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In this latest in our interactive Into Practice series, countertenor Robert Ogden discusses the often-difficult area of interpreting early seventeenth-century monodic song, using an example by Richard Dering, Vergine Bella. In the performace, he is joined by harpsichordist Jonathan Baxendale and Baroque cellist Clare Babington.

A Yorkshireman by birth, Robert Ogden received his musical education in Westminster Cathedral Choir, at Ampleforth College, York and as a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge, where he took part as a soloist in numerous concerts, broadcasts and recordings, including Handel's Israel in Egypt with the Brandenburg Consort for Decca. He continued his studies at the Royal Northern College of Music, where he was awarded the prestigious Curtis Gold Medal for Singing.

He is active in both operatic and oratorio roles, having performed extensively in the United Kingdom and Germany in roles such as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the title role in Handel's Radamisto, as Ptolomeo in Handel's Giulio Cesare, and as a soloist with such orchestras as the Belarus State Symphony Orchestra, the Northern Chamber Orchestra, the Brandenburger Sinfoniker and the Deutsches Kammerorchester Frankfurt am Main. In June this year he makes his international opera début as Kreon in the Swiss premiere of Rolf Liebermann's Freispruch für Medea for Stadttheater Bern. Other plans include Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, with Richard Hickox, and a performance of Bach and Purcell for the Britten-Pears School.


One of the most important influences on the development of seventeenth-century English song was that of Italian monody. Its main features were a vocal line that is declamatory (rather than purely melodic), which follows the natural speech-rhythms and accentuation of the words, and which has a chordal style of accompaniment that has a purely supporting role. The purpose of monody was to project the text; the accompaniment consisted solely of a figured bass, since any other forms of counterpoint were considered detrimental to the flow or sprezzatura of the music. It is probable that John Dowland heard this new music during his Italian travels in the 1590s since declamatory and rhetorical elements often permeate his later music. Nevertheless, monody was such a driving force in European song that it even found its way into the work of the most conservative of English composers.

Vergine Bella is one of several songs written by Richard Dering during in the 1620s, possibly during his sojourn in Italy, where he must have come into firsthand contact with the rhetorical continuo-madrigal style, a reflexion of the 'new practices' of the Italian School: monodic texts, fragmented by awkwardly-placed cadences, restless modulations and the juxtaposition of languishing harmonies with animated rhythms. Dering's songs show little of the conservative nature of contemporary English composers, employing a masterful handling of chromaticism and affekt. As Dering had returned to England by 1625, as a member of the household of Charles I's Roman Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, there is no reason to doubt that performances took place of his secular songs. Indeed, the admiration they received from later composers and, of all people, Oliver Cromwell, suggests a wide circulation and popularity.

Essentially, Petrach's text can be interpreted on two levels: on both it is a passionate love song dedicated to a woman of intense beauty; as in many love songs, she is unattainable and has to be worshipped from afar. But on a purely religious level, it becomes clear that the text is directed to the Virgin Mary, who, in the time-honoured tradition of Marian-worship, was seen as the most perfect of women who, as such, should be venerated, even in such sensuous terms as those found here.

The performance may be downloaded in mp3 format, for later use, or streamed as you view the text. Because no suitable modern edition of the songs is available, we have included the musical text as a pdf document in both its original key of g minor and in e minor, chosen for this performance to suit the tessitura of the countertenor voice. The music is not intended to be a scholastic edition: the continuo part is a transcription of the improvised accompaniment, which follows stylistic conventions of early seventeenth-century Italian music by closely shadowing the vocal part. It may be modified substantially to suit your voice and the qualities of the instrument you use; only the bass is original, the other parts and the figuring are editorial and are indicated in small notes.

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