Performers of Concert Music

Begin with the singers, begin with their voices, begin with their song. We will depart from this beginning point but need always to recognize that it is the beginning point and that any later developments must be traced back to the beginning point. Developments lead to musical phrases, to steps and half-steps, to tones, to musical meter, to rhythmic patterns, to harmonics, to chord progressions and so forth: all have roots in the beginning point and never have any existence independent of the beginning point. The beginning point is also the final point, the point of actual performance.

Several performers contributed to the recorded performance of the Monteverdi Extracts from Duo Seraphim. Three tenors are identified in the program notes for the CD - Richard Croft, Lynton Atkinson and Brad Diamond - but the two singers in Extract 1 are not separately identified. The two singers in Extract 1 bear performance names of "Tenor" and" "Quintus" and the third tenor, joining in Extract 2, is similarly named "Altus" -- names borrowed from voice ranges in church music even though there is but a single voice range in Duo Seraphim for all the tenors. Director Martin Pearlman organized the ensemble and defined its style generally and its approach to Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 in particular. James Mallinson was the Recording Producer and Jack Renner was the Recording Engineer. The program notes state that "two tenors [were] on opposite sides of the church in this performance" of Duo Seraphim. Electronic balancing of the tenors' voices is essential to the beauty of the performance.

The song Monteverdi wrote is the point of origin of the performance. But he does not stand on his own; rather, he requires assistance to make his work available to modern performers. Here, assistance was provided by Jeffrey Kurtzman, who prepared the performing score and whose scholarship on Monteverdi was cited with thanks by Martin Pearlman in the printed booklet. In notes to the performing score, Kurtzman identifies the source materials as original "part-books" for the various performers, part-books named by voices in a medieval church. A part-book was also provided for a "Bassus Generalis." The Bassus Generalis had different kinds of notation for different parts of the composition. In preparing the performing score, Kurtzman interpreted the Bassus Generalis and produced a uniform "continuo realization" for an organist, etc.

My purpose here is to focus on one particular performance that illustrates fundamental principles. I accept Kurtzman's interpretation of Duo Seraphim as authoritative for my purpose. For my purpose, the Boston Baroque has recorded a successful historically informed performance that reproduces essential features and qualities of Monteverdi's music. Distinctions between this performance and other performances do not affect my purpose.

In Monteverdi's region and time, performances of composed and rehearsed music chiefly occurred in two sorts of places - in churches and courts of Italian Renaissance rulers, who vied for eminence in religious ceremonies and in musical and dramatic productions, some employing many musicians. Composers wrote for both church and court - e.g., in the forms of masses and madrigals. Compositions had multiple vocal lines, each independent but combined to make up an ongoing steady stream of sound that induced a steady emotional response in the listener. Both masses and madrigals initially used this form, called "polyphony."

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, court composers worked on madrigals to make them more dramatic. Initially: "The music did not try to achieve illusion. [Then, in] the seventeenth century the singer was merged with the imaginary character to whom the poet's verses were ascribed. The singer had to identify himself with him whose joys and sorrows were depicted in the words. Hence music itself more or less abandoned vocal polyphony. ... les jeunes, around 1600, aspired to a stilo recitiativo or representativo, imitating natural diction and expressing even the most delicate and secret emotions of the soul. Composers and singers were not satisfied to amuse or to delight their public; they wanted to move and allure it. We find proof of this in contemporary chronicles which point out as fact worthy of record that - in 1607 - in Monteverdi's opera Arianne, the forlorn heroine's lament caused listeners to melt in tears." (Frederick Dorian, The History of Music in Performance (Norton 1966) at 49.)

Arianne (now lost, except for the exquisite Lament) was written soon after Monteverdi's triumph with Orfeo, the earliest opera still performed and recorded. In contrast to the steady emotional response invoked by church music, court music became more and more dramatic, with emotional arousals and relaxations.

The Vespers of 1610 combines the forms of church and court. Duo Seraphim is an extraneous addition to the ceremonial Vespers materials that make up the rest of the collection. In Duo Seraphim, the singers play roles as heavenly beings, quite different from anything heard in church at the time. Although the words are Latin and sound religious, the composition arouses emotions, not spiritual steadiness. The emotions relate more to the beauty of the performance than to the deity exalted in the role-playing. Operatic passages are grafted onto church roots. The performing score for Extract 1 shows churchy phrasings in the first and third lines; but the middle line - with dramatic "suspended dissonances" and resolutions - epitomizes the new art form Monteverdi was bringing into existence and that was destined to endure and to grow into the heritage of Western music. Rather similar suspended dissonances and resolutions were used at the opening of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, written in 1736 as the composer, previously famed for comic opera, was in a monastery, dying from a long illness.

Emotional arousals in beautiful music are complex, dependent on milieu and personalities. Analysis treats "voices" and "music" as if they were detachable from a particular performance. Such detachment must occur for art to grow from isolated musical events into a musical culture. Such detachment did in fact occur historically, especially through development of music notation, instruments and performance standards.

Development starts from a particular voice but can grow through invention and application of principles, so long as the voice is capable of singing even a simple song. These pages likewise seek to grow from simple roots into principles that illuminate the experience of music.

Please visit other pages in the "Quad Nets" family:
Timing Devices:   the original presentation of the timing devices system. The message is that brains are not computers.
Quad Nets:  general designs for brain-like devices; timing devices are a special class of devices within the more general class, which has a farther reach.
Embodiment of Freedom:  integrated models - based on Quad Nets - of brains and experience, physics and psychology.
Testimony of Freedom: re-states prior models and extends the inquiry into social and spiritual matters.

Copyright © 2009 Robert Kovsky