Music blog

Music news and views

15 June 2016

Recycling Madrigals in Counter-Reformation Italy

Last week, I started my PhD project placement at the British Library to work on 16th- and 17th-century printed music. After a day of induction to the workings of the Library, including a fascinating tour of the basement, where most of the Library’s collection items such as rare books and manuscripts are housed, my supervisor handed me a list of printed sources of which I was to produce descriptive data. I initially picked three items from the list to start off with, two of which I’d like to focus on in this post.

The first one, Nuove Laudi Ariose (Rome, 1600), was an anthology of laude, largely homophonic vocal pieces (in this case for four voices), the purpose of which was to strengthen the Catholic faith of those who sang and heard them, hence their widespread use during the Counter-Reformation. The anthology, edited by Giovanni Arascione and printed in 1600 by Nicolò Mutij in Rome, consists of four part books (Canto, Alto, Tenor, Basso). The copy housed at the British Library was acquired in 1975. Six more exemplars are extant, all of them in Italian libraries.

Several of the pieces contained in Nuove Laudi Ariose are actually recycled from popular secular madrigals, set to new texts. As Joachim Steinheuer points out, retexting secular madrigals and choosing popular dance basses of the time (such as the folia and the ciacona) as a basis for laude, were both common practices around 1600. In the case of retexting, one of the main reasons for this practice seems to have been to allow performers and educated listeners to link their familiarity with a particular secular madrigal, usually centred around themes of romantic love in various guises, with a new text and message – one that focussed on love of God, Christ, or Mary, as well as other pious topics such as the rejection of sin and worldly pleasures (see Joachim Steinheuer, 'Poverello che farai? - Musik als Vehikel gegenreformatorischer Bestrebungen', in Victoria von Flemming, ed., Aspekte der Gegenreformation, Sonderheft Zeitsprünge (Forschungen zur Frühen Neuzeit, Vol. 1, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1997), 611). 

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book 4, title page

Last page, tenor part book, and title page, alto part book of Claudio Monteverdi, Il quatro libro de madrigali (Venice, 1603)

The second printed source I worked on was the 1607 edition of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, while the third was Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals for five voices of 1603. ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’ (‘Yes, I’d like to die’) – this madrigal has regularly recurred during the course of my studies. I was first introduced to it by my music theory professor in Berlin, at some point during the first two years of my undergraduate degree. With its suggestive erotic text, rapid harmonic shifts and seemingly endless chains of dissonant suspensions, there was little not to like about this five-part madrigal, which counts as one of Monteverdi’s best known works in this genre.

It resurfaced in my attention at a concert a couple of months ago by the Turton Consort, who performed the entire fourth book in a concert at St. Ann’s Church in Manchester. As Joachim Steinheuer states in his article, ‘O Jesu mea vita’ is actually a retexting of ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’, with the erotic text describing a sexual act turned into one about the desire for spiritual unification with Christ, without changing even one note.  I had not remembered the exact contents of Monteverdi’s fourth book, so I realised only when leafing through the publication that this particular madrigal was back to ‘haunt’ me.

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book 4, Canto

Page 17 (‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’), canto part book of Monteverdi, Il quatro libro

The fourth book of madrigals is scarcer than Arascione’s Nuove Laudi Ariose: only two further exemplars are extant, one each in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, and in the Biblioteca comunale Ariostea in Ferrara, Italy. The British Library exemplar forms part of the Hirsch collection, which was bought from the previous owner, Paul Hirsch, in 1946.
As with the Arascione edition, Monteverdi’s fourth book was printed by single-impression movable type. It also carries a dedication (Illustration 3), addressed ‘to the illustrious gentlemen and observing patrons, the gentlemen of the Accademia degli Intrepidi [literally, the academy of the fearless] of Ferrara’ by the ‘most affectionate and obliging servant Claudio Monte verde’. In other words, even though Monteverdi, who had only recently been promoted to the position of ‘Maestro della Musica del Sereniss[imo] Sig[nor] Duca di Mantova’, printed the volume in Venice, the main hub for music printing at the time, his dedicatees were the members of the Accademia degli Intrepidi in Ferrara. Among these was the Duke of Mantua, which has lead Paolo Fabri to suggest it was ‘most likely intended, if only indirectly, as an act of homage to his own employer’ (see Paolo Fabri, Monteverdi, transl. Tim Carter (Cambridge: University Press, 1994, first published in Italian in 1985), 57.).  In any case, this dedication may well be why there is an exemplar housed in the public library of Ferrara.

Stephan Schönlau (University of Manchester)

PhD Placement Student

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book 4

Dedication (verso of the title page), canto part book of Monteverdi, Il quatro libro