhythm, Action! within the Performance program of the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, with 20 staged productions of historical music-dramas, and master-classes, lectures & workshops all over the world.]   

Caccini and the Camerata want music to penetrare nell’ altrui intelletto e fare quei mirabili effetti (penetrate the listener’s mind and create those marvellous effects) described by Classical writers, i.e. moving audiences to tears and laughter. This cannot be done by polyphonic music, not even by solo songs to a string instrument if there are too many diminutions, moltitudine di passaggi, applied indiscriminately to Bad as well as Good syllables [the normal rule is to ornament only the Good syllables]. According to Caccini, only plebs admire such empty vocal display (passaggi … della plebe esaltati). Such music can do no more than titilate the ears. It’s impossible to move the mind, muovere l’intelletto, without an understanding of the words, senza l’intelligenza delle parole.

So Caccini had the idea [he writes, boldly claiming the territory] to introduce a kind of music in which performers could quasi che in armonia favellare – almost speak in harmonies. [This is paralleled in Peri’s more detailed description, in his Preface to Euridice, of taking the pitches of syllables that would be sustained in declamatory speech, and accompanying those pitches with suitable harmonies.] In this music, Caccini uses a certain noble sprezzatura of song, a ‘cool’ way of singing.

una certa nobile sprezzatura di canto

[Musicologists and musicians have leapt to the conclusion that this sprezzatura is some kind of rhythmic freedom. But Caccini does not say this, not at all. Rather, it is canto song itself, that is treated with sprezzatura. We can combine Castiglione’s dictum  – that one should be precise about the priorities, and apply sprezzatura to whatever is less important – with the musical priorities of Caccini and the Camerata – text and rhythm, with sound last of all. The result confirms that we should apply sprezzatura to the sound, to song itself, to the sonic qualities of singing. We should be precise about text and rhythm, and cool about vocal sound-production. As Caccini writes, we should hardly sing, we should ‘almost speak in harmonies’.]

Caccini describes how the voice-part passes through various dissonances whilst the bass stays on the same note – what we today call recitative. [This is a kind of sprezzatura  of composing, a nonchalant way of dealing with the normal rules of counterpoint. These dissonances are not prepared and resolved, as would normally be required.] Sometimes Caccini does use dissonance in the conventional manner, with the polyphonic ‘inner voices’ played on an instrument, to express some emotion, per esprimere qualche affetto.

[I take Caccini’s somewhat ambiguous final clause non essendo buone per altro to mean that the ‘inner voices’ are not useful for anything else, i.e. as another negative comment about polyphony. ‘Dissonances are not good for another kind of emotion’ and other readings are also possible.]

According to Caccini, this was the origin of those modern solo songs which have more power to delight and move, piu forza per dilettare e muovere, than many voices together. [‘Delight and move’ recalls the Rhetorical aims of docere, delectare, muovere in Cicero’s De Oratore.] Caccini gives examples of his work – Perfidissimo volto, Vedro’l mio Sol, and  Dovro dunque morire. [The first of these makes considerable use of the ‘recitative’ technique of a static bass, the second has one brief moment of ‘recitative’: in the third, the bass often moves fast under a sustained note in the voice. The common element of modernity seems to be reduced polyphony, rather than ‘recitative’ as such.] Caccini picks out his setting of the eclogue of Sannazaro [now lost] in particular as in the style of his music for the first Florentine ‘operas’, quello stile proprio … per le favole … rappresentate cantando.

Caccini now name-checks various nobles who had never before heard music for solo voice accompanied by a simple string instrument, which had such force to move the emotions of the spirit tanta forza di muovere l’affetto dell’ animo. He attributes his success to his new style, lo nuovo stile, and also to the superiority of his specially composed solos over arrangements for solo voice of part-songs. By 1601, everyone who writes for solo voice uses this style, especially in Florence, where Caccini claims to have worked for the Medici for 37 years.

In both Madrigals and Arias, Caccini always tries to imitate the ideas of the words,  concetti delle parole, searching out notes that would be more or less emotional according to the sentiments of the words quelle corde piu e meno affettuose secondo i sentimenti. In particular, there will be grazia because he has hidden as much as possible the art of counterpoint. [Here Caccini brings together Castiglione’s idea of the elegance of hidden art with the Camerata’s ideal of reducing polyphony.]



Caccini again mentions the proper distinction between Good and Bad syllables, observed in his harmonies and his ornamentation. When he does ornament a Bad syllable, this doesn’t last long, and can be considered not as a passaggio (which would be inappropriate) but as un certo accrescimento di grazia si possono permettere (a certain increase of grace, that can be permitted). But since he has already complained about the misuse of long turns of notes, malamente adoperati quei lunghi giri di voci he advises that the passaggi are not strictly necessary for the good manner of singing necessarii per la buona maniera di cantare. Rather, they titillate the ears of those who understand less about passionate singing, una certa titillatione a gli orecchi di quelli che meno intendono che cosa sia cantare con affetto. For those who understand, passaggi are hateful, abborriti, there is nothing more contrary to emotion, non essendo cosa piu contraria di loro all’ affetto.

This is why Caccini spoke about ‘misuse’: his own ornaments are introduced only in music that is less passionate, meno affettuose, on the Good syllables not on the Bad, and at final cadences. For these lunghi giri the vowel u is better for sopranos than for tenors; the vowel i is better for tenors. Other vowels are in common use, but open vowels are more sonorous than closed, and therefore more suitable for exercising such vocal agility esercitare la disposizione. Again Caccini tells us to use these giri di voci according to his rules and not just anyhow, e non a caso. 

Whilst others who want to sing solos stylishly, cantar solo e fare maniera think first about the practice of counterpoint, Caccini has better advice about the good manner of composing and singing in this style, la buona maniera di comporre e cantare in questo stile. [This distinction between comporre and cantare supports the interpretation of his sprezzatura di canto as a performance practice of ‘almost speaking’, not as the compositional technique of ‘recitative’.] What is needed much more is l’intelligenza del concetto, e delle parole il gusto (the understanding of the meaning, and the flavour of the words). This flavour should be imitated in passionate notes and also expressed by singing with passion, l’imitazione di esso cosi nelle corde affettuose, come nello esprimerlo con affetto cantando. [Again, Caccini distinguishes between the work of composer and performer].

So counterpoint is not much use, Caccini uses it only to coordinate the two parts, to avoid obvious errors, and to create some dissonances, durezze, more to support the emotion than to employ artistry, piu per accompagnamento dello affetto che per usar arte. Composing according to the gusto del concetto delle parole (flavour of the meaning of the words) and singing with good style, buona maniera di cantare, are more effective and delightful than all the art of counterpoint. This is what brought Caccini to this way of singing maniera di canto for solo voice, and where to use the lunghi giri di voce.

The Passionate style


Now he discusses the use of  crescere e scemare della voce, l’esclamazioni, trilli, gruppi (crescendo and diminuendo on one note, exclamations, single-note and two-note trills).  These are often used indiscriminately, indifferentemente, in passionate music, musiche affettuose, where they are required more, and in light dance-songs canzonette a ballo [where they would be inappropriate]. Some people create an ultra-passionate manner of singing, una maniera di cantare … tutta affettuosa, and with the general rule that crescere e scemare della voce  and esclamazioni are the foundation of that passion (affetto), they apply them in all kinds of music, without noticing whether the words require such passion, se le parole il richieggiono. Those who understand well the meanings and sentiments of the words, che bene intendono i concetti e i sentimenti delle parole, can distinguish where such passion is more necessary or less required, ove piu o meno si richieggia esso affetto.   

[This is excellent advice, which I will summarise as : Don’t pour a rich sauce of fake emotion over an innocent text! Such down-to-earth honesty is all the more necessary, as we approach Caccini’s next quotable quote]

Quest’ arte non patisce la mediocrita

This Art does not admit mediocrity. The more exquisite details there are that are required for excellence in this Art, the more hard work and diligence we who profess the Art must find in all our studies.  [So, stick with it, even if Caccini’s sentences sometimes seem endless!] From written sources [the Italian word scritti  hints at holy scriptures] we receive the light of Science [this word has cosmic, divine significance in the 17th century], and all the Arts. So we need Love too, the kind of love that inspired Caccini to leave a glimmer of light in his music and discussion of the art of singing solo above the harmony of the Chitarrone or other stringed instrument.

For singers, the first and most important fundamental is to be to start the phrase on any note l’intonazione della voce in tutte le cordi , neither too low nor too high, and in good style, la buona maniera. Caccini discusses the ornamental start from a third below, which should be not be sustained but scarcely hinted at, a pena essere accennata. This does not always fit the harmony, and is often over-used. Many singers consider starting with a steady crescendo to be the good style of putting forth the voice with elegance, la buona maniera per mettere la voce con grazia. Caccini prefers this crescere la voce, but he is always seeking novel means to attain the goal of the musician, il fine della musico, cioe dilettare e muovere l’affetto dell’animo.

A musician’s goal is to delight and move the passions of the mind & spirit.

 So Caccini claims that he invented a more passionate way, maniera piu affettuosa, starting the note with the contrary effect of a decrescendo, intonare la prima voce scemandola. [In all this discussion, we have to understand voce as ‘voice’ and/or ‘sung note’, sometimes even as ‘a word’. Similarly, corda can be ‘string’ and/or ‘note’, whether sung or played.]

But the most principal means of moving the passion, mezzo piu principale per muovere l’affetto, is the Exclamation, esclamazione. As you make the decrescendo, nel lassare della voce [this could also mean ‘just before you leave the note’], make a bit of a crescendo, rinforzarla alquanto. Caccini notes that this crescendo can become unbearably harsh in the high part, especially with falsettists. But without doubt, as a passionate ornament (affetto) to move the emotions (per muovere), the effect (effetto) is better starting the note with decrescendo, intonare la voce scemandola, than with crescendo. [Note that Caccini here uses affetto to mean not only a passion, but also an ornament that moves the passions.] Crescendo la voce per far l’esclamazione (crescendo on a note as an Exclamation) requires a further crescendo as you relax/leave (lassar) the note, and this seems forced and harsh, sforzata e cruda. But contrariwise, with decrescendo on a note (scemarla), as you relax/leave it (lassarla) giving it a bit more spirit, il darle un poco piu spirto, makes it more and more passionate, sempre piu affettuosa.

You can also vary one or other intonazione. Variety is most necessary in this art, as long as it is used for the purpose [of delighting and moving the passions].

This is the greatest part of elegance in singing in order to move the passions of the spirit, maggior parte della grazia nel cantare atta a poter muovere l’affetto dell’ animo. It applies to those subjects in the text (concetti) that are more suitable for such passions, ove piu si conviene usare tali affetti. You can learn this most necessary elegance, quella grazia piu necessaria, from written sources, but after studying the theory and the rules, perfection is attained through practice.

This leads Caccini to his music examples, demonstrating two Exclamations, languida (languid) and piu viva (more lively). You can experiment to see which way of starting the note (intonato) produces more or less elegance, maggiore o minor grazia. On the word cor, start (intonare) the first note, make a decrescendo little by little (scemandola a poco a poco), and on the second note crescere la voce con un poco piu spirito (crescendo on the note with a little more spirit). This is the esclamazione assai affettuosa (moderately passionate) for a note descending by step.     

Caccini Nuove Musiche Exclamazione


On the word deh, the exclamation is much more spirited, molto piu spiritosa, because it does not continue by step, but very sweetly with the fall through a sixth. With this Caccini demonstrates the esclamazione, which can be of two qualities, one more passionate (piu affettuosa) than the other.The way the note is started (intonate) is an imitation of the word, imitazione della parole, as long as that word has significant meaning, significato con il concetto

Otherwise, as a general rule esclamationi can be used in any passionate music (tutte le musiche affettuose) on every occurrence of dotted minim plus crotchet [this is my reading of Caccini’s ambiguous phrase, tutte le minime e semiminime col punto]. They will be more passionate (affettuose) if the following note runs fast (corre). Don’t do them on semibreves, where there is more space for crescendo and diminuendo on the note (crescere e scemare della voce) without esclamazioni.

In light music (musiche ariose) or little dance-songs (canzonette a ballo), instead of these passionate ornaments (affetti), just use the liveliness of the voice (vivezza di canto), which usually comes from the rhythm of the song itself [aria in this period has a wide range of meaning: a repeating rhythmic unit, a tuneful song that includes such repeating rhythmic units, or a tuneful strophic song over a repeating ground bass].  If there are some esclamazioni, they should leave the same liveliness (vivezza) and not bring in any languid emotion, affetto alcuno … languido.


Musicians need to exercise their own judgement, beyond the rules of Art. In the example above, there is more elegance, maggior grazia,  in the first setting of the word languire with the second quaver dotted, than in the second setting with all four quavers equal. There are many elements which create maggior grazia  in the good manner of singing la buona maniera di cantare. Although they are written in one way, they make a different effect (effetto) in another way, so some are said to sing with more grace, others with less, cantare con piu grazia o meno grazia.

Trillo & Gruppo

Caccini Trillo & Gruppo

The Trillo is on one note. Caccini taught it this way to his two wives and daughters. It starts with a crotchet, and beats with the throat (ribattere …con la gola) until the final breve. [Note that the trillo gets faster, not slower, and flows directly into the final breve]. Similarly with the Gruppo. Listeners could report how exquisitely, in quanta squisitezza, these were performed by Caccini’s second wife.

Learning the Trillo and Gruppo is a necessary first step towards many things described here, that are effects of that elegance that is most sought after in good singing, effetti di quella grazia, che piu si ricerca per ben cantare. They are written one way, and performed another to make a different effect (contrario effetto) than the usual. Here are all these effects (effetti) written in the same note-values, so that from written examples combined with practice one can learn all the subtleties (squisitezze) of this Art.

Caccini rhythmic alteration examples  

In the examples above, the second version has piu grazia.


Three Sample Songs


The next examples (below) have the words underlayed, a bass for the Chitarrone, and all the most passionate movements, tutti passi affettuosissimi. By practising them you can acquire ever greater perfection, ogni maggior perfezzione.


Caccini Nuove Musiche example 1




Caccini Nuove Musiche example 2


Caccini Nuove Musiche example 3


[It’s worth doing some simple counting. In the three examples immediately above, there are 13 mentions of esclamazione, 11 of trillo, the word gruppi occurs once and the ornament is written out 4 times. Sprezzatura occurs only once.

Senza misura (without measure) also occurs only once, in response to a strong cue from the words errate peregrine (you wander afar, erratically). Punctuation separates that instruction from quasi favellando in armonia con la suddetta sprezzatura (almost speaking in harmonies with the nonchalance mentioned above). In the passage above, that nonchalance applied to voice-production, ‘almost speaking’, and not to rhythm. Text and Rhythm are described above as the two highest priorities, the elements that, according to Castiglione, would receive Attention and Precision.

Monteverdi and others notate how such senza misura works in practice, with the singer floating in a cool way, over a regular bass. There are many descriptions of this practice throughout the baroque period and even as late as Chopin. In the Aria Possente Spirto from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the singer’s ornaments do not coincide with the tactus beats, nor with the movement of the harmony from G to D.

Possente Spirto incipit

Here is one possible realisation of Caccini’s senza misura, according to Monteverdi’s model, and following Caccini’s instruction (below) to make some notes just half their written length.

Aure divine, ch'errate peregrine

The important points are that this senza misura applies to the voice-part, whilst the continuo continues in measure; that this special effect is used only once in all the examples; that this is not the sprezzatura that Caccini mentions in the next clause.

There is one mention only (in the whole Preface) of con misura piu larga (in rhythm, but with a slower pulse). Again, this is in response to a strong cue from the words ch’io me ne moro (for from this I am dying). The change to a slower Tactus imitates the slower heart-beat of the dying singer.]


Caccini’s commentary on the examples above is that they show all the best passionate ornaments, tutti i migliori affetti, which can be used within the nobility of this way of singing, la nobilita di questa maniera di canti. They show where to crescendo and diminuendo the note, crescere e scemare la voce; where to do esclamazioni, trilli and gruppi, and to sum up, all the treasures of this art, tesori di quest’ arte. These ‘treasures’ are not written into the songs that follow, but the examples above are models to be followed, according to the passions of the words, gli affetti delle parole.

[Now follows Caccini’s only discussion of rhythmic freedom.] The noble way (nobile maniera) is not dominated by strict measure, often reducing the value of notes by half according to the ideas of the words, facendo molte volte il valor delle note la meta meno secondo i concetti delle parole. [See my realisation of Caccini’s example 3, above].

The noble way then gives birth to a song (canto) that’s cool, in sprezzatura as it’s called. There you can use all the effects (effetti) for the excellence of this art, l’eccelenza di essa arte: a good voice (la buona voce), and effective breathing (la respirazione del fiato).  Sing solos to the Chitarrone or other string instrument. Since there are no other singers, choose the pitch that suits you so that you can sing full, natural voice (in voce piena e naturale) and avoid falsetto (isfuggire le voci finti). You waste a lot of breath faking or forcing, trying to ‘cover’ the tone. Rather, you need the breath to give more spirit to the crescendo and diminuendo on the note, per dar maggiore spirito al crescere e scemare della voce, to esclamazioni and all the other effects (effetti). Don’t run out of breath when you need it!

There is no nobility of good singing in falsetto notes. Dalle voci finte non puo nascere nobilita di buon canto. It comes from a natural voice, at ease in all the notes (una voce naturale, comoda per tutte le corde). Use the breath only to show yourself as master of all the best passionate ornaments, padrone di tutti gli affetti migliori, which pertain to this most noble way of singing (nobilissima maniera di cantare).

The love of this style and of all music burns in me by nature, and from years of study. This art is most beautiful (bellissima) and naturally delightful (dilettando naturalmente). By practising and teaching it, it becomes a true semblance of that perpetual motion of the celestial harmony, sembianza vera di quelle inarrestabili armonie celesti, from which all earthly good derives, awakening the minds of listeners to contemplation of the infinite delights of Heaven.

[Notice that in this conventional comparison of fine earthly music to the Harmony of the Spheres, the rhythm of the celestial harmony is unstoppable, inarrestabili.]

In the bass part, where there is a tie, re-strike the harmony but do not restrike the bass note. [This applies particularly to cadences, where the change of harmonies 4 3 on the dominant is notated over tied notes in the bass]. The Chitarrone is especially suitable for accompanying the voice, especially the tenor voice. Use good judgement about where to repeat the bass note in other places. Antonio Naldi, ‘il Bardella’, is credited for inventing this style of accompanying and as the finest Chitarrone-player. Caccini’s final paragraph complains that many people are not prepared to give others due credit for their inventions. [Is he hinting that he himself should receive more credit for his invention of the good manner of singing?]



Caccini’s text is dominated by the interlinked concepts of affetto (passion, or a passionate ornament) and effetto (a passionate ornament or the effect of such an ornament on the listener’s passions). He mentions affetto and its derivatives 32 times: include the 8 occurrences of effetto, and this interlinked concept has 40 hits. There is also an exclamatione affettuosa in the first of the three example songs.

This suggests that what is really ‘new’ about the nuove musiche is Caccini’s focus on passion (affetto), combined with the linking of such passion to a particular class of ornaments (affetti/effetti) and to the emotional effect on the listener (effetto).

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

In his examples, Caccini has 13 esclamazioni, 11 trilli, 4 gruppi. Sprezzatura occurs only once. Senza misura only once. Con misura piu larga also only once.

Caccini does not equate sprezzatura with free rhythm.

The priorities for Caccini and the Camerata are Text & Rhythm. Sound is the lowest priority. Castiglione indicates that sprezzatura is applied to low-priority elements, suggesting that Caccini’s sprezzatura should be applied to Sound. Caccini’s phrases are sprezzatura di canto and canto in sprezzatura. He associates sprezzatura with ‘almost speaking’.

Caccini’s sprezzatura is a nonchalant voice-production that is ‘almost speaking’.

Caccini emphasises that although plebs might delight in flashy singing, the noble art depends on deep understanding of the words.

The fundamental things apply…

  1. Prioritise text and rhythm.
  2. Don’t sing so much, almost speak.
  3. Move the listener’s passions.


Play it again Sam


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Quality Time: how does it feel?

During a workshop on 18th-century music that I taught in Moscow recently, there was what diplomats call ‘a frank exchange of views’ [i.e. a heated argument]. I stated that mid-18th century musicians did not use mechanical clocks to measure musical time. A historian there objected strongly: suitably high-precision clocks had been invented in the 17th century already. I managed to restore peace, on the basis that we were both correct.



Galileo Pendulum

According to the Galileo Project [directed by Prof Albert Van Helden at Rice University] here, Galileo observed this chandelier in Pisa cathedral in 1582, and made notes on the pendulum effect in 1588. His serious experiments on the subject were begun in 1602. Around 1641, he designed a pendulum clock, but it was not built. The best clocks during the first half of the 17th-century marked the seconds, but did not measure them accurately: their best accuracy was plus/minus 15 minutes per day.

Galileo Pendulum Clock

Around 1636, Mersenne and Descartes further investigated the pendulum effect. Mersenne defined the Tactus as one beat per second, and in 1644 he  measured the length of a 1-second pendulum as a little less than 1 metre. Christian Huygens was the first actually to build a pendulum clock, in 1656. The accuracy of the best clocks was greatly improved, to within about 15 seconds per day.

Huygens first pendulum clock

In 1696, Etienne Loulié published Élements in which he described his chronomètre, which was essentially a variable-length pendulum combined with a ruler for measuring the pendulum-length, gradated in inches. The machine was 72 inches (almost 2 metres) tall, giving a slowest possible beat around 44 beats per minute. The middle of its range (i.e.  a pendulum length a little less than 1m) was about 60 beats per minute (corresponding to Mersenne’s one-second Tactus).

Loulie Chronometre 1696

18th-century devices were also very large, measuring slow beats in the range 40-60 beats per minute. The more compact, double-weighted metronome was invented by Winkel and first manufactured by Maezel in 1816.

So during the 18th century, mechanical devices for measuring musical time did exist, and were reasonably precise – good enough for all practical purposes, one would think. Their inconveniently large size is evidence of the importance of a slow count (Tactus) throughout this period. The one-second pendulum, i.e. 60 beats per minute, had a particular significance, in scientific studies.

Nevertheless, in spite of the availability of precision machines for measuring time, 18th-century musicians did not make much use of this technology. They continued to describe Tactus in the old ways. For example, Quantz  Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (1752) here mentions Loulié and his chronomètre, but says (XVII -vii – 46) that nobody uses it, in spite of its reliability and precision. Instead (47), he describes musical Tempi in terms of the human Pulse, and for each different type of movement (Allegro, Adagio etc) relates this Pulse to a particular note-value.

So it seems that increasing precision about Time itself did not tell baroque musicians what they needed to know about musical Time. Musicians were not so interested in the absolute Quantitative measurement of Time, they were concerned with the subjective Qualitative nature of musical Time. Their question was not, “how fast does it go?”, but rather:

What is the Quality of Time? How does it feel?


This question places the investigation of Time within the study of the History of Emotions. [Read more about the Australian Research Council’s Centre for the History of Emotions, here.]

The Galileo Project characterises the slow change in concepts of Time from Aristotle via Galileo and Newton to the modern era as the shift from the ‘qualitative and verbal’ to the ‘quantitative and mathematical’. You can read more about Philosophies of Time, ancient, baroque, our own everyday assumptions, Einstein’s 20th-century revolution and Hawking’s 21st-century paradoxes, in A Baroque History of Time here, where I too emphasise the continuing importance circa 1600 of Aristotle’s idea of Time as ‘a number of motion’ [some translations have ‘a number of change’] circa 1600.

You can also watch a video discussion of What is Time? here 

For the Metaphysics of Quality, be sure to read Robert M Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).

Quality (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)


In this post, I’d like to consider how historical philosophy affects practical music-making, in terms of Quality. What was the Quality of baroque Time? How did it feel?

In Ars Cantandi (1696), Carissimi makes it clear that 17th-century musicians appreciated the difference between Quantity and Quality of Time.

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.

So in the various triple-metres, the relationships between note-values agree: a semi-breve in 3/1 has the same duration as a semi-breve in 3/2.  Whatever the proportion sign, a semibreve can be divided into two minims, a minim can be divided into two semi-minims. As Carissimi says, the Quantities all agree.

But the Quality, how it feels, is very different, depending on whether the music proceeds as Sesquialtera (feeling groups of three semibreves); as Tripla 3/2 (feeling groups of three minims); or as Sestupla 6/4 (feeling groups of two dotted minims). Sesquialtera feels slow, Tripla feels medium-fast, Sestupla feels fast, even though the Quantities agree, each note-value has its true, consistent worth, the same value in all three triple-metres.

We can acquire a feeling for the Quality of early 17th-century musical Time by reminding ourselves what Music itself is, in this period. As we read in many sources, for example Dowland’s Micrologus (1609) here [translating probably the 1535 edition of Ornithoparcus: the almost-indentical 1519 edition is here], what we think of today as “music”, music as sound, practical music-making, was the least important meaning. [Read more about What is Music? here]

  1. Music is firstly Mondana, Dowland’s ‘musicke of the world’, the heavenly Music of the Spheres created by ‘the very wheeling of the Orbes.. the motion of the starres and the violence of the Spheares’.
  2. Next, music is Humana, Dowland’s ‘humane musicke’, the harmonious nature of the human body, ‘by which the spirituall nature is ioyned with the body…that Musicke which euery man that descends into himselfe finds in himselfe’
  3. In third place, music is Instrumentalis, Dowland;s ‘instrumentall musicke’, the actual music that we play and sing here on earth.

Three kinds of Music

Music was also divided into Practical (what Dowland calls Active or Pracktick) and Theoretical or Inspective:


Inspectiue Musicke, is a knowledge censuring and pondering the Sounds formed with naturall instruments, not by the eares, whose iudgement is dull, but by wit and reason.
 Such Speculative Music included many kinds of intellectual investigations, for example such contrapuntal brain-teasers as the Puzzle Canons that were popular in the 16th century.
So we end up with four types of music. The three types placed higher in the hierarchy can tell us a lot about the Quality of Time for the lowest-placed type, that is to say, for actual practical music played or sung here on earth.
What is Time
Like Music itself, the Quality of Time is Cosmic. It is a slow beat, reliable, perfect (think of the circular orbits that period science insisted upon), it is divinely-ordered. Mere mortals should not trifle with it.
The Quality of Time is like the human Heartbeat. It has a double-beat, it is live-giving, essential, not to be stopped. It may in certain circumstances beat faster or slower. It is very scary to suspend it even for a tiny moment.
The Quality of Time is seen Instrumentally by beating time with your hand, tapping your foot, waving the end of your theorbo, walking, or with a long (1 to 2 metres) pendulum. This beat is known as Tactus, Dowland’s ‘Tact’.
Tact is a successiue motion in singing, directing the equalitie of the measure: Or it is a certaine motion, made by the hand of the chiefe singer, according to the nature of the marks, which directs a Song according to Measure.
Notice that Tactus is ‘motion’ [recalling Aristotle’s definition of Time as a ‘number of motion’, discussed here], that Tactus ‘directs’, that Tactus maintains ‘equalitie’ ‘according to Measure’. Tactus is not just a tool with which a performer controls time, according to his own arbitrary conceit; Tactus itself maintains the equality of measure. Dowland again:
Above all things, keep the equality of measure!
Dowland Above all things




[See also Rhythm: what really counts here.]
Tactus is vitally important for us practising musicians – it is the practical means by which musical time operates. Tactus is “How to Do Rhythm” for Early Music. To employ a modern conductor, or to add rubato and other modern means of managing time, is a gross anachronism, like putting a modern piano into the Monteverdi Vespers. You can do it, of course, but if you do, you can’t pretend that it’s HIP.
Tactus, the visible sign of musical Time, brings together the same set of hierarchical categories as Music itself – heavenly & human, practical & theoretical. Tactus is the Divine Hand that turns the cosmos, Tactus is the Human Hand that keeps earthly musica instrumentalis in equality of measure, Tactus is related to the heart-beat. Considering musica speculativa, Tactus is where real Time for practical music (cosmic, human and actual sound) intersects with the theory of musical Time (as written in musical notation). Specifically, around the year 1600, Tactus calibrates the notational system against real time at the level of the semibreve.
Beating Tactus in duple metre, the semibreve is divided, down-up, into two minims. This is perhaps a good moment to consider what one might call the ‘Hobbit Question’,  aka ‘There and Back Again’.
The Hobbit or There and Back Again
The Tactus Hand goes ‘there and back again’, down and up. Similarly, a pendulum goes to and fro, and a semibreve is divided into two minims. When today’s musicians think about a metronome beat, they think of the click in each direction. But when mathematicians and physicists consider a pendulum, they define the Period as the time taken to swing there and back again. Strictly, we ought to use Tactus to mean a semibreve, the movement of the hand down and up again; each beat (down only, or up only) is properly called ‘semi-tactus’. But today, and also in 17th-century sources, musicians tend to use the word Tactus more generally to mean “the beat”, without always being specific about whether a minim (down only, or up only) or a semibreve (down and back up again) is meant.
So in my discussion above (and in many discussions by modern historians and musicologists), the pendulum ‘beat’ refers to the movement in one direction only, the same way musicians define a metronome beat today. In this sense, a 1-metre pendulum gives a beat of approximately MM 60 – this is Mersenne’s ‘one- second pendulum’, and he equates this 1 second to the minim. Strictly, this should be called semi-tactus.
Strictly speaking, the modern scientific definition of the Period of a pendulum, and the academic definition of Tactus around the year 1600 refer to “there and back again”. Mersenne’s approximately-one-metre pendulum goes there and back again in 2 seconds, which he would equate to the semibreve. Dowland agrees, clarifying the concept of ‘there and back again’ as ‘reciprocal motion’:
The greater [Tactus] is a Measure made by a slow, and as it were reciprocall motion. The writers call this Tact the whole, or totall Tact. And, because it is the true Tact of all Songs, it comprehends in his motion a Semibreefe.
Ornithoparcus, Dowland’s source from almost a century earlier, has an academic’s scorn for the habit amongst practical musicians of framing discussions in terms of Semi-Tactus:
The lesser Tact, is the halfe of the greater, which they call a Semitact. Because it measures by it motion a Semibreefe, diminished in a duple [i.e. a minim]: this is allowed of onely by the vnlearned.
Well, plenty of learnéd 17th-century musicians did discuss rhythm in terms of minim and semitactus! The insistence on the semibreve is already old-fashioned and theoretical, by Dowland’s time. For practical purposes today, it is a sufficient challenge for most conservatoire-trained musicians to get used to thinking in the slow beat of minim = approx 60. They (and many early music specialists too!) might find it very hard to work with the ultra-slow beat of semibreve = approx 30. Nevertheless, it’s worth keeping in mind that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that 17th-century musicians did indeed manage to work with this long beat, the whole Tactus. Certainly, an awareness of the very big, ultra-slow, count of semibreve = approx 30 is a big help when it comes to Sesquialtera proportion.
[More about Proportions – in search of a practical theory here, with discussion of proportions for the ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo here]
For the rest of this post, I will continue as I started, with the more practical, less ‘learnéd’ nomenclature, discussing what is strictly called Semi-Tactus, a minim beat (down only, or up only; not there and back again).



So, having dealt with the Hobbit Question, we can now consider how to calibrate our Tactus: to line-up the musical notation of note-values against Time in the real world of early 17th-century Italian music.   We have plenty of sources to put us ‘in the right ball-park’. The double heart-beat of the Tactus semibreve is divided into two minims, down-up, with each beat at minim = approximately 60, i.e. one minim beat per second. And around the year 1600, this was as accurate as they could get, they had no way to measure it more exactly.
Try to estimate a second, without looking at any kind of modern watch, clock, mobile phone etc. To help, try imagining a 1-metre pendulum, or think about your relaxed heart-beat. Did you make your estimate? That’s how long a minim is.
In Quantitative terms, circa 1600, we cannot know any more exactly. The minim was somewhere around one second, whatever you feel one second to be. It could be slower, for practical reasons, in certain circumstance, e.g. when there is lots of complex ornamentation. (In his 1610 Vespers, Monteverdi specifies a slower Tactus for Et exultavit, because the tenors have lots of fast notes. He also warns performers not to take his Ballo Tirsi & Clori  too fast, because the ensemble music is complex). How music feels depends on the size of the ensemble and the acoustic of the venue. To get the same feeling in a more resonant acoustic, it’s plausible that you might count your seconds a bit slower.
This calibration of a notated minim as a real Time second is inevitably subjective. Although a minim, or a second, are in principle fixed units, individuals will differ in how they estimate them. I remember being told as a child to estimate an English yard (a bit less than a metre, about the length of a one-second pendulum) as the distance from the tip of my nose to the end of my arm, and realised even then that not everyone’s arms are the same length (not to mention noses!). Of course, highly trained musicians could be expected to remember the duration of a minim better than the average person, just as some musicians today can remember the pitch of a tuning fork, or of the organ in a particular church. But, in the absence of a precision measurement of time, it’s your memory against mine. And if I trained with a maestro di capella who had a slower idea of one second than your teacher, we would probably continue that difference into our adult careers. So each individual will perceive Tactus slightly differently.
Tactus is also subjective in that it depends on one’s emotional state. Although I fondly imagine that I am keeping the ‘equalitie of measure’ , my sense of a one-second beat might well be a little faster when I am under stress, excited or angry; a little slower when I am especially relaxed or even drowsy.
Note that these subjective differences are not individual choices. Nor are they expressive interpretation. It’s just that my best, humanly fallible guess of the duration of one second  might be different from your guess, and might also vary according to my emotional state. Long training and repeated experience of the ‘equalitie of measure’ would have helped 17th-century musicians make consistent estimates.


Since performers’ emotional state can alter their perception of an ‘equal measure’, a singing-actor representing a character’s strong passions might act out the affetto in dramatic music (in genere rappresentativo) by letting that passion alter the speed slightly. Of course, this only works, if the audience don’t notice the trick: if they become aware that you are just going faster, the illusion is gone.

In the early 17th century, such writers as Caccini and Frescobaldi suggest subtle changes to the Tactus, according to the affetto of the sung text. Frescobaldi suggests imitating this vocal practice (which he derives from dramatic madrigals) even in instrumental music, with subtly different tempi for the various movements of a Toccata. Early violin sonatas have markings of tarde and velociter etc to show such subtle changes of Tactus, corresponding to changes in affetto. We can understand this as a performer acting out a change of Passion, as if his own heart began to beat slower or faster, in response to a poetic text, or to the affetti of such poetry imitated in instrumental music.
With such changes, the desired result is that the audience’s passions are moved. The audience should notice a change of affetto, in fact they should feel that emotional change themselves. If they simply notice a change of speed, the performance has failed. With such changes, the alteration in Tactus is small. If the composer wants double-speed, he can show that with shorter note-values. If he wants one-third faster, he can show that with Sesquialtera proportion. As George Houle writes in Metre in Music 1600-1800 (1987):
 In the early seventeenth century, tarde, velociter, adagio and presto distinguished between fast and slow, that is degrees of change intermediate to those determined by diminution (2:1) or proportion (usually 2:1, 3:1 or 3:2).
(My added emphasis)
So these changes for the sake of the affetto are subtle changes. In particular, a gross change to double-speed may not be perceived at all by your audience. They will still feel the same Tactus, and just assume that the note-values have been halved.
Jazz suggests a good model for the Quality of these subtle changes. Whatever the actual, Quantitative tempo, jazz musicians recognise that one can play “on the front” of the tempo or “laid back”. What is essentially the same Quantitative speed can feel different, more urgent or more languid; its Quality can be varied.
In early 17th-century music, a change of Tactus according to the affetto will tend to reinforce whatever changes of note-values the composer has written. If the affetto is urgent, the composer will write short note-values. And then the performer takes a slightly faster Tactus, making those short notes even quicker. And the converse for languid affetti.
Another important point is that these changes are not gradual acceleration or rallentando, but a step-change in time. In what Frescobaldi calls ‘driving the time’, guidare il tempo, you don’t use the accelerator and the brakes, you use the gear-shift! Such gear-changes, even when by subtle amounts, are very strong medicine, all the more so in the context of ‘equality of measure’ throughout the rest of the performance.
Finally, even when the Tactus changes, there is still Tactus. Frescobaldi explains that although Tactus no longer rules absolutely in his toccatas, the performance is still facilitated by means of Tactus, a Tactus which now can be slightly faster or slower, changing at the intersection between movements and according to the affetto. I will discuss Caccini’s, Peri’s and Frescobaldi’s specific comments about Tactus in future posts.
Perhaps the most important Quality of early 17th-century musical time is that musicians are striving to make it as constant and consistent as they can. Although its precise Quantity is subjective, and might even be deliberately adjusted to take account of particular circumstances, or to create a subtle illusion for the audience, time is supposed to be stable, otherwise the heavens will fall. If your heart stops beating, the music also dies.
The myth of Phaeton tells of an ill-fated attempt to ‘drive time’. Phaeton grabbed the reins of Apollo’s sun-chariot, but could not control the time-horses, He crashed and burned.
Sun Chariot



In the second half of the 17th century, in France, the quality of Time was linked to how it felt to perform the movements of a particular dance. Each dance had its own vrai mouvement (as Muffat calls it, in Florilegium 1698) – ‘true movement’. This deceptively simple phrase has many meanings: the particular steps of each dance, a speed-range within which those steps ‘feel right’, a particular metre (duple or triple), and also what a modern musician might call a particular ‘groove’, a regular pattern of Good and Bad beats, a tendency towards certain characteristic rhythms. Time itself ‘moves’ truly, but differently, for each dance. And of course, each dance-type is associated with a certain range of emotions. In short, each dance-type has its own feeling, its own Quality.

Modern musicologists and dance historians have worked hard to understand the precise Quantity, the actual speed for each dance-type. Commonly encountered speeds around 84 beats per minute for some dances look rather like a proportion of the earlier Italian Tactus =  a bit less than 60. But perhaps too much focus on Quantity is again the wrong approach to the whole question. We might better seek to understand the Quality of each mouvement, learn how it feels. We can find a typical range of feelings, in the sense of emotions, affetti, by examining texts sung to each dance-type. We can try to discover the right groove within the Tactus, the appropriate swing of inégalité in the shorter notes,  and – most importantly – we can learn how it feels, physically, to dance its characteristic steps.

When I first started playing the harp, I studied renaissance and baroque dance and spent a lot of time playing for dancers. I count this a most valuable part of my Early Music education. I quickly discovered that dancers are very sensitive to the precise speed of each dance, so as a dutiful young professional musician, I would measure their ideal speed in rehearsal with a metronome, and then use a silent metronome to reproduce this speed in performance. This was Quantitatively accurate, but it didn’t work at all.  Dancers’ appreciation of speed is highly subjective – it depends on the nature of the floor surface, on the size and shape of the available floor area, on their physical condition and mood at the moment of performance. It’s not a question to be answered with a metronome; it’s a matter of How does it feel?

My solution, as an instrumentalist playing for dancers, was to learn the dance-steps so that I could watch whilst playing and allow the dancer to set the tempo in the opening bars. Of course, the ‘ball-park’ tempo was known from rehearsal, but the ‘fine-tuning’ of speed was left to the performer, in the moment. Once set, this speed, the rhythmic ‘groove’, the inégal swing, the complete vrai mouvement  is maintained until the very end of the dance, just as Muffat says.

Because each dance has its own vrai mouvement, its own Time, the Quality of musical time in late 17th-century France is complex and multifarious. Time is still cosmic and divine. Indeed, dance itself is a metaphor for the perfect movement of the heavens, as well as for a perfectly organised society with Louis XIV himself as the divinely appointed principal dancer around whom everyone else must orbit. Melody, harmony and vrai mouvement (in all its meanings) work together as the head, heart and soul  of the human body. Tactus is still shown by an up and down movement of the hand, or of the big stick that led to Lully’s death. Muffat recommends that dance-musicians should tap their feet in Tactus (on the downbeat of each bar). Meanwhile, the dancers’ feet strike out faster-moving beats within the Tactus, moving with the groove of the music as they step, rise and sink, turn and balance.

French dance-Time still has the Quality of being ‘true’, rather than arbitrarily chosen according to the whim of performers. But now there are many truths, as many different types of vrai mouvement as their are types of dance. The significance of individual dance-steps within the slow count of the Tactus encouraged French musicians to think more about the ‘equalitie of measure’ beat-by-beat in crotchets. The actual speed was determined according to the Quality of each dance, rather than by the Quantity of mathematical proportions. As Houle observed in 1987, these different ways of thinking were essentially incompatible, and the attempts to reconcile them make for confusing reading in late 17th-century sources.

Logical extensions of mensural principles were sometimes in conflict.

Just as the 17th century saw opposed national styles of Music (French and Italian), so each national style had its own approach to questions of musical Time. When the musical tastes were re-united, gradually and not always completely, during the 18th century, so attitudes to Time were also gradually brought closer into alignment.

Tomlinson  dance a 2



Today, when we think about beating time, we may be reminded of the Qualities of a metronome, or of a modern conductor. Experiments we carried out at Scoil na gCláirseach (2013) and at the Royal Danish Academy of Music (2014) demonstrated that a long, slow-beating pendulum (about one metre long, at a Tactus speed of around one beat per second in each direction) has quite different Qualities.

A metronome gives a sharp click, and conductors are taught to make the precise moment of the beat as sharply defined as possible. But a pendulum slows down and stops momentarily as it turns, so that the actual moment is not sharply defined. This allows a musician to ‘place’ the beat subtly, communicating the particular feeling of this note, this harmony, the quality of this moment of time, letting the audience enjoy the moment of ‘smelling the roses’ as they walk steadily along the path of the music.

Valentini’s Trattato della battuta musicale (1643) allows the downward movement of the Tactus hand to last one quaver (approximately 1/4 sec) after which the hand remains down for three quavers (3/4 sec); similarly for the upward movement. Try this for yourself: it looks very different from modern conducting, and (like a pendulum) leaves the subtle ‘placing’ to the musician, within limits of the order of magnitude of a 1/4 sec.

Within the steady Tactus, shorter note-values need not be precisely equal. Descriptions of the ‘intrinsic’ hierarchy of Good and Bad notes (buone & cattive) remind us that the concept of a ‘half’ in this period does not necessarily imply precisely 50%.  Muffat (Florilegium 1698) explains that

Good notes are those that seem naturally to give the ear a little repose. Such notes are longer, those that come on the beat or essential subdivisions of measures.

It is not easy to put this difference in Quality between Good and Bad notes into words. Rameau in his Traité de l’harmonie (1722) asks for a certain je ne sais quoi on the Good beats, which he contrasts with a ‘slight leaning’ (appuyer un peu) on the Bad beats.

To get a feeling for the Quality of Good and Bad sub-divisions of the Tactus, first establish steady one-second Tactus. Then try saying simple words like piano, forte, dolce, arpa, pasta, pizza in your best Italian accent, one word on the down-position, the next on the up-position of your steady Tactus. [Don’t ‘bang’ the initial consonants, savour the vowels]. Can you reconcile the result of this tactus-beating with Valentini’s instructions above?

This subtle difference between Good and Bad (not loud and soft, but something of Long and Short) on the principal divisions of the Tactus (the ‘groove’ of a dance-movement)  is not to be confused with the stylised inégalité on shorter note-values (the ‘swing’ of short notes in French music).  Read more about The Good, The Bad, & the Early Music Phrase here. Watch a video about Good & Bad notes here.

Whereas a modern conductor might struggle to control a wayward soloist, or a modern accompanist might struggle to follow, a pendulum just swings to and fro, maintaining the ‘equalitie of measure’ calmly and gently. This quality of calm steadiness is a vital skill for a baroque accompanist to acquire. As Agazzari writes in Del Sonare (1607), the continuo’s role is to ‘guide and support the entire ensemble’: the continuo maintain the Tactus, even if a soloist chooses to place a certain note before or after the beat. But this is not an aggressive power-struggle, the continuo can remain as calm as a perfect slow-swinging pendulum.

A jazz-band provides a good model for baroque continuo, with the rhythm section keeping a steady groove, whilst the soloists syncopate or drift elegantly around the beat, depending on the affetto. 

Like a pendulum or the classic swinging pocket-watch, the calm, slow, steady beat of Tactus can be powerfully hypnotic, taking musicians and audiences into a shared trance, a dream-world where the cosmic and the human are mysteriously connected, a magical space where emotions are felt more intensely, where music unites performers and audience in a shared spiritual experience.

Did Dowland perhaps refer to the inner focus of trance in his description of musica humana as ‘that Musicke which euery man that descends into himselfe finds in himselfe’? This spiritual quality of time is enhanced by calm steadiness – any random alteration would jar. One strand of my research investigates how ‘early opera’ made deliberate use of these hypnotic qualities in the first decades of the 17th century. Read more here.


swinging watch



The essential Quality of baroque Time emerges from the fact that 18th-century musicians did not use machines to determine time accurately, even when such machines became available. No matter how closely we investigate period sources, we cannot know the precise Quantity of baroque Time. And actually, we don’t want to, because to ask the question of Quantity doesn’t give us a useful answer. The objectively “right” metronome speed will still “feel wrong” if the subjective situation changes.

So we want Quality Time. Time that is calm, steady and deeply significant, like the movement of the heavens or the beating of our hearts. And we must work hard to maintain it. Here is my personal take on baroque Quality time:

If the Tactus breaks, the heavens will fall. If your pulse stops, the music also dies.

As we begin to appreciate the subtle Quality of baroque time, we can appreciate how period writers struggled to explain its mysteries, to define the ineffable. Here is my anonymous hero, Il Corago circa 1630:

Per lo che in quanto alla tardita e velocita de’ movimenti, o vogliamo dire brevita o lunghezza di tempo nel quale si pronunziano i suoni o voci musicali, i moderni reducono e et essaminano il tutto ad una certa misura, come a suo proprio paragone, la quale essi chiamano battuta et e quel tempo che si mette nell’ abbassare et elevato la mano o piede o altra cosa che sia in una determinata velocita che d’alcuni et in alcuni casi piu prestamente di altri et in particolari occasioni meno velocimente si muove, ma pero dentro una certa latitudine o determinazione di tempo, come piu l’esperienza s’impara che chiaramente si possa esporre con lo scrivere.

Concerning the slowness and speed of movements, or we might say brevity or length of time in which musical sounds, notes or words are pronounced, modern [i.e. early 17th-century] musicians examine the whole question and reduce it all to a certain measure, as if to its own bench-mark, which is called battuta [Tactus, or ‘beat’] and which is that time which is put into the lowering and raising of the hand, or foot, or other object, which should be at a specific speed which some people and in some situations goes faster than others, and in certain circumstances less rapidly, but however within a certain latitude or precision of time, which experience teachers more clearly than can be explained in writing.

Tactus is the seicento musician’s paragone, defined in Florio’s 1611 dictionary as ‘paragon (i.e. model/example of excellence), a touch-stone to try gold, or to distinguish good from bad.’ Tactus is the Champion of Time. Tactus is the ideal or bench-mark of Time, the gold standard.

Tactus is Quality Time.

Golden Hand 

Please join me on Facebook and visit our website . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

A Baroque History of Time: Stars, Hearts and Music

A Baroque History of Time

The past is a foreign country,

they do things differently there.

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

The past is a foreign country;

there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language

and understood its assumptions.

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

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

In this post, I’m exploring the subject of musical Rhythm by examining period concepts of Time: historical belief-systems at both cosmic and human levels; the grand philosophy and naive assumptions that underpin pragmatic performance decisions; the changing views of science; and the various practices of artists as they performed their passions. The assumption that I’m challenging is that we today understand Time itself in the same way that Monteverdi and Shakespeare did.


1900 and 1600

The question I’m posing to Renaissance Man, in order to understand his ways of thought, is the same question we can pose to ourselves, in order reveal the assumptions of our own age:

What is Time?

Modern Time

Now, it’s almost a century since the London newspaper, the Times, declared that Newton’s ideas had been ‘overthrown’ by Einstein (7th November, 1919). One might say that this ‘Revolution in Science’  which led to a ‘New Theory of the Universe’ began with a paper written by an official in the French Bureau of Longitude, mathematician Henri Poincaré. In The Measure of Time (1898), he asked two deep questions:

1. Is it meaningful to say that one second today is equal to one second tomorrow?

2. Is it meaningful to say that two events which are separated in space occurred at the same time?


A century later, the answers are: (1) we still don’t know, and (2) No. That resounding “No” came  from the work of Albert Einstein, who in his annus mirabilis of 1905 published four papers, on the Photoelectric Effect (establishing the Quantum nature of light), on Brownian Motion (addressing the methodology of statistical physics that Quantum Theory would come to rely on), on Special Relativity (overthrowing Newton’s concept of Absolute Time) and on Matter-Energy Equivalence (formulating that most famous equation, E=mc2). He also submitted his PhD thesis.

Perhaps relativistic effects helped him get so much done in just one year!


Poincaré and Einstein

The predicted and observed effects of all this new science still seem ‘paradoxical’ to most of us. Schrodinger’s Cat is neither alive nor dead, until the act of observation collapses the quantum dynamical waveform one way or another. There’s no certain answer, only statistical Probability.

Schrodingers Cat


Even Einstein himself didn’t want to believe that ‘God plays dice with the universe’ like that. Whatever the science told him, Einstein’s own assumptions were inevitably conditioned by the thinking of previous generations. Before the 20th century, religious beliefs and traditional assumptions led most people to expect Cosmic Power to control the everyday scale. Like Einstein, many of us find it hard to grasp that tiny particles might dictate the fate of the universe.

20th-century Science presents many more paradoxes. Heisenberg’s Principle means that we are forced to balance knowledge with uncertainty in pairs of values, for example mass and momentum. The more precisely we establish Time, the less we can know about Energy. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicts that a man who travels to Mars and back will return slightly younger than his twin brother, who waits for him on Earth.

Time itself might be reversed, if the arrow of entropy changes, in some future contracting state of the universe. Meanwhile, Quantum effects in the brain allow our nervous system to respond to stimuli measurably before the stimulus is received. The mathematics of Quantum Theory predict the existence of Wormholes, opening up the possibility of travel through time. This raises the question of what might happen if you went back in time and killed your Grandfather, forestalling your own birth. The Bootstrap Paradox refers to creating something out of nothing by complex loops of time-travel, like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.



In Heinlein’s novel All you Zombies, kidnapping, love-affairs and gender-change surgery leave us with a time-travelling character who is his own mother, father, son, daughter, long-lost lover and kidnapper. Scientists are struggling too: Quantum Theory and Relativity do not mesh well, so that a Grand Unified Theory of Life, the Universe and Everything is currently out of reach.

But for most of us, the paradoxes of Einstein’s science, let alone more recent findings, do not affect our daily lives. We find Relativity counter-intuitive, because we do not see it at work in the everyday world. For us, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) works just fine. If I drop an apple it will hit the ground more or less when I expect. Our intuitive assumptions about Time are more than 300 years behind the cutting edge of scientific theory.

Newton Principia 1687


We are very comfortable with Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, with its one direction ‘like an ever-rolling stream’, Time that exists independent of any other quantities. We are very accustomed to measuring the accuracy of a clock, the movement of a star, or the beating of a heart, against the absolute scale of Newton’s Time. So accustomed are we,  that as well as ignoring what we know from Stephen Hawking about post-Einsteinian Time, we also overlook the fact that Peri and Monteverdi did not know about Newton’s Time.

Early baroque musicians, around the year 1600, did not feel about Time the same way we do. They could not have had the same assumptions. Even after Newton’s 1687 publication, it would have taken some years for his ideas to gain acceptance amongst fellow-specialists, and many decades for those ideas to become part of the instinctive assumptions of the population at large.

Monteverdi’s Time

The Early Modern philosophy of Time was founded on Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle’s Physics characterises Time as

A Number of Motion in respect of Before and After

Time is only meaningful in the context of Motion or Stillness, of observable Change before/after.

In the year 1610, this was no mere philosophising: swordfighters bet their lives on it. Capo Ferro describes a swordfighting tempo as ‘measuring the Motion of my opponent by the Stillness of my sword’. Such a tempo could be long and slow, when the duellers were far apart and reluctant to come to close combat, or terrifyingly fast, as the sword-master parries and ripostes in a single lightning-strike of tempo, driving his rapier through his opponent’s left eye.

 Capo Ferro Plate 7

Viggiani’s sword treatise specifically refers to Aristotle. Agrippa’s fighting manual shows the period theory of Light, beams that come from your eyes, as he demonstrates how to save your life with a timely turn, the scanso della vita.

Agrippa rays of light

Tasso, whose poetry Monteverdi set as  the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, owned a copy of Agrippa’s book, and that music-drama is full of swordsmanship jargon: schivar (deceiving the blade), parar (parry), ritrarse (step back), destrezza (sword-skills).

Cavalieri’s musical morality play, Anima e Corpo (the earliest surviving ‘opera’, the first oratorio; Rome, 1600) presents Plato’s philosophy of Time. Past and Future are divided by the moving point of the Present, which is an instantaneous image of all Eternity. As Soul and Body battle against worldly temptations, this libretto too is full of swordsmanship jargon, but the first character to sing is Il Tempo, Old Father Time.

Old Father Time

Cavalieri tells us that Time flies, does not last, wears us away, measures us, that Time is short. We are told to do good works – act with the hand, act with the heart –there is a clear parallel to an actor’s performance, linking baroque gestures and heartfelt emotions.

But 17th-century texts use the word Time (in Italian, tempo) to translate from Greek two different words, conveying two distinct concepts. Kronos is Aristotle’s numbered Time of Before and After: kairos is a timely opportunity. In Rhetoric, kairos is when the time is ripe to press home logical arguments – I hope that as you read these words, there is kairos now.

For a swordfighter, tempo  is not only motion and stillness, but also the moment of opportunity, the crucial instant in which you must strike to defend yourself and wound your opponent.

In the Christian New Testament, the Messiah comes in the fullness of time – at the moment of kairos. And the Apostle Paul frequently exhorts his followers to seize the chance of their own instant of kairos.

In life, in debate, in a fight, or on stage, kairos is the moment to act. The anonymous 16th-century Bologna sword-master said that swordsmen need the same skills of timing as a fine singer: this gives an idea of the level of sharp rhythmic precision singers must have had back then. As one voice-student said to me ruefully of today’s early music singers: ‘we’d all be dead!’.

Hierarchy of Disciplines


Since Aristotle links Time to Number and to motion in Space, the Renaissance recognised an intellectual hierarchy relating Arithmetic (the study of Number), Geometry (Number and Space) and Music (Number and Time). At the top of this hierarchy is Astronomy (Number, Time and Space), the study of the heavens. That lofty position is shared by Dancing and Sword-fighting, which (in contrast to today’s devaluing of ballet, let alone martial arts) outrank absolute music.

Both philosophically and practically, sword-fighting and renaissance dancing are related, and ballets of the stars are a 17th-century cliché. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Nymphs ‘leave the mountains, leave the fountains’ to dance a ballo ‘even more beautiful than those danced to the moon on a dark night by the heavenly stars’. The first opera from the New World, Torrejón’s La púrpura de la rosa (Lima, Peru 1701) begins with Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, sighting a new planet.

So here are the Stars of my sub-title. For period musicians, swordsmen, even for baroque sailors, Time is a matter of Astronomy. Around 1600, it is defined by the stars and planets (on the largest, cosmic scale) and followed here on earth (on a smaller, human scale).

Three kinds of Music

Time & Music

Continuing to examine the assumptions of the past, what about practical music-making? For Cavalieri, Peri and Monteverdi, what is Music? Again, period thought was based on ancient authorities, and there is a consistent view that differs from modern assumptions.

The most significant type of music was musica mondana, the Music of the Spheres, the perfect music (inaudible to human ears) created by the heavenly  dance of the stars and planets. Musica humana is the harmonious nature of the human body, the divine image incarnate, the Word that was ‘in the beginning’ set to the soul-music of embodied Creation. Musica instrumentalis is what we mean by the word ‘Music’ today, the actual sounds we make with our voices and instruments.

These then are the three categories of my subtitle: music of the stars, of human hearts, and music as performed by 17th-century musicians. The structure of the cosmos, the beating of the human heart and musical rhythm are also the interlinked ideas that illustrate the period concept of Time. They are interconnected in philosophical theory and also in practical use.

What is Time

Slow Time (years, months, days and hours) is measured by Celestial movement. A brief moment is measured by the heartbeat, which is both a symbol and a practical measurement of musical rhythm.

Galileo discovered the pendulum effect in the late 16th century, but the first pendulum clock was not built until the 1630s. In this period, the most accurate clocks could just about count the seconds. This begs the question, how did Galileo measure the pendulum effect?

The most accurate clock available to him was his own, human pulse. This was sufficiently reliable to establish the constancy of period, around 7 seconds, for a chandelier hung on a very long cable from the roof of Pisa cathedral.


Galileo Pendulum


But Galileo also did high-precision experiments to determine the acceleration due to gravity, which required split-second timing. How could he do this? Circa-1600 clocks were hopelessly imprecise. His pulse (about one per second, when relaxed) was better, but still insufficient for such high-precision work.

History of Science researcher Stillman Drake realised that the Galilei family’s expertise in music would have solved the problem. Musical rhythm provides a reliable way to divide a one-second pulse into eight equal parts: in period notation, this is the equivalent of dividing a minim (half note) into semiquavers (sixteenth notes).

Joakim Linde has created an online simulation that allows you to repeat Galileo’s experiment with gravity and music, here.

What we need to understand today, is that Galileo was using Music to measure Time. Music was more precise than the very best clocks of his period. Music had the regular, heavenly equality of measure, that Time itself did not yet possess, since Newton’s idea of absolute time had not yet been formulated.


Measurement of Time


Hierarchy of Time

There is a definite hierarchy in this philosophy, in this period Science of Time. Celestial Time is the ideal, imitated on earth. As we look up to the heavens, to the musical spheres, the highest sphere is the primum mobile. It is God’s hand that winds the Clock of the Cosmos. This is imitated on earth, in that musical rhythm is determined by a long, slow count; in that we divide up those slow, long notes into faster notes (by division, or diminution); in that these faster notes must fit inside the rhythm pre-determined by the slow count; and in that we divide up the slow count in various proportions, in precise, whole-number ratios.


Hierarchy of Time


Ha, ha, keep time! How sour sweet music is/ when time is broke and no proportion kept!

warns Richard II.

Clocks had religious significance. Just as Protestants and Catholics argued about calendar reform, so musical rhythm is a moral imperative. As Dowland thunders in 1609 (translating Ornithoparcus from 1535) “above all things… “ (the language itself is hierarchical) …

Above all things, keep the equality of measure, lest you offend God himself!

To attempt to change Time (the modern practices of rubato, rallentando, accelerando; even the 19th-century concept that the performer can decide the tempo of a particular movement) is to risk the stability of the cosmos, to threaten your own bodily health.

When Phaeton seized the reins of Apollo’s sun-chariot, he could not control the movement of the sun through the heavens. He crashed and burned.

Sun Chariot


If your pulse stops, the music also dies.

 The take-home message from all of this period Philosophy, or History of Science, is that Newton’s 1687 concept of Absolute Time did not apply around the year 1600. Time does not measure music, because there is no Absolute Scale of Time.

It’s the other way around: Music measures Time. Time is determined by divine, cosmic forces that we see also at work in the human body and in music itself.

This helps us understand what seem to be needlessly complicated statements about musical notation, like Carissimi’s here:

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 lacks the vocabulary and the very concept of Newton’s Absolute time, and he flounders as he tries to explain something we can today express more clearly, more simply.

The triple-metres all agree with regard to the quantity, the duration of musical note-values in absolute time [a semibreve lasts 0.66 seconds, a minim 0.33 seconds, etc].

This is easily understood [but it is different from 19th-century practice, where the performer can choose the speed of a piece of music].

In the slow or fast quality [how it feels to the listener] the triple-metres are utterly different [3/1 feels slow, 3/2  feels medium fast, 6/4 feels very fast].

‘What the Italians call tempo’ can mean Time itself, or the subjective feeling of how fast a piece of music is going. Carissimi has no vocabulary to separate these concepts, except for his idea of Absolute quantity and subjective quality.

The difficulty for Carissimi’s generation is that they do not have a concept, or a vocabulary for Absolute Time. Their best measure of Time is Music. So it’s extremely difficult for them to explain how different pieces of music can have consistent note-values, yet still produce such different subjective impressions of speed.

The French language is  bit more helpful: Mouvement for a piece of music helps us appreciate that music can seem to ‘move’ faster or slower, whilst we measure time steadily. But in the 17th-century they still measure Time with Music (so one can’t establish an objective description of how music moves in time), and (looking back to Aristotle) Time itself needs movement (i.e. change) in order to be measured. Without Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, it is very difficult to talk about the subjective speed of music!

Towards the modern assumptions of Time


As the 17th century progresses, the idea of an Absolute measurement of Time emerges. Clocks become more accurate, and the clock itself becomes a metaphor of time, and of music.

Thus Playford can advise music students to learn rhythm by listening to the tick-tock of a clock. Musicians’ modifying words, such as tarde, velociter, adagio, presto function like subtle adjustments to a clock, so that it ticks somewhat slower or faster. Similarly, Frescobaldi, Caccini and others allow the Tactus beat to go faster or slower according to the affetto, just as the human heart beats faster or slower under the influence of differing emotions. Gradually, music becomes a clock that can be adjusted by emotions to count Time faster or slower.

Nevertheless, this is still far removed from Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, and from our modern ideas that music can move freely whilst time itself is regular.

We need to think carefully, we need to understand the language and assumptions of the 17th century, before we rush to conclusions about rhythmic freedom. Rather than starting from the modern assumption of Absolute Time and musical rubato, we would do better to start from the period assumption that steady time is a religious imperative; that the heavens, our hearts and our music are inter-connected.


If the rhythm breaks, the cosmos will collapse!

If your heart stops, the music also dies.


 No rubato, no conducting



Please join me on Facebook and visit our website . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

How did it feel? A History of Heaven, Hearts & Harps


We can imagine a time-travelling Arts journalist asking: “You just heard the first opera… you played continuo next to Claudio Monteverdi… you fought a duel  with Rudolfo Capo Ferro… you danced with Louis XIV … you acted for William Shakespeare … you went drinking with Henry Purcell … you built a pendulum clock according to Galileo’s theories … you can see with your own eyes that the sun goes around the earth… Domenichino Zampieri made you a harp with three rows of strings… How did it feel?”


How did it feel


This question – easy to ask, but rich in potential for surprising answers and further, more profound investigations – might well be the unofficial motto of the Australian Research Council’s Centre for the History of Emotions. From nodes at major universities and conservatories across Australia, in research and performance projects around the world, and across a wide range of humanities disciplines, CHE’s investigators not only look at Emotions in History, but also use Emotions studies as a lens by which to view a broad field of historical themes, and to understand how Emotions and History continue to Shape the Modern.

I am a Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Centre, attached to the University of Western Australia, and this post was first presented at a joint event of the World Harp Congress and the Centre for the History of Emotions in Sydney,  Australia in July 2014.

CHEWHC Sydney 2014 logo


At the beginning of the baroque, around the year 1600, the period aim to muovere gli affetti – move the passions – gives us confidence that Emotions studies are historically appropriate, as we try to understand the role of the harp within the music and culture of the time.

So whose passions are we trying to move? Simply to ask the question re-locates the focus onto the audience, a much-needed counter-balance to the academic tradition of studying composers and works, and to the conservatoire habit of concentrating on what performers do.

Audience Studies are a vital new area of musicological investigation – what makes music meaningful for the listener? How can we attract new listeners? Why are we losing touch with some listeners?  I’m privileged to collaborate on such research with Prof John Sloboda at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. And studies of Historical Audiences are an important part of our work at CHE, led by Dr Penelope Woods.

theatre-palais-cardinal Louis XIII


This harp-flavoured post introduces some general ideas concerning Early Music, and connects these ideas to the aesthetics of two particular cultures: Italy around 1600, the period of Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo, in which the harp plays a major solo, as well as within the continuo ensemble; and the late 18th-century, where we have the Mozart Concerto for traverse flute and single-action harp, and CPE Bach’s Sonata (it’s debated whether this is for Italian triple harp or French single-action harp). Orfeo, CPE Bach, Mozart

One of my tasks here is to do some myth-busting, correcting some favourite misunderstandings of what Early Music is about, and pointing out some alarming discrepancies between what we see in historical sources and the standard operating procedures of today’s Early Music. So I have some images to help identify a popular myth, and to show when we’ve bust it. But since I wasn’t quite sure what a myth should look like, and I didn’t want to start exploding sacred cows, I’ve chosen the metaphor of Vampires, both modern and pseudo-old, which (like mistaken ideas) hang around half-dead, until someone arrives to slay them.  And according to the principles of the baroque opera stage, the good guys will be on my right, the bad guys on my left.

myth busting

And I have this genuinely 17th-century image to draw your attention to important historical information that you might want to follow up for yourselves later. You can read more on my website:  as well as elsewhere in this blog.

Attentionem poscit and art



Right side… Good Doggy.

Not Authentic

Over the last half-century, recording companies helped to create an audience for Early Music by promoting performances that were advertised as “on authentic instruments”, “on period (or original) instruments”. Of course, this was just a shorthand way to label what was meant to be a fundamentally different approach to music-making, but it left a misleading impression that the instruments themselves, whether original or modern reproductions in period style, were the most important ingredient for achieving Authenticity.

HIP not Authentic

Nowadays, we tend not to use the A-word, since we all recognise that complete historical Authenticity is impossible. And taking the other meaning of that word, Authentic in the sense of true to one’s personal beliefs, we also recognise that every musician assembles their musical identity from many influences, that historical information as well as inspiring teaching or convincing performance can shape what each of us feels to be “true” to our personal values. So let’s leave behind us the rather negative concept of Authentic Instruments, and use the modern phrase, Historically Informed Performance, abbreviated as HIP. After all, the only alternative to being Historically Informed is to be Historically Uninformed!

A more recent attempt to describe what we mean by Early Music (that term is still frequently used, informally and amongst performers, but its more hip to say “HIP” in academic circles), was that the musicians would seek to respect ‘the composer’s intentions’. This phrase has also been rejected, because it plays into the old-fashioned, Romantic idea of idolising the Master Composer, and because baroque composers didn’t want you to play what they wrote. Like a modern singer-song-writer, or a jazz-composer, baroque composers expected you to take their idea and make it your own, with improvised variations, your own touches of arrangement, even wholesale re-writing.

Respecting the composer's intentions


Looking backwards through history

Another, more subtle danger is that we find ourselves looking back into the past, from our modern perspective. The recent past (that fun CD released last year) looms large; close behind are ghostly shadows of our early musical education, and of the education that shaped our first teachers. We might be smart enough to avert our gaze from all those Romantic geniuses who clog the middle distance, and there at the far end of a dark tunnel we can just make out Mozart, Handel, Bach and (very far off now) Monteverdi. The problem here is that we are looking the wrong way down a telescope – the object of our study appears very distant and small – and we are looking the wrong way through time.

The way to understand Monteverdi is not via Mozart, Handel and Bach. Even if we know those later guys better, Monteverdi didn’t know them at all. We need to approach Monteverdi from inside the culture of his own time, not looking backwards into the past, but looking around us in his historical present.  We need to look sideways, not only at the harp, but at other kinds of music, at other performing arts, at literature and paintings, at period science, at dancing and swordsmanship. To understand his culture fully, we need to start a bit earlier – perhaps with the generation of his teachers – and move forwards through time with him. Then we might have a better idea of “how does it feel”.

Looking sideways inside history


Otherwise, if we view old music only from our modern perspective, we may end up trying to squeeze an ancient culture into an utterly different framework, a round peg into a square hole.

As we begin to read what period writers themselves considered important, we quickly realise that our modern concepts of Technique and Interpretation, and of Conservatoire teaching in general are inappropriate. But much of the discussion amongst today’s Early Musicians is also dominated by topics that are hardly mentioned by 17th-century writers. The pages of Early Music Magazine, and online discussion groups give a lot of space to arguments about pitch, temperament and vibrato.

Today's priorities


But there is nothing about any of these subjects in the most important documents describing the performance practices of the early seicento: the preface to the first opera, Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo (1600), the preface to the second opera, Peri’s Euridice (also 1600), Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601), Viadana’s figured-bass motets of 1602, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Agazzari’s guide to continuo-playing, Dal Sonare Sopra’l Basso (both 1607) and the preface to Gagliano’s Dafne (1608), Monteverdi’s Vesperae (1610), his prefaces to Combattimento and the Lamento della Ninfa (1636), Shakespeare’s advice to the players in Hamlet (1600) and the anonymous circa-1630 guide for a music-theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago.

Sources circa 1600


Meanwhile, we know that renaissance courtiers spent several hours every day for most of their lives, practising dancing and training with swords. If we want to know how did that feel, how such training affects posture, musculature, and modes of thought, we can read and try out the recommendations of the Book of the Courtier, Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528 and many reprints across 20 European cities and six languages, it was one of the most widely-read books of the time), Negri’s dance-treatises (1602 & 1604) and Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro of the Art of Swordfighting (1610).

Sources circa 1600 list


The past is a foreign country Hartley and Howard

When learning a foreign language, we have to take care with so-called ‘false friends’, words that sound familiar but have quite a different meaning in the other language. For example, if you are new to Australia, it might help you to to know that a hot Barbie is not a blonde doll.Smiley

So it is with the language of the past – familiar-sounding words mean something quite different, and we need to understand a different set of assumptions.



There were only six notes in the 17th-century scale, the Hexachord, so that ascending above A-la imposes a choice between B- fa and B-mi. This choice is guided by different rules in different periods, and it’s often left to the performer to make an appropriate decision: the notation may leave the question open. We absolutely cannot assume that What You See Is What  You Get. The meaning of the notation itself has changed, over the centuries.

And when we move out from tiny details to the big picture, we see utterly different use of language, showing that the underlying assumptions are also utterly different. Around the year 1600, what is Music? First, and most importantly, it was the Music of the Spheres, musica mondana, the perfect music made by the movement of the stars and planets as they danced in their circular orbits around the earth, turned by the motion of the highest sphere, the primum mobile. This is the music of the cosmos, turned by the hand of God. Secondly, we have musica humana, the harmonious nature of the human body. Last of all comes musica instrumentalis, actual sounds made down here on earth, with our voices and harps.

Three kinds of Music

Some other 17-century ‘false friends’ to beware of are Harmony (which just means, organised sound; the most significant organisation is usually rhythmic rather than chordal harmony in the modern sense); and  Tempo (which just means time, measured in semibreves, whole notes, which last about two seconds).

False friends


So much for language. Let’s explore some basic assumptions.

What is important? In his  Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (the book containing that famous song, Amarilli mia bella), Caccini prioritises Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around! This contrasts strongly with modern conservatoire teaching, which focusses on sound-production, and even with the concentration of today’s Early Music Movement on vibrato, pitch and temperament, certainly with the tendency to focus on ‘original instruments’. All those questions of Sound came “last of all” to the 17th-century mind. Rather, they were thinking about Text and Rhythm.

Text, Rhythm and Sound

Who is important? We should try to clear from our minds the Romantic image of the genius performer, expressing his (and in the 19th-century it was mostly his) sublime emotions in front of the reverent, silent audience of nobodies, sitting in the dark, worshipping at the temple of culture. 17th-century music privileges the Audience. As La Musica says at the very beginning of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, “I’ve come from by beloved Permesso to you, great heroes, noble race of Kings, to narrate whose fame even heavenly praise would not reach the truth, since your reputation is so high”. Only in verse two does she introduce herself, “I am Music”.

Audience, not Performer

What is music for? As a Rhetorical Art, music seeks to persuade the mind, delight the senses, and move the emotions. The period language muovere gli affetti, to move the passions, reminds us that multiple, contrasting emotions are at play – not just the intensification of a single emotion, as in Romantic music. The audience’s feelings are engaged by the movement of the passions. And so we performers might well want to explore a History of Emotions.

Docere Delectare Movere


So let’s consider those historical priorities of Text and Rhythm. I’ll come to Text in due course, but in order to understand musical Rhythm, we first have to ask What is Time?  Our assumption today is that musical rhythm sits, with various degrees of freedom, within Time itself, which is Absolute. We can measure this Time rather accurately, with our digital watches, and we can impose it on our music with metronomes, although we feel that the higher art is to bend time into something more ‘musical’, with rubato. All of that is an essentially 20th-century view of Time, even though it has now been updated by Einstein’s relativity,. But that 20th-century view is utterly irrelevant to the period before Isaac Newton.

What is Time

17th-century Time is cosmic, measured by the perfect, but very slow-moving, clock of the sun and stars. Time is human, measured by the body-rhythm of our pulse or heartbeat, at about one per second when we are relaxed. In the lowest, practical sense, Time is measured by Music, since around the year 1600 a minim (half-note) is one second, as close as human beings can make it.

The best clocks could just about count the seconds. So when Galileo discovered the pendulum effect, observing a swinging chandelier in Pisa Cathedral, he checked it against his own pulse. When he needed split-second timing, to measure the acceleration due to gravity, he used the highest precision timing system in the known world: music. He got his lute-player to play fast variations (divisions, as they were called back then), which literally divided up the minims/seconds into crotches, quavers and semi-quavers, giving him precision measurement down to 1/8 of a second.

You can try the experiment for yourself in an online simulation, here.

What is Time

Just as the movement of the cosmos is driven by the most divine, outermost, slowest sphere, so musical time is organised by a constant slow beat, and the faster notes fit inside this. So baroque musical rhythm is defined by Tactus, a slow steady beat, like a perfect clock, like the clock of the cosmos, or the steady beat of the human pulse.  If your pulse falters, you are sick: if your heart stops, the music also dies.

Guidar il tempo

But early 17th-century sources describe certain, highly specific ways to Drive the Time in passionate music. This is dangerous stuff – if you lose control of the Time Chariot, the sun will crash into the sea. But just as you can raise your pulse rate by exercise or emotion, or lower it by relaxation (adagio means ‘at ease’, ‘take it easy’), so Frescobaldi (1615) explains how to change the time between sections in different rhythms, or how to suspend the beat in the air, momentarily. And Caccini talks about sprezzatura, nonchalant or ‘cool’ rhythm, in which the singer floats freely above a steady tactus in the continuo bass.

Music of this period was not conducted, although we often see conductors in today’s Early Music. That is a gross anachronism. Agazzari and Il Corago tell us clearly that the entire ensemble is guided by the continuo, Dowland tells us that it is Tactus itself that “directs a song in measure”. Peri expects that singers will “dance to the rhythm of the bass”, so for recitative (where speech-like rhythms are needed on the level of individual syllables) he reduces the continuo activity to semibreves and minims, just enough to maintain the Tactus.

Continuo not conductor

One of the consequences of this historical view of Time, of organising Rhythm by the slow count of Tactus, is that melodies have to fit inside the tactus. And it’s the accompaniment that maintains the Tactus. So accompanists do not follow soloists, rather soloists must fit with the accompaniment. Peri expects that singers will dance to the rhythm of the bass.

This is a big shock to modern classical musicians, and even today’s Early Musicians mostly ignore the clear historical evidence. Playing continuo today can be like a fairground game: you wait there with your triple harp or theorbo, until a little yellow duck (the tenor) waddles into your sights, and then you fire off a chord, and hope to hit him in root position.

Duck shoot

The take-home message is that music pre-1800 has a slow steady pulse (even if the actual notes are going fast), and the melody is guided by the bass. No rubato, no conductors.



Agazzari writes that instruments should play with the affetto e somiglianza delle parole, with the emotion and the semblance of words. For singers, the sung text shows the emotional changes from one word to the next. Notice that, in this style, there are many different, changing, contrasted affetti. Frequently there is an abrupt change in text and music to the contrary emotion – an opposto – signalled by the word ma (but), or by images and gestures that point to opposite sides of the stage: here and there, heaven and hell, you and me.

Text and Rhythm

In this period, instrumental pieces are often taken from vocal originals. So we can take the emotional changes from the original words, just as Agazzari instructs. In a piece where there are no words, we can still recognise emotional changes from characteristic melodic figures, so that an early Sonata shows the same strong contrasts and abruptly changing opposti that we’ve learnt to expect in vocal music.

But what about Agazzari’s somiglianza, semblance of, similitude to words? To imitate on the harp the effect of speech, we need to think about the sound of language. In Italian, many common words have two syllables, accented-unaccented, or (in period terminology) Good-Bad: piano, forte, dolce, arpa, pasta, pizza, Roma. Three syllables can be accented Bad-Good-Bad allegro adagio sonata Caccini Firenze, Milano, spaghetti; or Good-Bad-Bad: table is tavola, the last one, ultimate, is ultimo, Claudio Monteverdi worked in Mantua.

Articulation Good & Bad syllables

These common words form the typical patterns of the language, two or three syllables, more or less alternating Good and Bad. Where the syllables are joined together, the join can be smooth with single consonants, as in the word legato, or it can be a bumpy join with a double consonant, as in the word staccato. And of course, the consonant that starts each syllable has its own colour su, giu (up & down), no, si (no & yes) ma (but). All of this joining and separating between syllables is what Early Musicians mean by ‘articulation’. Just we ‘articulate’ our words, in order to speak articulately, on an early instrument we ‘articulate’ the notes, in order to sound as if we are speaking.

So baroque harps, baroque flutes, baroque violins, harpsichords all aim to imitate the sound and emotions of speech. This fundamental consideration is much stronger than the subtle differences between one instrument and another. In this period, musical style and passionate rhetoric are not instrument-specific. That’s good news for us harpists, since much of our best-known early repertoire is shared with, or stolen from other instruments: the Luduvico fantasia was published for vihuela in imitation of the Spanish harp; Handel’s concerto was published for Organ, even if first played on Welsh harp; the CPE Bach sonata might have had a second instrument to play continuo, and we don’t know for sure which kind of harp he meant; the Mozart concerto is shared with the flute.

But in each of these periods, the local aesthetic is derived from text and vocal music, common to all instruments, and unified across all the arts.

Unified aesthetic

In contrast to a modern opera production, in which the text, the music and the staging tell three different stories, in baroque opera everything tells the same story, all directed by the artistic director Il Corago, who has ‘universal command’ over every element of the production, but who is subject to the structures, sounds and emotions of the poetic text.


This unity of aesthetic means that baroque harpists can learn from other instruments, and that we can expect to find a high level of agreement about essential priorities as we compare different sources. In the second half of the 18th century, our guides to the CPE Bach sonata and Mozart concerto are the three great treatises of the 1750s, as well as the harp methods of the 1760s, 70s and 80s; their fundamental agreement far outweighs their subtle differences.

Of course, historical teaching books have plenty of detailed information to offer, but we can also come to understand the underlying assumptions of period aesthetics by studying the big picture of how writers organise their material, from Milán in the 16th century, and Ribayaz in the 17th; to Quantz, CPE Bach and Leopold Mozart in the mid-18th; Meyer, Cousineau and Ragué in the following decades. We can follow a chronological story, as the broad consensus gradually changes.

The True Art

All these writers deal very quickly with sound-production: hold the instrument the right way up, and tune it like this. Of course, there are further subtleties, but we won’t find them in period teaching books. We have to reverse-engineer the technical means from our knowledge of the aesthetic end-goals, from iconography, from information about other instruments etc.

Milan teaches how to compose renaissance polyphony, Ribayaz how to play baroque dances.

All the 18th-century books are structured in the same order, to teach Articulation, Ornamentation and Good Delivery.

18th-century teaching books

Articulation (as we have just seen) is how to make the instrument ‘speak’.

Ornamentation is not only decoration but also a kind of musical grammar, just as those funny marks on French words are not just typographic decoration, but a basic requirement of the language. café, garçon, fête, naïf, près. In language and in music, these small marks are mentally added even if the writer forgets them; they change the sound and the meaning.

Good Delivery is not quite the same as modern ‘interpretation’. A baroque musician is not an ‘interpreter’ who translates the music into a new language, or comes up with his own explanation of it. Rather, the baroque musician is like a fine speaker, who delivers poetic lines well, who communicates to an audience the sound of the words, the meaning of the words and the emotions of the words. The term Expression is another ‘false friend’: the performer’s aim is not to express his own emotions, but to convey the emotions of the music to the audience, just as an actor does not express his own feelings, but conveys to the audience the emotions of his character. Peri and Il Corago emphasise that baroque music is modelled on the speech of a fine actor.

Some baroque books include a section on accompaniment – filling out the left hand with improvised harmonies (Ribayaz) or improvising harmonies to accompany a soloist or orchestra (CPE Bach). In the CPE Bach sonata, the continuo might be realised by the same harpist who plays the right hand, or perhaps by a second instrument. We don’t know the composer’s original intention.

So let’s take the period organisation of Articulation, Ornamentation, Good Delivery and Continuo, and apply some of the detailed historical information to the baroque harp. Articulation is produced in different ways on different instruments – with tonguing syllables tiri liri or diddle diddle on the flute; with bow strokes on the violin; with choice of fingers on harps, lutes and keyboards – but the common aim is to imitate the sound of speech. So we need Good and Bad syllables, and for Monteverdi we need to link them in the patterns of typical Italian words piano, forte, dolce, pizza, pasta, arpa. Good links to Bad.

On the harp, we match Good and Bad syllables, Good and Bad notes, to Good and Bad fingers. For 17th-century Italian harp, 1 is Good, 2 is Bad, 3 is Good. Just as the word-accents mostly alternate Good and Bad, so the scale fingerings alternate. 3-2 ascending, and 1-2 descending. With this fingering, scales are not homogenous – dadadada – but are articulated. Think of Frank Sinatra – dooby-dooby-doo. The technical procedure matches the sound of the language also by joining together Good-Bad. Piano, forte, dolce, pizza, pasta.

The whole shape of the Early Music phrase is not like the long curved lines we see engraved into 19th-century scores. Rather it alternates Good and Bad, and has the principal accent almost at the end of the line.

To be or not to be, that’s the Question.

But the last syllable is unaccented, a Bad. This leads to a general practice in HIP of not arriving triumphantly on the last note, with a massive false accent. Rather, the assumption is that the last note is a Bad syllable, unaccented.

However, today’s Early Music performers mostly ignore clear period advice not to slow down or break before the last note. At cadences, we often hear a rallentando and a hesitation before the final note – whereas Caccini and many other 17th-century sources ask for ornaments to accelerate and run smoothly into the last, unaccented note.

Metre and Accent

Those most famous words of Shakespeare To  be or not to be, that’s the Question have a very similar pattern to the famous first line of Dante’s Inferno: Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita. The subtle difference is that Italian has more two-syllable words joined Good-Bad mezzo, nostra, vita whereas English has many monosyllables grouped into iambics Bad-Good, to be / or not / to be. So we can play the harp in the historical accents of different languages. Monteverdi should sound Italian. Bach should sound German. But what about Mozart in Paris: does his music speak Italian, French or German?

We can play Continuo also with Good and Bad chords; more notes and a quick roll on the Good, fewer notes and plaque on the Bad. With carefully use of resonance and damping, we can join Good and Bad, Italian-style. Piano forte dolce pizza pasta  Or Bad-Good, to be / or not  / to be. This is how continuo-players can imitate the somiglianza, the semblance of words described by Agazzari.

In his theorbo-book, Kapsberger shows how to make the arpeggio commune – ‘default arpeggio’ across two beats. This is how continuo-players can maintain the Tactus, so that they direct the song in measure, as Agazzari and Dowland recommend.

Text and Rhythm work together in music in the same way that word-accent and metre do in poetry. Tactus corresponds to poetic metre, it is like a clock that counts the time steadily. The music itself follows the patterns of word accents, which may, or may not, coincide with the ticking of the tactus clock. Sometimes the Good syllables match the Tactus: “When /I do /count the /clock that /tells the /time“. But sometimes they are subtly syncopated: “If /Music /and sweet /Poe/try a/gree“. Similarly in baroque music: there is a steady count (the Tactus), but the accents don’t always fall on the downbeat.

Early Musicians are often asked to be ‘free from the tyranny of the bar-line’. This phrase is helpful, if we understand it to mean that the word-accent does not have to coincide with the first beat of the bar, i.e. with the Tactus beat. But some modern players think that they should completely ignore the Tactus and play in free rhythm. Period sources make it clear: the Tactus is kept, slow and steady, like an old clock; but you don’t necessarily put the word-accents on the Tactus beats. This concept, of measured rhythm and independent accents (rather than accentual rhythm), is perhaps the most significant difference between modern and pre-1800 approaches. You can read more in George Houle’s excellent survey of Performance, Perception and Notation 1600-1800, Metre in Music, here.


Other technical questions are not answered in the teaching books, but have to be investigated through historical images, via other instruments, or reconstructed on a pragmatic basis, once we understand the end-goal. So we see that the historical position for the Italian triple harp is with the instrument high, the player seated low; the low-tension strings require less strength, more relaxation in the hand; the hands rest on the soundboard (surviving instruments show wear-marks), the thumb crosses underneath the fingers (as with the lute), the finger-strokes are slow.


This is a huge subject, but the take-home message about 18th-century Ornaments comes from combining the information in Quantz’s CPE Bach’s and Leopold Mozart’s treatises. Play ornaments on the beat, with a long upper auxiliary, and with decrescendo (the so-called Abzug, phrasing off). On the harp, don’t try to make too many iterations, rather concentrate on being on the beat and getting that Abzug. There are fingerings for trills in the 18th-century harp methods.

You need the Abzug also for appoggiaturas; Leopold Mozart says that you should ‘ooze’ into the second note, hineinschleifen in the original German. The 18th-century harp methods also focus on the appoggiatura.





But in a historical style that does not rely on Rubato, constant Vibrato, constant Legato, nor Conductors, where can we find the Emotions?  Singers move the passions with the changing meaning of each word, alternating happy and sad, as Monteverdi’s La Musica explains:

I am Music: with my sweet phrases I can make tranquil any troubled heart;

And now with noble anger, now with Love, I can inflame the most frozen mind.

For sustaining instruments like the flute or violin, long notes are highly sensual, drawn-out with a slow bow or a languid breath, releasing the long suspense with a touch of vibrato at the end of the note. Whitney Houston demonstrates baroque long notes perfectly in And I will always love you, here.

But what about us harpists, with neither text nor sustain to play with? Quantz explains in detail the Good Delivery for dissonance and resolution. The dissonance is played loud, the resolution soft (another Abzug), and the more intense the dissonance, the louder it is played, and the softer the following resolution. On the harp, we can also move down even more près de la table to make a more painful sound on the dissonance, and then up the string for a soothing resolution. Most importantly, we can feel the effect of the dissonance as an increase in tension, with a relaxation at the resolution.

Where is the emotion


Just before I finish, I’d like to let you know about a completely new area of research that is opening up right now, one that may revolutionise our ideas about Emotions in Music and in History, and about musical pedagogy for any repertoire.

Over the last twenty years, clinical and research psychologist Joe Griffin has developed a new theory of Dreams, which offers a convincing biological, evolutionary and psychological model, replacing the outworn ideas of Freud and Jung.

Dream Time


Griffin shows that Dreams are the mind’s way of dealing with those powerful emotions of the previous day which were not dealt with at the time. Dreams resolve unfulfilled expectations (whether good or bad). But what we experience in our dreams is not the actual situation that brought on the unresolved emotion; rather the dream is a metaphor, a mix of memories that matches the pattern of the unresolved situation.

Dreams operate in a particular mode of sleep, characterised by rapid eye movement. The dream state is therefore known as the REM-state. There are other altered states of consciousness that allow us to enter REM-state whilst we are awake, such as day-dreaming or hypnosis. Griffin calls the REM-state the Theatre of Dreams. A signal from the lower brain, a so-called PGO-spike, calls attention to the beginning of the dream.

Many musicians, sportsmen and women, creative writers and composers know the special state of consciousness known as Flow, or being ‘in the zone’. It’s that Zen thing. It’s related to Mindfulness. You’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated on the task at hand; you feel quietly confident that you can manage it, you feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge it presents to you; you don’t feel self-conscious, you are just ‘there’, in the moment, in the groove; in a certain way, Time seems to slow down, so that you can calmly take in all the incoming information, and calmly make an elegant decision and execute your reponse perfectly; your artistic intentions and your manual actions unite perfectly; you are working at high efficiency, but you could continue for hours without getting tired; you feel happy, even elated.

It’s a great feeling, and it is being in Flow that makes the difference between an elite performer, musician, martial arts practitioner or sportsman and one who is merely ok. It is being in Flow that can lift any of us beyond the limits of our normal abilities. There is exciting work going on in Hungary and Holland about teaching Flow to musicians. Not just Technique and Interpretation, but how to get into Flow.

My own research project hypothesises that Flow is another REM-state. I’m suggesting that such elements of Historically Informed Performance  as the slow, steady count of Tactus, a kind of meditation on rhythm, and baroque gesture with its frequent calls for attention, might function as gateways into Flow. And not only for the performer, but also for the audience. Specific features of baroque stage-practice – Historical Action – support the hypothesis that Baroque Operas (and Shakespeare’s dramas) are a Theatre of Flow, where performers and audiences share an REM-state, the mind’s Theatre of Dreams, in which emotions can be communicated powerfully through the metaphors of poetry and music.

REM-state allows us to reach something beyond our everyday experience – that spiritual dimension to art that every music-lover believes in, whatever we choose to call it. In 17th-century philosophy, music connects us humans to the cosmos. Many of you will know about so-called Dreamtime, in which indigenous Australians connect to their family’s homeland and traditional beliefs through a spiritual state of music, art and story-telling. The Star Wars idea of a Force that we all share, that we can all learn to use, is perhaps not so far off.

Super-human instruments

And it’s around the year 1600, just as opera is being invented, that we see the invention of larger-than-life, super-human instruments like the theorbo and arpa doppia, with super low-notes and uber-chromaticism. With such an instrument, a super-hero like Orpheus can travel to Hell and back, and use his super-powers to persuade Charon into a magic sleep – another REM-state, of course.

We could almost imagine Monteverdi’s T-shirt: my super-power is Flow, what’s yours?

My super-power is FLOW


Leaving aside these dreamy speculations, as we study the emotional language of historical music, we can view that history from the inside if we adopt period priorities and appreciate ‘foreign’ assumptions. We can consider what we would like the audience to receive, rather than what we performers want to send out. We can concentrate on Text and Rhythm, not Sound. We can search for the shared aesthetic that unifies many arts within one culture, one region, one period; as well as for the contrasts between one culture and another.

HIP summary

Our harps will speak eloquently, if we focus on short-term phrasing, two or three notes at a time, articulating them with Good and Bad, giving them the semblance and emotions of words. As harpists speaking the language of historical music, we are like actors playing a role, and like actors we want to present our lines with Good Delivery, which will include all the skills of Rhetoric and Historical Action: what we do with our bodies, hand gestures and facial expressions. One of the hot areas of current Early Music research is baroque gesture, or (as it was called at the time) historical Action.

The 17th-century writer John Bulwer quotes the great orator Quintilian, quoting Cicero, quoting the Greek rhetorician Demosthenes, who was asked: What are the three secrets of Good Delivery?

Demosthenes Cicero Quintilian


 What are the three secrets of Good Delivery?

Action! Action! Action!


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.