The modernity of the early Baroque

In the preface to Il secondo libro di toccate…&c. (1637) [the Second Book of Toccatas…], Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) wrote a few helpful comments to the player of his music. Amongst them we find these comments:

‘Primieramente; che non dee questo modo di sonare stare soggetto a battuta, come ueggiamo usarsi ne i Madrigali moderni, i quali quantunque difficili si ageuolano per mezzodella battuta, portandola hor languida, hor veloce, esostenendola etiandio in aria secondo i loro affetti, o senso delle parole….’

[‘Firstly, that this manner of playing should not be fixed to the beat, as is usual in modern madrigals, which, though difficult, are lightened by the aid of rythm, making it now slow, now fast or, even, held suspended according to the emotion or sentiment of the words….’]

A couple of decades earlier (not from such a different generation than Frescobaldi, though – after all, Frescobaldi had put similar remarks to paper in the preface to his first book, published in 1615), Giulio Cesare Monteverdi wrote a response to Giovanni Artusi’s polemic L’Artusi, ‘or On the Imperfections of Modern Music (1600).’ In this short essay, Giulio Cesare defended the secular vocal polyphony of his famous brother Claudio against Artusi’s attacks with a deft choice of words: basically, he invented a new set of rules for composition, calling his brother’s style the ‘second practice’ (literally, seconda prattica) in comparison to the earlier, time-honoured traditions of the ‘first practice’ (prima prattica), in which the correctness of contrapuntal writing was considered more important than the immediate emotional impact of the text being sung. The defence he wrote is one of the immortal works of musical invective:

‘My brother says that he does not compose his works at haphazard, because, in this kind of music, it has been his intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant, and because it is in this manner that his work is to be judged in the composition of the melody. Of this Plato speaks as follows: The song is composed of three things – the words, the harmony and the rhythm…and so of the apt and the unapt, if the rhythm and the harmony follow the words, and not the words these…do not the manner and diction of the words follow the disposition of the soul? Indeed, all the rest follows and conforms to the diction….His [Monteverdi’s] opponent seeks to attack the modern music and defend the old. These are indeed different from one another in their manner of employing the consonances and dissonances….he has called it second and not new…because he understands its explanation to turn on the manner of consonances and dissonances in actual composition.’ (Il quinto libro de madrigali, 1605 – many thanks to Rob Haskins for providing the emergency scan of this translation!)

In short, Giulio Cesare Monteverdi was arguing for the meaning of a text to be the dominant factor in determining the structure and technical apparatus of a piece of music (he even mentions a bit of Plato in a later essay in order to quell the fears of even the most earnest army of Classicist pedants who got jittery, I’m sure, at even a mention of the word ‘modern’ — isn’t it funny that he resorted to pseudo-Classical language to explain an aesthetic of anti-theory?). Fundamentally, however, his ‘second practice,’ or Frescobaldi’s mention of that funny word, ‘modernity,’ while both sounding like advertisements for a totally new way of composing, really do depend on the affective elements of ‘traditional’ composition – in both writers’ cases, the ‘modern’ style depends on listeners understanding the emotional and intellectual associations of gestures used in the relatively conservative polyphonic style of their forebears. An essentially parasitic compositional aesthetic aside, the difference between the stile antico and the seconda prattica has more to do with attitude than anything else.

Now, why am I mentioning these relatively well-known documents of seventeenth-century Italian performance practice? The thing is, I think that these writings merit a second glance with respect to just what is so fresh and ‘modern’ about the music of the Baroque as it developed toward the opening years of the seventeenth century. This is the kind of modernity that I, as a musician and just as a thinker, really appreciate. It’s not the sort of modernity that discards the past with a derisive shrug. Rather, it’s a sort of connoisseur’s modernity, if you will. The message transcends its forms but, also, it plays upon them and upon the connotations created by certain artistic forms and structural elements – it does not destroy its forms.  In playing a toccata by Frescobaldi, for example, one can create a truly effective performance by understanding just how an unprepared dissonance makes its effect against a backdrop of ‘implied’ polyphony, or one can go to madrigals of Monteverdi or Luzzaschi and make comparisons between passaggi provided with texts and the textless passaggi of Frescobaldi’s keyboard writing and, perhaps – just perhaps – imagine ‘words’ in the toccata as well.

Here’s a question (which I do not yet pretend to verbally answer): in reviving earlier music, how do we give the modern listeners all of that ‘back story’ in a performance? Do we make the modern listener listen to Willaert or Palestrina (two composers in the tradition of the prima prattica) for a month before being allowed to listen to a toccata by Frescobaldi? Does a concert-goer, before buying his ticket to hear the Fifth Book of Madrigals of Monteverdi, first have to go through a screening process that involves an exam on sixteenth-century counterpoint and the preparation of dissonances?