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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 3 (1997) No. 1

Stravaganze: 17th-Century Italian Songs and Dances.
The King’s Noyse, David Douglass, director, with Andrew Lawrence-King, harp.

Harmonia Mundi USA, 1995. [HMU 907159.]

Reviewed by Wendy Heller*

1. The Violin Band

2. A sobering seicento

3. Monteverdi in Maschera

4. Conclusion


1. The Violin Band

1.1 Stravaganze is the third of five CDs from the group King’s Noyse, founded in 1988 by violinist and director David Douglass, including Robert Mealy, Scott Metcalfe, Jane Starkman and Emily Walhout; they are joined on this CD by soprano Ellen Hargis and harpist Andrew Lawrence-King. This group has acquired an avid and faithful following, based on the quality of their performances and the mixture of scholarship and creativity that informs their programming. The King’s Noyse describe themselves as a “violin band”: they play a matched set of unfretted string instruments consisting of two violins, two violas, and a bass violin, made specifically for the ensemble. Their work is predicated on the claim that the violin enjoyed a far more active career in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries than has been assumed by devotees of the viol, recorder, or broken consorts. The early violin, they propose, is heard to its best advantage in an ensemble of matched instruments: they meld together beautifully, creating a unique sound world; yet, as violins, each instrument also has sufficient edge to be heard within the overall texture. Such violin bands, as Jack Ashworth explains in the accompanying notes to their first CD, The King’s Delight, likely specialized in dance music, playing either from memory or improvising on well-known tunes, and in support of this practice he cites sixteenth-century iconographic evidence depicting an ensemble of two violins, viola, and cello “jamming away without a note of music in sight.” (note 1) Nonetheless, the King’s Noyse do not restrict themselves to dance music. “But when violinists were not playing dance music,” Jack Ashworth observes, “they would help themselves freely to the riches of madrigal, chanson, and any other vocal repertory that came their way, including sacred music, much in the style of the uptown cousins, the viol players.” (note 2) There is certainly some element of truth to this bold statement, however speculative.

1.2 We are thankfully past the era in which the search for “authenticity” necessitated a slavish adherence to the printed page. Yet, with this single broad claim, the King’s Noyse opens up for itself an almost unlimited repertoire, in which the choices made for any given performance are—with a whiff of scholarly legitimacy—restrained solely by the imagination. Nor has this approach necessarily pointed The King’s Noyse in the wrong direction. In The King’s Delight, for example, the practice of publishing broadside ballads with only the names of tunes encourages today’s performers to be particularly resourceful in matching tune to text. This apparent flexibility between instrumental and vocal forms is also explored with great success in Canzonetta, where an adroit mixture of the two also serves to expel any monotony that might arise from the uniform sonorities of the violin band.

2. A sobering seicento

2.1 All of which brings us to the recording under review, provocatively entitled Stravanganze, and described as a “collection of seventeenth-century Italian songs and dances.” The title, with its implication of the bizarre, the eccentric, or even plain crankiness, is surprisingly apt for this CD, though perhaps not for the reasons intended. First, this is a remarkably somber and disparate selection of mostly early seventeenth-century Italian songs and dances: at times quite moving and expressive, yet oddly introspective and pensive, presenting an inexplicably melancholy view of seicento Italy. The unsuspecting listener might well be deceived by the cheerful affect established at the outset with Giovanni Maria Trabaci’s sprightly “Gagliarda terza sopra La montoana”; however, this playful mood is largely dispelled by the time the listener reaches Trabaci’s austere and contrapuntally dense “Consonanze stravaganti” with which the CD concludes some seventy-eight minutes later. A second curiosity touches on issues discussed above regarding the treatment of sources, and in particular the ways in which the King’s Noyse use the music of Monteverdi.

2.2 The contemplative mood explored between the Trabaci bookends seems to reflect the performers’ aesthetic choice: a result both of the repertoire selected and the style of performance employed, that seems curiously at odds with their own characterization of fiddlers and fiddle music. The introspection is laudable, for example, in the Peri monodies sung expressively with beautiful tone and careful attention to poetic detail by Ellen Hargis. Andrew Lawrence-King’s continuo support on the harp is highly nuanced and likewise sensitive to text and tonal ambiguities, and he deftly employs a variety of articulations that beautifully enhance Hargis’ thoughtful interpretations, as in the richly ironic performance of Peri’s “Qual cadavero spirante.” Yet the tendency to back away from climaxes and favor softer dynamics accentuates the meditative, even stoic aspects of these works, at the expense of a more robust sensuality that would certainly not have been foreign in seventeenth-century Italy. The charming ritornello in Peri’s lighthearted “Un dì soletto,” for example, provides an ideal opportunity for a more brazen, visceral sort of playing; here, however, the lover’s impetuous desire for the young woman is restrained by the quiet dynamics and gentle, intentionally-blurred articulations.

2.3 The selections from Gasparo Zanetti’s Il scolaro are among the moments of pure, unabashed enthusiasm; yet, they choose to conclude this boisterous set with the sober “Il cefarino,” performed on solo harp. (note 3) One might also wish for greater vigor and athleticism in the numerous gagliarde on this album; there is a humorous side, for example, to the delightfully chromatic contribution by the perennially-shocking Gesualdo that could well be exploited to advantage at a less sedate tempo. Indeed, many of these performances seem to reflect a tendency for the performers to lose themselves in the luxuriant experience of moving from one lush sonority to another, a practice that tends to be more gratifying for the performer than the listener. This is particularly evident in the nearly thirteen minutes allotted for Farina’s “Pavana seconda,” in which the unvarying sonorities, dynamics, and lugubrious tempo create an ambiance more appropriate for meditation in the New Age than a stately dance at court. Notably, this is not the case with Dario Castello’s “Sonata XVI a 4,” a work composed specifically for a string ensemble, in which the varied textures—including the surprising “battaglia in genere concitato” noted by Massimo Ossi in the program booklet—elicit a dynamic and compelling performance. Indeed, one begins to suspect that the most successful performances on this CD result from those works subject to less generic cross-breeding and arranging.

3. Monteverdi in Maschera

3.1 It is this latter issue that underlies what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this CD. Ellen Hargis and The King’s Noyse provide an elegant performance of Giovanni Rovetta’s “Le lagrime d’Erminia,” a lament much in the style of Monteverdi’s Lamento di Arianna. Set to a paraphrase of Canto XX of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, the Rovetta is a sort of hybrid between the strophic and recitative lament, in which the stile recitativo, broad dramatic range, and lack of musical repetitions and parallelisms all but disguise the poetry’s strophic structure. Although the contemporary print includes no ritornello between the strophes or indication for same, (note 4) The King’s Noyse adopts for this purpose a sinfonia from a highly conspicuous source: Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse. First, it must be emphasized that it is not entirely clear to what extent such interruptions might have been inserted into recitative laments. (note 5) There is a precedent, for example, in the original operatic setting of Monteverdi’s Lamento di Arianna, where the shepherds’ choruses, now lost along with the rest of the opera, framed the sections. (note 6) In the Rovetta, however, after the initial shock of hearing the familiar strains of the Ulisse sinfonia in this unfamiliar context, it becomes apparent that the sinfonia/ritornello profoundly alters Hargis’ thoughtful performance of the lament, with no such dramatic justification. Rovetta’s sensitive depiction of Erminia’s spontaneous and disordered, shifting emotions is absorbed into an organized musical structure, in which the insistent repetitions of the ritornello provide a doleful, monochromatic commentary on the abandoned heroine, repressing her passionate outbursts, and limiting the dramatic range. The effect is no more salutary for Giovanni Rovetta, one of the finer composers represented on this CD. As Monteverdi’s successor at San Marco, the unfortunate Rovetta has languished in relative obscurity for over three hundred years; sadly, even in this rare public appearance, he is thrust unceremoniously back under Monteverdi’s shadow.

3.2 This is not the only instance in which the music of Monteverdi is appropriated under questionable circumstances. Tracks two and three of the CD feature Andrew Lawrence-King’s performance of a Gagliarda by Giovanni dell’Arpa, followed, without break, by what Ossi describes diplomatically as a “re-texting” of Monteverdi’s famous “Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosa” from Orfeo. These works do seem to form a natural pair based on shared melodic and rhythmic features; Lawrence-King accentuates this link by concluding the dell’Arpa in improvisitory fashion with a series of circular repetitions of the opening phrase, whose descending pattern provides the impetus for the opening of the Monteverdi. Hargis’ performance of the Monteverdi is exciting and compelling, and Monteverdi’s well-known ritornello is played with an appropriately joyful affect. For those who may have lamented the relative silence of Euridice in Monteverdi’s first opera, there is something enormously refreshing about hearing the eloquent outpouring of this most accomplished mythic male musician sung by a woman; one rejoices that Monteverdi would have seen fit to recycle this delightful melody using a poem by Ottavio Rinuccini, one of his happiest collaborators. (note 7) It is thus all the more disconcerting to discover that this retexting has no basis in the sources. Beginning with the dell’Arpa gagliarda, the King’s Noyse has created for the listener an artificial “musical experience,” entirely of their own invention.

3.3 Again, this practice is not entirely unjustifiable; retextings of works was a common enough practice among composers of this and other periods, and seventeenth-century performers may well have been perfectly at ease manipulating the available sources to suit their fancy, without the constraints of scholarship or accountability. Nonetheless, it is curious that the King’s Noyse would have chosen for this purpose works by Claudio Monteverdi, the best-known and perhaps greatest composer of the seventeenth-century, and—more importantly—excerpts that are intrinsically linked to their original dramatic and musical contexts. One wonders if these peculiar appropriations were motivated by historical or interpretive forethought. Were these alterations thought to enhance the originals or add deeper layers of meaning to the lesser known works? Does The King’s Noyse intend this as a bold demonstration of the flexibility of violin band practice, their inherent right, as Ashworth had suggested, to “help themselves to all the riches of the repertoire,” including those of the inestimable Claudio Monteverdi? Or, as this reviewer suspects, were they persuaded to graft together compositions or substitute a text merely because the parts seemed to fit together so well? Regardless, without complete disclosure, it is the CD-buying public that is all the poorer, misled by the illusion of historical authenticity.

4. Conclusion

4.1 This is not to underestimate the important contribution that this group has made both in their earlier releases and in this intriguing collection of little-known works of the Italian seventeenth century. There is much to be admired here; these are attractive and elegant, if overly-ponderous performances, enhanced by Ellen Hargis’ elegant and expressive singing. The intonation and ensemble are excellent; the notes and translations provided by Massimo Ossi are of the highest quality: accurate, informative, and sensitive; the recording by Harmonia Mundi is of their usual high standard. Nonetheless, one might hope for a happier alliance between scholarship and performance, one that respects and openly embraces the unsteady ground upon which any improvisitory performance practice necessarily stands. Harmonia Mundi must also bear some of the blame here, for as long as musical scholarship is used to market a product, the responsibility is that much greater for all involved.

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*Wendy Heller (wbh6@columbia.edu) is currently the Mellon Fellow in Music at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. She is the author of Chastity, Heroism, and Allure: Women in the Opera of Seventeenth Century Venice, which is to be published by the University of California Press. Return to beginning

1. Jack Ashworth, CD booklet, The King’s Delight, Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907101). It is this observation, regrettably, that leads Ashworth to make the all too-easy analogy between violin band players and contemporary rock musicians and country musicians, with whom the “early fiddlers undoubtedly would have felt kinship” (p. 8). The painting to which Ashworth refers, showing a sixteenth-century couple dancing la volta, is housed in the museum at Rennes, and reproduced in David Boyden, History of the Violin and Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965). Return to text

2. Jack Ashworth, CD booklet, Canzonetta, Harmonia Mundi (HMU 901727), p. 6. Return to text

3. Massimo Ossi, Program booklet, Stravaganze, Harmonia Mundi HMU 901759, (p. 7), correctly points out the unreliability of the attributions in Zanetti’s collection; this should have been noted in the contents list, which is all too sparing with details on sources and attributions. Return to text

4. Giovanni Rovetta, Madrigali concerti—libro primo: Opera seconda (Venice: Magni, 1629). An abridged facsimile version is included in Italian Secular Song, 1601-1636, vol. 7, ed. Gary Tomlinson (New York: Garland, 1986), pp. 74-83. Return to text

5. On seventeenth-century laments, see Ellen Rosand, “The Descending Tetrachord: An Emblem of Lament” Musical Quarterly 65 (1979), pp. 346-59 and Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 361-86. A more conventional strophic lament might certainly invite the addition of a ritornello; in through-composed recitative laments, instrumental ritornelli are sometimes used sparingly to heighten the dramatic intensity at special moments. See, for example, Barbara Strozzi’s “Sul Radon severo: Il lamento” in which an adagio ritornello appears several times, yet is restricted to the lyrical central section of the lament (Barbara Strozzi, Cantate, ariette, e duetti, op. 2 [Venice: Gardano, 1651], 35-43; a facsimile edition is included in Strozzi, Cantatas, ed. Ellen Rosand, vol. 5, Italian Cantata in the Seventeenth-Century [New York: Garland Press, 1986], p. 39). Return to text

6. It is noteworthy, however, that Monteverdi published this work repeatedly without the choral interruptions. Nicholas Harnoncourt dealt with this issue creatively some twenty years ago by separating the sections of the lament with string arrangements based on the five-part madrigal version of the lament. (Cathy Berberian Sings Monteverdi, Concentus Musicus Wien, dir. Nikolaus Harnoncourt. [Telefunken 6.41956 AW]. I am grateful to Massimo Ossi for pointing this out to me.) Return to text

7. On Euridice’s silence in Orfeo, see Susan McClary, “Constructions of Gender in Monteverdi’s Dramatic Music,” Feminine Endings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 42-4.

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The Harmonia Mundi releases by The King’s Noyse include: The King’s Delight: Seventeenth-century ballads for violin band and voice (HMU 901701) and Canzonetta: sixteenth-century canzoni and instrumental dances (HMU 907101), both featuring Ellen Hargis and Paul O’Dette; Mascherada: Music at the Bückeburg Court of Ernst III (HMU 907165) and Lamentations, Motets and String Music (Music of Thomas Tallis), directed by Paul Hillier and David Douglass (HMU 901754) (cf. “Briefly Noted, below). Return to text

Contents of CD:

Giovanni Maria Trabaci (1575-1647), Gagliarda terza sopra la mantoana

Giovanni Leonarda Dell’Arpa (1525-1602), Gagliarda

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) Non ha’l ciel cotanti lumi

Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), Qual cadavero spirante

Carlo Farina (?1600-?1640), Pavana seconda

Filippo Vitali (1590-1653), Se pur è ver

Gasparo Zanetti (fl 1626-45), from Il Scolaro (1645): Aria del gran duca, Gagliarda di Santino detto la muzza, La bergamesca, Basso delle ninfe, Bassa gioiosa, Il cefarino

Don Giovanni Maria Sabino (late 16th cent.-1649), Gagliarda Falsa

Giovanni Rovetta (?1595-1668), La lagrime d’Erminia (with sinfonia/ritornello by Monteverdi)

Dario Castello (fl early 17th cent.), from Sonata concertate . . .libro secondo (1629): Sonata XVI a 4

Jacopo Peri, O durezza di ferro

Carlo Gesualdo (?1561-1613), Gagliarda

Jacopo Peri, Un dì, soletto

Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Gagliarda prima detta La galante, Consonanze stravaganti.

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