• Tim Braithwaite

Banchieri on Writing an Introit that Creates the Effect of Improvised Counterpoint in Many Voices

Updated: May 22

‘I have no doubt at all that the counterpoints above a cantus firmus from the introits by Constanzo Porta and Giovanni Matteo Asola, similarly above the Vesper Antiphons by the two Girolamos, Diruta and Lambardi, as well as those of diverse musicians of Italy, presently composed at the request of Lodovico Viadana are worthy of much praise.


However, since these are composed with good and strict musical rules, they should be called observed [strict] counterpoint [contrapunti osservati], and not improvised counterpoint [alla mente]. [The first] does not create the effect on the ear of the listener which is heard in those chapels with good musicians and singers.


And because we are [discussing] new things, it seems appropriate for me to produce a new invention which makes the effect of improvised counterpoint on the ear with observed rules, so that if a composer wants to write an introit with great ease and little study which will create a pleasing fullness before the mass, he can do all that is explained below.

The reason that this counterpoint makes a good and marvellous effect is clear, for example, In Rome, at the Cappella di N.S, in the Holy House of Loreto, and in countless other chapels, while singing improvised [alla mente] counterpoint above the bass, nobody does that which his partner sings, but everyone, with certain observations conferred among them, creates a very delightful [gustosissimo] sound. This is a general custom; let a hundred different voices sing [as it were] consonantly above the bass, everything in accordance, and those few bad fifths and octaves, strangenesses [stravaganze] and dissonances [urtoni] are all the graces which make the true effect of improvised [alla mente] counterpoint.


Now let us see these rules for setting down in writing the part of each singer, so that united together they create a delightful harmony:

  1. Place the cantus firmus on the cartella [an erasable tablet] in the bass, as composers do, transposed to the pitch for voices according to the ordinary custom. This is [written] in semibreves and sung one note per whole beat [battuta larga].

  2. Over this cantus firmus is woven a single soprano voice which makes descending effects with minims, crotchets, rests, and quavers as you like, and this soprano is copied precisely.

  3. Similarly, over the same cantus firmus is composed a tenor which makes ascending effects with similar notes to the soprano, and this is [also] copied.

  4. There remains the contralto which can make syncopated notes, that is semibreves which sing against the beat, in thirds or fifths [above the bass], or in minims leaping up or down, and this too is copied.

  5. If you want more voices, a new soprano [can be] composed on the bass in contrary motion to the one above. Similarly the tenor and alto, tripling and quadrupling the voices and counterpoints, all of them in pairs in this manner.

  6. Avoid harsh dissonances, suspensions, sixths, and cadences [cadenze], but boldly sing by step or leaps of a third, fifth, and octave.

  7. It will be good when a soprano sings a lot of tenths above the bass.

  8. At the end it is required that the voices fill out [the final note] with thirds, fifth,unions, and octaves for two beats, all in perfect fullness and harmony.

  9. To the quantity of voices one may add corresponding bass [instruments]: trombones, or violoni; all this is good.

  10. And finally one can give the bass, copied from the cantus firmus, to the organist who, with corresponding fullness will add a double charm on the organ.


Whoever makes an introit such as this, will provide a very beautiful entrance [introit] and diversion for the listeners; I will not give an example of the actual practice of this sort of counterpoint, judging it to be superfluous since every composer can make as many as he wishes with great ease.’

‘Non hò dubbio alcuno, che gli contrapunti sopra il Canto Fermo ne gl'Introiti di Costanzo Porta, & Gio. Matteo Asola, similmente sopra le Antifone Vespertine d'amendui Girolami, Diruta & Lambardo, si come di presente quelli di diversi Musici d'Italia composti a richiesta di Lodovico Viadana, non sieno degni di molta lode;


Tutta via essendo questi composti con le buone, & osservate regole musicali, si devono nominare Contrapunti Osservati, & non alla mente, i quali non fanno quel sentire all'udito de gl'ascoltanti, che in quelle Capelle dove sono buoni Musici e Cantori si sente;


Et perche siamo su le novità mi pare in preposito produrre una nuova inventione che all'orecchio faccia effetto del contrapunto alla mente con gl'avertimenti da osservarsi, di dove volendo un Compositore fare un Introito, che rendi una gratiosa pienezza avanti la Messa con molta facilita, & poco studio potra operare quanto qui sotto si dira, & che tal contrapunto sia per far buono & maraviglioso effetto la ragione, e chiara come per esempio.


In Roma nella Capella di N. S. Nella S. Casa di Loreto & altre infinite Capelle, mentre cantano il Contrapunto alla mente sopra il Basso, niuno sa quello che cantar deve il compagno, ma tutti con certe osservationi tra di loro conferite rendono un udito gustosissimo, è questa una Massima generale, cantino pure cento variate voci (per cosi dire) consonantemente sopra il Basso tutte accordano, quelle cattive più Quinte ottave, stravaganze e urtoni sono tutte gratie che rendono il vero effetto del Contrapunto alla mente;


hora vediamo queste Osservationi di porre in scritto a ciascun cantore la di lor parte, che tutti assieme uniti rendino armonia di molto diletto.

  1. Si ponghi il Basso del Canto Fermo in Cartella trasportato (come fanno gli compositori) al tuono chorista secondo l'uso ordinario, & questo in tante semibrevi per doversene cantare una per battuta larga.

  2. Sopra tal Canto Fermo vi si tessa una voce sola di Soprano, che faccia effetti deiscendenti di Minime, Semiminime, riposi, & crome come più piace, & tal Soprano particolarmente sia copiato.

  3. Similmente sopra l'istesso Canto Fermo si componga un Tenore che faccia effetti ascendenti con note simili al Soprano, & questo sii copiato.

  4. Resta il Contralto qual potrassi fare di note sincopate, cioè Semibrevi che cantino contro battuta in Terze ò quinte, overo Minime Saltanti all'in sù, overo all'in giù & questo pure venghi copiato.

  5. Volendo piu Voci di nuovo sopra il Basso si componghi un Soprano contrario al di sopra, similmente Tenore & Alto, rinterzando & rinquartando le voci & contrapunti, tutte cosi in Duo.

  6. Si fughino le Durezze aspre, leggature, Seste, & Cadenze, ma baldanzosamente si canti per gradi overo Salti di Terze, Quinte, & ottave.

  7. Cantando un Soprano alla Decima del Basso in quantita fara bene.

  8. Alla fine per dui battute s'osservi che le voci faccino empitura di Terza, Quinta, Unissono, & ottave tutta perfetta pienezza & Armonia.

  9. Alla quantita di voci s'agiunghino Bassi in corrispondenza Tromboni, overo Violoni; che tutto è buono.

  10. Et per ultimo si potrà dare un Basso copiato dal Canto Fermo, all'Organista, che con ripieno corrispondente nell'Organo agiungera duplicata vaghezza.


Et chi fara un Introito simile, senz'altro fara una bellissima entratura & alettamento a gli ascoltant; Di questo Contrapunto non porto esempio inatto pratico giudicandolo superfluo potendo ogni compositore farne con molta facilita quanti pare, & piace.’

*Notes*


The image below is of the first piece of Ippolito Chamaterò’s ‘introiti fondati sopra il canto fermo del basso’, which are thought to be a representation of the soundworld of an improvised practice such as that described above.


An edition of this piece can be found HERE.


Compared to Banchieri’s rather wild description of dissonances and parallels in extemporised practice, this seems somewhat tame. Rob Wegman gives the following hypothesis as to why that might be:


‘If we transcribed colloquial English, we would certainly not write down those errors exactly as they had been made, but would correct them without realising that we were doing so. For an error has no place on paper. That is why we occasionally need the word sic to confirm that we actually intend to leave an error uncorrected, or to stop others from correcting it. We do not think it is cheating to render a spoken, improvised text in immaculate English, to edit out all the errors, and to tidy it up with punctuation. For in a sense, we really do hear colloquial English as we would transcribe it. And that, undoubtedly, is how Chamaterò transcribed the improvisations that had been sung under his direction: he transcribed not just what was being sung, but also how a proper listener would have heard it.’


Adriano Banchieri, Cartella Musicale Nel Canto Figurato, Fermo, & Contrapunto., Third Edition (Venice: Giacomo Vincenti, 1614). My translation.


https://www.facebook.com/groups/433341233928374/permalink/842156386380188/


Rob C. Wegman, “What Is Counterpoint?,” in Improvising Early Music: The History of Musical Improvisation from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Baroque (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014), 9–69.