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Monteverdi’s Setting of Petrarch’s Sonnet Hor che’l ciel e la terra

August 7th, 2011 2 comments

Hor che’l ciel e la terra, Francesco Petrarca

Hor che’l ciel e la terra e’l vento tace,
e le fere e gli augelli il sonno affrena,
notte il carro stellato in giro mena,
e nel suo letto il mar senz’onda giace.Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sfacesempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena;
guerra è’l mio stato, d’ira et di duol piena,
e sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.

Così sol d’una chiara fonte viva
move’l dolce e l’amaro ond’io mi pasco;
una man sola mi risana e punge.

E perché’l mio martir non giunga a riva,
mille volte il dì moro e mille nasco,
tanto dalla salute mia son lunge.

Now that heaven, earth and the wind are silent
and beasts and birds are stilled by sleep,
night draws the starry chariot in its course
and in its bed the sea sleeps without waves.I awaken, I think, I burn, I weep, and she who fills me with sorrow
is ever before me to my sweet distress.
War is my state, full of wrath and grief,
and only in thinking of her do I find peace.

Thus from one clear and living fountain
flows the sweet bitterness on which I feed;
one hand alone both heals and wounds me.

And therefore my suffering can never reach shore.
a thousand times a day I die, a thousand reborn
so far am I from my salvation.

The most complex and sophisticated of Monteverdi’s large-scale madrigals from the Eighth Book, Hor che’l ciel e la terra sets, in two parts, the entirety of Petrarch’s 164th poem from the Canzoniere, a sonnet. The prima parte sets the two quatrains, and the seconda parte the two terzets. This is a poem replete with Petrarchan contrasts and oxymorons. But Petrarch’s contrasts, as described by Pietro Bembo in the Prose della volgar lingua, are brought into harmony and smoothed over the mellifluous sounds and varied, rolling rhythms of his highly refined poetic style. This is easily seen in Petrarch’s fifth and sixth lines, where the most abrupt semantic juxtapositions are couched in an elegantly structured and alliterative sentence that draws attention away from the contrasts toward their union in a highly stylized and carefully crafted poetic conception. Resemblances of rhyme, of rhythm, of line lengths and stanzaic structure, and especially resemblances of sonority all serve to overcome the semantic contrasts.

Contrasts in Petrarch’s sonnet occur on several levels. First there are the obvious, immediate contrasts between successive words or concepts in the second quatrain. “Dolce pena” at the end of the 6th line is an oxymoron;  “Guerra” (war) and “pace” (peace) are contrasted in the 7th and 8th lines. In the first terzet, “dolce” (sweetness) and “amaro” (bitterness) are contrasted in the middle line, while the final line opposes “risana” (heals) with “punge” (wounds). In the middle line of the final terzet “moro” (I die) is contrasted with “nasco” (I am born).

On a larger structural level there is significant contrast between the first quatrain and the second. The first quatrain unites in silence and motionless a series of natural elements and living creatures. Even the rocking rhythm of all four lines is reminiscent of a lullaby. This quatrain is a depiction of nature at rest.

The second quatrain, in which the speaker awakes, contrasts the speaker’s individual experience with that of quiet nature.  This quatrain too begins with a series, but rather than different elements being united in a smooth, rocking rhythm, “Veglio, penso, ardo, piango” are an abrupt series of wholly unrelated activities characterized by both qualitative and quantitative accents on the first syllable of each two-syllable word. The beginning of this line is an effective characterization of the intense psychological state and confusion with which one often abruptly awakens in the middle of the night. This startled series is then followed by a rational attempt to explain the psychological state: “she who undoes me is always before me for my sweet pain,” though the rationality of the thought is undermined not only by the affective oxymoron at the end, but by the seeming contradiction between the notion of the woman who undoes the sleeper also being the source of the sweet pain. The next sentence compounds the emotional contradiction.  The speaker’s state is now warlike, full of anger and sorrow, but in the next line, “and only thinking of her do I have some peace,” the cause of the warlike state of mind turns out to be the only source of tranquility.  In this quatrain emotional contradictions and confusions are articulated in utter contrast to the stability and tranquility of nature as described in the opening quatrain.

The sestet creates yet another contrast. The description and experience of the octet are now given additional meaning through the metaphor of the “clear, living fountain.” The fountain is the source of nourishment whence the speaker drinks both sweetness and bitterness, and the hand of the beloved, like the fountain, both heals and wounds. There is a cross-reference here to a previous canzona of Petrarch’s where two fountains of the Fortunate Isles are described: “who drinks from the one, dies laughing, and who from the other, escapes.”  (Poem 135, lines 78-79)

In Hor che’l ciel, the speaker is like the waters of the fountain in that his martyrdom doesn’t reach its end so that a thousand times a day he dies and is reborn as the waters are recycled through the fountain. This is how far he is from regaining his mental health, which could only come about through resolving the emotional contradictions engendered by his lady. The sestet brings nature into relationship with the speaker; the two had been completely separate in the octet. Through the metaphor of the fountain, the speaker and nature are reunited, but this is an active, seething nature, not the sleeping nature of the opening quatrain. As a consequence, the thought is left open and unresolved at the end, as if the distance from his health must remain permanent for the speaker.

How does Monteverdi deal with this text taxonomically and iconographically? Quite clearly in separate sections focusing on specific categories of affect. The opening, which sets the entire first quatrain, consists of static chords, organized rhythmically around the rhythms of the text, although the concluding trochees of terra, tace, affrena, mena and giace are all set as spondees rather than trochees, thereby increasing even further the sense of stasis. The only pitch motion in this entire section is a slow moving I-V-I-VI-V-I chord progression, which is perhaps stimulated by the phrase “in giro mena” (leads in a circle) in the third line. It is probably no accident that the first return to the tonic chord occurs precisely with this phrase. The homogeneous opening section of the piece is thus a single icon for the tranquility described in the first quatrain of Petrarch’s sonnet.

Petrarch’s second quatrain, as we have seen, not only contrasts with the first but is also less internally unified. This leads Monteverdi in the first two lines to invent three musical metaphors in the Renaissance sense, the first interpreting the sudden awakening, the second the single word piango, and the third the rest of the sentence.  But Monteverdi’s treatment of these metaphors is informed by his iconographic structural sensibilities. Each is treated as a structural device in a sophisticated interaction among the individual metaphors to create a larger structural metaphor for the confused, contradictory state expressed by the speaker.  Here we have aesthetic aspects of the Renaissance madrigal serving to enrich the structural possibilities of the concertato style.

The second quatrain begins with a graphic representation of the startling awakening of the sleeper, but leading immediately to a typically Renaissance metaphor for piango  (I weep) in suspended figures of falling half- or whole- steps. In contrast to the opening section, each word is now on a new chord and at a higher pitch level than the last.  The continuation of the thought with e chi mi sface is cast in a descending lament in two voices in parallel thirds, the descent an obvious icon for depressed emotional states. But already Monteverdi is at work dealing with the psychological contrasts and contradictions in these two lines by superimposing a restatement of veglio, penso, ardo, piango over the completion of the thought. The restatement proceeds with wider gaps between veglio, penso, ardo and piango, thereby giving them the effect of a psychological background to the more immediate thought about the beloved who undoes the speaker. And Monteverdi artfully times these background superimpositions so that the final one, piango, occurs simultaneously with the final word of the second line, pena.

Monteverdi has by now not only created three musical metaphors, but has begun to use them in a structural fashion to expand the section as well as create the psychological connection between the sudden awakening and the cause of that awakening. Having used the original metaphors in this way, he continues to repeat and exploit them structurally, in varied form and through gradually increasing textures until all six voices are involved.  This allows him to bring the section to a close, based on a structural dynamic of varied repetition in increasingly thicker textures, a structural dynamic we find over and over again in his large-scale concertato works. This process has evolved his original three metaphors into icons by the end of the section.  By that time their significance has become musical-structural rather than localized and passing. They have achieved the sense of permanence and reusability characteristic of icons.

The next two lines of the quatrain contrast guerra (war) with pace (peace). As we would expect, guerra is represented by the concertato  style. The final line, E sol di lei pensando ò qualche pace, is contrasted to the previous one by a homophonic and homorhythmic style in slow tempo, an obvious icon for pace. Moreover, Monteverdi drops out the lower two voices, since the thought is focused on the feminine lei, and as the state of peace is described, the harmony turns toward a cadence on B major, since peace is a decided shift of mental state for the speaker. Rather than simply quit at this point, Monteverdi once again uses structural repetition of his two icons to expand the scope of the composition and bring the prima parte to a close. This time pace cadences in E major rather than B major, and it is important to the overall structure of the madrigal that we have an inconclusive close in the dominant key at this point, leaving the way open for the sestet to bring the speaker and nature together.

The seconda parte opens with a descending figure reminiscent of e chi mi sface. This resemblance serves a structural purpose in linking the two parts of the madrigal, but also performs an affective function in relating the image of the living fountain to the beloved who undoes the speaker.  One might say that the descent from e” at the beginning of the seconda parte has a musical function similar to the linking function of the word Cosí  (thus) at the beginning of Petrarch’s sestet. But the most important part of the opening is the overlapping of the phrase Cosí sol d’una chiara fonte viva with Move’l dolce e l’amaro, ond’io mi pasco.  The latter is set to a chromatically rising motive treated in imitation, a typical icon for situations of anguish in Monteverdi.  This particular version, however, abjures dissonance almost altogether in recognition of the sweetness that is also imbibed from the fountain.

The combination of these two motives brings together in simultaneity the source of the water and its effects on him who drinks thereof. Monteverdi’s texture has gradually expanded through the imitation, reaching his typical full-textured climax, which in this case serves as the beginning of a more extended structural repetition of the chromatic motive. But there is a third line to the terzet, and Monteverdi cleverly introduces it into the texture by simply varying the descent from e and substitutes the final line Una man sola mi risana e punge.Thus when he once again reaches his textural climax, the section and  the terzet can come to a close, and the passage once again has been built upon varied structural repetition.

The final terzet revolves mostly around the second line, one of the most common textual conceits of the Petrarchan 16th century and set over and over again by composers from Arcadelt through Rore to Monteverdi in multiple imitations. What started as a musical metaphor for multiplicity had early on reached the more enduring status of an icon. This line is briefly introduced by a simple, recited statement of the first line. Monteverdi’s treatment of the second line is in some respects antiphonal; only the final word, moro, set to longer notes in stepwise descent overlaps.  At the end of the passage, he even makes the words nasco and moro overlap, to bring them into even closer oppositional relationship to one another than Petrarch could do in the linear medium of language. Structural repetition, transposed by a 5th, serves to enlarge the section just as in earlier portions of the piece.

Petrarch’s concluding line is somewhat separate from the rest of the sonnet in making a final statement about the poet’s situation. Monteverdi likewise sets this line apart, with a single voice in static repetition except for the word lunge, whose significance is emphasized by a long leap and even longer slow, melismatic descent. A transposed, full-textured structural repeat then serves to close out the entire madrigal, returning to the opening key. The emblematic character of this melisma is obvious in its not carrying any of the emotional weight of Petrarch’s final line.

Now that we have seen how Monteverdi has treated this text, both taxonomically and iconically, let us go back and compare what Petrarch has accomplished with his poem and Monteverdi with his music. Petrarch has taken the anguished torment of the lover who is pulled to extremes of opposing emotions and shaped it into a highly refined, elegant form. This process of shaping and refining the emotional content brings those emotions under control, into an order and a beauty that not only allows us to grasp them in multiple dimensions, but also informs us that through cultivated art the most unbridled emotions can be at least partially tamed, conceptually understood and survived. By virtue of artistic creation, it is no longer necessary for the poet to die and be reborn a thousand times a day–he can rather conceive and cope with his problem by subjecting it the imagination and structures of art and we, his readers, can share with him both the agonies described and the poet’s insight about how to manage them in a coherent fashion.

Monteverdi has taken a somewhat different approach. His goal is first of all to identify clearly the emotions and situations described by the poet. This is his taxonomic approach. His purpose is no longer to make the listener weep and laugh with the performer as the aesthetics of early opera had demanded in accordance with the Platonic theory of the transference of affect. His purpose is to convey in music knowledge about affective states–first to identify their character, then to present them for our understanding in an appropriate musical garb. This knowledge is principally of separate affects, but in both the prima parte and the seconda parte  there are passages where the combination of separate ideas creates a more complicated psychological affect, which is also clearly conveyed musically. Monteverdi’s approach is more empirical than passionate, more interested in conveying concepts of emotion than in inducing emotion.  The opening segment is not so much about the silence of nature as described by Petrarch, but rather about the nature of tranquility in general. The concitato section is not so much about the poet’s warlike state in this particular instance as it is about the general character of warlike agitation.

This is a more objective view than in his Mantuan works and is fully consonant with the efforts of contemporary thinkers to understand their world in more objective terms, the basis of the new empirical science of the 17th century. If we note that Monteverdi’s conclusion doesn’t sum up the significance of the poem the way that Petrarch’s final line does, that is because the significance of his musical setting cannot be summarized in a single musical statement. The significance of his setting is in the accumulation of separate and combined affects he has strung together in a sectionalized manner. Knowledge of emotion is presented by accumulation rather than by integration, and what makes such a piece good or not so good depends on the interest and quality of the musical presentation of each separate affect, plus the purely musical structural aspects of the expansive work.

(Excerpted from “A Taxonomic and Affective Analysis of Monteverdi’s ‘Hor che ’l ciel e la terra’,” Music Analysis 12 (1993): 169–95.)

Monteverdi’s Setting of the Hymn ‘Ave maris stella’

April 18th, 2010 No comments

The treatment of the cantus firmus in the hymn Ave maris stella is quite different from its use in the psalms and the Magnificats. In the hymn, the plainchant always appears in the topmost part as the principal melody, harmonized in an essentially chordal fashion. This manner of setting the Ave maris stella melody can be traced all the way back to Dunstable’s alternatim version, which adds a modest degree of ornamentation to the plainchant. Monteverdi, however, adheres strictly to the notes of the chant itself, which is a first-mode melody evidently derived not from the Roman rite, but from the liturgy of Santa Barbara in Mantua, prepared specifically for the Gonzaga ducal chapel in the late sixteenth century.

Monteverdi sets each of the seven verses either in voal polyphony or as accompanied monody, subjecting the borrowed melody in successive verses to  a series of variations in texture, sonority and meter. Separating verses 2-6 is a ritornello for five unspecified instruments. The overall setting is conservative in character, even in notation, which is principally in semibreves and minims. The only modern elements are the insertion of the ritornello and the reduction of the texture to a solo voice with continuo accompaniment in verse 4-6. Nowhere is there an attempt to interpret individual wordsof the text, a difficult proposition in the strophic setting of hymns in any event. Read more…

Sonata à 8 sopra Sancta Maria ora pro nobis (1610)

April 16th, 2010 No comments

The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria borrows the opening phrase from the Litany of the Saints and reiterates it in the soprano voice eleven times over a sonata for eight instruments. In general, the structure of the Sonata resembles, on a very large scale, that of a typical late sixteenth-century instrumental canzona, comprising a series of loosely related sections with repetition of the opening material at the end. As with the adaptation of the L’Orfeo toccata to Domine ad adiuvandum, a liturgical chant is superimposed on the instrumental composition, which could easily stand alone.

The cantus firmus does not begin until well into the piece, and its successive statements are altered rhythmically and separated by rests of varying durations. The instrumental sonata supporting the cantus firmus unfolds in ten overlapping section, the first one restated at the end in the manner of a da capo. As in the Magnificat, the different sections differ in style and texture, and the meter shifts between duple and triple time with some frequency. In contrast to the Magnificats, the sections do not correspond exactly with the restatements of the plainchant, since the opening segment is without cantus firmus and another section supports two intonations of the chant melody. Read more…

Montverdi’s Setting of the Psalm Laetatus sum (1610)

April 12th, 2010 No comments

Whereas the structure of Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri, Nisi Dominus, and Lauda Ierusalem is centered around reiterations of the psalm tone in each verse, the formal organization of Laetatus sum does not depends on the cantus firmus, but rather on the disposition of the text over a series of repeated bass patterns in the sequence ABACD ABACD’ AB’D’, where D’ is a variant of D. Each pattern corresponds to one of the eleven verse of the text except C and D, which combine for  a single verse. The Sicut erat, concluding the doxology, coincides with the final statement of the pattern D’. The psalm tone appears only occasionally in the tenor, altus, or cantus part, though normally stands out prominently when it does make an appearance.

The first of Monteverdi’s structural modules is the famous walking bass frequently cited in Montverdi literature. This bass is repeated exactly in each its five occurrences, lending Laetatus sum a strong sense of harmonic and structural continuity. The other three patterns, whose systematic return tightens the organization even further, have generally escaped notice. Read more…

Monteverdi’s Setting of the Psalm Laudate pueri (1610)

April 9th, 2010 2 comments

Monteverdi’s setting of Laudate pueri (1610) is scored for eight voices, but here, in contrast ith his technique in Nisi Dominus and Lauda Ierusalem, Monteverdi rarely divides the ensemble into antiphonal four-voice combinations, preferring instead to pair voices in the same register. Throughout the psalm, Monteverdi is extremely flexible in his treatment of the plainchant. The psalm tone (tone 8 with finalis g) migrates freely from voice to voice, is transposed and is absent altogether in some passages. Nevertheless, each verse of the psalm appears at least once in plainchant.

The treatment of the psalm tone at the beginning of Laudate pueri resembles that at the opening of Dixit Dominus: after initial solo intonations in a tenor voice (quintus), the psalm tone combines with a countersubject to evolve a steadily expanding imitative texture. Even the countersubject is similar to the one at the beginning of Dixit Dominus. Whereas this process encompassed the entire first verse of Dixit Dominus, in Laudate pueri only the first half of the verse is traversed, so the process is repeated, with a new countersubject, to complete the first verse.

After the first verse, where Dixit Dominus had turned to the tripartite series of falsobordoni, ritornellos, and duets, Laudate pueri presents a lenghthy succession of virtuoso duets for voices in a single register, accompanied by the cantus firmus. In this portion of the psalm (verse 2-5), the psalm tone migrates upwards through the texture from one verse to the next, starting in the quintus and proceeding through the altus, the cantus, and finally the sextus. It is sung both in long notes and in half notes and quarter notes, but even in the shorter rhythmic values the cantus firmus appears sustained because of rapid embellishments in the other voices. The movement of the chant out of its bass role in the quintus part permits increased harmonic variety, and successive transpositions of the psalm tone upwards by a fifth (verses 2 and 3 transpose the reciting note to G, verse 4 to D) admit a wider tonal compass as well. Only at verse 5 does the reciting note return to its original C. Read more…

Monteverdi’s Setting of the Psalm Dixit Dominus (1610)

April 7th, 2010 No comments

After its opening verse, Monteverdi’s 1610 setting of Dixit Dominus alternates between falsobordone settings of the chant (tone 4 with finalis e) and imitative textures built over the cantus firmus in the bass. Each falsobordone is followed by an instrumental ritornello. The doxology then concludes with a solo tenor intonation of the psalm tone and a six-voice polyphonic chorus, balancing the opening verse in symmetrical construction. Throughout the psalm, only the melismas that conclude each half verse (typical for falsobordoni) and the ritornellos are free of the chant.

Within this scheme, Monteverdi varies the context of the chant in several different ways. In the falsobordoni themselves, the first half-verse is presented on an a minor chord (A major for verse 6), while the second half-verse is a steplower on a G major triad. In the alternate verses 3, 5, and 7, the chant, transferred to the bass in half and quarter notes, supports first an imitative duet, and finally an imitative five-voice texture, creating a series of variations over the bass cantus firmus. The beginning of this latter verse looks very much like measured falsobordone and illustrates how closely chordal textures in the harmonization of a psalm tone approximate falsobordone, expecially when the chant is in the bass, allowing for very little variety of harmonization. Read more…

Monteverdi’s Setting of the Psalm Lauda Ierusalem (1610)

April 4th, 2010 No comments

A nearly continuous psalm tone cantus firmus (tone 3 with finalis a) in the the tenor voice forms the scaffolding for Lauda Ierusalem. In the first two verses the chant begins with the intonation, but in subsequent verses it follows the normal pattern of commencing with the reciting note. Transposition of the psalm tone by a fourth occurs in verses 4-6 and again at the beginning of the doxology. Within the tonal areas prescribed by the reciting level of the chant, the harmony fluctuates continually, never establishing a regular pattern.

Lauda Ierusalem, like Nisi Dominus, is characterized by two choirs in frequent antiphonal responses, but the texture is thinner, comprising only seven parts. The six voices apart from the cantus firmus are subdivided into two equal ensembles of canto, alto, and bass, and the more transparent sonority of these three-voice choirs facilitates more frequent interchanges and greater rhythmic complexity than is exhibited by Nisi Dominus. While the overall tonal organization of the psalm is determined by the pitch at which the reciting note appears, structure on a smaller scale is determined, as in Nisi Dominus , by antiphony. However, in contrast to the lengthy passages with one choir only that characterize Nisi Dominus, the second choir of Lauda Ierusalem regularly alternates (sometimes in imitation) with the first choir at the interval of approximately three bars. Read more…

Monteverdi’s Setting of Nisi Dominus (1610)

April 1st, 2010 No comments

In each of the psalm settings of Montverdi’s 1610 Vespers the varying contexts of the cantus firmus (in each case, the psalm tone) help to define the structure of the psalm itself. The simplest organization is found in the cori spezzati setting of Nisi Dominus, which exhibits a continuous cantus firmus (sixth tone with finalis f) in the tenor part of each of the two five-voice choirs. Each statement of the psalm tone begins with its intonation, offering Monteverdi enhanced opportunities for harmonic variety in setting the chant. Although the cadential organization of each verse is similar, the bass underlying each statement of the pslam tone presents considerable variety.

The chant itself varies rhythmically from long notes to the same shorter notes as appear in the other parts, and a little more than half way through, at Sicut sagittae (verse 5), the tone is transposed up a fourth, allowing harmonzations with B flat minor and G minor chords in contrast to the predominating F major and D minor triads of the preceding verses. At the same point, the meter shifts to triple time, introducing a further variant in both the cantus firmus and its polyphonic content. Read more…

Cozzolani’s Beatus vir – the most Bizarre of the “Salmi Bizarri”

March 19th, 2010 No comments

Click Here to Stream and Download Cozzolani’s Beatus vir

First page of the Cantus Primo partbook for Beatus Vir

Magnificat and Musica Omnia are pleased to announce our latest release – Cozzolani’s extraordinary setting of the psalm Beatus vir. Taking the characteristics of the “salmi bizarri” to an extreme, here Cozzolani manipulates the psalm text into a dialogue and collects ritornelli as she makes her way through the text. The recording features sopranos Catherine Webster, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Ruth Escher and Andrea Fullington; altos Meg Bragle, Karen Clark, Suzanne Jubenville and Elizabeth Anker; and a continuo team of John Dornenburg, violone, David Tayler, theorbo and Hanneke van Proosdij, organ, with Warren Stewart conducting.

Magnificat first performed this compositional tour de force on the San Francisco Early Music Society series in 1999, with later performances at the 2002 Berkeley Early Music Festival, on the Music Before 1800 series in New York in 2003, and in 2007 for the Society for Seventeenth Century Music at Notre Dame University.

Cozzolani subtitles her setting of the psalm Beatus vir “In Forma di Dialogo, signaling a very free recasting of the psalm text into a series of questions and answers between interlocutors. While the entire psalm text is traversed in its proper sequence (with the omission of occasional words), the text also serves as a matrix from which various phrases can be extracted and inserted repeatedly in the midst of other verses. Only a schematic of the text and its reworking can give an adequate idea of how freely and dramatically Cozzolani treats it. In the following outline of the psalm and its literal English translation, bold type indicates refrains and texts repeated out of order as found in the original psalm text. Italics constitute the dialogue, with questions and their answers, the answers derived from the psalm itself. The verses are numbered as in the Liber Usualis. Read more…

Polyphonic Vespers Music Before Monteverdi

March 6th, 2010 No comments

The following is an excerpt from my article “Stylistic diversity in Vesper Psalms and Magnificats published in Italy in the Seventeenth-Century”, which can be downloaded here (PDF). Citations omitted from this excerpt can be found in the full article.

Forty years ago, virtually nothing was known about polyphonic music for the Office except for the 1610 Vespers of Claudio Monteverdi, which had been receiving significant scholarly attention since shortly after World War II. Today, not only have a number of critical editions of Vesper publications from Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries been issued in various series, but a variety of scholars, including notably, Robert Kendrick, have researched the relationship between published and manuscript liturgical music and the monastic institutions and their friars and nuns that produced and performed this music. My own research has focused on bringing the entire Italian published repertoire of Office music to light through the collection of bibliographical information on over 1500 prints of Office music published between 1542 and 1725. This information will be made available online through a database being assembled at the Fondazione Cini in Venice and an online catalogue to be published by the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music.

Dufay and Binchois

Polyphonic music for Vespers is a latecomer to the repertoire of polyphonic sacred music in Europe. This is especially true of the principal texts of the Vesper service, the four or five psalms that constitute the core of every Vesper ceremony (the monastic rite typically required only four psalms; however monastic composers almost invariably published psalms in groups of five or more). Hymns for Vespers had already been the subject of polyphonic composition in the late fourteenth century, and Dufay placed significant emphasis on hymns in his compositional output. Like hymns, polyphonic Magnificats also originated in the fourteenth century and achieved popularity in the next century with settings by Dufay, Binchois and others. The papal chapel in Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a major center of Magnificat composition. Read more…

Masterworks and Context

February 27th, 2010 No comments

It is one of the paradoxes of musicological research that we generally have become acquainted with a period, a repertoire, or a style through recognized masterworks that are tacitly or expressly assumed to be representative. Yet a ‘masterpiece’, by definition, is unrepresentative, unusual, and beyond the scope of ordinary musical activity. A more thorough and realistic knowledge of music history must come from a broader and deeper acquaintance with its constituent elements than is provided by a limited quantity of exceptional composers and works. Such an expansion of the range of our historical research has the advantage not only of enhancing our understanding of a given topic, but also of supplying the basis for comparison among those composers and works that have faded into obscurity and the few composers and ‘masterpieces’ that have survived to become the primary focus of our attention today. Only in relation to lesser efforts can we fully comprehend the qualitiues that raise the ‘masterpiece’ above the common level. Only by comparison can we learn to what degree the master composer has rooted his creation in contemporary currents, or conversely, to what extent original ideas and techniques are responsible for its special features. Similarly, it is only by means of broader investigations that we can detect what specific historical influence the masterwork has had upon contemporaries and younger colleagues, and thereby arrive at judgements about the historical significance of the master composer.

[Excerpted from The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance by Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp 102-103.]

Monteverdi’s Vespers – the Crest of a Wave

February 26th, 2010 No comments

The second half of the sixteenth century witnessed a growth in published Italian Vespers repertoire, a growth that increased dramatically as the century approached its end. In the first decade of the new century, the number of extant prints once again augments by approximately 50 per cent. I have located more than 150 publications from this period, about two thirds of them issued between 1605 and 1609. From the year 1610 alone, aside from Monteverdi’s print, I have been able to trace an additional 25 surviving collections containing vesper music. Of the total of nearly 180 publications from these eleven years, 24 are reprints. By this time, the number of vesper publications has exceeded the number of mass prints from the same period. It is clear that by the first decade of the century, a major shift in emphasis had taken place in the public services of the Catholic Church in Italy. The vesper service had become a ceremony of major musical importance, not merely rivalling the mass, but actually surpassing it in number of publications and, consequently, in musical significance for the church calendar.

[Adapted from The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance by Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p 99.]

Monteverdi and Musical Coherence

February 19th, 2010 No comments

The musical coherence of Monteverdi’s seconda prattica compositions has often been overlooked by taking too literally his brother Giulio Cesare’s famous declaration that in the new style ‘it has been his intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant.’ Monteverdi and his brother, for the sake of argument and without enough time to develop the thesis at greater length, oversimplified the issue in the Dichiaratione of the 1607 Scherzi musicali. While Monteverdi certainly took the text as his point of departure as well as the ultimate rationale for many features of his madrigals, motets, and dramatic compositions, he never became a slavish imitator of words not an ingenious inventor of musical metaphors, even though madrigalisms are readily apparent in his music.

Te balanced union of textual and musical considerations took different forms in the stile rappresentativo and the polyphonic and concerto madrigals and motets. Morever,m the relationship between text and music took on a different aspect in each individual composition. But whatever the style or character of the piece. Monteverdi never ignored the demands of musical logic and coherence. Conversely, it is often this musical coherence that gives primary force to the expression of the text, fo in the absence of a powerful musical logic, the addition of tone to word is likely to prove fleeting, superficial, and unconvincing.

[Excerpted from The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance by Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 308-309.]

Monteverdi’s Successful Audition

February 18th, 2010 No comments

The sheer variety and magnificence of Monteverdi’s 1610 collection is breathtaking, and in 1613, music from the Vespers may have served as part of Monteverdi’s successful audition for the position of maestro di capella at the ducal church of St. Mark’s in Venice, the most important church job in all of northern Italy. In this 1610 print, which also includes a conservative, even archaic, six-voice polyphonic mass, Monteverdi gathered the most diverse examples of modern musical style imaginable for his Vespers. Introducing the Vesper service is the solo plainchant versicle (Deus in adiutorium) followed by its massive, fanfare-like response with the full choir supported by a large instrumental ensemble of strings and brass. This response was reconstituted out of the fanfare introduction to Monteverdi’s own first opera of 1607, Orfeo. Following the opening of the service, virtuoso solo and few-voiced motets sit side-by-side with the psalms featuring falsibordoni (unmeasured chordal recitation of the Gregorian psalm chant), complicated imitative counterpoint, highly ornamented virtuoso duets for soloists, ground basses, dance-like triple meters, double-choir antiphony, and instrumental ritornellos. The hymn following the psalms and motets mixes conservative double-choir polyphony with instrumental ritornellos and soloistic renditions of the hymn tune in triple meter. The closing Magnificat is a showcase of virtuoso vocal and instrumental writing.

Monteverdi’s Work Sample

February 16th, 2010 No comments

Monteverdi’s Mass and Vespers of the Blessed Virgin of 1610, his first major publication of sacred music, is dedicated both to the Virgin, whom his patrons, the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua, claimed as the special protectress of their city, and to Pope Paul V, whose envoy had proclaimed a plenary indulgence in Mantua’s principal church of Sant-Andrea in 1607.  It seems apparent that with this publication Monteverdi was seeking to establish himself as a suitable candidate for a position of maestro di capella in a major Italian church—his ticket out of the debilitating pressures and penury of his employment at the Gonzaga court which had even caused him unsuccessfully to seek dismissal from court service in 1608.

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)

February 15th, 2010 No comments

Title page of Monteverdi's 1610 publication

Claudio Monteverdi’s very earliest, youthful publications were sacred, devotional music: a set of Sacrae Cantiunculae published in 1582 when he was only fifteen, and a collection of Madrigali spirituali, issued in 1583. But once he became employed at the ducal court of Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, probably in late 1590 or early 1591, his published works until 1610 consisted entirely of secular music: madrigals, scherzi musicali, and the opera Orfeo.  On September 1, 1610, however, he published a very large and elaborate collection of sacred music comprising a six-voice Missa in illo tempore in a conservative contrapuntal style and the brilliant and variegated Vespro della Beata Vergine employing every modern compositional technique imaginable in the early 17th century.

The Mantuan secular works, including the unpublished but famous opera Arianna, were all connected to particular events and entertainments at court. However, we know from letters and other documents that the Missa in illo tempore was not composed for any specific occasion in Mantua, nor do we have any evidence that the Vespro della Beata Vergine was either. We do know that at least from 1603, Monteverdi was responsible for a great deal of sacred music associated with the court, but until 1610 none of it was published nor does any survive in manuscript. Why would he publish such a large sacred collection in 1610? Read more…

Giovanni Antonio Rigatti

November 7th, 2008 No comments

Giovanni Antonio Rigatti is a name that until recent times was virtually unknown to music history. Living in Venice in the first half of the 17th-century, he has been overshadowed by his famous contemporaries, the chapel masters and vice chapel masters of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice: Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Grandi, Giovanni Rovetta and Francesco Cavalli. Thanks to the research and publications of an international coterie of scholars, Jerome Roche (England), Linda Maria Koldau (Germany), Metoda Kokole (Slovenia) and Gianluca Viglizzo (Italy), both the biography and music of this fascinating composer of the mid-17th century are at long last coming to light. I am especially grateful to Gianluca Viglizzo for sharing with me his as-yet-unpublished article on Rigatti containing new biographical data. Much of the information below is derived from this article and an earlier one by the late Jerome Roche.

Baptized on October 15, 1613 in the Church of San Severo in Venice, Rigatti became a boy singer in the chapel of St. Mark’s under Monteverdi’s direction on September 25, 1621. As with many such boy choristers, his early training led to a musical career as a singer, organist and composer. It is unknown how long he remained at St. Mark’s, but he must have been composing from at least his late teenage years, for his first book of motets for 2, 3 and 4 voices and ripieno choir was published in 1634, and the dedication of his first published collection of madrigals for 2, 3 and 4 voices, issued in 1636, refers to pieces composed “in the spring of my youth.” Also in his teenage years he entered the Patriarchal Seminary in Venice, finally attaining the rank of deacon in 1637. Even before becoming a deacon, Rigatti served for eighteen months (1635-1637) as chapel master at the cathedral in Udine in the Friuli region north of Venice, being cited at his installation as “one of the best musicians of Venice,” certainly a distinction for someone barely 22 years old! Read more…

The Office of Vespers

October 16th, 2008 No comments

When St. Benedict established the first monastic order in Western Christendom in the sixth century A.D., he prescribed round-the-clock prayers for his monks consisting of eight separate services, one every three hours. These services, the primary texts of which were the Old Testament Psalms of David, comprised the Office Hours, and the most prominent became the evening Office, Vespers, from the Latin word for evening.

All of these Offices were sung throughout to music commonly known as Gregorian Chant—a large repertoire of single-line melodies that dates back to the earliest years of the Catholic Church.

At some unknown point in history it became a frequent practice to perform the Vespers service not only in monasteries and monastic churches, but also in public, so-called “secular” churches as well as in the private chapels of nobles and high clerics. Moreover, Vespers services came, in the 15th century, to be occasionally performed at least partly in polyphony rather than exclusively Gregorian Chant. The 15th century was a period of rapid expansion in the quantity of polyphony used in the central public service of the Catholic Church, the Mass, and by the end of the century, polyphony had become more prominent in Vespers services as well. Read more…