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Hor che’l ciel e la terra, Francesco Petrarca

Hor che’l ciel e la terra e’l vento tace,
e le fere e gli augelli il sonno affrena,
notte il carro stellato in giro mena,
e nel suo letto il mar senz’onda giace.

Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sfacesempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena;
guerra è’l mio stato, d’ira et di duol piena,
e sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.

Così sol d’una chiara fonte viva
move’l dolce e l’amaro ond’io mi pasco;
una man sola mi risana e punge.

E perché’l mio martir non giunga a riva,
mille volte il dì moro e mille nasco,
tanto dalla salute mia son lunge.

Now that heaven, earth and the wind are silent
and beasts and birds are stilled by sleep,
night draws the starry chariot in its course
and in its bed the sea sleeps without waves.

I see, I think, I burn, I weep, and she who fills me with sorrow
is ever before me to my sweet distress.
War is my state, full of wrath and grief,
and only in thinking of her do I find peace.

Thus from one clear and living fountain
flows the sweet bitterness on which I feed;
one hand alone both heals and wounds me.

And therefore my suffering can never reach shore.
a thousand times a day I die, a thousand reborn
so far am I from my salvation.

The most complex and sophisticated of Monteverdi’s large-scale madrigals from the Eighth Book, Hor che’l ciel e la terra sets, in two parts, the entirety of Petrarch’s 164th poem from the Canzoniere, a sonnet. The prima parte sets the two quatrains, and the seconda parte the two terzets. This is a poem replete with Petrarchan contrasts and oxymorons. But Petrarch’s contrasts, as described by Pietro Bembo in the Prose della volgar lingua, are brought into harmony and smoothed over the mellifluous sounds and varied, rolling rhythms of his highly refined poetic style. This is easily seen in Petrarch’s fifth and sixth lines, where the most abrupt semantic juxtapositions are couched in an elegantly structured and alliterative sentence that draws attention away from the contrasts toward their union in a highly stylized and carefully crafted poetic conception. Resemblances of rhyme, of rhythm, of line lengths and stanzaic structure, and especially resemblances of sonority all serve to overcome the semantic contrasts.

Contrasts in Petrarch’s sonnet occur on several levels. First there are the obvious, immediate contrasts between successive words or concepts in the second quatrain. “Dolce pena” at the end of the 6th line is an oxymoron;  “Guerra” (war) and “pace” (peace) are contrasted in the 7th and 8th lines. In the first terzet, “dolce” (sweetness) and “amaro” (bitterness) are contrasted in the middle line, while the final line opposes “risana” (heals) with “punge” (wounds). In the middle line of the final terzet “moro” (I die) is contrasted with “nasco” (I am born).

On a larger structural level there is significant contrast between the first quatrain and the second. The first quatrain unites in silence and motionless a series of natural elements and living creatures. Even the rocking rhythm of all four lines is reminiscent of a lullaby. This quatrain is a depiction of nature at rest.

The second quatrain, in which the speaker awakes, contrasts the speaker’s individual experience with that of quiet nature.  This quatrain too begins with a series, but rather than different elements being united in a smooth, rocking rhythm, “Veglio, penso, ardo, piango” are an abrupt series of wholly unrelated activities characterized by both qualitative and quantitative accents on the first syllable of each two-syllable word. The beginning of this line is an effective characterization of the intense psychological state and confusion with which one often abruptly awakens in the middle of the night. This startled series is then followed by a rational attempt to explain the psychological state: “she who undoes me is always before me for my sweet pain,” though the rationality of the thought is undermined not only by the affective oxymoron at the end, but by the seeming contradiction between the notion of the woman who undoes the sleeper also being the source of the sweet pain. The next sentence compounds the emotional contradiction.  The speaker’s state is now warlike, full of anger and sorrow, but in the next line, “and only thinking of her do I have some peace,” the cause of the warlike state of mind turns out to be the only source of tranquility.  In this quatrain emotional contradictions and confusions are articulated in utter contrast to the stability and tranquility of nature as described in the opening quatrain.

The sestet creates yet another contrast. The description and experience of the octet are now given additional meaning through the metaphor of the “clear, living fountain.” The fountain is the source of nourishment whence the speaker drinks both sweetness and bitterness, and the hand of the beloved, like the fountain, both heals and wounds. There is a cross-reference here to a previous canzona of Petrarch’s where two fountains of the Fortunate Isles are described: “who drinks from the one, dies laughing, and who from the other, escapes.”  (Poem 135, lines 78-79)

In Hor che’l ciel, the speaker is like the waters of the fountain in that his martyrdom doesn’t reach its end so that a thousand times a day he dies and is reborn as the waters are recycled through the fountain. This is how far he is from regaining his mental health, which could only come about through resolving the emotional contradictions engendered by his lady. The sestet brings nature into relationship with the speaker; the two had been completely separate in the octet. Through the metaphor of the fountain, the speaker and nature are reunited, but this is an active, seething nature, not the sleeping nature of the opening quatrain. As a consequence, the thought is left open and unresolved at the end, as if the distance from his health must remain permanent for the speaker.

How does Monteverdi deal with this text taxonomically and iconographically? Quite clearly in separate sections focusing on specific categories of affect. The opening, which sets the entire first quatrain, consists of static chords, organized rhythmically around the rhythms of the text, although the concluding trochees of terra, tace, affrena, mena and giace are all set as spondees rather than trochees, thereby increasing even further the sense of stasis. The only pitch motion in this entire section is a slow moving I-V-I-VI-V-I chord progression, which is perhaps stimulated by the phrase “in giro mena” (leads in a circle) in the third line. It is probably no accident that the first return to the tonic chord occurs precisely with this phrase. The homogeneous opening section of the piece is thus a single icon for the tranquility described in the first quatrain of Petrarch’s sonnet.

Petrarch’s second quatrain, as we have seen, not only contrasts with the first but is also less internally unified. This leads Monteverdi in the first two lines to invent three musical metaphors in the Renaissance sense, the first interpreting the sudden awakening, the second the single word piango, and the third the rest of the sentence.  But Monteverdi’s treatment of these metaphors is informed by his iconographic structural sensibilities. Each is treated as a structural device in a sophisticated interaction among the individual metaphors to create a larger structural metaphor for the confused, contradictory state expressed by the speaker.  Here we have aesthetic aspects of the Renaissance madrigal serving to enrich the structural possibilities of the concertato style.

The second quatrain begins with a graphic representation of the startling awakening of the sleeper, but leading immediately to a typically Renaissance metaphor for piango  (I weep) in suspended figures of falling half- or whole- steps. In contrast to the opening section, each word is now on a new chord and at a higher pitch level than the last.  The continuation of the thought with e chi mi sface is cast in a descending lament in two voices in parallel thirds, the descent an obvious icon for depressed emotional states. But already Monteverdi is at work dealing with the psychological contrasts and contradictions in these two lines by superimposing a restatement of veglio, penso, ardo, piango over the completion of the thought. The restatement proceeds with wider gaps between veglio, penso, ardo and piango, thereby giving them the effect of a psychological background to the more immediate thought about the beloved who undoes the speaker. And Monteverdi artfully times these background superimpositions so that the final one, piango, occurs simultaneously with the final word of the second line, pena.

Monteverdi has by now not only created three musical metaphors, but has begun to use them in a structural fashion to expand the section as well as create the psychological connection between the sudden awakening and the cause of that awakening. Having used the original metaphors in this way, he continues to repeat and exploit them structurally, in varied form and through gradually increasing textures until all six voices are involved.  This allows him to bring the section to a close, based on a structural dynamic of varied repetition in increasingly thicker textures, a structural dynamic we find over and over again in his large-scale concertato works. This process has evolved his original three metaphors into icons by the end of the section.  By that time their significance has become musical-structural rather than localized and passing. They have achieved the sense of permanence and reusability characteristic of icons.

The next two lines of the quatrain contrast guerra (war) with pace (peace). As we would expect, guerra is represented by the concertato  style. The final line, E sol di lei pensando ò qualche pace, is contrasted to the previous one by a homophonic and homorhythmic style in slow tempo, an obvious icon for pace. Moreover, Monteverdi drops out the lower two voices, since the thought is focused on the feminine lei, and as the state of peace is described, the harmony turns toward a cadence on B major, since peace is a decided shift of mental state for the speaker. Rather than simply quit at this point, Monteverdi once again uses structural repetition of his two icons to expand the scope of the composition and bring the prima parte to a close. This time pace cadences in E major rather than B major, and it is important to the overall structure of the madrigal that we have an inconclusive close in the dominant key at this point, leaving the way open for the sestet to bring the speaker and nature together.

The seconda parte opens with a descending figure reminiscent of e chi mi sface. This resemblance serves a structural purpose in linking the two parts of the madrigal, but also performs an affective function in relating the image of the living fountain to the beloved who undoes the speaker.  One might say that the descent from e” at the beginning of the seconda parte has a musical function similar to the linking function of the word Cosí  (thus) at the beginning of Petrarch’s sestet. But the most important part of the opening is the overlapping of the phrase Cosí sol d’una chiara fonte viva with Move’l dolce e l’amaro, ond’io mi pasco.  The latter is set to a chromatically rising motive treated in imitation, a typical icon for situations of anguish in Monteverdi.  This particular version, however, abjures dissonance almost altogether in recognition of the sweetness that is also imbibed from the fountain.

The combination of these two motives brings together in simultaneity the source of the water and its effects on him who drinks thereof. Monteverdi’s texture has gradually expanded through the imitation, reaching his typical full-textured climax, which in this case serves as the beginning of a more extended structural repetition of the chromatic motive. But there is a third line to the terzet, and Monteverdi cleverly introduces it into the texture by simply varying the descent from e and substitutes the final line Una man sola mi risana e punge.Thus when he once again reaches his textural climax, the section and  the terzet can come to a close, and the passage once again has been built upon varied structural repetition.

The final terzet revolves mostly around the second line, one of the most common textual conceits of the Petrarchan 16th century and set over and over again by composers from Arcadelt through Rore to Monteverdi in multiple imitations. What started as a musical metaphor for multiplicity had early on reached the more enduring status of an icon. This line is briefly introduced by a simple, recited statement of the first line. Monteverdi’s treatment of the second line is in some respects antiphonal; only the final word, moro, set to longer notes in stepwise descent overlaps.  At the end of the passage, he even makes the words nasco and moro overlap, to bring them into even closer oppositional relationship to one another than Petrarch could do in the linear medium of language. Structural repetition, transposed by a 5th, serves to enlarge the section just as in earlier portions of the piece.

Petrarch’s concluding line is somewhat separate from the rest of the sonnet in making a final statement about the poet’s situation. Monteverdi likewise sets this line apart, with a single voice in static repetition except for the word lunge, whose significance is emphasized by a long leap and even longer slow, melismatic descent. A transposed, full-textured structural repeat then serves to close out the entire madrigal, returning to the opening key. The emblematic character of this melisma is obvious in its not carrying any of the emotional weight of Petrarch’s final line.

Now that we have seen how Monteverdi has treated this text, both taxonomically and iconically, let us go back and compare what Petrarch has accomplished with his poem and Monteverdi with his music. Petrarch has taken the anguished torment of the lover who is pulled to extremes of opposing emotions and shaped it into a highly refined, elegant form. This process of shaping and refining the emotional content brings those emotions under control, into an order and a beauty that not only allows us to grasp them in multiple dimensions, but also informs us that through cultivated art the most unbridled emotions can be at least partially tamed, conceptually understood and survived. By virtue of artistic creation, it is no longer necessary for the poet to die and be reborn a thousand times a day–he can rather conceive and cope with his problem by subjecting it the imagination and structures of art and we, his readers, can share with him both the agonies described and the poet’s insight about how to manage them in a coherent fashion.

Monteverdi has taken a somewhat different approach. His goal is first of all to identify clearly the emotions and situations described by the poet. This is his taxonomic approach. His purpose is no longer to make the listener weep and laugh with the performer as the aesthetics of early opera had demanded in accordance with the Platonic theory of the transference of affect. His purpose is to convey in music knowledge about affective states–first to identify their character, then to present them for our understanding in an appropriate musical garb. This knowledge is principally of separate affects, but in both the prima parte and the seconda parte  there are passages where the combination of separate ideas creates a more complicated psychological affect, which is also clearly conveyed musically. Monteverdi’s approach is more empirical than passionate, more interested in conveying concepts of emotion than in inducing emotion.  The opening segment is not so much about the silence of nature as described by Petrarch, but rather about the nature of tranquility in general. The concitato section is not so much about the poet’s warlike state in this particular instance as it is about the general character of warlike agitation.

This is a more objective view than in his Mantuan works and is fully consonant with the efforts of contemporary thinkers to understand their world in more objective terms, the basis of the new empirical science of the 17th century. If we note that Monteverdi’s conclusion doesn’t sum up the significance of the poem the way that Petrarch’s final line does, that is because the significance of his musical setting cannot be summarized in a single musical statement. The significance of his setting is in the accumulation of separate and combined affects he has strung together in a sectionalized manner. Knowledge of emotion is presented by accumulation rather than by integration, and what makes such a piece good or not so good depends on the interest and quality of the musical presentation of each separate affect, plus the purely musical structural aspects of the expansive work.

(Excerpted from “A Taxonomic and Affective Analysis of Monteverdi’s ‘Hor che ’l ciel e la terra’,” Music Analysis 12 (1993): 169–95.)

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Magnificat’s first season of concerts was such fun, plans began immediately for a second season. This time the emphasis was on the 17th century innovations in setting dramatic narrative to music. Three programs were presented and again each program was performed in San Jose, Berkeley and San Francisco.

The season opened in October with dramatic works by Henry Purcell including the masque written for inclusion in a revival of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Inspired perhaps by the proximity of the concerts to Halloween, the program featured the dramatic scena In Guilty Night, Purcell’s setting of the biblical story of Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor, which featured Sand Dalton’s first (and most likely only) performance on the thunder machine – a 6×4 piece of sheet metal that created just the right spooky mood. This would not be the last use of unlikely percussion in a Magnificat production.

In December, Magnificat assembled a program from the three surviving versions of Charpentier’s Nativity Pastorale, interspersing traditional noëls – a holiday tradition that would be re-visited several times over the years. This program immediately became a favorite of both musicians and audiences and we have revived it twice, with minor changes, in 1996 on the San Francisco Early Music Society series and on our own series in 2005. For this first production we were joined in these concerts by Marion Verbruggen, with whom we had performed at the 1990 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition.

With the December concerts, Magnificat settled on the full-size program format that plenty of room for program notes and texts and translations. The programs were still literally cut (with scissors) and pasted (well, taped) and photo-copied but the brochure was designed and laid out by Paul Tokmakian.

The extremely successful final concert of the first season had included some acting and minimal sets and costumes, so for the final program of the season, Magnificat presented a fully-staged production of Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s La Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo – and fully-staged it was, with winged blessed spirits in heaven, damned spirits in flame red body suits and gruesome fingernails in Hell, all accompanied by a colorful instrumental ensemble that included The Whole Noyse.

Over the course of the season, artistic directors Susan Harvey and Warren Stewart led ensembles that included René Boutet, Tina Chancey, Hugh Davies, Rob Diggins, John Dornenburg, Elizabeth Engan, Ruth and Steve Escher, Richard Van Hessel, Julie Jeffrey, Roxanne Layton, Andrew Morgan, Susan Rode Morris, Herb Myers, Gayle and Phil Neumann, Ray Nurse, Marianne Richer-Pfau, Neal Rogers, Michael Sand, Sandy Stadtfeld, and Nat Watson.

4 years ago | |
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As he entered his eighth decade, Monteverdi set about assembling his eighth and largest collection of secular works, published in 1638 as Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi… and dedicated to the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. As explained in the dedication, the collection was originally to have been dedicated to (and its publication funded by) his father, Ferdinand II, but as the elder Ferdinand passed away in 1636, the dedication passed to his heir.

I present to the feet of Your Majesty, as the protecting power of virtue, these my musical compositions. Fernando, Your Majesty’s great father, deigning, through his innate goodness, to accept and honour them in manuscript, granted me an as it were authoritative passport to entrust them to the press. And lo I eagerly publish them, consecrating them to the most revered name of Your Majesty, heir no less of kingdoms and the empire than of his valour and kindness.

Along with the change in dedication, Monteverdi modified some of the texts with references to the younger monarch, whose dual occupation in the military and musical composition made him an apt dedicatee for a volume of madrigals of war and love.

Ferdinand was born in Graz, Austria, the son of Emperor Ferdinand II in 1608, coincidentally the year of the first performance of Il Ballo delle Ingrate, which Monteverdi re-tooled for the Eighth Book of Madrigals and was most likely performed as part of the new emperor’s coronation festivities in 1637.  Ferdinand became King of Hungary in 1625, King of Bohemia in 1627 and Archduke of Austria in 1631, the year of his marriage to his first cousin Maria Anna, Infanta of Spain, the youngest daughter of Phillip III of Spain and Margaret of Austria.

After the death of Albrecht Wallenstein in 1634, Ferdinand was entrusted with supreme command of the Habsburg army and in the same year, together with his Spanish cousin, also a Ferdinand, he was credited with capture of Donauwörth and Regensburg, and the defeat the Swedes and their Protestant allies at the Battle of Nördlingen. As head of the peace party at court, he helped negotiate the Peace of Prague, with some of the Protestant states including Saxony in 1635. However, the horrific conflict now known as the Thirty Years War drug on for another decade – the lines of conflict no longer perceptible and the populace suffering terribly from the unrestrained violence and pillaging of the mercenary armies. Ferdinand played a crucial role in the diplomatic negotiations that eventually led to a cessation of hostilities with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Ferdinand was an active patron of the arts and the first of several Habsburg emperors to compose music. In the abstract to his forthcoming book, Sacred Music as Public Image for Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, Andrew Weaver observes that Ferdinand’s accomplishments came not through diplomacy or strong leadership but primarily through a skillful manipulation of the arts, through which he communicated important messages to his subjects and secured their allegiance to the Catholic Church.

“Ferdinand III offers a fascinating case study in monarchical representation, for the war necessitated that he revise the image he had cultivated at the beginning of his reign, that of a powerful, victorious warrior. Weaver argues that by focusing on the patronage of sacred music (rather than the more traditional visual and theatrical means of representation), Ferdinand III was able to uphold his reputation as a pious Catholic reformer and subtly revise his triumphant martial image without sacrificing his power, while also achieving his Counter-Reformation goal of unifying his hereditary lands under the Catholic church.”

In addition to sponsoring the composition and publication of numerous works of music, Ferdinand played an active part in the preparation of the great court festivities, especially stage works of various kinds, which were produced with the utmost magnificence in Vienna and elsewhere in his Habsburg domains. During the last years of his life Ferdinand founded a literary academy on the Italian model in Vienna.

Ferdinand III studied music with Giovanni Valentini, court composer to the Hapsburgs and Kapellmeister at the Michaelerkirche in Vienna. He also was a friend of Johann Jakob Froberger, who was also active at the Hapsburg court. Ferdinand’s allegorical Drama musicum was praised by Athanasius Kircher, who declared in his Musurgia universalis of 1650 that Ferdinand had ‘no equal among sovereigns’. Some secular pieces, including settings of Italian texts, and a number of sacred works of Ferdinand’s survive including two masses, four motets, ten hymns, litanies, a Stabat mater and a Miserere.

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It is satisfying that the composers featured in our first season: Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Iacomo Carissimi and Marc-Antoine Charpentier and even some of the same masterpieces, notably Jephte and the Christmas Story, should also be featured in our 20th anniversary season. The genius of these composers, their innovations and  the tremendous influence they had on the music of the 17th century have inspired every program on every season that Magnificat has presented since and at least one has been featured on a program in every Magnificat season. In the years since that first season it has been a privilege to get to know these composers and to share their magnificent music with the many fine musicians who have been a part of Magnificat.

Encouraged by the success of our performance at the inaugural Berkeley Festival and Exhibition in 1990, chamber music performances at various venue – including a notable concert at The Musical Offering, also in 1990, and appearances on the San Francisco Early Music Society and The San Jose Chamber Music Society, Magnificat launched a subscription series in October, 1992. The season included three programs, each of which was performed in San Jose, Berkeley and San Francisco.

The first program was given the title “Heroes, Fools and Nymphs” and used Monteverdi’s  Chi vol’ che m’innamori as a framework for a mixed program of Italian vocal and instrumental gems – culminating in Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte, which will be on our November 11-13 program this season. Earlier in the program we performed Monteverdi’s Introduzione al Ballo, which we will revive in our February 17-19 program this season.

In December 1992 Magnificat joined with the San Francisco Early Music Society in a co-production of Heinrich Schütz’s Christmas Story. Schütz’s delightful setting of the Nativity narrative was placed in the liturgical context for which it was written, Christmas Vespers following the order of the Dresden Court Chapel. This was the first of many liturgical reconstructions that Magnificat has presented. It was also the first appearance with Magnificat of German baritone Martin Hummel in the role of the Evangelist. We will be reviving this program this December, again with SFEMS as we celebrate 20 seasons and SFEMS celebrates their 35th!

The final set of the 1992-1993 season, title “Saints and Buffoons,” focused on another composer that would become so important for Magnificat: Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In the first half of the program we performed sacred works from three genres: the psalm Super flumina Babilonis, the motet Oculi omnium, the histoire sacrée Le Reniement de St. Pierre. After intermission was devoted to incidental music Charpentier wrote for the Commedie française culminating with the uproarious Doctor Scene from Moliére’s La Malade Imaginaire.

Over the course of the season Artistic Directors Susan Harvey and Warren Stewart led ensembles that included Marilyn Boenau, René Boutet, Kenn Chester, John Dornenburg, Elizabeth Engan, Stephen Escher, Gerald Gaul, Nathan Gunn, Richard Van Hessel, Brian Howard, Martin Hummel, Boyd Jarrell, Claire Kelm, McDowell Kenley, Susan Rode Morris, Herbert Myers, Neal Rogers, Michael Sand, Foster Sommerlad, Sanford Stadtfeld, David Tayler, George Thomson, Arizeder Urreiztieta, Nathaniel Watson and Lisa Weiss.

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Bloomington Early Music Festival 2011Magnificat has been invited to perform selections from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals at the Bloomington Early Music Festival (BLEMF) this September. The concert will be on the evening of September 10 at the First United Church in Bloomington. Monteverdi subtitled his 1638 collection “Madrigals of War and Love” and the texts expound the interlocking themes of love and war– the warrior as lover, the lover as warrior and the war between the sexes. A perfect fit for the theme of this year’s Festival “Music in War, Music in Peace.”

From the Festival website:

“War and peace have been a part of human society for time immemorial, and for centuries composers have chosen to reflect them in their music. In selecting this theme for its festival, BLEMF links musical performance to scholarly research in the humanities, and in particular the disciplines of history, folklore, and linguistics.

For the past seventeen years, Early Music Associates, Inc. has encouraged and celebrated historically informed performance with an annual festival, seasonal concerts, numerous educational events in the immediate regions, and by committed support for emerging performing artists. The Bloomington Early Music Festival (BLEMF) traditionally presents concerts featuring the music of the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods.”

Magnificat’s program will include Altri canti d’Amor tenero arciero, Ogni amante e guerrier: nel suo gran regno, Introduzione al ballo, Altri canti di Marte e di sua schiera, Non Havea Febo ancora: Lamento della ninfa, and Il Ballo delle ingrate. Bay Area audiences will have the chance to hear Magnificat perform this program as part of our 2011-2012 season on the weekend of February 17-19 2012. For tickets and more information about the Bloomington Early Music Festival, please visit the Festival website.

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We’ve posted photos from our rehearsals of Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso with the Dell’Arte Company on our Flickr Page. Please have a look!

It has been a pleasure exploring this fascinating piece with actors so deeply grounded in the historical commedia dell’arte tradition. One by one the familiar characters – Pantalone, the Doctor, the Captain, and all the miscievous servants – have come to life through Vecchi’s entertaining and often deeply profound music.

Tickets are still available at

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The musical entertainment that has become known as the madrigal comedy enjoyed a brief, but exceedingly popular life in the decades before and after the turn of the 17th century, delighting audiences at courts and within the cultural academies of Italy with a mix of high art and low comedy. The musicologist Alfred Einstein coined the term “madrigal comedy” in 1949 as a description for the two dozen or so surviving collections of related madrigals, which, when sung consecutively, tell a story, often with a continuous dramatic plot.

The two composers most closely identified with this sub-genre are Orazio Vecchi and the slightly younger Adriano Banchieri. It has been tempting to see the madrigal comedy as a precursor to opera, but it is perhaps better characterized as part of the final flowering of the Renaissance madrigal tradition, incorporating the humanist attention to the communication of dramatic narrative through the quintessential musical form of the late 16th century.

Easily the best known of these madrigal comedies to modern audiences, L’Amfiparnaso was first performed in Modena in 1594 and published in Venice in 1597 with a dedication to Cardinal Alessandro d’Este. Vecchi’s collection (which he calls a “commedia harmonica”) consists of fourteen five-part madrigals, arranged in three acts and preceded by a prologue. Except for the first two sentences of the first scene, the dialogue is not set for individual voices, as in opera, but rather for the entire ensemble or for sub-sets of two, three or four voices.


This approach is so different from opera that is perhaps not surprising that the first music historians to discuss madrigal comedies found them entirely puzzling and either struggled to find in them nascent elements of operatic style or dismissed them entirely. A modern edition of L’Amfiparnaso was published in 1902 with several others following over the next century and subsequent scholarship, together with performances and recordings by fine musicians have secured its place among the masterpieces of the late Renaissance.

Each of the madrigals sets a scenario drawn from the Italian theater, known then as now as commedia dell’arte, a genre in its golden age at the end of the 16th century. Consistent with the commedia tradition, there is only a passing attempt at a regular plot: the jealous quarrel between Lucio and Isabella, their reconciliation and wedding is of comparatively slight importance and seems to serve primarily as a foil for the antics of the comic masked characters of Pantalone, the Doctor, the Captain and their quick-witted and mischievous servants.

The cast of L’Amfiparnaso includes Pantalone; an aging Venetian Magnifico who is by turns avaricious, suspicious, amorous and gullible. Pantalone is old and, though retired from active business, his long engagement with trade has made him acutely sensitive to the value of money. He is also a lecher, but entreaties for the favor of attractive young women, invariably involving catcalls and innuendoes, are invariably fruitless.

The Doctor

He is joined by his old friend Doctor Gratiano, a Bolognese lawyer, prone to malapropism and misunderstanding, described by Vecchi as a “blockhead who answers badly and hears still worse.” By tradition, when the Doctor was born, instead of crying like an ordinary infant, his first utterance was a fine Latin quotation, slightly mutilated.

Having grown up amid the rarified university atmosphere of Bologna, the Doctor is a member of every academy, known and unknown, the Doctor can discuss any topic with great erudition, though no one can understand, or even stay awake during his long-winded homilies.

No commedia would be complete with the Captain, a blustery Spanish-speaking braggart, always decked in ostentatious epaulets and menacing scabbard – a sort of Yosemite Sam character aptly described in a 17th century verse:

This Captain makes a splendid show,
And his valor is so great
That he is the last to join the combat
And the first to beat a retreat.

The Captain

As much of Italy was under the control of the Spanish army at the time and the actors no doubt took great delight – and some risk – in satirizing the occupying army.

The satire though, like all the mockery on the commedia, is light-hearted and evenly distributed. The characterization of the Hebrews, serving in the familiar role of pawn-brokers, focuses primarily on their exotic and unfathomable language and the strangeness of their chanting – no doubt a source of consternation and bemusement for the goyim – and fun had at their expense is in the same spirit as that taken from the Captain’s blustery Spanish, the Doctor’s over-ripe Bolognese, Pantalone’s mincing Venetian, and the Bergamask dialect of the servants Francatrippa and Zanni.

Besides Pantalone, Gratiano and the Captain, the characterizations in Vecchi’s libretto are somewhat compressed. The cast is filled out with a variety of servants, prostitutes and, of course the two pairs of lovers or innamorati. The unusually amorous Doctor Gratiano and Pantalone’s un-named daughter form a comic third pair of lovers. The composer explains in his preface that as a result of the prolixity of words united with music, his composition is like that of “a painter who, desiring to include a great many figures in a small canvas, forms the principal or most noteworthy ones with the entire bodies, and the less important as far as the chest, others barely visible by the top of the head, and finally mixes together the remainder of the multitude as if distant from the eye.”

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There is no indication of an author for the text of Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso, and some historians have speculated that the composer wrote the libretto himself. However, as early as 1912, the British musicologist Edward Dent suggested that the author may have been the popular Bolognese poet Giulio Cesare Croce.

Born in 1550 at San Giovanni in Persiceto, about 15 miles to the north-west of Bologna, the son of a blacksmith. After his father’s death when Croce was just seven he was adopted by an uncle who followed the same trade who sent him to school at Castelfranco.

Dent relates that the uncle finally realized that Giulio was learning nothing, and he brought him back to the smithy and the boy was adopted up by the noble family of Fantuzzi and was soon noted for his talents as cantastorie, singer and jester. This sort of life suited his tastes better than the trade of a blacksmith, and he finally ran away from his uncle altogether, and came to Bologna, sometime about the year 1586. Here he joined another smith, who shared his preference for good wine and merry living over hard work with hammer and anvil. In some way or other he seems to have learnt to read, for it was at this time that he began to study the works of Ovid.

There were several translations of Ovid then current, the most popular being that of Anguillara. Ovid, Croce tells us, was his first and only teacher. He took to playing the viol, and got the name of Croce della Lira; soon after his first marriage in 1575 he gave up the blacksmith’s trade altogether and devoted himself to poetry alone. His most generous patron seems to have been Cardinal Radziwill, who commissioned Lavinia Fon-tana to paint his portrait.

His fame reached to Mantua, Ferrara and Florence: after his death his works received high praise from various Italian historians of literature. The romantic enthusiasts of the nineteenth century devoted endless labour to the collection of the folk-songs that in various countries have sprung from the soil and have been handed down by generation after generation of the rural population. The poetry of humble life in the towns had no interest for them. It is to this latter class of literature that Croce’s works belong, a class that is represented at its best in the Canti carnascialeschi of Lorenzo de’ Medici and at its lowest in the vulgar riddles and ballads of criminal life that still delight the poorer inhabitants of Italian cities.

Croce wrote more than 400 works in both Italian and the Bolognese dialect. Despite his popularity and the relative success of his works, Croce dies in poverty in 1609.

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“I bringe you mine owne master Horatio Vecchi of Modena, beside goodness of aire, most pleasing of all other for his conceipt and variety, wherewith all his works are singularly beautified.” Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman, 1622

Orazio Vecchi would no doubt be puzzled to learn that four centuries after his death he would be best remembered (to the extent that he was remembered at all) for a light-hearted piece of entertainment, L’Amfiparnaso, and not for his considerable accomplishments as a composer of sacred music and highly sophisticated madrigals. Not that he would have any difficulty in defending his less serious compositions.

In the dedication of the collection Selva di varia ricreatione from 1590 Vecchi wrote “I am well aware that on first hearing some may perhaps think these my caprices base and trivial. Let them learn that it takes just as much skill, art, and knowledge…to make a silly comic character as it does to create a prudent and sagely old man…and if some smart ass says that it is easy to come up with such things, let him try; he’ll see that it is easy to want ideas, hard to have them, harder still to arrange them, and even more difficult to put them all together well.”

Born in Modena in 1550, Vecchi received his first musical training from a Servite monk named Salvatore Essenga. He took orders at a Benedictine monastery at some point before 1577 and by the end of the 1579 his reputation as a musician was such that he was engaged, along with Claudio Merulo and Giovanni Gabrieli, to provide music for the wedding of Bianca Capello and Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici. In that same year his first publication, a collection of eight voice motets, appeared in Venice. He served as maestro di capella first at the cathedral in Salò from 1581-4 and then at Modena from 1584-86. After a brief tenure at the cathedral of Reggio nell’Emilia, he accepted an appointment as canon at Correggio Cathedral. In a humorous autobiographical document that Vecchi wrote in 1587, he makes reference to the financial hardships and family responsibilities, which would burden him throughout his life.

In 1591, Vecchi was selected, together with Gabrieli and Lodovico Balbi, to revise and correct the Roman Gradual and in the same year he was elevated to the title of archdeacon. From Corregio he moved to the ducal court in Modena in 1593, the year before the first performances of L’Amfiparnaso. He was also admitted into the brotherhood of the Annunciation in the churches of S Maria and S Pietro, where he directed the music on various special occasions.

Vecchi was denied the of post of Maestro di Cappella at the Duomo of Modena by the appointment of the organist Fabio Richetti, which apparently caused considerable resentment. Apparently, simmering hostilities erupted during Mass at the Church of St. Augustine on April 21, 1596. Spaccini, a writer at the time, reported that the two organists obstenately played two different works simultaneously – an anecdote that, while disputed by other contemporaries, has led some historians to characterize Vecchi as a defiant and difficult personality. His involvement in the sordid affairs of his brother, accused of a triple murder, no doubt contributed to this undeserved picture picture of Vecchi’s character.

In 1603 the general council of Modena granted Vecchi a generous stipendium in recognition of his “rare abilities” and later the same year the imperial ambassador came to Modena to offer Vecchi the position of maestro at the court of Emperor Rudolph II, in succession to Monte. Unfortunately, Vecchi’s health was already failing him and he was unable to accept the position. He continued composing and directing in Modena until his death in 1605.

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One of the story lines that give Vecchi’s madrigal comedy L’Amfiparnaso unity is Pantalone’s promise of his daughter’s hand in marriage to the Doctor Gratiano in the opening scene of Act II. Almost every commedia dell’arte scenario involves some such arrangement between the miserly Pantalone and  his blustery companion from Bologna, though most often the contract is between their offspring.

In Vecchi’s setting, Pantalone is, as usual, primarily concerned with the dowry (which he dutifully deposits in the third act) and he openly mocks the Doctor’s enthusiasm for the match. While the unfortunate daughter never appears vocally in the course of L’Amfiparnaso, she is understood to be in the balcony while the Doctor serenades her with one of his “favorites”, which turns out to be a parody, a travesty really, of Cipriano de Rore’s madrigal Ancor che col partire. This most famous of madrigal, for which there were more than 50 – far more serious – parodies in the 16th century, would have been very familiar to Vecchi’s audience, who would no doubt have found the altered text quite amusing indeed.

Vecchi takes the upper part of Cipriano’s four part madrigal and gives it three new supporting parts. The text is in Bolognese dialect of course – a constant source of humor for the commedia actors of the time along with Venetian, Bergamask, Neapolitan and any other dialect. (The refined Tuscan of Petrarch is reserved for the lovers.) There is no way of capturing the original humor in translation, but Cecil Adkins has done a commendable job in his edition of L’Amfiparnaso.

Ancor che col partire
Although on my leaving
I feel myself grieving,
Departure I treasure,
It gives me such pleasure
To come back to stay.
A thousand times each day,
To leave you I yearn,
So sweet is my return.

Ancor ch’al parturire (from L’Amfiparnaso)
Even in life’s midst so dear
One feels the shades of death too near.
I would like without the pain
To have, Vicenze, the joys again.
But spirits give me awful sorrow,
And yet I drink in such great haste,
Forgetting the torments of the morrow,
So sweet is the eructed taste.

The original Italian verse was written by Alfonso d’Avalos, the parody, like the rest of L’Amfiparnaso, was written by Giovanni Cesare Croce. (The identity of ‘Vicenze’ is not entirely clear from the context.) In spite of the less than serious text, Vecchi’s setting is exquisite and demonstrates, as do the lovers’ madrigals throughout L’Amfiparnaso, Vecchi’s considerable stature as a composer. On Magnificat’s program, Nigel North will also perform a solo lute setting of Cipriano’s madrigal by G. P. Paladino.

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