Perfidissimo volto

Giulio Caccini

One of the songs that Caccini mentions in connection with his Camerata associates some years before the publication of Le nuove musiche was Perfidissimo volto. At first glance, it appears to be a relatively simple monody like the ones we saw in the composer’s version of l’Euridice, with a generous but not unrestrained sprinkling of the turns of phrase that he mentions in his prologue. A closer look, however, reveals a work whose melodic countours are carefully crafted to match both the sense of the individual phrases and the overall structure of the poem itself.

The songs in Le nuove musiche are divided into two parts. The first half contains songs that Caccini specifically called madrigali (“madrigals”), but which we would call monodies, in contrast to the second half, which he calls arie (“airs”), which are more rhythmic and dancelike. Perfidissimo volto appears in the first section.

To remain faithful to the sense of the words and to the song’s overall affect, Perfidissimo volto must not be performed too quickly. Its first sentence comprises three phrases, which Caccini shapes with deceptively simple care: Perfidissimo volto (“perfidious face”) begins with repeated notes, followed by more repeated notes but ascending melody on ben l’usata belezza in te si vede (“where accustomed beauty is seen”), then followed by a descending line, again preceded by a rest, as if bringing the singer back to a disappointing reality, on ma non l’usata fede (“but not your expected faith”).

Caccini, Perfidissimo volto (excerpt)

The same attention to the melody’s outline follows as the singer recalls how his lover once pledged eternal devotion to him, but which devotion has now faded even though his own remains. (The song is scored for tenor but could as easily be sung by a soprano by transposing up an octave.) Although not specified, the penultimate note of the cadence begs for a trillo to complete the effect. It is unfortunately often reserved only for the song’s close in many contemporary performances.

Caccini, Perfidissimo volto (excerpt)

The final sentence, beginning with the anguished O volto troppo vago (“O too lovely face”), starts out an entire octave higher than the close at the previous cadence, and follows a rest, emphasizing the singer’s anxiety. Whereas the previous sentences are notated with rhythms closely matching the rhythm of the words themselves, the melody now marches along in more rigid quarter notes on perchè se perdi amore no perd ancor’ vaghezza (“why if you have lost your love have you not also lost your beauty?”), imparting a sense of vexation on the singer’s part.

Caccini, Perfidissimo volto (excerpt)

The question is repeated with almost the same melody, but this time with more emphasis — more ornamentation — on o non hai pari, o non hai pari bringing the madrigal to a close, again with an expected trillo.

Perfidissimo volto

Most treacherous face

ben l’usata bellezza in te si vede,

well in you do I see expected beauty

ma non l’usata fede.

but not your faith.

Già mi parevi dir: Quest’amorose

Once you seemed to say “These loving

luci che dolcemente

eyes that I sweetly

rivolgo a te, sì belle e sì pietose,

turn upon you, so beautiful and so compassionate,

prima vedrai tu spente

first you shall see grow dim

che sia spento il desio ch’a te le gira.

before my desire for you dims.”

Ahi, ch’è spent’il desio

Ah, yet that desire has dulled

ma non è spento quel per cui sospira

but not that for which sighs

l’abandonato core.

my abandoned heart.

O volto troppo vago e troppo rio,

O face too cruel and too lovely

perchè se perdi amore

why, if you have lost love

non perdi ancor vaghezza,

have you not lost also your loveliness

o non hai pari a la beltà fermezza?

or do you not seem faithful?

It is interesting to contrast Caccini’s Perfidissimo with Monteverdi’s setting of the same words in his Third Book of madrigals. The latter moves along at a smart pace, which is to be expected inasmuch as it is scored for five voices. Obviously the two composers had completely different ends in mind, which becomes clear hearing one version followed by the other. Caccini’s ideal sprezzature di canto could only be realized by a single, self–accompanied voice in complete command of the song’s pace and subtle nuance. Monteverdi was still pushing the boundaries of the traditional five–part madrigal, but would soon turn his attention in the same direction as Caccini, with spectacular results.

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