Painting shades of sound with pizzicato and battuto
Written by Franziska Fleischanderl (2018)
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 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).
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.
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.