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.
- Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno
Incliti Eroi, sangue gentil di Regi
Di cui narra la fama eccelsi pregi
Ne giunge al ver, perch’è tropp’ alto il segno.
From my beloved Permesso I come to you
Great heroes, noble blood of kings
Of whom Fame tells heavenly praises
Yet does not reach the truth, for the sign is too high.
Music comes from somewhere far-off, from a beautiful pastoral landscape associated with the lost golden age of classical antiquity and with the divine inspiration and cultural melody of the Muses. With her opening line, La Musica evokes a mythological location, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’.
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!
- Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti
So far tranquillo ogni turbato core
Et hor di nobil ira et hor d’Amore
Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.
I am Music, who with sweet accents
Can calm every troubled heart,
And now with noble anger, now with Love,
Can enflame the most frozen minds.
Music can ‘soothe the savage breast’, but the special feature of seicento performance is the rapid change between contrasting, even opposing emotions. Cavalieri also draws attention to this, in the Preface to Anima & Corpo (1600), here. This differs from the Romantic tendency to intensify a single emotion more and more, in the search for catharsis.
Period Science classified the Passions according to the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (sad, unlucky in love, sleepless, over-intellectual) Phlegmatic (unmoved by anything, a ‘wet blanket’). Anger is Choleric, Love is Sanguine and the frozen minds are Phlegmatic. The Melancholy Humour, so typical in English period culture, in Dowland’s music and Shakespeare’s dramas, is absent from this Italian Musica, though it emerges in Striggio’s Act II. Emotions in Early Opera, here.
- Io su Cetera d’or cantando soglio
Mortal orrecchio lusingar tal’hora
E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora
De la lira del ciel piu l’alme invoglio
Singing to the golden cetra as usual
I charm mortal ears for a while
And in this way with the sonorous harmony
Of the lyre of heaven I can even influence souls.
The strange and beautiful musical instruments of the early 17th-century, the large triple-harp, the long-necked theorbo and the bowed lirone, were all real-life imitations of the mythical cetra, the ancient and magical lyre of Apollo. With such instruments, baroque music can titillate the listener’s ears. But when this charming sound is coupled with music’s mysterious, cosmic power, the effect is far more profound.
This is the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, a medieval concept that remained current until the end of the 18th century. Music, as we play and sing it every day, is an earthly imitation of that perfect music created by the movement of the stars, moon and planets in their orbits. The link is made by the harmonious nature of the human body, a microcosm with ears to hear, a tongue to sing, hands to play instruments, and a mind that senses the ineffable perfection and otherworldly power that our everyday music-making seeks to evoke.
This three-fold nature (cosmic, human and actual) is also characteristic of period Dance, which imitates the perfect movement of the heavenly bodies. In the early 17th-century (before Newton), Time itself was similarly understood to be set by the cosmological clock, observed in the human pulse and heartbeat, and shown by the steady down-up movsement of the hand, beating the (approximately one-per-second) Tactus that structures 17th-century music.
Period medical science modelled a mystic breath, something like oriental chi, networked through the mind-body holism (akin to the ‘meridians’ of Chinese traditional medicine) to facilitate proprioception, motor-control, psychological and physiological reactions. This pneuma was the same mysterious energy that transferred emotions from performer to listener, and was also the spiritual breath of life, activating each human being with the divine inspiration of the breath of creation.
Significantly, all this philosophy of heaven and humanity plays out at the practical level of historical performance. Musical rhythm imitates the steadiness and reliability of astronomical movement, driven by the slowest beat, the innermost sphere, the primum mobile. The Tactus-hand embodies the Hand of God, not wilful or capricious, but all-powerful and eternally constant. If musical time were to falter, the heavens might collapse, and your body rhythms would fail. If the pulse stops, the music also dies.
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.
- Quinci a dirvi d’Orfeo desio mi sprona
D’Orfeo che trasse al suo cantar le fere
E servo fe l’Inferno a sue preghiere
Gloria immortal di Pindo e d’Elicona
Therefore to tell you about Orfeo is the desire that spurs me
Orfeo who tamed wild beasts with his singing
And made Hell a servant by his prayers
The immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.
With this stanza, Striggio introduces the subject of his music-drama, a super-hero whose powers are wielded through the medium of song. Music has power over Nature, and can melt the hardest hearts. If battle-heroes go to Valhalla, then poets and musicians have the eternal glory of the homes of Epic verse and the Lyrical arts.
The sequence of ideas continues from the previous strophe into these lines, as signalled by the rhetorical link-word, quinci. Music is not just ear-tickling noise, it has cosmic power, and (in the current strophe) power over nature, power to persuade. Aristotle defined rhetoric itself as the Art of Persuasion, and Striggio’s Musica is, therefore, a rhetorical art.
Music is also storytelling – Monteverdi’s opera is designated favola, a fable. And it is desire that spurs us on tell such tales, to make such music. The Italian urge to sing, play, dance, act, recite poetry and tell stories is not English Melancholy but the Choleric Humour: a hunger, a thirst, a passionate desire.
- Hor mentre i canti alterno, hor lieti, hor mesti,
Non si mova Augellin fra queste piante
Ne s’oda in queste rive onda sonante
Et ogni auretta in suo camin s’arresti.
Now, while I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad,
Not even a bird will move amongst these plants
Nor will there be heard in these rivers the sound of waves
And every little breeze will stop in its tracks.
The traditional function of a theatrical Prologue is to command the audience’s attention and call for silence. Striggio’s choice of imagery reinforces the Orphic connection between music and nature, and emphasises changes between contrasting emotions. As her song ends, La Musica holds the spectators spell-bound for 9 minim-beats, 9 seconds of musical rests, 9 seconds of dramatic silence (on-stage, this feels like eternity!). If the performer can command the moment, this both creates and demonstrates the power of music to influence the listeners’ most profound spiritual experience.
If the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, the staged drama that follows can be deeply moving. La Musica’s Prologue, in particular the hypnotic effect of drifting half-sentences and dreamy silences in this final strophe, gets the audience into the right state of mind for attentive listening and passionate response. Indeed, Striggio’s introduction to the opera can be analysed as an induction into hypnotic trance, an altered state of consciousness in which the conventional limits of reality are blurred and emotional responses are heightened, lulled into dream-world by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the heroes, here.
So now, be still, and hear the Philosophy of La Musica:
- Music comes from an ancient, distant, golden, pastoral otherworld.
- Music pleasantly alters your state of mind.
- Music is more than sound, it uses the Power of the Force.
- Music is storytelling, and the Rhetorical Art of Persuasion.
- As Music sings, your mind flows… you relax… concentrate… in deep silence…