Nicola Vincentino, Italian composer and music theorist of the late Renaissance; was one of the most progressive musicians of that era.
Born in 1511 in Vincenza, he was thought to have early associations to Adrian Willaert of the Venetian School; probably as a student. He went on to work in Ferrara, Rome and Sienna and finally died in Milan; sometime during the plague of 1575–1576.
As a composer, he wrote two books of madrigals and motets in a harmonically sophisticated style; however, it was his work as a music theorist that gained him renown.
He published his most famous work, “L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica” (ancient music adapted to modern practice), in which he fully explained his ideas linking ancient Greek musical theory and practice, with contemporary works. To play the music he described in his publications, Vincentino, invented and built a microtonal keyboard; the “archicembalo” with 31 different pitches within a single octave and the “anciorgano”, with six manuals and thirty-one keys to the octave.
Because of his focus on chromaticism, Vicentino helped to free music from its adherence to the church modes that had been the fashion for a thousand years and he also experimented with early forms of harmony. His work contributed toward the development of the “secunda prattica” (also called the stile moderno) and the transition into the baroque musical era. By the end of the 16th century, as other composers adopted it for a wide range of uses; chromaticism had become part of the common musical language.
Left: Frontispiece in the Vicentino’s treatise on music. Inscriptions: 1. (outer circle) “Incerta et occulta scientiae tuae manifestasti mihi”. 2. (inner circle) “Archicymbali divisionis chromaticique ac enarmonici generis praticae inventor”. 3. (under the portrait) Nicolas Vicentinus anno aetatis suae XXXXIIII
Below: Romanesque Ferrara Cathedral
Nicola Vincentino – LIFE
Little is known of his early life. Born in Vicenza in 1511, (in the Veneto region, 37 miles west of Venice); he probably would have studied with Adrian Willaert at St Mark’s, in Venice.
He acquired an early interest in the contemporary humanistic revival, including the study of ancient Greek music theory and performance practice; rediscovered through the work of scholars, such as Girolamo Mei and Giangiorgio Trissino.
At some time in the 1530’s or early 1540’s, he went to Ferrara and served as the court music director and tutor to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este III (1509-1572) and family members. Ferrara was to become a centre for experimental secular music in Italy; from the middle to the end of the 16th century.
He was later to serve the cardinal in Rome and Siena.
During the late 1540’s, his reputation as a music theorist grew and also established his reputation as a composer; with his publication of a book of madrigals in Venice in 1546.
In 1551 in Rome, Vicentino took part in one of the most famous events in 16th century music theory; a grand debate between Vicente Lusitano and himself.
The subject of the debate was the relationship of the ancient Greek genera (tuning practice) to contemporary music practice. More specifically, whether contemporary music could be explained in terms of the diatonic genus alone (as Lusitano claimed) or (as Vicentino claimed) was best described as a combination of the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic genera; the last of which contained a microtone.
Considered by a panel of judges; the verdict went in favour of Lusitano’s argument.
A few years later, in his 1555 treatise “L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica” (“Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice”); he tried to revive the three genera (standard tunings) of classical antiquity (diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic). It didn’t catch on, but undeterred; Vicentino continued his experiments and went on to build his instruments.
Also in 1555, Vicentino described his arcicembalo (aka arcigravicembalo), which was a modified harpsichord with many extra keys and strings. He was interested in microtonality – “the notes between the notes”.
He built himself an “arcicembalo” in 1560 (photo left – a reproduction). It had 31 different pitches within a single octave. His theory was that with so many pitches in an octave, he could experiment in search of the “miracles of ethos” (emotional contagion and moral influence); that the ancient Greeks reported achieving with their music, which was microtonal.
In 1561, Vicentino built an “arciorgano” with six manuals and containing thirty-one keys to the octave. Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c 1545-1607, Italy) claimed to have mastered both instruments and the cities of both Rome and Milan; each boasted that they housed an arciorgano.
Only one keyboard instrument using his 31-note-to-the-octave system, survives from the Renaissance: the “Clavemusicum Omnitonum Modulis Diatonicis Cromaticis et Enearmonicis”. It was built by Vito Trasuntino of Venice in 1606, to play the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic music. It is on display at the International Museum and Library of Music, in Bologna.
After a short time in Rome, Vicentino returned to Ferrara and later moved to Siena.
In 1563, he returned to his home city, becoming “maestro di cappella” at Vicenza Cathedral. It was a brief stay, for he accepted a position in Milan in 1565. Around 1570, it is thought that he had some connection with the Bavarian court in Munich; though he may never have gone there.
He became a priest in Milan in 1570. Little else is known about him, except that he died sometime between 1575 and 1576.
WORKS OF NICOLA VINCENTINO
Nicola Vicentino composed two books of madrigals and motets, in a harmonically sophisticated style. He drew an exact parallel between speaking in public and singing, with tempo and dynamics changing to suit the text. A number of his madrigals attained a high level of artistry.
However, it was his work as a music theorist that gained him renown.
In the 1550s, in Italy, there was a surge of interest in chromatic composition, some of which was part of the movement known as “musica reservata” and some of which was motivated by research into ancient Greek music, including modes and genera.
Composers such as Cipriano de Rore, Orlande de Lassus and others, wrote music which was impossible to sing in tune; without having a system for adjusting the pitch of chromatic intervals in some way. Several theorists attacked the problem, including Vicentino.
In 1555, he published his most famous work, “L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica” (ancient music adapted to modern practice), in which he fully explained his ideas linking ancient Greek musical theory and practice with contemporary works. (photo left)
In this work, he expanded and justified many of the ideas which he first brought up in his debate with Lusitano. Whether or not Lusitano ever attempted to refute Vicentino’s expanded version is not known; however, Vicentino’s book was influential with the group of madrigalists working in Ferrara over the next two decades; including Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Carlo Gesualdo.
Another area in which Vicentino did original work was musical dynamics. He was one of the first theorists, to mention volume as an expressive parameter. In his “L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica”, he mentioned that the strength of singing must respect carefully the text and passage being sung.
Vicentino’s most famous invention was the “archicembalo” in 1560; a keyboard containing 31 keys to the octave. Using this keyboard, it was possible to play acoustically satisfactory intervals in any key and therefore some of the recently composed music in a chromatic style, which was only in tune when sung; could now be played on the keyboard.
in 1561, he applied the same keyboard layout to the “arciorgano”; a microtonal keyboard for the organ. Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c 1545-1607,) claimed to have mastered both instruments and the cities of both Rome and Milan; each boasted that they housed an arciorgano. While these keyboards did not achieve wide popularity, they did offer a way of playing music in meantone temperament in all keys.
The standard way to modulate through all keys on a keyboard instrument, later became to divide the octave into twelve equal parts, called 12-tone equal temperament; in which the major and minor thirds are not well tuned. Vicentino’s solution, in effect divides the octave into 31 equal parts, with good intonation for the thirds and sixths; but somewhat beating narrow fifths.
Because of his focus on chromaticism, Vicentino helped to free music from its adherence to the church modes that had been the fashion for a thousand years and he also experimented with early forms of harmony. His work contributed toward the development of the “secunda prattica” (also called the stile moderno) and to the transition into the baroque musical era. By the end of the 16th century, as other composers adopted it for a wide range of uses; chromaticism had become part of the common musical language.
Musical modes are a type of scale with distinct melodic characteristics. The 7 modes, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian; come from the earliest forms of western music. Before we figured out the maths for dividing the octave into 12 equal tones, we had to make do with an imperfect system.
Chromaticism, (from Greek chroma, “colour”) in music, allows us to add colour and embellish the notes of major and minor scales. During the 1600’s, music was generally written in major and minor keys. Composers used notes outside of these keys (termed accidentals); to embellish the melody and add colour to the music.
In ancient Greece there were three standard tunings (known by the Latin word genus, plural genera) of a lyre. These three tunings were called diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic and the sequences of four notes that they produced were called tetrachords (“four strings”).
- A semi-tone is the shortest difference between two notes.
- A tone is two semi-tones (there’s always a note between them)
- Chromatic semi-tones have a common letter name
- Diatonic semi-tones have a different letter name
- Enharmonic notes sound the same and have a different letter name
- A sharp raises the note by a semi-tone
- A flat, lowers the note by a semi-tone
Major members of the Venetian School of Music.
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