Understand, enjoy and be moved! Listening to the Rhetoric of Orfeo

This article is based on a pre-performance talk for the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Vaasa Baroque Festival and in Helsinki, October 2019.

Many audience members seeing performances of Orfeo in 2019 will encounter a more-or-less familiar situation: a baroque opera with Historically Informed Performance of the music, shown in a thoughtful and sympathetic modern production. Nevertheless, a staged production of Monteverdi’s 1607 music-drama is a special event. This beautiful and moving work is justly famous as one of the very first operas, admired by Early Music fans for its varied ensembles and rich instrumental writing. But it is not often staged: Opera Houses tend to favour more the austere scoring and stark psychodrama of Poppea (1643).

What’s different now?

In this particular production, some features that are different from mainstream opera reflect the situation at the first performance in Mantua. The venue is a hall (originally a room within the Ducal Palace) not a purpose-built theatre. The performing space is small, there is no stage machinery. The cast is just 9 singers, some of them doubling roles, and all of them combining to form various vocal ensembles – there is no separate chorus.

Other features of this project reflect the latest research findings in Historical Performance Practice. The instruments are distributed in contrasting ensembles (strings, flutes, continuo, cornetti & sackbuts) across various positions behind and to the sides of the stage. Cello and violone play with the string ensemble, not with the continuo. The default scoring for continuo is organ & theorbo. Singers and continuo alike avoid ornamentation in this stilo rappresentativo – theatrical style.

There is no conductor, not even someone waving their hands whilst using a harpsichord as a very expensive music-stand!  The anonymous writer of a c1630 manuscript for a Baroque Opera Director, Il Corago, rules out even the Tactus-beating that would be usual in madrigals and religious music. Nevertheless, as Frescobaldi describes in 1615, the whole performance is ‘facilitated by Tactus‘, a slow, steady pulse around one beat per second, which changes slightly according to the emotional affetto from one movement to another.

What was different in 1607?

But if the concept of Baroque Opera is familiar to us, then we might question how today’s situation differs from the experience of the audience in 1607. Certainly, they would not have viewed Orfeo as the beginning of a ‘History of Opera’. They could not know the future, but they were well informed about the recent past and excited at the on-going development of new genres of music-drama.

These were not yet called opera. Orfeo is favola in musica, a story in music. That music was only rarely called recitativo: the usual word (as for Orfeo) was rappresentata, a show, a theatre-piece. In the following year, 1608, librettist Ottavio Rinuccini made the bold move to claim for Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece Arianna the grand status of Tragedia (Tragedy) rappresentata in musica.

There was not yet any specific training for opera-singers. The 1607 cast were court and chapel musicians, all male, who brought to the stage their rhetorical skills of presenting poetry, of narrating stories, of expressive gestures and court decorum – how to stand, where to position oneself, how to behave in the presence of a Prince, or (in this case) in the presence of the demi-god Orpheus, or of Pluto, King of the Underworld. This all changed the following year, when professional actresss Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, known as La Florinda, brought her stage-skills to Arianna, performing the famous Lament to great acclaim.

But even though there was no word for it, by 1607 opera was already a ‘thing’. Peri describes in the Preface to Euridice (1600) how to turn theatrical speech into music; Cavalieri gives detailed instructions for opera-composers and performers in the Preface to Anima & Corpo (1600), the earliest surviving such work. In 1601, Caccini proclaims the priorities of the nuove musiche – new music – as Text and Rhythm.

Research into ancient Greek drama and experiments with new genres were supported by renaissance Academies, including the Mantuan  Accademia degli Invaghiti (music-lovers) who promoted Orfeo. The aristocratic and artistic membership of the Academy would have regarded the work as Striggio’s verse-drama set to music by Monteverdi. And much of what we might today analyse as Musical Forms comes from the poetical of the libretto. But Monteverdi sometimes chooses to disregard Striggio’s blue-print, tending to prefer expressive Monody even where the design of the verses suggests Aria.

As Tim Carter writes in his survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), Academy members’ chief delight was in a show of Rhetoric.  Rhetoric is the use of persuasive speech to explain, to entertain and to stir up the emotions. This focus on words might surprise us, as a way of listening to Monteverdi’s music, but if we think of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Anthony and Cleopatra, also in 1607), then we can understand such delight in the powerful use of heightened language.

So in the Prologue to Orfeo, as La Musica tells the story of Orfeo, the sound of instruments tickles your ears, and the supernatural power of Music moves your soul. At the gates of Hell, Orpheus’ song delights Charon’s heart, but does not arouse any emotion of pity in this tough male. Several decades before Descartes, period Medical Science did not consider a mind/body dualism, but more complex models with mind, spirit, soul, heart and lower-body emotions all interacting.

Academicians admired ancient Greek drama for its capacity to move the audience’s passions ‘to tears or laughter’. And Monteverdi’s reputation as ‘the divine Claudio’ was precisely for his ability to compose music that profoundly affected listeners, even if such contemporaries as Artusi complained about technical breaches of the rules of counterpoint.

As music, Monteverdi’s Orfeo was rappresentata – staged, a show. As literature, Striggio’s Favola d’Orfeo was rappresentata in musica. And according to the new concept of Personation – the ‘realistic’ embodiment of a character on stage, for example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c1600) – Orpheus himself is ‘represented’ in this drama. We listen to the words, we hear the music, we watch the action, and we are moved also by seeing Orpheus’ reactions.

But the decorum of Greek drama would not allow death to be enacted, and in Classical Theatre the most dramatic events were presented as Narration. This tradition of stage Messengers suited baroque singers’ skills in presenting Rhetorical speech in music: telling a story, delighting in detail, moving the listeners’ passions.

We tend to hear baroque opera as Recitative and Aria, in which Recitative is the ‘boring bit between the nice tunes’. This is problematic, since Monteverdi writes only a few ‘nice tunes’. His audience was – of course – unaware of Mozart, Handel and Vivaldi’s operatic recitative, or the story-telling Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. The words Recitative and Aria were used. but around 1600 they had different meanings. New scholarship on this subject is crucial for a better understanding, not only of how to perform, but also of how the 1607 audience would have heard Orfeo.

Recitare means ‘to act’. According to Doni’s (1640) Annotazioni it is incorrect to apply this word to dramatic Monody.  Il Corago explains that there are three ways to act – recitare: with music, with plain speech, and in silent mime. So musica recitativa simply means ‘music for acting’, everything that is delivered by a soloist. including Aria. Aria in this period is any repeated structure in music, rhythm or words. So in period terms, Shakespeare’s ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ [Richard III (c1593)] is an Aria within the Recitative of the whole speech.

In the 20th century, it was assumed that expressive recitative required romantic rubato. But Monteverdi’s rhetorical purpose is not to express the performer’s emotions, but to move the audience’s passions. He does this with subtly composed and carefully notated contrasts of pitch, harmony, rhythm and speed of declamation, controlled by the steady pulse of the Tactus beat.

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

Let the poetic imagery create Visions in your imagination, as if the events were happening before your very eyes.

Let the power of your own imaginative Visions be supported and enhanced by what you see on stage and what you hear in the music.

What does it mean?

In Monteverdi’s dramatic Monody – music for acting – contrasts in pitch represent the impassioned speech of a great actor. Speaking on a monotone is code for ‘Let me tell you a story’ – if there is no music, concentrate on the words.

Contrasts of syllabic speed indicate heightened passion. Crescendo on a single note carries the emotion to the listener. Speaking on the Tactus beat suggests stability, whilst being off the beat or syncopated shows agitation.

The continuo bass is structured to convey emotions: a sustained pedal-point signifies seriousness; slow movement of the bass accompanies a serious or sad subject; fast movement creates the lightness of happiness and dancing. Dissonances of many different types show varied emotions.

Typically, there are many changes of emotions, often with rapid contrasts between opposites.

Ensemble music, vocal or instrumental, on stage represents diegetic, ‘real life’ music. The string ensemble symbolises the mythical Lyre, associated with boh Orpheus and Apollo. Strings, flute and harp are played by the nine Muses. A pair of flutes suggest pastoral pan-pipes. The snarling Regal is the organ from Hell. Cornetti and sackbuts evoke the horror of Hell or the power of sacred music.

In a humanist opera, we might well ask, to Whom is music sacred? To Apollo? Apollo and Orpheus were understood as allegorising God and Christ. Or to Bacchus? Whilst the 1609 and 1615 prints of Monteverdi’s music have a happy ending in which Apollo rescues Orpheus from despair, Striggio’s 1607 libretto ends with a glorious triumph for the opposing team, Bacchus and his hard-drinking, hot-loving Maenads. Andrew Lawrence-King has reconstructed music for the original ending, and you will have to wait till the end of the show to find out who triumphs in the end.

So, in the best traditions of Rhetoric, I hope that this Explanation helps the music move your Emotions, and that you Enjoy the show!

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

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

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

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

 

 

The Art of Fantasia

 

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

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

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

Prologo: principles & fundamentals

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

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

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

Science, Art & Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contents

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

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

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

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

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

Hexachords

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

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

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

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

Pre-requisites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four requirements for maintaining Tactus perfectly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

 

 

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

 

Mensuration signs & note-values

Part 1, Chapter 6 De las figuras

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

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

Bar-length

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

 

 

This defining exemplo shows:

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

 

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

 

  • Note-values are defined in relation to Tactus

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Two Principal Requirements for singing from staff notation

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

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

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

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

8 conditions for playing with total perfection and beauty

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

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

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

‘Playing in Tactus … is the first condition’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groove and Swing

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

The soundscape of Renaissance rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

Ornamentation 1: Graces

Chapter 20: How to make redobles and quiebros 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Redobles permitted and prohibited

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Setting polyphonic works

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

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

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

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

Tips for understanding polyphonic works

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

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

1. Play in Tactus

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

2. Sing through each individual voice in turn

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

How to obtain benefit from studying polyphonic works

Chapter 22. ‘Five things have to be noted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ornamentation 2: Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

unless something prevents this, which is often the case.

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

Helpful Hints & Improvisation

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

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

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

2. Practise making redobles and quiebros with both hands.

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

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

5. Understand well how to play the instrument

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

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

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

9. Practise transposing works into every possible key.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern-day performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

El Maestro on Tactus: Luys Milán’s renaissance instructions for well-measured Tempo

 

 

Luys Milán’s (1536) book of music for the vihuela de mano entitled El maestro is the first collection of music for this renaissance instrument, tuned like a lute but shaped like a guitar and played similarly to the lute by plucking rather than strumming. It is also the first teaching book for any instrument, intended for complete beginners (a basic knowledge of singing from staff-notation is assumed) and structured progressively from the rudiments of tablature notation to elementary solo pieces, more demanding fantasias and dance-music, and song accompaniment in various styles.

 

Milán’s purpose is not only to teach how to play the instrument, but to show his students how to create their own fantasias in the formal contrapuntal style of the high renaissance. Right from the first example, his tientos (musical ‘essays’) are of the highest artistic quality, beautifully expressive as well as gramatically correct.

 

Of particular interest are his detailed comments for each piece, holding firmly to his declared priorities: tempo and tones. His renaissance ‘tones’ are the eight modal scales which define the ‘key note’, progressions and final cadence of each piece.

Freely available online, you can download the original print (full colour, high resolution, Spanish language and tablature) and also a transcription into staff notation, transposed for modern guitar (with some errors and omissions, without Milán’s tempo indications, with note-values halved or otherwise reduced) My recording, with Jordi Savall, is here, but it does not reflect my more recent research into Tactus.

 

 

 

Compas, mesura & ayre

In this post I analyse Milán’s remarks on Tempo, his highest priority. His Spanish terms are mesura (the ‘measuring’ of music in time); ayre (musical ‘feel’, rhythmic patterning, we might well translate this as ‘groove’); and (most frequently) compas. The significance of compas is broad, combining the philosophical concept of Tactus (the slow, steady pulse governing renaissance and baroque rhythm) with the practical, physical representation of that pulse as a down-up movement of the hand (or foot) and with the notation of the duration of a down-up pulse unit by the note-value of a semibreve and by a bar of tablature enclosed by bar-lines.

 

 

The pre-requisite for studying with El maestro is that the student should understand as a singer, how one must keep Tactus and Measure: basta que sepa cantando entender como se ha de traer el compas y mesura.

Tactus is the slow, steady underlying pulse, Measure is the sub-division of that slow pulse into all the various rhythmic combinations of differing note-values. Milán’s ygual compas is remarkably parallel to lutenist John Dowland’s insistence on the ‘equality of measure’ in his (1609) translation of Ornithoparcus’  (1515) Micrologus. 

 

It is also consistent with baroque lute/theorbo-player Thomas Mace’s (1676) Rule of Time-keeping, requiring ‘Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion… like the Balance of a good Clock… in all musical performances whatever’ read more, and with such theorists as Zacconi (1592), who characterised Tactus as r’egular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation.’

 

 

Contrary to the present-day fashion for artistic freedom, Milán’s language (in common with most period sources) is strongly prescriptive. His oft-repeated formula is se ha de… – one has to: se ha de tañer con el compas – you have to play with the Tactus. This theoretical understanding and practical skill in maintaining steady Tactus should similarly be the pre-requisite for all modern-day HIP performances of renaissance and baroque music.

Milán begins with this essential requirement:  es menester que sepays que mesura y ayre se ha de dar a la musica – you need to know what measure and groove have to be given to the music. Pues sabemos que cosa es compas, vengamos a saber quantas de las sobredichas cifras entran en un compas: pues por esto se ha de saber el ayre y mesura – once we know what Tactus is, we can learn how many note-values fit into one Tactus: then from that you have to know the groove and measure.

In the detailed comments that follow, Milán’s starting assumption and ‘default setting’ is steady Tactus, maintained throughout the piece: ‘you have to play it all with an equal Tactus, without making any change’ – la [musica] aveys de tañer toda a un igual compas sin hazer mutacion.  That Tactus should be well-measured, neither very fast (rushed) nor very slow (spacious) – con un compas bien mesurado… ni muy apriessa  ni muy a espacio.  In practice, the Tactus is shown by a down-up movement of the hand or (more conveniently while playing) an up-down movement of foot, in steady time – El compas en la musica no es otra cosa … sino un alçar y abaxar la mano o pie por un ygual tiempo.

As notated in tablature, the combined up-down movement corresponds to the standard bar-length of a semibreve, so a single beat (either down or up) corresponds to a minim. This is consistent with many other sources, and in Spanish practice was referred to as compasillo. Milán shows one piece with bars of double length, which is a notational convenience designed to be easier on the eye, but seems to have no implications for the beat or the tempo.

 

Default Tactus: ‘ygual tiempo’ & ‘compas bien mesurado’

 

The ‘equality of measure’ characteristic of Tactus is certainly the default setting for any particular piece. This ‘equality’ probably continues between one piece and another across the whole repertoire, since Milán is careful to specify when any piece goes even slightly faster or slower. And it is these painstakingly described exceptions to the default tempo that make this vihuela book a crucial source for anyone working with renaissance music.

From the very outset, Milán is clear that the performer should not select their own tempo at will, but should respect the composer’s intentions. se ha de considerar en las siguentes fantasias la una: que se ha de tañer con el compas apressurado o espacioso como el auctor quiere – the first thing one has to consider in the following fantasias is that one must play with the Tactus fast or slow as the composer wants. [His second priority is to identify the tone].

The default setting for any given piece is an equal Tactus for the whole piece. But Milán asks for that Tactus to be selected (according to his wishes, not the performer’s whim!) within a range centred on ‘well-measured, neither very fast nor very slow.’

 

Milán’s range of tempo indications

 

compas a espacio – slow Tactus

compas bien mesurado– well-measured Tactus

compas algo apressurado – slightly fast Tactus

compas apressurado – fast Tactus

quanto mas se tañera con el compas apressurado mejor parecera – the faster the Tactus, the better

Note that it is the Tactus itself that goes slow, well-measured, slightly fast, fast or ‘the faster, the better’. The note-values within the Tactus can be anything from breve to quaver. The physical action of beating time with the hand makes even a small change of Tactus feel quite different – a different groove or ayre. And we can assume that even the biggest change of Tactus is distinctly less than a doubling/halving of tempo, since this could be better shown by halving/doubling note-values.

I suggest that Milán’s compas bien mesurado might be approximately minim ~ MM60, and that his other tempi would be subtle adjustments to that default setting. In the language of jazz, Milán’s apressurado could be ‘up-tempo’ and his a espacio ‘laid back’.

Milán states that compas batido (literally, ‘beaten’) means the same as apressurado (literally, ‘pushed’), i.e. ‘fast’.

Changes of Tactus within a piece

The reader should experience a frisson of shock at the above sub-heading: in the renaissance context of equal, steady Tactus ‘without any perturbation’, the idea of changing Tactus at all is surprising, and changing it within a piece is almost alarming. Milán recognises that to play like this ‘has litttle respect for Tactus or for most music’: it is appropriate only in a certain bravura style, tañer de gala, with long passages of fast notes, redobles, contrasted against slow harmonies, consonancias. 

This is musica con diversos redobles … y tiene mas respecto a tañer de gala, que de mucha musica ni compas – music with various fast notes… and it has more respect for bravura playing than for formal musical construction or Tactus.

Its particular style is tañer de gala con estos redobles largos – bravura playing with these long passages of fast notes.

The noun gala and its related adjective galana occupy an area of meaning that extends from ‘decorative’ or ‘elegant’ to ‘luxury’ or ‘ostentation’. Milán’s tañer de gala with its disregard for the normal rules of Tactus and musical structure would seem to be well towards the ‘showy’ end of this semantic spectrum, as suggested by my translation ‘bravura’.

Writing his own Arte de tañer Fantasia for keyboards and vihuela in 1565, Tomas de Santa Maria similarly emphasises steady Tactus in all music, and offers suggestions in Book 1, Chapter 19 for the ‘groove’ – buen ayre – of crotchets and quavers within the regular minim (semi-Tactus) beat. Crotchets always go long-short (i.e. good-bad), with the long crotchet on the Tactus beat. Quavers can go long-short, or short-long. This second style is only suitable for short passages of fast notes – glosas – but is much more galana (elegant) than the first. The third way is in groups of four quavers, short-short-short-long: this is suitable for long or short glosas and is the most galana (showy) of all. Perhaps Tomas’ third style would be appropriate for Milán’s tañer de gala. Whichever style is chosen, it should be maintained consistently through that particular glosa. More on Tomas de Santa Maria in another post.

Milán repeats many times and with small variations in wording his instructions for changing Tactus, but only in this context of tañer de gala – music which is like ‘trying out’ the vihuela, mixing harmonies with fast notes:  una musica la cual es como un tentar la vihuela a consonancias mescladas con redobles…

para tañerla con su natural ayre haveys os de regir desta maniera. Todo lo que sera consonancias tañerlas con el compas a espacio y todo lo que sera redobles tañerlos con el compas apriessa. ‘To play it with its natural groove, you have to rule yourself in this way: everything which will be harmonies you have to play with the Tactus slow and everything which will be fast notes you must play with the Tactus fast.’

Milán is quite specific that he asks for something beyond normal rhythmic accuracy – it’s not enough for him that the small note-values are faster notes anyway. He insists (many, many times) on changing the Tactus itself, so that the written contrast in note-values is exaggerated by the change in Tactus.

Modern performers might be tempted to interpret ‘fast’ as ‘twice as fast’, but this robs the listener of the sensation of a change of pulse, since the doubling of speed will be heard as halved note-values within the same underlying pulse. The shock of changing Tactus is greater if the change is noticeable, but small, and not proportional.

Similarly, modern performers might want to add accelerando or rallentando, but Milán does not suggest this, and again, the effect of an abrubt change is greater. I tell my students to

use the gear-shift, not the accelerator or brakes!

Milán is very clear that change of Tactus is only allowed in particular circumstances: Esta fantasia que sigue es de la misma arte de la passada fantasia tentando la vihuela con redobles y consonancias; y que vos he dicho de que manera y compas se han de tañer estas fantasias que mas propriamente se pueden dezir tentos – This fantasia that follows is in the same style as the preceding fantasia, trying out the vihuela with fast passages and harmonies: and I have told you in what style and Tactus you have to play these fantasias, which more properly might be called tientos [essays].

Y por esta mutacion de compas os dire que no la aveys de tañer como tañereys esta musica que de aqui adelante torna a proseguir la qual es como la del principio que la aveys de tañer toda a un igual compas sin hazer mutacion. And about this change of Tactus, I tell you that you must not play like that in the music that returns in the following pieces, which is like the pieces at the beginning, which you have to play all in an equal Tactus without making any change.

 

Technique & Phrasing

Milán distinguishes between two different techniques for playing fast notes. Both techniques produce an alternating pattern, but with different sound-quality: alternating two fingers dos dedos is considered more elegant than back-and-forth with a single finger dedillo, but particular melodic patterns suit one or the other technique.

y parar de tañer en cada coronado un poco – and stop playing a bit at each fermata mark.  This could be interpreted in the modern sense of breaking the time and waiting longer at the pause mark, but is more likely to imply creating a silence (literally, stop playing for a bit) within the notated value. This is consistent with the Rhetorical (i.e. word-based) principle of making the last note of the phrase ‘bad’, i.e. short/un-accented, and with period use of this sign (historically not a pause but signum congruentiae – the sign of harmonic resolution, the end of a phrase). More on good/bad notes here.

In the slow tempo that Milán requires, the vihuela’s final chord would need to be sustained for more than four seconds. There is little hope that a vihuela-player could prolong this even further, as a modern fermata: it is almost inevitable that the sound will stop before the notated duration – the usual situation for final notes in this period.

 

Romances

Some songs – romances – have similar passages of instrumental redobles between the vocal phrases, for which Milán suggests a variety  of performance options. The passages in fast notes can be omitted entirely, or the song can be performed with two different Tactus speeds, in the bravura tañer de gala style described for those particular fantasias. han se de tañer lo que fuere consonancias a espacio, y los redobles que ay a las finales quando acaba la boz muy apriessa – it has to be played with the harmonies slow, and the passages at the end of phrases when the voice stops very fast.

For the first romances in the book, Milán requires the singer to sing llano – plain, sustained – whilst the vihuela shouldn’t go very fast, nor very slow: la vihuela ni ha de yr muy apriessa ni muy a espacio. This might rule out the tañer de gala approach, or it might be an instruction applying to the vocal episodes only.

For each vocal genre, there are specific instructions song-by-song for the differing roles of singer/instrumentalist. Sometimes the singer may improvise ornamentation whilst the vihuela plays slow chords, and sometimes the voice is ‘plain’ and the instrument has discanto – counterpoint.

The alternative version of the first villancio has the instruction: el cantor ha de cantar llano y la vihuela algo apriessa – the singer has to sing plain and the vihuela slightly fast. Note that this is not an instruction about the compas (Tactus), it clarifies the different levels of activity in the voice-line and instrumental-part respectively. Singer and vihuela must keep the same Tactus (of course!), but within that Tactus there can be various levels of activity.

Similarly, the second villancio has the instruction: el cantor puede hazer garganta y la vihuela ha de yr muy espacio – the singer can make throat-ornamentation and the vihuela has to go very slowly. This song also has an alternative version with the singer llano and the vihuela apriessa.

For the first soneto (sonnet), Milán writes that the singer can add some trills- algun quiebro – whilst the vihuela goes at moderate pace. Other sonnets have similar instructions: el cantor glose donde huviere lugar con la boz y donde no cantar llano – the singer ornaments where he has an opportunity with the voice, and otherwise sings plain. El cantor ha de cantor llano. Y donde cabera glosar con la boz sea quiebro o trinar que dizen – the singer has to sing plain. And where it fits, to ornament with the voice, which should be quiebros or trills as they are called. The last sonnet has to be played algun tanto regozijado – with rather much rejoicing.

It’s worth noting that Milán distinguishes carefully between different genres – Spanish or Portuguese villancico, Italian soneto and the romance.  Each genre has its own performance practice. Milán leaves no doubt that romances are a special case, and the fast instrumental solo passage-work within them has to be treated differently from the rest of the song: lo que de musica se sigue despues de las finales es para solo tañer y ha de callar la boz donde acaba la cifra colorada – the music which continues after the end of phrases is instrumental only and the voice has to be silent where the coloured notation ends.

Pavan

The Italian Pavan is also a particular genre with its own performance style. Milán presents 4 of his own compostions, and 2 Italian melodies set by him for the vihuela. The first pavan-like fantasia se ha de tañer ni muy a espacio ni muy apriessurado: sino con un compas bien mesurado has to be played neither very slow nor very fast, but with a well-measured Tactus. el ayre della remeda al ayre de las pavanas que tañen en ytalia – Its groove resembles the groove of the Pavans that are played in Italy.

The Pavans that follow are to be played with a slightly fast Tactus, algo apressurado. Milán asks for this dance-music to be played two or three times through. The last Pavan is in triple metre (often found in Spain, not in Italy) with the [slow, sesquialtera] proportion of three semibreves.

 

Proportions

Milán shows two triple-metre proportions, notated with three minims to the bar and three semibreves to the bar. We can observe the notated bar-lengths of Milán’s two proportions, but there is no explanation of how to measure those triple-metre bars in time, i.e. with the hand-movement of the Tactus.

Most of the pieces (in common time), and the examples of proportions in the introduction, have no mensuration sign (time signature) at all. For changes between duple and triple metre, Milán uses these signs without explanation:

 

The modern reader might well wish that the Maestro would have distinguished more clearly between the inter-linked concepts of compas as bar-length, hand-movement and time-duration.  But whatever significance might be read into the mensuration signs, the musical content seems to argue against the hypothesis of  “bar = bar” as a universal rule for linking compas as notated bar-length to compas as time-duration/Tactus. A large variety of rhythms, including short note-values, is found in Milán’s proportion of 3 semibreves to the bar; whereas the episodes in 3 minims to the bar are almost entirely in the jig (canario) rhythm of dotted minim, quarter, minim. This suggests a fast proportion for 3 minims (tripla, 3 minims to one tactus beat, 6 minims to the complete down-up cycle: minim ~ MM180), and a slow proportion for 3 semibreves (sesquialtera, 3 semibreves to two tactus beats = the complete down-up cycle: semibreve ~ MM 90).

This would be consistent with what appears to be Monteverdi’s practice in the early 17th-century: read more.

 

 

Temperament

For certain pieces, Milán asks for the 4th fret to be adjusted. Alçareys un poco el quarto traste de la vihuela para que el punto del dicho traste sea fuerte y no flaco – raise the 4th fret a bit so that the stop at this fret might be strong and not weak. This appears ambiguous: which way is ‘up’? Moving a fret towards the bridge raises the pitch of the note and might seem to be Milan’s meaning. But when he repeats the instruction later for a song accompaniment, he clarifies: haveys de alçar el quarto traste un poco hasta las clavijas de la vihuela – you must raise the 4th fret a bit towards the tuning-pegs. This has the effect of lowering the pitch of the stopped note, which is what we would expect for the sharps and hard-hexachord notes on this fret in the meantone temperament typical of the period.

 

From a History of Emotions perspective, it is interesting that the low (i.e. in-tune) major third is characterised as fuerte, and the out-of-tune high third (characteristic of modern Equal Temperament) is ‘flaccid’.

 

Time & Free Will – Historical & Psychological Time

Musical Rhythm connects our human, Psychological Experience of the Duration of Time to the Quality of Emotions, going beyond the scientific precision of Quantitative Clock-Time, con-fusing or permeating our perception of the spacious Present with an awareness of the Past.

 

 

Persuasive though this view might be for today’s performers, it is not an aesthetic absolute. It’s just my summary of Bergson, whose views dominated the philosophy of culture in the early 20th century. It’s easy to see how Tempo Rubato fits neatly into this view, and why Bergson’s fusing together of Time and Free Will still resonates for modern-day musicians.

 

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

 

A Philosophy of its Time

My point is that Bergson’s philosophy was part of the aesthetic of his period, the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His ideas were opposed (though Bergson himself might have said, complementary) to Einstein’s concepts of Relativisitic & Quantum Time, and depended on (as a limited, out-dated concept, to be argued against) Newtonian Absolute Time, the ‘ever-rolling stream’ that had come to be the dominant view during the late 18th century. (This was long after the publication of ‘Principia”: Newton’s radical new concept met with heavy resistance from late-baroque philosophers).

The Aristotelian Time of The 16th and 17th centuries (and earlier) was utterly different… Monteverdi’s operas & Vespers, Frescobaldi’s Toccatas, Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle,  even Mace’s Practical Music are

Music of an Earlier Time.

 

Is Rubato an Absolute? Or is it one of many performance variables that are subject to changing performance practices over the centuries? Read more…

Water has no taste?

 

As Historically Informed Performers and Researchers, we must try to separate our intuitive sympathy for persuasive philosophies of the recent past … even if they seem to speak to us as “absolutes” (because we imbibed them uncritically at an early stage in our cultural education)… from historical, source-based evidence of chronological changes in the aesthetics of performance.

 

 

There’s very little History of Philosophy on the early 20th century, surprisingly little.

Now… there’s sufficient distance between ‘now’ and ‘then’, it’s as if Bergson has finally and properly entered the canon of the History of Philosophy and we are now treating the beginning of the 20th century as an object of historical enquiries in philosophy.

Quotes from the May 2019 BBC Radio Four “In our Time” discussion on Bergson & Time here.

We think that water has no taste, because we were born with it in our mouths.

Can anyone help me identify this last quote? I read it, I didn’t make it up myself, but it perfectly sums up the Early Music dilemma, in which our present-day investigation of Historical Practice is itself embedded in the aesthetic of the recent past.

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend – Bergson

 

The Best Practical Musick: Thomas Mace’s Rule of Time-Keeping

 

The Best Practical Music

 

In a recent online discussion in the Historical Performance Research group, I gave

a timely warning to anyone who might be tempted by the idea that Rhetorical Eloquence is somehow contrary to rhythmical or harmonic structure.

My provocation drew the hoped-for riposte, with a suggestion that 17th-century lutenist Thomas Mace thought that ‘playing in time is [only] for beginners’. This suggestion, and the mis-reading of period texts as if they supported it, is so commonly encountered, that I took up the challenge, and re-read the whole of Mace’s 1676 treatise Musick’s Monument to find out what Thomas actually wrote.

 

 

Time-keeping

 

The book includes many music examples, even complete pieces and suites, in tablature. Its 272 pages are divided into three parts, on the Necessity of Singing, the Noble Lute and the Generous Viol. Concerning time-keeping, Mace’s instructions for beginners and comments for advanced players are found in the The Civil Part: or the Lute made Easie, starting at page 78:

In all musical performances whatever, if they be done according to Art, they are done according to the Rule of Time-Keeping

This alone should be enough to settle any debate. And Mace gives us plenty of further detail of how to keep time.

 

 

The inter-dependence of Time and Motion is rooted in Aristotle’s definition of Time as ‘a number of motion, in respect of before and after’. Not until a century or so later would Newton’s concept (Principia, 1687) of Absolute Time gain general acceptance. Mace’s Aristotelean time requires steady motion to drive it, and – according to the philosophy of the Music of the Spheres – the motion of music imitates the perfect movement of the stars and the harmonious nature of the human body.

On the lute, ‘an instrument on which both are hands are employed, we must therefore keep time with a foot’. Muffat gives the same advice for violinists in his preface to Florilegium Secundum (1698).

 

 

Mace’s requirement for

Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion… like the Balance of a good Clock

carries forward from 1592 the principles of Zacconi’s (hand-beating) Tactus:

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

 

 

Mace’s time-keeping foot moves just like Zacconi’s tactus-hand: down for one minim, up for the next minim, so that the complete tactus-motion occupies a semibreve.

 

 

The instruction (page 79) that there should not be ‘the least Difference’ during the piece is supported by Muffat’s repeated insistence that the vrai mouvement (true movement) of French dances should continue from the beginning to the end. And as a good teacher, Mace recommends that beginners ‘carefully practise; so that the good habi acquired ‘at the first’ will ‘ever continue’ for the rest of the player’s career.

In contrast, many of us who nowadays play Early Music, received our first training in the post-romantic school of the 20th-century, with its tacit assumption that the vacillating rhythm and wayward tempi of Rubato are the secret of advanced expression. We have to read Mace’s words carefully, if we are to escape our own assumptions and inhabit his world of Aristotelean time.

In chapter XI, Mace recommends a pendulum as an aid to learning how to keep time ‘by the most Exact, Easie and Infallible Way’, and as a test for ‘masters’ even for an ‘Artist of the Highest Form… a very Master’ that should ‘be able to keep Exact True Time’. The length of the pendulum should be adjusted so that one can count from one to four ‘with Deliberation, as a Man would speak Gravely or Soberly, and not Hastily or Huddlingly; yet not Drawlingly or Dreamingly; but in an Ordinary Familiar way of Speaking’. These four crotchet-beats, i.e. one semibreve, occupy the time for the pendulum to swing one way and then the other way, i.e. a complete oscillation.  The pendulum, as an ‘assured time-keeper’ should be the musician’s Director.

Mace’s advice for students concludes with a reminder (page 81) that

The Exact Motion of True Time-Keeping is one of the most Necessary and Main Things in Musick

Liberty

In this familiar 17th-century context of true time-keeping, which is supported so strongly by period French and Italian sources, Mace’s next remark might well seem contradictory:

Although in our First Undertakings we ought to strive for the most Exact Habit of Time-Keeping that we can possibly attain unto (and for several good Reasons) yet, when we come to be Masters, so that we can command all manner of Time, at our own Pleasures, we then take Liberty (and very often for Humour and good Adornment-sake, in certain places) to break time; sometimes faster and sometimes slower, as we perceive the nature of the thing requires, which often adds much Grace and Lustre to the performance.

How are we to reconcile such Liberty with Mace’s uncompromising remarks on the ‘Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion’ of Time-Keeping’ … ‘in all musical performances whatever;?  Mace, a cleric in divine orders, greatly admired the lute-playing of John Dowland, who similarly preached

Above all things, keep the Equality of Measure. For to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself.

 

 

And according to Shakespeare’s Richard II, sweet music becomes sour ‘when time is broke’.

 

 

It would be foolhardy to turn a blind eye to all this period context of ‘exact Time-Keeping’, and leap to the conclusion that Mace’s Liberty is an invitation to apply 20th-century rubato indiscriminately to 17th-century music. Rather we must search for evidence of precisely where the ‘certain places’ are, and of how to ‘perceive the nature of the thing’.

 

Humour

Above all, we need to understand Mace’s concept of Humour – not as a modern performer’s personal ‘interpretation’, but as a quality that already resides within the composition, and which the performer must perceive, so that the listener may understand, enjoy and be moved. In a philosophy of performance that goes back to the trobadors and trouveres, Mace requires players to find the Humour, not invent it.

17th-century ‘Humour‘ does not mean comedy: we might roughly define it as ‘Emotion’, ‘Mood’, or (to use another period English term) ‘Passion’. As a term for musical performance, Humour is rooted in period Science, where the doctrine of the Four Humours offers a self-consistent and practicable system for understanding and working with the psychological and physiological effects of emotions. Words and music that are heard and understood in the mind (see Enargeia, Visions in Performance) send signals (Energia) down to the body, creating changes in various body-fluids. The changing balance of those fluids creates the physiological effects of emotional change.

The Sanguine Humour is linked to blood, associated with healthy red cheeks, or a delicate blush, with love, courage, hope, with the enjoyment of music, good food and red wine. The Choleric Humour is linked to yellow bile, associated with desire, anger and the urge for strong drink. The Melancholy Humour (beloved of John Dowland and Shakespeare’s Jacques) is linked to black bile, paleness in the face (lack of Sanguinity, the opposite humour), associated with sleeplessness, too much study, unlucky love-affairs, and academic precision! The Phlegmatic Humour is linked to green phlegm, and lack of any emotional response: a wet blanket.

 

Of course, these four Humours are not a complete catalogue of the vast array of human emotion; rather, like the four cardinal points, North, South, East & West, they indicate primary directions within the whole area being mapped.

Like those cardinal points, the Four Humours focus attention on opposites: North & South, Sanguine & Melancholic. This supports the tendency in 17th-century music to contrast one Humour (in Italian, affetto) with its opposite (oposto) – see Motion and E-motion in the First Opera. In common with opera- and ballo-composer Cavalieri’s advice for singers, Mace’s instructions for lutenists ask for contrasts of loud and soft.

And Mace’s linking of three concepts: specific musical situations (‘certain places’), affetto (Humour), and subtleties of Time recalls Frescobaldi’s (1615) Rules for toccatas (applicable also to madrigals and other genres with contrasting movements). All too often, modern performers take Frescobaldi’s remarks as an encouragement to rhythmic anarchy and Rubato; but close reading of his carefully formulated Rules reveals both the underlying assumption of steady Tactus, and the precisely delimited circumstances under which the Tactus can change. See Frescobaldi Rules – OK?

To summarise, Frescobaldi advocates using Tactus to control the music, even if that Tactus sometimes changes. He limits the opportunities for change to the break between contrasting movements with contrasting emotions. He also allows a momentary pause, on the upbeat. Caccini suggests, and Monteverdi notates another practice of rhythmic freedom, where the accompaniment continues in steady measure, but the solo melody drifts around, like a jazz singer syncopating against the rhythm section. See sprezzatura.

And 17th-century musical Time has its own special shape, described by the concept of Arsis & Thesis and illustrated by the non-linear movement of a pendulum swing. Tactus is not ‘metronomic’, in the perjorative sense. See The Shape of Time

Time & Humour

So now let’s study Mace’s remarks about Time and Humour – all of them – and see what we can discover about the ‘certain places’ where the music might go ‘faster or slower’, and how it might thus go.

Page 97 – Brisk

In describing the character – we might well say, Humour – of the key of B major ( not Bb!), rarely encountered in 17th-century lute-music, Mace uses for this Key the words ‘Noble, Brave and Brisk-Lively’. This usage reminds us that, for Mace, the words Brisk and Lively convey character, not merely speed. It would be nonsense to write that B major is a ‘fast key’, but the quality of Brisk-Liveliness is shown by the dotted notes that Mace uses in the music example that follows.

Mace’s focus in these chapters is on correct left-hand fingering and right-hand strokes, preparing “by setting your Left Hand upon the Stops, and your Right Hand upon the String, ready to strike. yet

 

Strike them in their due time… according to their true Quantities

Page 101-102 – gentle

In his discussion of Full Plays (chords using many strings, for example at cadences – Full Stops), Mace describes the ‘Fashionable way of Playing them (now used)’ which ‘is much more easie’, in which the thumb plays the bass note, and the forefinger rakes down all the other strings, rather than playing each string with a different finger. He defines the word ‘rake’ as ‘smoothly stroke… very gently’. There is no suggestion of slowness, indeed Mace emphasises that an intervening short note ‘will not admit of any delay’.

From this, and my previous citation, it is apparent that Mace perceives two opposing types of Humour, in which Brisk Lively is contrasted with Smoothly Gentle, but without linking these qualities to any change between Fast and Slow.  As readers of modern English, we should be careful not to add any present-day connotations of brisk = fast, gentle = slowly, when we see these words in Mace’s next pages.

Page 103-104

Mace gives a ‘General and Certain Rule (never to be altered)’ for ornamentation – Graces or the Adorning of your Play (note the use of the word ‘adorn’, which he links also to the concept of Liberty), that ‘All Shakes’ must be made according to

The Aire and Humour of your Tuning and Lesson

He then sets down the Aire as a scale, determined by the nature of the tuning of the lute, not by the tonality of the piece at hand.

He rules out the idea that rhythm might be bent for the sake of prolonging ornaments – whatever his concept of Liberty might be, it is not this.

When I have thus continued Beating, so long as my Time will allow me

Page 109 – vibrato

I can’t resist this brief digression to note that Mace’s Sting, ‘a very Neat and Pritty Grace’… ‘for some sorts of Humours very Excellent’ is vibrato, “as to make the Sound seem to Swell with pritty unexpected Humour, and gives much Contentment, upon Cases”. Thomas believes that vibrato adds a pleasing emotional quality, but only in certain circumstances.

But the Sting is ‘not Modish in these days’.  It would seem that Dowland used more vibrato than Mace….

Page 109 – Loud & Soft

Mace gives great importance to dynamic contrasts:

Play some part of the Lesson loud and some part soft

‘which gives much more Grace and Lustre to Play, than any other Grace, whatsoever: therefore I commend it, as a Principal and Chief-Ornamental Grace (in its Proper Place)

Page 109 – the Pause

At the end of this chapter on ornamentation, we have the first mention of modification of Time.

‘The thing to be done is but only to make a kind of Cessation, or standing still, sometimes Longer and sometimes Shorter, according to the Nature, or requiring of the Humour of the Musick’

If this is done ‘in its due Place’, it is a ‘a very excellent Grace’.

In subsequent pages, Mace gives many examples of ‘due Places’ for the Pause. The effect recalls Frescobaldi’s description of the Tactus hand ‘hesitating in the air’  at certain moments. For both writers, the effect is used very sparingly, and as a one-off event. It is not applied repeatedly or continuously throughout a passage, in the manner of 20th-century Rubato. There is no suggestion of rallentando approaching the Pause, indeed Mace’s words ‘but only to make a kind of Cessation’ seem to rule out any anticipatory slowing-down.

Page 115-116 – touch, humour, key, conceit

In this discussion of improvisation, Mace celebrates the ability to manage contrasts in four inter-related qualities: touch (the sounding of one or more notes), Humour (emotional quality), key (what we would today call tonality), conceit (a musical idea, subject or theme). Once the particular key is established, ‘some little Humour’ (a few more notes, a fragment of melody) allows the listener to ‘discern some Shape or Form of Matter’.

The ‘Shape or Form’ is also called a Fugue, i.e. a contrapuntal point, a fragment of melody suitable for polyphonic imitation.

‘This term Fuge is a Term used among Composers, by which they understand a certain intended Order, Shape or Form of Notes, signifying such a Matter, or such an Extention; and is used in Musick as a theme, or as a subject-matter in Oratory, on which the Orator intends to discourse.

‘And this is the Nature and Use of a Fuge in Musick.’

‘Maintain a Fuge or Humour’

In this context of improvised playing, ‘maintaining’ seems to combine the compositorial skill of working a point of counterpoint (Fugue) and the performer’s skill of maintaining an emotional mood (Humour).

Page 117 – Fuge & Humour

‘As to the Humour of It, you may observe that it all tastes of, or similises with the first bar in some small kind; yet not too much of the same Humour…the last part is a little akin to the Fuge; yet perculiarly a Humour by itself. For you may carry on and maintain several Humours and Conceits in the same Lesson, provided they have some affinity or agreement one to the other.’

Mace criticises composers of the previous generation for too many contrasts of Humour in one piece. But in the following page (118) he declares that music is a language that can express any emotion, and that it is even more powerful than rhetorical words.

In Musick any Humour, Conceit or Passsion may be expressed, and so significantly as any Rhetorical Words or Expressions are able to do

‘If any difference be, it is in that Music speaks so transcendently, and communicates its notions so intelligibly to the internal, intellectual and incomprehensible Faculties of the Soul, so far beyond all language of words…. Those Influences that come along with it, may aptly be compared to Emanations, Communications or Distillations of some sweet and heavenly Genius or Spirit, mystically and unapprehensibly  (yet efectually) dispossessing the Soul and Mind of all irregular disturbing and unquiet Motions; and stills and fills it with quietness, joy and peace. absolute tranquillity and inexpressible satisfaction.’

 

On page 120, he observes the ‘Fugues, Orders and Forms’ of his first three examples, in which the Humour of the first two bars is maintained in the next two bars, then for the remainder of the piece there is ‘another Humour or Fuge’, distinct from the opening, ‘but alluding to it’.  Mace’s ideal contrast in Humour is subtle and simple, rather than dramatic or manifold.

Page 120 – Suite

 

A Sett or a Suit of Lessons… may be of any number as you please, yet commonly are about half a dozen. The first always … in the nature of … [an improvised] Prelude…. Then Allmaine, Ayre, Coranto, Saraband, Toy or what you please, provided that they be all in the same key; yet (in my opionion)… they ought to be something akin, or to have some kind of resemblance in their Conceits, Natures or Humours.

 

In the example prelude that follows, ‘the whole Lesson alludes to the same thing, and yet with pleasant variety.’  We might therefore assume that in such a piece , with no significant change of Humour, there will be no need for the Liberty of making any significant change in tempo.

 

Page 121-124 – The Author’s Mistress

Mace tells a touching personal story about the inspiration for the composition of this piece, 40 years previously, in passionate longing for his wife-to-be. He considers it ‘the Best Lesson in the book’ and its powerful emotional associations make it an important test-case for the realisation of Humours in performance.

 

Mace declares that the first two bars give the Fugue, which is maintained through the whole Lesson. The Form and Shape consists of two uniform and equal strains, but the Humour of it ‘which you may perceive by the marks and directions is not common’.  The only marks and directions in the tablature are contrasts of loud/soft, ornaments and slurs.

These three terms ought to be considered in all performances of this Nature (Ayres and the like): Fugue, Form & Humour

The Fugue is Lively, Airy, Neat, Curious and Sweet – like my Mistress.
The Form is Uniform, Comely, Substantial, Grave and Lovely – like my Mistress.
The Humour is singularly Spruce, Amiable, Pleasant, Obliging and Innocent – like my Mistress.

Mace’s verbal directions are ‘to Play Soft and Loud, as you see it marked’; ‘use the Sting (vibrato) where you see it set, and the Spinger after it’; ‘observe the slides and slurs, and you cannot fail to know My Mistress’s Humour, provided you keep True Time, which you must be extremely careful to do in all lessons:

For Time is One Half of Musick.

Thus in his best composition, a work of powerful emotions and deep personal meaning, Mace looks for expression of passions by dynamic contrasts, by subtle use of vibrato and by elegant slurs, whilst insisting on ‘True Time’.  There is no place here for Rubato. Even contrasting tempi for the two sections are not suggested, probably because the nature of the piece is uniform, without contrasts between the sections.

 

Page 125-126 – The Offspring

 

This piece was composed to create a consort, combining with My Mistress as a lute-duo. It can also be played as a solo, continuing on from a solo performance of My Mistress. When it is played as a solo:

 

You must for the Humour’s sake make Pauses

 

Mace marks where the three pauses should be made, in the last strain of the piece: on each of the pause-notes, vibrato should be added. As previously, he emphasises the need for ‘soft and loud, as you see it marked’, and to ‘take notice of the Fugues, which are … maintained to the end, yet various from each other’. The Fugues determine the Humour, the Humour requires dynamic contrasts, and (for the first time) here Mace applies his concept of Liberty, for the sake of Humour.

As we would expect, the Pauses come at the end of (short, internal) phrases, on a consonant, sustained harmony, and on the up-stroke of the lutenist’s time-keeping foot. This corresponds closely to Frescobaldi’s identification of consonant, sustained harmonies as the mark of the end of a section, and with the hesitations of his Tactus hand being also on the up-stroke.

Page 126-129 – Uniformity & Contrast

Mace is teaching the student to improvise, as well as to perform composed music. So he emphasises that renaissance compositorial skill, of working out a contrapuntal point (managing a fugue) and creating ‘a True and Handsome Form or Shape’. Uniformity of Form consists of matching the number of bars between strains, and having an even number of bars in each.

The Fugue or Humour may be whatever one wants, yet they should be neat and spruce, and they should be maintained uniformly and evenly.

Uniformity is especially desirable in short dance movements: Allmaines, Ayres, Corantoes, Sarabands should always be Uniform and Even. But longer pieces – Preludes, Fancies, Pavans etc – often have ‘Humours of Pauses and Flourishes in a wild way, according to their Nature’.

Some pieces have ‘Fansical, Humorous or Conceited Names’ yet have regular ‘Forms, Shapes, and Order of their Time, or Proportion’ and may be called Allmaines or Ayres.

Mace now describes the various movement-types in a suite, He criticises some improvised Preludes as ‘confused-wild-shapeless-kind of intricate-play … in which no perfect Form, Shape or Uniformity can be perceived…. and has an unlimited and unbounded Liberty … of Forms, Shapes and all the rest.’

Pavans are ‘very Grave and Sober; full of Art and Profundity’.

Allmaines are ‘very Airy and Lively’;

Galliards ‘are performed in a Slow and Large Triple Time …. grave and sober’.

Corantoes are ‘shorter … and quicker triple-time, full of sprightfulness and vigour, lively, brisk, cheerful’.

‘Sarabands are of the shortest triple-time, but are more toyish and light than Corantoes’

A Tattle de Moy ‘is much like a Sarabande, only it has more of Conceit in it’ as if ‘speaking the word Tattle de Moy, and of Humour.

‘Chiconas are only a few conceited humorous notes at the end of a suite, very short … commonly of a Grave kind of Humour’

‘Toys or Jiggs are light-squibbish things, only fit for Fantastical and Easy-Light-Headed people’

Common Tunes are popular street songs: Mace praises them as ‘very excellent and well-contrived, neat and spruce’.

‘The Ground is a set number of slow notes, very Grave and Stately … expressed once or twice very plainly … then several Divisions upon it.’

We must understand the word ‘conceited’ in its period meaning, as ‘full of clever and witty ideas’.

Page 130 – Another Liberty

Mace calls the fourth lesson a Coranto, ‘and properly…. by the Time and Shape of it.  However [Mace] would have it played played in a Slow and Long proportion, for the Nature of it is far more Sober than a Coranto.’

‘The Fugue is seen in the first 3 notes, and perceptible’ throughout. ‘The Form is Even, Uniform and Perfect. The Humour is a kind of sorrowing, pitying and bemoaning.’

We can see something of Mace’s underlying assumptions from these instructions. He considers that there is a standard tempo for a Coranto, but that for the sake of the Humour one should adopt a different tempo, in this case slower. His ‘slow and long proportion’ might be a specific tempo, Sesquialtera proportion (rather than the usual Tripla) based on a standard tempo of common time.

Here we see one ‘certain place’ where Liberty is appropriate: for the sake of the Humour, a particular piece may be played slower (or faster) than the standard speed. Nevertheless, within that piece, the (unusual) tempo would be maintained. This application of Liberty still satisfies the absolute requirement for accurate time-keeping. Mace mentions the possibility of varying the length of the tempo-pendulum, and Frescobaldi allows certain movements to be faster or slower, but still ‘facilitated by Tactus’.

In short, performers may take an unusual tempo, if the Humour suggests it, but that tempo should be maintained accurately.

Without contradicting his insistence on ‘vrai mouvement‘ from beginning to end of a given movement, Muffat describes an interesting practice for fast dance-types, which can be played three times through: each time, the tempo is faster. Perhaps this is how we should perform some of the thrice-repeated dance-movements in Handel’s Fireworks and Water Music.

 

Page 130 – Finding the Humour

One short paragraph gives valuable advice for finding the ‘General Humour of any Lesson’,

by observing ‘its Form or Shape’. If it is ‘Uniform and Retortive’ with ‘Short Sentences’, then ‘you will find it very easy to humour a lesson by playing some sentences loud, and others again soft, according as they best please your own Fancy; some very Briskly and Couragiously and some again Gently, Lovingly Tenderly and Smoothly’.

Here the performer has free choice of where to apply Loud and Soft. But there is no indication of contrasting tempi. From Mace’s usage in previous chapters, we know that ‘Brisk’ and ‘Gently’ do not imply changes of tempo, but are character words, linked here and elsewhere in the treatise to Courage or to Love, Tenderness and Smoothness. Notice that according to the doctrine of the Four Humours, these are all aspects of the one, Sanguine Humour. So the contrast of Loud and Soft is not so great, as to require change of tempo.

 

Page 130 – The Pause

 

The ‘choicest lustre… in such Humours’ is given by making ‘your Pauses at Proper Places, which are commonly at the end of such sentences, where there is a Long note.’

This advice correlates well with Mace’s own practice, as observed in earlier chapters.

 

Page 131 – A Humour

This is another coranto-like piece, which Mace calls ‘A Humour’.

 

The Fugue or Subject-Matter … is throughout maintained. with handsome and various intermixtures. The Form is Uniform (each Strain within itself), though not all of the same number of bars’.

 

Here, the strains vary in humour.

‘Sometimes (for Humour-Sake) more Pleasant and Delightful… Humorous and Conceited… and seems to mock, or mowe, or jest; to be blyth or merry, as if it were telling some jiggish story, and pointing at this or that body … In the four last bars … you must pause and use the stinging Grace [vibrato] a pretty while; and then softly whirl away and conclude.’

This delightfully whimsical description conveys a vivid impression of the character of the piece, without resort to any suggestion of tempo change, until the Pause just before the end. Notice that the Pause is all the more prolonged in this witty and active piece; and that after the pause the ending ‘whirls away’ softly, but not slowly.

In this piece, the Liberty is not that the time is altered, but that the Humour is so witty that the performance departs from the normal mood of a Coranto.

‘And although it be Coranto-Time, yet (in regard of the Conceitedness of the Humour) I give it that name.

The title over the tablature reads ‘The fifth lesson of the first set, being a Coranto, but called I like my Humour well

Page 132 – A perfect Coranto

‘This … perfect Coranto … has its Fuge ,,, throughout maintained. Its Form is Uniform … the Humour is Solid, Grave and very Persuasive… Expostulating the Matter with great Ferventness, which you must humour by performing Soft and Loud-Play in Proper Places, where you may easily perceive such Humour to lie’.

 

Page 133 – Tattle de Moy

 

Mace helps students to find out for themselves Fugue, Form and Humour. But notice that students should find these elements, and not invent them for themselves.

The Fugue is in the first two bars. The Form is absolutely Perfect and Uniform … Its Humour is Toyish, Jocond, Harmless and Pleasant, and as if it were one playing with or tossing a ball up and down; yet it seems to have a very Solemn Countenance, and like unto one of a Sober and Innocent condition or disposition; not Antic, Apish or Wild etc’.

‘Remember [as always] to play Loud and Soft …  Briskly and Gently, Smoothly, as your fancy will (no doubt) prompt you’

Memento, that Soft and Loud play is a Chief Grace.

Mace encourages students to persist, even if his advice at first seems strange – this is welcome support for today’s Early Music performers too!

These ways of discourse will seem strange to very many at the first, because they are unusual.

 

Page 142 & 147 – Observations

The Humour must be found out, by playing Soft and Loud, and making your Pauses

‘When you meet with such Seeming-Single-Moving-Walking things; and find Affinity between parts and parts, or bars and bars… then Soft and Loud play is the most necessary for to Humour it…

In modern English: if you find a movement that seems rhythmically consistent, with affinity between one part, or one bar and another, then the way to Humour it is by dynamic contrasts.

‘Many drudge and take great pains to play their lessons very … fast [but] you will perceive little Life or Spirit in them…. they do not labour to find out the Humour, Life or Spirit’

 

Page 149 – a Grave Galliard

For the preceding Coranto, Mace writes ‘Loud and Soft, which is enough’.

The next piece has the form of a Galliard, but should be played ‘in a very Sober and Grave Proportion; for it has a most singular Humour in the way of Expostulating Grief and Sorrow’. Here again, the Humour suggests taking the Liberty to play in an unusual tempo, but there is no suggestion of rhythmic irregularity.

The Galliard on page 171 is marked ‘Play this Lesson in very slow time’

 

Page 152 – Slow with Pauses

‘Play it slow, make your pauses, and observe the Humour’

Otherwise, pauses seem to be used mostly in fast pieces.

 

Page 153 – Tattle de Moy

 

‘Find the Humour yourself, by Soft and Loud play’

 

Page 170 – Crackle the crotchets

This special effect on three-note chords consists of arpeggiating each chord, causing them to ‘sob’ by slacking the left hand grip as soon as the note is struck, suddenly deadening the sound. Mace is careful to specify that this is all done in such a way

‘so as not to lose time, but give each crotchet its due quantity’

 

Conclusion

It is beyond debate that the underlying context for all Mace’s advice is of regular Time-Keeping. That time-keeping is by Tactus, counting by minims in common time, and with proportions for triple time. There are standard expectations for the speed of common time, and for the appropriate proportion for particular dance-types.

The model of perfect time-keeping is the Pendulum. The practical means of time-keeping is by moving the foot, down for one minim, up for the next.

The performers’ role is not to impose their own ‘interpretation’ on the piece, but to find out the Humours that are already there. Keeping Time is essential, for finding out the Humours.

The principle means of expressing changes in Humour is dynamic contrast.  A secondary means of expression is the Pause, in particular places.

Dfferent movements can have different tempi, even tempi that are unexpected for the dance-type that the piece seems to resemble, if the Humour demands it.

Fast pieces, and even some slow pieces, can have one or pauses before the end, but the conclusion ‘whirls away’ without rallentando.

I see no evidence at all for Rubato within a phrase or movement.  Mace’s Liberty of ‘fast and slow’ is between one movement and another, or between the standard tempo for a certain dance-type and the specific tempo for a piece in a particular humour. The only other Liberty in time-keeping that he mentions is the Pause.

All this is consistent with what we read in other sources of this period, whether English, Italian or French.

I give Thomas the last word:

Keep True Time

 

In modern English: Keep True Time, which you must be extremely careful to do, in everything you play (page 124).

 

Fake News? Early Opera, aka Seicento Dramatic Monody

Monteverdi would have preferred a modern concert grand piano to the continuo instruments of his own time.

FAKE NEWS??

Don’t believe what conductors tell you, don’t take on trust what your teacher says, don’t accept what I write in this blog:

READ THE SOURCES FOR YOURSELF!

This blog includes many links to original sources, and you can find many more at Early Music Sources .com

Meanwhile, one of the following twelve statements about early opera, i.e. seicento dramatic monody, might be true: but which one?

 

One of these statements might be true:

  1. Monteverdi would have preferred a modern concert grand piano to the continuo instruments of his own time.
  2. In early opera, conductors used their hands, not a modern baton.
  3. Singers should add ornamentation – gorgi and passaggi.
  4. Harpsichordists should create a decorative accompaniment from the written bass-line, with improvised ornamentation.
  5. Rhythm is not significant.
  6. Recitative imitates the natural speech-rhythms of Italian conversation.
  7. The harpsichordist should beat time in Tactus.
  8. The most important consideration is beautiful vocal sound.
  9. Rubato is the key to ‘moving the passions’.
  10. Caccini frequently recommends sprezzatura.
  11. Frescobaldi dismisses the concept of Tactus: in this kind of music you can change the tempo whenever you want.
  12. The audience’s passions are moved by making an emotion more and more intense.

While you are thinking, here’s a quick advert for a forthcoming publication:

 

And now, here’s the answer to the quiz:

The first statement might be true: unlikely, but we have no evidence either way.

Period sources contradict all the other statements.

 

FACTS CHECKED

Monteverdi would have preferred a modern concert grand piano to the continuo instruments of his own time?

Maybe! I consider it unlikely, but we don’t have any evidence either way, so it’s hardly worth arguing about.

 

In early opera, conductors used their hands, not a modern baton?

There was no conductor: you knew that already!

 

 

Singers should add ornamentation – gorgi and passaggi

No ornamentation in this style: Cavalieri, Il Corago, Monteverdi Combattimento etc

 

Harpsichordists should create a decorative accompaniment from the written bass-line, with improvised ornamentation?

 

Harpsichords should provide a fundamental accompaniment grave , continuo should not ornament in this style. – Agazzari, Cavalieri.

 

Rhythm is not significant?

“Music is text and rhythm”Caccini.

Recitative imitates the natural speech-rhythms of Italian conversation?

It imitates the stylised, rhetorical declamation of a great actor in the spoken theatre – Il Corago , Peri

 

The harpsichordist should beat time in Tactus?

The principal continuo-player can beat time to start ensemble music, but not in theatrical monody. – Il Corago.

 

The most important consideration is beautiful vocal sound?

“Sound last of all, and not the contrary” – Caccini

 

Rubato is the key to ‘moving the passions’?

Caccini writes many times that it’s crescendo/diminuendo  on a single note– exclamatione.

 

Caccini frequently recommends sprezzatura?

He mentions it twice, applies it only once; whereas  exclamatione is mentioned and applied many, many times.

 

Frescobaldi dismisses the concept of Tactus: in this kind of music you can change the tempo whenever you want?

He writes that toccatas and ‘modern madrigals’ are ‘facilitated by Tactus’, and prescribes  very specific circumstances under which the tempo can change.

The audience’s passions are moved by making an emotion more and more intense?

Not just one emotion, but by frequent changes between contrasting emotions. Cavalieri.

 

See also these links:

Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

How did it feel? A history of heaven, hearts & harps

The wedding dance: Monteverdi’s Lasciate i monti

Emotions in Early Opera

Lamento della ninfa

Re-making Arianna

Monteverdi Vespers

How to Act: preliminary exercises for Baroque Gesture

The Philosophy of La Musica

and many other articles in this blog.

Measuring a shepherdess’ heart-rate: Lamento della ninfa

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

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

 

Lamento della Ninfa BC

 

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

Non havea Febo ancora

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

Si tra sdegnosi pianti

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

Amor, Amor dicea

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to stage this song

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Non havea Febo ancora T1

Si tra sdegnosi pianti T1

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

 

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

 

Lamento vocal score in A1

 

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

Lamento short score in C1

 

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

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

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

Amor – Tacet in B1

 

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

 

Tavola (index) in T1

 

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

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

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

Hand & Heart

Act with the hand, act with the heart!

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Il Tempo della mano

 

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

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

 

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

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

Quite unlike modern conducting!

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

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

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

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

in genere rappresentativo e si canta senza battuta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Senza misura over a Tactus bass – Caccini

 

Soloist floating around a Tactus bass – Monteverdi

 

Solo tenor and Tactus – Monteverdi

 

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

 

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

Il Tempo dell’affetto del animo

 

 

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

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

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

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

Si replica tante volte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Shape of Time: Advanced Tactus skills for Early Music

 

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

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

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

Warm-up

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

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

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

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

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

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

 

Advanced Tactus Exercises

Exercise 1

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

 

 

 

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

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

Tactus allows you to link phrases into the future.

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

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

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

(Zacconi 1592)

 

Exercise Two

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

When I do count the clock that tells the Time

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

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

If Music and sweet Poetry agree

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

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

Exercise Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Four

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

 

 

Practise these examples with the Tactus-hand.

 

The Shape of Time

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Tactus, Sprezzatura & Drama

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Tactus & sprezzatura

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

Every word sounds like what it means

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

Tactus & drama

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Emotions in Early Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

muovere gli affetti – to move the Passions

 

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

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

Which Emotion?

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

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

 

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

 

How to move the Passions

 

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

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

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

the  -LY principle

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

How to sing the Passions

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

 

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

 

Don’t sing at me, speak to me!

 

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

 

Last note short!

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

 

The Long Note Kit

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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