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A busy February: Dilettare e Muovere & Sufficient Grounds

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

We filled the shortest month with a busy performance schedule this year, starting out February with our program "Dilettare e muovere: Virtuoso Performances of the Sixteenth Century," and ending with our hugely fun collaboration with Seven Times Salt, "Sufficient Grounds: Wellsprings of the Renaissance." We were so happy to see many friends come out for both concerts, especially to welcome Seven Times Salt to Brattleboro for the first time!

"Dilettare e muovere" showcases the arts of diminution, improvisation, and composition around existing pieces. All of the works on the program (with one exception) were created by Nathaniel, John, or Agnes, in the style of the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century. Our friend Zeke Hecker once again captured the essence of the project in his perceptive review, which we share here with his permission.


On February 8 In Stile Moderno returned to the Brattleboro Music Center with the latest program in its series this season, and the one with the most laser-like focus. The core duo — soprano Agnes Coakley and cornettist Nathaniel Cox — were joined by harpsichordist John McKean. (For this concert Cox left his lute in the lurch.) Their program addressed virtuoso improvisation on solo cornetto (and, by extension, on solo voice) in 16th century Italian songs, dances, and madrigals. Composers represented included Palestrina, Striggio (whom I had previously known only as the librettist for Monteverdi’s Orfeo), Cipriano de Rore, and others, including the ubiquitous Anonymous.

As regular readers to this site will expect, this isn’t a review. There’s no need. The performers are familiar, expert, and “historically informed.” The performances were very fine. The real question is how the music affected us. What did it make us think about, and feel? What did we learn from it? Paradoxically, this intentionally circumscribed program seems to have provoked more thought than any of In Stile Moderno’s previous ones, as I discovered in conversation afterwards with other audience members and with the performers themselves. Here are a few too many of those thoughts, in no particular order.

The cornetto isn’t a brass instrument, though it has a mouthpiece like a trumpet and the sound is produced by vibrating the lips against it, trumpet-fashion. It has tone-holes like an oboe or recorder. The sound is actually soft and gentle, not martial, as we used to think. Between the rapidity with which the player can move his fingers and the use of double-tonguing, the instrument is capable of great virtuosity. And that’s what we got.

Within the preceding week I had heard, as well as been involved in, performances that used an electronic keyboard to simulate the sound of a harpsichord. It’s a labor-saving device. You don’t have to tune or regulate it. It’s easily portable. Some such instruments do a better job of sounding like a harpsichord than others. No matter. They’re all terrible. When you hear a real harpsichord in the flesh, unamplified, unmodified, you have a Plato’s cave moment. Blinded by the light. At last, the real thing.

What In Stile Moderno was exploring here was — well, what term shall we use? Improvisation? Ornamentation? (Re)Composition? The idea is that what you do, what the early performers did, is elaborate on the line you’re singing or playing, usually with “diminutions” or “divisions” (there are several terms for it): lots of little notes in the space previously occupied by longer ones.

Improvisation is the norm. Most musicians historically, from cultures all over the world, have “played by ear,” improvising on music they learned through oral (and aural) tradition and extending that tradition with new material. Music notation has been around for a couple of millennia, but the insistence on playing only what’s written on the page is from the day before yesterday — that is, somewhere around the first third of the nineteenth century in Western “classical” music. Opera singers through the Italian bel canto era, the era of Rossini and Bellini and Donizetti, embellished their vocal lines, as did instrumentalists from the Middle Ages through Mozart and beyond. Improvisation in classical music has never vanished completely. For instance, organists, notably of the French school, still pride themselves on their ability to improvise extensively from hymns or other liturgical sources. (Then, of course, there’s improvisation in non-classical music, especially jazz. More on that in a moment.)

But why did improvisation largely disappear from Western classical music when it did? Why was it OK to embellish the melodic line in a Haydn string quartet, but not in a Brahms one? Why was it imperative that singers in Handel’s operas ornament their lines, but in Wagner’s were forbidden to? I’ll venture a few guesses. First, the increasing complexity of music since the mid-nineteenth century, especially harmonically, made improvisation too risky. It could sound bad. Second, especially in orchestra music, the groups became so large that any attempts by individual players to depart from their printed parts would invite chaos. Third, beginning with the Romantic era “artists” came to be regarded (by themselves and their audiences) as gods whose authority was not to be challenged: “This is exactly what I wrote, and exactly what you will play." Fourth, the modern age, the industrial/technological age, requires standardization. Every Model T Ford is the same as every other Model T Ford. Every performance of Beethoven’s Fifth is the same as every other performance. (Oh, sure, you can mess a bit with tempo and balance, but don’t you dare change those notes!)

What about the other terms, ornamentation and (re)composition? Let’s start with the more modest one. In Stile Moderno’s adjustments to their lines usually involved adding notes that snaked around the original ones, mostly in stepwise motion, scales, turns, trills, and so on. (Particularly interesting to modern listeners is the “trillo” or tremolo, which is a trill on a single note. Badly done it can sound like a goat bleating. Fortunately, it wasn’t, and it didn’t.) But there is more to ornamentation than notes. Consider vibrato. Agnes applies it judiciously, often sliding delicately from “straight” tone into vibrato, unlike many modern singers and instrumentalists who slather it on unvaried. I’m sure the printed score had nothing to say about vibrato. Or, probably, dynamics — loud and soft — or subtle adjustments in rhythm, slight hesitations and surges. Those are ornaments, too.

But when does ornamentation shade into recomposition? How far from the line can, or should, you depart? If the original line becomes unrecognizable, if you replace it with an entirely new one, is that OK? Worthy of praise for inventiveness, or blame for vandalism? As audience, do we seek comfort in the familiar, or adventure in the new?

Back to jazz. The parallels between early music performance and jazz have been frequently noted. I would argue that the greatest music ever to come from the United States, the most inventive, sonorous, emotional, cerebral, and virtuosic, is “modern jazz,” the small group jazz that flourished in the mid-twentieth century, created by major figures like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and their many colleagues. What they did (and what jazz musicians still do) went far beyond a limited notion of “ornamentation.” They might start with an already composed tune of their own invention — usually very brief — or a “standard” tune, or even just a harmonic progression, and then improvise on it to such an extent that each moment generates something new, unpredictable but somehow inevitable. The term “improvisation” is inadequate to describe this; I once heard a jazz musician call it “spontaneous composition,” which seems closer to what actually happens. (You can hear it almost every weekend right here in town, at the Vermont Jazz Center.)

An interesting sidelight: to avoid paying royalties on copyrighted “standards,” jazz musicians of that era often jettisoned the tunes, kept the harmonic progressions (“changes”), and wrote their own tunes on top of them. That’s rather like what early music composers did with standard harmonic progressions such as the “Romanesca” that John McKean played at this concert, having composed his own tunes and variants to go with it.

The In Stile Moderno performers perceived themselves in this instance as composers. They invented the notes they played, riffing on the lines from their sources. The process began as improvisation, but was then mediated. Over time, they had improvised these notes. At some point before the concert, they wrote them down. They practiced and performed the written-out improvisations, reading them off the music stand as they did.

What was it, then? Was it still improvisation? Or composition? Does it matter? Many, perhaps most, of J.S. Bach’s greatest organ works had a similar trajectory. He improvised them at the organ — often in the presence of the congregation, as prelude, offertory, recessional, etc. — and then wrote them down later, refining them in the process.

The “spontaneous composition” of jazz artists isn’t entirely spontaneous. Improvisation is a discipline. Those musicians listened to their predecessors and contemporaries, played along repeatedly with 78 rpm discs until they wore them out, and built on those performances for their own. They relied, as all musicians do, on tradition and convention. (For instance, notice how frequently you hear triplet turns in classic bebop performances, “dood-el-y - doot.”) They transcribed those recorded solos into standard music notation and memorized them. (Forget the stereotypes; most of those players were not musical illiterates, but formally trained and highly educated.) In comparing recordings of live jazz performances, you sometimes hear a soloist repeating a previously improvised solo almost note for note.

The subtitle of In Stile Moderno’s program was “Virtuoso Performances of the Sixteenth Century.” It got me thinking about the whole question of virtuosity. What’s the point? Are we merely supposed to be impressed? To admire the performer? Does it have an emotional effect? An aesthetic value?

When a performer does something particularly virtuosic, the listener tends to be carried away. Why is that? (We’re speaking here of musical virtuosity, but there are many other kinds: physical, verbal, even political — that’s what Machiavelli’s The Prince is about. Any of these can evoke euphoria in those who witness it.) Is a performance of, say, Rachmaninoff’s flashy but musically substantial Third Piano Concerto less worthy than, say, one of Mozart’s less flashy #20, the moody one in d minor? Does a highly embellished rendering of a song on In Stile Moderno’s program make it more about the performer than the song? (Or, as Yeats put it, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”)

Plenty of questions; not many answers. To return to the first ones: I thought about all these matters, and learned a couple of things (for example that Striggio was a composer as well as librettist). As for what the program made me feel: pretty good, I’d say.

Zeke Hecker

Later in the month, it was a joy to perform with our friends from Seven Times Salt on a revival of their program "Sufficient Grounds": an entire concert of ground-bass pieces! The joy of the ground bass (a bass line that repeats over an over again) is in its catchiness and also its endless potential to unlock variation and creativity. From the simple Bergamasca (just I-IV-V-I in the bass!) to the complex grounds of Henry Purcell, we enjoyed every minute of this program. Here's a snippet from rehearsal—this is the Bergamasca by Marco Uccellini.

Coming up this spring, we're looking forward to May's concert Faithful and Pious Heart with Dan Swenberg and Parker Ramsay, as well as a repeat of our Dowland program with the Cambridge Society for Early Music. We look forward to seeing you at another concert soon!


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