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Archive for June 2012

Composer Biography: Guido D’Arezzo (c991-1033)

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Guido D’Arezzo was an unassuming Benedictine monk who invented Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do and the staff system that modern music is written on. Are you stunned? Did you think those things always existed?

Guido was born around 991 in France and when he was of age (about 8), he joined the monastery at Pomposa in Italy, on the Adriatic coast. While he was still pretty young (in his 20s), he came up with a system for learning music by rote—a mnemonic device—that is his claim to fame, and probably features prominently in the song you remember best from Julie Andrews movies.

The Abbot at Pomposa disliked the innovations Guido was making, so Guido found a sponsor in the Bishop of Arezzo at the cathedral (125 miles or so inland from Pomposa) and moved there. No longer part of a monastery, he found himself annoyed with the constant politicking of society, and he wrote longingly to his friend Michael (or Michele, depending on your sources), a monk who remained at Pomposa, of the life of study and solitude that he so missed. He suffered through his official responsibilities, he wrote.

Guido wrote a practical guide for singers, called Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae, somewhere between 1025 and 1028. This remarkable document covered notes, intervals, scales, the modes, melodic composition, and improvised polyphony. It was commissioned by the Bishop of Arezzo, and only good things came to the world because of it.

Micrologus described the rules for combining voices in organum, a primitive form of polyphony, where parts moved in parallel (no matter where one line moves, the other stays at exactly the same distance from it) and opposing (one line moves up and the other moves down in equal steps) directions. Defining the rules for these movements made it possible to think about breaking the rules, and opened up the opportunities for composition. For the first time, rather than adding a line of parallel or opposing movement to an existing chant, the lines could move independently, and polyphony was born. After polyphony came chords, so this really was the beginning of modern music.

Micrologus also described solfeggio, a clever mnemonic device that Guido invented to facilitate sight singing. Solfeggio, or solmization, introduced a set of syllables that responded to the steps and half-steps in the succession of notes in a mode, such as C-D-E-F-G-A (you probably know this as the first six notes of a major scale. Go ahead, you know you want to sing Do-Re-Mi. That’s it! That’s just what it sounds like). Guido noticed that the first notes of each of the six phrases of a popular chant traced the pattern of that upward scale, and so he called the syllables Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, in their honor. (The chant was “Ut queant laxis,” if you want to look it up). He named the system solmization (long for Sol-Mi).

Guido’s syllables are still used today, although in the late 19th century, the first syllable was changed to “Do” as it was easier to sing on the open vowel, and added a “Ti” above the “La.” And there you have it:  Guido invented Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do.

The cool thing about solmization is that it shows the placement of half steps (the white keys on a piano with no black key between them, and Mi-Fa, Ti-Do in solfeggio). Modes were not fixed to a particular starting or ending point like a modern scale, but rather to a stable half-step placement. Using solmization allowed flexibility in choosing a starting note but facilitated staying in the correct mode anyway. (If you pick any note on a piano, you need to know where the half-steps—or black keys—are needed to keep the scale major. Only the scale that begins on a C stays major with no black keys. In modes, you can start on any note, and as long as the half-steps are in the right place, you’re in the right mode.)

Guido is most famous for what is known as Guido’s Hand, but it was probably developed after his lifetime. This particularly charming invention uses the creases on a hand to show the placement of the notes, each corresponding to a note from solfeggio. There are many versions of the Hand (perhaps 50), some following each finger up its length and then starting again at the root of the next finger, and others winding in a spiral fashion, counter-clockwise around the top of the fingers and down and around the joints. (See my blog, The Guido’s Hand Seminar  for more details about the Hand.) Using this, Guido (or any choir director) could point to a place on his hand, and the choir would sing the corresponding note. Suddenly, entirely rote memorization for learning music evolved to use visual aids.

Guido also invented the hexachord, which means that the half-step (such as two white notes together on a piano with no intervening black note, or from a white note to its neighboring black note) is always between the third and fourth tone. So if your Do-Re-Mi pattern begins on a C, you play C-D-E-F-G-A-B, and if it begins on an A, you play A-B-C#-D-E-F#, and if it begins on a G, you play G-A-B-C-D-E-F#, and so on. If you can’t visualize this, imagine a major scale (Do-Re-Mi) and sing it first in one part of your range and then in another. Keeping it sounding “major” is the hexachord effect. If you played all the same notes on the piano starting on D as you played starting on C for a major scale, you’d have a mode. (I talked about this at great length in my blog Musical Modes, Church Modes (part 1) ) So in that sense, Guido also invented the idea of modern scales.

Unheightened neumes existed already, and scholars at Notre Dame in Paris studied and scrupulously applied them to the collections of chant texts that Pope Gregorius (c540-604) had ordered (they were still collecting and documenting them 400 years later). These neumes (discussed in my blog The History of Music Notation) provided information about the movement between notes and a little about their duration, but no information about which specific note to sing or how one note related to another on the scale. Notation provided a clue as to how the music should sound, but a great deal of memorization (and guessing) was involved.

Guido suggested the use of lines and spaces to depict which note was sung (including a red line for F and a yellow line for C). He identified the notes in the left margin next to the line they were written on, and although even that identification varied with the mode or clef placement, suddenly, someone could learn the chant from manuscript without ever having heard it, and it could be accurately reproduced by someone else who had never heard it.

The method was widely adopted, and neumes changed to accommodate the format, becoming less florid, and more regular, eventually evolving into the block notes still used today for Gregorian chant, and ultimately into the fixed and stable notation that modern music uses. The original staff had four lines, each depicting notes a third apart. The modern staff of five lines evolved to avoid adding ledger lines as singing and instrumental ranges expanded beyond a single octave.

This invention made it easier to memorize music (because of the visual aspect), and it became possible for individuals to study separately and come together with the same music learned. This led the way to the development of non-monastic musicians; once the need for learning by rote went away, educated nobility included music-making as an essential skill. This method of recording music in manuscripts also allowed a greater number of songs to be learned because the memorization factor went away.

Guido boasted that using solmization and staff notation, he could “produce a perfect singer in the space of a year, or at most in two,” rather than the ten or more it usually took when learning by rote.

Guido’s official responsibilities in Arrezo included educating a large group of cathedral singers for Bishop Teodald (or Theobald or even Theobaldo, depending on your sources). He was good at it, and his reputation as both an innovator and a choir director spread to Rome. When Pope John XIX called Guido to Rome In 1028, he showed the Vatican his new method of notation. They were excited by both the new system and by the probability of finally beating the school at Notre Dame to musical innovation.

But Guido grew ill in Rome, and never really regained his health. Ailing, he joined a Camaldalese monastery at Avellana (about half-way between Rome and Arezzo) in 1029. The Camaldonians later became a separate order from the Benedictines, and many of the new-style manuscripts that Guido invented came out of Camaldese houses.

The date of Guido’s death is unsure and he died without publication of the event. It’s not known where he’s buried.


“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York,1985

“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

“Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson, Pelican Books, Baltimore, 1960

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

Composer Biography: Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630)

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One of my favorite seldom-performed composers is Solomon Rossi. I first heard about his music from the “inside,” so to speak, with the San Francisco Bach Choir. That group excelled at multiple choir music (notably Michael Praetorius, who I’ll write about another time), where groups of four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) stood in several corners of the performance hall, and the music danced over the heads of the audience like butterflies in a field of wildflowers. We did Bach, Praetorius, Gabrielli, Tallis—all the greats.

But I was particularly struck by Solomon Rossi. You see, unlike the others, Solomon was a Jew.

He was born in Mantua around 1570. He clearly came from a musical family, although I didn’t find any information about his parents. His sister, Madama Europa, was reputably the first Jewish opera singer, and premiered works from Monteverdi for such dignitaries as the Duke of Gonzaga. Solomon played in Monteverdi’s orchestra.

Nearly a hundred years before Solomon was born, Frederick and Isabella (yes THAT Frederick and Isabella) in Spain, in the (also familiar) year 1492, set forth a decree expelling all Jews from Spain. Because much of Italy was either under Spanish rule or Spanish influence at the time, the sour attitude against Jews spread, and slowly, starting in the south, Jews were pushed out of their Italian homelands. Italians often disregarded the edict because Jews formed a significant part of their social and merchant culture and had done so since the 1st century A.D. They were slow to impose the expulsion and often allowed the Jews to return after only a few years of exile.

Such was the case in Mantua. By 1572, there were fewer than 2000 Jews in Rome, Venice, and Mantua combined. Solomon’s family was among the few who remained, while the others fled for Lithuania and Poland, where Jews comprised 20% of the total population.

Mantuan Jews suffered mightily during the 30-years’ war (1618-1648), with a series of German and Austrian troops nearly starving them and isolating them from the towns with whom they traded goods and services. The Jews who defended the city walls were forced to stop for the Sabbath and the marauding Germans took advantage of the depleted forces. Very few Jews survived. It isn’t known whether Solomon and his sister died during the war or as a result of the plague that immediately followed, or whether he escaped to parts unknown. He disappeared around 1630.

Although the war must have colored life in Mantua, Solomon was a big deal as both a composer and a violinist. He served at the Mantuan court from 1587 to 1628, and was much respected by the ruling family, the Gonzagas. They even exempted him from wearing the yellow badge of the Jews on his hat. (No, Hitler did not invent that.) He was concertmaster of the orchestra there (second in charge after the conductor) from 1587 until 1628. He was seventeen when first given the honor.

In 1589 (age 19), he published nineteen canzonettes—short, dancelike pieces for three voices, with humorous lyrics about love. In 1600, two of the five books of madrigals he would come to write were published, including continuo madrigals, a style that probably heralded the beginning of the Baroque era. He didn’t invent it, but he certainly excelled at it. It’s interesting to note that his music included tablature for chitaronne, a popular instrument for chamber music accompaniment, so perhaps he encouraged performance in smaller venues as well as the performance hall.

He was given many honors, including working with such renowned composers as Monteverdi (I’ll write about him sometime soon), Gastoldi, Wert, and Viadana. Together, they entertained the duke and the other noblemen who came to visit.

Although Solomon followed the musical fashions of the day (the multiple choir thing I talked about at the beginning), he was also bound by the traditions of Judaism. There are contemporary letters from rabbis decrying modern innovations and improvisations at the synagogue, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that improvisation (and other effects) in the cantillations were performed in the synagogue. (You can read more about cantillations in my blog on Musical Modes: Part 3A, Non-European (Israel.)

There was one fellow, Leon Modena, who was a rabbi, a cantor, and a scholar, and who improvised polyphony in the synagogue at Ferrara in 1604 and in Venice in 1607. The music wasn’t documented, though, so all we have are the letters of protest. Solomon isn’t mentioned in them; he had other outlets for his musical efforts than temple. But his pal Modena wrote the preface to Solomon’s 1622 publication, wittily called “The Songs of Solomon.” The songs have nothing to do with the psalms by the same name; they’re a play on his own name.

The Jewish liturgical music in “The Songs of Solomon” are what he remains most famous for. The music was very much in the Baroque tradition and not at all reflective or involved with Jewish cantor music. It was unprecedented, as polyphonic music was forbidden in Jewish temples following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Sixteen-hundred years passed before they changed the rule.

Solomon set the Hebrew biblical texts to music, much the same as a little later, super-Lutheran J.S. Bach set Latin biblical texts to music (you’re probably familiar with these whether you realize it or not). The songs are an interesting mix, incorporating the influences of Monteverdi and other contemporary Italian composers with elements of Jewish chant. There are 33-35 pieces in this seminal collection, most on common Jewish themes such as prayer for the Sabbath, prayer for the lighting of candles, prayer for the safe return of a loved one, etc. Solomon’s efforts at Jewish polyphony were liked, but because they broke with tradition and because patrons for non-Christian music were hard to find, few other composers followed suit until the 19th century.

Solomon wrote a lot of secular music, presumably as more comfortable than writing Christian music that would have gone against his faith or Jewish music with a limited audience. In total, there are 150 secular works, including two books of symphonies and two of sonatas.

Instrumentally, he was an innovator, employing the principles of monody (one dominant melodic line with accompaniment, kind of like today’s soloist with accompaniment, only within the context of a group of soloistic singers or instruments), with a focus on virtuosic violin parts.

We’ll never know what happened to him or his sister, nor what he might have gone on to do if he hadn’t died or been forced to flee.


“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance,” by John Hale, Atheneum, New York, 1993

“A History of Western Music” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 23, 2012 at 11:10 am

Composer Biography: Barbara Strozzi (1617-1677)

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When you think of Baroque music, you probably think of the masters, like Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Schutz, Claudio Monteverdi, Marc Antoine Charpentier, and Johann Pachelbel. If you’re really into the period, you probably also think of Giacomo Carissimi, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Samuel Scheidt, Dietrich Buxtehude, Arcangelo Corelli, and Henry Purcell. The odds are, though, that you haven’t heard of Barbara Strozzi. But you should have. Let me introduce you.

Barbara Strozzi was born to Isabella Garzon, the longtime servant and heir of poet Giulio Strozzi in 1617. Although her birth father’s name is undeclared, because Giulio so clearly doted on the child, it’s assumed that he fathered her. He later adopted her legally.

By the time Barbara was 11,Giulio had declared her his heir. He was no ordinary wealthy and philandering nobleman dandling the serving girl on his knee, mind you. He was deeply involved with the Venetian literati, and formed his own music academy devoted to musical and poetic arts, at least in part to give Barbara a place to perform. In his will of 1628, he calls her Barbara Valle, and it’s probable that that document was part of a formal adoption process. In 1650, his final will calls her “Barbara of Santa Sofia, my elective daughter, commonly called Strozzi.”

She ended up inheriting very little, not even enough to cover burial costs or his own charitable wishes. Giulio requested that she use her own money on his behalf as a “remembering.” His precarious financial situation may account for the absence of a dowry and why there is no record of any marriage for Barbara or for him. Even the nunnery wasn’t an option because he couldn’t afford it, and due to the nature of his academy, her reputation wasn’t pure enough for that anyway. His reputation was that of a libertine, and rightly so.

But before all that death and debt, Giulio and Barbara (and presumably Isabella) lived happily in Venice during the heyday of the opera. Both father and daughter studied with famous opera composer Francesco Cavalli, and although Barbara was quite an accomplished singer (she was known as the “virtuosissima cantatrice”), she never sang opera, preferring the much less grand style of chamber music.

Giulio had feminist sympathies, which was a popular cause of the well-educated and super-literate, and it isn’t a surprise that he supported Barbara’s efforts at composition and performing. But women who performed in theaters and operas often had rather shady reputations, so Barbara preferred to perform in the sanctuary that was their home.

Giuio founded an academy in his home, called Accademia degli Unisoni (Academy for the Like-Minded), where regular performances of music and poetry were enjoyed by the artists themselves. It’s possible that he did this to provide Barbara with a suitable venue for her singing skills. The first indication that Barbara performed among them was in 1635, when Nicolo Fontei wrote two volumes of songs for her, to texts written by Giulio. She was 18.

Her own early compositions were underwritten by her father, and later ones were purchased by high-ranking patrons from Venice and across the Alps. She was slandered by male contemporaries, called a courtesan (which may not have been wide of the mark), and many of the dedications in her published works reflect her preparedness for the eventuality of slander. It was still quite rare for women to publish under their own names; they were accused of immodesty. Performers and courtesans were considered one and the same, and music was thought to be a kind of “gateway drug,” appealing to the sensual side of women and encouraging increasing levels of loose living.

Barbara’s personal life is poorly documented, but a married man, named Giovanni Paolo Vidman, fathered at least three of her four children (Giulio Pietro, Massimo, Isabella, and Laura, all born in the 1640s). Vidman (whose name is occasionally spelled Widmann) was a librettist and probably a member of the academy. He left nothing to Barbara and the children in his will, and she supported herself and the children through clever investments and by publishing her compositions. Despite his oversight, other members of the Vidman family helped to support Barbara’s children, including getting both daughters into a convent in the 1650s.

The need to support herself and her children led to prolific publication. In all, there were more than 100 works, all vocal music, mostly for solo voice and continuo. There were eight volumes of music published between 1644 and 1664. She published more cantatas than any other composer of her time.

It’s obvious that she was a soprano, as only two of her solo works are for other voices. The rest of the pieces are for duets, trios, quartets, and quintets, most of which include at least one soprano. Based on the lines she wrote and those written for her to sing, her voice was clearly lyrical and lithe.

The accompaniment she wrote was for continuo (a simple line, usually little more than a bass line, but expandable to creative keyboard effects) and it’s likely that she played the accompaniment herself on the lute or chitarrone.

She used only the most popular forms of music: arias, cantatas, and lamentations. An aria has a refrain at the beginning and end with a expositive melody in the middle, a cantata follows a story line and might take several movements to tell the tale. A lamentation, just as it sounds, is a song mourning the loss of something, often a Bible story that uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to distinguish the various parts, tales from Greek or Roman mythology used as allegories for something going on at the time of the composition, and occasionally, the sad story of love gone wrong. The lion’s share of Barbara’s compositions were secular, which may have been a reaction to being a female composer excluded from most traditional venues, or may simply have been what she was most familiar with.

She was particularly fond of repeated themes, and often used recognizable rhythmic and melodic patterns or moved a long and distinctive phrase to another place along the scale (Bach does this on a grander scale in the fugue form). She used long melismas (where the melody wiggles around on a single syllable rather than changing notes with every syllable), often chromatic (all of the notes on the piano, white and black, within a scale—twelve notes instead of eight), containing large leaps, syncopations, and interruptions, and all meant to expose the natural beauty of the human voice.

Barbara’s style was dependent on vocal qualities. She only wrote chamber music, which was a small sound, meant to be heard in a home rather than a performance hall. Her style indulges in word-painting (if the character is climbing a mountain, all the notes go up in steps, for example), although she liked to repeat and lengthen certain words or phrases to suit her song. Her compositions thrived on repetition and could make a full-length cantata out of four or five lines of text.

Her father wrote the texts for her early compositions and she or members of the academy wrote the rest. Her favorite subject was unrequited love, and the pieces are often ironic or humorous. She argued that there were two methods for romantic persuasion, tears and music, and joked to attendees that the previous meeting of the academy might have been less popular if they had been invited to watch her cry instead of sing.

Most of the music published by women in northern Italy in the seventeenth century was composed by nuns, especially those of Milan, Bologna, Pavia, and Novara, and were usually psalms, Magnificats, and Masses. Barbara’s mostly secular works were published throughout Italy and across the alps. Her final collection was published in 1664 and she dropped out of sight after that. There are letters from her in Venice in mid 1677, but she moved to Padua by the end of the summer and died there.

Barbara Strozzi is buried at Erimitani in Padua. She died without leaving a will, and her son Giulio Pietro inherited everything. The other three children were all in monasteries.


“Women Making Music,” Edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987 (article by Ellen Rosand)

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates, Northeaster University Press, Boston, 1996 “Women and Music,” Edited by Karin Pendle, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001

“Five Centuries of Music in Venice,” by H.C. Robbins Landon and John Julius Norwich, Schirmer Books, New York, 1991

“History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton Company, New York, 2010

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 12, 2012 at 1:15 pm