Sixth Book of Madrigals (II)

Claudio Monteverdi, 1614

By the time his sixth book of madrigals for five voices was published in 1614, Monteverdi would have been comfortably familiar with his new routine at Saint Mark’s. Yet the works it comprises, dating mostly from his later years in Mantua, must have evoked some raw memories: the death of his wife, followed by the death of his ward and protegée Caterina Martinelli, and the noxious atmosphere of the Gonzaga court. Perhaps the publication of the sixth book served as a catharsis of the kind afforded only by the retrospection of several years.

The poetry of the Sestina: Lacrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amanta (“Tears of a lover at the tomb of his beloved’) — the ‘sestina’ refers to an outworn rhyme scheme — has been criticized as ineffective and inept. Written by Scipione Agnelli in memory of Martinelli, it depicts her as the nymph Corinna and Duke Vincenzo as the shepherd Glaucus, who grieves at her tomb. Yet Monteverdi’s setting makes use of the poem’s imagery to create a powerful work. The harmonies move at times only lethargically, making the ululations of grief the more heartrending; the interjections of Ahi, lasso (“Ah, alas”) in the opening madrigal are reflected in the fifth’s Ohimè and the sixth’s Ahi Corinna! In the third madrigal there are extended passages comprising the descending pattern that was to become the hallmark of the Baroque lament. The cycle closes as Glaucus surrenders his beloved to the peaceful repose of the tomb.

Each of the two song cycles is succeeded by an a capella madrigal based on poetry by Petrarch, whose work had by this time been mostly cast aside. Musically the madrigals are in the more traditional vein to match the provenance of the lyrics, but still include surpises. Zefiro torna (“Zephyr returns”) projects vivid pastoral pictures with its light dance rhythm until unexpectedly shattered by an interjection of grief.

The remaining madrigals are set concertato style, adding elements of drama to the rich imagery. In A Dio, Florida bella (“Farewell, lovely Florida,” lyrics by Giambattista Marino) the depiction of lovers separating at dawn is the more eloquent as Monteverdi uses onomatopeia in rapid echo among the voices to portray their parting kisses. And in numbers like Misero Alceo (“Wretched Alceus”), there are extended passages for soloists in dialogue that would be not at all out of place in an opera, the other voices serving the rôle of chorus.

If Monteverdi is to be credited with salvaging a dying traditional five–voice madrigal, albeit in an entirely transmuted form, the sixth book shows better than perhaps any other single collection the direction he was taking in his fusion of old and new. There is no apologia for seconda pratica, not even a dedication, simply an anthology of works that stand brilliantly on their own.

⇐ Monteverdi, Madrigals VI (I)

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