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Monteverdi the Modern Man

This is the full text of the 2nd annual Lufthansa Lecture, presented at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square, in London on 15 May 2010.   It was delivered by Robert Hollingworth, singer and founder-director of the award-winning vocal ensemble I Fagiolini.

Although I often talk at concerts or presenting radio programmes, that's within the context of introducing the music: helping atune people's ears before they hear something.  The idea of just talking about Monteverdi seems a bit dubious to me, as a musician.  If a picture paints a thousand words, then a piece of music surely sings ten thousand of them.  I do have some thoughts to share with you but I'd stress at the start that they're those of a performing musician and not a professional lecture-giver and that's the context for this little chat.

My first choral experiences were as a chorister at Hereford Cathedral. What we boys liked singing was Stanford, Wesley, Kelly in C: anything with something to get your teeth into.  What we didn't like was Byrd, Palestrina or anything wet like that.

When I was ten, I sang in my first Monteverdi Vespers as part of the Three Choirs Festival.  I don't remember much about it but I do remember processing to another part of the cathedral to sing the verses of the 'Ave Maris Stella' and loving hearing, from the other end of the building, the richness of the outer verses' 8-part texture, so nicely contrasted with the colourful instrumental ritornellos.  I was also struck by the sheer guts of some of the exciting moments in the psalms: I'd not come across anything so powerful from an 'early' composer.

Three years on and we sung his psalm setting 'Beatus vir': six voices, two violins and continuo.  That Amen, with its overlapping, cascading entries stayed with me and gave me as a singer, and presumably those listening, a profound and quite physical thrill.  These days I could tell you why ? back then it didn't matter.  It just set my spine tingling.  And in the first of a few short excerpts tonight, you can hear this now. Not the lead up to it - just the Amen on its own.

Example:  Monteverdi - Beatus Vir à 6 (Amen)

Since then, while still adoring music of other periods and styles, I've been particularly drawn to Renaissance and early Baroque music.  I now love Byrd and Palestrina: I think I'm the only UK citizen who earns more than half of his income from singing madrigals, and I named my ensemble after a vegetable, so I think I'm a fully paid-up beany / knitted yoghurt musician.  Within this period though, Monteverdi for me has always been special.  And over the period that I've been aware of him as a composer, (some 34 years), with all the research, publication, performance and recording of so many rediscovered works of his contemporaries, the impression I have now is that Monteverdi seems to be if anything an even greater figure than I thought he was before.

The big question is why?  Can one actually put one's finger on it?  Well, I think so.  It's the combination of four things: the extrovertly emotional power of his music; then (in his ensemble music) the brilliantly original use of texture within the apparently very limiting ensemble of five or six solo voices; the intense lyricism of everything he writes; and finally a brilliant understanding of how to lay out the parts to maximum acoustic effect.  So: emotion / texture / lyricism / sound.

Of course that's my response in 2010.  His contemporaries might have had different priorities though there's evidence that moving the listener's emotions (muovere gli affetti) was very much a focus of his time.  Even if some stick-in-the-mud theorists didn't get it, others did. Here's Monteverdi's colleague, the composer Marco da Gagliano, talking about the opera Arianna, in the year it came out, 1608. 'Monteverdi... composed the arias in so exquisite a manner that we can affirm in all truth that the power of ancient music has been restored because they visibly moved the audience to tears.'  Not just the women, you'll notice, who writer Bonnie Gordon says were regarded as "leaky vessels whose excess fluids rendered them inherently unruly, lascivious and incontinent" - but the whole audience.

Of course Monteverdi wasn't the first to write emotionally powerful music.  There's an eight-part chanson by Gombert that practically moves me to tears every time I hear it; there are laments by all sorts of top-notch Renaissance composers that are very powerful and settings of 'When David heard' that have an incredible pull.  But Monteverdi's ability to take even an average text (and so many of them) and utterly to transform it into a powerfully expressive miniature of a shape and form which doesn't sound like his other pieces, is unique.

I think that's probably enough of the generalisations which are a bit meaningless unless I can show you what I mean.
Also, I'm aware that discussions of Monteverdi often tend to portray him as a beginning point for modern music without understanding that he was utterly born from what came before.

So to get any further, we need a quick bit of context about the madrigal.  Despite four groups recording the complete secular Monteverdi and I Fagiolini's own non-book-based series, these are still the least well-known of his pieces and, I'd argue, as important as anything else he wrote; but they demand rather more of the listener than the operas (as there's no narrative to hold things together) and also than the church music (I'll come back to that).

The madrigal begins in the late 1520s in Florence with not Italian but French composers setting Italian texts in the current motet style and also in that of the popular Parisian chanson.  It grows alongside the increasing acceptance of Tuscan Italian as a proper literary language, so the madrigal becomes a mirror for the growing interest in the classic poets of the 14th century, especially Petrarch.  In the 1540s and 50s, it goes through a rather earnest period in Venice of sombre, well-wrought, polyphonic works, very highly thought of then but dense and rarely sung today.  Then through Lassus it develops a more colouristic side to illustrate images in the text.  In the 1570s, Petrarch's dark, self-obsessed language is replaced by more pastoral and generally fluffier poetry which composers respond to with a less learnéd and a more broken up style in which you can more easily follow the text.  Poet Torquato Tasso rebels against this, demanding a more passionate approach, which various composers respond to.  A few years later but allied to this, Monteverdi and his brother invent a phrase for a mindset which they call 'the second practice' (the seconda prattica).  This means composing music which vibrantly summons up the spirit of the text in music, rather than the first practice (the prima prattica) in which composers wrote 'proper' music, the words following obediently behind.

Monteverdi was born in 1567, the middle of the madrigal's time, and grew up under the tutelage of a composer who himself was influenced by the Netherlander Ciprano da Rore, a wonderful madrigal of whose you can hear in our concert tomorrow night.  Monteverdi's engagement by the Duke of Gonzaga at the Mantuan court in 1590 was officially as a singer though he later said that his duties were mainly as a string-player.  The most important immediate influence on the young Monteverdi was Rore's Low Countries compatriot, Giaches de Wert, who had been maestro at the Mantuan court for many years.

De Wert might have gone through music history as an also-ran had he not undergone an epiphany, ten years before Monteverdi's arrival, on hearing a new secret professional solo-voice ensemble based at nearby Ferrara - the same Ferrara where poets Guarini and Tasso worked and where Gesualdo would later have a prolonged sojourn.

This superstar ensemble was New: it was set up in 1579 just to sing madrigals; secret as the Duke who funded it only allowed certain visitors to hear it - and it was for listening to and not just having on in the background while you did your ironing; professional - an ensemble engaged as part of the court to rehearse and perform a technically demanding and often highly florid repertoire written, much of it especially for it; women - it not only included but was primarily made-up of superstar women singers at a time when public performance by women was very strictly limited.   Suddenly faced with such a unique and extraordinarily vibrant ensemble, De Wert did the only thing he could as a responsible composer which was to seek out one of the singers, Anna Guarini, and to have an affair with her.

Musically though, his response was to write two books of madrigals and sacred music whose style suddenly exploded from safe, all-purpose middle-of-the-road polyphony to an overtly descriptive way of writing, full of strong gestures to colour every phrase.  It was as if a wild animal had been let out of its cage.

Other groups were set up to ape this ensemble.  In Mantua it had to wait until the Duke died in 1587, but his successor immediately set about getting himself one.  It was three years later that Monteverdi was brought into this hot-house atmosphere which included as well as De Wert, another madrigalist, Pallavicino, the Jewish violinist and composer Salamone Rossi, the soprano Catarina Cattaneo, who became his wife, Gastoldi (inventor of the fa la madrigal amongst other things), and some other very fine singers, some of whom accompanied themselves on lute or harp (a very rare thing to see these days).  The first real effect of this on Monteverdi can be heard in his third book of madrigals published in 1592.  His writing became much more dramatic; there are pieces for an ensemble including three parts for high sopranos just like the Ferrarese ensemble; but the piece that hits me squarely between the eyes as utterly unlike anything else in the repertoire is the last work in the book, traditionally a place in a publication for a showcase work for a larger ensemble but which Monteverdi at least initially used as the place simply to write something especially beautiful.  I'm going to play the opening of this work but before you listen to it, call to mind the 'normal' world of imitative Renaissance polyphony: a Palestrina motet, say, one voice setting up a theme which another voice follows, then another until a web of sound is made up.  It's ok to have passing dissonance, and certain colouristic gestures are gaining ground as clichés.  Then hear the opening bars of this 'Rimante in pace': "Stay in peace,' Tirsi sighing said', and that's all we're going to hear: those words.

Example:  Monteverdi - Rimante in pace (excerpt)

Practically nothing has happened: but we're hooked.  It's like an effective opening to a film: we've had no real information, just the creation of an atmosphere: we're being set-up for what follows.  What Monteverdi is doing is introducing pacing: controlling the speed at which information is released and giving us nothing to think about except that opening colour of stillness: 'Remain in peace'.

When I try to place this with what else was happening at the time, I think of the other great modernising madrigalists, most of whom will be featured on Sunday night.  Cipriano da Rore, the grandfather of the 'second practice style' who in fact owed a lot to the experimental Ferrara of a previous generation. Rore wrote too few really experimental madrigals but those that do are really ahead of their time and push the melodic and harmonic boundaries within a more conventional framework.

Then of course De Wert who has this great explosion of pictorially descriptive writing in the 1580s.  For example in 'Solo e pensoso', he takes the Garbo-esque idea of wanting to be alone super-literally by placing each note as far as it can be from the last one, at least within the confines of what will work at this period of music.  When all five voices do this together it's not actually terribly effective [note - when do we ever say this of a Monteverdi idea?] but to give you an idea the opening theme in the bass part goes like this:

In the context of writing vocal polyphony when one moves mostly by step or very small jumps, it would have been quite a surprise to see that in your partbook at the first rehearsal.

Then another great name: Luca Marenzio - perhaps the least understood these days of the late madrigalists, a man whose music was renowned for its quality of dolcezza (sweetness) but who turned to increasingly gloomy texts in his later life and an array of dramatically strong textures to paint them.

And finally Gesualdo and the circle of composers inspired by the experimental world of Ferrara in the 1590s.  Their madrigal writing was harmonically and structurally violent and incredibly unsettled.  I find many of these works short bizarrtés rather than satisfying musical entities.

Now, all these composers are perhaps self-conciously 'modern' but they don't speak to me as personally as Monteverdi does.

After the 3rd book with 'Rimanti in pace' was published in 1592 quite soon after his arrival in Mantua, there was a gap of 11 years before his 4th book hit the bookstands.  To avoid this becoming a meaningless series of numbers, the important Monteverdi numbers are nine madrigal publications in all, the first six of which are mostly for a conventional five-part ensemble and, conveniently these all belong to his life at Mantua from 1590-1613.  The fourth appears in 1603.  It's quite unique in the madrigal literature for the range of textures it presents: there are so many different types of pieces in the book.  There's the bitter, slow-moving suspensions of the very opening work, 'Ah sweet parting', in which the two opening voices 'part' from each other through painful suspensions:

Example:  Monteverdi - Ah dolente in partiat (excerpt)

or this declaimed choral recitative - very 'opera':

Example:  Monteverdi - Sfogava con le stele (excerpt)

There's virtuosity:

Example:  Monteverdi - Io mi son giovinetta (excerpt)

and the frankly 'could have been written yesterday' erotic embodiment of a couple in the throes of their love-making.

Example:  Monteverdi - Si ch'io vorrei morire (excerpt)

It's this constant re-invention of texture within the very limited confines of a five-part group which is so unlike his contemporaries and which makes the fourth book such a staggering collection.

The story of Monteverdi's fifth book which came out just two years later in 1605 is historically at least tied up with the appearance of opera and monody ? the new style of writing in which the harmony that until now had been produced by the ensemble of voices was now recreated simply by a chordal instrument such as harpsichord or theorbo.  This left voices free to declaim and express themselves in a much more soloistic and expressive style.  It's exactly the sort of writing that had been heard in the new operas heard for the first time five years previously.

Quick digression here.

Much of the philosophical thinking that supposedly inspired the first operas in 1600 came from an academy - a drinking/thinking group in Florence.  This group was against polyphony, five singers, say, portraying a dramatic idea such as a dialogue for reasons that Tim Carter goes into in his programme note for tomorrow night's concert.  'You can't have five people being one or two people', they said.  Monteverdi and Vecchi proved clearly that you can but these guys had a theory and there's nothing so dangerous as men with a theory. And literally, of course, they were right.

On top of the literality of this, the thinking was that an ensemble of voices was also musically constricted: without accompanying instruments, the voices had to provide complete harmony between themselves, which meant that each voice was limited to having to provide one of the three or more notes of the chord.

This Florentine academy was inspired by the example of Greek drama whose metered verse they thought might not have been declaimed - but sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.  So a few plucked notes à la Cacofonix then some recitation, the lyre just reminding us of the background harmony.  This was their theory.  It would have left the text tremendously clear to those listening, but perhaps pretty dull music. 

In fact even the first operatic composers such as Peri and Gagliano did a little better than this, writing more than straight recitation.  But some of it is quite weak harmonically and rather too dependent on the charisma of the performer.

In fact as far as texture is concerned, we can't even call this monody an 'invention'.  Solo-voice plus simple instrumental accompaniment was as old as the hills in pieces called 'songs'.  But the concept of a voice of 'speaking in song' above a simple accompaniment was a new type of thinking and certainly a world away from the apparently complicated web of five singers declaiming the thoughts of one person.

It's always emphasized that when Monteverdi first wrote like this, in this fifth book of madrigals of 1603, it was a great turning point for him.  And so it was, but what he did with this new style was so much more.  Firstly, he wanted to write music just as harmonically and rhythmically subtle and involved as his madrigals; so what he did was to carry on writing the same sort of music that he had before, but leaving out the middle three voices.  So a super-generalisation would be that his monodic writing is more like a madrigal for the soprano and bass + all that oozy harmony previously sung by the middle three voices still supplied but now by a freer accompaniment and none of the dramatic tension lost.

The second thing that marks him out is his supreme lyrical gift: 'speaking in song' would serve him well at times but in general it's so much more lyrical and vocal than other examples of the time.

Beyond his madrigals, some of which use this style in books V and VI, there are the dramatic works from 1607-8, Orfeo, Arianna (now mostly lost) as well as Ballo dell'Ingrate - the dance of the Ingrates which is the principal and rarely heard work tomorrow night.  And of course there are the magnificent solo-voice motets in the famous Vespers which was published very close to this time in 1610.

In Orfeo, for me the most powerful scene is not the great virtuosic set-piece aria when Orfeus tries and fails to lull the river Styx's guardian, Caron, to sleep with the power of his voice, (it's actually his playing on the lyre which finally does the trick) or his grief when he loses Euridice for the 2nd time.  For me the most moving scene is the announcement of her death and Orfeus' response to it.  For this, he needed as his tools all the colouristic and textural background from his madrigal writing.  There are shifts of harmony that would have made Gesualdo blush, biting dissonance for the pain and shock felt by the messenger who brings the news of Euridice's death (this is not 'my lord, my lord I bring noos' but the personal response of her closest friend), a brilliant if subtle bit of rhythmically unstable writing to show how the great demi-god of singing, Orfeus, is psychologically undone by the news - until proper rhythm is restored when he makes up his mind on a course of action.  There are important issues for the performer here: if you don't have an understanding of Monteverdi's harmonic language as displayed in the madrigals, you won't understand how to realise the accompanying continuo part to give the singer the right chord against which the tortured lines of the singer can burn and twist.  Not so much 'let the chord howl' as Emanuelle Haïm has said but the let the singer howl against it.

Just a few months after Orfeo, Monteverdi was sent two Petrarch sonnets to set and for these he reverted to a five part vocal ensemble but now wrote in a partially monodic style.  The top tenor voice is leading a trio of lamenting men.  There's no rhythmic difference between them as they declaim the text together and it could just have easily been written for one tenor and accompaniment.  But because of Monteverdi's peerless command of voicing, (how you actually lay out the voices) and acoustics, he brings it beautifully to life.  Over the top of this, two sopranos weep their 'alasses' and just as you're getting accustomed to this, he opens up an incredible series of suspensions, reaching higher and higher until like Icarus, the voices melt and fall to earth, if rather more gracefully.  Again, it's an utterly original texture.  I'm going to play it to you and as you listen to it, ask yourself the question, 'is it modern?'  'Monteverdi the modern man...'  If it were modern, wouldn't we qualify it with, 'it was modern for then'.  And how can anything be modern now in the pre post-post-modern world we now apparently live in?  Rather like the erotic piece we heard earlier, it's not the modernity, it's the complete aptness of the word-setting still affecting us so brilliantly now that is so amazing.  It's not modern; it's timeless!

Example:  Monteverdi - Ohimè il bel viso

You just don't hear this freedom of thinking about madrigal texture with any other composer.  And despite Monteverdi's inherent description of the second practice as new, that label is less meaningful than just 'it's very good'.

So: emotion, texture, lyricism and the other part of my quartet, the sound of the music.  It's a feature of his writing that I find exciting and which I am sure is the major reason that a lot of people turn on to Monteverdi: it sounds gorgeous and this is because of the acoustically sophisticated way he writes.  Most importantly there's an understanding of how the harmonic series works which is then used so that any effect shines brilliantly or, conversely, deliberately muddily.

The harmonic series is the mathematical description of the physical relationship between notes.  Any note is the result of a number of vibrations per second.  Low A is 110 vibrations per second.  If you double that number, you get the same note an octave up.  Low A is 110 - this note is 220.  This note is 440.  However if instead of doubling you just add the same number, you get a series of intervals (known as the harmonic series) that become increasingly smaller: 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700 (that lovely natural 7th which Britten so enjoyed in his serenade for tenor horn and strings)!  The natural existence of this series is thought to be why a major chord sounds lovely - it's not just that we're indoctrinated into it from youth but because it's natural.  Chords laid out that follow the spacing of the harmonic series sound wonderfully.  Chords that don't, don't.  These things had been worked out six hundred years before Monteverdi so it was not 'news'.  But when you write true, first practice polyphony, you can't follow this to any great extent which is why a lot of Renaissance music sounds as if it's constantly moving in and out of focus, whereas Monteverdi's blends polyphony and more chordal writing, and those chords ring particularly true.

In addition, Monteverdi relished in writing apparently dissonant effects (to portray words for grief or pain, for example) which may technically have been dissonant but which actually lay the notes out so carefully that they still sound wonderful.  It's like beautifully filmed mud-wrestling.  The most obvious example of this perfect dissonance is to place a major and minor third down at the same time. Although this sounds as if it ought to be very unpleasant indeed, these two notes are in fact in any harmonic series built on one note.  If you just put them down willy nilly they'll sound foul, but if you place them according to as they appear in the harmonic series, they sound deliciously wicked.  The 'right' way to hear them is with the major third at the bottom and the minor third at the top.  Bartok loved this.  Here's an example from the end of Ballo dell'ingrate: I'll point to the moment.

Example:  Monteverdi - Ballo dell'ingrate (excerpt)

The last desperate advice of the ingrate nymphs before they disappear back into hell: 'learn pity, beautiful women'.

Occasionally Monteverdi wants to mix things up a bit more so for 'dolor' (pain) in the nymph's lament, he squeezes the major and minor notes right up against each other for maximum 'filth', as we call it in the trade.  This utterly paints the idea behind the word, 'pain'.  I don't know another chord like it in the repertoire.

Example:  Monteverdi - Lamento dell ninfa (excerpt)
 
So my conclusion is that Monteverdi's brilliance and originality around 1610, (I'm not sure how useful the term modern is), rested on his creation of varied textures and soundworlds, his all-pervasive lyricism, his adaptation of the new monodic style to his more interesting musical purposes, and because his music is so powerfully emotional.  While his contemporaries are stuck worrying about how modern the madrigal is or how modern their opera is, Monteverdi just writes brilliantly powerful music.

Let me quote James Weekes, director of vocal ensemble Exaudi.  In an article for Choir & Organ magazine about Monteverdi's fourth book of madrigals which was the music in our show The Full Monteverdi, he wrote: "This is music stripped away to a nucleus of expressive intensity, music which elides into oblivion all that is empty in conventional musical rhetoric, leaving painful harmonic nerve-ends everywhere exposed to the force of emotion which revealed them."
 
I love the implication there that Monteverdi has shown something new by getting rid of waste, clearing away anything that isn't pertinent.  There's presumably a lesson for our new masters there.  Always with Monteverdi, this fabulous economy.

Another thought.  Considering Monteverdi's music as a whole, it's sometimes worth asking whether there's a real division between one repertoire and another.  The textbooks look at sacred in one chapter and secular in another.  But I see no real psychological divide between the brain that devised the madrigals and the Vespers, so 'sacred versus secular' doesn't work for me.  For reasons I've discussed about how Monteverdi's approach to monody was much more based on his madrigal technique, I also don't feel that the ensemble and monodic repertoire are fundamentally different: they're both the product of the 'second practice': expressing the text and moving the listener.  However, I do have sympathy with dividing him into his Mantuan and Venetian periods.  So Mantua gets the five voice madrigals, Orfeo, Arianna, Ballo dell Ingrate and the Vespers while Venice claims all the later staged work (much of it lost) but not, fortunately, Poppea and Ulisse, the duets, the rather baroque madrigals of Love and War and the rest of the church music.  That for me is a rather more telling division.

Most of Monteverdi's sacred music (not the 1610 Vespers) comes from his Venetian period.  It's very beautiful.  All those passages in thirds, the perfect acoustic spacing of it.  That final Amen in 'Beatus Vir'.  But dare I share the secret with you that I don't find the main body of this repertoire really moving in the way his a cappella madrigals are?  Is this because his church music wasn't felt so passionately?  That's unlikely, given his avowed wish to be working in sacred music from 1608 onwards and his taking of holy orders as well.  Perhaps, like Gesualdo, he felt a certain reserve was necessary in his sacred music but whereas in Gesualdo this serves to tame a madness and in the taming to produce his greatest music, in Monteverdi, I feel that an edge is absent in the later church music.

Of course there are plenty of exceptions to this; the late Salve Reginas and other violent Dixit Dominus settings - interesting that these are pieces with very provocative texts.  But if you're thinking that this is just the complaint of a madrigalist, pitting his case against the sacred music, you'd be wrong as I love the sacred music.  In any case I'd add much of the madrigals of Love and War to the charge sheet of less powerful music from the Venetian period.  I adore them but they rarely move me in the same way as a capella pieces from 35 years earlier.  Specifically on the Madrigals of love and war, this might partially be because his theory about setting 'anger' or war-like sentiments for the first time led him to follow some slightly stilted compositional ideas to back this up.  I get the style but the content is sometimes slightly formulaïc.

My feeling is that in Mantua, the passion of youth and the need to prove himself, allied to the very difficult personal circumstances in his last few years there, these things drew from him the great madrigals, Orfeo, Arianna and the Vespers; whilst once in Venice, with the financial pressure off, a little local difficulty with the Inquisition aside, his more comfortable life and his own middle age didn't inspire him to compose in quite the same way.  Who is to say that Byrd would have been such a great composer without the stimulus of being a Catholic in C of E England?

That's pretty much the substance of what I have to say.  Just two final thoughts while I have your attention.

Here's a lovely thought on Monteverdi from Richard Morrison writing in The Times, after a concert of Monteverdi we gave in 2006.

"As with The Full Monteverdi, the audience is made to feel that it is actually inside the music: stung by the biting discords, caressed by the velvety sonority of the consolatory consonances, haunted by the anguished chromatic lines, astonished by the sudden darts of harmonic daring, invigorated by the syncopated dance rhythms, and finally overwhelmed by the intensity of these miniature choral-dramas.  You could live to be 150 and still not know the "full" Monteverdi. Like Leonardo or Shakespeare, he discloses a new glint to his genius each time you look."

Beautifully put.

The Full Monteverdi - we took a lot of flak for this title. But like last year's new production, 'Tallis in Wonderland', it wasn't an entirely flippant piece of marketing.  The project's starting point was how to get an audience, or perhaps I should say an English audience, more profoundly into the music and everything it offered.

When I know a work of art well, I want to share it with everyone else.  I think this is an emotion many musicians have.  My disappointment with performing Monteverdi to English audiences until 2004 was that people seemed to love the overall feel, that lovely suspension here and there: in other words, the soundworld, lyricism and textures; but there was little emotional connection.  So I was looking for a way to get audiences to connect.  Part of the problem is certainly the language. But another is that concert audiences, more than theatre audiences I think, like to be in control and to consume art on their own terms; to sit in the safety of an audience and in an extension of Brecht's Alienation effect, to know that the stage is the stage and the audience is nicely protected through the 4th wall.

I knew from working with Dutch director Henk Schut on Orfeo in 2001 and then further in the Faust we did with the Netherlands Chamber Choir how much more an audience absorbs if it doesn't feel in control.  So what was needed was a way of presenting the music that would do this and draw out the emotional consequences of the texts.  If I say 'I love you and you don't love me', then I must feel devasted and seeing this happen to real people gives an emotional connection that you don't get when the pieces are sung 'to' an audience.  If that could be made to work well enough, the language, strangely, wouldn't be so much of a problem:  if you've ever watched an argument abroad between a couple, you don't usually need a translation.  For the record though, the idea for The Full Monteverdi was not one jot mine, but director John La Bouchardière.

The other thing Morrison says, 'You could live to be 150 and still not know the "full" Monteverdi. He discloses a new glint to his genius each time you look." That struck a particular chord.  I've been working on his fourth book of madrigals, the book we dramatised in The Full Monteverdi, since I was at school and I Fagiolini will have performed some of these pieces over 100 times.  I was talking about this with tenor Nicholas Mulroy recently: we just could never get enough of rehearsing these pieces and the reason is because there's always too much to focus on at once.

On the musical level, the sheer variety of type of piece, as we've discovered, keeps one endlessly thinking and responding.  On the purely vocal level, well...  I maintain that an unaccompanied solo-voice group, undirected in performance, is the most expressive music-making force in existence.  The subtleties of vowel production, the range of colouristic possibilities in the voice, far superior to any instrument - that's not an opinion but a simple fact due to the hugely malleable apparatus of the mouth that constantly affects the sound.  This was well documented at the time and other instruments were judged on their ability to get close to imitating the voice.  Unfortunately, the imperfections of the human voice mean that this ideal can only ever be aimed at but in any one performance, you might touch on one aspect.

And then after all that work, when you're actually finally performing a madrigal in a good one to a part group in concert, you have the conflicting demands on you of all the technical things while the over-riding pull is to declaim and emote the text.  The music is set with this purpose in mind, and if a performance is to have a soul, it'll stand and fall on how committed you are to this....  and blend, tuning, balance, extremes of range, the fact that you've been up since 4am; haven't eaten properly and flew RyanAir...

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