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

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

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

What’s different now?

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

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

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

What was different in 1607?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to listen?

Concentrate on the words.

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at the ORFEO Page by Il Corago

Challenge your assumptions

 

 

 

This motivational text popped up in my FB feed. Not withstanding the split infinitive, this is what high-quality academic research should be about… and it’s not a bad motto for political opinions either.

 

Learning from errors

The realisation “Aha, I made a mistake” is the first step towards self-improvement. We musicians do this all the time when we practise, athletes and martial artists do this when they train… but it’s harder to do in the academic or personal context.

In the context of Historical Performance Practice, “I don’t know” is the first step towards becoming more Historically Informed. Whereas “I can’t be bothered to find out” is a step backwards, in any context.

In a leadership role, it can feel awkward to admit to errors. But whatever respect you lose or gain from declaring an honest mistake, it cannot compare to how foolish you look when your colleagues know that you are bluffing.

I can’t pretend I manage 100% compliance with this ideal. But I do try… And I think this principle is so important for intellectual research, that I’ve devoted this entire post to it.

 

Accept the challenge

I’m well aware of the phenomenon of ‘researcher bias’, whereby investigators subconsiously select evidence that will support their pet theory. To combat this inevitable tendency, I have made a point of following up citations posted by my academic opponents, and investigating their chosen sources in detail. This allows me to use their researcher bias to counter-balance my own, and has been a most fruitful way to extend my reading list. In academic research as in martial arts, your fiercest opponent can be your best training partner!

If we consider that Musicology – in German Musikwissenschaft – is a science, then the scientific method demands that we constantly test our hypotheses experimentally, and that we re-test frequently, to find out if our initial findings hold consistently.

In this sense, every rehearsal, every practice session, as well as each performance is a new experiment. We should hope that we learnt something from the previous experiment, so we are already in a new situation, even if we tread what might seem to be a well-worn path.

For this reason, I consider it very worth while to re-read familiar and “obvious” historical sources, just as often as I look for a “new” source to read.  Those familiar texts, which were perhaps our first steps into Early Music, can reveal startling new insights, if we approach them with an updated understanding of the context, and with the readiness to re-consider, to challenge our assumptions.

 

 

Challenge the accepted

Scientific scepticism is the aittitude that everything should be experimentally tested, and verified as replicable. The musicalogical equivalent in Historical Performance Pract ice is being ready to question the ‘standard operating procedures’ of today’s Early Music, whilst constantly challanging our own assumptions. What is even more difficult is to become aware of assumptions that we didn’t even know we had made, until some piece of period evidence proves them false…

 

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

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

 

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

 

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

Andrew Lawrence-King A Baroque History of Time (2014)

Rhetoric, Rhythm & Passions: Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2019

This article is posted in connection with the production of Orfeo in Vaasa and Helsinki, October 2019.

With the golden harp I charm mortal ears,
With the powerful harmony of the cosmos I touch your soul.

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the Heroes here…

Monteverdi’s music is Rhetoric that tells a story, delights the senses and stirs your emotions. Although it is one of the earliest music-dramas to be presented in today’s Opera Houses, L’Orfeo was not the ‘first opera’. The designation in Striggio’s (1607)  libretto here… as favella in musica… (a story in music) …rappresentata ( a theatrical show) in Mantua, associates this music-drama with Cavalieri’s (1600) Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo in Rome, and with Peri and Caccini’s Euridice,  performed in Florence later that same year.

 

 

Monteverdi’s Score was printed in 1609 here…, not to facilitate future performances, but as a souvenir of the original production, with many details of instrumentation and staging not often found in early baroque sources. There were three groups of instruments distributed around the stage: strings and flutes, cornetti and sackbuts, and the Basso Continuo who ‘supported and guided the whole ensemble of voices and instruments’ (Agazzari, 1607). There was no conductor: rhythmic precision was based on the steady pulse of Baroque Tactus more about Monteverdi’s rhythm here…; rehearsals were led by the Corago (opera director) more about Il Corago here… 

For this new genre of music-drama, the performers were not theatre actors but court singers, with star tenor Francesco Rasi in the title-role. And the first performance was not in a purpose-built theatre, but in a small hall inside the Ducal Palace, without the grandiose stage-machinery used in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi. Nevertheless, the show was a great success, and the following year the spirit of this music led to the birth of the Tragedy, Arianna, Monteverdi’s  lost masterpiece (reconstructed by Lawrence-King in 2017 from the surviving Lamento). More about Arianna a la Recherche here…

Libretto and Score offer alternative endings, in which Orpheus either encounters a gang of Bacchus’ followers, or is rescued by Apollo. In the 2019 staging in Finland, you must wait and see who triumphs in the end: Apollo (Monteverdi’s original setting) or Bacchus (in Lawrence-King’s reconstruction for this production)?

 

 

Whilst we might today view L ‘Orfeo as a symbolic journey, 17th-century audiences appreciated it as an allegory of music-drama’s power ‘move the passions’. They experienced the emotional impact of hearing the story narrated by La Musica and the Messaggiera, watching the same story dramatised  by actors on stage, whilst both seeing and hearing how Orpheus himself reacts to each new  event. As courtiers, the Mantuan spectators were accustomed to watching their Duke, in order to gauge his reaction to any happening. On stage, Orpheus’ Shepherds represent a pastoral ‘court’ surrounding the semi-divine singer.

 

A stage court, a dramatised wedding more about the Ballo for Orpheus’ wedding here…, and a mythical singer as protagonist all serve to make music ‘realistic’ within this story. The Muses themselves appear from Parnassus, and baroque audiences were thrilled by the horrors of Hell. Striggio’s inferno is deliberately modelled on Dante. Ordinary speech is represented not by the Recitative more about Recitative here… that we know from Handel and Vivaldi, but by earlier modulatione, Monody, in which Monteverdi’s precisely notated rhythms and pitch-contours imitate the rhetorical delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre (Peri, 1600, Il Corago c1630). More about Peri’s monody here…

Tim Carter’s survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre here…

 

Caccini defines this ‘new music’ (1601) as “words and rhythm, with sound last of all, and not the other way around”.  More about Caccini here…  Monteverdi, Caccini and Jazz here… Cavalieri (1600) alerts us to abrupt contrasts in emotion. More about Cavalieri here… Monteverdi declares (1638) that his purpose was to bring narration, action and music together into ‘a unified representation’. In this Gesamtkunstwerk, centuries before Nietzsche and Wagner, Apollo and Bacchus contend to charm your ears and touch your soul.

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

Time & Free Will – Historical & Psychological Time

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

 

 

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

 

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

 

A Philosophy of its Time

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

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

Music of an Earlier Time.

 

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

Water has no taste?

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Best Practical Music

 

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

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

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

 

 

Time-keeping

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Mace’s requirement for

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Liberty

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Humour

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Time & Humour

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

Page 97 – Brisk

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

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

 

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

Page 101-102 – gentle

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

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

Page 103-104

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

The Aire and Humour of your Tuning and Lesson

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

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

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

Page 109 – vibrato

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

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

Page 109 – Loud & Soft

Mace gives great importance to dynamic contrasts:

Play some part of the Lesson loud and some part soft

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

Page 109 – the Pause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Maintain a Fuge or Humour’

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

Page 117 – Fuge & Humour

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

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

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

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

 

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

Page 120 – Suite

 

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

 

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

 

Page 121-124 – The Author’s Mistress

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

 

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

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

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

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

For Time is One Half of Musick.

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

 

Page 125-126 – The Offspring

 

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

 

You must for the Humour’s sake make Pauses

 

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

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

Page 126-129 – Uniformity & Contrast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allmaines are ‘very Airy and Lively’;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 130 – Another Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Page 130 – Finding the Humour

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

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

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

 

Page 130 – The Pause

 

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

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

 

Page 131 – A Humour

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

 

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

 

Here, the strains vary in humour.

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

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

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

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

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

Page 132 – A perfect Coranto

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

 

Page 133 – Tattle de Moy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Page 142 & 147 – Observations

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

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

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

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

 

Page 149 – a Grave Galliard

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

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

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

 

Page 152 – Slow with Pauses

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

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

 

Page 153 – Tattle de Moy

 

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

 

Page 170 – Crackle the crotchets

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give Thomas the last word:

Keep True Time

 

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

 

iL Corago – The Baroque Opera Director

The essential guide to Early Opera

 

I’m honoured and delighted to have been invited by Elam Rotem, editor of EarlyMusicSources.com, to contribute to their PIE (Please In English) project a translation of a key text for singers, continuo-players, ensemble directors and Early Opera fans, the anonymous c1630 treatise, Il Corago.

My translation and commentary will be published by OPERA OMNIA, in various formats – as an e-book, budget price paper-back and high quality hard-back – and the translation alone will subsequently be made available online through EarlyMusicSources and IMSLP. You can pre-order the book here.

 

 

A Corago is what we might nowadays call a theatrical Producer or Artistic Director, responsible for every aspect of the production, but required to respect the text, the poet’s libretto (or in spoken theatre, the play-script). Under his direction, various maestri would direct music, dancing, sword-fights and military displays, whilst others would construct and decorate the scenery, make costumes etc.

 

 

The anonymous writer’s remarks show a wealth of experience of many different dramatic genres, with a special interest in what we would nowadays call ‘baroque opera’, the first fully-sung court music-dramas in the decades before the establishment of public opera in Venice: Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo, Peri’s and Caccini’s settings of Euridice, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Arianna, Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo etc.  Fabbri & Pompilio’s (1983) Italian edition of Il Corago is here.

 

Aimed at making the show varied, entertaining and emotionally moving, his practical advice can be immediately applied by today’s singers, continuo-players and musical directors.

 

 

Whilst the job-title Corago is perhaps unfamiliar yet easily understood, another key concept for baroque music seems familiar, but was disastrously  misunderstood in the 20th century. Il Corago radically revises our understanding of Recitative, and clarifies any doubts about continuo-playing and conducting in baroque music-theatre.

 

 

This translation and commentary is founded on period dictionaries (Italian and Italian-English), with references and comparisons to other early 17th-century treatises as well as to secondary literature on dramatic music and baroque theatre. As was the case for the original Corago-writer, my comments are informed by my personal and practical experience of continuo-playing, of stage & musical direction, of Corago-style and modern productions and by my academic research into the practical consequences of renaissance philosophy and historical science.

Please visit the iL Corago website to reserve your pre-order option for the pre-publication special offer.

 

 

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

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

 

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

Eternal Hieroglyphs?

 

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

Gieroglifici eterni,

Che in zifre luminose ogn’or splendete     

Ah! Che alla mente umana                                      

Altro che belle oscurità non siete.              

Pure il mio spirto audace                            

Crede veder scritto là su nelle stelle…

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

 

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

Andante Allegro

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

 

Beautiful obscurity?

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

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

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

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1981)

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

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

 

Well-established facts

 

Opera rehearsal

 

  • Baroque music was not conducted

 

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

 

 

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

 

Handel’s tempo indications

 

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

 

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

 

Handel’s specific instructions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Notation indicates tempo relationships.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Gavotte in the Anna Magdalena Bach ‘Notenbuch’

 

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

 

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

 

 

Initial assumption

 

 

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

 

  • Circa 1600, Tactus is approximately minim = 60

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Hypothesis

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

 

  • Tempo words modify the default Tactus

 

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

 

Historical Principle

 

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

 

Methodological Test

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: tempo ordinario

 

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

 

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

 

Tempo ordinario

 

From the 1600s to the 1700s: Recitative

 

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

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

 

Recit – tempo ordinario – grave

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Hypothesis: recitative & tempo ordinario

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

 

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

 

Handel’s Tempo words: faster or slower?

 

Harrison sea clock H1 c1736

 

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

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

 

Handel’s tempi table 1

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

 

Fast duple, Triple and Compound metres

 

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

 

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

 

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

Handel tempi Table 2

 

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

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

Handel tempi Table 3

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

HIP & the Scientific Method: Musicology & Artistic Experiment

As a discipline within Musicology, Historically Informed Performance Practice is supposed to be ‘scientific’. In Universities and Conservatoires, when we research and teach Early Music, it is expected that our work should be ‘evidence-based’.

 

In the hard Sciences, our knowledge and understanding are advanced by the Scientific Method: you observe some natural phenomenon; you develop a Hypothesis; you test your hypothesis in the laboratory. If your hypothesis fails, you develop a better one. If  your hypothesis works, you continue testing. Eventually, a robust hypothesis deserves a status-upgrade: you call it a Theory, and you invite other researchers to review it and test it.

Science advances when some researcher (often a junior) tests an old theory to destruction, showing that a new theory is needed. Think of Galileo and the Pope. Think of Einstein and Newton. Think of Robert Donnington (The Interpretation of Early Music, 1963 free online here) – and others of his generation – and mainstream performance practice.

If we want to be ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence-based’ in our HIP music-making, then the Scientific Model is a powerful tool. Period treatises are the data-sets we must study, rehearsal and performance are our laboratory. We need to develop strong hypotheses, and try them out on the test-bench. Only the fittest theories will survive!

 

A PROBLEM

17th-century Italian music – Monteverdi etc. It’s generally agreed that the relationship between duple- and triple-time (white notation or coloration, with a variety of mensuration marks) is determined by proportions. But how, exactly?

 

THE VARIABLES

There is scholarly debate about precisely how these proportions are to be understood. But there is academic agreement that a slow pulse (the Tactus) is maintained, whereas the quick-ticking internal beats will change. In modern terminology, the feeling is “bar=bar” (or half-bar becomes bar) rather than “beat=beat”.

THE CONSTRAINTS

Since there is no academic consensus on the precise rules, HIP performers are free to make reasonable choices for themselves. But for a choice to be respected as reasonable, it should satisfy these conditions:

1. The choice should be determined by notation. Given the same set of mensuration marks and note-values in another instance, the same decision should be made.

2. Once [your personal take on] the rule is understood, it should be possible for all performers to make an instant and unanimous decision, looking at their own part only. This is the only way 17th-century performers could have done proportional music with minimal or no rehearsal.

If your decisions are inconsistent, or produce beat=beat outcomes, you need to think again.

 

FORM A HYPOTHESIS

Actually, although the mensuration signs look complex, the situation is really quite simple. Once you have your steady Tactus beat (I would say something around minim=60, but you go ahead and take whatever tempo you find convincing), there are only three viable options. From slow to fast:

1. Sesquialtera (3 beats to 2 Tactus pulses, slow and difficult)

2. Tripla (3 beats to 1 Tactus pulse, medium-fast and easy)

3. Sestupla (6 beats to 1 Tactus pulse, very fast)

All you have to do is decide which of these works for the given example

TEST YOUR HYPOTHESIS

The next time you get the same notational situation, check that you are happy to take the same musical decision.

If a new instance of the same situation makes you dissatisfied with your previous decision, that’s the sign that your hypothesis needs to be modified.

But if your hypothesis continues to work in one instance after another, you can become increasingly confident about it. After a while, you could even call it a Theory, and invite others to test it too.

 

DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN

In Early Music, there are certain facts that are widely known, and about which there is no academic debate (e.g. music of Monteverdi’s period was not conducted, it was guided by Tactus-beating and/or by the continuo [Agazzari 1607]). But even where there is genuine debate amongst specialist scholars, there is usually a substantial area of common ground with which students and professional HIP performers should be familiar.

Of course, just as in the hard sciences, no one individual can know everything. But in the average HIP ensemble, there is a huge amount of expertise available for the wise director to make use of, when he steps outside his own specialist area.

Even when I’m directing, I’m never ashamed to say “I don’t know”. And with colleagues, this is the best way to get high-quality advice: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

MY THEORY

I’ve been refining and testing my ideas about proportions for some 30 years. For 5 years, early 17th-century Italian rhythm was a major strand of my investigation as Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions. Read more here…   My hypothesis continues to work well, it hasn’t yet failed me. So I’m ready to call it a Theory now, and invite academics and performers to test it for themselves.

Have a look at this article, and let me know: “What do you think?”. Tempus putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s time

LEARNING BY EXPERIMENT

If Musicology is a Science (in German, it’s called Musikwissenschaft), then rehearsal and performance are our experimental laboratory. Theory must be tested in Practice. This is the trendy new discipline of Performance Studies and Artistic Experiment, and Early Music leads the way, evidence-based and artistically tested since long before the 1960s. Read more about pioneering experiments in the late 19th century and George Bernard Shaw’s enthusiasm for Arthur Dolmetsch’s historical approach, here: Morris and Early Music: the Shaw/Dolmetsch).

But if you don’t have a theory, not even a tentative hypothesis, if you just make it up as you go along, or if you can’t even be bothered to take the notation seriously, then don’t expect to be respected as Historically Informed.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN: testing the latest hypotheses in Theoretical Physics

 

The Philosophy of La Musica

THE PHILOSOPHY OF LA MUSICA

 

 

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

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

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

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

  1. Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno

Incliti Eroi, sangue gentil di Regi

Di cui narra la fama eccelsi pregi

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

 

From my beloved Permesso I come to you

Great heroes, noble blood of kings

Of whom Fame tells heavenly praises

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The first baroque opera, here.

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

So far tranquillo ogni turbato core

Et hor di nobil ira et hor d’Amore

Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.

 

I am Music, who with sweet accents

Can calm every troubled heart,

And now with noble anger, now with Love,

Can enflame the most frozen minds.

 

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

 

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

  1. Io su Cetera d’or cantando soglio

Mortal orrecchio lusingar tal’hora

E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora

De la lira del ciel piu l’alme invoglio

 

Singing to the golden cetra as usual

I charm mortal ears for a while

And in this way with the sonorous harmony

Of the lyre of heaven I can even influence souls.

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

 

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

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

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

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

Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time, here.

 

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

  1. Quinci a dirvi d’Orfeo desio mi sprona

D’Orfeo che trasse al suo cantar le fere

E servo fe l’Inferno a sue preghiere

Gloria immortal di Pindo e d’Elicona

 

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

Orfeo who tamed wild beasts with his singing

And made Hell a servant by his prayers

The immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.

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

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

 

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

 

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

Non si mova Augellin fra queste piante

Ne s’oda in queste rive onda sonante

Et ogni auretta in suo camin s’arresti.

 

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

Not even a bird will move amongst these plants

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

And every little breeze will stop in its tracks.

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technique & Terminology (The Cremona papers: John McKean)

This is the first in a series of posts responding to papers given at the 18th Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music in Cremona, 10-15 July 2018. I offer my personal summary of the paper, some commentary, and links to related articles.

 

John McKean of the Longy School of Music speculated whether we can find evidence of ‘schools of technique’, as opposed to the various period and national styles which tend to set boundaries in historically informed performance practice. He began by problematising the word ‘technique’ in the context of Early Music, showing that the term first appears in English in 1817, and in French and German only slightly earlier, towards the end of the 18th century. Measuring appearances in print, the word comes into frequent use only in the 20th century, peaking sharply in the 1960s and dropping off noticeably towards the year 2000.

The period word that comes closest to our modern understanding of technique is Art. But McKean noted that the ‘conceptual packaging’ of the historical meaning of Art both overlaps and differs from our modern understanding of Technique.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s definition contrasted Art with Nature: to walk is natural, to dance is an art. Art is compared to science, a trade, artfulness, skill and dexterity. [I would point out that this is quite a late source, in which science has taken on much of its modern meaning of ‘knowledge’, the earlier meaning is different.]

COMMENTS

It’s long been a tenet of Early Music that the mainstream binary of Technique & Interpretation does not fit the discourse and ‘conceptual packaging’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here is a possible framework of mainstream concepts, contrasted with period terms. Right from the start, it’s noticeable that historical concepts are more inter-connected, the period framework functions more holistically.

Modern

 

 

Technique – Interpretation – Inspiration – Freedom – Expression – Physical Health – Mental Health

The question of ‘Inspiration’ is little discussed in conservatoire teaching, though Performance Studies projects sometimes document processes that seek to facilitate inspirational moments. Freedom and Expression are often equated with rubato by listeners and performers alike. Academic theory of musical communication of emotions usually adopts a Romantic model that privileges the performer’s search for their own emotional response.

Physical Health is receiving more attention in music education, as teachers realise that it is wiser to prevent injuries in advance than try to repair the damage afterwards. Alexander Technique is available in many conservatoires, Feldenkrais Method (which has the advantage of being less judgemental and can studied in group sessions, or from freely available mp3 downloads) in some. Mental Health similarly requires preventitive strategies: the link between creativity and Depression, the pressures on early career musicians of the Facebook generation, recent studies of alcoholism amongst older professionals – all these factors indicate the need for Mental Health to be a significant consideration in music education and practice. Tai Chi, Mindfulness and similar practices can facilitate both physical and mental well-being.

Historical

 

Art – Science  – Use – Improvisation – Music of the Spheres – Pneuma – Enargeia – Musica Humana

Around the year 1600, writers on swordsmanship were anxious to define their expertise as an art. Such treatises as Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro dell’ Arte e dell’ Uso della Scherma (1610) read more here provide clear definitions of historical terms.

Art is a system of organised principles or rules. Science is the study of divine or occult matters, beyond everyday experience. Use is the nitty-gritty of what is actually done in practice, to satisfy the demands of the artistic rules. Those rules take Nature and refine it systematically into something Artifical (meaning, done with artifice or expertise, the word is utterly positive).

Understanding these three key concepts in their historical meanings helps defuse many modern-day arguments about ‘the true artist who breaks the rules’, whether HIP ‘limits artistic expression’ etc. Freedom in Early Music is not so much a licence to break rules, but an invitation to improvise (e.g. diminutions, variations over a ground, or free preludes) within the style boundaries of a particular repertoire.

The doctrine of the Music of the Spheres connects our human music-making with the perfect music made by the movement of the stars and other heavenly bodies, linking sound to cosmic, divine power to influence the most profound part of our being. As La Musica sings in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo: “Singing to a golden continuo-instrument as usual, I can titillate mortal ears; but like this, with the sonorous harmony of the heavenly lyre, I can influence souls.”

Inspiration is the divine breath, the original creative force, literally “breathing into” our human frames, into our everyday music-making. This mystic breath was called Pneuma, and it is also identified as the mysterious energy that conveys emotions from performer to listener. This Energia is powered by the force of poetry and rhetorical texts, named Enargeia – the emotional power of detailed visual description. Through words, gesture and music, the poetic image is brought into the spectators’ minds, as if they were seeing with their own eyes whatever is being described. Pneuma (again) mediates between each individual’s mind and body, so that poetic images set off physiological reactions.

Musica Humana links the perfect heavenly music (‘inspiration’) to the harmonious (i.e. healthy) nature of the human body-mind holism. Dissonance must be resolved, just as illness will be cured. Pneuma is also a networked energy within the body, rather like oriental Chi, that facilitates health, active movement, strength and vigour.

Even from this brief description, it is obvious that there are many interactions between these various concepts, and that the historical framework prefers linked threefold manifestations to binary contrasts.

Other period concepts, notably Time, also show a threefold framework, linking heavenly perfection, human nature, and everyday actions.

LINKS

This careful defining of terms in their period meanings was fundamental to my research 2010-2015 for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, and was outlined in my first blog posts in 2013. My paper to the World Harp Congress in 2014 looks at the different meanings of similar terms in mainstream and period usage, and a 2017 post relates all these concepts to my current work at OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance.

Following on from the Text, Rhythm, Action! project for Australia, my research continued with Enargeia: Visions in Performance leading up to the re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece Arianna in 2017.

Emotions in Early Opera (2017) 

How did it feel? (2014)

What is Music? (2013)

Terms of Expression (2013)

Music expresses Emotions? (2013) 

Enargeia: Visions in Performance

 

The investigation of Enargeia (the emotional power of visual description) follows on from our previous project of Text, Rhythm, Action! That study of the first ‘operas’ redefined the practical processes of performance and revealed the fundamental importance of Visions. Now, in the investigation of Enargeia we look beyond the act of performance to examine pre-performance processes of libretto-writing and musical composition (processes which in this repertoire are nevertheless shared with improvising performers), real-time synthesis of vision and performance, and post-performance outcomes, the effect of enargetic Visions on audiences.

A HIP musician today might well play baroque violin with period technique and style, but within a 19th-century framework of emotional performance, in which the audience is expected to admire the performer’s ‘expressiveness’. Can we frame a historical understanding of Performance, that can be taught to musicians and put into practice in front of modern audiences?

From a multi-disciplinary approach that unites Historical Performance Practice with Music & Consciousness studies, the study of Enargeia views a period context within which the composer’s Music and performer’s Action serve the poet’s Text and inspire the listener’s Visions.