About this Recording
8.555307 - MONTEVERDI, C.: Madrigals, Book 1 (Il Primo Libro de Madrigali, 1587) and Secular Manuscript Works (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)
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Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Madrigals Book I • Secular Manuscript Works

Il Primo Libro de’ Madrigali

Monteverdi’s First Book of Madrigals for five voices was published in Venice in 1587; it was his third major publication and he was still only nineteen. In it he took up one of music’s greatest challenges, the madrigal. The secular work par excellence, a form without a form (in that it is shaped around the lyric that inspires and sustains it), and one inviting linguistic and musical experimentation, the madrigal is the symbol of synthesis between the arts and the highest achievement of the sophisticated aristocratic culture of those courts and patrons whose pleasure it was to surround themselves with the finest artists of the time.

In the First Book, with its wonderful variety of light and shade, and its highly effective unravelling of melodies and intricate harmonies, the seeds are sown for Monteverdi’s mature works, which would change composition for ever and mark the divide between the music of the past and that which we define as modern. In the dedication to Count Marco Verità of Verona Monteverdi wrote that these were "youthful compositions" desiring "no other praise than that which is usually given to the flowers of spring, compared with that given to the fruits of summer and autumn". Concealed within the words of the first madrigal [1] is a tribute to a lady: Ch’ami la vita mia (That I love my life) can also be heard as Camilla vita mia (Camilla, my life), while Se’l ver porti in te scritto (If within you the truth be written) alludes to the name Verità (truth). The young composer’s mature and dramatic use of musical episodes is already striking here: by extracting and inserting the vocal lines, repeating the lyric in different pitches and timbres, and making intelligent use of colour contrast (light and shade for the antitheses of love—suffering and life—death), he succeeds in building up the tension until the final catharsis.

Guarini’s Canzon de’ baci [5] is about eroticism pure and simple: the sense of arousal throughout this madrigal full of sighs and gasps transports us towards a lovers’ union, as conventionally signified by the word "morire" (death). Kisses are also the theme of Filli cara ed amata (Dear, beloved Phyllis) [7], which uses a technique characteristic of this book, that of adding to the number of voices, so that one grows to three, then four to five for the exclamation "Ahi" (Alas) to provide maximum dynamic intensity and the break between the lover’s dream and the suffering he must actually endure. The music then dissolves into a section full of persistent dissonances, which will only find resolution in the imagined serenity of kisses the lover wishes would fill the silence of his lady’s withheld response.

The First Book ends with a cycle of three madrigals: Ardo, sì (I burn, yes, but love you not) [19], Ardi o gela (Burn or freeze, as you wish) [20] and Arsi ed alsi (I burned and froze) [21]. Their texts are by Guarini and Tasso, two brilliant Italian poets whose words Monteverdi would often set to music in later collections. As Leo Schrade wrote in 1950 in Monteverdi: Creator of Modern Music, "the relation of the texts to each other is not of true dialogue, but of a parody. Tasso’s poem parodied Guarini’s madrigal, and Monteverdi translated the parody into musical terms by patterning one composition on the other. When he composed Ardi o gela as Tasso’s "risposta" to Guarini’s Ardo, sì, ma non t’amo, he used the musical material of the first madrigal. The bass of Ardi o gela is, in fact, a variation of the first madrigal, while in all parts both have the same ending, with only slight variation".

Heavy notes, dissonances and chromatic progessions for words such as "morte", "martiri" and "pene" (death, suffering and sorrow) are to be found in abundance in this book. Monteverdi was skilled at choosing texts to inspire his effective and impulsive compositional practices. La vaga pastorella (The pretty shepherdess) [16], one of the masterpieces of this collection, begins with a skipping progression depicting the shepherdess wandering in a flowery field, after which the music slows down in an introspective section which disperses the opening sweetness. Monteverdi here employs the technique of superimposing two contrasting textual/musical phrases: the phrase e carco di martiro (and laden down with suffering) descends heavily in long notes, while la seguo tuttavia (still I follow her) moves quickly, leaping and anticipating the per dio, non mi fuggire (For God’s sake, do not run from me) episode before the dramatic and expressive finale.

In Questa ordì il laccio (This hand set the snare) % we hear some striking word-painting before the protagonist entreats Love, source of so much suffering, to bring him vengeance (vendetta, Amor, vendetta), in a manner reminiscent of the much later Eighth Book. Other pieces in this collection also show signs of what was to come: A che tormi il ben mio (Why deprive me of my love) [3], a promising first solo work for Cantus (the upper voice), which anticipates T’amo, mia vita from Book Five, and the short madrigalesque triptych about the shepherdess Fumia [9], [10] and [11]. This has three distinct narrative sections, our introduction to Fumia, her solemn hymn to the sun and to spring, and the final song of praise. Monteverdi re-used this tripartite narrative and musical scheme more than fifty years later in the Lamento della Ninfa: Fumia is represented by a solo voice, and her lament is framed by two bold and dissonant three-voice episodes.

Monteverdi’s manuscript works

Monteverdi’s complete secular works taken from manuscript copies rather than official printed sources form a generous appendix to this disc.

Voglio di vita uscir (I would depart this life) [22], preserved in Naples, is built on a variation over a bass pattern, a structure often used by Monteverdi (e.g. Zefiro torna, 1632), and one which highlights his skill for variety and innovation. Ahi che si part’il mio bel sol (Alas, my precious sun is leaving) [24] exists in a handwritten book of villanelles in Modena, and is believed to have been one of the canzonets written for Duke Cesare d’Este, many of which were published posthumously in 1651.

This disc also includes two canzonets from a 1610 partbook containing devotional madrigals and canzonets held in Brescia’s Biblioteca Queriniana. Of its five pieces by Monteverdi, three were published in the Scherzi of 1607, while two were never printed: Fuggi cor (Flee, heart) [23] and Se d’un angel’ il bel viso (If the lovely face of an angel) [25]. They are recorded here for the first time and we have provided a plausible reconstruction around the beautiful melodic line which is all that survives.

The final piece is the Lamento di Olimpia [26], a superb work in several sections which, although it has its own character, owes much to the better-known Lamento d’Arianna. The manuscript came from Rome’s Biblioteca Borghese, but is now in London, part of the collection of the composer Luigi Rossi (1598—1653). Its authenticity having been questioned by some scholars, the work has been neglected, yet any doubts are unfounded: one has only to hear this masterpiece to know that nobody but Monteverdi could have composed a work of such dramatic power, echoing, quoting and re-working itself. The story of Olympia, a Dutch noblewoman betrayed and abandoned by Bireno, comes from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (Cantos 9-11). As Paolo Fabbri writes in Monteverdi, "the situation is identical [to that of Arianna], even the images and the way in which the discourse develops are the same: Olympia follows slavishly the same poetic conventions as Arianna. The music too has undoubted affinities, beginning with the repeated initial refrain".

Performance and interpretation decisions

As well as changing the third in the final cadence chords from minor to major, we made the fundamental decision to transpose down a fourth those pieces using chiavette (lit.: small clefs - a sign that the music is to be transposed), as it would otherwise have been almost impossible to sing the unnecessarily high melodic lines. Monteverdi composed according to the ancient modes and points us towards the correct notes with his word-painting in [2]: once transposed, the phrase mi fa di duol morire (makes me die of sorrow) falls on the notes E and F (mi and fa respectively in Italian). The transposed melodies are perfectly suited to male voices, eliminating the excessively high or low notes which have often proved an insurmountable problem. The combination of countertenors, tenors, baritone and bass provides a fascinating mix of timbres, never heard in Monteverdi’s madrigals. Although female singers undoubtedly performed at Italian courts, we wanted, with philological accuracy, to offer an interesting alternative to previous recordings. It will be for listeners to decide (like the nobles of Monteverdi’s time) whether they prefer this all-male version, more archaic and homogeneous in terms of timbre, or the more modern mixed-voice version. These works would sometimes have had instrumental accompaniment: we know that in Verona (the home of the dedicatee), the singers were accompanied or even replaced by instruments - in the 1593 inventory of Count Bevilacqua’s musical company, around thirty melody-playing and accompaniment instruments are listed.

For the manuscript works we followed the basso continuo practice of improvising harmonies above a composed bass part, while for the First Book (written before the advent of basso continuo) we decided to provide a basso seguente accompaniment: doubling the lowest vocal notes with no improvisation except on the opening or closing chords. So as to get closer to the voices’ natural intonation, we adopted the mean-tone temperament typical of that time, favouring chordal purity.

The "all-Italian" eloquence which through our research we aim to express and accentuate will be glorified by both voices and instruments.

Marco Longhini

Translated by Susannah Howe


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