A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Petrarch Part 5

10 May 2013

From waltz to dirge


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4


In Part 3 of this blog entry we discussed the overwhelming attraction of sixteenth-century composers to Petrarch, focusing on the sonnet "L'aura che'l verde Lauro" (poem #246), and its setting by the leading madrigal composer of his time, Luca Marenzio (1553?–1599).

Following Marenzio’s brilliant innovations as a madrigalist, the most influential composer of madrigals at the beginning of the seventeenth century was Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643).  Also a singer and gambist [performer on the viola da gamba], Monteverdi created lasting works that were ground-breaking and original.  Monteverdi also used Petrarch's words in several of his madrigals.


Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644): Claudio Monteverdi, 1640, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Born in Cremona, Monteverdi served in the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga in Mantua, where he composed one of the earliest operas, L'Orfeo.  In 1613, he became conductor at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice.

In addition to his operas and sacred music, Monteverdi is known for his almost 200 madrigals which were published in nine books.  Through these madrigals, produced astride the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Monteverdi developed a revolutionary approach to the genre — in particular in Il quinto libro de madrigali a cinque voci (the Fifth Book of Madrigals for five voices, 1605), in which he declares his seconda pratica [second practice], a new style of composition signaling the beginnings of functional tonality, and yet again in Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi (Madrigals of War and Love, Book 8, 1638), in which he describes the stile concitato, or agitated style, for the portrayal of warlike passions, and other concepts emblematic of the Baroque era.


a street sign in Cremona, Italy


In Monteverdi’s setting of Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena,” (Zephyr returns and brings fair weather, #310, discussed in Part 4 of this blog entry), from Il sesto libro de madrigali a cinque voci (The Sixth Book of Madrigals for Five Voices; 1614), he abandons the old, sixteenth-century a cappella style of madrigal for four or five unaccompanied voices in favor of the concertato [concerted, or playing together] style which he had begun to use in his Fifth Book of Madrigals.  The concertato style involves accompaniment by a basso continuo, a group of instrumentalists that provides a harmonic structure for the music.

The basso continuo is comprised of one or more instruments to play the bass line notated in the part, such as cello, contrabass, viol, or bassoon.  In addition,  an instrument capable of playing harmony, such as a harpsichord, organ, lute, or theorbo, improvises chords based on the notated bass line to complete the harmony.  In this way, the entire group provides a foundation for the melodic activity of the voices.  The basso continuo tradition persisted through the Baroque period and beyond.

Interestingly, Luca Marenzio had also used Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena,” (poem#310), the same sonnet as Monteverdi had used, but he set only the octave and not the sestet.  His madrigal concludes contentedly (before the volta), with the words, “ogni animal d'amar si riconsiglia [every animal is reconciled to loving]."  Just like books or films with optional endings, you can choose between Marenzio and Monteverdi, depending on if you want a happy ending or not.


Luca Marenzio:  the conclusion of his madrigal for four voices, “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena,” which is a setting of the octave only from the Petrarch sonnet.


Also, a little caveat here:  Monteverdi’s setting of the Petrarch sonnet under discussion should not be confused with another madrigal of his, “Zefiro torna (e di soavi accenti)” for two tenor voices, from Scherzi musicali (1632).  This similarly-named sonnet was written by the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, a colleague of Monteverdi’s at the Gonzaga court.  In the Rinuccini madrigal, Monteverdi employs a new concept that also became a Baroque staple:  a repeated harmonic progression used for variations known as a ciaccona [chaconne], derived from a dance that the Spanish had brought back with them from the New World as a kind of souvenir.

Back to Monteverdi’s setting of Petrarch’s Zefiro.  The music begins exuberantly in a jaunty triple meter (tempus perfectum in mensural notation), with each part entering, like gusts of Zephyrus’s wind, successively and in imitation.


Claudio Monteverdi: “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena” — imitative entries in each part can be heard in the opening measures. Note the basso continuo part in the lowest staff of the score.


At the word “tempo” [bel tempo = fair weather] there is a long flourish, as if in celebration of the end of a long winter. Then we hear the words “et garir [and chirps]," the sounds of swallows in every register as if swooping through the air in a melodic sequence.


Claudio Monteverdi: “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena” — the chirping of swallows (“et garir” — highlighted) fills the air. Roll your cursor over the score excerpt and count the swallows!


A new point of imitation begins with the words “et primavera [and spring]," inverting the subject heard at the beginning as in a mirror image, spring being the equivalent of Zephyrus’s return.

The setting for the second quatrain of the sonnet is a repetition of that of the first quatrain, yet scattered with embellishments which introduce shorter durations and even more liveliness.  This time the word “ciel” receives a long flourish, perhaps suggesting the sky’s great expanse.

Then suddenly, at the volta — with the words, “For me, alas, the gravest sighs return” — the music takes an abrupt turn, plunging into tormented harmonies.  The lowest voices (tenor and bass) begin darkly, the initial F-natural of the tenor voice clashing in cross-relation with the bright F-sharp heard in the final cadence of the preceding section. 


Claudio Monteverdi: “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena” — the dramatic change at the volta of the sonnet is announced by the change in key and meter (indicated by the cloud).


Challenging our harmonic bearings, the music shifts from the orbit of G minor to A minor, made even more ambiguous by a number of chromatic alterations to the texture.  Most prominent, the perky three-beat grouping of the first part is missing, having been supplanted by a duple meter (tempus imperfectum) that seems ponderous by comparison.  It is as if a sprightly springtime waltz had mysteriously metamorphosed into a dirge.

The keys to Petrarch’s heart having now vanished, the music is dim and cheerless.  In a madrigalism at the word “chiavi [keys]," a brief run of quick notes is passed from the canto to the quinto (the highest two voices), an aural image of the grooves on either side of a key's blade.

With the concluding tercet of Petrarch’s sonnet, recalling happier moments, the somber mood lifts momentarily and the triple meter resumes.  But at the last line, as Petrarch declares that all of the flowers, birds, etc. which were evoked earlier “sono un deserto [are a desert]," the words descend emptily through an unadorned tonic chord, having relapsed to a duple meter.

Then, at the last phrase of the sonnet — when Petrarch renounces all of life’s pleasures as “fere aspre et selvagge [wild, harsh, and savage]" — in an agonizing, scalar climb full of yearning, the music traverses a powerfully dissonant chain of suspensions, torquing, twisting, writhing, wresting, and recoiling in spasms of anguish as the words are reiterated, a release ultimately arriving in the tonic major.


Claudio Monteverdi: “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena” — the madrigal concludes with a succession of suspensions (highlighted with green beams) in setting the words “wild, harsh, and savage.”



Petrarch and music after the Renaissance

After Monteverdi’s time, the use of Petrarch’s poetry in music diminished as the madrigal made way for the opera aria, but important works based on or inspired by Petrarch’s verse continued to appear in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and even modern eras.

Antonio Vivaldi's (1678-1741) opera Griselda uses Petrarch's translation of the story from Boccacio's Decameron.  Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) set the same sonnet as Marenzio had (“Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi,” poem #35), and as did Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in 1818, but in German translation: Sonett II, D629 (“Allein, nachdenklich, wie gelähmt vom Krampfe”).  Schubert set two other Petrarch sonnets as well, Sonett I, D628 (poem #34), also set by Marenzio, and Sonett III, D630 (poem #164), which also happened to have been set by Monteverdi.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) set for voice and piano three of Petrarch's sonnets: 1) "Pace non trovo" (I find no peace; poem #134), also set by Cipriano de Rore, 2) “Benedetto sia 'l giorno” (Blessed be the day; poem #61) — in which Petrarch pronounces his benediction: “Blessed be the day, and the month, and the year, and the season, and the time, and the hour, and the moment, and the beautiful country, and the place where I was joined to the two beautiful eyes that have bound me;” this sonnet has been set by many others as well — and 3) “I' vidi in terra angelici costumi” (I saw angelic virtue on earth; poem #156).  He later transcribed these songs for solo piano in Années de Pelerinage.


A. Bertrand: Caricature of Franz Liszt, 1845

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) set a Petrarch sonnet (poem #217) in the fourth movement of his Serenade für Klarinette, Baßklarinette, Mandoline, Gitarre, Geige, Bratsche, Violoncell und eine tiefe Männerstimme [Serenade for clarinet, bass clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola, 'cello and baritone voice] op. 24. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) composed his Duo Concertante in response to Petrarch, and the ballet, Per la dolce memoria di quel giorno, by Luciano Berio (1925-2003), was also inspired by the poet.



Petrarch, post-Laura

Shortly after having written the sonnet “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena,” (poem #310) — discussed above and in Part 4 of this blog entry — Petrarch moved in 1353 to Milan where he stayed for eight years under the patronage of the Viscontis.  In 1356 he traveled to Basle and Prague on ambassadorial missions, and in 1360 he went to Paris.  Then, in 1361 after the plague had broken out in Milan, he moved to Padua.  During this time, being inspired Cicero's letters, he collected his letters into two sets of books:  Epistolae familiares [Familiar Letters] and Seniles [Of Old Age].

In 1362 Petrarch moved to Venice, and then, in 1367, he retired at Arquà, near Padua.  Petrarch continued to work on the Canzoniere until the end of his life.  In 1374, it is possible that he met Geoffrey Chaucer, the great English poet who had also translated some of Petrarch’s sonnets.  Then, as Manzini de la Motta wrote (in 1388), on 18 July 1374, “Francesco Petrarca, the mirror of our century, after completing a vast array of volumes, on reaching his seventy-first year, closed his last day in his library. He was found leaning over a book as if sleeping, so that his death was not at first suspected by his household.”

Petrarch, a diplomat who formed relationships with heads of state on his missions — including the emperor Charles IV — was also a scholar of Classical Latin, but it was his works in the "vulgar tongue" that later provided a model for the modern Italian language.  Having personally discovered Latin manuscripts, Petrarch was one of the first to appreciate that Platonic thought and Classical studies could provide a new cultural context.  He is considered the father of the Renaissance.

Today, Petrarch is remembered primarily as the poet crowned with a laurel wreath.  In his poetry he characterized genuine emotions, disregarding the courtly conventions of the Middle Ages.  He perfected the sonnet form and is considered to be the first truly modern poet.

Petrarch’s works were translated by others, including Chaucer, during his lifetime.  The first printed copy of Canzoniere was issued in 1472, shortly after the invention of the printing press.  He had an enormous influence on European literature, not least, Shakespeare — in fact, Petrarch himself had commented in a letter to a friend that he had caused his own ‘plague’ to spread over Europe, inciting people to read and write.

And it was the Canzoniere that precipitated the madrigal ‘flash mob’ of the sixteenth century.  Today we can still read this great collection of 366 poems, and given that there are 365.242199 days in a year, that works out to one poem per day.


Giovanni dal Ponte (1385 - 1442):  Dante and Petrarch, 15th century, Tempera on panel, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

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Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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