Close
Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

Modal Subjectivities Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal

Read Chapter 1
Close
Chapter 1

Introduction

The Cultural Work of the Madrigal

Ah, dolente partita!
Ah, fin de la mia vita!
Da te parto e non moro? E pur i' provo
la pena de la morte
e sento nel partire
un vivace morire,
che dà vita al dolore
per far che moia immortalmente il core.


(Giovanni Battista Guarini, Il pastor fido)

Ah, sorrowful parting!
Ah, end of my life!
I part from you and do not die? And yet I suffer
the pain of death
and feel in this parting
a vivacious dying,
which gives life to sorrow
causing my heart to die immortally.


In this highly concentrated verse, the pastoral lover Mirtillo attempts to put into words the contradictory impulses he experiences in but a single moment. Multiple passions—longing, abjection, disbelief, anguish, resignation—assail him from within, finally to condense into the oxymoron of "un vivace morire." Banished from Amarilli's presence, Mirtillo hangs suspended between an agony so violent that it ought to bring about his immediate demise but that, because of its very intensity, prevents the release from suffering promised by death. In this brief speech, Giovanni Battista Guarini displays his celebrated epigrammatic style: an economy of means that sketches in a mere eight lines an emotional state comprising opposites that cannot even hope for reconciliation. He manifests his virtuosity particularly well in his successive redefinitions of "vita" and "morte," binary opposites that shift positions back and forth until they become hopelessly (and deliciously) fused.

Imagine, however, having the ability to convey all these sentiments at once, as though one could read the lines of Mirtillo's speech together vertically as a score. The resulting performance, alas, would amount to little more than noise, each string of words canceling out the others; instead of a realistic representation of Mirtillo's conflicting affects we would get something akin to John Cage tuning in randomly to twelve different radio stations. For despite all its potential for precision and sophistication, language relies for its intelligibility on the consecutive presentation of ideas in linear grammatical order. We may marvel at the extent to which Guarini appears to overcome the limitations of additive speech. Indeed, literary figures of the twentieth-century literary avant-garde—James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, for example—labored to push language in these directions through stream-of-consciousness technique, leading some literary theorists to latch onto the concept of counterpoint to explain such experiments; Julia Kristeva even offers double-column prose to simulate the experience of jostling two contrasting thought processes at the same time (a simulation that often leaves the reader feeling little more than wall-eyed).

The very term counterpoint, however, alludes to the cultural medium in which such feats occur as a matter of course: namely, music. And in his madrigal setting of Mirtillo's lament, Claudio Monteverdi manages to achieve the simultaneity toward which Guarini gestures. Given the performing force of five independent voices, the composer can actually superimpose the sentiments of the first four lines of text, allowing them to circulate within the same space and time. Thus, in the first motive two voices divide from a unison to a sequence of close dissonances to enact the searing anguish of separation expressed in the first line; a too-rapid collapse toward premature closure on "Ah, fin de la mia vita!" parallels Mirtillo's futile death wish in the second; a slowly ascending melodic motive that cancels out the would-be closure of the death wish registers the incredulity of the third; and an insistent repetition of a high pitch on "E pur i' provo/La pena de la morte" shrieks out the stabbing pain of the fourth. The dynamic vectors of Monteverdi's motives, in other words, offer analogues to these divergent affects, giving us a visceral enactment of the suffering, resignation, doubt, and protest that surge through Mirtillo's mind and body during this single moment. Moreover, in keeping with Guarini's sense that Mirtillo cannot escape his internally conflicted state, the madrigal moves on in time to yet other combinations that recycle these mutually antagonistic elements but come no closer to resolution.

What Monteverdi offers here is a sound-image of subjective interiority on the verge of psychological meltdown, and he thereby gives us what music can do that language cannot, even at its most ingenious. Of course, not everyone has celebrated this particular strategy. Some of Monteverdi's own contemporaries, including most prominently Vincenzo Galilei (the father of the astronomer), complained that the contrapuntal excesses of late sixteenth-century madrigals prevented the intelligible projection of the words; such critics advocated instead a solo-voice model whereby the music serves primarily to inflect the lyrics, declaimed in an unimpeded fashion approximating public oratory.

To be sure, it takes a leap of faith to accept a five-voice ensemble as reproducing the swooning of a single individual. Musicologists trip all over themselves to explain away this embarrassing convention, so far removed from the realistic expressivity of seventeenth-century solo singing. They gain support from sixteenth-century critics such as Galilei, who likewise detested the contrapuntal artifice of polyphonic text-settings. But this convention should seem quite familiar to fans of gospel, doo-wop, or any of the boy-group collectives that rise to the top of today's pop charts with great regularity. Like madrigal ensembles, these feature simulations of complex interiorities: rational grounding in the bass, melodic address in the middle, ecstatic melismas on the top. No contemporary teenager needs to be told how the various vocal roles in, say, *NSYNC function together to produce a viable representation of the Self.

Even as Monteverdi was delivering "Ah, dolente partita" to the publisher, he and his colleagues were embarking on a style that brought music into the arena of dramatic spectacle we now call opera. The realistic performance of individual subjects afforded by the stile recitativo made opera the dominant genre of musical representation for the next three hundred years. But we often forget that recitative accomplished its coup at the cost of harnessing music to the linear imperatives of language: as music attaches itself to the exigencies of rhetorical declamation, it finds itself restricted to speech's limitations. We could thus count "Ah, dolente partita" (to which we will return later in this chapter) as not only Mirtillo's wistful adieu to Amarilli but also as a reluctant farewell to the multivoiced medium honed to perfection in the sixteenth century as a means for depicting the phenomenological interior Self.

Music historians like to start the clock for the early modern period in 1600. Several factors lend support to that date: the first opera, the first oratorio, the first solo sonata—in other words, the first "realistic" musical representations of the individual persona—all appear in that year. Moreover, these emergent genres all rely on the new technology of basso continuo responsible for securing the tonal era that still persists to this day, if not in expressions of the avant-garde then at least as the lingua franca that underwrites film, advertisement, and popular music. But the coincidence of all these elements makes it perhaps too easy to draw a line of demarcation whereby all cultural agendas before that point count as radically Other. Nor does this problem arise solely within musicology: witness Michel Foucault's similar partitioning of epistemologies in The Order of Things at around 1600 or philosophy's designation of point zero at Descartes's "Cogito." If we take these interdisciplinary resonances as further confirmation, then the early seventeenth century seems irrefutably the dawn of modern subjectivity.

Of course, something momentous does occur in European culture around 1600. Yet that break is not so radical that it can justify the flattening out of what happened prior to that time—an inevitable effect of Othering. As Eric Wolf explains in his classic Europe and the People without History, our historiographies tend to ascribe Selfhood and complex sequences of significant events to those we choose to regard as "us," and they project everyone else into a kind of timeless, unconscious arcadia. Thus, the decades preceding our countdown year often count as interesting insofar as their cultural practices point toward the advent of the new; but to the extent that they align themselves with soon-to-be-obsolete genres and techniques, they still seem to belong to the old world, the backdrop up against which the innovations under consideration can stand in bold relief.

Truth to tell, some distinctions of this sort will appear in this book: I too wish to trace a history of Western subjectivity and will even refer occasionally to the Cogito as a crucial verbal manifestation of the phenomenon I examine. I also plead guilty to drawing a line for the sake of delimiting my study, such that what lies before my designated time and outside of northern Italy will have to remain suspended (at least for now) in a vague atemporality.

My argument in nuce is that from around 1525 the Italian madrigal serves as a site—indeed, the first in European history—for the explicit, self-conscious construction in music of subjectivities. Over the course of a good century, madrigal composers anticipate Descartes in performing the crucial break with traditional epistemologies, plunging musical style and thought into an extraordinary crisis of authority, knowledge, power, and identity. They do so, however, not by repudiating the modal edifice they had inherited from centuries of scholastic theorizing but rather by systematizing, allegorizing, and finally blowing it up from the inside. During the process, they move not closer to but instead further and further away from what might qualify as "tonal" (at least in the standard eighteenth-century sense of the word). And they do so in the service of an agenda that interrogates what it means and feels like to be a Self—to be more specific, a morbidly introspective and irreconcilably conflicted Self.

If similar issues also show up in various other cultural media, they need not advance together in lock-step. Indeed, my other work suggests that music often yields a somewhat different chronology of issues such as subjective formations or conceptions of the body than would a study based solely on written documents. On the one hand, the madrigal resuscitates a tradition of vernacular love song—together with its infinitely fascinating ruminations on the affects of passion on identity—stretching from the Moorish courts of medieval Spain, through the troubadours, and climaxing in the works of Petrarch, whose fourteenth-century sonnets prove a major source of texts for the sixteenth-century genre we are tracing. From that point of view, the madrigal might count as a throwback, and indeed, one of the important strands we will follow involves the association of madrigals with individuals and/or communities in exile who yearn nostalgically for their homeland in the guise of the Lady. But on the other hand, the musical settings that comprise madrigal composition often articulate astonishingly modern insights into subjectivity, for in the process of converting lyrics into the more corporeal and time-oriented medium of music, they necessarily bring to bear aspects of human experience and cultural assumptions not available to poetry. The historiographer Hayden White has pleaded with musicologists to start paying back for what they have gleaned from historians and literary scholars by offering information not available except through music. This book serves as an installment of that payback.

It is, of course, notoriously difficult (I won't accept the word dangerous—dangerous to what? to whom?) to rely on nonverbal media for historical data. Pitches and rhythms reside a long distance away from the apparently solid semiosis of language. Yet if music is to figure as anything other than a mere epiphenomenon (and those of us who lived through the music-driven 1960s fervently believe as much), then we must find approaches that will allow us to examine its meanings. Otherwise, we will continue simply to graft music onto an already-formulated narrative of historical developments; more important, we will fail to learn what music might have to teach us or to question seriously what may be incomplete accounts of the past. At the very least I want in this book to shake loose a version of early modern subjectivity too neatly packaged in recent studies and to encourage a process of historical revision that takes music as a point of departure. I also wish to treat in depth a repertory too long neglected as a site of crucial cultural work: the sixteenth-century Italian madrigal.

The madrigal scarcely qualifies as an obscure genre. Within its own time, it occupied the center of musical production: the aesthetic debates concerning sixteenth-century Italian music revolved around the experiments performed by its principal composers, and its success contributed greatly to the viability of the new commercial enterprise of music printing. Moreover, a large number of prominent musicologists have long concentrated their efforts to uncovering its history and making this music available to modern musicians and audiences.

Why, then, this book? In point of fact, I have no new archival sou