What I Like About...
Sacred Concerto: O Domine, Jesu Christe
Lodovico Viadana (ca. 1560-1627)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 34
Viadana's penitent tune, to my ears, combines Gregorian chant with madrigal. Perhaps even more than a solid bass line, it is this combination that will make Rameau's chords so convincing. The O Domine
is simple without being obvious because the author had learned from a long tradition of writing unadorned melodies. And the melody is united with the chords so well because the chords follow the tune and the text. A few hundred years later listeners will forget that the line came first. They will hear a great tune like Amazing Grace
and with Gregorian chant and madrigal stuffed away in universities, will forget that meaningful chords developed from an interest in line.
The line Lodovico was interested in here is almost a straight line. The initial pitch dominates the piece so strongly that the listener's ear might image a drone accompanying this performance. The chords that support the melody make good use of this dominant pitch. Because of the harmony, the single pitch fluctuates in meaning.
What I like about O Domine, Jesu Christe
is that the phrase lengths are not symmetrical. The first two phrases establish a four-bar phrase length that is never entirely abandoned. This phrase length is used only to provide a very subtle rhythm for the tune. With this foundation the tune is free to expanded, contract and still conclude on schedule.
Grand Concerto: In ecclesiis
Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1557-1612)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 28-33
Inseparable from St. Mark's Basilica, Giovanni's famous jubilation broadcasts that architecture internationally. Because of the shape of this room, we hear instrumental and vocal music combined with an equality hitherto unwanted. Thus, our first concerto. Singers sound like trumpets and sackbuts sound like singers. The Gabrieli name is promoted in this broadcast giving the beloved uncle--nephew team a fitting commemoration.
As Monteverdi benefited from Peri, Giovanni had the advantage of Andrea's output. Not to disparage Andrea, this piece is a strong combination of innovation and craft. The listener is never overwhelmed by the dimensions of this massive ensemble because Gabrieli refrains from the full impact of the group until the listener has been introduced to each choir. Throughout, we are aware of the awesome range of the group because of the contrasts between the soloists and tutti. And the tutti sections are only as long as necessary.
What I like about the In ecclesiis
are the moments (especially track 32) when we hear the soloists responding to each other. If we were to take away the strong cadences and add an exotic rhythm section we might have a very middle-eastern sound. The improvisations in these voices allow the listener to locate an intimate space in a very large room.
Also read about St. Mark's
Cantata: Lagrime mie
Barbara Strozzi (1619-after 1667)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 23-27
She was not here when I was younger. It seems ironic that this piece, a lament for love suppressed by authority, could be kept away from adoring ears by misogynistic scholars. Fortunately, times change. Perhaps as Strozzi's audience changes this cantata finds new relevance. This tune, written by a woman, is sung by a woman expressing a painfully frustrated love for a woman. Though it would not have appeared this way to Strozzi or her contemporaries, we, who no longer encounter castrated singers or ignore women, have other faults to be reminded of.
The disconsolate narrator is not shy of dissonant pitches and frequent leaps. Strozzi did not hold these in reserve. What she did use conservatively is the consonant, diatonic writing that appears a few bars into track 27. The effect is enough to break your heart.
What I like about this remarkable piece is the opening refrain. Strozzi gives the singer room to fixate on one pitch at a time. Briefly, the pitch is repeated with increasing speed. It has the despondency of a ball dropped on a hard surface. Cut loose, it bounces and, as its energy decreases and the height of each bounce is less, the sound of it hitting the floor accelerates.
Also read Candace A. Magner's history of Barbara Strozzi
: Act III, Scene 17
Marc'Antonio Cesti (1623-1669)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 21-22
With this kind of racket, Alidoro would not have gotten much sleep at all. The two violins produce most of the noise. All that we need of them is a little sonic wall paper to set a mood of slumber. But sonic wall paper was not a concept that interested Cesti, his public, or the violinists. And I am sure that the violins are a part of what made this tune the big hit that it was. They are able to anticipate the singer, preparing our ears for her notes. In the comfort of her melody, we can imagine that Alidoro is surrounded by silence and sleep.
Orontea's voyeuristic aria is a drift from the seconda prattica
. Composers wanted chords to convey meaning. By this time, chords have meaning. Not to discourage Mr. Cicognini, but the Queen's song would still be effective if she were to hum the tune. Perhaps it would be an improvement because it might encourage the violin players to play softer. But the words are not entirely superfluous.
What I like about this tune is the setting of the word larve
. As Palisca mentioned, the listener encounters this leap several times before this climactic moment. The fist time, brilliantly, is in the second violin part. What makes the leap unique when we hear it for the last two times from the singer, is that it concludes a melisma. This melisma, heard the first time, is the well-prepared climax of Orontea's petition to phantoms of love.
L'incoronazione di Poppea
, Act I, Scene 3
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 16-20
Claudio knew drama. This scene makes a good trailer for his opera. We do not learn too much about the plot. Just enough to surmise that in an ancient world of power and gossip two lovers fuel the envy of others. Although it is vital to establish their affection, this scene is far from the climax of the work. And yet Monteverdi's detailed and varied vocal lines offer a bounty of emotional music.
As Nero, sans violin, and Poppea speed through the dialogue the listener encounters a range of expression and vocal technique that is enough to make the future German expressionists as envious as Ottavia (who's unhappy fate in a hot bath would have served a 1920's stage well). The speed of this scene is accomplished by the development in vocal technique. Starting with the Renaissance equivalent of Sprechstimme
, the two lovers run from recitative through aria toward high virtuosity.
What I like about this excerpt is that moment of high virtuosity. The upward thrust of Nero's impressive melisma is brought to a halt by the downward motion of a tritone. In the devil's voice this interval has the sweetness of the Mediterranean.
Read also a synopsis
of this opera.
, c) Messenger: In un fiorito prato
, Orfeo: Tu se' morta
, Chorus: Ahi caso acerbo
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 9-15
This music is better than the music written before. The memory of Peri's inferior version, which we heard near the end of disk 3, inevitably tempts us to make a comparison. Learning how well Monteverdi improved the telling of this scene and the application of recitative, a listener may become inclined to pity composers born too soon in history. But one must remember that music history is not a scientific history. Though Monteverdi's Orfeo speaks more beautifully than Peri's, the music of one age is not necessarily better than the music before. After all, this music also surpasses much that has been written since.
Monteverdi, following Striggio's lead, dwells on Orfeo's resolve and farewell. One could argue that the Peri-Rinuccini team squandered this moment. Their Orfeo rushed off stage neglecting to say good-bye to the terra
, and sole
. But Monteverdi, armed with a superior libretto, progressed to this moment carefully. Once here, we are won over by Orfeo's talent as well as his dedication to Euridice.
What I like about this piece is the way it gives the performers room to take risks. Monteverdi has written just enough for the performer to understand how the music should progress. It is up to them to allow their full talent and passion to fill the auditorium. Monteverdi, pioneer of opera, understood that an opera performance was mainly about the opera performer.
Also read about Monteverdi's career
, b) Act II, Orfeo: Vi ricorda
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 7-8
The "fade-out" was not a Monteverdi device. It is a little unfortunate that this collection does not include the entirety of this canzonet. Though moments away from hearing the bad news, this is when we are able to see Orfeo feeling optimistic about the future and surrounded by friends. It is vital that the listener understands Orfeo to be the strong, talented person undeserving of calamity that we encounter with this tune. It is also important to understand that Monteverdi, Striggio and those at the premier were not interested in tragedy. This aria gives us a hint that, in this telling, Orfeo and Euridice will find a happy ending. Their brush with the underworld is, for them and us, an experience that enhances their happy love. As Orfeo explains, after grief one is the more content.
Orfeo proudly walks in front of the chorus with rhythms familiar to his audience. This music is intended to be contagious. Orfeo frequently steps aside to allow the listeners to place themselves in the orchestra. And his melodic lines move in a clear direction with assertive rhythm.
What I like about these melodic lines is when they descend in thirds. This happens at the end of each strophe. Because the rest of the tune either descends or ascends without detour, these roving flourishes provide that happy contrast that is the subject of Striggio's poem.
Also read Jane Glover on performing L'Orfeo
, a) Prologue, La Musica: Dal mio Permesso
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 1-6
Claudio knew not to be first. Though he may have been a more gifted composer than Peri, his chief advantage in regard to this opera was that he had Peri's effort to improve upon. Either because of his gift alone or the combination of his gift with avant guard of the time, it is Monteverdi's oeuvre that assimilates the Renaissance into the modern.
It is likely that most listeners compare this prologue to Peri's. In doing so, one is intrigued by the singer's line. Though each stanza is set to music that is generally the same, the subtle differences work against the listener's memory of the pervious stanza. It is the dissonance of these differences against your memory that will hold your attention. Part of what makes this work so well is the austerity of the music. For instance, the opening phrase is a simple repetition of single note. And because we soon, with grace, fall from this pitch, we hold on to that note as we progress into the ancient story.
What I like about this prologue is the last note of the singer's part. She avoids returning to that memorable opening pitch which, effective for an introduction, creates an ellipse.
Madrigal: Cruda Amarilli
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 59-63
Amaryllis was cruel in a kind way. Because of her fair service to Euterpe she deserves some credit for Monteverdi's immortality. His madrigal with her name is the Claudio hit that, to my ears, is the foundation of modern instrumental music. Though instruments, by the Camerata's time, have achieved some independence in dance music and keyboard improvisations, it is the heritage of the madrigal informed by recitative that gives instruments the gift to seem, a la Sid Caesar, to speak.
This short masterpiece is the aggregate of several intensely brief episodes. Even though the listener's attention is not stretched over the duration of the piece, each cadence has a gentle inertia that is slowed only by the repetitions of the last line.
What I like about this madrigal is the setting of the sixth line (appearing on track 62). It is in keen madrigal style that the music would quicken when describing someone as elusive. But this is also the turn in the poem toward the final two lines. And the sound of something different this far into the piece is a clear signal to the listener that we are either approaching a change or the conclusion. Monteverdi conveys the text well enough musically that the music can stand alone.
Le musiche sopra l'Euridice
, c) Dafne: Per quel vago boschetto
, Arcetro: Che narri, ohime
, Orfeo: Non piango e non sospiro
Jacopo Peri (1561-1633)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 56-58
It was not by chance that Peri and his comrades called upon Orfeo to lead them into a new era. In spite of his poor track record as an expedition leader, Orfeo is the musician's hero. It is, in fact, because of his failure that he qualified for this position. His experience is a warning to those who embark on the creative path. We can learn from him that to arrive in the light of the stage, the artist must develop his technique step by step with blinders on.
For Peri, the most compelling moment in this story is not Orfeo's second loss of Eurydice. (Rilke's poem Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes
is far into the future.) It is Orfeo's expression of resolve that captures the interest of the gang in Florence. In this moment we are able to observe Orfeo completely. Here, he is confronted with the tragedy for which we know him. At the same time he is yet undimished by these unfortunate events.
What I like about these three tunes is the transition from Dafne's account into Arcetro's brief lament. Dafne's part runs the risk of upstaging Orfeo because it is the part that moves from one emotional state to another. And the frightful immobility of her conclusion is effectively shattered by Arcetro's loud reaction to this news. In this way, Dafne and Arcetro bring the audience to Orfeo's crucial moment beautifully.
Le musiche sopra l'Euridice
, b) Tirsi: Nel pur ardor
Jacopo Peri (1561-1633)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Track 54
Jacopo's nuptial report might have been a good exercise for Maria and the van Trapp children. Not only did Peri make good use of do, re, mi, he also provides some nice trios for early recorder. The childlike simplicity of this narration inevitably fills the listener with optimism for our doomed lovers.
Though Peri might have left much of the instrumentation to the performer's discretion, the trios that support Tirsi are particularly effective on recorder. The long pedal tones happen to be the first note an aspiring recorder player would learn. With the exception of the highest pitch, and even that 'e' easily mastered, all of these excerpts play very comfortably. Whether Peri meant it or not, the ease with which the recorders perform supports the meaning of Rinuccini's poem.
What I like about this tune are those long pedal tones in the third recorder part. This third part benifits from the other two as much as it supports them. Alone, this part, though attractive, would be odd. Joined by its comrades, it provides the listener with a reference to follow the more active fist and second parts. In return, the more active parts fill out this unadorned line.
Le musiche sopra l'Euridice
, a) Prologue, Tragedy: Io, che d'alti sospir
Jacopo Peri (1561-1633)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Track 54
Peri's prologue is a platform for the performer. As we are so distant from the debut of this opera, it is hard to imagine this prologue sung through all seven verses. There is simply not much music to listen to for that long. I adore the text Rinuccini provided and it is easy to imagine the directness it must have had for its premier audience. The sparseness of Peri's contribution must have been a choice to stay out of the way. With such a strong text, a good performer's instinct to embellish with emotional flourishes would be more effective than what a composer could write down.
It is curious that our composer was not specific in his choice of instruments. Taking advantage of this antiquated practice, the performers here are not shy to change the instrumentation during their rendition. The lack of information in the score reveals a reliance and trust that this antique composer had with his performers. In modern scores it often happens that the details a composer provides are not the best choices. Not every composer is able to imagine being the performer. And it is always the performer who knows the details better than anyone.
What I like about this prologue is that is square, strong, and predictable. These are good qualities in an introduction. This can not be the most inspired piece of the program. If it was, we would all go home before our star took the stage. But it still needs to be and is a good opening act.
Madrigal: Vedro l mio sol
Giulio Caccini (ca. 1550-1618)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 51-53
Caccini reminds us to improve on the new by returning to the old (as best you can). While Giulio and his friends proudly looked to the ancient Greeks for the old, we do not have to look that far to find precedent for this madrigal. Hearing Caccini's tune takes me back to that beauty of the thirteenth century, Beatriz de Dia. The single musical line with light instrumental support appeared perfect while in her control. I think Giulio benefited from his historical distance from her. After so much exploration of chords, Caccini's light instrumental support is able to create a stronger foundation for the singer than we found in Dia's hands.
And it may be because of the figured bass that the voice is able to run up and down those scales with so much assurance. Although it does not stray too far from the initial key, the voice, with the grounding of the bass, is free to pursue the most emotionally charged pitches. Rhythmically the voice is also unfettered while the bass holds the strong beats still.
What I like about this piece is the consistent use of long tones. These pitches are similar to the singer's posture. It is an artificial posture but, because of the conviction of the performer, we are transported by that artifice.