About this Recording
8.555308 - MONTEVERDI, C.: Madrigals, Book 2 (Il Secondo Libro de' Madrigali, 1590) (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)
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Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Madrigals Book II

 

Monteverdi’s Second Book of Madrigals was published by Angelo Gardano in Venice in 1590 when the composer was just 22 years old and still acknowledging himself to be a disciple of his former teacher Marc’Antonio Ingegneri. Appearing barely three years after his first work devoted to the highest form of Renaissance linguistic and musical experimentation, this new book was dedicated to Giacomo Ricardi, an influential figure in Milanese life. We know that Monteverdi’s talents as a violist had been recognised in Milan, but not whether he chose his dedicatee because he was still seeking a position there or because he was grateful for a recommendation already made to the court of the Gonzaga family — he was engaged by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga as a viol or violin-player there around that time (1589/90). It seems likely that Monteverdi had tried on more than one occasion to gain an introduction to this prestigious court: by setting in his Second Book a significant number of poems by Torquato Tasso, a favourite of both the Estensi family of Ferrara and the Gonzagas of Mantua, he may well have been aligning himself with the court which most appreciated and encouraged the development of the madrigal as the symbol of synthesis between the arts and the fruit of contemporary aristocratic culture.

 

In these new works he moves almost completely away from the repetitive structure typical of the First Book (Naxos 8.555307), and towards the “form without a form” which is shaped around the lyric that inspires and sustains it. The poetry and images chosen here emphasize the two favourite themes of court culture: love and nature. While the composer and contemporary musical culture had already covered the first of these in some detail, that of nature, in its various guises — vivid, gentle, unbridled and passionate — offered Monteverdi ample opportunity for the word-painting and pictorialism which characterize this book. Protagonists’ sentiments can be perceived in the enraptured contemplation of the sights and sounds of nature, whether they are mirrored in or contrasted with the serenity offered by this spectacle.

 

One example of this is the two-part madrigal Non si levav’ancor 1 and 2, undoubtedly one of the most famous and frequently studied pieces not only of this book but of the entire madrigal repertoire. Initially the music is subdued [1], describing a still sleeping nature. Images relating to the imminent daybreak — the moment just before dawn, the birds still in their nests and the glow of Venus’ light (non si levav[a] … né spiegavan … ma fiammeggiava) — conceal the protagonists on whom we gradually zoom in: two lovers who must part after a joyful night together. Their many different impulses then appear: kisses, tears and sighs. In the second part 2 these feelings are increasingly transformed into dreadful suffering as nature awakens, setting the seal on their separation. The music follows the turn of events with a series of examples of word-painting: the due vaghi amanti become two solo voices, Venus’ fiammeggiare fleet and sparkling writing followed by a sweet love theme, the birds’ flight a whirl of notes, the felice notte a dance-like theme, the sospiri an interrupted sequence, the pianti and suffering of the partita (which for the lovers is almost synonymous with death) harsh and dissonant harmonies and melodic leaps whose boldness is still striking today. Most striking of all here are the silences, translated into musical pauses that from here on Monteverdi elevates into moments of maximum expressivity. Brilliant too is the presence of the opening theme whose notes arch gently upwards to mirror the sunrise, recurring at the end of the first section of the piece and again in the second, when the much anticipated and feared appearance of the sun condemns the lovers to the pain of separation.

 

Nature, with its movements, sounds and colours, is again the protagonist (here without human counterparts) in Ecco mormorar l’onde #, a masterpiece of great freshness in which somnolent nature wakes at dawn, with a shiver of life starting from the darker voices in the lower tessitura and gradually unfolding towards the higher voices. These then imitate the sound of birdsong and, from the initial darkness, announce fanfare-like the triumphant entry of the sun to illuminate the sea and the mountains, and breathe gentle gusts of wind over them (as suggested by flurries of notes that chase each other through the different voices). Rarely do we find such accurate, sophisticated and effective skill at evoking visual drama elsewhere in the madrigal repertoire.

 

Two other madrigals form with Ecco mormorar a delightful triptych set to Tasso poems published between 1586 and 1587: Dolcemente dormiva $ e Mentr’io mirava fiso @. These three pieces are quite deliberately placed at the heart of the book and begin with a kind of recitative, a repeated note for solo voice, then taken up by three voices, leading to a wonderful fusion of counterpoint and harmony, varied tonal combinations and a knowing musical inspiration which perfectly interprets and accentuates the playful and often mischievous text. In Dolcemente dormiva the reflective held notes and the rapid melodies which signal the stormy arrival of the little cupids emphasise a lover’s contrasting feelings of desire and timidity towards his beloved. A beautiful central episode, surely something more than simple word-painting, provides a musical description of the way he gradually and fearfully lowers his lips to hers: the slowly descending melody is in complete contrast to the ascending scale which follows, representing the sensation of paradise offered by the sensual meeting of their lips.

 

There are many other amorous, even erotic, scenes in this book, from Quell’ombr’esser vorrei 0 to Intorno a due vermiglie 6, and Non son in queste rive 7 to Tutte le bocche belle 8. Their conspicuous presence makes it seem all the more likely that Monteverdi was seeking patronage from the Gonzaga family, who had after all built the Palazzo del Te with its many frescoes on the theme of love. Still in this amorous, ironic field, we find Mentr’io mirava fiso @, a masterpiece of counterpoint, a rapid whirl of superimposed and contrasting texts and melodies, perfectly depicting the confusion and bewilderment caused by Love. All that remains to the man struck by Cupid’s arrows (in this case by “two lovely little sprites”) is to yield and abandon himself to desperate cries for help which in the second part of the madrigal materialise into highly effective slow-moving superimposed melodies, with dissonant vertical harmonies (in contrast with the horizontal nature of the first part). The same process is seen in Non m’è grave’l morire (, most impressive for its gradually developed and beautiful harmonies on the words lagrimar per pietà, after a horizontal first section (beginning in recitativo style on a single note) and a reflective second section in which clusters of voices move vertically with the same rhythm and words.

 

S’andasse Amor a caccia ! is a charming fresco which transports us into the description of a hunting party, with all the calls and other sounds of this typical Renaissance court event. The final piece in this book is Cantai un tempo ¡, an “archaic” madrigal in terms both of its compositional process and the choice of poet (the classical scholar Pietro Bembo, 1470–1547, a representative of an older era). This is an entire piece dedicated to word-painting, whose “archaistic motet-like style with luxuriant melismas and an uninterrupted flow of the five voices, somewhat in the style of the Rore of 1542 or of Willaert’s Musica Nova” (Einstein, The Italian Madrigal, 1949) demonstrates the way in which Monteverdi understood and was leaving behind the past to build something absolutely new in this second book. Its position is totally intentional: this final reminder of a bygone age, now vanished for ever, gives even greater emphasis to the absolute innovation of the compositional techniques used in the rest of the book and from this moment onwards by Monteverdi, whose experiments would lead music into a new, modern era.

 

Performance and interpretation decisions

 

Unfortunately the first edition of the Second Book survives only in an incomplete version which we have only been able to complete by referring to the two later editions of 1607 and 1621. For typographical reasons four of the central madrigals appeared in a different order in the first edition, and to be faithful to the author’s initial intentions we have decided to restore the original order (as seen in modern times only in the 1979 Fondazione C. Monteverdi, Cremona edition).

 

To be consistent with the interpretation decisions discussed in the previous album, we have chosen to continue working with a basso seguente accompaniment, mean-tone temperament and male voices, from countertenors in the highest cantus line down to tenors, baritone and bass, thereby achieving a fascinating mix of timbres, never heard in Monteverdi’s madrigals. We know that women used to sing secular (not sacred) music at Italian courts, but in our opinion this may well have been the exception rather than the rule; we wanted, with philological accuracy, to offer an interesting alternative to previous recordings. As a tribute to Monteverdi’s recognised talents as a violist, we have included the instrument in our ensemble: recent research by James Bates (Italian Viola da Gamba, Solignac-Torino, 2002) confirms the composer’s command and constant use of the instrument.

Compared to the First Book, the Second offers fewer performance choices as regards cadences and musica ficta (the sharpening or flattening of notes to avoid certain awkward intervals), on account of the greater clarity of writing, but does provide even greater problems as regards vocal expression. Making the most of textual study and our natural “all-Italian” sensibilities, we have tried to implement the rules of performance advanced by Nicola Vicentino in 1555: “the words must be sung as intended by the composer, and the voice must express the sentiments expressed by the words, whether joyful or melancholy, gentle or cruel, and the accents must be placed so as to respect the pronunciation of the words and the rhythm of the notes […] One must proceed in a certain manner which cannot be expressed in writing, for example singing softly or loudly, quickly or slowly, and adapting the speed to indicate the passions expressed by the words and the harmony”.

 

Marco Longhini

English version: Susannah Howe


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