Monday, April 10, 2017

Monteverdi's Colleagues and Competitors

One of the things musicologists do is to examine the context surrounding composers and their work. In the popular media this is largely restricted to biographical information, the more scurrilous the better, but a more interesting approach is to look at the musical context, which means looking at the musical environment, a large part of which is other composers, performers, patrons and so on. Late 16th century northern Italy was an extremely musically active place with each regional court supporting its own artists, writers and musicians. The madrigal (and other related forms like the villanella and canzonetta) was a creative union of poetry and music that was perhaps the most salient musical high art of the time and place. Different madrigal styles were developed in Mantua, Ferrara and Florence in particular.

Though born in Cremona, where he also studied at the University of Cremona, Monteverdi spent most of his career at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua. Along with Monteverdi, Vincenzo also employed the painter Peter Paul Rubens.

We learn from Tomlinson's monograph on Monteverdi that "The Mantuan style of 1595 - 1600 is above all a homophonic language of flexible, text-inspired declamatory rhythms ... Imitative textures are infrequent..." Also: "The Ferrarese style, in contrast favors mercurial, single-subject imitation at quick rhythmic intervals." He goes on to point out the differences in harmonic structure: the Ferrarese style is more undirected and has a wayward sound to modern ears. In the Mantuan style the bassline is more distinct and freer to support a harmonic foundation.

The very unusual composer Carlo Gesualdo was himself a nobleman, born in Venosa, then part of the Kingdom of Naples. On the death of his father he became Prince of Venosa. He was dedicated to music his whole life and took up residence in Ferrara because of its role as a center of musical activity. After a few years he returned to his castle at Gesualdo bringing with him a number of musicians and singers from Ferrara. Gesualdo was known for a style using extreme chromaticism and some of his madrigals seem to have influenced Monteverdi who knew his work.

Let's listen to a couple of pieces from Gesualdo's Fourth Book of Madrigals. First, "Sparge la morte" performed by the Ensemble "Basiliensis":

Next, "Ecco morirò dunque" performed by the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Working alongside Monterverdi in Mantua was Benedetto Pallavicino, here are the Ensemble Basilensis with his "Deh, dolce anima mia":

Another Mantuan violinist and composer was Salamone Rossi, one of the first Jewish composers we know of. This is his Sonata Duodecima (sopra La Bergamesca):

So I hope that gives you a bit of musical context of late 16th century northern Italy, a place that was the birthplace of a great deal of great music.

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