Prologo, La Musica
A few reviews of our recording have commented on the lack of ornamentation by Clare Wilkinson in this performance. The reason ornamentation for this piece seems to be in fashion at the moment is because the form of the piece is a series of written out variations over subtly changing versions of the same bass line – just as Tempro la Cetra in fact – and one might expect some ornamentation to vary the sections.
Ornamentation does not necessarily imply roulades of semi-quavers as seem to be wished for (and as favoured in many recent performances and recordings). One remembers the famous letter from Giovanni de’Bardi to singer and player Giulio Caccini c.1580 in which he says, “You will bear in mind that the noblest function a singer can perform is that of giving proper and exact expression to the melody as set down by the composer, not imitating those who aim only at being thought clever (a ridiculous pretension) and who so spoil a madrigal with their ill-ordered passages that even the composer himself would not recognise it as his creation.”
In fact Monteverdi has already ornamented the piece – but not in the unimaginative and crude style some would recognise. The bass line for each section has the same outline but subtly altered to give a feeling of greater variety. The different vocal lines for each section are neither simple repetitions nor completely new; they are related to each other through the similarity of the harmony but wonderfully varied to paint the different text of each verse. Each includes rhythmic changes, back-dottings (like a Scotch snap) and passing dissonance. Clare’s own performance includes a few extra gentle touches in this style.
The piece is already a fabulous bit of expressive writing, as you’d expect from Monteverdi, trying to portray the very soul and power of music in a few short passages. The writing is like a masterchef’s jus, distilled over a day to exactly the right taste and consistency. Imagine the chef’s rage were the waiter to add chilli sauce and salad cream without his knowledge.
Anyone wanting more evidence should read Monteverdi’s own advice/demand to the narrator in Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda where he is strictly told only to ornament a single section of the piece. Otherwise what he has written is good enough. This is not to forbid the odd cadential flourish, but along the lines that Caccini suggests in Le nuove musiche (1602) rather than the ‘more is more’ approach often heard.
Ahi, come a un vago sol cortese giro de’ due belli occhi
First things first; ‘sol’ in the title means ‘single’ and not ‘sun’ as it is commonly printed: so ‘Alas, for a single graceful and kind glance of these beautiful eyes’.
This piece does demand an understanding and familiarity with Monteverdi’s harmonic and expressive language to do it full justice.
Much of the piece is a florid tenor duet over a slow-moving instrumental bass line. The bass line is then realised by accompanying continuo instruments who add chords to the given bass note. In later periods, these bass lines were fully figured, the figures implying specific harmonies, but at this time figures were only partially indicated, leaving the modern performer many questions over which chords to play. What is most usually done (and thus most often heard which explains how the modern listener’s acoustic palette has been tainted) is to play whatever chord is intimated by the notes in the solo vocal parts above.
This is a fundamental misconception for music of this period and above all for Monteverdi. The bass part should be figured simply and diatonically: root position and first inversion chords making simple and recognisable harmonic progressions in themselves. Over this the notes in the vocal parts create passing dissonance which colours expressively loaded words in the text. If one wanted a clear indication that this was right, one only has to look at Monteverdi’s unaccompanied madrigals where so often the bottom three voices provide simple harmony, while, on words of expressive import, the top pair twist and writhe, creating and dissipating dissonance. This is Monteverdi’s own language and part of what he means by the seconda prattica – the second and more modern way of composing in which one could use dissonance and other colouristic devices to paint the meaning in the text.
Faced with a piece like this in which very little figuring is given, one figures as simply as possible, verifying that the result is in the right style and that any passing dissonance is in the style of what he has written incontrovertibly elsewhere. The alternative is to follow the vocal parts, playing the chord they sing at any one point, which not only produces a ridiculously unidiosyncratically busy and fiddly harmony but also loses the expressive colours of, for example, a minor chord high in the texture above a low major chord, one of Monteverdi’s favourite colours to express pain and anguish.
At the end of ‘Ahi come a un vago sol cortese giro’, the cry ‘Ahi’, (alas) becomes more and more insistent and impassioned until on the penultimate harmonic step of the piece, Monteverdi writes an astonishingly impassioned exclamation as the top voices, high in their ranges, sing a second inversion D minor chord above an A in the bass. The foolish virgin here plays a D minor chord with the voices, missing the tremendous angst, so clearly intended, between the A chord in accompaniment and D minor in the voices. The wise virgin, on the other hand, knows that the clash is intended between the bass instruments’ A chord and the voices’ D minor but plays an A minor chord either side of it, swayed by the A minor chord in the voices just before it. The question then arises as to what A chord to play. The brave and idiomatic decision is to play A major through the whole bar, on the principle that the simple chord sequence is a major dominant (as it must be before the tonic) – this then provides an amazing clash (but acoustically ‘right’ with the major third at the bottom and the minor at the top) of A minor in the upper voices either side of the D minor before the voices finally resolve on the penultimate note of the piece.
A prefatory indication of this angst appears over the few bars previous to this starting in b.8 of the example where the tenor changes from C# to C natural to emphasize ‘non’. The accompaniment, I maintain, should continue to play A major (with C#) throughout the bar. It continues with the tenor pushing up a tone on the second minim of every bar against, I maintain, simple root position chords in the accompaniment, providing a surging feeling.
It’s amazing how much this approach surprises some continuo players and audients. Yet the resulting harmony is to be found in his a capella music whereas the alternative fussy and busy harmony, missing the crucial colours, is unidiomatic and sounds wrong to those who know his a capella music.
Con che soavita, labbra odorate
Thoughts on this here taken from the CD sleeve note.
‘Con che soavità’ is written for solo voice and three instrumental ‘choirs’. All three choirs include a bass line for continuo instruments to realise and, unusually, some indication is given in the original partbooks as to which ones.
Choir I is marked ‘per duoi Chitaroni e Clavicembalo e Spinetta’ (for two chitarroni and harpsichord and virginals), Choir II ‘Per il Clavicembano’ [sic] (for harpsichord). The continuo part of Choir III is not assigned a specific instrument.
One convincing reading of this information is that the list of instruments in the continuo part of Choir I is in fact a list of the continuo instruments Monteverdi wants for the whole piece. Why, otherwise, carefully identify four instruments for Choir I, one for Choir II and none for Choir III? Such a reading would imply two chitarroni for Choir I, an established combination, harpsichord for Choir II (as, in fact, specified), with virginals for Choir III. The nomenclature of the other instrumental parts implies a violin family for Choir II while Choir III lists ‘Viola da Braccio overo da gamba’, ‘Basso da Braccio overo da gamba’ and ‘Per il contrabasso’. This is presumably intentionally vague to allow different solutions.
The three parts in this third ‘choir’ play slowly and in mostly the same rhythm, and always to denote the poet’s longed-for sweetness. We have therefore used three identical instruments – the violone, or great bass viol, a sweeter and more mellow sound than the violin family. The intriguing mix of a trio of such sweet-sounding low string voices with virginals I have not discovered elsewhere, but then the specifying of continuo instruments at all is uncommon. This may not be a final solution but it is an interesting one.
This awesomely beautiful cycle is characterised throughout by a minor colour which befits its sad text. Yet in a brilliant stroke of colouration, at the moment of most intense grief in the third section at the words, ‘Questa è ben, empi’Amor, miseria estrema,’ – ‘This, wicked Love, is truly the greatest pain’, Monteverdi reverts to the major key but in a passage of unbearable pathos, with harmony more redolent of Stanford than Monteverdi.
One review suggested it a shame that a baritone sang this piece rather than a tenor – the piece originating from a ‘tenor’ partbook. In fact partbooks of the time refer to four general ranges which are only partly related to their modern counterpart. The top part is ‘Cantus’ and this refers to everything sung by a female in secular books and by boys, castrati or falsettists singing the top line in sacred music.
The next part is ‘Altus’ which often refers to a C3 clef which ranges from the f below middle c to the a above it. This part is particularly problematic as it fits very very few modern singers. It is regularly too low for altos as the bottom range is used much as a modern tenor, needing real strength in the low part of the range. Yet in the top end, the voice usually has to sing lightly. Many modern tenors do not enjoy ‘crooning’ in this way. Some modern countertenors sing these parts but have to cut to their baritone/chest voice for the bottom end. This can work chorally if the writing is not exposed as with the top ‘tenor’ of some male-voice groups today that use their head-voice/falsetto at the top of their range. However for solo-writing this rarely works as the break between head and chest voice is too obvious. The solution in recent years with some professional ensembles is to ask tenors to sing in the high part of their range which few enjoy!
The next partbook is the ‘tenor’ which generally covers a range from the C below middle c to the f above middle C. This relates more to a light baritone than a modern tenor and the part often goes a further minor 3rd below. Modern tenors regularly complain that there is no comfortable part for their voice. The bass is less problematic.
Of course this all relates to what performing pitch one is working at but even transposing up by a semitone to match current theories of 16th century north Italian pitch doesn’t affect the basic questions.
So what I, and I think many directors, do is to look at the individual piece and to work out which singers would work best on that part – . ‘Partenza amorosa’ is very low for most tenors. I could have transposed it up a tone for a tenor or down a tone for a baritone and I chose the latter.
The last section of this wonderful piece throws up an intriguing question of colour. After the long chromatic polyphonic section, for which the piece is famous, the music stops and the last phrase is sung in simple chordal movement, a most effective gesture.
This last passage is in two sections, the second (b.14-end on the example below) a modified repeat of the first (b.1-14). In the first section, certain notes are given accidentals (extra sharp and flats outside the mode/key) to give the music a particular bite to the grief in the words, ‘Spargea di pianto le vermiglie gote’ (she covered with tears her crimson cheeks). Specifically it’s the B flat against the D major chord on ‘-mi-glie’ in b.12, making a diminished fourth between Bb and F# which is so powerful.
In the transposed repeat of this second section, the crucial sharp to the second voice C in b.20 (which would repeat the bitter diminished fourth interval) is not there. Does this mean Monteverdi forgot to write it in – or the printer missed it? Or that Monteverdi wanted to take the bite out of the phrase the second (final) time so that this powerful madrigal, the last in the book (a place that he had traditionally reserved for a plangent and moving work), should be come to its end more gradually?
On both occasions we have recorded this work (on Flaming Heart and for the soundtrack of The Full Monteverdi), we chose not to insert the C#. I must admit that I was swayed by the singers, who simply preferred the more modal version.
A particular chord that caused much discussion between Carys Lane (soprano), John La Bouchardière (director of The Full Monteverdi) and me was the written D minor chord on ‘-prie’ eight bars before the end. Functioning as a simple dominant to the G major that follows, it cries out for an F# to make the chord a major dominant, as it would normally be, the composer simply expecting the singer to add something so obvious (there is plenty of precedent for this). Both Carys and John wanted to keep the F natural, as to them the major implied something positive. To me that was a modern reading and so we recorded it as a major chord here but Carys sings it in the show as a minor. Typical British compromise.
© Robert Hollingworth 2006