Vania Dal Maso: Teoria e Pratica della Musica Italiana del Rinascimento

[Teorie musicali, 3] (LIM, 2017)
xxxiii+392pp
ISBN 9788870968880 €28

Vania Dal Maso is a harpsichordist, musicologist and professor of musical theory. Her repertory includes rarely performed 14th- and 15th-century music, which she plays on very early instruments (including the clavicymbalum, clavicytherium, clavichord and positive organs). Since the line of transmission from medieval to modern music is not a direct one from teacher to pupil, she has researched, written and lectured on musical treatises and the didactic methods of early theorists. The present book is a distilled synthesis of this knowledge and experience, fitting the needs of her students and others.

It presents the underlying theories and resulting practices of Italian Renaissance music by discussing selected subjects as they were covered by various treatises (from Tinctoris and Gafurius in 1494 and 1496 to Lanfranco and Ganassi; from Aaron, Vicentino and Zarlino in the mid 1550s to Dalla Casa, Bassano and Diruta at the end of the century; from Cerreto and Banchieri in 1601 up to the later tracts of Banchieri, Diruta, Zacconi and others). In general, this strategy produces a modern tract that parallels in its own organization the approaches of the authorities discussed. The reader, like a learner of four centuries ago, proceeds from clefs to mensuration, proportions, modality, counterpoint and performance practice. The commentary, however, points out some of the essential ways in which the sources differ, and how the music of the 1500s differs from our mainstream classical music.

A single guide to such a non-homogeneous subject cannot actually give a modern musician the competence to deal in every specific case with solmisation, modal harmony, musica ficta, mensuration, Renaissance counterpoint, the controversial concrete calculation of intervals themselves, improvisation and ornamentation. It aims to offer readers as much guidance as they seek, depending on what they already know and need to know. The first thing to be learned is how interconnected these matters were. It provides bibliographical options for how to proceed in greater depth, where the choices would obviously relate to the music one wants to study.

It is definitely a book for Italian musicians – the curious, serious, or indeed studious. Some of the tables, diagrams and musical examples are helpful in themselves, but still require reading the text. Dal Maso’s writing is as clear as can be, while necessarily dense: she doesn’t have room to say things more than once! I ignored the author’s suggestion that one might read the chapters in any order and even skip some. Everything is integral to the subject. A Renaissance ‘post-grad’, having learned logic and rhetoric, progressed to the Quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy). Just when the modern reader thinks something is irrelevant he starts to lose the trail.

In fact, 16th-century Italian theory is highly relevant to much of the familiar early music we hear and play, certainly that of the entire 17th century. The note values and proportions of mensural notation constituted a valid system, necessary for the rhythmic complexities of polyphony and the contrasting note-density or meters of various voices, especially before there were scores; the method for naming notes invented by Guido d’Arezzo (991?-1033) persisted in hexachordal solmisation for over half a millennium because the note names (such as Bemi  and Befa, or Alamire) told singers where the semitones were (which unfortunately the staff alone does not do) and in which octave; the frequency ratios of notes to each other (intervals), the modes and modal harmony, counterpoint and musica ficta  all influence each other, and the rules governing them were in flux and often contested. Dal Maso goes far enough into each area to point out the implications. Players are constantly tempted to alter (or not to alter!) notes, when they should do so only after considering the characteristics of the mode of a particular voice, modulation to another, and the applicability of some norms of counterpoint only to those notes which are ‘on the beat’. Dal Maso’s presentation of counterpoint is excellent: she must have put a great deal of thought into how to illustrate it most meaningfully.

The easiest parts of this book may seem to be those on the improvisation of ornamentation, on turning the bare essential notes into complex virtuosic music. This comes towards the end. Again, if we think whatever we want goes, we actually need to immerse ourselves again and again in the descriptions and definitions collected here, the proportions, affects, and norms. (It would require a second book to include the rhetorical figures which every composer would have studied – probably in childhood; and yet another to cover the question of tunings.)

Odd as this may sound, we must try to view the norms of medieval and Renaissance music as more highly developed than ours. They produced effects that have disappeared entirely from music. Not everything progresses from the simple to the more complex over time. (I remind readers about De musica mensurabili. Manuale di notazione rinascimentale  by Francesco R. Rossi, reviewed in EMR  no. 159 (April 2014). This is a manual for the modern musician that teaches mensural notation through examples and exercises in transcription, followed by the answers and explanations necessary to test one’s understanding.)

I pass on a minor point from Dal Maso which might also amuse Italian readers. We wrongly assume that in terms such as semibreve, semitone or even semicircle, semi-civilized, and semiconscious, etc., that ‘semi’ means ‘half’. Originally it did not, and in early music it certainly did not. A breve could contain various numbers of semibreves, and semitones could be of many different sizes, all smaller than tones (measured by different ratios of the frequencies of the two notes producing variously defined enharmonic, chromatic, and diatonic ‘semitones’, differing by fractions of smaller intervals according to each theory of tuning). ‘Semi’, from medieval Latin semo, simply means ‘lesser’, not half. Italian words derived from semo  are scemo  [stupid, lacking in brains] and scemare  [diminishing, falling away].

I have only referred to some of the subjects of Dal Maso’s volume because there are too many to name. The table of contents is a detailed outline of the book, 6 pages long. It takes a while to locate a particular topic and it serves as a substitute for a general index to subjects and terminology, which the book does not have. But repeated use of this outline is itself a worthwhile guide to the subject matter as a sum of its parts.

The bibliography of primary sources is not alphabetical, but chronological (from 1494 to 1725); the secondary sources, translations from Latin, articles and site URLs are primarily Italian ones and sources the author herself used. There are two indices of names mentioned in the text – the first is chronological, giving their birth and death dates, from Pythagoras to Fux; the second is alphabetical and gives the pages for all references.

Towards the end of the book, Vania Dal Maso writes a thought-provoking reflection, which I will try to paraphrase. To communicate verbally one tries to understand a concept, and then to figure out how to transmit it efficaciously, this being automatically an internal to external process (from within to without). The listener (or reader, I assume) does the reverse, receiving the message expressed and recognizing or reconstructing its content. In music, however, these processes cannot possibly be automatic. Her purpose is to underline the need for input from a body of contemporary explicative sources. But I think that the processes are reciprocal and shared. The concept that the speaker (or writer or composer) will express has to be recognized by himself, so like the final listener, he has to externalize it for himself, or test it on himself, before writing it down or producing the sounds. And in all music played by more than one performer, each player is a listener as well as a transmitter, capturing and expressing simultaneously. (This is indeed an additional challenge to the blithe ‘falsism’ that music is a universal language!)

Barbara Sachs