Saturday, March 11, 2017

Signor Claudio Monteverdi and the Historical Context

Last month I promised a series of posts on Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) who was so creative and so long-lived that he spans two different eras of music history. I've been reviewing what Richard Taruskin says about him in the Oxford History of Western Music (a hefty set of five large volumes that I heartily recommend) and the first thing I am reminded of is that Taruskin is not much in favor of even using the terms "Renaissance" and "Baroque" which is why he breaks with tradition by titling his volumes after the century and not after a supposed musical style.

But that does not detract from the importance of Monteverdi, nor from his emergence from the earlier style and role in the creation of the newer style (called at the time the prima pratica and seconda pratica). My links to the Wikipedia articles are not meant to acknowledge their credibility, by the way. Whoever wrote them is rather confused about the whole thing! The prima pratica refers to the older style of the ars perfecta with its smooth lines and highly controlled dissonance. The newer style was not thought of as "Baroque" of course, that term came along very much later as a critique of Rameau. The exemplar of the ars perfecta is Palestrina, very much a 16th century figure writing in what we traditionally called "Renaissance" style. As Taruskin writes:
...the central irony of the "Renaissance," as the term is applied to music, is the way in which the Greek revivalism that motivated the "rebirth" of philosophy and the other arts actually undermined the dominant "Renaissance" musical style, if we take that style to be the ars perfecta. [op. cit. vol. I, p. 797]
 Instead of the term "Baroque" which Taruskin insists we don't need as it does little more than mislead, he proposes several others that point towards the developments in science and philosophy. If we need a musical term we might note that the era is typified by the emergence of musical theatre, one of the characteristics of the 17th century and one in which Monteverdi was very much in the forefront. If we want to refer to something even more characteristically musical, we could refer to it as the age of the basso continuo, the nearly obligatory new element of a bass line and its realization in harmony. It emerged early in the 17th century and died out in the late 18th century as the Classical style became central.

Getting back to the irony Taruskin refers to, the traditional cliché is that the rediscovery of the learning of Classical Greece prompted the Renaissance, but in music that is not the case. It was the researches of Girolamo Mei, associated with the Accademia Fiorentina, that explored the intricacies of Greek music theory and prompted the new, more expressive style (which we are carefully not calling "Baroque"). What his erudite treatise did not reveal was what Greek music actually sounded like, which was actually a benefit because it meant that composers were not tempted to imitate an ancient model. Mei was pretty sure that Greek music did not contain things like the complex counterpoint of the ars perfecta but was instead monophonic and exerted expressive and moral influence through the use of different modes. The new style in music should be representational, that is, it should imitate in sound the intonations, pitch, tone and other expressive elements of impassioned human speech. These ideas were coming from one Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo Galilei the scientist and were part of a new intellectual movement that we can term "radical humanism." Instead of the traditional persuasion through pure logic and reference to authority, the new persuasion is based on rhetoric and persuasive expression. You can see the appeal to musicians!

This was the environment into which Monteverdi entered as a composer. His early madrigals are in the style of the ars perfecta, but more and more they tend towards increased intensity of expression, which in the context of the style, meant more dissonance and less deference toward the strict control of the older style. An example that Taruskin offers is "Cruda Amarilli" from the fifth madrigal book of 1605 where the soprano enters with a dissonance (not permitted in the older style) and, instead of immediately resolving as it should, moves to yet another dissonance!

Click to enlarge
The box indicates the section: the soprano enters with a typical expostulation ("ahi lasso!" "ah, weary me" from which comes our word "alas") on the dissonant A (over a G major harmony) which moves to an F which is still a dissonance! In the next measure it resolves to an E, the third of a C chord.

Cruda Amarilli (Cruel Amarilli) is the first piece in the Fifth Book of Madrigals. This performance is unattributed, but we have the score:

This performance, with ad libitum lute accompaniment, is by R. Alessandrini & Concerto Italiano:


Will Wilkin said...

Artistically speaking, its been steadily downhill since the end of the baroque, or whatever one wants to call it. Morally-speaking, the rot of commerce has been eroding human character a few centuries longer.

The 16th-century "ars perfecta" was just the latest of several musical renaissances in Europe. For example, the "ars nova" of the 14th century had replaced the "ars antiqua" of the 13th, which itself replaced the music of the "little renaissance" of the 12th century....

Great artists like Monteverdi and Bach are the exceptional counter-examples that cannot hold back the larger tidal forces, over which music is only the frothing of sound: If there is any generalization that can hold over the centuries (and this is expressed in music as much as any other social phenomena), it is that western culture has grown increasingly vulgar and lascivious, bringing us to the popular culture of today that serves as certain warning the world will end very soon.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had a friend who was quite convinced that music has been in decline since 1733, the death of François Couperin. Sometimes I think that maybe he was right...