The 17th century brought with it a creative musical explosion that was unprecedented in music history, an artistic upheaval whose closest peer in history is arguably the multifaceted sonic exploration of the 20th century.
As the world shifted into the 1600s, the divine proportions of Renaissance music—polyphonic sprees in which every voice carried equal weight, emotions remained rooted in neutral ground, and music was stridently sacred—were retooled and reworked. With the first operas cropping up in the first few years of the new century, emphasis was increasingly placed on the individual, rather than the group. Composers like Claudio Monteverdi turned to secular texts, often exposing human foibles in the stories of ancient gods, and set them in such a way that allowed emotions to be sung with as much intensity as they required. While opera saw its birthplace in the private homes of Florence, Venice quickly became its populist nexus, its streets flooded with commedia dell’arte troupes and ultimately home to six opera houses.
Indeed, Venice at the dawn of the 17th century was a city of contrasts. As Le Poème Harmonique notes, “Venetian musical works moved constantly between false truths and real delusions.” High culture came into its own, while even the most serious of composers played with traditional street songs. An exemplary confluence of both sides of the cultural spectrum is La Barchetta Passaggiera, a collection of popular songs and madrigals written in a number of Italian dialects and published in Rome in 1627.
Much has been made over the authorship of La Barchetta, whose author was named upon publication as “Il Fasolo” (“the bean”). Some scholars believed Il Fasolo to be Francesco Manelli, who was instrumental in fostering Venice’s thriving opera scene. (He was the impresario behind Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, the composer’s first opera written for the Venetian stage.) However, it was later suggested that the identity of the mysterious Il Fasolo was much simpler: perhaps the name was simply a reference to Giovanni Battista Fasolo, a composer and organist who lived in Rome at the time of La Barchetta’s publication. Theories abound: Perhaps there were two composers who used the nickname? Or maybe they were one and the same?
Regardless of whether or not you buy into the conspiracy theory, the connections between these composers speak volumes. Even in insouciant street songs, the budding genre of opera is felt through the theatricality of the music. In tonight’s program, Le Poème Harmonique samples La Barchetta, along with the music of Manelli, Monteverdi, Benedetto Ferrari, and Dario Castello. Their historically informed performance embraces 17th-century technology, from the instruments to the lighting, creating a multisensory experience that recreates the experience of vocal music and opera in a city whose musical waters ran deep.
Claudio Monteverdi: “Dormo ancora”
This aria comes from Monteverdi’s 1640 opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland, based on Homer’s The Odyssey), the first opera the composer wrote for Venetian audiences. In this scene, the first time that we hear the titular hero sing, Ulysses has been brought to Ithaca by the Phaeacians, a group of sailors. Eager to return home, Ulysses awakes on Ithaca, unsure as to whether or not he’s still dreaming. The repetitions of the opening question: “Dormo ancora o son desto?” (“Am I still asleep or am I awake?”) set the tone for an anxious and agitated aria that reveals our hero’s own inner torment. “Why has my time for rest become a sad misadventure?” he laments. “What god is watching over the rest of mankind?”
Unlike many tragic heroes of opera, Ulysses is aware of how his actions have resulted in him being separated from his wife and son for 20 years. Perhaps because of this stark realization, he finds it hard to rage against the gods in his waking hours but longs for respite from their divine retribution in his sleep. He finishes with an outburst, screaming to the heavens: “May your divine power be accomplished firmly against the will of men, but have mercy and respect for the rest of the dead!”
Dario Castello: Sonata Concertate in Stil Moderno
Little is known about Castello’s life, save for the fact that he once worked for St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the same cathedral that benefitted largely from Monteverdi’s musical directorship, which started in 1613. Monteverdi’s influence is felt in Castello’s surviving compositions, which often feature soloists scaling emotional peaks (conveying agitation with spitfire trills) while supported by the guiding hand of a continuo. Instrumental though his works may be, they’re no less operatic.
Monteverdi: “Lamenta della Ninfa” (Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi)
Monteverdi became a master of lament in the 17th century, conveying sadness as deftly as he did anger and injecting choice amounts of catharsis into this particular setting for three and four voices, which unfolds as a mini-drama against an almost austere bass-line progression of four notes. The first part starts with two tenors, and a bass sets the scene: Before dawn breaks, a lovesick woman (the eponymous nymph) deserted by her partner leaves her house, sighing in lament over a lost love as she wanders aimlessly.
The soprano voice enters, playing the part of the maiden who pleads with the god of love to return her unfaithful mate, or to kill her so that she may no longer suffer this grief. “My suffering on his account makes him proud,” she reasons. “So if I feign indifference, perhaps he will return to me again?” But she soon realizes she cannot maintain this ruse. As she curses the woman for whom she was abandoned, the trio concludes, “Thus in lovers’ hearts does love mix fire and ice.”
Manelli: “Misticanza di vigna alla bergamasca” (La Barchetta Passaggiera)
This selection from Il Fasolo’s La Barchetta Passaggiera (Passengers on a Boat) incorporates a number of Italian dialects into a comic tune about a boating trip, populated by a number of passengers each bearing a number of gastronomical delights. Each of the seven solo verses is interpolated by the jaunty refrain: “Hey, away we go: Take the helm, Zanetto, Scarpin, let out the sheet, Scatozza, hoist the foresail. Oh, the wine flask has broken!” Taking turns to introduce their booty (ranging from bacon and broccoli to radishes and tripe), singers tackle dialects spanning from Naples to Tuscany to Lombardy; even French and Spanish are incorporated (although the German passenger, curiously, sings in Italian). There’s more voyage in this sense than in the literal boating journey, which is almost derailed by a lunch break, in turn interrupted by a cat. The boat owner brings the chorus back together for a final variation on the repeated refrain as they prepare to hoist off.
Benedetto Ferrari: Chi non sà come Amor
When Monteverdi died before completing his final opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), a colleague—now believed to be Benedetto Ferrari—supplied the work’s final number, and most famous duet, “Pur ti miro.” Ferrari’s own operatic scores are lost, so it’s impossible to verify that the music is Ferrari’s, but the text most certainly is his. As Ellen Rosand notes of the duet for The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, “With melodic lines that are very close to one another and continually overlap, this duet has been considered the perfect embodiment of the eroticism of the opera.”
There’s a similar sensuality at play in Chi non sà come Amor (He Who Knows Not How Love), Ferrari’s extensive monologue, which for all of its simple underscoring leaves the singer emotionally vulnerable and naked, and offers the chance for a searing performance that renders words superfluous. “From an ocean of plenty, with bounty as its shores, he slips into the deep abyss,” the singer says of love. “I know this from experience, I have understood, I have learned it at the school of tears where Love, that hard and pitiless teacher, instructed me: O cruel destiny!” After a lengthy soliloquy, the singer concludes that, “He who is a slave to love is a slave to death.”
Ferrari: Son ruinato
Like the previous Ferrari song, this work (I Am Defenseless) takes as its text an intensely descriptive monologue along the same theme of being a slave to love and death (“This traitor Love is leading me to the place where gradually my ardor increases…And this ardor can temper all but the horror of ice-cold death,” the narrator sings). However, despite even strikingly similar images of contrast like fire and ice, the musical tone of this piece is more voluptuous. Perhaps it suggests that the torments of love are rendered sweet by the outcome, that the end justifies the means.
Anonymous: Villanella ch’all’acqua vai
This anonymous Neapolitan song for singer and harp, circa the late 1500s, lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. As a young man tells a young peasant girl “I die for you and you don’t even know it,” his supplications are tinged with a delicate sweetness. There’s a hint of later Romanticism when he describes her as a Queen rather than a villager when she steps out with her servant, repeatedly sighing, “Ahimmè…”
Manelli: “Sguardo lusinghiero”
Another tune out of Il Fasolo’s book, “Sguardo” is an example of how composers in the 17th century applied the seriousness of sacred music to non-sacred texts. The “flattering eye” of the song’s title is used as a microcosm for the troubles that the song’s narrator experienced with the eye’s owner. “A base and somber thought was the cause of my misfortunes,” he sings at the beginning of the woman who was unfaithful to him, repeating the word “rompete,” or “break.” He ends with a parting shot to his former flame: “Take pleasure with whomever you like. Expect nothing from me, neither truce, nor war, nor peace, for you have wronged.”
Manelli: Aria alla napolitana
There’s an air of Monteverdi’s madrigals in this Manelli song, taken from his 1636 book of Musiche varie, butthat air is also combined with the unexpected Latin American dance form jàcara, a precursor of flamenco. It sets a rhythmic tone for this lament for soprano. Opening with the lines “My soul cries out all the time. And you, cruel one, hear not its great grieving and laments,” the song is fiery and passionate. “You are content to suffer in silence,” the woman seethes. “For the more wounds you bear, the more kisses you will receive.” Like “Lamenta della Ninfa,” this work includes a set of narrating male singers who provide the recurring, hypnotic refrain, “And together with my heart they cry for kisses, kisses, love, love.” It was similarities such as this use of repetition that originally linked Manelli to Il Fasolo.
Manelli: Acceso mio core
Taken from Manelli’s 1629 publication, Ciaccone et arie, Acceso mio core (My Burning Heart) is another rare lament written in a major key and delivered with a hint of playfulness. Again, we hear similarities to “Lamenta della Ninfa” with Manelli’s use of a four-note bass-line, but the song is rendered rich with the multi-part harmony for male singers. Despite often singing in unison, each singer maintains his own individuality even as they collectively agree, “If you tell her you love her, she turns a deaf ear and derides… If you speak or sigh, she pretends not to hear you. And if you show your suffering, she makes up her cheeks with grief.” They conclude, in an oft-repeated chorus, “I will love no more, for love always brings me sorrow.”