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Can Heteroclito Giancarli change the world?

A paper read at the Roger Covell 85th birthday celebration and symposium at the University of New South Wales on 5 March 2016

© John Griffiths 2012



People with unusual names often turn out to be unusual customers. In the 2008 film “The curious case of Benjamin Button” the fictitious protagonist with the unusual name turned out to be an elusive figure who enters this world as a newborn old man and who regresses, bit by bit, from old age to infancy. He is a mirage brought into conscious reality by cinematic magic and whose story seeks to change the course of history by reversing our understanding of the human lifecycle. Benjamin Button was a maverick. 

And so, if Benjamin Button was nought but a maverick, who is Heteroclito Giancarli? Why does he interest me? Why do I suggest that he might be able to change the world? Moreover, why would I want to tell you, and why would I want to make him the subject of my homage to my dear friend Roger Covell on such a celebratory occasion? 

Unusual name? Yes — Heteroclito Giancarli is no ordinary name. He is unlikely to be the son of your local tinker, tailor or pasta merchant. Quite to the contrary, our Heteroclito was a Venetian patrician, amateur singer who accompanied himself on the lute, and author of a collection of “Compositione musicali” published in 1602 when he already in the golden years of later middle age. You will be interested to know, all of you whose ancient Greek has fallen into disuse, that Heteroclito was indeed a maverick. His name derived from “heteros” (“other” or “different”) and “klino” (“to lean” or “to incline”) and means “a person who leans the other way, who is unconventional,” in short, a maverick. As yet, I don’t know much about Signore Giancarli, only that he was an amateur singer, he was well connected in Venice, that he was a self-confessed disciple of the mid-century singer-songwriter Hippolito Tromboncino, and that his “Compositione musicali” is the earliest Italian printed source of original lute songs. (There are many earlier sources of Italian lute songs, but they are all—without exception— arrangements of vocal polyphony, not solo songs with independently crafted lute accompaniments.) Heteroclito did not publish these songs due to ambition or vanity, but in response to the supplication of his friends. He makes clear that these were not new songs, but probably songs he had composed during the preceding twenty or thirty years.

So, how can Heteroclito Giancarli change the world? He’s been dead for four hundred years. In any case, it is not possible to change the world without something like a big bang theory.  — Do we have one?…   Maybe… Let’s see. 

What we do seem to have is an exception to conventional wisdom. We seem to have at least one other composer (maybe two —Domenico Maria Melii is next on my agenda) who published books of monodies in the same year as Giulio Caccini’s epoch-making “Le nuove musiche”.

This might give us just enough ammunition for a big bang to unsettle the pillars that shoulder one of the significant moments in the history of Western Music: the birth of opera. 

What might be achieved?… 
•        We might unsettle Giulio Caccini as the patriarch of modern monody…
•        We might unsettle Florence as the birthplace of opera… (Warren Kirkendale tried for years to promote Rome as a counter-capital, but now there’s also the possibility of Venice.)
•        We might unseat Giovanni Bardi’s so-called Florentine camerata as the laboratory that created opera out of a little chunk of clay…

Giancarli’s songs are in many ways similar to Caccini’s but their lineage is different and they allow us to propose a more realistic alternative to the theory that we’ve all swallowed for the last century: that the monodic style (and hence opera) was concocted in the Bardi Laboratories in Florence by experimental scientists Mei, Galilei and Peri who were commissioned to play with some ideas from classical Greek tragedy until they came up with something that Monteverdi could soon after label the “seconda prattica”.

My investigations in this area —seven studies published in the last fifteen years— have now transformed my focus. What was initially a study of music history has turned into an exercise in historiography. My main questions concern the way in which musical styles change, and how we construct history. On this latter point we all know that our musicological forefathers took their lead from art historians. Music history was conceived as the history of musical style. Music history was created by assembling the totality of known Western music, lining the works up in chronological order, and creating a narrative based on the evolution of their musical language. 

Now, is this music history? The very idea would probably make many of you music historians in the room cringe. How could this be real music history? Why is it still the dominant narrative in undergraduate music history courses? Today, we are much more interested in music as part of life, we see music as a key channel of human endeavour, we encourage cross-disciplinary appreciation, and we are much more concerned about its creation, its performance, its perception, its consumption etc, etc… and not simply as a series of artworks, all in a row.

Why is there a gap between what we believe and what we teach? Using today’s lenses, it is much easier to write about micro history —focussed on a narrow window of time or place— than it is to write about macro history, or anything approaching “big history” — whether it refers to a century or a millennium. We have to lose too much detail, human texture, for the sake of the overview. It is the tension between these macro and micro dimensions that is hard for us to reconcile. 

My second concern is that source-based historiography denies taking into consideration any other music that does not survive in written form. Modern interdisciplinary histories of music need to be able to consider the other unwritten forms of music that sounded alongside written repertories. It needs to happen in order to achieve a thoroughly comprehensive and realistic picture of music in human culture.

So, if Heteroclito Giancarli is going to change the world, that’s how he will help do it. It will not simply be what happened between him and a few other cronies in Venice around 1600. It is much broader. My research has been revealing a widespread practice of singing to the lute throughout the sixteenth century that is largely absent from the contemporary vision of the polyphonic renaissance. I posit that there was a courtly and urban culture of solo singing that was possibly just as audible and significant as the surviving polyphonic vocal repertory. The music was seldom written down, but is implicit from various forms of often circumstantial or sketchy evidence. It is the bit that is missing from the background that makes sense of what was to come next. It is the bit that is missing to make sense of the background from which opera emerged.

What I have been doing in my studies is to connect up various sets of dots in the hope that they will eventually all make sense together. They start with singer lutenists of the late fifteenth century such as Pietrobono detto il Chitarrino. Next are the humanists of the same period. Opera possibly starts back then with Poliziano. Consider his colleague Marsilio Ficino, for example, who accompanied himself on his “lira” every day to improvise Latin verse in classical metre. A little later, we have Spanish evidence —vihuelists of the 1530s and 40s— whose “original” songs are the oldest preserved in Europe. At the same time, Italian singer-songwriters perfected a way of adapting madrigals to the lute —first seen in 1536. Arcadelt’s madrigals were the best suited, it seems. These songs and this style appears to have remained in fashion for over half a century, as is borne out in Caravaggio’s portraits of lutenists in the 1590s. One of the singers who was a master of this style was the mercenary Giulio Cesare Brancaccio. Another was Hippolito Tromboncino, active in the middle decades of the century. A handful of his songs were preserved in the 1570s songbook of another professional singer-songwriter, Cosimo Bottegari. Tromboncino passed his art to Heteroclito Giancarli who preserved it until 1602, at least. Surprise, surprise! The music that reaches us along this pathway is not very different in sound and style from the new monodies of Caccini and Peri. It makes you wonder what all the fuss is about, really. But if all you had ever heard was Palestrina, Byrd and a few madrigalists, then very likely you might believe that a revolution was underway when there wasn’t one at all. 

After all, changes in musical style occur as a process of gradual transformation; seldom by reaction or as the product of full frontal attack. 

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