Monday, March 13, 2017

The Invention of Monody and "Le nuove musiche"

In my last post on Monteverdi, I sketched some of the historical context surrounding him, but I find I need to fill in a lot more of the picture. The truth is that neither Monteverdi nor any other great composer springs, à la Athena, fully-armed from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, they build on the work of many others, improving and fulfilling ideas that may have been in the air. And so it is with Monteverdi and the new kind of music that emerged around 1600. It actually began decades earlier and only emerged in the light of day when it began to appear in print--another big innovation!

Spurred by the idea of "representation" in music, which really came down to the expression of impassioned human speech, musicians had been experimenting with the idea of replacing the intricate counterpoint of the ars perfecta with a different kind of structure entirely. The idea was to focus on the single voice, hence the word "monody" which just refers to a single melodic line. This line was heightened with the use of chordal accompaniment. The same basic idea is what informs a lot of 20th century "folk music". Bob Dylan's earlier songs were formed in just this way: a single voice singing an expressive text with strummed guitar accompaniment. What the Italian monodists did was take expressive texts and sing them in a kind of reciting style accompanied by a bass instrument and a chordal instrument. One of the best composers of this was Giulio Caccini in his Le nuove musiche of 1601:

Click to enlarge
This is "Amarilli mia bella" taken, like so many other texts, from the very popular play Il pastor fido by Giambattista Guarini. There are two lines shown: the top one is, of course, for the solo singer and sets the text. The lower line is for a bass instrument and a chordal instrument such as a lute. But where is the lute part? If you look very very closely you will see tiny numbers over some of the notes. These indicate, in a kind of musical shorthand, the chords to be played. The number "6", for example, indicates that in addition to the standard note a third above the bass, another note a sixth above should be played. The very second note, for example, is an F# and the "6" indicates that in addition to an "A", a "D" should also be played (the note a sixth above F#). This gives us what we would now call a D major chord in first inversion, but the notion of inversions will have to wait for the harmony text of Rameau, over a century in the future. So what the performers would do is elaborate a bit on this simple musical text. The singer will add certain ornaments (discussed by Caccini in the publication) and the lute player will play the indicated chords in various ways, solid or arpeggiated as might best accompany the voice. The bass instrument player (viola da gamba or other low instrument) pretty much plays what is there.

There are a lot of ways you could perform this. Here it is with counter-tenor, theorbo (lute with a lot of bass strings) and spinet (a kind of harpsichord):

You could also do it with just theorbo (also called archlute):

But I find that understates the bass line. It is often performed with piano. I had to go five pages deep in YouTube to find the instrumentation that I think is called for: voice, lute and gamba:


Will Wilkin said...

There was a lot of experimentation in the 15th and 16th centuries, including not just towards monody but also in instrument-making and instrumental accompaniment of singing. Eventually it matured into the romantic-era lieder with piano accompaniment, but in the baroque it was usually called continuo and was performed on harpsichord and viol da gamba. But before that, in the renaissance period, there was a range of stringed instruments, both plucked (like theorbo or lute) and bowed (like the lira da braccio, lirone, etc). The guitar, which grew out of the lute, has also endured and diversified (including into perhaps its most potential,--GASP!-- as an electric instrument) in this role of accompaniment to voice.

The voice really has always been the most important instrument, connecting emotion and thought to sound in a way no exterior or exogenous object instrument can, however sweet and beautiful and beloved our instruments have become. Melody is most sweet and recognized when it is singable, and the further from realizable by voice, the less genuinely melodic is any series of sounds.

Bryan Townsend said...

Agree with almost everything! But, as a guitarist myself, I want to quibble with just one point. The guitar did not actually grow out of the lute--they have a different geneology. The lute, which descends from the Arabic and North African oud ("al-oud" became "laud" and then "lute") was used everywhere in Europe except Spain, where the guitar and its near relative the vihuela were the instruments of choice. This may relate to the Moorish conquest of Spain and the subsequent long war to win it back by Aragon and Castille. Instruments used by the Moors were understandably shunned.

Will Wilkin said...

So the guitar is an artifact of the Reconquista? Holy Pig! But seriously, that is very interesting.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wikipedia says:

"Plucked vihuelas, being essentially flat-backed lutes, evolved in the mid-15th century, in the Kingdom of Aragón, located in north-eastern Iberia (Spain). In Spain, Portugal, and Italy the vihuela was in common use by the late 15th through to the late 16th centuries. In the second half of the 15th century some vihuela players began using a bow, leading to the development of the viol."

Back to me: Vihuelas and guitars, unlike lutes, have both flat backs and a waist with upper and lower bouts. Lutes are basically the shape of a pear cut in half.

Will Wilkin said...

Classical music of today is very fixed on the score, but in the larger time and space of music, a lot of musicians probably play what they can with what they have. In modern rock bands, that's called playing a cover, and it needn't be exact reproduction of the original, more important is it being well-done and a convincing interpretation. In this old song by Caccini, I think your 3 videos prove there is more than 1 very sweet arrangement of a very sweet song, and all 3 examples are sweet indeed! These are examples of exactly what I so love about the music from around 1600.