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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

For a closer look at the early printed artifacts of the “revolution,” the most expedient way to proceed will be in reverse chronological order, which in this case produces an order of increasing size and complexity of genre. Caccini’s Nuove musiche, which may contain songs composed (or, possibly, first improvised) decades earlier at meetings of the Camerata, amounts to a sort of showcase displaying the basic elements or raw materials out of which the early continuously musical plays and “representations” were fashioned. Indeed, it contains bits of Caccini’s own larger spectacles, including four arias and two choruses from a musical play called Il rapimento di Cefalo (“The jealousy of Cephalus,” after Ovid), which had furnished the main entertainment for the same Medici wedding pomp as witnessed the unveiling of Peri’s Euridice.

The larger part of Nuove musiche is given over to individual songs and to a treatise that instructs the singer on the properly aristocratic way of tossing them off—with great artfulness, but carelessly. The songs are of two basic types, both familiar to us from previous incarnations. The strophic ones, based on repetition, are the “airs” (arie). The others—in single stanzas, or “through-composed,” as we now rather gracelessly say in musicologese (a dialect of German)—are the “madrigals.” Thus we are reminded (and we should remember!) that a madrigal is not necessarily a part-song. Any setting of a single stanza in a word-sensitive style that employs no formulaic repetitions or refrains could be called a madrigal. And when we do keep this fact in mind, then we have a new way of understanding the importance Caccini attached to his madrigals, the songs in which, egged on by the Camerata, he experimented along neoclassical lines and discovered the stile recitativo, the style that, better than any other, could muovere l’affetto dell’animo: “move the soul’s affection,”7 or as we might put it now, move the listener emotionally.

So Caccini claimed or boasted in the preface, where he says the great discovery had taken place some fifteen years earlier, in the mid-1580s (as indeed it would have had to in order to be associated with the Camerata). His claim of priority was hotly disputed by Cavalieri, and need not detain us, since Galilei was probably there first anyway. But Caccini’s madrigals are indeed the place to look first to see “monody” in action.

Amarilli mia bella (Fig. 19-5 [facsimile]; Ex. 19-2 [transcription of the first couplet]) has for a text a typical love lyric from Guarini’s Pastor Fido, long a major quarry for madrigal verses. Setting it was a programmatic or polemical act—proof that only monody could really do a madrigal’s job. And yet it is a madrigal without “madrigalism.” Not a single word is “painted.” There is no rapid scale to show the arrow’s flight. There is no thumping throb to show the beating heart. There is only speech, delivered at something close to normal speech tempo and restricted to something like normal speech range: the whole vocal part is confined to an ambitus of a ninth but really an octave since the high note is reached only once, near the end—an obvious correlation of range with rhetorical emphasis.

Madrigals and Arias Redux

fig. 19-5 Giulio Caccini, Amarilli mia bella (Le nuove musiche, 1601).

And that rhetorical emphasis is the whole purpose of the song. Everything is correlated with it, including the harmonies specified by the early figured bass. The figures show only what cannot be taken for granted; as time went on, and as habits were established, fewer and fewer figures became necessary, and those that remained became more conventionalized. The first figure, 6 over the bass F♯, denotes what we now call the position, a term that actually reflects and recalls the old figured bass notation. (We also call such a harmony a triad in “first inversion,” but the concept of chord roots and inversions would not enter musicians’ vocabulary for another hundred years or more.) Note, however, that by the fourth measure an F♯ is allowed to imply the same harmony without a figure, since by then (or so the composer assumed), the reader will have caught on that leading tones (or indeed any sharped note) in the bass normally required a sixth rather than a fifth (in addition to the always implicit third) to complete their harmony.

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-2 Giuliu Caccini, Amarilli mia bella, first couplet in transcription, mm. 1-10

The expressive harmonies occur at cadences, under long drawn-out notes whose delayed resolutions not only represent but actually evoke in the listener the desire that is the main subject matter of any love poem. Thus the ancient Greek ideal of ethos—affective “contagion”—is realized (not that Plato would have approved of spreading this particular affect around!). At this early stage of continuo practice, the figures represent specific pitches fixed in register, rather than generic intervals. The main cadential formula—11–♯10–14 (occurring six times, beginning with the second system)—would later be represented as 4–♯3–7, subtracting an octave (= 7 steps) from every figure; it is now recognizable as the familiar “four–three” suspension, another term that we have retained from early “thoroughbass” notation. (Later still, the sharp would by itself come to imply a raised third, and the figures would read 4–♯–7. The line cannot come to rest until two dissonances—the suspension fourth and the appoggiatura seventh (not allowed in ars perfecta writing)—have been resolved. Such a harmonic intensifier will reinforce any emotion with rhetorical emphasis.

The most obvious rhetorical effect—borrowed from the polyphonic madrigal but vastly augmented—is the textual repetition. Where polyphonic madrigalists liked to repeat the last line or couplet to make the final cadence stick, Caccini repeats the last four lines, amounting to more than half the poem. But what is so rhetorical about literal repetition? Such a thing might sooner pall than enhance expression.

Madrigals and Arias Redux

fig. 19-6 Examples of gorgia (trillo and gruppo) from the preface to Caccini’s Le nuove musiche (1601).

And so it certainly would if it really were literal, but it is not. It just looks literal, and again we have to be on our guard that music cannot be judged by its looks. There is still an oral practice to consider, one to which Caccini devoted a lengthy illustrated discussion in the preface to Le Nuove musiche—a preface that is for us a precious document, more famous by far than the actual songs it served to introduce. What it introduces, as far as we are concerned, is not a book of songs but the whole practice of musico-rhetorical embellishment, a constant “oral” factor in almost every musical performance that took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but one that left scant visible trace in the musical sources.

In this wonderful preface, Caccini, a virtuoso singer long before he became a “composer” (that is, a writer-down of songs), generously divulges to his readers his whole bag of singerly tricks, called gorgia (“throat-music,” already a clue to its production), learned in the first instance, he tells us, from his own teacher Scipione del Palla, who guarded them closely as guild secrets. While sternly counseling against their overuse by enthusiastic bumblers, Caccini provides the first systematic survey of the methods by which solo performers (the only kind in monody) were expected to enlarge and dilate rhetorically on written texts. It is a revealing lesson in charisma and a chastening reminder of how much is lost from any performing repertoire that survives only in textual form.

Caccini’s rhetorical embellishments included some that multiplied (or, as the analogy then went, divided) the written notes in pasaggii,—fast runs and the like. Others were calculated to imitate (or rather, to stylize) various tones of voice or “manners of speaking” that give evidence of strong emotion, and that therefore should be used only when singing “passionate songs,” never in “canzonets for dancing.” The very word Caccini chose for one of them—esclamazione (exclamation), described as “the foundation of passion”—shows the directness with which the emotions were to be physically portrayed.8 It consists of a gradual loudening of the voice on long notes into an outcry, made more artful by first diminishing the volume before beginning the increase—“reversed hair pins,” musicians familiar with modern crescendo/descrescendo marks would say. (Where the harmony permits, an esclamazione can also be executed by starting a third lower than the actual pitch and gradually sliding up; this, Caccini warns, is not for beginners.) Clearly, the esclamazione is the likeness of a sigh.

Caccini then proceeds to the likenesses of unsteady speech—tremblings and catchings of the throat. The artfully simulated vocal tremble or shake, involving the rapid alternation of contiguous notes of the scale, he calls the gruppo or “note-group.” We of course would call it a trill. Caccini’s trillo is something else: it is the rapid, controlled repetition of a single pitch. (For Caccini’s examples of trillo and gruppo, see Fig. 19-6.) What it sounded like, whether (for example) the repetitions were entirely detached or whether the trillo was more a kind of amplitude vibrato, his words do not convey. He recognizes this lack, inviting the reader to listen to his wife’s singing for a perfect illustration. Modern would-be performers of monodies have had to content themselves with the author’s words and their own experiments.

Finally, Caccini lists some “graces,” ways of modifying a melodic line to heighten the effect of “speaking in harmony” and “neglecting the music.” They mainly involve little rhythmic liberties that put the singer “out of sync” with the bass. In this respect, monody singing seems to have a lot in common with “crooning”—a manner of soft, subtle, highly inflected and embellished singing with intimately expressive intent that was adopted during the 1920s by male nightclub singers in response to the invention of the electric microphone. The word is said to be of Old Scandinavian derivation (krauna means “murmur” in modern Icelandic), but the singing style was pioneered and maintained in large part by singers of Italian extraction—Russ Columbo, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett (Anthony Benedetto). Imagining how one of these singers would have sung the repeated strain in Caccini’s Amarilli might give a better idea of how such a song was actually put over than any verbal description of gorgia, even Caccini’s own.

Beginning in 1602, then, madrigals existed—and were available for purchase—in two forms. Traditional polyphonic madrigals remained popular; they continued to be published and reprinted until the 1630s. Continuo madrigals like Caccini’s, and eventually “concerted” madrigals with instrumental parts, gradually gained on the older type, outstripping it in numbers of new publications in the 1620s. (The word musiche, incidentally, became standard for continuo songs, further belying the programmatic significance that is often read into the title of Caccini’s publication.) The genre produced a line of specialists in Caccini’s footsteps. Marco da Gagliano (1582–1643) was perhaps the consummate Florentine musician of the early seventeenth century: a churchman of distinction, he was by 1615 (his thirty-third year) a high official of the church of San Lorenzo, the chief court musician to the Medicis, the maestro di cappella of the Florence cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (celebrated by Du Fay—see chapter 8), and the founder and focal point of a musical Academy, the Accademia degli Elevati, which comprised “the city’s finest composers, instrumentalists and singers,” as well as the poets whose verses the musicians set and performed.9

Gagliano’s most famous monody, Valli profonde (“Deep valleys,” Ex. 19-3), was published in 1615, the year of his ecclesiastical elevation, in a volume of modern-style Musiche that appeared after Gagliano had already published five books of conventional polyphonic madrigals. The poem, a sonnet by the famous sixteenth-century Petrarchist Luigi Tansillo, belongs to the recognized subgenre of “hermit songs” (compare Petrarch’s own Solo e pensoso as set by Marenzio in Ex. 17-16). Such a song was a natural for monody, because crazed loneliness in the wild was monody’s most “natural” subject.

Gagliano’s setting shows some reconciliation between the ascetically neoclassical musica recitativa proclaimed by the Camerata (and by Caccini) and older madrigalian techniques. A residual interest in counterpoint peeps through almost immediately, when the singer’s opening phrase, full of “hard” intervals and harmonies as befits the bleak general mood of the poem, is taken up by the bass in imitation (Ex. 19-3a). Galilei probably would not have approved of Gagliano’s “serpentine” melisma on the word serpenti (“snakes”): this is old-fashioned madrigalism (Ex. 19-3b). But the unprepared dissonances on pianto eterno (“eternal weeping”) a few lines later was the kind of thing monody was made for—harmonic effects (apparently) liberated from contrapuntal voice-leading (Ex. 19-3c).

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-3a Marco da Gagliano, Valli profonde, mm. 1-8

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-3b Marco da Gagliano, Valli profonde, mm. 38-45

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-3c Marco da Gagliano, Valli profonde, mm. 51-54

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-4a Sigismondo d’India, Piange, madonna, mm. 1-4

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-4b Sigismondo d’India, Piange, madonna, mm. 8-17

Sigismondo d’India (1582–1629) and Claudio Saracini (1586–ca. 1649) were both noble amateurs. That puts them in Gesualdo’s line, and indeed, when writing “passionate” madrigals rather than strophic songs they show the same gift for harmonic affectation as their polyphonic forebear. The beginning of d’India’s Piange, madonna (“Weep, O My Lady,” to a poem by Giovanni Battista Marino), from d’India’s Primo libro di musiche of 1609, is a study in what Shakespeare (a contemporary) called “sweet sorrow,” and a real slap in the face of “rules.” It goes Gesualdo one better in containing a triadic progression in which all three pitches are inflected chromatically—except that one of the chromatic passes is merely implied by the bass (as part of its unnotated but conventional harmonic realization) rather than expressed in counterpoint. The two notated voices, meanwhile, make their chromatic pass in the first measure through the baldest parallel fifths imaginable, the octave displacement in the bass notwithstanding (Ex. 19-4a). The first four lines of the poem are repeated (as Caccini had repeated the last four in Amarilli) and d’India writes out the gorgia (or at least some of it), putting in writing what Caccini had left to the performer’s tasteful discretion (Ex. 19-4b). It is likely that d’India transgressed the boundaries of what Caccini would have deemed tasteful (or, in his vocabulary, properly “negligent”).

Saracini’s Da te parto (“I part with thee,” Fig. 19-7; Ex. 19-5), from his Seconde Musiche (second song-book) of 1620, is another hermit song, spectacular both for its chromaticism and for its gorgia—two “noble” expressive avenues that by 1620 were becoming rather well-trod paths. The opening progressions actually pit major and minor thirds against one another: the bass makes its minor–major inflection in advance of the voice, which, prodded by the changed harmony, is probably meant to slide slowly from natural to sharp on the crest of an esclamazione (Ex. 19-5a). The notated effect and the one unnotated are equally necessary to an artful performance of what on the page is crude. The explosion of expressive virtuosity on the final word, ardente (ardent, burning), meanwhile, is an ideal illustration of what gorgia was all about (Ex. 19-5b). By iconically representing—and of course exaggerating—what happens to the speaking voice when the soul is aflame, the soul’s flame is itself by extension “imitated.”

Madrigals and Arias Redux

fig. 19-7 Claudio Saracini, Da te parto (Seconde musiche de madrigali & arie … a una voce sola, 1620).

The strophic aria Caccini used in the Nuove musiche to demonstrate the application of gorgia is based on the old Romanesca “tenor” (as they had called it in the sixteenth century), now of course a “basso.” Going over an old “ground” like this further demonstrates the continuity that links the monodic “revolution” with earlier unwritten traditions, and provides a link with later written compositions as well, for the Romanesca remained remarkably popular and durable, especially in Florence. In Ex. 19-6 the old tenor is given alongside two composed variants: first Caccini’s (compare Fig. 19-8), in which—again, evidently in accord with long-established extemporizing habits—each successive note of the original controls a measure in the fully realized composition; and second, the variant employed by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643), the greatest organist of the seventeenth century, in one of his Arie musicale, published in Florence in 1630. Ex. 19-7 shows the beginnings of its four strophes.

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-5a Claudio Saracini, Da te parto, mm. 1-4

Madrigals and Arias Redux

ex. 19-5b Claudio Saracini, Da te parto, end


(7) Caccini, preface to Le nuove musiche, trans. Piero Weiss in Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 144.

(8) Caccini, preface to Le nuove musiche, trans. John Playford in A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick (London, 1654), in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 382.

(9) Marco da Gagliano, letter to Prince Ferdinando Gonzaga, 20 August 1607; quoted in Edmond Strainchamps, “New Light on the Accademia degli Elevati of Florence,” Musical Quarterly LXII (1976): 508.

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. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019006.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019006.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019006.xml