Madrigals of War and Love

Claudio Monteverdi

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In 1638, Claudio Monteverdi, the seventy-one year-old music director of the ducal church of St. Mark’s in Venice, published his Eighth Book of Madrigals, the final collection of his secular music to be issued in his lifetime. He had last published a set of secular compositions in 1619, so the Eighth Book has a retrospective character, bringing together music written as early as 1608, and including one large work from 1624 and a variety of other compositions whose origins are unknown but which probably span the entire period 1619-1638.

This unusually large collection was dedicated to Ferdinand III, the newly crowned Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna, whose mother was a member of the ducal family of the Gonazagas, former rulers of Mantua in northern Italy, where the early part of Monteverdi’s career had unfolded and to which he was still connected by various threads.

Monteverdi subtitled the Eighth Book Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo (“Madrigals of war and love with some pieces in the theatrical style”), and the texts repeatedly expound the interlocking themes of love and war– the warrior as lover, the lover as warrior and the war between the sexes. The relationship between love and war had been a common Italian poetic conceit every since the time of Petrarch in the 14th century, and had been given additional impetus by its prominence in Torquato Tasso’s late 16th century epic poem, Gerusalemme Liberata (“Jerusalem Liberated”).

The madrigals of the Eighth Book are for voices and instruments, developing further an Italian form with a hundred years of history. Those pieces designated in genere rappresentativo, however, exemplify the more recent genre of dramatic works that were costumed, staged and danced. The principal feature of these compositions is their reliance on the stile recitativo, the recitative, or reciting style of singing that the first composers of opera, Monteverdi included, had originated for the expression of dramatic texts. The recitative style is a kind of heightened speech, harmonically supported by the basso continuo (consisting principally of a harpsichord or other fully harmonic instrument, such as an organ or bass lute), and carefully shaped to emphasize the rhetorical aspects of the text and transmit its emotional significance to the listener.

Monteverdi affixed an explanatory preface to the Eighth Book, a theoretically important, though sometimes confusing description of what he had tried to achieve in this music. The composer describes three emotional levels, which he also calls styles. Two of these, the “soft” style (stile molle) for languishing and sorrowful emotions, and the “tempered” style (stile temperato) for emotionally neutral recitations, he says had long been in use. But the third style, the “agitated” style, (stile concitato), Monteverdi claims to have invented himself. The musical depiction of this style consists of very rapid reiterations of the same pitch on string instruments, like a modern measured tremolo, and equally rapid reiterations of the supporting chord in the harpsichord or other continuo instrument.

Such repeated notes and repeated chords had, in fact, been frequently used in compositions depicting battles for nearly a century, but for Monteverdi the stile concitato meant more than merely a musical metaphor for the rapid physical activity of fighting.  It was also a specific emotional style–a musical means for interpreting the emotional agitation of the protagonists and conveying that agitation to the audience. The stile concitato, therefore, serves both a pictorial and a psychological function in Monteverdi’s music.

Adapted from program notes written by Jeffrey Kurtzman for Magnificat’s 2000 performances of selections from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals.

Background image from Paolo Veronese, Venus and Mars United by Love, 1570s, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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