From the beginning of human existence, singing has been a natural outlet for the expression of feelings. Probably even before the development of language, the utterances of the human voice gave vent to basic emotions — the wails of lament, the howls of pain, the giggles of joy, the quivering of fear. When combined with language, singing became a powerful means of communicating not only generalized feelings but also the most personal and subtle sentiments. By heightening and coloring the words, the singing voice can render their meaning with a force greater than they have when merely spoken.
— Barbara Russano Hanning, “Love’s New Voice: Italian Monodic Song.” in George Stauffer (ed.). The World of Baroque Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
The Medici were not the only bankers in Florence. Giovanni de’ Bardi, Count of Vernio, was a
soldier by profession — he fought under Cosimo I during the war against Siena — yet his family were powerful bankers
and traders who founded the Compagnia dei Bardi. Bardi received an extensive classical education,
Palazzo de’ Bardi
Wikimedia Commons he was proficient in Latin and Greek, and he studied composition.
A common pastime of the day was participation in various societies or “academies” devoted to culture, literature and the arts. Bardi formed and hosted one of his own, now commonly called the Camerata, its main pursuit a revival of the ideals of Greek poetry, drama and music. Evidence is sketchy, but among the members of the academy were the poets Ottavio Rinuccini, Giovanni Guarini, Gabriello Chiabrera and Giovanni Strozzi the younger, and the musicians Giulio Caccini, Pietro Srozzi, Vincenzo Galilei (father of the famous astronomer), and perhaps Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Francesco Cini, Cristoforo Malvezzi and Alessandro Striggio, all well–known names of the high Renaissance and early Baroque.
Classical revivalism had of course been all the rage: it was what the Renaissance ostensibly was about. Girolamo Mei, a leading
Greek scholar of the day, carried on extensive correspondence with Galilei. In his book De modis musicis
antiquorum (“On the Forms of Ancient Music”), Mei claimed that ancient Greek drama was so effective because
Mei to Galilei, 8 May 1572
Wikipedia it was declaimed throughout in a manner somewhere between speaking and singing. A single expressive melody, with or without a simple accompaniment, transmitted the singer’s emotional state directly to the hearer through the natural power of the human voice. In this respect, the words of the drama were paramount, so music served as handmaiden to the words, not the other way around.
Galilei developed these ideas, and published them in his Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna
(“Dialogue on Music Ancient and Modern”) in 1581. His patron Bardi had sent Galilei to study with Zarlino in
Venice, but Galilei now renounced his musical education, perhaps
IMSLP more through political than artistic motivation. His Dialogo comprised a debate cast between the characters of Bardi and Strozzi in which polyphonic music practice was condemned as thwarting dramatic purpose.
If the words were the most important component, obviously polyphonic song was unintelligible: everyone was singing different words at the same time. Plato taught that song consisted first of words, then of rhythm; pitch was the third dimension, last in importance. In that respect, contemporary music practice should be thrown away. The Greek ideal of drama was a perfect union of poetry and music in a single melody, declaimed not in a regular metre, but according to the natural rhythm of speech.
Ironically the Camerata’s alumni, whose self–proclaimed mission was to bring this perfection
back to music and drama, had no idea what ancient Greek music really sounded like; all of their sources
Wikimedia Commons were literary. Even more frustrating for us: whatever concrete ‘songs’ came out of their deliberations, almost all of them are lost as well. Galilei performed his own version of Ugolino’s lament from Dante’s Inferno before the society’s members in 1582. Caccini created and performed single–melody songs of his own to simple chordal accompaniment. The new form came to be known in our own time as monody. Alas, we are unlikely ever to know how these early efforts sounded either.
However radical Galilei’s and the Camerata’s theories may seem at first, they didn’t appear out of thin air. After all, various of the Offices of the church had been chanted in plainsong for centuries, with an effect similar to monody, albeit unaccompanied. Moreover, solo singing among the cultured had been prized ever since Castiglione’s Il cortegiano (“The Courtier”) of 1528. Singers sometimes sang one line of a madrigal, playing the others as accompaniment, usually on the lute. Stories or epics were often sung by cantastorie (“story–singers”) to stock ‘arias,’ formulas for singing poems of various metres to semi–improvised lute accompaniment. Indeed, Galilei would have been familiar with all of these forms, since he was himself a lutenist.