Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Arie antiche

As it might be apparent from this blog, I think the topic of musical authenticity is fascinating. What was authentic to the generation of our grandparents became fake for our parents and then is picked up and dusted off, to be discarded again with the changing fashion and interests. One example from pop music is the 50's exotica trend. For their contemporaries Martin Denny and Les Baxter were the true troubadours of faraway lands; then they became the cheese peddlers, and now they are "the authentic exotica movement of 50's."

Recently I stumbled onto another example from the classical world. Several extended quotes from Wiki and elsewhere after the jump:

Though also a composer, Alessandro Parisotti is better known today as the original editor of a collection of songs known as arie antiche (originally titled Arie antiche: ad una voce per canto e pianoforte, published 1890). The original collection comprises three volumes of songs or arias published as a primer to study classical singing, but the three volumes have since been reduced to single-volumed extracts known as the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, sometimes also the 26 Italian Songs and Arias.

Parisotti collected these antique arias (arie antiche is the Italian) in what was the 19th century vogue for discovering forgotten old or antique music from the classical and baroque eras. The most famous example of this practice of reclaiming forgotten music is Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig (1829). The taste for rediscovered music was de rigueur among musicians and audiences of the nineteenth century, with composers lesser than Mendelssohn and Brahms playing the field as well. Parisotti found forgotten scores and arranged their arias (or duets) for solo singer and Piano accompaniment.

His textual practices were unscrupulous though, the scores for many originals being modified, or supposedly improved, from how the music had been intended by the original composers. Beyond that, Parisotti also included some of his own pieces for public performance and for publication in the Arie antiche collection, but always passing them off as rediscovered masterpieces of the ancient composers. In his collection 'Se tu m'ami' was attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi where in fact it seems Parisotti composed it himself. Another misattribution is the recitative and aria 'Il mio bel foco ... Quella fiamma' which was attributed to Alessandro Marcello, and often still is, but was in fact composed by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti. These fake masterpieces of the baroque call the integrity of the so-called Neo-Classicism in Igor Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella into question when considering that Stravinsky had studied them to familiarize himself with baroque style and that he even re-used the music of Se tu m'ami in the ballet. (emphasis mine - LesTP)

The arie antiche or Italian songs have become the staple of modern voice pedagogy, specifically for students just beginning with lessons. Teachers laud them, perhaps mistakenly, for tracing a line to the old schools of singing right back to the golden age of the castrati. In fact, where the quality of the music is concerned, these arrangements of baroque and classical arias bear a closer kinship with the 19th century parlour song.

The following is from liners to an Emma Kirkby "Arie Antiche" album:
The famous yellow books known as the Arie Antiche, compiled as the personal anthology of a single editor almost one hundred years ago, have formed and channeled the taste of generations of singers and singing enthusiasts. No blame can be attached to the original editor for the use made of his work by future generations, but what is so astonishing is that such an old-fashioned, mistranscribed, frequently truncated and textually bowdlerized collection should still be exercising such authority over so much of the singing world now, in the 1990's, despite being ill flagrant contradiction of decades of brilliant musicology, despite the yards of shelf-space in music reference libraries filled with superb 'complete' editions and even photographic facsimiles of original prints and manuscripts, and even despite some performances in our time reflecting the depth and passion revealed by the best of the 'early music' activity of the last twenty five years.

The world is a different place in 1990 from what it was in 1890, and an anthology such as that contained in the yellow books now belongs firmly in the museum of music history. It is itself now part of 'early music', a curio, a product of its age, unique of its kind and not without minor interest for students of Victorian harmonic taste and the social etiquette revealed in the history of bowdlerization!

The first quote ends with a reference to "parlour song" - a dismissive label for the white popular music of late XIXth century; despite the "white men can't swing" connotations, apparently parlour music was interesting enough and influenced ragtime, jazz, and other subsequent styles in ways that are not usually acknowledged: see Peter Ecklund's most excellent article "Louis licks" and XIXth century cornet etudes (PDF) and the following from wiki:

In contrast to the chord-based classical music era, parlour music features melodies which are harmonically-independent or not determined by the harmony. This produces parlour chords, many of them added tone chords if not extended such as the dominant thirteenth, added sixth, and major dominant ninth. Rather, the melodies are organized through parlour modes, variants of the major mode with the third, sixth, and seventh emphasized through modal frames such as the mediant-octave mode, which uses the third as a floor and ceiling note, its less common variants the pseudo-phrygian, in which the seventh and often fifth are given prominence, and submediant-octave mode.

As far as music goes, I am not sure what to recommend, but there is plenty of commercial recordings of Arie Antiche out there - see, for instance, this or this. Everyone knows it's fake but I guess people still like the tunes.
Also, scans of the original collections are available on upload sites and IMSLP, and elsewhere on the web (Scribd etc).

PS. Now that I heard a few different ones, the best interpretations IMHO are by Ramon Vargas, available from this blog (note the password).


  1. Interesting post. I'm not totally sure what to make of the Wikipedia article concerning the differences between chordal based classical music and the chordal accompaniment it describes as being used in popular or parlor music. I wish my background/understanding of theory were a little stronger.


  2. I am not sure myself, and without familiarity with the parlour music or at least specific examples it's hard to know what the author meant.
    But I thought it was notable that the ninth and thirteenth chords that only started showing up in jazz with the coming of bebop - i.e. early 40s - were used in parlour songs fifty years prior.
    Check out the Ecklund article too, it's good.