Sunday, 29 December 2013

An excursion into Baroque music

It turns out that few art historians make excursions into music history, mainly because music can be rather technical. I am the first to admit some music articles are unfathomable without a degree in composition, maths or some such, and are rather off putting. It depends on what the musicologist is trying to convey. Are they talking about how the music is actually made; or are they describing the effects of certain musical combinations; or are they writing about theory? There are as many ways of writing about music as there are about art. When an analyst of paint does a technical report, someone of limited experience in this area would struggle to read it. So art can be just as technical as music in some respects.

I've spent a little time in choirs, and one of them concentrated on motets, masses and madrigals by well known early modern/Baroque composers such as Byrd, Tallis, Palastrina, Lotti etc. The sound, textures and rhythms of these pieces are relatively familiar; who has not felt the internal pulse of Tallis's 40 part motet Spem in Alium? Therefore I feel relatively well placed to apply a certain level of thought to how music like this works, and its effect on an audience and performer.

It turns out that polyphony was not the right place to start. A number of unpicked threads led me to today's conclusion, but it started with the book by John Walter Hill called 'Roman Monody, Cantata, and Opera from the Circles around Cardinal Montalto'(1997). I googled monody because it is not a term I'd come across before. Intrigued I then followed Giulio Caccini's song collection, Le nuove musiche (Florence, 1601) and searched on Spotify to listen to the music. I then found the English translation of the introduction in the 1601 book and read what it had to say about the production of this new way of singing.

The Cardinal was, by all accounts, a talented singer and keen lutenist. He enjoyed having his own army of musicians, soloists, a choir and various composers around him. He was also willing to share his talented group of people with his equally wealthy and fashionable friends. This was a man who wanted to ensure that he was well known for his virtuosic connections and influence on fashion. Although the new music was created in Florence, the style quickly spread and with it, a new vocabulary, a new notation and a new way of communicating a line of music to an audience. 

Unlike the structured, textured, harmony of the 1500s, the pure and clear vocal line sounds out with trills, 'gruppo with extra relish', and appropriately pronounced emotion. It is lightly accompanied by a restrained lute/harp or similar, which is normally improvised. It was ultimately about passion, conveying emotion, and absolutely personal. And impossibly difficult to carry off. It ultimately became opera, when Monteverdi began developing and combining the emotion, clarity of individual voices with the story telling potential. Each one of these exquisite, passionate pieces are embryonic arias in their own right.

For my purposes, I want to match the art of the late 1590s with this 'new' music. Its emotional and direct appeal to the senses fits in perfectly with the small religious painting on copper, the 'Montalto Madonna' by Annibale Carracci. John Onian's article 'On how to listen to High Renaissance Art' (Art History 7:4, Dec 84, 411–437,) discusses the musicality of Raphael, however I am dealing with an artist that has built on a raphaelesque tradition. What sets this Carracci's image apart from many of Raphael's Holy Families is the way that Mary is gazing out of the picture, in response to the light source to the bottom left. In contemporary light conditions, flickering candles would have highlighted the white draperies, and golds of flesh and hair, resulting in the comparative disappearance of the background and other members of the family. There is none of the familial abstraction of Raphael's Virgins, that is to say, though Mary is holding Christ, she is not looking at him, nor at Joseph or St John. This acknowledgement of the the viewer, as though we have entered their private, intimate pictorial space with a candlelight, demonstrates her willingness to listen to our prayers and take them to God on our behalf.

My point here is that the Virgin Mary is directly engaging with the viewer and in communication with him/her. She is just like Ippolita Recupito, a soprano who would have appeared in the candlelight in front of her audience and directly sing to them, intimately and closely with her lutenist/harpist. Alternatively, a prayer-like aria delivered in this way, whilst the Cardinal offered appropriate meditative mental prayers could be extremely effective. A small, devastatingly appealing piece of music would resonate with the ears, just as the simple luminosity of the painting would hypnotise your gaze. How can the Virgin in the picture not be moved by our emotional, heart-wrenching pleas?

Clearly this is just an idea and no doubt my tutor will leave the inevitable note 'please expand'. But is it a valid thought because the intellectual purpose of the 1400-1500s was receding fast; religion was all about the emotional and sensory experience. Music, drama, theatre was becoming de rigueur...

Things I have learned:

Ave Maria by Caccini wasn't necessarily by him, despite it's attibution.
Caccini was a bit of dodgy character and probably wasn't the first to publish a collection of new style music.

No comments:

Post a Comment