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Grandi’s Cantatas – A Link with Improvisational Practice?

Opening bars of "Amor, giustitia Amor" from Cantade et Arie…1626

The three works in Grandi’s Cantade et Arie a voce sola of 1620 that bear the designation of “cantata” are all constructed using the technique that musicologists now categorize as “strophic bass” cantatas.  In its classic form as represented in these pieces, the same bass line is used for each stanza of a strophic poem with varying melodies in the vocal part.

Ostinato bass lines were already common at the beginning of the century, but these new cantatas were distinguished by the greater length of their recurring bass line and their more definite structure. The strophic bass cantata is anticipated in, for example Monteverdi’s Orfeo in variations of the vocal line above a slightly modified bass line within a ritornello structure are found.

Grandi’s innovation can be seen as a logical extension of an improvised practice. It is likely that performers, in interpreting a strophic song would vary the melodic line for each stanza to emphasize certain words or communicate different sentiments. “Arias” setting strophic poetry are found in innumerable collections from the early years of the 17th Century, and in fact the bulk of Grandi’s 1620 collection is devoted to such strophic songs. One has to think only of Monteverdi’s Si dolce e’l tormento – a remarkably simple looking work on the page – and how it can be varied to exceptional effect in performance.

The cantatas in the 1620 collection formalize this practice, though they certainly do not preclude further embellishment and variation by the singer. There are numerous accounts of virtuosi, like Francesca Caccini, who could improvise a musical setting of poem and one can imagine that a strophic bass technique would lend itself to such extemporizing.

Grandi’s cantatas were immensely popular. The newly identified print from 1620, from which the cantatas on Magnificat’s program are drawn was in fact a reprint of an earlier publication and he went on to publish three more collections over the next decade, only one of which survives. Numerous composers imitated the cantatas, including Monteverdi himself.

Even in the 1620s we can observe the characteristic of the later Baroque cantata emerging, as composers begin to modify the bass line and alternating recitative and arioso styles in the vocal lines. Amor, giustitia amor, the one work designated “cantata” in Grandi’s third book of Cantade et Arie, published in 1626, which Magnificat will also be performing, already shows considerable variation in the bass line from stanza to stanza and clearly anticipates the more variegated form of the later cantata. The expansion of the stanzas into distinct sections is paralleled in the development of the trio sonata from a free flowing sectional form to a set of individual movements over the course of the 17th Century.

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