Liner notes of “Salterio Italiano”

Painting shades of sound with pizzicato and battuto

Written by Franziska Fleischanderl (2018)

The salterio enjoyed great popularity in aristocratic circles in 18th century Italy. Its use can be traced through many annotations in payroll and payment lists, in sales ads and through eyewitness reports. The salterio’s repertoire has been handed down exclusively in manuscripts and caters to all genres of the time. It was heard in church, at the theater and at court. The original instruments, with their artistic decorations, are preserved in museums and private collections throughout Europe; their multitude bears witness to their magnificent past. Social upheavals and a change in acoustic ideals caused the salterio to disappear from the scene by the end of the 18th century.

This CD may be understood as a contribution towards the awakening of the instrument from its deep slumber. It focuses on an extraordinary feature: owing to its construction, the salterio allows for two completely different playing techniques which were both used equally. The strings can either be plucked (pizzicato) or struck with two mallets (battuto).

On this CD, original Italian salterio music was recorded for the first time on an original instrument using both playing techniques in equal measure, moreover while played upon using the first faithful replicas of Italian salterio mallets worldwide.

The quest for pizzicato and battuto

Unfortunately, the scores do not contain any information on the playing technique used. Even in the iconographic sources of the 18th century, the salterio can hardly be found. To answer the question of pizzicato or battuto execution, I am therefore dependent on the study of written sources about salterio playing and on practical experience with the instrument.

I was able to locate a rich source in northern Italy: forty young aristocrats studied the salterio at the Collegio dei Nobili San Francesco Saverio in Bologna during the 18th century. The sources there show that, between 1708 and 1734, many of the students bought salterio mallets in a wide variety of designs and materials. In the following years between 1735 and 1745, however, no more mallets were apparently bought, only the purchase of six so-called “ditali” (finger rings with plectrums), with which the salterio is plucked, is documented. Since the young noblemen came from all over northern Italy and returned to their cities of origin after completing their schooling, it can be assumed that both playing techniques were already spread from Venice to Milan in the first half of the 18th century. In the second half of the century, we learn from the salterio virtuoso Giovanni Battista Dall’Olio of Modena that the salterio was played pizzicato with ditali.

In central Italy, we also encounter both playing techniques. The Jesuit scholar Filippo Bonanni tells in his Gabinetto Armonico (Rome, 1723) of the unforgettable skill with which the priest Don Florido Ubaldi plucked the salterio with fingers or struck it with mallets. In 1741, the caricaturist Pier Luigi Ghezzi immortalizes an Abbate Benedetti from Ancona, who plucks the salterio, composes witty concerts for it, but unfortunately puts on stilted airs while playing. Then again, an unspecified arte povera representation of a salterio at the Roman Museum of Instruments depicts a woman playing battuto. Finally, we discover the only written instruction on the playing technique as an annotation on a score in southern Italy. Nicola Porpora requires batutto for the salterio aria Sospende incontro al sole in his oratorio Il Verbo in Carne (1748). In contrast, the mistitled painting “Alla Spinetta” by Gaspare Traversi shows a sitting salterio player plucking the instrument with her fingers. The painting was dated between 1752 and 1754 and was created by Traversi for either a Roman or Neapolitan patron.

The sound of pizzicato and battuto

The reintroduction of the salterio, played pizzicato and battuto, not only sheds entirely fresh light on the instrument as such, but also brings back a lost tile to the mosaic of eighteenth-century music. The salterio turns out to be an acoustic quick-change artist; like a chameleon, it changes colour at will and becomes a new instrument that invites today’s ears to an entertaining game of hide-and-seek. In those days, due to regional differences in instrument construction and tuning as well as the standardization of musical instruments having only been introduced later, this spectrum of sound may come as a surprise to us today. Even to specialists in early music, the salterio might not be clearly recognisable as such upon first hearing it: the sound is too brilliant for a harp, too round for a mandolin, too dynamic for a harpsichord, too sonorous for a clavichord and too rich in overtones for a fortepiano. Is it a zither? The special ability of the salterio lies in its ability to approach the sound spectrum of each of the instruments mentioned above through the playing technique applied herein, but basically to remain what it is: an instrument with a unique sound that is only familiar to precious few listeners.

The acoustic result of both techniques is so different that one could almost speak of two different instruments: the pizzicato salterio and the battuto salterio. I used fingernails and fingertips in the pizzicato (tracks 12, 13, 15-24). The richness of colour is mainly produced by subtle changes of the plucking angle, the plucking speed and the plucking positions. In battuto salterio, it is the mallets themselves on the one hand, and their leatheriness on the other, which produce different nuances. Since today’s salterio mallets are the product of the instrument makers’ free interpretations, I started looking for original specimens and found them in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels. The two pairs of undated mallets can be regarded as Italian specimens due to their construction, which corresponds to historical descriptions. In an informative research collaboration with the museum and Joris de Valck, I was able to obtain detailed information about the constructional characteristics of the mallets and to commission their reproduction. The Austrian bow maker Martha Breit has manufactured the mallets from boxwood and snakewood in beautiful handwork. The replicas are surprisingly short and light, weighing only 1.7 grams per mallet at times. An interesting discovery was the change in sound, which the material used brings with it: snakewood sounds direct and pithy (track 1), but boxwood sounds silvery and bright (tracks 3, 4, 11).

When I apply leather to the mallet heads – analogous to the Brussels model – a dark, forte-piano-like sound is created which can also be altered by using different types of leather and leather thicknesses (tracks 2, 7, 10, 14).

Salterio music from the North to the South of Italy

To provide the listener with a comprehensive overview, music from Venice to Naples was selected. A very special salterio part book from the Ospedale della Pieta is preserved at the Venetian Conservatory. It contains works by Gaetano Latilla, Giuseppe Sarti, Lorenzo Duodo, Gregorio Sciroli, Bonaventura Furlanetto and Ferdinando Bertoni as well as the featured sonata by the Augustinian priest Fulgenzio Perotti. At the Ospedale della Pietà, two phases of salterio practice are documented: the first was initiated by Antonio Vivaldi with the purchase of two salterios (1706 and 1709); the second is mainly documented through Perotti’s teaching and compositions, as he was appointed to teach salterio at the Ospedale in 1759. Perotti, whose exact dates of birth and death remain unknown, leaves behind a few pieces for the salterio, including salterio concertos, concertos for organ and salterio and sonatas for one or two salterios. Especially characteristic of his works are the enchantingly beautiful second movements. Historically, both battuto and pizzicato can be used in this sonata.

Despite the forty salterio students at the Collegio dei Nobili in Bologna mentioned above, only two compositions for salterio can be found there today – an unfortunate evidence of how much music may have been lost over time. One of these two pieces is the Motetto per Salterio e Clavicembalo obbligati per solo alto by Giovanni Battista Martini, which can be found on the present recording. According to the autograph, the respected music theorist, composer and teacher wrote the motet around the middle of the century. The motet places the voice and two obbligato instruments, and thus three soloists, at the centre of the listener’s attention. A special feature is the extremely charming combination of salterio and harpsichord, instruments that sound similar and different at the same time. The text is part of the Holy Week liturgy of Good Friday (4th reading). The formal structure of the composition, with alternating recitatives and arias, refers to the Italian opera style of the time, which also found its way into the church. Of particular note is the Recitativo accompagnato, which sets a key part of the text to music and will later be encountered again in the composition by Girolamo Rossi, who set the same liturgical text to music. As a homage to the salterio students of this city, I recorded Martini’s motet in batutto.

Thanks to the detailed research of Teresa Chirico with regard to the salterio’s history in Rome, we know of its common use in the 1720s and 1730s at high feasts of the nobility surrounding the Pope’s Palace, as well as the Cardinals Ottoboni and Cybo. There was always a salterio virtuoso of extraordinary rank: the aforementioned Don Florido Ubaldi from Città di Castello, whose exact dates of birth and death unfortunately remain in the dark. Pier Luigi Ghezzi also immortalizes him in a caricature and points out that he has helped the salterio to great prestige through his playing and has yielded many fine salterio players. Since almost all his compositions have been lost, he has been quite wrongfully forgotten. The Sinfonia per Salterio e Basso recorded here is now in Messina and was probably commissioned by Countess Travaglini of Spoleto, who also played the salterio. Deniel Perer has beautifully reconstructed the missing bass part. Inspired by Bonanni’s remarks about Ubaldi, I used both playing techniques in the sonata: pizzicato in the first two movements and battuto in the third. We are particularly pleased to present this famous virtuoso and pioneer of the salterio to the public for the first time.

The second “ex tractatus” setting to music is by Girolamo Rossi and takes us to Naples. Thanks to the research of Giovanni Paolo Maione and Francesco Cotticelli, we know that Rossi – whose biographical data is also unknown – was the chapel master at the Oratorio del Santissima Crocifisso di San Paolo in Naples in 1733. The cantata is dedicated to “Ecc.me Sig.re D. Giovannina e D. Anna Maria Capece Minutolo de’ Principi di Canosa”, which suggests that the cantata was performed in the monastery of Santa Maria Donnaromita during Holy Week after 1760.

Aside from vocal register and instrumentation, Rossi’s cantata could not be more different from Martini’s. It amazes us by its unmistakable closeness to the operatic style and the vocal cadenzas, all of which were composed by Rossi and are an indication of how far taste had evolved in the second half of the century. The instruction that a harpsichord should be used in the continuo should also be emphasized, which again leads us to the combination of salterio and harpsichord. While the technical demands of Martini’s work are extremely moderate, Rossi’s cantata, with its double trills, two- part passages, arpeggios and difficult tonalities, presents far greater challenges. The musical text clearly indicates that this cantata is to be played in pizzicato.

The salterio sonata by Vito Ugolino comes from a recently discovered stock of sheet music which included a historical salterio and is now in Francesco Spada’s private collection in Lecce. The collection contains twenty-eight works by Neapolitan composers of the second half of the 18th century, including sonatas, minuets and concerts for the salterio. Vito Ugolino, born into a musical family of Naples, was in the service of the Royal Chapel from 1753 to 1790, which in those years also featured other salterio composers such as Litterio Ferrari or Emanuele Barbella in its ranks. Vito Ugolino played arciliuto and salterio and, like Ubaldi, he was forgotten as almost all his compositions were lost. The sonata, with its many successive chords and triplet figures, is unambiguously to be performed in pizzicato.