Singing with Vicentino’s organ

An attempt to measure the soul
Sun 29.01.23 Theme 17:45 Concert 18:15

Historical Museum Basel

Arciorgano, hypothetical reconstruction after Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576/77) © Susanna Drescher 2016

An attempt to measure the soul


icrotonal music is not often associated with Renaissance music, but Nicola Vicentino (1511-1575/6) was a pioneer of his time, creating not only new types of music but also the instruments on which it could be played. Singers can adjust their tuning indefinitely, which is not the case with keyboard instruments. Vicentino created a harpsichord and organ with 36 notes per octave instead of the usual 12 to allow for subtle variations in “color.” Johannes Keller accompanies the vocal ensemble on the recently reconstructed arciorgano and on the so-called cimbalo cromatico. You can hear music by Vicentino himself and also by Cipriano de Rore.

Johannes Keller – arciorgano, cimbalo cromatico; conductor | Christina Boner – soprano| Giovanna Baviera – alto | Ivo Haun, Dan Dunkelblum – tenor | Jan Kuhar – bass

Introduction with Prof. Dr. Martin Kirnbauer at 5:45 p.m.

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Vicentino medal (c1555) by Alessandro Vittoria, Venice


2301_Interview Johannes Keller

Thomas Christ: Dear Johannes, it is an honor and a pleasure to conduct our first interview of the New Year with a lecturer of intonation and to get in the mood for this topic with someone who knows the subject. What paths and detours led you to early music?

Johannes Keller: Early music has always been my adopted home, so to speak. According to reports from my parents, I expressed a desire to learn the harpsichord as early as kindergarten. What prompted me to do this, I can no longer reconstruct.

With my studies at the Schola Cantorum, my affinity for the music of the 17. and 18th century then became a profession. I actually discovered the music of the 16th century for myself only after my studies – via the path of the Arciorgano and Nicola Vicentino, who is in a way the protagonist in this concert program.

TC: As a Swiss lecturer at the Schola, you are almost an exception. Does the internationality of the conservatory inspire your work or do language barriers remain an issue at the “ETH of Basel”?

JK: It is definitely an irreplaceable enrichment to get to know so many people from different regions, with their own mentalities and ways of expression, so directly. I experienced this very strongly, especially as a student. Difficulties in communication are part of the daily routine, but with an alert mind and an open heart, solutions can always be found. One learns to express oneself in a differentiated way even beyond a mastery of language.

TC: You have made a name for yourself with the research project “Studio 31” and especially with Renaissance microtonal music. Can you briefly explain to our concert visitors what is meant by enharmonic tuning or an enharmonic instrument?

JK: That’s not an easy question! Answering them without getting lost in technical details is a real challenge. An attempt: Around Nicola Vicentino (Italy in the second third of the 16th century) a “modern music” had just been established, various innovations distinguished it from the old-fashioned way of writing music. Boundaries were explored, there was a lot of experimentation. Vicentino observed, however, that one particular element remained untouched in modern music: the gamut. This is a kind of universal scale, within which the intervals of all melodies and all harmony sounds had to be played.

Vicentino found a way to significantly expand this gamut by inserting numerous intermediate tones. He did not do this arbitrarily, however; rather, he broke down the components of normal modern music into their component parts, viewed them through the lens of ancient music theory, and reassembled them into a whole in a much more complex manner. In doing so, he followed the principle of the three ancient tones, the “diatonic”, the “chromatic” and the “enharmonic”. The latter requires the smallest and thus most unusual tone steps. Thus, when one speaks of “enharmonic music” in the context of Vicentino, one is referring to a type of polyphony that operates with extraordinarily small intervals.

TC: You also collaborate with contemporary composers. This raises the question of whether it is easier to build bridges to the present from the experimental and improvisational world of early music than, say, from the classical or romantic periods?

JK: Bridges are actually quite natural to build in the case of 16th century, especially for Nicola Vicentino and those of contemporary music. This may have to do with the fact that pitch systems were still negotiable at that time and did not follow binding international conventions, as can be observed from the 18th century onwards. However, if you focus on the numerous other aspects that make up music, you would certainly find it in later eras. I would be careful to answer your question in a generally positive way.

TC: Regarding the reconstruction of the organ or a harpsichord with 36 keys per octave, allow me to refer to the program of our Vicentino concert in the Barfüsserkirche in Basel. Rather, as a final question, I am interested in her assessment of the new appeal of Renaissance music. Is it just awakening from a slumber and will soon experience similar flights of fancy as baroque music, or will its intimacy remain largely reserved for a niche audience?

JK: I am not able to give such a prognosis, I am not sure if that is even possible. But I observe that certain present-day tendencies are found in particular density in the past of Western culture. From my point of view, there is a certain resonance between the increase in awareness of diversity that can be observed everywhere today and eras that were characterized by upheaval more than by standardization and uniformity. Another tendency is the increasing need for a counterpoint to the scientific-technological perspective. I also feel that this resonates with a society in which multiple perspectives could seemingly coexist as a matter of course.



Martin Kirnbauer

“I’m in …” – Singing with Vicentino’s organ Prof. Dr. Martin Kirnbauer

Three times Cardinal Ippolito Este came close to his goal of being elected Pope – and three times he failed.

It is hard to imagine what would have happened if he had been successful … Our music today, for example, would certainly sound different, since he had Don Nicola Vicentino in his service, who had novel and quite unheard-of musical ideas – and also put them into audible practice. In 1561, for example, he had the arciorgano built in Venice, an organ with 36 notes in the octave, in order to imitate the subtle subtleties of different languages and thus singing styles, and to accompany each with consonances. After this organ was rebuilt at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Vicentino’s ideas can be verified – but listen for yourself!

Martin Kirnbauer



Download program booklet

1. in quel ben nato aventuroso giorno – Nicola Vicentino (1510-1577)
Madrigali a cinque voci, Libro primo (Venice 1546)
2. solo e pensoso – Nicola Vicentino
I-Vnm, It IV 858
3. occhi miei dolci – Nicola Vicentino
Madrigali a cinque voci, Libro quinto (Milan 1572)
4. se mai candide rose – Nicola Vicentino
Madrigali a cinque voci, Libro primo (Venice 1546)
5 Se qual è ‘l mio dolore – Cipriano de Rore (1515/16-1565)
Madrigali a quattro voci (Venice 1575)
6. l’aura che ‘l verde lauro – Nicola Vicentino
Madrigali a cinque voci, Libro quinto (Milan 1572)
7. amor io son sí lieto – Nicola Vicentino
Madrigali a cinque voci, Libro primo (Venice 1546)
8. schiet’arbuscel – Cipriano de Rore
Il secondo libro de’ madrigali a quattro voci (Venice 1569)
9. passa la nave mia (6 voices) – Nicola Vicentino
Mellange de chansons des vieux autheurs (Paris 1572)
Figure on the left: Explanation of fingering of like-sounding scales on the archicembalo,
fol. 139v from “L’antica musica …”, Rome 1555



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