Montreal-born Natalie Michaud is well-known in America as recorder player and teacher. Several grants from the Canada Council enabled her to study at the Royal Music Conservatory in The Hague, after [...]
They spoke about it
“Transition” is a fitting word to describe the works performed on this recording. They were, for one thing, composed during the period marking the transition from the Renaissance to the baroque, a great ideological shift destined to profoundly transform Western music and art within a few short decades. Furthermore, Italian musicians of the period had a name — passaggi — for the many short, “transitional” and, on first impression, superfluous notes that served as the ornamental vehicle for a totally new concept of melody.
The Renaissance witnessed the triumph of vocal polyphony under the influence of the many Franco-Flemish masters composing in all the courts and cities of Europe. But the late 16th-century Italians, desiring a novel, expressive role for music, upset the delicate balance of contrapuntal construction and created, in one go, both opera and the first truly instrumental music. To be sure, they worked from forms typical of vocal music; it was customary at first for only a single voice in madrigals and songs, usually the soprano, to be interpreted by a vocalist, while the others were reduced to a relatively subdued instrumental accompaniment. Gradually, however, musical focus shifted to the harmonies stemming from the compositions and away from simple voice leading, thus establishing the foundations of basso continuo. At the same time, the emancipated vocal line was developed and embellished in many ways, and became the foremost device for expressing affetti.
Another common Renaissance practice was to perform transcriptions of vocal works on the organ, lute, harpsichord or stringed instruments, attempting, as far as possible, to imitate the human voice. The canzone of Giovanni Gabrieli, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Tarquinio Merula and Biagio Marini, though an independent instrumental form, were still modelled after the Parisian chanson, with the initial motif consisting of one long note followed by two short notes. There was at the time a genuine explosion of form: ricercare and fantasy, more conventionally polyphonic, were split, as was the canzona, into related but contrasting sections; the resulting compositional freedom foreshadowed early sonata form. Counterpoint was not forgotten, however, nor was its attractiveness to the ear; consequently, canzone began with fugatos, while, as in the work of Dario Castello, imitation turned the newly “concertante” sonata into a sort of dialogue between instruments.
The principle of variation, the earliest examples of which had their origins in Spain in the middle of the 16th century, set the stage, in tandem with simpler polyphony, for the new flowering of melody in instrumental music. Interpretation was varied by enriching pieces with glosas, diferencias and other “divisions.” A number of period treatises explain how to compose and improvise ornaments to the main melody or find original ways to fill out melody lines using passaggi, transitional notes having reduced or divided (that is, much shorter) values than those of the original melody.
For example, Giovanni Bassano illustrates his essays using then-fashionable madrigals such as Ancor che col partire by Cyprien de Rore, as well as popular French chansons such as Frais et gaillard by Clemens non Papa; similarly, the treatise of Francesco Rognoni Taeggio calls upon the chanson Suzanne un jour by Roland de Lassus and Palestrina’s madrigal Vestiva i colli, the latter also varied by Bartolomeo de Selma e Salaverde. The newer melodies had scant rapport with their predecessors; with their breathtaking technique, musicians set new standards of virtuosity.
Instrumental music then came into its own, as great numbers of musicians composed and published numerous pieces in all styles, illustrating wide freedom of invention; performers also enjoyed this freedom in selecting the tempo and character for a piece. Most collections, however, were not composed for specific instruments and in fact indicate on their title pages that the pieces may be played con ogni sorte de stromenti. The violin, cornetto and recorder were still the most popular instruments in the early 17th century, because it was felt that the inflections of the human voice could be most easily reproduced on them.
This recording features wind instruments: a classical Italian organ with two keyboards and pedals (note its vox humana registration in the Frescobaldi canzone); a recorder, the fingerings of which correspond to those found in Silvestro Ganassi’s 1535 essay Fontegara; a sackbut, ancestor of the trombone whose name derives from the movement made by the musician playing it (in old French, saquier means “pull” and bouter means “push”); and a dulcian, an instrument that Père Mersenne described as a “three-key fagot or bassoon.” Wind (in Italian, fiato) is therefore the vehicle for interpreting the virtuosic achievements of the Italian musicians who, with their tiny, transitional notes, created Baroque music.
© François Filiatrault
translation: David Scott