Richard Bratby: Refiner’s Fire

The Academy of Ancient Music and the Historical Performance Revolution
Elliott & Thompson
256pp, ISBN: 978 1 78396 760 5

The somewhat curiously titled Refiner’s Fire – the name inspired by a passage of recitative in Handel’s Messiah  – will make some of us feel rather elderly.  It was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding in 1973 of one the first of Britain’s period instrument orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music. The birth of the AAM came in response to the 20th-century revival of interest in period performance practice and the use of instruments of the era (or copies of them).  The name given by its founder, the Cambridge musician and scholar Christopher Hogwood, was in itself a revival, since it had been the name of an 18th-century concert-giving organisation, originally founded as the Academy of Vocal Music, devoted to performing the music of the past. 

For those of us starting to become interested in period performance the early 70s was an extraordinary time. It witnessed the sudden and exponential growth of a movement that was already some twenty years old, largely in the shape of such Continental ensembles as Nicolas Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien and Gustav Leonhardt’s Leonhardt-Consort in Amsterdam.  In addition to the AAM within a short period Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert (1972), Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Singers, Consort and Players (1973), and, slightly later, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists (1977) and Robert King’s King’s Consort (1980) were all established. In the field of opera during the same period, Kent Opera under the musical direction of Roger Norrington introduced revelatory productions of Monteverdi’s three extant operas using period instruments, events that would radically change my own approach to Baroque opera.

The one thing above all that allowed the meteoric rise of all these ensembles was the record industry. By coincidence, their rise in the 70s and consolidation in the 80s coincided with a period that witnessed first a significant expansion of stereo recording followed by the arrival of the CD. In the case of the AAM, they were fortunate to fall in from the outset with Decca and Peter Wadland, a visionary producer who would (in conjunction with Hogwood) build an extensive catalogue on L’Oiseau-Lyre Florilegium, in effect a label created for early music. The first recording made was of Arne’s Eight Overtures. The sessions took place in September 1973 and represented the official birth of the AAM. Today it is fashionable to sneer at the Arne and other early period instrument recordings, pointing to their lapses of string intonation, honky oboes and doubtful natural horns, but for those of us that heard them with fresh ears at the time they had (and retain today) the visceral excitement of a thrilling voyage of discovery of a kind lacking in many of today’s routine early music performances.  

The subsequent story of the AAM is one that can fundamentally be divided into two halves: the era of Christopher Hogwood’s sole directorship of it and the post-Hogwood years (from around the turn of the century) that have witnessed no fewer than four directors, with at one time both the oboist Paul Goodwin and the mercurial violinist Andrew Manze jointly at the helm. It is this story that is recounted by Richard Bratby in Refiner’s Fire. He tells it in largely straightforward terms, mercifully avoiding the baroque (in the original sense of the word) contortions frequently encountered in his Spectator reviews. One of the strengths of the narrative is the inclusion of a substantial number of interviews with those that accompanied the AAM on its journey down the years. A listing includes nearly 50 such contributors and their reminiscences and anecdotes enliven the book considerably. This is especially true when filling in the details of some of the little scandals that have occurred down the years, perhaps most notably the smoking row between cellist Anthony Pleeth and American harpsichordist William Christie that led to a Musicians Union dispute with the AAM’s non-union members, including Hogwood himself.

In general, however, Bratby avoids dwelling on such incidents, which is fair enough in a celebratory volume where the aim must be to remain neutral, even to the point of occasionally approaching hagiography. He is not noted as an early music person, which shows at times in such slips as the reference to the 18th-century organisation as the Concerts, rather than Concert, of Ancient Music (p.3) and a reference to the modern instrument Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé in error for the period instrument French cellist Christophe Coin. One senses also a greater sympathy for the flamboyant if not always scholarly Manze than for the AAM’s founder. The importance of Hogwood’s scholarship in the context of the AAM evokes only a muted response from Bratby. Although he covers the 1999 recording of Handel’s Rinaldo as Hogwood’s swan song as a recording artist for Decca, he quotes only a few tepid generalised comments from the review in Gramophone. He fails to record the fact that this was one of the first performances and recordings of a Handel opera that took a scholarly approach not only to the instruments employed but also to the strength of the composer’s orchestra, using no fewer than twenty strings. Though slightly differently deployed, this is the same number as that employed by the Queen’s Theatre in 1710, the year previous to Rinaldo’s premiere there. This kind of attention to scholarly detail was arguably Hogwood’s greatest strength and one rarely emulated today when, for example, most Handel opera recordings muster about half that number of string players.  

More recent developments are probably too close to the present to analyse in a historical context. I do however find it hard to agree that the unlikely completion of the Mozart piano concerto series with Robert Levin on the AAM’s own label has maintained the quality of the issues made before Decca abandoned it over twenty years ago. And it is curious to find Laurence Cummings talking of taking on the Beethoven symphonies with the AAM as ‘new repertoire’ for them when Hogwood recorded a complete cycle in the 1980s. The rapid turnover of music directors and chief executives in recent years has not assisted stability and what happens in a future in which early music in this country is presently in a poorer state (in all senses) than I can recall remains very much an open question.  In conclusion, it should be noted that there are eight pages of evocative photographs and a good index, although the Parrott on p.58 is the artist manager Jasper, not the musicologist and conductor Andrew.

Brian Robins


Dorothea Link: The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna

University of Illinois Press, 472 pp.
ISBN 9780252044649 (cloth) – £112:00; ISBN 9780252053658 (ebook) – £32.38 on Kindle.

The story of the Italian opera company formed in Vienna by the Emperor Joseph II might have remained an interesting byway in the history of opera but for one rather significant fact. It happened to be the birthplace of two of the three operas Mozart composed in collaboration with the court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, all three operas of course standing among the supreme achievements of the genre. Both Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte were commissions for Vienna, though the libretto of the latter only came to Mozart after Antonio Salieri, the court Kapellmeister, had declared it unworthy of being set. Don Giovanni was not a Viennese opera, having been composed for Prague in 1787, but it transferred to Vienna with a few changes the following year.

Josephine opera starts in 1783, two years after Mozart took up permanent residence in Vienna, and concludes when it was transformed in 1791, shortly after the emperor’s death the previous year. One of the remarkable aspects is that the company was run as a commercial enterprise by Joseph, who oversaw every aspect of its functioning – including the hiring (and firing) of the contracted singers, the majority of whom were Italian – over most of the course of the company’s existence. Only at the end of the period, when he was away fighting another of the endless wars with the Turks, did Joseph loosen his grip. Many of those contracted were among the leading singers of the day, a highly important asset since the success or otherwise of an opera most likely depended not so much on the composer or work but the singers, above all the prima donna (or leading lady).

It is this milieu that is thoroughly investigated in The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna by Dorothea Link, Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia. As the name suggests her principal topic is the careers of the Italian singers that were engaged in Vienna; one of the most valuable sections of the book is an appendix in which the roles taken by the most significant of these singers not just in Vienna but in other major centres are charted. This in itself leads to some fascinating information that will not only be of great value to scholars but of interest to a more general readership. Who, for example, will not find questions coming to mind about the type of singer that created the well-known roles in Mozart’s Da Ponte operas when we discover the first Contessa in Figaro, Luisa Laschi was also the first Viennese Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Few today would think of casting a Zerlina as the Countess, at least not until she’d matured a bit. And who will argue with Link, having seen her argument that the role of Despina in Così is intended for a mezzo, not the soprano we generally hear? Link’s plan has been to treat each season as a separate chapter in which the comings and goings of contracted singers are recorded along with local reaction to them, leaning heavily on the formidable Count Karl Zinzendorf, a government officer and diarist, who attended virtually every opera, sometimes on multiple occasions. Zinzendorf was something of a ‘groupie’ follower of Nancy Storace, creator of the role of Susanna in Figaro, and the prima donna that dominates the earlier chapters (she was at the Burgtheater, the Viennese home of Italian opera, from 1783 to 1787. Incidentally, it is also fascinating to learn that had Figaro been premiered a few months earlier Storace would have sung the Countess, since the role of Susanna would have been sung by Storace’s co-prima-donna Celeste Coltellini had the latter not left for Naples earlier in the year. More food for thought, given that the high-spirited Storace is often thought of as the archetypal  Susanna.

The question of identifying the voice types that created the familiar roles in Mozart’s operas of this period is arguably the most valuable single topic in the book, since of course it plays a part in how we view these characters when we go to these operas today, not to mention how we identify with the manner in which in the role is played or produced. A good example is Francesco Benucci (c.1745-1824), the creator of Figaro and Guglielmo (Così),  and of Leporello in the Viennese Don Giovanni. Described as a buffo caricato, a complex vocal identification applied to baritones or basses, we know from the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Basilio) that Mozart greatly admired Benucci’s singing, but it is extracts from several reviews quoted by Link that should set the Mozart enthusiast pondering: ‘Benucci combines unaffected, excellent acting with an exceptional round, full and beautiful voice… He has a rare habit that few Italians share: he never exaggerates.  Even when he brings his acting to the highest extremes, he maintains propriety and secure limits, which hold him back from absurd, vulgar comedy’. Another report speaks of his ‘inimitable polish and comic naturalness’ and his ability to convey, ‘the ridiculous with decorum in every, in every word, in every gesture, in every look, in every movement …’  These are words that should set modern directors, singers and audiences thinking about the way in which we play these – and other comic bass characters – today.

There is so much valuable detail of this kind in these pages that in that sense the book is self-recommending to anyone that would better understand the opera of the period, and not just in Vienna. Regrettably, for the general reader, the book is written in an academic style that makes it difficult to read and will likely restrict it to being a reference tool. Link’s prose lacks style, but above all she has a tendency to incorporate long lists of facts that would have been far better put into tabulated form, leaving her prose to flow more naturally. There are also a number of typographical errors and several instances of carelessness, such as that on p 312, where we are told a proposal to invite Francesco Bussoni, the creator of the role of Don Alfonso (Così) to sing ‘Haydn’s oratorio was rejected …’ Which Haydn oratorio is not identified (it was Il ritorno di Tobia).

Such caveats do not detract from the academic achievement of The Italian Opera Singers, which is considerable and laudable. The book is an important addition to our knowledge and understanding of opera in Mozart’s Vienna, not just the operas of Mozart himself, but of many other composers such as Salieri, with the focus very much on those that performed them.

Brian Robins

Book Recording

Early Music Bird

Maria Weiss mezzo-soprano, 1607 Ensemble for Early & New Music
1607 Records (available HERE)

First a disclaimer. When I reviewed the first CD of the Austrian mezzo Maria Weiss – a review that can be read on this site – my contact with her had been purely professional. Since that time we have come better acquainted and today I’m happy to acknowledge Maria as a much-valued friend. Generally, this would result in my refusing to review this CD, which indeed I initially did. However my mind was changed to make an exception in this case, not least for the interest of the contents, which include several first recordings, but more importantly because like the first CD this one has been entirely researched, planned and performed by Maria Weiss on her own label. It is therefore a CD that will get scant notice from the UK press. And while not without flaws it unquestionably deserves, even demands notice.

The most notable aspect is unquestionably the quality of Maria Weiss’s voice. To describe it I cannot do better than repeat my words from the earlier review: ‘Her voice is distinctive, a beautifully burnished and rounded mezzo that at the same time remains fundamentally pure in tone, vibrato being used only sparingly for expressive purpose.’ To which I would add that it is a voice that excels in cantabile writing, Weiss’s ability to sustain long lines with absolute security being one of the special features of her singing, as is her ability to shape such music with the utmost musicality. This is not to say that at the other end of the scale her singing of coloratura lacks agility or flexibility, as the lithe performance of an aria from Vivaldi’s lost opera, La Silvia demonstrates. Incidentally, both the track listing and rather flowery note on this item neglect to mention that the opera is lost, only eight arias surviving.

So it would be (and from experience I can promise is!) possible to simply wallow in the sheer beauty of Weiss’s voice and her wonderful sense of line. But of course singing, especially the singing of Baroque music is about rather more than that. In the review of the earlier CD, I noted that Weiss’s clarity of diction is not all it might be and the same observation is pertinent here. That may at least partially be down to the recording locations in Carinthia, invariably castles or churches with considerable resonance. While Weiss’s ornamentation is tastefully judged and invariably well turned it too often lacks precision and although there are a few trills, there are rather too few, those there are being tentatively sung.

As with the earlier CD, the programme is a highly rewarding one with some real discoveries. As its title suggests the theme is birds and there are a number of typical texts to which birds are introduced allegorically, doves and nightingales much to the fore. But it’s not all birds. Particularly enjoyable (and well suited to Weiss for the reasons cited above) are two beautiful lyrical Francesco Gasparini arias, both first recordings, one from his L’oracolo del Fato (?Vienna, 1709), the other from the fragment Astianatte, Rome, 1719. Another treasure, not this time a first recording, is a lovely lied from J P Krieger’s Die ausgesöhnte Eifersucht (Weissenfels, 1690), a strophic song on a ground bass and here sung by Weiss with languid longing. If there is a caveat about some of the cantabile numbers it is that they are taken fractionally too slowly, or in the most extreme instance, an ariette with horns from Rameau’s Acante et Céphise (Paris, 1751), surely taken at far too leisurely a pace. But both that and the exquisite Michel Lambert air over a ground bass show Weiss has an excellent command of the French style. The Rameau, incidentally, is not as claimed a premiere recording since there is a complete Erato recording of this only recently re-revived opera.

As on the earlier CD, the programme is concluded by two pieces involving electronic music by the Viennese composer Wolfgang Mitterer, one of which is a playful extemporization on the Krieger. But to finish I want to return to what is undoubtedly the best-known music on the disc, Ruggiero’s recitative and aria ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ from Handel’s Alcina, and specifically the final line of the main section, the words ‘che m’inganni amando ancor’ (that I’m deceived still loving). This provides a supreme example of why Maria Weiss is for me a special artist. The whole, including the passaggi, is shaped and expressed with the greatest musicality and sensitivity to arrive at a ravishing mezza voce on the final word. Such a moment alone offers ample excuse for wanting to recommend the CD to anyone enchanted by the sounds the human voice is capable of making.

Brian Robins

Article Book

RECERCARE XXXIII/1-2 2021 Journal for the study and practice of early music

directed by Arnaldo Morelli
LIM Editrice [2021]
201 pp, €30
ISSN 1120-5741

The 2021 RECERCARE contains four studies (two in Italian, one in French, and one in English), followed by, before the Summaries in Italian and English, a 21-page double Communication in Italian with 11 glossy colour plates concerning the 1590 portrait on the cover of this issue. In  ‘La “gentildama” e liutista bolognese Lucia Garzoni in un ritratto di Lavinia Fontana’ Marco Tanzi correctly identifies the noblewoman of the portrait and gives convincing reasons for attributing it to Fontana. Dinko Fabris discusses the ‘Elementi musicali …’ it contains.

Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni (b. 1561-?) was an aristocratic Bolognese lute player praised in a sonnet and two madrigals for her beauty, talent and character. Four other portraits of aristocratic women known to be by Fontana (including another one of Lucia) and two paintings with groups of women are also shown and discussed, including a concert on Parnasso with Apollo playing the lira da braccio while Pegasus romps in the background, Lucia playing the recorder, and the other eight ‘muses’ on various instruments (including a lute like Lucia’s). Their instruments and the fashionable hairdo they share are slightly hard to make out on a small page, but a magnifying glass helps. Details in the five single portraits, on the other hand, are impressive. Fabris describes Lucia’s not quite contemporary 6-choir lute and the music underneath it: a thick, open manuscript book shows a third of a page with about 5 bars of a solo voice part in contemporary notation (four crotchets or two minims per bar) on pentagrams, aligned over the lute accompaniment in tablature on 6 lines. This combination, and the horizontal format, are said by Fabris to be rare, but it isn’t clear how else lute players could have accompanied, especially if they were also singing. There is no conjecture about an actual piece. Only four syllables are clear, which is unfortunate, and perhaps why guessing the two words involves fortuity or lack thereof: [pr-]ovida, [impr-]ovida, [a-]vida or [ar?-]ida +  for[-tuna] or sor[-te]. A singer might recognize the fragment!   

In ‘Polso e musica negli scritti di teoria musicale tra la fine del Quattrocento e la metà del Seicento’ Martino Zaltron presents some cross-disciplinary theories of the past about pulse and music theory, showing how ancient science and mathematics (in this case medicine and music) filtered down into Renaissance theory and on into the mid-17th century. He cites Tintoris, Gaffurio, Lanfranco, Aaron, Zarlino, Zacconi, Pisa, and Mersenne. Whatever familiarity readers may have with tactus and mensural proportions, and a personal sense of the relation between one’s pulse (and breath) to a piece of music, what is unexpected is the inversion of emphasis to the medical side of the relationship. Doctors Joseph Strus (1510-1569), Franz Joël (1508-1579), Samuel Hafenreffer (1587-1660) and polymath Athanasius Kircher ‘notated’ patterns of heartbeats, sometimes associated with age or voice registers (suggesting pitch and dynamics), by note-values, using mixed values to record them for diagnoses. Hafenreffer even used a 4-line staff to place the values (from crotchets to longs) in ascending, descending or undulating rows. They curiously resemble cardiograms, and hospital oscilloscope monitors showing the frequencies and intensities of heart and lung activity.

At a deeper level, this article will stimulate readers to think of music’s capacity to reflect transient physiological humours, feelings and states of mind and how what began as a rather primitive musical physical-medical relationship was refined by musical theorists and professors of medicine. Zaltron has centered his research on musical-historical-medical writings in the Middle Ages and Renaissance at the Conservatory of Vicenza, and the University of Padua, historically, after Bologna, the second in Italy at which medicine was taught, from the 13th century.

Adriano Giardina, in ‘Un catalogue pour improviser: les Ricercari d’intavolatura d’organo de Claudio Merulo’, concludes that the eight simple but long sectional ricercars of 1567 by Merulo (1533-1604), his first publication for organ, printed by Merulo in Italian keyboard tablature, were not primarily composed for performance, but rather for teaching aspiring organists how to extemporise contrapuntal ricercars, i.e. how to do so a mente and di fantasia – a skill required in church functions. Showing examples of the contrapuntal procedures used, accompanied by simple or parallel contrapuntal voices, he reasons that their purpose was didactic. Giardina also claims support for his thesis from Merulo’s younger contemporary Girolamo Diruta (1546-1624/25), who became his student (and A. Gabrieli’s) in 1574 at the age of at least 28, and transmitted their teachings and his own in a comprehensive treatise, Il Transilvano (1593 and Seconda Parte 1609), planned and completed over several decades, thanks to a long collaboration with Merulo, who endorsed the first part in 1592. Absent a preface to the 1567 Ricercari the thesis is possible but not provable, and implicit confirmation from Il Transilvano lacking.

So I have some reservations about what Giardina reads into Diruta. Ricercars and keyboard tablature do occupy significant portions of Il Transilvano, especially in the Seconda Parte, where Diruta covers modes and strict versus free counterpoint, in some ground-breaking detail, and advocates strongly for the use of Italian keyboard tablature (closed score notation) to facilitate the approximately correct and playable reduced arrangements of vocal and instrumental polyphonic music on keyboards. Tablature ensures the beginnings if not always the durations of essential notes, omits or transposes unreachable ones, notates very few rests because each hand usually has something to do, and respects the imitative counterpoint heard even where not clearly apparent on the page. It is far from ideal for illustrating how a ricercar is composed.

In fact, the 12 ricercars included in Book 2 of the Seconda Parte (pairs by Luzzaschi, Picchi, Banchieri, Fattorini and four by Diruta himself) are all in open score. They are there to be played and are thereby didactic for players who are learning to compose. Whereas with mosaic type in tablature Merulo can stack but not stagger three simultaneous notes on a staff, with only two possible stem directions. Space dictates which way very short or missing stems on inner voice notes point – perhaps why Merulo avoids voice crossings in these ricercars. The voices can be discerned in this tablature, after some scrutiny if not quite at first sight:

Being his own publisher, Merulo must have aimed to sell his music for organ both to professionals seeking handy modal material in excerptible sections, and to learners not yet up to composing ricercars, let alone improvising them. By playing them eventually by heart, their hands and ears might also acquire familiarity with the contrapuntal techniques. To that extent every composition played is somewhat propaedeutic to extemporization. Tablature slightly confounds this from occurring as less experienced players would have had to do the analysis that Giardina did in order to catalogue the techniques Merulo used.

While Diruta gives clear rules for strict and common counterpoint, and on how to compose and transpose within the modes, he never tells his Transylvanian pupil to improvise. Learning to play a mente or di fantasia does not exclude doing so next to pen and paper or an erasable slate, and those ambiguous terms are found only a couple of times in Il Transilvano. Their primary meanings are to play a mente, by heart; and to play or compose di fantasia, inventing rather than adopting a known composition as the basis for a new one. Memorization and invention are prerequisite skills for successful improvisation, but first of all for learning to compose, which comes first.

In fact, Giardina also mentions Diruta’s inclusion of 46 of Gabriele Fattorini’s 320 examples of elaborate ‘cadences’ in 4-part open score. He tells the Transylvanian to memorize them and to play them in transposition – and they are not mere chord progressions, but contrapuntal phrases up to 14 semibreves in length, with mixed note-values from semibreves down to quavers. A repertory of these ‘cadences’ in the hands and mind might well pass for improvisations. Tablature was still controversial and rejected by musicians in 1593 and 1609. If Merulo’s purpose was didactic, why didn’t he publish them in open score so that players in 1567 would have understood them? Why didn’t Diruta even allude to improvisation in his treatise, compared to how strenuously he advocated for making keyboard notation easier to play from in tablature?

Yet, at the end of the first part of  Diruta’s Dialogo with the young Transylvanian, there is his personal account of arriving in Venice on Easter of 1574 and hearing a publicduellobetween Merulo and A. Gabrieli on the two organs of St Mark’s: they ‘dueled throughout the 18 years they were St Mark’s 1st and 2nd organists, though we don’t know exactly how. Were they improvising imitative rebuttals to each other’s improvised subjects, or did these eminent composers practice for their duels together? Diruta, already a keyboard player in 1566 when 20 years old and at 28 needing to perfect his technique in order to compete for posts, was swept away by their virtuosity – whether technical, creative, or improvisatory – and immediately arranged to study with both of them.

Extemporisation was indeed required of organists. To learn from Merulo’s ricercars, one would have had to sort out the voices in each, as Giardina has done, to note its devices. Applying the same techniques di fantasia, i.e. to an original subject, might then be within reach, especially when done al tavolino (at a table, i.e. in writing) rather than ex tempore. There is, in fact, a specific contemporary term for improvising counterpoint – contrappunto alla mente – and at least one organist, singer, composer and theorist, who dearly wanted to acquire that skill, gave personal testimony:

In the same year that Parte Seconda del Transilvano (1609) was reprinted (1622), Diruta’s contemporary, Ludovico Zacconi (1555-1627), in his Prattica di musica – Seconda Parte p. 84, writes: ‘… for however much, over time, I’ve frequented and conversed with masterful, mature and good musicians and seen how they teach their students counterpoint, I’ve never seen that [any] had a praise-worthy and easy way to teach their students contrappunto alla mente.  Zacconi came to Venice to study counterpoint under A. Gabrieli, remaining active there from 1577 to 1585. He composed four books of canons and also some ricercars for organ. If as late as 1622 he claims that ‘no one’ can teach contrapuntal improvisation, which he sought to learn to no avail, hadn’t  Gabrieli, Diruta, or Merulo himself recommended that he study the 1567 Ricercari, which he probably already knew? If so, sadly, they didn’t really help.

In ‘Dafne in alloro di Benedetto Ferrari: drammaturgia ‘alla veneziana’ per Ferdinando  III (Vienna, 1652)’ Nicola Usula does three things: he compares the Modena and Viennese manuscript versions of Dafne, Ferrari’s first dramatic work (a vocal introduction in seven scenes to a pastoral ballet); he includes his complete critical edition of its text in the Appendix; and in the framework of Ferrari’s biography he shows how Ferrari used its Viennese production as clever marketing to secure his return to Italy. It might surprise us to think of Ferrari (1603/4 – 1681) not exclusively as a composer and lutenist, and perhaps also as a singer, but equally creatively as a poet.

He frames his study in a biographical account of Ferrari’s career, starting with his libretto for Manelli’s 1637 Andromeda, his collaboration with Monteverdi’s 1640 Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and the music from his 1640 Pastor regio that became the end of Monteverdi’s 1643 Incoronazione di Poppea with Busenello’s text as ‘Pur ti miro’. As early as 1641 he dedicated his 3rd book of Musiche varie a voce sola to the Holy Royal Emperor Ferdinand III, and while active in Modena at the court of Francesco I d’Este (1644-51), and at the peak of his popularity, was hired as a theorboist to work in Vienna from November 1651. His Dafne was performed February 12, 1652 and he probably played in other Venetian-style musical dramas until March 1653.

Besides the Viennese manuscript (in the National Library), a manuscript copy is held in Modena in the Biblioteca Estense together with four other librettos. It is this later poetic version which Usula draws some interesting conclusions about. His critical edition inserts in boxes the previous readings where amended, and the quality of Ferrari’s revisions and how they affect the ballet are much to his artistic credit.

‘A newly discovered recorder sonata attributed to Vivaldi: considerations on authorship’ of Sonata per flauto, I-Vc Correr 127.46 in the Biblioteca del Museo Correr in Venice will interest recorder players, players of other instruments, and listeners, and not only for the discovery of this particular work. A Summary is not given for this meticulous study by Inês de Avena Braga and Claudio Ribeiroperhaps because its first paragraph is in effect an introductory abstract, or because its thorough presentation of comparative musical details and the arguments against alternative uncertain attributions cannot be summarized. The gist is contained in its title, and the attribution is by the two authors. They point out the salient traits of Vivaldi’s compositional style over time, selecting from hundreds of direct self-quotes found between this sonata and specific Vivaldi works (39 sonatas, concertos, sacred works, operas from RV 1 to RV 820 being listed), with 25 musical examples filling 13 pages. They conscientiously consider how often other composers knowingly or probably not, also did so.

 Therefore sifting through many sonatas by other composers showing similar traits might in the end be futile, with no end of passages ‘by’ Vivaldi and ‘also by’ others. They concluded their positive attribution after exercising profound insight into the creative logic typical only of Vivaldi but not of his copiers, in matters of style and structure, and after applying every other musicological and historical tool as well. Everyone will be enriched by their discussion because the musical traits are not only shown but explained in functional terms: how sequences, phrases, a harmonic juxtaposition, particular melodic moves or chords were used. The authors’ ‘contextualization’ strikes right to the matter of the authenticity of a work by Vivaldi.

The study goes on, in a sort of postscript, to name a few specific composers who warranted consideration as composers of I-Vc Correr 127.46 , as their music was so clearly influenced by Vivaldi’s: Diogenio Bigaglia, Gaetano Meneghetti, Ignazio Sieber, Giovanni Porta. This, too, provides the readers with a fresh discussion of their musical styles with respect to Vivaldi’s, despite superficial borrowings. It is rare that musical analysis is so rewarding to read.

Barbara Sachs


Andrew Parrott: The Pursuit of Musick: Musical Life in Original Writings and Art c1200-1770

Published by Taverner
504 pp
ISBN 978-1-915229-53-3 Hardback – £65
ISBN 978-1-915229-54-0 Paperback – £35
ISBN 978-1-915229-86-1 ebook – No detail of availability

I can find no better way of introducing this review than by quoting the opening sentence of the online blurb: ‘The Pursuit of Musick is an encyclopedic and generously illustrated anthology of original written sources, exploring some 600 years of musical activity in Europe, from the first troubadours to the emergence of the pianoforte’. For once lacking hyperbole, this is a succinct and factual description of what is a remarkable and beautifully produced book. Printed on heavy gloss paper -the paperback I have to hand weighs in at 2.3kg – that enables the lavish and profuse artwork to be reproduced to the highest quality, it will be concluded that this is no bedside table book!

Those that have kept in touch with Andrew Parrott’s activities, which sadly have involved little in the concert hall or opera house more recently, will know that he has been thinking about this book for some years.  Parrott’s eventual objective, which he only arrived at after several transitional ideas, was to allow the musicians (and the artists that involved themselves in their works) to speak for themselves with only brief introductions heading sections. The Book is divided into three parts: ‘Music & Society’, Music & Ideas’ and ‘Music & Performance’, which themselves are sub-divided into numerous sub-headings.  Part 1, for example, includes sections devoted to music in everyday life, the church, music at court and so forth. Not the least of the book’s attractions is its meticulous indexing of the source material, in the book itself for paintings, online at for literary material.

There are two groups of people to whom this book is surely going to be an obligatory part of any music library: musicians involved with early music and writers and critics who also have any depth of involvement with the subject. Doubtless there are also many others that will take not only didactic interest but also an aesthetic one; it would be possible to pass many a rewarding and pleasurable hour just browsing the hundreds of illustrations. It will be obvious from the foregoing that this is indeed not a book for reading but one to use for research or simply the sheer enjoyment of dipping into it at random. I would imagine that on first acquaintance most readers will make for topics in which they have a particular interest. That was certainly my course in the limited amount of time I’ve had to so far examine the book. Thus my first ports of call included the sections on performance practice, vocal music and opera. In the case of the first named I was delighted to find solid support for one of the most frequent moans in my reviews – the over-fervent activities of theorbo players, particularly when they interfere with the vocal line. Here’s St Lambert in 1707: ‘the [continuo] accompaniment is made to support the voice, not to stifle or disfigure it with an unpleasant jangle…’  Or Bacilly in 1688: ‘If the theorbo is not played with restraint and there is too much complexity […] then it is theorbo accompanied by voice, not voice by theorbo’. It is fascinating too to find most of the ire directed at Italian players, for in my experience they are the worst culprits. But all theorbists should read, mark and learn.

When we turn to singing there are as many extracts concerning technique as might have been expected. One constant motif is the need for singers to maintain an ease of production, the sentiments behind these words of the German composer Hermann Finck (1527-1588) serving to illustrate universally acknowledged views that held good until the end of the period covered by the book: ‘Singing is not made more beautiful by bellowing and shouting: rather you should embrace all notes with spirit and understanding. The more a voice moves upwards, the quieter and sweeter the sound should be; the lower it goes the fuller it should be […]. Amen indeed to that. In an ideal world they are words that would be emblazoned on the portals of every singing conservatoire.  

The section on Music Drama leads from the earliest sacred representations through court intermedi to opera itself. The extracts devoted to opera are notable for illustrating how much more writing there is on the topic by French writers than Italian, probably an accurate reflection, though it would have been possible to have struck more of a balance. These extracts are dominated by the unending war between proponents of Italian opera and those favouring the French rival, summed up in an anonymous publication in Florence in 1756 (possibly by Gluck’s reformist librettist Calzabigi) forecasting the desirability of the combination of the best elements of both: ‘The opera in Paris offers [the audience] only painted scenery, ballets, machines, a sparkling assembly & a deep hush. In Naples it presents them only with ravishing music, beauties that are unseen & an appalling hubbub. Everyone understands that out of these two kinds one good one could be made, but no one has as yet thought to suggest it’. Prescient words.

It would be easy to continue citing such jewels, but it is time to leave the interested reader to obtain the book. But before doing so it is perhaps worth noting that the illustrations themselves provide a fount of information; staying with opera one might cite the marvellous illustration on p. 223 by P D Oliviero showing the re-opening of the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1740. Here one notes the wonderful set with its colonnaded perspective (not dissimilar to what can be seen in Turin today), stage filled with far more figures (12) than we normally experience in Baroque opera production today and the disposition and number of the orchestral musicians. No fewer than 29 musicians are involved, seated in two rows with harpsichords and continuo at either end of the pit. Two people are serving refreshments, while several in the front row are turning round to look at the audience rather than pay attention to what is happening on stage, a clear reminder that 18th-century audiences rarely paid undivided attention to the performance.

This magnificent publication can be obtained only online from: At the time of writing (mid-December 2022) it was available in both formats at a reduced price.

Brian Robins



Journal for the study and practice of early music
directed by Arnaldo Morelli
LIM Editrice [2020]. 242 pp, €30
ISSN 1120-5741;

The 2020 RECERCARE contains seven studies, four in English and three in Italian, all the fruit of investigative perseverance, on specific works, prints, sources, situations or occasions. The relevance of uncovered historical details intrinsic to the creation of the music itself makes each article such a rewarding read. The full documentation, often provided in appendices, has more than a supportive role: aside from the specific cases discussed, it may greatly serve other researchers. Recercare is therefore an exponential boon to musical research.

Elena Abramov-van Rijk  asksTo whom did Francesco Landini address his madrigal Deh, dimmi tu’ [‘Say, tell me you … Who do you think you are!?’] While she describes the unusual musical and poetic structure of this ballata, which we have from various sources, it is its popularity and confrontational, accusatory tone that begs for a motive. The anonymous text could well be by Landini himself (Florence, 1325-1397), and the invective directed at a contemporary he knew or who was widely known, who accumulated valuable, portable riches in ‘easy’ ways. The author finds two potential candidates, both acclaimed court entertainers, whom she refers to (unfortunately, I think) as ‘buffoons’. In fact, both probably merited their riches, gained not-so-easily at all. The ballata itself does not refer to a performer, but every word seems applicable, and the careers of both are impressive: Dolcibene de’ Tori, crowned regem ystrionum in 1355 by the Roman Emperor Charles IV and invited to perform in many other courts, was an actor and ioculator (juggler), a poet (his poems ranging from the sacred to his problems with arthritis and impotence, sometimes with scurrilous vocabulary), a composer of canzonette, a singer, an organist and lutenist, and the protagonist of nine of Franco Sacchetti’s 300 anecdotal stories. Bindo di Cione, of Siena, the other, also served Charles IV and in other courts. It is the interpretation of Landini’s famous madrigal (of ca. 1355) that suggests so vividly how these talented entertainers thrived. The complete musical transcription follows.

Patrizio Barbieri ’s ‘Music printing and selling in Rome: new findings on Palestrina, Kerle and Guidotti, 1554–1574’ discusses four newly found disparate documents, presented as four pieces of an incomplete ‘mosaic’, and lastly, the inventory of a Roman bookseller and of a musician from Cambrai which included instruments, printed or handwritten vocal works, an iron music stand used while playing the harpsichords, and an erasable slate with staves for drafting music on. The description and purpose of the editions documented, and the contracts to publish and market them, show who covered the initial expenses, and whether any assistance was offered to authors or others. The publications discussed in detail are Palestrina’s Missarum liber primus (1554) and Kerle’s hymni totius anni et Magnificat (1558-60). The musical inventory of a general Roman bookseller, Antonio Maria Guidotti, includes a great number of almost exclusively Venetian prints of vocal music, mostly madrigals, plus treatises: B. Rossetti’s 1529 Libellus De Rudimentis Musices, G. M. Lanfranco’s 1533 Scintille di musica, and G. Zarlino’s 1558-2 Le Istitutioni harmoniche. The original documents in the Appendix may be useful to others for reflections and comparisons.

Franco Pavans ‘La musica per chitarrone di Giacomo Antonio Pfender. Nuove acquisizioni’ identifies Pfender, detto il Tedeschino, as the composer of some pieces for archlute in a manuscript in the Archivio Estense in Modena (and in a facsimile)1 previously attributed to an older composer, Alessandro Piccinini (1566-1638).

Pfender is known for having collected and published two states of Kapsberger’s Libro primo d’intavolatura di chitarrone in 1604 in Venice. They were close friends in their student days in Augsburg, and based on Kapsberger’s dates (1580-1651) they were in their early 20s in 1604. Pfender’s name reappears on designs for the frontispiece of another chitarrone collection, found in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de san Fernando in Madrid, where he is named as one of the composers. What the two collections share is a monogram resembling a stick figure with outstretched arms, turned-out feet, and a dot for the ‘head’. It actually consists of four superimposed letters, only two of which were previously noticed: an A and a swirl from its point to the middle of its right side form a P, thus suggesting Alessandro Piccinini. There are also short lines under the A’s two ‘feet’, a wide line balanced on its point, and a central dot above that line.

Pavan brilliantly deciphered the other two letters this monogram. The left side of A and the dot form a dotted capital I preceding AP, and the wide top line uses the right side of A to make a T. İAPT stands for Giacomo (Iacomo or Ioannes) Antonio Pfender, and T for Tedesco (German).

Many more useful considerations accompany this discovery: relations between Roman musical circles and Modena, the handwriting and probable date of the tablature, and a list of its 28 pieces: of which 7, not known from other sources, are attributed to ‘HK’ (Kapsberger), 9 to ‘AP’(?), 5 to ‘İAPT’ and several unattributed. Pavan modestly considers not quite resolved whether those identified as by ‘AP’ are attributable to Piccinini or to Pfender, but after keeping readers in legitimate doubt he adds that the abbreviations HK and AP appear to be in a different hand and ink! The facsimile of the Modena manuscript names only Kapsberger, Piccinini, and G. Viviani, and its editor, Francesca Torelli, was therefore forced to remark that the styles of HK and the older AP were surprisingly similar, so perhaps they were quoting each other! It is too bad that SPES (Archivum Musicum) no longer exists, because continuing this research and revising that introduction would be quite useful.

The Appendix gives Pfender’s letter of dedication of Kapsberger’s Libro primo d’intavolatura di chitarrone. He respectfully addressed Kapsberger as his fratello osservandissimo, and signed fratello amorevolissimo, ‘very loving brother’. It is a curious dedication, since Kapsberger had apparently not requested or given permission for publication. Pfender clears his conscience by saying that he published them in order to make Kapsberger a gift of what he stole, since up to then the pieces were so universally desired that they had become donnicciuole [derogatory term for little old women], whereas now he can peacefully recognize them and accept them back!

1 G. Kapsberger – A. Piccinini – G. Vivianai, Intavolatura di chitarrone. Mss. Modena, ed. facs., introduzione di Francesca Torelli, Firenze, SPES, 1999.

In March 2019 Maddalena Bonechi’s edition of G. B. da Gagliano’s Varie musiche, libro primo, 1623 was reviewed here. Her edition includes as much biographical information on Marco da Gagliano’s less famous brother Giovanni Battista (1594-1651) as there was to discuss. It also gave analyses of the works and their texts. Her present article, ‘Parole, immagini e musica nelle pratiche devozionali della compagnia di San Benedetto Bianco a Firenze – alcuni possibili contributi di da Gagliano’ focuses on the texts, imagery and music as essential to the devotional practices of the Florentine religious confraternity to which Giovanni Battista (and possibly Marco) belonged, and relates how paintings, poetry and music were fused in their spiritual activities. Whether or not the religious compositions in Gagliano’s publication were designed for the San Benedetto Bianco congregation, at least one was performed there: Ecco ch’io verso il sangue, presumably for a theatrical enactment of the passion and death of Jesus, along with the laments of Mary, traditionally for Good Friday. Depictions of the Passion and themes exalting God in comparison with one’s own nothingness and of penitence, enhanced the ritual flagellation practices of the members, who strived to gain insight from such first-hand experience. The beauty of the music and art may indeed have attenuated the rough physical sensory input incurred to stimulate and attain this understanding.

Lucas G. Harris – Robert L. Kendrick gave a curious title,Of nuns fictitious and real: revisiting Philomela angelica (1688)’ to their fortuitous discovery and comparative analysis. A Benedictine nun, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602 – ca.1677), had her 12 solo motets, Scherzi di sacra melodia, printed in score with a separate vocal part book in 1648 by Alessandro Vincenti. Only the vocal parts of this Venetian print survive. Forty years later Daniel Speer published a collection of Italian sacred works, his Philomela angelica, anagrammatically tagged “Res Plena Dei” [Daniel Speer], and attributed to ‘a Roman nun’. Speer’s print contains 24 motets, of which 6, with their continuo lines, are by Cozzolani, 3 by Cazzati, 1 duet attributed to the Ursuline nun Leonarda, and 14 not yet identifiable. What is fortunate is that in his search for Italian sacred pieces that would appeal to Lutherans in southwest Germany, Speer did have the continuo line.

By comparison of sources or by conjecture, Speer simplified the vocal writing, heavy ornamentation being out of fashion, deleted some Italian tempo or ‘mood’ indications, added string parts or sections, and slightly adapted the continuo figures to more Germanic usage. Harris and Kendrick are attempting to reconstruct Cozzolani’s originals, if they can distinguish her harmony and rhetoric from Speer’s arrangements. They have more to go by in the Cazzati and Leonarda pieces, which survive with their continuo parts.

Valerio Morucci  examines part of the private correspondence of Christine of Sweden relating to her musical patronage and employment of singers, in ‘L’orbita musicale di Cristina di Svezia e la circolazione di cantanti nella seconda metà del Seicento’. Administrative documents, such as registers and accounts, have generally gone missing, but communications with singers and with other patrons, courts, cappellas, theaters, and cities (Rome, Venice, Mantua, Modena), await researchers who follow her lead. The degree of cooperation between other courts and hers, her granting of freedom to modify agreements in order for singers to accept additional work, and to establish goodwill between competing patrons, is surprising and admirable. Even this first exploration (the Appendix presents citations from 16 documents) regarding a small number of female singers and castratos will be of interest. They include: Nicola and Antonia Coresi, Barbara Riccioni, Giuseppe Maria Donati detto il Baviera, Giuseppe Fede, Alessandro Bifolchi, Giovanni Paolo Bonelli; other castratos such as Alessandro Cecconi, Giuseppe Bianchi, Antonio Rivani, and Domenico Cecchi detto il Cortona. Some were retained with salaries while many remained absolutely independent, such as Giovanni Francesco Grossi ‘detto Siface’ and Giuseppe Maria Segni ‘detto il Finalino’.

‘Writing a tenor’s voice: Cesare Grandi and the Siena production of Il Farnaspe (1750)’ by Colleen Reardon is a vividly engaging story. The details, gleaned from 119 letters to the inexperienced sponsoring impresario, Francesco Sansedoni, regard the ultimate success of a single opera, beset by numerous potential crises as originally planned, but methodically high-jacked by the ingenious, competent, hard-working, third tenor – and not only to further the careers of his second soprano wife and himself. Cesare Grandi offered and sufficiently motivated his unsolicited advice, eventually accepted by Sansedoni, reversing or manipulating almost every artistic and practical decision – major and minor changes affecting the music itself, the casting, the staging, the order of arias and their keys, the costumes, to suit the musical taste of the patron, and the local politics, or for practical reasons like not having the orchestral parts in the right keys after an aria was shifted from its original place in the libretto or even to be sung by a different singer. Famous as Siena was and is for its two summer Palios, tied to religious holidays, Grandi even obtained a change of its July date!

The recently discovered cache of letters containing Grandi’s psychologically astute suggestions to the younger Sansedoni would probably be bewildering to decipher and interpret without the help of Reardon’s orderly, detailed account. I don’t really have a pressing reason for rereading all 40 pages of this wonderful study (plus 15 pages with 29 appended letters), but it does bear more than one reading for the pure pleasure of pondering what a staggering pastiche an opera in 1750 was: the compromises, the pressures, deadlines met, singers cast, the copying, transposing, rewriting or replacing of arias by unnamed composers – thanks to the initiatives of the third tenor…

Barbara Sachs


The Baroque Violin and Viola

A fifty-lesson course, volumes I & II
Walter Reiter
Oxford University Press, 2020
ISBN 978-0-19-092270-2 (vol. 1) 978-0-19-752512-8 (vol. 2) £29.99 each (paperback; hardback available)

When Walter Reiter and I discussed his plans to write a book on how to play the baroque violin, I had absolutely no idea of the gargantuan scheme he had hatched! 50 lessons over 600 pages, from making sure that you’re holding the instrument comfortably, and understanding how different bow pressures and speeds impact the sound you make, to a detailed analysis of dozens of pieces and hints on how to play them in a style that the composer would have recognised, from Fontana to Bach with every conceivable bass in between thoroughly dealt with. While the first volume predominantly explores all of the technical sides of the beast, the second gives almost bar-by-bar advice on how to play it, with excellent explanations of why a particular approach should be taken to certain figures. Throughout, there are 118 exercises that force you to think about these things for yourself. As well as the impressive books themselves, there is a dedicated website from which almost all of the music can be downloaded, along with video demonstrations from Walter, all of which enhances an already impressive package.

This project has clearly been a labour of love and I congratulate Walter on a fantastic achievement. If I was starting out again and felt I perhaps should have kept up my violin playing, this would absolutely be my constant companion. I recommend it without the slightest hesitation to anyone embarking on a musical career!

Brian Clark


Georg Philipp Telemann: Vita e Opera del piu prolifico compositore del baroco tedesco

Gabriele Formenti
XII+340pp. €37
ISBN 978-88-6540-267-2

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One is always rather delighted to see the spotlight turned on the composer who is (for good or bad) in the Guinness Book of Records under the heading “Most Prolific Composer”! Thus it follows, only the brave and bold dip into this monumental oeuvre and come out with a half-decent grasp of the scope and spectrum of these numerous works all neatly classified with their TVWV and TWV numbers; some are simply bedazzled by the scale of things and throw in the towel! So we salute Gabriele Formenti for even attempting this formidable and daunting task!

Perhaps moving in the inspired, insightful and studious footsteps of Steven Zohn’s most excellent 2008 “Music for a Mixed Taste”, Gabriele Formenti, (also a baroque flautist) has assembled a veritable feast of useful quotes and notable musical examples.

The Telemann autobiographic chapters are well selected and cover the salient events, with the images being well chosen to aid the reader; rather like the 1980s hardback pocket pictorial biography by Walter Siegmund-Schultze. Visually, this study is well supplied, and it must be said the extremely diligent work cross-referencing, branching out into some fascinating musical associations and cleverly made observations do yield some musicological fruits to gaze at! Especially the Bach-Telemann links, some I was not aware of. Bravo!

The exploration of Telemann’s instrumental works is overall very neatly done with some very good observations, through the various phases and blendings of the “mixed taste” and the section on Corelli’s Op. 5 is particularly fine! The highly original graph regarding the distribution of instruments found in the Getreue Music-Meister (p 169) is a very clever presentation of the information! Nice, too, to see a “real“ image of a Calchedon from a Polish museum. It is mentioned in some Telemann cantatas, and elsewhere along with mandora, pandora-type  instruments. Formenti ought to have noticed, though, that the wind quintets are now classified in TWV44, thus what used to be “La Chasse” TWV55: F9 is now TWV44:10.

Next Formenti tackles the multifarious choral works, both scared and secular, each with their own specific genres. Thanks to a variety of recording projects, the cantata cycles are slowly revealing their treasures (for example, a complete “French cycle” is underway on the cpo label). 

Considerable use might have been made of Siegbert Rampe’s 2007 book Georg Philipp Telemann und seine Zeit and even the splendid earlier book by Eckart Klessmann, which has some amazing chapters especially towards the end.

The operas are dealt with quite well, although the author seems unaware that the secular arias “of unknown origin” are, in fact, from Telemann’s Germanicus

Moving onto the Passions, which for Hamburg total 46 individual settings, with 22 extant, plus the Danziger Choral-Passion of 1754 (TVWV5:53) which used the Mathew 1750 for the overall structure of its actual sung insertions. In this section of the study, Formenti relies on Jason B. Grant’s 2005 examination of the narrative style and its changes through the following years, dividing the Passions into three groups (1722-36, 1737-54, and 1755-67). The various settings seem to have been correctly assessed and the two known times that parodies, or borrowings from a previous Passion’s layout were used, have been identified. It is hard not to stress enough the truly incredible diversity here, and the sheer drama and emotively charged pathos evoked in increasingly Enlightenment style. Some of the later Passions display astounding depictions with extremely vivid and often visceral music. Sadly, in the catalogue listings at the end of this study some dreadful errors have crept in, e.g. whilst compiling the list of Passions, and given several times: “Ein Loemmlein geht und traegt die Schuld”. Good to see the Mark 1755 counted here, a fairly recent discovery made in Krakow.

To round off the vocal section, the impressive stream of works from the later years, the truly extraordinary cluster of late passion-oratorios! When Telemann seemed to gain a tremendous second wind of creative energy, and produced some real masterpieces. It is very good to focus on the 1759 setting of Klopsctock’s Der Messias, whose poetry has such an angular, awkward rhythm and flow, that it is quite amazing that Telemann managed to extract such a clever and smooth melodiousness, delivering impactful declamatory moments. Sadly, another work from this same poet in triumphant Easter vein has been lost!

In my opinion, it was an oversight not to include anything from the deeply impressive and moving Der Tod Jeu of 1755, which – although overshadowed later by Graun’s setting – clearly shows the enlightened evolution of this genre.

Alas, I do feel duty-bound to point out some printing errors (particularly in the titles of German works – was a native speaker ever asked to proofread the volume?) but also in Italian, e. g., “Il Gardellino”. As far as that extensive catalogue goes, there are numerous oversights: cantatas published by for which I supplied translations go unnoted, as do Dr Ian Payne’s excellent Severinus Press editions of literally dozens of ouverture suites and concertos. Similarly, there is no indication that some of the large-scale church cantatas are based on the second series of the Harmonischer Gottesdienst, a perfect example of Telemann making the best use of his own material (where others clearly felt able to help themselves!)

In summation, this is a most admirable, valiant attempt to encompass the vast volumes of music produced by one of the most fluent and versatile masters of the age, a protean polymath, who embraced every aspect with all his artistic abilities leaving us a prolific legacy to examine, enjoy and contemplate. Formenti is perhaps more at home in the instrumental details, and this section is filled with many interesting observations. 

All in all, despite the odd errata, this is a commendable monograph (in Italian), which may prove to be a stepping-stone for some, stimulating them to pick up an edition or recording and explore Telemann’s vast oeuvre further. 

David Bellinger

This review was rather savagely edited in the interests of space. You can read the original version HERE.


Bettina Hoffmann, I bassi d’arco di Antonio Vivaldi – violoncello, contrabbasso e viola da gamba al suo tempo e nelle sue opere

xvi + 594pp
Studi di Musica Veneta, Quaderni Vivaldiani, 19
Leo S. Olschki Editore: Florence, 2020

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The astonishing presentation of so much research by Bettina Hoffmann, who is well-known as a viol and Baroque cello player, teacher and scholar, makes this tome a gripping read. The subject – the cello, the double bass and the viol around the time of Vivaldi and in his works – has more widespread relevance than one might expect, such as: the evolution of those instruments in Vivaldi’s time, his mode of teaching, different tunings, fingerings and bowings exploited in or required by his compositions, other precious, explicit and surprising instructions in his scores to add to our notions of 18th-century performance practices, and comparisons between sources in manuscripts or prints destined for other countries and cities other than Venice.

Each section, in fact, is a compilation of such studies. Hoffmann, like a detective, gleaned historical evidence creatively by investigation and speculation. It appears that she has dated, placed, and told us about all the cases in which a cello, a bass or a viol have solo functions in Vivaldi’s works. As only an insightful player could do, she points out unusual characteristics of various sources, for their own sake or for the specific occasions, courts or players they were composed; or why some movements appear in more than one composition and with different instrumentation. I imagine that this amount of reasoning, applied to possible circumstances, was actually very selective. I say this because it was not overwhelming: her speculations and conclusions are always intrinsically important.

The complexity of this book reflects its multiple topics. Since Vivaldi’s music is certainly ‘main stream’ its information is useful to players and listeners: bass instrument players can find sections on their specific repertory and their instrument’s historical techniques; the general reader interested in baroque music or in Vivaldi will be captured from the very first pages, after which they may or may not be able to put it down! Not being a string player myself, I found many surprising conclusions drawn from technical details. But because this tome of more than 600 pages will have something different to impart to every reader, I will try to describe its contents. At the web page for I bassi d’arco di Antonio Vivaldi, Olschki would do well to add a link to view its complete Table of Contents – in Italian called the Indice (index).

It is an outline with page numbers which almost functions as an index of subject matter. It presents the work’s four main Parts, with up to four chapters per part, up to eight sections per chapter, and numbered subsections. It is the quickest way to relocate information that is referred to later.

Part One (285 pages) includes the history, organology, techniques (body positions, fingering and tuning) and musical considerations necessary for appreciating the documentation in Part Two (180 pages) on Vivaldi’s contributions to the roles of bass string instruments in his compositions and in Baroque music generally. Part Three (circa 80 pages) discusses Vivaldi’s use of bass string instruments based on his specific indications, with Hoffmann’s deductions about performance practice from that evidence. Parts Three and Four (circa 45 pages) contain tables with information on Vivaldi’s works. The first table gives his specific, basso continuo instrumentation, such as when the bow strokes in recitatives are to be long, when the accompaniment is by bassoon, or without harpsichord, or pizzicato or piano or arpeggiato, or for organ or solo cello; and combinations of these variables. The next table shows what the ensemble formations were, by cities, institutions (churches, schools, etc.) and occasions. The Bibliography is a goldmine, in an amazingly helpful format: author’s name and one key word from the title are distinctly visible in the left margin; the full title and details are in blocks of lines on the right. An index of names only follows, which suffices thanks to the Indice of contents.

Illustrations, musical examples or specific events or persons are all apt to be referred to by a figure number or sub-section sooner or later. Once the prior mention was located I would write the page number in the margin to be revisited faster in the future. Every treasure hunt called for in the text was rewarding, because engravings, anecdotes, and examples tell different things in different contexts.

The beginning of the book will intrigue all readers: the historical nomenclature for cellos, double basses and gambas couldn’t be more confusing. English readers speak of ‘the violin family’, not thinking that the ‘baby’, the older siblings and their mother were actually of ‘the viola family’, the violino being the ‘little viola’. So what is a violetta? It turns out to be a viola, because viola also referred to many of the larger instruments. A violone is a ‘large viola’, very often a cello, but sometimes a double-bass or a viol. To avoid that confusion the cello was sometimes called a violoncello or a violoncino – literally a ‘little big-viola’. If viola da braccio recalls the early distinction between the lira da gamba (lyra held between the legs) and the lira da braccio (lyra held by a raised arm) it was not exclusively yet another name for such a viola! Along with the viola da collo (‘neck’ viola) and the viola da spalla (‘shoulder’ viola), viola da braccio also meant a cello held across the player’s lap like a guitar, possibly with a cord behind the player’s neck: there is iconographic evidence, music, left-hand fingerings and tunings conducive to such a position! And so we come to the big violas, when a violone is not a cello, but a string bass, and therefore also called a violone grosso or violone grande, and finally a contrabbasso, Italian for the double-bass.

This first chapter on terminology is also full of examples of music, players, occasions, and iconography. It takes us north and south to various cities (Venice, Bologna, Modena, Florence, Rome and Naples), it tells us to wait to read about the violoncello all’inglese – a term used only once by Vivaldi; and it becomes obvious, when we get to it, that the viola da gamba will often be called a viola or a violone and that related instruments, strung in various ways may be identified by names such as viola bastarda, baryton, viola d’amore, viola all’inglese (a viola da gamba, called for by Vivaldi four times) or viola d’amore inglese. For practical reasons the rest of the book steers clear of all this confusion! Yet, since instrumental music flourished in so many places, musicians will encounter all of this terminology in the titles, incipits or instrumental parts of works, and this knowledge may be essential for finding music of this period. ‘Around’ Vivaldi’s time, in Hoffmann’s title, exceeds his lifetime, and means from before 1678 to well after 1740, considering that contemporaries overlap each other, and musicians who worked in Venice often came from many other important Italian and European cities.

The second chapter is exciting for musicians and teachers, because it concerns the cello, its role as a solo instrument, its tuning, experiments in its construction and the development of its fingering and phrasing techniques. Hoffmann takes us from Naples through central and northern Italy, and beyond to Vienna, Prague and into Germany.

In Venice Vivaldi’s career was happily tethered to the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Church-run orphanages for girls born out of wedlock, who were rarely marriageable themselves. Those who were admitted to be in the Coro (choir) had the opportunity and obligation to study violin, viola, cello and bass under Vivaldi! The best ones played in his orchestra and lived their entire lives there as his musicians, assistants, and perhaps becoming maestre, teachers themselves, in their forties. The girls had daily group lessons of several hours with Vivaldi, in the presence of the assistants who watched and corrected them in real time, and then oversaw their practice in the hours after the lessons! The assistants were responsible for the girls’ punctuality, conduct and, if necessary, dispensed disciplinary measures. Fourteen of these assistants were the essential players in Vivaldi’s concerts. Hoffmann gives thumbnail biographies of those who specialized in playing bass string instruments. They usually started as singers and players of smaller instruments. Vivaldi (1678-1740) was present at the Pietà from 1703 to 1721, 1723 to 1729 and 1735 to 1738. One can imagine the accomplishments of those who qualified for such exemplary guidance, not to mention Vivaldi’s technical competence on so many instruments. The Pietà also had an extraordinary collection of rare types of instruments, which explains why so many compositions called for highly unusual instrumentation.

The sections on various cello tunings, structural characteristics and techniques (left-hand positions and fingerings, and right-hand positions and bowings) is fascinating, even for non-string players. It explains the consequences of the cello’s evolution. What is seen on the page cannot be separated from these objective transformations.

The third and fourth chapters, on the double-bass and the viola da gamba, follow the same lines of investigation – where they were played, how many strings they had, what tunings were expected, what fingerings. The viol was nearly obsolete in Italy, but nevertheless its use is documented at the Ospedale della Pietà by choir-masters Francesco Gasparini (in L’oracolo del fato of 1709 and 1719) for the Empress Elisabeth Christine and again for the Emperor Charles VI, and by Giovanni Porta (in Il ritratto dell’eroe of 1726), to welcome the return to Venice of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, and notably by Vivaldi’s use of five gambas in his oratorio Juditha Triumphans (1716). This is discussed later at length along with RV 719, his opera L’Incoronazione di Dario (1717), RV 579, his Concerto funebre (perhaps for the funeral of another choir-master at the Pietà, Pietragrua, who died in 1726) and RV 555, his Concerto con molti istromenti (perhaps also for Ottoboni’s return in 1726).

Analyses of Vivaldi’s music for the bass string instruments occupies the Second Part of this volume, pages 287 to 467: Sonatas for cello and bass, Trio sonatas, Chamber concertos and sonatas with more instruments, Concertos for one or two cellos and orchestra, Concertos for various instruments and orchestra, in all of which a cello or cellos are soloists; sacred and operatic vocal music in which the cello has obbligato parts; the technical aspects of these works; and detailed descriptions of the works for the viola da gamba mentioned before. Players can find the entire repertory covered, sources compared with respect to their authenticity, datability, reliability, quality or lack thereof, and the purposes apparently considered by the various scribes. Hoffmann’s insight is particularly evident.

For the nine Vivaldi cello sonatas, Hoffmann points out the sloppy bowings in the Paris and Neapolitan manuscripts compared to the consistency of those from Wiesentheid, but warns that the latter may testify to the scribe’s own, or his patron’s, preferences! Just when we hope that the beautifully engraved first edition by Le Clerc (ca. 1740) will be decisive, Hoffmann again warns that the markings are incoherent, that every page is maddening, and often simplified to make the works commercially more appealing. This section, by forewarning cello players, should inspire them to follow a musicological approach in studying any work. (We are lucky that the internet may facilitate some of the necessary comparative source reading.)

Hoffmann presents questions, answers, interpretations and tentative conclusions. No one can infallibly discern Vivaldi’s originality with so many variables, but it is the work of every musician to seek tentative certainty. I keep in mind a tenet from the philosophy of aesthetics: when judging between opposing interpretations, the ‘right’ one is that which is more meaningful, or beautiful, or profound.

Olschki’s beautiful soft cover and flaps do not show Bettina Hoffmann, but to Italian followers of early music she needs no introduction. I imagine that she gets feedback from many of them. English readers looking for repertoire or insight can find every work listed or discussed; the tables and bibliography offer information and leads with few linguistic obstacles. You will have to dip into it piecemeal, until it is translated. I found it very enjoyable to read. The vocabulary is scholarly, but the sentences are not long: they reflect how scholars speak. This added pleasure in reading to that of discovery and I was sorry to get to the end!

Barbara Sachs

Book Recording

Bernardina: Une vie secrète à la Pietà

A novel (in French) by Arièle Butaux with a historical postlude by Olivier Fourés, and a CD of Venetian music
Collectif Cordis & Organo
Seuletoile SE 03

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Described as a ‘Livre-disque’, this is a short story set in Vivaldi’s ospedale in1741. There are supporting essays about this institution, its activities and the main characters in the story (all in French only), and tucked away at the back is a CD of chamber and keyboard music that includes attractive pieces by less well-known figures such as Gasparini and Laurenti, as well as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Where to shelve the package may be an issue for some, as it is significantly larger than a standard CD case but significantly smaller than any book I currently have within reach.

The recording was made in a Swiss church that boasts a 1786 organ and we hear this both as a soloist and used for the continuo – sometimes without a melodic instrument on the bass line. (In fact, we hear all three players together only in the opening and closing works.) This is a welcome and effective sonority, not least because the organ sound is so much richer than the ‘continuo boxes’ we usually encounter. The cello sonata by Benedetto Marcello, with organ only, is lovely and a further cello sonata (Vivaldi) with harpsichord only is also effective.

One small presentational issue clouds what is overwhelmingly a sunny musical picture. Here and there the gaps between movements and/or works feel slightly uncomfortable in their length. In a live context, this matter cannot always be artist-led, of course, but on CD .  .?

I will leave comment on the literary merits of the story to those more qualified, but I certainly enjoyed its musical complement.

David Hansell