Sixth Book of Madrigals (I)

Claudio Monteverdi, 1614

Monteverdi’s sixth book of madrigals is commonly characterized as his last kick at the can, so to speak, of the traditional five–voice a cappella (i.e. for unaccompanied voices, literally “as in chapel”) madrigal. This is in part because of the gap between its 1614 publication and that of its predecessor of 1605, which contained his famous retort to Artusi’s criticisms. Moreover, five–voice madrigals were by this date considered somewhat passé, and the sixth book was Monteverdi’s last volume of madrigals so designated.

Whether calculated on his part or otherwise, the collection does represent a distance between past tradition and the new ground Monteverdi, Sixth Book of Madrigals (Canto Title Page)
Monteverdi, Sixth Book of Madrigals (Canto Title Page)
that Monteverdi and others were breaking. Its appearance corresponds very roughly to the end of his old life in Mantua and his new career in Venice, but comprises works from the former period, including a five–voice unaccompanied adaptation of the protagonist’s lament from Arianna and a setting of Scipione Agnelli’s Lagrime d’Amante sul sepolcro dell’Amata (“Tears of the lover over the tomb of his beloved”). This last cycle was written in memory of Caterina Martinelli, Monteverdi’s favourite pupil, who was to have sung the part of Ariadne before her premature death. Only several months earlier than that, Monteverdi’s wife had died after a lingering illness. The other works in the book are from the same period and so, not suprisingly, sustain the themes of pain and loss.

The spectacular popularity of the Lamento d’Arianna (“Ariadne’s Lament”) spawned dozens of printed versions, not all of which were especially authentic. In 1623, Monteverdi published an Monteverdi, Lamento d’Arianna, Title Page
Monteverdi, Lamento
d’Arianna, Title Page

authoritative version of the solo for voice and continuo which has survived as the only reliable source. Unfortunately, it too is necessarily ripped from its original context, and includes no extra–continuo instrumental accompaniment or choral interjections as may have featured in the opera.

The sixth book of madrigals opens with four numbers that comprise Monteverdi’s arrangement of the lament for five voices. Comparing the two editions is as unfair as it is irresistible, and likened to the similarities among novel, stage play and screenplay Kauffman, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus
Kauffman, Ariadne
Abandoned by Theseus

(Wikimedia Commons)
versions in almost every such discussion.

Most immediately obvious are the stretching out of phrases to accommodate entries by the different voices, and the greater pungency of dissonances when sung rather than played on instruments. The imitations at the unison are particularly striking, and convey something of the unreality that Ariadne must feel, the equivalent, perhaps, of the cinematic effect of images ghosting out of phase in slow motion at an especially traumatic moment. In a re–iteration with all five voices, the images slide out in the third dimension of harmony.

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book VI (excerpt)

The tension slackens a little as the next madrigal begins: Ariadne expresses bitter disappointment with the cadential O Teseo, o Teseo mio (“O Theseus, o my Theseus”). Monteverdi uses the same techniques as in the opening madrigal to unify all four numbers: the imitations that stretch out the imagery are several times brought to a sharp point of focus when the voices cadence at a unison.

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book VI (excerpt)

The different combinations of voices — now for high voices, now for low — seem to portray Ariadne turning over her grief made material to examine it from different angles, not sure that it is real. And there are the startling dissonances and melodic intervals that would have reduced Signor Artusi to apoplexy.

The emotions range widely — not coincidentally the same ones frequently manifest when dealing with death: self–pity (Volgiti indietro a rimirar colei che lasciato ha, “turn back and again look at the one who left her country and kingdom for you”), pleading (Forse, forse pentito rivolgeresti ancor la prora al lido, “perhaps, perhaps repentant you might turn your prow again to shore”), indignation (Dove è la fede che tanto mi giuravi?, “where is the loyalty you often pledged?”), rage (O nembi, o turbi, o venti, sommergetelo voi dentro a quell’onde, “oh clouds, oh turbulence, oh winds, engulf him within your waves!”), resignation (Ahi, che non pur risponde, “alas, yet he does not reply”).

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book VI (excerpt)

The intensity is unrelenting, yet the mood always comes back to Arianna’s quiet introspection into her anguish. The separate entries of the voices echoing one another reflect her pain back on itself, like so many mirrors.

Certainly the Lament is a long way from the parlour–variety madrigal for five voices. It is a testament to Monteverdi’s mastery of the form and dismissal of Artusi’s pedantic nit–picking, but more importantly it confirms his individuality. An enthusiasm for new techniques did not, in his view, necessitate throwing out the old ones, nor did it mean uncritically swallowing every new dictate solely because it was new. In that respect, the transformation of a monody into this powerful song cycle is one of those rare events that looks back to a venerated past, and forward to a promising future.

⇐ Girolamo Kapsberger | Monteverdi, Madrigals VI (II) ⇒

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