VA: Monody and the Vocal Concerto

At the opening of the seventeenth century, composers were faced with two disturbing new problems. The first involved monody: could the rhythmic flexibility and the lifelike dramatic power of the solo recitative be absorbed into a system of vocal music based on counterpoint of several equally important parts? If so, what means of formal coherence could be devised? Then there was the basso continuo: within the bare texture of a supporting bass and one or two high voices, could any resources be found to equal the full sonority of the older contrapuntal music?

There were two obvious, through unfruitful ways to avoid these questions. A composer could ignore counterpoint and concentrate on monody, as the earlier Florentine composers had done, or he could ignore monody and stick to the old way of counterpoint, perhaps conceding to modernity the use of a basso continuo. However, the future of music lay with neither the ultraradical monodists nor the ultraconservative contrapuntists. The issues had to be faced: reconciliation of the new with the traditional is a task that confronts every artist in his or her own generation, and one that cannot be evaded. The way in which composers of the early seventeenth century effected their reconciliation can perhaps most clearly be understood as a process of gradual enrichment and formal stabilization of the monodic style. Many different means were employed, but two were of particular importance: the use of the bass, as well as the entire harmonic structure, to give formal coherence to a composition, and the use of the concertato principle to supply variety of texture and contrapuntal interest.

The Role of the Solo Singer

New styles of music, however, are not created only by composers. Much of what is novel at the beginning of the seventeenth century is the result of a gradual transformation of performance practice as it was adapted to the tastes of public and patrons. The solo professional singer began to emerge as an important figure in musical life around 1570, according to a contemporary witness, Vincenzo Giustiniani. This is not to say that accompanied solo singing was truly an innovation. The poet-lutenist-singer was a familiar entertainer at courts throughout the Renaissance, but he was not primarily a musician who had trained himself as a vocal virtuoso, compared with those who became famous in the last quarter of the sixteenth century: Giulia Cesare Brancaccio, Alessandro Merlo Romano, Giovanni Luca Conforto, Vittoria Archilei, Giulio Caccini, Tarquinia Molza, Lucrezia Bendidio, Laura Peperara, and others. The new professional singer, being in direct contact with audiences, was sensitive to their eagerness to be moved by music they could understand and their admiration for brilliant technique and soaring, smooth vocalism. Girolamo Dalla Casa and Emilio de' Cavalieri were singing masters, and Giulio Caccini, Francesco Rasi, and Jacopo Peri were very successful singers turned composers in order to create for themselves a repertory for the changing times, since the professional composers had defaulted. Only after the new style became popular did men who were primarily composers, such as Sigismondo d'India and Monteverdi, begin to imitate and refine it.

The Basso Continuo

A similar development was observable in instrumental practice. Within a few months between October 1600 and February 1601 musical scores by three of these singers and singing masters were published containing a new shorthand method of notating instrumental harmony: Cavalieri's Rapprasentatione di Anima e di Corpo, Caccini's Euridice, and Peri's Euridice. Formerly, whatever instrumental parts were printed appeared in partbooks, tablatures or scores. Cavalieri's work shows why the new method was needed. In the 1589 performances, we know that the accompaniment was played by a chitarrone, for which a score is cumbersome, if not superfluous. With only a treble and bass before him, a keyboard, harp, or lute player could improvise an accompaniment that better suited his instrument and his hands. The necessary treble-bass sketches must have existed years before they began to appear in print in 1600.

The method used by Cavalieri, Caccini and Peri was to give under the voice only a bass line. Over the notes of the bass appear numbers and signs such as 11, 7, and 6/4. The numbers instruct the player of a keyboard or a lute-like instrument to include in the chord over the bass the 11th, 7th, or 6th and 4th notes, counting the bass as 1.

This practice of "figuring" basses continued throughout the baroque period and beyond, but after the first years of the seventeenth century composers stopped specifying the octave in which they wanted the dissonances, writing a 4 instead of an 11, for instance. Not all later composers took the pains to figure their basses; some assumed that the player would judge which chord was necessary by reading the upper part or parts. Italian opera composers tended to be lax in this, while Corelli and Bach, for example, figured their basses punctiliously.

Whether figured or not, a bass that is meant to serve as the foundation for an improvised accompaniment is called a basso continuo or thorough bass. It was called this because it was continuously present, even when there were rests in the bass voices or instruments.

It is obvious that the basso continuo was a handy device for the accompanist, who was thereby spared the onus of reading a score containing numerous parts written usually in several different clefs. This alone, however, would not have made it almost universal within a few decades in the seventeenth century had it not also served the purposes of composers. Its adoption by them is the surest sign that they were losing interest in the thick texture of equal parts moving in more or less independent lines throughout the musical fabric; more appealing now was the texture of one or two solo parts, very often in the treble range, highlighted against a bass. At first this bass was a static one, little more than a foundation for a series of chords, but soon it acquired rhythmic momentum and melodic interest, which restored some balance between it and the upper parts. Composers became quite indifferent to the specific details of the chordal filling that closed the gap between these outer parts. The duty of completing the composition rested upon the performers.

The Monodic Air and the Madrigal

The new secular songs or monodies were mainly of two kinds, strophic and through-composed. Strophic songs took over the techniques of the Renaissance air and were usually called arie. Through-composed songs followed the procedures of the madrigal. They were indeed often designated madrigals, and the texts were of the same sort that served the earlier polyphonic madrigal composers. Both madrigals and airs were eventually infused with the style of the recitative.

The history of the air in the sixteenth century is mainly unwritten. Court poet-singers who improvised upon standard or original tunes rarely notated their settings. The airs sung in sacred or secular plays are almost all lost. A few tunes survive in manuscript collections or instrumental variations; some are designated with terms such as aria di terza rima, aria di sonnetti, or aria di ottava rima. These terms mean that the tune is suitable for singing any poem that follows a certain form, such as a terza rima or the sonnet. In the seventeenth century several of the monodists, such as Sigismondo d'India, Pierro Benedetti and Biagio Marini published airs expressly for singing poetry.

Both the opera and chamber air of the early seventeenth century are descendants of this improvised singing of poetry. The espousal of the air by composers at the turn of the century may seem to run contrary to the new aesthetic ideals, because when the same music must serve different strophes or even different poems, it cannot serve them all equally well. But there is another aspect of the new ideals that needs emphasis: the desire to return to the cultivation of melody.

The Concertato Style

A widespread development of the early seventeenth century was the rise of the concertato style. This adjective comes from the same root as concert and concerto; it connotes not only "sounding together"--as in a consort of instruments--and the common meaning of the Italian verb concertare (to make sure, to reach agreement), but also some idea of competition or emulation, as in the Latin concertaree(to contend or dispute). The concertato style is thus one in which different musical elements are engaged not always in uniform array as in counterpoint or monody, but in a manner which emphasizes the contrast of one voice or instrument against another, or of one group against another, or of a group against a solo. The origins of the concertato style of the Baroque lie in the polychoral works of the Venetian School and in the many polyphonic madrigals of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in which two or three voices, or a solo voice, are brought into prominence against the background of the ensemble.

The Vocal Concerto

The first essays in the sacred medium of solo voices with basso continuo were based on polyphonic models. Chamber singers had extracted single voice parts from madrigals to contrive vehicles for themselves. Later they composed monodies based on these models. The same phenomenon is observable almost contemporaneously in sacred music, but the models were motets and similar pieces. A product of this practice is the collection of motets for one and more voices with basso continuo published by Lodovico Grossi da Vidiana in 1600 under the title Cento concerti ecclesiastici (One Hundred Church Concertos). Vidiana devised a pseudopolyphony in which one, two or three voices were sufficient when complemented by a basso continuo.

Similar solutions can be found in the sacred concertos of several of Viadana's contemporaries, such as Agostino Agazzari in Rome, Adriano Banchieri in Bologna, and Giovanni Croce in Venice. Even more than Viadana, these composers betray the influence of the polychoral style in their proclivity for breaking up vocal lines into short motives conferred on bits of text.

These early sacred concertos belong to a category of writing that, like the airs of Caccini, is a compromise between an elegant style of vocal performance with chordal accompaniment then in vogue and the ideals of the prima prattica. A shift to a new kind of melody based on the ideals of the seconda prattica is not conspicuous in sacred music until the second decade of the seventeenth century.

As in the secular field, it was Florence that pioneered the use of the monodic style in the church. While none of Caccini's or Peri's works for the church are extant, two important cycles of compositions for Holy Week by Cavalieri are preserved. These settings are for solo voices, ensembles of soloists, chorus, and basso continuo. Though Cavalieri's music is highly original and prophetic, it is outside the main stream of development of the sacred concerto for few voices. This is best represented by Monteverdi and Alessandro Grandi. In their early creations in the medium, they show a smooth transition from the pseudo-polyphonic style to the new sacred monody.

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