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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 18 (2012) No. 1

Published 2016

The Arianna Model: On Claudio Monteverdi’s Musical Conceptions

Sabine Ehrmann-Herfort*

1. Toward an Aesthetic Credo

2. Theoretical Sources: Letters and Prefaces

3. Consistent Notions

4. Affetto

5. Oratione, or The Notion of Music That Speaks

6. Melodia

7. Plurality Instead of Dogma

8. Finding an Aesthetic Credo


1. Toward an Aesthetic Credo

1.1 The body of pronouncements made by Claudio Monteverdi concerning his self-perception as a composer, his compositions, and his aesthetic is not very large, though it is quite rich and significant in content. Yet if one attempts to approach his work based on written statements, discourse-analytical approaches will “only” be able to rely on his letters and the prefaces to his compositions. While the prefaces in Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605) and in the Dichiaratione (Scherzi musicali, 1607)—which was edited by his brother, Giulio Cesare—were provoked by direct criticisms from the music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi, Monteverdi’s letters often contend with problems and solutions to concrete compositional questions and are usually addressed to either financial sponsors or the editors of his librettos.

1.2 It is a well-known fact that many of Monteverdi’s compositions were lost. Because of this, numerous intermezzi, balli, tornei, comedie, favole, and sacred compositions have only been documented in letters. Monteverdi mentions twenty-seven works in his letters, of which we only know three that still exist.[1] If one takes Giulio Cesare Monteverdi at his word and takes his descriptions of his brother’s tasks and duties seriously, then, in addition to his daily musical commitments, Claudio Monteverdi primarily kept himself busy composing and rehearsing music for tournaments, ballets, comedies, and various concerti and liturgical services around the year 1607.[2] At this point, one might wonder, and rightly so, whether or not the “quotidian” Monteverdi reconstructed on the basis of his letters, prefaces, and other surviving documents is indeed the same Monteverdi we have come to know through his surviving compositions.[3]

1.3 In any case, the lost works and the passages in the letters referring to them underscore that Monteverdi’s profile as a composer must have been considerably more diverse than we know today. Thus, the passages referring to lost works are of great importance if one wants to comprehend at least vaguely what has been lost forever.

1.4 The fact that most theoretical discussion and commentary relates to works that are often unpreserved leads to the inevitable dilemma that most of these reflections cannot be verified by looking at the actual compositions. In this way, it is often simply impossible to compare conceptions attributed to Monteverdi with their corresponding compositional manifestations, i.e., the works themselves. This is an unfortunate fact with which we must live. Yet despite this irresolvable conflict, Claudio Monteverdi’s writings present a wealth of exciting theoretical reflections about his own work.[4]

1.5 To be sure, these passages are often single observations, yet they show, for the most part, great potential for the drawing of broader conclusions. Based on Monteverdi’s reasoning developed in response to concrete, individual compositional issues, we can distill some consistent notions that provide a more general overview of Monteverdi’s aesthetic position and how he saw himself as an artist. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to these basic notions, which are helpful in two ways: first, they retrospectively provide arguments supporting and defending the way he composed his works; and second, they can be regarded generally as an aesthetic credo for Monteverdi’s compositional style.

2. Theoretical Sources: Letters and Prefaces

2.1 As mentioned above, the body of Monteverdi’s theoretical pronouncements consists of letters and prefaces that precede the printed collections of his works. Monteverdi wrote 127 letters between 1601 and 1643 that have been preserved. Despite some more or less substantial gaps, these letters document Monteverdi’s time as music director of the Gonzaga court in Mantua (from 1601 until 1612) as well as his years as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice (from 1613 until his death in 1643).

2.2 At least one quarter of his letters include explicit conceptual discussions of his oeuvre. For the most part, these letters are addressed to the librettist, musician, and diplomat Alessandro Striggio, the diplomat Annibale Iberti, the nobleman Enzo Bentivoglio, the music theorist Giovanni Battista Doni, and, of course, the members of the house of Gonzaga. Additional letters shed light on the musical life of his times, including transnational interrelationships among music, representation, and politics. Thus, they turn the corpus of Monteverdi’s letters into an insightful subject of research for cultural and socio-historic studies.

2.3 Key introductions to published musical works written by Monteverdi include in particular the prefaces to the Quinto libro dei madrigali (1605); the Dichiaratione, which was printed in Scherzi musicali in 1607; and the Ottavo libro dei madrigali (1638). Another important document would have been his Seconda pratica, overo della perfettione della moderna musica, which was never fully finished, despite being a work in progress as early as 1605. Its imminent publication, in fact, was announced four times by the Monteverdi brothers, Claudio and Giulio Cesare.[5]

3. Consistent Notions

3.1 According to Carl Dahlhaus, the process of thinking “about” music is closely related to thinking “in” music—in other words, to composing. “Thinking ‘about’ music,” writes Dahlhaus, “is … a part of the ‘matter itself’ [i.e. the music], and not simply an annex.”[6] Yet even if Dahlhaus is primarily referring to hermeneutic interpretations of music, this statement remains true regarding a composer’s self-image.

3.2 Monteverdi’s handwritten texts and printed prefaces repeatedly revolve around the fundamental notions that informed his aesthetic beliefs. In these texts, Monteverdi’s musical thinking can be seen in a few consistent ideas, which in turn grant us special access to his aesthetic views, or Kunstanschauung. Such universal parameters tend to have a rich spectrum of connotations that may overlap and influence each another.[7] While these notions are often manifest in recurring conceptual terms, we also see that they are multi-layered and complex, and often semantically interwoven.

3.3 Monteverdi’s documents confirm that guiding aesthetic principles can only take on concrete forms and multiple meanings within the scope of composed works. Monteverdi generally wrote his theoretical discourses for the concrete “case” of an individual composition or set of compositions. Presumably, he already had the semantic structure of his basic aesthetic terms in mind well in advance. However, he often developed his theoretical discourses after the fact and “only” in response to polemical challenges, which is specifically illustrated by the prefaces to his printed works. These thoughts seem to indicate that he had some sort of “hierarchy” of different compositional styles and their respective devices in mind. Monteverdi showed considerable respect and appreciation for stage music: for him, its aesthetic center and inspiration was human speech. In what follows, I would like to characterize three of these aesthetic parameters in more detail, namely affetto, oratione, and melodia.

4. Affetto

4.1 Quite unlike many contemporary theorists, who argued that music should imitate emotions, Monteverdi developed his emotional physiognomies based on concrete dramaturgical and musical constellations. These constellations are introduced in different situations in the collection of his letters and prefaces.[8]

4.2 In the preface to the Eighth Book of Madrigals, the three states referred to as the three fundamental affections, “ira, temperanza, & humiltà ò supplicatione,” are paired with the three styles, “concitato, molle, & temperato.”[9] This triad of emotional situations is designed to match the circumstances of the Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorinda, a scenic composition performed as a carnival amusement in 1624 at the palazzo of the Venice art patron Girolamo Mocenigo. In the preface to the Eighth Book of Madrigals, Monteverdi suggests to his readers that systematic considerations and the wish finally to have a composition in the concitato genere had preceded the composition. In search of a speech conveying anger and outrage, Monteverdi reports searching out Torquato Tasso’s description of the battle between Tancred and Clorinda and then setting their fight to music accordingly.[10] However, this threefold taxonomy of pseudo-emotions, “ira, temperanza, & humiltà,” is missing two emotions obviously crucial to Monteverdi’s conception, namely pain and sorrow, which the protagonists in his dramatic scenes effectively articulate in the form of lament, or lamento.

4.3 In reality, the creative process is probably much more complex. Immediate real-life experiences can lead to general theoretical reflections. At the same time, creative impulses and theoretical considerations, such as those that emerged through the cooperation of different thinkers, musicians, and theorists in a common “mental space” around 1600,[11] may be pertinent in their own right, and might stimulate new compositions.

4.4 Thus, while there is clear evidence that certain aesthetic notions were firmly anchored for Monteverdi from the outset, for obvious reasons, he only carried out finer adjustments to his aesthetic ideas during his actual compositional work. The notion that his compositional activities were “open” to more immediate inspirations is supported not least by the multi-layered quality of Monteverdi’s aforementioned theoretical statements, which, contrary to what might have been assumed, do not consist of fixed aesthetic principles, but highly flexible ones.[12] In this way, Monteverdi’s preferred conception of emotional affect may have exerted an influence on the flexible tempo in his compositions, a technique Monteverdi developed for Non havea febo ancora.

4.5 The expression of emotion can take place through a great passionate gesture, such as that of Orfeo or Arianna, but it can also be a patchwork of different individual movements—which may in fact be feigned—to convey emotion. One example of this is provided by Monteverdi’s regrettably lost musical comedy La finta pazza Licori, which was based on a text by Giulio Strozzi. It was evidently conceptualized and carried out as an evening entertainment at the Palazzo Mocenigo in 1627.[13]

4.6 By contrast, the lost Lamento di Apollo, the musical version of Striggio’s stage performance, appears to have achieved its specific appeal via contrasting affects, such as the somber movements for Apollo and a flash of joy for Amore. And the audience in Venice also seemed unable to resist such displays of emotion. “Your Grace, I am sending you the Lamento d’Apollo,” wrote Monteverdi on January 9, 1620, “I believe it would be a good idea if Your Grace would insert, where Amore begins to sing, three more verses with the same meter and expression so that one can repeat the same aria again filled with the hope that this small hint of joy does not have a negative effect in contrast to Apollo’s previous sad affect. By doing so, one can show how the music is always changing the way it speaks, just as speech itself does.”[14]

5. Oratione, or The Notion of Music That Speaks

5.1 The maxim just quoted in reference to the conception of the Lamento d’Apollo indicates that, just like the underlying speech, the music changes its way of speaking, signaling a direct link between spoken language and music in Monteverdi’s setting. Moreover, Monteverdi writes in very graphic terms about the music and “its way of speaking” (modo di parlare). Thus Monteverdi argues that music is the specifically human expression of speech. Monteverdi sees oratione as the spoken language that conveys the movements of the soul, as illustrated and verified consistently by the preserved passages from his letters and his prefaces. Thus, speaking (parlare) takes predominance over singing (cantare). The composer underscores this convincingly in his discussion of the difference between stage music and intermezzo. The argument objects to the scoring of Scipione Agnelli’s Favola maritime, Le nozze di Tetide, which was to be performed at the wedding ceremony of Ferdinando Gonzaga and Caterina de’ Medici on February 7, 1617. Monteverdi sharply criticized the poetic precursor, stating that the voices in the chorus in this fable (favola) were all too low and earthly. Citing Plato, the composer concluded that the wind instruments would have to be correspondingly deep and loud.[15] At the same time, Monteverdi continued, the music should not only strive to be the goddess of water, but of air as well, i.e., to sound “in cielo et in terra della s[c]ena.”[16] Based on these comments, Monteverdi’s dramaturgy underlies a spatial conception that anchors the plot in three-dimensionality.

5.2 On the basis of the Favola maritime, we can effectively pin down Monteverdi’s aesthetic conceptions, at least with regard to his early- and mid-life musical theater works, even though this piece does not seem to match up with Monteverdi’s own ideas of theatrical music. Monteverdi’s musical theater works from this period are based on a strategy of realistic imitation in which the music takes on the expression of human speech. Works that fit this Monteverdian conception are those which depict “real” people who speak a living language, as opposed to allegories, which cannot speak at all.

5.3 The following, well-known passage in a letter from December 9, 1616, incorporates both of these concepts: first, the idea of a three-dimensional space to be used by the people on stage, and second, a realistic conception of human expression that cannot be extended to allegorical figures or winds, etc.:

Furthermore, I have seen that the dialogue partners [in Le nozze di Tetide] are like the winds: amorets, zephyrs, and sirens. Consequently, we will need many sopranos. On top of that, the winds, by which I mean the zephyrs and the boreali, have to sing. Dear Sir, [Monteverdi is addressing Alessandro Striggio], how will I be able demonstrate the talking of the winds when they don’t speak? And how will I be able to use them to touch the affects? Arianna was able to move them because she was a woman and likewise Orfeo could move them because he was a man and not a wind. The music portrays the winds, but not their verbal interaction. It represents the roaring of the winds, the baaing of the sheep, the nickering of the horses and so on, but it cannot depict the conversation of the winds, since it does not exist.[17]

5.4 Even within the artificial context of the stage, the act of speaking is thus derived from a specifically human ability grounded in the reality of everyday life, a fundamental belief realized in his stage compositions and madrigals. However, in the intermezzo genre, spoken language does not have the function of uniting everyday speech and dramatic expression. Presumably, Monteverdi considered intermezzi to be impromptu works, which would not let him realize new or experimental conceptions of a dramatic depiction of humans.

6. Melodia

6.1 The precise meaning of melodia is hard to grasp in Monteverdi’s writings. In the Dichiaratione, melodia stands for a complex of musical elements, as in “il composto della melodia.” Certainly, melodia includes everything that goes beyond established common compositional rules: it is a new, up-to-date compositional style. Monteverdi draws upon his own experience (“ho provato in pratica”[18]). Like his contemporaries, Monteverdi also relies on Plato’s reasoning when dealing with this body of questions, and he even employs the following quotation from Plato in the Dichiaratione, in a Latin version:

The melody consists of three components: speech, harmony, and rhythm.… Even the consonant and dissonant act in the same way, for the rhythm and harmony adapt themselves to speech, and not the other way around.… Yet what does the method of presentation and speech follow other than the emotional state?… The rest also follows speech.[19]

In general terms, melodia appears to be identified with “vocal music” itself.[20]

6.2 Melodia seems to have developed into a fashionable phrase or a catchphrase for Monteverdi over the course of his life and in his creative works. In the years 1605 and 1607, he was still speaking of the “Seconda practica, overo perfettione della moderna musica” as a reply to Artusi, but almost thirty years later, the title was to be “Melodia, overo seconda practica musicale.”[21] In a passage from a letter dated October 22, 1633, melodia is connected to the seconda pratica, the new and modern way of composing. Further, both are linked to an additional catchword of the modern movement, “natura.” By contrast, the prima pratica is said to exemplify the “ordinario scrivere” and, from the perspective of the moderns, is unaware of the new, important role of nature. This philosophy is still based on the Armonia and existing compositional guidelines.[22]

7. Plurality Instead of Dogma

7.1 Monteverdi’s opponent, Giovanni Maria Artusi, was part of a group of theorists (including Ercole Bottrigari, Adriano Banchieri, and Annibale Melone) who turned Bologna into one of the main centers of contemporary music theory in Italy. Polemical controversies were part of the daily routine.[23] While Artusi was considered to be one of the most knowledgeable experts of his time with respect to antique writings about music, Monteverdi represented the practically-oriented side of the compositional experience. Monteverdi and his brother, Giulio Cesare, made it a point occasionally to use informal and unpretentious language in their explanations.[24]

7.2 On the one hand, Monteverdi’s deliberations on music can be traced in his letters, which address specific recipients and relate to concrete compositional situations. Yet two letters, written presumably to Doni in 1633 and 1634, stand out for their discussion of fundamental issues and considerations. Initially, Monteverdi had little interest in generalizing his statements into a broader theoretical context. It was not until his clash with Artusi that he was prompted to change his mind. Monteverdi repeatedly uses the word sforzatamente, in other words, that he had only done so because he was forced to. On the other hand, Monteverdi’s theoretical statements can be found in prefaces to printed editions of his compositions, where they are very closely linked to the corresponding pieces. Monteverdi left it to the music theorists in Bologna to engage in scholarly discourses, which often led to acrimonious controversies in other contexts, too.[25] In light of these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that Monteverdi’s intended theoretical treatise was never published.

7.3 Around 1600, there were two strands of musicological discourse. One of them was made up of conservative music theorists from the old school who wanted to keep the status of counterpoint more or less the same; these theorists frequently cited Zarlino in their arguments. Other theorists, however, acknowledged that the old rules of counterpoint were being violated on a daily basis. Consequently, they adjusted their recommendations in response to developments in practice, and, to a greater extent than others, backed their arguments with the emotional Affekt of a given text.[26]

7.4 As early as 1588, Pietro Pontio had argued for a plurality of norms in his Ragionamento di musica, as Claude V. Palisca has shown.[27] Other composers and theorists during this time also used Monteverdi’s preferred vocabulary. In his Discorso sopra la moderna pratica musicale,written in 1613, Adriano Banchieri also wrote from a practice-oriented perspective, and he argued for the emulation of an accomplished orator as an aesthetic maxim for modern composers.[28]

7.5 Such positions, which were considered vanguard and “modern” at the time, embraced new notions in compositional thinking that went beyond counterpoint and contrapuntal structure to encompass new parameters of experience, such as being pleasing to the ear or moving the listener. And these arguments were always garnished with supporting references from the ancient world.

8. Finding an Aesthetic Credo

8.1 The topography of Monteverdi’s aesthetic thinking can be summarized in five points, all of which are strongly interrelated and linked to one another. First, the act of singing is speech through the vehicle of music. Based on Le nozze di Tetide, Monteverdi drew a distinction between parlar cantando and cantar parlando.

8.2 Second, Monteverdi’s statements about music (and, of course, his surviving compositions) exhibit a definite trend toward theatricalization. Indicators of this trend are his practical instructions for performance, his musical thinking (based on spatiality and stage spaces), and the use of theatrical metaphors.[29]

8.3 Third, Monteverdi’s compositional conceptions have a “holistic” quality because, especially beginning in the 1620s, they assume “imitatione unità.”[30] Thus, his compositional considerations include not only the music itself, but questions concerning the production, performance practice, the scena, and the listeners in a natural way.

8.4 The fourth point relies on the Arianna model: no work was cited more frequently by Monteverdi in his letters than Arianna. Arianna is mentioned a total of eleven times in his letters, including several references to it as a model or prototype. This work, especially the Lamento, appears to represent Monteverdi’s conception of stage music in a specific way. In this play, the emotions of the listeners are moved by the act of speech. As we have seen, Monteverdi assumes that only humans can actually emotionally move other humans. Expressions of passion by the protagonists are, in a sense, “duplicated” within the listener: “Arianna’s text causes me to feel real lament and Orfeo to make a real plea.” Monteverdi thus has to insist on true poetic quality, otherwise the system would not work. The text has to be written by an excellent poet, and must be comparable to a “poema” in terms of its expressiveness.[31] In 1616, Orfeo and Arianna, the successful dramatic works of his Mantua years, were still Monteverdi’s models for the representation of emotion. They strove for “a single aim,” namely the parlar cantando. And in 1633, Monteverdi still considered Il pianto del Arianna from 1608 exemplary of his notions of imitation and melody, at least in part due to the fact that Arianna’s lament was one of the best-known works in his lifetime, having become an archetype for the lamento genre.[32]

8.5 The fifth point recognizes public appeal as a primary consideration: human expressions of passion, all things natural, and nature itself are among the consistent factors in Monteverdi’s understanding of aesthetics. Because of this, Monteverdi’s stage aesthetic regards the listener’s experience in a completely new way.[33] The listener is taken into consideration from the outset: in other words, the composition does not take its listeners’ reactions for granted. The work itself targets the emotions of its listeners: their worries, their tears, and their joy. One of the vehement demands of the Moderni was that the audience should be directly engaged. This postulate proved to be a driving force for new developments and continues to exert a strong influence to this day.

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