Humpty hits the bass line

From time to time I am (quite reasonably) taken to task for including in my programme notes technical terms which not everyone will understand. In the notes for our next concert the phrase basso continuo crops up more than once. This is what it means.

Simplifying things a bit, between roughly 1580 and roughly 1620 the way in which composers approached their art underwent quite a radical change. This was stimulated by the evolution of new styles and genres of music, especially opera. Broadly speaking, the music of the Renaissance (c1450-c1610) was conceived horizontally: it consisted of independent and equally-important musical lines that nevertheless fitted together in a satisfying way. However, the need for a sense of realism in dramatic music created a need for a way to be found of writing a subservient accompaniment to a solo singer. The method arrived at was to write a simple bass part and indicate the chords that were to be played above it by a form of musical shorthand: initially sharps and flats indicated major and minor chords respectively. (We included an example of this in a recent concert programme.) The system developed using numbers (so-called figured bass) to indicate the shape and type of chords required when these were anything beyond basic.

Hand in hand with this went an increasing awareness of the potential for harmony to be an expressive element in music, and also the foundation of the whole musical edifice. Instead of thinking horizontally, composers now thought vertically up from the bass and its implied harmony. As the bass was ever-present the phrase basso continuo was coined.

Inevitably, the meaning of this term immediately loosened and embraced or could refer to the bass line, those who played it and the various symbols they had to interpret. With almost equal inevitability, the theorists soon got to work to suggest what were and weren’t suitable ways of doing this. The modern phrase ‘a good continuo player’ usually refers to a player of a keyboard or chordal plucked instrument who has mastered these intricacies.

So, in classic Humpty-Dumpty fashion, the phrase basso continuo may refer to any or all of:

  • the bass line in music from roughly 1600 to roughly 1800
  • the people and instruments who played from that part
  • exactly what and how they played

Our forthcoming concert will use a three -person basso continuo section: cello and double bass will play the bass line and organ will be responsible for providing the chords that support the vocal lines.

Remember that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the day!

The further motet-thoughts of Humpty

These days, the motet is unequivocally considered a genre of sacred music, synonymous with anthem but often used in a slightly different context. Anthems/motets are pieces of choral music used in church services, with texts that complement the themes of the occasion, but which are not essential parts of that occasion. Choral Evensong in a cathedral, for example, almost invariably does include an anthem but even if it doesn’t it’s still Evensong. On the other hand, without the ‘psalms for the day’ it isn’t, though it might still be an impressive devotional event. Such pieces, when they occur in a Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion context are often referred to as ‘motets’ – optional adornments to the service. So the same piece of music might be an anthem at one day’s Evensong and a motet at the next day’s mass. Let’s avoid asking why!

But this broad definition of the genre is much as it was understood by Bach and Schütz – optional embellishments to a church service. Four of Bach’s six surviving motets were written for funerals when they would undoubtedly have provided some spiritual uplift but they were not essential to the liturgy. Surprisingly little research has been done into the performance context of Schütz’s music – perhaps because multiple wars have destroyed many of the relevant archives – but what we do know suggests that his music was mainly used as an optional elaboration of an event. Nice to have such an option available.

So join us on March 17th for some elaborate spiritual uplift, and remember that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the day!

Humpty-Dumpty and the motet

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty might well have speaking on behalf of composers over the centuries who have labelled an astonishing variety of pieces ‘motet’. Actually, scarcely any of the standard musical ‘genre’ labels have always meant the same thing: symphony and concerto were very different things for Schütz compared to Mozart, for example. And sometimes one term has meant different things at the same time. An early 18th century trio sonata might require anything from one to four players.

There isn’t even clear agreement about the origin of the term motet. Is it from the Latin movere (move) reflecting the musical independence of the parts, at least in the earlier repertoire, or from the French mot (word), perhaps because early examples often had more than one text being sung at the same time? Either way, the earliest motets (13th century) were some of the very first types of music to be in parts, with one voice singing a quickly moving counter-melody against slower plainchant. The principle quickly infiltrated secular music and in the 14th and early 15th centuries motets were written in which a slow moving melody (which might be sacred in origin) was encircled by up to three other parts which may have separate texts in different languages as well as being governed (especially in their rhythms) by schemes of dizzying mathematical complexity.

It was in the 16th century that the meaning of motet settled down to mean a composition in parts setting a Latin text that was not part of a specific liturgy (though this is rather a grey area). The three marvellous examples by Lassus included in our March programme reflect this ambiguity rather neatly. Laetentur coeli sets a text from the Christmas liturgy – though only in part; Ave verum corpus – a setting in six parts that is every bit as fine as Byrd’s famous setting – is from the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi; and Musica, Dei donum has no known liturgical function.

I’ll have a bit more to say about Schütz and Bach another time. Don’t forget that tickets to Ripieno concerts are cheaper when bought in advance. This is a really good programme (even if I do say so myself) in which our singing will be enhanced by support of The Brook Street Band. Lucky us. Lucky you.

But it’s really all about great singing

It is very easy to become so side-tracked by the historical and musicological issues that surround Monteverdi’s 1610 music that one overlooks the fact that it is, above all, a set of great vocal pieces. Monteverdi explicitly makes provision for performance by singers with just an organ for support. The opening response can be chanted, the instrumental interludes in the first psalm and the hymn can be omitted, the sonata can be omitted, and there is a second Magnificat setting that requires only an organ for accompaniment – no brass, no strings. You don’t even need a choir – one good singer per part may well have been the composer’s expectation. Frankly, if you know the deluxe version that we will be performing it’s a bit of a let-down, if nonetheless lovely in its own way.

However, there were choirs (in our modern sense) in Monteverdi’s time and it is not inappropriate in either musical or historical terms to use one. And what a feast they get. Always divided into at least six parts and in one psalm as many as ten; soaring melodies; jazzy syncopations; intricate counterpoint; gravely beautiful plainchant; and one of the greatest ever ‘Amen’ settings.

The soloists, too, have a rich banquet. Swift virtuosic passages, lyrical lines, luscious duet writing, echoes, the greatest ever tenor trio . . . it’s all there.

My favourite bits? All of it really, but if you push me then Lauda Jerusalem and the six part conclusion to Audi coelum. But I’d love to be a tenor who could sing Duo seraphim. 

Join us for a great night out on November 18th.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.


Theories, speculation and wishful thinking

In the first decade of the 17th century Monteverdi was employed by the Gonzaga family in Mantua. It was, to say the least, an eventful period for him. He composed the first (L’Orfeo) and the second (Arianna) great operas and the 1610 Mass and Vespers music; he became embroiled in a dispute about the development of music as an expressive language; his wife died; the court’s star singer died; and he was increasingly disenchanted by the way his employers treated him. All of that we know.

The 1610 publication shows his mastery of all aspects of sacred music composition as it then was: a mass in traditional style and more modern music for Vespers in which voices and instruments intertwine. But what did he hope to gain from the publication? The general assumption is – a prestigious new job. The mass might well have attracted interest from Rome, the elaborate psalms may have intrigued ambitious Venice and such a comprehensive demonstration of his art could have nudged authorities closer to home at the Basilica of St Barbara in Mantua. But we do not know whether or not those organisations were really interested in what he had to offer at that time.

It was 1613 before Monteverdi secured his release from Mantua and a new post as maestro at San Marco in Venice. Many commentators have assumed that a performance of at least part of the Vespers music formed his audition but the records say that he performed ‘a mass with instruments’ – not Vespers music. (So what happened to that mass? No such work by Monteverdi survives.) One slight glimmer of 1610 recognition might be the comment that he was appointed not only on the basis of his audition but also in recognition of his previous achievements. But we still have no record of a 1610 Vespers performance in his lifetime.

I’ve always been struck by the possibility of links between L’Orfeo and the Vespers music. One is certainly real. The instrumental fanfare that opens the opera is spectacularly expanded into the Vespers’ opening response. Another is purely speculative. I’ve always felt that the tenor solo Audi coelum was written for whoever first sang the role of Orfeo. The opera was first performed during the February 1607 Mantuan carnival season. Was there a corresponding ecclesiastical event featuring at least some of the 1610 music? Suitable musicians – singers and instrumentalists – were clearly available. Alas, no such event is recorded, but it’s what I’d like to believe.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.