Claudio Monteverdi, born in Cremona, Italy in 1567, emerged as a master of late Renaissance style and demonstrated great skill for setting texts dramatically in his music. He wrote nine books of madrigals, at least eighteen operas, and many sacred works before his death in Venice in 1643. The first half of our program draws entirely from his years in Venice, a prolific period of musical maturity, when he moved away from simple strophic settings and opened the door to the new style of the early Baroque.

Our opening duet “Zefiro torna” comes from Monteverdi’s Scherzi musicali, published in 1632, with text by Ottavio Rinuccini, a Florentine noble and poet recognized as the first opera librettist. Set as a chaconne, a form evolved from 16th-century Spanish dance music, it employs a triple meter dance rhythm and a repetitive bass pattern only eight notes long. The highly ornamented vocal lines create a continuous loop of variations above the bass ostinato, except for three interruptions: twice to disrupt the narrator’s cheerful musing to wallow in having been abandoned by ‘two beautiful eyes’, and near the finish as the singers conclude with a virtuosic, cadenza-like finale. “Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben?” with text by the great Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, was published in Monteverdi’s Settimo Libro de Madrigali in 1619. He wrote the duet as a romanesca, a simple repeating bass pattern of four chords and a melody in variations. In four parts, each movement sets two lines of the ‘ottava rima’ poetic form (AB AB AB CC) with a variety of shapes and textures to fit the given text; the continuo section realizes each movement differently to match these varying interpretations. The dramatic opening of a suspended minor second sets up the audience for the themes of agony and despair that permeate throughout the poem.

Another selection from Scherzi musicali, “Quel sguardo sdegnosetto” for soprano solo is a further example of Monteverdi’s use of the chaconne. Again, the bass remains almost identical in each verse but the melody varies as the piece develops. Each verse closes essentially with the same two lines of text, yet unfolds with sharper variation in the third verse to signal the conclusion of the piece, showcasing expressive melodic gestures and occasional flights of coloratura to highlight significant portions of the text.

Monteverdi’s “Si dolce è’l tormento” first appeared in Quarto scherzo delle ariose vaghezze, a Venetian song book compiled and published by Carlo Milanuzzi in 1624. A four-verse canzonetta set in triple meter, the text for this particular solo often surfaced as a popular setting for 17th-century composers. Monteverdi makes great use of the poetry with subtle phrasing and dissonance, at times emphasizing metrical displacement of the text to unique effect. Girolamo Frescobaldi, born in 1583 in Ferrara, Italy and a prolific organist of his time, became one of the first composers to treat the chaconne and passacaglia comparatively, and combines the two genres in the “Cento partite sopra passacagli.” Like the chaconne, the passacaglia also derives from Spanish roots and features a series of continuous variations over a bass ostinato, but unlike Monteverdi’s treatment of Zefiro torna, here the bass pattern never repeats.

Published in 1637 and literally translated as ‘one hundred variations on the passacaglia,’ within the piece there are several transformations of tempo, meter, key, and genre. We return to Monteverdi’s Settimo Libro de Madrigali for the following duet, “O come sei gentile.” With text by Giovanni Battista Guarini, a Renaissance poet whose works were set by many madrigal composers, the lovesick narrator compares himself to a little bird, eternally singing for the one whom he desires. The florid vocal lines spin around each other and evoke the unsettling nature of love.

We close the first half with “Pur ti miro,” a luscious duet from Monteverdi’s last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea. The characters are Poppea and the emperor Nero; they sing at the end of the opera in triumph after Nero has banished his wife Ottavia in order to marry Poppea. Many scholars believe that this duet may have been added by a younger composer after Monteverdi’s death, nevertheless it remains a glorious ending to the opera, piling suspensionupon suspension to the listener’s delight.

Just as Monteverdi surfaced as a giant of the early Baroque, so did George Frederic Handel achieve widespread acclaim for his contributions to the late Baroque. Among his greatest compositions include several English oratorios (the most famous being Messiah), as well as many Italian operas, cantatas, and chamber works. Born in Halle, Germany in 1685, he spent most of his twenties in Italy before moving to London, where he continued composing until his death in 1759. During Handel’s period in Rome, the Pope placed a ban on all opera performances; in response, wealthy patrons sponsored private concerts. In his chamber music for these concerts Handel assimilated the Italian style that informs the works on our second half.

We start with “Quel fior che all’alba ride,” written in 1741, shortly before Handel began to compose Messiah. Completely virtuosic in the demands of the performers, certain passages of this duet were later recycled and incorporated into the popular oratorio, and became the themes for the choral movements “His yoke is easy” and “And He shall purify.” Here in its original duetto da camera form, the two soprano lines wittingly bounce off of each other, evoking laughter in the opening statements and agitation at the close.

Born in Lucca, Italy in 1687, Francesco Geminiani rose to prominence as a prodigiously talented violinist; he worked with Handel in London and at the Royal Court, and developed a heavily ornamented, florid style of playing. He published the Sonata No. 6, Op. 5 in A minor for cello and basso continuo in 1746, based on a traditional Italian Sonata form. It opens with a short Adagio movement, setting the scene for a fiery Allegro assai, but the form deviates from convention when in place of a full third movement, Geminiani writes a series of chords simply marked Grave. This “movement” could be seen as an opportunity for the cellist to showcase their improvisational skills. The final Allegro moderato unfolds in an unusual, pseudo Rondo form in 3/8 meter with a charming, dance-like finale.

Another example of duetto da camera, Handel wrote “Va speme infida” during his transition from Italy to London, circa 1711. He divides the piece into several short movements, with each section distinctively contrasting with the next. The opening vocal lines explode in a fury of echoes, expressing rage as the narrator speaks of banishing unfaithful hope. The tension momentarily breaks with a lilting movement of seemingly endless triplets, followed by a barrage of suspensions intertwining as the speaker falls victim to hope once again. Unlike the other chamber duets on this half, the opening theme returns to close the piece.

“Per te lasciai la luce” comes from one of Handel’s earliest solo cantatas, Da quel giorno fatale (also known as Il delirio amoroso), set to text by cardinal and Handel patron Benedetto Pamphili. The cantata tells the story of shepherdess Chloris, mourning for her dead Thyris, who never returned her love; she descends to Hades to take him to the Elysian fields. This aria occurs midway through the cantata, accompanied by a ravishing, anguished solo cello line as Chloris pleads with Thyrsis to tell her why he has rejected her. Written during Handel’s period in London, “Bella gloria in campo armato” from the cantata Solitudini care, amata liberta showcases Handel’s skill for ornamentation to great effect. The aria conveys a battleground theme as the narrator struggles to conquer his emotions. We hear the melody develop as mordents occur on isolated beats to the word ‘trionfar’ (triumph and later on every beat to the word ‘guerra’ (war), displaying a vocal line with robust decorations throughout.

Once again we return to familiar territory as we close our program with the duet, “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” composed at the same time as “Quel fior che all’alba ride” and also used as inspiration for Handel’s Messiah. Recognizable themes from this cantata can be found in the choral passages “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep.” The unrelenting coloratura passages seem to spin into eternity as the two sopranos team up against what they label as two tyrants: blind love and cruel beauty.

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