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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 5 (1999) No. 1

Biagio Marini, Curiose & moderne inventioni. Romanesca. Harmonia Mundi USA, 1997. [HMU 907175.]

Reviewed by Paul Whitehead*

1. Biagio Marini and His Instrumental Music

2. The Selections

3. Instrumentation

4. The Performances


1. Biagio Marini and His Instrumental Music

1.1 Living from c.1587 to 1663, Biagio Marini seems to have experienced the peripatetic lifestyle common to the age. Born in Brescia, he was associated with Claudio Monteverdi at St. Mark's, Venice, around 1615, and later spent time at the Wittelsbach court in Bavaria, in addition to various Italian, and possibly north European, centers (many of the details of his life remain unclear). He died in Venice. A product of north-Italian violin schools, Marini is himself known to have been a fine violinist; several of his solo sonatas undoubtedly showcased his own advanced performing technique in their use of various virtuoso devices. Yet Marini worked within a wide range of genres—and for diverse instrumental and vocal forces—over several decades. Large parts of his output, in fact, are not yet widely known—a shortcoming that this recording by the award-winning ensemble Romanesca will help remedy.

1.2 Instrumental works are spread across approximately one-half of Marini's extant publications, three of which, Op. 1, Op. 8, and Op. 22, contain exclusively non-vocal pieces.(note 1) These instrumental works, and particularly the sonatas, have attracted the most attention from musicians and scholars alike. To be sure, the sonatas are not the exclusive preserve of the solo violin: Marini composed such pieces with a range of instrumental combinations in mind, and his instrumentation often allows for substitution. Nevertheless, the association of idiomatic, expressive, and challenging string writing with the development of free-standing musical structures, associated particularly with the sonata, remains an area of great interest The importance of Marini in this connection has long been acknowledged, but there are also some developments, and perhaps changes of emphasis, to be discerned over the course of his career. His musical style appears to have shifted focus somewhat, from the solo display evinced in the earlier works towards a more thoughtful working-out of themes in the context of fewer, but lengthier, sections. But in addition to the sonatas, Marini's legacy includes variation-based works and many examples of the standard dance genres of the day. This recording, with its inclusion of several pieces from the surviving Libro Terzo of Op. 22 (a collection that does not preserve any true solo sonatas), should help broaden the popular image of Marini from that of a special-effects innovator to that of a versatile and highly gifted composer.

2. The Selections

2.1 Three of Marini's publications are represented on this recording: Op. 3, Op. 8, and Op. 22. Nothing is included from the well-known Affetti musicali, Op. 1, but the sixteen works on the recording are, nonetheless, a useful sampling of Marini's oeuvre. Eleven are taken from Op. 22. They present a cross-section of this collection's heterogeneous contents, though emphasizing works of miniature proportions: sinfonias, zarabandas, correntes, and ballettos, alongside a single sonata. Op. 8 comprises an equally diverse range of styles and genres, but Romanesca has turned to the sonatas for three of the four pieces taken from this opus (the fourth is a series of variations on the Pass'e mezo). The title of the recording, Curiose & Moderne Inventioni, is, in fact, derived from the title page of Op. 8. This quotation seems justified on account of the amount of playing time given over to that collection: the ambitious dimensions of the four Op. 8 pieces account for almost half of the disc. As an example, the Sonata Quarto, Per il Violino (track 6), lasts for over nine minutes, whereas the first five tracks on the disc, a sinfonia and four dances from Op. 22, collectively last for less than eight.

2.2 Almost inevitably, the modest proportions of these individual dances from Op. 22, and their positioning back-to-back on the recording, encourage one to perceive them as a larger group. (The effect is reinforced on repeated hearings.) In the absence of any commentary in the program notes, however, one assumes that these opening tracks on the disc were not planned as a larger entity. They comprise an opening sinfonia, followed by a balletto, a corrente, a zarabanda and a balletto allemano, in various keys but all taken from Op. 22. However, it would have been useful had the notes provided some kind of rationale for the ordering used—particularly so since a common practice in the early-to-mid-seventeenth century was to print pieces in "like-with-like" configurations (for instance, all the ballettos together, then the zarabandas, and so on, the principle followed in Op. 22). This means that, in many cases, performers and performing conventions were ultimately responsible for the selection and ordering of pieces. Interestingly, though, the layout of Op. 22 itself presents an ingenious departure from the common procedure: the second balletto (and the final item on the Romanesca recording) itself comprises an explicitly ordered sequence of entrata, balletto, gagliarda, corrente, and retirata. The whole encompasses, as violinist Andrew Manze points out, a wide tonal range, even concluding in a key remote from that of the opening. Unique though this particular procedure might be among the Op. 22 ballettos, it suggests, when considered together with the division of several of the collection's sonatas into clearly labeled sections, that Marini was becoming interested in the explicit indication of hierarchical structures.(note 2)

2.3 Op. 3, otherwise an exclusively vocal collection, closes with the composer's impressive set of variations on the Romanesca. The inclusion of this piece comes as no surprise, as it enjoys a privileged position in the repertoire of this ensemble. Manze informs us that, of several sets of variations on the Romanesca published between 1600 and 1630, he considers Marini's the closest in spirit to its original nature as a vehicle for inspiration. Indeed, this very set of variations provided the inspiration for the ensemble's name.

3. Instrumentation

3.1 In their allocation of instruments Romanesca were, no doubt, mindful of the various ad libitum possibilities outlined in Marini's prints. That their instrumentation is but one of several equally viable groupings should, however, be kept in mind if, as seems probable, this excellent recording becomes elevated to the status of a "classic," or a "definitive" reading of these works. For example, the chitarrone is employed for the obbligato bass line in the Sonata Basso e Violino of Op. 22 (track 11). Naturally, other instruments could have been selected for this part, designated simply "Basso" in the source. Indeed, the listing for this piece in the Tavola included at the end of Marini's basso continuo partbook even retains, for the upper line, the traditional cornetto/violin alternative encountered frequently in prints dating from earlier in the century. (In an inconsistency typical of the repertory, however, the indications over the music itself make no mention of the cornetto).

3.2 For the dances and sinfonias of Op. 22 Romanesca steers towards the richer end of the textural spectrum allowed for in Marini's print, employing the optional viola part (played by Jan Schlapp), for instance, wherever one is provided. Seventeen of the twenty-five pieces in Op. 22 also include a part for the chitarra spagnola; this comprises alfabeto chord designations above the stave in the Basso Continuo partbook. Again, Romanesca takes advantage of this option more often than not; Nigel North skillfully alternates between this instrument and the chitarrone.(note 3)

4. The Performances

4.1 For Romanesca, Marini's significance extends well beyond the "superficial gimmicks" (Manze) of his solo violin writing, and into the fabric and design of his music. Consequently, their performances convey an interest in proportion and architecture in the longer works, and in emotional range throughout. Their ability to bring the printed materials to life is apparent at the very outset, in the Sinfonia Sesto Tuono. Although they seize with relish on local expressive details—the false relation between the outer parts (e-flat against e) in the opening seconds, a "surprise" augmented sixth later on—their performance of this piece reveals an intensity and careful overall shaping that make sense of its unusual single-section design (the other five sinfonias in Op. 22, two of which are included in the disc, are in the more conventional binary form).

4.2 The contents of the recording are nothing if not diverse, and the following dance numbers illustrate this to perfection. Romanesca captures the spirit of the individual dance types, and are more than ready to elaborate on the printed music when this seems fitting; an example is the second part of the Balletto Quarto Allemano (track 5), where embellishments are improvised with great flair and a crescendo added to Marini's already humorous ostinato.

4.3 Marini's sonatas are undoubtedly his most complex works and, in their mercurial contrasts of style and their advanced technical requirements, his most challenging for both performer and listener. Romanesca does not attempt in any way to mask the inherent sectionalism of these sonatas. Rather, the figuration in one section stands in clear relief from that of its surroundings, but structural fragmentation—always a danger in the early sonata repertoire—is for the most part avoided. I suspect that the group made their sonata selections partly with structural considerations in mind. Conversely, in the several fairly lengthy restatements of the long opening line that occur in the Sonata Prima a 2 of Op. 8 (track 13), an additional element of contrast is brought to the performance so as to alleviate the slightly repetitious nature of the music. The alternation between the two violinists, Andrew Manze and Caroline Balding, is nicely complemented by that between the accompanying harpsichord and chitarrone (John Toll and Nigel North, respectively) in but one of many passages performed with a superb sense of ensemble. Manze points out that an effect of redundancy in these restatements is mitigated by Marini's changes in key, modestly ignoring the kaleidoscopic changes in color and timbre projected by the ensemble itself.

4.4 The Romanesca, Pass'e mezo, and Passacaglio appear in Op. 3, Op. 8, and Op. 22, respectively. The poignant Passacaglio, in which three repeated sections are framed by an Introdutione and Finale, forms the majestic conclusion of Op. 22, itself Marini's last surviving opus. The performers do full justice here to the plangent harmonies of the theme and its rondeau couplets by playing them relatively unadorned. On the other hand, they recognize that the Romanesca requires a more spirited and daring approach, particularly with regard to tempo and meter. They bring out well the "hidden" triple meter of the theme (in the source it appears in tempus imperfectum notation) long before the gagliarda and corrente variations impose triple meter towards the end.

4.5 These performances are, in short, both thoughtful and inspired. And the welcome dedication of an entire disc to the music of Marini presents us with a more rounded picture of this impressive figure.


* Paul Whitehead (pawhitehead@hotmail.com) is a specialist in German instrumental music of the seventeenth century. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 and was subsequently Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Franklin & Marshall College. In September, 1999, he joined the faculty of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Music at Istanbul Technical University. Return to beginning


1. Thomas D. Dunn, "The Sonatas of Biagio Marini: Structure and Style," The Music Review 36 (1975), 161–79, is the principal published study of Marini's sonatas. Return to text

2. The first balletto of Op. 22 bears some organizational similarities with the second one in that it, too, is divided into labeled sections. These, however, are unified by key, and they are mostly of the "numerical" type ("Prima Parte," "Sec. parte," and so on); only the final, fifth section bears an additional designation, "Corrente". Return to text

3. The chitarra spagnola is indicated for all but one of the ballettos (the tonally wide-ranging Balletto Secondo), and all of the zarabandas, correntes, and sinfonias. Ottavio Beretta's edition of Op. 22, cited above, includes, as part of a thorough description of the publication's contents, information on the performance techniques of the chitarra spagnola. Return to text

Editions of op.3, op.8, and op.22

Op. 3: Arie, madrigali et correnti (Venice, 1620); facsimile edition: Milan: A.M.I.S., 1970.

Op. 8: Sonate, symphonie … e retornelli (Venice, 1629); facsimile edition: Florence: Scelte, 1979. Modern edition of the sonatas by Thomas D. Dunn (Madison: A-R Editions, 1981).

Op. 22: Per ogni sorte d[i] strumento musicale, Diversi generi di Sonate, da Chiesa, e da Camera (Venice, 1655); modern edition by Ottavio Beretta (Milan: Suvini Zerboni, 1996).

The Dunn and Beretta editions contain scholarly introductions, and Beretta includes an up-to-date bibliography.

Return to text

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