About this Recording
8.573755-58 - MONTEVERDI, C.: Madrigals, Book 8 (Il Ottavo Libro de Madrigali, 1638) (Delitiæ Musicæ, Longhini)
English  Italian 

Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)
Madrigali Book 8 ‘Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi’

 

In search of the ‘affections of the mind’

Published by Alessandro Vincenti in Venice in 1638, the extensive Eighth Book of Madrigals contains many emblematic works of Monteverdi’s later years, not to mention some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of music. Despite the considerable renown of the works contained within its pages, which ensured the composer’s lasting fame, it was never reprinted. Today, only three complete copies survive, housed in libraries in Bologna, Paris and Washington.

Book Eight was published a full nineteen years after its immediate predecessor, the Seventh Book ‘Concerto’ (Naxos 8.555314-16), and five years before the composer’s death. A collection of Scherzi musicali had appeared in 1632, while the Ninth Book of Madrigals was issued posthumously, in 1651 (these will both appear on Naxos 8.555318); a small number of other pieces were included in various different collections (these can be heard on Naxos 8.555312-13).

The Eighth Book is dedicated to Ferdinand III, who had become Holy Roman Emperor in 1637. In all likelihood, Monteverdi had intended it to be a homage to the latter’s father, Ferdinand II, and his second wife Eleanor Gonzaga, princess of Mantua (the pair had married in 1622). Ferdinand II died in 1636, which is probably when this volume should have been ready for publication. Book Eight may look north to the Holy Roman Empire, but it also reveals the lasting ties of affection that bound its composer to Mantua and its ruling family, whom he had served for so many years. Monteverdi was by this time happily installed in Venice, having been appointed Maestro di Cappella della Serenissima Repubblica (as proudly emblazoned on the title page of the Eighth Book). After years of publishing silence, he gathered together what he considered to be his most significant works in this single, substantial volume. In a description that could equally be applied to his Venetian anthology of sacred music, the Selva morale e spirituale (1640), the Eighth Book has been called “the most disparate, the most piecemeal, truly the most diverse [of Monteverdi’s madrigal collections], at least as regards its aims and purposes. The many-hued soundworld announced by the books of 1605 and 1614 explodes in its sumptuous gallery—polyphony begins to break down, the continuo conjures a halo of instrumental effects, the conventional vocal forces change, all kinds of new qualities of sound are sought out.” (Claudio Gallico, Monteverdi, 1979)

Many of the madrigals in this book were written and performed years before its publication, as the composer himself states in the dedication. The final work here, the Ballo delle ingrate, for example, is to all intents and purposes a Mantuan composition: it was first performed as part of the lavish celebrations that marked the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy in 1608, three years after the publication of the Fifth Book, a year after the first staging of Orfeo and just a week after that of Arianna (an opera of which all trace has sadly been lost, with the exception of the famous Lamento, for which see Naxos 8.555312-13). Monteverdi went back to this unpublished work (of which he was clearly particularly fond), and adapted its text to suit an “imperial” occasion. Our theory is that it was designed to be performed as part of the coronation festivities of either Ferdinand III or his father, but it could also have been used to celebrate either man’s election as emperor. Similarly, the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was first performed in a Venetian nobleman’s home in 1624, long before its publication in 1638, while the duet Armato il cor had appeared in print before, in the Scherzi musicali of 1632.

Reorganising the madrigal

In this Eighth Book, Monteverdi was keen to continue where he had left off with the Seventh in terms of offering the reader a selection of “madrigals” of different kinds. This is no casually thrown-together anthology—its material is carefully arranged by category, following a rigorous and well-thought-out tripartite system. The number three plays a key role here, starting with the main heading on the title page: Madrigali guerrieri – Madrigali amorosi – Madrigali rappresentativi (Madrigals of war – Madrigals of love – Madrigals for the stage).

The last of these is often left unmentioned, thanks to the lettering design on the title page—the third category is printed in much smaller characters, giving the impression that it is simply some additional explanatory wording: “with some works in the theatrical genus, which will form brief episodes between the purely sung, non-theatrical sections”. Close examination of the preface to Book Eight, however, gives us an understanding of Monteverdi’s true intentions.

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI TO THE READER

I have observed that of all our passions (or affections of the mind), three are dominant—Anger, Moderation and Humility (or supplication)—as the finest philosophers affirm … These are clearly reflected in the art of music in the three terms “agitated”, “soft” and “moderate” [concitato, molle, temperato]: I have found examples of the “soft” and the “moderate” in the music of earlier composers, but not of the “agitated” (a genus which is, however, described by Plato … as follows: “take that harmony that fittingly imitates the utterances and tones of a brave man going into battle”). In the knowledge that it is the play of opposites that greatly moves our mind, which should be the purpose of all good music … I have devoted my studies and efforts to rediscovering this genus. In the pyrrhic measure the tempo is fast … and uses warlike, agitated leaps, while in the spondaic measure the tempo is slow and the opposite. I therefore began to consider the semibreve, and proposed that sounded once it should correspond to one spondaic measure; when this was divided into sixteen semiquavers, sounded one after the other, and combined with words expressing anger and scorn, I found a resemblance to the effect I was seeking … I turned to the divine Tasso, a poet whose words express (with all propriety and naturalness) those passions that he wishes to portray; I found his description of the combat between Tancredi and Clorinda, giving me two opposing passions to turn into song: war, that is, supplication and death. In the year 1624, this work was performed before the finest citizens of the noble city of Venice, in a noble chamber in the home of the most Illustrious and Excellent Signor Girolamo Mozzenigo (a prominent gentleman and leading commander of the Most Serene Republic), my patron and special protector. It was greeted with great praise and applause. Having seen the success of my first depiction of anger, I continued my studies into this idea; I wrote several other such works, for both church and chamber performance; and this genus was so welcomed by other composers that they did not only voice their approval but did commit it to paper, in that they wrote works in imitation of mine, much to my pleasure and honour. I have therefore decided to make it known that it was I who first made investigation into and composed a work in this genus, so vital to the art of music. It may justifiably be said that without it, music has been imperfect, possessing only the “soft” and “moderate” styles … The manners of performing must take into account three aspects: text, harmony and rhythm. My rediscovery of this genus has given me the opportunity to write a number of madrigals which I have called “warlike”. There are three kinds of music performed in the courts of great princes to please their sensitive tastes: theatre, chamber and dance music. For this reason I have ordered the madrigals in this book as either “of war”, “of love” or “for the stage”. I know my work will be imperfect, because I have only a little talent, particularly in the warlike genus, since it is new and “omne principium est debile” [all beginnings are fragile]. I therefore beseech the kind reader to appreciate my good will, which will await greater perfection in the said genus from a learned pen, since “inventis facile est adere” [it is easy to add to what has already been invented]. Farewell.

We therefore find three categories of madrigal in Book Eight (amorosiguerrieri rappresentativi), three human passions that their music can and must express (anger – moderation – humility), three styles in which they are composed and to be performed (agitated – soft – moderate), three aspects of each piece that musicians must take into account (text – harmony – rhythm) and three kinds of performance (theatre – chamber – dance).

Monteverdi raises the question of the meaning of the word “madrigal”, in his desire to create order by classifying his works into specific categories. The notes accompanying our recording of the First Book (Naxos 8.555307) called the madrigal the secular work par excellence of the entire Renaissance: a “form without a form”, in that it is shaped around the lyric that inspires and sustains it. Given the way in which it invited stylistic and linguistic experimentation, the madrigal was the symbol of synthesis between art forms and the highest achievement of a sophisticated aristocratic culture. Our modern mentality (which over the centuries has added to and codified musical forms) would have it that the works in the Eighth Book no longer have anything in common with the madrigal. I think otherwise. Let’s look at the main differences between the “old” madrigal and this “new practice”. In Monteverdi’s later collections, the duration of individual works and the number of performers involved start to spiral. The gem-like madrigal, which once rarely ran for any longer than four minutes, expands by means of a kind of fragmentation, subdividing into numerous sections, to create works of as much as twenty minutes, or more. The five singers who magically created such sophisticated harmonies with contrapuntally woven individual lines are no longer enough: larger vocal groupings are required, with contrasting, more intimate moments provided by duets or trios. The individual singer’s responsibilities increase as the role of polyphonic melodic lines decreases, and extensive passages are entrusted to genuine soloists. The continuo now plays an essential role in creating both distinctive tonal atmospheres and portraits of different characters. Melodic instruments such as the violin become an essential part of the performance, even at times the protagonists of episodes written specifically for them.

For such reasons, modern thinking might classify the Ballo delle ingrate or the Combattimento as operas (or proto-operas), complete with ballets (just like nineteenth-century grand opéra). This is historically incorrect. Monteverdi himself calls them “madrigals”, and they are simply part of the development of that musical-literary genre. Music, like all the figurative arts, was going through an experimental phase at this point in history. Renaissance balance and proportion were no longer enough; architect Leon Battista Alberti’s definition of beauty as a harmonious whole that would be damaged were anything to be either added, removed or altered no longer satisfied the seventeenth-century artist.

Monteverdi’s experimentation

With its desire to experiment, Mannerism threw into crisis the concept of beauty (which in the music world meant works written in the style of Marenzio or Palestrina). Bearing in mind that “all beginnings are fragile”, the freedom and myriad possibilities now available to artists meant they could easily lose their way. Platonism (the main secular point of reference) and the number three (the mystical and sacred nature of the Trinity, three in one) were therefore used to establish new limits and justify artistic decisions. The now unbounded madrigal, continually expanding by means of fragmentation, could travel into uncharted territory, sometimes succeeding in achieving its essential, much sought-after goal, namely moving its listener. Monteverdi used the existing possibilities of the madrigal but also increased and elaborated on them. For him, writing madrigals entailed using any means available to make the meaning of a lyric clear and accentuate its expressive power. Those who came after him had less freedom: ever since the eighteenth century, composers have had to decide in advance whether to write a ballet, a symphony, an opera. Monteverdi (like his contemporaries) was not bound by such classifications but could simply explore new worlds and ways of communicating the meaning of a text. He was very much aware of having set something “fragile” in motion, something still developing, something that would lead to new forms of musical expression; if adding to “what has already been invented” is easy, however, knowing when and where to stop is anything but. For Monteverdi, it was always the text that set the limits; his aim was always to stir his listeners’ emotions, and this is perfectly illustrated by his Eighth Book of Madrigals.

As noted by Anna Maria Monterosso Vacchelli in the preface to the Fondazione Monteverdi’s edition of the Eighth Book (2004), “the Platonic axiom that music should serve the word really resides in the close-knit, interdependent relationship between the emotions expressed by the text—the means by which they are most directly conveyed—and the music, which is asked to bring them to life and heighten them. It has to do this by using the devices typical of a style underpinned by a compositional technique free from pre-established rules and characterised by dissonances, chromaticisms, anticipations, syncopated rhythms, sudden and continual changes of tone, and, of course, the “agitated” style “so vital to the art of music” and essential when it comes to portraying the “two opposing passions …: war, that is, supplication and death”.”

A investigation of love, the emotion that rouses (as it always has roused) our deepest, most conflicting passions, lies at the heart of this book. Love and war are not set out as polar opposites. What we see instead is the constant struggle for the bliss of requited love, the lack of which generates the despair of solitude (self-imposed or otherwise). Book Eight offers a variety of portrayals of combat—battles to conquer a much-desired love, to avoid becoming its unwitting victim, to avoid the suffering it produces, to punish the one who withholds it, to try to defend oneself (even if, in reality, surrender is inevitable)…

Instrumentation, continuo

There are twenty-two madrigals in Book Eight—not many, apparently, in comparison to all previous volumes up to and including Book Six. This is, however, one of the most extensive of Monteverdi’s secular publications. Its division into a substantial series of vocal and instrumental partbooks, the sheer length of the texts, the subdivision of each madrigal into as many as six parts and the considerable instrumental forces involved all add up to a work of enormous complexity.

As often with music of this kind, the instrumentation can be either “enriched” or “impoverished” in an attempt to bring out the inner meaning of the text. We have chosen what seems to us the optimal instrumentation—generous but nonintrusive. Although percussion instruments were not included in scores until the eighteenth century, we know they were used long before this, in improvisatory manner (there are many surviving depictions of percussion instruments and players in the visual arts). In 1642, Johann Albert Ban wrote of Monteverdi’s use of many “military instruments of fixed sound (drums, percussion instruments of wood and metal, and the like)”. As proof, we need only cite the contemporary account of the first performance of the Ballo delle ingrate, which reported a “fearsome banging of discordant drums beneath the stage”, a dramatic sound effect we were keen to recreate here.

We have also used a range of continuo instruments to depict the different characters. Anyone who has followed our recordings since Book One will have seen how the continuo section becomes progressively larger in Monteverdi’s publications, developing from a basso seguente (a modest doubling of the voices), to the genuine basso continuo of Book Five (a substantial instrumental contribution to scores which move beyond vocal polyphony to duets, trios and even solo lines). Here, the continuo is celebrated, often dividing to accompany the soloists in contrasting, highly effective groupings: the varied sonorities of lutes, harpsichords, organ, harp, sackbut, cello, bass viol, lirone and baroque guitar provide a wealth of listening delights. We wanted to be able to pit these sounds against one another in “battle” just like the voices they accompany.

As in our previous Monteverdi recordings, we have taken care to respect the order of the works as given in the index of the original edition. In the spirit of completeness, we have ignored the numerous cuts to which they have often been subjected: they can finally be heard in full, without any compromise to the beauty of each as a whole. Monteverdi wanted his music to branch out, grow buds and flowers, and be nurtured by much-wanted and -needed “grafts”—from the addition of embellishments to the insertion of works by other composers, whatever it took to make it live. The works of Brescian violinist and composer Biagio Marini (1594–1663)—a musician who deserves to be better known—seem eminently suitable in this context. These insertions, which might seem arbitrary but in fact play an essential part in rounding out Monteverdi’s overall design, are clearly indicated in the tracklist and in the sung texts. The composer’s wishes as regards instrumental sinfonias, dances and other pieces are also indicated. Performed in full, the monumental Book Eight unsurprisingly fills 4 CDs: our recording of the Ballo delle ingrate alone runs around twenty minutes longer than standard versions, which tend to favour the vocal sections over the ballet at its heart, thereby depriving the work of its central beauty and resulting in a performance lacking in substance—one that demeans the music and fails to convey its true, spectacular nature.

Performance decisions

Making a recording like this has been a dream for us, one made possible by enormous quantities of enthusiasm and dedication from all concerned. I should personally like to thank our sound engineer and each of the singers, musicians and consultants involved, all of whom helped us decide on a single interpretative route. Along the way we encountered hidden dangers, forks in the path, technical difficulties and a whole range of sound-related decisions to be made.

In thanking the Naxos production team, who have backed this recording (like that of every other volume in our series of the complete secular works of both Monteverdi and Gesualdo), I think it’s important to point out that a live performance of so complex a collection could only be given in exceptional circumstances. Its length (around three hours fifty minutes) and the production, artistic and, in some cases, staging requirements involved would be daunting, to say the least. Live performances of excerpts from Book Eight are more feasible, but inevitably mean selecting some of the better-known works from this wonderful anthology. Recording, therefore, makes it possible to give a complete performance and to introduce listeners to the less familiar pieces as well, none of which is in any way inferior in terms of beauty or significance in Monteverdi’s output. The very first piece in the collection, for example (as we know, the first madrigal in each of the composer’s books is always written for unusual forces or anomalous in some other way), is rarely given live because of the number of performers required. This was probably the main reason why Book Eight was never reprinted.

We chose to base our performances on Andrea Bornstein’s critical edition (published by Ut Orpheus), consulting the original part-books of 1638 whenever any doubts arose or key decisions were left to the performer. While Malipiero’s 1927 version was pioneering for its time, we felt it had since been superseded, and we had reservations about using the Fondazione Monteverdi edition of 2004 as our reference.

With a view to simplifying the listening process, we have cued each section of the madrigals that are subdivided into several parts, rather than creating fewer but inconveniently lengthy tracks. Each individual episode can therefore be easily located and enjoyed.

Endless questions arose as we were preparing this recording, and in each case we had to agree on an answer and stick with it, our aim being that each performance captured on disc should result from a carefully considered and researched process. We also wanted to highlight the fact that (in this type of music) while choices have to be made, based on the original notation, such decisions will of course be subjective. Mistakes are unavoidable (as I often say!), but are a key part of creating a performance. Decisions relating to the inclusion of particular instruments or to the doubling of certain melodic lines in the upper as well as lower parts, to dynamics and accentuation, to the continuo line (enabling its vertical harmonies) and, above all, to the vocal lines and means of expression—all of these are essential to unleashing the full emotional power of this music, but they also underline the discretionary nature of performance. Monteverdi’s music triumphs by its sheer expressive force and our guiding principle was that of conveying its full power and authentically communicating the “play of opposites that greatly moves our mind, which should be the purpose of all good music”. Any performance not guided by this aim will end up being monotonous and lacking in vitality—the line between emotion and monotony is extremely fine. If in the past audiences have not been moved by Monteverdi’s music, then the performers have focused on the wrong objective: the “good music” itself is not to blame. The stile concitato “so vital to the art of music” and to depicting “opposing passions” has to be channelled in order to create emotion. Musicians who have failed to do this, have therefore failed to achieve the aims of the Eighth Book: from the first performances based on Malipiero’s realisations to the present day (current performers can draw on a plethora of research about “authentic” instrumental and vocal performance practice—we must try, “dare” even, to resuscitate its emotional heartbeat). If we are not “moved almost to tears” by the outcome of the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, by the torment of the unhappy soul doomed to return to the Underworld at the end of the Ballo delle ingrate, by the heartbreak expressed in the Lamento della Ninfa, then the musicians have failed. Equally, as listeners follow the music, they should be able to imagine themselves on the stage, whether dancing alongside ladies, damsels and naiads or sharing other characters’ suffering and pain. When this is not the case, it means the performance has failed and the performers are to blame.

We wanted to give listeners as much detail as possible about these madrigals, and have therefore included all available musical/stage directions with the sung texts (both Monteverdi’s own indications and—in the case of the Ballo delle ingrate—excerpts from a contemporary account of a performance in Mantua).

Madrigali guerrieri

Book Eight opens with a sinfonia, just like the Seventh Book. Then we hear a sweet trio in triple metre (a bar divided into three beats, three in one, symbolising the Trinity, balance), accompanied by three “violini” (the number three again): a portrait of moments of peace and love (Altri canti d’amor, CD 1  2 ). Shortly before the end, the voices join together in symbolic unison (on the words “quand’unisce due alme”—“when two souls are united”). This is followed by an episode of war, as represented by the god Mars [CD 1  3 ], in which we hear the stile concitato in all its glory. Next comes a section for solo voice addressed to the dedicatee, Ferdinand III [CD 1  4 ]; a dense host of instruments at times give the impression of horses neighing and pawing the ground, while the final episode portrays the unity of Ferdinand’s subjects and faithful allies. Ferdinand is also the subject of the setting of the Rinuccini text Ogni amante è guerrier [CD 1  16 ], with its mention of “that great king who now bears upon his sacred head the splendour of the imperial diadem” (“quel gran re ch’or su la sacra tesa posa ’l splendor del diadema augusto”). A Petrarch sonnet inspires one of Monteverdi’s most astonishing creations: Or ch’l ciel e la terra [CD 1  6 ] contrasts the stillness of nature and the torments of the human mind, in a manner reminiscent of the first madrigal in Book Two, Non si levav’ancor l’alba novella (Naxos 8.555308). Both pieces are striking for the expressive diversity they display between the prima and seconda prattica. Here the warlike state of mind explodes on the words “veglio, penso, ardo, piango” (“I lie awake, I think, I burn, I weep”). This is an inner war—a battle raging within the heart, and the sufferer’s only hope of peace lies in thoughts of his beloved. Chromatic writing symbolises the inner torment for which “salute” (“cure” or “salvation”) seems ever further out of reach. The last word, “lunge” (“far”), provides the opportunity for an extremely melismatic passage. Both tenor and baritone are stretched to their vocal limits by leaps of a tenth, then the upper voices are pushed low and the lower voices high, the divergence between them creating an effect still breathtaking today.

Gira il nemico insidioso [CD 1  8 ] is a setting for three voices and continuo of a canzonetta by Giulio Strozzi. Reminiscent of the comic scenes in Monteverdi’s operas, it uses a deft touch of humour to depict the defences put in place by its “three-in-one” protagonist so as not to fall into Love’s clutches. Each soloist is characterised by a different type of defensive approach. Inevitably, Love attacks, and the unwilling heart is conquered.

This section also contains two duets with continuo. In our edition these are sung respectively by baritone voices (with two theorbos and two harpsichords)—Se vittorie sì belle [CD 1  14 ]—and tenor voices (with two harpsichords that simulate the sounds of battle)—Armato il cor [CD 1  15 ]. As mentioned above, the latter piece also appears in the 1632 collection of Scherzi musicali (see Naxos 8.555319).

Part One of Book Eight concludes with the explosive sonnet Ardo, avvampo [CD 1  20 ], a grand musical fresco depicting the fires of love, written for eight voices with two violins and continuo. “The whole of the first quatrain is underpinned by a powerful pedalnote on G, while the frantic cries and invocations create a crescendo as the number of voices progressively increases (from two, to four, to eight) … In the epilogue, just two voices are left, and the music dies away as they reach a barely audible final note in unison” (Paolo Fabbri, Monteverdi, 1985).

Madrigali amorosi

Altri canti di Marte [CD 2  25 ] provides a majestic opening to this section with its chorally repeated chords and a military idiom full of trumpet-like fanfares and blasts. While the first quatrain of Giovan Battista Marino’s sonnet harks back to the madrigals of war, the text then turns to the power of love, wielded as a weapon by the woman who has won victory over the narrator’s heart. There is only one Petrarch text in this part, a sonnet from the Canzoniere. Vago augelletto (for seven voices, two violins and continuo) [CD 2  29 ] returns to the themes of O rossignuol from the Third Book and Quell’augellin che canta from the Fourth. The contrast between the poet’s state of mind and the apparently carefree little bird (who is in reality laden down with “gravosi affanni”—“grievous woes”) requires us to portray both woeful and joyful moods.

One of the finest examples of word-painting in a madrigal, Mentre vaga Angioletta [CD 3  1 ] begins with a solo, unaccompanied voice. A few bars in, on the words “musico spirto prende fauci canore” (“the spirit of music possesses her singer’s throat”), the continuo accompaniment begins. Then a second voice increases the tension. A splendid proliferation of images and phonic figurations are given free rein as the wordpainting develops. All the images in the text take on musical form in a piece of the utmost vocal virtuosity. The following madrigal is a duet, performed here by the two baritones. Ardo, e scoprir [CD 3  4 ] describes the doubts and fears of courtship and the total mental disarray caused by love. A stunning tenor duet, O sia tranquill’il mare [CD 3  5 ], explores in greater depth a technique used in Book Four’s Ah dolente partita. The voices begin in unison, then separate to stunning, dissonant effect on the words “mai da quest’onde” (“never from these waters”). The virtuosic Ninfa che scalza il piede [CD 3  6 ] and Perché t’en fuggi [CD 3  15 ] are both introduced by a solo tenor voice, joined by a second and then a third companion, the close-knit vocal writing gradually building up to an impressive ending.

The two poems by Giovanni Battista Guarini, Dolcissimo uscignolo [CD 3  10 ] and Chi vol haver felice il core [CD 3  11 ], are both set for five voices, sung “in full voice, in French style”, and alternate between solo and tutti sections (as indicated in the separate partbooks). Monteverdi’s Confitebor No. 3 (in the Selva morale e spirituale) is also marked “alla francese”, and there has been much debate about the meaning of this marking. We lean towards thinking it may refer to the alternative practice of instrumentally doubling the solo/tutti vocal parts. The “full voice” has to stand out, but without emotional involvement. While in the “Italian style” all the many and wide-ranging emotions of the human soul were portrayed as realistically as possible, the French style was valued for its sweetness of tone and lack of energy. The two canzonettas at the end of this section, Non partir ritrosetta [CD 3  16 ] and Su, su, su pastorelli vezzosi [CD 3  17 ], are very different. Here, there is plenty of scope for choice—alternating voices and instruments, voices alone, polyphony and instrumental episodes: there is no one “right” answer, although there are several standard ways of performing these pieces. We offer two here: in Non partir ritrosetta the voices alternate with violas da gamba, while in Su, su, su pastorelli vezzosi they alternate with flutes.

Madrigali rappresentativi

The Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda [CD 2  1 ] is one of the best-known works in this collection and a benchmark in the history of Western classical music. The story of this duel is told by Torquato Tasso (1544–95) in La Gerusalemme liberata (canto XII) and La Gerusalemme conquistata (canto XV). Monteverdi’s work was first performed in Venice, in 1624, “as an evening’s entertainment during Carnival, in the presence of all the nobility, who were moved almost to tears by their compassion: and they applauded the work as being a song of a kind neither seen nor heard before.” Having already been treated to a number of madrigal performances and an ad lib. sinfonia, those Venetian nobles would never have expected to see a knight in armour step forward, pursued by a sinister figure astride a wooden horse, or to hear a narrator recount the details of their ensuing combat. Monteverdi did not want to “dramatize” Tasso’s text: he wanted to quote from his work with all due respect and literary accuracy, infusing it with the appropriate power of expression. While the Combattimento returns to the tradition of the descriptive madrigal, the narrative and use of gesture turn it into an authentic theatrical performance. The narrator becomes the main protagonist, telling us about the two combatants and their states of mind. He describes the warhorse pawing the ground in preparation for the off, the battle, the clashing of swords, the aggression and bloodshed and, finally, Tancredi’s victory and Clorinda’s death. In the process of setting this text, Monteverdi invented a series of hugely creative musical techniques, including string pizzicati and tremolos—effects that had not been used before. The biggest innovation here, however, is its dramatic sense of expression: as the composer himself wrote, it was to be sung “in accordance with the passions evoked by the text”.

After a sinfonia [CD 2  4 ], comes a magical moment of reflection in which the narrator expresses his hope that his account of this heroic struggle will be passed on to future generations: Notte, che nel profondo oscuro seno chiudesti [CD 2  5  6 ]. Monteverdi instructs that runs and trills should be absent throughout the work, except in this stanza. As part of our research into the freedom of expression this allows, we studied the aria Possente spirito from Orfeo in great detail. Two versions of this famous aria exist, one “plain”, one richly ornamented, and we adapted its melismas and instrumentation to suit this passage.

The Ballo delle Ninfe dell’Istro [CD 2  17 ], Volgendo il ciel and the ballet that follows make up a spectacular song of praise for Book Eight’s dedicatee, fitting the theatrical genre to perfection. Monteverdi probably included it here because of its celebratory references to the naiads of the Danube and the “Re novo del romano impero” (“the new king of the Roman Empire”).

We have added flutes to violins, harpsichord (and a substantial continuo section) to harp (Venga la nobil cetra [CD 2  20 ]), and timpani to the other percussion, so that the world can resound to tales of “l’opre di Ferdinando eccelse e belle” (“the fine and noble feats of Ferdinand”). Halfway through the ballo (between the two quatrains of the sonnet) Monteverdi instructs that “there be performed a canario or passo e mezzo, or another dance, as preferred, without singing”. A suitable instrumental piece therefore has to be inserted here, and Marini’s Balletto V alla Allemanna, Op. 8 seems the perfect choice [CD 2  23 ].

Falling into the “theatrical” category, because the performer’s gestures must help express the emotions of the text, the Lamento della Ninfa [CD 3  12  14 ] is a three-part work for a solo high voice and trio of two tenors and bass. In the first and third sections, particularly the former, we find powerful dissonances used to portray the “pallidetto volto” (“pale features”) on which “scorgeasi il suo dolor” (“her grief was etched”), and the “gran sospir dal cor” (“sighs from deep within her heart”). The maiden herself takes centre-stage in the middle section, intoning her lament over a chaconne (cf Zefiro torna, published in the Scherzi musicali of 1632) created by the continual, obsessive repetition of a descending tetrachord, A-G-F-E, in triple metre. For this latest of many laments, Monteverdi notes that the soloist should not follow a rigid metronomical beat but instead go by an inner, emotional tempo. The other three parts quietly commiserate beneath the solo line in the manner of a Greek chorus. In our opinion, this maiden knew nothing of jazz rhythms (a direction some other artists have taken in recent years), and is simply overwhelmed by the pain of abandonment.

The final vast fresco in sound, the Ballo delle ingrate [CD 4], staged in Mantua on Wednesday 4 June 1608, is described in great detail in Federico Follino’s Cronache mantovane 1587–1608. Nothing, however, is known about a performance “là nel germano impero” (“in the German Empire”), as referred to in the version of the text that appears in the Eighth Book. The theatrical aspect is of fundamental importance in this last work.

Follino’s account of the Mantuan staging is highly detailed, and extensive excerpts (italicised) are interspersed with the sung texts in this booklet, along with Monteverdi’s own instructions (unitalicised). An understanding of how this large-scale madrigal was staged is essential if we are to appreciate its full narrative scope and spectacular visual impact. The Ballo is about the souls of those whom Cupid failed to wound with his arrows—the “thankless” women who rejected their potential lovers. He and his mother Venus descend into the Underworld in order to beg Pluto to free these women, who are languishing in the deepest pit of hell on account of their refusal to be courted and loved. Their tragic fate and melancholy appearance are meant to induce the ladies in the audience to behave differently (Venus tells us how one woman laughs at her lover’s suffering, while another takes pleasure in her own beauty simply because it can break a man’s heart). After a wonderful duet for Venus and Cupid [CD 4  11 ] (reminiscent of the most sublime moments in Monteverdi’s late works), we find the entrata and ballet that form the heart of the work [CD 4  12  13 ]—the moment at which the doomed women’s souls parade out of hell. Many performances downplay this moment, cutting some of the ritornellos and repeats: we include them all, to restore the full impact of this central episode. The women, initially weak and sorrowful, gradually regain their strength until their obsessively repetitive steps are transformed into an explosive bacchanale. In the end, however, Pluto orders them to return to their dark prison. Before being led back into hell with her companions, one of the unhappy souls tries to snatch a last breath of fresh air. Her heartfelt and heartbreaking lament [CD 4  18  19 ], a monody, ends in her farewell to the sun and stars, then she and her fellows are returned to the flaming cavern whence they came.

Consistency of performance style

In line with the rest of this Monteverdi series, all the performances in our recording of the Eighth Book are given by male voices, which we believe are capable of investing even such characters as Clorinda, Venus, Cupid, the lamenting maiden and her counterpart in the Ballo delle ingrate with all the expressive qualities necessary. Both the male and the female voice can bring great charm to these roles. It is worth noting, however, that Monteverdi wanted the quintessentially female role of Euridice in Orfeo (1607) to be played by “quel pretino” (that priest). We have to tune our ears in to the attractions of a timbre that would have been widely heard in those days. While it may no longer be suitable to cast a role in this way for a live performance on stage, we were keen to achieve a plausible recreation of the original sound of a seventeenth-century performance on our recording. Any narrow-minded misgivings about assigning such roles to a male voice need to be overcome: the pure tones of a boy soprano are perfectedly suited to the part of Cupid, and a countertenor timbre is just right for Clorinda or the “Ingrata”. We have to put our preconceptions aside and allow ourselves to be lulled by the beautiful sound of these “ancient” voices. Although female characters in opera have been played exclusively by women for many years, we know this was not always the case. Female (or, more accurately, “high”) roles would once have been taken on by boy sopranos, countertenors or castratos. The distinction between male and female roles became more of an issue in the nineteenth century when there was greater emphasis on characters being visually convincing on stage. On this recording, therefore, we have chosen to return to the high vocal timbres of Monteverdi’s day, and to put them back in the spotlight. Accentuating these now unfamiliar sonorities has influenced our performances and increased our understanding of Monteverdi’s poetics, as well as breathing new life into the roles in question.

Marco Longhini
English translation: Susannah Howe


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