article 67: Calamitous

Looking through the sad, dusty, discounted remainders of CDs on the street of a big German city, I recently came across a sampler from a once-flourishing major label run by Gustav Leonhardt’s longtime recording producer. (Alice Harnoncourt told me the man was “nicht seriös”.) The group being promoted was a Belgian ensemble for very early music which I heard when they first presented themselves at the Bruges competition in 1972 (there was great hilarity when they were presented as “four Dutch girls and a Belgian”), and which still appears sporadically on what is left of the concert circuit. The disc contained a performance of what is possibly the first and probably the most famous chromatic part-song of the 16th century, Cipriaan de Rore’s Calami sonum ferentes. The recording was lugubrious to a degree, to the exclusion of all other possible musical values. It so irritated me that I decided to look into the piece, which I had never really studied, to try and see what it actually had to say.

The text is always the starting point for vocal music. In this case it is a Latin poem by the Ferrara court poet Giovanni Battista Pigna (1530-75):

Calami sonum ferentes Siculo levem numero
Non pellunt gemitus pectore ab imo nimium graves:
Nec constrepente sunt ab Aufido revulsi.
Musa quae nemus incolis Sirmionis amoenum,
Reddita qua lenis, Lesbia dura fuit;
Me adi recessu principis mei tristem.
Musa deliciae tui Catulli
dulce tristibus his tuum
iunge carmen avenis.

The pipes that carry the sound of light Sicilian rhythms
Cannot drive away the heavy weeping that comes from the depths of my breast;
Nor even those plucked from the roaring river Aufidus.
You, o Muse, who haunt the lovely woods of Sirmio,
You who were as gentle as Lesbia was harsh,
Come to me, saddened at the departure of my prince.
Muse, the delight of your Catullus,
To these sad pipes
Lend your sweet song.

The historical background is refreshingly straightforward. The prince who has departed is Alfonso d’Este, son of de Rore’s patron Duke Ercole II. Against the duke’s will, in 1552 Alfonso went to war for King Henry II of France in the last of that country’s interminable Italian wars. Calami is the third of three Latin poems by Pigna lamenting Alfonso’s absence, imitating the meters of three poets of antiquity. Catullus is being parodied here, and the lines generally decrease in length to give the appearance of a shepherd’s panpipes, which are the locus or topicus of the poem.

I have checked a few other performances online, and all choose to emphasize – not to say exaggerate – the importance of the second line of the text. Many commentaries talk of four bass voices, whereas in the original three clefs are baritone, and one is sub-bass, which descends as far as D. The tessitura is certainly not high, but with the high pitches prevalent around Venice the song would have not sounded quite as dark as the Belgians and others paint it, and in any case, a group of four unaccompanied men’s voices could have pitched it wherever they wanted.

I usually rail against overly-fast tempi in recent Historically (mis-)Informed Performance Practice, but for this piece, everyone rushes to the opposite extreme. De Rore has clearly chosen a true alla breve for this antiquizing work, not the beat on the semibreve, which according to Zarlino had become universal by the mid-16th century. The many syncopations make no sense at all when the tempo is dragged through the mud.

But what I mainly object to is the prevailing imbalance in text-interpretation. The first three lines are about “light Sicilian rhythms” and the “roaring river Aufidus,” the old name for the Ofanto in southeastern Italy which was noted for its raging floods. (It was also known as the Canna in Antiquity, another word for “reed”.) These elements, it is true, do not succeed in quelling the poet’s “heavy weeping”, but to ignore them deprives the text of its full meaning and destroys the composer’s masterly contrast with the appeal to the Muse (bar 37 in the attached score). The unrest of the opening passage is an essential element in the work’s buildup. Note that the “light Sicilian rhythms” are, if the text is taken literally, what is in fact being played on the poet’s imaginary pipes.

The German-American musicologist Eduard Lowinsky was so perplexed by the extreme chromaticism in Calami that he thought it was an anti-chromatic joke. Nothing could be further than the truth! It may not be de Rore’s masterpiece, but it is full of ingenious strokes*, and the chromaticism is always used to express the text. Most of the tonal turbulence is in the restless opening section, with another upwelling in bars 60-73 on the text “saddened by the departure of my prince”. The closing section, with the Muse dwelling in the woods of what is now Sirmione on Lake Garda where Catullus had his villa, is purest pastoral serenity.

To me, the astounding experiments in extreme chromaticism take second place to the proto-recitative aspects. It really looks at times (especially after bar 55, with its pathetically disjointed, renewed appeal to the Muse) like an attempt at cantar parlando, such as would finally come into full bloom with monody.

And I think it is no coincidence that the piece was written just after 1548, when Dominicus Pisaurensis built a harpsichord for Zarlino in nearby Venice with 24 notes to the octave. Ferrara and Venice were the hotbeds of chromatic experimentation, and Luzzasco Luzzaschi of the former was later said to be the only keyboardist capable of manipulating the most elaborate archicembali. Accompaniment of Calami on a harpsichord with split keys would have been almost mandatory in a piece of such difficulty for voices, no matter how well-trained. I have attached an intabulation on two staves with the voices strictly separated 1/2 and 3/4 – difficult enough to read, with the way they jump around and cross hands, but polyphonic clarity must have priority. (Note the way de Rore changes the voicing in the chanson-like repeat of the gorgeous final passage from bar 96.) The reader is free to revise for playability or make their own intabulation, but beware of errors one finds online, and of assumptions I have made about pitches, especially regarding musica ficta. The text underlay can be found in several online versions.

The accompanying sound clip was made in my home practice studio, but thanks to the efforts of my decades-long producer Jürgen Rummel, the sound turned out better than I could have hoped. Since I do not own a split-key harpsichord, the tuning is a modified 6th-comma meantone. As John Koster has shown, this was probably what was commonly in use for stringed keyboards at the time, rather than the highly-touted quarter-comma meantone.

October 12, 2022

*To name just a few: in bar 36 a bass E is held longer than the preceding E major chord and used as a leading tone to the F-major “Musa” – rather like Mozart’s procedure at the opening of the overture to “Don Giovanni”, but more radical; the lilting sesquialtera in bar 41 paints the “lovely woods of Sirmio” to perfection; the first departure of the prince in bar 60 is marked by horse rhythms; and in bar 82 “Catullus” is appropriately self-deprecating when naming himself with a false relation that became a classic.

click to listen (mp3 file)

- back -