Claudio Monteverdi’s Madrigals and Sacred Concertos

The Works presented here were written when Monteverdi was living in Vencie. After his miserable years in Mantua – underpaid, overworked, humiliated by petty court officials, buffered by personal tragedy when his wife died – to be maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s came as a blessed relief, and he was soon a great success. Not only was he highly respected in his official post; he received commissions from the nobility to compose and perform chamber music in the palazzo throughout the city. “Chamber music” meant madrigals, but madrigals in a new style, with several voices accompanied by harpsichord or lute. These were in a lighter, more tuneful vein than the gloom-ridden pieces so fashionable at Mantua. Monteverdi’s assistants and colleagues – men such as Berti and Alessandro Grandi – set the pace with their popular song-books. Monteverdi himself could never quite shake off his earlier manner, especially in his concern for expressing the detailed meaning of the text. When he sets off to write a tune, a tinge of sadness in the verse will distract him, so that the mood becomes more complex, the structures a shade more complicated than necessary to please the public. Monteverdi’s works were therefore not published so frequently as some of those of younger men, being mainly collected after his death, or in the grand retrospective volume, the Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi which appeared from the famous press of Vincenti in 1638.

His favoured medium for this kind of music was the duet, two equal voices accompanied by a harmony instrument. The voices are very often tenors, since, unlike at Mantua where it was the women of the madrigal ensemble who were the marvels, his best singers must have been members of the choir at St. Mark’s. The verse also contrasts with the Mantuan repertoire, for in place of the elegant “arcadian” style of Guarini, most of the poems are merely “poesia per musica” of no great distinction. Noticeably Monteverdi prefers verse with concrete images that he can express in musical symbols, and especially images connected with war; this the outcome of his thinking about the stile concitato, or “agitated style”, which expresses the aggressive side of man’s nature.

Se vittorie sì belle shows this preoccupation, the idea of victory suggesting some fanfare-like motifs, the fight (‘pugna’) a little semiquaver (16th-note) figure which is constantly repeated. Non voglio amare is a canzonetta for a trio – two tenors and a bass – displaying Monteverdi’s tendency to sophisticated music: the verse could have easily been set to a simple tune, whereas here there are interjections by the bass interrupting the tenors and melody, and Monteverdi adds a characteristic minor chord at one moment to depict the poet’s reluctance to love. Vaga su spina ascosa and Augellin che la voce al canto spieghi both belong to Monteverdi’s earliest years in Venice, being published in a volume entitled Concerto in 1619 and dedicated to the Duchess of Gonzaga in an effort to get his Mantuan pension paid (all he got in the end was a valuable necklace). The first is a cheerful rhythmic piece with attractive roulades to show off the skill of the singers. The second is more typical of the composer, with some dissonances, unusual melodic intervals and broken-up lines to express “aspri tormenti” (bitter torments) and “soffrirete” (suffer).

Ninfa che, scalza il piede is as near as Monteverdi usually approaches to popular style, the first section a tuneful solo with vital dance-like rhythms which are used in the subsequent sections (a duet and trio respectively). Even so there is considerable word painting, as in the lover’s realistic cries of “ah” near the end of the whole work. O mio bene is also a tuneful work, although “fanfare” figures dominate the concluding section in each strophe “non più guerra...” (“no mor this war...”).

Zefiro torna is a setting of a famous sonnet by Petrarch as reworked by one of Monteverdi’s librettists, Ottavio Rinuccini (which in turn Monteverdi himself altered in certain particulars). The first half is a celebration of the pleasures of the countryside, the sweet winds and gentle waves, the murmuring branches in the breezes, the echoes across the valleys. This dances over a chaconne bass and Monteverdi misses no opportunity to depict the poetry’s imagery. Then comes the rub: “Only I, through desolate and lonely woods now weep, now sing”, says the poet. The metre changes from lively triple time to a slower, recitato passage culminating in a chromatic groan. But the chaconne returns, the virtuosity of the tenors flowers as the poet resumes his singing. Mentre vaga Angioletta is in a similar vein, making even greater demands on the singers. Again the word painting is exuberant: “veloce” (quick) expressed by flourishes of semiquavers, “fughe” (flights) by the tenors following each other in a brief canon; “respiri” (breathing) by a broken melodic line.

The original singers of these works must surely have been members of the capella at St. Mark’s. Monteverdi spent the first few years as maestro there recruiting new singers, for the choir had deteriorated in the years before he arrived. Among the tenors (and therefore one of the possible singers in these duets) was Francesco Cavalli. That such fine singers and musicians were necessary is made clear by the repertory of the basilica. While masses and vesper psalms were naturally sung in either a retrospective “a capella” style or a modern concertante manner, motets celebrating various festivals were sung by soloists. Monteverdi provided a substantial repertory of these (his assistants were even more fecund in this sphere), especially settings of texts in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, several of whose festivals were celebrated with great pomp in Venice. In these Marian motets, he made little distinction between sacred and secular styles, treating the Virgin Mary as though she were a much beloved lady in a pastoral poem.

Exsulta filia is a miniature cantata, published in 1629 just a year before the plague struck Venice and decimated the choir at St. Mark’s as it did the population at large. Probably, intended originally for one of the soprano castrati in the choir, it is built as a series of separate sections, linked by recurrent passages so that the whole is given unity. The singer is taxed by ornaments, including the famous trillo used much by Caccini and the Florentine opera singers – and by Monteverdi himself in both Orfeo and the Vespers music published in 1610. Audi caelum sets a motet text he had used in that Mantuan Vespers, being an echo piece, with a second, hidden tenor replying to the first with significant changes in the words (“gaudio” becomes “audio”, “benedicam” changes to “dicam”, and so on). But by the end such tricks are put aside, and the motet becomes a tender and emotional solo, with highly charged chromatic melody for the words “o dulcis virgo Maria” the Salve, Regina setting is even more passionate, its emotion expressed in sudden changes and turns of phrase, its final cry of “Maria” one of the most urgent calls for divine intercession in all church music.

Denis Arnold

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