Ahi, morte! - Epitaphs and Laments of Monteverdi and d'India

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and James Dargan for a program of madrigals by Monteverdi and d’India presented by Tramontana in May 2014.

What is a madrigal, anyway?

The term “madrigal” actually refers to two different things, both Italian in origin.  The 14th-century madrigal, favored by composers like Jacopo da Bologna and Francesco Landini, referred to the poetic form that many of their pieces followed.  The madrigals of the 16th century were settings of secular poetry for three to six voices.  These pieces employed polyphony, imitation, and later, chromaticism to emphasize the meaning of the text.  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.  To showcase their skilled musical institutions, the dukes of Ferrara and Mantua maintained a group of highly trained singers, both men and women, to perform polyphonic madrigals, one singer to a part, in the rulers’ private chambers. 

The first madrigals appeared in Florence in the early 16th century.  While none of the pieces in the first publication were actually called “madrigals”, they displayed the characteristics that would later be used to distinguish the madrigal from other genres.  By the late 16th century, composers were beginning to experiment with more extensive word-painting and unusual chromatic relationships.  Composers had become ingenious in their use of what would come to be known as “madrigalisms” – passages in which the music assigned to a particular word were set in a way to vividly express the meaning of the word.  Such an example in this program can be found in “Sospir, che del bel petto” where the broken rhythms of “sospirata” resemble a sigh or a gasping for breath.

In the early 17th century, the madrigal continued to be popular, but it had diverged into several forms.  Madrigals in the familiar polyphonic style continued to be an important genre and compositional exercise for Italian composers and all who came to study composition in Italy.  Composers also wrote madrigals for a solo voice with instrumental accompaniment (monody), and also concerted madrigals, which d’India and Monteverdi both composed alongside their more traditional five-voice madrigals.  Our program features madrigals from the early 17th century that are in the older polyphonic style but show clear influences from other forms that were beginning to take hold.  

What was Monteverdi’s involvement?

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) entered the service of Vincenzo I, Duke of Mantua as a viol player and singer in 1590.  He would remain at the Gonzaga court in Mantua for the next 22 years, eventually becoming the maestro di cappella.  After the death of the duke in 1612, Monteverdi moved to San Marco in Venice, where he restored the musical institution that had been failing since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609.

Monteverdi’s prolific compositional output shows both the familiar styles of the late 16th century as well as the sometimes contentious style innovations of the early 17th century.  Although he is often viewed as the transition between the renaissance and baroque, it is important to remember that he was one of many composers who wrote fluently in both older renaissance and newer baroque styles, as any successful composer in this time would have done.  He was not bound by the rules and guidelines of compositional practice, but believed that music should “move the whole man” and therefore must match the words being set.  This emphasis on using music to intensify textual meanings drew criticism from Giovanni Maria Artusi, a conservative music theorist.  His criticism of the use of irregular dissonances and “modal improprieties” was directed specifically at Monteverdi but also at all Italian composers who were daring to explore these new techniques and place the words and their meanings first.

Monteverdi’s response, published in his fifth book of madrigals (1605), was to divide musical practice into two streams.  One was prima pratica, or the older polyphonic style of the 16th century, which was characterized by strict counterpoint, prepared dissonance, the equality of voices, and the predominance of music over the text.  The other was seconda pratica, or the use of free counterpoint and the use of dissonance in unusual ways so the text ruled the music.  While effective for silencing the critics, for giving composers a defense for their daring new practices, and also for giving music theory students something to memorize for exams, this explanation implied a strict division where none really existed.  The move from older polyphony into the new more expressive styles was a gradual transition during which composers wrote in a wide range of styles concurrently, depending on their needs and desires at the time.

How does the sestina fit in?

A sestina is a set poetic form consisting of six stanzas, each with six lines, followed by a stanza of three lines.  There is no set rhyme scheme, but instead the final words from each line of the first stanza are used as the final words for each subsequent stanza, rotated in a set pattern.  Traditionally attributed to the 12th-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, the form was popular in Italy by the 13th century and continues to be used by contemporary poets.  Historically, sestinas were written as a lament or a complaint, since the repetition of words can serve to emphasize and intensify feelings, usually those of anguish or grief.

Monteverdi’s motivation for composing this sestina setting is somewhat unclear.  Some believe that it was written for his wife, while others suggest it was written for a favored singer, or merely written out of duty and not with any particular attachment.  In 1607, Monteverdi’s wife died, leaving him with three children all under the age of six.  After her death, Monteverdi returned to his father’s home in Cremona in a deep depression.  He was quickly summoned back to Mantua to compose a new opera, L’Arianna, for the marriage celebrations of the Gonzaga heir, Francesco, to Margherita of Savoy.  Tragedy continued to plague him when Catarina Martinelli, the young singer for whom the title role of Arianna was written, died of smallpox just weeks before the premiere.  Monteverdi again retreated to Cremona and refused to return to Mantua for quite some time.  The music composed during this period, including the sestina, reflects his emotional state with the use of intense dissonance and vivid depiction of anguish and loss.

The demanding poetic form of Monteverdi’s sestina, or “Tears of a lover at the tomb of his beloved”, elicits some of his most inspired music, with each stanza representing a single tear.  The first stanza sets the stage for an exploration of grief in the moment when a lover bends over the grave of their beloved.  In the second stanza, a haunting duet between two inner voices is repeated three times, increasing in grief with each iteration, before the remaining voices finally join in and bring it to a solemn conclusion. The third and fourth stanzas feature duets and trios as the lover expounds upon his grief and appeals to nature, to the heavens, and to anyone who will listen.  In the fifth stanza, the lover invokes the muses with a series of musical sighs that pass from voice to voice and almost seem to interrupt the lamenting for a moment, transmuting the mood to one of wonder before returning to a haunting gesture of sobbing.  The text painting in the sixth stanza is exquisitely beautiful and very effective, each voice building up and over the other until all activity is stopped by death and the tomb ("Ahi morte, Ahi tomba!") when the voices converge into a unison, and then silence. Then the final stanza arrives in the shape of monody-influenced homophony, almost as if the speaker is too exhausted for any more grief, and the sestina ends in dry-eyed calm.

Who was Sigismondo d’India?

Sigismondo d’India (1582-1629) can be grouped with Don Carlo Gesualdo and Luzzasco Luzzaschi as the composers who explored and perhaps even exploited chromaticism in the early 17th century.  Very little is known about d’India’s early life.  He was of noble Sicilian birth, and probably was a relative of Don Carlo d’India, a Palermo nobleman who was living in Naples in 1592.  By 1606, when he published his first book of madrigals, he was in Mantua, where he may have met Monteverdi.  In 1608, he was in Florence, where he sang alongside, and earned the admiration of two of the most celebrated singers at this time – Giulio Caccini and Vittoria Archilei.   In 1611, he was appointed director of chamber music at the court of Emanuele I, Duke of Savoy, in Turin.  He remained there until 1623, when he was forced to leave by vicious gossip or to avoid a scandal, depending on which account one reads.  In any case, he settled temporarily at the court of Alfonso II d’Este, Prince of Modena before moving on to Rome under the patronage of Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy, his former patron’s son.  His later years are as shrouded in mystery as his early life.  In 1627 he competed for the commission to write music for the wedding of Duke Odoardo Farnese of Parma to the daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, but that honor was eventually given to Monteverdi.  He was given an appointment to the court of Maximilian I of Bavaria, but died before assuming the post.

His extensive travels throughout Italy gave him a thorough understanding of most of the major styles present in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century, and his masterful synthesis of these styles is apparent in his compositional output. He wrote in most of the major vocal forms of the time, including monody, polyphonic madrigals, concerted madrigals, and sacred motets.  While he never ventured into the world of opera, his extended monodic laments can easily be considered dramatic scenes.  He followed in the traditions of the monody composers in Florence, writing five books of monody for one or two voices and continuo, and introducing into monody the chromaticism that was well established in the polyphonic madrigal.  In his five-voice madrigals, d’India followed the wild chromatic style of Luzzaschi and Gesualdo instead of the more restrained and monody-influenced style of Monteverdi.  Like the other composers of his day, d’India alternated between genres.  He wrote monody and polyphonic madrigals side by side, believing monody to be incapable of everything the polyphonic madrigal excelled at.  

In his final publication in 1627, d’India lamented that composers increasingly tended to delight in facile melodies rather than attempt the ingenious elaborations of genuine counterpoint.  For much of the 17th century, monody and the forms that followed (aria and cantata) focused on the importance of a single line and a clearly expressed text.  It wasn’t until the 18th century and the high Baroque that composers once again turned themselves to the creation of exquisite counterpoint and polyphony.