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A New Kind of Music: Seventeenth-Century Italian Trombone Sonatas

The MHS Review 406, VOL. 12, NO.10• 1988

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David M. Greene


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This record, as a historical document, strikes me as unusual and important. Nowadays we take it for granted that music falls into two main categories: that which is produced by the human voice, and that which is not--i.e. vocal and instrumental. For time immemorial the former had priinacy, and (to over-simplify) I suppose that came about when man discovered that, like the gibbon, he could sing a scale. Today we have got so far removed from that primal state that I know people who vastly prefer music produced by mechnical devices to music produced by lungs and palates and vocal chords (which perhaps tells us something of the fix humanity has gotten itself into).

No doubt there has been instrumental music ever since some prehistoric fellow discovered that beating a tom-tom was more effective than patting his tum-tum. We know that the ancient Egyptians rattl­ed their sistrums and maybe their brothrums , that the Greeks tootled away on aulos (or whatever the plural of aulos is), and that, according to an old song, Gai­ly the Troubadour touched his guitar. Ac­tually Troubadours didn't know from guitars, but you get the picture.) But in the history of Western music, voices and in­struments were interchangeable, and music specifically for instruments was fairly rare up to the 16th century.

Why the change? The books in my library are given more to tabulation than to speculation, so allow me to stick my neck out and guess that one reason was the availability, to the aristocracy and the in­creasingly affluent merchant class, of more leisure time. Formal dancing at this level began to develop in the 1400s, and music to accompany it inevitably followed, par­ticularly for such chordophones as the lute, the vihuela, the harpsichord, and the organ. Doubtless the use of such in­struments invited further exploration of their possibilities. These included the transcription of polyphonic vocal pieces, and more abstract works such as ricercars (''researches," ''experiments'') and toc­catas (''touch-pieces'' challenging digital dexterity). A favorite target of the former kind was the popular French or Netherlan­dish chanson, which became, instrumen­tally in Italy, a canzona, which in turn

became a chansonlike instrumental piece cut from the whole cloth.

Around 1600 carne the revolution in European music that was to change the concept from basically polyphonic to basically harmonic. Central to this change was the use of the continuo or figured-bass part. By this device the chordophonist was given symbols that enabled him correctly to fill in the harmonies from a single line of music. Never mind whether such parts had been improvised earlier or whether the notion came from organ accompaniments in churches or from the burgeoning opera. However, in the latter, as in the new monodic songs, a melodic line and a bass line sufficed. And so the gates were open­ed to a new kind of instrutmental music for accompanied melody instrument(s).

Some such works were designated can­zone, some sonate. As often as not one would have been hard put to say how the one differed from the other. Suffice it to note that ''sonata form," as it took shape in the classical era, had nothing to do with the early 17th-century sonatas. As cantatas were pieces to be sung, sonatas were pieces to be sounded, i.e. played. As will be seen from this program, the word was ap­propriate, for the solo instrument was

fre­quently one of the brasses, rather than the then-infant violin, which has since pretty much dominated the duo sonata. (After all, what with hunting and warfare, brass players were rife. The brass in question here is the old slide trombone ( called sackbut, from saqueboute, meaning ''push pull'' whose chief discernible difference from the modem instrument is that the bell is more funnel-like.

The one relatively familiar composer here is Frescobaldi, who wrote several volumes of such canzone, though he did not specify their instrumentation. The rest, however, composed their pieces specifical­ly for the instruments indicited, and Dario Castello and Giovanni Cesare were themselves wind players. The violins us­ed in the recording are from tthe period and the other instruments are copies.

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