Rehearsals in the Renaissance and Baroque

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This paper was read originally at the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Society held in New Haven, Connecticut, December 27-29, 1968 as part of a ROUND TABLE discussion concerning "Rehearsal Techniques and Historical Performance Practice." The other participants, whose papers were also included in
SYMPOSIUM Volume 9, were JOHN REEVES WHITE, Conductor of the New York Pro Musica; ALFRED MANN, Professor of Music at Rutgers University and Director of the Bethlehem Bach Choir; and FRANKLIN ZIMMERMAN, Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and Conductor of the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia. Mr. Zimmerman also served as Chairman of the Panel.

There is no peculiar mystique about rehearsing Renaissance and Baroque music. With mediocre performers and a great deal of rehearsal time, or with excellent performers and less time, an almost predictable result can be achieved. Basically it is a question of hard work; and the longer one persists with a given and reasonably constant group, the better will be the final results. We find evidence for this in documents, letters, treatises, and prefaces; a single example of each will show what went on.

1) Document—Rome, Bibl. Vallicelliana Ms R 56—3 versions (2 of them autograph) of an essay on music by the papal singer Ghiselin Danckerts. This could be counted a treatise, but is so far unpublished in its entirety. The most recent account of this source is by Lewis Lockwood, in "Studien zur Italienisch-Deutschen Musikgeschichte" II, 1965, 24-40. The part that concerns us is an eye- and ear-witness description of a heated discussion about musica ficta at a rehearsal of a set of Lamentations of Escobar. The singers involved were members of the choir of S. Lorenzo in Damaso, a church built into the fabric of the cancelleria, or former papal chancellery. In view of most choir directors' problems about musica ficta, such a record might seem invaluable. Yet the argument reveals the source of the trouble: each singer is trying to add accidentals to his own line, according to certain well-established principles. Each is also overlooking the fact that his line is but one strand in a complex web of polyphony, and that accordingly only those accidentals can be added that will agree with the contours of the other voices and the general modal implications of the entire composition. This is an object-lesson in rehearsal; for it shows that individuals must be subject to the over-riding judgment of a director. Otherwise one can't see the wood for the trees. It is not a case of "Who shall be the victor / in musica ficta," but rather how should a work best be rehearsed. In this case it almost became a free fight, and eventually the matter was presented as a kind of musical litigation to the Bishop of Toulon, Antonio Trivulzio.

2) Letter: Ferrara—State Archives—Correspondence of the Marchese Bentivoglio. From the composer Antonio Goretti, who tells us, not perhaps without a touch of malice, something of the habits of another composer—Sigismondo d'India. "I said, and indeed I repeat, that he is capable—nor can anything be said to the contrary. But it is also true that he entertains certain ideas of wishing to be considered the foremost man in the world, and that no-one but he knows anything. And whoever wishes to be his friend, and deal with him, has to puff him up with this wind; a thing that one might tolerate, to give him pleasure, if he were satisfied with a little of it, but then he becomes so saturated with this delirium that he never wants to hear anything else: in such a fashion that he puffs up with it and bounds away like a balloon. While he is busy composing, one can allow him this pleasure, but later, when we come to the necessity of putting the pieces into practice and having them sung with the appropriate harmonies and accompaniments—for here rests the whole question of whether one can make the work succeed—to this he does not apply his thought at all; and of this let it be testimony that wherever he has been for such purposes, particularly at Turin, the poor virtuosi almost go crazy."

The lesson enshrined within this letter is that composers are often best kept away from rehearsals, unless of course they are practising professional musicians as well. Not every composer belongs to this category. One of the more remote and abstract types, surrounded by a large orchestra and chorus at a rehearsal was heard to say: "I can't work with all these people around!"

3) Treatise. Ercole Bottrigari: Il Desiderio, 1594. This gives us a remarkable glimpse of the rehearsals in one of Italy's most musical courts: Ferrara. "His Highness the Duke has two large, decorated rooms, called the Musicians' rooms. . . . and to these rooms all or some of the musicians may go and practice both playing and singing. There are therefore many printed music books, as well as musical compositions in ms, written by all the talented men in the profession, and kept in perfect order in the places provided for them. The instruments are always in playing condition and are tuned so that they can be taken up and played at a moment's notice. Sometimes the Duke commands Fiorino, his maestro de cappella, to give a grand concert, and as soon as the order is received, Fiorino confers with Luzzasco. . . . and then with all the other musicians. And he summons every Ferrarese who can sing and play well enough . . . to participate in such a concert. Then they begin the rehearsals in which all these different instruments are used, and they have not just one or two, but a number of rehearsals, during which they maintain the highest obedience and attention, and think nothing except a good ensemble and the greatest possible union without any other consideration; and for that reason each performer comes with gracious modesty when he needs to be instructed and corrected by the maestro di cappella."

We see from this that the Ferrarese maintained their high standard of performance by insisting on plentiful rehearsals, their own rooms and music books, and a high degree of co-operation between musicians and director. Those were of course the leisurely, non-unionized days, when artistic matters were put first. Unfortunately this was not always for the good of the artist, who could easily be exploited, and sometimes was. This brings me to Monteverdi, who said that the rehearsals for "Arianna" took five months after the singers had learned their parts by heart—and his health was ruined for the next year or so.

4) Preface: Madrigal guerrieri ed amorosi, 1638. In this famous foreword, Monteverdi discusses the theories behind his "stile concitato," but mentions the difficulties he first had to overcome at rehearsals: "It seemed to the musicians, especially those who played the basso continuo, more ridiculous at first than praiseworthy to play a single note sixteen times in one measure—and for that reason they reduced this multiplicity to one stroke only, sounding the spondee instead of the pyrrhic foot, and so destroying the resemblance to agitated speech." There are of course many later examples of works causing trouble at rehearsal; anyone who has conducted or listened to a rehearsal of a modern work will know the kind of difficulty that has to be faced.

We have to realize, however, that all works were new once, and all had their world premiere: the problems do not change as the centuries roll by—they simply appear in slightly different disguises. In the course of rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Schubert's C Major Symphony, Karl Böhm, for example, corrects three ever-important matters: accent, balance, and expression—there's too much accent, too much 2nd bassoon, and not enough feeling. The following specific citations will illustrate these continuing musical concerns.

 

EX. 1 (Not commercially available)

Herbert von Karajan, working with the same orchestra on Beethoven's Ninth, finds the same problems: accent where the sixteenth-notes are upbeats, insufficient crescendo in 2nd violins ("don't sound as if you're chopping spaghetti"), and ensemble.

 

EX. 2 (Not commercially available)

Toscanini, rehearsing Mozart's Magic Flute Overture with the NBC Symphony, also runs into trouble with accents, and when he solves these, his next thought is expression. So incensed is he at the players' inability to feel what he feels that he slaps his own face to show them what should smile.

 

EX. 3 (Not commercially available)

One of the main causes of bother in a rehearsal of renaissance vocal music is this question of stress. All modern editions of madrigals, motets, masses, and contemporaneous forms and styles present the music in score, whereas the originals were nearly always printed in separate part-books, without barlines. The 16th-century singer would have stressed his line quite naturally, according to the proper accentuation of the language, whether English, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, or whatever; and he would have modified this natural stress only when asked to do so by his director, who would act on his own understanding of vital harmonic features such as suspension or syncopation or cadences. Nowadays, the only way to achieve good results, especially when working with amateur groups, is to have the entire text-matter marked with accents so that each singer of each line will project the music not in accordance with the implied stress of a bar-line, but in accordance with the natural declamatory properties of the language concerned.

Hand-in-hand with this sensitivity to accent, there should be a complete understanding of the meaning of the text. In this day and age, when the study of Latin has been all but abandoned in what we choose to call education, would-be linguists are deprived of a solid basis for acquiring other languages, as well as losing an opportunity to master their own. What we must do, therefore, is to ensure that every word, every phrase, and the meaning of the text as a whole, is thoroughly understood by each member of the choir. Lack of understanding produces results like this:

 

EX. 4 Laudate Dominum (Ephrikian)—Period SPL 536

"Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes"—"Praise the Lord, all ye nations." Do you think they sounded as if they were praising the Lord with gladness and with song? I am reminded of the words of the blessed St. Bernard, who once said "prayer without devotion is not the voice of man, but the lowing of an ox." One might parallel this by saying that "singing without understanding is like the braying of an ass." This, I believe, is how Monteverdi meant the passage. to sound:

 

EX. 5 Laudate Dominum (Corboz)—Musical Heritage Society, MHS 908

Apart from the enormous difference in interpretation in those two recordings, there was also a difference in speed. The inferior performance was far too slow. But it is important to remember that speed, or rather high speed, cannot in itself redeem an otherwise poor interpretation. There is a mistaken idea, only too common today, that since formerly all old music was performed too slowly, it must now be rendered with great rapidity. It is worth recalling the advice of a singer to Gerald Moore—"young man, not too loud; young man, not too soft!" There is always a band of tolerance between two extremes an area sufficiently wide to allow for personal variations in tempo, or variations dictated by the size of the church or concert hall. Outside this area it is dangerous to move. If high speed is applied to a sixteenth century madrigal such as Vezzosi augelli by Giaches de Wert, a totally false impression may result:

 

EX. 6 Vezzosi augelli (Abbey Singers)—Decca DL 710103

That music was written to a text by Ariosto, and the particular part of his Jerusalem Delivered which inspired de Wert was a pastoral scene in Canto 16: "Charming birds among the green foliage vie with one another in amorous harmonies." But we don't want the birds to sound as if they were jet-propelled; we want to hear the harmonies—and if the tempo is too rapid, the logic of de Wert's harmonic rhythm is destroyed. This tempo is surely more suited to a pastoral passage such as the one we are dealing with:

 

EX. 7 Vezzosi augelli (Ambrosian Singers)—Dover HCR 5262

I feel very strongly that rehearsal time will not be wasted if the poem is read out first in the original, then in translation, to all musicians present. Unless they all have this immediate cognizance of meter, stress, form, and content, the resulting performance could well be shapeless.

Rehearsal time should be thought of as experiment time, and even though in professional circumstances it is possible to claim that every minute wasted costs a hundred dollars, it should always be possible to make slight adjustments in the distribution of voices and instruments if earlier plans for balance have been proved wrong for the acoustic of the hall. But there is one matter that must be determined in advance, and that is the most suitable pitch for the music. Most vocal music of the Renaissance was composed in what we would call simple keys: one sharp, one or two flats at most. Sometimes, however, transposition is implied by the use of special clef-combinations: this should be recognized at once and acted upon, either by having the singers transpose at sight, or by having the music re-copied at a pitch suitable for each voice-part. The theorist Vincenzo Galilei in his Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna inveighs against those singers who transpose music to outlandish pitches "that are unsingable, altogether out of the ordinary, and full of artifice; and this only in order to vaunt themselves and their achievements as miracles before those more ignorant than themselves." The best solution to the problem, therefore, is to choose normal pitches for normal singers, but this does not rule out the possibility of exploiting some unusual vocal range, for which there are ample precedents—the bass parts of extraordinary range in Monteverdi's "Ab eterno ordinata sum," in some of Purcell's anthems and odes, particularly "Now does the joyful day appear," and Handel's bass cantata "Nell' Africane selve." Sometimes a modern choir director will find among his choir a solo boy capable of extraordinary high notes, and when these can be brought off with beauty of effect and perfection of intonation, we can surely be forgiven if we temporarily forget the strictures of Galilei:

 

EX. 8 Allegri: Miserere (King's College, Cambridge)—Argo ZRQ 5365

There are so many aspects of Renaissance rehearsals that one might discuss, but since time is limited I will mention only one more. It is becoming more and more customary now to interpret the term "a cappella" in its proper way, that is, not as unaccompanied singing, but singing doubled by instruments. The craze for bringing in reproductions of ancient instruments has also played its part in this movement. But it can be carried too far, as for instance in this psalm by Lassus:

 

EX. 9 De profundis (Capella Antiqua, Munich)—Telefunken SAWT 9431B

"De profundis" . . . "Out of the deep I cry unto thee, O Lord," is one of the seven Penitential psalms, traditionally sung on Fridays of Lent. All the early service-books make it quite clear that during Lent the organ and other instruments must be silent. A more correct interpretation would involve sending the instrumentalists home after part of the rehearsal, and concentrating on "De profundis" as a truly unaccompanied work.

 

EX. 10 De profundis (Ambrosian Singers)—Everest LPBR 617413

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