Selva morale e spirituale (II)

Claudio Monteverdi, 1641

The Selva opens with three works that bring us squarely back into the world of Monteverdi the madrigalist. They are not liturgical, rather in the nature of the moral reflections referred to in the title of the collection.

The first number, O ciechi, ciechi (“Oh, blind, blind ones!”) is a concerted five–voice madrigal with two added violins, a proverbial admonition about the futility of human pursuits. The mood of the piece oscillates sharply between the exasperation of the opening figure which, as with the opening of Beatus vir, appears repeatedly as a kind of ritornello theme, and a quickly ensuing resignation played out in low, slow chords.

Monteverdi, O ciechi, ciechi!

O blind ones! To what end do you so tire yourselves?

All return to the ancient great Mother,

And your name is barely remembered.

— Petrarch

Later, the voices evoke frenetic scurrying about with more exclamations, the solemn closing warning echoed by all voices.

Monteverdi, O ciechi, ciechi!

Wretched is he who puts hope in mortal things.



There are two more five–voice works, followed by lighter ones for fewer voices, albeit in the same sombre character. The canzona Chi vol che m’innamori for alto, tenor and bass is strophic. The rhythms continually reflect the meaning of the words, from the syncopated dancing at the start of each stanza to the despairing colloquy among the solo singers on La morte, ohimè, m’uccide (“Death, alas, kills me!”). The last line of each stanza is underscored by the quick change from lively triple metre to sedate duple, with the final syllable chopped off on a short note.

Monteverdi, O ciechi, ciechi!

Today we laugh, we laugh, and then tomorrow weep.

Today is bright, bright, and then tomorrow dark.

Today we are born, and then tomorrow die.



The solo monody Ab aeterno ordinata sum (“I was set up from everlasting,” Proverbs 8:23 fol.) for bass has been compared many times to Orpheus’s Possente spirto from Monteverdi’s first opera. Its impact is considerable when sung by a profundo, with its many passaggi and enormous range, especially the extremely low notes on strategic words and phrases. Its weightiness is apt for the primordial theme of the words.

There are several versions of liturgical works for larger and smaller forces. For example, of the three different settings of Confitebor tibi, Domine (“I shall praise thee, Lord,” Psalm 111), the first is scored for three soloists and five–voice chorus, reminiscent of In ecclesiis by Gabrieli, while the third is a true concertato work alla francese (“in the French manner”). Monteverdi specifies that it can be rendered either by five voices with accompanying violins, or a solo soprano, the lower four voices replaced by more strings.



Confitebor secondo for three voices, two violins and continuo is cast in strophic form, each voice (soprano, tenor, bass) in turn picking up a stanza where the last left off, all over a pattern bass; the violins repeat and emphasize each phrase. It is for the most part written in the swaying long–short triple metre familiar from

Monteverdi, Confitebor, SV 266

the middle sections of Beatus vir or the Gloria a 7, but there is a brief pause in quadruple metre. In the final ‘strophe’ the voices come together in an enchanting polyphonic conversation. The closing doxology is presented in an elegant tutti.



Of the three versions of the Marian hymn Salve regina (“Hail, Queen of Heaven”), the second for two tenors (or two sopranos) is noteworthy both for its echo effect — in many passages one voice repeats the other a measure or two later in quasi–canon — and for the way the imagery comes through in the lyrics. The individual syllables of some words, like salve (“hail”) and suspiramus (“we sigh”) are interrupted by rests, enhancing the impact of sentences such as suspiramus gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle (“we sigh, groaning and weeping in this vale of tears”).

Monteverdi, Salve regina secondo, SV284 (excerpt)



When the Selva morale e spirituale was published in 1641, Monteverdi was nearing the end of his career and his life. The last number in the collection looks back on his younger days to one of his most celebrated works, Ariadne’s Lament from his opera L’Arianna. Its success helped spark the popularity of the lament as a song form: its appears as the final number in this anthology, replaced with Latin words as the Pianto della Madonna (“Madonna’s Lament”), a vignette of Mary at the cross. The new lyrics closely follow the emotion of the original

Iam moriar mi Fili.

Now I must die, my Son.

Quis nam poterit mater consolari

What can console a mother

in hoc fero dolore, in hoc tam duro tormento?

in this fierce pain, in this unbearable torment?

Iam moriar mi Fili.

Now I must die, my Son.


and bring back all the raw emotion of the archetype.



⇐ Alessandro Grandi | Popular Piety ⇒

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