The Florentine Camerata

In the years centering on 1600 in Europe, several distinct shifts emerged in ways of thinking about the purposes, writing and performance of music. Partly these changes were revolutionary, deliberately instigated by a group of intellectuals in Florence known as the Florentine Camerata, and partly they were evolutionary, in that precursors of the new Baroque style can be found far back in the Renaissance, and the changes merely built on extant forms and practices. The transitions emanated from the cultural centers of Northern Italy, then spread to Rome, France, Germany, and Spain, and lastly reached England.

The Florentine Camerata, also known as the Camerata de’ Bardi, were a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama. They met at the house of Giovanni de’ Bardi, and their gatherings had the reputation of having all the most famous men of Florence as frequent guests  After first meeting in 1573, the activity of the Camerata reached its height between 1577 and 1582.

Prior to the Camerata’s inception, there existed a popular sentiment among the Camerata’s Renaissance contemporaries that music should mimic the ancient roots of the Greeks. The current day’s thought held that the Greeks used a style between speech and song, and this belief guided the Camerata’s discourse. They were influenced by Girolamo Mei, the foremost scholar of ancient Greece at the time, who held—among other things—that ancient Greek drama was predominantly sung rather than spoken. Foundational for this belief was the writing of the Greek thinker Aristoxenus, who proposed that speech should set the pattern for song.

Largely concerned with a revival of the Greek dramatic style, the Camerata’s musical experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo. Cavalieri was the first to employ the new recitative style, trying his creative hand at a few pastoral scenes. The style later became primarily linked with the development of opera.

The criticism of contemporary music by the Camerata centered on the overuse of polyphony at the expense of the sung text’s intelligibility. Excessive counterpoint offended the ears of the Camerata because it muddled the affetto (“affection”) of the important visceral reaction in poetry. It is the job of the composer to communicate the affetto into an audible, comprehensible sound. Intrigued by ancient descriptions of the emotional and moral effect of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy, which they presumed to be sung as a single line to a simple instrumental accompaniment, the Camerata proposed creating a new kind of music. Instead of trying to make the clearest polyphony they could, the Camerata voiced an opinion recorded by a contemporary Florentine, “means must be found in the attempt to bring music closer to that of classical times.”

The musical style which developed from these early experiments was called monody. In the 1590s, it developed into a vehicle capable of extended dramatic expression through the work of composers such as Jacopo Peri, working in conjunction with poet Ottavio Rinuccini. In 1598, Peri and Rinuccini produced Dafne, an entire drama sung in monodic style: this was the first creation of a new form called “opera”. Though Peri’s Dafne was the first performed opera, its music has been lost to the centuries. Instead, Euridice, his second opera is most-often heralded as the history-making work. The new form of opera also borrowed, especially for the librettos, from an existing pastoral poetic form called intermedio; it was mainly the musical style that was new. The instrumentation for an opera from the Camerata composers (Caccini and Peri) was written for a handful of gambas, lutes, and harpsichord or organ for continuo.

Other composers quickly began to incorporate the ideas of the Camerata into their music, and by the first decade of the seventeenth century the new “music drama” was being widely composed, performed and disseminated. Instead of an immediate decline in contrapuntal vocal music, there was a time of coexistence and then an eventual synthesis of monody and polyphony. Florence, Rome, and Venice became the Italian capitals of innovation and synthesis.

Transition from Renaissance to Baroque in Instrumental Music

One key distinction between Renaissance and Baroque instrumental music is in instrumentation; that is, the ways in which instruments are used or not used in a particular work. Closely tied to this concept is the idea of idiomatic writing, for if composers are unaware of or indifferent to the idiomatic capabilities of different instruments, then they will have little reason to specify which instruments they desire.

According to David Schulenberg, Renaissance composers did not, as a general rule, specify which instruments were to play which part; in any given piece, “each part [was] playable on any instrument whose range encompassed that of the part.”Nor were they necessarily concerned with individual instrumental sonorities or even aware of idiomatic instrumental capabilities. The concept of writing a quartet specifically for sackbuts or a sextet for racketts, for instance, was apparently a foreign one to Renaissance composers. Thus, one might deduce that little instrumental music per se was written in the Renaissance, with the chief repertoire of instruments consisting of borrowed vocal music.

Howard Brown, while acknowledging the importance of vocal transcriptions in Renaissance instrumental repertoire, has identified six categories of specifically instrumental music in the sixteenth century:

1. vocal music played on instruments
2. settings of preexisting melodies, such as plainchant or popular songs
3. variation sets
4. ricercars, fantasias, and canzonas
5. preludes, preambles, and toccatas
6. music for solo voice and lute

While the first three could easily be performed vocally, the last three are clearly instrumental in nature, suggesting that even in the sixteenth century, composers were writing with specifically instrumental capabilities in mind, as opposed to vocal. In contention of composers’ supposed indifference to instrumental timbres, Brown has also pointed out that as early as 1533, Pierre Attaignant was already marking some vocal arrangements as more suitable for certain groups of like instruments than for others. Furthermore, Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, host of the Florentine Camerata, was demonstrably aware of the timbral effects of different instruments and regarded different instruments as being suited to expressing particular moods.

In the absence of idiomatic writing in the sixteenth century, characteristic instrumental effects may have been improvised in performance. On the other hand, idiomatic writing may have stemmed from virtuosic improvised ornamentation on a vocal line – to the point that such playing became more idiomatic of the instrument than of the voice.

In the early Baroque, these melodic embellishments that had been improvised in the Renaissance began to be incorporated into compositions as standardized melodic gestures. With the Baroque’s emphasis on a soloist as virtuoso, the range of pitches and characteristic techniques formerly found only in virtuosic improvisation, as well as the first dynamic markings, were now written as the expected standard. On the other hand, some of the instrumental genres listed above, such as the prelude and toccata were improvisation-based to begin with. Even in the early sixteenth century, these genres were truly, idiomatically instrumental; they could not be adapted for voices because they were not composed in a consistent polyphonic style.

Thus, idiomatic instrumental effects were present in Renaissance performance, if not in writing. By the early Baroque, however, they had clearly found their way into writing when composers began specifying desired instrumentation, notably Claudio Monteverdi in his opera scores.

Another crucial distinction between Renaissance and Baroque writing is its texture: the shift from contrapuntal polyphony, in which all voices are theoretically equal, to monody and treble-bass polarity, along with the development of basso continuo. In this new style of writing, solo melody and bass line accompaniment were now the important lines, with the inner voices filling in harmonies.

Caccini, Le Nuove musiche, 1601, title page

The application of this principle to instrumental writing was partly an extension of the forces of change in vocal writing stemming from the Florentine Camerata and their head Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, who deliberately sought to change the way music was written, and adopted an overarching goal of a music renaissance. In a c. 1580 letter to Giulio Caccini, a composer and member of the Camerata, Bardi decried counterpoint’s obscuring of the text in vocal settings and advocates a return to the music of the ancient Greeks, which he believed consisted of a single melodic line and simple accompaniment, allowing direct, intelligible expression of the text. He instructed Caccini to “make it your chief aim to arrange the verse well and to declaim the words as intelligibly as you can.” While Bardi’s letter dealt with vocal music, the principle of a single, clear melody dominating a simple accompaniment easily carries over to the instrumental realm. This is seen in the proliferation of hitherto unknown solo instrumental sonatas beginning shortly after Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche in 1601.

The rise of instrumental monody did not have its roots exclusively in vocal music. In part, it was based on the extant sixteenth-century practice of performing polyphonic madrigals with one voice singing the treble line, while the others were played by instruments or by a single keyboard instrument. Thus, while all voices were still theoretically equal in these polyphonic compositions, in practice the listener would have heard one voice as being a melody and the others as accompaniment. Furthermore, the new musical genres that appeared in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, especially the instrumental sonata, revealed a transition in ways of thinking about composition and performance, from a collaboration of equals to a soloist backed up by a relatively unimportant accompaniment. In addition, even in the mid sixteenth century, most works for voice and lute were conceived specifically as such. In the realm of English ayres, for instance, this meant that composers such as John Dowland and Adrian Le Roy were already thinking of a dichotomous melody and bass, filled in not with counterpoint but with chords “planned for harmonic effect.”

A third major difference between Renaissance and Baroque music lies in which instruments were favored and used in performance. This is directly related to a larger shift in musical aesthetics, again stemming chiefly from the Florentine Camerata. In his Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna, Vincenzo Galilei, like Bardi, lauds the music of the Greeks, convinced that their music had “virtuous and wonderful effects” on listeners, while saying that modern composers did not know how to “express the conceptions of the mind [or] how to impress them with the greatest possible effectiveness on the minds of the listeners.” The idea that music could and ought to move or impress listeners and provoke certain archetypal emotional states evidenced a change in thinking about music. This went hand-in-hand with the transition from polyphony to monody discussed above, for a solo instrument or pair of instruments would ideally be not only be the sole melodic vehicle but also be capable of “impressing [the listeners] with the greatest possible effectiveness.”

This necessarily led to a change in the types of instruments that were preferred by composers, for many instruments of the Renaissance were greatly limited in pitch range, being designed only to play a discreet role in a consort of instruments, as well as in dynamic scope. Entire families of instruments, such as racketts and shawms, were unsuited to carrying a solo melodic line with brilliance and expressiveness because they were incapable of dynamic variation, and fell into disuse or at best provided color in string-dominated ensembles. The low instruments of the woodwind consorts were all but abandoned. Even in the string family, members of the viol family – except for the bass viol which provided the necessary basso continuo – were gradually replaced by the new and highly virtuosic violin. The lute and viola da gamba continued being written for in an accompanimental role but could not compete with the violin in volume. The shawm was replaced by the oboe, which had a more refined sound and was capable of dynamic nuance. The cornett, which in the Renaissance tended to function as the soprano member of the sackbut family, survived in the early seventeenth century as a solo instrument, even having a large repertoire rivaling that of the violin, but eventually disappeared as well. However, Renaissance instruments did not vanish from use quickly; contemporary references indicate such instruments survived in chamber or military contexts well throughout the seventeenth century and even into the eighteenth.

As a general rule, however, one can see in the Baroque an overwhelming preference for those instruments that were capable of carrying a melodic line alone: those that were louder and higher, that could achieve a variety of dynamics, and that lent themselves to virtuosic display and emotional expression, none of which the Renaissance instruments were designed to do. Lower-pitched instruments, those that could not vary dynamics, or those that were cumbersome, were deprecated. Thus, the supremacy of melody in the Baroque mind had wide-reaching consequences in the instrumental choices made by composers and makers.

A change between Renaissance and Baroque styles can also be discerned in the realm of orchestration, or instrumental groupings. As has been discussed above, instruments in the sixteenth century were grouped together, either as fixed (“whole”) or broken (mixed) consorts: fixed consorts consisting of instruments from the same family (such as recorders or viols) or broken being a combination of instruments from different families (like the English consort), with or without voice. As the century went on, small mixed consorts of unlike instruments remained the norm.

St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where the Gabrieli’s innovations in orchestration were first heard.

Regardless of the type of ensemble, a heterogeneous texture prevailed in these ensembles and in the works they played; each member of the ensemble had a distinct part in the texture, which they played through from beginning to end. In the late sixteenth century, however, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice began experimenting with placing diverse group of performers – instrumental and vocal – in antiphonal locations around the vast interior of the church, in what became known as cori spezzati (divided choirs).

Such music allowed for highly dramatic effects, with sudden shifts in volume, articulation, timbre and texture, for not all of the choirs were the same size, and could be made up of radically different combinations of voices and instruments. With the addition of the basso continuo in the early seventeenth century, the concertato style (stile concertato) had essentially been developed, featuring a larger overarching ensemble out of which smaller groups were selected at will to play successive musical phrases in different styles, or to perform simultaneously in different manners. Thus, one phrase might be soloistic, the next set in imitative polyphony, the next homophonic, the next an instrumental tutti, and so on. Alternatively, a chorus could declaim a text homophonically while violins played in an entirely different style at the same time – in a different register, in a different location in the church, all performed over a basso continuo. The stile concertato spread throughout Europe and was particularly dominant in Italy and Germany, later forming the basis of the Baroque concerto, the concerto grosso, and the German cantata.

Composers of the Transitional Period from Renaissance to Baroque

Giulio Romolo Caccini (also Giulio Romano) (8 October 1551 – buried 10 December 1618) was an Italian composer, teacher, singer, instrumentalist and writer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. He was one of the founders of the genre of opera, and one of the most influential creators of the new Baroque style.

The stile recitativo, as the newly created style of monody was called, proved to be popular not only in Florence, but elsewhere in Italy. Florence and Venice were the two most progressive musical centers in Europe at the end of the 16th century, and the combination of musical innovations from each place resulted in the development of what came to be known as the Baroque style. Caccini’s achievement was to create a type of direct musical expression, as easily understood as speech, which later developed into the operatic recitative, and which influenced numerous other stylistic and textural elements in Baroque music.

Caccini wrote music for three operas—Euridice (1600), Il rapimento di Cefalo (1600, excerpts published in the first Nuove musiche), and Euridice (1602), though the first two were collaborations with others (mainly Peri for the first Euridice). In addition he wrote the music for one intermedio (Io che dal ciel cader farei la luna) (1589). No music for multiple voices survives, even though the records from Florence indicate he was involved with polychoral music around 1610.

He was predominantly a composer of monody and solo song accompanied by a chordal instrument (he himself played harp), and it is in this capacity that he acquired his immense fame. He published two collections of songs and solo madrigals, both titled Le nuove musiche, in 1602 (new style) and 1614 (the latter as Nuove musiche e nuova maniera di scriverle). Most of the madrigals are through-composed and contain little repetition; some of the songs, however, are strophic. Among the most famous and widely disseminated of these is the madrigal Amarilli, mia bella.

1. L’Euridice, Act 1, Scene 2: Cruda morte
2. L’Euridice, Act 1, Scene 3: Se de’ boschi i verdi onori
3. L’Euridice, Act 3, Scene 5: Biondo arciere che d’alto monte Aureo fonte
4. Amarilli, mia bella

Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554/1557 – 12 August 1612) was an Italian composer and organist. He was one of the most influential musicians of his time, and represents the culmination of the style of the Venetian School, at the time of the shift from Renaissance to Baroque idioms.

Though Gabrieli composed in many of the forms current at the time, he preferred sacred vocal and instrumental music. All of his secular vocal music was composed relatively early in his career; he never wrote lighter forms, such as dances; and later he concentrated on sacred vocal and instrumental music that exploited sonority for maximum effect. Among the innovations credited to him – and while he was not always the first to use them, he was the most famous of his period to do so – were dynamics; specifically notated instrumentation (as in the famous Sonata pian’ e forte); and massive forces arrayed in multiple, spatially separated groups, an idea which was to be the genesis of the Baroque concertato style, and which spread quickly to northern Europe, both by the report of visitors to Venice and by Gabrieli’s students, which included Hans Leo Hassler and Heinrich Schütz.

Like composers before and after him, he would use the unusual layout of the San Marco church, with its two choir lofts facing each other, to create striking spatial effects. Most of his pieces are written so that a choir or instrumental group will first be heard on one side, followed by a response from the musicians on the other side; often there was a third group situated on a stage near the main altar in the centre of the church. While this polychoral style had been extant for decades (Adrian Willaert may have made use of it first, at least in Venice), Gabrieli pioneered the use of carefully specified groups of instruments and singers, with precise directions for instrumentation, and in more than two groups. The acoustics were and are such in the church that instruments, correctly positioned, could be heard with perfect clarity at distant points. Thus instrumentation which looks strange on paper, for instance, a single string player set against a large group of brass instruments, can be made to sound, in San Marco, in perfect balance. A fine example of these techniques can be seen in the scoring of In Ecclesiis.

Gabrieli’s first motets were published alongside his uncle Andrea’s compositions in his 1587 volume of Concerti. These pieces show much influence of his uncle’s style in the use of dialogue and echo effects. There are low and high choirs and the difference between their pitches is marked by the use of instrumental accompaniment. The motets published in Giovanni’s 1597 Sacrae Symphoniae seem to move away from this technique of close antiphony towards a model in which musical material is not simply echoed, but developed by successive choral entries. Some motets, such as Omnes Gentes developed the model almost to its limits. In these motets, instruments are an integral part of the performance, and only the choirs marked “Capella” are to be performed by singers for each part.

There seems to be a distinct change in Gabrieli’s style after 1605, the year of publication of Monteverdi’s Quinto libro di madrigali, and Gabrieli’s compositions are in a much more homophonic style as a result. There are sections purely for instruments – called “Sinfonia” – and small sections for soloists singing florid lines, accompanied simply by a basso continuo. “Alleluia” refrains provide refrains within the structure, forming rondo patterns in the motets, with close dialogue between choirs and soloists. In particular, one of his best-known pieces, In Ecclesiis, is a showcase of such polychoral techniques, making use of four separate groups of instrumental and singing performers, underpinned by the omnipresent organ and continuo.

5.   O quad suavis a 7, C. 10
6.   O Jesu mi dolcissima, C. 24
7.   Three Mass Movements: Sanctus-Benedictus: Kyrie
8.   O Jesu mi dolcissima, C. 56
9.   Kyrie, C. 71-73
10. In ecclesiis, C. 78
11. Lieto godea sedendo, C. 113
12. Canzoni septimi toni
13. Canzon primi toni a 10, C.176
14. Canzoni et sonate: Sonata XIX a 15


Engraving of Hassler by Dominicus Custos, 1593

Hans Leo Hassler (baptized 26 October 1564 – 8 June 1612) was a German composer and organist of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras.

Hassler was one of the first to bring the innovations of the Venetian style across the Alps. Through his songs, “in the manner of foreign madrigal and canzonets,” and the Lustgarten, Hassler brought to Germany the villanellecanzonette, and dance songs of Gastoldi and Orazio Vecchi. As the first great German composer to undertake an “Italian Journey,” Hassler’s influence was one of the reasons for the Italian domination over German music and for the common trend of German musicians finishing their education in Italy. While musicians of the stature of Lassus had been working in Germany for years, they represented the older school, the prima pratica, the fully developed and refined Renaissance style of polyphony; in Italy new trends were emerging which were to define what was later called the Baroque era. Musicians such as Hassler, and later Schütz, carried the concertato style, the polychoral idea, and the freely emotional expression of the Venetians into the German culture, creating the first and most important Baroque development outside of Italy.

Though Hassler was Protestant, he wrote many masses and directed the music for Catholic masses in Augsburg. While in the service of Octavian Fugger, Hassler dedicated both his Cantiones sacrae and a book of masses for four to eight voices to him. Due to the demands of the Catholic patrons, and his own Protestant beliefs, Hassler’s compositions represented a skillful blend of both religions’ music styles that allowed his compositions to function in both contexts. Thus, many of Hassler’s works could be used both in the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran. During his time in Augsburg, Hassler only produced two works that were specifically meant for the Lutheran church. Under the commission of the free city of Nuremberg, the Psalmen simpliciter was composed in 1608, and was dedicated to the city. Hassler also produced the Psalmen und christliche Gesänge, mit vier Stimmen auf die Melodeien fugweis komponiert in 1607 and dedicated it to Elector Christian II of Saxony. Stylistically, Hassler’s early works exhibit reflections of the influence of Lassus, while his later works are marked by the impressions left on him by his studies in Italy. After returning from Italy, Hassler incorporated polychoral techniques, textural contrasts and occasional chromaticism in his compositions. His later masses were characterized by light melodies juxtaposed with the grace and fluidity of the madrigalian dance songs; thus creating a charming sacred style that was more sonorous than it was profound. His secular music—madrigals, canzonette, and songs among the vocal, and ricercars, canzonas, introits and toccatas among the instrumental—show many of the advanced techniques of the Gabrielis in Italy, but with a somewhat more restrained character, and always attentive to craftsmanship and beauty of sound. However, Hassler’s greatest success in combining the German and Italian compositional styles existed in his lieder. In 1590, Hassler released his first publication, a set of twenty-four, four-part canzonette. The Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesang, Balletti, Galliarden und Intraden, which contains thirty-nine vocal and eleven instrumental pieces, is Hassler’s most renowned collection of lieder. Within this work, Hassler published dance collections for four, five, or six string or wind instruments with voice and without continuo. He also composed Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret, a five-part piece. Its melody was later combined with the text O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden of Paul Gerhardt, in which form it was used by Bach in his St Matthew Passion. Bach also employed the melody as a counterpoint to the aria Komm, du süße Todesstunde in Cantata 161 and used it once again as the final chorale in that same cantata.

Along with many of his contemporaries, Hassler sought to blend the Italian virtuoso style with the traditional style prevalent in Germany. This was accomplished in the chorale motet by employing the thorough bass continuo and including instrumental and solo ornamentation. Hassler’s motets exhibit this blend of the old and the new in the way they reflect both the influence of Lassus and the two four-part chorus style of the Gabrielis.

Hassler is considered to be one of the most important German composers of all time. His use of the innovative Italian techniques, coupled with traditional, conservative German techniques allowed his compositions to be fresh without the modern affective tone. His songs presented a combined vocal and instrumental literature that did not make use of the continuo, or only provided it as an option, and his sacred music introduced the Italian polychoral structures that would later influence many composers leading into the Baroque era.

15. Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr
16. Si bona suscepimus à 8
17. Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng, Balletti, Galliarden und Intraden: No. 5 Ach Schatz, Ich Sing Und Lache
18. Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng, Balletti, Galliarden und Intraden: Galliarde: All Lust Und Freud


Monteverdi by Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1630)

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (baptized 15 May 1567 – 29 November 1643) was an Italian composer, choirmaster and string player. A composer of both secular and sacred music, and a pioneer in the development of opera, he is considered a crucial transitional figure between the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music history.

Much of Monteverdi’s output, including many stage works, has been lost. His surviving music includes nine books of madrigals, large-scale religious works, such as his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) of 1610, and three complete operas. His opera L’Orfeo (1607) is the earliest of the genre still widely performed; towards the end of his life he wrote works for Venice, including Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea.

While he worked extensively in the tradition of earlier Renaissance polyphony, as evidenced in his madrigals, he undertook great developments in form and melody, and began to employ the basso continuo technique, distinctive of the Baroque. No stranger to controversy, he defended his sometimes novel techniques as elements of a seconda pratica, contrasting with the more orthodox earlier style which he termed the prima pratica. Largely forgotten during the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, his works enjoyed a rediscovery around the beginning of the twentieth century. He is now established both as a significant influence in European musical history and as a composer whose works are regularly performed and recorded.

19. Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206: Invitatorium: versiculum et responsorium Deus in adjutorium (1610)
20. Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206: Concerto “Duo Seraphim”
21. Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206: Psalmus “Nisi Dominus”
22. Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206: Gloria Patri
23. Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206: Sicut erat
24. Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206: Conclusio: versiculum et responsorium Domine, exaudi orationem meam
25. Beatus vir primo, SV 268 (1630)
26. Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti, SV 251 (1632)
27. Selva morale e spirituale: No. 8, Crucifixus, SV 259 (1641)
28. Selva morale e spirituale: No. 27, Sanctorum meritis II, SV 278
29. L’incoronazione di Poppea: Act 3, scene 8: Coro di Amori: “Or cantiamo giocondi” (1643)
30. L’incoronazione di Poppea: Act 3: “Pur ti miro”
31. Messa, salmi concertate et letanie: No. 9, Laetatus sum I, SV 198 (1650)

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