Toccata from L'Orfeo by Monteverdi, arranged for Group Piano

The Toccato from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo is like a brisk morning wake-up call, musically speaking. 

For those who have the impression that Renaissance music is dull or meanders around aimlessly, the directness and brassy edginess of this toccata are almost a slap in the face! In the following video from the opera "L'Orfeo", the conductor and ensemble seem to push the limits.  

The first thing one notices is the dramatic entrance of the conductor in flowing robes - "Maestro" certainly applies here!

Below you see the score for multiple pianos or keyboards:

Toccata piano ensemble from Monteverdi's

Toccata piano ensemble arrangement from Monteverdi's

An opera piece for keyboard ensemble

Download free printable piano ensemble Toccata from L'Orfeo 

The notes here are easy. What makes this ensemble tricky is the rhythm, which is different for every part. Getting it together is a challenge.

There are 5 parts to the ensemble, though parts 4 and 5 can easily be combined (and even added to part 1, 2, or 3). The reason for maintaining separate lines is so that different "instruments" can be assigned to each part, giving your keyboard players the illusion of a real brass ensemble. 

But it's a fun challenge! I suggest starting the Toccata by first using the primary rhythmic element, the sixteenth notes followed by a thump, as the basis of a rhythm game in your group piano class. We say "One-ee-and-uh two; three-ee-and-uh four," etc. (In my classes -- probably like yours--, we'll have two teams compete to see who can clap a rhythm correctly first, with the metronome clicking along. As each rhythm is conquered, it is altered slightly, getting more and more difficult.) This was a particularly fun rhythm to do, first learning it in pieces on the whiteboard, then looking at the sheet music (I just stayed with Part I the first time through).

Because of the great speed of the sixteenth notes, my students have found it easier to tap on a table with pencils instead of clapping their hands when learning this toccata. Too much fast clapping is painful! And greater precision can be had with a pencil or pen on a hard surface. The tapping sounds cool, too...besides, even older kids find it fun to "drum" like a percussionist, and they don't have as many opportunities to just "whack" things as younger students. (I like to mention to them the origin of the word "toccata" -- to touch.)

I said the notes are easy. Well, they are REALLY easy if you tell your students that almost every note is just a member of the C chord! Then even the ledger line notes lose their intimidating quality. A fun way to go through one of these parts is to have the whole group read aloud the notes together slowly, but in rhythm... "c-c-c-c-G; c-c-c-c-G," etc.

A good way to rehearse this piece is to learn just one or two parts at a time, then "throw" it together before the end of class (with you, the instructor and conductor, holding down two or more parts on a very LOUD keyboard). Let them read through from beginning to end just once; don't beat it to death... you can come back to it again later.

If you use a whiteboard or chalkboard to talk about the rhythm, you may see some lightbulbs going off above some of your students' heads when you draw the values of sixteen sixteenth notes per measure, and show how the dotted eighth notes compare... "Oh, NOW I get it..." 

Who wrote the first opera?  Perhaps Monteverdi; at any rate, L'Orfeo was one of the very first. The beginnings of opera were, as you might expect, in Italy in 1607, in a town called Mantua (which town plays a bit part in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet").

Here's a little background on the opera from Wikipedia:

"The music begins with a dramatic toccata for brass and percussion; in modern performances this is sometimes played in the auditorium, or as a grand entrance for the conductor.

After a brief ritornello (which will recur through out the opera) La Musica (a "Spirit of Music") explains the power of music, and specifically the power of Orfeo (Orpheus), whose music is so powerful that it is capable of moving the gods themselves."

This piece is such fun!


Do you have a funny story about this music, or does it remind you of something you'd like to share with other readers? Do you have a question? I'd love to hear it!

Please note that all comments are moderated, and will not appear until I have approved them. Also, IF YOU ARE ASKING FOR MUSIC THAT IS NOT IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN, YOUR REQUEST WILL BE IGNORED. That's pretty much any music written in the last 75 years...

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