Welcome to Italy, the cradle of many artistic styles. This evening, we are making stops in Florence, Mantua, Modena, Venice, Cremona, and even down south in Naples. At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, music was undergoing a great rebirth from the complicated polyphony of the Renaissance to simple monophony with choral accompaniment. The centre for this new style of music was Florence. The members of a group of artists known as the “Florentine camerata” wanted to capture all of the affects of a sung text more flexibly. The result of their efforts was early Baroque monody, a monophonic style supported by a an instrumental bass line and harmonies. The music was dominated by gentle nuances of ornamentation and detail, but also by great passion with subject matter ranging from love to combat.
The best known representative of the Florentine camerata was the singer, lute player, violist, harpist, and composer Giulio Caccini (1551–1618). He was born in Rome, where he learned music, and from there he was attracted to Florence by Cosimo I de’ Medici. Thanks to his experience as a singer, Caccini became the decisive creative force behind the recitative with its speech-like declamatory style. In 1602 the first volume of his collection Le nuove musiche appeared, and it became a source of inspiration for many successors in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Both solo madrigals on today’s programme are from this collection.
If the programme of a concert of early Baroque music includes works by no less than three female composers, it can hardly be a coincidence. The first two are Caccini’s daughters, excellent singers who, with their father, mother, and brother Pompeo, belonged to a vocal ensemble that is twice recorded as having appeared in Paris. They also received an excellent education in music and general knowledge. The older sister was the singer, lute player, and poet Francesca Caccini (1587–1641). The Medici court held her artistry in such high regard that in 1614 she was the best paid of all of the musicians there. Besides performing her singing duties, she also managed to teach and compose. She composed several operas in the spirit of the Florentine camarata, and she published a collection of solo songs. Her sister Settimia Caccini (1591 – ca. 1638), four years younger, was active in the same field, but she did not publish a printed collection, and her compositions are scattered among various manuscript sources. She was in demand as a singer, and there is documentation of her engagements for opera performances in Florence and elsewhere.
Settimia also sang in Mantua in the early opera l’Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). A native of Cremona, Monteverdi further developed the ideas of the Florentine camerata, and he was the creator of the new form of the madrigal. Initially he was the maestro di cappella to the House of Gonzaga in Mantua, then in 1613 he accepted the prestigious post of choirmaster at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Besides his famous series of collections of madrigals, he published other collections of secular and sacred music including his Scherzi musicali for one or two voices and basso continuo in two volumes from 1607 and 1632. The compositions you will be hearing this evening come from that collection. Compared with Monteverdi’s madrigals, this collection is gentler, more intimate, and also more humorous in character (scherzo = joke).
Monteverdi collaborated with the Venetian poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi, whose adoptive daughter Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) was a sought-after singer at an early age. The compositions of the third female composer on today’s programme are full of unusual melodic and harmonic ideas, and they were acclaimed by the most illustrious musicians of their day. She published several collections of secular vocal music in which she often set her own texts to music.
Like Monteverdi, Tarquinio Merula (1595–1665) was also from Cremona, and apart from a few interruptions, he spent his entire career as the choirmaster at the cathedral in Cremona. He wrote a number of fascinating instrumental compositions that contributed to the emancipation of instrumental music. He also composed a long list of vocal works – canzonas, madrigals, and sacred works. The Canzonetta spirituale sopra la Nanna is a gentle Christmas lullaby that reminds us of the coming events in Bethlehem.
The composer of the two solo numbers for harp and theorbo is Bellerofonte Castaldi (1581–1649). This composer, singer, and theorbo virtuoso lived in Venice, Modena, and Rome. He was an adventurer, and he wrote controversial satirical poems. He designed a new type of theorbo, the small “tiorbino”. His only preserved collection of instrumental compositions was published in 1622.
The only representative of music from southern Italy on today’s programme is Ascanio Mayone (ca. 1565–1627). He was the organist at the Church of the Santissima Annunziata Maggiore in Naples and also at the local court of the viceroy of Spain, thanks to which he also visited Spain and Portugal. He published a collection of madrigals, and some of his sacred compositions have been preserved, but above all he composed for harpsichord and organ, along with a few works for harp.