Seconda Pratica

Most important, though, is the use of the term seconda pratica. By distinguishing the two practices as first and second, Monteverdi in effect eliminates the possibility of a common discourse: the one cannot be discussed in terms of the other.

Ilias Chrissochoidis. The ‘Artusi–Monteverdi’ Controversy, 2004.


Several months after Monteverdi published his fourth book of madrigals in 1603, Artusi published the seconda parte of his L’Artusi, overo delle imperfettioni della moderna musica. His earlier dialogue had criticised some of the numbers in Monteverdi’s fourth book, but Monteverdi let the charges pass unanswered.

Two years later, his Quinto libro (“Fifth Book”) appeared, containing not only more of the madrigals that Artusi had questioned, but a written response from Monteverdi. His famous “I do not make my pieces haphazardly” has become the quintessential phrase, at least in musical circles, of the Monteverdi Fifth Book of Madrigals, Title Page
Monteverdi Fifth Book of Madrigals, Title Page
(IMSLP Petrucci Music Library)
perennial split between serious and popular, classical and light, academic and practical. While acknowledging a venerated prima pratica (“first practice”) as systematized by Zarlino and his followers, Monteverdi defended modern methods of treating dissonance, calling them a new, seconda pratica (“second practice”).

It was the composer’s first and last word on the subject. He promised in a forthcoming Seconda pratica, overo della perfettione della moderna musica (“Second Practice, or, On the Perfection of Modern Music”) to deal with Artusi’s and others’ accusations on their own turf. The ostensible reason for the delay was that Monteverdi was too busy in the service of His Most Serene Highness of Mantua. And although it stayed in the back of his mind for the rest of his life, it never materialized.

The parallels with the Bach vs. Scheibe affair are intriguing. Bach was known for being “no lover of dry technical stuff,” as his son Carl put it, neither in teaching nor in composition. Both Monteverdi and Bach were astonishing composers, and both were far more comfortable saying anything they had to say in real music, to be performed, heard, celebrated. The defence of their work they left to others: Bach to his friend Birnbaum, Monteverdi through his brother Giulio Cesare.

But that is not to imply that they weren’t concerned, or didn’t take these criticisms seriously. Both were sensitive about their lack of formal training in arts and letters — the “apparatus of Greek philosophy,” as Denis Arnold put it — and felt not only annoyed at the attacks but, to be sure, somewhat wounded. It has been suggested that Artusi’s motivation was less personal and academic than political or commercial. These were at least part of Scheibe’s motivation: he published the periodical in which his opinions of Bach’s music appeared, and reprinted them several times.

Regrettably, Monteverdi’s comments have sometimes been misconstrued and exaggerated. He was writing and publishing at a time of rampant experimentation that would soon blow itself out. And while others, such as the monodists, claimed that the bathwater had to go, baby and all, Monteverdi blended, synthesized. The new modes of expression worked hand in hand with traditional techniques. Nobody was more capable of showing how.

Amarilli e Mirtillo

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