La Dafne: Sculpting Syllables with Music

by Mauricio Roman

Opera was born in Florence among the circle known as the Florentine Camerata, a group of artists who experimented with rediscovering the ancient roots of Greek tragedy. This ideal served as a reaction against the polyphonic style of music then at its peak and called for a return to monodic singing in order to restore the full intelligibility of the text. It was thus that the aesthetics of recitar cantando, or “speaking while singing” evolved — singing that had to bend and conform to the inflections of “ordinary speech”.

The ordinary speech that the Florentines sought to imitate was not the ordinary dialect found on the streets of Florence but rather the literary Tuscan language of Dante, Bocaccio and Petrarch. Pronounced with the intonations of ecclesiastical Latin, this highly musical language with irresistible beauty and elegance has remained unchanged in its pronunciation for four hundred years (Cf. “Recitar Cantado” by Luigi Cerantola), making it possible to seamlessly blend both Tuscan and Latin as in Vide Cor Meum (2001), by Patrick Cassidy, based on a sonnet found in Dante’s Vita Nuova.

Stepping back four centuries, the preface to Marco da Gagliano’s Dafne (1608) sets a foundation for the recitative style, as it “condemns the arbitrary use of rolls, trills, passages, and exclamations” by singers, who would do better to “sculpt the syllables to make the words well understood” (Cf.  “The Angel’s Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principles in Opera” by Dr. Michel Poizat).

When asked how difficult it had been to sculpt his David, Michelangelo famously answered: “It is easy. Just chip away anything that does not look like David”. Da Gagliano’s equivalent to the discarded pieces of marble are those unnecessary rolls, trills, passages and exclamations which obscure the text. But he also helps with the music to chisel out verses, as we will see in an example below.

In this article, we will show an example of how words are sculpted in La Dafne. Then, we will retell the story of Dafne using sculptures to aid the imagination, to end with a brief summary of Da Gagliano’s life.

Sculpting Words in La Dafne

Marco da Gagliano implementation of the “recitar cantando” technique, or what came to be known as recitativo secco in opera, can be appreciated in his introduction to La Dafne, in which the poet Ovid speaks. He uses a syllabic text setting to individually produce each syllable, with a melisma to mark the end of each stanza, which is four verses long.

Each verse finishes in a descending note to mark the end of the sentence, as in regular speech. To separate the second and third verse, the composer pauses the singing and adds a musical note, as we can see from the score below. This has the effect of “chiseling” the first from the second half of each stanza for greater clarity in the comprehension of the text.

I found that the singing in da Gagliano’s Dafne is so clear that it is not necessary for it to be staged and dramatized; this can be supplied by the imagination of the listener. When I compare it against the Euridice (1600) by Jacopo Peri, the first extant opera, whose prologue can be heard here, I find that, having first reviewed the librettos, Dafne is more easily understood.

Bust of Marco da Gagliano

La Dafne

La Dafne’s libretto is based on a story found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and is available in both English and Italian. A nice performance of the opera was produced by Fuoco e Genere (on Spotify). I will not retell each of the six scenes, but rather summarize the main passages of the story.

Apollo’s Victory over Python

Apollo’s oracle at Delfos, shown below against the backdrop of Mount Parnassos, was regarded in Ancient Greece as the omfalos, or the navel of the world, where visitors arrived from every Greek polis and beyond to get a prediction on the future. This was delivered by a woman, the Pythonise, who fell in extasis before hissing out the oracle. Her name evokes the prior master of Delphos, the dragon Python. A correct understanding and interpretation of the words was crucial for even the fate of kingdoms depended on them.

Apollo’s Oracle at Delfos, Greece

As a child, I visited this amazing place as part of a trip across Europe that ended in Constantinople; I remember jumping up and down the column stubs as I recalled the myths told by my father as we drove across Greece. At the time, I was unaware of Apollo and Daphne’s story, which I will now recount following the plot of La Dafne.

La Dafne begins with shepherds and nymphs wondering who will deliver them from Python. As they sing, they hear an echo, which is beautifully “sculpted” in the words. The music stops when the echo that announces Apollo is heard, in a play of words where the last part of the word is echoed with the response, shown in parentheses below. For example, when Thyrsis asks who will console them, the echo returns “sole”, that is the Sun, Apollo’s emblem.

Chi sei tu, che n’affidi e ne console? (Sole!)
Ii Sol tu sei? tu sei di Delo il Dio? (Dio!)
Hai l’arco teco per ferirlo, Apollo? (Hollo!)
Who are you who reassure and console us?
(The Sun!)
You are the Sun? You are the God of Delos? (The God!)
Have you your bow with you to strike him, Apollo? (I have it!)

The use of the echo is not merely a repetition but adds semantic meaning; in fact, it is what makes the theophany possible, underscoring the importance of correctly understanding the words themselves.

Apollo then appears, and kills Python. After his victory, the nymphs and shepherds sing Apollo’s praise, wondering what is the worthier plant to adorn Apollo’s ray-adorned locks: the ivy or the palm? The answer, as we will find out, is neither.

Nobil vanto! il fier dragone
di velen, di fiamme armato
sul terren versat’ha l’alma:
per trecciar fregi e coronnne
al bel crin di raggi ornato
qual fia degno edera, o palma?
Noble praise! The proud dragon,
armed with venom and flames,
has poured out its soul upon the earth:
to weave garlands and crowns
for the beautiful ray-adorned locks,
which is the worthier – the ivy or the palm?

Apollo’s Challenge to Cupid

When Apollo runs into Venus and Eros (Cupid), he mocks the child god with his small bow, or arch:

Dimmi, possente arciero
qual fera attendi, o qual serpente al varco
c’hai la faretra, e l’arco?
Tell me, mighty archer,
what wild beast do you await or what serpent ambush
that you have a quiver and bow?

Apollo Belvedere, AD 120-140 at the Vatican Museums

Eros stringing his bow, a 2nd century Roman copy after a 4th century BCE Greek original by Lysippos at the Capitoline Museums, Rome

Cupid is so angry that he promises revenge, promising his mother Venus:

Se in quel superbo core
non fo pianga mortale
più tuo figlio non son, non sono Amore.
If in that proud heart
I do not inflict a mortal wound,
I am no longer your son, no longer Love.

Daphne’s Metamorphosis

From the top of Mount Parnassos, Cupid strikes Apollo’s heart with a gold-tipped arrow of love for Daphne, who was a naiad, a variety of nymph associated with sources of water, and who wished to live a chaste life in imitation of Artemis. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

By many suitors sought, she mocks their pains

And still her vow’d virginity maintains.

Apollo, stricken by Cupid, misunderstands his own oracles. Ovid states:

The God of light, aspiring to her bed,

Hopes what he seeks, with flattering fancies fed;

And is, by his own oracles, mis-led.

Cupid strikes her heart with a lead-tipped arrow, which leads her to abhor Apollo, who in vain appeals to his superior status as the reason for him to be loved, including his prowess as healer and the fact that he invented the lyre. Again, Ovid:

Perhaps thou know’st not my superior state;

And from that ignorance proceeds thy hate.

Me Claros, Delphi, Tenedos obey;

These hands the Patareian scepter sway.

The King of Gods begot me: what shall be,

Or is, or ever was, in Fate, I see.

Mine is th’invention of the charming lyre;

Sweet notes, and heav’nly numbers, I inspire…

But Daphne flees, and in vain Apollo pursues her. As she is about to be caught, she asks her river god father to transform her into a laurel tree in a scene marvelously captured in sculpture by Bernini.

Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1622-25) at the Galleria Borghese in Rome

The Sun god is so distraught that, to remember Daphne, he will henceforth use a laurel crown on his head. The opera ends with the lament of the nymphs and the shepherds, who console themselves with the thought that Daphne’s laurel branches will henceforth crown swans, kings and heavenly Gods:

Bella Ninfa fuggitiva,
sciolta e priva
del mortal tuo nobil velo,
godi pur pianta novella,
casta e bella,
cara al mondo, e cara al cielo.
Tu non curi e nembi, e tuoni;
tu coroni
cigni, regi, e dei celesti:
geli il cielo o ‘nfiammi e scaldi;
di smeraldi
lieta ogn’ or t’adorni e vesti….
Beautiful, fleeing nymph,
stripped and deprived
of your noble, mortal form,
rejoice, young tree,
chaste and beautiful,
dear to the world and dear to Heaven.
You do not worry about storm-clouds and thunder;
you crown
swans, kings and Heavenly Gods:
whether the sky freezes, or flames and warms;
you dress and adorn yourself
gaily with emeralds….

Nowadays, the modern Greek word for Daphne — Δάφνη — means “laurel”. Apollo is often represented in statues wearing a laurel wreath on his head.

Apollo’s Lyre and the Laurel Wreath

In Ancient Greece, the lyre was usually accompanied by singing, while the flute, associated with Dionysus (or Bacchus for the Romans), was either merely instrumental or accompanied by dance.

The librettos in the first operas referred to Greek mythological characters associated with the lyre. The operas L’Euridice, La fabula d’Orfeo and La Dafne have as protagonists either the god Apollo or his disciple Orpheus, to whom Apollo taught how to play the lyre. Thus, the themes chosen allude to the importance of singing with music, the basis of opera.

In classical sculptures, Apollo is shown with his laurel wreath playing the lyre, and more specifically, the type of lyre called the kithara, the professional lyre which he invented. This is why he was also worshiped as Apollon Kitharodes (a Kitharode is a lyre player).

The sculpture below evokes the cathartic power of music and song as the god with the laurel wreath remembers his beloved Daphne.

Apollo Citharoedus at the Pio Clementino Vatican Museum, a 2nd-century AD colossal marble statue by an unknown Roman sculptor.

Ancient Greeks saw a clear distinction between music accompanied by poetry, as facilitated by the lyre, versus pure instrumental music, represented by the double flute, or aulos, an instrument created by Athena according to myth. There is a tradition that states that Apollo was challenged by the satyr Marsyas, who picked up a flute discarded by Athena, to a musical competition. The loser would be at the mercy of the winner.

Apollo won, and then tied Marsyas to a tree and skinned him alive; naturally, while wearing his laurel wreath. According to music historian Enrico Furbini, this represented, to the Ancient Greeks, the triumph of music and poetry — or intellect coupled with fantasy — over a merely instrumental and sensual musical experience.

Apollo flaying Marsyas by Antonio Corradini (1710-1750) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

The Laurel Wreath as Symbol

The laurel crown became a symbol of victory for the winners of the games celebrated at Delphos. These games started off as a musical competition, and then added sports, becoming the forerunners of the games at Olympia. Ancient Rome also adopted the laurel crown as a symbol of victory. In Renaissance Florence, the laurel was the symbol of the Medici family; Lorenzo the Magnificent went by the nickname “Lauro”.

For Christians, the imperishable laurel crown is a symbol of victory, as evidenced by Scripture and as represented in funerary sculptures. St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Cor 24:27).

Veiled Woman, Funerary sculpture — Vienna, 1890

In Italy, the laurel crown became a sign of academic accomplishment: to obtain a “laura” means to receive a diploma, a life moment celebrated with a thick laurel crown upon graduation. The first woman “laureata” was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, who earned a philosophy degree at the University of Padua in 1678, where Galileo Galilei had taught a few decades earlier. Her life was devoted to her studies and to her religious vocation.

Statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia at the University of Padua (Palazzo del Bo)

Palazzo del Bo at the University of Padua, where Galileo Galilei taught

As Elena Lucrezia spoke seven languages besides her native Veneto, she was known as Oraculum Septilingue — the oracle of the seven tongues.

Marco da Gagliano

Florentine composer Marco da Gagliano (1582-1643) was a priest who began his musical career as a boy with the Compagnia dell’Arcangelo San Rafaelle, a confraternity in Florence that organized sacred performances with music and theater to which many of the members of the Camerata Fiorentina belonged.

Upon the invitation in 1607 by the court of Mantua to compose an opera for the wedding of Francesco IV Gonzaga with Margaret of Savoy, he wrote La Dafne (which was presented at the carnival of 1608).

In 1607, da Gagliano formed a new musical society, called Accademia degli Elevati (the Elevated Ones). In so doing he gathered together a group of musicians and literati, among them Jacopo Peri (composer of the earliest operas, Dafne and Euridice), Ottavio Rinuccini (court poet and author of La Dafne), and a few others, who held weekly meetings, in part devoted to singing and playing and in part to organizing monthly concerts and mascherate.

With the death of Corsi at the end of 1602, the Florentine Camerata meetings, at least on a regular basis, seem to have ceased in Florence, and it is not until the founding of Gagliano’s academy five years later that the practice was resumed.

In addition to a secular patron — Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua, son of Eleanora de Medici — the group also chose a heavenly protector — the virgin martyr Saint Cecilia — and on her feast day (Nov. 22) every year the academicians sang a mass in her honor, an obligation that was written into their constitution, as documented in this article. Saint Cecilia was recognized as an inspiration for musicians paradoxically for having sang silently to God during her wedding feast as she, like Daphne, wished to remain a virgin. And just as Daphne’s story ends up with a crown of laurel, her story results in her being crowned with roses (further details are a topic for another article).

Eight years before Da Gagliano formed his musical society, the body of St. Cecilia had been found to great fanfare. It was interred deep under the altar of her church in Rome, where it had been placed in 821 AD by pope Paschal I after retrieving it from the catacombs. A sculpture commemorates the occasion, the original of which is found in the church of St. Cecilia in the Trastevere, with a copy placed in a niche inside the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, where her body was originally entombed.

Santa Cecilia by Stefano Maderno (1600) at the Catacombs of St. Callixtus

Da Gagliano’s involvement with the Elevated Ones ended in 1609 as internal disputes arose within the group, but there is documented evidence that the group’s activities continued at least until 1627.

In 1608, upon the death of his teacher Luca Bati da Gagliano assumed his post as chapel master at San Lorenzo. Luca Bati had been a pupil of Francesco Corteccia. That same year, Da Gagliano became chapel master at the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and in 1609 he became a canon at San Lorenzo.

From 1611 onwards, Da Gagliano was chapel master at the Medici court, where he was a colleague of Francesca Caccini and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger; occasionally, they worked together, for example, in the creation of the opera La Fiera (1619), unfortunately lost. In addition to La Dafne, written by Ottavio Rinuccini, another of his operas survives, La Flora, written hastily by Andrea Salvatori (after Francesca Caccini pointed out that his first version presented an unbalanced view of women) and performed in Florence in 1628.

Besides the aforementioned operas, the extant profane music from Da Gagliano comprises six books of madrigals and a book of music for 1-3 and 5 voices, published between 1602 and 1617.

His extant sacred music includes a Officium defunctorum in 4 and 8 voices (1607), a Missae et sacrarum canticum in 6 voices (1614), Sacrum canticum in 1-4 and 6 voices Book II (1622), a Responsoria maioris hebdomadae in 4 voices (1630), and one motet in book II (1643) of Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (his brother).

It is clear that while Da Gagaliano was a pioneer of the new recitative musical style, for sacred works he continued composing in the now traditional polyphonic style in which syllables are not sculpted but blend with one another to foster a contemplative mood.

Reading List

Vide Cor Meum, based on a sonnet by Dante, which combines Latin and Tuscan text

Marco da Gagliano’s La Dafne:

L’Euridice, by Jacopo Peri — Prologue “La Tragedia and Chorus “Se de’ boschi”.

Search List
A fun way of “seeing” how terms are used in other languages is to perform a visual search. Try searching for:

  • Δάφνη — or Dafne, which means “laurel” in Greek
  • Laureata — refers in Italian to a person who has been awarded a university degree
  • κιθάρα – or Kithara, the type of lyre invented by Apollo, and which now stands for “guitar”