Monteverdi’s madrigals. Formless beauty.

The release this month of Delitiae Musicae’s final volume in their Monteverdi Madrigals series affords the opportunity to do a brief survey of each of the nine books of the composer’s madrigals that were published. Each volume in Delitiae Musicae’s edition is accompanied by authoritative notes by their conductor Marco Longhini, from which the following narrative has been drawn.

Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona, Italy in 1567 and died in Venice in 1643, aged seventy-six. His First Book of Madrigals for five voices was published in Venice in 1587 when he was only nineteen. The collection took up one of music’s greatest challenges – the madrigal. This was a secular work par excellence, a genre without a form in that it’s shaped around the lyrics that inspire and sustain it. These early works display a wonderful variety of light and shade, highly effective melodies, and intricate harmonies. These were the seeds for Monteverdi’s mature works, which would change composition for ever and mark the divide between the music of the past and that which we might define as modern.

Ch’ami la vita mia (That I love my life) is a good place to start. It exhibits the young composer’s mature and dramatic use of musical episodes. In repeating the lyrics at different pitches and with different timbres and making intelligent use of colour contrast to reflect textual antitheses, Monteverdi succeeds in building up the tension until the final catharsis.

Ch’ami la vita mia (8.555307)


In the Second Book of Madrigals, published three years later, Monteverdi moves almost completely away from the repetitive structure typical of Book One and towards the canvas of ’a form without a form’. The poetry and images he chose reflect the two favourite themes of court culture of the day: love and nature.

On the amorous side of the coin is Mentr’io mirava fiso (While I was gazing into my lady’s lovely, glowing eyes). It’s a masterpiece of counterpoint with a rapid whirl of superimposed and contrasting texts and melodies, perfectly depicting the confusion and bewilderment caused by Love. Struck by Cupid’s arrows, the man abandons himself to desperate cries for help in the second part of the madrigal, with its slow-moving, dissonant vertical harmonies.

Mentr’io mirava fiso (8.555308)


The Third Book of Madrigals was published in 1592, when Monteverdi was 25. It sold extremely well, necessitating five reprints; and two further editions were published in 1615 and 1621. This clearly shows that these madrigals were in the performance repertoire for more than thirty years, which is quite remarkable given the rapidly changing tastes at the turn of the 16th century and the development of opera.

Two years prior to the book’s first publication, Monteverdi had been engaged by the Gonzaga family at the court of Mantua. In dedicating the Third Book to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, Monteverdi was hoping to rise through the courtly musical ranks, and the style is clearly influenced by the many magnificent aspects of the Mantuan court, including its musical, literary and architectural splendours.

One of the Third Book’s most famous pieces is O primavera, gioventù dell’anno (O spring, season of youth). The text contrasts Nature’s promise of the joy of new life and an unhappy lover nostalgically recalling a love now lost for ever. The music reflects these sentiments with its fast playful episodes contrasting with others of slow, painful dissonance.

O primavera, gioventù dell’anno (8.555309)


The Fourth Book wasn’t published until 1603, a good eleven years after the Third. What caused such an extended break? The answer is long and involved and worthy of a separate investigation. Suffice to say here that the years were filled with travel, turmoils, marriage and attempts at professional road-blocks. The dedication of the Fourth Book, however, was a diplomatic masterpiece. By offering the work to the Accademia degli Intrepidi of Ferrara, founded two years earlier in 1601, it pays tribute both to the cultural environment in which the madrigals had initially been commissioned and performed, and, indirectly, to Mantua and Vincenzo, one of the Accademia’s most eminent members.

Let’s hear the madrigal that opens Book Four, Ah, dolente partita (Ah, sorrowful lot). Two voices sing the first few notes in unison, then divide into separate melodic lines generating a string of haunting discords. The other voices similar express themselves in dissonant division. Here, word-painting is used not to create musical plays on words, but to express the pure human emotion of alienation, dissonance and grief.

Ah, dolente partita (8.555310)


Published in 1605, Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals took even further this experimentation with expressive writing. He had already attracted the ire of traditional theorists, principally the composer Giovanni Maria Artusi and his polemic publications, but Monteverdi deftly put him down with his comment that “I do not do things at random” before asserting that his style was destined to be known as “Second Practice, or Perfection of Modern Music”. The power of this new idiom was to sweep inexorably over the old world during the next few years.

As an example, here’s Era l’anima mia (It was my soul) from Book Five. It must have been difficult for champions of the old style like Artusi to understand the brilliance of such pieces, in which the new contrasting sounds and tonal effects are so exhilarating.


Era l’anima mia (8.555311)


By the time of the publication of Book Six in 1614 a new art form, opera, had been born and was proving hugely popular. In opera the emphasis was on expression by a solo voice with simple instrumental accompaniment, rather than that achieved by multi-layers of voices. Monteverdi had composed his opera Arianna in 1607 and 1608. Sadly, all the music is lost apart from an extended recitative titled Arianna’s Lament. Happily, we can hear this in the two versions that Monteverdi made of the text and that demonstrate the stylistic transition from madrigal-style to operatic language. The first clip is the opening of the solo voice version; the second is the complete performance of the 5-voice version.

Arianna’s Lament (solo) (8.555312-13)


Arianna’s Lament (5-part) (8.555312-13)


In 1614, the year Book 6 was published, Monteverdi moved from Mantua to Venice, a city of innovation and the centre of a new concept of power, namely the Republic. Venice was not ruled over by a duke or a prince: it enjoyed full political and religious autonomy. In embracing the city, Monteverdi was embracing a different concept of culture and setting out in an entirely new compositional direction, far from life at court and princely subjugation.

The combination of these circumstances and the fact that Monteverdi had a natural propensity for experimentation led him to publish a collection of madrigals in his Seventh Book that represented a clear break with his earlier publications. The old five-voice madrigal has vanished, with around half the pieces written for only two voices.

This spirit of innovation can be heard in Io son pur vezzosetta pastorella for two voices. The words translate as follows:

I am a pretty young shepherdess,
with cheeks of rose and jasmine,
my brow and my golden locks
liken me to a new-found dryad.

There is no noble maiden here,
nor any of a crowd of fine gentlemen,
who when I meet them and curtsey
would not grant that I am the fairest flower.

And when on feast days I go to the dance,
every shepherd, hoping I may invite him, brings me
mirrors, flowers, fruit and strings of coral.

Yet, dear Lydius, are my glances
not welcome to you?
And shall I always ask you in vain,
cruel one, for your help?

Io son pur vezzosetta pastorella (8.555314-16)


The Eighth Book of Madrigals contains some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of music, yet it was never reprinted following its publication in 1638, nearly two decades after Book Seven. And today, only three complete copies survive, housed in libraries in Bologna, Paris and Washington.

Monteverdi described his latest musical development in the Preface to Book Eight, as follows:

I have observed that of all our passions … three are dominant—Anger, Moderation and Humility … These are clearly reflected in the art of music in the three terms ”agitated”, “soft” and ”moderate”: I have found examples of the ”soft“ and the ”moderate“ in the music of earlier composers, but not of the ”agitated“ …  described by Plato … as follows: ”take that harmony that fittingly imitates the utterances and tones of a brave man going into battle”). In the knowledge that it is the play of opposites that greatly moves our mind, which should be the purpose of all good music … I have devoted my studies and efforts to rediscovering this genus. In the pyrrhic measure the tempo is fast … and uses warlike, agitated leaps, while in the spondaic measure the tempo is slow and the opposite. I therefore began to consider the semibreve, and proposed that sounded once it should correspond to one spondaic measure; when this was divided into sixteen semiquavers, sounded one after the other, and combined with words expressing anger and scorn, I found a resemblance to the effect I was seeking.

Let’s listen to two extracts from Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda that demonstrate this new sound world. First the opening Tancredi, che Clorinda un uomo stima, followed by Non schivar, non parar.

Tancredi, che Clorinda un uomo stima (8.573755-58)


Non schivar, non parar (8.573755-58)


The Ninth Book of Madrigals was published posthumously and comprises works from two publications that were compiled by someone else, not by Monteverdi, who seems to have considered them  relatively less deserving of being printed in a book of their own; there is also some duplication of  pieces that were included in previous volumes. The recording by Delitiae Musicae under Marco Longhini also includes a set of lighter pieces, the Scherzi musicali, which were published some years earlier in 1632, when Venice was just emerging from a plague epidemic. It was therefore astute of the publisher, Bartolomeo Magni, to make a smaller and more affordable compilation available for singers to enjoy. And we can end by enjoying a performance of one of those Scherzi musicali, Quel sguardo sdegnosetto (That scornful glance).

Quel sguardo sdegnosetto (8.555318)

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