Social standing counted for as much in Rome as anywhere else. Thus for Giovanni Kapsberger, his noble ancestry accelerated his celebrity as a performer on the lute and theorbo among the powerful and aristocratic in that city. And it was in such a milieu that the ability to entertain through solo song and self–accompaniment with such instruments would have been esteemed. Not surprisingly then, Kapsberger published a great deal of this very kind of music, and became in his own day as equally well known for his songs as for his playing.
Following the career composer’s obligatory book of five–voice madrigals that saw publication in 1609, Kapsberger’s output of music for lute and chitarrone was interspersed with four books of villanellas, two books of arie passeggiate and one of motetti passeggiati. The former collection comprises light, strophic songs and are thus becoming more well known after long being roundly ignored, while the latter are essentially monodies, and known least of all.
From the Libro primo di arie passeggiate (“First Book of Ornamented Airs”) of 1612, songs such as Tu che pallido essangue (“You who, pallid and faint”), Nigra sum (“Black am I”) and Audite caeli (“Hear, ye heavens”) illustrate the more florid, virtuosic nature of monody that was favoured in Rome. The collection contains both sacred and secular numbers, for which Kapsberger provides a fully realized accompaniment in tablature for the theorbo. The villanellas, on the other hand, are set mostly with one note per syllable, and with tablature for chitarrone and alfabeto – a form of chord names — for the simpler guitar. Four books of villanellas appeared between 1612 and 1623.