Gawain Glenton (University of Southampton)

Wednesday 14 June 2017, 4.00PM

‘Curlicues and whirligigs: Understanding the “flatulent virtuosity” of early modern Italy’

'No one will care to advocate the revival of a host of obsolete curlicues and twirligigs, or the resuscitation of a habit of improvising facile variantes or running into division. Divisions and graces have had their day and have served their purpose.' - Edward Dannreuther (1891)

Early modern Italian diminution has polarised opinion since the emergence of musicology as a discipline, producing a tradition of commentary that frames the subject in moral terms. Einstein (1949) declared the colaratura of the virtuoso to be the 'deadly enemy of the creative musician', while John Bettley (1976-77) described the cadential passage-work in Severi's 1615 Psalmi passaggiati as 'flatulent virtuosity'. More recently Timothy Collins (2001) lamented the 'abuses' of modern performers. Even advocates like Mayer Brown (1976) refers to 'virtuoso egomania' and describes the style of Dalla Casa and contemporaries as 'excessive' and 'decadent'. The attitude is reflected in modern performances such as Joshua Rifkin's 2014/15 Monteverdi's Vespers, in which performers were barred from adding any ornaments whatsoever.

To support this line of thinking, a cluster of comments which appear at first glance to illustrate an attempt to control diminution practice between 1580-1620 are regularly deployed. Collins notes the correllation between these supposed attacks and the emergence of the 'new style' of solo singing and concludes that florid diminution was anathema to the 'Florentine' style. I will show that the evidence requires a more nuanced reading of the source material and that this theorised tension is not manifested in the work of practical musicians of the time - even those closest to the Florentine Camerata. Florid ornaments were assimilated into the new style and deployed with a consistency that allows us to understand the contexts for, and nature of, ornamentation in this repertoire.


Gawain Glenton is a specialist cornetto player whose work as a soloist and an ensemble musician takes him all over the world. He performs and records with many leading international groups and directors, such as Il Giardino Armonico, Concerto Palatino, l'Arpeggiata, Les Talens Lyriques, Concerto Italiano, The Taverner Consort, Barokksolistene and the Nederlandse Bachvereniging. Gawain is a member of The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, with whom he has recorded several acclaimed CDs, including 'The Spy's Choirbook' with Alamire - winner of the 2015 Gramophone Award for Early Music. Gawain also appears as a featured artist on 2016's winner of the Gramophone Award for Early Music: The Taverner Consort's recording of the Western Wind Mass

Location: Sally Baldwin D Block: D003