Musica Dolce: Program Notes

"Musica dolce," sings Dafne, "sweet Music, thou art the true likeness of Heaven." The same thought, a commonplace of musical apologetics, can be found towards the end of the preface in Le Nuove Musiche, that defensive and fascinating record of the singer Caccini's career: "A thing of great beauty and delight by nature [the art of music] becomes something to be admired and gains the love of others wholly when those who possess it, exercising it often through teaching and delighting others with it, reveal it as a sample, a veritable image, of those ceaseless heavenly harmonies from which come all good things on earth, arousing the minds of its listeners to the contemplation of the infinite delights afforded in heaven." What was probably true in 1640 for Cavalli, doubtless more than just echoing a poetic image of the time, and certainly for Caccini in 1602, introducing his new affective singing style, remains true for us, three and a half centuries later: the sound of a solo voice, artfully managed and lightly accompanied, does much to prepare us for the anticipated pleasures, whether active or passive, of a single angel with harp. It is, as Caccini says earlier, "music of that total grace that I hear ringing in my mind."

Three aspects of a song contribute especially to the listener's delight: the singer's vocal mastery, the intimacy of the experience, and a clear understanding of the text. Caccini carefully considered all three requirements. Intonation, tone-color, dynamics and fitting ornamentation are all discussed din detail in his preface, one of the most important documents we have about contemporary performance and one that, in conjunction with the songs themselves seems to take for granted levels of virtuosity and control that we should find almost unimaginable nowadays. (That Caccini was not exceptional in his demands on a singer's technique may be seen by comparing the music written for the Three Ladies of Ferrara by Luzzasco Luzzaschi and published one year before Le Nuove Musiche).

An appropriate setting for the new way of singing was obviously essential. Caccini and his colleagues are reported to have chosen "the smaller rooms [for their performance] since they considered that in the larger ones one could not enjoy the sweetness of the style..." This dolcezza refers not only to affective sensuality, but also to the absence of force, the love of soft sounds, gentleness--an ironic comment on our present worship of vocal fire power, particularly in the tenor voice, bringing the listeners physically closer to the singer ensured an intimacy vital for following and appreciating every nuance, every change of emotion in the voice."

But the smaller performing spaces preferred by the advocates of musica recitativa had one further enormous advantage: they helped the audience to hear the words. Twenty years before the publication of Le Nuove Musiche, Caccini had been present in the house of Count Giovanni de Bardi in Florence, when the intellectual and artistic group known as the Camerata had discussed ancient Greek musical practice, and in particular the setting of poetry. What had emerged from those discussion s was a general dissatisfaction with the polyphonic madrigal whose text underlay permitted different words or syllables to be heard simultaneously in several voices, and a determination to favor the text by giving it to a single narrator. Plato had declared that "music is naught but speech, with rhythm and tone coming after and not vice versa." The Florentine neo-Platonists could at least quote that cardinal statement as evidence of their historical accuracy, even if their actual reconstruction of the Greek modes fell short of complete accuracy. "Prima la parola, poi la musica" was to be for many years a guiding principle in Italian song, certainly until the eventual domination of the opera aria by the virtuoso singer and his public.