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Saturday morning quote #24: Zarlino and singers

November 5, 2011

Le Institutioni harmonicheGioseffo Zarlino (1517 – 1590) was a composer and music theorist who wrote with clarity about lofty subjects like minutely different divisions of the scale with a resulting intonation unlike the equal temperament to which we are accustomed today.  In his monumental book, Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), Zarlino paved the way for the tonal music of a later age with his discussions of triadic harmony, and he was an important mentor to the famous lutenist, theorist, and advocate for what was later known as baroque music,  Vincenzo Galilei.

Zarlino also offered some pointed suggestions for 16th century singers, guidelines that translate as a helpful list of dos and don’ts for thoughtful performers of today seeking to interpret music of the period.

Matters for the singer to observe are these: First of all he must aim diligently to perform what the composer has written.  He must not be like those who, wishing to be thought worthier and wiser than  their colleagues, indulge in certain rapid improvisations that are so savage and so inappropriate that they not only annoy the hearer but are ridden with thousands of errors, such as dissonances, consecutive unisons, octaves, fifths, and other similar progressions absolutely intolerable in composition.

By offering advice that may seem fairly obvious, Zarlino gives us clear interpretive ideas spanning the centuries.  But he also provides amusing hints as to the type of deficiencies commonly found among singers of the 16th century – including the correct application of accidentals.

Singers should aim to render faithfully what is written…intoning the correct steps in the right places.  They should seek to adjust to the consonances and to sing in accord with the nature of the words of the composition; happy words will be sung happily and at a lively pace, whereas sad texts call for the opposite.

We are treated to more comic relief in the form of sharp words for some singers who take liberties:

It is truly reprehensible and shameful for certain oafs in choirs and public chapels as well as in private chambers to corrupt the words when they should be rendering them clearly, easily, and accurately.  For example, if we hear singers shrieking certain songs – I cannot call it singing – with such crude tones and grotesque gestures that they appear to be apes, are we not compelled to laugh?  Or more truthfully, who would not become enraged upon hearing such horrible, ugly counterfeits?

We are advised to match volume to the occasion:

The singer should know too that in church and in public chapels he should sing with full voice, moderated of course as I have just said, while in private chambers he should use a subdued and sweet voice and avoid clamor.

Finally, Zarlino weighs in on movement:

Singers…should use good taste, so as not to leave themselves open to rightful censure.  Further, they should refrain from bodily movements and gestures that will incite the audience to laughter as some do who move – and this is true also of certain instrumentalists – as if they were dancing.

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