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Singing Guarini's Il Pastor Fido

In 1605 Cardinal Robert Bellarmine wrote that Guarini’s play Il Pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) was more harmful to Catholic morals than the Protestant Reformation itself. While such hyperbole is typical of polemical tracts of the period and is characteristic of conservative reaction to any challenge to the established order, the Cardinal’s comments nevertheless highlight the impact of Guarini’s pastoral drama on the artistic and cultural climate of the time. The arguments echo those leveled against Monteverdi by Giovanni Maria Artusi beginning in 1600: the unacceptable violation of established classical principles. In fact the madrigals that Artusi quoted in his attacks were settings of texts drawn by Monteverdi from Guarini’s play, though Artusi left out the texts and commented only on Monteverdi’s harmonic improprieties.

Of course ecclesiastical criticism of Guarini’s heretic mingling of the Aritotelian dramatic genres in creating his pastoral tragicomedy and the licentious behavior of its bucolic characters had little effect on the play’s continuing popularity. This popularity can hardly be overstated. In the five years that it circulated in manuscript copies before its first publication 1590, the Pastor fido had already attracted a large and enthusiastic following and by the time of Bellarmine’s complaints it had already seen more than twenty editions. The play’s fame was not limited to Italy, as it spread in numerous translations across Europe. In all, well over one hundred editions of the play were published including six different French translations, five in English in over thirteen editions, with translations also into Spanish, German, Greek, Swedish, Dutch, Polish, several Italian dialects and even Latin. It was arguably the most widely read work of secular literature in Europe throughout the seventeenth century and its vogue was only slightly less for much of the eighteenth.

Riding the wave of the Pastor fido’s fame, over 125 composers drew texts from the play for madrigals and monodies with over 550 settings surviving in print from the first decades of the seventeenth century alone. The play’s lyrical monologues of tearful nymphs and shepherds were particularly appealing to those writing in the affective style that became known as the seconda prattica. In spite of the reputation of the play and the attraction of its poetry to composers, the Pastor fido was never set as an opera during the seventeenth century and it was only in 1712 that a libretto based on the play was set by Händel.

Giovanni Battista Guarini (engraving above) was born into a prominent Veronese family of humanistic scholars in 1538 and, after studying in Padua, replaced his uncle as professor of rhetoric and poetics at the University in Ferrara in 1557. Ten years later he entered the service of the Este court in Ferrara and was elevated to the status of Cavaliere. He was employed as a diplomat, notably in the unsuccessful negotiations for obtaining the crown of Poland for Duke Alfonso of Ferrara. Except for occasional intervals when he was employed by the Dukes of Savoy and Mantua, he spent most of his time in the service of the Estensi in Ferrara, until the duke’s death in 1597. After Ferrara was absorbed under the control of the Vatican, Guarini frequented the courts of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the Duke of Urbino and spent his last years in Rome and Venice, where he was surrounded by admirers and enjoyed great fame as a poet. Guarini’s domestic life, however, was stormy and unhappy. His daughter, Anna Guarini was murdered by her husband, Ercole Trotti, apparently in a jealous rage and with the assistance of one of the poet’s own sons. His own conduct towards the latter was at times appalling and his whole career was embittered by quarrels and never-ending lawsuits with them and others.

The combined careers of politics and art was not as unusual in the sixteenth century as it is now, and Guarini wrote poetry throughout his time of service to Este family. However, it was only upon his friend and rival Tasso’s imprisonment on grounds of insanity in 1579 that his position as chief court poet for the Este family was secured. Between 1580 and 1584, he worked on his Pastor fido, but waited until December 1589 before publishing it. With his play, grounded in the tradition of pastoral drama and self consciously modeled on Tasso’s Aminta, Guarini intended to establish a new genre of theatre, the tragicomedy, which blended elements of comedy and tragedy. With its central theme of the power of love to transform the human soul, Guarini’s play expands considerably on Aminta and other pastoral dramas, adding complexities and sub-plots with convoluted poetic conceits and erudite references to Classical and contemporary literature.

As early as 1586 it was the subject of criticism from the professor of moral philosophy in Padua, Giason De Nores, who called it a “monstrous and disproportionate composition”. De Nores objected on both stylistic and moral grounds, in the first case relying on a narrow reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, and in the latter on the play’s excessive lyricism, metaphorical extravagance, and, above all, its explicitly lascivious content. He contended that the play’s mixture of tragedy and comedy destroyed any artistic unity and that its pastoral poetry about rude shepherds and their passions was without value for moral instruction.

Guarini, both intelligent and vain, was quick to enjoin in his own defense, publishing two treatises in response to De Nores and adding over 200 pages of annotations to the definitive edition of the play published in 1602. His spirited defense of the tragicomedy sounds quite modern and the history of drama from Shakespeare forward confirms the validity of his arguments. “Art observes that tragedy and comedy are composed of heterogeneous parts”, wrote Guarini, “and that therefore if an entire tragedy and an entire comedy should be mixed they would not be able to function…because they do not have a single intrinsic natural principle. But art, a most prudent imitator of nature, plays the part of the intrinsic principle, and while nature alters the parts after they are united, art alters them before they are joined in order that they may be able to exist together and, though mixed, produce a single form.” As for the complaint about rude shepherds, Guarini argued at length that art exists not to instruct but to purge – tragedy to purge pity and fear, tragicomedy to purge melancholy.

Despite its unrivalled popularity, the play was to receive very few actual productions. The first took place in Ferrara in 1595 or 1596, and it was staged 5 or 6 times in the decade following, most significantly in 1598 in Mantua, where Vincenzo Gonzaga had hoped for a production of the Pastor fido since 1584 and had actively pursued one since at least 1591. The performances in Mantua featured music by Giaches de Wert and Francesco Rovigo that had been written for an earlier production, and possibly music by Monteverdi as well, though there is no specific reference. These performances and a few others aside, the Pastor fido was destined to be a play more to be read than acted, due in no small part to its formidable length and its dense and florid poetic style.

Judging from the philosophical debates it created, the imitations and emulations it inspired, and its near universal familiarity, the profound influence of Guarini’s play on the European culture of the seventeenth century is undeniable. Since there is no complete musical setting of the play from the period, it seemed reasonable to assemble settings from various composers and present them in the order the texts appear in the play. So, Magnificat’s first set of concerts in the 2005-2006 season will feature settings of excerpts from the Pastor fido by a variety of composers including, in addition to Monteverdi, Sigismondo d’India, Alessandro Grandi, Tarquinio Merula, and Heinrich Schütz, who opened his first publication with the two part madrigal O Primavera, drawn from the third act of Guarini’s play. Almost all the settings of the Pastor fido are in the polyphonic madrigal style, though from Grandi, d’India, and Merula we do have monodic settings. The performances will be on the weekend of September 30-October 2.

(This article will appear in the September, 2005 edition of the San Francisco Early Music Society Newsletter. for more information about the Society, visit their website)
There is a considerable body of literature about Guarini and his Pastor fido. For this article I drew from the following sources.

Hogan, Robert and Nickerson, Edward A. The Faithful Shepherd: A Translation of Battista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido by Dr. Thomas Sheridan. Newark, 1989.
Perella, Nicolas J. The Critical Fortune of Battista Guarini’s “Il Pastor fido.” Florence, 1973.
Staton, Walter F. and Simeone, William E. A Critical Edition of Sir Fanshawe’s 1647 Translation of Giovanni Battista Guarini’s “Il Pastor Fido”. Oxford, 1964.
Tomlinson, Gary. Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance. Berkeley, 1987.
Weinberg, Bernard. A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance. 2 vols. Chicago, 1974.
Whitfield, J. H. Introduction to The Faithfull Shepherd translated by Richard Fanshawe. Edinburgh, 1976.

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