The first exercise of the unit is about the madrigal Beltà poi che t’assenti by Carlo Gesualdo.
The first task is to identify the chords in the first four bars of the piece. Already here, at the beginning of the piece, Gesualdo’s characteristic chromaticism and connecting of the distantly-related chords can be observed:
Bar 1: G minor and E major
Bar 2: E major and D major
Bar 3: D major and G major
Bar 4: D major (1st inversion) and F# major
Next is the question: Does this chord progression call to mind any music you know from later eras?
Yes, this connecting of the distant keys and chords, as well as the interrupted (deceptive) cadences, reminds me particularly of the impressionism, twentieth century and contemporary music. Nonetheless, the chromatic mediants and double chromatic mediants (chords related by minor or major third with one tone or no tone in common) such as G minor and E major, and D major and F# major in this piece, were also previously frequently employed in the Romanticism, as I have noted in several blog posts about symmetrical scales for Music 1: Composing Music course (click here to see the posts with the symmetrical scales tag). In fact, as I have explained there, many symmetrical scales in the Western classical music resulted from these mediant relationships. While the question here is focused on the later eras, I will still mention that in Gesualdo’s time, this kind of progression and chromaticism was considered a normal part of musica reservata genre of the manneristic Renaissance style. I have also briefly wrote about this when I studied the composing course here.
The following task is to describe the musical textures for bb.9-20 and bb.40-42. Bb.9-20 is very chromatic, for example with movements such as A-Bb-B-C, and the texture is polyphonic, or to be more concrete, it is based on the technique of imitation – in other words, it is imitative. Bb.40-42 contrasts this and is modal (the chromaticism is minimal, and the harmony is based on the tones of the modes) with homophonic texture, where the parts move together.
The exercise then asks to translate the word ‘dolore’, which appears at b.55. I’d add first that, in addition to just appearing in this bar, the word is very emphasized throughout the section bb. 44-55, until it takes over completely in bb.56-60 as a kind of coda. ‘Dolore’ can be translated as sorrow, sadness, pain, grief, etc., and I really enjoyed how Gesualdo depicts the word in this part of the madrigal. In fact, due to circumstances in his life, Gesualdo often used ‘dolore’, as well as similarly expressive words, such as love, death and etc. I briefly mentioned Gesualdo’s life in the link about musica reservata above. Lastly, in relation to music in general, ‘dolore’ often appears as a term for musical expression, such as doloroso and con dolore, as a guide for the player to portray the sorrowful mood in performance.
The final point of the exercise is to write my own description of how Gesualdo’s harmony, melody and texture carry the meaning of the piece. Belta poi che t’assenti is a madrigal based on an anonymous poem where the subject is heartbroken after the departure of the loved one:
Beltà poi che t’assenti
Come ne porti il cor
Porta i tormenti.
Ché tormentato cor
può ben sentire
La doglia del morire,
E un alma senza core,
Non può sentir dolore.
Beauty, since you depart,
as you take my heart,
take also my torments.
For a tormented heart
can surely feel
the pain of death,
but a soul without a heart
can feel no sorrow.
In establishing the bleak mood, the madrigal opens with long, stately notes, moving in the homophonic texture that contains chromaticism and progressions with chromatic and double chromatic mediant relationships – characteristic for musica reservata and manneristic renaissance style and very reminiscent of the 20th century music – serving as a still, but ominous beginning. To illustrate the anguished atmosphere of departure, Gesualdo also employs the imitative and free polyphonic textures to support the text, in which the gloomy words such as ‘tormenti’ and ‘dolore’ are emphasized by echoing through the four-part melodies. The changes in register also depict the dark psychological state of the subject in the poem, shifting from the calm, lower notes at the beginning to the higher, more hectic tones accompanying the line ‘la doglia del morire’, translated as ‘the pain of death’. In this way, with the effective layering and positioning of the contrasts in texture (homophonic against polyphonic) and register (low against high), the accentuation of the mood-setting words (dolore, tormenti, morire), all combined with the distinct and often surprising chromatic melodies and harmony; Belta poi che t’assenti represents a powerful and imaginative example of word painting in vocal music, but more importantly, it reflects how potent the Renaissance musical techniques can be in the depiction of certain atmospheric undertones and psychological auras, such as the suffering state after the departure of the beloved.
In closing, I really enjoyed this exercise. Each of the tasks helped me dissect a specific angle by which to regard this piece, providing me with several unique perspectives by which music in general can be analyzed – something very useful for my future musical investigations, as well as allowing me to find a new appreciation of the Renaissance techniques and textures by showing me their potential, such as in the creation of particular moods. Furthermore, I could blend all these different observational elements into my own special description of the way the piece carries its meaning. I was also glad that I was able to draw from my old knowledge which I gained in the previous unit of the course. Overall, through the exercise, in addition to the distinctive and more extensive outlook on the madrigal Belta poi che t’assenti and Gesualdo’s techniques, I gained some new standpoints that I will be able to apply for many other pieces.
CPDL (n.d.) ‘Beltà poi che t’assenti (Carlo Gesualdo)’ At: http://www2.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Beltà_poi_che_t%27assenti_(Carlo_Gesualdo) (Accessed on 3/8/2018)