Monday, March 27, 2017

Monteverdi Madrigal Techniques

One somewhat unwarranted slur against the madrigal is the use of the term "madrigalism" for what today we would call "Mickey Mousing." I talked about this in this post. Sadly, "link-rot" has caused all my embedded clips to disappear, but I think the text will give you some idea. Mickey Mousing is the musical effect, often used in cartoons, of having the music directly imitate in some way what is happening onscreen. But the constant effort to set the texts of madrigals also sometimes resulted in some direct imitation of things like waves or wind or perhaps weeping or sexual tensions as I discuss in the earlier post.

Monteverdi, however, makes use of many techniques that are much more sophisticated and reflect the wit and brevity of the texts. Tomlinson calls this Monteverdi's "epigrammatic" style. Sometimes the bifurcate relationship between the poet and nature is reflected in the alternation of lively textures and slow-moving affective passages. An example is "La giovinetta pianta" from Book 3:

Monteverdi also makes use of "struck" dissonances, i.e. ones not prepared through suspension. Here is an example on "ch'io" from "Occhi, un tempo mia vita" also from Book 3:

In the second measure of the example, the alto voice leaps to a minor seventh dissonance, the kind of thing much-criticized at the time. The E flat makes the chord a minor minor seventh one, making it sound just a tiny bit jazzy to our modern ears.

Monteverdi finds musical analogues of rhetorical devices such as the "isocolon," where parts of the sentence are composed of grammatically identical phrases. The most terse example is Julius Caesar's "veni, vidi, vici." Monteverdi might set a text using isocolon by using the same bass line, transposed, in parallel sections.

Another interesting technique is that of the "evaporated cadence" where a four voice texture is slimmed down to two or even one as the cadence is reached:

Click to enlarge
Here, as we get to the G tonic, the four voice texture thins to three, then two and finally the two voices merge into one. The purpose of this is to lessen the finality of the cadence--the bass doesn't reach its G until the beginning of the next phrase. A lot of Monteverdi's skill is in calibrating most finely his musical techniques to the text.

In Book 4, he sought out more epigrammatic texts to suit his epigrammatic style. Here is an example:

And here is a performance:

How beautifully and succinctly the music reflects the two parts of the text: the opening exposition followed by the witty paradox: Oh, deadly beauty!


Will Wilkin said...

I'm still recovering from a contemporary living example of deadly beauty, who turned so cold I would indeed have died a hundred times for relief had I not a son to live for. I seriously doubt that women feel love the way we do. Literally I would have given my life to save hers, and after saying "I love you" hundreds of times, one day she feels nothing and wouldn't care if I were dead. Oh deadly beauty!

Regarding your technical analysis of Monteverdi's art of setting music to text, it lures me to make a study of his madrigals, a neglected part of his work I overlooked for love of his operas and Vespers.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm doing this partly to get better acquainted with the madrigals myself.