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Saturday morning quotes 3.28: Solfeggio

November 23, 2013


“Only beginners in the study of music solmized, and the singer-composers working at the French Court and the Sixtine Chapel most probably sight-read their vocal parts even at the first rehearsal of a new piece of music; to say that the colleagues of Josquin, Claudin, and others harmonized by ear would be a highly surmised and unprovable assertion. But, like solfeggio to a modern singer, after sufficient training, solmization became an automatic subconscious process to a Renaissance music performer; it is therefore important for us to understand the workings of the Guidonian hand in the training of music reading by mental transposition which in conjunction with the notion of the species of perfect fourths and fifths allowed the identification of modulations not indicated by flat nor sharp signs.”

– Gaston Allaire, “Debunking the Myth of Musica Ficta,” Tijdschrift van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, Deel 45, No. 2 (1995), p. 111.

Joe Venuti is an example of a musician who, like musicians of 500 years ago, learned the rudiments of music and then learned to play from the heart.  He wrote an excellent tutor on how to improvise, Violin Rhythm, a School of Modern Rhythmic Violin Playing, by Joe Venuti, Robbins Music Corp, 1937.

“Formal training? I think a cousin started to teach me when I was about four. Solfeggio, of course. That’s the Italian system under which you don’t bother much about any special instrument until you know all the fundamentals of music. It’s the only way to learn music right.”

Giuseppe “Joe” Venuti (c.1903 – 1978)

Venuti was also a compulsive practical joker and is said to have once called every bass player in New York and asked them to meet with him on a particular street corner. More than 50 bass players arrived with their cumbersome instruments, creating a traffic jam. For his pains, Venuti was required by the musicians union to pay the bass players for their time.

Another musician who undoubtedly learned traditional solfeggio and subsequently performed without the need for notes was pioneering guitarist, Eddie Lang / Salvatore Massaro (1902 – 1933), Bing Crosby’s close friend and Joe Venuti’s musical collaborator until Lang’s premature death in 1933.  The popular orchestra leader, Paul Whiteman, had this to say about Eddie Lang:

“Eddie played with our band over a long period of time during which I had less trouble with rhythm than at any other time…No matter how intricate the arrangement was, Eddie played it flawlessly the first time without ever having heard it before or looking at a sheet of music.  It was as if his musically intuitive spirit had read the arranger’s mind and knew in advance everything that was going to happen.”

Paul Whiteman (1890 – 1967)

Back from travels and back on track next week with an essay on a 16th-century Italian/French lutenist in England.

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