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Monteverdi's 'story in music' L'Orfeo (first performed in Mantua in 1607) is not 'the first opera'. It's not an 'opera', and it wasn't the first. But it is the earliest music-drama to have found a place in mainstream Opera Houses.


This page offers a documentary film examining a historical approach to both music and stage action, with links to articles and primary sources. Most of the material here is relevant to any early-17th-century Italian 'opera'. 



There are two early prints of Orfeo: the first edition (1609) is here.


The 1615 edition corrects some errors from the first edition, but also introduces some new errors. You'll find 1615 here.


There are many modern editions. the late Clifford Bartlett's for the Early Music Company offers good value for money: contact them here.

Once you've rejected hopelessly romanticised editions with elaborate piano accompaniments or arrangements of the basso continuo for consort of viols etc, the main problem with most 'scholarly' editions is 'modernisation' of Monteverdi's rhythmic notation. See Proportions, below.

Andrew Lawrence-King's 2010 edition, a clean transcription of 1609, corrected with reference to 1615, with original continuo figuring, bar-lines and rhythmic notation, updated 2019, is available free, for projects in which he is involved. Contact here.



Sources contemporary with Orfeo emphasise the primary importance of 'chiselling out the words' so that the audience understand the text. It's also essential that singers stay focussed on the particular word they are singing right now: non-native speakers need a translation that assigns meaning word-by-word. 


Monteverdi and the anonymous c1630 MS Il Corago here, remind us that the affetto (passion) changes word-by-word.


Baroque gesture helps performers (and audiences) link meaning to individual words. Modern Mindfulness training can be useful to singers, in this regard.


ALK article: The Good, the Bad, & the Early Music Phrase here.



ALK article: Rhythm - what really counts? here.


Today's performers apply the period principle of Tactus at least partially, perhaps more thoroughly. Very few apply Tactus fully. See Houle Meter in Music 1600-1800 here.


It's widely accepted that music circa 1600 is organised by a slow pulse, the Tactus. Period sources show how the Tactus was shown by a down-up movement of the hand: down for one minim, up for another minim. The complete down-up movement of the Tactus-hand corresponds to a semibreve, under "time-signature" C.

Most HIP performers accept that (in this repertoire) changes from duple to triple metre are organised by Proportions in which the slow beat of the Tactus remains constant. 


Many scholars argue from period evidence that the Tactus remains constant for a long time within a work such as Orfeo. Performers are reluctant to try this.

There is historical evidence to support th concept of Tactus as a constant beat for an entire work  - indeed for this entire repertoire - to the limits of human perception. Of course, this is before the invention of the metronome, so 'constant' implies 'a feeling of constancy' rather than mechanical exactitude. Like the human hand in motion, like a pendulum (Galilei observed the pendulum effect in Pisa Cathedral in the late 16th century), the Tactus has a 'swing', not a metronomic 'click'. Very few performers even try this approach.


But perhaps we would acheive a better understanding of Monteverdi's attitude to Tactus, not by looking at choices made by modern performers, but rather by considering the historical philosophy of Time itself, in the age before Newton.

See Roger Mathew Grant Beating Time and Measuring Music (2015) here


ALK article: A Baroque History of Time: Stars, Hearts and Music here.


Monteverdi's concept of Time is not Absolute (our modern intuitive assumption, based on Newton's 1687  Principia here) but Aristotelean.


ALK article: Tempus Putationis: Getting back to Monteverdi's Time here.  



In Act I  of Orfeo, the Ballo Lasciate Ninfe poses particular questions of Proportions, which have been discussed in a series of articles, from differing viewpoints.


Musicologist Roger Bowers applies his 'medieval' theory of mensural signs here


Dance Historian Virgina Christy Lamothe examines the ballo in the context of early 17th-century court social dances here


My article considers practical solutions based on evidence of early 17th-century theatrical balli, which are somewhat different from social dances of the time.

ALK article: Sherlock Holmes and the Wedding Dance: Tactus & Proportions in Monteverdi's 'Lasciate i monti' here.



This entire website is dedicated to the Science of Historical Action. In 17th-century philosophy, Music is heavenly (musica mondana,  the Music of the Spheres) and embodied (musica humana, the harmonious nature of the human body) as well as sound (musica instrumentalis, practical music-making). 


Time is similarly three-fold: cosmic (the movement of the stars and planets) and human (the heartbeat) as well as practical. Messing around with the Tactus might cause the sky to fall. If your pulse stops, the music also dies.


According to 17th-century Medical Science, emotions are conveyed from Text to Performer, and from Performer to Audience by means of Pneuma, the spirit of passion. Pneuma is also three-fold: the divine breath of life in Creation, the mind/body energy in every human being (something like oriental Chi), and the spirit that 'moves the passions' in performance.


Enargeia, the power of detailed visual description, is particularly effective in 'moving the passions', especially when supported by passionately forceful and rhetorically clear gestures.


And if your passions are moved, Pneuma flows between your soul, mind and body, causing physiological responses, changes in the Four Humours. These body liquids produce observable physical changes: the face reddens or pales, one feels hot or cold, loving or angry, fearful or sad


This historical Science of the Passions underlies the rhetorical language of the Prologue to Orfeo. But in terms of modern science, how did it actually work? One hypothesis is that Monteverdi's singers and Shakespeare's actors were employing techniques that we would today call Hypnotism. Was Rhetoric, the Art of persuasive Language, the Neuro-Linguistic Programming of the 17th century?

ALK The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica Hypnotises the Heroes here.

Continuing Research/Experiment


These notes discuss topics emerging from the 2017 workshop on Monteverdi Orfeo and Il Ballo delle Ingrate at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. Read more here.




According to Caccini Le Nuove Musiche (1601) here, the period 'priorities in music are 'Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around!'


From Demosthenes, via Cicero and Quintilian, to John Butler in 17th-century England, historical sources agree on the Rhetorical priority of Action. Action is much more than just 'baroque gesture', and (like the music) it springs from the Text. 'Suit the Action to the Word' says Shakespeare.


In the Rhetorical age (i.e. before about 1800), the aim of all the arts is muovere gli affetti, to 'move the Passions'. Whose passions? The audience's, of course: this is subtly different from the Romantic ideal of 'expressing' the performer's emotions.

Andrew Lawrence-King's series of articles on How to Act in 17th-century Italian opera and Shakespeare plays starts here.

Articles related to Orfeo


There is an index to ALK's Blog here.

The Philosophy of La Musica

The Minister's Conditions

Rhetoric, Rhythm & Passions 

Staging the Ballo



Rhythm is a very high priority in Orfeo. Circa 1600, rhythm is organised by the Tactus


The Il Corago MS here confirms what we all know, but most modern productions ignore, that there was NO CONDUCTOR in early opera.


Every single performer is jointly responsible for maintaining the Tactus. The continuo players 'guide the complete body of voices and instruments of the ensemble'.

Contrary to received opinion, singers follow the continuo (not vice versa) even in 'recitative'. Neither singers nor continuo should ornament the 'recitative'.


Indeed, the word 'recitative' itself is highly problematic, see Redefining Recitative below.


Another problematic word is sprezzatura. Contrary to received opinion, Caccini's priority was not rhythmic freedom. 

ALK article: Play it again, Sam! The truth about Caccini's 'sprezzatura' here.



Changes from duple to triple meter are organised by Proportions. It is widely accepted that Monteverdi's notation specifies a clear intention for the relation between tempi in duple- and triple-metre: it is not a 'free choice' for the performer. Scholars agree that the slow count of the Tactus remains constant. But there are differing opinions on precisely how to understand Monteverdi's notation.


One of the leading scholars in this field is Roger Bowers, who suggests that the vital information is encoded in the 'time signatures' (properly, these are Mensuration Symbols) which should be deciphered according to rules going back to medieval sources. Bowers' solutions require complex analysis, and often produce slower tempi for triple metre than those favoured by most performers.

My approach is based on 17th-century sources. I suggest that the 'time signatures' are less relevant (indeed, the printers omitted the mensuration symbols for the final Moresca in the 1609 edition, and this omission was of so little consequence that it was not corrected in 1615). My solutions (linked to the concept of constant Tactus of approximately minim = 60 in duple metre under C) are simple: semibreves go slowly (Sesquialtera), minims go moderately fast (Tripla), semi-minims (these look like crotchets, under  6/4) go very fast. 


One of the principal objections to Bowers' approach is its complexity. Even for an experienced expert, it takes long analysis of the score before one can calculate the solution. Sometimes the crucial evidence  (for his model) is buried in some inner part, several bars later. But we know that (although singers had a lengthy preparation time in order to memorise their parts for Orfeo), in general Monteverdi's concerted music was performed with little or no rehearsal. Just as continuo-players must be able to find the correct chord (and the same chord as their colleagues) instantly whilst sight-reading, so all members of the ensemble must instantly arrive at the same solution for each change of proportion. And typically, no-one has a full score, only part books. Bowers' theoretical and medieval approach fails these practical, 17th-century tests.


ALK article: Quality Time: how does it feelhere


ALK article: Tempus Putationis: Getting back to Monteverdi's Time here.  


I’m certainly not so arrogant as to insist that everyone else should adopt my theory. 


However, I do suggest that you might apply my methods to test your own theory of Proportions. A good theory should be consistent, unambiguous, and easily applied for quick decisions in the real world of practical music-making.


See also It's Recitative, but not as we know it.

For  people, Recitative is 'the boring bit between the nice tunes'. That's a problem for Orfeo, since there are lots of 'boring bits' and relatively few 'nice tunes'.

Most performers would argue that Recitative is the most expressive music, and that it therefore requires rhythmic flexibility, with the accompanists following the singer's free declamation. However, every step of that oft-cited argument is problematic.


Circa 1600, the word Recitative was rarely used for this genre. See F. W. Sternfeld, ‘A Note on Stile Recitativo’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 110 (1983-1984) 41-44. 

When the word Recitative is used, it means something different. Recitare means 'to act' whether in a spoken play, a sung opera, or in silent pantomime. See Il Corago, here.   


Musica recitativa thus means 'acted music', dramatic music: it can include aria, which in this period means any repeated unit in text, rhythm of music. So the line 'A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!' is, in 17th-century terms, an aria within a recitative. See Il Corago again, here.


What we (mistakenly) call 'recitative' today, speech-like melodic patterns over a slow-moving bass, as described by Peri, was called modulatione by Il Corago. (Yes, go on, read Il Corago for yourself!)


The baroque aim is not to 'express' the performer's emotions, but to move the audience's passions. A subtle, but vital distinction!


Contrary to received opinion, there is no assumption circa 1600 that recitative is free. See ALK The truth about Caccini's sprezzatura here.

 And contrary to almost every modern performance, singers are guided by continuo. Soloists follow the accompaniment. See Agazzari Del Sonare sopra'l basso here.


ALK The implications of Peri's preface here.

ALK Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz here.


Finally, early 17th-century sources agree that neither continuo nor singers should ornament in Recitative (i.e. dramatic monody), only in Aria. See Cavalieri, Viadana, Agazzari, Monteverdi's preface to Combattimento, and (in case you haven't read it yet) Il Corago.


ALK Sparow-flavoured soup, or What is Continuo? here.


If you look closely,

you'll notice that this is Andrew Lawrence-King's edition (2010).


Click the image

for a link to the 1609 print.

If you only have time to read one book, read this one: 

Il Corago (Anon, c1630) here

Andrew Lawrence-King's English translation is coming soon: sign-up for a pre-publication option here.

The Art of Gesture

Giovanni Bonifaccio  (1616)


Andrew Lawrence-King's English language edition

is coming soon, here.

Perhaps the most important (and least observed) element of Historically Informed Performance in most repertoires before 1800 is NO CONDUCTING!
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