Text, Rhythm, Action!



The Beginning of the Baroque

These 'new' priorities come from the first years of the 17th century, the 'beginning of the Baroque'. Of course, Jacopo Peri didn't wake up on Jan 1st saying "the Renaissance is over, now I'm baroque"! The labels 'Renaissance' and 'Baroque' are themselves later constructs, and modern scholarship (for example Victor Coelho's research on lute-song) has shown 'baroque' ideas emerging in the last decades of the 16th century. Nevertheless, the year 1600 itself heralded no less than three 'first operas' -  Cavalieri's Anima e Corpo, Peri's and Caccini's rival settings of Euridice - and Caccini's book of New Music, Le Nuove Musiche, was ready for printing in 1601 (after delays in the press, it was published in 1602).

 

It's now accepted that, rather than blazing a new trail, Le Nuove Musiche  is a summary of recent developments in music (solo song accompanied by plucked strings) and performance aesthetics (seeking to move the audience's passions, muovere gl'affetti ), presented in a fashionable new medium: figured 'continuo'-bass. Caccini's Preface succinctly identifies and orders the key priorities:

 

1. Text
2. Rhythm
 
 
and Sound last of all
(and not the other way around!) 
 

Quella maniera cotanto lodata da Platone, & altri Filosofi, che affermarono la musica altro non essere, che la favela, e’l ritmo, & il suono per ultimo, e non per lo contrario…”

 

That style so much praised by Plato and other [ancient] Philosophers, who affirmed music to be nothing else than the text, the rhythm, and the sound as the last, and not as the contrary. 

 
Whilst Text and Rhythm are the period priorities for music, for performance in general the highest priority was 'delivery' - not only the material to be performed, but the way of putting it across, in order to move the passions of the audience. 'Delivery' is only one of the five divisions of Rhetoric - Inventio (discovery or invention), Dispositio (organisation, arrangement), Elocutio (style), Memoria (memory), Pronuntio (delivery, performance) - but from ancient times it was recognised as the most practically effective. Powerful delivery can triumph even over superior material. 
 
The 17th century followed Cicero (1st cent BC) and Quintilian (1st cent AD) in citing the great Greek orator Demosthenes (4th cent BC):
 
What are the three secrets of great performance?
 
1. Action!
2. Action!
3. Action!
 

Demosthenes, being demanded the question, Which was the first point of Eloquence? he answered, Action: Which was the second? He answered, Action: and which was the third, he said, Action, still.

[Plutarch's Life of Demosthenes, cited by John Bulwer in Chironomia or the Art of Manual Rhetoric 1644]

 

 
Bulwer also cites numerous classical authorities for the exchange of performance-techniques between orators and actors: Demosthenes and Andronicus; Cicero and Roscius, the comedian, or Aesop the tragedian. And he praises the great 17th-century poet and preacher, John Donne, for his "look and hand", "speaking action", "carriage", "gesture" and "motion" - all this in the pulpit. The hearts of the listeners are "vanquish'd by deliverie". 
 

Yet have I seen thee in the Pulpit stand

Where one might take notes from thy look and hand;

And from thy speaking action beare away

More Sermon then some Teachers use to say.

Such was thy carriage, and thy gesture such,

As could devide the heart, and conscience touch:

Thy motion did confute, and one might see

An error vanquish'd by deliverie.

    Mr Mayne of Christ Church, Oxford Elegy on John Donne cited by Bulwer 1644

 

So our 'new priorities' for Historically Informed Performance are taken from Caccini and his contemporaries, reflecting the general aesthetic of the 'long 17th century'. 
 
Text - Rhythm - Action

 

These priorities can guide research and preparation, training and rehearsal, as well as the performance itself. They can indicate the order in which to work (singers can begin with text, rather than with sound); the division of time in rehearsal (more than half the available rehearsal time can be devoted to text work); and the priorities to be maintained by coaching comments (directors can constantly recall performers' attention to the text).
 
Of course, these three priorities are inter-related. Suit the Action to the Word 
writes Shakespeare. He also links Action to dramatic timing: poorly timed Action will seem ridiculous to the uninformed spectator and will disappoint more  discerning critics. 
 

Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful

laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.

Hamlet's advice to the Players

 

The dramatic timing of music-drama is Rhythm.
 
More about Rhythm soon...
 

 

Read the complete Advice to the Players speech here.


Download "Text, Rhythm, Action!" research poster here

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More about "Text, Rhythm, Action!" projects here

Research Questions here
 
 

New Priorities

in Historically Informed Performance