Concerto: Settimo libro de madrigali (I)
Claudio Monteverdi, 1619
Even under normal circumstances, Monteverdi’s duties in Venice were onerous.
There were dozens of annual festivals celebrated in the republic whose musical primacy was arguably greater than
Rome’s, and whose liturgy was entirely self–determined. More burdensome, Monteverdi was at first presented
with a choir whose discipline was slovenly and whose finances were exhausted, both thanks to his incompetent
(Wikimedia Commons) predecessor. He overcame these challenges with apparent ease, not least perhaps because of the withdrawal of the financial difficulties and caustic climate of the Gonzaga court.
But his ties to Mantua remained, and he continued to write dramatic music for the city, notwithstanding his difficult
schedule, and not always with good grace. He wrote Tirsi e Clori, a ballet performed
(Wikimedia Commons) in 1616 on the accession of Ferdinando as Duke (Francesco, who had dismissed Monteverdi and his brother, had died before the year was out). The same year he began work on, but never completed, Le nozze di Tetide (“The Marriage of Thetis”), a favola marittima intended for Ferdinando’s wedding to Catherine de’ Medici, granddaughter of the queen of France. In 1618, he took on the opera Andromeda, but it was delivered two years late, and only after the Duke’s insistence in the face of Monteverdi’s repeated regrets.
Angering one’s superiors was inadvisable: technically Monteverdi was still a servant of the Duke. Indeed, he was recalled to the Gonzaga court in 1619, but was able to evade this dictate with demands of his own. Perhaps to smooth things over, he dedicated his seventh book of madrigals, published the same year, to Catherine, Mantua’s new duchess. Entitled Concerto, it featured numbers for one to four voices, many with instruments in addition to the continuo, and material from Tirsi e Clori for eight voices.
The seventh book was conceived and presented in conspicuously theatrical terms. Like a madrigal comedy, it comprises a connected sequence of madrigals, but it aims not to spin a tale so much as to create a realm. It opens with a sinfonia which becomes a ritornello wrapper for strophic variations on Tempro la cetra (“I temper my lyre”) for tenor. There are four ‘strophes,’ the variations carefully written out by Monteverdi, after which the ritornello returns. A lively dance movement in triple time is appended, followed by one more iteration of the ritornello to close. As with the prologue of an opera of the time, it introduces the material to follow: the singer readies himself and his lyre to pay tribute to Mars, but finds he is only able to sing songs of love, i.e. Venus.
I temper my lyre, and to sing the praises
of Mars raise the style of my poems.
But I try in vain, and impossibly it seems
only to resonate with ones of love.
The next number, A quest’ olmo (“To this elm”) is set concertato a sei voci et istromenti (“concerted, for six voices and instruments”), and is replete with pastoral imagery. (It appears as the third item in the continuo partbook, but this is purely pragmatic; it is the second item in all the other partbooks.) The mood is peaceful — there is little dissonance — the washes of imitation in quick succession over slowly changing harmony conveying a contented calm.
To this elm, to this shade and to these waters ...
Fourteen duets now follow, ordered by vocal range, each one spotlighting a scene within the little arcadian country that Monteverdi has set out to explore. Some are melancholy vignettes, such as O come sei gentile (“O how lovely you are”), in which a lover compares his bonds of love to the captivity of a little bird, or Tornate o cari baci (“Come back, dear kisses”), wherein the singer longs for the return of his beloved.
Others are humorous: Io son pur vezzosetta pastorella (“I am such a pretty little sheperdess”) is sung by a shepherdess who is offhand about the attentions of her numerous suitors, except for Lydius, who is apparently oblivious to her. Vorrei baciarti (“I should like to kiss you”) depicts hesitant lovers who want to kiss, but should he begin with her lips, or she with his eyes? While one voice poses these questions, the other paints their indecision with fitful interjections of “on the mouth!” and “on the eyes!”
But I know not where my first kiss should be aimed,
upon her mouth, or her eyes?
There are marvelous passages in which the words spark lucid imagery, as in Ah, che non si conviene (“Alas, how unwise”), where the voices leap enormous distances between the words lontan (“far”) and de voi (“from you”), or where both voices come together in sustained unisons on ma fermo come a l’onda immobil scoglio (“unmoveable as a rock in the waves”).
Closing out the duets is the powerful Interotte speranze (“Hopes cut short”), a chant–like madrigal using a technique already familiar from Monteverdi’s Sfogava con le stelle and the Vespers, this time with the voices moving in and out of unison, here sharpening the focus, there blurring it. Its apparent simplicity is deceiving, a test of the affinity of the two singers that can unfortunately be ruined by too much (today ubiquitous) vibrato or by too quick a pace.
Hopes cut short, eternal faith,
powerful flames and arrows in a weak heart
to feed only sighs of fervent ardour ...
to restrain with a single look the laws of thought,
and with chaste resolve prevent desire ...