Sweet Torment over Four Centuries - The Avid Listener

February 17, 2015

Sweet Torment over Four Centuries

Andrew Dell’Antonio (The University of Texas at Austin)

In 1623 Carlo Milanuzzi, a Venetian musician, released a “greatest hits” songbook—or at least a book of songs he hoped would be recognized as popular, since this was long before broadcasters established Top 10 lists. A highlight of the collection was a tune attributed to one of the best-known songwriters of the time, Claudio Monteverdi.

The text begins “Si dolce è il tormento”:

  Si-dolce-el-tormento-facsimile-milanuzzi-1624

The wistful text speaks of the sweet torment of loving someone who does not return that love. It ends with the hope that the beloved will someday sigh after the speaker has departed. One good translation, with a lovely linked recording, is available at http://music.magnificatbaroque.com/track/monteverdi-si-dolce-el-tormento.

The song is very straightforward, almost simple, on the surface: a melody with limited range, which descends through a major scale in the first half of the song and briefly rises again before pausing and descending through a minor scale to the tonic note in the second half. Each text stanza of the song is designed to be sung to that same melody. The publisher indicates this by printing stanzas 2–4 below the musical setting of the first stanza—a practice still in use today. An underlying bass line provides about one note for each three notes of the melody. 

The style of musical notation Milanuzzi used was relatively new—it had first appeared in print just over two decades before his song was published. Known as basso continuo, it linked a melody to a bass line that was meant to be elaborated upon in performance. Musicians called this process of improvisation ripieno, which then as now also refers to the filling inside stuffed pasta (ravioli, tortellini, etc.). And just as ravioli are made tasty and unique by the creative combination of ingredients in the stuffing, ripieno realization is made distinctive and appealing by the performers’ ability to fill in the musical space between the bass and the melody provided by the score.

In the early 1600s, conventions about proper harmonization would have guided performers in their elaboration of the ripieno, but a fair amount of latitude with those rules encouraged individual interpretation. This practice was the domain of professional singers, who would accompany themselves elaborately by playing string instruments such as lutes (see the video example below). Sometimes they would even recruit additional instrumentalists to make the ripieno all the more “tasty,” adding complex sonic meaning to their powerful voices. Demand grew for skilled musicians, and “Si dolce” provided a great template for their expressive talents. A recent recording of the song attempts to recreate this kind of sonic variety, including improvisations by melody instruments as well as multiple ripieno performers.

Philippe Jaroussky, vocalist, is supported by Cristina Pluhar’s Ensemble Arpeggiata; the basso continuo /ripieno instruments are a cymbalom (which begins the performance), three members of the lute family, and a viola da gamba; featured melody instruments are cornetto and violin.

 

The notation of “Si dolce” provides an additional musical guideline that can supplement or replace the harmony suggested by the basso continuo. Above the melody line, capital letters indicate specific chords through a system known as tablature. (Modern guitarists are familiar with a similar system, which specifies finger positions on the frets of contemporary six-stringed guitars.) The tablature used in “Si dolce” was designed for the five-stringed Spanish guitar, an instrument popular in the early 1600s. During that time, many music books were published with fret-and-string-finger-position equivalents for various letters and symbols. Scholars are confident that Milanuzzi provided Spanish guitar tablature for “Si dolce” to make it more marketable for those who would not have been proficient in basso continuo realization but still wanted the opportunity to sing the song without hiring a professional to do it for them.

Few people today play five-stringed guitar, and fewer still are familiar with its tablature system. But if we listen to a recording by performers who do use the tablature indication in “Si dolce,” we can hear a subtle harmonic difference. The tablature indicates harmonies more precisely than the basso continuo and specifies that the final note of the melody should be harmonized by a major chord. (That same major chord also appears earlier in the song, but it’s a little harder to hear.) Listen to Montserrat Figueras’s version below—can you hear the different sonic “flavor” around the final note of the vocal melody? If so, try listening again for where that major harmony occurs earlier in the song.

Montserrat Figueras is the singer, with Rolf Lislevand playing basso continuo and ripieno on the theorbo, an instrument in the lute family.

 

Without the specific indication of the tablature, modern performers realize the final note in the bass with a minor chord, which is more in keeping with twenty-first-century harmonic conventions given the descending minor scale that precedes it. And indeed, it is possible that performers who were providing a ripieno in the early 1600s would have likewise seen the final bass note as implying a minor rather than a major chord. Authenticity here is hard to pin down. Since there are no other instances of Monteverdi using tablatures, it’s unlikely that those in “Si dolce” are his own. Perhaps this was Milanuzzi’s interpretation of the melody-bass skeleton provided by the composer.

And perhaps Monteverdi didn’t write the tune at all. Director of music at one of the most important institutions in the Italian peninsula—St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice—he was well known for many successful publications of songs. Might Milanuzzi have used Monteverdi’s name as headliner to hype his “greatest hits” collection, whether or not he had obtained the song from him? There was no copyright at the time, no systematic penalty for piracy or false attribution, so Monteverdi would have had little recourse. Even if the composer had seen his name used incorrectly to sell books, he might have been willing to let it slide, as long as he thought the music wouldn’t reflect badly on his reputation. (One other possibility: Milanuzzi’s collection features a couple of songs by Monteverdi’s son Francesco, who was beginning to make a career as a musician in his own right. The elder, more famous Monteverdi might have agreed to be featured in order to give his son an opening into the business.)

We don’t know if “Si dolce” was especially popular in the early 1600s—it was not reprinted in the volumes of songs that Milanuzzi released in the following two decades. After all, since the public always wants fresh material, one can’t release a “chart-topping” song more than once and expect market success. “Si dolce” has certainly become popular in the last couple of decades, performed and recorded by many prominent singers, and not exclusively early-music specialists. A number of modern musicians have recognized a similarity between the song’s expandable bare bones and the performance practices of jazz standards of the last century. Here are just a few of examples that reflect the stylistic diversity that can be mixed into the filling of this song:

Jazz trumpeter and composer Paolo Fresu is joined by pianist and composer Uri Caine.

 

An unnamed jazz-fusion ensemble on the Dutch Radio 4 show Virus in March 2012.

 

Guitarist Tony McManus, from Scotland, has recorded in a wide variety of contemporary traditions.

 

Almost 400 years after its creation, “Si dolce” continues to fire the imaginations of musicians.  If only Milanuzzi and Monteverdi were around today to reap the rewards!

For Discussion

  1. What do you think makes “Si dolce” so popular with musicians, and presumably their audiences, almost four centuries after it was written?

  2. Which of the versions presented above do you find most expressively compelling? Why? Can you find another version online that you find more compelling, and what makes it so?

  3. Does it matter whether this song was written by Monteverdi? Why or why not?

Further Reading

For more on Milanuzzi and popular song in Venice in the early 1600s, see this essay by Cory Gavito.

Comments

Question 2 Response:

My favorite version of "Si dolce" is the trumpet, accordion, string bass trio because the combination of these three instruments give the piece a unique sound and style. Though there are not lyrics in this version, the trumpet is able to provide its' own meaning and story through the jazz like interpretation of the piece. The modern expression provided through this jazz fusion group is elevated through the use of the mute in the trumpet. By using the jazz trumpet as the primary instrument (voice), the original culture of Venice and the 20th century period of jazz in America are equally represented. The use of two instruments that imitate the original guitar part is extremely well designed because both instruments can focus more on musicality rather than only technique.

To paraphrase progressive rock guitarist Robert Fripp, a musician does not create music, but rather just provides a medium through which music can happen. What I'm getting at here is that it really doesn't matter whether or not Monteverdi wrote "Si Dolce" in the same way that it doesn't matter that Miles Davis didn't write "Autumn Leaves". Actually, if you look at "Si Dolce" as a jazz chart, it's a lot less foreign. In jazz music, old pop songs formed the basis of the repertoire, but only the bare skeletons of the songs: one page of music with the melody and the chords that the player could interpret. Because of this practice, jazz listeners often care more about the specific performance of the piece than the actual writer. Some who play "Autumn Leaves" don't even know its author, but they use the music written as a jumping-off point for their own musical creation and expression. The same can be said about "Si Dolce": it is a set of suggestions on how a piece of music should go to be interpreted and truly created by the performer(s) who is, in the end, just another medium for the music to manifest itself.

Question 1:

"Si dolce" seems to maintain its popularity for a variety of reasons. When it comes to the structure of the music, the piece seems to be written in a way that gives much leeway to the musician seeking to perform it. The use of tablature allows for versatility in style/interpretation and makes the piece easy to read, learn, and perform. In terms of the audiences' perspective, whether it be centuries ago or today, "Si dolce" has a theme that strikes a chord with a good majority of the world which is: love and longing. This is a common theme that has existed in music for thousands of years, and when people can relate to something, of course they will listen. Musicians want to be able to express themselves through organized sound, and their audiences want to listen to something that they can relate to, that represents them. This connection is what makes "Si dolce" so popular, even to this day.

Question #1 Response.

I think that this piece of music, like many others of it's kind during this time period is very unique. The mystery of the composer in a way makes it a tad more relevant and interesting. Not knowing who compose this brings attention to performers and music historians to really look for some similarities and differences from the "claimed" composer and in their works. That aside, being a voice major myself. I tend to look at the text and how the music portrays what is being sung. Because the text is in a way relate-able to it's audience from now and back 4 centuries ago, it is possible that this piece was in a way used for showing daily expression. Love and love loss are very normal feelings that us as humans experience in our lives. I think the reason why it is still being played has something to do with it being relate-able now as it was back then.

Question 2:

Art is something that, in the right context, can flourish over long periods of time. Though “Si Dolce” may be four centuries old, musicians and audiences alike are always thirsting for more. Time doesn’t necessarily confine a piece to certain limitations; there is no expiration date for good music. Because “Si Dolce” is seemingly so simple, it allows for a great deal of artistic freedom and expression on the part of the modern day musician. The piece itself is beautiful in it’s own right, but the idea that one can take this 400 year old piece and stamp their own artistic style on it is widely appealing and challenging. To the trained and untrained ears alike, “Si Dolce” is an expressive work of art, evoking a feeling of serenity and peacefulness throughout.

Of the three versions presented, in my opinion the solo guitar arrangement is my favorite. Personally, I am almost always partial to solo performances, as the control a musician has over the expression of the piece is unparalleled. What I find most expressive, and beautiful, about this arrangement of "Si Dolce" is that the guitarist embellishes the chords that Monteverdi wrote. Especially in the intro, there is quite a a different, jazzier sound that the chords have, yet the progression and melody are still very recognizable. This ability to take liberty with such a famous classical piece yet still maintain the soul of the original composition is very impressive indeed. Even after looking around online, this is the rendition of "Si Dolce" that I found the most moving.

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