These are the notes we distributed at our Mostly Monteverdi Concert
late 16th and early 17th -
centuries is one of the most interesting periods in musical history. As
the renaissance style of the 16th century, with its basis in the
classical polyphony of Palestrina, began to push the boundaries ever further
with bold experiments in expressive writing, so many new forms and styles began
to emerge. Probably the most
obvious new development, and that which was to lead to the birth of opera, was
the basso continuo. While in renaissance polyphony all of the vocal
lines were of equal importance, this new continuo
implied melody and accompaniment. Greater
emphasis was now laid upon solo performers who would be accompanied by
harpsichords, lutes, organs ect. With greater clarity of texture, the words of a
song became of prime importance, and the emotive expression of the text was to
occupy singers and composers for the next 100 years. This new style was known as
the seconda prattica (“second
pratice” is an exact translation but doesn’t mean much!) and contrasted with
the old style or prima prattica.
tonight’s programme we will perform some of the pieces which best illustrate
this transformation, from the unaccompanied polyphonic motet of Gombert, through
the experimental works of Wert and Gesualdo, to the fully fledged baroque style
of Monteverdi, Grandi and 2 unusual women composers, the courtesan Barbara
Strozzi and the nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. To add further interest we will
present Monteverdi composing in both prima
and seconda prattica.
Monteverdi’s mass In Illo Tempore was published in 1610 along with his more famous Vespers. The two works, however, could not be less alike. While the Vespers uses a variety of scorings demonstrating the most up to date “baroque”styles, the mass is quite consciously archaic.
took as his model the Motet of the same name by the Flemish composer Nicolas
Gombert, which had been published in 1538. He wove a dense polyphonic texture
around 10 Fughe, or themes which he
extracted from the model. He even
went as far as to publish these themes in the basso continuo part book. While Monteverdi was clearly trying to demonstrate with this
mass that he was capable of writing as well in the prima prattica, or old style, as he was adept in the new, more
expressive and soloistic seconda prattica,
as demonstrated in the Vespers, the overall result in this mass is of a fusion
of the 2 styles. Dense 6 part polyphony is coupled with numerous “baroque”
–sounding sequences, paired duet writing between equal parts, ornamented vocal
lines and a far more daring harmonic language than Gombert could ever have used.
The result is a curious piece which is not often performed – especially as
compared with the Vespers, but it has a unique charm of its own, and contrasts
very effectively with the other, more clearly 17th century,
Monteverdi motets in the programme.
like Gombert before him, Giaches de Wert was born in the Low Countries, he
traveled as a young man to Italy and became totally immersed in the new Italian
style of writing that was flourishing from the 1580s onward. In fact in both his
Italian madrigals, of which he wrote 10 books, and his Latin motets he was quite
a revolutionary. Saule, Saule is set as a choral dialogue and tells dramatically the
story of St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, while in Vox
in Rama the anguish of Rachel weeping for her dead children is beautifully
expressed in highly chromatic harmony. Gesualdo,
the prince of Venosa and convicted murderer, was not a craftsman in the same way
as Wert, and his music can seem overstuffed with wild chromaticisms, but
particularly in Ave dulcissima his
style is more restrained and graceful. This
is pre eminently melodic music showing in its phrases many expressive
characteristics of solo song within the unaccompanied choral texture.
recent years much has been discovered about the plethora of women composers in
17th century Italy. Most
of these women were nuns! For an
upper middle class girl becoming a nun was no unusual event, for keen to save
the dowry money required for a “suitable” marriage, most families would send
the majority of their daughters to the convent. For many, particularly the
musical girls, this was not such a bad fate, for these convents were renowned as
centres of musical excellence. A
talented musician would receive a good musical education which could include
composition as well as vocal and instrumental tuition.
In fact, instruments were largely banned in convents, but this did not
seem to stop the nuns! Chiara
Margarita Cozzolani is one of the most exciting figures to have emerged in the
last few years. She lived at the
convent of Santa Radagonda in Milan and published at least 4 collections of
music. The Dixit Dominus comes from a collection of Vespers psalms. all in 8
parts with organ continuo published in 1650.
For performance within the convent, where no male musicians were allowed,
the nuns would have arranged the music singing the bass and sometimes the tenor
parts up the octave. Tonight we are performing the work in its non convent
scoring for mixed voices in an edition made specially for the concert.
contrast with Cozzolani, Barbara Strozzi was very much a woman of the world. Beautiful, intelligent and desired by countless men, she was
in almost every way the classic courtesan.
Almost her entire output of compositions was of love songs which she
herself would have performed at small private concerts.
Parasti in dulcedine comes from
the one collection of sacred music. It
is interesting to note that while Barbara produced at least 3 children by
different fathers, she sent her son to train as a priest and packed one daughter
off to a convent!