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.
from notes by John Whenham © 2014