[*]Prof. Dr. Linda Maria Koldau ( worked as Chair of Historical Musicology at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and was Knud Jeppesen Chair of Musicology at Aarhus University in Denmark. In 2012 she founded the Baltic Coast Academy (Akademie an der Steilkueste). As director of this academy and as a research professor affiliated to Utrecht University, she has been teaching seminars on efficient working methods and administration in German companies. Prof. Koldau has published widely in the field of musicology and cultural history.

[1] See, for example, the analysis of the development in the 1570s and 1580s at Ferrara as described in Anthony Newcomb, The Madrigal at Ferrara: 1579–1597, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

[2] On the use of the term “icon” in the context of seventeenth-century composition, see Jeffrey Kurtzman, “Monteverdi’s Changing Aesthetics: A Semiotic Perspective,” in Festa Musicologica: Essays in Honor of George Buelow, ed. Thomas J. Mathiesen and Benito V. Rivera (Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1994), 233–55, esp. 251–53.

[3] See Con che soavità: Studies in Italian Opera, Song, and Dance, 1580–1740, ed. Iain Fenlon and Tim Carter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); and Tim Carter, “‘An Air New and Grateful to the Ear’: The Concept of ‘Aria’ in Late Renaissance and Early Baroque Italy,” Music Analysis 12, no. 2 (July 1993): 127–45.

[4] “Das Entscheidende ist die Dualität von instrumentalem, ostinat-motivischem Hintergrund und der freien Bewegung der Gesangsstimme. Das aber ist eine Theaterhaltung: objektiver, unveränderlicher Rahmen, in dem und bisweilen gegen den das Subjekt seinen Affekt in freien Gebärden entfaltet.” See Wolfgang Osthoff, Monteverdistudien I: Das dramatische Spätwerk Claudio Monteverdis,  Münchner Veröffentlichungen zur Musikgeschichte 3 (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1960), 46.

[5] In addition to Osthoff, more recent writings on Monteverdi’s use of ostinato include the chapter “Ostinate Bässe” in Silke Leopold, Claudio Monteverdi und seine Zeit, rev. ed. (Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 1993), 124–44, and the little known Swedish exam paper by Johanna Ethnersson, “Claudio Monteverdis användande av ostinato. En studie av denna kompositionstekniks olika funktioner och affektmässiga betydelse” (Claudio Monteverdi’s use of ostinato: a study on the various functions and the affective meaning of this compositional technique), Stockholm University, 1996. Leopold and Ethnersson examine exclusively Monteverdi’s secular vocal music, with the exception of a short reference to Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum compositions in both studies. Although Ethnersson focuses on the function of ostinato formulas as affective signifiers, she does not set this phenomenon in relation to the general change in compositional technique and aesthetics in the first decades of the Seicento, nor does she identify differing structural techniques in the use of ostinato, as will be discussed in the third part of my essay.

[6] Equally, Western oral tradition, other musical cultures, and certain branches of popular music often base their music on repetitive patterns.

[7] The English ground has a different tradition and development, which will not be discussed here.

[8] See Richard Hudson’s detailed studies on some of these patterns in his The Folia, the Saraband, the Passacaglia, and the Chaconne: The Historical Evolution of Four Forms that Originated in Music for the Five-Course Spanish Guitar, 4 vols. (Stuttgart-Neuhausen: Hänssler, 1982).

[9] Leopold, Monteverdi und seine Zeit, 124–26.

[10] Osthoff, Das dramatische Spätwerk, 72.

[11] For detailed discussions of this complex psalm setting, see John Whenham, Monteverdi: Vespers (1610) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 67–72 (esp. music example 10, p. 69); Jeffrey Kurtzman, The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 223–30; and Kurtzman, “Intermedio III: ‘Laetatus sum’ (1610),” in The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi, ed. John Whenham and Richard Wistreich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 155–61.

[12] Leopold, Monteverdi und seine Zeit, 131–32.

[13] See Whenham, Monteverdi: Vespers, 69–71.

[14] The relationship between the choice of this specific ostinato form and the psalm text is, in varying interpretations, noted in the three analyses mentioned in ref. 11.

[15] Translations of the Vulgate psalms are based upon the King James Version, using its divergent numbering. Psalm numbers in the following analyses do refer to the numbering of the Vulgate edition, which was used in religious and musical practice of the Seicento.

[16] Psalm 121 belongs to the group of pilgrim songs, whose original Hebrew caption, “šîr hamma’alôt,” means “song for ascending processions” (i.e., up to the Temple) or “song of steps” (in Latin, Canticum graduum). Within this group, the psalms represent specific stations in the pilgrimage, with Psalm 121 and 122 standing for the arrival at the Temple. See Klaus Seybold, “Psalmen/Psalmenbuch. I: Altes Testament,” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, ed. Gerhard Müller (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1997), 27:610–24, esp. 618.

[17] See Jeffrey Kurtzman, “A Taxonomic and Affective Analysis of Monteverdi’s ‘Hor che’l ciel e la terra,'” Music Analysis 12, no. 2 (July 1993): 169–95; Kurtzman, “What Makes Claudio Divine? Criteria for Analysis of Monteverdi’s Large-Scale Concertato Style,” in Seicento inesplorato: L’evento musicale tra prassi e stile: un modello di interdipendenza. Atti del III Convegno internazionale sulla musica in area lombardo-padana nel secolo XVII, Lenno-Como (23–25 giugno 1989), ed. Alberto Colzani, Andrea Luppi, and Maurizio Padoan (Como: AMIS, 1993), 257–302; Kurtzman, “Monteverdi’s Changing Aesthetics”; Carter, “‘An Air New and Grateful to the Ear’; and Carter, “Resemblance and Representation: Towards a New Aesthetic in the Music of Monteverdi,” in Con che soavità, 118–34.

[18] See Leopold, Monteverdi und seine Zeit, 135; and Thomas Walker, “Ciaccona and Passacaglia: Remarks on Their Origin and Early History,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 21, no. 3 (Autumn 1968): 300–20.

[19] For a detailed analysis of the entire psalm and the varying techniques of diversification see Linda Maria Koldau, Die venezianische Kirchenmusik von Claudio Monteverdi (Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 2001), 245–71.

[20] See Koldau, Venezianische Kirchenmusik, 260–94.

[21] Johanna Ethnersson also focuses on these three patterns in her investigation of Monteverdi’s use of ostinato, using the designations “theme of lament” (minor version of the descending tetrachord), “theme of love” (major version of the descending tetrachord) and “theme of joy.” See Ethnersson, “Claudio Monteverdis användande av ostinato,” 28–38.

[22] See Eric Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language (New York: Schirmer, 1992), especially vii–xviii and 1–37.

[23] Osthoff, Das dramatische Spätwerk, 46.

[24] Ellen Rosand, “The Descending Tetrachord: An Emblem of Lament,” The Musical Quarterly 65, no. 3 (July 1979): 346–59, esp. 349-50. For a discussion of the harmonization of the descending tetrachord in the Lamento della ninfa, see Roland Jackson, “Realizing the Continuo in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa and Its Implications for Early Seventeenth-Century Italian Continuo Practice,” Performance Practice Review 14, no. 1 (2009),

[25] Rosand, “The Descending Tetrachord,” 353; Walker, “Ciaccona and Passacaglia,” 314. The indifferent affective use of the major and minor versions in the earliest vocal compositions using the descending tetrachord ostinato may have resulted from the formula first having been used as a basis for instrumental variations in guitar and keyboard literature throughout the first three decades of the seventeenth century. Thus, the formula was perceived as a technical device rather than an expressive means before it eventually became associated with specific affective content through its use in vocal music.

[26] See Wolfgang Osthoff’s characterization of the major descending tetrachord as “der Eros-Topos par excellence in dieser Zeit,” quoting a considerable number of compositions over this ostinato that focus on love and lasciviousness, in Osthoff, Das dramatische Spätwerk, 87. The use of this ostinato in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is by no means restricted to the famous final duet, “Pur ti miro”; the descending major tetrachord plays an important affective and dramatic role in several scenes of the opera (see the analysis of Act II, scene 6 in par. 4.2).

[27] As with the tetrachord ostinato designated “passacaglia” in instrumental compositions, the bass pattern used in the vocal ciaccone must be differentiated from the early ciaccone in guitar books up to the 1620s, which derive from the fashionable Spanish dance chacona. The earlier pattern is built on the simpler I-V-vi-V-I chord progression and does not necessarily evince the syncopations often found in the later ostinato formula. See the discussion and examples in Walker, “Ciaconna and Passacaglia.”

[28] Osthoff, Das dramatische Spätwerk, 41.

[29] The piece is found in Canzonette spirituali, e morali, che si cantano nell’Oratorio di Chiavenna, eretto sotto la protettione di S. Filippo Neri. Accomodate per cantar à 1.2.3. voci come più pace, con le lettere della chitarra sopra arie communi e nuove date in luce per trattenimento spirituale d’ogni persona. Milano, C. F. Rolla, 1657 (RISM Recuiles imprimés XVIe-XVIIe siècles, 16571). Composed as a strophic dialogue contrasting the blessings of Paradise (female voices) with the horrors of Hell (male voices), the composition and its use of the ostinato pattern remain ironically ambivalent: Hell and Paradise are united by the same bass pattern, and in the end there remains the praise of Paradise–again sung over the ciaccona bass. A recording of this interesting canzonetta morale is offered by the ensemble Tragicomedia (dir. Stephen Stubbs and Erin Headley) on the compact disc Vanitas vanitatum. Rome 1650 (TELDEC Das Alte Werk 4509-98410-2).

[30] See Linda Maria Koldau,”Kompositorische Topoi als Kategorie in der Analyse von Filmmusik,” Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 65, no. 4 (2008): 247–71.

[31] It has been a common assumption that this famous final duet was probably not written by Monteverdi ever since the publication of an article making this claim by Alan Curtis, “La Poppea impasticciata or, Who Wrote the Music to L’incoronazione (1643)?” Journal of the American Musicological Society 42, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 23–54; reprinted in Richard Wistreich, ed., Monteverdi (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011), 475–506. While “Pur ti miro” is found in manuscript scores and librettos, it does not appear in any of the later printed librettos, and its text was already contained in the 1641 version of Benedetto Ferrari’s opera Pastor regio (see Paolo Fabbri, Monteverdi [Turin: EDT, 1985], 336; English trans. Tim Carter [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 260). For an argument contesting Curtis’s view, however, see the review of Curtis’s edition of L’incoronazione di Poppea: An Opera in a Prologue and Three Acts (London: Novello, 1989) by Jeffrey Kurtzman, Music Library Association Notes 48, no. 1 (September 1991), 276–79, where the possibility of Monteverdi’s authorship is explored. Although there may be a variety of composers who could have written the duet, including Monteverdi, the question is irrelevant for the evaluation of the opera and the affective function of its ostinato passages. If Monteverdi did not compose the final duet himself, he chose it as the perfect musical fit to end his opera, referring back to his own use of the descending tetrachord as signifier of love and sensuality throughout the opera.

[32] Consider, for instance, the following verses: “Over prendi questo latte / Dalle mie mammelle intatte / Perché tosto oscuro velo / Priverà di lume il cielo. / Deh, ben mio, deh, cor mio / fa la ninna ninna na.” – “Questa faccia gratiosa / Rubiconda più che rosa / Sputi e schiaffi sporcheranno / Con tormento e grand affanno. / Deh, ben mio, deh, cor mio / fa la ninna ninna na.” The piece was published in Merula, Curtio precipitato et altri capricii composti . . . a voce sola, libro secondo, opera XIII (Venice: Bartolomeo Magni, 1638). RISM M2351.

[33] British Library Add.MS 15117, recorded on the compact disc My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is (Hyperion CDA66307; ensemble Tragicomedia, dir. David Cordier).

[34] On the structural and dramaturgical differences in the various seventeenth-century settings of the text, a strophic canzonetta by Ottavio Rinuccini, see Tim Carter, “Intermedio IV: Lamento della ninfa (1638),” in The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi, ed. John Whenham and Richard Wistreich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 195–98. A short analysis of text and music is also offered by Leopold, Monteverdi und seine Zeit, 163–66.

[35] See Rosand, “The Descending Tetrachord,” 350: “Its affect, epitomized by the tetrachord ostinato, is built into the music itself in a new way. The tetrachord supplants the most important source of affect in recitative laments like that of Arianna—the interpretation of the singer.”

[36] On the tension between the declamatory recitative style implied by this directive and the triple meter of the lament, see Carter, “Intermedio IV,” 197.

[37] A few examples include the lament section in Lamento della ninfa, the opening of the duet “Pur ti miro” (L’incoronazione di Poppea), the opening of Giovanni Antonio Rigatti’s psalm setting Nisi Dominus a 3 voci, et 2 violini of 1640 (a setting based on the major version of the descending tetrachord), and the opening of Merula’s ciaccona, Su la cetra amorosa. See the analysis and transcription of the Rigatti composition in Koldau, Venezianische Kirchenmusik, 456–61, 545–58), This function of signaling the affect by way of a solo ostinato formula is also used in current performance practice of Seicento music, where ensembles often play the ostinato formula before the other voices enter, whether or not this anticipation by the continuo of upper parts is notated in the original.

[38] In performance practice, the suspension would be called an appoggiatura, an entirely normal affective embellishment. The asterisk in the first bar of the example designates a dissonance that, unlike the other dissonances in this example, is not introduced by being consonant to the preceding harmony in the bass.

[39] According to the Figurenlehre, such an unresolved dissonance ending with a rest would be called abruptio. However, it would be anachronistic to analyze Monteverdi’s music with the help of this terminology. Monteverdi simply wrote down in notation what would be done in performance; it was only later that Christoph Bernhard codified these practical, now distinctly notated, deviations from the musical grammar as “figures” in the stylus luxurians communis.

[40] See the discussion of this composition in Joachim Steinheuer, Chamäleon und Salamander: Neue Wege der Textvertonung bei Tarquinio Merula (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1999), 303–16. Steinheuer does not, however, refer to the fundamental metric disalignment between continuo and vocal part as expression of the essential inner conflict expressed in the text. The piece was published in Merula’s Madrigali et altre musiche concertate a 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. voci, libro secondo (Venice: Bartolomeo Magni, 1633). RISM M2348. The collection was republished in 1635 (RISM M2349) and 1655 (RISM M2350).

[41] See the following essays by Tim Carter: “‘An Air New and Grateful to the Ear'”; “Resemblance and Representation”; and “Re-Reading ‘Poppea’: Some Thoughts on Music and Meaning in Monteverdi’s Last Opera,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 122, no. 2 (1997): 173–204.

[42] As in the interpretation of René Jacobs on the recording Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (Harmonia Mundi 105556).

[43] In a performance in the Schlosskirche Bad Homburg (1994), the ensemble La Stagione Frankfurt (dir. Michael Schneider) actually staged this scene as a homoerotic love scene leading to–discretely veiled–orgasm. Monteverdi’s music in its ever-increasing intensity and final climax suggests the process even without staging.

[44] Published in Messa a quattro voci et salmi a una, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, & otto voci concertati, e parte da cappella, & con le letanie della B.V. (Venice: Alessandro Vincenti, 1650). RISM M3447, 16505.

[45] See the discussion of the entire setting in Koldau, Venezianische Kirchenmusik, 226–45.

[46] This division stands in contrast to modern Vulgate editions as well as current vernacular translations (see the translation of vv. 2–5 above). In most modern editions, this line still belongs to v. 2, linking it with the vanitas theme about the uselessness of human endeavor without the Lord’s blessing.

[47] Some of the semiminims are broken down into crome. The dynamic movement of the walking bass is, however, clearly perceptible in the line, especially in contrast to the preceding long basso continuo notes under the recitative “surgite postquam sederitis qui manducatis panem doloris.”

[48] In these passages, another aspect of the new concertato style can be observed: the violins take on an almost vocal character in that they not only imitate the voices’ phrases, but also anticipate the new phrases that eventually receive text underlay in the voices. The result can turn into an implicit interlacing of short textual phrases, as is often found in concertato church music—a byproduct of the concertato style but also a means of intensification in the context of religious and dogmatic statements. For an example, see the passage “A solis ortu” in the Laudate pueri primo a 5 concertato (1641), discussed in Koldau, Venezianische Kirchenmusik, 210–13.

[49] The psalm was printed in the posthumous collection by Michelangelo Turriani, Scielta d’ariosi salmi, con suoi violini, vaghi motteti à 2. 3. 4. voci … autore Gasparo Casati (Venice: Stampa del Gardano, 1645). RISM C1420. A copy of the original print is found in Bologna, Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca di Musica, X.246. The psalm obviously enjoyed some popularity, since a manuscript copy is also found in a tablature anthology (dated 1665) in the Düben Collection at Uppsala Universitetsbibliotek, Vok. mus. i hs. 81:32.