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The Florentine Camarata

by Don Robertson (2005)

Creating a New Style

     The Florentine Camarata was the name taken by a circle of highly educated noblemen who regularly met during the last three decades of the sixteenth century at the home of Count Giovanni Bardi (this was the “First Camarata”), then moved their meetings to the home of Jacopo Corsi (the “Second Camarata”). Bardi was a literary critic, writer, composer, and soldier born in Florence. Corsi was a composer and patron of the arts. Other members of this distinguished group included Vincenzo Galilei, a lutenist and composer and the father of the astronomer Galileo Galilei; Giulio Caccini (ca. 1545-1618) was a composer; Emilio De’Cavalieri (1550-1602), a composer from Rome; and Pietro Strozzi, an amateur musician. In their meetings they discussed the revival of Greek tragedy.
     Girolamo Mei, an erudite Florentine scholar who lived and worked in Rome, had been conducting intensive research into the ancient Greek music used in Greek drama. He was interested in the fact that in addition to the chorus, the Greeks used solo singers, and this enabled the voice to reflect the inflections of speech that passed on to the listener the emotions of the drama. He met with Vincenzo Galilei, and they ardently discussed this research. 
     Galilei realized that the style of classical music that was then current, the polyphonic choral style employed in Renaissance choral music, was not the kind of medium needed for drama, so he turned to monodic music instead, as it could metrically follow the words. Monody is a term for music that uses a single vocal part, while polyphony is music with multiple vocal parts. Galilei then experimented with solo singing accompanied by simple triads and he and the Camarata came up with a new style of music that they called stile recitativo or rappresentativo (recitative style) that allowed a single singer to express the words to the accompaniment of musical instruments. There had been a form of monody, or solo singing, already in practice, but it was aligned more with the polyphonic style.*
     To achieve coherence with the chords that accompanied the singing, the instrumental part of the music in the new style introduced a bass line called the basso continuo (also called thorough bass and figured bass), an ingenious idea that was used throughout the baroque era. Numbers were written on a bass part to indicate which chords should be played. Not only would the solo voice be freed from the choir, but instruments would be brought out into their own, a practice that Giovanni Gabrieli had been using in San Marco cathedral in Venice. Before Gabrieli, instruments had been used on occasions to accompany polyphonic music, but only as a colla parte practice of doubling voices, meaning that the instruments played the same notes as the singers.

The First Operas

     In 1587, while work on the new style was taking place, Ferdinand I of the Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany hired Cavalieri to become superintendent of fine arts and music in his court. Cavalieri had been living across the street from Mei and was involved with Galilei in developing Galilei’s ideas. Cavalieri had even built enharmonic organs, ideal for use with the new music. Cavalieri composed the music for two short pastorals, Il Satiro and La Disperazione, and these were performed in court in 1591, the same year as Galilei’s death. Both these works have been lost, but this was definitely the first of a new music no one had heard before, and a startling contrast to the style that was then current. Contemporary Alessandro Guidotti wrote that the music in these two pieces “….never had been seen or heard before by anyone.” The early operas were based on the favola pastorale, or the pastoral fable play such as Tasso’s Aminta, which was very popular at the time. 
     Cavalieri was certainly the first composer to write in the new style, which fellow composer Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) clearly credits him for. In the forward to his opera Euridice, Peri states “…Signor Emilio del Cavalieri, before any other of whom I know, enables us with marvelous invention to hear our kind of music upon the stage.” Pietro della Valle, in 1640 wrote, “…in Rome, at least, one did not know anything of the new style until Emilio de’Cavalieri brought it there from Florence in his last year,” and Cavalieri himself wrote “this [style] was invented by me, and everyone knows this, and I find myself having to say so in print.” 
     Corsi, who was hosting the Camarata by this time, along with the young poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the young singer and composer Jacopo Peri, occasionally entertained at the court of Fredinand I of the Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Corsi set a pastoral to music in the stile rappresentativo. Thus, what history records as the very first opera, Dafne, was born. It was probably not the first opera, however, as the two lost works of Cavalieri, the short pastorals, Il Satiro and La Disperazione performed in court in 1591, predated this work. Dafne was performed in Florence sometime around 1597 or 1598…we don’t know the exact date. The words for this opera were written by Rinuccini and the music was composed by Peri. Only fragments of the music exist today, some airs and a recitative.

New Sacred Music

     In 1599, Cavalieri went to Pisa with an absolutely beautiful set of Holy Week lamentations, the first set of monodies that we have any knowledge of, and they were performed there. Cavalieri was very interested in composing sacred music, demonstrating that the new style of music being developed in Florence was ideal not only for secular music, but for sacred also, mixing polyphonic choral singing with solo voices. These are the first settings in the new style of the lamentations that composers had been setting polyphonically for the elaborate Holy Week celebrations held in the major cathedrals in Italy every year. Cavalieri composed another set of lamentations, with nine responsories, and these were performed in Rome in 1600.
     Cavalieri’s lamentations, which are masterpieces, are very important historically as well. However, the composer did not live long enough to create more music. He was a bold innovator, harmonically and melodically laying new groundwork with unprepared dominant 7th chords and chromanticism that was unheard of but would soon become a common part of music. He was an important composer and most likely his sacred works most faithfully reflect the original ideas of Mei and Galilei. 
     More sacred works by other composers were published. The first sacred music scored for solo voices and basso continuo to be published were Gabriel Fattorini’s Sacri concerti a due voci that appeared in 1600. The first sacred monodies to appear in print were a set of beautiful psalms written by Giovanni Luca Conforti in 1601. A year later, Viadana’s Cento concerti ecclesiastici con il basso continuo appeared in print. 

Three Early Operas

     Between October 1600 and February 1601, three new dramatic works were published. We call them operas, but they were actually drammi posti in muica per recitar cantando. The first performance of Rinuccini’s Euridice took place at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence on October 6, 1600, and were produced by Cavalieri with music mostly written by Peri. Ambitious Giulio Caccini somehow replaced some of Peri’s arias with his own, then three days later, Caccini presented his own work Il rapimento di Cefalo, but it was little acclaimed, unlike Peri’s Euridice. Apparently extremely jealous, Caccini hurriedly composed his own setting of the Euridice libretto and published it in January 1600, just before the publication of Peri’s version on February 6. Caccini’s version was performed on December 5, 1602, but not revived. Also in 1602, Caccini’s most famous work appeared – Le nuove musiche, a collection of madrigals and strophic songs for solo voice and basso continuo. It also contained some of his music for Il rapimento di Cefalo, a pastoral performed in 1600 on Henri IV’s marriage to Maria de Medici.
      In February 1600, Cavalieri’s oratorio Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo was staged in Rome at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri of San Maria in Vallicella and it was a great success.
     The situation in Florence was not going well for Cavalieri who felt he was being upstaged by Peri and was probably angry with Caccini as well. He left Florence in anger, returning to Rome where he died just a few years later in 1602.
     Thus, was born in Florence, the system of western classical music that would dominate the baroque era and then continue to evolve into the classical music of today, along with its Italian instruments, and its Italian names, those that are commonly used in music today. We assume that initially there was a large backlash of opposition to the new style, so brave, fresh and new it was…but also, more suited to the secular world than to the sacred. The two styles would exist side by side for a while, one called the new style (stile concertato), the other the old (stile antico).

*  Two new forms of monody will result: the derived monody of Lodovico Viadana and this recitative type of monody of the Camerata.

Cavalieri's Masterpieces

Cavalieri’s Lamentatio Hieremiae Prophetae (Days 2 and 3 only)

Cavalieri’s oratorio Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo

A Deep Dive on
Early 17th-Century Music

A Deep Dive on Early 17th-Century Music

The New Musicology:
Elam Rotem

Elam Rotem is a composer, singer and harpsichordist based in Basel, Switzerland. He is a leading expert in early music, specifically the music of the turn of the 17th-century. He is the founder and director of the group Profeti della Quinta and also established and maintains the award winning website, Early Music Sources.com. (Wikipedia)