The rich musical legacy of Claudio Monteverdi (1557–1643) left a lasting influence on Italy and beyond, most notably in Venice and Rome. Prior to his long and brilliant career in Venice, Monteverdi’s earlier work at the Mantuan court was highlighted by his first opera, L’Orfeo (1607), which drew on Renaissance polyphony and orchestration, as well as the latest Florentine practice (Peri, Caccini and others) of placing primacy of words over music, and by focusing on a solo voice with a single plucked instrument. In emulation of the ancient Greeks, the Florentines aimed to create a ‘new music’ that included monody and opera, to move listeners to tears. These early attempts were often self-conscious and abstruse, and lacking the structure to clearly guide the listener. Monteverdi’s Lament of Arianna, the only surviving scene from his opera, Arianna (1608) ushered in a new genre of dramatic music, still drawing tears, but with a more coherent harmonic framework and a wider spectrum of gestures and emotions.
As a music student in Naples, the youthful Luigi Rossi (1597–1653) studied the manuscripts of current Italian composers. As he copied the Lament of Arianna, he must have been struck by Monteverdi’s inspired, extravagant and innovative style. Rossi moved to Rome in 1620, soon to become maestro di cappella at San Luigi dei Francesi (of Caravaggio fame) and the favored church of papal circles. Forty years after Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Rossi’s own Orfeo (1647) was performed for the French court, and he was named head of the Roman school by numerous writers.
Whereas Monteverdi’s extensive and varied output was published, except for his two other extant operas, Poppea and Ulisse, Rossi’s works (mainly oratorios, operas, and vocal chamber music) were not. His cantatas and laments were hand-copied by admirers all over Europe. With his closest colleague, Marco Marazzoli, the two produced over 700 cantatas, most of which have been hidden in the vaults of the Vatican Library for 300 years.
The Roman generation’s ‘new music’ owes much to Monteverdi, but also to the Barberini papacy (1623–1644), whose wealth and generosity provided extravagant entertainments (theater and opera) as well as music, poetry and arts academies (cantatas). The spiritual exercises of the Jesuit movement (oratorio) further influenced the Roman style by promoting spirituality through sensuality. These associations mentored one of the most extraordinary eras in music, with an abundance of music yet to be discovered.
The Barberini papacy held a stronghold not only on the spiritual and cultural life of Rome, but on the whole of the Catholic world under their religious, diplomatic, military, and above all, artistic enterprises. With the Jesuits they promoted a conscious strategy of spreading the doctrines of the Counter-Reformation, endeavoring souls to reach spiritual attainment through the senses: hearing (music and poetry), seeing (heavenly images, colors and imaginary worlds), and the sensations of the body and soul (the physical sense of being elevated to heaven or brought to the depths of despair).
This ‘sensational’ approach, expressed through the new Roman melodic and harmonic language, created a multi-sensory experience for the Catholic listener, through the portrayal of a martyr, a Biblical figure, an ancient queen, an abandoned woman or victim of contemporary events. The narrative of pain and ecstasy, contemplation, anger, penitence and forgiveness was experienced vicariously by the listener who would intimately share in the catharsis and resolution of the character’s soul.
It was in the academies where the cantata reached new heights, particularly in the palaces of Pope Urban VIII and his nephews, Cardinals Francesco and Antonio Barberini. Vocal chamber music existed primarily in manuscript since composers were expected to dash off works for these musical evenings on spiritual and moral themes, at the behest of their patrons. Academies promoted new music sung by Rome’s finest vocalists, intellectual discussions on current art and poetry (the pope himself was a distinguished and published Latin poet), experiments in music theory (ancient Greek tunings and the curious instruments constructed for that practice) and in-depth deliberations on the cantata music and texts, and their spiritually beneficial lessons.
Despite being a narrative from classical antiquity, the Lament of Helen of Troy would still have been considered by the church an appropriate moral lesson on vanity. The listener’s senses (hearing, seeing, feeling) are drawn in by the narrator, who sets a somber and sorrowful scene for Helen’s pitiful soliloquy. The Lament of Zaida opens with an Aegean vista – the sea, its banks, winds and waves – to evoke an exotic, desolate atmosphere for Zaida’s distress and anger, having lost her lover in the 17th-century Muslim-Christian conflict. Her frequent refrain ‘bring back my Mustafa’ echoes the opening image. Cantatas like these provided moral instruction through artistic diversion, even more perhaps than the fire and rhetoric of a church or oratorio sermon, and with much the same benefits. The Counter-Reformation’s banner of propaganda was delectare et docere (to delight while learning).
Bel canto in 17th-century Rome referred to a new elegant and lyrical style of melodic writing. Expressive recitative painted in panoramic, broad strokes, clothed in stately harmonic motion and heightened by expressive dissonances to depict pain and suffering, created an ultra immersive emotional experience akin to the sculptures of Bernini, or the paintings of Caravaggio and Carracci. Monteverdi’s influence on the young Rossi, the generosity of the papacy, the Jesuit movement’s fervor for sensual spirituality, and the genius of Roman composers gave rise to flamboyance and extravagance in art and music that was ultimately termed ‘Baroque’.
Ecstasy, suffering and spiritual transformation were the realm of a special musical instrument that stood somewhat apart from the standard basso continuo ensemble at this time. This instrument was called upon only for the most expressive and tragic narrative moments in oratorio, opera and cantata. The lirone (trans. large lyre in Italian) was invented in 1505, and early on associated with the poetry and music of Greek antiquity. During the course of the 16th century, that association began to change, as the Catholics recognized that the lirone’s spiritual qualities would suit their cause. By the end of its career (c. 1680) the lirone was associated exclusively with Catholic spirituality.
The lirone had a leaf-shaped tuning box symbolizing Greek antiquity; its body was roughly similar to that of the cello or viola da gamba, but its unique features were the number and arrangement of the strings: there were from 9 to 14 or possibly more, tuned in rising 4ths and falling 5ths. Groups of 4 to 6 strings were bowed together to produce slow, sustained and shapely chords. A clever tuning system allowed the instrument to be played in nearly all tonalities, even the remotest ones, and incredibly, in purely tuned chords. The instrument was especially associated with the lament; its unique chordal bowing lent it an elevating, sometimes haunting quality. What better instrument to accompany such transcendent music?
In classical mythology Orfeo was reputedly able to move men, beasts, rocks and all of nature with his beautiful singing and lyre playing. In Rossi’s opera, Orfeo, the seductive power of music comes to the fore in Act I, with elegant and lyrical bel canto melodies entwined in the magic of two equal voices (Euridice and Orfeo). The spellbinding atmosphere captivates and mesmerizes the attendant nymphs, shepherds and gods, and dramatically sets the listener up for the tragic catastrophe of Act II.
The death of Euridice is in many ways a non-secular, almost Catholic portrayal: an invocation and prayer to God (Apollo), a declaration of her soul’s love ‘in eternity’, the slowly paced martyr-death and the final ‘extreme’ farewell. The heartrending stately, harmonic language is reminiscent of Rossi’s Lament of the Magdalene.
Act III, centered upon Orfeo’s grief is noticeably more secular in its approach. The first scene ‘Tears, where are you?’ is a private outpouring in the wilderness. The next scene is an invocation to Pluto, god of the underworld, followed by Orfeo’s gratitude for the release of Euridice from Hell. The dialogue and duets of the reunited lovers bring new hope, but in the final scene, having lost Euridice again, Orfeo searches his inner thoughts and torments. Finally a stately aria with the rhetorical repetitions ‘A morire!’ bring about his resolution – death being the only way to rejoin Euridice.
© Erin Headley, 2016