The Good, the Bad, and the Crazy - Madrigals of Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Hilary Anne Walker for a program of madrigals by Gesualdo, Marenzio, and Monteverdi presented by Tramontana in April 2013.

The term “madrigal” actually refers to two different things, both Italian in origin. The 14th-century madrigal was favored by composers Jacopo da Bologna and Francesco Landini and referred to the poetic form that many of their pieces followed.  The first collection of pieces known as “madrigals” in the 16thcentury was published in Rome in 1530.  For the most part, madrigals in the 16thcentury were settings of secular poetry for three to six voices that used polyphonic, imitative, and chordal techniques to emphasize the meaning of the text. Advances in printing, specifically in printed musical notation, allowed composers a greater range of rhythmic options, and the exploration of chromaticism opened realms of expressiveness that had not been previously possible.  With the advent of what became known as the “seconda practica”, emphasis was placed heavily on the text.  The text became the most important element in the composition, and it is from this emphasis that the techniques of word painting developed.  As composers explored more daring ways of emphasizing text meanings, the madrigal shifted from a popular form of entertainment among amateur musicians to a complex repertoire reserved for professionals.  The dukes of Ferrara and Mantua maintained a group of highly trained singers, including both men and women, specifically to perform polyphonic madrigals, one singer to a part, in the rulers’ private chambers.  Beginning in the 17thcentury, the forms of monody, opera, and cantata gradually replaced the madrigal. Publishing a book of madrigals had been and would continue to be a compositional exercise for young composers, but for Marenzio, Gesualdo, and Monteverdi, madrigals were a deliberately chosen form of musical expression.

Luca Marenzio (ca.1553–1599) is the oldest of the three composers featured in this program.  He worked for Cardinal Madruzzo in Rome before joining Cardinal Luigi d’Este in 1578. He had a reputation as a fine singer and an accomplished lutenist, but it was during his time with the d’Este family that he became known internationally as a composer.  His first books of madrigals, published in the 1580s, were incredibly popular in Italy and were reprinted frequently both in Italy and throughout Europe.  Marenzio’s relationship with his employer was somewhat tumultuous – he occasionally had difficulty obtaining his salary, and in 1583 he was almost sent as a “gift” to King Henry III of France.  Fortunately, this plan fell through and he was able to continue working for the d’Este family until the death of Cardinal Luigi d’Este in 1586.  He then declined a position with the Duke of Mantua, a post that Monteverdi would take four years later.  Records from that time show that while Marenzio was popular as a composer, he maintained a flourishing performing career and comfortably lived on that income alone.  He spent 1587-1589 working for Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici in Florence, but eventually returned to Rome where he moved freely in the musical circles of the nobility and high-ranking clergy without being attached to any particular patron.  In 1595 he received a commission from Pope Clement VIII to take over the work begun by Palestrina to revise the chant books.  During this time Dowland traveled to Italy with the desire to study with Marenzio, but it is unknown if they ever actually met. 

Throughout Marenzio’s career, he treated his chosen poems as a series of short phrases, with each musical phrase designed to bring out the idea and affect of the text line to which it corresponded.  His early works were so popular that they were published in Musica Transalpina in England in 1588 and inspired the English composers who were just beginning to explore the madrigal style. Marenzio’s later madrigals differed greatly from the early madrigals featured in our program.  In his later years he explored chromaticism in a way that would be surpassed only by Gesualdo’s last two books of madrigals twelve years after Marenzio’s death.  

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was born in Cremona.  He received his only formal training from the cathedral maestro di cappella Marc Antonio Ingegneri.  Ingegneri proved to be a shrewd instructor not only in music, but also in poetic taste and political savoir-faire.  His guidance can be seen in the poetry chosen for Monteverdi’s earliest publications, as well as in the dedication of larger works to important potential benefactors. Having published his first collection of music at age 15, Monteverdi aspired early on to take a place in one of Italy’s numerous wealthy and musically rich courts.  His hard work paid off in 1590, when he earned a position at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, a place he would remain for the next 22 years. His reputation as a composer helped him to secure employment, but his primary role in Mantua was that of string player and singer.  Under Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga and his successor Francesco, musical life in Mantua continuously expanded.  For the Gonzaga family, like their cousins the d’Este family in Ferrara, an integral part of maintaining power and prestige meant raising the standard of excellence in arts and culture.  In 1601, Monteverdi assumed the role of maestro di cappella.  While in Mantua, Monteverdi published three more books of madrigals and began to experiment with music for the theater, including opera.  Following his move to Venice in 1613, Monteverdi’s compositional techniques became firmly cemented in the early Baroque style. This can be seen from his sixth book of madrigals onward with his increasing use of basso continuo and the polarization of voice writing.

Unlike Marenzio and Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) was a nobleman.  He was born in Naples and inherited the principality of Venosa in 1586.  He married his cousin, Maria d’Avalos, the same year, and thus began a story almost too salacious to be believed. Four years later, he surprised his wife and her lover in bed and murdered them both.  In 1594, Gesualdo married Leonora d’Este, niece of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.  This marriage, while unhappy, helped put the scandal of the murders behind him and lasted until his death.  His travels to Ferarra also brought him into the musical establishment of the d’Este family where he was introduced to Luzzaschi and other composers who were experimenting with chromaticism.  Between 1594-1596, Gesualdo published four books of madrigals in Ferarra, thus solidifying his reputation as a composer.  Gesualdo returned to his own estate in 1597 and immersed himself in music, focusing specifically on setting up a musical establishment similar to what he had seen in Ferarra.  In 1611, two years before his death, Gesualdo published his last two books of five voice madrigals.  The madrigals in those two books took chromaticism to an extreme that would not be seen again until the 20thcentury.  

While it is easy to look at Gesualdo’s chromaticism as an isolated phenomenon, it is important to recognize that it was a trend that many composers were exploring at the time. Luzzaschi and d’India both used striking dissonance in their compositions.  Marenzio had begun to explore chromaticism near the end of his life, and even Monteverdi used it before moving solidly into what would become the early Baroque style.  But it isn’t just the striking use of chromaticism that makes Gesualdo’s madrigals unique.  In another departure from the norm, Gesualdo’s madrigals were published in full score rather than partbooks.  Gesualdo used incredible variation of rhythmic ideas in his pieces, with fast and slow sections alternating very quickly.  Just as Marenzio made each line of text a separate musical idea, Gesualdo highlighted each line with differing harmonies, rhythms, and textures. Gesualdo made excellent use of emphatic pauses in the form of rests to further set off the text.  All of these elements together resulted in a weakening of the idea of the “tactus” or underlying pulse that was essential to Renaissance style.  

Equally as interesting as the composers on this program are the poets whose texts they set.  Like composers and musicians, poets also found employment and patronage in Italy’s rich courts, thus providing composers with easy access to their works.  The two poets most often used by Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo were Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini.  Marenzio also set a number of Petrarch’s sonnets, but Petrarch’s poetry did not find as much favor with Monteverdi. 

One style of poetry popular with Marenzio and Monteverdi, especially in their early writing styles, is pastoral poetry, which is imbued with classical imagery and is dedicated to glorifying the beauty of nature.  Those lucky enough to have seen Italy can understand why pastoral poetry was so popular.  The rivers, seas, and rolling hills are alone a wordless poetry.  Monteverdi’s setting of Tasso’s Ecco mormorar l’onde is a superlative example.  With gentle harmonies, sustained phrases, and limited text repetition within a single vocal line, his music serenely captures the understated beauty and awe of watching a sunrise over the sea that is expressed so earnestly in Tasso’s text.  

Unsurprisingly, Gesualdo avoided pastoral and narrative poetry, preferring to musically interpret the metaphors and introspection of tormented love.  In Già piansi nel dolore, each new phrase presents a new and opposing sentiment.  Thus the music reflects the extreme mood swings between ecstasy and anguish, as well as the utter confusion of experiencing both simultaneously. 

Tasso and Guarini owe a great deal to Francesco Petrarch and Dante Alighieri, the fathers of courtly poetry or il dolce stil novo.  This poetic style centered on la donna angelo, a woman of the utmost beauty, decorum and, of course, high social standing, who was the key to all redemption in the eyes of heaven. Heavily laced with double entendre, the poetry of this style is extremely introspective, restrained, and symbolic.  Marenzio’s setting of Tasso’s Disdegno e Gelosiais exemplary of this style, describing a courtly lady surrounded by towering, guarded walls, without whose love the subject is a savage beast. Tasso and Guarini went further than their stylistic predecessors by bringing more romance and sensuality into their poetry, which encouraged our composers to write more vivid and descriptive harmonies.  Interestingly enough, Zefiro torna, the first of only six settings of Petrarch’s poetry by Monteverdi, was written fairly late in comparison to his other madrigals.  Monteverdi’s use of chromaticism in Zefirorivals some of the most extreme settings by Gesualdo with unexpected harmonic changes and vivid depiction of the torment described in the poetry.     

These compositions by Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo show the full development and flowering of the madrigal genre.  Marenzio, as the oldest of our three composers, began with the form at the height of its popularity.  His compositions spread the enthusiasm for madrigals throughout Europe.  In his later works he explored chromaticism and extremes of text painting and opened the door for Gesualdo, who took those ideas to their absolute extremes.  Monteverdi, as the youngest, experimented with the same chromaticism and text treatments, but in the end turned in another direction and ushered in the styles that would culminate in the high Baroque.