Era l’anima mia

Claudio Monteverdi

It may be facile to contrast a slavish adherence to tradition with avant–garde iconoclasm, but it makes for good drama. The third number of Monteverdi’s fifth book of madrigals was another that fell victim to Artusi’s fault–finding, but it is a dramatic example of the composer’s direction. He has moved beyond ‘bad’ dissonances taken in isolation into a realm where colour and structure evoke an emotional atmosphere, the holy grail of the monodists.

Era l’anima mia

My soul was

già presso a l’ultim’ore,

already near its final hour

e languia come langue alma che more,

and languishing as languishes a dying soul

quand’anima più bella e più gradita

when a soul more beautiful and more pleasing

volse lo sguard’in sì pietoso giro

turned such a merciful gaze upon me

che mi mantenn’in vita.

that I remained alive.

Parean dir quei bei lumi:

Those beautiful eyes seemed to say

deh, perchè ti consumi?

Ah! why do you fade away?

Non m’è sì car’il cor ond’io respiro

To me, not my heart nor my breath are as dear

come se’ tu, cor mio.

as are you, my love.

Se mori, ohimè, non mori, mor’io.

Should you die, alas, it is not you who dies, but I.

The song begins sombrely in the lower voices on a single minor chord, reminiscent of the chant–like homophony Monteverdi has used before. The imagery of e languia come langue alma che more (“and languished as languishes a dying soul”) plays out compellingly over descending chromatic phrases above sustained bass notes. The mood brightens immediately as the upper voices enter on a major chord with quand’anima più bella e più gradita volse lo sguard’in sì pietosa giro (“when a more beautiful and more pleasant spirit turned a kindly gaze”). The words parean dir quei bei lumi: deh, perchè ti consumi? (“those eyes seemed to say ‘Ah, why do you languish?’”) are passed among the voices, echoing the appeal of the question.

Simple homophonic texture returns at non m’è si caro il cor ond’io respiro come se’ tu, cor mio (“My heart and breath are not as dear to me as you, my love...”), recalling the first entry of the upper voices. The phrase se mori, ohimè, no mori tu... (“if you die, it is not you who dies...”) encompasses a number of the dissonances and unconventional resolutions that Artusi would have complained about, but with one destination in mind: the cutting mor’io (“I die”) on a quiet cadence that ends with two voices in unison. The effect, in a five–part madrigal, is vivid. Before this note fades, the bass takes up the final repetition, followed by the other voices, all on longer sustained notes, to reinforce the point of the poem.

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