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Letters for a composer: Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi.

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT DOMINICK ARGENTO'S INFLUENCE is particularly strong in the realm of American vocal music, since he considers the human voice the "original instrument." His thirteen operas and eight solo song cycles to date encompass a wide range of topics and musical styles. Argento often has chosen a text based on who will be singing a piece and on the character that will be portrayed through the singer. Ultimately, this characterization directly shapes the ensuing musical style forged by Argento. The way in which Argento brings musical life to the letters of nineteenth century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) in Casa Guidi is the topic of this article.

Based on Barrett Browning's letters to her sisters, the 1983 cycle for mezzo soprano provides an intimate depiction of the warmth and contentedness of Browning's life at her home, Casa Guidi, in Florence, Italy. Casa Guidi is often less familiar to teachers, performers, and audiences than Argento's Pulitzer prize-winning From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1975), also composed for mezzo soprano. This may be due to the fact that Casa Guidi was composed for orchestra rather than piano, and because, until the 2004 Grammy award-winning recording, no commercial recordings of the work were available. However, the musical, vocal, and dramatic opportunities inherent in both the piano and orchestral versions of this piece warrant its consideration. Although it is assumed that the piano/vocal version will be used by the majority of performers, references to the orchestral score are relevant in matters of texture, timbre, and the composer's initial conception.

A commission by the Minnesota Orchestral Association to write a piece for mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade and orchestra led Argento to texts of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He has spoken repeatedly about choosing prose over poetry for many of his vocal works "since the mood is more intimate and private" (1) and provides an inner glimpse into the world of a person. (2) He sought "a writer whose 'persona' was similar to von Stade's--vulnerable, kind, gentle, domestic." (3) Argento found these qualities more obviously in Barrett Browning's letters than in her published works. Because her fragile health isolated the poet and restricted her contact with people, letters were not only a record of her life, but very much a part of it. The letters chosen by Argento chronicle life in the Florence household after her 1846 marriage to Robert Browning. Argento patches together portions of various letters and arranges the resulting song text without adhering to chronology. Only two of the five songs are made up of text taken entirely from a single letter of Barrett Browning. The three remaining songs each contain excerpts from at least three letters.

The speech-like quality of the letters made them both a boon and a challenge for the composer (and performer). It would seem that letters present a less obvious transformation to song than is offered by poetry with structure and form, and the rhythmic flexibility demanded by the letters' speech imitation then requires intricate rhythmic patterns and frequent changes in meter and tempo. Still, the resultant "blending of conversational and cantabile styles" (4) that is a hallmark of so many of Argento's vocal pieces works for Barrett Browning's mix of everyday reports and more poetic revelations. One sees Argento's theme of "self-discovery" emerging in his selection of the letters.

In Casa Guidi, we see Elizabeth Barrett Browning confiding in her sister her truest and deepest feelings about her husband Robert, her great sorrow over the estrangement from her father, her love of her child, her domestic nature, her sense of humor; things we would never learn from her poetry alone, things she herself might not have realized until she found herself writing them down privately, sharing her inmost thoughts. (5)

After secretly marrying Robert Browning in September 1846, Elizabeth left her home in London. Because her father forbade any of his children to marry and swore to disown them if they did, she knew she could no longer remain in England. She also hoped that the warmer climate of Italy would help alleviate the congestion in her lungs that plagued her from the time she was fifteen years old. Along with her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, Robert and Elizabeth traveled through France and eventually settled in Florence. To the Brownings, Florence was "cheap, tranquil, cheerful, beautiful, within the limit of civilization yet out of the crush of it." (6) Though they often left the city during the summer heat, Barrett Browning considered Florence home for the rest of her life. She said, "Certainly both light and love seem stronger with me at Florence than elsewhere." (7) Elizabeth and Robert moved into an apartment in the building named Casa Guidi in May 1848. They occupied six large, high-ceilinged rooms on the second floor, three of which opened onto a terrace. The apartment was unfurnished, and they enjoyed filling it with items they chose. (8) It should be noted that Dominick Argento's affinity for and familiarity with Florence greatly influenced the details for the work that became Casa Guidi. After Argento's 1951 Fulbright in Florence, the city became a second home for him. He and his wife, Carolyn Bailey, have spent many summers there, living just two blocks from Casa Guidi.


Excerpts from five letters written to her sisters between 1847 and 1853 comprise the text of the first song. The descriptive language Barrett Browning uses to detail daily surroundings and events indicates the importance of the ordinary to her--from choosing furniture with Robert to watching the illumination of Florence from their balcony. Such language also shows her poetic flair even in informal correspondence. Her obvious familiarity with and affection for the recipients, variety in sentence length and structure, shifts in topic, and shifts in the formality of her prose are all qualities of the letters. In the first song, these qualities lend themselves to one of the hallmarks of Argento's style: a mix of free-flowing recitative or arioso that moves in and out of more lyric, melodic lines (Example 1). For example, the conversational setting of mm. 6-8 employs frequent leaps, a completely syllabic text setting, and short vocal phrases. In contrast, stepwise motion, distributing the word "rises" over six pitches, and broader vocal phrases give the line much more direction and lyricism in mm. 9-12.

To track the change of focus and locale in Elizabeth's writing, Argento employs regular shifts of tonal center both within and between structural sections, usually accomplished by chromatic motion. As Elizabeth's thoughts meander from describing the balcony view back to the inside of the apartment, Argento mirrors that motion with harmonic change.

Due to the musical shifts that Argento employs to accommodate Barrett Browning's shifting thoughts, tempo changes are the main issue for singer and pianist in this initial song. Argento is very specific with both tempo and musical markings as well as metronome markings. In order for these numerous changes to sound natural and seamless, both performers must have a clear understanding of and agreement about tempi. Because Argento has set words that Barrett Browning wrote extemporaneously and without revision, the singer's delivery must always sound spontaneous and natural in stress, pacing, and inflection. Even when singing large leaps that cross vocal registers, the performer should aim for a lyric, forward-moving conversational style.



The text for this song is taken from a single letter written in 1848. In it, Barrett Browning describes the ongoing battle of wills between her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, and the Italian manservant, Alessandro. Apparently, Alessandro considered himself quite cosmopolitan and knowledgeable about the behaviors of people in other countries, especially England--which annoyed Wilson to no end! We observe Barrett Browning's keen ear for dialogue and her ability to create a narrative anecdote out of the everyday happenings in her household. Her sense of humor comes through in her descriptions of the puffed-up Alessandro and the overly indignant Wilson.


This song is written in a verse and refrain structure, with an introduction and a codetta. The verses are quite contrasting, and each is followed by a refrain that grows more elaborate in its successive statements. The verses advance the action of the household employees' battle. In good fun, Elizabeth seems to mock Alessandro's arrogance with increasing intensity by repeatedly quoting his justification for winning the argument: "I have been to Paris. I have been to London. I have been to Germany. I must know." Argento supports her good humor by increasing the grandeur of the music with each statement of this refrain.

The predominant tonal center is E, although Argento constantly shifts tonal focus as the characters spar back and forth. Chromatic motion accomplished such shifting in the first song, but here Argento often uses sequences to reach a new tonal center. The vocal motive in m. 23 with [F.sup.#] as tonal center reappears a major third higher ([B.sup.b]) in m. 29, and is then stated by the orchestra in m. 30, now beginning on D (Example 2). This sequence of augmented third triad relationships, [F.sup.#]-[B.sup.b]-D and later G-B-[E.sup.b], signifies the two servants fighting the same battle over and over, round and round. As suggested by the rising series, perhaps the pitch of the argument intensifies with each repetition. The return to the E tonal center of the opening rounds out the song. The two characters end right where they began--at severe odds with each other!

A prominent feature in the orchestral version, especially during the verse sections of this song, is the use of the mandoline. Because of Alessandro's boast, "I have been to Paris," the mandoline suggests the atmosphere of a Parisian cabaret. The mandoline's eighth notes and triplets quiver along, while the low strings, bass clarinet, and bassoons play a downbeat/offbeat "oom-pah-pah" pattern. The combination of treble and bass results in a "tune and accompaniment" style for the verses. When performing Casa Guidi in the piano/vocal version, it would be helpful if both singer and pianist were familiar with the orchestral score so they can attempt to bring out the intentions of mood and coloration that the orchestra suggests. This is especially crucial for the pianist imitating the mandoline.

The singer has a wonderful opportunity to display a wide range of vocal color in this song. She is also charged to bring forth the text with specificity, facile articulation, and with some delineation between the two characters and the narrating observer. In the charming codetta, Wilson throws up her hands and leaves the room. One can imagine an amused Barrett Browning looking on and beginning to compose an account of the scene she's just witnessed.


Assembled from four letters to her sisters, the third song is much more personal in nature. Argento chose letters that show Elizabeth's deep love for her husband and her gratitude for his love of her. In near amazement, she says, "It is strange that anyone so brilliant should love me, but true and strange it is ... it is impossible for me to doubt it anymore." She shares these very private sentiments with her sisters, and the depth of her feelings tinges her letter writing with poetic language. "He rises on me hour by hour--and I am bound to him indeed with all the cords of my heart" is not the stuff of casual correspondence. The success of the Browning's marriage was due partly to the fact that each partner considered the other a better poet and truer artist. In addition, their relationship was not traditional for the time. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had economic independence due to the sale of her poetry, and she played an equal role in the decision-making of the family. This is all the more surprising considering her patriarchal past. Edward Moulton Barrett swore to disown his children if they married, so it is astonishing that the fragile, reclusive daughter defied her father in this matter. Elizabeth was very close to her father, and the fact that she not only married Browning but left the country and lived away from her family for the rest of her life suggests how much her relationship with Robert Browning transformed her.

Elizabeth mentioned Robert Browning's name and complimented his work in one of her 1844 Poems. He first approached her by letter in January 1845. She refused to see him initially, but they continued to exchange letters. Finally, she allowed him to visit at her home on May 20, 1845. (9) Two days after that visit, he wrote a rash declaration of love, which appalled and frightened Elizabeth. He persisted, however. They continued to visit, unbeknownst to her father, and the relationship grew. Her health began to improve as a result of his affection and encouragement. They began to speak about a new life together outside of England, although they told no one of their plans. Despite the break with her father that Elizabeth knew their plans would cause, she viewed marriage as "an open door leading from prison." (10)

The couple were secretly married on September 12, 1846. Elizabeth knew her father would be furious about her marriage, but hoped that he would understand and forgive her eventually. His immediate action was to have all of her books and belongings removed from her room, and he forced her to pay to have them placed in storage. (11) He also sent her a letter that claimed she had "sold her soul for genius, mere genius," words she quoted in a letter to her sisters and which Argento set in this song. Mr. Barrett disinherited Elizabeth and said he would consider her as dead for the rest of his life. She never saw him again.

A special feature of this song is Argento's use of a twelve-tone row. We may assume that the composer learned, or at least broadened, this technique when he studied in Florence with Dallapiccola during a 1951 Fulbright. Argento's use of twelve-tone writing, however, is ideally unobtrusive.

I like the idea that I'm manipulating the music ... I like that sense of having been the technician in there with the notes. But at the same time, I don't want the audience to sit there and be aware of that. I want them to hear the surface of it. (12)

The song's eight measure introduction played by strings lays out a twelve-tone row in canon, and never loses a feeling of tonality (Example 3). The row is repeated by solo wind instruments at the end of the song. The row appears only once during the text of the song, and is written one-half step higher than the original series (mm. 21-23). Interestingly, the text at that point speaks of Robert loving Elizabeth through a "lustrous atmosphere," which "produces continual novelty through its own changes." It is fitting that Argento chose that point to alter the initial row, creating something new out of the row's own changes.


The song is unified further by the recurrence of several figures. The voice has three basic configurations: a repeated note parlando, a descending triplet figure, and an ornamental melisma. Combinations of these figures make up the bulk of the vocal melody. The repeated note parlando that begins and ends the song suits Elizabeth's contemplative mood as she reflects on the outcome of her decision to marry Robert and leave her family (Example 4). The melisma serves both to decorate the single word "lustrous" and as a vehicle for Barrett Browning's faster outpourings of thought and emotion. One can almost see her writing her letters first thoughtfully and deliberately, and then more vigorously as the words and sentiments flood her mind. The culmination of the song's melodic motion uses the full texture of the orchestra (m. 61). The singer will probably become inaudible within the sound of the (orchestra's) fortissimo at "cords of my heart." Composer Argento and singer von Stade agreed that this is appropriate; that people would know what the intended sentiment was. (13) Elizabeth is content with her decision to marry Robert and leave her home, and with happiness she gives herself over to its implications. Because Argento uses so much variety in orchestral color to reinforce Elizabeth's revelations in this song, the pianist has a difficult challenge in playing the reduced score. In fact, Argento felt that this song in particular lost much of its original intent when transferred from the orchestral score to the piano reduction. (14)


Despite her father's cruelty to her after her marriage, Elizabeth still loved him and held out some hope for reconciliation. In her first return trip to London, Mr. Barrett returned, unopened, all of the letters his daughter had written since leaving in 1846. (15) During her visit the following year, she requested an interview with her father. He refused, and replied with a note telling her "not to annoy him with further communications." (16) Argento chose to set selections from three very private letters written to three different people after the death of Elizabeth's father in 1857. The text seems more like a journal entry than correspondence. As Barrett Browning absorbs the news of her father's death, she quickly realizes that any chance of reconciliation is now over; she even admits to herself that any hope of reconciliation probably already had died within her. She jolts herself back to the present and to the task of moving forward by trying to immerse herself in work, the "only thing to keep one on one's feet a little." But her mind keeps drifting back to the past, to her childhood home. Her heart grows "tired, tired, tired" with grief and regret.


In the letters that Argento compiled for this song, Elizabeth's thoughts journey from past to present and back to the past. Argento transferred that movement into a three-part form: A--B-A'. A haunting upper ostinato pattern represents her grief and inability to move forward. The pattern remains unchanged throughout the entire song, so it is the rolled chord accompaniment pattern and the vocal line that determine form. The ostinato played by two muted violins centers around E, but is tonally ambiguous. Argento uses three major chords in the bass accompaniment to provide a sense of tonal center and reference to where the song is in harmonic space.

The vocal line begins and ends on E, the focus pitch of the ostinato. The voice often sustains a single pitch while the rolled chords unfold beneath it. A sense of settling is created simply due to the duration of such pitches. The consonance of the sustained vocal pitch and of the rolled chords enhances that feeling of tonal stability, however temporarily. The combined texture of voice, ostinato, and rolled bass chords is joined by an alto line, which also provides some stability by matching the sustained pitch of the voice (Example 5). This transient stability evokes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's struggle to gain control of her raw grief. She attempts to compose herself, but as a new thought or rush of emotion emerges, the anchoring tonality disappears.


In a 2001 phone interview, Argento agreed with me that this is the most difficult song in the cycle to sing. The thin texture, high register of the accompaniment, and the contained dynamics reinforce the song's mood of regret. The singer must sing at a level no softer than is possible to maintain core and warmth in the voice. Many of the phrases travel into and above the passaggio. Such pitches may not have adequate breath pressure if soft singing is the primary goal. In that case, the dynamic marking should be considered a mood and an intention rather than a measure of actual volume. The high register of the accompaniment and lack of continuous bass support and tonal reference can make intonation a challenge for the singer.


The text of the final song is drawn from an 1850 letter to Henrietta. The events described in the letter actually took place seven years prior to the death of Elizabeth's father, the focus of the preceding song. Because Argento did not prioritize adherence to the chronology of her letters, he chose to frame the cycle with texts that reflect Elizabeth Barrett Browning's happiness and fulfillment in domestic matters. The couple's only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning (known as Pen) was born in 1849. Becoming a mother only added to Elizabeth's joy. The visual images in the song--a fireplace, walks in November, reading together in the evening, and readying a child for bed--are things to which almost anyone can relate. As the song ends, the audience is left with a peaceful domestic scene of a family, almost like a camera fade-out, to end the glimpse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that Argento has provided.

To anchor the impression of "the blissful Elizabeth Barrett Browning," Argento begins the final song with the cycle's most overtly romantic writing (Example 6). The lush arpeggios continue nearly uninterrupted for fifty-six measures. This first of three distinct segments in the song focuses solely on Robert and Elizabeth and the intimacy of their activities with each other at home. The segment contains several tonal centers, but the constant arpeggios create an easy flow from one to the next.

The romantic, Straussian sound of the first section stands in contrast to the sparsely accompanied parlante of the second section (Example 7). All of the attention the couple had focused on each other now shifts to the child.

In the final segment, the focal point returns to Robert and Elizabeth, as he tells her to "Come back soon" after putting the baby to bed. The final seven measures of "Domesticity" are a return to material from the last six measures of the cycle's first song. What is the initial part of a phrase in the first song ("I do love this house," mm. 43-44) becomes the end of a phrase ("And I go back soon," mm. 87-88) in the final song. The voice sang "Like a room in a novel, this room has been called" in the last two measures of the first song; in "Domesticity," the corresponding material is played by solo viola (Example 8). Thus, what was the second half of the phrase in the initial song becomes a reminiscent instrumental coda in the final song. The cycle ends as it began--with Elizabeth Barrett Browning living in a city that she loves, in a home that she loves, with the people whom she loves.



Altham, J. A. S., ed. Twenty-two Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning Addressed to Henrietta and Arabella Mouton-Barrett. New York: Haskell House, 1971.

Argento, Dominick. "The Composer and the Singer." The NATS Bulletin 33, no. 5 (May 1977): 18-24.

Argento, Dominick. "The Matter of Text." The NATS Journal 44, no. 4 (March/April 1988): 6-10.

Argento, Dominick. Casa Guidi: A Cycle of Five Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra. New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 1983.

Huxley, Leonard, ed. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846-1859. London: John Murray, 1929.

Kinter, Elvan, ed. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969.

Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Lubbock, Percy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Her Letters. London: John Murray, 1917.

Lupton, Mary Jane. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Baltimore: The Feminist Press, 1972.

Taplin, Gardner B. The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

Ray, Beth A. "Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi: A Character and Musical Study." DMA dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, 2002.

Rowe, Martha Lu. "A Poet Revealed: Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Portrayed in Libby Larsen's Sonnet's from the Portuguese and Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi." DMA dissertation, The University of Arizona, 1996.


(1.) E-mail correspondence with Dominick Argento, September 30, 1999.

(2.) Dominick Argento, "The Matter of Text," The NATS Journal 44, no. 4 (March/April 1988): 9.

(3.) E-mail correspondence with Dominick Argento, September 30, 1999.

(4.) Victoria Villamil, A Singer's Guide to the American Art Song 1870-1980 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993), 6. 5. Argento, "The Matter of Text," 9.

(6.) Gardner B. Taplin, The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 281-282.

(7.) Percy Lubbock, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Her Letters (London: John Murray, 1917), 323.

(8.) Taplin, 210.

(9.) Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 91-92.

(10.) Mary Jane Lupton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Baltimore: The Feminist Press, 1972), 28.

(11.) Taplin, 187.

(12.) Phone interview with Dominick Argento, January 15, 2001.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Martha Lu Rowe, "A Poet Revealed: Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Portrayed in Libby Larsen's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi" (DMA dissertation, University of Arizona, 1996), 47.

(15.) Taplin, 248.

(16.) Ibid., 262-263.


Dominick Argento: Casa Guidi. Frederica von Stade, mezzo soprano; Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra; Reference Recordings RR-100 (2003).

Dr. Beth Ray Westlund, mezzo soprano, is associate professor of music at her alma mater Luther College, where she teaches studio voice and diction. She earned the MM and DMA degrees at the University of Texas at Austin, studying with Rose Taylor and Terry Lusk.

In 1999, she was one of twelve voice teachers selected nationwide to participate in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program.

Dr. Ray is active as a recital, oratorio, and opera soloist, appearing recently in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, Illinois, and New York. Solo professional performances include: the title role in Dido and Aeneas, the Angel in Sir Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, J. S. Bach Magnificat, St. John Passion, Christmas Oratorio, and Mass in B Minor; Handel Messiahand Belshazzar; Haydn Missa Sanctae Caecilae, Missa in tempore belli, and Heligmesse; Beethoven Symphony no. 9, Mozart Requiemand Vesperae Solennes; Durufle Requiem, Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor; and Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, performed with Anonymous 4.
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Author:Westlund, Beth Ray
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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