Claudio Monteverdi and the madrigal
From the fourteenth century onwards, Italy saw the successive appearance of two forms of madrigal: the first lasted only a century (from 1320 to 1420 approximately), and the second was born in the sixteenth century (around 1520). A poetic and vocal genre, mainly secular (although there are also religious pieces), this second form of madrigal is a synthesis between the Franco-Flemish style and more popular traditional Italian vocal music. Contemporary with Italian humanism, this genre particularly illustrates the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, from the prima prattica to the seconda prattica.
The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) made a major contribution to this development. Between 1587 and 1638 he wrote about 200 madrigals, published in eight books, in which the progression of his style can be followed:
- Books I to IV are written in polyphonic language and sung a cappella. Monteverdi exploits the resources of this multi-voiced music ;
- In Books V and VI, he breaks free from the rules and transcends the polyphony of the past in search of a dramatic ideal, that of expressing musically the emotions conveyed by the text. Book V saw the appearance of a basso continuo, added to the voices;
- In Books VII and VIII, the accompanied monody triumphed. These pure, elegant sung pieces, in which text and music are in harmony, open the way to opera.
In the 16th century, composers sought to link the text and music of sung works more closely. They sought to adapt the procedures of rhetoric to music, i.e. to underline the text, to highlight it, by specifically musical means, called figuralisms. The madrigal thus became a privileged genre for developing this new style of writing, so much so that the word “madrigalism” (a musical effect used in a madrigal to accentuate the text) gradually became synonymous with the term “figuralism” (relating to a more general context outside the sole genre of the madrigal).
Monteverdi states in the preface to his last book of madrigals: “Innovative minds will be able to search for new things relating to harmony and to acquire the certainty that the modern composer builds his works on the basis of truth. This truth lies in the relationship between text and music, of which the following are some examples:
A descriptive rhythm
Love, despair, redemption, anger, the clash of arms… From the beginning of the Combat de Tancrède et Clorinde (Book VIII, 1638), the narrator sets the scene. His recitative, calm at first, comes to life:
Segue egli impetuoso, onde assai prima
che giunga, in guisa avvien che d’armi suone
ch’ella si volge e grida…
He follows her, impetuous, and long before
he reaches her, the sound of weapons resounds,
she turns and shouts at him…
The flow accelerates, the instrumental accompaniment gets carried away and repeats rhythmic formulas close to tremolos. Music, capable of expressing emotions, suggests here the agitation of the narrative. This new style of writing, specifically translating an agitated state of mind, is called stile concitato.
Dissonances and long notes
At the beginning of the Lamento della Ninfa (Book VIII, 1638), a poignant lament, the three voices sing in homorhythm and thus let the words be heard with clarity. Soon key words are highlighted: the words suo dolor (her pain) are stretched out on longer notes sung with dissonant intervals. Shortly afterwards, the two upper voices rise to a high pitch and all stop on the attention-grabbing term un gran (a great one), framed by two silences that emphasise it. Then the voices drop back down and slowly relax on sospir dal cor (sigh of the heart). The despair is palpable.
The first line of Arianna’s Lamento (Book VI, 1632), Lasciatemi morire (Let me die), has the two high voices united in the same melodic pattern: ascending semitone, then descending fourth, followed by a descending semitone. Chromaticism, particularly expressive, is used here to symbolise pain. The other three voices take over, shifted, but the essential has been said and understood. The ear then perceives from this polyphony the two syllables la – scia (from lasciatemi) which point at different pitches. We understand that Ariadne, a woman in love and abandoned, begs and waits for death as a deliverance. A staging of pain.
Author : Sylvia Avrand-Margot