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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin
The “Monodic Revolution”The “Monodic Revolution”

ex. 19-1b From the intermedii of 1589, main ritornello of closing ballo (Aria di Fiorenza)

The “Monodic Revolution”

ex. 19-1c From the intermedii of 1589, Giulio Caccini, Io che dal ciel cader, beginning

The arias by Caccini and Peri were the only moves toward “monodic insurgency” (in the words of music historian Piero Weiss) in the 1589 intermedii.6 The expression is a witty one, because historians have fallen into the habit of calling what happened scarcely a dozen years later the great “monodic revolution,” and because many of the same names as took part in the 1589 festivities—Rinuccini, Peri, Caccini, Cavalieri—are to be found among the turn-of-the-century monodic “revolutionaries.” Yet what actually happened around 1600 was no sudden musical revolution, but only the emergence into print of musical practices that had been in the process of formation over the whole preceding century. These practices had been given an additional impetus by the recent humanist revival with all its attendant neoclassical theorizing, and by the backing of prestigious patrons. They emerged into print in four famous books, as follows.

The “Monodic Revolution”

fig. 19-3 Jacopo Peri as Arion, singing his own compositions in the fifth intermedio of 1589 (costume design by Bernardo Buontalenti at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence).

In 1600, the last year of the sixteenth century, Emilio de’ Cavalieri published in Rome his Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo (“The [dramatic] representation of soul and body”), a sacred play designed, according to the title page, per recitar cantando, “for recitation in singing” (literally, “to recite singingly”). It was meant for performance by a society of Roman lay preachers called the Oratorio del Crocifisso (the Preaching Society of the Crucifix), which met in the assembly rooms of the church of San Marcello where members of the Cavalieri family had overseen the Lenten music for many years, Emilio himself from 1578–1584. (It was actually performed, however, during carnival in the assembly hall of the Church of Santa Maria, the so-called Chiesa Nova or “new church”.) In terms of its actual contents, the rappresentatione was not all that different from the Florentine intermedii, though of course it was more modest by many orders of magnitude. But it was one continuous dramatic whole rather than half a dozen loosely connected episodes.

The solo music consisted of a string of little songs (some strophic, some in florid single stanzas like madrigals, some in dance meters) connected by musicalized prose recitations of the sort that would later be called “recitativo.” It is notated in score over what was in point of fact (but only fortuitously) the earliest printed “figured bass”—that is to say, a continuo bass line in which the harmonies to be filled in are indicated by little numbers (figures) representing intervals (Fig. 19-4).

The “Monodic Revolution”

ex. 19-1d From the intermedii of 1589, Jacopo Peri, Dunque fra torbid’ onde, beginning

The “Monodic Revolution”

fig. 19-4 Dialogue of the body (Corpo) and soul (Anima) over a figured bass (the first to be printed), in Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo (Rome, 1600).

In the late months of 1600 (or, by the calendar now in use, the early months of 1601, the first year of the seventeenth century), two different musical settings of the same mythological play were printed. The authors were Peri and Caccini, who had become jealous rivals. The play was an eclogue or pastoral drama by Rinuccini called Euridice, after the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as told by the ancient Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Peri’s was the earlier setting: it was performed (with some interpolations by Caccini, at the latter’s insistence) on 6 October 1600 as part of the nuptial festivities honoring the marriage of Maria de’ Medici to the King of France, Henri IV. (Caccini’s hastily composed setting would not be performed complete for two years following publication: doubtless he was trying to “scoop” his competitor.) The music of both plays was similar in design to that of Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione, except that it had far more recitativo. Dramatic continuity was given greater emphasis than spectacle.

Late in 1601 (or early in 1602 by the new-style calendar), Caccini issued a book of solo songs with figured bass, called Nuove musiche. That title has been one of the most oversold in all of music history. All it means is “new songs” or “new musical pieces,” but it has been invested with a much deeper significance by those who, misunderstanding Italian usage, have seen in it the proclamation of a “new music” or the dawn of a new musical epoch. The din of neoclassical propaganda must partly account for the inflation of the volume’s reputation, but surely even more critical was its appearance at the turn of a century. (The influence of the calendar—or just the decimal system, really—on our sense of history should never be underestimated, as anyone who lived through the millennial frenzies of the year 2000 will hardly need reminding.)

Cavalieri’s, Peri’s, and Caccini’s cluster of turn-of century publications—plus Viadana’s Cento concerti ecclesiastichi of 1602, familiar from the previous chapter, which amounted to “nuove musiche” set to sacred Latin texts—brought the monodic style into the authoritative medium of print. Print spread it far and wide: that was what made the difference. And there was also the prestige of high aristocratic patronage behind the publication of the Euridice plays, which now have the reputation of being the first operas. Owing to that prestige and that authoritative dissemination, performance practices that had been cooking in Italy for many decades could now become standard compositional practices in all the countries of Europe.

And that was a revolution after all. It was not, however, a revolution brought about singlehandedly by a determined composer or band of composers. That is how traditional historiography—bourgeois historiography, lest we forget—represents and celebrates change. Whether in the arts or elsewhere, change is brought about in such narratives by the heroic efforts of superior, visionary (“revolutionary”) individuals. In fact, the monodic revolution was the slowly evolving work of performers, arrangers, patrons, churchmen, scholars, teachers, composers, and printers, to put the overlapping personnel in rough (and again overlapping) chronological order. The only sudden role was that of the printers.


(6) Piero Weiss, review of W. Kirkendale, L’Aria di Fiorenza, id est Il Ballo del Gran Duca (Florence, 1972), Musical Quarterly LIX (1973): 474.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019005.xml