Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Instruments in The Coronation of Poppea with Cincinnati Opera and Catacoustic Consort

The Catacoustic Consort is fortunate to collaborate with Cincinnati Opera in their second production of a Baroque opera - Claudio Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea. (There are also members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit playing modern violin, cello, and bass.) If you are interested learning more about Cincinnati Opera's summer season, visit Cincinnati Opera's website. Since some of the instruments in the opera pit are unusual and may be new to the Cincinnati Opera audience, I want to take a moment to give some information about them.
The music in this opera is played in a creative and improvisatory manner that is surprisingly similar to jazz. The composer provides the material for the solo voices, and only a skeletal bass line for the accompanying instruments remains. Instruments such as the theorbo, harpsichord, harp, Baroque guitar, and lirone are expected to know how to play the correct chords according to certain theoretical rules of harmony. This practice, called basso continuo or simply continuo, was a very common way of playing music in the Baroque period.

About the Instruments

The viola da gamba was one of the predominant instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque in Western Europe. “Viola da gamba” (or viol) literally means viola of the leg. It is a fretted instrument with five to seven strings and is played with an underhand bow grip. The viola da gamba is a family of instruments with ranges that correspond to the human voice: treble, tenor, and bass. It is not related to the viola or cello and is a separate instrument group, more closely related to a lute or guitar than a cello

The lirone (pronounced lee-roh-nay) was played throughout Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a bowed string instrument that is held similar to a cello, but it has anywhere from nine to fourteen strings. It has a flat bridge and plays chords of three or four strings at a time. The lirone was used to highlight emotional peaks in music and was considered ideal for dramatic laments. It was a great color used by musicians in 17th-century Italy in the early development of opera. 

The new harmonic language of the Baroque period called for a fuller chromatic range of notes than what came before it in the Renaissance. Whereas earlier harps only played diatonic notes (white keys on the piano), more chromatic notes (black notes on the piano) were now necessary. The Baroque triple harp has two identical diatonic rows of strings on the outside, with an inside row of chromatic notes.

In 17th-century Italy, the bent-neck lute was replaced by the theorbo (pronounced thee-ohr-boe). The bass strings were mounted on an extension, giving them nearly twice the string length of the treble strings. Naturally, this gave the bass more strength and volume. The purpose of the theorbo is to reinforce the bass, whereas the purpose of the lirone is to enrich the harmonies. The composer Giulio Caccini said that the theorbo was the perfect instrument to accompany the voice.

The harpsichord almost needs no introduction. It is a keyboard instrument with strings that are plucked by plectra, as compared to the piano, where the strings are hit by hammers. The harpsichord was a common keyboard instrument in the Renaissance and Baroque periods until the 18th century introduction of the piano, when it died out. Both harpsichords used in Poppea are made by James Campbell, who lives in Newport, Kentucky.

The recorder is a family of instruments (similar to the viola da gamba) with sizes ranging from the sopranino, soprano, treble, tenor, bass, and great bass. It is basically an extended whistle with a thumbhole and about seven holes for the remaining fingers. It was quite popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. With its history tracing back to the Middle Ages, the recorder has undergone several changes in appearance and importance throughout the centuries. Characteristic for this early wind instrument are eight finger holes, including one thumbhole, as well as a block of wood set into the shaped mouthpiece, creating the place for tone production. The German and French names for the instrument “Blockfloete” and “flûte á bec” reflect this feature. Evolved from a one-piece body with cylindrical bore and single holes as seen in medieval iconography, the recorder became popular as a consort instrument during the Renaissance, forming a small ensemble of differently sized recorders from great bass to garklein (one octave above the soprano). By the 16th century, the recorder also began its development into a solo instrument. A substantial portion of recorder music was composed during the Baroque period. Eighteenth-century instruments have a conical bore, some double holes, a wider range, and often a more ornamented design than earlier models. The recorder fell out of use towards the end of the 18th century, and experienced its revival along with the rise of historical performance practice in the 20th century.

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