Sunday, March 19, 2017

Monteverdi and Tradition

In my last post on Monteverdi I focused on the contrasts he developed in his style and compared that to the smooth consistency of the ars perfecta style. But as the great historiographer R. G. Collingwood pointed out, you can view history from either the point of view of change or from the point of view of continuity. In other words, there are always new things happening and there are always other things remaining the same. This is as true of Monteverdi as anyone. Alongside the extreme harmonic juxtapositions and expressive dissonances we have the use of some age-old harmonic and melodic structures such as the Romanesca:

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The pattern is C major, G major, A minor, E major, repeated with a tiny rhythmic flourish. Wikipedia says that this was a formula popular from the mid-16th century, but it was printed in vihuela books from the first half of the century. Luys de Narváez' book from 1538 contains both the Romanesca pattern and the Passamezzo antico one. And if they were printed in 1538 you can bet your paycheck that they were in use for decades before. As Tomlinson notes, these patterns "were associated by 1550 not only with the dance but also with oral traditions of semi-improvised poetic recitation. [Tomlinson, Monteverdi, p. 60] In using these formulas, Monteverdi was following the example of Giaches de Wert, his most important influence around the time of the Third Book of Madrigals of 1592. You can find clips of Wert on YouTube. This is "Giunto alla tromba":


And here is the score of the beginning:


As you can seem exactly the same chords are used, just in a different order. Instead of C G Am E, Wert opens with Am E (Am) C G. We don't have to look very far to find a similar harmonic pattern in Monteverdi. Here is the opening of "Sovra tenere herbette" from Book 3:

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The harmonies at the beginning are E major, A minor, G major, C major. Both Wert and Monteverdi made good use of this limited set of triads. As Tomlinson says, "A restricted harmonic vocabulary is not necessarily an ineffective one."

Let's finish up by listening to the whole piece, "Sovra tenere herbette" from Madrigali, Book 3:



UPDATED to correct a typo regarding the Romanesca example, and thanks to a commentator.

6 comments:

Will Wilkin said...

So THAT's what "Romanesca" means! I'd never bothered to look it up but one of my very most favorite CDs in my collection of 5 or 6 thousand is the Biber violin sonatas played by Andrew Manze as part of Romanesca. Regarding the harmonic progression itself, I as a very amateur self-teaching future violinist don't much think in chords, but I'll find a way to return to the Romanesca and explore it some more, as the 17th century has become the center of my musical interests lately.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had a nice little audio clip of the chord progression, but I couldn't figure out how to embed it.

Anonymous said...

Your first progression seems incorrect: it's C, G, Am, E.

Do you know when the cadence with the flat seventh began to appear?

Bryan Townsend said...

C, G, Am, E is what I wrote. So what is incorrect? I am not certain, have to check, but the flat seventh as part of a dominant would be sometime in the 17th century I would think. Corelli?

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "The pattern is C major, G major, E major, A minor, repeated with a tiny rhythmic flourish."

That's a typo.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, right!! Amazing how you can look at something and not see it!! Thanks.