Music as the reflection of the cosmos as it has been created by God – for centuries this idea was at the core of any composition in the Christian world. The order of the seven known celestial bodies – moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – was reflected by the seven tones to be used in music, while the use of chords, metres and intervals was strictly regulated to avoid anything that would contradict the celestial order. Most composers up to the Italian Claudio Monteverdi would respect this.
Monteverdi however put the self-determined man with his emotions at the centre of his “Favola in Musica” (musical fable), which in fact can be considered as the first opera in the modern sense: Orfeo. I have presented “Orfeo” in an earlier post about Monteverdi; today’s post deals with a piece that Monteverdi wrote in his youth, before he was appointed as Maestro di Capella at the Court of Mantua, at the age of 23. A work that illustrates the established compositional techniques: The Second Book of Madrigals*, a set of beautiful polyphonic chants recorded by the Consort of Musicke. Monteverdi shows here that he masters the principles of the “old school” and thus can dare to go beyond them by liberating the music of the restrictions of the past, e.g. by using “forbidden” dissonances as a way to express pain.
During my recent vacation in the Netherlands and more specifically while riding my bike through its lovely countryside, I felt the strong urge to sing. Which I did. Not Monteverdi’s madrigal songs of course, I know neither the text nor the score; furthermore it is written for five voices. But I had to sing. A sign of deep happiness. Just like I sometimes have to write. Or take a picture for that matter. Whenever I feel inspired. Three sings came together here: the cycling tour reminded of the pleasure of singing, the picture that illustrates this post, the reflection of the sky and the trees in a canal, and my newly gained understanding of the cosmic and religious dimension of compositional principles up to the 17th century.
In 1590 Monteverdi published the Second Book of Madrigals; the work is dedicated to Giacomo Ricardi, the chairman of the senate of Milan. He used different lyric texts and set them to music already with emphasis on expressivity; he remains however grounded in the traditional techniques he learned from his teacher Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, the “musica reservata” vocal style, which involved the use of chromatic progressions and word-painting.
It has been a long time since I last listened to a recording of Monteverdi’s music. I am very glad I rediscovered him at a moment of great happiness. I hope this post makes you a little curious and I very much wish that Monteverdi’s madrigal songs can give you at least a tiny part of my present happiness.
© Charles Thibo