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The Baroque Revolution (1550 - 1660)

April 7, 2024: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI

This afternoon’s program offers an overview of great composers who lived in different European regions and straddled the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, a time when sixteenth-century compositional forms and techniques coexisted with those of the new century. The musica nova (new music) stemmed from Monteverdi's seconda prattica (second practice), which appeared in the world of instrumental music as well opera. The new music could be completely unknown or reappear like an old friend, who changes over time while maintaining characteristic features.

The selections are ordered chronologically starting with three Renaissance pieces, collected in the first edition of Capricci in musica a tres voci (1564) by Vincenzo Ruffo (1508–1587) and here arranged in a small suite. Ruffo, from Verona with a musical career in Northern Italy, was appointed maestro di cappella of the Cathedral of Milan. The following year he dedicated his collection of Capricci, the earliest known instrumental pieces to bear that designation, to Marc’Antonio Martinengo, Marquis of Villachiara. He also sought to introduce himself to the local nobles, who were voracious consumers of instrumental music. La Gamba and La Disperata are joined by La Piva, a fast dance of popular origin that stemmed even from the fifteenth-century and which, although apparently absent from the choreographic world of the sixteenth century, appeared sporadically in instrumental music collections.

The cameo appearances here of the Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo (Representation of soul and body) and the Ballo del Granduca (Ball of the grand duke) from the intermedii of La Pellegrina by Emilio de’Cavalieri (c.1550–1602) recall the invention par excellence of the new century, namely opera. The second of these had an incredible circulation and, by belonging to the cycle of intermedii, represents that exceptional moment of artistic ferment and experimentation that would lead to the birth of opera. The first belongs to a composition that vies with Peri’s Euriydice for primogeniture in the new musical genre.

A very prevalent dance between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the gagliarda, built on a basic scheme of five dance steps on six beats of music (in modern terms, 6/4 with the fourth note elongated), which could also be varied in a very virtuoso way choreographically. It was usually preceded by a pavane, a dance of slower, processional character. The gagliarda was very popular both as dance music and as a purely instrumental form. The Earle of Peembrookes Galiard, by the London composer and soldier Tobias Hume (1569–1645) appeared in the collection Poeticall Musicke (1607) together with Start; this collection constitutes the first repertoire composed for lyra viola (a kind of viola da gamba), the real protagonist of Hume’s songs. Other gagliards are offered during the program with more specific connotations: the Gagliard Battaglia (Battle gagliard) by German composer Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654) and the closing Gallarda Napolitana by the blind Neapolitan composer Antonio Valente (c. 1520–c. 1580).

The famous anonymous Greensleeves to a Ground reminds us of another element very present in the musical practice of the time throughout Europe—namely the composition on a basso ostinato (a ground, in English), on which the other parts propose a series of variations. We will return to other variation forms later in the program.

Another important presence is that of the canzona, a term that developed largely in Italy around the seventeenth century. It is described by Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) as “a series of short fugues for ensembles of four, five, six, eight, or more parts, with a repetition of the first at the end.” Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) dedicated himself on several occasions to this type of instrumental composition. The Canzon we hear this afternoon appears in his collection Il primo libro delle canzoni a 1–4, bc, accomodate per sonare [con] ogni sorte de stromenti (The first book of canzonas for one to four voices, basso continuo, accommodated to play [with] all sorts of instruments), published in Rome in 1628. Frescobaldi’s edition was prepared by his pupil Bartolomeo Grassi who, as he explained in the afterward of the work, gave each of the thirty-seven canzonas a dedicatory name inspired by the names of gentlemen from Lucca. We hear the Canzon terza, a due canti, which means that it is essentially a three-voice fugue with two instrumental upper voices and an instrumental bass voice (played by a sustaining bass instrument doubled by keyboard that also supplies harmonies, or basso continuo).

We then proceed to the ciaccona, whose presence is already attested to in Spain at the end of the sixteenth century. Traditionally accompanied by guitars, tambourines, and castanets both in Spain and in Italy (and especially in Naples), the ciaccona was often introduced in theatrical performances of the commedia dell’arte. The Italian variant is more exuberant than the Spanish, with a faster tempo and multiple nuances. The Ciaconna by Andrea Falconiero  (also known as Falconieri) (1585–1656) is from his collection Il primo libro di canzone, sinfonie, fantasie, capricci, brandi, correnti, gagliarde, alemane, volte, 1–3 vn, va, or other insts, bc (First book of canzone, sinfonias, fantasies, etc., for 1–3 violins, violas, or other instruments, and basso continuo) (Naples, 1650). In this piece the three instrumental parts launch into a passionate back-and-forth.

One of the earliest known references to the lively guaracha, likely of Spanish origin, stems from the Mexican singer, viol player, and composer Juan García de Zéspedes (1619–1678). He includes one—as well as uses the term—in his mid-seventeenth-century song/carol Convidando está la noche (Inviting is the night). Its distinctive rhythms foreshadow the song form that later became popular in Caribbean colonies.

We turn now to a later incarnation of the variation form, the folia. Though the folia originated in Portugal as a dance or dance song—often for guitar—it wasn’t until the last quarter of the seventeenth century that the harmonic pattern and melody became somewhat standardized. In Italian sources the earliest use of folia was by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (also known as Kapsperger) (c.1580–1651), who wrote four books of works for the theorbo or chitarrone (bass fretted lute) (1604, 1616, 1626, and 1640). The form is also represented on this program by Diferencias sobre la Folía (1660) by an anonymous Spanish composer.

Falconiero appears again on the program in another variation form closely related to the ciaccona or chaconne—the passacalle (also called passacaille, passacaglia, and other variants) from the above-mentioned collection. Falconiero’s Passacalle consists of thirty-two variations on the stepwise descending four-note bass line. We can compare this with the Passacaglio by virtuoso violinist and composer Biagio Marini (1594–1663) from his collection Per ogni sorte di strumento musicale (For all sorts of musical instruments) (Venice, 1655). In this set of variations some delightful harmonic crunches appear over the ground bass.

Based mostly in Cremona, Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665) was one of the most progressive composers of the Venetian School in the generation after Monteverdi. His Chiaccona from his Canzoni overo sonate concertate per chiesa e camera (Concerted songs for church and chamber) (Venice, 1637) begins in lilting style, becoming remarkably virtuosic as the vriations progress.

To close the program we are treated to Valente’s Gallarda Napolitana (mentioned above) from his Intavolatura de cimbalo (Naples, 1576), which was one of the earliest publications of the Naples school of keyboard composition that flourished in the late sixteenth- and early-seventeenth centuries. For this piece and other variations types such as folías and ciacconas, writes Jordi Savall, “both composition and successful performance require a succession of freely virtuoso elaborations over a preexisting bass line, pattern, or melody,” which in the performance by Hespèrion XXI leads to delightful creative moments.

Finally a word about the viola da gamba, which in different sizes and different combinations is the protagonist of the evening. Born around the fifteenth century, the viola da gamba has conquered a particular space for its ability to propose itself in consort, in homogeneous ensembles, or mixed with different instruments, and then for the possibilities as a soloist, pushed to virtuosity. Today’s program, in addition to letting us experience the musical richness of early seventeenth-century instrumental pieces, also enables us to hear all the different shades of the viola da gamba’s voice.

Text curated by Francesca Pinna

in collaboration with the Dipartimento di Musicologia e Beni Culturali,

Università degli Studi di Pavia, sede di Cremona;

adapted by Jane Vial Jaffe

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