Musica Maestrale & The Ensemble: What can moderns learn from Monteverdi?



Members of The Ensemble and Musica Maestrale rehearse their Celebration Works concert in Portland.

Members of The Ensemble and Musica Maestrale rehearse their  concert, “Monteverdi Madrigali,” in Portland.


The 17th century had just begun, and composer Claudio Monteverdi was fed up. For roughly 200 years, composers across Europe, especially in Italy (then the center of the Western music world), had been working incremental changes on a style that balanced the traditional art of counterpoint – the careful arrangement of many voices, each with their own individuality, flowing together – with the new art of harmony, in which the voices move in lockstep through shifting block chords like a marching band display.

Each new generation tried to outdo the last in developing counterpoint and (especially) harmony, gradually moving farther and farther outside the long-established church modes into displays that today sound a bit like something Richard Wagner might have invented centuries later. There were rumblings of discontent here and there, most notably from the Counter-Reformation, but by and large, the pace picked up as 1600 approached. It was a foretaste of the 20th century’s amped up musical complexity.

Then it was over. In just a few years, leading composers seemed to tire of the whole game. Monteverdi led the pack. They radically simplified counterpoint’s surface, often reducing it to just two independent voices – the highest and lowest – but with intricate twists, as if all the lessons learned up to that time were now to be concentrated in them: polygamy converted to monogamy.

Harmony was likewise simplified. Where earlier, composers seemed content to sit back and enjoy all the pretty colors created by their counterpoint going by, now they began to consider chords as vital elements in their own right, independent of counterpoint. It was a lot to take in all at once, so they went back to basics.

To modern ears accustomed to the rich palettes of the 20th century, this new style, which ultimately developed into the Baroque, can seem spartan, even tediously tame. However, sensitive performance by top-notch musicians can always breathe life into artworks by a composer of Monteverdi’s caliber, and The Ensemble and Musica Maestrale, in their Celebration Works series performance at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Portland the last Sunday in January, provided a bevy of sterling examples.

One element that did become more complex and subtle in Monteverdi’s new style was the relationship of text to music. Composers had long indulged in word-painting: setting text to music that suggests various extramusical subjects, like a voice quickly running up a scale to suggest joy or birds in flight, or slowly descending chains of dissonances to suggest tears of sadness rolling down cheeks. This practice became such a common feature of the 16th century form called a madrigal that even today composers refer to them as “madrigalisms.” Monteverdi went beyond, to integrate word-painting and musical structure into something no less than mini-drama, so much so that he is often credited as the inventor of opera, though he was just the most capable among many contemporaries.

Two works on the Celebration Works program stood out in this way, both settings of poems by Giambattista Marino. The first, “Defeated, here wept Ergastus,” set a mythological scene of a shepherd and huntress. The shepherd pursues, at first unsuccessfully, but by the end, pity sex at least seems likely. Sopranos Catherine van der Salm and Mel Downie Robinson, as a duet, played the part of the shepherd, reaching a peak of expression as they came in perfectly on a high, exposed “Alas….” Shortly after, they portrayed the supposed cruelty of the huntress with an aching double dissonance against the rest of the group.

Despite these and other vocal flourishes, the overall manner was formal and restrained compared to “Farewell, lovely Florida,” a fully developed operatic scene of the times. At first, van der Salm and baritone Jacob Doherty played out a classic scene of lovers parting in the morning, singing sweet nothings back and forth. But then the camera zoomed back as the rest of the group painted a farcical picture of “sighs, kisses and murmuring” pouring out of window after window along Rome’s Tiber river, with a few choice bits of dialog for color. Like much later opera and songwriting, harmony was reduced to the barest essentials, but we got the point.

In these and other works on the program, the Musica Maestrale instrumentalists, Polly Gibson on viola da gamba and Hideki Yamaya on theorbo, a kind of bass lute, provided sweet counterpoint and essential grounding. The theorbo may be an ancient instrument, but Yamaya’s rich and resonant low end had an invigorating edge reminiscent of an electric bass guitar.

A curious contrast emerged between solo works sung by van der Salm and Robinson. Both used a simple verse form, with vocal variations and acrobatics from verse to verse the main musical interest. In van der Salm’s relatively brief “That scornful little glance,” each of the three verses traversed the same deftly shaped harmonic arch, with one striking variation, an excruciating dissonance the last time around as the protagonist nearly faints from her lover’s glances – and in both this and the acrobatics, van der Salm was a delight. We hung on every note and it was over almost too soon.

“Love letter: If my languishing glances” set Robinson, in some ways, a harder task. This madrigal may be one of the first attempts at a torch song, or a precursor to the famous letter scene in Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin. But without that Romantic composer’s superheated gush or the sultry vocabulary of jazz, it must have been quite a challenge to keep our interest up through the repetitive and rather shapeless verses, which went on almost four times as long. She succeeded admirably through tender inflections and stage presence, but the composer didn’t give her much help.

The heart of the concert was the six-movement sestina setting The tears of the lover at the tomb of his beloved. In the same way that a sestina – a poem in which each verse uses the same six line-ending words in a different order – forces the poet to the limits of imagination to create a continuing narrative rather than a stilted tangle of repetitive images, Monteverdi, with his sensitivity to text, must have found himself severely tested to create a compelling musical flow from start to finish. That it mostly worked, even to ears used to richer fare, was a testament to both his abilities and the performers’. There were the usual suspensions – sharp dissonances created when one or two voices hang on to their pitches while the rest of the group shifts the ground around them – but often the dissonant voices were barely given time to get a grip first, lending urgency to the poet’s grief. Near the end, the sestina pattern breaks once, on repeated cries of the departed lover’s name, and Monteverdi built up a dense outpouring to match, under insistent entreaties high in the sopranos. The entire group drove it to a spine-tingling climax.

Things got lighter toward the end of the concert, with two bouncy numbers each from a ballo, or dance play of the period. In the final “Thyrsis and Chloris,” after a couple of exchanges between Doherty as the impetuous shepherd and van der Salm as the shepherdess holding back coyly, the two joined the rest for a series of rollicking verses on harmonies rising like one of Escher’s endless staircases. Each verse was slightly different in details of rhythm or melody, but the group whirled its way nimbly to a cheerful moral: “All that is best, we learn from the dance.”

Even after all this, my favorite work on the concert was the opening setting of Petrarch’s “Zephyr returns and with him fair weather,” which balanced a detailed picture of the joyous return of spring against the poet’s return to sighing after his lover, who has died. Composed soon after Monteverdi made his break with the past, it nonetheless combines the best of both worlds. While the new style, colored with sparkling runs and turns tossed back and forth between the voices, buoys the springtime picture, with the sighs we return to the old. The last line, “I am but a desert, surrounded by savage beasts,” is drawn out in a string of dissonances as rich and extreme as anything the most advanced masters of the old style ever put in front of an audience.

Can we in the 21st century, recovering as if from a hangover after classical music’s 20th century complexity binge, take away any insight from Monteverdi’s musical crash diet, as touted by The Ensemble’s and Musica Maestrale’s concert? There are so many differences between his time and ours, in particular that we can, with the touch of a button, sample wildly different styles of music from cultures and periods all over the world. But one observation stands out – nothing is gained by dumbing down the overall work.

For every musical facet that Monteverdi simplified, he chiseled another facet and worked to give it as much brilliance and depth as the one which was submerged. In our own time, minimalism similarly trades away harmonic complexity (even beyond what Monteverdi might have thought advisable) in favor of intricate rhythms and layered textures. More recent experiments in grafting on what’s perceived by classically trained composers as a pop sensibility have succeeded much less reliably. Maybe what’s needed is a little tough love from a 400-year old composer.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who normally avoids any Baroque music that isn’t by Johann Sebastian Bach. We all have our blind spots.

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2 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I found this very interesting indeed; in 1960, maybe 1961, I attended a birthday concert for Edgard Varese, a very radical composer indeed in those days, although I think this was a 75th birday concert. It was at the Metropolitan Museum, Varese had chosen the music, the first half was comprised of his own work, and the second half by Monteverdi’s. It was a terrific concert, worked like tongue and groove.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      About that same time, you could have heard Morton Feldman talking about how much he loved Sibelius. Long before the advent of home computers, much less notation software for them. 🙂

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