Alma veni vocemque tuam, qua flumina sistis funde, canas mecum dulce novumque melos.
(‘Come, kind one, and pour forth your voice, with which you make rivers stand still, sing with me a sweet, new song.’)
We all love a good myth, and in music history there’s none better than the story of Don Carlo Gesualdo, the murderous prince whose guilt drove him to madness and the composition of a strange, unhinged music of wild harmony and extreme mood-swings. It’s taken most of a century since the rediscovery of his music to uncover the real story of how he came to write his astonishing chromatic madrigals – that they arose from the context of more than 50 years of harmonic research and experiment, much of it centred on the Este court in Ferrara – yet this bigger story, and the comparably extraordinary achievements of the composers who populate it, is still little known and even less appreciated.This afternoon’s concert, ‘Chromatic Renaissance’, aims to tell at least part of this remarkable, and at times bizarre, tale.
Chromaticism – the use of notes that lie outside a piece’s governing modal or tonal framework – is a rare and exotic bloom in Western music. It flourishes only when theoretical and expressive conditions allow: that is, when the system in which musicians understand the relationship of one tone to another permits for it to occur, and more importantly when composers desire to use it for expressive purposes. In the 14th century it appears in the work of Machaut and composers of the ars subtilior as a coloration (= ‘chroma’) of modal harmony, adding dashes of piquancy to the music’s sound; by the end of the 15th century composers were beginning to explore chromatic shifts outside the mode for more deliberately expressive purposes by transposing the Guidonian gamut logically beyond its normal limits into more far-flung areas of tonal space. Further inspiration for this exploratory zeal came from readings of Ancient Greek authors who spoke of three ‘genera’ of music: the Diatonic (roughly corresponding to the modal system of the time), the Chromatic (based on the interval of the chromatic semitone) and the Enharmonic, the most exotic of all, which entailed the use of microtones.
In the 1520s and ’30s there was much discussion of this Ancient Greek music, and how it might be revived within the music of the present age. In Venice, Adriano Willaert composed a famous musical puzzle in which tonal space seemed to lock into an Escher-esque impossible spiral through transpositional logic; Giovanni Spataro experimented with melodic uses of the chromatic and enharmonic genera (though never with microtones); but it was the composer and theorist Nicolà Vicentino who became the most celebrated and notorious practitioner of this new-old art. Arriving in Ferrara most likely in the late 1530s he established himself at the Este court, and in 1551 took part in a famous debate with Vicente Lusitano on the subject of whether it was possible for the chromatic and microtonal genera to exist in modern music. Doubtless piqued at losing the debate, Vicentino published in 1555 his treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (‘Ancient Music adapted to Modern Practice’) in which he achieved a modern ‘enharmonicity’ by dividing the interval of a tone into five roughly-equal steps, thereby producing a 31-degree scale. He constructed a two-manual, split-key harpsichord (the archicembalo) and similar archiorgano to play music using this scale, and wrote madrigals which employ these minute shifts of pitch for novel sonic and expressive effects. Sadly, his madrigal books are all lost; apart from the complete work Musica prisca caput, which demonstrates the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic genera in turn, all we have left are the fragments of madrigals with which he illustrated his treatise – only just enough to give a flavour of what must rank as one of the most amazing musical-intellectual flights of imagination in history.
Vicentino was not the only composer to see expressive potential in this new chromaticism: the Flemish Cipriano de Rore arrived in Ferrara – which was quickly becoming the nexus of harmonic experimentation – in 1546 and must have come under the older composer’s influence. His Calami sonum ferentes is the first true masterpiece of Renaissance chromaticism, a setting of a complex allegorical poem by Giovanni Battista Pigna shot through with allusions to Classical literature, expressing a desire for Prince Alfonso (patron of both Rore and Vicentino) to return home to Ferrara. Rore never published Calami; instead it appeared as the last item in the opus 1 (1555) of the prodigious young composer Orlando di Lasso (1532–94).Where Lasso had encountered it is unclear, but that he was impressed is not in doubt: the preceding work in the volume is a work of his own in chromatic style, Alma Nemes. But the nature of his chromaticism is different from Rore’s: where the latter proceeds through an intense melodic chromaticism as an expressive response to particular ideas in the text, Lasso’s has a less specific, all-over feel – a general chromatic mood rather than moments of chromatic affect, created by moving through preponderantly root-position major triads either around the circle of fifths or via chromatic steps, in a way that leaves the listener in a state of tonal disorientation.
Lasso’s first major work, Prophetiae Sibyllarum (written some time between 1555 and 1560) is also in his chromatic style: clearly, this was an attractive identity for the young composer to cultivate, not least in order to find favour with Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, whose search for musicians skilled in musica reservata (roughly, ‘connoisseur’ music) led to Lasso’s employment at his court in Munich in 1556. These are settings of the Sibylline prophecies, their pervasive chromaticism lending them an aura of otherworldliness, of divine communication. Thereafter Lasso’s engagement with the chromatic style was sporadic: two motets published in 1564 of which Timor et tremor is one (the chromaticism here clearly expressing psychic distress), and the peculiarly kinky Anna mihi dilecta (published in 1579) whose inspiration remains unknown.
By the time of Vicentino’s death in 1576, the initial explosion of interest in chromaticism and Greek genera had dissipated, and Don Nicolà himself was by then regarded as something of an eccentric monomaniac; but chromaticism as an expressive force was far from exhausted. Indeed its finest hour was arguably still to come, not only in the special genius of Gesualdo but in the music of many composers who found in it a vital key to the new expressionism that was to take over the madrigal in the 1580s and ’90s. Here we see chromaticism used judiciously as an intensifier of feeling, expressive of strong emotion, terror and mental anguish, the disorientation of the sublime, or of divine appearance.The final four madrigals today show this ‘second generation’ approach: alongside Rore’s late Da le belle contrade, Vicentino’s Ferrarese successor (and mentor of Gesualdo) Luzzasco Luzzaschi is represented by his setting from Dante’s Inferno, Quivi sospiri, and Luca Marenzio by an early madrigal, O voi che sospirate, and a late masterpiece, the great Petrarch setting Solo e pensoso.
In the centuries following Gesualdo’s death in 1613 the chromatic flower continued to bloom from time to time, spreading its perfume of strangeness and exoticism for a while; but as tonality itself became chromatically saturated in the later 19th century leading to Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance, it no longer stood out against its background – an all-over enrichment that could only lead to an expressive devaluation. Today, however, new blooms are appearing in the form of a renewed interest in microtonality – and in this context Vicentino’s pioneering work with fifth-tone scales seems suddenly prophetic. My own Primo Libro (2012–16) grew out of a fascination with this most tantalising figure, both in the details of his theories and in the fact that almost all of his music has disappeared. I decided to attempt to compose one of his lost madrigal books – not in the literal sense of a stylistic pastiche, but using his fifth-tone scale, as he did, in an attempt to create a novel and intense expression. Setting the results, as he did, in front of my own group of specialist singers I fancy I can feel the same frisson of excitement and terror Vicentino must have felt as he revealed his new art for the first time.The story of the Chromatic Renaissance, from Willaert to Gesualdo, is a story of the constant revitalisation of art through speculation, experiment and imagination of the not-yet-heard, the not-yet- experienced: a story that continues today and beyond.
James Weeks © 2017
Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594) Timor et tremor (1564)
Cipriano de Rore (1515/6–1565) Calami sonum ferentes (c. 1553)
Lasso Alma Nemes (1555)
Excerpts from Prophetiae Sibyllaum (1555–60)
Nicolà Vicentino (1511–c.1575–6) Hierusalem (1555)
Musica prisca caput (1555)
Madrigal fragments (1555)
James Weeks Excerpts from Primo Libro (2012–16), world premiere
Lasso Anna, mihi dilecta (1579)
Rore Da le belle contrade (1566)
Luca Marenzio (1553–1599) O voi che sospirate (1581)
Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c.1540–1607) Quivi sospiri (1576)
Marenzio Solo e pensoso (1599)