Author Archive

The ‘Specialness’ of Monteverdi’s Vespers

April 2nd, 2010 No comments

This article is adapted from a longer article that appears in the April issue of the San Francisco Early Music Society newsletter, which can be viewed and downloaded in PDF format at the SFEMS website.

Recently Craig Zeichner, who is writing a piece about “2010 Vespermania,” asked me what made the Monteverdi Vespers so special. There are so many different answers to the question, which in itself is certainly a potent argument for its “specialness.” Several generations of writers have explored many angles in describing this amazing music — certainly more than any other music from the period — and it has become one of the enduring classics of the musical canon.

Surely one of the most striking aspects of this music is Monteverdi’s astonishing juxtaposition of old and new in a way that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of Italy in 1610. In fact, few works of art are so strongly associated with a specific year. At the same time, the music succeeds in transcending identification with any particular time and place.

But in considering Craig’s question, I found myself asking another: “What was the motivation for this grandiose display of talent?”

The answer may lie in the specific circumstances in which the collection was assembled. As many scholars have demonstrated, the Mass and Vespers collection of 1610 does not present the music performed for any specific event. Indeed, combining the five psalms and five sacri concenti into a single liturgy is problematic. But why a collection of sacred music — a genre almost entirely absent from Monteverdi’s published music in the first 40 years of his life? All indications suggest that the publication was intended to help Monteverdi escape the Mantuan court. Read more…

Re-Discovering Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

March 31st, 2010 No comments

This article is adapted from a longer article that appears in the April issue of the San Francisco Early Music Society newsletter, which can be viewed and downloaded in PDF format at the SFEMS website.

Monteverdi as a young man in Mantua

One of the great joys of Magnificat has been the opportunity of exploring the astounding repertoire of 17th-century music that has been unjustly neglected for centuries. Magnificat’s process of discovery has often resulted in modern “premieres” that are exciting for both the musicians and our audiences. But in the case of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, we are approaching music that is generally familiar to our audience — many of whom have even sung the piece — and each of the musicians involved can list multiple performances of the work on their resumes. Yet turning to Monteverdi’s familiar music together is no less a revelation than any premiere, especially in the company of musical friends that bring such a breadth of experience with them to the performances.

It has been observed that Monteverdi’s astonishing juxtaposition of old and new perfectly captured the zeitgeist of Italy in 1610 and, in fact, few artworks are so strongly associated with a specific year. At the same time, the music succeeds in transcending identification with any particular time and place. It is this sense of timeless beauty that has captured the imagination of generations and made it one of the most beloved works of Western Art. Read more…

Monteverdi’s Unsuccessful ‘Audition’ in Rome

March 2nd, 2010 No comments

As early as the Fall of 1608 Monteverdi had discussed the possibility of leaving Mantua and his publication of a monumental Mass and Vespers in 1610, with a dedicate to Pope Paul V was clearly an attempt to promote his services. In that year, with his collection in tow, Monteverdi traveled to Rome, where he hoped to achieve two results: an audience with the Pope to enable him to offer his sacred collection in person, and a free place for his son Francesco. (Monteverdi was a widower of over two years at that point.) In a letter from that month he wrote to Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga:

“‘in the Roman seminary with a benefice from the church to pay his board and lodging, I being a poor man. But without this favor I could not hope for anything from Rome to help Franceschino, who has already become a seminarian in order to live and die in this calling.”

None of the composer’s plans came to fruition, and the letter, which gives a sense of the his dire financial situation, continues:

“For if Rome, even with Your Most Illustrious Lordship’s favor, were not to help him, he and another brother of his would remain poor, so that they wowukld hardly be able to start the New Year with bread and wine, which I lack. I shall look out for some simple benefice or other that can bring in a stipend sufficient to obtain the satisfaction of this need from His Holiness, if Your Most Illustrious Lordship will be so kind as to try and assist both him and me at the same time (as I hope from your infinite virtue), both with His Holiness and with Monsignor the Datary; otherwise, fearing that I troubled him too much when I was in Rome, I would not dare to ask him again any favor.”

[Translation by Time Carter from Paolo Fabbri’s Monteverdi, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 109-110.]

Galileo’s Music

March 1st, 2010 No comments

On his remarkable Galileo 1610 website, Mark Thompson writes about the role of music Gilileo’s scientific work:

“Thus the effect of the fifth is to produce a tickling of the eardrum such that its softness is modified with sprightliness, giving at the same moment the impression of gentle kiss and of a bite.”

Music played not only a unique, but an essential role in leading Galileo to his new physics. Because it is an art demanding precise measurement and exact divisions, music reflected the spirit of Galileo’s science.

One of Galileo’s most important discoveries, the law of falling bodies, can actually be traced to his early musical experiments with his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musicologist and lute virtuoso. Together, they discovered the motions of pendulums while measuring with weights, the tensions of lute strings.

Galileo was an outstanding lutenist himself, whose “charm of style and delicacy of touch” surpassed even that of his father. Playing the lute was a source of great pleasure and a special comfort to him in his final years, when blindness was added to the many other trials of his life.

”Everything Galileo ever did has been challenged,” said the late Stillman Drake, Canadian historian of science and preeminent biographer of Galileo. ”But ultimately it stands up.”

Grandi’s Cantatas – A Link with Improvisational Practice?

February 2nd, 2010 No comments

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.

Anno del Ghiaccio – Venice in Winter

January 23rd, 2010 No comments

Chilly Gondolas

Like most I suspect, when I think of Venice I imagine a sun-baked Piazza of San Marco, but of course winter visits Venice each year and it seems that before the advent of modern heating, the experience was particularly brutal. In his engaging journals recounting his three years in Venice during the 1860s, W.D. Powell describes the attitude of the locals to winter:

“The Venetians pretend that many of the late winters have been much severer than those of former years, but I think this pretense has less support in fact than in the custom of mankind everywhere to claim that such weather as the present, whatever it happens to be, was never seen before.”

In common with other places (like California) where the weather is generally agreeable, houses are built with a view to coolness in summer and one can only imagine that the experience of a Christmas or Epiphany feast in the spacious interior of San Marco was often a chilly one. In fact in Howell’s judgment it is those who must spend their time indoors that suffer the most.

“When one goes out into the sun, one often finds an overcoat too heavy, but it never gives warmth enough in the house, where the Venetian sometimes wears it. Ineed the sun is recognized by Venetians as the only legitimate source of heat, and they sell his favor at fabulous prices to such foreigners as take the lodgings into which he shines.”

Read more…

The Timelessness of Beauty

January 19th, 2010 No comments
Van Eyck Annunciation


Last Sunday, I attended Artek’s performance of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine at the National Gallery in Washington DC. It was lovely to hear a fine performance of this masterpiece (a piece I’m thinking about alot these days) in one of my favorite buildings in the world. We arrived through the East entrance and were directed by the guards up to the second floor, which meant that we got to have a glimpse of a Cranach alterpiece, Gentileschi’s lute player (which is not a portrait of Francesca Caccini by the way), and several Vermeers and Rembrandts before hearing Monteverdi’s magnificent music.

Almost as if it had been planned I turned one corner and there was the magnificent Annunciation by Van Eyck. I first saw this extraordinary painting shortly after it was restored. A whole room had been dedicated to its display. Now it occupies a more modest space but it is just as stunning.

Magnificat’s will perform the Vespers within the context of Second Vespers for the Feast of Annunciation and there was something very satisfying about having Van Eyck’s colors in my head as I heard the fanfare of the opening response of Monteverdi’s 1610 collection. The dislocation of the 15th century painting, the 17th century music and the 21st century setting emphasized the unspeakable timelessness of beauty.

Magnificat to Perform Modern Premieres of the First Cantatas

January 12th, 2010 No comments

Newly Discovered Cantatas by Alessandro Grandi to be Sung by Soprano Laura Heimes

Soprano Laura Heimes

At Magnificat’s concerts on February 12-14 Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to hear the first performances since the 17th century of five vocal works by Alessandro Grandi, including the first three pieces identified by a composer as “cantatas”. Soprano Laura Heimes will join with David Tayler and Hanneke van Proosdij for what will most likely be the first performances of these works in modern times.[1. News of our upcoming performances has created a buzz among musicologists studying the music of the 17th century and we have been informed that one of the cantatas, Amor, altri si duol, was in fact performed at the Bibliothèque musicale François-Lang in Royaumont, France on October 12, 2008. It is, of course, impossible to determine with complete certainty that the other works have not received a public performance and if we hear of any others, we will update this post.]

In his 1620 collection Cantade et Arie, Grandi used to the term “cantada” to distinguish three settings of strophic poetry for soprano and continuo. Each of the works – Amor altri si duol, Vanne vattene Amor and Udito han pur i Dei – employs a compositional strategy identified by musicologists as “strophic bass” cantatas, an example of strophic variation with which many composers were experimenting at the time. Read more…

Monteverdi, Grandi and The Company of San Marco

December 10th, 2009 No comments

While reveling in the beauty of music from the past, we seldom consider the “office politics” and professional competition that surrounded its composition and original performance. The goal of simultaneously creating beauty and paying rent has always been proven challenging and even among highly respected and gainfully employed artists, competition has frequently led to conflict.

The Floor of the Basilica of San Marco

The Floor of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice

In his biographical sketch of Alessandro Grandi, published previously on this blog, Steven Saunders mentions the composer’s rapid rise to positions of authority at the Basilica of San Marco after returning from Ferrara in 1617. Among the positions that he attained was capo, or head, of the Compagnia di San Marco, a group not unlike a modern musicians’ union that organized singers for “freelance work” outside the basilica.

Already in the 15th Century, musical activity outside the Basilica had been organized through confraternities known as Scuole Grandi. In his seminal article on organizations of musicians in Venice, Jonathan Glixon relates that “sometime in the years before 1553 the singers of the ducal cappella organized themselves into two companies that competed for work at the Scuole and elsewhere. The rivalry between the two became intense and bitter, making it difficult not only for them to secure engagements, but also to work together at San Marco. The solution to this problem, and the ensuing resolutions, petitions, and counter- resolutions, are preserved in a fascinating series of documents that provides unique insights into the business of music in sixteenth- century Venice.” Read more…

Re-Composing Cozzolani – Magnificat to Perform Modern Premiere of Lost Work

November 6th, 2009 2 comments

Listen to Cozzolani’s Music

O Praeclara dies Page 1

The first page of "O Præclara dies"

We are fortunate that Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, unlike most of the nuns composing for convents in the 17th century, had the opportunity to publish some of her music. Had her works not been printed on the press of Venetian publisher Alessandro Vincenti, they would most likely have met the same fate of the vast majority of music recorded solely in manuscript – lost in a fire, sold as scrap paper, or simply discarded when musical fashions changed.

Only two of Cozzolani’s four published collections survived into modern times complete: Concerti Sacri … (1642), which includes the four voice Mass that Magnificat will perform in December, and Salmi a Otto Voci … (1650), from which the psalms in our Vespers programs are drawn. Sadly, the one part book from her first publication of motets Primavera di fiori musicali (1640) that survived into the 20th Century was destroyed in 1945 along with the entire Berlin Singakademie library. However, in the case of her collection of solo motets Scherzi di Sacra Melodia … (1648), we still have the soprano part book, though the basso continuo part book has been lost.

Over the past decade that Magnificat has been performing and recording Cozzolani’s music, there have been three previous programs on which we have performed motets from the Scherzi with newly “re-composed” continuo parts. In our upcoming performances on the weekend of December 4-6, Catherine Webster will sing the Christmas motet O præclara dies from the 1648 collection in what will most likely be a modern premiere. Read more…

Making the Music of the Past Part of the Future of Music

September 30th, 2009 No comments

Future of Music Policy Summit

Magnificat will be attending the Future of Music Policy Summit October 4-6 in Washington DC. The Summit promises to be a fascinating exploration of the ramifications of new technology and communications portals on the production, dissemination, and promotion of music.

The wide range of a range of speakers and panelists for the Summit include US Senator Al Franken, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Daniel Ek, founder of the music service Spotify, as well as artists like Wayne Kramer of MC5, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Erin McKeown, and Brian Message of Radiohead’s management team. From the FoM website:

It’s been nearly a decade since the digital music genie burst out of its bottle, changing the game for virtually everyone in the music ecosystem. So what comes next? Future of Music Policy Summit 2009 will examine this question through practical, musician-focused workshops, keynotes from leading artists, managers and policymakers and inspired panel discussions with the sharpest minds in the music/technology space.

As Magnificat has jumped head first into the deep end of cyberspace over the past few months, we have thought alot about how music lovers will access and interact with music in the future. One of the exciting aspects of the social media revolution has been the emergence of new avenues for communication between audience and performer. Through Twitter and other micro-blogging platforms “fans” have the possibility of following the preparation for a production and sharing the experience with others on a global scale. Photo-sharing sites like Flickr can provide the audience a glimpse “backstage” and give the performers a chance to share their audience’s perspective. And music-sharing portals like,, and many others have radically changed the way listeners access music.

The new technology raises many complex issues and questions of course and we are looking forward to participating in the discussions and break out sessions that address some of these concerns. Magnificat is grateful to The Future of Music Coalition for helping to make Magnificat’s participation in this event possible. The Summit program can be viewed here. The sessions will be webcast here. Magnificat (@MagBaroque) will be live tweeting during the event – #fmc09 – so see you in Twitterspace!

To Draw from a Thousand Hearts a Thousand Sighs

September 29th, 2009 No comments

In the late Spring of 1608, a tragedy brought together the worlds of comedy and opera in Mantua for a magical performance. The singer of the first great “aria” – Arianna’s famous lament – was best known at the time in the commedia roles of Florinda, Columbina, Isabella or those of the female zanni, Franceschina or Smeraldina.

Callot17croppedThe connection between the nascent Italian theater of the 16th Century, commonly referred to as “commedia dell’ arte”, and the development of opera at the end of that century has been well established by musical scholars. Nino Pirrotta, in a memorable Musical Quarterly article from 1955, observed:

If I may be permitted to make a comparison, I would choose, even though it is old and much abused, that of two branches growing from a common trunk-two branches not quite opposite and divergent, but near each other in their origin, then sometimes separated, sometimes brought nearer by the imponderable factors of air, of light, of the juices running through them and nourishing them.

We tend to think of commedia as rowdy, bawdy, low-brow entertainment and that certainly was a popular and enduring aspect of the commedia. So it is somewhat surprising to learn that in the 16th and 17th century the commedia, whether performed by actors or puppeteers, was equally beloved by the nobility and the lower classes – at least as respected as any professional artist at the time, though that wasn’t all that much.

The Medici, like the delle Rovere in Modena and especially the Gonzagas in Mantua, sponsored several troupes of comici, and their performances were an essential element of any grand occasion and especially during the Carnival season. The troupes were itinerant and would take up residence in different cities in Italy, and eventually in France and Spain, with the various ruling families vying for their services.

Read more…

"Hope Dies Hard in the Artist’s Breast" – Toni Parisi and the Sicilian Puppet Tradition

September 18th, 2009 No comments
Knights of the Opera dei Pupi

Knights of the Opera dei Pupi

Recently while researching the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi tradition, I came across a pair of century old articles in the New York Times archives that tell a touching and compelling story of the impact of emerging technology on established artistic traditions. The first article, “Moving Pictures Oust the Puppets” from December 12, 1909 announces that the Marionette Theater of Antonio (Toni) Parisi has been “forced at last to give way to the march of time”. The subtitle tells the story: “Signor Parisi will follow progress by turning his place into a picture show.”

From the article:

These are the last few lingering days of the Italian marionette theatre in Eleventh Street. Signor Toni Parisi is to shut up shop, stow away the heroes, Kings, knights, giants, Turks, the ladies in distress which have bobbed on his wires for more than twenty years and will run a moving-picture show instead. The reason is simple: The Sicilians in New York have become just enough Americanized to desert the little theatre where the old Italian romances were acted out by puppets. What are the classic heroes of long ago beside the latest prizefight! Signor Parisi doesn’t like moving pictures himself, but a man has to live!

The story goes on to tell how Toni, like his father and grandfather before him, had devoted his life to animating the legends of the Carolingian knights and how, at the height of its popularity, the theater at 258 Elizabeth Street was “the most splendid in New York”. Thanks to the remarkable Shorpy photo archive I found the photo below of Elizabeth Street taken a few years after the Parisi Family moved their theater to Eleventh Street. (The space is now occupied by a designer handbag shop called Token.)

250-268 Elizabeth Street New York

250-268 Elizabeth Street New York

Parisi knew the stories from Orlando Furioso by heart, having spent five years as an apprentice puppeteer in his father’s theatre in Palermo before joining in the great emigration to the New World, first to Boston, then to East Harlem and finally to the Bowery. According to a legend probably as reliable as the tales of Orlando, Toni Parisi’s great-grandfather learned to make puppets from a half-witted prisoner in a jail in Messina, and the Parisi clan had lived with and by marionettes thereafter.

To support his family, Antonio (Toni) Parisi worked as a plumber and mechanic, devoting all his profits into his beloved puppets, numbering over 300, a severe strain on the Parisi’s budget. According to a 1908 NY Times article, there was hope that The Drama Committee of the People’s Institute would help the Parisi theater to survive through promotional advertising to school children, though the outcome of the Committee’s actions is unclear from the article. Apparently it was insufficient in generating the income necessary to meet the theater’s weekly costs of $12.

While there had been several marionette theaters in the lower East Side in the last decades of the 19th century, the Parisi family’s was the only one remaining in 1909. After moving up to 11th Street, the Parisi’s had begun attracting more non-Italian audiences, especially children, drawn no doubt by the sign that Toni’s teenage son Nunzio had painted over the door advertising “Grand Romance of Orlando – Come! The Pope, the Moor, the Dragon’s Cave.” But what had become of his traditional Sicilian audience? As the 1909 article recounts “[o]ne night Signor Parisi watched, and saw crowds going into another place, with electric lights and a phonograph. The moving picture had invaded the Italian quarter. And so the seven volumes of old Italian romances, the hundreds of puppets had all been taken to the attic of the Parisi’s tenement.

Read more…

The Carter Family Marionettes and the Opera dei Pupi of Sicily

September 9th, 2009 4 comments

“Marionettes have a long tradition of being able to bridge worlds and classes”

The Carter Family Marionettes

The Carter Family Marionettes

The Carter Family Marionettes are especially known for their mastery and preservation of the traditional Sicilian marionette theater known as Opera dei Pupi, which employs large-scale puppets manipulated with iron rods. This traditional form of puppetry flourished in the 19th century but the roots of the Opera dei Pupi stretch back to Middle Ages and earlier.

The original repertoire of Opera dei Pupi was based on the 11th-century Chanson de Roland, which recounted the legends of Emperor Charlemagne and his army of Christian knights and their battles with the invading Saracens. These legends passed through many literary re-elaborations during subsequent centuries, notably Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme libera, served as the basis for Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which the Carters will be performing with Magnificat next month. In the 19th century, these tales of knights crossing swords in battle, saving damsels, and escaping from enchanted islands were assembled in popular versions that were sold in the streets in the hundreds of installments of the Paladini di Francia, a cycle that made Orlando, Rinaldo, and their fellow knights errant beloved heroes of Sicilian peasant culture for generations.

Ruggiero, in full armor after his "liberation"

Ruggiero, in full armor after his "liberation"

The Sicilian puppet is distinguished by the use of two metal rods, one running through the head and the other linked to the marionette’s right hand, which enable the puppets to be controlled with precise rhythmic gestures. The rod marionette actually pre-dates the string marionette in Europe but most traditions have moved to use of strings – only Sicily, Belgium and Czech Republic maintain rod-marionette traditions. At the height of Opera dei Pupi’s popularity at the turn of the last century, Sicily boasted as many as 25 puppet theaters, along with two or three peripatetic troupes. The two main Sicilian puppet schools that emerged in the 19th century in Palermo and Catania differed principally in the size and shape of the puppets, the operating techniques and the variety of colorful stage backdrops. Pupi were also found on the mainland, especially around Naples, but none of these troupes continue to perform. Read more…

A Librettist’s Choices: Saracinelli and La Liberazione di Ruggiero

September 7th, 2009 No comments
Archduchess Maria Magdalena

Archduchess Maria Magdalena

To say that La Liberazione di Ruggiero is a “setting” of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso is not entirely accurate. Rather it is a “reworking”, a “re-telling”, in which the librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli, a prominent figure and superintendent of performances for the Medici Court, was engaged in an ongoing tradition. The choices Saracinelli made in his libretto not surprisingly reflect the political agenda of his patroness, the Archduchess Maria Magdalena as well the concerns of the Florentine aristocracy in 1625.

In her survey of women at the Medici Court at the beginning of the 17th Century (Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), Kelly Harness points out that Saracinelli’s libretto draws as much from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata as from Ariosto. His effort was another installment in the multi-generational life of a good yarn. Grazio Braccioli, the librettist for Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, the unknown librettist of Handel’s Alcina, and many others carried on this process of re-telling in subsequent generations. More recently Italo Calvino has re-told these stories, for example, in The Non-Existent Knight.

The choice of Ruggiero’s tale and Saracinelli’s poetic decisions in the libretto were influenced by political consideration of the Medici Court in the 1620s. The elaborate festivities of which La Liberazione was a part were staged in honor of the visit  to Tuscany of Wladyslaw Vasa, Crown Prince of Poland. The prologue praises, with some deferential exaggeration,  the Prince’s heroism in defeating the Ottoman army in the Balkans (though his “victory” was in fact more of a stalemate) and his heroism versus Muscovy (also indecisive, at least by 1625). Maria Magdalena (a Hapsburg) desired that Poland defend Catholicism and enter into the conflict that we now refer to as the Thirty Years War and in general to stop being so tolerant toward the Protestants in his own land. There were also personal concerns, as Harness describes:

“Unsurprising in light of the archduchess’s plan to arrange a marriage between her daughter and Wladislaw, ensuring dynastic continuity through an appropriate marital alliance emerges as one of the central themes in La Liberazione. And once again Ariosto’s beneficent sorceress Melissa is crucial to the plot. In its principal source, Orlando furioso (cantos 7 and 8), Melissa – disguised as the old sorcerer Atlante and aided by a magic ring – must free Ruggiero from Alcina’s enchantment so that he might return to Bradamante and found the Este dynasty.”

Establishing the noble lineage of the Este dynasty, central to Ariosto and Boiardo before him in pleasing their Ferrarese patrons, was of less importance to Saracinelli of course and it is Melissa/Atlante’s call to battle that is emphasized. The magic ring is missing from Saracinelli’s libretto, rather it is the commanding presence of Melissa (transformed into Ruggiero’s protector Atlante) and her scolding call to military duty that “liberates” Ruggiero from his enchantment. Suzanne Cusick persuasively argues that Melissa – and specifically her relationship to Ruggiero – “can be read as a model of how a woman such as Maria Magdalena might effectively rule in a monarchical and patriarchal world.”

Read more…

When An Opera Is Not An Opera

August 24th, 2009 No comments

To the extent that Francesca Caccini is known at all to music lovers today it is as the first woman to compose an opera. Imagine the disappointment of learning that the opera for which she is famous, La Liberzaione di Ruggiero, was in fact not an opera at all!

On a certain level, it’s just a matter of how you define your terms, and La Liberzaione di Ruggiero certainly meets the most generic definition in The New Grove: “a musical dramatic work in which the actors sing all or some of the parts”.  That being said, the composer’s own designation and the circumstances and purposes of its composition support Suzanne Cusick‘s flat assertion that “La Liberazione is clearly not an opera”. She goes on to explain:

“It is, as its sources’ title pages attest a “balletto composto in musica” – an entirely sung, plotted entertainment meant to end in dancing that, in keeping with Florentine preference under the late Cosimo II, featured named dame and gentiluomini of the court whose performances deliberately dissolved the barrier between representation and reality.”

Balletto a Cavallo following La Liberazione di Ruggiero, Florence 1625

Balletto a Cavallo following La Liberazione di Ruggiero, Florence 1625

La Liberazione, then, was an extended prologue to further festivities, which in addition to the dancing of members of the court, included a horse ballet, all to celebrate the visit of Crown Prince Wladislaw Vasa of Poland, who had come to Florence for Carnival. Kelly Harness notes that the librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli “expanded the initial dialogue interchange that typically preceded the balletto a cavallo [horse ballet] proper into a potentially free-standing work, whose length approaches that of the earliest favole per musica. La Liberazione consists of 773 line; by contrast, in Le Fonti d’Ardenna [performed during Carnival in Florence in 1623] 230 lines precede the combat scene, while the total number of lines equals 357. L’Euridice by Ottavio Rinuccini numbers 790 lines.” Read more…

Balancing Spectacle and Intimacy: Urban Opera, Domus, and Otherness

August 24th, 2009 1 comment

Over the past weekend, the Jubilate Orchestra, a project of Magnificat, served as the “pit orchestra” for Urban Opera’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The performances took place in a sculpture garden between two office buildings by Mission Bay. The San Francisco Weekly noted that Bay Area audiences have the choice of a plethora of opera experiences and welcomed Urban Opera’s concept into the mix while acknowledging the climatic complications that the City by the Bay poses.

I was struck by the similarities in the company’s intention of “telling the beautiful, yet often improbable, stories of the classic operas in a compelling way for a modern audience” by setting these “tales of passion, betrayal, love and loss in unexpected locations in the City with minimal sets and emerging, talented singers who aren’t afraid to take risks” and the adventures of the intrepid and talented chamber music ensemble Domus in the early 80s.

The Dome

The Dome

Indeed, Urban Opera’s rejoinder “this is not your grandparents’ opera” seems like an echo of the Domus ethos, though Domus was perhaps more specifically interested in invigorating the interaction of performers and audience than with revolutionizing the performance itself. The Domus experience was eloquently chronicled in the inspired journals of pianist Susan Tomes, which were published a few years ago as part of Tomes’ Beyond the Notes. (Full disclosure: I had the privilege of playing a very minor role in one Domus tour – and a spectacularly ill-starred and exhilarating tour it was! – pp. 50ff.)

The Domus musicians felt that the formal protocol and elitism associated with the traditional concert hall created a barrier that kept many people – especially young people – from experiencing classical music. Their solution was to perform in a portable concert hall – a geodesic dome – that could be set up virtually anywhere, including places where classical musicians had not previously ventured. (For example – Wormwood Scrubs Green!) Visually striking, the dome itself attracted audiences and the compelling performances kept them there – and perhaps made them more likely to seek out classical music in more conventional venues. But it was the interaction of musicians and listeners that motivated the experiment (and sustained the musicians through all the stress of self-production). Read more…

“Zazzerino” – Jacopo Peri and the Birth of Opera

August 20th, 2009 No comments
Jacopo Peri as Orfeo

Jacopo Peri as Arion

August 20 is the birthday of Jacopo Peri, who was closely involved in the development of what we now call “opera”, staged drama set entirely to music. He was known affectionately as “Zazzerino” (from zazzera, mop of hair) in recognition of his striking, and long, blond hair – a sort of 16th century Robert Plant.

Though born in Rome in 1561, Peri is most closely associated with Florence, where he served along with Giulio and Francesca Caccini, Jacopo Corsi, Marco da Gagliano and many other in the extraordinary musical establishment of the Medici court. He has also been associated with the Florentine Camerata of Giovanni de’ Bardi and throughout his career was a leading voice (in all senses) for the “new music” that the Camerata was promoted.

The style promoted by the Camerata was perceived as a re-discovery of the music of Classical Greece, though there is little to suggest that the recitar cantando, the “heightened speech” that eventually became the operatic recitative, bore any resemblance to the music of the ancients. This in no way diminished the power of a musical style that sought to directly communicate human passion and emotion in a narrative context. Read more…

"To wonderfullye move, stir, pearce, and enflame the hearers myndes"

August 3rd, 2009 No comments

In Bruce Haynes’ thought-provoking, persuasive, and thoroughly entertaining book “The End of Early Music“, he devotes a chapter to a comparison of Baroque Expression and Romantic Expression. Appropriately, Haynes begins his discussion with a quote from “La Musica” speaking in the prologue of Monteverdi’s Orfeo:

“With sweet accents I can make every restless heart peaceful and inflame the coolest minds, now with anger, now with love.”

In reading Haynes’ revealing discussion of Rhetoric, Declamation, and “Affekt”, as understood before the Enlightenment, I am struck anew that the goal of the musician in the performance of Baroque music is to engender emotions in the audience – not merely to “express” those emotions. The composer provides a blueprint, a menu, and the musicians and the audience share the experience. The performer of this music is  tasked not merely with transmitting nothing more and nothing less than what the artist-composer wrote on the page, as Toscanni would say, “Com’ è scritto”. Rather as C.P.E. Bach observed,

“[M]usicians cannot move others unless they themselves are moved; it is essential that musicians be able to put themselves in each Affection they wish to rouse in their audience, for it is in showing their own emotion that they awaken sympathy.”

At least for pre-Romantic music.

The notion of the performer as a transparent “vessel” through which the composer’s work is channeled to the audience strikes me as a thoroughly 19th century concept. Surely, the circumstances in which we perform are heavily influenced by 19th century aesthetics (the very notion of “aesthetics” as we normally think of it begins with Kant) and the audiences we perform for are, of course, neither 17th nor 19th century audiences, which creates a lot of other interesting issues, but with Baroque music at least, the goal would not seem to be to offer some idealized “work” as conceived by a composer for an audience to reflect on, admire, and contemplate – that’s what you do with a Beethoven symphony or a Strauss tone poem.

I am persuaded that in pre-Romantic music (what Haynes calls “Rhetorical” music – in contrast to “Romantic” and “Modern” styles), the obligation of the musician is to experience an emotion and, through skill and technique, cause the audience to experience the emotion as well. Of course, with the music that Magnificat performs, there’s a 3 or 4 century gap between our audiences and the original audiences and while some basic emotions transcend any specific era, the range and flavor of emotions of 21st century audiences and performers alike are necessarily radically different from those of the 17th. What strikes me as critical is intention and commitment. The moment in the narrative, the instrumentation of the aria, the flat six before the cadence and the ornamentation implied by that cadence – these are all road signs indicating an emotion or “affekt”, which the performer interprets and then “feels”. The success of the performance is in some way measured by the degree to which that affekt is communicated and felt by the audience participating in the collective experience.

The Romantic philosophers who were creating an “aesthetics of music” viewed this sort of approach as manipulative or artificial and rejected it. Instead, they held up the canonic masterpieces of the genius/composers – the “Classics” – as somehow outside of time – and the performers role was to transmit them – without getting in the way.  Earlier in his book, Haynes quotes E.T.A. Hoffman from 1810:

“The true artist lives only in that work which he has comprehended and now performs as the master intended it to be performed. He is above putting his own personality forward in any way, and all his endeavours are directed towards a single end, to call to life all the enchanting pictures and shapes the composer has sealed into his work with magic power.”

Haynes also quotes the New Grove dictionary article on expression, in which Roger Scruton, who encapsulate the Romantic view:

“…to describe a piece of music as expressive of melancholy is to give a reason for listening to it; to describe it as arousing or evoking melancholy is to give a reason for avoiding it.” (emphases mine)

By the 20th century, performers become necessary, but interchangeable, servants or staff (these days conveniently replaced by CD players) that presented the ineffable works of the composer for the contemplation of the listener. I’m not saying that audiences don’t have an emotional experience in a “Modern” performance – of course they do – but I do question how often the musicians and audiences are sharing the same emotional experience. We have all known performances in which that did happen and, on some level perhaps, those are the only ones that matter.

The Title of this article, quoted from Thomas More, is also drawn from Haynes’ book, which I recommend highly to all interested in music.

Music of the Seventeenth Century: To Speak Through Singing

July 1st, 2009 No comments

Claudio Monteverdi wrote in a letter in the 1630s that the goal of music was “to speak through singing”. In spending much of my life researching, promoting, and performing the “new music” of the 17th century with Magnificat, I have observed that this music is indeed characterized by an underlying, urgent impulse to “speak” the human experience through music. It is precisely the intensity of that impulse that continues to draw me and the musicians of Magnificat to music of this fascinating, unsettled, and dynamic period. [1]

The 17th century was a period of pervasive upheaval, a century when the fundamental perceptions of the world in all realms of life were shaken. It was a time when alchemy and empirical science coexisted, a time when the exploration of new worlds and the investigation of the sky challenged traditional conceptions of the place of the earth in the universe, a time of religious persecution and political conflict. And like tumultuous periods throughout history it was also a time that produced some of our most treasured art, architecture, poetry, and music. I would argue that beyond a mere curiosity about the origins of our current musical universe, the music of the this period has a special resonance for us today because we also are living through a ‘paradigm shift’ comparable to the crises of the 17th century, with all the attendant upheaval characteristic of such times.

Early in the century, Monteverdi wrote that he intended to publish a treatise describing the ‘secunda pratica’ or ‘second practice,’ the new compositional attitude that he and his colleagues had adopted. Drawing on Plato, he said that his book would be laid out in three parts and would begin with a chapter on oration. How appropriate that a manifesto of the new music of the 17th century should give such prominence to the rhetorical art, given the dominant motivation that the communication of words and the emotions they express provided composers of the period. Through the experiments that led to the creation of the genres of opera, oratorio, sonata, and cantata, composers sought to integrate drama and music into new compositional approaches that reflected the immediacy and engagement so essential to the art of oratory.

Perhaps because the fruits of these experiments remain fundamental to musical perception three centuries later, they take on a special significance for us. The basic elements of what we now call “common practice” tonality, the dominance of the keyboard as the basis of musical conception, the emergence of institutions like orchestras and opera companies and the appearance of professional virtuoso performers – the very notion that the purpose of music was to move the passions and communicate emotions – all took shape in the 17th century. Read more…