Proportions in Monteverdi's Orfeo - Cheat-sheet!

19th August 2017

So, originally I wanted to make a whole episode about tempo proportions in the music of the early 17th century. Unfortunately I found out that it's not really possible; the sources do not give clear answers, and there is no single set of rules, even within one composer’s oeuvre, that one could follow. It is almost impossible to say anything which is both correct and helpful. In the 16th century the situation is not much better. In Ruth DeFord's words, "Musical reality was too complex and diverse to be reducible to formulas, and no amount of classifying or theorising about symbols can eliminate the need for musical judgment in interpreting them" ["Tempo Relationships between Duple and Triple Time in the Sixteenth Century", in Early Music History, Vol. 14 (1995), pp. 51].

Nevertheless, as performers we must make decisions. The following "cheat-sheet" contains the decisions I made for the tempo proportions in Monteverdi's Orfeo. They are by no means the "true"/"correct" version; if there was such a version life would have been easier. The proportions I suggest are rather simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, you will rarely find them in the recordings of early music stars. In most recordings the approach is that each movement can have its own tempo. This approach, as modern as it is, definitely started in the 17th century (for example, Frescobaldi writes that the tempo of the individual sections of his Partite can be varied [first book of toccatas, 1615]). Nevertheless, I find that keeping a particular beat allows a certain flow between movements and highlights the variety of rhythms written by Monteverdi.

The "cheat-sheet" is made using Peter Rottländer edition (CPDL). One of the difficulties of this subject is that the notation (both of the original and of modern editions) might be very confusing and unhelpful in understanding where [the hell] the beat is. The marked beats are the smallest shared beat between sections; it is not necessarily the beat with which the movement should be counted. When it is, I use the label "tactus".

I hope that this is helpful!

[download here a PDF version]

[pages 9-10]

[pages 28-29] [notice how the beat and the original bar lines has nothing to do with each other...]

[pages 30-31]

[pages 32-33] [in this case, according to my understanding, the time change occurs one bar before it's written in the edition. In the original the notation is even more complex...]

[pages 106-107]