Monteverdi, Masters and Poets – Imitation and Emulation

Vincenzo Giustiniani’s account (in his Discorso sopra la musica,
c.1630) of the technical accomplishments and elegant stylisation of the concerto delle donne who performed at the Ferrarese court of
during the late sixteenth-century, might equally describe the vocal
refinement and rich expressiveness demonstrated by the soloists of Les Arts
Florissants during this concert of music inspired by the poetry of Torquato
Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini.

Between 2011 and 2015, Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants undertook the
enormous challenge of performing and recording the eight Books of Claudio
Monteverdi’s madrigals. Here, with Monteverdi’s Mantuan years as the focus,
the six singers performed madrigals drawn from the composer’s first five
Books, juxtaposed with settings of the same texts by those whose example
and influence shaped Monteverdi’s response to the vivid images, ruminative
conceits and passionate exultations of the poetry.

Ferrara and Mantua were startling vibrant cultural centres under the
courtly patronage of Alfonso II d’Este and Vincenzo Gonzaga respectively.
Vincenzo, who succeeded his father Guglielmo in September 1587, seems to
have relished the lively social and artistic milieu cultivated by Alfonso
and his wife, Margherita Gonzaga, which contrasted with the more austere
court at Mantua. It was at Ferrara that he gained a grounding in the
literary and musical arts, and formed friendships with Tasso and Guarini.
There was an animated interplay of musical forces between Ferrara and
Mantua – one might describe it as a sort of ‘cultural espionage’ as the
courtly performers vied with each other with regard to technique and timbre
– and the 1580s witnessed a flourishing of artistic experimentation at
Mantua which resulted in startling, novel forms and styles of singing and

The soloists of Les Arts Florissants, led by tenor and director Paul Agnew,
demonstrated full and effortless command of the new vocal techniques that
were described by Caccini in the Introduction to Le nuove musiche
of 1602, and which embody the philosophical ambitions of what was termed
the seconda prattica: that is, the ornamented declamatory style in
which the music was governed by the sentiments of the text. This justified
the freer treatment of dissonance, but equally, composers sought texts that
expressed extremes of emotion, and attentively squeezed every drop of
feeling from the individual words.

The performers’ technical ease, expressive finesse and dramatic directness
were equally striking. Every phrase had individuality, animation and
shapeliness; cadences were thoughtfully effected, with dynamic shading and
judicious ornament. The vocal blend was beguiling, but from tranquil or
comforting timbral consonances, individual voices pushed assertively
forward: by turns angry, despairing, pleading, accusatory. Theatricality
predominated: the singers were very much off score, facing the audience,
turning towards each other; bowing, swaying, smiling, frowning. In
assertive episodes the words quite literally seemed to leap and dance, but
the diction was no less clear in the more subdued passages. Chromatic
twists and contortions were savoured and wherever the modulations strayed,
the intonation remained true. Dissonances and suspensions were allowed to
linger, where it was shrewd to do so. Time and again, Miriam Allan’s
soprano rose with radiant purity above the other voices; she was joined by
Hannah Morrison – who sang with directness and animation – and Lucille
Richardot to form a gleaming efflorescence of colour – recalling the famed
‘Three Ladies of Ferrara’, Laura Peverara, Anna Guarini and Livia d’Arco,
who starred at the Ferrarese could during these years. Tenor Sean Clayton
formed a supple, soft-grained complement to Agnew’s declamatory energy and
forthrightness. At the bottom Cyril Costanzo was warm-toned and as steady
as a rock, an anchor for the roving, contending explorations and
elaborations above.

The ensemble began with three settings of paired texts in which Tasso’s
‘Ardi e gela ‡ tua voglia’ (You can burn or freeze as you wish) formed a
riposte to Guarini’s ‘Ardo sÏ ma no t’amo’ (Yes, I burn but I don’t love
you). Such intertextual references became increasingly common in cinquecento secular polyphony and these two texts were the first
such pair in what was to become a prominent tradition.

Orazio Vecchi’s Guarini setting (‡ 6) was characterised by restlessness
though there was self-composure in the penultimate line, ‘Perch’ho gi‡ sano
il core’ (for already I have healed my heart). Tasso’s riposte grew into
furious outbursts when the protagonist scorned the lover’s suffering – full
textures being reserved for key lines of text. The personas in the poem
seemed to be represented by contrasting high and low voices, creating drama
and rhetoric, especially with repetitions of ‘E se l’amor fu vano’ (and if
love was in vain). Marc’Antonio Ingegneri is known to have taught
Monteverdi, when he was maestro di cappella of the cathedral in
Cremona during the 1580s. His five-voice setting unfolded Guarini’s
accusations more gently, while Tasso’s contemptuous rejection was
communicated by energetic counterpoint and an assertive high tenor line.
Monteverdi himself exchanges a contralto for a tenor, in a vibrant setting
(from the First Book) in which the high soprano line shone brightly, and
which seemed to teem with real human emotion. Also from the First Book,
‘Baci soavi e cari’ (Sweet, precious kisses (SSATB)) swelled with
bittersweet suspensions; the female trio slowed with exquisite delicacy for
the declaration, ‘O dolcissime rose/ In voi tutto ripose’ (Everything rests
in you, softest of roses).

In ‘Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori’ (My Cloris was sleeping sweetly
(SSTTB), from the Second Book of 1590), Costanzo’s sure bass was a firm
foundation for the twisting progressions which follow the serene opening
portrait of the sleeping nymph. The expansive ‘Non si levav’ancor l’alba
novella’ (The new day had not yet dawned (SSATB)) emerged hesitantly from a
beautiful pianissimo as the upper voices held long notes above the
lower voices moving lines – a gesture which Monteverdi borrowed from Luca
Marenzio’s setting of the same text. Surprisingly this did not precede
Monteverdi’s madrigal, Agnew preferring Marenzio’s ‘Non vidi mai dopo
notturna pioggia’ with its meandering depiction of the ‘wandering stars’
which evade the poet-speaker’s vision and its plummeting image of
weariness, as the spirit finds rest from pain. Both ‘Non si levav’ancor’
and ‘Se tu mi lassi, perfida, tuo danno’ (If you leave me, faithless one,
it’s your loss!) were enlivened by vivacious points of imitations and
canzonetta-like rhythms.

Before the interval, the music of Giaches de Wert was introduced. In 1565
the Gonzaga family appointed Wert maestro di cappella at the
recently completed ducal chapel of Santa Barbara and he remained in this
role until 1592. Monteverdi thus spent his earliest years at Mantua during
Wert’s final ones. During the 1570s increasing involvement with the Este
court at Ferrara brought Wert into close contact with Tasso and Guarini, as
is evidenced his seventh book of madrigals (1577) whose settings of the
poets’ epic verse are dramatic and full of theatrical contrasts. ‘Vezzosi
augelli’ (Joyous birds) comes from the eighth book (1586): the fleetly
running upper parts – a hallmark of madrigals written for the concerto delle donne and imitated by composers such as Benedetto
Pallavicino and Monteverdi himself – demanded great precision and
virtuosity from the three female singers, while Costanzo, too, skilfully
met the florid challenges of the close. Wert’s detailed response to the
text is echoed in Monteverdi’s ‘Ecco mormorar l’onde’ (Hear the murmuring
waves), in which Tasso’s tight images trigger picturesque musical gestures.
The two birds which ‘gently sing’ were beautifully represented by the
falling soprano voices, their unison descent blossoming into a joyful
exclamation at the sight of dawn. ‘O primavera, giovent˘ de l’anno’ (O
springtime, youth of the year (SSATB)) from Book Three featured an
extraordinary sequence of suspensions at the close which was supported with
gentle but focused understatement by Costanzo.

After the interval, the drama of Wert’s ‘Forsennata gridava’ – forcefully
directed by Agnew, especially at the close – was complemented by the
rhetorical explosiveness of Monteverdi’s ‘Vattene, pur crudel’ (Go, wicked
man, (Book Three)) in which the individual voices emerged from the texture
with striking insistence, building towards the collective assertiveness of
the final stanza, and the final, weighty oratorical gesture, ‘Invendicata
ancor piango,/ e m’assido’ (do I, still unavenged, weep and implore?).
‘Ch’io non t’ami’ (‡ 6) was a highlight of the evening, with the singers
creating an exciting sense of innovation and newness – a hint of the
radicalism to come. Such radicalism was represented by ‘Ah, dolente
partita!’ which, though published in the Fourth Book which followed ten
years after the Third, had first appeared in an anthology in 1597 just two
years after Wert’s setting. While the debt of the younger composer to the
elder is evident – in general and particular terms (Monteverdi’s pairing of
the sopranos pays homage to Wert’s setting) – Monteverdi’s risk-taking now
takes flight: Wert’s thirds are replaced by biting dissonances, and the
descent, ‘La pena de la morte’ (the pain of death) in Wert’s setting is
taken up and repeated compulsively to convey excessive suffering.

We closed, as we began, with three settings of the same text: Guarini’s
‘Cruda Amarilli’ (Cruel Amaryllis). The strange intervallic dissonances and
varying meters of Benedetto Pallavicino (1600), were followed by Wert’s
powerfully surging lines – the rolling r’s were articulated with startling
incisiveness and bite. The vivid freedom of Monteverdi’s response to
Guarini’s Il pastor fido brought the programme to a close. It was
this madrigal, which opened the Fifth Book of 1605 which provoked criticism
from the polemist Artusi, who attacked Monteverdi’s use of dissonance. In
fact, Monteverdi’s dissonances seem tamer than Artusi’s accusations of
harmonic ‘wrong-doing’ suggest: what was made apparent here, though, was
the expressive humanity of Monteverdi’s setting. Orfeo was just
two years ahead, and the soloists of Les Arts Florissants showed us that
the notion of opera as a ‘drama in music’, a depiction of human psychology
is writ large in this musical embodiment of Mirtillo’s complaint: ‘Poi che
col dir t’offendo,/ I’ mi morrÚ tacendo’ (Since I offend you with my words,
I shall die in silence).

Claire Seymour

Monteverdi: Masters and Poets – Imitation and Emulation:

Soloists of Les Arts Florissants: Paul Agnew – director, tenor, Miriam
Allan & Hannah Morrison – soprano, Lucile Richardot – contralto, Sean
Clayton – tenor, Cyril Costanzo – bass

Vecchi – ‘Ardo sÏ, ma non t’amo’; Ingegneri – ‘Ardo sÏ, ma non t’amo’;
Monteverdi – ‘Ardo sÏ, ma non t’amo’, ‘Baci soavi e cari’, ‘Dolcemente
dormiva la mia Clori’; Marenzio – ‘Non vidi mai dopo notturna pioggia’;
Monteverdi – ‘Non si levav’ancor l’alba novella’, ‘Se tu mi lasci, perfida,
tuo danno’; Wert – ‘Vezzosi augelli’; Monteverdi – ‘Ecco mormorar l’onde’,
‘O primavera, giovent˙ dell’anno’; Wert – ‘Forsennata gridava’; Monteverdi
– ‘Vattene pur, crudel, con quella pace’, ‘Ch’io t’ami e t’ami pi˘ de la
mia vita’; Wert – ‘Ah dolente partita’; Monteverdi – ‘Ah dolente partita’,
‘Piagne e sospira, e quando i caldi raggi’; Pallavicino – ‘Cruda Amarilli’;
Wert – ‘Cruda Amarilli’; Monteverdi – ‘Cruda Amarilli’.

Wigmore Hall, London; 16th January 2017.

image_description=Les Arts Florissants at the Wigmore Hall
product_title=Les Arts Florissants at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Paul Agnew

Photo credit: Denis Rouvre