Liberating Jerusalem with pizzicato and tremolo

Domenico Tintoretto has painted Tancredi baptizing Clorinda.
Domenico Tintoretto has painted Tancredi baptizing Clorinda.

Once upon a time, there was a crusader riding to the East to liberate Jerusalem. His name was Tancredi. During a battle at night, he meets a Muslim warrior, Clorinda, a woman from the enemy’s camp with whom he had a love affair. But since Clorinda is wearing armor, Tancredi mistakes her for a man. They fight long and hard, but in the end, Tancredi is victorious. While Clorinda dies, Tancredi realizes who she is and Clorinda embraces the Christian faith. The Italian poet Torquato Tasso has written this romantic story in the 16th century as part of his monumental work “The liberated Jerusalem” and the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi has set it to music. Tasso was Monteverdi’s favorite poet.

A dramatic madrigal

“Il combattimento di Tancredi ed Clorinda” is the central element of Monteverdi’s Eight Book of Madrigals. We have met Monteverdi already before as the great innovator of music, the inventor of musical drama, that is the modern opera. In an earlier post I wrote about his famous opera “L’Orfeo” that I saw and heard in Paris.

This piece is a dramatic madrigal* and saw its premiere at the Carnival of Venice in 1624, though it was initially written for a private performance for the Doge of Venice. Monteverdi introduced for the first time in music history the techniques of pizzicato* and the tremolo*. The piece was written for three voices (Tancredi, Clorinda, narrator), four violas, a bass gamba and a cembalo.

Monteverdi had been appointed responsible for all music at the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice in 1613. Besides composing masses, he professionalized the capella, the music ensemble of San Marco, recruited new musicians and restocked the library by buying additional scores.

Reliving the tragedy

Monteverdi has achieved with this composition a real masterpiece: All the tragic elements and – as Monteverdi put it – the antagonism between death and prayer has been captured by the music. You do not necessarily have to understand the words, to relive the drama. I love this piece above all others that Monteverdi has composed and whenever I listen to it, I see the actors on stage declaiming these beautiful verses and the musicians transporting the emotions through their playing. Imagine this now on a stage during the Carnival of Venice in the 17th century – awesome! I can only marvel at Monteverdi’s courage, craftsmanship and originality.

The recording I would like to recommend has been produced by the ensemble Concerto Italiano under Rinado Alessandrini.

© Charles Thibo

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