Gramophone guest blog

Introducing a new approach to singing Renaissance music

Robert MeunierTue 21st April 2015

Following the natural rhythms of speech makes for a bold new performance style

The Italian Renaissance has given us great music as well as great art. But the music remains little known, and the great solo songs when performed have been let down by a stilted, over-literal performance style. In our video (at the end of this blog), which presents one of the classic songs of the period, we adopt a very different and new approach, taking our cues from the Renaissance itself. 

Michelangelo, who wrote the words of the song, could be as eloquent with the pen as he was with brush and chisel and was highly regarded as a poet by his contemporaries. He met regularly with his circle of accomplished writers and poets. I imagine a sort of Poets’ Round Table in the Eternal City. The poem to which the song is set - Come harò donque ardire (‘How, then, will I ever have the nerve’) - appears in a songbook alongside works by Petrarch and other celebrated poets. Written just after he completed the Sistine Chapel ceiling and was creating his statue of the Dying Slave or ‘slave to love’, as I see it, his words are as passionate as his painting or sculpture. They are a lament for unrequited love, the poet abandoning hope and sinking into resignation and despair. The composer of the song, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, was one of the leading musicians of his time, a singer and lutenist serving such prominent patrons as Isabela d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia. The song itself, one of the most affecting works of its kind in the early Italian repertoire, conveys a remarkable depth of personal feeling.

Our performance style in the video is based specifically on the musical treatises and related sources of the early Renaissance, when singing was regarded not as an isolated art but essentially as a variety of persuasive speech. Singers of the period – unlike those of more recent times - modelled their art on that of the actor or orator, giving their words the natural emphasis and rhythm of actual speech (and heightening their effect by appropriate gestures). That not only meant avoiding monotonous rhythms and artificial accents but also, more positively, taking liberties with the scores, varying the tempo, adding nuances, stretching and swelling notes in expressive ways, emphasising certain words, downplaying others, always ensuring that every syllable came across clearly. This creates an irregular vocal rhythm which contrasts expressively with the underlying metric pulse of the song provided by the lute. In the video Kate Macoboy has a way with the words of the song that reflects that of a native Italian speaker, projecting the words of her song with flair, freedom and directness. We discover that a singer’s toolbox was extensive when we read descriptions from writers of the dramatic passion rendered in inflaming the listener’s mind as well as moving their emotions.

Here are some things to listen out for in Macoboy's performance. In the second line of the poem, beginning ‘Senza voi’ (‘without you’), ‘voi’ falls on a weak beat, she deliberately comes in early, ahead of the lute and gives the important word the emphasis it needs. Another example is in the fifth line, beginning ‘Che’l miser’ (that miserable’). The first word, ‘che’, is given a long note and rests in a prominent position in the score, but ‘miser’ is one of the most important words in the line requiring emphatic delivery. The singer shortens the unimportant written note, ‘che’. It serves as a pickup note to ‘miser’ where Kate accents, swells and lengthens the first syllable of this word, cutting short the second, as in normal speech. In this case, notated rhythms needed adjustments. Nuances like these recur throughout the song and are the key to its expressive effect. 

The Arab Hall at Leighton House is similar in size to the rooms where this music was performed in Michelangelo’s time and has a suitably modest yet sympathetic acoustic. It is a splendid and intimate setting for the lover’s heartfelt song. 

Song without English subtitles:

Song with English subtitles:

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2015