article 32: da organi et da tocco

By the slenderest of bibliographic threads hangs the following brief tale of a bitter loss: that of a book of ricercars, intabulations, and unspecified other works by one of the greatest contrapuntists of the 16th century.

Giulio Segni, called da Modena after his birthplace, was a student of Giacomo Fogliano (1468-1548), whose memorial stone, still to be seen in the Duomo, recalls 44 years of service as its organist. Both master and pupil are on record as being outstanding harpsichordists – Segni was said, in fact, to be better on the stringed instrument than on the organ, despite his being made second organist of San Marco in 1530 (see article 7). That was during Adriaan Willaert’s reign as master of the Doge’s chapel, and with the support of the venerable Fleming, Segni undertook one of the most important projects in the history of music publication: Musica Nova (1540), a collection of ricercars, accomodata per cantar et sonar sopra organi; et altri strumenti, of a new type: composed in strict counterpoint, rather than the quasi-improvisations which the term had previously covered. In spite of the standardized assertion that the 20 ricercars could be sung, this is music for instruments, and especially for keyboard. It paved the way for all future independent instrumental polyphony. New fewer than 13 works are by Segni, while Willaert furnished three masterpieces.

A major history of the music at San Marco, written by Francesco Caffi and published in 1854, refers to a book Segni had printed in 1550:

ricercari, intabulature, ecc., da organi et da tocco,”

“Ecc.” is an ellipsis decided upon by Caffi in order to save space. Although G. Gaspari published a long article containing osservazioni and corrections to Caffi’s work in the Gazzetta musicale di Milano (XIII, 1855), he was full of praise for his colleague, and Caffi seems indeed reliable in matters such as title citations. But no further trace of Segni’s book has been found. Howard Mayer Brown trusted Caffi, and listed it as “lost” (“Instrumental Music Printed Before 1600”), New Grove includes the citation s.v. “Sources of keyboard music to 1600” but mutilates it, and C. Colin Slim’s brilliant doctoral dissertation (“The Keyboard Ricercar and Fantasia in Italy”, Harvard 1960) confused the issue somewhat by conflating the reference with an unconnected one in Anton Francesco Doni’s Libreria (1550). It seems that Caffi knew of a print by Segni containing ricercars, intabulations of vocal music and other pieces (“ecc.”) which is now lost.

Aside from the volume’s lamentable disappearance, the title as quoted leaves one deeply dissatisfied – and not just because of the tantalizing “ecc.”. It was customary for early keyboard publications to list more than one mode of performance, with organi usually (but not always) taking first place. But nowhere else does the expression da tocco occur. Slim called it “curious”. I would go further and call it “absolutely unique”.

The noun tocco itself has various meanings related to “touch”, “feeling”, or “strike”. I, of course, would wish da tocco to mean “for harpsichord”, or at least “for stringed keyboard”. But the related word toccata can apply equally to all keyboards, and to the lute family as well. John Koster found tocco in John Florio’s “A Worlde of Wordes” (1598), the first Italian-English dictionary. Florio gives a secondary meaning, tocco di campana – “a knock, a stroke, a knell, or peale, or toule upon the bells”. This gives me a faint ray of hope, since the old word for harpsichord, “clavicimbalum”, means “keyboard bells”.

But I must reluctantly admit that the late C. Colin Slim, who gave us the first modern edition of Musica Nova, was right when he wrote, “The question remains unanswered.” And he still is.

May 8, 2021

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