de Monte Madrigali spirituali Passacaille

Philippus de Monte
Madrigali spirituali

Cappella Mariana/Vojtěch Semerád
rec. 2023 at the Chapel of Church of Czech Brethren, Prague (Czech Republic) & the Jezuïetenkerk, Heverlee (Belgium)
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Proper Music
Passacaille PAS1143 [56]

Philippus (or Philippe) de Monte was one of the most renowned composers of his time. For more than 30 years he was imperial Kapellmeister at the Habsburg court, first in Vienna and then in Prague; this was one of the most prestigious posts at the time. He was also a prolific composer, who wrote about forty masses and around 250 motets. His contributions to the secular genre of the madrigal were even more impressive: over 800 hundred such pieces were printed in 34 books and a number of his madrigals were also included in anthologies. The disc under review here is devoted to a genre that reached the peak of its popularity in the last decades of the 16th century: the madrigale spirituale.

As de Monte is today largely overshadowed by his contemporaries Lassus and Palestrina, let’s first have a look at his biography. Like Josquin and Lassus, de Monte was from Flanders: he was born in Mechelen and received his first musical education as a choirboy at St Rombout’s Cathedral. By 1542 he was working in Naples, which had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. He became acquainted with the genre of the madrigal and with the Italian language. A contemporary wrote that he “knew his Italian as if he were a native Italian”. Twice he was a candidate for a major position: in 1555 for that of Kapellmeister at the Bavarian court in Munich and in 1562 that of maestro di cappella of St Mark’s in Venice. In both cases he was not appointed. It is not entirely clear what the reasons may have been: whether he himself was not interested in these posts or whether other composers, Lassus and De Rore respectively, were preferred. In 1568 he became Kapellmeister to the imperial court in Vienna. There he served two emperors: first Maximilian II until his death in 1576, and then Rudolf II, who moved the court to Prague.

As I just mentioned, Monte is not given as much attention as Lassus and Palestrina. One may wonder why that is the case. Peter Van Heyghen, in his liner-notes to a recording of Monte’s madrigals by the ensemble Ratas de la viejo Mundo (Ramée, 2021), states: “He was neither an innovator nor ground breaker, as were Cipriano de Rore and Giaches de Wert, nor was he physically present at important historical events, as had been Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in Rome during the Counter-Reformation or Andrea Gabrieli in Venice after the city’s victory over the Ottomans.” He also mentions that de Monte seems not to have been very concerned over the promotion of his music, unlike Lassus. Van Heyghen refers to the Flemish scholar Ignace Bossuyt who wrote that de Monte’s music is intended for connoisseurs. It is refined and rather introverted. Moreover, de Monte did not keep up with the fashion of his time to express the text in music and to make abundantly use of what has become known as ‘madrigalisms’. Van Heyghen, referring to the prefaces to several of his collections of music: “He emphasized the interaction between finely-proportioned music and moral virtue in 1572 and first condemned, on the basis of an antique myth, the exaggerated theatrical gesture for the sake of effective expression in 1578, and subsequently reiterated the idea that music and music-making can not only give pleasure, but can also evoke wonderful effects and affects in a well-harmonised human spirit. He also warned against the dangers of excess and insufficient restraint in this respect”.

That does not mean that in his settings of poems there is hardly any connection between text and music. Lothar Peirsman, in his liner-notes to the present disc, mentions several examples from his spiritual madrigals. And this brings us to the genre, which is the subject of this disc. The first pieces of this kind were written alongside the first secular madrigals in the 1520s and 30s, although they were not called that way. The first printed collection of spiritual madrigals dates from 1563. The term madrigale spirituale does not indicate a specific form, as it was often not clearly distinguishable from the lauda spirituale or the canzonetta spirituale. All three have their roots in secular music, but make use of texts of a spiritual, philosophical or moral nature. They were not intended for liturgical use, but for performance in domestic surroundings, basically as entertainment and edification. Most spiritual madrigals were settings of Italian texts, but the term was also used for Latin contrafacta of secular madrigals.

Some poets of the 16th century were particularly popular among composers of spiritual madrigals, such as Torquato Tasso, Luigi Tansillo and Vittoria Colonna. The latter’s poems figure prominently in the programme that was recorded by the Cappella Mariana. Monte composed 27 poems by Colonna in total; nine of them are included here. Most have the form of a sonnet, a form which consists of fourteen lines of eleven syllables each, linked by a fixed rhyme scheme. It begins with an octave (lines 1 to 8), followed by a sextet (7 to 14). Often these two sections are marked as I parte and II parte respectively. In the tenth poem by Colonna included here we only get the first part, which is followed by a setting of the second part from the pen of Costanzo Porta (S’el breve suon – Che fia, quando udirà). Why that is the case is not mentioned in the liner-notes. The inclusion of Vergine pura by Cipriano de Rore is easier to explain. In his Terzo libro di madrigali a cinque voci of 1548 he included a cycle of eleven madrigals on texts by Francesco Petrarca: Le Vergine; the third of it is Vergine pura. Petrarca (1304-1374) was one of the most celebrated poets in Italy’s history, and was still very much an inspiration of later poets, including Vittoria Colonna. Here Rore’s setting of Petrarca’s sonnet is followed by Monte’s setting of Colonna’s sonnet with the same title but a different text. Peirsman states that Monte was influenced by Rore.

Later in the programme we get two settings of the same text: Signor cui già fu poco, again from the pen of Colonna. First we hear it as the first part of Monte’s setting of the complete text, later the version by Luca Marenzio, who seems not to have set the two next sections. The comparison between the two confirms the observations by Van Heyghen, as Marenzio goes a few steps further in his illustration of the text.

That said, in his very own way Monte is effectively depicting elements in the text. The first three lines of Perchè non la legò (Parte II of L’alto consiglio alhor) are subtly illustrated by Monte: “For He has not bound her nor ever let her Fall, but held her dearly in his hand, kept her intact as a precious jewel”. In Signor la notte e’l giorno and Signor cui piacque ornare – parts II and III respectively of Signor cui già fu poco – Monte does not overlook the possibilities to depict words like “confuso horrore” (confusing terror) and “l’interna e aspra guerra” (the interior and bitter war).

As far as the subjects are concerned, Monte was very much a representative of the Counter Reformation, and therefore the virgin Mary is strongly represented in his spiritual madrigals. Vergine pura is just one example, another is Un foco sol la DonnaQuando il turbato mar uses a troubled sea and storm as images for the trials and tribulations of life, and closes with referring to “the living rock Jesus” as the source of trust. Padre nostro e del ciel is addressed to God the Father; the title undoubtedly refers to the prayer Pater noster.

As I stated at the start of this review, de Monte does not receive as much attention as some of his contemporaries. This disc impressively shows how unjustified the relative neglect of his oeuvre is. These spiritual madrigals are jewels, which deserve much more interest. Their virtues only reveal themselves in an expressive and subtle interpretation, and that is exactly what they receive here. In the course of its existence the Cappella Mariana has moved into the highest ranks of ensembles for the performance of music of the Renaissance. Here they deliver superb performances, in which the blending of the voices and the intonation are perfect, and no detail of the texts gets lost.

This disc is the best possible case for Philippus de Monte. It is time for a thorough exploration of his large oeuvre.

Johan van Veen

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L’alto consiglio alhor (I parte) – Perchè non la legò (II parte)
Un foco sol la Donna (I parte) – Cangiar obietto (II parte)
Quando il turbato mar (I parte) – E se talhor la barca (II parte)
S’el breve suon (I parte)/
Costanzo Porta (1528/29-1601)
Che fia, quando udirà (II parte)
Philippus de Monte
Vorrei l’orecchia haver (I parte) – Amor alza le voci (II parte)
Signor chi n’esporrà (I parte) – O pur perchè dobbiam (II parte)
Cipriano de Rore (1515/16-1565)
Vergine pura
Philippus de Monte
Vergine pura
Stella del nostro mar
Padre nostro e del ciel (I parte) – Dal fermo stato (II parte)
Signor cui già fu poco (I parte) – Signor la notte e’l giorno (II parte) – Signor cui piacque ornare (III parte)
La bella Donna
Pietro Vinci (c1525-1584)
La bella Donna
Luca Marenzio (1553/54-1599)
Quanta gioia