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8.555309 - MONTEVERDI, C.: Madrigals, Book 3 (Il Terzo Libro de' Madrigali, 1592) (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Madrigals Book III


Monteverdi’s Third Book of Madrigals was published in Venice in 1592 by Ricciardo Amadino and sold extremely well, with five reprints before 1611. Two further editions published in 1615 and 1621 included a basso continuo line “for harpsichord, chittarone or other similar instrument” to aid the instrumentalists who would otherwise have had to work out their part from the vocal parts and transcribe it by hand. These madrigals were clearly in the performance repertoire therefore for a good thirty years (quite remarkable given the rapidly changing tastes at the turn of the sixteenth century as monody and opera developed) and were the composer’s first major success. Having been engaged two years earlier by the Gonzaga family at the court of Mantua as a humble singer of madrigals and viol-player, by 1592 Monteverdi was also working as a composer alongside Giaches de Wert, maestro di cappella at the ducal chapel of Santa Barbara (where all the major sacred ceremonies of the court took place). By that time Wert was suffering from various illnesses, including smallpox and malaria, and Monteverdi, keen to make his name and hoping to succeed Wert, dedicated his Third Book to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, partly out of respect, but also well aware that he was offering “mature and tasty fruit” that would be of great interest in the cultural atmosphere of the time. There is no mention here, as there was in the First and Second Books (Naxos 8.555307 and 8.555308), of either his origins or his teachers: as a court musician he had both assimilated and become part of the sophisticated culture that had always fascinated him. The Third Book is clearly influenced by the musical, literary, architectural and other artistic splendours of the Mantuan court. It is an innovative, at times revolutionary work, full of bold expressive features, which draws once again on the poems of Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini (the author of one of the most famous Renaissance texts, Il pastor fido (1589), who was visiting Mantua at the time).


The first madrigal, La giovinetta pianta, sets an anonymous text and is well constructed but not overly interesting musically even though it was usual practice for the first (and last) pieces of such a work to be remarkable in some way or another (a practice Monteverdi had followed in the Second Book and would do again in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth, Naxos 8.555310, 8.555311 and 8.555312). As with the First Book, however, what matters most here is not musical innovation but the tribute to the dedicatee: Vincenzo Gonzaga, hedonist, spendthrift and libertine (not unlike Verdi’s Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto...) would no doubt have been pleased by the explicitly mischievous and sensual references in a text encouraging young girls to take enjoyment in love.


Love is once again the principal theme of these songs, whether in subtle portrayals of sensuality, as in Sovra tenere erbette 3, or as the source of pain when a lover’s feelings are unrequited or he is betrayed 4 and 12. Betrayal is also the theme of the very beautiful Ch’io non t’ami 13 with its tormented finale on the words “come poss’io lasciarti e non morire”, and of Occhi un tempo mia vita 14, with its wealth of contrasting attitudes depicted by the masterly use of horizontal counterpoint (for expressions of love) and vertical harmony (for moments of reluctance and inner pain).


Several of the madrigals in this book (for example the seventh and twelfth) are characterized by a long opening passage written for a single voice (a sign of the trend by then to separate out the voices and personalise them by providing solo introductions), or for the trio of the top three voices. Many academics believe that this points to a connection with the Concerto delle Dame di Ferrara, one of the few all-female groups in Renaissance Italy (made up of noblewomen and singers visiting the Ferrarese court). Their flawless taste, technique and virtuosity were renowned throughout Europe; while the usual cappella was made up of a small number of male singers and instrumentalists, we know from contemporary reports such as that by the Florentine ambassador in 1571, that at least until 1598 (the year in which the last heir of Alfonso II d’Este died and the Ferrara dukedom passed into the hands of the Roman Church), larger-scale concerts of around sixty singers and instrumentalists were staged. These were undoubtedly exceptional events, proof both of the esteem in which the art form was held and of the great wealth of Ferrara. Given the regular cultural contests and exchanges between the latter and Mantua, it is certainly plausible that Monteverdi might have written pieces expressly dedicated to the Ladies of Ferrara. Three such pieces appear here: O come è gran martire 2 a superb depiction of that cultured world and of the way in which such feelings would have to be experienced intimately and without outward show at court; Lumi, miei cari lumi 18; and O rossignuol 6. The latter two songs make frequent and effective use of madrigalismi, or word-painting (to be found on the words “veloce” and “tardo” in Lumi, miei for example; while in O rossignuol, a swiftly undulating theme on “rio” comes to a standstill on the words “fermarti suoli”, the nightingale’s song takes flight in a volley of notes, and the words of suffering, tears and pain, always present in such texts, are treated with dissonant harmonies).


The text of one of the Third Book’s most famous pieces, O primavera, gioventù dell’anno 11 is taken from Mirtillo’s monologue at the beginning of Act Three of Il pastor fido. This pastoral drama was a favourite of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, as proved by reports of a sumptuous staging in 1598 (after a failed attempt in 1591). We do not know for sure, but it seems likely that this madrigal was included in that performance. The text is polarised between ever-renewing nature with her promise of the joy of new life and an unhappy lover nostalgically recalling a love now lost for ever; the contrast between these sentiments is made even stronger by the music — fast-moving, playful episodes are set in opposition to slow, painful dissonance.


The innovative nature of this book is visible above all in the “cycles” of madrigals: much has been written about Monteverdi’s use of declamation in Vattene pur crudel 8 and the charm of the musical transposition of the two cycles taken from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (also the source of his later work, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda). Nino Pirrotta writes in Scelte poetiche di musicisti (1987) that these works contain “singing rather than recitative, because the implicit form of performance can avoid the practical demands of realistic speech to which performance is too often subjected ... Song, representation in song, is the declared artistic aim”. The sequence of three madrigals 15-17 that begins with the desperate words “Vivrò fra i miei tormenti” sets to music the moment at the end of the combat between Tancredi and Clorinda, when the Christian warrior removes his helmet only to realise that he has unwittingly killed his beloved. A dreamlike atmosphere is created; the voices seem to fight one another, angry impulses alternating with long moments of reflection. Blinded by anger and the violent contest, Tancredi is now condemned to wander for eternity in remorse and self-hatred: the music perfectly portrays his confused and bewildered state of mind (beginning of 16 and 17). The melodies wander harmonically, sustained only by syllabic repetition intoned on a single note, an obsessive, recitative-like repetition. Yet every time the force builds up it reverberates, leading into a new episode in which other voices overlap, interrupted by the desperate cries of “ahi sfortunato” 16. The outcome of so much sorrow can only be death, the “tomba felice”, a phrase that expresses the Baroque concept of contradiction.


Both the First and Second Books contain extremely expressive settings of Tasso, but the Third Book settings have a new drama and intensity (as does the only Tasso piece in the Fourth Book, Naxos 8.555310). After an absence in the Fifth and Sixth Books, his work reappears with full dramatic force in Combattimento, Monteverdi himself writing in the foreword to the Eighth Book in 1638, “I entrusted myself to the divine Tasso, whose words so clearly and naturally express the passions he wishes to describe, and I rediscovered his description of the combat between Tancredi and Clorinda, giving me the two opposite passions to set to music, war, in other words prayer, and death”.


Expressing these “passions” presents challenges in terms of both composition and performance: the opening of Vattene pur crudel 8 has to portray the powerful invective of the sorceress Armida as in her pain and distraction she rails agains Rinaldo who has decided to leave her and her enchanted castle to return to the battlefield. Betrayed and about to collapse in grief, she invokes terrible curses (whose power is only matched by that of her love for him) so that in his final moments he will think only of her, with a last, desperate cry of love. Monteverdi’s setting is brilliant and harrowing; the notes drip with passionate and contrasting sentiments — love and hate break against each other as waves break against rocks. Then Armida slowly faints away 9 in a descending, sinuous, chromatic sequence of notes, at the end of which she falls senseless to the ground. As she comes round 0, she realises that she is now completely alone: with the same technique of syllabic repetition and uttering one final cry of despair, she collapses and weeps. As Claudio Gallico notes in Monteverdi (1979), these pieces from the major poem of the late Renaissance are semi-operatic and of genuinely theatrical nature.


The inherent passion and intensity of these two cycles recall the Lamento d’Arianna in the Sixth Book (Naxos 8.555312); similarly the last madrigal in the Third Book is reminiscent of the final intense triptych of the First Book, where lyrics by different poets (Guarini and Tasso again) are placed together because of their similarity of content. Monteverdi abides by usual practice and puts a masterpiece of innovation in this final position — Rimanti in pace (, which evokes again Gerusalemme liberata and the story of Rinaldo and Armida (these being Rinaldo’s words to the enchantress just before he leaves her). Yet while here too a pair of lovers must endure separation, there is nothing epic about the atmosphere created by Liviano Celiano. Thyrsis and Phyllida are two humble shepherds who, without averting their gaze from one another, part in great sorrow, with words of love, tears and sighs. Following the text, the music proceeds haltingly, creating contrasts, led only by the feelings of the two lovers who seem almost to speak with one voice. The skilful and expressive use of word-painting, the masterly and inventive descending chromatic scale (like that used in 9) on the words “or qui mancò lo spirto” and for the slowly falling tears of “stilland’amaro umore”, the harmonic instability of “di martir in martir, di doglie in doglie”, the use of syllabic repetition together with distant chords in “gli trafisse il cor” all combine to make this one of the greatest works of the age.


In support of what I have already written in the notes to accompany Books One and Two about our decision to record these works using male voices only, I should like to add here that Gustave Reese in Music in the Renaissance (ch.8, note 162) notes that a re-examination of the Mantua archives leads to the conclusion, despite some historians’ opinion to the contrary, that the cappella served both Santa Barbara (the only ducal church in Wert’s time) and the court. Given that women were not permitted to sing in church, we have deduced that it was common (and popular) practice for madrigals to be performed by men only at the Mantuan court — and throughout Italy — at the time: such sonorities (while very appealing) may seem strange to modern listeners used to years of performance by female voices. Recording these works in accordance with the earlier practice has been both an obligation and an pleasure for us, and we hope that just as the use of “authentic instruments” has now found favour in Baroque instrumental performance, so this practice will in future be fully recognised by critics, academics and all those who love true Music.


Marco Longhini


English translation: Susannah Howe

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