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

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


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



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



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



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

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



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

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



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



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

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

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



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



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

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



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

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

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




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

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

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



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



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

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



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


Video clip of the 2012 premiere of Anima & Corpo here


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



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

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

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


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


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

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



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



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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

The famous challenge from director to actor

I don’t believe you!

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


More about Emotions in Early Opera here.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


More about learning Monteverdi’s operatic roles here.



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

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

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

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

Breathe as often as you can!


Long notes long, short notes short!

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

Good & bad

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn

– and that includes the tutors!


More about baroque gesture and historical acting here.



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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


The Shape of Time: Advanced Tactus skills for Early Music


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

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

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


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

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

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

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

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

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


Advanced Tactus Exercises

Exercise 1

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




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

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

Tactus allows you to link phrases into the future.

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

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

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

(Zacconi 1592)


Exercise Two

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

When I do count the clock that tells the Time

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

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

If Music and sweet Poetry agree

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

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

Exercise Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Four

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



Practise these examples with the Tactus-hand.


The Shape of Time



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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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



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

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

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

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



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

The Practice of Tactus – Owners Workshop Manual


A Practical Guide – Part 1

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


Science, Art & Use

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



Share the Power of Tactus

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

1. Prerequisites

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

Those fundamentals are:

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

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

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

2. Development exercises.



Rule 1: do NOT use a metronome.

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

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

Rule 3: do NOT use a metronome.

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

Exercise One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Exercise Three

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

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

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

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

Exercise Three with music

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

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

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

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

3. Maintenance exercises

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

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

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

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

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

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

4. Rehearsal techniques

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Last note short! 

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

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

Long notes long, short notes short!


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

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

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

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

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.

Why remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

ARIANNA a la recherche

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.


WHY remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?


Recalling the famous question, why climb Mount Everest, I’m tempted to answer for Arianna, “because it’s not there!”. All that survives of the original music is the famous Lamento, published for voice and continuo in 1623, also transcribed as a 5-voice madrigal and in religious contrafacta. As Tim Carter writes in Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), Monteverdi regarded Arianna, composed in Mantua the year after Orfeo, as his greatest work for the stage; he revived it as his first production for the public theatre in Venice (1640);  it came closest to the via naturale alla immitatione, ‘the natural way to represent’ drama in music.

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


Certainly, the construction of almost the entire opera is a formidable challenge, a musicological and artistic mountain to climb, with a huge pile of text to set, including a Prologue for Apollo and a virtuoso final aria for Bacchus, both sung by Francesco Rasi, who also sang the title-role in Orfeo. Any half-way decent setting will present a similar challenge to performers and an intriguing experience for audiences, as well offering irresistible grist to the mill of critics and musicologists.


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


It is the task of the historian to create appropriate frames of reference within which Monteverdi’s works might plausibly have been viewed and understood by competent members of their first audiences. We are helped by various more or less obvious signposts in the works themselves; we are hindered by the unclear nature of early seventeenth-century theatrical and musical semiotics. Much hangs on the question of how precisely the music both informs and shapes our understanding….

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


And the investigation of this ‘lost opera’ is a fascinating research project, following Professor Carter’s lead once again:


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


Composing, rehearsing and performing a setting of Rinuccini’s libretto (which survives in several variant editions) is the ultimate practical investigation, a hands-on study that should complement traditional musicology and reveal new insights.


Treating Monteverdi’s operas … as being of and for the theatre does not diminish their stature.

The status of his operas as the first ‘great’ examples of the genre means that they are rarely studied in this more practical light: thus their careful design and even content made to suit his performers have not hitherto been fully appreciated. Not that these works suffer as a result; indeed, one is forced to recognise still more Monteverdi’s remarkable achievement as a man of the theatre.



It’s always possible that the publicity surrounding this ‘reconstruction’ might flush out of hiding an original source for Monteverdi’s setting, held perhaps by some private collector, or buried in some as yet un-catalogued archive. For performers and academics of the future, this would be a great result from our humble endeavour. And the investigatory effort would not be wasted: on the contrary, comparisons between original and reconstruction would reveal gaps in our knowledge and understanding.


Reverse-Engineering Arianna


Many of the world’s most inspiring teachers take the trouble also to study new disciplines, deliberately placing themselves at the other end of the teacher/pupil axis. For this, amongst other reasons, I began studying Tai Chi. In the academic study of any of the arts, the reverse side of the coin from analysis is creativity. Early Music, our discipline of Historically Informed Performance, is sometimes characterised as searching to understand and follow the composer’s intentions: the reverse of that process is to become the composer oneself, transforming the libretto not only into a musical score, but into a dramatic performance and an emotional experience for the audience.


In short, the journey ‘a la recherche’ of lost Arianna is empowered by the connections between Research, Training and Performance that define the theatrical mission of OPERA OMNIA, that have guided my academic and artistic work ever more strongly over the last decades. I hope that, in your different individual ways, you will be interested to join us on this unique journey.


[Pioneering musicologist, Nino] Pirrotta wished to dispel any lingering Romantic vision of Monteverdi as a transcendental genius, and the related claim that opera as a genre emerged fully formed and perfect in his hands. Rather, he sought to place the composer and his work for the theatre squarely in the context of his life and times. Monteverdi was a working musician… and his operas, for all their undoubted status as masterpieces, were the product of artistic struggle where problems were exposed and not always solved.



It was Professor Carter, playing devil’s advocate, who first challenged my Arianna idea with the question, “Why?”. Since then, he has been immensely generous with comments, guidance and historical information. All the musicological citations in this article are from Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre. Inevitably, we will disagree here and there, but this project could not succeed without him. Thank you, Tim.



So much for “Why?”. The next question is of course, “How?”. Watch for my next post!

The Perfect Musical Director: Music inspires me!

Updated May 25th 2016 – please revisit this page for further updates, or LIKE our Facebook page here to receive updates automatically.


Art, crown, refreshment, heavenly language, pleasure of gods and men – all these speak to me in words!


The Perfect Musical Director


No, before I’m drowned out with howls of derision, that’s not me! Rather it’s Johann Mattheson’s Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739). Mattheson’s weighty tome is a key source for baroque performance practice, pre-dating the three great Essays of the 1750s (CPE Bach, Quantz & Leopold Mozart).


The book is famous, famously long, and famously long-winded: how many of us have read it all through? I confess that I hadn’t, and so now I’ve started. My personal selection and summary of Mattheson’s ideas will be posted in progressively updated versions of this post, with extended commentary in future postings.


Meanwhile, please LIKE the Perfect Musical Director Facebook page here to receive real-time messages from the year 1739!


You can find Mattheson’s complete original here.


Mattheson title page


Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

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

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, Principal Guest Director of Concerto Copenhagen, and visiting director for modern and baroque orchestras throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Awards include the Golden Masque (Russia’s highest music-theatre prize) for baroque opera, the USA Handel Society Prize for best opera CD, and the German Echo Prize for baroque orchestral concertos. He is also Director of Baroque Opera and Historical Action at the Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Satz’.

From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.




The Power of Tactus: A hands-on approach

Hand of God supernova


Tactus is the slow, steady beat that guides Early Music, shown by a down-up movement of the hand, approximately one second each way. In previous posts, I’ve introduced the concept Rhythm – what really counts?, explored the philosophical background Quality Time: how does it feel?and summarised the implications for Historically Informed Performance Tempus Putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s Time


In this article the focus is on the Tactus Hand itself, on the practicalities of embodying a mystic concept that links everyday music-making with the divine power of the cosmos. And we should not underestimate that power, since, for renaissance and baroque musicians, the Tactus Hand was the Hand of God made visible in microcosm.


Hand as cosmos


Tactus in the 1980s


Since the 1980s, as co-director of ensemble Tragicomedia and in my own teaching and directing, I have frequently used a simple arm-waving exercise to give participants a practical experience of Tactus. I emphasise the significance of a two-way motion with a sense of ‘swing’, as opposed to the hammering effect of a one-way beat. I recommend using the entire arm, a long pendulum for a slow swing. And already in those days, I noticed that this kind of Tactus work brought to the group a special atmosphere of calm and concentration. After just a minute or so of beating Tactus, the room seems quieter, each of us  more aware of small sounds and as a group, better able to find a united sense of rhythm and timing.


In my own playing, I notice that keeping my mind on the Tactus allows me to stay calm, even in demanding fast passage-work. No matter how fast my fingers need to move, my inner focus is on that slow swing: even the fast bits still feel slow and steady. Working with singers, I encourage them to feel the embodied power of the Tactus, to realise that they could hold the entire ensemble in their own hands, and to feel (like a physical weight) the responsibility that this entails.  The Tactus-movement can’t be a trivial flip of the wrist, it needs the gravity of a long, weighty pendulum.


Foucault pendulum 1851


George Houle’s most useful survey of Metre in Music: 1600-1800 was published in 1987, though I didn’t come across it until many years later. Houle wondered what a tactus-directed ensemble would sound like: my work ever since has been devoted to answering that question.


Since the 1990s, with my own ensemble, The Harp Consort, we continue to apply Tactus to many different repertoires, to Spanish dances in Luz y Norte, to German high baroque in Italian Concerto, to the medieval Ludus Danielis and the first South American opera, La púpura de la rosa, to folk-music from Guernsey, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, to Purcell’s theatrical and chamber music in Musick’s Hand-Maid, to medieval popular songs Les Miracles de Notre Dame and Latin-American religious music, Missa Mexicana. In these and many other projects, Tactus is the organising principle that unites the whole ensemble in music, dance and improvisation.

Tactus in the 2010s


In this current decade, with my renewed focus on early opera, Tactus has been a key concept in the award-winning Text, Rhythm, Action! program of international research, experiment, training and performance. I’ve re-opened the investigation of Tactus in the context of the Historical Science of Time itself, and applied the latest research findings to my work on Baroque Gesture and Historical Action. Fascinating connections have emerged: the 18th-century love of fermata and cadenza seems to match the contemporaneous fashion for striking Attitudes on the theatrical stage.


(c) The Holburne Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

David Garrick as Richard III in 1759


Some findings would seem glaringly obvious, but have previously escaped attention. Monteverdi, Shakespeare and their contemporaries circa 1600 did not share our present-day intuitive understanding of Absolute Time: that idea was introduced in Newton’s Principia (1687). The seicento concept of Time was Aristotelian, depending on movement to define ‘before’ and ‘after’. In music, that movement is embodied in the Tactus Hand.



What is Time


Gradually, I’ve been able to reach a more refined understanding of Tactus as Time, Tactus as Movement, with the goal of applying all that pre-Newtonian philosophy to down-to-earth practicalities. How do we move our hands to create Tactus, and what does it mean?


For Italian music around the year 1600, the Tactus hand is indeed like a pendulum, swinging for about one second each way (i.e. two seconds for the complete there-and-back-again). The complete (reciprocal) movement corresponds to a semibreve, so each individual (one-way) beat corresponds to a minim, at approximately minim = 60. Of course, in Monteverdi’s day, although there were clocks that ticked approximate seconds accurate to about 15 minutes per day, clocks were not capable of defining those seconds accurately. So Tactus Time is only as accurate as you can humanly make it.


The precise Quantity of Time therefore can’t be defined: rather Tactus relies on each musician to remember how it feels, to recall the Quality of Time.  So try these tests: can you remember the sound of a ticking clock? How fast does it tick (according to your memory)? Can you recall the speed of some particular piece of music that you’ve often performed with the same team? How accurately can you estimate a one-second pulse? If you hear a church clock strike noon, how good is your estimate of 1215?


Of course, nowadays, you can check your estimates against Absolute Time (well, at least against a digital stopwatch!). But the point of these experiments is to get used to the idea that


You are trying to feel the right Time


This is very different from the modern musical practice of performers choosing their own time. Seicento tempo is not a matter of personal choice!. You would not get much sympathy if you turned up late for rehearsal, saying “Although most people take it faster, in my interpretation, it is not yet 10 o’clock.” Toby Belch, in Shakespeare’s As you like it (1603) makes a similar connection between good time-keeping in everyday life (‘to go to bed betimes’) and keeping time in music. In reply to Malvolio’s accusation that he shows no respect of time, he retorts that ‘we did keep time, sir, in our catches’ (witty part-songs).


Keep Time


Your estimate of time will naturally be influenced by your surroundings and your own state of mind: if you are in a hectic mood, you might err on the fast side; if you are feeling particularly relaxed, you might err on the slow side. If you play a piece of music in a generous acoustic, you might play it slower; in a dry acoustic, you might play it faster to get the same feeling.


The precise Quantity cannot be defined – you are trying to find the right Quality


Fixing Tactus at the order of magnitude of one second (for C time in Italian seicento: in other repertoires, there are significant pulse-rates somewhat faster at approx 80 beats per minute or somewhat slower at around 45 bpm) does not imply a ‘metronomic’ performance. There is room inside that slow, steady minim beat for the subtle difference between Good and Bad syllables (in crotchets) or the dance-like swing of French inegalite (in quavers). There are also symmetries on longer time-scales, and good musicians will be sensitive to these too. Nevertheless, Tactus provides a particular time-scale, a calibration that synchronises musical notation with real-world time, with physical movement, and with the human body. That time-scale is approximately one second, corresponding to a pendulum-length of approximately one metre, which is approximately the length of an outstretched arm (measured to the centre of the body).


Narrowing down the historical sense of musical time to an order of magnitude might not seem like much progress towards the question of “what is the historical tempo for Monteverdi’s Orfeo?”. But even this very approximate measure can help unify an ensemble, by ensuring that everyone is feeling the same beat (as opposed to some counting in crotchets, others counting in minims). There has been some discussion along the lines that if a slow Tactus beat is good, then feeling a super-slow pulse (say 30, or even just 15 beats per minute) might be even better. But whilst there is evidence for very slow pulse in some medieval music, around the year 1600 ensemble unity was definitely organised on the Tactus time-scale at around 60 bpm.


Establishing an approximate calibration of real-world time to the speed of a minim in common time is also a vital first step towards understanding seicento Proportions. Whether or not a certain interpretation of the relationship between common and triple time is plausible, depends crucially on the starting tempo in common time. Somewhat illogically, current debate on Proportions recognises that historical notation was intended to fix the speed of triple metres (even if we do not yet have a consensus agreement about how to understand that notation), but resists the idea that the speed of common time was also fixed (as precisely as humanly possible). But Roger Mathew Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music shows how the entire system of Proportional notation depends crucially on common-time Tactus. The various Proportions are linked, like cog-wheels in a 17th-century clock, and calibrated to real-world time by setting common-time Tactus at the rate of one minim = one second (as precisely as humanly possible).


Galileo Pendulum



The pendulum effect, discovered by Galileo in the late 16-century but not built into a clock until 1656, was used to measure musical time by means of Loulié’s chronomètre (1696) and as late as 1840, in Bunting’s transcriptions of ancient Irish harp-music. With students from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, we tried playing to a pendulum beat at Scoil na gClairseach: the experience is nothing like playing to a metronome click. Try it for yourself, and you’ll immediately appreciate the differences.


The movement of a pendulum, pausing momentarily at the end of each swing, leaves musicians a certain margin for subtle choice of where to ‘place’ the beat. To use the vocabulary of jazz, you can be ‘on the front of the beat’ or ‘laid back’. In this sense, a pendulum feels more ‘human’, less ‘mechanical’. However, the pendulum does not allow those subtle choices to pile up cumulatively: it checks any general tendency to rush or drag. Meanwhile, the strong but gentle movement of a pendulum has the same mesmeric effect of inducing relaxed concentration that we notice with the Tactus hand itself.


Down & Up


Re-reading seicento treatises reminded me that the Tactus movement is always described as down-up. So when using the Tactus hand as a rehearsal exercise, or in performances of Cavalieri’s (1600) Anima e Corpo at the Theatre Natalya Sats in Moscow, we abandoned the side-to-side swing in favour of the historical, vertical movement. This creates a subtle distinction between the two directions of movement, with Down having added significance, and facilitates awareness of the complete Tactus cycle, from Down to Down.


From my studies of historical swordsmanship, modern Feldenkrais Method and ancient Tai Chi, I can now appreciate that the sensation of ‘soft strength’ appropriate to beating musical time can be found by connecting the Tactus Hand down through the whole body. This requires a body-posture that maintains structural integrity with minimal tension. We can see such postures in period paintings and sculptures: a good posture for Tactus is also the starting point for Baroque Gesture, and for historically informed instrumental playing.


My training as a Hypnotist provides an explanation for the special sense of relaxation and concentration that focus on the Tactus can evoke. Following the lead of Milton H. Erickson (the father of modern hypnotism) and of Joe Griffin (theorist of the Origin of Dreams), it is now recognised that any experience of calm concentration can induce a particular state of mind. We can call this an Altered State of Consciousness, we can call it Flow or being in the Zone, we can call it Mindfulness or Meditatation: the labels don’t really matter. This phenomenon of heightened awareness is the key to optimal performance not only in music, but also in many other creative and sporting activities.


The Flow Zone mashup 2015


Preparing for the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, we encountered many instances of slow triple-metre, notated as 3 Sesquialtera semibreves in the time of the 2 common-time minims. This can be a tricky Proportional change, but Tactus helps us manage it, especially with a vertical motion of the hand. The duration of the complete cycle from Down to Down continues unchanged: the only adjustment is that Down now lasts longer than Up.


Sesquialtera: Down – Up becomes Down – 2 – Up


In Spanish baroque music, the same adjustment happens even more frequently, whenever we find the cross-rhythm of Hemiola amongst a regular metre of Tripla. A well-known modern example is I wanna live in America: two units of Tripla, I wanna / live in A- / (Down Up) have the same duration as one unit of Hemiola me-ri-ca (Down – 2- Up).


One way to negotiate such shifts is to de-emphasise the Up stroke so that it simply doesn’t matter whether it is equal (Down Up) or unequal (Down – 2- Up). Instead, the focus is on preserving the equality of measure in the complete cycle, a consistent time between Down strokes. This focus on the complete Tactus-cycle, on the common-time semibreve rather than on the minim of each stroke, is mentioned in some period treatises, and works well for us in practice.


Divided Choirs

Towards the end of last year, working with multiple Tactus-beaters for polychoral music, I suddenly noticed a small detail of Tactus-beating that had previously escaped my attention. In the three-choir piece illustrated on the frontispiece of Praetorius’  Theatrum Instrumentorum, the Tactus Hands are shown palm outwards.


Praetorius Theatrum Instrumentorum


I immediately searched through other period images and consulted with colleagues. Though no-one else had noticed it before either, it became apparent that Tactus-beating was usually, perhaps always, palm-outwards. (Do let me know if you find evidence to the contrary, or if you would like to add to the mountain of evidence in favour of palm-out).




The historical movement of the Tactus Hand, down-up with the palm outwards, feels different, and subtly alters the relationship between the two strokes. And the connections to Baroque Gesture are highly significant. The starting position of Tactus (hand high, palm outwards) corresponds to the orator’s preparatory gesture, commanding the audience to be silent and listen. The powerful Down movement of the Tactus stroke corresponds to a gesture of authority, quelling and directing subordinates.


Silentium postulo


The period philosophy of the Music of the Spheres connects the perfect movement of the cosmos with the harmonious nature of the human body and with practical music-making. Similarly, heavenly Time directed by the Hand of God is reflected in the microcosm of the Human hand beating Tactus and in the perfection (to the limits of human ability) of musical rhythm. That rhythm is found by dividing the slow Tactus beat in various Proportions, just as the movement of the stars and planets are derived from the Primum Mobile. This concept is beautifully described in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXVII. Here is the classic Longfellow translation:


The nature of the universe, which holds
the center still and moves all else around it,
begins here as if from its turning-post.

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.

No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion,
but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten;

and now it can be evident to you
how time has roots within this vessel and,
within the other vessels, has its leaves.


Primum Mobile


The Tactus Hand embodies the divine Hand of God; maintaining Tactus symbolises the turning of the cosmos; the movements of the Tactus Hand embody earthly authority and command listeners’ attention. However, the authority of Tactus is not located in the whims and fancies of an individual Tactus-beater: Tactus-beating is utterly different from modern conducting. The responsibility of a Tactus-beater is to recall and preserve the perfection of heavenly time, not to make personal choices. So it is that multiple Tactus-beaters can collaborate simultaneously, as Praetorius showed.


No-one is trying to make a personal interpretation of Time: everyone is trying to unite in finding the right time.


Some musicians feel a deep sense of responsibility to arrive at rehearsal on time. This is part of the respect we owe to the beauty and ineffable nature of Music itself. If you can understand such respect, then you might begin to understand the sense of high duty and precise timeliness that renaissance musicians felt about rhythm.


Dowland Above all things original


Music and other arts offer us earth-born creatures a glimpse of a world beyond the everyday. In period philosophy, the Tactus Hand allows musicians to touch the stars. We all know that Early Music was directed not by conductors, but by Tactus beaters. So why not try the Power of Tactus for yourself! I’m sure you’ll have a Good Time.


Hand touching the stars



Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

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

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


Look Bach on 2015

ALK & Peri


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

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



Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!


Peri Euridice Preface vale


Please join me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

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


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



Start Here: How to study Baroque Gesture & Historical Action

We must not break forth at once into speech, but should allow ourselves a few moments for reflection… In this preliminary delay there are certain pauses, as the actors call them, which are not unbecoming. We may stroke our head, look at our hand, wring the fingers, pretend to summon all our energies for the effort.


Homer describes Ulysses as having stood for a while with eyes fixed on the ground and staff held motionless, before he poured forth his whirlwind of eloquence. And these recommendations for how to start a speech (or an aria, or an instrumental solo, or for that matter, a corporate or academic presentation) come from Quintilian Institutio Oratoria (c95 AD) complete text here, in English translation.

So should we start by reading all 12 volumes of Quintilian (in the original Latin, of course)? Well, you could do worse, but there are perhaps quicker ways to get started. Read on…

In 2010, when I began to investigate baroque gesture seriously, in preparation for a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (see the documentary film here and below), I started as any academic researcher might do, by reading key primary and secondary sources: Bonifaccio’s L’Arte dei Cenni (The Art of Gesture, 1616) here; John Bulwer’s 1644 Chironomia here; and that magnificent pioneering study, Dene Barnett’s (1987) The Art of Gesture: The Practices and Principles of 18th-century Acting. [Available on-line in 5 parts here, but charges may apply. Thank you to Brian Robins for informing me of this link]

Of course, this was not at all the way to start! Well, yes and no. These three books, along with Quintilian and other such publications are indispensable sources of historical information of what to do with your hands. But those hand-movements depend (physically) on whole-body structure and mental/spiritual connections, and they depend (rhetorically) on the text. And Baroque Gesture is only one element (and perhaps not the most significant) of the discipline of Historical Action.

Baroque Gesture requires holistic study

Attentionem poscit and art


Physically, gestural practices circa 1600 were enabled by the general embodied habitus of Early Modern performers. In an age before motor-cars and lifts, they walked and took the stairs, they rode horses. They were fit and more connected to their bodies than many of us today. They had better balance, they were more ‘centred’. Courtiers spent many hours every day dancing and practising swordsmanship.




Music Dance Swordsmanship


So any modern study of baroque gesture requires a grounding in academic knowledge and practical experience of period posture, early dance and historical swordsmanship. Speaking for myself, an academic appreciation can be more quickly acquired than an embodied understanding. It takes years of daily practice to assimilate ‘new’, healthy and historical ways of standing and moving. Experience with early dance is a great help, and sword-school is enormous fun. Although it is from another culture, I have found Tai Chi very helpful too in improving balance, establishing a sense of “centre” and facilitating mind/body/spirit connections.

Suit the Action to the Word



This is the advice for would-be Players in Shakespeare’s c1600 Hamlet. Baroque Gesture is only one element of Historical Action, which includes positioning on the stage (and even stage design), full-body acting, facial expressions etc.

For a list of possible gestures, see Bonifacio’s chapter headings, which examine the whole body from head to toe, not omitting ‘gestures of the genitals’. I’m currently working on a translation and commentary, to be published in 2016.

For an overview of all the various disciplines pertaining to Historical Action, see the opening chapter of that anonymous c1630 guide for a theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago, edited here.

By far the greatest influence is exercised by the glance. For it is by this that we express supplication, threats, flattery, sorrow, joy, pride or submission. It is on this that our audience hang, on this that they rivet their attention and their gaze, even before we begin to speak. It is this that inspires the hearer with affection or dislike, this that conveys a world of meaning and is often more eloquent than all our words.



And all this Action is dependent on the Text. It is not a modern “production” that has its own values, nor is it some kind of ancient hand-ballet, however visually pleasing that might be when done well. Action flows from the Text. Not only is the choice and timing of each gesture dictated by the play-text or opera-libretto, but the actor’s motivation, the mental and spiritual energy that empowers the physical movement, comes from the meaning and emotional force of the particular word being pronounced in that very moment.

This demands intense concentration on the text, not only in rehearsal, but right in the moment of performance. It should not be necessary to point out that performers (singers and their instrumental colleagues) need to understand the meaning and deeper significance of every word that is spoken or sung. But that understanding needs to be accessed in real time. It is not enough to have the translation written into the score, or buried somewhere in one’s memory. The complete implications of every word need to be fully present, in the exact moment that you pronounce it.

‘Staying with the text’ like this can function as a Mindfulness exercise, keeping the performer ‘in the moment’ and focussed, creating a special state of consciousness that enables relaxed concentration and flow. From this optimised mind-set, a great performance can emerge.


Of the various elements that go to form the expression, the eyes are the most important, since they, more than anything else, reveal the temper of the mind, and without actual movement will twinkle with merriment or be clouded with grief. And further, nature has given them tears to serve as interpreters of our feelings, tears that will break forth sorrow or stream for very joy. But, when the eyes move, they become intent, indifferent, proud, fierce, mild, or angry; and they will assume all these characters according as the [text] may demand.


eyes - mourinho


Most challenging of all, all of these elements – posture, movement, gesture, full-body acting and facial expressions, deep appreciation of the text – have to function simultaneously and in co-ordination. This does not come quickly or easily: one has to acquire the skill-set and musculature over years of study, hone the application to a particular text over hours of rehearsal, then give it that essential lift of spontaneity (for example, by choosing spontaneously from several well-rehearsed options, or by adding little touches of ‘ornamentation’ to the performance). Finally, you have to concentrate all this preparation into the one tiny instant of execution.

So Baroque Gesture is not something that we can master in a 90-minute workshop or condense into a short blog-post. It is a life-long study, that (for any true artist) will never be ‘perfected’. There is always something new to learn, something to understand more deeply, something to execute better in performance.

But there are some first steps that will get you started quickly. More quickly than me! So, whilst you are putting in the time to internalise the collected wisdom of Quintilian, Bulwer & Bonifacio, to memorise the complete works of Shakespeare and/or to translate all the ‘opera’ libretti from Anima e Corpo (1600) to Poppea (1643),  to learn all of Negri’s courtly dances, and to become a rapier-master according to Capo Ferro, here are some quick and easy short-cuts, literally from the ground up.


Start here



1. Historical Stance

Whenever you stand to sing/speak, practising at home, in the rehearsal room or on stage, adopt a historical stance. You can also practise this whilst waiting for a bus, an airport security check, or to pay for your coffee. Renaissance courtiers had to stand like this all day, so it became second nature to them. The aim is to minimise body tension, whilst still looking cool: ideal for standing around at court, waiting for your opportunity to shine. The technical term for this is contrapposto, an elegantly assymmetrical stance:

Stand diagonally-on to your audience.

With your weight on one leg.

The other (unweighted) leg is your ‘ornamental leg’. It is elegantly bent. Let the audience see how good it looks.

Relax, and let the weight fall through the weighted leg into the floor.

When you need to shift position, just change the weight into the other leg.


There is much more, as you can read in any history of art study of the contrapposto, but this is a good start. Practise it whenever you have half a chance!


2. Hands

Hold your script, or your musical score, in your LEFT hand. Now your right hand is free to gesture. This simple trick allows you to integrate gesture with your artistic preparation right from the beginning and throughout the rehearsal period, even into non-memorised performance. Let your RIGHT hand assume the default historical shape, as illustrated by Barnett.


056 Barnett 1

Imagine your right hand is holding a tennis ball. Relax, so that you are not using any more strength than is needed for that tennis ball’s weight.

Bring your middle and ring fingers together.

Let your index finger open outwards, and bring your little finger inwards a little.

If you turn this hand-shape over, it becomes an elegantly curved pointing gesture.


057 Barnett 2


Try it!


3. Eyes

This is what I call the Ut Pictura (like a picture) technique. As you study your text, create a detailed imaginary vision of precisely what everything looks like, with period iconography as a guide to keep your vision historically focussed. As you deliver the text, look at what you are talking about. Let your eyes and face show how you feel about what you ‘see’.


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

You will quickly notice how often baroque texts employ detailed visual imagery and such pointing words as “Look”, “Here”, “Now” etc. The more specific, detailed and precise your imagined vision, the more specific and interesting your eye-movements will be for the audience.


Further Study

No, these three first steps will not make you a master of Baroque Gesture. But they will create the conditions in which you can study and practise further. See my upcoming posts on what you might do next. And meanwhile, you have plenty of reading to do, in between those dance and swordsmanship classes!


Part 2 of this series, Modus Agendi, or How to Act is here.


Bulwer & Bonifaccio

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









The First Opera & The Beginning of Baroque

This is a slide-show introduction, based on lecture given to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Theatre Natalya Satz, Moscow (the original home of Peter and the Wolf), following the 45th performance of the theatre’s award-winning production of Anima & Corpo. Nevertheless, this post draws on the latest research findings, and there may be some surprises, even for seasoned baroque fans!


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

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

What are the three secrets of great performance

17th-century writers were still re-telling a story going back via Quintilian and Cicero to Demosthenes (4th cent. BC). The question was posed:


What are the three secrets of great performance?

Action Action Action


Demosthenes’ first answer was “Action!”. And his second answer was “Action!”, And his third answer was also “Action”.

Greek Drama

Meanwhile, in the decades before the year 1600, philosophers of performance were impressed by the emotional power of the ancient Greek and Roman dramas, which (they believed) had been fully sung. So Cavalieri and his colleagues wanted Action in their music, and Music in their dramas: fully-sung music-drama was the epitome of their beliefs in the power of performance.

The modern label 'first opera' encourages us to consider all that came after Cavalieri. But to understand his work, we need to view it in its own historical context. And we should be cautious: even though this is sophisticated, dramatically powerful, fully-sung music-theatre, Cavalieri did not call it 'opera'. It is a 'Rappresentatione', a 'show'. It is not 'primitive', but it certainly is different from our modern expectations.

The modern label ‘first opera’ encourages us to consider all that came after Cavalieri. But to understand his work, we need to view it in its own historical context. And we should be cautious: even though this is sophisticated, dramatically powerful, fully-sung music-theatre, Cavalieri did not call it ‘opera’. It is a Rappresentatione, a ‘show’. It is not ‘primitive’, but it certainly is different from our modern expectations.


Not ‘primitive’ but DIFFERENT…

… might well be our motto, as we climb into our time-machine in order to explore Planet Earth, circa 1600.


Architecture and Art

This was an age of impressive architecture: as assistant to Michelangelo, Cavalieri’s father Tommaso was closely involved with the building of St Peter’s Rome. Painting became ever more dramatic, culminating in the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. Even religious subjects were depicted with theatrical bravura: Tommaso de Cavalieri was the model for Adam in Michelangelo’s frescos for the Sistine Chapel.

Exploration and Science

The exploration of the Americas continued, charted by sophisticated world maps. Galileo trained his telescope on the moons of Jupiter, and also experimented with gravity at the tower of Pisa.

Music Dance Swordsmanship

Italian ladies and gentleman at court would spend much of their time making music in madrigal groups or consorts of viols. Several hours each day would be spent learning and performing new social dances. And a couple more hours daily were devoted to practising swordsmanship, with the fashionable rapier, well over 1 metre long, with a needle point and razor-sharp edges.

Circa 1600

There was plenty of new music. Cavalieri’s opera was quickly followed by Caccini’s Le nuove musiche (1601/2), the first collection of songs with continuo-bass  accompaniment, which includes the famous Amarilli, mia bella. In 1607, Monteverdi’s ‘story in music’ Orfeo was performed: Aggazzari’s treatise from that year, Del sonare sopra’ l basso explains how many different kinds of instrument could improvise accompaniments from the same continuo-bass notation. In 1610, Monteverdi’s magnificent Vespers mixed old-style polyphony with the new techniques of continuo-song; Capo Ferro’s survey of rapier swordsmanship is from the same year. In England, this was the age of Shakespeare’s plays (full of music, of course) and Dowland’s melancholic lute-music.


In 1609 Dowland also translated into English an influential book on singing, Ornithoparcus’ Micrologus, in which he emphasises the particular importance of rhythm.





Violin family

Violin-family instruments from the late 16th century are still regarded today as the finest ever made. Praetorius’ 1619 diagram shows violin, viola, cello and related instruments, together with a surviving cello by Amati. Nowadays, these wonderful instruments have been altered, by changing the angle of the fingerboard to increase the string tension. But around 1600, violins were held in a relaxed way on the shoulder, were strung more lightly, and were not encumbered by chin-rests, tuning screws and shoulder rests. With its original set-up, the instrument is not as loud as a modern violin, but is more direct and responsive. If a modern violin is like a big, luxurious limousine, then a baroque violin is like a sports-car: lighter, more manoeuvrable, and (I would say), more fun to drive!

Shawms and Dulcians

The early-17th-century predecessor of the oboe was the Shawm, which was made in various sizes from soprano to bass. The double-reed is surrounded by a wooden ‘pirouette’ to support the player’s lips. The Dulcian is the ancestor of the bassoon, and also came in various sizes from bass to soprano. Whereas nowadays we consider oboes to be the high register and bassoons the low register of a single ‘family’ of instruments, in Cavalieri’s time they were two distinct consorts, each with a complete range from treble to bass.

Cornetts and Sackbuts

Baroque trombones, known in English as Sackbuts, have a narrower bore than their modern descendants. Like baroque strings, they are not as loud as modern instruments, but more precise and flexible in their sound. Praetorius shows the trombone family from bass to alto. The upper register of this consort is represented by the Cornetto, made from wood, with leather wrapped around it. It has a wooden mouth-piece similar to a trumpet’s, and finger-holes in the tube similar to a flute. The sound is somewhere in-between a trumpet and a flute, and was considered in this period to be the closest to the sound of the human voice. That gives us a clue to the sound-world of circa-1600 singing: not as loud as modern opera singers, but clear, precise and very flexible.

Trumpets and Drums

Trumpets and drums were originally military instruments, and are still today associated with royalty. Baroque trumpets have no valves; the different pitches, including extreme high notes, are created with sophisticated lip-technique.


Divided Choirs


We can recognise the descendants of these early baroque consorts in the various sections of a modern orchestra. But around 1600, large groups of instruments were not formed into a single ensemble, but were rather distributed around the available space in groups of 4 to 7. Each group was considered to be a ‘choir’, that might mix instruments and voices, or might be homogenous, e.g. contrasting a string ‘choir’ with a wind ‘choir’.





You can view and download for free a full-size version of this poster here.


The most important instrumental section in the first operas has no equivalent in a modern orchestra. The Continuo section brings together a variety of instruments with the common purpose of providing harmonic support and rhythmic direction, guiding the entire company of instruments and voices. Like the rhythm section of a jazz-band, Continuo-players define the rhythmic structure, respond to the various soloists and add decorative touches of their own. Agazzari’s 1607 treatise Del Sonare sopra’l  basso here explains how each type of instrument contributes to the Continuo.

renaissance organ

The organo di legno, or chamber Organ, has wooden pipes, and plays sustained harmonies in the low register, to support the voices and melodic instruments.


The Harpsichord has metal strings; when you press a key, a wooden jack rises past the string, so that a small plectrum (shaped from a bird-quill) can pluck the string upwards. As you release the key, the jack descends and a piece of felt is lowered onto the string to stop the sound. The sound is not as loud as a modern piano, but is clear and rhythmically precise. In this style, the Harpsichord also plays simple harmonies in the low register, defining the essential harmonic and rhythmic foundation.



The Regal, or reed-organ, has metal pipes; when air enters the pipe, a metal tongue vibrates against a metal half-tube, and this vibration is amplified by the metal resonator. The sound is strong and rather nasal. If the wooden Organ suits scenes of heaven, or pastoral idylls on earth, then the Regal is ‘the organ from Hell’!


The most essential instrument in an early Italian continuo-section is the Theorbo, also known as Chitarrone. This is the double-bass instrument of the lute family, with two necks. The strings on the first neck run over a fingerboard, and produce a strong melodic bass, with chords in the tenor/alto register. The second neck is much longer, and these strings have no fingerboard; they give another octave of sub-bass notes, that provide a powerful rhythmic impulse and a long sustain that supports the harmonic arpeggio of the upper strings.

Arpa doppia

Around 1600, the harp doubled in size in order to create a strong sub-bass register comparable to the Theorbo’s. The Italian arpa doppia (double harp) has multiple rows of strings, arranged like the black and white notes of a keyboard, so that all harmonies and chromatic changes are available, just as on the harpsichord or organ.

The harp also has a full soprano register, so that it plays a unique role in the continuo section, defining fundamental structure alongside keyboards and theorbo, and also providing decorative touches in the higher register.

Baroque guitar

The baroque guitar has a plucking technique for solo repertoire, but in the Continuo section it usually provides rhythmic energy and decorative colour by strumming.

Read more about Agazzari’s categories of fundamental and decorative instruments here.

Theorbo + Organ


The combination of harpsichord and cello is typical of 18th-century music. In the early 17th-century, the usual pair is theorbo and organ.


Realising the Continuo

All the different instruments of the Continuo section play from the same bass-line, which may (or may not) have additional information about the harmonies indicated by figures above or below each note. But whilst they read from the same part, each player improvises the harmonies and any decorative touches according to the role and capabilities of each instrument: this is referred to as ‘realising’ the continuo.


No conducting!

No Conducting

One prominent figure in modern opera, the conductor who moulds the rhythm and guides the orchestra with his hand or baton, was not seen in the 17th century. Early Music was not conducted. The role of guiding the rhythm belonged to the Continuo section, as Agazzari tells us.

Of course, there would be someone to coordinate the rehearsals and make whatever decisions were needed. This job was done by Il Corago, who was usually the Artistic Director of the entire production, responsible not only for musical coordination, but also for guiding the actors, dancers, scene-builders, lighting technicians (sophisticated lighting effects were obtained from massed candles), and stuntmen (acrobats and sword-fighters). Cavalieri himself was a Corago, with a working knowledge of all of these disciplines, so that he could co-ordinate the contributions of each specialist.

When there was a large musical ensemble, it would be spatially divided into several groups, each of which would have a time-beater to synchronise the rhythm within the group and between one group and the others. The frontispiece of Praetorius’ Theatre of Instruments shows this practice in action, with a large ensemble divided into three ‘choirs’ of instruments and voices. Each choir has its own time-beater, and the three time-beaters watch each other to synchronise the beat.


Modern Topics

Today, discussions about Early Music often focus on the question of Vibrato. Period diagrams show the typical shape of long notes: a ‘plain note’ begins softly and then swells out (there is no vibrato); a ‘waved note’ similarly begins softly, and adds vibrato as the sound swells out.

Another topic of modern debate is the question of pitch. Around 1600, in the south of Italy, the pitch was lower than today’s standard of A440; in the north it was higher. In central Italy, it was somewhere in between. Bruce Haynes’ The Story of A here tells the History of Performing Pitch in great detail.

Subtle choices of precisely how to tune each note of a keyboard instrument or harp are studied as Temperament. Whereas on the modern piano, Eb and D# sound the same and are played from the same key, in historical Temperaments these are two subtly different pitches. Some keyboards have double keys for the black notes, baroque harps have extra strings, in order to facilitate this fine distinction. The typical Temperament circa 1600 is known as Quarter-Comma Meantone: it produces beautifully pure major thirds, making consonances sweeter and dissonances sharper.

These are the hot topics amongst many of todays’ Early Music practitioners. But what were the priorities for musicians and singers performing Anima & Corpo in the year 1600? The original print is here, and Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche tells us how to approach it:

The Interpretation of Early Music

Music is Text + Rhythm, and sound last of all.

“And not the other way around”, Caccini emphasises.

Text and Rhythm

These historical priorities guided my international research program into Text, Rhythm, Action! over the last five years, reported here, and I apply them in all my practical work, training musicians and directing performances for audiences today.



Period sources insist on the importance of communicating the text to the audience, so for the production at Theatre Natalya Satz, we wanted to speak to the audience directly in their own Russian language. Great care was taken to synchronise the translation with the ‘word-painting’ of Cavalieri’s music, in which every single word is individually set to music. Poet Alexey Parin worked together with specialist musicians Ivan Velikanov, Katerina Antonenko and myself, to preserve the close links between text and music.

Word Painting

At the beginning of the drama, the first notes are immediately repeated – not because a series of repeated Fs makes a wonderful melody, but in order to repeat the word for emphasis, just as a fine orator would do: “Time… Time”.

In this period, the term Aria has a different meaning; it signifies any repeated structure in words, rhythm, harmony or melody. The metric patterning of the verses Hoggi vien fore, Doman si more, Hoggi n’appare, Doman dispare [Today Life comes forth, tomorrow it dies; today it appears, tomorrow it disappears] is matched by similar patterns in the melodic contours, rhythms and harmonies of Cavalieri’s music. This, in early-17th-century terms, is another Aria, just like the repetition of the single word Tempo, along with its carefully set music.

If the text refers to Heaven above, ciel soprano, the singer will pitch his voice high. If the text mentions a party, festa, the music swings into fast triple-time. Just as an actor in a spoken play will raise his voice to indicate a question, so Cavalieri sets questions on rising pitches.

Text and music are so closely linked that many musical features are not Cavalieri’s compositorial choices, but rather his sensitive responses to the demands of the poetry. Similarly, many performance practices are not the performers’ artistic inspiration, but rather their sensitive responses to the demands of the text and the historical expectations of this musical style.


Many explanatory texts survive to inform us of those historical expectations, including a Preface with Cavalieri’s own indications how to perform this kind of music-drama, Agazzari’s treatise on Continuo already mentioned, and the anonymous c1630 guide for a music-theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago.



Although there were no conductors in this period, musicians, whether soloists,or in duet, trio and larger ensembles, would beat time with their hand, palm downwards, down for about one second, up for one second. This slow, steady beat was known as the Tactus. Read more about Tactus here.

What is music

Music itself was understood to be the Music of the Spheres – mysteriously produced by the perfect motion of the stars and planets; the harmonious nature of the human body; and – last of all – actual sounds sung and played on earth. So musical rhythm represents that perfect heavenly movement, rhythm is life itself.



Just as clockwork produces various speeds of rotation from one fundamental movement, so 17th-century musicians perceived the different orbits of the planets to be meshed together and turned by the hand of God. This philosophy is imitated in musical Proportions, by which the constant slow Tactus beat is divided into 2, 3 or 6, to create duple, tripla and sestupla metres. A Proportion of 3:2 creates Sesquialtera metre.

What is Time

Time, like Music, was celestial and embodied, measured by the cosmos and the human pulse, better than by clocks. The sun shows the time of day and fixes the moment of noon, the stars show the changes of the seasons. Our pulse measures shorter time-spans, of the order of seconds.

Galileo Pendulum


Galileo discovered the pendulum effect in 1582, observing a chandelier in Pisa cathedral, but the first pendulum clock was not built until 1656. So Galileo’s observations were timed against his own pulse – there was no more accurate clock.

Galileo Inclined Plane

For his experiments on gravity in 1607, Galileo had to time a ball rolling down an inclined plane to an accuracy of fractions of a second. This was far beyond the capabilities of any period clock, and required finer gradations than a pulse-beat. The solution was found in the precision of musical rhythm – if a minim is about one second, then semi-quavers define an eighth of a second.

You can try for yourself an on-line simulation of Galileo’s experiment, precision-timed by lute-music, here.

Newton and Aristotle

For most of us, our intuitive understanding of Time is based on Newton’s model of Absolute Time: Time itself continues ever-onward, independent of other variables. We we can measure the accuracy of a clock, or the daily changes in the precise time of solar noon, against the fixed scale of Newton’s Time. But Newton published in 1687, and it was many decades before his concepts gained general acceptance. In the year 1600, the accepted model of Time was Aristotle’s:

Time is a number of change/movement, in respect of before and after.

Without an Absolute scale to measure by, without the assurance that Time would march independently onwards, “change/movement” was required to create a “before and after” that would allow Time to be numbered. So musical Time, i.e. rhythm, was not only indicated by the hand-movement of the Tactus, it required such movement (at least as a concept) in order to exist at all. The movement of the cosmos, driven by the hand of God, not only measured time, but created it. Just as the heart-beat sustains life, so the steadiness of the musical Tactus was necessary for human health and indeed, for the preservation of the entire universe.

Read more about the philosophy of Time and musical Rhythm here.


Plato Kronos Kairos

The first character to appear in the first opera is Old Father Time, and his first words (repeated) are Il Tempo. Time is a crucial topic in this drama, understood within Platonic philosophy. The fleeting present moment is a moving image of Eternity, the point of contact between human life and infinite destiny, between earthly actions and the eternal struggle of Good and Evil.

There are two Greek words that we translate as ‘Time’ or in Italian, tempo. Chronological time, clock time, is Greek kronos, whereas kairos signifies the moment of opportunity. For a swordsman, kairos is the crucial instant of time when you must defend yourself to save your life, or when you might safely attack your opponent.

The Art of the Sword


Monteverdi wrote a one-act opera entitled Combattimento, a music-drama of sword-fighting. Opera-singer Julie d’Aubigny, known as La Maupin, was the best duellist of her age. Many dancing-masters were also fencing instructors, and the anonymous sword-master of Bologna declared that swordsmen needed the same precision timing as singers!

Capo Ferro’s 1610 Gran Simulacrum teaches the Art of the Sword, as applied to the long, needle-point, razor-sharp Italian rapier. If your opponent points his sword at your heart, you turn your (right) sword-hand palm-up and leftwards, so that your sword crosses his and protects you. His likely response is to dip his sword-point underneath your blade, and threaten your right shoulder instead. Now you will have to turn your sword-hand palm down and rightwards, pushing his sword aside so that you can lunge forwards and strike with the point of your sword.

Act with the hand, act with the heart!

Act with the heart, act with the hand


As we are told in the first scene of Anima & Corpo, historical acting linked emotional force to expressive hand-gestures. All the Action is founded on the poetic text, of course, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet instructs the Players:

Suit the Action to the Word

Bulwer Gestures


John Bulwer’s Chironomia (1644) shows gestures for Attention, for stylish Action, and for Antitheses (opposites): ‘on one hand…. on the other hand…’. Another way to Distinguish Contraries rotates the right hand palm-up and leftwards, then palm-down and out to the right.

To be or not to be


We could imagine such gestures being performed in Shakespeare’s most famous line from Hamlet:

To be or not to be, that’s the question

First we Distinguish Contraries  (to be, or not to be), and then we direct the audience’s Attention (the question). So To be (right hand palm-up and leftwards), or not to be (palm-down and out to the right), that’s (with index finger raised and the hand sent forwards, step forward to command the audience’s attention) the question.

If you try it for yourself, this sequence of movements might seem familiar to you: it is very similar to the sequence that we studied as a sword-drill, opposing to the left, turning the hand to close the line on the right, and then lunging forwards to strike.

Sword talk

Both Hamlet and Anima & Corpo are full of the language of sword-play. In Cavalieri’s masterpiece, the Guardian Angel would traditionally carry a sword, and the composer provides suitably martial music with G major harmonies and battle rhythms – the same harmonies and rhythms encountered a quarter-century later in Monteverdi’s Combattimento.

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo explores timeless questions of life and death by means of a fashionable vocabulary of sword-action. The English Play and the Italian Rappresentatione are each monuments of cultural achievement and artistic innovation: certainly not ‘primitive’, but endlessly fascinating and thought-provokingly different.

Anima e Corpo Golden Mask

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