The Chitarrone

by Bernhard Reichel

Alessandro Piccinini’s Toccata XII and the modern style

Around 1600 music radically conquered new living spaces in Italy.

With the seconda pratica, composers broke away from the rigid corset of the counterpoint of a Palestrina or Orlando Di Lasso and an unprecedented plurality of styles and genres emerged.

The newly created opera develops a theatrical musical language that immediately affects the madrigal and thus all other musical forms of early Italian Baroque music.

As a result of the invention of the “monody”, the accompanied solo singing, the powerful and voluminous chitarrone (Italian big guitar) develops from the delicate, double-choir lute. With its 14 strings and a neck about two metres long, it is as if it was made for opera – the accompaniment of singers from the orchestra pit. The instrument becomes the symbol of a new musical epoch and composers such as Alessandro Piccinini and Girolamo Kapsberger write the first solo music for it.

The instrumental music breaks free from the shadow of the human voice and discovers its own cosmos of ambience, colours, dynamics and rhythm.

Through the emancipation of instrumental music from vocal music, an independent musical aesthetic has emerged alongside its own genres (toccata, canzone, sonata etc.).

On the one hand this is expressed in the Stylus Phantasticus: Works that should sound as if they were improvised, with short sections full of character that explore sound and technical extremes.

The alchemist and universal scholar Athanasius Kircher described it in his Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650) as a “free form of instrumental music that does not impose strict rules on the composer’s imagination/ that is not bound by words or a cantus firmus/ that gives the composer wide scope for development and the opportunity to go to the limits of his art/ in free forms such as fantasias, toccatas, ricercare and sonatas.”

In order to explain their innovations and make them accessible to other musicians, composers write detailed forewords and tracts, which, however, are often difficult to understand in the context of their time.

Among the most important and, for the Chitarrone, first sources of this period is Alessandro Piccinini’s (1566 – 1638) Intavolatura di Liuto et di Chitarrone, libro primo (1623). In his preface “a gli studiosi” he explains in detail and patiently the techniques of the new Chitarrone and gives a few hints how to perform his music.

And yet the toccatas remain mysterious. There are neither tempo indications nor hints about the dynamic arrangement. The short pieces seem so extravagant that performances according to the standards of our modern tradition of “romantic music” are not appropriate and contribute to the lack of understanding of this music.

„… come ueggiamo usarsi ne i Madrigali moderni …“ – Frescobaldi 1616

Clarity in this case is only possible if you broaden your view and include the other existing sources.

The most cited, best known and most frequently published source on toccatas at the time can be found in the work of the Roman organist and harpsichordist Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583- 1643).

The extensive preface “Al lettore” from his Toccate e partite d’intavolatura, Libro 1 (Rome 1616) explains in detail how these toccatas are to be performed in the new style and opens up undreamt-of freedom in this music to the interpreter.

Nevertheless, he refers to the Madrigali moderni as a model for interpretation, which in turn creates confusion due to the enormous variety of styles. The final step is now to go through the numerous madrigal books from 1620 to about 1640 in order to finally decipher this style, indeed this music.

„… there is a wonderful power in them to move the sensation …“ – Aquilino Coppini 1609

In the end, the reappraisal of these sources and the “sinking” into this style showed the incredible creative possibilities that an instrumentalist in the Stylus Phantasticus possesses.

Now, for the first time in music history, a mature interpreter is needed, the performance of the virtuoso, who can individually shape the music at any time and bring in his personal feelings and emotions.

Instead of madrigalistic interpretations of words of the late Renaissance, composers now concentrate on the representation of mental states, they want to generate empathy by means of music, the textual representation becomes a representation of human emotions, the musician becomes a performer instead of a narrator. And that is the real revolution of the “stile moderno”.

The book on classical guitar – for all who want to know more (incl. QR codes for the ultimate music enjoyment)!

Stories about the classical guitar, from the most important composers to the most beautiful works and the most interesting performers.

Experience the guitar through stories from its history.

In my video I would like to give an insight into the sources and show how they can be applied in practice. I would like to go into the structure of the piece, take it apart, explain it and finally put it together again as a whole.

I invite the audience to join me in my search for the Madrigali moderni, to travel together through the Italy of the early baroque period and to understand the short Toccata XII in all its facets, so that when the audience finally listens to it, a resonance is created between the audience and the work and the spark for the music of this epoch is ignited.


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