Monteverdi: Music is the Servant of the Words, O/Modernt, Confidencen, Ulriksdals Slottsteater, Solna, Sweden, 11–17 June 2012; Music and Words: Who’s Really on Top? (Lecture), Richard Taruskin, 14 June 2012

The festival, O/Modernt, takes place at Ulriksdals Slottsteater, a lovely rococo auditorium situated on the edge of the densely wooded ‘English’ parkland, planted about 1800, that belongs to Ulriksdal Palace, nine kilometres outside the centre of Stockholm. The royal palace of Ulriksdal dates back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and its extensive grounds (including formal gardens as well as romantic wildernesses) are now a Swedish National Park. Housed in a former riding school, the palace theatre was created in 1753 at the behest of Queen Lovisa Ulrika (1720–82) and is known as Confidencen, a name taken from the table à confidence that once occupied the building’s largest room – a dining table on a descending platform that could be lowered to the cellar to be recharged between courses.

The theatre fell into disuse after the assassination in 1792 of King Gustav III, an extraordinarily active patron of the arts, and only re-entered public consciousness in 1935 when it was classified as a building of historic interest. Forty years later, in 1976, Confidencen captured the imagination of the Swedish soprano, Kjerstin Dellert, who has since worked indefatigably to have it restored and to establish the theatre’s annual summer programme of concerts, operas and plays. One week of the summer line-up is devoted to O/Modernt, currently in its second year, which was founded by Hugo Ticciati, the young and distinguished British-born violinist (now settled in Sweden) who is also the festival’s artistic director. With considerable energy and charm Ticciati has attracted an impressive gathering of international musicians to join forces with locally-based artists to perform in the idyllic surroundings of Confidencen and (a wonderful bonus) experience the magic of the luminous Swedish midsummer nights.

Translated into English as ‘Unmodern’, the title O/Modernt suggests an expansive interest in early music as both radically different from but also vitally connected with the music of succeeding ages. A trendier but perhaps more evocative rendering might be (Un)Modern, indicating a mutually illuminating interchange between old and new and foregrounding the fact that every fresh approach can be said to have been modern once. The broad, underlying idea seems to be to interpret the processes of innovation without losing sight of the point, well-made by T. S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), that though art changes it never improves, notwithstanding that the present can achieve an awareness of the past which was, of necessity, unavailable to those living in previous epochs.

Following on from 2011 when the focus was on J. S. Bach (1685–1750), the subject of this year’s festival was Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) and the critical role he played in the emergence, in the seventeenth century, of new musical styles that broke with the ‘perfected’ Renaissance polyphonic tradition, ars perfecta. Particularly important in this regard is the statement made in 1607 in defence of Monteverdi’s seconda prattica or ‘second practice’ by the composer’s younger brother: ‘la sua intentione è stata (in questo genere di Musica) di far che l’oratione sia padrona del armonia e non serva’ (‘in this kind of music it is his goal to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not its servant’). This richly meaningful sentence – at once portentous and ever so slightly offhand – was freely abridged as the festival’s motto: ‘Music is the servant of the words.’ It set the scene for the week’s imaginative and wide-ranging programme, centred on Monteverdi, that explored changing emphases in the setting of texts to music.

In a multifaceted, thoroughly enjoyable concert on Wednesday 13 June (entitled ‘Monteverdi Showdown’) Monteverdi was represented by the madrigal, Sì dolce è’l tormento (‘So sweet is the torment’, from a collection reissued in 1624), sung by the brilliant and rightly-celebrated Swedish mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter. This was followed by two duets – Hoggi rinasco (‘Today I am reborn’) and Pur ti miro (‘I gaze upon you’) – from Monteverdi’s last opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (‘The Coronation of Poppea’, 1643) for which von Otter was joined by another fine Swedish singer, the soprano Elin Rombo. Pur ti miro (now generally taken to be the work of one of Monteverdi’s younger contemporaries) is the climactic moment of an opera in which multiple outrages against conventional morality are happily consummated in the lustful union of the emperor Nero and his mistress, Poppea, whose musical coming-together is an utterly sensual and explicit celebration of their love-making. To accompany this voluptuous, frankly erotic setting von Otter performed songs by Debussy, Fauré, Wagner and finally The Beatles (including a delightful version of Blackbird, arranged by David Lundblad). For sheer, startling sexiness, however, none of these could compete with Pur ti miro – a piece which is just about as enduringly modern as it gets.

In this concert a ‘far out point’ (to borrow a Taruskin term) in the examination of the words/music pairing was reached in Steven Isserlis’s performance of Bach’s third cello suite (C major, BWV 1009, c.1720). Isserlis’s flamboyant, overflowing facility is an art that conceals art – the theatrical face of an underlying rigour that encourages his listeners to sit back and luxuriate in a sense of precipitate motion perfectly controlled. Bach’s cello suites comprise a prelude (originally a flexing of the fingers, which by Bach’s time could also be a propositional statement of themes) followed by a sequence of dance movements. Three fixed components – allemande, courante and sarabande – are succeeded by one or more variable galanteries (a French word for courtly amusements, here meaning additional dance types), after which comes a further fixed element, a concluding gigue. To invoke the idea of dancing, even in this idealised, instrumental guise, is to suggest multiple kinds of rhythmic interaction – partnerships, movable groupings, moments of individual display – that occur within the basic ‘there-and-back’ structure of the dance. In Bach’s cello suites these are manifested as a succession of tensions, transitions and relaxations so fraught with emotion that they seem to cry out for extra- musical interpretation.

Eloquently articulated by Isserlis, the rare dramatic power of these connected dances intimates, as it were, a shift of dimension (a displacement or ‘ecstasis’ as Wilfrid Mellers calls it) that demands to be accounted for in terms that transcend the technical language available to describe the mechanics of their musical construction. But where are appropriate words to be found? In the sleeve notes to his recording of the cello suites (reissued in 2007) Isserlis proposes ‘a feeling not a theory’ that the entire sequence is a Christian allegory. These, he says, are ‘Mystery Suites’ portraying three kinds of sacred mystery – joyful, sorrowful and glorious – with the third in the series (BWV 1009) devoted to the glorious descent of the Holy Spirit. The danger (disarmingly acknowledged and forestalled by Isserlis) is to treat the music as a code, à la Dan Brown, effectively turning Bach’s work into something other than music. The huge difficulty is to discover words that illuminate but which are also plausibly grounded in historical argument.

There is nobody better to talk about historical arguments in music than Richard Taruskin, whose lecture ‘Music and Words: Who’s Really on Top?’ was held at Confidencen on 14 June 2012 and took the form of an extended gloss on the description, quoted above, of Monteverdi’s seconda prattica as a style of music in which the text (l’oratione) takes precedence over the harmony (l’armonia). Using his brother as his spokesman, Monteverdi was countering criticism that in his madrigal writing he had strayed from the established principles of ars perfecta. These were codified in Le Istitutioni harmoniche by Gioseffo Zarlino (1570–90), according to whom l’armonia (here specifically meaning two or more voices sounding at the same time) should be governed by mathematical proportion, and the fallibilities of the senses corrected by reason. The emphasis on abstract values produces a kind of music where clearly enunciating the words (which, in the case of religious texts, listeners will know anyway) is secondary to creating rich textures of voices sounding together. The point was illustrated using an ingenious video (that can be found on YouTube) of The Hilliard Ensemble performing Deo Gratias by Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410–97), an astonishing canon for thirty-six voices in which the words are incorporated into a fabulously layered musical structure that takes precedence over every other consideration.

Monteverdi’s critic was Giovanni Maria Artusi (c.1540–1613), a pupil of Zarlino, who objected, among other things, to an unorthodox dissonance in Monteverdi’s setting for five voices of Cruda Amarilli (‘Cruel Amaryllis’, 1605), a text by Giovanni Battista Guarini (1538–1612). Artusi, who quoted Monteverdi’s music without the accompanying words, entirely failed to mention that the offending discord comes on the phrase ‘ahi lasso’ (‘alas’) and was thus an expressive means of capturing the emotional quality of the plaintive interjection. The chief concern of ars perfecta or ‘first practice’, says Monteverdi, was ‘the perfection of the harmony’; that of ‘second practice’ is ‘the perfection of the setting’. And whereas Artusi could only cite Zarlino in support of his argument, Monteverdi had recourse to the inestimably greater authority of Plato, whose ‘principles’ he said were his guide.

As Taruskin explained, the greater aim here was to recover the moral and emotional power (the ethos) of music, lost since ancient times. This property of music so worries and excites Plato in Books III and IV of The Republic that he recommends the strict regulation of innovations in musical forms and the exclusion from his ideal city state of musical modes able to incite unwanted behaviour. In accordance with the fundamental doctrine presented in Book X of The Republic, Plato assumes that music is a mimetic art. The problem for progressive composers at the turn of the seventeenth century was to find an approach to imitating nature that would reinvest modern music with its ancient power. Music, it was reasoned, is grounded in artifice. It depends on fixed pitches, which do not exist in nature, and artfully adjusted tuning systems that deviate from the natural resonances given by arithmetic proportion. Consequently, language could be considered a more natural mode of expression than the music written to accompany it, and allowing the meaning of a text decisively to influence musical form was seen as a way of achieving greater naturalness.

In his madrigals, written for multiple voices, a key constituent of Monteverdi’s imitative method is description by analogy or onomatopoeic word-painting. Taruskin exemplified this by analysing the composer’s setting of Guarini’s A un giro sol (‘At a single glance’, 1603) where still-familiar musical devices are used to portray the ‘air’ that ‘laughs’, the varying motions of wavy sea and gentle winds, and the rising sun. Illustrating a host of non-auditory sensations, these ‘madrigalists’, which please by punning, form a stark contrast with the harsh dissonance introduced in the second verse of the piece to bring to life (in five voices) the bitter torment felt by the solitary, neglected lover.

The decisive move was initiated by Vincenzo Galilei (c.1530–91), the father of Galileo, a singer and lutenist closely involved with the group of humanist intellectuals known as the Camerata who gathered at the home of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi in Florence. Drawing on an immensely learned, four-volume treatise, ‘On the musical modes of the ancients’ by Girolamo Mei (1519–94), Galilei poured scorn on the tricks of the madrigalists, who, he says, subordinate ‘the sense of hearing to accidents of form and colour which are properly the domain of vision and touch’. By contrast, says Galilei, the correct object of imitation is not words per se but human speech in all its vital complexity, including the fluid changes in intonation, pitch and tone that are an essential component of the living utterance. And if musicians need help in making sense of the subtleties of language in action, then they need only pay greater attention when they go to the theatre where they can learn from actors ‘the way that best suits the expression of whatever meanings or emotion may come to hand’.

In terms of musical practice, Galilei continues, this stile rappresentativo or ‘representational style’, based on the imitation of actual human speech, must do away with the madrigalistic artifice of having the words of one speaker conveyed by many voices (as happens in Monteverdi’s Cruda Amarilli and A un giro sol). Rather, the utterance of a single speaker should be delivered by a lone singer accompanied by the lute. The word applied to this radical method of reinvigorating modern music was monodia or ‘monody’, and it soon bore fruit in the work of another member of the Camerata, Giulio Caccini (1551–1618). Taruskin illustrated Caccini’s monodic style with a piece taken from the composer’s Nuove musiche (1601), a collection whose title (the ‘most oversold’ in the history of music), so often taken to signal the advent of a new musical era, simply means ‘new songs’. The particular example chosen was Amarilli mia bella (‘Amaryllis, my fair one’, again with words by Guarini), breathtakingly sung by Cecilia Bartoli, whose enthralling performance (available on YouTube) leaves her listeners in no doubt whatsoever about the electrifying possibilities of the stile rappresentativo.

This is a greatly simplified and abbreviated (but hopefully not inaccurate) account of a modest portion of an unfailingly fascinating talk that lasted four hours. In his characteristically generous and searching way, Taruskin went on to explain how the humanist ambition to recover the glories of antique music led from monody to the emergence of music theatre – first favole in musica (fables set to music), then high opera in the form of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Proceedings were brought to a close with some amusement and much gratitude to Taruskin for an extremely memorable and entertaining evening when the theatre’s caretaker intervened to say it was time for him to lock up and go home. Taruskin broke off just as he was giving a tantalising glimpse of the possible influence of the developments he had elucidated on the evolution of instrumental music that left the audience with an Arabian Nights sense of eagerly wanting to know what happens next.

In the introduction to his Oxford History of Western Music (2005, reissued in five volumes, 2010) Taruskin remarks that most books calling themselves ‘histories’ of Western music actually make little or no attempt ‘truly to explain why and how things happened as they did’. They are not therefore ‘histories’ at all but mere ‘surveys’ of the ‘relevant repertoire’. By contrast, Taruskin sets out to present a ‘true history’ of his subject. He later goes on to say that history proper explains by ‘imaginatively’ engaging with the past, thereby giving access to ‘meanings we might otherwise never experience’ and resulting in a ‘distanced perspective on our own contemporary world, a form of critical awareness we would otherwise never gain’.

The philosophy of history thus implied shares characteristics with that outlined by R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943), particularly in The Idea of History (1946, rev. edn. 1994) and An Autobiography (1939, reissued 1982), where historical ‘events’ are reinterpreted as ‘actions’, each of which expresses a ‘thought’ (an ‘intention’ or ‘purpose’) enacted by a historical agent. According to Collingwood, ‘all history is the history of thought’; the job of the historian is methodically to interrogate each piece of evidence by posing detailed and specific questions that will help identify the particular thought to which it gives expression. Historical study, therefore, means ‘getting inside other people’s heads, looking at their situation through their eyes’; it means imaginatively re-enacting the thoughts that are the substance of historical knowledge – a constructive knowledge of the past, which is, at the same time, self-knowledge (Autobiography, passim).

This humane and creative historiography goes back to Vico (1668–1744), who, in his New Science (3rd edn., 1744, Book I), grandly states that he works by ‘the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question’, namely that even the remotest forms of human existence can be rediscovered ‘within the modifications of our own human mind’. In more measured tones Vico’s principle is restated by Erich Auerbach (1892–1957), who explains that the historical technique of Mimesis (1946) – a book with which Taruskin’s History of Western Music unquestionably bears comparison – requires a degree of empathy and judgement that makes it more akin to an ‘art’ than to a ‘modern science’. In consequence, Auerbach characterises the historian’s activity as ‘an art that works with scholarly materials’ (Literary Language and its Public, 1965). As demonstrated in his lecture on words and music given in Sweden and on a far vaster scale in the History of Western Music, Taruskin’s approach is everywhere shaped by the dynamics of ideas. Understood as a series of problems to be solved, questions to be answered, the resulting narrative acquires a vivid sense of urgency that makes it both gripping and compelling but also inspiringly open-ended. This is history built on the disciplines of creative thinking. As Taruskin suggests, it is the way the story ought to be told.

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