Concerto: Settimo libro de madrigali (II)

Claudio Monteverdi, 1619

Monteverdi’s responsibilities became a little easier to meet after 1617. On the last day of August, Alessandro Grandi arrived to take up a position as singer at Saint Mark’s. Grandi had considerable experience in various religious institutions in Ferrara, and his Motetti a cinque voci, dedicated to Margherita Gonzaga, had been published in 1614. Grandi soon took on teaching duties and, before too long, was working as Monteverdi’s deputy.

After the intense Interrotte speranze concludes the group of duets in Monteverdi’s seventh book of madrigals, the mood becomes moderately brighter, beginning with the well–known Augellin (“Little bird”) for two tenors and bass. It portrays the flitting of a dainty little bird with a jaunty tune over a bass line that walks along in quarter notes (crotchets), until the singer implores the bird to fly to his lady and ask how long she will let him suffer. A similar bass line propels Vaga su spina ascosa è rosa rugiadosa (“Fair above the hidden thorn is the dewy rose”). The amusing Eccomi pronta ai baci (“See Monteverdi, Madrigals Book 7 (title page)
Monteverdi, Madrigals Book 7 (title page)
how I am ready for kisses”) recounts a lover’s clumsy attempts to be playful, but he bites his beloved, who vows never to let him kiss her again.

Three more works follow for three and four voices, after which Monteverdi presents the sublime and subtle Con che soavità (“With such delicacy”). The scoring is unusual — concertato a una voce e noni istrumenti (“concerted, for one voice and nine instruments”) — and their arrangement is more so. The solo canto is paired with a continuo ensemble comprising two chitarrones, harpsichord and spinet to form the primo choro (“first choir”). A group of violas da braccio — ‘arm’ viols or violins — make up the secondo choro with its own harpsichord continuo, and a terzo choro is composed of violas da braccio overo da gamba — old–style ‘leg’ viols. The second chorus is marked all’alta, i.e. high, while the third are all scored with the low, deep warmth characteristic of the gamba. Some writers see in this arrangement a contrast between new (violins) and old (viols), in the same fashion in which the seventh book parts ways with the old, traditional madrigal in favour of the new concerted style.

But there is more going on here: Monteverdi uses this plan to reflect the meaning of the words on a deeper level. The singer tells how much delight he takes from the lips of his lover, in kissing her and in listening to her words. Joined by the second chorus of violins, he asks how enjoying the one can mean the loss of the other, then, accompanied by the chorus of viols, he contemplates how sublime it would be to enjoy both at once. At the end of each of these phrases, the instruments drop away, leaving the singer to finish each question with continuo only. All three choirs come together in a wonderful synesthesia where, in Guarini’s lyrics, the words kiss, the kisses speak words.

Monteverdi, ‘Con che soavità’ (excerpt)

... what lovely harmony you would make, o sweet kisses,

what lovely harmony you would make o dear words,

if could be brought together the sweetness

that both are capable of ...

The four–part Ohime, dov’è il mio ben? (“Alas, where is my beloved?”) is written on the Romanesca pattern, for two voices and continuo. Each madrigal unfolds over one iteration of the harmonic theme, with the second phrase repeated in each. The voices echo one another, either ascending or descending, during the first half of the theme in each of the four madrigals.

Monteverdi, ‘Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben;’ (excerpt)

Alas, where is my beloved,

where is my heart?

...Ah, foolish and blind world,

ah, cruel fate...

There is an especially striking turn of phrase during the second half of the third madrigal: the first iteration sees a move from F to G major on the word lievi (“light”, i.e. “frivolous”), but in the parallel progression of the reprise the melody wistfully turns over passaggi to G minor.

Monteverdi, ‘Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben;’ (excerpt)

...ambitious and frivolous desires.

The next two works are titled respectively Lettera amorosa (“Love letter”) and Partenza amorosa (“Amorous parting”), and both are marked a voce sola in genere rappresentative et si canta senza battuta (“for solo voice in representational style and to be sung without [regular] beat”), making them full–blown monodies. The words and the emotions they express are heated and sustained, increasing their difficulty for listeners who do not have Italian. They are succeeded by two numbers at the opposite emotional extreme, canzonettas a voci concertata. Both are very popular, both feature ritornelli and are reminiscent of the Scherzi musicale, and both conjure an unmistakeable quality of the stage, especially Amor, che deggio far? (“Love, what am I to do?”), with its conversation among the soloists.

Where the seventh book opened with an operatic prologue, it closes with the ballet that Monteverdi prepared for Ferdinando’s 1616 investiture as Duke, Tirsi e Clori, lyrics by Striggio. He had a specific mode of performance in mind. The protagonists are to be situated at opposite ends of a semicircle of players, each accompanied by their own harpsichord and theorbo. Thyrsis, also playing a theorbo and singing in bouncing triple time, entreats Chloris to dance. She, accompanying herself on a harp, responds in more sober monodic style, and eventually acquiesces. They come together in a duet, then are joined by six more voices, eight viols da braccio, a spinet, and a pair of lutes. Clearly this ideal complement of musicians would have required the resources of a court and, in the inagural performance, would have included dancers.

Gonzaga profligacy meant that Ferdinando — who had given up a seat in the college of cardinals after his brother’s death in 1612 — was compelled to sell off dozens of artworks to keep his court and household afloat. Yet the glory days of Mantua were never far from mind; having Monteverdi back in charge of his musical retinue would have propped up the Gonzaga image considerably. The composer, however, would have none of it, as evidenced by his own correspondence, and he remained in Venice, head of the most independent, influential, and avant–garde centre of the day. Whether the dedication of his concertato collection to Catherine did anything to soothe his relations with his former employer, we cannot know. But it’s unlikely he lost any sleep over it.

⇐ Monteverdi, Madrigals VII (I) | Mazzocchi, La Catena d’Adone

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