At the turn of the 17th century, change was in the air. Although the musical establishment felt that the rules of music had been perfected and embodied in the works of Palestrina, creative artists sought for a way to give music the visceral emotional power that Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks spoke about. Monteverdi was the composer, steeped in tradition, who found the way to break the rules, revolutionize vocal expression and create the foundations of new music. In 1607 and 1608 with his L’Arianna and L’Orfeo he showed the way toward the expressive force of opera and in 1610 with his Vespers did the same for religious music. In eight successive books of Madrigals (from 1587 to 1638) he guided the entire musical world from the Renaissance into the Baroque era. From the time of Orfeo forward, he saw the enormous potential in the format of the duet of two equal voices (two sopranos or two tenors) over an independent basso continuo line – sometimes supplemented with a bass voice to create trios.
His most important experiments were collected over the years and form the substance of his 7th book, published in Venice in 1619 under the title Concerto. Settimo libro de madrigali: à 1. 2. 3. 4. & Sei Voci, Con altri generi de Canti. It was a turning point, not only in Monteverdi’s publications, but in the very definition of the madrigal. No longer were madrigals assumed to be pieces for five voices, with or without continuo accompaniment: now they were concerti for one to six voices, always requiring the continuo, and frequently adding obbligato parts for strings. Our program is not taken exclusively from this publication, but it provides the firm cornerstone, beginning—as does our program—with Tempro la cetra and ending with our finale: Tirsi e Clori.
The ballo Tirsi e Clori was commissioned in 1615 for the entertainment of the Mantuan court, although Monteverdi had left Mantua and been installed as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice two years earlier. A letter from Monteverdi to Annibale Iberti at Mantua includes unique directions for the performance of this piece:
I would have it performed in a half-moon, at whose corners should be placed a chitarrone and a harpsichord, one on each side, one playing the bass for Clori and the other for Tirsi. If there could be a harp instead of a chitarrone for Clori that would be even better.
This sort of practical information about performance is extremely rare, and coupled as it is here with the aesthetic advice about the kind of instruments which should accompany each voice, we have decided to make this arrangement a starting point for our presentation of Monteverdi’s exquisite vocal chamber music.
Tempro la cetra is set in the epic style of early opera prologue. It bears a recognizable kinship to the famous prologue of La Musica from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607. Despite the similar format—strophic variations in the voice over a recurring bass pattern punctuated with string ritornelli—the musico-poetic world of the two pieces is quite different. Where the vocal writing for La Musica eschews decorative features (or leaves them to the performer) and remains utterly serious about the power of musical poetry to “calm every troubled soul, and inflame the most frozen hearts,” Monteverdi’s realization of Marino’s pictorial detail spells out the arabesques of every flower and the enormous expanse (an octave and a sixth!) of every ascent to heaven. Virtuosity and invention abound, perhaps at some cost to the sincerity and high purpose of the earlier style.
The expressive musical language that Monteverdi was formulating during the years between L’Orfeo and the late Venetian operas of the early 1640s is caught in the seventh and eight books of madrigals as if in glimpses of the operas he might have written, or of those he did that have been lost. The multi-part trio Ogni amante è Guerrier, particularly in the large-scale bass solo portion, demonstrates the way in which Monteverdi’s theories about warlike music—most famously explored in the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda of 1624—were now fully integrated into a musical rhetoric which could veer from war to love within a single phrase, yet never seem confused or confusing.
Yet as seriously as he took the portrayal of war, it was love to which Monteverdi and all his poets returned as their natural subject. Love can be anything from a tragic fate to a delightful game, and no aspect of love was ignored in these works. Eccomi pronta ai baci presents a playful portrayal of the game of love: this little vignette for three men’s voices begins with the trumpet call “Here I am, ready for kisses,” building to a visceral expression of outrage as the over-eager lover bites instead of kissing—and leaves marks!
Dario Castello is the best instrumental composer to program next to Monteverdi. We wanted to include music for instruments only, but there are no independent instrumental works by Monteverdi. Castello was the obvious choice because he, more than any other contemporary, managed to find an instrumental idiom with the variety of expressive devices and rhythmic verve of Monteverdi’s vocal ensemble music. Although we know little about Castello’s life, we do know from the title pages of his Sonate concertante in stil moderno that he worked at San Marco during Monteverdi’s time there, and he doubtless knew Monteverdi’s music well. His sudden, dramatic gestures and harmonic swerves are very much in the stile moderno—so much so that, in his preface, he recommends players try his pieces over once or twice before performing them, “for nothing is difficult to those who love it.”
Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) joined the choir of San Marco in 1616 under Monteverdi. The younger composer was destined to follow Monteverdi’s footsteps as a composer of vocal music both sacred and secular, and eventually succeeded to the post of Maestro di Capella at San Marco himself. Yet the main thrust of his composing career was at the Venetian opera houses for which he composed over 40 operas, 30 of which are extant. Like Monteverdi, his works for instruments alone were rare, we have programmed his Sonata à 3 on the second half of the concert.
We enter into the pleasant groves of Arcadia with one of Monteverdi’s greatest hits, the tenor duet Zefiro torna. Over the seductive, jazzy feel of the ciaccona bass pattern, the two voices chase each other through all the delights of spring, then land on a deserted island of loneliness where ‘I, alone, wander through abandoned woods, tormented by the fire of two lovely eyes, and as fate has decreed, sometimes I weep, sometimes I sing.’ As the vocal fireworks of the final passage prove, this particular lover would ultimately rather sing than weep.
One of Monteverdi’s unique achievements, about which oceans of ink have been spilled, is the Lamento della Ninfa. It was the penetration of Monteverdi’s dramatic grasp of text that transformed a fairly standard canzonetta text by Rinuccini into a fully realized dramatic scena. The text had previously been set by Brunelli and Kapsberger, both of whom took the obvious course of setting it as a strophic song. Monteverdi’s stroke of genius was to set the scene with a trio of men’s voices acting as a Greek chorus, and then allowing the nymph to speak for herself in heartrending lamentation over a descending bass, with the men’s voices drifting in to commiserate from time to time. The piece is prefaced by remarks, which allow a further glimpse of Monteverdi’s vision of dramatic music performed as theatrical chamber music:
The parts for the three voices which sing before and after the nymph’s lament are placed separately, because they sing to the tempo of the hand; the other three voices which softly commiserate with the nymph are printed in the score, so that they can follow her lament, which is to be sung at the tempo of the feelings of the soul, and not of the hand.
This statement has sometimes led (in print!) to wild-eyed theories of erratic tempi in the lament versus rigid strictness of tempo elsewhere, presided over by a conductor—even extending to all the other music of Monteverdi! The very regularity of the descending tetrachord—which has been dubbed an ’emblem of lament’—militates against wildly erratic tempi, but easily allows an ebb and flow with the trajectory of the heroine’s feelings. Surely the point was to allow such freedom, and yet give the male singers a secure sense of when to come in by printing their parts in the score rather than in separate part books.
Monteverdi’s ‘other’ and even more famous lament is the Lamento d’Arianna from his otherwise lost opera L’Arianna. What we do have is the printed libretto, which makes clear that the various parts of Arianna’s lament were punctuated by comments from a “chorus of fishermen.” It has always struck me as tempting to create music for this original context, and the long COVID pause provided the opportunity. I realized quickly that if the fishermen were scored for two tenors and bass, that this could be programmed together with the Lamento della Ninfa, and here we have the premiere of this new version.
Retracing our steps from the abyss that opens before the Nymph as she repeats that “never, never, never” will she taste again those sweetest of kisses, we return again to the pleasant meadows of Arcadia where Tirsi and Clori lead the celebrations, and all nature rejoices with the lovers in a world of perpetual springtime.
—Stephen Stubbs, 2023