Sara Elisabeth Holmertz

The Otherness of Self

How I learned it myself

The score. I look at it, and I have to understand it. It might be a facsimile of the original score or a print from the same time. It’s often lovely to look at, soft and pliable. Musical, as if the notes are alive on the lines. There are little ornaments at the beginning of every new act. But, as beautiful as it may be, it can also be confusing to decipher, because it is hard for my modern eyes to read. The lines may have merged, the melody and bass are not in the same place, and the beats are not geometric, but whimsical, with minds of their own. They can be full of personality and challenging to interpret.  We can only try to understand the winding lines and find out for our selves where they are leading.


The same music in a modern print is the same music, but interpreted into our visual language: It looks neat and orderly. Someone else has made choices for me; the publisher might even have written a proposal on how the figured bass FN could be played. I have to figure out if ”funny-sounding things” are mistakes from the original score, mistakes made by the editor (as a crucial mistake, or not, I will mention in chapter 6 in connection with Eivind Buene), or if they are just ”funny-sounding things”. 

It doesn’t really matter to me if the print is modern or from the time the music was written, but my eyes interpret them differently. The facsimile adorned with beauty and love in the form of ornaments and initials FN, gives us a hint of the affect of the piece only by looking at it.

It was natural to let Fredrik be the carrying instrument in Orfeo’s parts: the lute resembles the lyre the most. And I also wanted to sing Orfeo as ”straight forward” as I could - just being the classical/baroque singer. It was therefore fitting not to experiment too much with the sound for Orfeo (which we, of course, did anyway, ”Tu sei morta” in the end of act 2 is one example of this)


Speranza (Hope)Square music - no roundness - but also flowing and clear. It is like glass and marble. A flowing, fluttering accompaniment symbolizes her steadiness (and maybe also Orfeo’s heart beats?).




Caronte- A strophic, almost dancelike tune with heavy beats and big, often falling, intervals. The original instrumentation of sharp regals and massive organs is changed to a Tom Waits-kind of sound. Grumpy outbursts hitting us right in the face. Foul-smelling. Deep tessitura. Rusty grooves. Offbeat. Jubilant in the muddiness of his black soul.





Proserpina - She has sexiness and manipulation written in the score. Susan McClary says that her role is to ”arouse and manipulate Pluton’s desire” and that ”The music Monteverdi gives her resembles closely that of Orfeo’s wedding song, as she likewise prolongs her recitations dramatically over suspended basses or fuels her arguments through the logic of Romanesca-type FN progressions.FN

We aimed to provide her with a femme fatale-sound. Something hard to catch, just like I found her personality (the struggle I will reveal more about later). She is, at the same time, a young girl and Queen of Death. Again, Johannes gives Proserpina a playful unsteadiness and an airy sound. It’s almost the same as Euridice’s first aria because I think the two are connected; young nymphs/girls/women, dying/surrendering to death and love...



The instrumental parts, the ”sinfonias” and ”ritornelli”,  comment on the narrative and echo the characters. Sometimes they sing and play

 when they are:

Happy (intro to choir)



…and binding it all together.



Having understood the score FN, the music by Monteverdi, and his contemporaries, is usually "easy" for me to learn; the harmonies, most of the time, are familiar to our ears; the rhythms, most of the time, are logical according to the text and make sense.

There might be runs and diminutions that need practice, some intervals made demanding by underlying emotions in the text, change of rhythms… But there is help in the harmonies and in the tactus. FN

What I need to do in this project is to break the rules holding the music together. I need to tear the music apart, come closer - I want to be able to taste the marrow of the music.


Before letting the characters, the Others, and the underlying narrative take over the process, I had to get the raw musical material into my own system. In this phase I wasn’t the actor-singer. I was just myself, singing with my own voice (meaning: a way of singing that doesn’t need thinking or adjusting). Simply learning the notes and putting the words in the right places. 

The Shepherd. He is singing in a declamatory style. He ”reveals himself as an orator quite worthy of belonging to Orfeo’s entourage,” as Susan McClary puts is.FN

According to McClary he gives me a hint of what I can expect of my main character, since he is mirroring him. FN

The other characters have one emotion to sing from. We meet them only once, in only one situation, and the rest of their stories have to be imagined. However, we know some things about them: we know if they are gods or humans, and we know if they are women or men. Susan McClary argues that Monteverdi and his contemporaries wrote gender specific music in this new medium, later to be called opera: ”In staged ’representations’ of the social world, the identification of characters as either male or female is fundamental. The seventeenth-century composer writing dramatic music immediately confronted the problem of gender construction - that is, how to depict men and women in the medium of music. The concept of ’construction’ is important here, for while the sex of an individual is biological given, gender and sexuality are socially organized: their forms (ranges of proper behaviours, appearances, duties) differ significantly in accordance with time, place, and class.FN

Their views on the ”construction of gender” might be uncomfortable for us today. I’ve had to confront myself with views on gender we consider sexist and misogynist with our 21st-century eyes. This was especially true for Euridice and Proserpina and I will get into that more in chapters 5 and 7.



Euridice - the innamorata 

In her music, McClary writes, ”Euridice finds it difficult to move directly to a goal without apologizing” and makes It easy for us today to think of her as smaller, younger, than she needs to be. But, McClary continues (and this is important) ”I am not suggesting that Monteverdi wrote inferior music for Euridice to that this is what he thought of a woman. But his musical construction of ”maidenhood” is informed by what the audience would expect to hear as the utterance go a young girl”.FN  (I will come back to Euridice in chapter six. Seeing her with other eyes.)

In her first aria,”Io non dire qual sia”, Johannes plays the lead instrument. I wanted to find the uneven sound of trees dancing in the wind. In the last aria, when she is dead and drifting away for the last time, we gave her a vamp, like a ground that almost resembles Dido’s lament in Purcell’s opera Dido&Aeneas. The ground consists of her two first bars. Monteverdi didn’t write it to be played without the song - this is one of our choices.FN

There is a hesitance and ambivalence in her short arias. Sweet, bittersweet.

Messagiera-  sudden cries, hard syncopations, uneven rhythms. Monteverdi gives me all of the emotions of the wretched Messenger- she who has to deliver the news of Euridice’s death. When keeping the beats, singing it strictly ”by the hand”, the unsteadiness written by Monteverdi comes through mercilessly. 


Harsh sounds in the instruments, hard attacks and long notes on the uncomfortable harmonies.




Where can I place my version of Orfeo in the 21st-century early music field?


We can see three lines in the early music field today FN:

  1. The ”Main Stream” - with a conductor, classically trained singers and a familiar repertoire. It sounds good and clean! E.g The Monteverdi choir and John Elliot Gardiner, La Petite Bande, Les Talents Lyrique, etc.
  2. The more experimental and flirting with world music, jazz, pop and folk. E.g L’Arpeggiata, Le Poeme Harmonique (in some cases), Ensemble Odd Size and Oriental Winds of the Baroque (examples of Odd Size and ORWotB in chapter 6)
  3. The strict HIP. Dedicated musicians who aim to recreate the true meaning of every single note. Preferably on the very same instrument as the music was written for originally. I love this group.


I would argue that most of the recordings mentioned in the beginning of the chapter, can be seen as belonging to the first category. My L’Orfeo, with all the elements of jazz and experimental soundscapes, can be safely put in the second category, together with Kats-Chernin and Hans Ek.

(I don’t assume to place anyone in the third category since it is so strict by default. What if I’m wrong?)


I am not the first person to discuss this (it has been an ongoing discussion for at least 30 years), nonetheless I personally believe that the pursuit of making early music as "HIP," "historically correct" as possible, can be precarious path to follow. The artistic outcome can be that we distance ourselves, making music "somewhere else,” for "someone else." Trying to be correct and ”good”, instead of…real for us, here and now; paying more attention to trills and vibrato than what they convey (and this is coming from someone who’s sung ancient music, striving for historically ”correctness” for the greater part of her life.)

I’ve used this project as an exploration to see how I can make this music as much ‘my own’ and as authentic as I possibly can. . According to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Monteverdi was a ”passionate musician, an uncompromising innovator in every respect, a thoroughly modern composer. He was a bitter enemy of everything antiquated, he would have had no sympathy for the renewed interest in ’early music’ ” FN

With that said: Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist, as Pablo Picasso advises. Of course, it is needless to say that I agree with Picasso. Learn as much as you can about Performance Practice, but let that knowledge be a guide to your own magic- do not allow those rules to hold you back! 


Plutone - slow and unsteady. We broke up the tactus. There is no ”mano”, no ”anima”, only the beat of Plutone. And, Plutone is above any pulse - being the king of Death he might not even have a beating heart.

We wanted something for Plutone that made him stand out from the other characters. Originally written for a low bass, I (being a soprano) was concerned I would have sounded out of my league if I tried to sing the way it is written. It would be too obvious that his part was not intended for someone like me. So, I decided to not sing it at all and instead speak it. This gave me the power I needed to be the ruler of the underworld.

Andreas Stensland Løwe - jazz pianist

For a long time, I have envied jazz musicians for having their own musical language. Naturally, any style/genre comes with rules, whether they are written out or not, and I can’t claim that jazz musicians actually are freer than other musicians (although, as I write in chapter seven, there is research showing differences in the brains of different types of musicians.)

Letting a jazz musician play Monteverdi is not as far fetched, or far out, as it may sound. Andrew Lawrence-King often talks about it FN and, as mentioned earlier, there are several crossover projects between jazz and baroque. Or pop and baroque. Or folk and baroque. FN 

Andreas says he doesn’t know much about early Italian baroque music, but he does know a lot about how to form a musical landscape with a melody line and a bass line - how to seize a lot from quite scarce information - and to create a sound of his own.

The implied and inherent freedom in his playing encourages me to move further away from my musical norm. Not one of the versions we played sounded like the one before, and each version opened new doors for me. It was like making cover-versions of Orfeo’s and Euridice’s arias, rather than reproducing them in the conventional/HIP way.FN


Together with Andreas, I experimented by going in and out of beats, following the ”tempo del animo” instead of ”dal mano". I got lost - often - but I also found out things about ”my” Orfeo: Orfeo can’t sing in any other way than ”with his soul” - because his soul/anima is song. 

Going in and out of the beats, sometimes singing with ”the hand” and sometimes ”with the soul”, helped me find some of the personalities of the other characters too. Are they before the beat, heavy on the beat, or just in time? What does that tell me about them? 

To know when to say or do what. To be aware of the friction and tension in the timing;  being a tiny bit late can make the whole thing move forward.


The pulse is steady (or, if you will, unsteady) as a heartbeat.

Orfeo moves around the beat but is always right. 

Euridice is somewhat behind the beat, as if she doesn’t trust herself. 

Messagiera is also after the beat - she doesn’t want to be there at all. 

Speranza is before the beat, always. Leading. Showing the way and speeding up.

Caronte is heavy, heavy, heavy. His beats are uneven, he has no energy left to care.

Proserpina glides around it. A bit like Orfeo, but in her own teasing way.

Plutone has his own beat.


Andreas was also with me in the performance ”Orfevs” I presented in chapter 2.

First, Ritornell - the recurrent theme that sounds so sweet the first time we hear it, and so bitter the last time, when everything is lost. Actually, no, it originally starts with the Toccata; rhythmic and steady, loud and grand, the whole shebang! I cut it. I never even tried it, because I couldn’t imagine it without the ”Quattro Tromboni, Duoi Cornetti, Un Clarino, or tre trombone sordine”. FN)

Orfeo - the half-god. His music is big and bold. He sings to the world, to the gods, and to the hearts of all living creatures. Orfeo uses his whole musical self - he sings himself from heaven to hell, and we can hear that in the music; his music spans over a wide range:

he is in love and royal

in love and happy

full of sorrow

…and he is the singing half-god with magical powers, as we can hear in the strange and flowery Possente Spirto, the song that Orfeo sings to move Caronte to take him over the river Styx.

Mirroring myself in Others

These musicians have been invaluable for the project and have affected the musical and artistic outcomes. 


Fredrik Bock - lutist

Being a lutist, Fredrik has performed Monteverdi’s music many times. He knows the style, the figured bass, and can make his own musical arrangements as we go. Singing with him grounds me and lets me experiment and play something we both know well. His confidence makes the music very accessible to me - ”easy”, as I called it earlier.

Having worked together for almost twenty years also means that we know each other well, musically as well as personally. We do not have to talk very much, we just play.

This is my default, ”Early Music” version of L’Orfeo where I feel most at home: the Lute song format.


Ensemble Odd Size

Claudio Monteverdi had a magnificent orchestra, I had only three musicians in the final production: a violin/viola (Per Buhre), a lute (Fredrik Bock), and a bass (Johannes Lundberg) - Ensemble Odd Size.

Ensemble Odd Size was formed in 2014 as a smaller (and even more mischievous) sibling to the Gothenburg based opera company Utomjordiska. This is our musical sanctuary where we have molded and shaped an artistic style we consider our own. Other projects of ours include an adaption of The Messiah (G.F Handel) with only four musicians and a program with music by L.van Beethoven - familiar music in new arrangements.

For us, Authenticity is more crucial than HIP. And by Authenticity we mean: To strive for relevance, presence and honesty as much for the players as for the music.

We know the "HIP"-conventions, the "rules." But, oh, we do enjoy breaking them.

Additionally, we play with gender norms, with languages, and with musical styles. All of which were important parts of this research project. 

What I needed in this project was to break the rules holding the music together. I needed to tear the music apart, come closer - to be able to taste the raw marrow of the music.


As I already explored when comparing the different recordings of L’Orfeo, in my younger researching attempts, all interpretations of all music are coloured by the time and traditions in which they are performed. The last 60-50 years have been influenced by pop, jazz and rock. Musicologist Elizabeth Upton discusses this in the article ”Concepts of Authenticity in Early Music and Popular Music Communities.” ”In the 1960s and 1970s, Early Music transmitted by recordings became available to a wider range of listeners, and elements of those recorded performances were appropriated by pop performers and composers for inclusion in pop music. At the same time pop-sounding elements, particularly vocal timbre, were adopted by Early music performers seeking alternatives to operatic-sounding voices. Changes in technology meant that musicians born after WWII were likely to grow up receiving music through recordings and broadcasts, linking generational cohorts through shared listening.”FN

In Odd Size, we clearly are, as Upton writes, influenced and inspired by pop, jazz, and various kinds of improvised music, as you will hear in the examples.


The musical sounds in L’Orfeo were designed in an ”autopoietic feedback-loop” (I will come back to this term, coined by theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte, in chapter 8) between me and them, and them and me. I offered them a voice, and they answered with their sounds. They gave me impulses that strengthened and encouraged the specifics of each character and his/her voice. Making sure that each of the sections and each person got a sound of his/her own, despite our limited ”orchestra”.


Learning from the Otherness of Others

When I was only 20 years old I made a terrible mistake. I wrote an essay in which I compared four different recordings of L’Orfeo, investigating how the time we live in effect the 400 years old music. My conclusion was that we do indeed effect the music of the past with the present. FN

The mistake was that I realised early how many possibilities there are to perform early music ”the right way.” I could become quite obnoxious and difficult every time a conductor or fellow musician tried to tell me I did it wrong. Wrong according to whom?


There are even more recordings of L’Orfeo to chose from and compare today. Since the first recording in 1939 (with Orchestra of La Scala Milan. Ferruccio Calusio (BIG sound and very slow tempi!) Paul Hindemith’s very likable”zeitgenösiche” reconstruction in 1954 there have followed recordings/productions by Rinaldo Alessandrini, Jordi Savall, Nicholas Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Gabriel Garrido, Emmanuelle Haïm, and many, many others. They are all beautiful! Outstanding! Fantastic! The singers in these recordings (especially the recordings after 1960) are likely to be close to the way the court singers performed in the premiere of L’Orfeo in 1607. I truly enjoy listening to them, but most of them don’t ignite my imagination. They sound almost too polished to me.


On the other hand, Ottorino Respighi's poetic adaption of the opera from 1935 is late romantic, neoclassic, and just about anything but baroque. Respighi didn’t change the melodies (or the rhythms), nor the primary bass line, but everything in between is a totally new world. The harmonies are big and bold – I love this! And I love how the singers’ voices seem so at home in the harmonies. They sing in a style that's familiar to them, even if the melodies are more 300 years old. It is not HIP, but it’s authentic and historically correct according to the tradition it belongs to.FN


Other wonderful and/or interesting adaptions of L’Orfeo from the same period were created by Carl Orff and the mentioned Paul Hindemith, though Hindemith’s is more of an early HIP-experiment. They are both marvelous!

Two very different contemporary versions (although these are staged performances) I want to mention are Elena Kats-Chernin and her co-operation with Komische oper in Berlin 2012 and Hans Ek+Wermland Opera in 2015. Like Respighi, they are uncompromising in their meeting with Monteverdi. Kats-Chernin’s adaption is influenced by Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with instrumentation of f.ex  Accordion, Cimbalom, and Djoze.FN Ek’s version is dirty, dusty, black, and raw with elements of jazz and rock. Some of the singers are Classical ‘Opera singers’, and others are from Rock or Pop traditions. Like, Respighi and Kats-Chernin it sounds free and new. The singers seem free and new! I think Monteverdi would have liked it.

Elena Kats-Chernin says herself about the performance (and it really could have been my own words): ”We are re-building the bridge to modern pop music in Monteverdi. I will be delighted if our re-creation makes the music sound as if it were written today. It would be wonderful if the audience felt as if the interior is new, even if the house is 400 years old.”.FN


Monteverdi gives me: 

  • Recitar Cantando, Stile Rappresentativo, Stile Recitativo - To sing with speech, To speak with music, to make speaking music (this takes us back to the last chapter about the text). 
  • Harmonies that represent joy, grief, love, seduction, innocence, gods, life, sex, death. 
  • Rhythms that sound like sighs, cries or dances.
  • Melodies that follow the movement of speech, and the pulse of the heart.


The significance of tactus and pulse.

In the score of the famous Lamento della Ninfa (a song I will talk about more in chapter 6), Claudio Monteverdi writes (which in itself is remarkable - he doesn’t give away instructions like that in many other places): ”The way in which this song is presented: the music for the three voices who sing the words that frame the maiden’s lament is set out separately, because it is to be sung to the beat of the hand. When they quietly commiserate with the maiden, their music is included in the score, so that they can follow her lament, which is to be sung in the tempo of her soul, not to the beat of the hand.” 

I interpret this that Monteverdi sometimes wants the singer to be very much on the beat, in the centre of the tactus, and sometimes, especially when the emotions seem to dissolve into madness, to go outside of the tactus and float around it, like ”La Ninfa.” 




The music in L'Orfeo. In order of appearanceFN

Chapter 3


- The Music and how I found it (and still am)

”…please be very afraid of coldness, purism, objectivity and empty historicism.”

Nikolaus Harnoncourt FN



S. What does it mean to ”let the music push through"? This was a question raised to a research fellow, a musician in the improv-field, at a conference we both attended. I don’t remember his answer, but I remember thinking ”what does this question even mean”? Does it mean that I, the musician, stand in the way of the music? Or is it the score you have to push through? Is it only true music when you don’t know what will happen in the next moment? Can only improvised music "push through"?

E. I didn’t understand the question either. But I think ”letting the music push through” means ”forgetting yourself”. Knowing the music so well that it can’t be music without you. 

S. When does Monteverdi stop, and where do You begin?

E. In this project, Monteverdi wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me.


Two interpretations of Orfeo's famous aria Possente Spirto. The one to the left is a facsimile from the 1609 score (Venice: Ricciardo Amadino, 1609.), and the one to the right is Universal Edition from 1930. 

Ecco, l'altra palude. Act. three.

Oh, tu ch'innanzi morte... Act three

Possente Sprito, act three

Ahi, vista troppo dolce. Act four.

Ahi, Caso acerbo. Act two.

Tu bella fusti. Act five.

Vi Riccorda o boschi ombrosi. Act two.

Io non diró qual sia. Act one.

Signor, quel infelice... Act four.

Rosa del ciel. Act one

Ben che severo ed immutabil fato. Act four.

Tu sei morta. Act two


Sinfonia, Act two.

Lasciate monti. Act one.

The ritornell

In Questo lieto e fortunato giorno. Act one.

From the score 1609 FN

List of roles and instruments

My diary 26/6 2017

"I think I'm getting the feeling of L’Orfeo’s Tactus - finding the timing of the notes. Long notes long. Short notes short. Keeping the beat. Finding the phrases and making them both mine and Monteverdi’s. Singing it while walking. Talking while dancing. Finding the beats of my heart and soul."

 Oxford Music online: "Tactus: The 15th- and 16th-century term for a beat, i.e. a unit of time measured by a movement of the hand, first discussed in detail by Adam von Fulda (De musica, 1490). One tactus actually comprised two hand motions, a downbeat and an upbeat (positio and elevatio, or thesis and arsis). Each motion was equal in length in duple time (tempus imperfectum); in triple time (tempus perfectum) the downbeat was twice as long as the upbeat."

 "the ”open-ended stile recitativo devised by the florentine composers for the clear and immediate communication of dramatic poetry in music. The stile recitativo was relatively unencumbered by textural, harmonic, or melodic responsibilities. It could thus aspire to the condition of speech, ebbing and flowing in response to the changing emotional temperature of a dramatic text” Rosand FN

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