Playing with Fire: virtuoso music from the 16th and 17th centuries

Bruce Dickey
Bruce Dickey

On October 18-20, the Newberry Consort, joined by American cornetto pioneer and world-renowned virtuoso Bruce Dickey, will perform Playing with Fire: virtuoso music from the 16th and 17th centuries. See http://newberryconsort.org/special-events/ for performance times and information.

The musical repertory of early seventeenth-century Italy is framed by the wider changes in society and aesthetics around it. This program gives a cross-section of instrumental and vocal virtuosity as transmitted largely via printed editions, as opposed to manuscripts. Still, the modern appreciation of this music has been relatively recent, due not least to the high level of technique necessary to convey the pieces, and the Consort is fortunate to have one of the pioneers in the repertory’s revival, Bruce Dickey, as part of these concerts. And it is entirely appropriate that these are the Consort’s annual Howard Mayer Brown performances, named for the late and beloved University of Chicago professor who did so much to publish and to study the standard treatises on Renaissance ornamentation.

The program mixes diminutions or embellishments of standard sixteenth-century works —Rore, Palestrina, Lasso—with pieces conceived in the musical style of contrast, changing affects, and unpredictable organization typical of the new century. In order to highlight how virtuoso embellishment sounded, Rore’s Ancor che col partire is sung first unornamented, and then performed with instrumental graces improvised by the performers. A late printed example is represented by Selma y Salaverde’s divisions on Lasso’s famed chanson from a century earlier, Susanne ung jour.

The pieces in stile modern traverse a wide range of compositional methods. Two of the composers represented here, Corradini and Merula, would have known each other from their work in the north Italian city of Cremona in the 1630s, but while Corradini seems to have remained there for his entire career, Merula’s more mercurial character took him as far as Poland as well as other jobs in north Italy. The pieces contrast as well: Corradini’s La Golferama (canzonas were often titled after the surname of a patron or friend) is a dialogue (originally for two cornetti) using many forms of a simple ascending scale as its motivic material. Merula’s two canzonas, L’Ara and La Ruggiera, follow the overall outline of the genre (contrasting triple-time middle section, da capo at the end of the piece), but the extrovert and striking descending figures of La Ruggiera belie the expectations inherent in the canzona’s standard form. Merula is also represented by his most famous piece, the Madonna’s lullaby to the infant Christ-child (a ninna-nanna), built entirely on a repeating A-B flat in the basso continuo line.

The new instrumental virtuosity also was audible in vocal music. Corradini’s two settings of Latin texts (motets) use instruments to mark off sections of the text and to intersect motivically with the solo vocal line. Both these pieces were probably intended for a wide variety of festive occasions; Prospera lux employs solo voice and a three-part instrumental band, while Spargite flores features a duetting voice/instrument pair, along with some surprising forte-piano contrasts in its closing section. Merula’s Favus distillans takes this procedure one step further in its extrovert and striking motivic figures. Merula’s text, from the Song of Songs, was probably used as part of devotion to Mary, in the composer’s Cremona or elsewhere, as Catholic biblical exegesis of the time often interpreted the two lovers of the Song as allegorical representations of Christ and his mother.

Two pieces on the ciacona bass formula start the second half, Merula’s Aria and Monteverdi’s familiar Quel sguardo sdegnosetto, the latter in our performance with added instrumental ritornelli. The new Italian styles had immediate reflections north of the Alps: Schein’s Gehet hin in alle Welt (Christ’s injunction to “go forth and teach all peoples”) is cast entirely in the style of motets with instrumental band familiar from Corradini’s and Merula’s pieces. It thus contrasts with Johann Schop’s prelude for solo violin and his divisions on Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavan, which still owe something to sixteenth-century ornamentation.

Finally, the long-term effects of this moment are audible in the two pieces by Rosenmüller. His solo motet without melody instruments, In te Domine speravi, starts relatively plainly before ending in a burst of vocal fireworks; the inclusion of the doxology (“Glory be to the Father…”) at the end of the piece suggests that it might have been used during the two decades that the composer spent working at St. Mark’s in Venice, possibly as part of the liturgical service of Compline, although it is transmitted in a German manuscript. The composer came to musical adulthood in Saxony, but then went to Italy before finishing his career back in Germany. The sonata (1682) starts like a canzona, but its puzzling and chromatic internal movements serve to remind us of the elements of surprise and marvel that were an essential part of early seventeenth-century Italian music.

Posted by Robert L. Kendrick, Professor of Music; Chair, Department of Music, University of Chicago

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