I work in the niche realm of historical performance, but videos from the 2020 Bovicelli Competition are the nichest thing I have seen in a long time.

This year’s competition, officially titled the “International Singers’ Competition on the Diminution Practices of the 16th and 17th Centuries,” was hosted by the Schloss Weißenbrunn Foundation in Germany and held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The competition recognizes talent in the rhythmically complex practice of improvising over 16th- and 17th-century motets and madrigals. Performers also had to memorize extended passages of counterpoint. 91 people applied.

The music of Lassus and Palestrina already provides challenges of poise and intonation to the world’s greatest choral ensembles. What would make so many musicians want to further complicate polyphonic density with rhythmic virtuosity?

“The point is not simply to show virtuosity but to make it expressive and moving. It is music, after all,” said Indonesian soprano Erika Tandiono. Tandiono is currently studying early vocal performance in Bremen, Germany. It was there that she came across a 1594 treatise by the Bovicelli Competition’s namesake, Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (1550 – ca. 1595) on the vocal ornamentation of madrigals and motets under the title Regole, passaggi di musica, madrigali et motetti passegiati. At first glance, the book seemed dry, formal and typically lofty in its proclamations on the virtues of singing and improvising, passing judgement on “good” and “bad” practices.

But at the back of the book, Tandiono pointed out, the treatise becomes less prescriptive. “Bovicelli offers examples of all the different ways a singer can move from note to note when embellishing a line of a motet,” she said. “Sometimes it can be just a matter of adding a single note, at other times it could be making as many as 16 notes. The guiding practice is how to take a single note and divide it up into a series of smaller notes.” The draw of the form is its flexibility. Her ultimate decisions, she said, are “a matter of taste.”

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The first prize winner of this year’s competition, Australian tenor Jacob Lawrence, is enrolled in a graduate certification program in historical improvisation at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. He sees the art of diminution as analogous to jazz. “When you hear a great jazz pianist play ‘Autumn Leaves’ in a club, it’s not as if the pianist is playing it for the first time and magically coming up with music out of their head,” he told me. “The pianist has probably played it a thousand times, and the version you’re hearing is in fact highly, highly polished although it’s technically being ‘improvised.’”

It takes an expressive arsenal of licks, riffs, and ornaments to make the music meaningful. “This competition focused on Bovicelli who wrote a treatise in 1594, but there were other treatise writers as well who would show their own diminutions of a motet, which look completely different from Bovicelli’s, even though they were written only 10 years earlier or later. These aren’t just note or rhythmic differences, but differences in affekt, as the decisions of ornamentation affect the expressive meaning of the music undergoing extemporization.”

Lawrence added:  “Diminution can mean simply taking a note and dividing into smaller values, but it also constitutes a holistic approach to making a madrigal or motet your own.”

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I asked Lawrence how he balances historical awareness and subjectivity in his own performances. “I don’t view myself as reviving this practice at all,” he said in response. “I see myself as using these treatises as guidance for broadening the expressive potential of some really beautiful music.”

For fellow competitor Iason Marmas, the study of diminution was a way of accessing improvisatory performance that seems to have otherwise all but disappeared in classical music. “Singing practices changed dramatically even in the 20th century. If we listen to early operatic recordings of bel canto repertoire, we can hear elaborate unwritten ornamentation that is easy to laugh off as ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘dated’ or even ‘in bad taste.’” Marmaras added that the prevalent musical taste in the 20th century veered away from spontaneous creation, and more toward the reliability of replication, thanks to the advent of the gramophone: “Learning through improvising gave musicians a fundamentally deeper understanding of the music, as well as the means to be creative as performers. But that’s not what is asked of us in the age of recordings.”

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What does it mean for a motet to be replicable or even recognizable? This year’s Bovicelli competitors’ diminutions were so elaborate that the essential underlying motet faded almost totally into the background. Echoing Lawrence, Boston-based soprano Agnes Coakley Cox said that diminution singing is much like jazz in that the underlying motet acts like a lead sheet. Singers then use examples from treatises much in the same way as jazz musicians transcribe licks from recordings. Agnes composed her master’s thesis at the Schola Cantorum on the similarities between ornamentation practice in the late 17th century and modern R&B singing.

“I got thinking about all this in 2014, when I saw an internet meme generally poking fun at R&B singers’ over-ornamentation of the national anthem around that time,” she said. Cox explained that historical sources talk about the dangers of hyper-ornamentation, citing Giulio Caccini. “Caccini talked about hearing singers who overdid things and about issues of taste. What I found interesting was that those exact same questions came up in a different time and place with a completely different genre. I ended up citing performances by Beyoncé as examples of tasteful ornamentation that would not be considered over the top, but rather in adherence to a certain vocal etiquette.”

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Cox also compared elements in R&B to ornaments offered in treatises by Christoph Bernhard and Michael Praetorius. “It’s interesting because in much R&B singing, it’s very common for men to sing quite high and for women to use much of their chest range. When looking at examples of singing from the 17th century, there are many occasions in which the timbre of modern voice types don’t always conform to the expectations laid out on paper,” she said. Because of the absence of recordings, Agnes explained, the treatises only go so far. Bovicelli may have laid out what it was possible to sing, but did not describe anything about technique or phonation. “If one compares the ornaments that overlap between R&B and early 17th-century music, it’s possible that some are more naturally-sung with techniques not often employed in modern classical singing,” she added.

These are fascinating questions that singers don’t frequently get to explore in their usual careers. New York soprano Molly Netter told me that time and resources are often lacking for vocalists to undertake these practices in their day-to-day work. “At least on the East Coast, rehearsal time is usually very limited for many choral and early music vocal gigs. It’s possible that you might improvise a few ornaments here and there, but the space to collaboratively improvise requires time,” she said. “There are exceptions, but unless the singer is in charge of the project or programming, composing highly elaborate diminutions at this high level isn’t usually expected on the job.” Netter added that, in the United States, many choirs and period instrument ensembles contain many of the same members but in different formations, making it harder to dive deep into nuances of ornamentation.

For Netter, diminution singing holds particular appeal as she has studied composition. “This music draws upon the intersection of performance, composition and improvisation to help the singer create meaning for the listener, and help them relate to 400-year-old music,” she said. “When approaching the text of any piece of vocal music, I ask myself a few questions: Who is the character? Who are they speaking to? What are they saying? And why?”

“Learning as much as possible about historical diminution practice gives a singer tools to improvise, compose, and use vocal affect to communicate something deeply human,” she continued. “This music can push us to foster a more holistic kind of musical virtuosity which isn’t always showcased in modern singing. This isn’t just an invitation to be a performer, but also a collaborator with the composer.”

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Thanks to technology, candidates in the Bovicelli Competition were not all reliant on encyclopedic knowledge of motets and treatises to participate in the competition. The Argentinian mezzo-soprano Florencia Menconi used her own keyboard skills to prepare, but noted that there is an app developed for the specific purpose of learning diminution technique called Passaggi.

“I don’t think 91 people around the world could be getting into diminution singing without the aid of the internet,” Menconi said. Different motets are available on Passaggi: on organ, on harpsichord and in different temperaments. Tempi are also alterable, allowing musicians to practice at slower speeds while maintaining a steady pulse. “It used to be the case that you had to have lived near a library or facsimile collection that had any treatise,” she told me. Now most of the sources are available on IMSLP and EarlyMusicSources. “While we may not be able to perform diminutions every day, it’s much more possible to learn about them and practice them than it would have been a few years ago.”

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Judith Malafronte, a soprano and faculty member at the Historical Performance Institute at Indiana University, was enthusiastic about the potential of the Bovicelli competition to stimulate interest in an underappreciated art. “I just thought it was an amazingly cool competition because it was so specific and nerdy,” she said. She was enthusiastic about the amount of exposure the competition was bringing to vocal music and practices of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

“The repertoire is strange to listen to. The phrases unfold in such unpredictable and unbalanced ways. The original madrigal goes by so slowly; what do you listen to, and how do you listen? In a five- or six-minute piece, it can be hard to keep track aurally of the structure,” she noted. But she also alluded to the fact that a competition like this can help redirect some of the focus in higher education. “The truth is, some early music programs in higher ed don’t even touch early 17th-century music or performance practices. As such, anything that draws students’ attention away from the glitter of Handel opera is good,” she said. “I’m serious!” ¶