17th Century

Anguissola’s Novel Self Portrait

December 29th, 2010 No comments

“I bring to your attention the miracles of a Cremonese woman called Sofonisba, who has astonished every prince and wise man in all of Europe by means of her paintings, which are all portraits, so like life they seem to conform to nature itself. Many valiant professionals have judged her to have a brush taken from the hand of the divine Titian himself; and now she is deeply appreciated by Philip King of Spain and his wife who lavish the greatest honors on the artist.”

Gian Paolo Lomazzo (Libro de Sogni, 1564) describing the genius of Sofonisba Anguisola in the context of an imagined conversation between Leonardo da Vinci, representing modern painting, and Phidias, the artist from Antiquity.

Anguisola, Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, c. 1550

The image we’ve chosen to represent the upcoming Magnificat program featuring music by four women from the 17th century was painted by the extraordinary Sofonisba Anguissola in 1550. An exceptional work that captures the place of women in late Renaissance, the painting is both a self portrait, a portrait of her master teacher, and a compelling allegory of women as defined by men of the period. It aptly symbolizes the barriers to artistic expression faced by women and the fruits of the individual struggle in the face of those barriers.

Anguissola was born in Cremona around 1532, the oldest of seven children, six of whom were daughters. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, was a member of the Genoese minor nobility and her mother, Bianca Ponzone, was also of an affluent family of noble background. At fourteen, Anguissola started studying with Bernardino Campi, at the Lombard school and later on under Bernardino Gatti. It is clear that her privileged status as a noble woman were a contributing factor to the fact that she had been given an opportunity to become an artist. Read more at Suite101

Although Sofonisba enjoyed much more encouragement and support than the average woman of her day, her social class did not allow her to transcend the constraints of her sex. Without the possibility of studying anatomy or drawing from life (it was considered unacceptable for a lady to view nudes), she could not undertake the complex multi-figure compositions required for large-scale religious or history paintings. Instead, Anguissola created wry and witty portraits of family members and acquaintances.

“Sofonisba’s painting of her teacher, painting her portrait – a story within a story – demonstrates how she negotiated her male-dominated world. Anguissola’s gaze rivets the viewer of the painting, forcing consideration of what appears to be the inscribing of male authority on the body of the female. Campi’s gaze complicates matters, however, since as he paints he, too, looks out of the painting toward what the picture indicates must be his subject, Anguissola. Thus the viewer in front of the painting plays a double role: that of the subject of the painting within the painting, namely Anguissola herself, and of an engaged viewer – watched by both Campi and Anguissola – made complicit in Anguissola’s destabilizing of contemporary social norms.” (Read more at wga.hu)

Charpentier’s Music for Plays by Corneille and Poisson

November 18th, 2010 No comments

In 2002, Magnificat presented a program featuring music Marc-Antoine Charpentier had written for stage works by Thomas Corneille and Raymond Poisson. John Powell wrote these very informative program notes for those performances, which reveal another side of Charpentier’s character and the circumstances in which he lived and worked. Powell has written extensively on Charpentier’s works for the stage and recently presented the paper Music, Gesture, and Tragic Declamation in the Scene of the Dancing Demons from Thomas Corneille’s Machine Play Circé (1675) at the symposium Gesture on the French Stage, 1675-1800 at the Festival Oudemuziek Utrecht on 27 July 2010, from which the image below of Henry Gissey’s drawings of the some of the fabulous costumes used at court is drawn. The plays, librettos, and music for the works discussed in this article (and much more) can be found on John’s website.

When, in 1673, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became the principal composer to the King’s Troupe (Troupe du Roy), he became involved in the ongoing struggle between the company’s director and chief playwright, Jean-Baptiste Molière, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Throughout the 1660s, Molière and Lully had worked closely in providing for the king’s entertainment a series of multi-generic experiments that combined theater, ballet, vocal numbers, choruses, and machine effects. But by the spring of 1672 Lully had decided that his own future lay in opera. Having witnessed the successes of Perrin and Cambert with pastoral opera, Lully set about obtaining the royal opera privilege and, thereafter, a series of draconian decrees designed to protect his monopoly and reduce his musical competition.

Molière soon found another musical colleague in Charpentier, recently returned from Rome and his studies with Giacomo Carissimi. The revivals of earlier collaborations with Lully (La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, Le Mariage forcé) with new music by Charpentier led to a full-scale comedy-ballet, Le Malade imaginaire. This devastating musical satire would be the playwright’s last work—for during its fourth performance Molière, playing the leading role of the hypochondriac Argan, fell ill during the finale and died at his home shortly thereafter. Thereafter, musical life in Parisian theater was a struggle to survive in the face of Lully’s active opposition.

Charpentier continued on as the leading composer the Troupe du Roy after Lully evicted the actors from their theater. On 17 March 1675, the company premiered Circé, the first in a series of new machine-plays given at their new playhouse, the Théâtre de Guénégaud. Struggling to survive after Molière’s death and to justify its existence in the shadow of Lully’s Académie Royale de Musique, the actors deployed all of their scenic, musical, and choreographic resources in this spectacular and expensive production. Read more…

Bologna’s Festa della Porchetta

May 17th, 2010 No comments

Paul at the excellent BibliOdyssey blog, has a post with a series of fascinating prints depicting Bologna’s annual Festa della Porchetta – the Festival of the Suckling Pig, celebrated by the Bolognese for five centuries until the arrival of Napolean’s army in 1796. The tradition has apparently been revived in the last decade – including a shared roasted pig – to help spread peace in the city. Click the detail image to link to the full image.

From Paul’s post:

“Bologna’s Festa della Porchetta was an annual carnival held on 24 August for more than five centuries. It commemorated both the Feast of St Bartholomew and the victory of Bolognese forces over Frederick II during the Battle of Fossalta in 1249. Frederick’s son, King Enzo, was imprisoned for thirty years in the city centre in a tower that now bears his name, adjacent to where the Porchetta celebrations took place in Palazzo Maggiore.

It was customary for the city’s nobles to enjoy a banquet in a palace fronting onto Palazzo Maggiore, and a spit-roasted suckling pig, together with poultry, breads, cheeses and cakes, was thrown from the balcony for the regular townsfolk to fight over. The festivities evolved over the centuries into large-scale affairs with acrobats, games, singing and dancing, in theatrical productions of wars, historical events and allegorical performance plays. Giant purpose-specific floats, stages, theatre props and machinery were constructed each year to accommodate the unique requirements of the year’s entertainment theme.”

View the many images and read the entire post at BibliOdyssey

Why All This Music for Vespers?

March 24th, 2010 No comments

The reasons for the exponential growth in music for Vespers around the turn of the 17th century are not entirely clear, though probably multiple. A few publications of Vesper music in the latter part of the Cinquecento carried mottos such as conformi al decreto del Sacro Concilio di Trento (conforming to the decrees of the Council of Trent), even though psalms and Magnificats themselves had not been mentioned in the final dictates of the Council. Indeed, the predominantly chordal settings of psalm texts in this period meant that psalm settings by their very nature conformed to the Council’s decree for clarity of text in polyphonic masses. However, the fact that the Council had not addressed psalmody in its declarations on music eventually meant that psalms were not considered subject to the same constraints as the mass in the eyes of composers and church officials. Certainly the psalms for major feasts, which were more in number than the mass ordinary movements normally set in polyphony, offered a greater variety of texts for seventeenth-century composers who continued and even augmented the interest in musical interpretation of textual concepts inherited from the Cinquecento. Another factor may have been the tradition of granting indulgences for attending Vesper services—there are hints of this in the documents of the Servite congregation in Milan. This is a subject requiring further investigation, but may indeed be a principal explanation of the rapid expansion of Vesper polyphony in the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Read more…

Matteo Ricci (1552–1610)

March 17th, 2010 No comments

Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci was born into a noble Italian family in Macerata, Italy. He studied law in Rome but became more interested in the new science that was sweeping Western Europe. Entering the Society of Jesus in 1571, he continued his studies in philosophy, theology, mathematics, cosmology, and astronomy. Ricci was sent on a mission to Asia and in 1580 was sent by Alessandro Valignani, superior of Jesuit missions in the East Indies, to prepare to enter China.

In the Portuguese colony of Macau Ricci mastered the Chinese language and entered China in 1583 dressed first in the clothing of a Buddhist monk and then later as a Confucian mandarin. He brought with him Western clocks, musical instruments, mathematical and astronomical instruments, and cosmological, geographical, and architectural works with maps and diagrams. These, along with Ricci’s phenomenal memory and mathematical and astronomical skills, attracted an important audience among the Chinese elite. Read more…

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.”

Bagels, Tea, Thermostats – Culinary Notes from 1610

February 25th, 2010 No comments

According to author Leo Rosten in his The Joys of Yiddish, the first printed mention of the word bagel is in the 1610 Community Regulations for the city of Krakow, Poland. The regulations state that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth.” The ring shape may have been seen as a symbol of life.

It was also in 1610 that Europe got its first taste of tea, a beverage that had been popular for centuries in China and Japan, as Amsterdam received its first shipment of the intoxicating leaves. The Dutch East India Company initially marketed tea as an exotic medicinal drink, but it was so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford it and it only became available to the general public later in the century.

In 1610, Cornelius Drebbel, best known perhaps for his invention of the submarine,  applied the principles he had used in his “perpetual mobile” to thermostatic regulators that controlled ovens, furnaces, and incubators – the first thermostat. As the temperature rose, air expanded, forcing quicksilver to close a damper. When it cooled, the damper opened. The incubator he made hatched both duck and chicken eggs.

Did Caravaggio Die of Lead Poisoning?

February 24th, 2010 1 comment

via Telegraph.co.uk

Caravagio ca. 1600

The mannerist painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died on July 18 1610 at the age of 39 and the circumstances of his death have been controversial ever since. It has been suggested that he contracted syphilis or even that he was assassinated but anthropologists from the universities of Pisa, Ravenna and Bologna are studying other theories – that he contracted malaria while traveling in Italy or that he suffered from lead poisoning. The anthropologists hope to prove their theory by carrying out DNA tests on bones which they believe are the remains of the Renaissance artist.

Renowned for his hot temper, heavy drinking and violent temperament Caravaggio was forced to go on the run in 1606 after killing a man in a tavern brawl, a crime for which he was condemned to death by Pope Paul V.

“Lead poisoning accentuates traits like aggressive and nervous behaviour, which Caravaggio displayed during his life,” said Silvano Vinceti, the team leader. “Painters in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries used these paints all the time and often suffered serious health problems as a result.” Francisco de Goya and Vincent van Gogh are both thought to have suffered from lead poisoning.

The Galilean Moons

February 23rd, 2010 No comments

The Galilean Moons

In January 1610 Galileo Galilei first observed the four moons of Jupiter now known, appropriately, as “The Galilean Moons”. The largest of the many moons of Jupiter, Galileo initially named his discovery the Cosmica Sidera (“Cosimo’s stars”) but they are now known by the names given by Simon Marius in his 1614 Mundus Jovialis: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – the lovers of Zeus.

Galileo first noticed Saturn’s peculiar shape later in 1610, well after the publication of his landmark book Sidereus Nuncius.  The story of how he initially revealed the new discovery to his fellow astronomers by means of an anagram is told in a 1974 article by Albert van Helden of Rice University.

Galileo's first sketches of his observation of four of Jupiter's moons

Galileo’s discovery of celestial bodies orbiting something other than the Earth dealt a serious blow to the Ptolemaic, or the geocentric, cosmology in which the universe orbits around the Earth. The possibility of viewing Saturn’s moons was made possible by improvements Galileo made to his telescope in 1609. Images of the moons as seen through Galileo’s telescope can be viewed here. Matk Thompson’s website Galileo 1610 has a wealth of information about Galileo as does Rice University’s Galileo Project website.

“The Divine Arc Angelo”: Arcangelo Corelli – February 17, 1653

February 17th, 2010 No comments
Arcangelo Corelli

Arcangelo Corelli

Few musicians of the seventeenth century enjoyed the exalted status bestowed on Arcangelo Corelli (February 17, 1653- January 19, 1713). He was called the ‘new Orpheus of Our Times’ and the ‘divine Arc Angelo’, a clever pun on his Christian name and the Italian word for a bow (arco). The Englishman musician and writer Roger North described Corelli’s music as ‘transcendant’, ‘immortal’ and ‘the bread of life’ to musicians. Renowned as a virtuoso performer, an influential composer, and sought-after teacher, Corelli commanded respect and praise throughout Europe at the turn of the 18th century.

The fifth child born to a prosperous family of landowners in Fusignano; Corelli’s first musical study was probably with the local clergy, then in nearby Lugo and Faenza, and finally in Bologna, where he went in 1666. In Bologna he studied with Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli, the former representing the disciplined style of the Accademia filarmonica (to which Corelli was admitted in 1670), the latter a virtuoso violinist.

By 1675 Corelli was in Rome where he may have studied composition under Matteo Simonelli, from whom he would have absorbed the styles of Roman polyphony inherited from Palestrina. He may have traveled to France and Spain, though neither journey has been securely documented. In 1675 he is listed as a violinists in Roman payment documents and by the end of the decade he was active as a performer and leader of small and large instrumental ensembles in Roman homes and churches and at public celebrations. Read more…

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.

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…

Considering Athanasius Kircher at AMS Philadelphia

November 8th, 2009 No comments

Representing Magnificat, I will be attending the annual conference of the American Musicological Society in Philadelphia this later this week. It has been several years since I’ve had the opportunity to attend the AMS conference and I am looking forward to meeting old colleagues, making new friends and listening to the wide range of presentations on current work being done in musicology. The conference program is available for download (PDF) and the abstracts for papers can be downloaded here (PDF). Over the week I will be highlighting some of the sessions relevant to the music and culture of the 17th Century and posting abstracts from the scheduled papers.

Kircher - guido's Hand

Guido's Hand from Kircher, Musurgia universalis (1650)

A particularly interesting short session on the fascinating figure Athanasius Kircher scheduled for the opening afternoon of the conference. I encountered Kircher while preparing the first program on the very first Magnificat series concert in 1992, which included Carissimi’s magnificent oratorio Jephte. In his monumental Musurgia universalis (1650) Kircher mentions Jephte and also reproduced the music for the final chorus, Plorate filii Israel, citing it as an example of excellent rhetorical style and providing musicologists with a convenient terminus ante quem for the dating of Carissimi’s masterpiece. Since then, details of Kircher’s fantastic and curious engravings have occasionally  made their way into Magnificat’s programs, websites, and brochures, including his representation of Guido’s hand.

Recent scholarly interest in Kircher has resulted in a wealth of resources on the web. Stanford University hosts a website project devoted to Kircher, with a wealth of information and selection of images from works by and related to Athanasius Kircher present in the collections of Stanford University Libraries. Fr. Edward W. Schmidt, SJ has published an excellent book Athansius Kircher: The Last Renaissance Man, the website for which includes many of Kircher’s engravings. The useful website Kircherianum Virtuale provides links to a many sites devoted to the Kircher. Read more…

Performing Sacred Music in Liturgical Context

October 26th, 2009 No comments
Musicians at San Marco in Venice

Musicians at San Marco in Venice

As Magnificat turns our attention to December’s performances of the mass setting by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, I decided it would be a good time to repost and expand this article that I wrote two years ago after our performance of a reconstruction of the mass celebrating the 1607 re-dedication of St. Gertrude’s Church in Hamburg. The performance of sacred works within a re-construction of a contemporaneous liturgical context has been of feature of Magnificat’s concert series since our first season in 1992 with our performances of Schütz’s Weinachtshistorie (Christmas Story) in collaboration with the San Francisco Early Music Society. Since then, Magnificat has performed over two dozen programs based on reconstructions of historical liturgies.

It has almost become an “article of faith”, reinforced by comments from members of our audience and the musicians who have contributed their talents to these performances, that the experience of the work, whether a setting of the mass by Gabrieli or vespers music of Cozzolani, is enhanced by the accompanying liturgical texts and additional music that the composer took for granted when conceiving the work.

As I have researched and constructed these programs over the years, the polyglot stylistic brew that inevitably results from a liturgical reconstruction has sometimes felt like cheating. After all, the Roman liturgies had a millennium of gestation before the composers of 17th century applied their talents to its elaboration. The architecture provided by the liturgy almost guaranteed a balanced and coherent concert program. Additionally, the 16th and 17th centuries saw a remarkable revitalization of the ancient structures as a result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the integration of new musical styles. The genius and inspiration of many of the finest musicians of the period were devoted to the elaboration of liturgy – and not just the mass ordinary or the festal psalms and Magnificat of Vespers.

Important scholarship by Jerome Roche, Robert Kendrick, Jeffrey Kurtzman and many others have demonstrated that sacred music in the 17th Century was not merely reactive – incorporating stylistic developments from the world of sacred music – but was an equally innovative and vibrant sphere of musical composition in it’s own right. The exquisite motets of Monteverdi or Cozzolani the many cycles of instrumental sonatas and organ versets, intended as substituitons for vespers antiphons or mass propers as well as private devotional situations, demonstrate the same vibrance and experimentation that makes the secular music of the 17th Century so compelling.

A liturgical reconstruction does alter the traditional, largely 19th Century, norms of concert protocol – and this is no doubt what new audiences notice first. Most obviously – no intermission and no applause until the end. This is rough on performers, as it eliminates the most obvious interaction between them and the audience. On the other hand, the intensity that results from the unbroken attention and the inexorable flow of the liturgy creates a atmosphere that is in some more intense than formalized clapping and bowing. (For me, the sound of hundred of pages turning in unison – an indication that many in the audience are intently following the translations is more than adequate compensation for the absent applause!)

Magnificat will present two programs this season constructed around liturgies: the Christmas Mass program featuring music by Cozzolani December 4-6 and our performances of Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 on the weekend of April 23-25. Every performance is a journey of discovery, so I will probably update this post again later this season to reflect those experiences. Read more…

Falconieri, Feminine Endings, and Synchronicity

September 22nd, 2009 4 comments

A very 2009 moment occurred the other day when, allowing myself to be distracted from working on the score for La Liberazione di Ruggiero, I noticed a tweet from @krashangel about the fact that the ciaconna used in Rene Jacobs’ recording  and DVD of Cavalli’s La Calisto was actually not by Cavalli, but rather by Tarquinio Merula. Before I had a chance to marvel at the fact that Tarquinio Merula had actually been mentioned in Twitterspace, there was a follow up tweet observing, accurately, that “it was the custom to use ritornelli and sinfonie composed by others as a contingent ‘filler’ in Venetian operas in the 17th century”.

What made this tweeting encounter remarkable was that at that very moment (or at least before being distracted) I was in the process of doing just that: inserting incidental music into an opera score (albeit a Florentine opera) to allow for scene changes, extra long sword fights, flights of hippogryphs and the like. Synchronicity!

A 17th century lutenist, not Falconieri

A 17th century lutenist, not Falconieri

For the upcoming Francesca Caccini opera I decided to turn the necessity of incidental music into an opportunity to explore a composer that Magnificat’s audiences hadn’t had the chance to hear before. I was fortunate that I could draw almost all the music I needed from a single collection by the lutenist and composer Andrea Falconieri – obscure even by Magnificat standards, though he does pop up sometimes in programs of early Italian music. (There are no known images of Falconieri, so the painting here is not him – but it’s a terrific expression!)

A talented lutenist and composer, Falconieri (sometimes written Falconiero) was born in Naples in 1585 or 86, making him a contemporary of Francesca, who was born in 1587. He had a long career working as a singer and composer in several Italian cities including Parma, Mantua, Rome, and Florence. He employed in Modena in 1620, where he married, and then spent the next seven year traveling widely about France and Spain, apparently without his wife. Read more…

What is Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero About?

September 20th, 2009 No comments

(This is the second of a three part essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberzione di Ruggiero, which Magnificat will perform October 16-18. The first part, a biographical sketch of Francesca, “About Francesca“, was posted here earlier.)

Villa Poggio Imperiale in the 17th Century

Villa Poggio Imperiale in the 17th Century

On February 3, 1625, sometime in daylight, 160 gentildonne and their husbands, and an unknown number of foreign guests rode in carriages out the southeastern gate of Florence, and half a mile up a tree-lined avenue to a villa atop the nearest hill that had very recently been renovated as the personal palace of Tuscany’s regent, Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria. Leaving their carriages in a grassy courtyard guarded by two squadrons of armed cavalry, the Archduchess’ guests were welcomed into the palace by a military commander, and led to bench seats in a temporary theatre built in the villa’s loggia, to hear a new commedia in musica based on a well-known plot (two sorceresses struggling over the sexual and military future of a hapless young man). The commedia was to be followed, seamlessly, by two balletti danced by members of the court, by a ballet for horses and riders in the paved courtyard, and by a reception at which the gentildonne were served by the men who rode in the final horse ballet (while their husbands watched from above). It was the first performance of Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero.

So what could La Liberazione possibly have seemed to be about in 1625? First, a bit about the plot, since the story on which it’s based is not nearly as well known now as it was then.

The show opens with a prologue sung by Neptune (a figure for Medici power) and a Polish river, The Vistola, meant to praise the guest of honor in 1625, Maria Maddalena’s visiting nephew, Wladyslaw, the crown prince of Poland. Immediately afterward, the “good witch” Melissa sails up on a dolphin’s back to explain that she has come to rescue Ruggiero from the “bad witch” Alcina’s sexual spells, restoring him both to his military duty on behalf of Christian armies and to his dynastic sexual duty as the fiancée of the woman warrior Bradamante. At Melissa’s exit, Ruggiero arrives with Alcina and her retinue of singing and dancing minions. The lovers exchange perilously mis-communicated vows, and then Alcina leaves to manage government affairs while her retinue lulls Ruggiero to sleep. Dressed as his aged African teacher Atlante, Melissa returns, awakening Ruggiero with an exhortation to return to the battle for Libya. Previous victims of Alcina’s power, turned into plants by her mind-numbing spells, beg the pair to liberate them, too. After promising to return for them, Melissa leads Ruggiero away.

When Alcina and her retinue return to find him gone, a female messenger explains that Melissa has broken Alcina’s spell. Alcina confronts Ruggiero in a long scene mixed of lamentation and ire, to no avail. Enraged at her loss of power, she calls on monsters for aid. The stage is engulfed in fire, as the now monstrous Alcina rides offstage on a dragon’s back, after which creatures who had been trapped in the bodies of the island’s plants emerge to dance. One such creature pleads with Melissa to liberate the men who are plants as well as the women. They dance, and then everyone–the players and the audience–adjourn to the courtyard to watch the horse ballet, over which the triumphant Melissa presides from a centaur-drawn chariot.

My sense is that like the other comedies on which Francesca had worked La liberazione was meant to be both entertaining and serious–to give the audience the impression they were glimpsing into the ‘real’ entertainment life of the women’s court, and at the same time to engage a particular set of anxieties about that court’s relationship to public power during the regency of the 1620s.

Archduchess Maria Maddalena

Arch Duchess Maria Maddalena

When Grand Duke Cosimo II died in late February, 1621, the intermittent de facto regency of his mother Christine de Lorraine was replaced by a de jure regency she was to share with his widow, Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria. Christine had quietly ruled Tuscany since late in 1606, first during her husband Grand Duke Ferdinando I’s final illness and then during her son’s long, losing struggle with what seems to have been several forms of tuberculosis. According to all diplomatic accounts, Christine had been Tuscany’s absolute ruler in this period, yet the same accounts report that she had shared decision-making with her son when he was up to it, and that she had systematically arranged for her daughter-in-law to be trained for what seemed like the inevitable regency of the 1620s. (One possible interpretation of La liberazione’s plot about the struggle of two women over a man, then, would be to imagine Ruggiero as the ailing Cosimo, his wife and his mother as the sorceress antagonists: but all diplomatic accounts also agree that the three worked well together.) Read more…

Is Every Performance "Site Specific"?

August 31st, 2009 No comments

Chloe Veltman recently posted an interesting commentary on the notion of “site specific theatre” with reference to the recent production of Dido and Aeneas by San Francisco’s Urban Opera (“Not All Site Specific Theatre is Created Equal”). She proposed that “in order for a theatrical production to be site specific, it needs to be conceived specifically for the space in which it is produced,” and therefore “space becomes a performer, with the potential to change the entire relationship between text, visuals, sounds and the human body in fascinating ways.”

In the context of her article I personally like her narrow definition, but it got me thinking that since any work of performance art exists only in the moment of performance, each performance is in some sense a new work, created freshly in a new “site” and therefore “site specific” for that performance.

Of course what Chloe was refering to with her definition was “environmental theatre” troupes like Reial Companyia de Teatre de Catalunya or Walkabout, and indeed it’s difficult to imagine such productions mounted outside their original “sites”. However, in the case of canonical “works” like Hamlet or Dido that she mentions in her article, I question the privileging of the original performance circumstances, in spite of the fact that I spend my life mounting “historically informed” performances.

I think “around” this issue all the time, as most of the music that Magnificat performs was “site specific” when it was composed and, in fact, there was never a thought at the time that it might be performed again, much less in another site. So every concert involves a reinvention, shaped to some degree by the environment – not only the venue of course, but the specific performers, the time of day, the audience, etc. Read more…

From the Magnificat Archives: Isabella Leonarda Sonata for Violin & Continuo (Audio)

August 27th, 2009 2 comments

Rob DigginsIsabella Leonarda
Sonata duodecima (1693)

Rob Diggins, violin
Warren Stewart, violoncello
David Tayler, theorbo
Hanneke van Proosdij, organ

live, unedited performance
February 2, 2003
St. Gregory Nyssen Church
San Francisco CA

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In 1724, the eminent theorist and collector music Sébastian de Brossard wrote in praise of the works of Isabella Leonarda that “all of the works of this illustrious and incomparable composer are so beautiful, so gracious, so brilliant and at the same time so knowledgeable and so wise, that my great regret is in not having them all.”

Isabella’s instrumental works, which appeared in 1693, are apparently the earliest published sonatas by a woman.  The collection consists of eleven trio sonatas and one sonata for solo violin and continuo.  One of her most harmonically adventurous works, the Sonata duodecima is in seven parts, including two recitative like sections.

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“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…