Monday, July 3, 2017

Monteverdi: Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti

I have been very tardy getting back to my series on Monteverdi, I realize, and I did get side-tracked a bit with Stravinsky! But I am waiting for some research materials to be delivered on Stravinsky, so that gives me a chance to pick up the thread on Monteverdi. He was probably the greatest composer of the 17th century, though there was certainly a lot of competition.

Monteverdi's career started very early--his first published compositions, a set of sacred motets for three voices, appeared when he was only fifteen and were followed by a book of Madrigali spirituali a year later. His first two books of secular madrigals were published when he was twenty and twenty-three years old, respectively. This gives us an indicator of the powerful role music played in Italian society in the 17th century. Musical amateurs eagerly snapped up new works by the newest composers. Later on in his career Monteverdi was employed by the Duke Vincenzo of Mantua and his heir Francesco, who commissioned L'Orfeo. State banquets were accompanied by specially commissioned music and Monteverdi even accompanied Vincenzo on his military campaigns in Hungary. Music was integrated into social life at all levels and was a necessary accompaniment to worship, dining, affairs of state and nearly every social occasion. Today only mere vestiges of this survive as in the appearance of musicians at Presidential Inaugurations. For most purposes, we use pre-recorded music but that, of course, was not an option in the 17th century. At the highest levels of society, performers and composers were constantly employed.

Monteverdi published two books of Scherzi musicali or Musical jests in 1607 (the year of L'Orfeo) and 1632. As was common at the time, both of these and most of Monteverdi's works, saw numerous reprints, just like popular novels of today. In the Archive of Seventeenth-Century Italian Madrigals and Arias edition of the Scherzi musicali they mention:
The title-page of the Scherzi advertises ‘Arie’, ‘Madrigali’ and a ‘Ciaccona’. The last of these is a setting for two voices of Ottavio Rinuccini’s reworking of Zefiro torna, e ’l bel tempo rimena’, which Monteverdi set in Book VI. The result is one of Monteverdi’s happiest inventions, a setting over the so-called ‘chaconne’ ostinato bass that takes full advantages of the opportunities for word-painting afforded by the text.
This is the first known example of a vocal duet that uses a ciaccona accompaniment. The chaconne form (the more common French spelling) became hugely popular later on and the Wikipedia article is worth a look. Like the passacaglia, it is a repeating harmonic pattern, in the case of the chaconne, probably originating in Latin America. The earliest printed versions were for guitar. The pinnacle of the form is the chaconne that makes up the last movement of the Partita in D minor for violin by J. S. Bach.

Getting back to Monteverdi, here is the English translation of the text to Zefiro torna:


Here is the repeating pattern as it appears in the continuo:

Click to enlarge
It looks like four measures, but it is really only two--that dotted whole note doesn't come back so it is just the second pair of measures that repeat. You will notice that this edition is notated in 3/1 meter or three whole notes to the measure. The clip I will put below is notated in 6/4, which comes to much the same thing. What is interesting is how the rhythm is syncopated: normally in quick triple meter there is a long note on the beat followed by a short note. ONE (two) THREE. Here the short note is on the downbeat which gives the meter a kind of lilt: ONE TWO (three). The whole piece, until we get to the tempo and meter changes in the second half, is these two measures over and over again, with the two tenors spinning out variations over top. It was the 17th century composers that first discovered the power of an endlessly repeating harmonic pattern which seems to spiral on and on. You might almost think of it as a precursor to the minimalist music of the 1970s as the aesthetic effect is somewhat similar. Of course, the latter music lacks the kind of variation technique we find in the Baroque.

Let's listen to a fine performance of the piece, which has the score so you can see both the Italian text and what is going on musically. The performers are Mark Padmore and Jean-Paul Fouch├ęcourt with Les Arts Florissants directed by William Christie:



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