Singing Games in Early Modern Italy: The Music Books of Orazio Vecchi.
Singing Games in Early Modern Italy is the more recent result of a long-term research project conducted by Paul Schleuse (an associate professor of music at Binghamton University, State University of New York) on the music of the Modenese composer Orazio Vecchi, (1550-1605). This research began as a doctoral dissertation at the City University of New York (2005) and has continued for a decade with several articles and the critical edition of the Selva di varia ricreatione (Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2012).
Despite its subtitle (The Music Books of Orazio Vecchi), which refers to the whole of Vecchi's output, this monograph is not "a comprehensive account of the composer's life and works", as the author himself declares (p. 3), since nothing is said about Vecchi's significant books of sacred music, and little space is given to biographical accounts. The focus is centred on Vecchi's secular books, which are examined in chronological order, chapter by chapter. The first deals with the first and second books of his Canzonettas for four voices (1580), as well as the Madrigali a sei voci (1583), and special attention is given to the tripartite work for seven voices that concludes the collection, L'hore di ricreatione (the complete edition of which is provided by Schleuse in the Appendix). The second chapter is dedicated to Vecchi's remaining canzonetta collections of the 1580s and to the Madrigali a cinque voci (1589). Schleuse then examines the four principal collections by Vecchi, which are characterised by the inclusion of different musical genres within a single print. The Selva di varia ricreatione (1590) and the Convito musicale (1597) are the subject of the third chapter, while L'Amfiparnaso (1597) and Le Veglie di Siena (1604) are discussed in the fourth and fifth chapters, respectively. In the sixth and last chapter, Schleuse analyses a few selected compositions by Vecchi in order to show "the means of imitation such music employs and the commentary it offers on class, frequently through its depiction of sexuality" (p. 245).
Schleuse examines Vecchi's compositions in an innovative and evocative manner. Developing on the approach in the seminal article by Laura Macy ("Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal", [ Journal of Musicology 14, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 1-34]), Schleuse investigates the psychological and emotional condition of people performing Vecchi's music at the time of its publication in order to understand from within the special and original appeal it exerted on its contemporary consumers. In early modern Italy, the performance of secular polyphony played a very important social role: singing a vocal part in a polyphonic group signified above all the construction, together with others, of a shared, deeply meaningful, emotional, and intellectual world. It implied an interplay that was multifaceted: the "social acts of choosing music, singing it, and then discussing the pieces and their execution" (p. 176). Such interplay is described in some important texts cited by Schleuse such as Doni's Dialogo della musica and Castiglione's Cortegiano (not to mention the copious paintings representing groups of people performing music for their own pleasure). This complex interaction gained special status and significance between the late-sixteenth and the earlyseventeenth centuries, and Schleuse's book is a successful attempt to demonstrate that Vecchi's output is one of the most interesting manifestations of that period.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Vecchi's work is that he never repeats himself; he bestows a special and individual character to every one of his books. This is evident in the four main collections of his last period with their original and evocative titles, but it is also present, albeit perhaps less visible, in his earlier, more conventional, collections of canzonettas and madrigals. To point out this specific element, Paul Schleuse uses a different fundamental concept for each chapter: 'recreational polyphony', 'intertextuality', 'the music book as metaphor', 'picturing theatre', 'games as music', and 'representation and identity in musical performance'. I would like to give an example of how these fundamental concepts are employed. Schleuse centres the second chapter on intertextuality to demonstrate how "Vecchi's madrigals and canzonettas [...] frequently point to other poems or musical works either through explicit responses (risposte) to other works of his own or through poems modeled in various ways on some of the most popular texts of the period" (p. 43). A particularly acute analysis by Schleuse examines Vecchi's rewriting of the theme of Guarini's Tirsi morir volea, the well-known poem describing a sexual encounter concluding with a simultaneous orgasm, that was set to music by numerous musicians (pp. 64-75). Vecchi, who was also a good poet, "adopted this scenario--and played with the expectations it raised with readers and listeners--in at least four different pieces" (p. 65). He changed the name of the characters and gave alternative, sometimes more explicit, descriptions of the dynamic of the encounter, but he always maintained Guarini's model. "Listeners familiar with Guarini's poem or any of its settings will, in all likelihood, find humor [...] in Vecchi's blunter, earthier treatment of the scenario [...]. The successful recognition of these intertextual references constitutes one of the game-like aspects of recreational singing that pervade Vecchi's music" (p. 67).
Vecchi's paraphrasing of Guarini also offers us an example of Schleuse's effective approach to musical analysis, and here I am referring to the pages dedicated to the three-part madrigal Tremolavan le frondi e la marina from the Madrigali a cinque (1589). In the poem, which opens with a description of a delightful marine landscape that acts as the backdrop to an amorous encounter, a woman whispers to her partner that she is nearing enjoyment, and he (the poetic first person) then joins his beloved in the final pleasure. "The depiction of climax in the female partner's quoted speech is especially clear: the repeated settings of 'ohime, ohime', sung to expressive falling thirds, lead to a vivid interrupted cadence followed by a rest at the end of the parte. This incomplete cadence and the notated silence that follows it represent her inability to speak at the moment of orgasm rather than the more objective 'completion' that a regular cadence would suggest" (p. 72). It is a pity that the brilliant and insightful readings of the poetical texts set to music by Vecchi are not always accompanied by analytical remarks about the corresponding music itself. For when they do appear, they always provide useful elements to understanding Vecchi's musical thought.
Of particular interest is the interpretation Schleuse offers of L'Amfiparnaso, a work the composer defined as "comedia harmonica" (an expression usually translated in English as madrigal comedy). It is a collection of pieces in the different styles of late-Cinquecento secular music (madrigal, canzonetta, dialogue, etc.), placed in a coherent frame by a comic plot where each piece corresponds to a different theatrical scene. Schleuse's concern is to remove the layers of inappropriate readings of this work as theatrical sketches that appeared after Vecchi's death, and instead to place it "within a context of early modern print culture, music, and sociability that facilitates richer readings of his [Vecchi's] highly individual music" (p. 9). Particularly thought-provoking is the detailed analysis of the woodcut illustrations representing theatrical situations that adorn each scene of L'Amfiparnaso, in comparison with woodcuts included in prints of actual comedies.
Singing Games in Early Modern Italy is the first monograph dedicated to Vecchi published after the proceedings of the international conference commemorating the fourth centenary of Vecchi's death (Theatro dell'udito, theatro del mondo, atti del Convegno internazionale, nel IV centenario della morte di Orazio Vecchi, Modena-Vignola, 29 settembre-1 ottobre 2005, ed. by Massimo Privitera [Modena: Mucchi, 2010]). But it is not only a new and important step in the interpretation of an original and fascinating composer during "the autumn of the renaissance". More generally speaking, Singing Games in Early Modern Italy is a brilliant work that helps us to broaden our understanding of the dynamics--both social and individual--that dominated music in early modern Italy. And because of its relevance, I would like to suggest that, in the case of a new edition, the author revise the orthography and versification of the Italian poems (which are not always correct).
University of Palermo (Italy)