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Singing Games in Early Modern Italy: The Music Books of Orazio Vecchi

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In Italy during the late cinquecento, printed music could be found not only in the homes of the wealthy or the music professional, but also in lay homes, courts, and academies. No longer confined to the salons of the elite, music took on the role of social play and recreation. Paul Schleuse examines these new musical forms through a study of the music books of Italian priest, poet, and composer, Orazio Vecchi. Composed for minor patrons and the wider music-buying public, Vecchi's madrigals took as their subjects game-playing, drinking, hunting, battles, and the life of the street. Schleuse looks at how music and game-playing allowed singers and performers to play the roles of exemplary pastoral characters and also comic, foreign, and "rustic" others in ways that defined and ultimately reinforced social norms of the times. His findings reposition Orazio Vecchi as one of the most innovative composers of the late 16th century.

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7 Chapters

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1 The Four-Voice Canzonetta as (and in) Recreational Polyphony

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I will set down familiarly several thoughts that occur to me upon this subject, based upon the little experience I have acquired while I was conversing in houses where there was no game-playing [esercizio del gioco] but rather delightful occupations, particularly music, performed without assistance of paid performers by divers gentlemen who took pleasure and delight in it through natural inclination.

—Vincenzo Giustiniani, Discorso sopra la musica

Vincenzo Giustiniani’s Discorso sopra la musica is well known to musicologists as an important account of stylistic change in music of the last quarter of the cinquecento, in particular the rise of professionalized solo singing.1 Written, as Angelo Solerti first demonstrated, in 1628, the Discorso not only remembers events at a half-century’s remove but also places them in a context still meaningful in its own time. Far from describing the mere replacement of vocal polyphony with solo singing, however, Giustiniani recalls a musical culture in which enthusiastic amateurs enjoyed polyphony, and singing “per inclinazione naturale” was in fact considered superior to performances by “persone mercenarie.”

 

2 Intertextuality in Vecchi’s Canzonettas and Madrigals, 1583–1590

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As we have seen in chapter 1, by 1580 Vecchi had effectively invented a new genre: the four-voice canzonetta, a kind of music that found immense popularity in print and that was particularly suited to recreational singing. In his first two books of canzonettas, he established the genre’s kinship with the older villanella and with the pastoral poetic vein then coming to prominence in the contemporary madrigal. In the next decade Vecchi produced two more books of four-voice canzonettas (published in 1585 and 1590) and one of six-voice canzonettas (1587), but he also turned his hand to the more high-status madrigal in books for six voices (1583) and for five voices (1589).1 While Vecchi had contributed to two significant madrigal anthologies in the 1570s, his single-author books of the following decade demonstrate his maturation in the genre.

In this chapter, we will see how Vecchi’s madrigals and canzonettas reflect their different poetic priorities and cultural registers, particularly in the ways they 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. These intertextual references do more than simply situate Vecchi’s music in relation to these other works, however: they create a virtual dialogue between pieces that was realizable as actual conversational dialogue among recreational singers. Both by singing related songs sequentially and by discussing the similarities and contrasts between such songs, their formalized discourse about music, poetry, and love (the ubiquitous subject of so much poesia per musica), participants follow a pattern comparable to another recreational activity: game playing. As described in treatises on games by Innocentio Ringhieri and Girolamo Bargagli, courtly games are nothing other than structured conversations about a given subject.2 Game-like conversations are also depicted in Baldessare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano and Antonfrancesco Doni’s Dialogo della musica, the latter illustrating how songs alternate with conversation in a social setting.3 Musico-poetic risposte thus interact both with the works from which they are derived and with the conversations in which they are embedded; the point is not that such references are so obscure that only the most musically knowledgeable will find them but rather that holding multiple works up next to each other prompts the kind of game-like conversation that early modern sociability prized.

 

3 Forest and Feast: The Music Book as Metaphor

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Beginning with Selva di varia ricreatione (1590), Vecchi began publishing his music in large collections of pieces in a variety of genres, an approach not taken up by other composers until the rise of the concertato style in print after 1600. In the prefatory texts to Selva and to Convito musicale (1597), Vecchi explains the books’ metaphorical titles in learned and witty terms, and although these collections include a few large-scale works clearly written for performance at courtly festivities, most of the music serves the same recreational function as Vecchi’s publications in the 1580s. Both books offer a variety of genres, Vecchi explains, because variety is a source of pleasure. This argument resonates with contemporary literary debates about generic hybridity, particularly regarding the status of the pastoral tragicomedy, though Vecchi’s books crossed different sets of genre boundaries. Furthermore, both books are organized internally to reflect the principles set out in the prefaces: Selva includes groups of pieces that exemplify the categories of grave, faceto, and danzevole, which he describes in the dedication, while Convito musicale’s more complex alternation of grave and piacevole genres seeks to balance a range of affects—a goal reflected in the titular metaphor of a banquet and in the anti-Epicurean philosophy to which Vecchi alludes in the preface. Although these large and somewhat unwieldy books did not enjoy the multiple reprints of Vecchi’s successful canzonetta books, they reveal his continuing desire to cater for the contexts of recreational singing, articulating a poetic of imitation, variety, and pleasure by presenting a music book as a coherent aesthetic statement.

 

4 L’Amfiparnaso: Picturing Theater and the Problem of the “Madrigal Comedy”

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In The Italian Madrigal Alfred Einstein complained of the “oceans of ink” that had been spilled over L’Amfiparnaso, and indeed in the two centuries preceding his study, virtually all writing on Vecchi centered on this book and on its status as an operatic, proto-operatic, or dramatic work.1 It may be surprising, then, that the earliest historical writer to mention Vecchi, Filippo Picinelli, in his Ateneo dei letterari milanesi (1670), lists fourteen editions of music by the composer, and L’Amfiparnaso is not among them.2 Yet by the early twentieth century this book had become both Vecchi’s best-known work, appearing in two different editions, and the defining example of a genre, the so-called madrigal comedy.

In this chapter I read L’Amfiparnaso on its own terms and in relation to Vecchi’s contemporaneous publications rather than through the ahistorical lens of its relation to the development of opera. An explication of Vecchi’s aesthetics of variety and imitation clarifies the book’s literary hybridity and contextualizes its idiosyncratic visual presentation, particularly the woodcut illustrations and printed texts that appear at the heading of each piece. Finally, I review the reception history of L’Amfiparnaso and other works to show how the genre of madrigal comedy was theorized to define what was generally understood as a teleological dead end.

 

5 Competition and Conversation: Games as Music

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An overarching theme of this book is the way in which music by Orazio Vecchi and some of his contemporaries reveals how singing from printed music could function like a game in Italian courts, ridotti, academies, and more intimate private gatherings. The social acts of choosing music, singing it, and then discussing the pieces and their execution all mirror the phases of game playing as described in contemporary documents. This game-like process might remain relatively informal and implicit, as in the conversation with music depicted in Doni’s Dialogo, though the social activity of reading and singing Doni’s book itself would take on a game-like function as singers negotiated the various kinds of pieces the book contains, including at least one instance of an intentionally notated mistake.1 In other cases, madrigal anthologies that consist of multiple settings of the same or related texts (such as Sdegnosi ardori, L’amorosa Ero, and I fidi amanti) suggest a kind of competition among composers that would, in recreational performance, give rise to a game-like sense of formalized turn-taking.2 But indeed, any music book or selection of pieces available at a given social gathering could function in the same way. As the participants selected various pieces to sing, their choices of one composer or another, pieces of greater or lesser gravità, and genres of contrasting musical or poetic style provided opportunities for the self-fashioning performance of identity essential to much early modern gaming. As I have argued, Vecchi’s unusually varied collections Selva di varia ricreatione and Convito musicale catered specifically to this social practice.

 

6 Representation and Identity in Musical Performance

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In chapter 5 we saw how musical depictions of games inscribe standards of polite behavior in courtly and academic contexts through both positive and negative examples. While depictions of game playing may be the most metasocial form of recreational music, other imitations of courtly and noncourtly life can also reflect and critique the social structures in which they circulate. In this chapter I examine depictions of hierarchical social levels both consistent with and distinct from those of the singers (at least as the fictive character’s identity is construed in the poetic voice of the song). I am particularly concerned here with the means of imitation such music employs and the commentary it offers on class, frequently through its depiction of sexuality.

While discourses on sexuality can be difficult to parse at four centuries’ remove, a word is in order about two broad categories to which I refer, the erotic and the obscene. Roger Thompson and David O. Frantz have situated these terms within a lexicon that also includes the “pornographic” and the “bawdy,” but since their distinctions depend largely on how a reader responds to text, I have preferred to use only two categories.1 Thompson distinguishes between the “bawdy,” which is primarily humorous, and the “obscene,” which is intended to elicit shock and disapprobation, while acknowledging the frequent use of the latter in satire. “Pornography” refers specifically to material that prompts or assists literal physical arousal, but many kinds of discourse might potentially be put to this use, including the “erotic,” that is, the expression of sexuality within an approved context of love. The vast majority of sexually allusive poetry set to music in the sixteenth century partakes of the erotic in this way, but depictions of lower-class or nonnormative sexuality instead function as shockingly—and therefore also laughably—obscene.

 

Appendix: Vecchi, “L’hore di recreatione,” from Madrigali a sei (1583)

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