Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Italian Traditions and Puccini Part 3

Rules of Versification

Italian poetry is founded on a fixed system of standardized verse types that were consolidated in the early 18th century in the opera reforms of Apostolo Zeno and in the countless opera seria libretti most notably those by Metastasio. It was not until Arrigo Boito in the 1860s that librettists began straying from these forms. Baragwanath explains the various types of poetic lines, organized by length. Those of us who have read and listened to Derrick Goff at BCBC these past two years (or longer) will find this merely a review, but it is good to see the author giving such importance to information that was so essential to the construction of these operas and to their performance. While this strict system of versification may strike some as restrictive, in fact it allowed composers a great deal of freedom to write within these structures and for singers to ornament and improvise. Great liberties could be taken on such a firm foundation. 

For this reason, the modern idea of a strict hierarchy of beats, in which the first or third beats of a common-time measure are always regarded as more or less “accented” in comparison with the others, should be applied with caution.

Despite the widespread use of this method, most theorists found it difficult to explain these rules in word, but some did. (Baragwanath cites many. There is too much detail to list here, which is why the book itself is so highly recommended.) 

Although the guiding principles of musical rhythm and poetic meter for composing vocal music were strict, composers who adhered too closely to the models ran the risk of being labeled “hacks.” Methods of explaining this in the treatises of the 18th and 19th century vary, but what they all agree on is the primacy of poetic meter rather than metrical pulse in musical composition. This practice held from roughly 1680 until 1830 when ideas about music from the north began to take hold in Italy. While these practices continued to remain in force to a certain extent (especially in the smaller more conservative institutions like the one in Lucca where Puccini was trained), conservatories slowly moved towards a more Austro-Germanic conception of music based on the bar line and regular phrase structures. 

Baragwanath explains in length the musical ideas promoted by Bonifazio Asioli. Sadly, there is no available English translation of his work which severely hinders any penetration into the English-speaking conservatory. This is a shame as studying the way the composers of our repertoire conceived their music would be an immense help for those of us interpreting it in performance. So much is assumed by these composers of singers who were trained in the very same manner as they were. One can only hope that there will be further exploration of Asioli’s writings to make them more accessible to singers, coaches, and conductors. Until that happens, Baragwanath’s summary of Asioli’s teachings will suffice. He goes through each of the Italian poetic meters starting with the endecasillabilo on down. Readers of Derrick Goff’s work on this subject will be familiar with much of the terminology used. (All the more reason his libretto course is a must!) 

The Partimento Tradition

Until recently, not much had been written about the manner in which the Italian composers and singers were trained, however over the past two decades or so a number of scholars have begun to explore the available materials used in musical training on the Italian peninsula and other areas where Italians were at various times in charge of musical instruction. These authors include Cafiero, Gjerdingen, Rosenberg, Sguinetti and Stella. This has been an extraordinary task because for the most part the information is gleaned from various papers and materials found in archives. The main manner of training is called partimento. It is somewhat difficult to explain, but in general it is something of a combination of figured bass realization and composing with a cantus firmus. 

The term partimento began the eighteenth century as a regional variant of basso continuo. Neapolitan maestros, instead of viewing basso continuo as a mechanical process for deriving chords from a numerical shorthand, developed their own system for training performers and composers. They used basses as cues for the recall and adaptation of various styles or modi, which in turn were constructed on the framework of numerous schemata taught by rote. The power of this system, which helped ensure the success of hundreds of indigent boys, lay in its simple method of integrating the craft knowledge of small harmonic-contrapuntal schemata into the aesthetic, performative experience of a complete musical movement. (Robert Gjerdingen, “Partimento, que me veux-tu?” Journal of Music Theory 51: 126)

The prescribed line in partimento was not necessarily the bass. It could be the soprano, alto or tenor line as well, or the prescribed notes might jump from one part to another. What this method developed was creativity and an ability to improvise musical ideas. This helps explain why so many musicians were so adept at creating music on the spot or improvising variations in live performances. It also explains how composers were able to produce so much music so quickly. Singers were so well practiced in it that they were the ones who taught it to all receiving musical instruction. (In other words, the great composers were taught this method by singers. Pause a moment and let that sink in.) Moreover, the teaching of singing was considered essential for composers to learn to compose melodies. Most significantly, the performance of opera was a collaboration between composers and singers, not one recreating music for the other to “interpret.” Of course, composers could trust singers to vary and ornament in performance in the appropriate style since they had all been taught in the same method. 

There is far more detail about this and other topics in the book, far too much to condense into a few blog posts. Also included are excerpts from the operas of Bellini and Puccini showing how this training played out in their works. One topic of particular interest was how composers were taught to use particular devices to portray certain affects. Tempo in particular was thought to portray the emotion. Again, Baragwanath refers to Asioli to show that composers used the tempo markings and a few key indicators like affettuoso, amoroso, grazioso, etc. to indicate the affect to be portrayed in the piece. 

Most of this information was new to me. What wasn’t I learned at Caramoor (now Teatro Nuovo). There is a good reason that 18th and 19th Italian music tends to be neglected by music theorists who were only trained in German methods. It was created by musicians trained in a significantly different system and does not always conform to Austro-Germanic norms. The difference in Italian music is not by defect but by design. It is a failure of music theory textbooks if they cannot clearly explain the structure of an aria or ensemble in an opera by Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini. Fortunately, a number of authors are exploring the Italian training methods and how they relate to the music. This repertoire is far too popular to have suffered this neglect in college music classes for so long. Now that is (slowly) being rectified. 

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