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Orazio Vecchi

December 6, 1550 - February 19, 1605
composed during the Renaissance period
Orazio Vecchi is as interesting as he is obscure. Because his output consisted mostly of "entertainment music," and because he composed around the time when the Italian madrigal was becoming a virtuosic endeavor and the experiments of the Florentines were planting the seeds of opera, his quirky musical tastes and sharp wit have been rather neglected by modern scholars.

Of course, Vecchi's response to this neglect would likely resemble his response to contemporary criticism that appeared in the dedication of the collection Selva di varia ricreatione from 1590: "I am well aware that on first hearing some may perhaps think these my caprices base and trivial. Let them learn that it takes just as much skill, art, and knowledge...to make a silly comic character as it does to create a prudent and sagely old man." He continues the thought in the preface: "...and if some smart a** says that it is easy to come up with such things, let him try; he'll see that it is easy to want ideas, hard to have them, harder still to arrange them, and even more difficult to put them all together well."

Vecchi's exact birth date is unknown, but parish records discovered in the early 1900s show that he was baptized in Modena on 6 December 1550. He studied there under Salvatore Essenga, who included a work by Vecchi in his own first book of madrigals from 1566. Various travels over the next few years helped his reputation as a composer to spread, and in 1581 he was appointed the maestro di cappella in Salò. He left, in 1584, to assume the same post in his hometown, before accepting better-paying jobs, first at Reggio nell'Emilia and then at the Correggio Cathedral.

In Correggio, he divided his time between sacred and secular endeavors. Sometime in his early years, he had taken holy orders, and was eventually named an archdeacon. He had published a collection of spiritual motets in 1590, and he served as one of the three composers (with Giovanni Gabrieli and Ludovico Balbi) who edited the 1591 edition of the Roman Gradual. Another sacred collection, Sacrarum cantionum liber secundus, appeared in 1597, and other spiritual works appeared in the early 1600s. During this time, he was still fulfilling the public's demand for his wildly popular and sometimes rather bawdy canzonettas and other secular works. The combination of high and low, serious and silly, sacred and profane -- as suggested in his notes to the Selva of 1590 -- can be found not only across his entire œuvre, but likewise within specific collections and even individual pieces. His four large-scale works, commonly referred to as madrigal comedies, were collections of pieces strung together by a loose plot in a deliberate and careful mixture of serious and comical elements. These include the aforementioned Selva di varia ricreatione of 1590, L'Amfiparnasso in 1597, Il convito musicale of 1597, and Le veglie di Siena of 1604.

His most popular publications were his books of lighthearted canzonettas -- in fact, Vecchi appears to have been the first to coin the term. The genre as Vecchi shaped it was virtually made of opposing arrows: flowery quasi-madrigalian texts mismatched with rustic Neapolitan musical elements; poignant Petrarchan imagery turned on its ear, so that instead of describing the ruby lips and pearly teeth of a young love, he uses similar clichés, inverted, to describe the "wilted flower" of a wrinkled old lady with "breath like a basilisk." This kind of wry wit found audiences not only in Italy, but also across northern Europe. ~ Jeremy Grimshaw, Rovi
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