Home > 2015-2016 Season > Magnificat Presents Music of Monteverdi – September 25-27

Magnificat Presents Music of Monteverdi – September 25-27

August 14th, 2015

On the weekend of September 25-27, Warren Stewart will lead Magnificat in a program of music by Claudio Monteverdi. Grammy Award-winning tenor Aaron Sheehan returns to interpret the Testo role in Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and renowned soprano Christine Brandes makes her Magnificat debut in the role of Clorinda. Brandes will also sing Monteverdi’s ‘love letter’ Se i languidi miei sguardi. Soprano Jennifer Paulino, countertenor Andrew Rader and bass Robert Stafford complete an ensemble that includes instrumentalists Rob Diggins, Jolianne Einem, David Wilson, John Dornenburg and Jillon Stoppels Dupree. The concerts will take place on Friday September 25 8:00 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto; Saturday September 26 8:00 pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley and Sunday September 27 4:00 pm at First Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Tickets are available at magnificatbaroque.tix.com or by phone at (800) 595-4849.

Each half of the program will begin with one of the five vanitas settings that stand at the beginning of Monteverdi’s magisterial collection of sacred music, Selva morale et spirituale, published in 1640. The two madrigals are representative of a distinct genre of vernacular polyphonic vocal works that describe the transitory nature of love, status, and material wealth. The first, O ciechi, ciechi is drawn from Petrarch’s Trionfo della morte and describes the futility of power, riches and military conquest. Similar themes are addressed in the anonymous canzonetta Chi vol che m’innamori, which alternates between light and dark characters. Here the strophes are articulated by cheerful violin ritornelli with an unexpectedly pessimistic refrain following the final verse.

Much of the music on the program is drawn from Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619), entitled Concerto – his first publication of madrigals composed in Venice. It includes two extraordinary monodies labeled lettere amorose (love letters) that belong to a small but significant genre explored by composers in the first decades of the 17th century. Soprano Christine Brandes will perform the first of the letters, Se i languidi miei sguardi, a setting of a poem by Bolognese polymath Claudio Achillini. The poet notes that his letter is from “a cavalier, impatient over his delayed wedding, writing to his most beautiful bride.” Monteverdi writes that these love letters are composed in the “representative style” and that they should be sung “without a beat,” i.e. freely and expressively without a regular meter.

The four strophe soprano duet Ohimé dov’è il mio ben, sung on our program by Jennifer Paulino and Christine Brandes, is a ‘romanesca’, i.e.  an ottava rima by Bernardo Tasso, with each couplet set over an harmonic sequence known as the “aria della romanesca.”  The romanesca had been used as a basis for improvisation in the seventeenth century and was popular in the first quarter of the 17th century as a framework  for monodic song, polyphonic madrigals and instrumental music.

Though it was first performed during Carnival in 1624, the operatic scena Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda wasn’t published 14 years later as part of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, subtitled Madrigals of War and Love (it finds its place among the Madrigals of War of course.) The libretto is drawn from Torquato Tasso’s romance Gerusalemme liberata, which describes the battle between the Christian prince Tancrid and the Saracen warrior Clorinda during the time of the first  crusade.  In Il Combattimento Monteverdi claimed to have recreated the ‘agitated’ (concitato) style ‘described by Plato in the third book of his Rhetoric [Republic] in these words: “Take that harmony that would fittingly imitate the utterances of a brave man who is engaged in warfare”.’

The setting of Giulio Strozzi’s canzonetta Gira il nemico insidioso amore is also grouped with the madrigals of war in the Eighth Book, but here the stile concitato is put to use in a jocular context reminiscent of the sixteenth-century Neapolitan canzone villanesca, a musical expression of the commedia dell’arte. Massimo Ossi has pointed out the under-appreciated role of humor in Monteverdi’s madrigals and observes the use of much the same arsenal of pseudo-military effects found in Il Combattimento utilized for comedic effect. Gira il nemico insidioso amore is a perfect case in point. Each of the six stanzas first describes the movement of the assailant and then the inept preparations being made by the defenders to repel love’s attack. As Ossi observes “the struggle is of course perfunctory, and the outcome never in doubt; the futile rushing back and forth within the embattled citadel is therefore comic to the point of slapstick.”

The two instrumental works on the program were written by colleagues of Monteverdi’s at San Marco. What little is known of the instrumentalist and composer Dario Castello is gleaned primarily from the title pages of his publications, which identify him as a musician at San Marco and the leader of an ensemble of winds. His two surviving collections of sonatas feature extraordinarily virtuosic writing, and suggest that he was most likely a highly skilled performer. The large number of reprints of both books is an indication of the popularity and wide diffusion of Castello’s works throughout Europe.

By contrast, we know considerably more about Castello’s sometimes colleague at San Marco, Biagio Marini. Already at the time of Monteverdi Seventh Book of Madrigals Marini was well established as one of the first virtuoso violinists in Europe, having published an innovative collection of instrumental music Affetti musicali in 1617. Born in Brescia in 1594, Marini had been appointed as a violinist at San Marco in 1615 where he worked directly with Monteverdi. By 1620 he had begun what would be a peripatetic career that would see him serve as instrumentalist and music director in several Italian cities and in courts as far north as Düsseldorf and Neuberg. A prolific composer, by the time of his death in 1663 he had published over 20 collections of music, including sacred and secular vocal music as well as music for violin and instrumental ensembles.

Our program will conclude with the ballo Tirsi e Clori, which also concludes the Seventh Book of madrigals. In January of 1615, Monteverdi was approached by his former employer, Ferdinando, Duke of Gonzaga of Mantua, to set to music a ‘favola’ by Ferdinando himself, as an entertainment for Carnival. There wasn’t sufficient time to compose a work for Carnival but later that same year Ferdinando again asked for ‘a ballet to music’, to which Monteverdi proposed a pastoral ballo in six sections preceded by a dialogue between a shepherd, Tirsi, and his nymph, Clori. The ballo was completed and delivered in November 1615 to Mantua, where it was performed to great acclaim. A letter survives from Monteverdi to the Duke in which he provides many useful suggestions regarding performance practice. The composer also notes that ‘if you could let the singers and players see [the music] for an hour before His Most Serene Highness hears it, it would be a good thing indeed…” Magnificat will be following the composer’s recommendation and look forward to delight our Most Serene Audience. We hope to see you there.

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