Reception on the Patio
talian madrigals share many common themes, though most are about the power and vicissitudes of love. Nature and pastoral scenes also rank high. Along with these there are many about the seasons, with far more about spring than any other season. There are a few here and there about the hot summer sun, and one can easily get creative and interpret the fire of passion cooled as “coldness” for a winter song. Madrigals about autumn are much harder to find.
Why was spring so popular? To answer this question we must mention the Florentine Camerata, a group of humanist poets, intellectuals, and musicians, which met for the first time in 1573. The foundation of the Camerata’s beliefs was that the music of their time overused polyphony (multiple parts of equal importance but great independence), making it impossible for the listener to understand and respond to the text. They set out to improve music, and thus society, by “returning” to Greek expressive ideals. The ideas of the Camerata would eventually lead to a new style of singing, called recitative; a baby step in this stylistic shift was increased use of homophony (multiple parts with the same rhythms and textual underlay).
A great number of madrigals were composed around themes, characters and stories from Greek and Roman mythology. In Roman mythology, Flora is the goddess of flowers and the season of spring. She was a minor figure, just one of several fertility goddesses, but she did have a festival day — Floralia, dating back to 240 BCE — which was between April 28 and May 3. Her Greek mythological counterpart is Cloris. Flora was married to Favonius, whose Greek counterpart is Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, bringer of light spring and early summer breezes.
In Italian poetry, spring is associated with youth, renewal, fertility and erotic love. The cycle of the year, the return of warmth and the new growth of spring — the Earth pushing forth new life, the return of the warmth of a lover’s attention after the coldness of being ignored — these are all powerful, expressive themes. It is easy to see why these composers would want to set poetry that spoke of such passion, and would invent musical devices to evoke those passions in the listener. Spring, Primavera, in all her voluptuous glory, then, became a popular theme amongst the madrigalists.
The composers chosen for this program were all writing in the late period of the Italian Madrigal, shortly before the transition into the more monodic style of the early Baroque. In the madrigals on this program, look for mention of the following words or themes:
- Ninfe e pastori and pastorelle — nymphs and shepherds
- Primavera — Spring,who is young
- Augelli — birds, heralding the return of spring
- Fioretti or fiori — flowers
- Herbette — grasses
- Zefiro — the gentle west wind
- Ride la primavera, felice primavera — Spring smiles and laughs, but that laughter is always set in contrast to the sorrow of unfulfilled love
- Spring returns — gia torna, zefiro torna
razio Vecchi, variously maestro di capella, choirmaster and priest, was most famous as a composer of madrigals in a light and popular style. He often grouped madrigals together in a “madrigal comedy,” which were considered by some to be an early precursor to what later became opera. BACK
uca Marenzio’s influence was felt as far away as England, having been included in Musica Transalpina, the publication that brought the Italian madrigal to England. Having worked in the service of the Gonzaga, Este and Medici families, he was one of the most renowned composers of the late period of early madrigal style.
einrich Schütz was born in Köstritz in eastern Germany. When his musical talent was recognized, he was sent to be educated as a choirboy in Kassel. He eventually went to study music in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli before returning to Germany for a court post in Dresden. He later visited Venice again and studied with Monteverdi before returning to Dresden. He composed vocal music almost exclusively, to the dismay of instrumentalists!
uzzascho Luzzaschi was born in Ferrara and stayed there most of his life, as organist for the Este family. He composed in the late Italian Madrigal style. He is most famous for his association with the Concerto della donne, the famed “ladies of Ferrara,” a trio of virtuosic singers for whom he composed much music.
orn in Cremona, Italy, Claudio Monteverdi worked as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice and is best known as the revolutionary composer considered largely responsible for the invention of opera. His eight books of madrigals show key features of the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, his early works being polyphonic and his later ones more monodic.
arco Uccellini composed operas and ballets, unfortunately now lost to history, and much instrumental music. He was a virtuoso violinist; his writing for the violin is adventurous, expressive, full of surprise and contrast.
Both he and Dario Castello were active a generation or more later than most of the composers on this program, so it is perhaps helpful to consider the two violin sonatas offered here as a telescopic look into the near future, and as an opportunity to observe the central place that solo voices and instruments were to assume in the early Baroque era. BACK
arlo Gesualdo was born into a noble family; this Prince of Venoza was known as a composer and a lutenist. His composition style is considered ahead of its time because of the extent of its chromaticism, which was unusual for his day and remains stunning to modern ears. Gesualdo is also infamous for murdering his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. BACK
lfonso Ferrabosco came from Italy to England as a very young man, and worked as a musician in the court of Elizabeth I. He may even have been a spy for her; he appears to have been too well-paid to have been merely a musician!
The publication of the aforementioned Musica Transalpina kick-started the English appetite for madrigals; Ferrabosco made a niche for himself capitalizing on it. By comparison with the more adventurous Marenzio and Gesualdo, he favored simpler harmonies, which appear to have been well received by the English. BACK
Notes by Elizabeth Blumenstock