Claudio Monteverdi’s Total Eclipse of the Renaissance

Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi inhabited a changing landscape; the high-minded, heavenly polyphony of the renaissance was gradually giving way to the more prosaic and popularly oriented sound of the baroque. 2017 marks the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s baptism in Cremona on May 15, 1567.

On April 9th, 1567 the city of Rome was only 2 km from the ‘path of totality’ many are now racing to in the United States to observe the total eclipse to occur on Monday, August 21. The soon-to-be-born Monteverdi would rise to redress the sunny counterpoint of Roman masters in order to delve into the messy business of human emotions, psychology and the brutality of war.

The title page of Madrigali guerreri et amorosi, 1638. It was never reprinted in its time, and only three complete copies survive today.

In 1638 – very late in his career – Monteverdi compiled a huge publication, Madrigali guerreri at amorosi (“Madrigals of Love and War” or Eighth Book of Madrigals) which drew from his entire output and contained several of the works he felt represented his personal best.

In the past decade, conductor and leader of the ensemble Delitiae Musicae Marco Longhini has acted as Naxos’ point man on the Italian madrigal, recording all of the madrigals of Don Carlo Gesualdo and swiftly approaching a complete survey of Monteverdi’s products in the genre.

While many of the madrigals in the Eighth Book have been recorded as separate items, Naxos’ Madrigals Book 8 Madrigali guerreri at amorosi is the first time the entire publication has been presented as a single unit. It consists of 4 CDs that run the gamut from the four-minute “Ardo, avvampo” up to Ballo della ingrate, which takes up the whole of the fourth CD at 48 minutes.

What’s in a Madrigal?

When the madrigal is considered in English-speaking lands, we usually think of the English madrigal specifically; a short, sprightly piece for several voices where they sing “Fa-la-la-la-lah” a lot.

Not so in Monteverdi, where numerous madrigals are often combined into a piece that has an overall dramatic import, such as Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a sort of mini-opera which relates the story, from Tasso, of a knight engaged in a battle to the death with a ferocious enemy only to discover that his foe is female.

As enticing as the dramatic possibilities may seem in such music, one cannot just open the book and perform it. Monteverdi was one of the first composers to incorporate instrumental parts into his printed music. These are often very sketchy and can involve any number of instruments, and one must make decisions about how best to realize the instrumental texture. A central element in Monteverdi’s vocal writing involves the use of stile concitato, a rapid pattern of repeated notes that is not intuitive for present-day singers and requires cultivation.

Longhini and his group take each of the 21 madrigals in the Eighth Book as a special case and – admirably – utilize distance between singers as a way to orient their relationships in the sonic perspective, guided by the content of the texts. Monteverdi is specific in some cases about the spatial such as in Lamento della ninfa (“Lament of the Nymph”), where the ‘nymph’ – a soprano – sings in the foreground, whereas her three, lower-voiced suitors sing in the distance.

Then there is the matter of just singing this stuff; Monteverdi utilizes some hair-raising dissonances for dramatic effect, such as a cluster chord in the Lamento that comes at the end of some already very close harmonies, or the near-continuous downward spiral of Altri canti di Marte.

Longhini’s singers do an excellent job of contending with these various vocal challenges and maintaining a high level of performance and interpretation throughout all four discs in this set.

I’d like to mention in particular the contribution of bass Walter Testolin, who can get down to very low in the bass range and still remain very strong and in tune; you must hear it to believe it.

Monteverdi and the Baroque

Monteverdi was not the first composer to avail himself of baroque conceits, and he did so only after fully embracing the familiar practices of the late renaissance. But he was the first to synthesize these various ideas into a new kind of music, and in his own time had a reputation analogous to Beethoven; either you followed his ideals or held fast to established practices.

Monteverdi was so far ahead of his time that two more generations of composers in the old style still came forth after he died in 1643. But by that time, Monteverdi himself was becoming a forgotten man. The notion of “repertoire” – the practice of reviving and performing older music – did not become established outside of the church until the late eighteenth century, and Monteverdi had to wait yet another century for his turn.

In the meantime, much of his music disappeared. Subtracting a dry spell that occurred in the 1610s and a more serious crisis of confidence that blindsided him in the 1630s, Monteverdi was active as a composer for more than sixty years. Yet of the 17 works that he created which can reasonably be considered “operas,” we have three.

So in a sense, throughout the ages to follow him, Monteverdi experienced a total eclipse of his own. Restoring to him his place in the sun is no easy task, but Longhini and Delitiae Musicae have brought to these lesser heard Monteverdi madrigals an artistry and sense of continuity that is equal to, and sometimes better than, more common realizations of his three surviving operas.

Though the total eclipse on August 21 will pass into history after mere minutes, there are parts of Madrigals Book 8 Madrigali guerreri at amorosi that are addictive, and you’ll want to return to again and again. At his best, Monteverdi sounds strangely contemporary; a musician leading the way for his contemporaries, but so skilled at understanding the psychological and emotional potential of music that some of his work sounds out of its time.

As Monteverdi himself once said, “The aim of all good music is to affect the soul.”

David “Uncle Dave” Lewis is the co-host of WTJU’s “The Early Music Show” which airs on Mondays between 7-9 PM. He will present music from this album as part of an all-Monteverdi tribute on the upcoming episode of The Early Music Show to air August 21, 2017.

Monteverdi: Madrigals Book 8 Madrigali guerreri at amorosi
Delitiae Musicae;  Marco Longhini, director
Naxos Records
4 CD Set

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