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Monteverdi's Tonal Language.

Those seeking to interpret the 'tonal' language of the transitional period between modality and tonality in general, and of Claudio Monteverdi in particular, face fundamental methodological problems. Music theory c. 1600 simply does not provide suitable criteria for analysis: while the classical theory of the polyphonic modes seems to have become obsolete, notions of major-minor tonality had not yet emerged, even if they began to take shape in Monteverdi's music. A further problem is that modal theory hardly accounts for the harmonic content of this music, which could indeed be defined by theories of major-minor harmonic tonality. In this context, Eric Chafe's proposed model for investigating the tonal language of Monteverdi and his time seems especially important.

He focuses on the 'modal-hexachordal' system which although not explicit in the musical literature of the early seventeenth century is implicit both within its theoretical premisses and within the music itself: Chafe is foreshadowed here by the work of Carl Dahlhaus on Monteverdi's madrigals (Untersuchungen uber die Entstehung der harmonischen Tonalitat, Kassel, 1968; trans. as Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality, Princeton, 1990). The model is based on two tonal systems, cantus durus and cantus mollis, which include four hexachords: two-flat (on B flat), one-flat (on F), natural (on C) and sharp (on G). Each system usually includes three hexachords, one central and the other two secondary. If more than three hexachords are used, then the boundaries of that system have been crossed.

This framework of system and hexachords defines the harmonic content available to (and, in effect, used by) composers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Each of the six pitches of any hexachord can serve as the root of a triad; and each hexachord can be expressed in the form of a circle of fifths (hence, for the natural hexachord, C-D-E-F-G-A = F-C-G-D-A-E). Five triads may be preceded by dominants; the sixth, by a Phrygian or plagal cadence. The outer limits of the circle of fifths expressed by each hexachord form a Phrygian relationship that corresponds to the traditional mi-fa semitone; this can also mark the shift from one hexachord to another. The 'modal-hexachordal' system comprises the harmonic content of single hexachords and systems and thus measures the relative flatness or sharpness of tonal areas. Therefore it can be used to describe the tonal relations of an entire composition or its formal units. However, it does not account for the choice of cadence degrees and their hierarchical relationship.

With his 'modal-hexachordal' system, Chafe analyses the tonal language of madrigals and dramatic music by Monteverdi. Unlike Dahlhaus, he consistently treats aspects of tonal order allegorically as it were, that is, as a means of interpreting the words and as an extra-musical symbol. This tonal interpretation of the words corresponds to Monteverdi's ideal of the seconda prattica; at the same time, it reveals that the composer was fully aware of all his working methods. Not for nothing did he himself write in the preface to his fifth book of madrigals (1605) 'ch'io non faccio le mie cose a caso ('that I do not make my works by chance'). Thanks to these procedures, the composer was able to produce works of exceptional logic.

Chafe's book falls into two main parts. The first (Chapters 1-4) includes primarily theoretical argument supported by the examination of specific pieces. First, he discusses Monteverdi's role in the history of tonal modality and points to new stylistic features (dissonance integrated within the tonal structure; transposition as a structural element of composition). Chafe also describes the new hierarchy of the elements of composition (oratione, harmonia and rhythm) defined by the seconda prattica. These theoretical ideas are then measured against analyses of two madrigals, 'Cruda Amarilli, che col nome ancora' and 'O Mirtillo, Mirtillo anima mia' (both in the fifth book), which figured prominently in the famous polemic between Monteverdi and Giovanni Maria Artusi. In particular, the tonal structure of 'Cruda Amarilli' - Chafe quotes Artusi's criticisms of its incorrect use of dissonances and its erratic cadence structure - is shown to be closely related to the poetic text. He concludes that there are general differences between compositions in the G mode (such as 'Cruda Amarilli') and in the d mode ('O Mirtillo'), and he attempts to account for them. The reasons lie in the basic feature of Monteverdi's tonal language: the separation of categories of mode and system. Chafe's 'modal-hexachordal' system in turn provides a convenient means to describe and explain these issues.

The theoretical premisses of the book are presented against the background of the transformations of the modal system as illustrated by seventeenth-century theorists, in particular Adriano Banchieri (L'organo suonarino, Venice, 1605) and Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia universalis, Rome, 1650). Kircher constructed a scheme of modes which corresponds to the keys used in Monteverdi's Orfeo and discussed practical applications of the modes by Giacomo Carissimi and Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger. This chapter concludes with a list of the modes employed by Monteverdi in his third to eighth books of madrigals (1592-1638): when compared with Banchieri, there is a clear tendency to reduce the number of modes and to enhance the role of cantus aunts. In the final chapter of this part of the book, there is a comparison of two madrigals, 'Cor mio, mentre vi miro' (Book 4, 1603) and 'O Mirtillo' (Book 5).

In the second part of the book (Chapters 5-15), secular works by Monteverdi are discussed in chronological order. Their tonal language is found to be transformed according to its allegorical function. The 'modal-hexachordal' system is realized most clearly in the fourth book (1603), as seen, inter alia, in hexachordal chord sequences unrelated to the modal centre. Hence this group of madrigals provides a basis for comparing later works so as to assess the transformation of Monteverdi's tonal language and its role in interpreting extra-musical elements. Tonal features are always examined closely in relation to their allegorical meaning. But whereas in madrigals the tonal language is closely related to the poetry, in operas the relationship between music and drama can be more varied and complex: the content and formal structure of a drama can condition the tonal plan of a work; a key can be related to individual characters and/or dramatic situations (as in Orfeo); and the prologue can establish allegorical and structural issues projected on to the tonal network of the whole opera (as especially occurs in Il ritarno d'Ulisse in portia). These relationships can also be reflected in the dynamic organization of a given dramma per musica. The best example is L'incoronazione di Poppea - seen as a culmination of the processes discussed here - where tonality influences not just the formal and other traits of character and plot but also the dynamics of the dramatic action of single scenes. The exceptionally strong relationships between tonality and extra-musical meaning, together with the development of Monteverdi's tonal language, enable Chafe to discuss the well-known problems of authenticity in L'incoronazione (the prologue, the final duet, Ottone in Act I scenes I and 11, the Damigella-Valletto duet in II.5) in a brooder context than hitherto (compare Alan Curtis, 'La Poppea impasticciata: or, Who Wrote the Music to L'incoronazione (1643)?', Journal of the American Musicological Society, xlii (1989), 23-54). Chafe sees these problematic passages as fitting within the general concept of the work as conceived by Monteverdi, even if they may still be the work of younger composers.

The 'allegorical' uses of tonality in the secular works is related to the 'modal-hexachordal' system of the fourth book of madrigals to reveal developments both in the tonal language and in the extra-musical meanings of tonal devices and modes/keys. First, we see an increase in the tonal range of compositions, expanding the harmonic content of two systems and four hexachords or even going beyond these limits. The juxtaposing of the cantus mollis g mode with the cantus durus G mode (marked by a shift of signature) is first seen in the fifth book (1605). In addition, the cantus mollis d mode is incorporated within the cantus durus d mode, which tends towards the modern D minor. This is especially apparent in the Lamento d'Arianna, the sixth book of madrigals (1614), the Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorinda, and Penelope's monologue in Act I scene 1 of Il ritorno d'Ulisse. One might add that it is easy to trace this process through the changes of the range of accidentals used in works composed in the natural and flat systems, as can also be seen in the accidentals typical for each system (B flat, F#, C#, G#, E flat, B flat, F#, C#) and those used exceptionally. The latter are connected not only with the limitations of chord-building on some cadence degrees but also perhaps with issues of intonation and tuning. Thus it appears that the accidentals typical of each system were ordinarily attainable on sixteenth-century keyboard instruments tuned in meantone temperament; and, according to Vincenzo Galilei, a type of temperament akin to the tuning of keyboard instruments was to be used in purely vocal music of the time (for further discussion, see Karol Berger, Theories of Chromatic and Enharmonic Music in Italy in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, Ann Arbor, 1976). Second, we see the development of a hierarchical ordering of cadences and, more broadly, of the tonal plan of a composition. This leads to the subordination of Mannerist tonal devices (for example, sudden shifts from fiat to sharp areas, especially apparent in the juxtaposition of g and E triads) to the main tonal centre or overall tonal plan of a work (see the Lamento d'Arianna, the madrigals of Books 6 and 8, and Il ritorno d'Ulisse).

The changes in the extra-musical significance of specific tonalities involve, first, a shift from the association of sharp keys and harmonic areas (especially the a and e modes) with durus/'harsh' concepts in the text (and conversely, flat keys and harmonic areas - especially the g mode - with mollis/'soft' ones) to using sharp keys, especially 'major' ones (the G mode), in more positive contexts. Such keys come to signify pleasure, happiness, sweetness and love (as in 'Questi vaghi concenti' in Book 5, Orfeo, the Lamento d'Arianna and the seventh book of madrigals of 1619) and also, through the medium of the concitato genere, heroic deeds. But they can also be associated with concepts of authority, power and violence (the Lamento d'Arianna, Combattimento, seventh and eighth books of madrigals, Ulisse in Il ritorno d'Ulisse, Nerone in L'incoronazione). Second, relative major/minor keys (especially C and a), formerly invested with opposite meanings, become interrelated (see, for example, the finale of Il ritorno d'Ulisse and several passages in L'incoronazione). By way of exception, so, too, did parallel and relative major and minor keys (c/C-a/A; see L'incoronazione).

The book ends with two appendices. The first discusses the meaning of the quadro sign (??), which reflects the survival of modal practices in the early seventeenth century (this, in turn, is important for interpreting hexachordal levels within a composition). The second presents an interpretation of Pietro Eredia's madrigal 'Passa la vita all'abbassar d'un ciglio' in the light of the version of the Greek modes proposed by Giovanni Battista Doni (Compendio del trattato de' generie de' modi della musica, Rome, 1635). Doni's views are also related to a particular problem discussed in the interpretation of the preface to Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals, the question of how the three genera (temperato, molle and concitato/incitato) and their associated styles and performance practices as described by Monteverdi relate to tonal categories and their new affective meanings (especially the association of the concitato genere with new forms of cantus durus).

The usefulness of Eric Chafe's methods and of his systematic investigation of Monteverdi's tonal language is readily apparent not just for studies of Monteverdi's output but also for those of the music of his time and of the history of tonality in this transitional period. It must be said, however, that his artificial 'modal-hexachordal' system is constructed largely with reference to the future emergence of tonality, and so it scarcely takes account of the polyphonic modal system. That system may have been becoming obsolete, but it is hard to see that Monteverdi was not steeped in its practices as they still operated in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The polyphonic modal system left obvious traces in his works, especially the early ones, and it retained some significance throughout his career, even if only in terms of defining external features of the tonal ordering in the late works. Therefore one could well write a second book on Monteverdi taking into account past, rather than future, criteria. In this context, it is worth making a few remarks here on issues that could either enrich Chafe's observations or place them in a new light.

First, the modal hierarchy of cadential degrees to which Chafe several times refers is here taken from Gioseffo Zarlino's Istitutioni harmoniche (Venice, 1558), where the indifferenti of the major modes G (B???) and C (E) occupy a position which is inconvenient for building 'V-I' cadences on them. But Monteverdi also seems to exploit notions of cadential ordering that resulted from the theory of modal (psalmodic) repercussiones as described, for example, by Pietro Pontio in his Ragionamento di musica (Parma, 1588). Compared with Zarlino, Pontio gives different cadential degrees (claves clausularum) for Modes 3, 4 and 8. For example, in the G-Hypomixolydian mode, the cadence degrees are g, c' and d ', and it is precisely the Mode 8 repercussio g-c' that determines the cadence plan of 'Cruda Amarilli' and of very many other compositions in the G mode, which is different from that of, for example, the d-Dorian compositions. Chafe notes this phenomenon in terms of a 'subdominant' tonal area in the G mode (pp. 19, 22) which produces a stronger tendency towards the major-minor tonal system in comparison with other modes. It is true that C as a root and as a cadence degree does later come to act as a subdominant of G. But Artusi's criticisms concerning the cadences of 'Cruda Amar-illi' start from the wrong frame of reference - he was, after all, a pupil of Zarlino - and so render exceptional a practice which was arguably normative for Mode 8 pieces.

Second, the affective meaning of the e key (which Chafe notes as durus) - in other words, the Phrygian mode - is also connected with traditional modal ethos, given its conventional association with mournful affects or, more generally, res tristes. Chafe recalls this connection only once, while discussing the madrigal 'Perche t'en fuggi, o Fillide?' in Book 8 (p. 259). On another occasion, however, while analysing the First Spirit's 'Torn'a l'ombre di morte' in Act IV of Orfeo, he mentions - quoting Kircher's opinion - the highly expressive character of the Hypophrygian mode (p. 153 n. 32). But in Monteverdi's output, this association works both for choosing the basic key with which to express the general sense of a given text and for single cadences (and not necessarily those incorrect for a given mode as with clausulae peregrinae). As a local effect, this association also recurs in so-called Phrygian cadences.

Finally, it is a commonplace to say that Monteverdi exploits a range of traditional finals and their transpositions in a mostly typical way. One striking exception is worth noting: Ottone's 'Innocente e costei' in L'incoronazione, III.4 (Ottone is about to sacrifice his life to save Drusilla). The final is B, which, as is well known, is generally excluded from the range of cadential degrees or tonal reference points (repercussiones). The F#-b cadence which illustrates the word 'morte' ('death') clearly has a strong affectire force. Chafe analyses thoroughly the significance of such shifts (pp. 322, 341), but in terms of cantus durus and of extreme intrusions into the domain of the sharp system (it also recurs in 'Hor che 'l ciel e la terra e 'l vento tace' in Book 8, and in the Lamento d'Arianna, especially in its contrafactum as the Pianto della Madonna). It is a pity to lose the disruptive and expressive effect of this final and cadence as created by their non-adherence to traditional modal parameters.

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Author:Fabianska, Zofia
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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