June 2011

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Sacred and profane – music from Italy

Monteverdi Quel augellin
Marenzio Cruda Amarilli
Monteverdi Beatus vir
Palestrina Tu es Petrus
Monteverdi Ecco mormorar l’onde
Rore O sonno
Carissimi Jonas

The Italian madrigal emerged around 1530. In very general terms, the madrigal was a polyphonic vocal work that was not strophic in nature, with a secular Italian text of literary merit. The ensuing decades were a period of intense experimentation, during which various exponents of the genre sought to forge a sophisticated idiom in which music and poetry were intimately linked and mutually reinforcing. By the 1580s the madrigal had evolved into an astonishingly varied and versatile genre; the music-printers of Venice were evidently hard put to keep up with demand.  From the 1580s onwards the serious, high-art-form madrigal shows a tendency toward greater innovation, more daring experimentation, and heightened chromaticism and expression. Madrigalists turned increasingly to contemporary literature to set dramatic and emotional themes to music, with breathtaking results.

Cipriano de Rore (1515-65) wrote in a highly chromatic style that made him one of the most influential composers of his time, establishing a model followed by many subsequent composers.  Luca Marenzio (1553-99) published nine books of five-voice madrigals and six books of six-voice madrigals, being some of the most expressive and chromatic works in the literature. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) published five books of five-voice a cappella madrigals between 1587 and 1605; Ecco mormorar l’onde, with a libretto by Tasso, comes from the second book.  Much of his church music was published in two large collections of compositions written over a number of years, the Vespers of 1610 and the Selva morale e spitiruale of 1641.  Beatus vir, a much-loved Latin setting of Psalm 112, ‘Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord’, appears in the latter and is believed to date from about 1630.  In this psalm, the Holy Spirit reveals where true happiness is to be found: fear is the beginning of wisdom, but also the road to true joy.  It is scored for two violins and continuo bass, and has its origin in a canzonetta, Chiome d’oro.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94) took his name from the town near Rome where he was born.  He spent much of his career as maestro of the Capella Giulia, the choir of St Peter’s basilica; his numerous publications, including seven books of masses and about 375 motets, brought him international fame in his lifetime.  In his later years he was held much in awe by musicians, both theorists and composers: as early as 1575 it was written of him that he was ‘now considered the very first musician in the world’. Tu es Petrus is actually a pair of motets, as the middle section, Quodcumque ligaveris is sometimes performed alone. The text, proper to the feast of St Peter, is from Matthew 16: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… and I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’.

Jonas, by Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674), is an oratorio setting of the Book of Jonah in the Hebrew bible, very similar to his setting of Jephte performed here a few years ago.  God sends Jonah to Nineveh, a city of sinners in need of conversion. Jonah does not like this idea and instead catches a ship heading off in the opposite direction to Tarshish. Somewhat displeased at this disobedience, God raises a mighty storm. All the sailors frantically jettison the cargo to no avail but then find Jonah asleep below decks. They tell him he should be praying to his god, as they have prayed to theirs. Jonah explains that his god is the one true God who made the land and the sea. The sailors realize that Jonah must have offended this powerful deity and casts lots to see whether it is indeed he who is the cause of the storm. The lot falls on Jonah and he offers to be thrown into the sea to save the ship. The sailors do this and the storm dies down.  But God still has plans for Jonah, so he provides a great fish, possibly a whale, to swallow him whole; Jonah spends the next three days in the belly of the whale thinking through his relationship with God.  When he promises to do better in future, God instructs the whale to deposit Jonah on dry land.  Three days later Jonah is back in Nineveh preaching impending destruction of the city to such effect that everyone from the king down gives up evil deeds and returns to the true God.  Carissimi leaves the story there with the sublime chorus of repentant Ninevites, although the biblical account continues with Jonah resentful of God’s mercy and throwing a bit of a tantrum.  This brings about further discomfort for Jonah until he accepts that redemption is for everyone.