Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Coryat's Crudities

In 1608 the great traveller (and equally great travel writer) Thomas Coryat visited Venice, and in his particularly enthusiastic way, reported back on the great music.
The feast of The second roome is the place where this festivitie was solemnized to the honour of Saint Roch, at one end whereof was an Altar garnished with many singular ornaments, but especially with a great multitude of silver Candlesticks, in number sixty, and Candles in them of Virgin waxe. This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not ; for mine owne part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.
I've taken part of this encomium as this blog's motto for a reason. I'd rather write about music I like, so I'm more likely to write in the style of Coryat than a nitpicking or "standards have fallen" critic. I get a chance to more or less choose which discs I review, and sure, I'll get the odd dud. But life is too short to spend time listening to music you don't enjoy.

But back to Coryat. He enjoyed instrumental music:
Sometimes there sung sixeteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keepe them in order ; and when they sung, the instrumental musitians played also. Sometimes sixeteene played together upon their instruments, ten Sagbuts, foure Cornets, and two Violdegambaes of an extraordinary greatness ; sometimes tenne, sixe Sagbuts and foure Beautiful Cornets ; sometimes two, a Cornet and a treble violl. Of those treble viols I heard three severall there, whereof each was so good, especially one that I observed above the rest, that I never heard the like before. Those that played upon the treble viols, sung and played together, and sometimes two singular fellowes played together upon Theorboes, to which they sung also, who yeelded admirable sweet musicke, but so still that they could scarce be heard but by those that were very neare them. These two Theorbists concluded that nights musicke, which continued three whole howers at the least. For they beganne about five of the clocke, and ended not before eight. Also it continued as long in the morning : at every time that every severall musicke played, the Organs, whereof there are seven faire paire in that room, standing al in a rowe together, plaied with them.
But it was the singers, and one singer in particular, who really knocked Coryat's socks off:
Of the singers there were three or foure so excellent that I thinke few or none in Christendome do excell them, especially one, who had such a peerelesse and (as I may in a maner say) such a supernaturall voice for such a privilege for the sweetnesse of his voice, as sweetnesse, that I think there was never a better singer in all the world, insomuch that he did not onely give the most pleasant contentment that could be imagined, to all the hearers, but also did as it were astonish and amaze them. I alwaies thought that he was an Eunuch, which if he had beene, it had taken away some part of my admiration, because they do most commonly sing passing wel ; but he was not, therefore it was much the more admirable. Againe it was the more worthy of admiration, because he was a middle-aged man, as about forty yeares old. For nature doth more commonly bestowe such a singularitie of voice upon boyes and striplings, then upon men of such yeares. Besides it was farre the more excellent, because it was nothing forced, strained, or affected, but came from him with the greatest facilitie that ever I heard. Truely I thinke that had a Nightingale beene in the same roome, and contended with him for the superioritie, something perhaps he might excell him, because God hath granted that little birde such a priviledge for the sweetnesse of his voice, as to none other : but I thinke he could not much. To conclude, I attribute so much to this rare fellow for his singing, that I thinke the country where he was borne, may be as proude for breeding so singular a person as Smyrna was of her Homer, Verona of her Catullus, or Mantua of Virgil.
I don't know that much about 17th century Venetian music, but I wonder if this great falsettist was singing the high part in Giovanni Gabrieli's In ecclesiis (a 14). In this recent recording from The Choir of King's College and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, which made my 2015 Top 10 Albums list, the part is sung by the treble Gabriel May.

This is one of Gabrieli's great inspirations, and I love it with a falsettist as well as a treble. But I happen to prefer this version to all others. We're so lucky that this music has survived, and that we can hear music much like that which Coryat marvelled at, with Beautiful Cornets and Sagbuts and Sweete and Peerlesse Singers, from the comfort of our own homes.

Keep that superexcellent music coming!

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