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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Giovanni Bardi Discussing Good and Bad Singing in a Letter to Giulio Caccini (c.1578)

I become nauseated when I recall some singers I have heard, whether solo or accompanied by others, improvising on a choirbook, not caring if any of their words were understood. I remember, when I was in Rome in the year 1567, hearing of the reputation of a famous bass who was praised beyond measure. I went to hear him one day in the company of certain accomplished foreigners. He filled us with wonder - with wonder, I say - because there was never a man who had greater natural gifts than this one, for he could reach a large number of notes - all resonant and sweet - up high as much as in the deepest and middle ranges. But to return to our subject, he so spoiled nature with art that he broke the lines, indeed shattered them to pieces, making long syllables short and short ones long, putting runs on the short and stopping on the long, that listening to him was to witness a massacre of the unfortunate poetry. The wretched fellow, entreatied by adulation, the more he saw eyebrows arching, the greater was his foolishness to satisfy the ignorant public...

But enough of this; let us now speak of the difference that ought to be observed between solo and ensemble singing, so that we do not do as someone who in part-singing thinks of nothing but to have his own voice heard, as if those who are listening came just to hear his squealing. They do not realise or remember perhaps that singing well in ensemble is simply uniting one’s own voice well with others, making with them a single body. Besides, there are others who in their zeal to indulge in passaggi do not respect the beat; they break and stretch the measure so much that they do not allow their companions to sing at all with good style. The singer should be cautioned to enter softly after rests and not, as some do, so noisily that you would think he was scolding you for some error you had committed. There are others who, not wanting to go into the lower parts when they are in the upper range, sing with such a racket that they sound like auctioneers trying to sell pawned stolen goods to the sound of the trumpet, resembling a snappish dog who is silent when roaming in other people’s neighbourhoods but makes an outrageous uproar in his own mansion.

When singing alone or to the lute, harpsichord, or other instrument, one may contract or stretch the measure at will, granted that it is up to the singer to lead the measure according to his judgment...

‘E mi stomaco quando mi souuiene d’alcuni che hò uditi o, soli, o, accompagnati al libro cantare, non curanti che alcuna delle loro parole compresa sia, et mi ricordo essendo in Roma l’anno 1567 udendo la fama d’un Basso che oltra misura era lodato un giorno andai à udirlo essendo in compagnia con certi uiruosi forestieri, il quale ci empì di marauiglia, di marauiglia dico, perche non fù mai huomo che hauesse in questo fatto più dote di costui dalla natura: auuenga che ricercaua assai uoci tutte sonore, e dolci così nell’alto, come nel basso, e per lo mezo, ma haueua poi, tornando al nostro proposito, tanto guasta la natura con l’arte, che rompeua i uersi, anzi gli fracassaua, facendo della lunga breue, e della breue lunga, correndo in su quella, e fermandosi in su questa, che altro non era l’udir costui, che uno scempio della misera poesia, e l’infelice sollectitato dall’adulatione quanto più uedeua inarcar le ciglia, tanto più andaua crescendo le sue scempiezze per sodisfare al poco intendente uolgo...

Ma non più di questo e uegniamo à dire che gran differenza si dee fare dal cantar solo, o in compagnia e non far come alcuni che cantando a più uoci, non pensano ad altro se non che sia udita la uoce loro quasi che altro quiui andato non sia se non per i suoi scarrucolamenti udire, non sapendo, o, non ricordandosi forse che ‘l ben cantar in compagnia altro non è che unir bene con l’altrui la sua uoce, e con quelle far un corpo stesso.

Altresì si trouano altri che per dar compiacimento à passaggi loro non auendo riguardo alla battuta tanto la uanno rompendo et stiracchiando che i suoi compagni con buon modo per uia alcuna cantar non lasciano. Debbesi etiandio auuertire dopò le pose entrar nel canto con dolcezza, e non come alcuni che con tanto romore ui entrano, che par che di qualche fallo da te commesso sgridarti uogliano. Altri se ne troua che per non andar nelle parti basse, quando sono ne luoghi alti, uanno cantando con tanto strepito che paion banditori che uoglian uendere i pegni de cattiuelli alla tromba somigliando i botoli che per gl’altrui contrade se ne uanno quatti, et alla lor magione fanno strepito oltra misura.

Cantandosi solo, o in su’l liuto, o grauicembalo, o, altro strumento si puote à suo piacere la battuta stringere, e allargare, auuengache à lui stia guidare la misura à suo senno...’


This extract is from a letter from Giovanni Bardi addressed to Giulio Caccini ‘on Ancient Music and Good Singing’ (Discorso sopra la musica anticha e ‘l cantar bene.) It has been dated to c.1578 by Claude Palisca.

The painting below is the Hermitage version of ‘The Lute Player’ by Caravaggio (c.1596.) The partbook open on the table shows the lowest voice of Jacob Arcadelt’s Voi sapete ch'io v'amo first published in his Madrigali a 4 voci, Libro 1 in 1539. It has been hypothesised that the painting is of the Spanish castrato Pedro Montoya in the act of accompanying himself on the lute.

Claude V Palisca, The Florentine Camerata : Documentary Studies and Translations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Barbara Russano Hanning, “Some Images of Monody in the Early Baroque,” in Con Che Soavità: Studies in Italian Opera, Song, and Dance, 1580-1740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 1–13.


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