Dolcissimo sospiro

Giulio Caccini, publ. 1601

It is a great misfortune that we cannot really know exactly what the earliest attempts at monody sounded like, but we can make some reasonable guesses. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, there were lots of individuals who claimed, with varying degrees of merit, to have invented it single–handedly. Further on we will consider the 1601 Le nuove musiche (“The New Musics”), a publication of works by Giulio Caccini in which he made his own claims, ostensibly out of a desire to preserve the integrity of his original works in the face of all sorts of bad imitations and poor performances. That being the case, we can assume that its contents — at least its monodies — were more or less similar to his past work.

Caccini left quite explicit instructions on how his works should be performed. On first glance, the score is extraordinarily bare; there are no separate parts in the usual sense, just a single line for the singer, and a Caccini, Le nuove musiche (Title Page)
Caccini, Le nuove musiche (Title Page)
Wikimedia Commons
second line of bass notes over which the singer — or one or more accompanists — was expected to improvise. Nothing fancy, of course, just rudimentary chords with perhaps some simple embellishment: the words were what really mattered.

The word “chord” needs a bit of qualification: after all, musicians were still educated according to modal, not tonal, theory. Thus the chords to be played were indicated by figures showing the interval or intervals above the bass that should be used in the accompaniment. And despite the durational values of the notes (whole notes, quarter notes, etc.), Caccini took great pains to emphasize that the metre should bend according to the words. The performer was expected to use various kinds of ornaments, crescendi (loudening), decrescendi (softening), or changes in tempo depending on the “affect” she was trying to project, and according to the meaning of the words. That was the whole point.

Therein lay the fundamental differences between madrigal and monody. Both claimed to be striving for the same thing: expression of the words, the “affect” of a work, but in very different ways. In a madrigal with a half–dozen singers, the metre obviously mattered. Five or six performers singing different words with different stresses at different times would not work. On the other hand, a soloist who dwells on certain words, sings some phrases slowly to convey pain, or runs over other passages lightly and quickly to give an impression of joy or impatience, won’t be very successful unless accompanied by uncomplicated chords.

Dolcissimo sospiro

Sweetest sigh

ch’esci da quella bocca

That comes from the mouth

ove d’amor ogni dolcezza fiocca;

out of which all love’s sweetness falls;

Deh, vieni a raddolcire

Oh, come to soften

l’amaro mio dolore.

my bitter pain.

Ecco, ch’io t’apro il core

Here, I open to you my heart

ma, folle, a chi ridico il mio martire?

but, fool, to whom do I explain my grief?

Ad’un sospiro errante

To a wandering sigh

Che forse vole in sen ad altro amante.

That perhaps flies to the breast of another lover.

⇐ Monody | La Pellegrina

↥ Top