|Ballo: Volgendo il ciel – Movete al mio bel suon|
Gramophone Award-winning ensemble Arcangelo (in their first recording as a vocal and instrumental group) presents a selection from Monteverdi’s last three books of madrigals. These ardent and passionate works are microcosms of Monteverdi’s great operas, and among his most celebrated music.
Most of the madrigals of Book 6 (1614) are songs of parting and loss. Book 7 (1619) is entitled Concerto, meaning that all the works it contains require instrumental accompaniment. And Book 8 (1638) introduces the genere concitato—the ‘agitated’ manner that Monteverdi devised to convey the emotions of war, whether physical or psychological. Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda sets an extended passage from Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. Tasso’s text, set in the time of the first crusade, tells of the combat between the Christian knight Tancredi and the Saracen maiden Clorinda. Most of the action of the Combattimento is conveyed by a narrator (Testo—the text), sung here by celebrated tenor James Gilchrist.
Each of Monteverdi’s last three books of madrigals—all published while he was choirmaster of San Marco, Venice—is imbued with a distinctive character. Most of the madrigals of Book 6 (1614) are songs of parting and loss. Book 7 (1619) is entitled Concerto, meaning that all the works it contains require instrumental accompaniment. And Book 8 (1638) introduces the genere concitato—the ‘agitated’ manner that Monteverdi devised to convey the emotions of war, whether physical or psychological.
All three books may have been published during Monteverdi’s Venetian years, but Book 6 was certainly being planned, and its contents probably written, during Monteverdi’s years as choirmaster at the court of Mantua. In a letter of 26 July 1610, Bassano Cassola, Monteverdi’s assistant at Mantua, wrote:
[Monteverdi] is also preparing a collection of five-part madrigals, which will contain three laments: that one of Ariadne, with the usual melody throughout; the plaint of Leander and Hero by Marini; and the third, given to him by His Most Serene Highness, of a shepherd whose nymph is dead, to words by the son of the Lord Count Lepido Agnelli on the death of Signora Romanina.
Monteverdi’s setting of the plaint of Leander and Hero no longer survives, if indeed it was ever written. But his five-voice arrangement of the lament of Ariadne from his opera Arianna of 1608, and Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata (‘Tears of a lover at the tomb of the beloved’), cast in the virtuoso poetic form of a sestina, form the two main pillars of Book 6, the first at its opening, the second at its centre. The sestina is a lament for ‘the little Roman girl’ (‘Signora Romanina’)—the singer Caterina Martinelli, for whom the title role of Arianna was written.
Caterina Martinelli, who died from smallpox at the age of eighteen shortly before the first performance of Arianna, was a favourite of duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. The duke’s agents recruited her in 1603, and she was brought to Mantua, having first undergone a virginity test, and lodged in Monteverdi’s house, to be trained by him and perhaps also by his wife Claudia, herself a singer at court. When Caterina died, the duke had her body interred in a marble tomb in the Carmelite church in Mantua (now destroyed). As we learn from Cassola’s letter, it was the duke, too, who commanded Monteverdi to set the sestina in Caterina’s memory. The sestina text is a series of six six-line stanzas with the end-words of the lines of stanza 1 rotated in a prescribed sequence in the subsequent stanzas. The text is rounded off by a three-line envoi, included by Monteverdi in Part 6 of his setting, in which all the ‘end-words’ appear.
Monteverdi was clearly deeply moved by Caterina’s death, and his setting is by turns sombre and agonized. Sometimes the voices chant together, sometimes grate against each other as emotion breaks through. At these points Monteverdi occasionally casts aside Agnelli’s careful word order, as in Part 5, to create the climactic phrase ‘Ohimè! [chi vi] nasconde?’ (‘Alas, who hid you there?’) which quotes the opening music of Arianna’s lament, now hidden in the lament for its intended singer.
In Book 6, the sestina is followed immediately by a setting of Petrarch’s sonnet Ohimè il bel viso, ohimè il soave sguardo, the first in his Canzoniere reflecting his sense of loss after the death of his beloved Laura. In Monteverdi’s setting the cry ‘Ohimè’ (‘Alas’) is set for solo sopranos, against a trio of male voices. But whereas in the sestina Monteverdi invented repeated cries where the poet supplied only one, here Petrarch repeats the word over and over again in the first five lines of his text, fully supporting Monteverdi’s long, plangent musical paragraph. Clear parallels between the music of Ohimè il bel viso and that of the sestina suggest that the Petrarch setting may also be a tribute to Caterina Martinelli, and, indeed, Petrarch’s description of Laura could equally well have described the young singer, whose tombstone was inscribed:
Caterina Martinelli … dear above all to Vincenzo, Serene Duke of Mantua, for that famous excellence, the sweetness of her manner, her beauty, her grace and charm, snatched away, alas, by bitter death.
If Ohimè il bel viso suggests rather muted sorrow, another Petrarch setting from Book 6—Zefiro torna e ’l bel tempo rimena—conveys the intense pain of loss. Monteverdi sets the first two quatrains of the sonnet as though they were two stanzas of a strophic song, in a joyful dance-like triple time reflecting the pleasures of spring. When the poet contrasts this with his inner desolation, however, Monteverdi turns to a more sombre mood. Mention of the singing of birds and the love of women in lines 12 and 13 prompt a brief return to the joyous music of the opening before we are plunged into a tortured sequence of dissonances reflecting the poet’s anguish.
A different sense of loss, though no less heartfelt, is conveyed in the poem Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben, dov’è il mio core?, by Bernardo Tasso, father of the more famous Torquato. Tasso was a diplomat, and this is one of the stanze di lontananza written when he was parted from his wife by the call of duty. Monteverdi set this stanza, an eight-line text (ottava rima), as four variations for two voices over the so-called Romanesca bass, one of several such basses used in the sixteenth century for improvising musical settings of ottave. Each variation sets a pair of lines.
Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben was published in Monteverdi’s Seventh Book, which contains many other solos, duets and trios, smaller textures made possible by the inclusion of an independent instrumental accompaniment improvised from a single bass line. In this respect Monteverdi was following a new fashion. It is also the first book in which Monteverdi included strophic songs as well as madrigals and a ballet, Tirsi e Clori. This gather-all approach to a madrigal collection also characterizes his last, huge, Book 8—the Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (‘Warlike and amorous madrigals’) of 1638, dedicated to the Emperor Ferdinand III. The title-page of Book 8 states that the collection includes some ‘small works in a theatrical manner’, among them the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and two ballets. One of these—Volgendo il ciel—may have been sent by Monteverdi to Vienna in 1636 for the coronation of the new emperor. Like all Monteverdi’s ballets, it involves solo and ensemble music for voices as well as instrumental music. The text is by the Florentine poet Ottavio Rinuccini and was originally written in honour of Henry IV of France. For Vienna, various references in the text were changed to suit the new context.
The ballet begins with an instrumental entrata for the dancers, and the Poet sings a prologue, punctuated by the music of the entrata, in which he envisages an age of peace under Ferdinand’s rule. Taking a lyre, he addresses Ferdinand, and then invites the ladies to dance and the nymphs of the Danube (Istro) to join them. They dance first to a chorus, ‘Movete al mio bel suon’, and then to ‘any other dance without song’ (Monteverdi does not supply this) before the second part of ‘Movete al mio bel suon’. For this recording, the added dance is a Ciaccona for two violins and continuo by Tarquinio Merula (1594/5–1665), published in his Canzoni overo sonate concertate of 1637. Merula was one of the most able and daring of Monteverdi’s younger contemporaries. His Ciaccona is a set of variations over the so-called ‘chaconne’ ground bass. Although Monteverdi’s ballet is itself brief, it was probably intended to be performed in the midst of other music, and may have been followed by social dancing.
The Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was first performed in Venice in Carnival 1624 in the apartment of Girolamo Mocenigo, now part of the Danieli Hotel. In the Combattimento Monteverdi claimed to have recreated the ‘agitated’ (concitato) genus ‘described by Plato in the third book of his Rhetoric [Republic] in these words: “Take that harmony that would fittingly imitate the utterances of a brave man who is engaged in warfare”.’ In its purest form, Monteverdi’s genere concitato involves dividing a semibreve into sixteen semiquavers repeated rapidly one after the other, a technique that can be heard most clearly in the passage where the narrator begins ‘L’onta irrita lo sdegno a la vendetta’.
The Combattimento sets an extended passage from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. Tasso’s text, set in the time of the first crusade, tells of the combat between the Christian knight Tancredi and the Saracen maiden Clorinda. Paradoxically, the two are lovers, but their faces are hidden by armour when they meet in battle. Tancredi deals Clorinda a mortal blow and, removing her helmet, recognizes her. In Clorinda’s dying moments Tancredi baptizes her, and the work ends with a touching passage in which she sees heaven opening to receive her.
Most of the action of the Combattimento is conveyed by a narrator (Testo—the text). Nevertheless, it is intended to be acted out by the combatants. Monteverdi describes how this should be done:
Clorinda, armed and on foot, followed by Tancredi, armed, on a Marian horse [cavallo mariano] enter unexpectedly (after some madrigals without action have been sung) from the side of the room in which the music is performed, and the narrator will then begin the singing. They will perform steps and gestures in the way expressed by the oration … observing diligently those measures, blows and steps, and the instrumentalists’ sounds, excited or soft.
In order to convey the sounds of battle, Monteverdi includes other musical gestures—the trotting of a horse (motto del cavallo), trumpet fanfares, instrumental passages representing the two warriors circling each other and the sounds of their swords clashing, and the first ever example of written-out pizzicato to illustrate Tancredi and Clorinda hitting each other with the pommels of their swords.
Having devised the genere concitato, Monteverdi went on to employ it in other works. His large-scale setting for six voices, two violins and continuo of Petrarch’s sonnet Or che ’l ciel e la terra e ’l vento tace begins with a magical portrayal of the stillness of night in the midst of which a lover cries out, tormented by thoughts of his beloved. The words ‘guerra è il mio stato’ provide Monteverdi with the cue to begin two passages of concitato writing, with rapid semiquavers in the violins and pacing motifs in the voices. The ‘war’ here is, of course, psychological, and Or che ’l ciel, like all the ‘warlike’ madrigals, is as much about love as the ‘amorous’ madrigals in the second part of Book 8. Its finest moment occurs at the end of the setting, where Monteverdi sets the words ‘tanto dalla salute mia son lunge’ (‘so far from my usual well-being am I’) in which the high voices and violins of the full ensemble, beginning low in pitch, and the male voices beginning high, move gradually across each other to the other extremes of their registers in a spine-tingling passage that memorably demonstrates the genius of Monteverdi’s invention.
John Whenham © 2014