Musica Antiqua Koln - Reinhard Goebel
========= from the cover ==========
Monteverdi And His Contemporaries
Monteverdi was first engaged at the Gonzaga court in Mantua as a "suonatore di vivuola", which probably meant that he was a player of the Viola da brazzo" or violin. Violinists were usually employed as part of a string quintet that played for dancing - not, of course, popular dances but elegant ballets de cour, in which the protagonists were the ladies and gentlemen of the court. The ballets generally illustrated a gently dramatic theme (to call them "stories" would be an exaggeration), and so it could be said that from the start Monteverdi was interested in "music theatre". Opera, as such, was only a part of those interests. He had in fact few opportunities to compose operas: two in his Mantuan years, two or three commissions from elsewhere during his Venetian period, and three for the newly opened Venetian opera houses in his last three years. Opportunities for composing ballets, intermedi and similar entertainments came more frequently. This helps to explain Monteverdi's mastery of form in his dramatic music. Ballet demands strict patterns so that the dances can be organized. In the intermedio, songs and choruses were essential "numbers". The operatic preoccupation with telling a story in recitative as in Florence's Camerata was therefore just a small part of Monteverdi's thinking.
A more important element in his philosophy was "imitation", a vague concept much bandied about by Renaissance thinkers who knew their Plato. What it exactly meant was a matter much debated. Monteverdi took it to mean two practical things: firstly the imitation of natural sounds, whether birdsong or the murmuring of the winds in the trees; secondly, the finding of the musical equivalent of human emotions. The first of these interpretations is to be seen at its most vivid in the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, first produced in a palace of the noble Venetian family of Mocenigo in 1624 as part of an evening of madrigals. The text is a scene from Tasso's counter-Reformation epic Gerusalemme liberata, where the crusader Tancred meets the Moslem Clorinda, dressed up as a male warrior. They fight, Tancred finally wins and uncovering Clorinda's face discovers that she is a woman. He suffers grief and remorse but is forgiven by Clorinda in her dying moments; and she dies a Christian. Although it was acted (Clorinda arriving in armour on foot, Tancred, also in armour, on a "cavallo Mariano" [= a type of hobby-horse?]), since it was a straightforward setting of poetry, not a drama, the story must be told by a narrator, or testa, who indeed has the principal role. It is he who sets the scene in recitative. Then after the trotting of the horse (so marked in the score) and the preliminary meeting of the protagonists, he sings an aria "Notte, che nel profondo oscuro seno", two verses of decorated melody over a repeated bass. "Principio della Guerra" is marked in the score, as he describes the joining of battle, and we hear very distinctly the clashing of swords and cries of stress, the physical struggle as they try to seize each other. There is a moment of rest before the fight is joined again (fanfare motifs and constant repeated notes on the violins). Clorinda is finally wounded (so described in recitative by the testo), her ebbing of life conveyed by some sudden forte/piano held notes on the strings. The testo tells of her dying; but she herself sings the final notes, finishing with a diminuendo a niente. No wonder the first audience was moved to tears (as Monteverdi tells us in the instructions on how to perform the piece in the book of Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi published in 1638). As indeed were the ladies at the performance of Arianna in 1608 at Mantua. This was Monteverdi's second opera, written especially to celebrate the nuptuals of the heir-apparent to the Gonzaga duchy and his bride, Margaret of Savoy. Monteverdi had learned a great deal in composing his first opera, Orfeo, in the previous year, not least that there should be a grand scena, a climax of both drama and music, an extended aria where the hero or heroine could express their deepest emotions. This he repeated in Arianna which, as the court chronicler Follino recorded:
... every part succeeded well, most especially miraculously in the lament which Ariadne sings on the rock when she has been abandoned by Theseus, which was acted with much emotion and in so piteous a way that no one hearing it was left unmoved, nor among the ladies was there one who did not shed a few tears at her plaint.
The score of the opera has not survived, rather strangely since it was revived at least twice after its initial success. But the lament was immediately famous, since the audience included nobility from many states: Monteverdi made an arrangement of it as a five-part madrigal and then it was published as a solo aria 15 years after its first performance. Neither represents its original form, which the libretto shows to have been an aria with interjections from a chorus of fishermen. Even so, in both surviving arrangements it is so beautiful that we can imagine its marvellous effect in its operatic context. It is the peak of Monteverdi's arioso style, showing his ability to express each phrase of the text in a heightened way, yet organized by thematic references and repetitions.
Among Monteverdi's colleagues at Mantua was the Jewish violinist Salomone Rossi: indeed he was probably part of the string quintet for ballet performances, since he was much the same age as Monteverdi and joined the court establishment about the same year. He was one of the first of a new generation of virtuoso violinist-composers, which largely took over from lutenists the market for brilliant instrumental music. If they did not explore the upper range of the instrument, they acquired considerable finger dexterity and, to judge from some of the expression marks in their compositions, a bowing technique which allowed variety of tone and sonority. Mantua was one centre for such virtuosi: Farina and Buonamente were both born there; Brescia, in Venetian territory, was another. It was common for these violinists to work at German courts for a time, though they generally came home to northern Italy in the end.
Much of their music, as one might expect from the composers' main court function, was for dancing - sometimes very simple in melody and harmony, sometimes more sophisticated with several variations added. But variations were more common over a repeated stock bass (which meant in effect a series of chords) such as a passacaglia, chaconne or ruggiero. Other works were derived from the canzona, originally a song transcription, by now a piece in several sections, quite often contrasting in rhythm or speed or melodic nature. These were a repertory which could be performed in church as well as chamber, in which case they were written for an ensemble rather than for a soloist who could encourage the cult of personality (that would come later, in the 18th century). So was born the trio sonata, to be the main instrumental genre of composers in the later Baroque era.