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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Monteverdi's Madrigals

Part 1

I’m looking forward to this! In this post (derived from a pair of radio programs) we're going to look at a body of work which took more than half a century to create. It runs through the life of one of the greatest innovators in the history of music, charting a journey from eager beginner with grand ideas to established master writing music that is completely new. Welcome to a survey of the madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi.

Most of us in the English-speaking world seem to think of madrigals in their English, Elizabethan mode, full of bright, happy sentiments and fa la la la las. This example by Thomas Morley is perhaps the most famous. [listen]

But the Elizabethan version of the madrigal in England was only one such flowering of the form, and it was one of the last. And to us "madrigal" is a catch-all term which covers a multitude of different forms, such as the canzonet, ballata, chanson, and all manner of local variations on these, as well the madrigal itself. Morley himself called Now is the month of Maying a "ballett" rather than a madrigal.

Madrigals were to the 16th century what symphonies were to the later 18th century, operas to the 19th and pop songs to the 20th: there were countless numbers of them composed; everyone had a go at it.

Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567, a city which would soon achieve fame as a centre of instrument making as the home of the Amati and Stradivari families. As a young man he studied with Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, Maestro di Capella at the Cathedral in Cremona. Ingegneri published eight books of madrigals himself (as well as sacred music) and when his teenage pupil came to write his own secular partsongs, it was only natural that the work of his teacher should have initially served as a model.

Monteverdi was eager to create and eager to impress. His first publication was a collection of sacred music which appeared in 1582 when he was only 15, and a collection of madrigals on sacred texts (a popular form at the time) appeared the following year. Monteverdi's first secular music appeared the year after that, 1584. In that year Monteverdi, aged only 17, dived into the world of Italian secular music with a collection entitled Canzonette. These 21 "canzonets" are light, playful works, scored for three voices, absolutely typical of their time. They also reflect the fame of three famous female singers who lived in Ferrara, about 80 km the south east of Cremona. These three ladies, virtuoso singers at the court of Duke Alfonso II, were famous through the region and writing for three female voices (two high, one low) became all the rage. [listen]

Most of the 1584 canzonets are light pieces in verse form, and they don't attempt to plumb great emotional depths. This doesn't mean they weren't well-written - they're very well-written - but they don't really stand out from the crowd when compared to similar sorts of works being written all over Italy at the time. Still, he was still only 17!

Monteverdi clearly originally intended to publish more works like this, as the 1584 publication is called "book one", but there were no subsequent books of canzonets. He had already, by the age of 17, grown out of them. What he needed to produce, and had already started working on, were madrigals.

Anonymous portrait of a musician (Cremona, c. 1590), thought by some to be the young Claudio Monteverdi

On new year's day 1587, the 19 year old Monteverdi saw his First Book of Madrigals in print. Here was a substantial statement to the world, a collection of 17 works for unaccompanied voices in five parts. Only about a third of the texts are light-hearted, pastoral pieces about love, the sort of stuff which was popular in the 1580s. The remaining texts allow Monteverdi to commence the journey which he would continue for his entire life: probing more deeply into darker texts, creating new sounds to express new emotions.

Not that the lighter text settings of the first book of madrigals are insubstantial. This is Usciam, Ninfe, in which the nymphs are encouraged to leave the woods and weave garlands of flowers as they dance and sing. Typical stuff for the time, really. Yet there are deft little touches throughout which signal Monteverdi was intimately aware of every nuance of this simple poem. The word fior (flower) is set with a little flourish, to make it sound flowery, and at tessiam ghirlande (weave garlands) the musical lines appropriately intertwine. The mention of la desïata primavera (the longed-for Spring) brings about an unusual chord which creates a sense of wonder, and so on. On such a seemingly inconsequential poem Monteverdi has lavished extreme care in this miniature masterpiece. [listen]

Of the deeper, more serious texts, Monteverdi makes even more. These sorts of pieces are nearly always about love in one form or another. The pastoral tradition, as epitomised in that last piece, told of playful nymphs and shepherds loving and deserting each other and describing their laughter or tears as required. But the more personal texts are about real people who are in love, but rarely happily. Words like mora (die), and phrases like l'aspro martire (bitter torment), are common. We're thrown into love unrequited and rejected more often than love fulfilled and enjoyed.

Se nel partire da voi is a good example of this darker sort of piece in the first book. In the poem, the man speaks of the pain he would feel upon leaving the woman he loves. To avoid this pain, therefore, he decides it would be better to die before even thinking about leaving. The double entendre on "die" in such poetry is well known and would have been well understood in the 16th century. To die can mean to literally die, or, more deliciously, it's often a euphemism for orgasm. So the man could also be saying that before even thinking about leaving his lady friend, he'd really like to...get to know her a lot better. [listen]

One of the best, and for its day most modern, pieces in the first book is Baci soavi e cari. The poem here is full of references to kisses, to longing, to sweetness, and to desire. Death is mentioned not once but twice, and the references to kisses (baci) and death (morire) are repeated, just so we're in no doubt as to their connection. The poem's final lines are translated: "And if with your sweet kisses I could end my life, oh, how sweet to die!" It's very sexy and the sexiness is completely intended on the part of both poet and composer. [listen]

Monteverdi's Second Book of Madrigals was published on new year's day 1590, three years after the first; he was 22. The 21 pieces in this collection show his continued development in terms of balancing musical interest, illustration of the text and sheer audacity of ideas.

The opening madrigal of the second book is Non si levava ancor l'alba novella. It sets a text by Tasso which - like most of the poetry in the second book - is ripe for musical description. It starts by describing the time before sunrise: ”Dawn had not yet risen..." Monteverdi rises to the challenge of describing the sun not rising by setting slow descending lines against faster ascending ones at the beginning. At the first mention of the two lovers Monteverdi briefly sets the words for two voices alone. Later, when the poem uses the word mille (a thousand) to describe a thousand thoughts, wishes and unfulfilled desires, the voice parts overlap and create the illusion of many more voices than those actually being used. And the whole thing creates the feeling of rapture and desire under a starry night sky. [listen]

It is fashionable - and convenient - to call Monteverdi an early Baroque composer. But the Renaissance didn't give way to the Baroque overnight, in music or any other of the arts. What Monteverdi was developing here was Mannerism, and this music has a direct parallel with Mannerism in painting and sculpture. Musical Mannerism is the aural expression of the sort of art we see from the middle of the 16th century in Tintoretto and late Michelangelo. The yearning, twisting forms of mannerist art (think of Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1541) grew into the more yearning and more twisting forms of Baroque art (think of the sculptures of Bernini, such as Apollo and Daphne, 1622), and a similar thing happened in music. Here Monteverdi is taking the musical love child of the Renaissance - the madrigal - and making it twist and turn and emote and evoke and yearn and desire more and more with every publication.

Michelangelo: The Last Judgement (Sistine Chapel, Rome, completed 1541)

The second book of madrigals shows a marked focusing on the upper voices of the ensemble, which is again taken as evidence of his being influenced by the three virtuoso ladies in Ferrara and other ensembles like them. A polarisation of top and bottom voices was also a hallmark of the Baroque, so we see again Monteverdi heading in that direction, although in 1590 he's not there yet. [listen]

Within a year or two of the publication of the second book of madrigals, Monteverdi had left Cremona and had taken up his first major job. He was employed fairly low down the pecking order as a singer and string player at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. The Director of Music at the time was the renowned Flemish-born composer Giaches de Wert. who was one of the most innovative madrigal composers of his day. Monteverdi learned much from Wert in person and from his music. The Third Book of Madrigals, published in 1592, not long after his arrival in Mantua, bears ample evidence of Wert's influence and Monteverdi's growing technique.

The third book appeared when Monteverdi was 25 and it contains 20 madrigals for five voices. Unlike the earlier publications, which contain music that could be sung by good amateurs at home, these are virtuoso pieces designed to be performed by professionals for an audience. In Lumi miei, cari lumi we start again with the three uppermost voices. Their technically challenging music describes the seductive eyes of the beloved, flashing like lightning. [listen]

The third book provides examples of where Monteverdi exceeds the quality of the poetry he sets, something rare in madrigals generally but increasingly evident in Monteverdi's work. For example, Sovra tenere erbette reads as yet another example of playful, pastoral flirtation: a shepherd and his shepherdess having a light-hearted dalliance. But the final lines are set by Monteverdi in a way which could only be described as deeply erotic. Monteverdi paints the woman's desire in music which contains unexpected discords and which for a moment seems to threaten to go completely off the rails, until the final chord brings the piece to a not-wholly-convincing end. It makes us want to ask: "Yes, but then what happened?" [listen]

In his study of the Monteverdi madrigals (which I have used as my primary source for this survey), Denis Arnold refers to "fashionable melancholy" in these works. A sort of sadness in love pervades much of the poetry and Monteverdi becomes more daring in his expression of it in discords, unusual voice couplings, and changes of pace. Ch'io non t'ami cor mio? has the usual sentiments of love and death (death both real and sexual), but Monteverdi chooses to dress these in harmonies of searching depth. The final lines are especially moving, setting the words, "Source of all happiness, of all desire, how could I leave you and not die?" [listen]

It's important to remember that this music is still the work of a man in his early 20s. The sheer panache with which he is writing is staggering, and the confidence is already that of a master, equal to the best around him.

A small and insignificant back street in Mantua is named after Monteverdi, perhaps reflecting the shabby treatment he received from the Gonzagas. I took this picture when I was there in 2013.

We don't know a great deal about the next ten years of Monteverdi's life, but what we do know from his letters indicates the shine rapidly went off working for the Gonazagas in Mantua. He began cultivating contact with the court of Ferrara but a position for him there never eventuated. Still, his music was becoming more widely known, and the third book of madrigals went into a second edition. Some of his madrigals were also appearing in anthologies published by others.

Then, in 1600, Monteverdi was targeted in a publication written by a monk living in Bologna called Giovanni Maria Artusi. Artusi specifically pulled apart one of Monteverdi's madrigals to decry what he saw as its shocking dissonances and appalling lapses in taste. Artusi was nothing more than a reactionary who (according to Denis Arnold) seemed to be unaware of any musical developments after 1565; indeed, his criticisms were very old fashioned for 1600. But Monteverdi took them seriously as they represented the real crux of where European music was going at the start of the 17th century. Artusi published another broadside against Monteverdi in 1603, the same year as Monteverdi's Fourth Book of Madrigals appeared in print. Monteverdi for his part didn't specifically respond to Artusi until the fifth book, but the music of fourth book was in itself an extraordinary response to those like Artusi who thought Monteverdi had gone too far. Now aged 34, Monteverdi not only knew exactly where he was going, but seemed ready to go even further. The 20 madrigals in the fourth book show him at the top of his game. His attention to textual detail is now matched by an equal attention to overall sound and architectural balance in each of these little masterpieces.

Ohimè, se tanto amate repeats the sighing word ohimè which can be translated as "alas". The lover is sighing and pleading to be accepted by the object of his love. The erotic ambiguity of sighing ohimè at the point of "dying" is played on wickedly, and the harmonies used in this would have made Artusi's toes curl. [listen]

A completely different set of emotions is portrayed in Non piú guerra, pietate. Love here is likened to war and the thrust of the poem is as follows: Don't fight me as your enemy, because I've already surrendered and am your prisoner. Kill those who rebel against you, but not me as you have already won me. If you want me to die, then I will, but it will be your doing. [listen]

These two pieces reflect different aspects of madrigalian love poetry: sighing for the unattainable and battling with the object of desire. Yet the fourth book contains pieces which seem to inhabit a more cerebral, spiritual realm, such as Anima dolorosa. In this Monteverdi seems to approach the static, angst-ridden otherworldliness of his infamous contemporary Carlo Gesualdo. The poem speaks of a suffering soul living, and dying, in an inferno of eternal grief. The obsession with death goes far beyond any titillating connection with sex. The final lines are: "Why do you thrive on death? Consume the grief that now consumes you, of this death that, like life, is now leaving. Die, miserly one, in your death dying." Could we be any further from Morley's month of Maying? [listen]

Monteverdi's fourth book of madrigals appeared in print nineteen years after the publication of the early canzonets. The transformation from a talented writer of light love songs aged 15 to a composer of music of enormous intellectual and emotional depth at age 34 is staggering. Yet we're only half way through Monteverdi's madrigal mystery tour; by the end of the journey the madrigal will be changed beyond all recognition and a whole new way of writing music will have been developed.

Part 2

We’ve begun a journey through a body of work which took some six decades or more to create and which ran through the creative life of one of the most individual and creative masters in all western music. The master concerned is Claudio Monteverdi and the body of work is his remarkable series of madrigal books. The eight books of madrigals constitute a sort of musical diary of Monteverdi's development as a composer from his teens to his 70s, and in part one we looked at the first four books.

The fourth book of madrigals, published in 1603, showed the composer entering new musical worlds of expressive power. Monteverdi's music was arousing admiration in many quarters and horror in others. The most famous example of the latter were the attacks on Monteverdi's perceived excesses and errors published by the Bologna-based monk Giovanni Maria Artusi. Over nearly 20 years Monteverdi had became well-known as a daring and expressive composer in the most modern Mannerist style. Artusi, a reactionary who yearned for the good old days, regarded Monteverdi as someone who was cheap and shallow, who broke the rules of harmony and good taste with appalling regularity.

Now, in 1605, with the publication of the Fifth Book of Madrigals, Monteverdi took his stand; he could do no other. The fifth book made it quite clear to Artusi and those of his ilk that Monteverdi had no intention of going back to older, purer, more "correct" styles. The fifth book deals with the Monteverdi's consuming passion, namely, the interaction of text and music so that the listener is moved and affected.

Title page for the Fifth Book of Madrigals

The fifth book also contains a major departure from Monteverdi's past madrigals and those of all other madrigal composers: it allows for the use of instruments. The last six madrigals were published in the first edition with essential continuo parts, and the other pieces had optional continuo support as well. Continuo - the bassline upon which chords were improvised - was the great invention of the Baroque and Monteverdi became one of its earliest converts. As a result, passages of the fifth book of madrigals sound remarkably like opera. The composition of Monteverdi's first opera, Orfeo, was only two years later and in many ways the fifth book is a practice run for that ground-breaking masterwork. [listen]

But Monteverdi did more than just counter Artusi's criticisms in music. The preface to the edition, while not mentioning Artusi by name, boldly states his artistic intentions. He describes two distinct practices of composition. The prima prattica or "first practice", is the old style as exemplified by the rules and restraint of the high Renaissance (think of Palestrina) and advocated by Artusi. In this, the words are subservient to the music. The seconda prattica or "second practice" is the new style - Monteverdi's style - which seeks to restore to music the emotive power written about by the ancient Greeks, even if this meant breaking the rules, allowing unprecedented dissonance and adding instruments to vocal forms which had hitherto been performed a cappella. In this, the music is subservient to the words.

The fifth book is the centrepoint of Monteverdi's creative career and every one of its 19 madrigals show his obsession with reflecting the vicissitudes of the texts in music. This even extends to the way in which the pieces are arranged. The 19 pieces fall into four groups, each of which is a self-contained dramatic unit, almost a miniature scene in its own right, and drama is at the forefront of this collection. There are five madrigals - nos 4 to 8 in the set - which form a little pastoral scene between the shepherd Silvio and the shepherdess Dorinda. Silvio's impassioned words to his beloved - full of the need to die, something we encountered earlier - are painted in harmonies which for 1605 were modern and gripping, and they still have the power to grab us more than four centuries later. [listen]

The six pieces with continuo, though, coming at the end of book five, constitute Monteverdi's most radical music in this collection. The second last piece starts like an operatic duet, setting a text which likens the return of the lover to the eyes which bewitch him to the need of the moth to approach a fatal flame. The text is full of references to wounding, to burning, to being pierced by the shaft of love and the pain this induces. The erotic double entendres are intended and deliberately played up by the composer. [listen]

Monteverdi had been working at the Gonzaga court in Mantua since about 1591 and had been Director of Music since 1601. He was not happy there, though, and was restless, seeking employment elsewhere. The success of the madrigal publications across Europe, and the success and subsequent publication of Orfeo, had not led to offers of work. He composed a massive collection of sacred music comprising a Mass (the Missa In illo tempore) and Vespers (the famous Vespers of the Blessed Virgin) and dedicated them to the Pope, hoping this might lead to a position in Rome, but again to no avail.

Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (1622)

Eventually, in 1613, Monteverdi took up a new job, that of Maestro di Capella at St Mark's in Venice, a position he held until his death 30 years later. Sacred music had been part of his work in Mantua, as well, but Monteverdi continued to produce secular music throughout his life, whether madrigals or operas.

The Sixth Book of Madrigals was published in 1614, the year after he had moved to Venice, but most if not all of its 18 pieces would have been written over the preceding few years in Mantua. The sixth book is obsessed with separation, departure and loss. This is not surprising. Claudia Monteverdi, the composer's wife, had died in 1607, and in 1608 his pupil and friend, the singer Caterina Martinelli - who had been living in the Monteverdi household - also died. For Martinelli, Monteverdi had written the title role in his opera Arianna (Ariadne) and it is one of the greatest losses in the history of music that the opera is now completely lost, but for Ariadne's famous lament.

The lament became a hit in its own right, the reason it has survived. Such was its popularity, Monteverdi made a four-madrigal arrangement of it. These pieces open the sixth book. [listen]

In the sixth book the emotions are raw and real, and it is interesting that it is the only one of Monteverdi's madrigal books published without a dedication; this suggests the volume has a more personal impetus than a professional one. Apart from the bereavements, Monteverdi in his final years at Mantua was exhausted, fed up and feeling trapped. The anguish in book six therefore is very real, one of the few times I think we can correctly draw an obvious parallel between a composer's life situation and his creative output.

The sixth book contains Monteverdi's last a cappella madrigals. Most use continuo accompaniment, making the operatic separation of one or two voices easier and thus providing for the composer a more varied musical palette for his emotional painting. The Petrarch setting, Zeffiro torna, starts with a depiction of spring, but it ends with the realisation that while the world may be rejoicing, the writer is torn apart with grief and solitude. The pain of loss is written in the most heart-breaking series of dissonances at the end. [listen]

The centrepiece of the sixth book is a series of six madrigals known as Sestina: The tears of a Lover at the tomb of his Beloved. Here the emotions we just heard in Zeffiro torna are played out in six madrigals lasting about a quarter of an hour. This is just part of the set. [listen]

With the sixth book, Monteverdi had reached the end of the road, in one sense. By the time of its publication in 1614 the classic five-voice madrigal was becoming rather old fashioned as a form. Monteverdi of course had kept it fresh with the new and daring harmonies in his arsenal, and with the addition of continuo it was able to straddle the world of opera more readily, but still, the basic format was a five-voice partsong. And with the end of his own personal anguish in Mantua and the start of a much happier time in Venice, such overwrought emotional content was less a part of his own life now.

The Seventh Book of Madrigals, when it appeared, was very different. It was published in 1619, five years after the sixth, and Monteverdi was now 52. The seventh book is remarkable for the sheer variety of genres and styles it contains, with the old and the new side by side, music for solo voice, duets, trios, dramatic scenes, and - at the end - a complete ballet for voices and instruments, Tirsi e Clori, which had been written in 1615 for the Duke of Mantua. In addition to continuo instruments there are parts for violins and gambas, and even an opening sinfonia. The seventh book is also huge, twice the length of the preceding madrigal publications and comprising 29 separate pieces. The definition of madrigal has, in the seventh book, been stretched beyond all recognition. Take this, for example. [listen]

In fact, Monteverdi titled the seventh book "Concerto", a term used in his day to mean music which combined voices with instruments. Above all, he is concerned with the clarity and expression of the text. There are still a few examples of the dark angst of the Mantuan madrigals, but overall the mood is lighter here. The duets in the seventh book are among his greatest and most expressive music, and the music for two tenors reminds us of the great tenor duets in the Vespers. In this duet the text expresses love being constant and steady as a rock, and when these words arise, Monteverdi makes the voices stick to a single, unmoving note. [listen]

The inclusion of obbligato instruments in some pieces - over and above the continuo - creates an entirely new sound world in this collection. This piece for four voices requires two violins in addition to the continuo instruments. The text, although it speaks of the ups and downs of love, is not set in anywhere near as dark a manner as we were used to in the earlier books. It's more a case of "this is the way love is, get used to it", but it's no less beautiful for that. [listen]

Title page for the Eighth Book of Madrigals

In Venice, Monteverdi was busy running the large musical establishment at St Mark's, and the production of sacred music took up a great deal of his creative energies. He also composed operas although only two real operas from his later years survive: The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea. The Eighth Book of Madrigals, when it appeared, was an even grander, more varied and more spectacular publication than the seventh. It was published in 1638 when Monteverdi was 71 under the title of Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (Madrigals of war and love) and it's a compendium of his work spanning three decades. Apart from partsongs and ensembles the publication contains a ballet (the Ballo delle ingrate or Ballet of the Ungrateful Women) and a miniature opera (The Battle of Tancred and Clorinda), as well as smaller-scale pieces designed to be danced to as well as sung.

The "war and love" part of the title reflects the fact that some the pieces refer to war as an allegory of love's battles, and vice versa. The whole collection reflects what Monteverdi referred to as his stile concitato or "agitated style". [listen]

One of the most famous parts of the eighth book is a setting of the Lament of the Nymph, which contains this amazing ground bass movement for the nymph, abandoned by her lover, with comments from three men who sympathise from a distance. [listen]

The dance-inspired pieces in the eighth book, quite apart from the Ballet of the Ungrateful Women, are full of rhythmic life and vigour and it seems they were designed to be sung with dancing. Monteverdi here in his old age is in complete control of his technique and is able to make us feel a part of the music from the very first note. [listen]

Strozzi: Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1630)

There was a ninth book of madrigals, compiled by others and published in 1651, eight years after Monteverdi's death. It contains pieces from the eighth book and other sources, some of which had not been published during Monteverdi's lifetime, and some of which were written rather earlier in his career.

As far as the eight "official" books go, though, they are a remarkable testament to one of the greatest musical minds ever. Obviously we've only scratched the surface of their contents in this post - all up they contain about ten hours of music - but I hope it's given you a taste of the treasures they contain.

We'll end with the extraordinary Ardo, ardo from the eighth book. This madrigal for eight voices, two violins and continuo speaks of being on fire, burning without control and helplessly, because of love. At the end the cause is hopeless; the heart burns to ashes and falls silent. In 1638 only Monteverdi could end like this. Only Monteverdi would dare to end like this. [listen]

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2011.

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