Madrigal Comedy

Adriano Banchieri

After working in various monasteries in the north of Italy following his vows as a Benedictine monk in 1590, Adriano Banchieri returned to his home town of Bologna, entering the monastery at San Michele in Bosco. He was already a popular polymath — organist, teacher, writer, and composer — with a number of publications to his credit, and he was well–placed in the home of the world’s oldest university.

In 1615, he founded the Accademia dei Floridi, styling himself Il dissonante (“the dissonant one”); in 1620, the academy welcomed and honoured the visiting Monteverdi along with a number of other famous musical dignitaries. Although Banchieri wrote numerous sacred works for voices and for organ, he is remembered for a great deal of secular music.

One of his interests was the use of madrigals for dramatic purposes, especially for so–called madrigal comedy — a term popularized by musicologist Alfred Einstein — in which a collection of madrigals becomes the vehicle for telling a story. In this he was influenced by Orazio Vecchi, famous for his madrigal comedy called L’Amfiparnaso which had played in Modena in 1594 and was published in 1597. Like some of Banchieri’s later collections, it was based on such stock characters and situations from the commedia dell’arte as greedy misers, old fools, hapless servants, maudlin young lovers.

Madrigal collections of the kind were a symptom of a wider Italian preoccupation with music and theatre, but madrigal comedy was destined to be a dead end, for several reasons. There was no acting, even though the singers might appear in costume, in a venue with painted backdrops and a few props. The subject matter was invariably comic, the action consisting mostly of typical situations in stories with a thin plot, when there was any plot at all. Whatever his other considerable talents, Banchieri himself seems not to have taken this work seriously. It ranges from the high–school style variety show, often based on his own lyrics,

Già che ridotti siamo

Now that we are all together,

tutti allegri cantiamo.

Let’s all sing merrily.

— Chi fa il soprano?

“Who shall be the soprano?”

— Io che lo tengo in mano.

“I have it in hand.”

— Questo contralto?

“The contralto?”

— Ecco de fuori salto.

“I’ll jump in.”

— Banchieri, Il zabaione musicale, 1604.

to the patently silly, in which animals are portrayed singing contrapunto alla mente, the vocalists exhorted to imitate the sounds with their voices: an owl’s chiù (“hoo”), a cuckoo, a cat’s gnau (“meow”), a dog’s babau (“bow–wow”).

Banchieri, Contapunto bestiale alla mente (excerpt)

However amusing such efforts might have been on first hearing, they would very quickly pall, especially given their stale imagery and undistinguished music. Banchieri himself was certainly capable of much better. Besides, the traditional five–voice madrigal, comic or not, was dying; the concerted madrigal and ultimately the cantata would replace it.

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