programme notes


These are the notes we distributed at our Mostly Monteverdi Concert

The 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.

In 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.

Monteverdi 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.

Although, 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.

In 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.

In 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!


c. Deborah Roberts