Sfogava con le stelle

Claudio Monteverdi

The words of Sfogava con le stelle, the fourth number of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals, are attributed to Ottavio Rinuccini, who wrote the libretto for Euridice. The poem provides a vivid image of the kind Monteverdi excelled at setting.

Sfogave con le stelle

Venting to the stars

un infermo d’amore

was one sick with love

sotto notturno ciel

beneath the night sky

il suo dolore

his sorrow

e dicea fisso in loro:

and saying, tranfixed on them:

O imagini belle

oh beautiful images

de l’idol mio ch’adoro

of my idol whom I adore,

si com’a me mostrate

as to me you show

mentre così splendete

in your splendour

la sua rara beltate.

her rare beauty.

Così mostrat’a lei

Show to her

i vivi ardori miei

my burning ardour,

la fareste col vostr’aureo sembiante

make her with your golden countenance

pietosa si come me fat’amante.

as merciful as you make me love her.

Monteverdi uses a deliberately declamatory style, in which parts of the poem were not notated rhythmically at all, but were simply chanted to a single chord.

Monteverdi, Sfogava con le stelle (excerpt)

Hardly a radical technique — it was used for chanting psalmody in a religious context — but it imparts an immediate, devotional air as the lover pleads his case by focussing on the natural rhythm of spoken Italian rather than a regular metre. Not only are certain syllables stressed, they are stretched out (STEL–le, SOT–to not–TUR–no, do–LO–re) in normal speech. Monteverdi dispenses with the accepted musical analogues — interval leap for stress, longer note value for stretching – and notates in a way any singer would have been familiar with. Thus even in the succeeding sections where rhythm is notated, it is instinctively used only as guideline, until the stricter counterpoint at the phrase o imagini belle (“oh beautiful images”) which are, ironically, the protagonist’s first utterance.

The penultimate la fareste col vostro aureo sembiante pietosa (“make her, with your golden visage, piteous”) is repeated — chanted — three times in supplication, contrasting with the measured segments. The stressed second syllable of pietosa, followed by a melodic drop on the last syllable is especially poignant. It is echoed among all the voices until the final drawing out of come me fate amante (“as you make me love her”) that closes the song.

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