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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 18 (2012) No. 1

Published 2016

The Expressive Use of Ostinato Techniques in Seicento Composition

Linda Maria Koldau*

1. Introduction

2. Ostinato Techniques in the Cinquecento and Seicento: A Brief Survey

3. Ostinato Formulas as Vehicles of Affect throughout an Entire Composition

4. Ostinato Formulas as “Signals” of Affect within a Larger, Non-Ostinato Context

5. Ostinato Patterns as the Result of Concertato Interplay: An Intermediate Category

6. The Primarily Structural Use of Ostinato Formulas

7. Summary


  • Example 1. Monteverdi, L’Orfeo (1607): Walking Bass in the arietta “Qual honor”
  • Example 2. Monteverdi, Laetatus sum (1610): Walking Bass Pattern
  • Example 3. Monteverdi, Laetatus sum a 5 istrumenti, et 6 voci (published posthumously in 1650): Ostinato formula
  • Example 4. Popular ostinato formulas in mid-17th-century music
  • Example 5. Tarquino Merula, Hor ch’è tempo di dormire: Ostinato bass alla nanna
  • Example 6. Monteverdi, Lamento della Ninfa: Dissonances through dislocation between voice and bass
  • Example 7. Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea: Cantiam and bocca as cue words
  • Example 8. Monteverdi, Nisi Dominus: a sudden outburst of energy at Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum leads into a lively concertato passage with ostinato patterns.
  • Example 9. Musical imagery of arrows (sagittae) in the hand of the mighty man
  • Example 10. Monteverdi, Laudate pueri primo a 5, concertato con due violini (1641): Ciaccona-like bass patterns
  • Example 11. Monteverdi, Laudate pueri: Ciaccona bass and its variants
  • Example 12. Casati, Laudate pueri a tre voci e due violini (1645): Five ostinato formulas constituting the fundament of the psalm setting


1. Introduction

1.1 Quite early in his career, Claudio Monteverdi began to use textural structures that would later be termed concertato. While passages dividing the five-part texture of a madrigal into alternating groups of higher and lower voices are already generally found in the late Cinquecento madrigal, compositional development in the first two decades of the Seicento gave rise to a style that is clearly distinguished from the hitherto predominant polyphonic textures.[1] The concertato style is characterized by the formation of small groups of voices and/or instruments that move either in parallel motion, imitation, or playful alternation, over a bass fundament in the form of a basso continuo; by a preponderance of clearly defined, short phrases; and by an increased tendency toward cadential harmonic structures. These features prove to be the ideal requisites for a compositional phenomenon that developed throughout the same period as the concertato style and turned into a fad in the 1630s and 1640s: composition with ostinato bass patterns.

1.2 As a compositional technique, ostinato patterns are both a simplification and a challenge. They offer a clear, often strict, harmonic or rhythmic framework to a composition and thus determine an important aspect of its form. Their repetitive character imposes a predetermined structure on the composition that challenges the composer to combine the bass pattern with as much variety in the other parts as possible. A number of compositional parameters can serve to accomplish this: combinations of voices and instruments, changes of meter, intermittent changes of the tonal area, and the introduction of dissonances by misaligning the vocal/instrumental parts and the bass fundament. Of course, the ostinato patterns themselves can also be changed or varied within a composition. These procedures, however, represent only the technical side of composing with ostinatos. Ostinato patterns in Seicento vocal music, beyond these technical aspects, frequently function as text-expressive devices. They serve to intensify the affetto—and, in the case of short ostinato formulas, they even establish it for an entire composition or section.

1.3 It is characteristic of Monteverdi that he amalgamates matters of compositional technique and form with the expression of the text and its affect. Both features are inseparable in his music, whether dramatic works, madrigals, or sacred music. Ostinato patterns provide an interesting means to study this close interrelation, since the technical aspect is so apparent and actually seems to dominate. At the same time, these patterns develop into musical “signs” or “icons” in the course of the 1630s, representing certain affects that can determine the impact of an entire composition (or at least of those sections built on an ostinato formula).[2] This attribute of ostinatos is an interesting aspect in the development of aria as a vehicle for the expression of affect, since many ostinato patterns originated as standardized arias for the singing of poetic texts.[3] When transferred to the bass, the short ostinato formulas crystallize the affect that is to be expressed in a piece of vocal music. It is no coincidence that ostinato patterns play an important role in music labelled in genere rappresentativo. As early as 1960 Wolfgang Osthoff exposed the inherently dramatic potential of fixed bass patterns:

The decisive factor is the duality of the instrumental ostinato motive background and the free movement of the singing voice. That, however, is a theatrical attitude: an objective, unchanging space in which, and sometimes against which, the subject unfolds his or her affect in free gestures.[4]

1.4 It is this potential of the ostinato, the combination of constructive considerations with the aim of expressivity resulting in a dramatic attitude (Theaterhaltung) that will be investigated in this essay.[5] However, my focus is by no means exclusively on homophonic and polyphonic secular vocal music: an examination of Monteverdi’s sacred music reveals a considerable number of ostinato pieces or ostinato sections that are clearly linked to the text and its affective content; these create the same tension between constructive device and expression of affect as in his dramatic works (though, of course, somewhat restrained in their dramatic impact because of the usual concertato instrumentation for several voices and instruments rather than a setting for solo voice and basso continuo). These sacred compositions prove, just as a general study of his church music does, that Monteverdi quite naturally integrated his general quest for musical expressivity into his settings of Latin religious texts.

1.5 To set the stage, I will begin with a short survey of the development of ostinato composition in the early Seicento, followed by a discussion of several examples from Monteverdi’s secular and sacred compositions, in order to illustrate the combination of affective potential and compositional challenge ostinato patterns offered to Monteverdi and his contemporaries. Various categories in the use of ostinato are identified, leading to general conclusions on how ostinato patterns were used both as a technical challenge and as a kind of musical shorthand to identify and express a specific affect.

2. Ostinato Techniques in the Cinquecento and Seicento: A Brief Survey

2.1 The use of melodic ostinato patterns begins long before the Seicento. Quite generally, structures with repetitive melodic and/or rhythmic patterns have a long-standing tradition in Western art music, such as canonic or isorhythmic structures, or instrumental variations.[6] In the more limited sense of the term, though, the fashion of composing with ostinato bass patterns, clearly discernible in the first half of the seventeenth century, developed out of models for improvisation in sixteenth-century instrumental and vocal music.[7] Sixteenth-century Spanish music for the vihuela and keyboard popularized the so-called diferencias or glosas, variations based on regular bass patterns, often in eight-bar units, which are repeated over and over again, allowing for varied improvisation in the upper voices. In the Tratado de glosas that Diego Ortíz published in both Spanish and Italian in 1553, some of these bass patterns are presented as chordal schemes with the names Folia, Romanesca, Ruggiero, Passamezzo antico and Passamezzo moderno.[8] They, as well as such formulas as the ciaccona and passacaglia, are frequently found in soloistic vocal music of the early seventeenth century, giving evidence of a tradition of vocal improvisation over fixed musical models.[9] We also find freely invented bass melodies that are not traceable to the traditional dance patterns, but are originally written for a vocal composition and then used for strophic variations, such as the Prologue to Orfeo and Orfeo’s aria “Possente spirto.”

2.2 One of the early examples of ostinato technique in Monteverdi’s music is the strophic arietta “Qual honor” in the opera L’Orfeo from 1607 (Example 1). The bass pattern sets the scene: like Orfeo himself, the walking bass ceaselessly moves ahead. The affective character of this strophic arietta leaves no doubt: Orfeo is in good spirits as he walks upward from the underworld to the light, having redeemed his beloved Euridice by the power of his song and with the help of his lira (which is the object of praise in this arietta). The ceaseless motion of the bass pattern, combined with the concertato interplay between Orfeo and the two violins, is an important musical means to create this mood of optimism; the affirmative character of the arietta is further underlined by the harmonic regularity of the cadences.

2.3 The walking bass is one of the earliest forms of the Seicento ostinato bass. Its “obstinate” character is primarily rhythmic, i.e., the regular pattern of semiminims (in “Qual honor,” they are sometimes broken up into smaller units). Later ostinatos, in contrast, become a combination of melodic and harmonic patterns, that is, the short cadence formulas that will be examined in the next section of this essay.

2.4 In the first decade of the Seicento, the compositional use of bass patterns became more varied. While bass melodies continued to be used, especially for the setting of lengthy texts, the new technique of the walking bass became more prominent. Although Wolfgang Osthoff emphasizes that these bass patterns cannot be termed ostinato in the strict sense of the word, since they are not made up of repeated melodic phrases, they are clearly perceived as “ostinato” because of their “obstinate” repetition of the same rhythmic value.[10] Moreover, this rhythmic form of the ostinato often extends over eight, twelve, or sixteen bars—its origin in dance music with its regular, repetitive patterns is obvious. Walking bass patterns differ from some standard bass melodies, though, by falling into smaller, cadential units; this harmonic characteristic gives the walking bass a particularly targeted drive and thus intensifies the affect of the composition.

2.5 A typical example of the diversification of bass melodies is Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum from the Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610, an oft-discussed composition in Monteverdi scholarship.[11] This psalm setting uses a bass model of sixty-four semiminims, within which several melodic modules are repeated literally or in sequence (Example 2). The bass pattern consists of a chain of cadential units, starting with a conspicuous I-IV-V-I cadence and then extending the cadence pattern with several repetitive cadence modules; Silke Leopold has commented on the relationship of this bass line to the Ruggiero bass model used in instrumental music and monody.[12] However, it is not this model alone that constitutes the basic structure of the lengthy psalm setting. This initial bass melody is combined with no fewer than three other bass models, creating a set of several interlocking strophic variations. On the surface they seem to be distinct, but in fact, they are unified by providing a harmonization for the second psalm tone, thus containing both identical and similar melodic “modules.” The traditional bass melodies are integrated in more than one way: while the opening bass model resembles the Ruggiero bass, the second model is partly identical with the Romanesca bass, and both basses share a mostly scalar descending sixth.[13]

2.6 It is the first model, though, that sets the tone for this specific psalm. Just as in Orfeo’s triumphant little song, the use of the walking bass serves not only structural, but also illustrative and affective ends.[14] First and foremost, the ostinato bass has an exemplifying function: Psalm 121 is one of the pilgrims’ songs in the Book of Psalms; the subject is the return home to Jerusalem.

Vulgate: Psalmus 121 Psalm 122[15]
Canticum graduum Song of the steps of David.
Laetatus sum in his, quae dicta sunt mihi:
In domum Domini ibimus.
I was glad when they said unto me,
Let us go into the house of the Lord.
Stantes erant pedes nostri:
in atriis tuis, Jerusalem.
Our feet were standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem

Coming home to Jerusalem means coming home to the very center of faith—in the original Jewish sense, to the Temple and in the Christian exegesis of the psalms, coming home to God. In Monteverdi’s setting, this ultimate “coming home” is underscored by the strong cadential drive of the bass pattern, while the rhythmic character, with its constant motion, is a stock device in early Seicento music to express continual movement—an important motive in the opening verse of Psalm 121 (the label Canticum graduum designates the psalm as a pilgrim song, to be sung while ascending the steps to the Temple).[16]

2.7 Apart from this illustrative aspect, equating the semiminims to the pilgrims’ steps, the psalm is also characterized by the affect of deepest joy. Laetatus sum (I was glad) is the very motto of the psalm, and Monteverdi turns it into a cue word for his entire concertato composition. It is typical of Monteverdi’s later concertato works, thus also of his church music, that he takes cue words from the text which give rise to decisive choices in musical texture and affect. Instead of fleeting musico-textual metaphors, the overall compositional structure reflects a combination of sectionalized processes that are triggered by single affective words, resulting in large-scale formal design and more clear-cut affective “zones.”[17] This technique, coming forth quite clearly in Monteverdi’s late concertato works composed in the 1630s and 1640s, is foreshadowed in some of the earlier large-scale concertato compositions, such as the opening of the Laetatus sum of 1610.

2.8 From the 1630s onward, the use of ostinato models changed decisively. From then on, it was no longer the traditional bass melodies, but extremely short formulas that became fashionable as ostinato patterns in concertato composition. These new models partly arise from the rhythmic walking bass, appearing as extremely short and oft-repeated reductions of the lengthier early patterns. But they also can be traced back to the sixteenth-century dance patterns and bass melodies, which, on the one hand, could be broken down into a combination of tetrachords and cadential formulas, and on the other, offered rudimentary chord models that crystallized into melodically and harmonically fixed formulas in the course of the 1620s.[18]

2.9 This process of “curtailment” and crystallization can be readily seen in Monteverdi’s later setting of the psalm Laetatus sum, published posthumously by Alessandro Vincenti in 1650. The Laetatus sum a 5 istrumenti, et 6 voci is a large-scale psalm setting in which three vocal duets alternate in concertato interplay with five instruments over 186 repetitions of an ultra-short ostinato, which is no more than a simple I-IV-V-I cadence (Example 3). The four notes of the ostinato correspond exactly to the beginning of the 1610 bass melody (see Example 2); Monteverdi simply extracted the opening cadence for his later psalm setting and repeated it in a veritable tour de force. The style, however, has decisively changed, starting with the turn from a modally conceived tonality in the 1610 psalm setting (second tone and mode, transposed up a fourth) to a more decidedly “major” disposition in the later work, which is the result of distinct changes in style, texture, and harmonic structure in his concertato compositions.[19] Both the 1610 and the 1650 versions of Laetatus sum are conceived to convey the same affect of overriding joy, but the later composition appears to be far more determined in its musical setting of affect, thanks to the shorter and more concentrated ostinato (in the 1610 setting, there are four alternating bass models, the first consisting of no fewer than sixty-four notes), and to its clear cadential drive and incessant, kaleidoscopic concertato interplay between ever-changing vocal and instrumental combinations. Thus, both the four-note ostinato formula and the affect of the entire psalm setting appear as a concentration of the 1610 version, epitomized by the compression of the long bass melody into four notes.

2.10 Such compression of the ostinato has consequences for compositional technique. The almost obsessive reiteration of the simple cadential formula illustrates the compositional challenge that a reduction of earlier, lengthy bass melodies meant: the basis of the composition has been turned into a rigorous harmonic pattern, which imposes extreme constrictions upon the composer’s freedom. In Laetatus sum a 5 istrumenti, et 6 voci Monteverdi met this self-imposed challenge by varying the vocal-instrumental combinations from verse to verse (including introducing the bassoon as a concertizing instrument), by changing the meter for verses 8 and 9, by abruptly interrupting the ostinato at the Gloria Patri, and by constantly varying the rhythmic values of the declamation, the textures, and the interplay of voices and instruments.[20] The contrasting interruption of the ostinato at the Gloria Patri is followed by the return of the bass pattern at “Sicut erat in principio”—a favorite musical pun in his psalm settings. Thus, the danger of monotony is overcome, despite the endless reiteration of the cadential formula and the concomitant harmonic uniformity.

2.11 Starting in the 1630s, several different ostinato patterns are frequently found in Italian vocal and instrumental music, with the major (fa-ut) and minor (la-mi) versions of the descending tetrachord and the ciaccona clearly dominating the spectrum of chosen cadential formulas (Example 4).[21] These formulas are cadential throughout with clear tonal implications, although it is problematic to speak of “major” and “minor” even in Monteverdi’s later concertato music.[22] The incessant reiteration of these bass formulas throughout a composition creates the same kind of extreme harmonic limitations as in Laetatus sum a 5 istrumenti, et 6 voci and the same challenge in overcoming the harmonic straitjacket and potential monotony inherent in ostinato composition.

2.12 Working with ostinato formulas thus requires sound compositional handicraft to counter the constraint of the ostinato by means of variety in harmony, melody, rhythm, texture, and instrumentation. But compositional technique is only one aspect of these compositions; working with ostinato formulas in vocal music is first and foremost a question of affect translated into music. Most of these formulas serve for the unequivocal conveyance of affect, and they offer the perfect means of intensifying affect by creating a conflict between the strict bass pattern and the vocal declamation—the duality between an invariable, “objective” frame and the free, “subjective” unfolding of affetto, as Wolfgang Osthoff put it.[23] This dramatic potential is evident both in the texts and the dramatic context of theatrical compositions. In many instances, there appears to be a clear link between the choice of a certain ostinato formula and the affect the musical section in question represents.

2.13 Years ago, Ellen Rosand identified the descending tetrachord as an “emblem of lament,” explaining the suitability of this specific compositional pattern for the emotional climax a lament constitutes in a dramatic context:

The most significant, potentially affective, feature of the pattern is its strong harmonic direction, reinforced by stepwise melody, steady, unarticulated rhythm, and brevity. Harmonically, it suggests one of two possible realizations, either a modal sequence of root position triads or a more tonal succession involving two first-inversion triads: I, v6, iv6, V. Denial of these tonal implications creates a frustration of expectation and results in a heightening of tension. […] Two other features of the tetrachord ostinato of the “Lament of the Nymph” further establish the appropriateness of its association with lament. Its strongly minor configuration, emphasizing two of the most crucial degrees of the mode, invokes the full range of somber affects traditionally associated with minor since the Renaissance, and, in its unremitting descent, its gravity, the pattern offers an analogue of obsession, perceptible as an expression of hopeless suffering.[24]

Examples from numerous compositions up to the eighteenth century, including melodic variations and the passus duriusculus (chromatically descending fourth), show that the potential was understood and used by composers. Although there are a few examples where the descending tetrachord is used in love duets, the minor form can generally be regarded as an “emblem of lament” in the compositional conventions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

2.14 The expressive signification of the major version of the descending tetrachord is harder to pinpoint. Ellen Rosand and Thomas Walker show that originally composers made little distinction between the major and minor forms of the descending fourth.[25] Nevertheless, a certain concentration on subjects of love, sensuality (sometimes even eroticism), peace, and well-being does suggest that there developed a certain convention of using the major form for the expression of positive affects; for example, as a signifier of love and lasciviousness in Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea.[26]

2.15 The ciaccona with its more complex I-V-vi-iii-IV-V-I progression, often in the syncopated rhythm shown in Example 4, but also found in more regular rhythms, is used as musical expression for an extroverted sort of joy and exuberance in vocal and instrumental music of the 1630s through 1650s.[27] Osthoff cites an example that satirizes the ciaccona for being used in a setting of the Miserere.[28] Tellingly, the anonymous Ciaccona di paradiso, e dell’inferno (Canzonette spirituali, e morali, Milan 1657) is built on the ciaccona to warn against worldly vanitas.[29]

2.16 These affective differences among the bass formulas rely on musical conventions. Their systematic use in combination with certain textual affects in the early seventeenth century inscribed the cadence formulas with specific emotional associations. They became a compositional tradition that remained valid far into the eighteenth century and is still (and quite frequently) found in contemporary film music, a musical genre that relies strongly on the explicit signification of certain emotions.[30]

2.17 A survey of the repertoire reveals that Monteverdi and his contemporaries employed ostinato formulas in three fundamental ways: 1) as vehicles of affect throughout an entire composition; 2) as dramaturgical “signals” of affect within a larger, non-ostinato context; and 3) as primarily structural and less affect-oriented modules providing a technical challenge. In addition, an intermediate stage between the second and third categories (2b) comprises ostinato patterns that result as by-products of the concertato interplay between short phrases in the upper voices and instruments. This intermediate form is a primarily structural phenomenon that nevertheless has expressive implications.

3. Ostinato Formulas as Vehicles of Affect throughout an Entire Composition

3.1 Ostinato formulas are, of course, most noteworthy if they set the affect for an entire composition. There are a considerable number of both vocal and instrumental compositions built on the ciaccona bass in the 1630s through the 1650s, but compositions built on other short ostinato formulas are rarer. Among Monteverdi’s extant works, the Lamento della ninfa is an example of a composition on the descending tetrachord with the minor third, and the final duet of L’incoronazione di Poppea (whether by Monteverdi or not), is an example of a composition relying on a descending tetrachord with a major third.[31] A famous non-Monteverdian piece using an extremely short formula is the “Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna” by Tarquinio Merula, Hor ch’è tempo di dormire, a prescient lullaby of the Virgin Mary for her infant child Jesus, in which the various attributes of the little baby are likened to Christ’s later attributes of the Passion.[32] The entire composition is built on the nanna ostinato (or ninna-nanna, derived from the Italian word for lullaby), a cradling two-note motif (Example 5). This composition has an English counterpart, the anonymous O Death, Rock Me Asleep, using a three-note ostinato redolent of a death knell, made up of an ascending minor third and a descending minor second.[33] The similarity of these two lullaby ostinatos, in combination with their texts, implies that these extremely short patterns were used with an ominous overtone in the seventeenth century, likening sleep to death.

3.2 Monteverdi did not make use of a restrictive lullaby ostinato such as these, although there are a few reiterations of the ninna-nanna motif (on A-G#) in Arnalta’s lullaby for Poppea in L’incoronazione de Poppea (Act II, scene 12). His Lamento della ninfa, however, illustrates the kind of inventio needed in the art of ostinato composition when the bass formula consists of two, three, or four notes. As shown with Laetatus sum a 5 istrumenti, et 6 voci above, a composition with short ostinato formulas challenges the composer to overcome the problem of the square-cut harmonic frame of the ostinato pattern in order to create a convincing setting of the literary affect represented by the bass formula.

3.3 The Lamento della ninfa, labeled in genere rappresentativo, is a quasi-dramatic composition functioning on three levels. Its frame is a madrigalistic structure with two tenors and a bass voice setting the scene.[34] The central part is the actual Lamento, an extended lamentation for solo soprano and continuo with pitying interjections on the part of the male voices, taking the role of a Greek chorus. The necessary structural cohesion to this recitative-like lament is provided by the third feature of the composition, the ostinato pattern of the descending tetrachord, which underlies the entire lament section. The use of the tetrachord ostinato in the Lamento della ninfa displays several characteristics of composition with ostinato formulas. First, the formula is used as a “carrier” of affect. The ostinato bass assumes an almost scenic function: it sets the affect and makes sure that it is sustained throughout the entire composition.[35] Above this fundament of affective continuity, the solo voice can unfold with great liberty, according to Monteverdi’s directive “Va cantato a tempo del’affetto del animo e non a quelle de la mano” (To be sung in time to the emotion of the spirit and not to that of the beat).[36] The beginning of the lament displays in typical manner the carrier function of the bass formula: the tetrachord is stated twice as an affective signal before the singer’s voice begins. Numerous ostinato compositions of the Seicento open with such a soloistic statement of the bass formula: the cadential bass patterns were sufficiently associated with their respective affects that their soloistic statement at the beginning of a composition signaled to listeners what to expect.[37]

3.4 In the Lamento della ninfa, the affective function of the bass pattern is supplemented by the flexible declamation of the solo voice. Suspensions, syncopations, changing phrase lengths, and overlapping of phrases create a constant tension against the harmonic and structural framework of the bass (Example 6). The soprano voice repeatedly resists the regular harmonic scheme of the bass formula by means of anticipations or suspensions of the harmony set in the bass.[38] In most cases, the resulting tension is resolved (see the third bar in Example 6, with the dissonant b’ resolving to a consonant third as the bass moves to g. However, there are also cases of unresolved dissonances, as, for example, the concatenation of 7-6 suspensions in the first two bars of Example 6, where the first seventh (f” over g in the bass, marked by an asterisk) resolves to the sixth e”; the e” is turned into another dissonant seventh through the bass moving down to f—and then the dissonance is suspended by a rest rather than proceeding to resolution.[39] This constant rhythmic and harmonic misalignment between solo voice and ostinato bass results in a continual shifting between dissonance and consonance, with the dissonances serving to intensify the overall affect. Simultaneously, however, the numerous dissonances also serve to represent the affect of the individual word: in the above example, the words “traditor,” “m’ancidi,” and “tormenti” are all emphasized by dissonances on the beat.

3.5 Already in the Lamento d’Arianna of 1608, Monteverdi used harmonic and rhythmic dislocation between bass and declamatory voice as the fundamental means of creating affective tension and driving the composition forward. In the Lamento della ninfa, this technique is transferred to ostinato composition; other compositions of the 1630s and 1640s, such as Tarquinio Merula’s ciaccona “Su la cetra amorosa,” extend this metric-harmonic dislocation to a structural tension between the bass and the solo voice, again corresponding to a fundamental tension expressed in the text.[40]

4. Ostinato Formulas as “Signals” of Affect within a Larger, Non-Ostinato Context

4.1 The second category of affective ostinato as dramaturgical “signals” of affect within a larger, non-ostinato context in Seicento compositions comprises shorter passages above ostinato formulas within larger musical contexts. In such instances, the bass formulas display even more distinctly their function as carriers of affect, since they are unmistakably used as specific musical signifiers within the larger non-ostinato fabric of the composition.

4.2 A striking example in Monteverdi’s secular vocal music is the sensual duet between Nerone and Lucano in L’incoronazione di Poppea (Act II, scene 6). After Seneca’s suicide, Nerone and the poet Lucano orgiastically celebrate their victory over the undesired moralism of Seneca, working themselves up into an inebriated song contest in praise of Poppea’s beauty. The mutual exhortation “Cantiam” (Let’s sing) is turned into a cue word for a virtuoso duet with extensive passaggi. Three times, “cantiam” is set as a hortatory vocative to a falling minor third and is used as a cue for a substantive change in the musical structure. At first, it marks a pensive transition from the short introductory recitative to a virtuoso duet (see the revised Malipiero edition, vol. 13, 1966, Act II, mm. 443–46). Next, it initiates a shift to a triple-time section (mm. 474–97), and finally, it assumes the function of a musical joint leading back to a short reprise of the virtuoso section in duple time. This last section textually prepares for the next cue word, “bocca” (namely, Poppea’s mouth), which is then isolated and set to the same musical motive as “cantiam” (Example 7). This time, as the cue word, referring as a synecdoche to Poppea herself and not to the act of singing about her, it leads directly into erotic ecstasy. Monteverdi again changes to triple-time, the meter of sensuality and love in L’incoronazione (as well as in many other of his late compositions[41]), commencing the section with a descending scalar seventh followed by the major version of the descending tetrachord.

4.3 What follows is a highly sensual duet on the tetrachord ostinato, in some performances even transfigured with an aural “halo” of violins.[42] While Lucano continues his poetizing about Poppea’s mouth, Nero almost completely loses his speech, working himself up to an increasingly intense “Ahi” that finally ends in the climactic “ahi destino” —an orgasm translated into music.[43] With this emotional, dramatic, and musical climax, the tetrachord ostinato has fulfilled its function of signifying unmistakable erotic sensuality. The musical structure then returns to sober recitative declamation over long-held bass notes. This change of style corresponds to the libretto: Lucano describes quite prosaically what has just happened to Nerone, offering a realistic image of how the emperor appears immediately after an orgasm: “Tu vai, signor, nell’estasi d’amor deliciando, e ti piovon dagl’occhi stille di tenerezza, lacrime di dolcezza” (You enter, delighting, my lord, into the ecstasy of love, and your eyes rain drops of tenderness, tears of sweetness). The text clearly states what has happened, and the music convincingly sets this erotic scene, using the tetrachord ostinato, triple meter, and declamation in ecstatic interjections. Thus, this section is clearly set off from the earlier part of the duet as a dramatic and emotional climax, and it is the major tetrachord ostinato that aurally underscores the emotional significance of this scene.

4.4 This affective use of ostinato formulas within larger musical structures is not confined to secular and dramatic compositions. Monteverdi’s sacred music also displays numerous examples of the use of ostinato as an expressive device within a larger structure. Psalm settings with their image-laden texts are especially prone to the use of short ostinato passages in order to signify musically the affect of individual verses. One such instance is found in Nisi Dominus a 3 voci, et 2 violini published in 1650.[44] Nisi Dominus is a psalm with very distinct imagery. The initial verses offer the vanitas theme, leading into a first affective climax, the “panem doloris.” This is immediately contrasted by the positive promise of the “haereditas Domini”:

Vulgate: Psalmus 126 Psalm 127
Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere: It is vain for you to rise up early,
surgite postquam sederitis, to sit up late,
qui manducatis panem doloris. to eat the bread of sorrows:
Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum: For so he giveth his beloved sleep.
ecce haereditas Domini, filii: Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord:
merces, fructus ventris. and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
Sicut sagittae in manu potentis: As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man:
ita filii excussorum. so are children of the youth.
Beatus vir qui implevit Happy is the man
desiderium suum ex ipsis: that hath his quiver full of them

4.5 An analysis of Monteverdi’s posthumously published concertato setting of this psalm shows that he makes use of every single image Psalm 126 offers, translating each in an almost theatrical manner.[45] In the context of Monteverdi’s use of ostinato, it is the change to the psalm’s positive theme, the promised heritage of the Lord, that is of special interest. The psalm text consists of two thematic parts, the vanitas exhortation of vv. 1–2 (a warning to those who toil without the benediction of the Lord) followed by the “consolation” of vv. 3–5, which is an enumeration of the Lord’s blessings. In seventeenth-century editions of the Bible, the line “Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum” is marked as a new verse, thus belonging to the positive theme of the psalm.[46] Monteverdi accordingly uses this line for a radical change of affect. Following upon the utter despair of “you, who eat the bread of sorrows,” set in an almost theatrical declamatory manner, the line “Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum” blossoms into overflowing joy: “Ecce hereditas Domini, filii” (Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord). Children are the promise of a future, they are the token of life. Thus, “filii” becomes a cue word for utmost joy, and Monteverdi reflects the theological meaning unequivocally in his musical setting. After the protracted, dissonant cadence on “qui manducatis panem doloris,” the textually ambivalent “Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum” opens up a sudden outburst of energy in Monteverdi’s definitely positive interpretation—a lively concertato passage whose bass transitions to the major version of the descending tetrachord precisely at the promising “ecce hereditas Domini” (Example 8).

4.6 It is at this point that the positive theme of the psalm clearly begins. Monteverdi turns “Cum dederit” into an opening signal that inaugurates a new dynamic process. The joyful impetus of dynamic movement in the following section is generated by the combination of a short cadential walking bass ostinato and concertato duets, as found in the Laetatus sum setting of 1650 or in Orfeo’s song of triumph, “Qual honor,” quoted above.[47] As the promise of children is introduced, the rhythmic, cadential ostinato is transmuted into the major descending tetrachord bass formula with a double function: as an expression of both confidence and happiness in its repetition and combination with the lively concertato interplay of soloists and instruments, and as a musical signifier of the love, sensuality, and ecstatic joy inherent in the text. At “Sicut sagittae” with its graphic illustration of downward flying arrows, the direction of the ostinato formula is reversed, changing into a I-I6-IV-V cadence whose targeted harmonic orientation goes hand in hand with the image of “arrows in the hand of a mighty man.” The direction of the arrows is countered by the powerful, determined, and “obstinate” cadential motion of the upward moving bass. The result is a musical image of positive energy and vigor (Example 9).

4.7 With the combination of two clearly defined ostinato formulas (both cadential) and the continual rhythmic energy of the walking bass, the two psalm verses are turned into a single complex: they display the same subject, children as God’s ultimate blessing to man, and are unified by the jubilant dynamic of the walking bass ostinato and the concertato interplay. In addition to the affirmative cadential character of both ostinato formulas, the first ostinato, i.e., the descending major tetrachord, carries the affect of love, sensuality, and tenderness, which can be interpreted both literally and theologically.

5. Ostinato Patterns as the Result of Concertato Interplay: An Intermediate Category

5.1 Nisi Dominus a 3 voci, et 2 violini also illustrates another type of ostinato pattern, namely ostinato formulas as a “natural” by-product of concertato interplay. The concertato style with its kaleidoscopic alternation of short vocal and instrumental motives entails a general tendency toward ostinato basses, at least in passages distinguished by short, repetitive concertato motives in the upper voices. This is best seen in passages where vocal duets alternate with a duet of violins playing the same music.[48] This form of ostinato can be regarded as an intermediate stage between the second and third categories of ostinato use: a short-term structural by-product of concertato composition, not primarily used for text-expressive reasons, yet nevertheless a clear contribution to the overall musical expression of affect. Typically, the impression of ostinato in these cases is only fleeting, since the short phrases are only repeated two or three times before changing to other bass patterns. Although the repetition is clearly perceived, the impression of ostinato mainly relies on the regular rhythms of the walking bass, which may be broken up by occasional smaller note values (see the bass line in Example 1 or in the first bars of Example 8).

5.2 In some cases, though, these short-term ostinatos eventually lead to full-scale ostinato passages using some of the well-known cadential formulas. At the opening of the positive complex of Nisi Dominus a 3 voci, et 2 violini, the transformation of a free concertato bass into a formulaic ostinato pattern can be seen in the seven bars under “Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum” (Example 8), which almost turn into an ostinato pattern thanks to the repetition of short phrases in the upper voices underlaid by the same bass notes. This “quasi-ostinato” eventually leads into the descending tetrachord ostinato. A corresponding development from phrase-repetition to a definite ostinato pattern is found in Monteverdi’s psalm setting Laudate pueri primo a 5, concertato con due violini (published in the Selva morale e spirituale, 1641). In this case, the repetitive bass under the concertato interplay between the upper voices and the violins eventually leads into the ciaccona bass at v. 5, “Quis sicut Dominus Deus noster,” a pattern that was already inherent in the bass line under the earlier verse “A solis ortu” (Example 10). The verse “A solis ortu” is a special case. Since the soloist is a bass voice, the basso continuo switches between basso seguente (where the soloist sings) and the independent basso continuo when the violins answer the vocal soloist. The basso continuo uses the same pattern that supports the vocal bass phrase, so that the violins’ answer is simply a harmonic filling-out of the ciaccona-like bass pattern. The rhythm is neutral with equal semibreves and an occasional breve-semibreve bar. The melodic contour, however, is that of the ciaccona, with a slight reduction of the pattern (Example 11). The insinuation of the famous dance pattern in the verse “A solis ortu” is fulfilled in v. 5, “Quis sicut Dominus Deus noster,” where the ciaccona‘s rhythmic pattern with the characteristic syncopation is added. Seen in the affective context of the entire composition, the ciaccona under v. 5 appears to be the climactic goal of the musical process, turning the rhetorical question “Who is like our Lord?” into an almost triumphant gesture: an overriding, irresistible, rhythmically assertive joyfulness. The ciaccona continues throughout vv. 5 and 6 with a modulation to the harmonic A area; the reiteration of the bass pattern only stops at the caesura that usually occurs before v. 7 (“Suscitans a terra inopem”) in concertato settings of Laudate pueri in that period.

5.3 Fleeting ostinato patterns resulting from concertato interplay, of course, are not the same as the affective ostinato in the sense of the expressive formulas discussed above. Nevertheless, the short passages in Nisi Dominus and Laudate pueri make it clear that the resulting bass patterns eventually contribute to the affetto of the passage in question: of all possible patterns that might result from a walking bass with repetitive phrases, it is the descending major tetrachord that underlies the joy of children as God’s blessing, and it is the ciaccona that is the result of the repetitive bass patterns in the exuberant psalm of praise, Laudate pueri Dominum.

5.4 These “by-product ostinatos,” though, typically do not transform into one of the well-known bass formulas. Passages where short motives are imitated and repeated in the concertato interplay of various vocal and instrumental combinations usually give the fleeting impression of an ostinato without ever developing into true ostinato sections. This phenomenon is structural and not (or only secondarily) a question of text expression.

6. The Primarily Structural Use of Ostinato Formulas

6.1 The intermediate stage of fleeting concertato ostinato patterns leads us to the third category: the primarily structural use of ostinato as a deliberately chosen compositional challenge. This sort of ostinato can be seen as an intentional self-challenge on the part of the composer, a self-imposed compositional straitjacket that must be overcome. Here, the expressive potential of ostinato formulas is not necessarily relevant. As illustrated by Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum of 1650, described above, the short ostinato formula means a decisive constraint on compositional freedom. In this large psalm setting, Monteverdi employed all possibilities of avoiding musical monotony while being chained to a never-changing I-IV-V-I bass. Nevertheless, as described above with regard to the psalm text and its exegesis, the choice of the ostinato can still seem illustrative of the text —in this case a clear-cut cadence pattern as musical expression of the (religious and theological) subject of an ultimate return home.

6.2 An example that takes technical challenge to the extreme and eventually poses the question of ostinato being used more or less independently of the text and its affect is found in the psalm compositions of Monteverdi’s younger contemporary, Gasparo Casati (ca. 1610–1641), maestro di cappella at Novara Cathedral from 1635 until his death. Casati’s psalm setting Laudate pueri a tre voci e due violini of 1645 is based on the alternation of five different ostinato formulas (Example 12) interspersed with a few free bass passages.[49] Laudate pueri, as already seen in the above discussion of Monteverdi’s concertato setting, is a psalm of joy. Thus, some of Casati’s choices may be regarded as text-oriented: the lively walking bass cadence under the opening verse “Laudate, pueri, Dominum” (Praise, o ye servants, the Lord) and the ciaccona under “Qui habitare fecit sterilem in domo laetantem” (He makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children) are ostinato patterns that can be read as musical expression of the affect of joy:

Psalm verse Ostinato pattern
Laudate pueri Dominum walking bass
Sit nomen Domini benedictum descending tetrachord, minor version beginning at “benedictum”
A solis ortu usque ad occasum new walking bass
Excelsus super omnes [brief, non-ostinato cadence]
et super caelos gloria eius ciaccona
Quis sicut Dominus [non-ostinato bass]
Suscitans a terra inopem descending tetrachord, major version
Ut collocet eum cum principibus [non-ostinato walking bass]
Qui habitare facit sterilem in domo ciaccona
Gloria patri [brief, non-ostinato cadence]
Sicut erat in principio walking bass [same as first verse (“sicut erat in principio”)] followed by separate final cadence.

6.3 However, the descending minor tetrachord under “Sit nomen Domini benedictum” (The name of the Lord is to be praised) bears no plausible relationship to the text as a traditional lament bass: the ostinato pattern is to be read as a means of musical structure and varietà, but not as a setting of the textual affetto. Later in the psalm, it may also be asked how the sensual affetto of the major tetrachord relates to the verse “Suscitans a terra inopem.” The psalm’s other ostinato patterns can be explained as contributing to the dominant affect of joy. Nevertheless, the overall formal design—a sort of loose rondo form based on the succession of ostinato formulas (A-B-A’-C-B’-C’-A) —and the sheer ubiquity of ostinato bass patterns clearly indicate that their use, while affect-oriented in some cases, is essentially a compositional challenge, a playful tour de force testing how many ostinato patterns Casati can employ in a single psalm setting.

7. Summary

7.1 This brief survey of the development of ostinato composition in the Seicento makes evident that composers took up a tradition originating in dance music and instrumental improvisation and applied it as an expressive and structural technique to the setting of secular and sacred texts. As this mode of composition developed, the lengthy bass patterns were reduced to shorter, mostly cadential formulas. Secular and sacred works from the 1630s to the 1650s show that some of these formulas were imbued with a specific affective meaning and used accordingly as musical signifiers. This is demonstrated most clearly in works built on a single ostinato formula, often presented as an affective signal by the basso continuo before the upper parts begin. In such cases, it is appropriate to regard the specific ostinato formulas as “icons” of the affect. On the most obvious level, an ostinato could be used for direct illustration of the text, such as the walking bass cadence as a musical translation of the image of walking home to Jerusalem in the psalm Laetatus sum. This sort of “musical word-by-word translation,” just like the return of the opening music at “Sicut erat in principio” in psalm doxologies, is not to be regarded as superficiality in text expression, but as a direct translation of the image from one expressive medium to another.

7.2 The expressive potential of the most frequently used ostinato formulas relies on various parameters: their harmonic design, which is often cadential in tonal terms, but may also imply a modal progression and an open-endedness that heightens the tension; their melodic contour, affectively imbued through stepwise motion or large intervals; and their rhythm, with the affirmative regular motion of the walking bass or the jerky syncopations of the ciaccona.

7.3 The use of ostinato formulas in Seicento concertato music can be divided into three categories: firstly, an ostinato formula underlying an entire composition, which sets the scene and thus functions as a carrier of a specific, constant affect for the entire piece. Musical patterns are thus being allotted a distinct semantic content. The use of ostinato patterns can therefore be seen as an important contribution to the general hermeneutic question of whether musical structures have specific expressive implications and how these implications have been constructed according to compositional conventions and an implicit, communicative contract between composer and audience.

7.4 Secondly, ostinato formulas are used for individual passages within larger non-ostinato contexts. Here, they typically serve as a signifier of one specific affect within a larger spectrum of changing affects and thus assume a dramaturgical function. Modern film composition shows that even a single occurrence, if well-exposed and thus clearly perceptible, can assume the entire affective range of the originally repeated pattern in Seicento music.

7.5 The third category is that of the primarily structural use of ostinato: one or more short formulas are used as a technical challenge, a formal and harmonic straitjacket that has to be overcome. Short formulas, in particular, constitute a technical problem that had to be solved with as much elegance and varietà as possible. However, ostinato patterns are not often used exclusively as a compositional restraint to be surmounted; they are typically also linked to expressive purposes and thus to the musical setting and intensification of affect.

7.6 Between the second and third categories, an intermediate category may be identified: ostinato patterns that are somewhat text-expressive, but primarily generated as a by-product of the concertato interplay of short motives in the upper voices. Sometimes, these repetitive bass phrases develop into genuine, but mostly short ostinato sections, and sometimes they retain their fleeting character, giving an impression of ostinato without actually developing into a formula. This intermediate category illustrates the ambivalent character of all ostinato uses: wherever the primary emphasis lies, ostinato patterns are always a technical device and challenge to the composer, but at the same time, they do often, because of expressive conventions that developed in the decades after 1600, stand in relation to the affect of the text and its musical expression.

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