Time is what gives being to Music
Il tempo dunque è quello che da esser alla Musica. Zacconi Prattica di Musica (1596) Chapter 30.
Rhythm is life.
Paderewski Tempo Rubato (1909)
Many musicians and listeners might agree that rhythm is the life and soul of Music, whilst holding quite different opinions as to what kind of musical time is so essential.
… li cieli, li quali continuamente si girano … sono nove, come di sopra è stato ditto; cioè VII cerchi di sette pianeti e l’ottavo de le stelle fisse dov’è lo zodiaco, e lo nono che è lo primo mobile. E queste revoluzioni sono quelle che dimostrano lo tempo: imperò che tempo non è altro che lo spazio, nel quale queste revoluzioni si fanno; e questo spazio produce Iddio dal suo essere eterno. Buti Commentary on Purgatorio 24: The heavens, which revolve continuously… are nine, as has been said above; that is 7 circles of seven planets and the 8th of the fixed stars, where the Zodiac is, and the 9th is the Primum Mobile. And these revolutions are what show time; therefore time is nothing other than the space/interval within which these revolutions are made; and this space is produced by God from his eternal being.
Texts from classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages – Dante, Aristotle and Buti – still provide the primary definitions of Tempo in successive editions of the Vocabulario of the Accademia della Crusca from 1612 to 1748.
Newton’s (1684) MS notebook for De motu corporum in mediis regulariter cedentibus defines Tempus Absolutum three years before the fuller definition in Principia. But the text made famous by the first English translation of Principia by Andrew Motte only appeared much later, in 1729.
So when we read from many Baroque writers [heartfelt thanks to Domen Marincic and others who sent me numerous citations of this concept] that
Time is the Soul of Music
– from Zacconi writing in 1592 (published in 1596 as Prattica Book 2, Chapter XV, folio 95v): il Tempo….essendo egli nella Musica quasi l’anima [Time… being in Music like the soul] and (Book 2, Chapter III) Il tatto non è altro che il Tempo in esser presente [Tactus is none other than Time in actual presence] to the Biblioteca Universale sacro-profana antico-moderna (1704): la Battuta è la misura, e quasi l’anima della Musica [the Beat is measure, and like the soul of Music] –
we must be on our guard that all three terms lead us into complex semantic fields (Time: tempo, misura, battuta, tatto; Soul: anima, animo, mente, cuore; Music: mondana, humana, instrumentalis, arithmetica) where technical definitions and everyday understandings have shifted over the centuries. Aristotle’s motion-driven Time (which was still the common understanding in mid-18th-century Italy) is not the same as Newton’s Absolute, Mathematical Time, any more than our own intuitive sense of everyday Time corresponds to Einstein’s Relativity or Hawking’s Imaginary Time.
Nevertheless, two writers from different countries and periods give strikingly similar descriptions of Tactus, showing a strong continuity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and a noticeable differences from modern practice.
Sotto il tatto si pone questa figura & quella, & per questo si dice che l’harmonia nasce dalla consideratione di diverse figure sotto una determinata quantita di Tempo constituite (Zacconi Prattica Book 1 Chapter 29 Del Tempo Musicale & delle sue divisioni): Under the Tactus you put this note and that, and by this we say that harmony is born from the consideration of various notes organised within a certain amount of Time.
Der Takt… ist eine Anzahl von Noten in einen gewissen Zeitraum eingetheilt (Türk Klavierschule Chapter IV Vom Takte): The Tactus … is a number of notes organised into a certain amount of Time.
For both writers, the term they are trying to define has a wide and rich semantic field. Time ~ mensuration Sign; Tactus; Measure of duration; Rhythm, i.e. the division of time into note-values, written and performed; a specific note-value; the act of beating time and the Beat itself; speed; Metre.
Tempo: il quale si forma con un segno che ne da inditio… dal tatto che è la misura (Chapter 28) Time [mensuration sign of Tempus]: which is formed by a Sign that indicates the Tactus and the Measure.
Il tatto e quando dal Tempo in atto le vengan misurate, & che si cantano… il Tatto occupase tutto un Tempo… il Tempo essendo atto a diverdersi (Chapter 30 Del origine del Tempo) The Tactus is when [the note-values] are measured in real Time and are sung. The Tactus occupies a complete [unit of] time… Time [Rhythm] is action of dividing [the note-values]
Se per vigor di segno vanno due Semibreve al tatto, over due Minime (Chapter 33 Del division del tatto & sua sumministratione) [A specific note-value] Whether according to the Sign two semibreves go to the Tactus, or two minims. [ALK: In the late 16th century, identification of equal Tactus with the breve, i.e. down for one semibreve, up for the second semibreve, was being replaced by identification with the semibreve, i.e. down for one minim, up for the second minim, with triple metre proportions replacing tempus perfectum. The difficulty of reconciling older theory and notation with new practices accounts for much of the confusion about proportional notation in the early baroque period.]
Onde si come il tatto si divide, nel equale & nel inequale; cosi essi segni contenuti sotto questo nome di Tempo si dividano nel perfetto, & nel imperfetto. (Chapter 29) So just as the Tactus is divided into equal (duple metre) and unequal (triple metre); so these Signs included under this term Tempus are divided into perfect (triple) and imperfect (duple).
Piu tatti possano essere quali piu presti, & quali piu tardi, secondo il loco, il tempo, & l’occasione (Chapter 33) [Speed] Different [ways of beating] Tactus can be faster or slower, according to the place, the time and the occasion.
Le misure alla fine non son altro che quantità di tempo (Chapter 30) Measures finally are nothing else than amounts of Time [duration]
Quelli intervalli Musicali che sotto il Tempo si misurano… in dua modi… Il modo occulto Modo occulto è quello con cui componendole il compositore le misura & fa che gl’intervalli di tutte la parti correspondino in uno… Il modo manifesto puoi è quello quando le si cantano. (Chapter 29) Those musical durations which are measured by Time in two ways: the hidden [notated] way is whilst composing them, the composer measures them and makes the durations of all the parts correspond in unity; the revealed [performed] way then is when they are sung.
L’attione o l’atto che si fa… alle volte si chiama tempo, alle volte misura, alle volte battuta et alle volte tatto (Chapter 32 Che cosa sia misura, tatto, & battuta) The action [beating Time] which is actually done… is sometimes called Time, sometimes Measure, sometimes Beat and sometimes Tactus.
Takt… die Noten, welchen in einem einzigen, zu Anfange des Tonstückes bestimmten Zeitraume enthalten, und zwischen zwey Stricken eingeschlossen sind. [Mensuration Sign & notation of rhythm]: the notes contained in a single amount of time [duration], specified at the beginning of the piece [sign], and enclosed by two lines [bar-lines].
Unter Takt, in sofern von der Ausübung die Rede ist, versteht man daher gemeiniglich, die richtige Eintheilung einer gewissen Anzahl Noten &c, welche in einer bestimmten Zeit gespielt werden sollen. Tactus, when we talk about performance, is commonly understood to be the correct organisation of a specific number of Notes etc, which should be played in a certain time [duration].
Takt… die ganze Taktnote [A specific note-value] … the whole-note [semibreve]
Takt … Taktart, z.B. dieses Tonstück steht in geraden Takte. [Metre]: Type of Tactus, e.g. this piece is in equal [duple] time.
Takt … Bewegung, z.B. dieser Satz hat sehr geschwinden Takt [Speed]: Movement, e.g. this composition has a very fast Tactus
Takt… von der äusern Abtheilung durch die Bewegung mit der Hand, z.B. den Takt schlagen. About the showing of division [i.e. beats within a bar] by moving the hand, e.g. beating time.
Der Takt ist das Maß der Bewegung eines musikalischen Satzes Tactus is the Measure of the movement of a musical composition.
Takt… ist das Zeitmaß der Musik, die Abmessung der Zeit und der Noten Tactus is the Measure of Time [duration] in music, the measuring of Time and of the notes.
As we still do today, Türk associates Takt with notated bar-lines, which are not part of Zaconni’s practice. In the ‘new music’ of early seicento Italy, barlines are either absent, or irregular, and there is no association of bars with a fixed duration in notation or in real-time, and certainly no principle of ‘bar = bar’ for navigating proportional changes.
As we still do today, Türk associates Takt – in the sense of Metre – with accent. And so his first definition would have shocked Zacconi: Wenn man, bey einer Folge mehrerer äuserlich gleich langen Töne, einigen derselben, in einer gewissen anhaltenden Ordnung, (Einförmigkeit), mehr Nachdruck giebt, als den andern: so entsteht schon durch diese Accente das Gefühl, welches wir Takt nennen. When, in a succession of many apparently equally-long notes, you give some of them more emphasis in a certain consistent pattern (uniformity): then these Accents produce the feeling that we call Metre.
In sharp contrast, Zacconi discusses Tactus, Time, Measure, Beating Time, Beats and even Metre without any reference at all to accents. In old-fashioned polyphony and in the new music of the 1600s, although the accented syllable of a word often falls on the Tactus-beat, quite frequently it does not. Even if there are bar-lines, they too do not imply accentuation. Tactus is a feature of the measurement of Time, whereas accents are determined by words. Metre – as notated and shown by Tactus-beating – does not necessarily match the poetic scansion of the words, or the dance-rhythms suggested by harmonic changes.
In this oft-cited excerpt from Monteverdi Orfeo, published in 1609, the mensuration mark of C indicates an equal (i.e. duple, down-up) Tactus beat on minims, something around minim = 60, and the barlines are every four minims. But the harmonic metre is clearly in groups of three minims [as shown by the red brackets] and the word-accents fall mostly (but not exclusively) on the first and third minims of these groups. Thus the notation of musical Time is not matched to the metrical structure of harmony and accents. This allows Monteverdi to notate a steady speed, with three minims corresponding to three one-second Tactus-beats to the metrical unit. Contrariwise, if he had used the triple-metre notation of his time, e.g. a tripla Proportion, this notation would direct the singer to fit the whole metrical unit into one Tactus-beat, three minims in one second of actual time: the music would be heard three times as fast.
Unfortunately, many modern editions rebar this song under a 3/2 time signature, which performers then interpret as if it were Monteverdi’s tripla porportion – we often hear this music much too fast!
And failure to understand the subtle relationship between Tactus and word-accent (sometimes coinciding, but not always) has led many singers to disregard Monteverdi’s precisely notated rhythms in so-called Recitative. See It’s Recitative, but not as we know it.
Re-discovering 17th-century, non-accentual, Time is a considerable challenge for modern-day performers. Well-intentioned 20th-century attempts to ‘escape the tyranny of the bar-line’ have led us to rhythmic Hell: the rejection of the stable self-government of Tactus, even to the anarchy of free rhythm. There is still much work to be done, in learning (not only in theory and practice, but as an instilled habit) how to manage stable, but non-accentual, Tactus-time, and how to weave complex patterns of word-accents (imitated also in instrumental music) around that Tactus. This learning cannot take place in an ensemble directed with modern conducting.
For both Zacconi and Türk, there is a closer and more specific relationship than for modern musicians between Tactus as sign, notation, duration in real time, a way of beating time, a specific note-value and sub-division of that note-value into various rhythms. Although both writers allow the possibility that the speed of Tactus-beating can vary somewhat, this variation (I would argue) was small: gross changes in the speed of the music (as heard) were acheived by changing the notation whilst the beat remained (more-or-less) constant.
After the slow song cited above, Monteverdi continues with the same Tactus and the same relationship between notated Time, indicated Tactus, and note-values as performed. But the sound changes noticeably, as singers, violins and continuo-bass suddenly move in bursts of quavers rather than semibreves & minims. It feels faster.
In the following Ritornello, the Tactus again continues unchanged. But the relationship between that Tactus and notated Time is altered by the sign of Proportion. The black minims now come three to the Tactus – the effect heard is that the music feels three times faster than the first song.
There is academic debate about the details of precisely how Proportions should be interpreted. But there is general agreement on the essential principle that the Tactus is maintained (or varied only subtly) whilst a proportionally greater amount of music happens within the real-time duration of that Tactus. See Tempus Putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s Time. Proportions feel faster.
One of the challenges when studying the subjective feeling of Speed in baroque music is that Zacconi and his contemporaries did not share our concept of Newtonian Absolute Time. Within their Aristotelian understanding of Time as dependent on motion, the Tactus did more than indicate a musical beat, it created Time itself. That real-world time was related to notated durations by the signs of tempus and Proportions. We encounter not only differences in period nomenclature, but conceptual gaps in historic language, when we try to unpick ‘the feeling that we call Speed’ for baroque repertoire, just as Türk encountered a similar gap amongst established authorities when trying to define the emerging concept that ‘Accents produce the feeling that we call Metre’.
Türk’s statements on Takt seem to be ordered with the most up-to-date ideas first, established views next, and citations of older authorities (some which might even derive from Zacconi) in a footnote. Following his description of Takt as accentual metre, his next remark would have struck musicians of previous generations as fundamentally incomplete.
Jeder längern oder kürzern Note, Pause &c ihre bestimmte Dauer geben… so spiele man nach dem Takt. Giving longer or shorter notes, rests etc their proper duration… this is playing in Time.
Here is an early indication of what was to become the most significance difference in the management of time in practical music-making of the Baroque period from modern-day practices. From the first teaching-book (Milán’s 1536 El maestro, discussed here) and even in Türk’s following remarks, it is not sufficient that performers add up the durations of each individual note and rest… they must also ensure that the total duration of the note-values that add-up to a unit of notated time corresponds to the duration of real-world time, as shown by the Tactus.
Saber quantas de las sobredichas cifras entran en un compas (Milán, 1536) Know how many of the above-mentioned notes come in a Tactus [in notation, and in performance].
The essential control of period rhythm was not by adding-up small note-values, but by maintaining the relationship of notated Time to real-world Time through (and at the level of) the Tactus. As Roger Mathew Grant aptly expresses it in Beating Time and Measuring Music (2014), notation is “calibrated” to real-world Time by the Tactus. Smaller note-values were found by dividing the Tactus – a universal principle underlying the specific practice of ornamental ‘diminutions’ or ‘divisions’.
This is the concept of Tactus as the Measure of Time. In actual music-making, it’s the practice of using Tactus to measure Time. And it’s what most musicians do not do, nowadays.
In theory, and purely mathematically, it should make no difference whether one adds or divides – the rhythmic total is the same either way. But in practice, and with human performers, there are considerable differences in the resulting delivery and even greater differences in the subjective ‘feel’ of the music. I’ll try to illustrate this visually, by means of the Cuisenaire Rods used for learning mathematics from the mid-20th century onwards.
In theory, a performer (or conductor) counting with a short beat (e.g. 4 crotchets to the bar) and adding-up the various note-values should arrive at the same total duration as one counting with the long beat of Tactus (one minim down, one minim up).
In practice, small errors and/or deliberate choices accumulate so that modern counting/conducting and historical Tactus sound – and, even more importantly, feel – noticeably different.
Ironically, amongst today’s Early Music perfomers, stylised articulations and ideas of ‘musical gesture’ etc often result in even greater disconnect from Tactus-Time. Many of those articulations are based on historical evidence and period principles: good/bad notes here , silences of articulation, over-dotting, etc. Caccini gives examples of how to sing typical phrases more gracefully: the common feature of all his examples is exaggerated contrast in note-values – long notes are lengthened, short notes are shortened.
There is no denying the historicity of ‘non-mathematical’ rhythm – varied lengths for notes written as equal, extra contrast for dissimilar note-values, varied articulations between notes etc – but all these subtle adjustments should happen within the Tactus. The note-values affected are shorter than the Tactus, and the cumulative result is determined by lining-up with the next Tactus beat.
This is the essential difference between modern playing and Tactus-playing: whether or not musical Time is measured by Tactus. And the only way to do Tactus-playing is – to adopt Zacconi’s form of words – by actually doing the action! Unless you study initially and then practice regularly with actual physical Tactus (the down-up motion of hand or foot) then you are not using Tactus to measure your music-making. Unless you rehearse Proportional changes with a Tactus hand-beat, you are not managing Proportions according to Tactus.
In the hope that you would like to try it for yourself, here is the first part of my free online course on The Practice of Tactus.
Frescobaldi explains here that (physical) Tactus facilitates even those difficult (and carefully delimited) moments where the Tactus itself should change. And Monteverdi notates what may well have been a common feature of performance, that soloists may choose to sing elegantly off the beat, whilst the continuo accompaniment remains in Tactus, like a jazz-singer syncopating against the steady groove of the rhythm section. See Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz.
The Tactus-beat is human, rather than metronomic. The down-up movement has the almost imperceptible ebb and flow of arsis & thesis (look very carefully at the Tactus-Cuisenaire rods in my last example). And the Speed of the movement, which in principle is always the same, changes subtly in practice according to performance venue, ensemble forces, emotional state etc. It does not have to be precisely the same, from one occasion to another [for all this, see Zacconi, above], but you should keep it steady, as much as humanly possible.
Ideally, we do not force the Tactus to be faster, in order to mimick emotional agitation; rather we feel the emotional effect of the words, and even though we think we are keeping the same Tactus, actually we are going faster. Tai Chi master Sifu Phu expresses this idea – what actors call ‘working from the inside outwards’: Feel the Force, don’t force the feel! See also the discussion of the psychology and physiology of the Four Humours in Joseph Roach’s (1985) survey of the historical Science of Acting: The Player’s Passion.
It should feel as if the Tactus is always the same, but since we are human, it will not actually be the same, if we were to measure it objectively with modern equipment. Nevertheless, this subjective feeling of, and striving for perfect steadiness and consistent speed is utterly different from the arbitrary choices and changes of modern conducting. In this sense, Zacconi’s description (Chapter 33) of how the Tactus feels is both what performers should strive for, and what we hope our audiences will perceive.
Tactus is regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any perturbation.
Il Tatto… deve essere si equale, saldo, stabile e fermo… chiaro, sicuro, senza paura & senza veruna titubatione, pigliando l’essempio dell’attione del polso o dal moto che fa il tempo dell’Orologgio… following the example of the pulse [heart-beat] or clockwork.
When we have come to appreciate the effect of measuring our music-making with Tactus, and remembering Zacconi’s identification of tatto [Tactus] with tempo [real-world time, and the notation of tempus], the full force of his comment that Tempo is ‘soul of music’ becomes apparent. The element that ‘gives life to music’ is not just rhythm in general, but the interconnected working of notation, physical time-beating, real-world time and musical performance, all co-ordinated at the heart-beat level of approximately a minim per second, and (like a heart-beat) rocking to-and-fro in what we feel to be subtly uneven pairs.
This is not only the sound of Baroque music, it is the shape of Baroque Time.
There are fascinating repertoires in baroque music that are written with specific note-values, but carry performance instructions for senza misura. Caccini specifies this (once only!) in his example song in Le Nuove Musiche (1601), here. But there are many pieces from the mid-17th century by Froberger that are marked to be played with discrétion, and some of these have the additional instruction in some sources sans observer aucune mesure [without observing any Measure]. See Schulenberg on Discretion here, and on Froberger sources here.
There is plenty of academic discussion of the challenge that Froberger and his copyists faced in trying to notate his highly idiosyncratic performance style. But for today’s performers, rather than taking discrétion as an invitation to introduce 20th-century tempo rubato, a possible approach based on period evidence could be to apply all that we know about articulation, rhythmic adjustments (following Caccini and Monteverdi), good/bad notes, dissonance/resolution etc etc, but without any obligation to make all this add up to the Measure of Tactus.
One might almost suggest that since the standard practice of much of present-day Early Music is to play without observing Tactus, that Caccini’s senza misura and Froberger’s discrétion are heard in almost every performance of every baroque repertoire, robbing [sic] audiences of the emotional impact of what should be a special effect, by soul-destroying [sic] over-exposure.
Zacconi’s concept of Time as the Soul of Music is much more than a trite platitude to remind us that rhythm matters. Rather, he expresses a fundamental element of Baroque practice, that music (and even the ‘affections of the Soul’ i.e. affetti, emotions) are created by a life-giving three-in-one of notated tempus, physical Tactus-beating, and real-world Time, operating (in early-seicento Italy) at the level of a semibreve ~ down/up ~ approximately two seconds.
Today’s Early Music performers mostly fail even to try this: instead we argue about pitch, temperament and vibrato. “Doh!“ (Dan Castellaneta as Homer Simpson, 1988 – but I use the Oxford English Dictionary spelling from 2001) See Music expresses Emotions?
I give the last word to Türk, who proclaims his continuity with centuries of music-making measured by Tactus, by his translation (explicit) and updating (implicit, since his Takt – however similar – is no longer exactly the same as Zacconi’s tempo and tatto) of that period mantra, as his own last word on the subject. Der Takt ist … die Seele der Musik.
Tactus is the Soul of Music
To celebrate a personal milestone of 5 years studying Tai Chi Chuan with Master Ding Academy, this article reflects on my understanding of Tai Chi as an intermediate student, in the light of my academic research in Consciousness Studies and my practical experience as an international musician and opera-director.
Many oriental martial arts value zhan zhuang – Standing like a Tree – as a fundamental practice. In Tai Chi Chuan, Standing Practice trains mind-body balance in stillness; the Form trains balance in movement; Push Hands trains balance in interactions. As an Internal Martial Art, Tai Chi encourages an inner focus, teaching us to find strength in softness. Sometimes called Standing Meditation, zhan zhuang not only aligns our posture, but also prepares the mind for study and for action.
There is a similar linkage of physical and mental conditioning when warming-up for sports or preparing to go on-stage for a concert or theatrical performance, in Mindfulness training, Alexander Technique and many other disciplines. Zhan zhuang and other preparation-rituals create a particular state of mind that optimises highly-skilled physical actions. Psychologists call this state of mind Flow; artists call it Inspiration; elite sportsmen and athletes call it the Zone; it can be analysed as an Alternative State of Consciousness; it could also be called Self-Hypnosis.
Therapeutic hypnotism is a ‘resource state’ similar to the REM-stage of dream-sleep. Modern medical science respects these states as normal and vital for health. As we sink into dreamy relaxation, the Unconscious mind can re-process learning, re-align our spiritual balance and re-integrate conscious awareness. As a student, I may not yet fully understand what it means to ‘stick the qi to the spine’, but if I relax whilst focussing on this phrase, I can enter a special state in which my Unconscious (which understands ‘better than I do’) can work on re-educating the body. Rather than forcing things to happen, we can create suitable conditions (relaxation and focus) and observe what happens. Even if the process remains hard to grasp, over months and years of practice the conscious mind gradually becomes aware of tangible results.
Academics love to reduce broad phenomena to narrow categories, so theorists distinguish between different experiences of the altered consciousness familiar to us all as day-dreaming. Flow is characterised by a fine balance between the challenge you are facing and your level of skill. Too easy, and you are bored; too difficult, and you are discouraged. In Flow, you are utterly focussed on the task at hand, yet at ease with yourself. When you are in the Zone, it seems that your body knows what to do ‘instinctively’, as the movements you trained slowly and gently are released in a flash of smooth, powerful action. You might experience Dissociation, the sensation that you are not ‘doing’ anything, you are just observing your body’s actions with calm attention, as if in a dream or hypnotic trance. As you let go of ego, you feel more connected to the universe: Tai Chi artists use Sticking Hands to link with their partners; doctors care for their patients with ‘unconditional regard’; hypnotists and performers create Rapport with their listeners.
These experiences are central to many elite-level skilled activities. Hypnosis research shows that reducing conscious control whilst maintaining calm and concentration allows the Unconscious to guide the body at extraordinary levels of performance. Whether you are landing an airliner on the Hudson river, playing a harp concerto, or competing in a fencing championship, focused calmness links your Unconscious to the surrounding energy field so that your body does it ‘better than you could do it yourself’. The mind-body connection can be re-aligned to powerful effect: a hypno-therapist colleague of mine assists during surgical operations by inducing a special, pain-preventing state of mind for patients who are allergic to conventional anaesthetics.
By subtle choice of language, a poet or an expert in neuro-linguistic programming can sway your emotions; a politician can alter public opinion; an advert can influence your choices; a sports coach or opera-director can raise you to the next level of performance; a teacher can shift your conscious understanding and enhance your physical abilities. A mere hint, spoken or recalled, can transform (trance-form?) Standing Practice into a Guided Meditation. In Tai Chi, we encourage Dissociation with such instructions as “Allow the hands to rise”. This is a hypnotic suggestion that your hands ‘have a mind of their own’, encouraging you to observe more, do less. Paradoxes and Nominalisations (unfamiliar words) facilitate the inner focus of trance, as the mind searches within itself for meaning. Tai Chi is full of paradoxical sayings and evocative words – ‘invest in loss’; ‘use the mind, not force’; qi; kwa and dan-tien; peng, liu, ji and an – whose meaning we explore over years of study.
The choice of terms is personal, and highly significant for practitioners. If a teacher or hypnotist’s vocabulary jars, the listener will resist, and rapport is broken. Hypno-therapists are taught to ‘accept and utilise’ a client’s resistance. If the first choice of imagery and terminology doesn’t work, it’s time to try another approach. Tai Chi practitioners will recognise the principle: don’t fight force with force, yield and re-direct your opponent’s energy! Students and teachers should be aware of the power of names, making flexible choices of language to ‘go with the Flow’ of what works for each individual. Some like to talk of the ‘magic’ of Tai Chi; others explain it as Mechanics or applied Psychology; some visualise qi as similar to the Star Wars Force; others analyse body-energy through the concepts of Chinese Medicine. Since the true Tao cannot be spoken, ‘correct’ nomenclature doesn’t matter. Language is only a path towards an internalised mind-body understanding.
In another way, choice of terminology is vital, because your Unconscious can respond to the most subtle distinctions. In hypno-anaesthesia, some patients receive the suggestion that they will feel no pain; others are told that they might feel pain, but it will not bother them. Neurological scans show that these contrasting instructions produce different interactions between brain and nervous system. Words can change your mind.
The state of Flow is often associated with time- distortion, when we are so absorbed in our study that we don’t realise how much time has passed. But in the Zone, time is distorted the other way, so that our perception is speeded up, and we can successfully manage complex techniques within the briefest instant of time.
Elite performers of all kinds use Flow for optimal learning, working slowly over a long time, and the Zone for optimal performance, producing instantaneous results just when it matters most. This is paralleled by the slow study of Tai Chi Forms and the split-second timing of combat applications. The Feldenkrais Method similarly improves proprioception and body flexibility by slow, gentle movements. The calm acceptance and subtle suggestions typical of a Feldenkrais session could be appropriate to zhan zhuang: “That’s good….”; “Don’t do anything, just notice.” Engineer/healer Moshe Feldenkrais was also a judo black belt and one of the first to bring judo to the West.
The Trager Approach uses repetitive, relaxed movements and a special state of consciousness called Hook-Up to teach and heal. The imagery of a ‘sky-hook’ is sometimes used in Standing Practice to intensify the suggestion that the ‘head is suspended from above’. This is not just good posture, it is also a recognised route into trance, meditation or what we might choose to call a ‘Tai Chi state of mind’. If sometimes it’s difficult to be relaxed, we can just pretend to relax, and imagine that we begin to feel relaxation: ‘fake it till you make it’. Regular practice of zhan zhuang will re-calibrate our ability to relax, as ting-listening reveals tensions we never knew we had, which are gradually dissolved into song-release.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, our minds and bodies can be conditioned by training so that we respond ‘automatically’. Tai Chi Forms guide our body-movements into highly specific pathways, whilst Standing Practice focuses our concentration inwards, calming the mind. Those Russian dogs learnt to associate a bell with dinner-time, and the meditation timer on your phone can ring a Chinese bell to induce inner peace!
To enter Flow, the Zone, or hypnotic trance, i.e. a Tai Chi state of mind, you just relax and focus – song and ting. We learn this from Standing Practice, and try to maintain it in the Forms, Push Hands and applications training. As a musician, I must relax and focus whilst I’m playing, always listening attentively to my own instrument and to the other performers. I tell my students, “It’s 80% listening, 20% playing”. As Tai Chi students, we can try to be more aware of our own body and that of our partner/opponent by ‘doing’ less, and ‘listening’ more. In life, we can adopt a Tai Chi state of mind, becoming calmer ourselves and more open to others. Lift the Spirit and sink the qi; relax and focus, song and ting. That’s good…
Knowledge is a treasure, but practice is the key
Opera director and internationally recognised academic Prof Dr Andrew Lawrence-King is the world’s leading exponent of historical harps. He investigates Historical Rhythm, Baroque Gesture and Music & Consciousness. He studies Tai Chi with Master Ding Academy and 17th-century rapier with the Helsinki Swordschool. He is a qualified hypnotist.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
On 5th January 2019, Kamarikuoro Utopia (directed by Andrew Lawrence-King, organ & harp) will present in Helsinki’s German Church the choral music of a Tudor Candlemas, which in private households and secret Catholic ceremonies might have been sung by women and men, rather than by the boys’ choirs of the Anglican rite. Avoiding the now discredited 20th-century musicology that suggested this repertoire should be sung at very high pitch and with the fake solemnity of slow tempi and romantic legato, we recognise and revel in the rhythmic drive of William Byrd’s counterpoint, and share the robust strength of his commitment to the meaning of Latin and English texts, no less dramatic than the plays of his literary contemporary, William Shakespeare.
Whilst this glorious polyphony might be heard in our performance as a plausible reconstruction, the interspersed solo songs, poems and instrumental pieces are most definitely not part of the sacred liturgy. Rather they offer a glimpse of the historical context, the inner world of the Tudor mind, full of cultural cross-connections: European cosmopolitanism and English boldness, Catholic complexity and Protestant sincerity, faith and fire, rich poetry and complex polyphony, secret allusions and enigmatic references, luminous joy and hidden melancholy.
This (updated) post can be downloaded as a pdf (including illustrations) here.
January 5th 2019 is Twelfth Night, the traditional end of Christmas celebrations, and the religious feast of Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the Three Wise Men. But in Shakespeare’s England, the festive mood continued until the feast of Candlemas (February 2nd), at which the liturgy completes the story of the Nativity with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The old man, Simeon, lifts up the Baby and declares him to be “a Light to lighten the Gentiles” – his words became the evening canticle Nunc Dimittis, one of the cornerstones of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662, and still current).
The liturgical texts appointed to be sung at Mass on this day, known as the Proper of the Mass, explore many inter-related themes: the sanctity of the church building as a symbol of the holy Temple; the dual nature of the Child, both human and divine; the purity of the Virgin Mary (and by analogy, of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen); Simeon’s peaceful departure in old age; the faithfulness of God’s promises, ‘according to Thy word’; the spreading of light through the building (and by analogy the lengthening days of Spring) as a symbol for the spreading of the Gospel.
But in the year 1601, English Catholics had to celebrate Candlemas in secret. Services in Latin were forbidden, Catholic Priests would be captured and killed. Father John Gerard, a Jesuit secret agent in England, had set up a safe house for Catholics in London, managed by Anne Line, a widow and ‘a woman of much prudence and good sense’. There, as Father Francis Page was about to begin the ceremony of Blessing the Candles, the watchmen arrived and arrested Anne. She and two priests were hanged the next day; Father Francis was executed a year later. All four martyrs were later canonised as Saints.
In such difficult and dangerous times, certain elements of the liturgy took on new significance. Worship of Mary was discouraged by Protestantism and became an identifying feature of Catholic piety and Catholic religious music. The Christmas Child, vulnerable amidst Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, symbolised the precarious situation of the Catholic faith in Protestant England. Catholics hoped that they, like Simeon, would see the glory of salvation – i.e. a return to State Catholicism – before they died, and that the Light of their true faith would enlighten the ‘Gentiles’ – i.e. the Protestants.
Some Catholics – notably the musicians Byrd and Tallis – were protected by Elizabeth. Others, such as singer, lutenist and composer John Dowland, were discriminated against and chose to emigrate. Many were forced to keep their sympathy secret: William Shakespeare might have been one such.
Shakespeare’s enigmatic (1601) poem of mystical love between the legendary Phoenix (a fire-bird reborn from its own ashes) and the faithful Turtledove (symbol of love) remains a subject of academic debate. Perhaps it continues the Catholic mystic tradition of the Soul’s spiritual love for Christ, but one theory is that it celebrates the secret love between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Another interpretation is that it commemorates the Candlemas martyrs, referring to Anne Line’s love for her late husband Roger. In this pro-Catholic reading, the poem’s opening line ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ alludes to England’s most famous Catholic composer, William Byrd. There is a useful introduction to the poem here.
In 1575 Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Thomas Tallis a monopoly to ‘set songe or songes in parts’, and, as life-long Catholics, their first publication was a set of Latin motets. Byrd’s three settings of the Latin Ordinary (the fixed texts sung at every Mass) in three, four and five parts, together with his Gradualia (settings of the Propers for each religious feast) provided Catholics in Elizabethan England with all the music needed for the complete liturgical year.
The Masses have long been recognised as some of the finest examples of Tudor polyphony, and are widely performed today, both liturgically and in concert. For many listeners, the sound of this repertoire is inescapably associated with English Cathedral and College choirs, i.e. with boys’ voices, slow tempi, legato phrasing, highly resonant acoustics, transposition a third upwards, and modern conducting. Many concert ensembles have emerged from this milieu, replacing boys with female sopranos, but (with few exceptions) preserving all the trappings of 20th-century style, in particular that gross anachronism in Early Music, the conductor!
The Latin music heard in our performance was edited by David Fraser here. Modern scholarship recognises that Byrd’s Masses and Propers, written in a remote Catholic enclave at Stondon Massey in Essex, are far removed from the Anglican establishment’s boys’ choirs. The composer writes short phrases articulated by the words, and the small parish church of St Peter and Paul has modest acoustics. Historical information has exploded the myth of high pitch for Tudor music, and the latest scholarship confirms that the rhythmic notation of renaissance music indicates the composer’s intended tempo, controlled not by a modern conductor but by the steady measure of Tactus and the lively dance of triple-time Proportions.
“Above all things, keep the Equality of Measure; for to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself.” proclaimed John Dowland in 1609. “Keep Time!”, thunders Shakespeare’s King Richard: “How sour sweet music is, when time is broke and no proportion kept”. The dramatic passion of Byrd’s music comes not from romantic rubato, but from the powerful drive of Tactus and detailed attention to the words.
In Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, the first Kyrie begins with the voices imitating each other’s circling melody, an opening that will be heard again as the ‘head-motive’ of the Gloria, Credo and Agnus. Soon, the Christe introduces a characteristic element of Byrd’s counterpoint, syncopated entries that add either rhythmic energy, or (as here) emotional poignancy. In the second Kyrie, tenor and soprano chant the text on monotones, amidst melancholy descending phrases.
In the Gloria, as throughout his oeuvre, Byrd is careful to clarify the structure and meaning of the text: an angel choir of high voices prays for ‘peace on earth’, all the singers ‘praise thee’ and ‘give thanks for thy great glory’. Various smaller ensembles (‘Verses’ in the English tradition) pray for ‘mercy’, there are of course high notes for ‘most high’, and attention to the details of dogma in careful enumeration of the three Persons of the Trinity.
Byrd’s Credo is a masterpiece of concise story-telling worthy of any Elizabethan madrigalist, combined with all the pathos and solemnity that the liturgical text demands. Clouds of syncopations make the Tactus almost ‘invisible’, but the name of Jesus Christ shines clearly. Two voices represent two Persons, ‘God of God’; a shift to sharps spreads the Candlemas ‘light of light’; Byrd’s sudden change to long notes produces the effect of slower tempo within the constant Tactus for the Incarnatus, and the Crucifixus finds pathos in the Eb and Bb of the ‘soft hexachord’. Et ascendit ascends, and the cadences of non erit finis seem to last forever, until a trio represents the third Person at Et in Spiritum Sanctum.
The word secundum (‘according to’, or ‘following’) which occurs frequently at Candlemas is an invitation to the composer to write imitative polyphony, where one voices ‘follows’ another. Such literal reflection of the words in music, heard in the gestures of Byrd’s ‘madrigalism’ and ‘word-painting’, is an audible expression of the renassaince concept of Enargeia: the emotional effect of detailed verbal description.
The Sanctus begins with a new point of imitation in three long notes; in the Verse, melodic gestures point upwards and then downwards for caeli et terra, ‘heaven and earth’: of course ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ has high notes for all voices. The Benedictus Verse, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’ might be heard as a homage to those Catholic priests who made the dangerous journey from the continent to celebrate Mass in England.
The three-fold structure of the Agnus is beautifully observed. Byrd begins in trio with the head-motive and descending phrases for ‘miserere’. The second Agnus is in four parts, with an arch-shape melody for the ‘misere’. The third Agnus opens in full five-part harmonies, with extended melismata on pacem, ‘give us peace;’ a heartfelt prayer for English Catholics.
The immense collection of motets in the Gradualia is perhaps Byrd’s greatest achievement. For practicality, texts that recur at different times in the liturgy are set only once, so that (as with a plainchant Missal) singers turn back and forth within the collection to find the music required at each moment. So when the liturgy for Candlemas calls for the introductory words Suscepimus Deus to be sung twice, leading to different verses each time, the partial repeat of the opening motives creates for the listener the effect of musical structure in the Propers, in parallel to the head-motives of the Ordinary.
In strict liturgical use, some verses required at other feasts would be omitted at Candlemas. But in order to appreciate Byrd’s music to the full, we have indulged in the luxury of singing all the verses, in particular the gloriously extended praise of the Virgin in the extra verses of Diffusa est gratia. Similarly, the Tract would not normally be sung when Candlemas falls before Septuagesima (as it does this year), but Byrd’s extraordinary setting of ‘Lumen’, the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’, is too beautiful to be missed.
Both Byrd and Tallis also wrote anthems and canticles on English texts for the Anglican church, and in either language, their settings show the poignancy of certain words in the context of religiously-divided Tudor England: Byrd’s significant pause between unam sanctam catholicam and apostolicam ecclesiam [one holy, catholic… and apostolic church]; Tallis’ descending scales, bringing ‘the Spirit of Truth’ down from heaven. Byrd’s prayer that his patroness, Queen Elizabeth be given ‘a long life, even for ever and ever’ is repeated passionately and at length.
Just as on the bare boards of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Byrd’s Catholic music creates powerful drama with minimal resources. In contrast, his Great Service for the Anglican rite exploits the opulent resources of the largest Tudor cathedral choirs, divided into two 5-part ensembles on the Dean’s (decani) and Cantor’s (cantoris) sides of the Chancel. The singers combine and re-combine in a variety of ‘Verse’ scorings, contrasting with the imposing ‘Full’ sound of Byrd’s sonorous 5-part writing.
There is a helpful introduction to George Peele’s poem for Sir Henry Lee, retiring from public life at the Elizabethan court here. John Dowland set the poem as a lute-song.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Are you Arianna or Apollo? Orfeo or Euridice? Penelope or Ulisse? Nero or Poppea? Or are you fighting a Combattimento, writing a Lettera Amorosa, or dancing a Ballo?
Now you don’t have to go to Hell and back, to learn a baroque role. Here, to celebrate Monteverdi’s anniversary year, is a guide to studying his dramatic roles.
At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. You can also read about WHY we are remaking Monteverdi’s Arianna.
This post was written to guide singing actors in that production, but is equally relevant to any of Monteverdi’s surviving music-dramas, including the three ‘operas’ [Monteverdi did not use the O-word] Orfeo, Ulisse & Poppea as well as Combattimeno, the Balli and other works in genere rappresentativo [in show-style, i.e. meant for acting, not just singing].
Whilst our modern ideals of theatre might send us on a deep psychological investigation of the character of the role to be played, in this article I suggest an alternative, historically informed approach.
When, as modern HIP performers, we take on the role of Arianna or Apollo, there are two stages to our work. The first step is to acquire the skill-set of Francesco Rasi (the tenor who sang the roles of Orfeo in 1607 and Apollo & Bacco in 1608) or Virginia Andreini Ramponi, known as La Florinda (the commedia dell’arte actress who triumphed in the role of Arianna in 1608, surpassing all the court singers); the second task is for you-as-Rasi or you-as-La-Florinda to play your character role.
The first of these two stages – acquiring the skill-set of the best historical performers – is by far the more challenging. After all, it was hardly a stretch for Rasi (great singer, somewhat self-obsessed) to play Orfeo or for La Florinda (prima donna, fond of lamenting) to represent Arianna!
When the first ‘operas’ were performed, circa 1600, there was no such thing as an Opera Singer. Since the genre itself was new and experimental, there was no previously existing system for educating performers for new demands. Rather, the participants in these first fully-sung baroque music-dramas brought skill sets from other, related disciplines. Court and chapel singers (Euridice was played in 1607 by a ‘little priest’ castrato) had a high level of general musicianship, sight-reading and ensemble skills. Many of them were competent composers and skilled instumentalists. As courtiers, they would have been trained in Rhetoric and courtly Etiquette, and would know how to stand, move, gesture and how to comport themselves in courtly situations: in the presence of a Prince, in a duel, at a dance, on horseback etc. Much of what we would today consider to be historical stage-craft would have been understood in the period as everyday courtly behaviour.
A modern singer of baroque opera would do well to study Historical Dance, Historical Fencing, and for that matter horse-riding. For an introduction to courtly posture and gesture, i.e. the beginnings of period acting, Start Here. Caccini sets out the priorities for singing c1600 as Text and Rhythm – read more from Caccini. Close study of the libretto is essential: the sung text includes many hints for movement, costume and characterisation, as well as a detailed map of ever-changing emotions – affetti. In this repertoire, the performer’s concentration is best kept ‘in the moment’, on the particularly word you are singing right now, on the affetto of this instant, ready for swift and bold changes from one affetto to its contrary, as Cavalieri recommends for the earliest surviving seicento music-drama, Anima e Corpo (1600), read more about how to Act with the Hand, Act with the Heart.
La Florinda’s success in Arianna (1608), surpassing all the star singers, reminds us of the basic meaning of the word recitare – it means ‘to act’. Musica recitativa is acted music, i.e. music-drama. Singers would do well to think less about the voce, and more about How to Act in this historical style.
It is not your job, as performer, to create a big structure of emotions, drama or music for the whole work: trust the librettist and composer to have done their work in this area. Your job is to realise the text and music from moment to moment, structured by the slow, steady pulse of baroque rhythm – Tactus. This blog has many posts about 17th-century rhythm: here is a small selection. Rhythm – what really counts? introduces the concept of Tactus; the theory of Proportions is the secret to Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time and for a practical approach there is this Hands-on guide to Tactus
This post presents a step-by-step guide on how to study your role. If you go through these 10 exercises, you will be well on the path towards acquiring that 17th-century skill-set, your approach will be utterly historical and securely practical, and after at least 10 repetitions of each phrase, linking together text, music and gesture, the task of memorisation will also be well begun, if not yet completed.
Have fun – approach these exercises and your study in general in a spirit of enthusiastic but relaxed concentration. Learning a big role is not ‘a mountain to climb’, it’s a journey to experience and enjoy. And your first performance is not ‘the end of the road’, it’s just one more step on the path, a place from where there is a good view of the distance you have already covered, as well as of the endless road ahead.
1. Hold the music in your left hand
An easy one to start with, but it’s a game-changer! Acquiring this habit will allow you to make gestures with your right hand, one of the most important principles of historical acting.
2. Take up the contrapposto posture
If you do all your practice standing in period posture, that posture will gradually become ‘normal’ for you, and you will feel relaxed and look good in it, on stage.
The toga is optional!
At first, you might find it difficult to maintain this posture. Don’t get tense, just switch your weight from one foot to the other, moving through the hips. Relax, and let your weight fall through the supporting leg into the floor.
But don’t move too often, and – in this style – you don’t walk and talk at the same time.
If your singing teacher has taught you to centre and relax, dropping the weight down into your feet, super! Do this, but allowing the weight to fall from that centre through ONE leg.
Don’t bounce up and down. If your singer teacher has taught you to bend your knees before high notes, don’t let this be seen by anyone, ever!
Don’t stand square-on to your audience, knees bent in the sumo-wrestler position of certain famous modern coloratura sopranos. That’s not baroque! Rather, look at and imitate period paintings. Be as beautiful as a picture!
3. Speak the text, dramatically, like a great actor in a 1,000-seater hall.
3a. Paying close attention to Good/Bad syllables (this is period terminology for accented/unaccented syllables or notes: Caccini calls them Long/Short as in poetic analysis)
3b. And single/double consonants
3c. And the meaning of each individual word
You should be utterly comfortable with the text, ready to go on stage and act it in a spoken play. The anonymous 17th-century guide for a theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago (c1636) emphasises that singers should model their singing on the speech of a fine actor.
4. Speak the text again, waving your hand expressively on each Good syllable
On the final Bad syllable, just let your hand return to the body, relaxed.
5. Still speaking like a great actor, try to bring your spoken version close to the pitch-contours and rhythms of the music
In his preface to the first secular ‘opera’, Euridice (1600), Jacopo Peri explains that recitative is structured by the rhythm of the bass-line, and by the pitches of spoken declamation. Agazzari (1607) confirms that it is the continuo bass that ‘supports and guides the whole ensemble of instruments and voices’.
Check #1 (music in your left hand) and #2 (baroque posture) again!
6. Sing the music, beating TACTUS
With the palm outwards, move your hand down and up, about 1 second down, 1 second up. Keep the movement steady, smooth, relaxed but with calm inner strength. Think of a big, slow-moving pendulum. Or the hand of God, turning the wheels of the cosmos.
According to Zacconi (1592), Tactus is “even, solid, stable, firm… clear, secure, without fear and without any kind of wobbling” [equale, saldo, stabile, e fermo … chiaro, sicuro, senza paura, & senza veruna titubatione]
If you have trouble maintaining a steady beat, you can easily make yourself a Tactus-pendulum. Take a long string and tie something heavy to one end, to make a simple pendulum. You need 1 metre to make a 1-second beat (Mersenne, 1636).
Whilst dramatic music is guided by Tactus, as the historical concept of rhythm, there was no conductor in early ‘opera’ (Il Corago specifically rules out beating time in recitative), and of course actors cannot beat Tactus on stage (nor even in a courtly performance in genere rappresentativo, as Monteverdi indicates for the Lettera amorosa]. So the next exercise asks you to feel the Tactus internally, whilst you use your hand in a new way, linked to the Text.
7. Sing the music, waving your hand on the Good syllables, not on the Bad
This is the same as #4, but singing, rather than speaking. Many singers find that their good speaking habits get overwhelmed by bad singer habits, as soon as they start to sing. So…
7a. Check that you do not wave your hand on any Bad syllable.
7b. Check that your hand is already relaxed on the last (Bad) syllable
7c. And sing this last note short, just as you would speak it.
The next exercise refines this, by taking into account the length of the composed notes. Some singers reduce the contrast between long and short notes: such laziness makes the performance boring. Don’t do that! A most useful reminder in this style is “Long notes long, short notes short”, within the steady pulse of the Tactus.
8. Sing the music, waving your hand slow/quick according to the length of Good syllables
If the note is long, move your hand slowly at the beginning, so that you have plenty of movement in reserve for the end of the note. You’ll find that doing this exercise changes the way you sing long notes – that’s the whole idea of the exercise!
8a. Apply the Long Note Kit to Good syllables on Long Notes
For a fine demonstration of baroque vibrato, listen to Whitney Houston And I will always love you
9. Alternating Tactus and Good/Bad hand-movements, alternating speaking and singing, bring the sung version as close to speech as possible, structured by Tactus.
In this exercise, as you change between various options (speech/song; Tactus/word-accents) the aim is to unify all these into a version that is ‘between speech and song’ [Peri & Caccini], with exciting contrasts of word-accents (the essential ingredient of good poetry) and steady Tactus (the essential ingredient of 17th-century music).
Check #1 (music in the left hand) & #2 (baroque posture) again!
10. Perform the whole speech, thinking of the meaning of the word, each time you wave your hand on a Good syllable.
Do this several times speaking, before you try to combine gesture with singing. The gestures you want are text-based, speech-based: quite different from typical gestures of modern singers.
One of the simplest, but most powerful gestures is simply to point (typically with the whole hand, rather than a single finger) at whatever you mention in your speech. See Baroque Gesture: what’s the Point?
And the ut pictura principle encourages you to create a mental image of whatever you are talking about, so that your gestures are directed towards imaginary objects in your vision, as well as to real objects, dialogue partners etc, on stage with you.
But as Cavalieri reminds us, 17th-century Action is not only hand-gestures – it’s also movements of the whole body, the way you walk, and especially facial expressions and Energia from the eyes.
Two things you don’t have to worry about: ornaments (many sources, including Cavalieri & Monteverdi, warn against ornamenting in this style); your own emotions. The concept of ‘moving the Passions’ – muovere gli affetti – is concerned with changing the audience’s emotions: not yours. Some performers like to work ‘hot’, being very involved themselves in the emotions of the moment, others prefer to stay ‘cool’, keeping control of their own feelings so as to be better able to influence the audience: most people find a good balance between those two extremes. But in this style, we are not interested in the performer’s emotions, we are trying to sway the audience’s feelings. That’s what matters.
So now you are ready to perform, playing the role of Rasi playing the role of Bacco… or playing the role of La Florinda playing the role of Arianna.
And as Dorilla (Arianna’s irrepressibly positive maid-servant) would say:
ET VIVETE LIETI!
(Don’t worry, be happy!)
Tactus is the slow, steady beat that guides Early Music, shown by a down-up movement of the hand, approximately one second each way. In previous posts, I’ve introduced the concept Rhythm – what really counts?, explored the philosophical background Quality Time: how does it feel?, and summarised the implications for Historically Informed Performance Tempus Putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s Time.
In this article the focus is on the Tactus Hand itself, on the practicalities of embodying a mystic concept that links everyday music-making with the divine power of the cosmos. And we should not underestimate that power, since, for renaissance and baroque musicians, the Tactus Hand was the Hand of God made visible in microcosm.
Since the 1980s, as co-director of ensemble Tragicomedia and in my own teaching and directing, I have frequently used a simple arm-waving exercise to give participants a practical experience of Tactus. I emphasise the significance of a two-way motion with a sense of ‘swing’, as opposed to the hammering effect of a one-way beat. I recommend using the entire arm, a long pendulum for a slow swing. And already in those days, I noticed that this kind of Tactus work brought to the group a special atmosphere of calm and concentration. After just a minute or so of beating Tactus, the room seems quieter, each of us more aware of small sounds and as a group, better able to find a united sense of rhythm and timing.
In my own playing, I notice that keeping my mind on the Tactus allows me to stay calm, even in demanding fast passage-work. No matter how fast my fingers need to move, my inner focus is on that slow swing: even the fast bits still feel slow and steady. Working with singers, I encourage them to feel the embodied power of the Tactus, to realise that they could hold the entire ensemble in their own hands, and to feel (like a physical weight) the responsibility that this entails. The Tactus-movement can’t be a trivial flip of the wrist, it needs the gravity of a long, weighty pendulum.
George Houle’s most useful survey of Metre in Music: 1600-1800 was published in 1987, though I didn’t come across it until many years later. Houle wondered what a tactus-directed ensemble would sound like: my work ever since has been devoted to answering that question.
Since the 1990s, with my own ensemble, The Harp Consort, we continue to apply Tactus to many different repertoires, to Spanish dances in Luz y Norte, to German high baroque in Italian Concerto, to the medieval Ludus Danielis and the first South American opera, La púpura de la rosa, to folk-music from Guernsey, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, to Purcell’s theatrical and chamber music in Musick’s Hand-Maid, to medieval popular songs Les Miracles de Notre Dame and Latin-American religious music, Missa Mexicana. In these and many other projects, Tactus is the organising principle that unites the whole ensemble in music, dance and improvisation.
In this current decade, with my renewed focus on early opera, Tactus has been a key concept in the award-winning Text, Rhythm, Action! program of international research, experiment, training and performance. I’ve re-opened the investigation of Tactus in the context of the Historical Science of Time itself, and applied the latest research findings to my work on Baroque Gesture and Historical Action. Fascinating connections have emerged: the 18th-century love of fermata and cadenza seems to match the contemporaneous fashion for striking Attitudes on the theatrical stage.
Some findings would seem glaringly obvious, but have previously escaped attention. Monteverdi, Shakespeare and their contemporaries circa 1600 did not share our present-day intuitive understanding of Absolute Time: that idea was introduced in Newton’s Principia (1687). The seicento concept of Time was Aristotelian, depending on movement to define ‘before’ and ‘after’. In music, that movement is embodied in the Tactus Hand.
Gradually, I’ve been able to reach a more refined understanding of Tactus as Time, Tactus as Movement, with the goal of applying all that pre-Newtonian philosophy to down-to-earth practicalities. How do we move our hands to create Tactus, and what does it mean?
For Italian music around the year 1600, the Tactus hand is indeed like a pendulum, swinging for about one second each way (i.e. two seconds for the complete there-and-back-again). The complete (reciprocal) movement corresponds to a semibreve, so each individual (one-way) beat corresponds to a minim, at approximately minim = 60. Of course, in Monteverdi’s day, although there were clocks that ticked approximate seconds accurate to about 15 minutes per day, clocks were not capable of defining those seconds accurately. So Tactus Time is only as accurate as you can humanly make it.
The precise Quantity of Time therefore can’t be defined: rather Tactus relies on each musician to remember how it feels, to recall the Quality of Time. So try these tests: can you remember the sound of a ticking clock? How fast does it tick (according to your memory)? Can you recall the speed of some particular piece of music that you’ve often performed with the same team? How accurately can you estimate a one-second pulse? If you hear a church clock strike noon, how good is your estimate of 1215?
Of course, nowadays, you can check your estimates against Absolute Time (well, at least against a digital stopwatch!). But the point of these experiments is to get used to the idea that
You are trying to feel the right Time
This is very different from the modern musical practice of performers choosing their own time. Seicento tempo is not a matter of personal choice!. You would not get much sympathy if you turned up late for rehearsal, saying “Although most people take it faster, in my interpretation, it is not yet 10 o’clock.” Toby Belch, in Shakespeare’s As you like it (1603) makes a similar connection between good time-keeping in everyday life (‘to go to bed betimes’) and keeping time in music. In reply to Malvolio’s accusation that he shows no respect of time, he retorts that ‘we did keep time, sir, in our catches’ (witty part-songs).
Your estimate of time will naturally be influenced by your surroundings and your own state of mind: if you are in a hectic mood, you might err on the fast side; if you are feeling particularly relaxed, you might err on the slow side. If you play a piece of music in a generous acoustic, you might play it slower; in a dry acoustic, you might play it faster to get the same feeling.
The precise Quantity cannot be defined – you are trying to find the right Quality
Fixing Tactus at the order of magnitude of one second (for C time in Italian seicento: in other repertoires, there are significant pulse-rates somewhat faster at approx 80 beats per minute or somewhat slower at around 45 bpm) does not imply a ‘metronomic’ performance. There is room inside that slow, steady minim beat for the subtle difference between Good and Bad syllables (in crotchets) or the dance-like swing of French inegalite (in quavers). There are also symmetries on longer time-scales, and good musicians will be sensitive to these too. Nevertheless, Tactus provides a particular time-scale, a calibration that synchronises musical notation with real-world time, with physical movement, and with the human body. That time-scale is approximately one second, corresponding to a pendulum-length of approximately one metre, which is approximately the length of an outstretched arm (measured to the centre of the body).
Narrowing down the historical sense of musical time to an order of magnitude might not seem like much progress towards the question of “what is the historical tempo for Monteverdi’s Orfeo?”. But even this very approximate measure can help unify an ensemble, by ensuring that everyone is feeling the same beat (as opposed to some counting in crotchets, others counting in minims). There has been some discussion along the lines that if a slow Tactus beat is good, then feeling a super-slow pulse (say 30, or even just 15 beats per minute) might be even better. But whilst there is evidence for very slow pulse in some medieval music, around the year 1600 ensemble unity was definitely organised on the Tactus time-scale at around 60 bpm.
Establishing an approximate calibration of real-world time to the speed of a minim in common time is also a vital first step towards understanding seicento Proportions. Whether or not a certain interpretation of the relationship between common and triple time is plausible, depends crucially on the starting tempo in common time. Somewhat illogically, current debate on Proportions recognises that historical notation was intended to fix the speed of triple metres (even if we do not yet have a consensus agreement about how to understand that notation), but resists the idea that the speed of common time was also fixed (as precisely as humanly possible). But Roger Mathew Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music shows how the entire system of Proportional notation depends crucially on common-time Tactus. The various Proportions are linked, like cog-wheels in a 17th-century clock, and calibrated to real-world time by setting common-time Tactus at the rate of one minim = one second (as precisely as humanly possible).
The pendulum effect, discovered by Galileo in the late 16-century but not built into a clock until 1656, was used to measure musical time by means of Loulié’s chronomètre (1696) and as late as 1840, in Bunting’s transcriptions of ancient Irish harp-music. With students from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, we tried playing to a pendulum beat at Scoil na gClairseach: the experience is nothing like playing to a metronome click. Try it for yourself, and you’ll immediately appreciate the differences.
The movement of a pendulum, pausing momentarily at the end of each swing, leaves musicians a certain margin for subtle choice of where to ‘place’ the beat. To use the vocabulary of jazz, you can be ‘on the front of the beat’ or ‘laid back’. In this sense, a pendulum feels more ‘human’, less ‘mechanical’. However, the pendulum does not allow those subtle choices to pile up cumulatively: it checks any general tendency to rush or drag. Meanwhile, the strong but gentle movement of a pendulum has the same mesmeric effect of inducing relaxed concentration that we notice with the Tactus hand itself.
Re-reading seicento treatises reminded me that the Tactus movement is always described as down-up. So when using the Tactus hand as a rehearsal exercise, or in performances of Cavalieri’s (1600) Anima e Corpo at the Theatre Natalya Sats in Moscow, we abandoned the side-to-side swing in favour of the historical, vertical movement. This creates a subtle distinction between the two directions of movement, with Down having added significance, and facilitates awareness of the complete Tactus cycle, from Down to Down.
From my studies of historical swordsmanship, modern Feldenkrais Method and ancient Tai Chi, I can now appreciate that the sensation of ‘soft strength’ appropriate to beating musical time can be found by connecting the Tactus Hand down through the whole body. This requires a body-posture that maintains structural integrity with minimal tension. We can see such postures in period paintings and sculptures: a good posture for Tactus is also the starting point for Baroque Gesture, and for historically informed instrumental playing.
My training as a Hypnotist provides an explanation for the special sense of relaxation and concentration that focus on the Tactus can evoke. Following the lead of Milton H. Erickson (the father of modern hypnotism) and of Joe Griffin (theorist of the Origin of Dreams), it is now recognised that any experience of calm concentration can induce a particular state of mind. We can call this an Altered State of Consciousness, we can call it Flow or being in the Zone, we can call it Mindfulness or Meditatation: the labels don’t really matter. This phenomenon of heightened awareness is the key to optimal performance not only in music, but also in many other creative and sporting activities.
Preparing for the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, we encountered many instances of slow triple-metre, notated as 3 Sesquialtera semibreves in the time of the 2 common-time minims. This can be a tricky Proportional change, but Tactus helps us manage it, especially with a vertical motion of the hand. The duration of the complete cycle from Down to Down continues unchanged: the only adjustment is that Down now lasts longer than Up.
Sesquialtera: Down – Up becomes Down – 2 – Up
In Spanish baroque music, the same adjustment happens even more frequently, whenever we find the cross-rhythm of Hemiola amongst a regular metre of Tripla. A well-known modern example is I wanna live in America: two units of Tripla, I wanna / live in A- / (Down Up) have the same duration as one unit of Hemiola me-ri-ca (Down – 2- Up).
One way to negotiate such shifts is to de-emphasise the Up stroke so that it simply doesn’t matter whether it is equal (Down Up) or unequal (Down – 2- Up). Instead, the focus is on preserving the equality of measure in the complete cycle, a consistent time between Down strokes. This focus on the complete Tactus-cycle, on the common-time semibreve rather than on the minim of each stroke, is mentioned in some period treatises, and works well for us in practice.
Towards the end of last year, working with multiple Tactus-beaters for polychoral music, I suddenly noticed a small detail of Tactus-beating that had previously escaped my attention. In the three-choir piece illustrated on the frontispiece of Praetorius’ Theatrum Instrumentorum, the Tactus Hands are shown palm outwards.
I immediately searched through other period images and consulted with colleagues. Though no-one else had noticed it before either, it became apparent that Tactus-beating was usually, perhaps always, palm-outwards. (Do let me know if you find evidence to the contrary, or if you would like to add to the mountain of evidence in favour of palm-out).
The historical movement of the Tactus Hand, down-up with the palm outwards, feels different, and subtly alters the relationship between the two strokes. And the connections to Baroque Gesture are highly significant. The starting position of Tactus (hand high, palm outwards) corresponds to the orator’s preparatory gesture, commanding the audience to be silent and listen. The powerful Down movement of the Tactus stroke corresponds to a gesture of authority, quelling and directing subordinates.
The period philosophy of the Music of the Spheres connects the perfect movement of the cosmos with the harmonious nature of the human body and with practical music-making. Similarly, heavenly Time directed by the Hand of God is reflected in the microcosm of the Human hand beating Tactus and in the perfection (to the limits of human ability) of musical rhythm. That rhythm is found by dividing the slow Tactus beat in various Proportions, just as the movement of the stars and planets are derived from the Primum Mobile. This concept is beautifully described in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXVII. Here is the classic Longfellow translation:
The Tactus Hand embodies the divine Hand of God; maintaining Tactus symbolises the turning of the cosmos; the movements of the Tactus Hand embody earthly authority and command listeners’ attention. However, the authority of Tactus is not located in the whims and fancies of an individual Tactus-beater: Tactus-beating is utterly different from modern conducting. The responsibility of a Tactus-beater is to recall and preserve the perfection of heavenly time, not to make personal choices. So it is that multiple Tactus-beaters can collaborate simultaneously, as Praetorius showed.
No-one is trying to make a personal interpretation of Time: everyone is trying to unite in finding the right time.
Some musicians feel a deep sense of responsibility to arrive at rehearsal on time. This is part of the respect we owe to the beauty and ineffable nature of Music itself. If you can understand such respect, then you might begin to understand the sense of high duty and precise timeliness that renaissance musicians felt about rhythm.
Music and other arts offer us earth-born creatures a glimpse of a world beyond the everyday. In period philosophy, the Tactus Hand allows musicians to touch the stars. We all know that Early Music was directed not by conductors, but by Tactus beaters. So why not try the Power of Tactus for yourself! I’m sure you’ll have a Good Time.
Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:
http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]
http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]
http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.
Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.
Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!
Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!
Please join me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:
http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]
http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]
http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.