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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

114. Listening Recommendations – Claudio Monteverdi and His Circle

My new listening in recent weeks has centered on the Italian Baroque, specifically Venice in the 1640s, 1650s, and 1660s. This is my delayed second unit in the Fifth Rotation, following on the first unit, Music of the Renaissance and Reformation, which I had described back in July. The essential idea was to examine Claudio Monteverdi’s later compositions—past the Fifth Book of Madrigals, the opera L’Orfeo, and the 1610 Vespers, which I know so well—and also works of his contemporaries active in Venice. Monteverdi is the major figure at the outset of the Baroque; he is the composer whose music opens this era in the same pivotal way as Johann Sebastian Bach closes it. That is not to say either composer has exclusive rights as the “inventor” or “culmination” of the Baroque, but their contributions were certainly the most definitive and their compositions represent most clearly what we view as early and late Baroque respectively. I would say they might also be my two favorites among Baroque composers as much as I also enjoy Heinrich Schütz, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a several others. As relates to my first unit, this set of CDs makes a sizeable jump forward in time (about fifty years); it also narrows its focus to a specific locale (Venice) whereas the previous unit had surveyed the whole of Western Europe over a span of two hundred years. This narrowing, however, reflects that subsequent units will also limit their focus to specific regions—Germany, France, and England immediately—while I plan for next year’s units to broaden even further—to Turkey, Russia, Spain, and the Americas. These will progressively consider the same window in time, from 1600 or earlier to approximately 1750 and the close of the Baroque.

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): MADRIGALS, BOOK EIGHT. Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, subtitled Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi, is his second-to-last book and perhaps his crowning achievement in the genre. Yet I sat wondering as I traversed the four discs, “how are these still madrigals?” My conclusion, reaffirmed by former thesis advisor Devin Burke who teaches a seminar on the madrigal, was that certainly by the early seventeenth century what we study as the “classic madrigal,” often five voices singing in a mix of close imitation and collective declamation, really had no meaning to Monteverdi and his circle. The madrigal was now a vehicle for experimentation and, foremost, for expression. The madrigals of the Eighth Book are concerted (require instrumental participation); can be for any number of voices, even a solo vocalist; often contrast these voices in an antiphonal texture; can be staged as miniature operas; and some even take the shape of ballets. This for me marks the whole spirit of Venice in the seventeenth century—a climate of experimentation—summarized so perfectly in the phrase by Biagio Marini, “curious and modern invention,” which is applied as the title of the Marini CD below. Monteverdi’s talk of a seconda prattica, a “second practice,” at the beginning of the century has prevailed, and this spirit carries still later into the publications of another Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi, in the early eighteenth century with their titles, “harmonic inspiration,” “eccentricity,” and “the contest between harmony and invention.” This experimental spirit, nevertheless, feels pretty exclusive to Venice, with the exception of Heinrich Biber and his Austrian circle at the close of the seventeenth century. For the most part, the Germans are more serious and learned, still mingling counterpoint with the dramatic, concerted music flowing north from Italy.

Anyway it was important to me to purchase this Naxos recording by Delitiæ Musicæ and Marco Longhini for several reasons. First it is part of a series of Monteverdi’s complete madrigals; I already have their recording of the Fifth Book. Second it is the only complete recording of the Eighth Book, and it includes the sinfonias by Marini which Monteverdi had specified should be used with his madrigals. Finally the singers, even the upper voices, are all men which is a historically-informed stance and offers a distinct timbre from a mixed female-male chorus. Overall I was very happy with this recording. Of the madrigal cycles contained within Book Eight, I found Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda incredibly stark whereas Ballo delle Ninfe dell’Istro is resplendent and pastoral like familiar scenes from L’Orfeo. Finally Ballo delle ingrate opens with a storm scene which is mostly noise and remains experimental throughout. Significantly the Eighth Book was composed throughout Monteverdi’s Venetian years and only assembled by him and published in 1638; this meant that I was still getting a full survey of his later career from the 1610 Vespers up to his last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea.

MONTEVERDI: L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA. Poppea is the first of two operas which made my unit; the other is Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone below. As an undergraduate, we studied four phases of Italian Baroque opera: Florentine, Roman, Venetian, and Neapolitan. Both Poppea and Giasone are securely within this third phase, Venetian, where opera becomes grand public spectacle for the first time. In Florence—and in Mantua where Monteverdi operated early in his career—it had been courtly entertainment; in Rome, of course, it belonged to the church and quickly spawned non-staged oratorio. Although we might discuss Venetian opera as commercial, these are still difficult works. I had no idea they would lack the simple melodies or rigid structure I expected from mid-century opera; the plots are also highly convoluted, perhaps less surprisingly. Poppea, however, was easier for me to enter into than Giasone, perhaps because I already know Monteverdi’s idiom quite well whereas this was my first real exposure to Cavalli. Monteverdi’s opera seems to extend the scale of the madrigals, so that, while those seem tightly pressurized, the opera has time to rest and unfold gradually. Specific moments do not slow down, but rather the whole atmosphere does and there is time for a few diversions. Otherwise the language is much the same, and instrumental interludes are particularly familiar from previous exposure to Monteverdi. One exception to the lack of simple melodies is the closing duet between Emperor Nero and his bride Poppea, “Pur ti miro.” After all the other chaos, after all their enemies are either dead or banished, these villain-protagonists settle down and sing of their love for one another. It is a melody that remains with me despite how fleeting so much of the other music can be. Another moment I really enjoyed was “Non morir, Seneca” from Act II in which Seneca’s friends try to talk the philosopher out of committing suicide. They implore him with tremendous emotional intensity; their imitative runs remind me of the madrigal and are one of the few instances of choral singing in the opera.

BIAGIO MARINI (1594-1663): CURIOSE E MODERNE INVENTIONI. Marini was a violinist and composer who early in his career worked at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, probably with Monteverdi, and seems to have returned there throughout his life. Monteverdi evidently knew Marini’s music, given that he included several of his sinfonias in the Eighth Book, but Monteverdi also seems to have incorporated several of the innovations in violin technique introduced by Marini into his own compositions. His relationship with Monteverdi and that he was one of the earliest violinist-composers makes Marini essential to a survey of the Italian Baroque; even if the name Marini is unfamiliar to most, we know that it was in seventeenth-century Italy that the violin gained its lasting importance to Western art music. This disc, featuring the esteemed players violinist Andrew Manze, lutenist Nigel North, and others, includes selections from three collections by Marini—Opp. 3, 8, and 22. (And, Marini was also one of the first to assign opus numbers to his compositions.) Its music falls into two broad categories—consort works and virtuoso pieces for solo violin. The consort works are instrumental pieces abstracted from popular dance forms. This abstraction had been John Dowland’s innovation a few years earlier; now, as elsewhere in continental Europe, these abstracted dances are being grouped into suites. Special to Italy at this early stage, the strings are violin, viola, and cello, and not the older viols which remained prominent in England and France long after they had been supplanted in Italy. The violin sonatas are longer and more episodic than the consort music, adapting the freeness and expressivity of the seventeenth-century madrigal as well as the other vocal genres arising from its creative laboratory. Their virtuosity is also worth noting; instrumental as well as vocal virtuosity was another new concept of the seventeenth century whereas most medieval and Renaissance music could be performed by a good amateur. We’ll watch as virtuosic demands continue to increase.

FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602-1676): GIASONE. Cavalli was a close associate of Monteverdi, having been a singer at St. Mark’s from boyhood, although we do not know whether Cavalli received any formal composition instruction from Monteverdi. After Monteverdi’s death, Cavalli became the leading composer of Venetian opera. Indeed the majority of his nearly thirty operas survive—versus only four other Venetian operas by any composer before the late 1650s—so that it becomes possible to trace the early development of opera through Cavalli’s works in this genre. Yet, for whatever reason, I really struggled with Giasone. Its immensity, at nearly four hours, must be a factor. Much of it is also in recitative or at least short episodes and, with the numerous characters and plot twists, it is difficult to get a sense of the narrative without also seeing a production. Still there are some great moments. The conclusion to Act I is a magical incantation scene led by Medea with its fiery drama and primitive-sounding chants. The instrumental Combattimento in Act II has the character of a military band while there are also many pastoral moments. The lament of Isifile in Act III also matches my expectations for that genre. I suppose, in each of these cases where recognizable tropes are employed, I found my expectations satisfied. Gradually I will learn to appreciate the rest of the opera as the music becomes more familiar, but already the music which I have been able to comprehend more completely has left a good impression. I will enjoy watching how Baroque opera continues to grow—the upcoming Neapolitan phase as well as the further development of Venetian opera under Vivaldi.

BARBARA STROZZI (1619-1677): ARIE A VOCE SOLA, OP. 8. Another aim of the Fifth Rotation, initiated in this unit, is to introduce the music of additional female composers into my CD collection. Currently I can think of no women composers between Hildegard von Bingen and Clara Schumann for whom I own an entire disc. Especially when there are so many noteworthy women over these centuries, this must be corrected and now is the time. I knew Barbara Strozzi, a celebrated vocalist and composer, was worth my attention after hearing Beth Glixon, a professor at University of Kentucky and co-author of the Grove article on Strozzi, speak at our AMS South-Central meeting in Sewanee, TN almost exactly a year ago. Strozzi, like the male composers of this unit, had important connections to Venetian musical life, making much of her career there; she was, furthermore, a pupil of Cavalli, bringing her directly into this circle of associates. The Arias, Op. 8 are her last published works, dating from 1664, and make for rewarding listening. This recording contains much of the opus, including the five cantatas, two arias, and the serenata with violins; I wish it had also included the other four arias to complete the set. Generally the differences between the cantatas and arias are structural, not expressive. Whereas the cantatas include both aria and recitative sections, the standalone arias match their extended structure through musical repeats of the lyrical material. The cantatas and arias alike, however, sound more like the solo madrigals in Monteverdi’s Eighth Book and have the episodic nature of Marini’s sonatas than the sharply-defined, blocky structure of Neapolitan opera. Although I have always dreaded the inflexibility and predictability of that repertoire, the freeness of this earlier Venetian music can make it harder for the ear to navigate and, afterwards, less memorable. I can now see why Alessandro Scarlatti and others took it upon themselves to more closely define the structure of their music.

FURTHER LISTENING. As a supplement to this unit, I also purchased Monteverdi’s three surviving operas on DVD in the classic productions by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. So far I have watched only L’Orfeo—rather re-watched as I had seen this production as an undergraduate. Some aspects of the staging seem dated and, thereby, come across as somewhat goofy, but overall I was happy to be “reunited” with this production which had meant so much to me when I was first discovering Monteverdi ten years ago. I also listened to another CD, The Glory of Gabrieli led by E. Power Biggs, which I had been given years ago but had not yet listened to. Honestly I found much of the CD unsuitable from a historically-informed perspective, even though Biggs had made the noble effort to record in St. Mark’s itself. Still there was some good material on this disc representing Giovanni Gabrieli, the principal composer active in Venice at the outset of the seventeenth century several decades before my unit itself. My next unit switches to Germany in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; then the following unit will conclude my exploration of the Italian Baroque, extending it beyond Venice to Rome via the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi and to Naples via the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti. With instrumental music, which became increasingly important in the seventeenth century, I shall consider Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, Giuseppe Torelli, and Pietro Locatelli. Indeed I have already begun listening to the later Italian music currently in my collection, and I am uncovering intricacies which I had not noticed the last time I listened to this repertoire in any depth a few years ago. Listening in a systematic fashion has a way of doing that!

JSH 20.03.22

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a freelance concert annotator based in Louisville, KY. He serves as Director of Scholarship to the Sugarmill Music Festival held each May in Alexandria, LA. A project he is developing for the 2020 festival, “A Scholarly Presentation in Lecture and Music: Solomon Northup in the Central Louisiana Sugarhouse,” has been awarded a prestigious Rebirth Grant by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jackson earned an M.M. in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville with a thesis entitled, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” There he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. He has shared his research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN; the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN; the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, MS; and the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in Thibodeaux, LA. Aside from his studies, Jackson is a composer, choral singer, music blogger, avid reader, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more at


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