Se per havervi ohimè

Claudio Monteverdi, publ. 1587

When Monteverdi’s Il primo libro di madrigali a cinque voci (“First book of madrigals for five voices”) was published in 1587, it was dedicated to Count Marco Verità of Verona. Monteverdi still named himself a pupil of Ingegneri, as he had done in his book of Canzonette.

All of the madrigals in the collection are quite short but, unlike the canzonettas, are through–composed, which is to say that there is no formal repetition of a series of stanzas. The music works through the poetry from beginning to end, often with the last line repeated, as was customary for madrigals of the time. Monteverdi’s sensitivity to the words is clear from his treatment of favourites (‘life,’ ‘death,’ ‘pain,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘love,’ etc.) with dissonance or consonance to fit the meaning.

The second number in the collection expresses an unrequited lover’s sorrow. The words and imagery are treated carefully, albeit not spectacularly: the opening phrases of the first and second madrigals are similar in rhythm and contour, the rhythm relying on the natural stress of the words.

Se per havervi, ohimè, donato il core,

If, alas, by having given my heart,

nasce in me quell’ardore

such ardour is borne in me

donna crudel, che m’ard’in ogni loco,

cruel lady, it burns me everywhere,

tal che son tutto foco.

such that I am all ablaze.

E se per amar voi, l’aspro martire

And if, for love of you, harsh torture

mi fa di duol morire,

makes me die of sadness

miser, che far debb’io

what shall I, wretch, do

privo di voi che sete ogni ben mio?

without you, who are my all


The first phrase finishes with a perfect cadence, following which the top four voices repeat the same melodies but swap them with one another. At the end of this repetition, the expected cadence becomes what in modern terminology would be called a ‘deceptive’ or ‘interrupted’ cadence, as the bass enters for the first time with the words donna crudel (“cruel lady”). The motion is then stretched somewhat, building tension through syncopation on the imagery of fire.

The second phrase of the poem is further stretched on the words l’aspro martire (“harsh torture”) and duol morire (“to die of sadness”), particularly with the sustained d in the bass. The lament–like privo di voi (“without you”) stands out especially because it is approached by leap and comprises longer notes, passed among all voices as they wind down to the close of the song.



⇐ Monteverdi, Son questi i crespi crini?

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