The New Music

Giulio Caccini, 1602

Les compositeurs ont parfois utilisé des signes pour indiquer ce que devait jouer l’interprète; certains en ont même donné des tableaux récapitulatifs pour éviter les fautes de goût, ce qui prouve l’importance qu’ils y accordaient. Le même signe n’a pas la même signification chez Couperin, chez Rameau ou chez Bach. Il serait erroné de voir dans les ornements une sorte de décoration superflue ou une vaine pacotille: c’est au contraire la chair même de la musique...

[Composers at times used symbols to indicate what the interpreter should play; some of them provided summary tables to avoid errors, which proves the importance they attached to them. The same symbol does not have the same meaning for Couperin, for Rameau, or for Bach. It would be wrong to see ornaments as a kind of superfluous decoration or vain clutter: on the contrary, they are the very flesh of the music itself...]

Michel Bosc. Musique baroque française, ch. 2.


When Vincenzo Galilei renounced his musical education with the renowned Gioseffo Zarlino, one of the most respected musical theorists of the sixteenth century, he was perhaps indulging in a certain amount of obsequiousness in deference to his Medici patrons. For the rulers of Florence, the resuscitation of ancient Greek ideals in arts and letters was as much a part of their political propaganda machine as it was genuine interest in art for art’s sake. The motivation behind Giulio Caccini’s assertion that he had learned more about music from the Camerata than from thirty years studying counterpoint, on the other hand, was likely a somewhat more selfish one. Caccini was embroiled in a struggle with a number of equally famous musicians each Title page of the first edition of ‘Le nuove musiche’
Title page of the first edition of ‘Le nuove musiche’
(Wikimedia Commons)
of whom claimed to be solely responsible for the ‘new style’ of singing. As discomfiting as it may be, it is often true that great figures are either extremely nice or extremely nasty, a result perhaps of the hefty ego needed to get that way, talent notwithstanding. (So think twice before meeting someone you very much admire for her or his achievements.) By all accounts, Signor Caccini came under the latter category.

Caccini broadcast his claim in the preface to Le nuove musiche (“New Pieces of Music”, or literally “New Musics”), published in 1602. In the history of music, the work is a seminal one. It included not only a wide variety of the kinds of songs that would become popular throughout the Baroque period, it opened with a relatively lengthy preface by the composer in which he took great pains to specify how the new style should be performed. Such an extraordinary inclusion was merited, he said, because the rampant liberties that singers were taking in performance distorted and destroyed the original intent of his work.

In support of his aims, Caccini trots out all the customary arguments: the Platonic tenet that music consists of word first, with rhythm and pitch only ancillary thereto; that counterpoint is antithetical to the comprehension of the words; and that unrestrained ornamentation obscures what few words might otherwise be heard. All of these points had already been affirmed in Vincenzo Galileo’s Dialogo of 1581. Caccini goes on to say that he composed various works such as Perfidissimo volto, Vedrò il mio sol, and Dovrò dunque morire during the period of his association with the Camerata — perhaps around 1585 or so — to demonstrate these ideas. His songs received an enthusiastic reception among the Camerati and among various listeners in Rome, where he had travelled in 1592 as Bardi’s secretary. According to Caccini, all who heard his songs acknowledged the superiority of his approach and encouraged him to continue in the same direction.

On his return to Florence, Caccini asserts that he turned his attention toward traditional, typically lighter canzonette for fewer — usually three — voices, which were often written to somewhat vulgar words. To these he adapted what he calls an ‘aria’ style, in which a self–accompanied solo singer could perform in a more sensitive style, unfettered by the restrictions of ensemble singing, the words no longer obscured by runaway embellishment. And it was the indiscriminant and uncritical use of ornamentation in all styles of music — madrigals, arias, canzonettas — that Caccini found especially objectionable

perche il musico non ben possiede prima quello che egli vuol cantare ... non discernendo se le parole il richieggiono ... una maniera di cantare ... tutta affetuosa.

[because the musician does not first understand what he wants to sing ... not appreciating whether the words merit ... a style of singing that is ... laden with affect.]

Caccini then proceeds to discuss the care and feeding of various ornaments in unusual detail.

He begins with the intonazione (“intonations”) or initial attack of a song, naming two standard methods. The first is to begin on the third below the first note with something we might call a ‘slide.’

Caccini, Le nuove musiche, ex. 1

Depending on how a work starts, this is not always possible, but Caccini says it is an extremely overworked mannerism, and should be used only very sparingly, when at all. The second attack, in which the initial note is begun quietly, then gradually increased in volume, i.e. the crescendo (“increasing”), is the more preferred.

Caccini, Le nuove musiche, ex. 2

Solo singers almost always do this instinctively regardless of the style of music; it’s one of the very first tools they learn to use.

But an even more effective attack, which Caccini says he invented, is one which he calls esclamazione (“exclamations”) in which the volume is instead decreased — diminuendo or descrescendo (“decreasing”) — making the succeeding increase in volume the more effective. He gives two examples from the beginning of Cor mio deh non languire.

Caccini, Le nuove musiche, ex. 3

Caccini stresses that esclamazione are best suited to longish notes preceding shorter ones (half notes or dotted quarter notes) in the emotional atmosphere of a madrigal — he means a monody — but not so much to longer notes (whole notes) where the customary crescendo and descrescendo are more appropriate. Similarly, they have no place in livelier, dance–like arias or canzonettas, where their inherent sense of del languido would be out of place. The singer’s taste and judgment in such matters are, he says, sometimes to be preferred over skill.

Similarly the second syllable of languire, with dotted eighth and sixteenth figure has more grace, he says, than if simply sung with four equally–spaced eighths.

Caccini, Le nuove musiche, ex. 4

This little turn of phrase became one of Caccini’s trademarks, and led him to treat two more special ornaments of particular use at cadences, the related trillo and gruppo.

Caccini, Le nuove musiche, ex. 5

Note that what he calls a gruppo is our modern trill, while his trillo has no modern counterpart. It is not to be confused with modern vibrato, for he explicitly states that for both ornaments the singer

...il cominciarsi dalla prima semiminima, e ribattere ciascusa nota con la gola sopra la vocale a, sino allúltima breve

[...begin with the first half note and articulate [beat again] each note with the throat on the vowel ‘a’ until the last whole note]

In that sense, the trillo is closer to — but certainly not the same as — the device we would call tremolo. Both ornaments are typically used on the penultimate note of a cadence.

Finally, Caccini closes with a number of examples of where liberties may be taken with the written music where merited by the sense of the words.

Caccini, Le nuove musiche, ex. 6

Caccini’s achievement in the documentation of monodic style and solo singing is difficult to overstate. Sixteenth century nobles and socialites had considered proficiency at singing a marker of good breeding since before Castiglione’s 1528 Il cortegiano, but Caccini raised the bar even higher with his insistence that its essence lie in sprezzatura di canto. The now–famous phrase can be difficult to translate adequately, and ironically is often rendered by another non–English word: nonchalance. The singer should make singing seem easy, natural, fixing attention on the words and the emotion of the piece, not on technical skill.

Ultimately, it little matters which individuals were responsible for creating monody. The appearance of Le nuove musiche with its detailed preface and variety of songs started a spate of published collections of monodic song that lasted for some thirty years.

Perfidissimo volto

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