Musical anger management
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, musicians were experimenting with compositions in an attempt to recapture the reported power of ancient Greek music to influence human emotions.
Some of those experiments had a lasting impact on the course of music history, such as monody -- solo song with instrumental accompaniment that put emphasis on clear declamation of the text -- and looser treatment of dissonance.
Others, however, weren't so successful.
Monteverdi's eighth and final book of madrigals, published in 1638, was called "Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi" (Madrigals of war and love). In his preface, Monteverdi wrote that, while considering the three principle passions of the mind as outlined by the Greek philosophers -- anger, temperance, and humility or supplication -- modern composers have been able to capture languid and temperate styles, but were yet to find a good example of agitated style.
The result of his attempts to move the audience to anger through music, Monteverdi created what we now call stille concitato, consisting of rapid reiterated 16th notes. He then added text that expressed "anger and vexation" and, voila! Monteverdi, the "inventor" of the second musical practice, has made another giant leap towards the future of music!!!
Always looking to be the innovator while covering his own tracks in case of failure, Monteverdi ended his preface with: "I know that the book will be imperfect, because I am not much good at anything, but especially at the warlike style since it is new and since [in Latin] "all beginnings are feeble."" He even admitted that stille concitato is better suited for strings, since the voice loses some velocity when trying to cram in all of that agitated text. But just because future composers didn't much utilize stille concitato, that doesn't mean that we don't remember it as an important -- and amusing -- piece of music history.
A prime example of stille concitato can be found in the eighth madrigal in Monteverdi's madrgials of war, "Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" (The Combat of Tancredi and Clorinda). Drawn from Torquato Tasso's epic poem "La Gerusalemme Liberata" (Jerusalem Liberated), "Il combattimento" is set during the First Crusade. Tancredi, a Christian knight, runs across Clorinda, a Muslim woman dressed as a male soldier. They speak, they war, Tancredi bests Clorinda, Clorinda reveals herself as a woman and Tancredi falls in love with her instantly. Clorinda forgives Tancredi as she dies in his arms and asks that he baptize her before she perishes. He does, she dies in peace. Fin.
Meant to be accompanied by dramatic action (there are even stage directions in the score), the music is simply drenched with text painting. The four strings imitate a horse trotting, the clatter of armor, the blows of swords, Clorinda weakening in battle, and even a musical halo as Clorinda dies. A narrator sings most of the text, while Tancredi and Clorinda only sing their dialog.
This 1993 recording of De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam is a priceless example of the piece staged. At about 7:30, the battle begins in earnest and the instruments slowly build up to stille concitato at about 8:25. The magic really happens when the narrator enters a moment later with stille concitato. While tenor Guy de Mey doesn't stick to Monteverdi's call for strict, unaccented 16th notes, he does a stupendous job of getting the words out while still remaining understandable. At least to those who speak Italian. For those who don't, you can find a decent translation at http://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com. You can also watch part 2 of the battle at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWf8MCxxews.
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Lyric supersizes "Aida"
This past Tuesday, I ventured out into rush hour traffic to see Verdi's "Aida" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and might I say it was well worth the drive. I think the Lyric website does a great job of boiling down the essence of this three-and-a-half hour grand opera spectacle: an ill-fated love triangle.
"Aida, the enslaved Ethiopian princess, and Radames, leader of the Egyptian army that conquered her homeland, long to be together forever. But someone else wants Radames, too -- it's Amneris, the jealous daughter of the Pharaoh himself!"
Gasp! I wonder if they'll live happily ever after.
All snark aside, this tragic love story is truly a sight to behold in the hands of the Lyric, with a cast of literally hundreds of singers, dancers and supernumeraries in opulent costume, surrounded by scenery staggering in scale and detail. The music is the most stunning part, though, ranging from the full force of the victory march to the single, shudder-inducing pianissimo high note of the heroine.
January and February's Aida is played by Sondra Radvanovsky, who exquisitely captures the vulnerability of her character without compromising the sheer power of her voice. The Civic Opera House was built for sopranos, and Radvanovsky fills every corner of it with ease. Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani (Ramades) began the opera sounding a bit strained, but settled in as the night went on to embody the conflicted war hero admirably. Jill Grove was a sturdy Amneris, infusing her character with both the catty conniving of a girl and the threatening power of a princess. I was particularly impressed by Raymond Aceto's commanding bass voice as the high priest, Ramfis.
There are still a few shows in February if you'd like to see the current cast, but the March lineup looks to be just as hard-hitting. Listening to excerpts of Chinese soprano Hui He and Italian tenor Marco Berti almost makes me want to brave rush hour traffic again. I highly recommend it, but don't just take my word for it. Listen to excerpts, watch clips, read interviews at www.lyricopera.org so you can decide for yourself.
Happy opera going!
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A musical gift basket
The December installment of my magazine column was awash with the sounds of the season, but due to the constraints of word count and formatting, I wasn't able to suggest recordings for any of the main works I wrote about. For those who missed my column (or who don't yet subscribe to Fra Noi), click here. For those who want more, here's a list of very worthy albums to get your winter listening on.
For Monteverdi's "O chiome d'or, neve gentil del segno," try "Monteverdi: Fire & Ashes"
Ensemble: I Fagiolini
Conductor: Robert Hollingworth
For Gesualdo's "Candida man qual neve," try "Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa: Madrigals Book 2."
Ensemble: Delitiae Musicae
Conductor: Marco Longhini
For Ristori's "Messa per il Santissimo Natale," try "Weihnachten am Dresdner Hof: Christmas at the Court of Dresden."
Conducter: Peter Kopp
Ensemble: Kornerscher Sing-Verein and the Dresdener Instrumental-Concert
For Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," try "Menotti: Amahl And The Night Visitors."
Original Cast of the Christmas Telecast, Christmas Eve, 1951
Label: RCA Classics Christmas
For Puccini's "La bohème," try "Puccini: La Bohème"
Ensemble: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
For Verdi's "L'inverno" from "I Vespri siciliani," try "Verdi: Ballet Music."
Ensemble: Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: James Levine
For Vivaldi's "L'inverno," try "Vivaldi: The Four Seasons."
Label: Virgin Classics Veritas
Ensemble: Europa Galante
Conductor: Fabio Biondi
For Castelnuovo-Tedesco's "Il racconto d'inverno," try "Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Overtures Vol. 2."
Ensemble: Western Australian Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Andrew Penny
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