Michelangelo Rossi in conversation with fra bernardo
When you were born around 1600 the upheaval in music in Italy was in full swing. The «seconda prattica» was finally to triumph over the contrapuntal style of the «prima prattica». Names like Claudio Monteverdi or Giulio Caccini come to mind. If you think of the fine arts, who is their idol here?
Clearly Michael Angelo Merigi, called Caravaggio. Not because in some of his most important paintings—for example «Amor vincit omnia»—he has also depicted the violino I love so much, but because he presents the «chiaroscuro», the chiaroscuro painting in technical perfection in a probably inimitable way. Of course, it is not about technical perfection, but about what it is supposed to convey. Caravaggio was an outstanding personality, a warhorse, an artist, a revolutionary.
Could you also be described in this way?
In the non-visual art of music, it has always been my ambition to cross borders. Perhaps you know that I studied Gesualdo’s madrigals in Genoa at a young age. Unfortunately I did not get to know the Prince of Venosa any more. But I was obsessed with playing his madrigals with the slanted harmonies which Pavoni published in 1613 in score (!) on the harpsichord. My teacher and uncle, Lelio, organist at San Lorenzo in Genoa, had a copy of the print. Gesualdo, a truly, positively crazy one. It is a pity that at the beginning of the 21st century his music was recognized as modern, harmonically extravagant for the time around 1600, but in the interpretations it degenerated absurdly into «absolute music». You can hardly imagine how the singers got goosebumps just by reciting the lyrics Gesualdo wrote himself—how it shot cold over our backs. Later I wrote Madrigali. An homage to Gesualdo, also a little crazy. But if I’m honest, they don’t come close to those of the Principe. Even during my first time, in Rome in the 1620s, d’India, Frescobaldi and I studied Gesualdo’s madrigals again and again.
Rome was at that time a melting pot and laboratory for all musical concerns. Just think of the Barberini family.
To simply dismiss the Barberinis as patrons would be unfair. Of course they were interested in documenting their power by surrounding themselves with all sorts of weird birds from art, philosophy and science. But the Barberinis—once leading the social and political scene in Rome—all belong to the genre of «homo faber». Francesco Barberini, to whom Giambattista Doni dedicated his famous Compendio on Modes in Music in 1635, entrusted Bernini with the direction of the construction of the Palazzo Barberini. This may give you an idea of the atmosphere in which «art» of every kind was created here. At that time Rome was absolutely state of the art in terms of music. In addition to the Canterine Romane, the ladies‘ ensemble of Andreana Basile «Sirena di Posilipo», which presented the latest cantatas, there was also the circle around Doni, Pietro della Valle—he also wrote a Coptic dictionary—and like-minded people who wanted to revive the chromatic and enharmonic tone gender of antiquity. Inspired by the Archicembalo with 36 notes per octave of the Nicola Vicentino not only special keyboard instruments were created to be able to represent the tone sexes purely. I tried to play my Toccata settima on such a «Cembalo Panarmonico». In spite of my most eager efforts it remained an interesting experiment. This omnitonium is not suitable for playing virtuoso keyboard music. In addition, especially in the Toccata settima I consciously make full use of the «roughness» of the mean-tone tuning.
This piece, like the toccata in general, raises questions of interpretation.
You probably know the texts that Frescobaldi, for example, wrote as a manual for the playing of his Toccate. Today keyboard players here are in a completely different situation than musicians in the first decades of Seicento. Without belittling Frescobaldi’s comments on free playing, it is not enough today to play freely but not organically in one pour. Toccate are short stories of exaltation, lethargy, love, hatred, infinite happiness, sadness, of rich and poor. A series of affetti and spinti, of emotions, schematically a series of fast, very fast, faster, slow, very slow, static sections, which I conclude with a happy ending in the form of a Correnta. When played correctly, the individual building blocks in their entirety result in exciting stories. — Just music.
But what means exciting?
I have been waiting for this question and you will have had the different fashions and styles in mind. With the keyword «fashion» I can hopefully answer your question. Let’s take a look at the different fashions in clothing in the 20th century. If the dresscode at the beginning was characterized by dress, costume, suit and hat, whether in leisure time or profession, it changes, as you will agree, substantially in the 2nd half of the century. No matter whether woman or man. Despite all changes—however—the decisive factor always remains how one wears clothes or a costume. I myself, who count myself among the humble people, could see this in my opera «Erminia sul Giordano» which we premiered at Palazzo Barberini in 1637. In this first production I played the violin as Apollo. Although I was a famous musician known as «Michelangelo del Violino» and not a noname either as a keyboard player, it was difficult for me to suddenly become the god of light, spring, moral purity and moderation, as well as the arts, music, poetry and song. I hope that I did this with the same conviction as I wish and demand of myself and the musician—yes, of people in general.
You were one of the most outstanding violinists of your time. So it is strange that we don’t know a single piece of your violin music today.
Of course, I also composed violin music. Especially in my time as «cameriere extra muros» by Pope Innozenz X, who came from the influential Pamphilj family, I enjoyed playing the violin with colleagues in my own works. It surprises me that so far no violin music has been found by me. Admittedly: I myself was a bit careless here, because I hardly had any music from my pen printed. But to comfort you, me and the dear readers, again the picture and motto of Caravaggio: «Amor vincit omnia» or a little more soberly—«Nobody is perfect».