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The Italian Dramatic Lament

Seventeenth-century Italians reflected upon the extravagances of their day and were shamed and humbled. They reacted to this by focusing on the dark and depressing. Italian art of the seventeenth century often dwelt on the excessively grotesque, such as the blood of saints, and dark colours abounded. Music aimed at the dramatic representation of powerful and wide-ranging emotions, not only the beauty of the rose of love, but also its thorns.

The lament was a popular genre in Italian poetry and song. It was thought to have originated in ancient Greece and later ancient Rome. It was Aristotle’s theory of catharsis (the purification of the emotions through art, suggesting that the emotions could be purified through the excitement of pity and fear) that inspired seventeenth-century composers. This idea of catharsis pricked the curiosity of musical revolutionaries. The lament would move a listener to pity, and would affect the humour of melancholy, one of the four psychological states of ancient and later medical theory. The subject matter was usually about a woman bemoaning her situation and ill-fated love. It was popular to portray a madwoman in song, where experimental harmonies could highlight the meaning and passion of the poetry. The popular Lament of Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi moved its original audience to tears. One witness to its original performance commented that the lament “was acted with much emotion and in so piteous a way that no one hearing it was left unmoved, nor among the ladies was there one who did not shed a few tears at her plainte.”

The rôle of the woman in seventeenth-century Italy changed somewhat. Whereas in the sixteenth century it was expected that a noblewoman know how to play an instrument fitting for a lady and be able to sing, she was not to do this in front of others, either professionally or as entertainment. In the sixteenth century it was common for nuns or women born into professional musical families to perform music. In the next century it was more acceptable for women to perform music professionally and even compose, although it was unusual for this music to be published. Barbara Strozzi (1619-1664) was one such woman. She was born in Venice, the illegitimate daughter of Giulio Strozzi, who was a dramatist, librettist, and poet, working with great composers such as Monteverdi and Cavalli. He had forward-thinking attitudes toward women and their rôle in society. It was probably under his influence that Barbara Strozzi bravely pursued her love of music. It is said that her song Lagrime mie (My Tears) was written as a result of a discussion in which she took part in the Accademia degli Unisoni, a group of intellectual thinkers of which she was a member. In this discussion, a question was put as to whether tears or song could better express emotion. After performing her song in a meeting, she said: I do not question your decision, gentlemen, in favour of song; for I know very well that I would not have received the honour of your presence tonight had I invited you to see me cry and not hear me sing.

The composer and singer Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) was referred to as “il zazzerino” for his long reddishblonde hair. He was a famous singer in his day, known for moving his audience through his powerfully emotive musical performances, and he enjoyed the status of being something of a sex symbol. Peri wrote the music to what is now thought of as the first opera, La Dafne. He was born in Rome but grew up in Florence and worked for the Medici family. Peri is thought to have been involved in several intellectual societies (especially the Florentine Camerata) that espoused the ideals of a new type of music purporting to recreate a dramatic style of music from ancient Greece. The Florentine Camerata felt that the music common in their time had so much counterpoint (simultaneous melodic lines) that the text was obscured. Whereas the old music was ensemble music (such as the madrigal) with four or five voices, the new music favoured the solo voice with accompaniment. This new style (recitativo), a combination of speech and song, was thought of as begotten from the rhetorical tradition of ancient Greece. Composers and publishers made profit by selling to large numbers of male and female amateur musicians this new music for solo voice. As with every age, musical change was not embraced by all. The music critic Artusi, who felt that this style of music was effeminate and inferior, compared it to a painted whore.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was widely considered the best musician in Italy in the early seventeenth century. He worked for the Gonzaga family in Mantua and eventually left for employment in Venice. According to his brother, Giulio Cesare Monteverdi, Claudio made the words of his music the mistress (“padrona”) of harmony and not the servant (“serva”). Today he is one of the most popular composers of the early Baroque era and is fondly remembered for his contributions to the opera repertory, especially Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea.

The composer Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) was trained in the church, as were most musicians of his day, and he worked for the Medici family. Caccini is credited with developing the new stile recitativo and was instrumental in the development of opera.

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c.1580-1651) was known as “il Tedesco della Tiorba” (the German of the Theorbo). Although his parents were of German descent, he was born in Venice and later moved to Rome. In 1626 the theorist Doni said that Kapsberger was the “finest master of the theorbo in Rome”, although Doni later fell out with Kapsberger and wrote ill of him. Kapsberger wrote demanding music and was a pioneer in developing new musical devices for the theorbo, including strascini (long slurred passages), campanellas (little bells), cross-strung harp effects, and more. Kircher wrote of Kapsberger: “The noble musician Hieronymus Kapsberger Germanus, author of innumerable writings and distinguished musical publications, with his superb genius and other scientific skills in which he was expert, successfully penetrated the secrets of music”.

The music in the present programme is played in a creative and improvisatory manner that is surprisingly similar to jazz. The composer provides the material for the solo voices, and only a skeletal bass line for the accompanying instruments. The accompanists, playing instruments such as the theorbo, harp, lirone, and organ, are expected to know how to play the correct chords according to certain theoretical rules of harmony. This practice, called basso continuo or simply continuo, was a very common way of playing music in the Baroque period.

Annalisa Pappano

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