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The Arch-Musician

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 27 March 2010

We tend to think of the Italian Renaissance as a cauldron of iconoclastic ideas. But that's far less true of music than of visual art or science. In today's Music Feature Catherine Bott goes in search of a composer born 500 years ago who found that being a *musical* innovator was no easy task: Nicola Vicentino.

Imagine an octave divided into 31 parts - 31 very small intervals, 'microtones' - rather than the 12 semitones we're used to today. Sounds weird - and it sounded weird to people when Vicentino first came up with idea in the 1500s. 'But opposition won't stop me,' he said. He composed microtonal music, he built a 'superharpsichord' (archicembalo) and 'superorgan' to play it, he trained choirs to sing it, he wrote a book promoting it.

'Learning and investigating new things - that's human nature' was Vicentino's motto. Every page of his book is filled with 'my ideas'. His radical musical ideas provoked every possible reaction - from vitriolic hostility to fanatical support. Traditionalists were horrified. Some of the most powerful people in Italy gave Vicentino their patronage. Adoring pupils dubbed him Arcimusico - the Arch-Musician.

In this programme, Catherine Bott uncovers Vicentino's remarkable story, exploring what it meant to be a musical innovator in sixteenth-century Italy. How did Vicentino come up with his ideas? How did he try to sell them? Why did people react in the way they did? What were the consequences - for Vicentino himself, and for the future of music?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle Vicentino faced is that his music is very hard to perform. But in the twenty-first century people are at last beginning to prove it's possible. Catherine Bott has a go herself, and meets other people who've tried - including members of the BBC Singers who tackled Vicentino's music specially for this programme with conductor James Weeks.

With Anton Lesser as Vicentino and contributions from Manfred Cordes, Davide Daolmi, Mary Hollingsworth, Margaret Hunter, Lewis Jones, Laurie Stras, James Weeks, Jon Wild and members of the BBC Singers.

  • Nicola Vicentino Medal

    Nicola Vicentino Medal

    Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    Medal showing Nicola Vicentino and the two ‘super-keyboards’ he invented for his tuning system of 31 notes to the octave, the archicembalo and the arciorgano. The medal is not on general display but can be viewed by appointment.

    Vicentino Medal at the V&A
  • Vicentino’s super-harpsichord, the archicembalo

    In his treatise Ancient Music adapted to Modern Practice (L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica), published in Rome in 1555, Vicentino included full instructions for building your own archicembalo, including foldout diagrams of its strings and its two keyboard manuals.

    Diagram of lower keyboard manual
  • Archicembalo

    The Italian Marco Tiella has constructed an archicembalo following Vicentino’s instructions: this article (in German) by Thomas Noll of the Technical University of Berlin includes a photograph of it (on p. 14).

    Modern reconstruction by Marco Tiella of Vicentino’s archicembalo
  • 31-note-to-the-octave keyboard

    Only one keyboard instrument using the 31-note-to-the-octave system survives from the Renaissance or Baroque: the ‘Clavemusicum Omnitonum, built by Vito Trasuntino of Venice in 1606 to play the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic’. It is on display at the International Museuam and Library of Music (Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica) in Bologna.

    Vito Trasuntino’s Clavemusicum Omnitonum
  • Vicentino's treatise

    A digital reproduction of the copy of Vicentino’s treatise held by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, is available courtesy of the National Library of France.

    Vicentino’s treatise Ancient Music adapted to Modern Practice
  • Ferrara

    The Palazzo Costabili, now the Ferrara Archaeological Museum, was one of the palaces where Vicentino lived in the 1550s in the household of his patron, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este.

    Views of the Palazzo Costabili
  • Ferrara

    The National Art Gallery (Pinacoteca Nazionale) in Ferrara has a harpsichord lid from the court of the ruling d’Este family, painted in the mid-to-late 1500s. Could it be the lid of Vicentino’s archicembalo?

    Painted harpsichord lid at the National Art Gallery in Ferrara
  • Venice


    Façade of the church of San Pantalon in Venice, which has been rebuilt since Vicentino’s time. He was Maestro di cappella (in charge of the music) at the church in 1560–61.

  • Madrid letter 1

    Madrid letter 1

    Some letters from Vicentino have recently been rediscovered at the Real Biblioteca in Madrid. He wrote them in Venice in 1560–61, touting for business with Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle (Bishop of Arras and on the point of being elevated to Cardinal).

    Letter 1 - from Vicentino to Granvelle dated 14 September 1560 [Madrid, Real Biblioteca: manuscript II/2274], which includes information about the construction of the arciorgano: ‘…for now I’m staying here in Venice while my chromatic organ is being built. So far it’s half-finished; it will be marvellous to hear… [signed] Don Niccola Vicentino of Vicenza. Inventor of the practice of chromatic and enharmonic music, and of the archicembalo and the arciorgano…’.

  • Madrid letter 2

    Madrid letter 2

    Letter 2 - from Vicentino to Granvelle dated 4 January 1561 [Madrid, Real Biblioteca: manuscript II/2275]: ‘By the last courier I sent to your Illustriousnous a madrigal for 6 voices… and if you would like me to send you my Passion for Good Friday for 13 voices – that is, the role of the Evangelist for 4 voices, the words of Christ for 3 voices and the mob for 6 voices, set with sweet harmony – I would be very happy to do so… [signed] Don Niccola of Vicenza, Director of Music at San Pantalon.’ There’s no evidence that Granvelle ever followed up his offer.

  • Milan


    Façade of the church of San Tomaso in Terramara, Milan, which has been rebuilt since Vicentino’s time. He was parish priest there from 1565 until his death on 11 April 1577.

  • Milan

    Five collections of Vicentino’s music were published in Milan in the 1570s, but only one is known to survive complete – in only a single copy, at the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria in Modena. A digital reproduction of it is available courtesy of the National Library of France.

    Vicentino’s Fifth Book of Madrigals for Five Voices
  • Contributors

    Manfred Cordes, Hochschule für Künste, Bremen
  • Davide Daolmi

    Davide Daolmi, Università degli Studi di Milano (in Italian)
  • Mary Hollingsworth

    Mary Hollingsworth
  • Margaret Hunter

    Margaret Hunter
  • Lewis Jones

    Lewis Jones, London Metropolitan University
  • Laurie Stras

    Laurie Stras, University of Southampton
  • James Weeks

    James Weeks
  • Jon Wild

    Jon Wild
  • BBC Singers

    BBC Singers


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