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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

A particularly vivid example of antithesis, and of the audacities the use of musical metaphors could sanction, is A un giro sol (“At a single glance”), first published in 1603 in the fourth madrigal book by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). The long-lived Monteverdi had a multifaceted career that included pioneering work in genres that properly belong to the seventeenth century; we will review his biography and survey his output in a later chapter. Here we will consider him as a late madrigalist exclusively, who attracted particular hostile attention from proponents of the ars perfecta who saw him as a particular threat precisely because his work was so persuasive.

The poem on which Monteverdi based his madrigal is cast in an unusual form that mirrors its rhetorical content. Its eight lines divide into two quatrains in differing rhyme schemes (abab vs. aabb)—but that is the least of their differences. The first quatrain is an “objective” nature description, and a cheerful one; the second is a subjective internal portrait, and miserable. The two quatrains are linked by a play on the word occhi (eyes). In the first, the eyes are the sun’s, a metaphor for rays of light. In the second, the eyes are those of the poet, shedding tears.

Exterior “Nature” and Interior “Affect”

ex. 17-17 Giaches de Wert, Solo e pensoso, opening point

This particular outer/inner antithesis—all the world is happy; only I am miserable—was a veritable madrigalian cliché because it was so perfectly suited to musical imagery of every kind. The “objective” description in the first part employs devices of the simpler sort. There is straightforward onomatopoeia in the “laughing” melismas. There are metaphors of motion and direction: the wavelike undulation of the sea—a spatial metaphor that would have a long musical life indeed—is portrayed at first at a leisurely pace, then more lively in response to the wind (Ex. 17-18a). And there is a slightly more complex analogy to qualities of light (the brightening day) by means of shared attributes: as the sun rises, so does the vocal tessitura.

The big turnaround on “sol io” (I alone) is signaled by a brusque chromaticism, signaling a new tonal and emotional terrain. Really intense dissonance will follow when the bitter complaint against the lady’s cruelty is enunciated. Monteverdi well understood the paradox of “persona” in the madrigal—a group of singers impersonating a single poetic sensibility—and exploited it. The line beginning “Certo!” is set on every occurrence for two singers in unison, so that it sounds like a single voice that “breaks” into a grating minor second when cosi crudeleria (“such a heartless one”) is recalled (Ex. 17-18b). Thereafter, the two voices move in a suspension chain to a cadence, but a cadence that is trumped and frustrated every time by the next semitone clash. The dissonance is kept gnashingly high at all times and can seem excessive even now; this lover’s pain remains palpable after four centuries.

Exterior “Nature” and Interior “Affect”

ex. 17-18a Claudio Monteverdi, A un giro sol, mm. 16-27

Monteverdi’s “baroque” dissonances were notorious. His madrigal Cruda Amarilli, published in 1605 in his fifth book, had already been a cause célèbre for five years because it had been angrily attacked by Giovanni Maria Artusi (1540–1613), a pupil of Zarlino and a latter-day proponent of the ars perfecta, in a treatise published in 1600 and pointedly titled L’Artusi, overo Delle imperfettioni della moderna musica (“Artusi’s book concerning the imperfections of modern music”). Like most treatises it is in dialogue form. Artusi puts his criticisms in the mouth of a wise old monk, Signor Vario, to whom the other character, Signor Luca, has brought the unnamed Monteverdi’s latest. “It pleases me, at my age,” says Signor Vario, “to see a new method of composing, though it should please me much more if I saw that these passages were founded upon some reason which could satisfy the intellect. But as castles in the air, chimeras founded upon sand, these novelties do not please me; they deserve blame, not praise. Let us see the passages, however.”12 Then follow seven little extracts from Cruda Amarilli, each containing some offense against the rules of counterpoint as laid down by Zarlino. The most famous infraction is the first, a skip in the most exposed voice, the soprano, from an A that enters as a dissonance against the bass G to an F that is also a dissonance: two sins at a single stroke. What Artusi left out of his discussion, however, is the very thing that motivated the trespasses, and that alone can explain them—namely the text. This testifies either to a devious strategy on the author’s part or, more likely, to his inability to comprehend the literary basis of the new style or admit that musical procedures could legitimately rest on textual, rather than musical grounds. In this position he has had successors in every subsequent century, right up to the present.

Exterior “Nature” and Interior “Affect”

ex. 17-18b Claudio Monteverdi, A un giro sol, mm. 43-55

The all-determining text of Cruda Amarilli (“Cruel Amaryllis”), like those of countless other madrigals, is an excerpt from Il Pastor Fido (“The faithful shepherd”), a play by the contemporary courtly poet Giovanni Battista Guarini (1538–1612). A classic of the “pastoral” mode, in which the purity and simplicity of shepherd life is implicitly contrasted with the corruption and the artificiality of court and city, Guarini’s “tragicomic” play (i.e., a play about the sufferings of “low” characters) was one of the most famous Italian poems of the sixteenth century. In a fashion that may recall the competitive or emulative practices of the early generations of Mass composers, Guarini’s play attracted more than one hundred composers great and small. That spirit of competition—to achieve the most accurate depiction of the poem’s emotional content or (to give the same idea a more ordinary human twist) simply to come up with the most far-out setting of a given text—should certainly not be discounted as a force driving radical experimentation.

Exterior “Nature” and Interior “Affect”

ex. 17-19 Claudio Monteverdi, Cruda Amarilli, mm. 1-14, encompassing the first of Artusi’s “spots”

What proved so stimulating to the musical imagination was the new “affective” style in which the poet cast his “pathetic” monologues, that is, the monologues depicting the affetti or sentiments of suffering lovers, expressed not only in words but in sighs and tearful ejaculations like ohimè! (“oh me oh my”) or ahi lasso! (“ah, weary me,” whence “alas”)—the very phrase to which Monteverdi’s main “transgression” (Ex. 17-19) was set. Thus composers were encouraged to develop an “affective” style of their own, analogizing the one that was being developed (also to the consternation of classicists) in literature. The remarkable thing is the way the new musical style came into its own just as—or even because—the poetry was becoming less “articulate” in its eloquence, more given over to elemental plaintive sounds, rhetorical “music.” The two arts seemed to be converging, meeting in the middle; each giving something up (stylistic “perfection,” exalted diction), each gaining something else (heightened expressivity). Out of that nexus a momentous style transformation was bound to occur.

The ultimate madrigalian stage was reached by Carlo Gesualdo (1560–1613), the Prince of Venosa near Naples in southern Italy. A colorful figure, himself a nobleman in no need of patronage (and with a biography rich in lurid anecdote as only a nobleman’s could be), Gesualdo’s name derives equal notoriety from his having ordered the murder of his unfaithful first wife and from his astonishing musical compositions. It would be the wiser course, perhaps, to resist the temptation to link the two sides of his fame, but there is no gainsaying his music’s lurid aspect, reported in his day (by a diplomat slightly annoyed by Gesualdo’s “open profession” of an art better practiced by his employees) as being an art “full of attitudes.”13

Gesualdo brought to its peak the tradition of “uncanny” chromatic artifice initiated fifty years earlier by Lasso, and applied it to the new, supercharged vein of erotic love poetry. Moro, lasso (“I shall die, O miserable me”) comes from his sixth and last book, published in 1611, about the latest date at which continental music in the “a cappella” polyphonic style could claim to represent a current idiom rather than a stile antico. Before we even touch upon the music, it would be well to take a look at the poem, just to satisfy ourselves that it is indeed a poem with meter and rhyme:

Moro, lasso, al mio duolo

E chi me puo dar vita,

Ahi, che m’ancide

e non vuol dar mi aita!

O dolorosa sorte,

Chi dar vita me puo,

ahi, mi da morte!

I shall die, O miserable me, in my suffering,

and the one who could give me life,

alas, kills me and is unwilling

to give me aid.

O painful fate!

The one who could give me life,

alas, gives me death.

Gesualdo’s harmonic progressions, more fully saturated than any predecessor’s with true chromatic voice leading (often in two, sometimes even in three voices at once), is often compared with much later music (most often, perhaps, with Wagner’s). Those inclined to make such comparisons—such as Igor Stravinsky, the famous Russian composer then living in Hollywood, who became fascinated with Gesualdo in the 1950s and even orchestrated three of his madrigals—are also inclined to look upon Gesualdo as a “prophetic” composer, so far ahead of his time that it took two and a half centuries for the rest of the world to catch up with him.

As ought to be clear, even without a peek at Wagner’s work, such ideas are based on dubious historical assumptions. The most groundless one is that all of music is moving in one direction (say, toward Wagner and beyond), and therefore some music is farther along the path of destiny than other music. But of course Wagner’s chromaticism depends for its effect (and even its sheer intelligibility) on a great deal of aural conditioning that Wagner’s contemporaries had all been subjected to (as have we), but that Gesualdo’s contemporaries had not. Gesualdo’s harmony, however radical, was in no sense ahead of its time. As in the case of Lasso, its ingredients were familiar and its progressions not unprecedented. What was unique in his music was not its sound or its syntax, but its concentrated intensity.

Within the terms of sixteenth century style, moreover, Gesualdo’s greatest audacities are not harmonic per se, but consist rather in the frequent pauses that disrupt the continuity of his lines, often followed by harmonically disconnected resumptions that coincide (as in Moro, lasso) with the ahi’s, the affective or downright suggestive exclamations of desire or (given their proximity to words invoking death) of satiation (Ex. 17-20). This linguistic realism, betokening emotional realism and even physiological realism, can still make us uncomfortable when listening to Gesualdo in public. That discomfort has led many writers, even modern ones, to write the Prince of Venosa’s extravagances off as being inartistic, even (as befits a prince) “amateurish.”14 Poetry lovers also resist Gesualdo, for his fragmented, discombobulated music completely devours the poem in the course of realizing its affetti, turning it into what often sounds like fairly inarticulate prose.

Gesualdo’s modern reputation (or modernist reception) poses interesting historical questions. On the one hand, as suggested above (and as the Italian scholar Lorenzo Bianconi has eloquently complained), by drawing factitious connections between Gesualdo and other daring harmonists, the modern revival of interest in him has fueled the invention of “an imaginary, heroic history of visionary prophets”15 (Lasso → Gesualdo → Wagner → Stravinsky, or something of the sort) and has obscured rather than illuminated the actual historical and cultural conditions that nourished their various activities. On the other hand, without benefit of some of these false historical notions, interest in Gesualdo would never have quickened in the twentieth century the way it did; his works would have been studied and performed far less than they have been, and probably with a far less sympathetic understanding.

Which is not to say that modern understanding of Gesualdo (or any cultural figure from the past) is or can ever be the same as contemporary understanding. It is motivated by new interests and a different intellectual climate, and the passage of years or centuries irrevocably alters the context in which any artifact of the past is perceived. Modern understanding, then, cannot be anything other than new understanding and—if difference is automatically equated with loss (which of course it need not be)—it can only be “misunderstanding.”

Exterior “Nature” and Interior “Affect”

ex. 17-20 Carlo Gesualdo, Moro, lasso, mm. 1-12

But it is an inevitable misunderstanding, even a necessary one. There is little to be gained in complaining that the disproportionate interest we now take in Gesualdo’s chromatic madrigals, at the expense of his sacred music or his instrumental dances or any other less spectacular side of his output, is “a mistaken overemphasis,” as Bianconi so challengingly puts it.16 Our modern (mis)understandings of the past are not mistakes but the products of changed historical conditions. We value in Gesualdo something his contemporaries could not have valued, because we know what they (and he) did not—namely, their future, which is now our past. That knowledge can hardly be erased from our consciousness.

So what interests us now bespeaks our condition and no one else’s. No amount of historical learning can replace new understanding with old understanding. All one can hope to do is add depth and detail to our misunderstanding. (That is where the sacred music and the instrumental music can usefully fit into even the most biased modern appreciation of Gesualdo.) If that seems a paradoxical thing to say, that has been precisely the intention.


(12) G. M. Artusi, L’Artusi, ovvero, Delle imperfezioni della moderna musica (Venice, 1600), in Strunk, Source Readings, p. 394.

(13) Alfonso Fontanelli to Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, 18 February 1594; in Glenn Watkins, Gesualdo: The Man and His Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 245–46.

(14) Haar, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music, p. 144.

(15) Lorenzo Bianconi, “Gesualdo,” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (rev. ed., New York: Grove, 2001), Vol. IX, p. 783.

(16) Bianconi, “Gesualdo,” p. 781.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017010.xml