Sing, Little Bird!
One of the things I love most about early baroque music as compared to most later classical music is that it can be realized in so many ways. You can pretty much use whatever instruments you have lying around, and the bass part is usually only sketched, not written out. Starting at about the time of J.S. Bach, the “tyranny of the composer” set in, and there was much less latitude for how music was realized, although of course there is enormous freedom of tempo, phrasing, instrumental balance, etc. But especially in the 1600s the balance of power in interpretation was much more heavily weighted in favor of the performers than in later music.
A song where this varied realization is obvious is Stefano Landi’s “Augellin” (Little Bird). Landi (1587 – 1639) was a minor composer of the early baroque era. He is best known for having written the first opera on an historical, as opposed to a mythological subject (Sant’Alessio), and for having invented the overture.
The song itself is simple, just 21 bars repeated, in 6/8 time. 6/8 time is similar to 3/4, which is waltz time. You count it as ONE two three FOUR five six. An interesting thing about the song is that it has no bass part written out at all, not even sketched. I suppose it could be sung as a solo a cappella, but every recording I have ever heard created a bass part.
The lyrics are typical of the seventeenth century: a frustrated lover sings about his cruel lady. In this version, he entreats a little bird to keep singing its love song while his “Sun,” that is, his lady, is deaf to his entreating. Finally she kisses him, he feels the dawn, and he tells the bird to sing for both its and his delight.
Here is a beautiful version of the song, performed by the Russian group Canto Vivo. The video has a fixed camera but I enjoy watching the musicians because they look like they come from the seventeenth century.
This rendition features a lute and a baroque guitar, which seems plausible as a realization of the song at the time it was written, because it is not too elaborate. The lute intro picks up little phrases from the melody, cunningly interspersed with typical ornamental motifs, but the lute and guitar provide energetic and integrated support once the singer begins. I couldn’t find a version of this song for sale, so I just transferred the video to an mp3 file. I won’t do that if I can buy it, because it goes against my ethics.
Of course, a group can have a few more than the basic one or two accompanists and still sound good. Here’s a performance by the European group L’Arpeggiata, directed by Christina Pluhar, which is distinguished by its use of the hammered dulcimer. The singer is an angelic tenor from Naples named Marco Beasley. The lyrics are below, and I think they repay a little attention.
You can buy the whole wonderful album from Amazon.
Little bird You chase your love
All the time
From beech tree to pine;
Spreading the good word
My lament with your song.
My Sun is too proud,
To my great sorrow
Beloved Chloris, beautiful Chloris,
Hates me, is ungrateful,
Cruel, and deaf to my pleading.
Let her not be cruel
Anymore, I would die
If she were;
Hush, hush, now
She offers kisses
To my lips, my dawn.
Fly on little bird
And don’t shy away
A new song;
From your amorous breast
Show in full
Your joy, and my delight.
English translation by poet Paul Archer of the text of Augellin by Stefano Landi (1587-1639). See the copyright notice below.
Che’l tuo amor
Dal faggio al pin;
E spiegando i bei concenti
Col tuo canto i miei lamenti.
Il mio Sol troppo fier,
Del mio gran duol
Clori amata, Clori bella,
A’ miei prieghi empia e rubella.
Non sia più
Cruda no, morirò
S’ella è qual fù;
Taci, taci, che già pia
Porge i baci,
Al mio labro l’alba mia.
Fuor del seno amorosetto
Mostra à pieno
La tua gioia, il mio diletto.
Copyright notice. The translation is provided as an aid to musicians and audiences. Publication of the translation in print or digital formats is expressly forbidden unless permission from the author has been first obtained and acknowledgement of authorship is duly made. Permission will usually be granted so please contact Paul Archer with details of how you wish to make use of the translation.
So far we have two rather different-sounding renditions of the same song. But we can top that. Sometimes old wine can be placed into new bottles, which I suppose the New Testament would find acceptable. Next up is a version by a jazz group led by Francesco Turrisi. The singer is the talented Spanish-British Clara Sanabras, whom I have been following for years. Listen to her emphasis on the word “rubella” (“deaf”) in the lovesick lover’s line “deaf to my pleading.” Also, when she says “taci” it really sound like she means “hush,” unlike in the other versions. In general, I like the stresses and dynamics of her singing best. She seems to feel freer to inhabit the character of the singer, to act it out. The other two interpretations rely more on the sweetness of the singers’ voices and the pure beauty of the melody. You see this kind of theatricality in opera of course, but I don’t much care for opera, at least not yet. I know it from modern popular music, which is quite acted out. Perhaps Ms. Sanabras delivers the song that way because she is primarily a popular singer.
There is some very nice improvisation going on here. A departure from the sheet music is something jazz shared with early baroque music. I don’t know whether the lute intro to the Canto Vivo version was improvised on the spot, but it seems to contain many of the same techniques as a jazz improvisation, breaking up and stitching together pieces of the melody. As you listen to Turissi’s version, follow the piano part, which is quite wonderful.
You can buy the song from Amazon.
Well, there you have three strikingly different versions of one of my favorite songs, and I hope you share my wonder at how the same basic thing can sound so different. And I hope you found a new song for your listening joy, too!
I am putting one more link way down at the bottom, which I think most people should ignore. It is the score of the song. If you press “play” a computer will play the notes in a somewhat robotic manner. Using the metronome icon, you can change the tempo. I enjoyed looking at the score because even though I can’t read music very well, it gave me a little insight into how the song is constructed. This is in the nature of a toy, rather than a thing of beauty, however.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might wish to check out my collection of essays available on Amazon.