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Devise | Figura corta


This musicological term was invented by Hugo Riemann who used it to describe a peculiarity found in some 16th- and 17th-century arias. It is applied when the following situation occurs:
After the instrumental introduction (ritornello), the initial phrase presented by the vocalist is sung prematurely, usually with only the first few measures/bars or one line of verse being involved. The composer usually has the vocalist stop at the end of a meaningful phrase (not ‘in mid-air’), after which there is a very short instrumental bridge (a very tiny ritornello, as it were, – this is not a repeat of the initial ritornello which precedes the entrance of the vocalist.) After this extremely short intermezzo, the vocalist sings an almost exact repetition of the foregoing, but this is considered to be the main statement as the aria proceeds forward from this point to exhibit its further development.

Another way to describe a ‘Devise’ is to think of a quotation of the main theme presented by the vocalist and standing isolated between the end of the instrumental introduction (ritornello) and the actual, true beginning of the vocal part of the aria. Through its placement, it takes on the character of a title of the composition being first announced separately before the true body of the vocal presentation begins. It appears to be somewhat like a motto being lifted out of context and placed at the top of a chapter in a book, thus serving to introduce the essence of what will be presented forthwith. The specialized term “Devise” (it is derived from a French word meaning ‘motto’) is very narrowly defined to reflect only the above situation;’ however, many musicologists have expanded Riemann’s narrower definition to include instances where the voice begins the aria directly without any preceding instrumental introduction or ritornello. This occurs in Baroque operas. Händel, for instance, has Eduige’s aria “La faro” (Act 1 of ‘Rodelina” {1725}) begin directly without any ritornello because the dramatic situation would have been undermined or made to appear ridiculous with a long ritornello preceding the entrance of the vocalist. Or there is the famous instance in the aria “Geduld, Geduld” from the SMP (BWV 244/35) where the emotion is so strong that only a fragment or broken phrase (a sign of extreme emotion) is prematurely presented, and this fragment is not directly repeated when the voice enters for its main entrance. In a broader sense yet, it can describe the situation found in the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (SJP BWV 245/30) where, very effectively, Bach places the ‘Devise’ at the very end after the instrumental ritornello. This is referred to as a “Schlußdevise” [‘Schluß = end/ending’] in order to distinguish it from its position in the more common occurrences in Bach’ vocal compositions.

Where did Bach become acquainted with this aesthetic ‘device?’ If not from the Italian Baroque operas by Vincenzo De Grandis (1631-1708), Antonio Giannettini (1648-1721), Pietro Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690), etc., then certainly from a German composer closer to home and one with whom musical links are indisputable: Johann Pachelbel. Pachelbel composed arias using most of the types of aria current at that time. This includes the monodic continuo aria, the ‘Devisenaria’ and the bravura aria.

Note: In German the word “Devisenarie” is not necessarily construed as broadly as “motto aria” is in English. In regard to Bach’s works and as a musicological term, ‘Devise’ is generally interpreted more narrowly than ‘motto’ is in English. This is one reason why the German term is to be preferred to the English in reference to Bach’s works. Another reason is because a comparison of both definitions reveals a considerable difference: the placement of the initial vocal line vis-à-vis the first statement of the instrumental ritornello differs in each instance.

Here is the incorrect equation “Motto aria” = “Devisenarie” as documented in the Grove Music Online [Oxford University Press, 2005, acc. 10/14/05]:

>>Motto aria
(Ger. Devisenarie).
Term used for the type of aria, during the Baroque period, that begins with a brief and usually emphatic phrase from the singer (the ‘motto’), preceding the opening orchestral ritornello. Normally the same phrase will follow the ritornello, beginning the aria proper. The device is used so as to avoid, in a strong dramatic situation, the tautology of a long ritornello before the singer expresses himself or herself. Examples include and Oberto’s ‘Barbara!’ from Act 3 of

while Jack Westrup, in the same dictionary, gives:

>>Devisenarie (Ger.).
A term invented by
Hugo Riemann for which there is no immediately intelligible English translation. Devise means ‘device’, in the sense of Longfellow's ‘a banner with the strange device’. Riemann used the term to describe a common characteristic of Baroque arias: the singer begins with the opening of his first phrase, followed by an instrumental ritornello, and then sings it complete. ‘Motto aria’ is often used as an alternative term.<<

Westrup, in attempting to give the etymology of this term, is unable to trace “Devise” back to its French origin and confuses it with the English word, “device” and includes a fanciful explanation based on a poet’s use of this word. Essentially this is a repeat of the definition directly above with the affirmation that ‘Motto aria’ is, not always, but often used as an alternative term for ‘Devisenarie.’ This needs to be qualified as not the usage that can be applied to Bach’s works, because the English term is much too broad in meaning and stresses a direct opening of an aria by the vocalist, after which, the full ritornello follows, and then the repetition of the opening line. As a result, any musicologist writing or speaking in English about Bach’s arias must avoid the incorrect terms “motto” or “motto aria” and use the terms “Devise” or “Devisenarie


A ‘motto aria’ is

when the vocalist begins the aria directly with the opening phrase (or ‘motto’, or sometimes ‘motif’) and the full instrumental ritornello follows this before the repeat of the same phrase.

A ‘Devisenarie’ is

when the full ritornello (instrumental introduction) is completed after which the vocalist sings the opening phrase (usually more than just a fragment), pauses briefly for a very short instrumental interlude/intermezzo (somewhat more like a bridge of only one, two, or three measures) and then properly begins again with the same phrase, but this time continues with the development of this theme/musical phrase.

Note: Johann Gottfried WaltherMusicalisches Lexicon…” [Leipzig, 1732] has an entry describing a musical rhetorical figure which seem to come very close to Riemann’s definition:

“’Analepsis,’recipio’ ist: wenn eine aus lauter Concordanzen bestehende kurtze Clausul oder Formul noch einmahl unmittelbar nach einander gesetzt and angebracht wird.”
[“‘Analepsis’ occurs when a short phrase/clause consisting mainly of concordances is, in the musical setting, directly repeated once again and presented in this fashion.”]

Perhaps Walther was also referring to the ‘Devise’ without spelling out all the details as given above.

Figura corta

The MGG1 lists this musical figure among the mannerisms [“Accento, Passaggio, Cercare della Nota, Tremolo, Trillo, Bombo, Groppo, Circolo mezzo, Tirata mezza, Corta und Messanza”] that belonged to the ‘method’ (of musical embellishment) normally freely applied to unadorned music where the composer gave only a skeleton (only the basic notes) which provided the basis for tornamentation which the performer supplied. The list of musical figures includes those embellishments which were ‘written out in full,’ i.e., the composer supplied all the notes which were to be played or sung. Comparing German music of the Baroque with Italian music, it becomes apparent that German composers tended more toward ‘spelling out all the details of these mannerisms/embellishments, while Italian composers, by notating simple musical lines (an outline, as it were) expected the performers to apply the mannerisms as they deemed appropriate and in good taste. The Italian composers believed that by leaving out the specific notation of these embellishments and giving the performers only a blueprint from which to work, the performers would engage in an act of creative collaboration with the composer. This was the prevalent trend in the 18th century, but there are examples where the opposite situation prevailed: Composers like François Couperin and Johann Sebastian Bach are renowned for their specificity in regard to embellishments. This means that they notated and spelled out in great detail how and when these ornamental figures were to be used, even frequently to the extent of writing out all the notes involved.

W. C. Printz, in his Compendium musicae signatoriae et modulatoriae vocalis (1689, chap.5, §19) described some of the Italian ornaments, “figure corte,” “messanze” and “salti,” that are somewhat less florid than those one might encounter in adagios and Johann Gottfried Walther, in his Musicalisches Lexicon... [Leipzig, 1732] defines the ‘figura corta’ as well with a musical illustration.

Most instances of the use of ‘t’ or ‘tr’ during the 17th century in Germany refer to the ‘trill’ which, in reality, is simply the ‘figura corta.’

Bach’s cantatas are replete with examples of the ‘figura corta.’




Contributed by Thomas Braatz (October 15, 2005)

Terms & Abbreviations: Terms & Abbreviations with Bach connection | General Abbreviations | Voices & Instruments | Musical Terms | Acronyms of Performers | Abbreviations used for the Chorales | Use of Concerto, J.J. and SDG in Bach's Sacred Works

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Last update: ýDecember 7, 2011 ý08:53:56