This program, prepared expressly for Valentine’s Eve, revels in every species of passionate love, from the exquisite heights of religious ecstasy to the amorous yearnings of a desperate suitor. For expert musical commentary on the subject, we naturally turned to Italian music of the high Renaissance and baroque eras, in which love is so freely and beautifully expressed.|
Of course, these composers and poets, like any of today’s paperback romance novelists, recognized that blissful love quickly becomes deadly boring. Therefore, you’ll hear an abundance of pleading, moaning, and bellyaching in the process, proving that love is forever a many splintered thing.
Another remarkable characteristic of this music and its lyrics is the expression of love as an equal opportunity emotion, suited to both secular and sacred occasions. Whether aimed at Jesus, Medea, Nero, or the nymph Phyllis, the lyrical and musical treatments are remarkably similar.
And why shouldn’t they be? Christians refer to Jesus as the church’s bridegroom. These Italians took that metaphor seriously, adopting the language of secular romance in pursuit of their deity.
To highlight this freedom of expression, this concert freely mixes secular and religious material in uninterrupted sets of compositions, tied together by improvised connective material.
Agostino Steffani: Occhi, perchè piangete?
Steffani was rightly famous for his chamber cantatas and duets, which were commonly sung by opera artists as vocal aerobics or for entertaining in the homes of wealthy patrons. In this emotionally turbulent duet, we encounter a lover who cannot believe his eyes. In fact, he has it out with them, presumably for leading him down a rose-strewn path to a disastrous love affair.
G.F. Händel: Conservate, raddoppiate
The funny umlaut in his name is a dead giveaway that Hndel is not Italian, but he spent his early days on the boot-shaped peninsula absorbing the florid style and composing an armful of cantatas and duets for Italian singers. Many of them were soprano and alto castrati, who according to contemporary accounts, had romantic lives of their own, sometimes in scandal-ridden affairs with aristocratic married women.
Carlo Gesualdo: “Mercè,” grido piangendo
Carlo Gesualdo: Luci serene e chiare
Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, is famed for his outlandish harmonic language, which defined avant-garde in the early 1600s. As bizarre as his musical language may seem, his tastes was reportedly even more startling. For example, Gesualdo employed a valet whose talents included flagellation of his royal backside. The composer’s privileges also included having at his disposal a band of professional singers who could master his fiendishly difficult madrigals. Thus equipped, he composed unaccompanied madrigals of great emotional complexity and sophistication. Needless to say, the love he chooses to depict is most often tinged with pain, both genuine and as a metaphor for sexual release.
Girolamo Frescobaldi: O Jesu mi dulcissime
Frescobaldi’s harmonies are also bold for his time, but this text evokes the innocence of an altar boy. Musically speaking, this solo motet and the Grandi setting later in the program derive interest from the frequent interweaving of recitative and arioso passages. This approach combines the emotive power of rhetorical declamation with the hypnotic effect of rhythmic melody.
Claudio Monteverdi: Taci Armelin
Every opera in Monteverdi’s Venice included comic characters, often rustic country people, who provided humorous relief to the consequential dilemmas of its protagonists, normally royals or deities. This accompanied madrigal, set for three men, is composed in that same vein. Its text conjures the image of a canine Armelin who barks and interferes at the worst possible moments in a lover’s amorous pursuits.
Claudio Monteverdi: Non havea Febo ancora
Among the most loved and lovely of Monteverdi’s accompanied madrigals, this three-part composition is unique in its disposition of forces and its performance instructions. Think of it as a musical group of three male backup singers fronted by a Nymph. The guys warm up the audience with a trio before accompanying the lead singer in the main act, a beautiful plaint over a four-note ground bass (a repeating bass line). Monteverdi’s published instructions to the singer bear repeating: “The three voice parts to be sung before and after the Lament of the Nymph … are sung to beaten time [‘to the time of the hand’].” In the lament, the men “softly commiserate with the Nymph” and “accompany her lament, which must be sung in time with the emotions of the mind and not in time with the hand.” In other words, the Nymph is instructed to let it all hang out.
Claudio Monteverdi: Perchè t’en fuggi o Fillide
This piece boils down to chasing a dame, who runs away before any mischief can be had. In this charming trio, Monteverdi demonstrates the lively style that equally pleased boomtown Venice’s nobleman and nouveau riche merchants. In large part, it is this accessibility that helps Monteverdi’s operas endure as the oldest to regularly appear among the Western world’s opera repertory.
G.F. Händel: Tanti strale
This cantata is too busy showing off to pack the emotional punch of the earlier works, but that is typical of the high Baroque. Its composers remained interested in emotions, but their art had become one of mechanistic depiction — not unlike the intricate clockwork of the era — as opposed to the more direct expression employed to such great effect by Monteverdi and his contemporaries. Yet, for everything this cantata lacks in emotive impact it repays in technical brilliance, the quality that principally accounts for the extraordinary success of Händel and his Italian singers with fashion-conscious British opera audiences in the first half of the 18th century.
Girolamo Frescobaldi: Maddalena alla Croce
For baroque composers obsessed with expressing individual emotions, the crucifixion was a mother lode of material. While most musical settings of this scene focused on mother Mary — most notably, the Stabat Mater — Mary Magdalene also got her due. In Frescobaldi’s powerful setting of her plaints, one detects a touch of worldly love coloring her devout sympathy for the suffering Christ.
Pier Francesco Cavalli: Sotto il tremulo ciel
Medea was among the long series of action-packed operas Cavalli reeled off for Venetian audiences. As it happens, sleep scenes like this one became a popular feature of these operas — for a time, no libretto was complete without one. Of course, it didn’t hurt that such scenes often took place in one love nest or another.
Claudio Monteverdi: Venite venite
Employing a festive secular metaphor, Venite Venite compares God’s blessings to free food and wine. Of particular interest is the lugubrious musical passage depicting God’s “milk and honey you can buy without money.”
Claudio Monteverdi: O bone Jesu
O bone Jesu is a meditative masterwork, deceptively simple in its antiphonal technique. It is likely that this motet would have been performed with singers arranged in different locations within Venice’s San Marco. More than most works on this program, this duet clearly calls for the singers to improvise vocal ornaments that variously evoke the qualities of Jesus enumerated in the text.
Claudio Monteverdi (attr.): Pur ti miro
The Coronation of Poppa has proven Monteverdi’s most successful opera. What a shame that it is best remembered by its final scene, which scholars say is likely attributable to another composer. Still, the effect is brilliant. Set over a ground bass, the duet portrays ecstatic love at its most intense, complete with near babbling as the lovers are swept away in their apotheosis of passion.
Alessandro Grandi: O quam tu pulcra es
Grandi enjoyed the honor of serving as Monteverdi’s assistant at San Marco in Venice. He was widely published in his own time but today is well known only in academic circles. As proved by this sensuous setting of verses from the Song of Songs, he has an intimate emotive style that warrants a broader hearing.
Claudio Monteverdi: Dolcissimo uscignolo
If it is not yet clear why Monteverdi was awarded such as large share of the program, this madrigal should settle the matter. Its rapturous beauty and apparent simplicity reveal a composer with a brilliant musical mind and an obvious passion for life and its sweet pleasures.
Steve Bryant, February 13, 2000