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From Madrigal to Opera: Monteverdi’s Staging of the Self by Mauro Calcagno (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 91-93 | 10.1353/not.2013.0110

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Musicologists are often wary of literary criticism, fearing that the importation of theoretical concepts from modern language departments might somehow distract from their central concern of music, or feeling that such theories are too strongly based in language to be of much use in studying music. From Madrigal to Opera demonstrates that we need not fear, and that various subfields of literary theory can be very enlightening to our study of music. Calcagno’s book is an important addition to the literature on the narratology of music. In brief, narratology is the study of how narratives work, especially regarding point of view, deixis (the linguistic placing of people or things within a space), and the role of the narrator within the text. Using as examples the madrigals and operas of Claudio Monteverdi and his predecessors (especially Giaches de Wert, Jacob Arcadelt, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, and Luca Marenzio), Calcagno demonstrates how apt a narratological approach, especially a deictic one, can be for texted music. The first of the book’s three parts, “La Musica and Orfeo,” offers a fascinating and thorough discussion of the prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, showing how La Musica gradually draws the audience into the drama through the developing focus of her words and music. The second part, “Constructing the Narrator,” uses the narratological ideas developed in part 1 to demonstrate the growing narrative complexity of the madrigal genre across the sixteenth century through the lens of Petrarchism, and the third part, “Staging the Self,” looks at how this complexity reaches its final stage in Monteverdi’s “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and L’incoronazione di Poppea.

The least successful aspect of the book, however, is related to this narratological focus: Calcagno gives very little background information on the field of narratology beyond basic definitions. Similarly, Calcagno assumes a rather deep acquaintance with the history of Italian literature and its surrounding theories, especially the work of Petrarch: a central part of his argument is that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century madrigalists were drawing from and developing Petrarchan poetry and style in their music. While literary-minded musicologists and Italianists are likely to have the required foreknowledge of these respective areas, graduate students or scholars in other fields will need to do some background reading before Calcagno’s work can be thoroughly appreciated. Such readers may be put off and will not get very far, which is a pity, as Calcagno’s arguments become increasingly engaging and even virtuosic as the book progresses. To alleviate this, a more detailed literature review or at the very least an annotated bibliography would have been of great help.

Calcagno makes a convincing argument for the Petrarchist influence on the madrigal. To show this, he highlights the importance of paratexts, most notably the dedications of madrigal books, and of the careful ordering of the madrigals within the publication to the overall reception and interpretation of these books and their constituent parts. These aspects of the books make them the musical equivalents of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, perhaps the most influential collection of poetry in Italian literary history. Too often in musicology we focus so much on “the music itself” that we forget that these pieces originally appeared in publications that had a specific purpose, which Calcagno explains was often to incorporate the dedicatee and his or her concerns into the words and music of the madrigals in a method borrowed from Petrarch and his followers. The discussions of how the dedicatees and listeners were made a part of the narrative through the dedications and the poetic and musical style of the madrigals are among the strongest parts of the book (especially in the long fifth chapter, “In Search of Voice,” which takes the reader through some of the greatest hits of the genre). Calcagno convincingly argues that the madrigal book should be thought of as a narrative entity rather than merely as a collection of disparate pieces.

This discussion of sixteenth-century madrigals may bring up the question, “Where’s Monteverdi?” The book’s title is somewhat inaccurate. What looks like a book on Monteverdi turns out to be more concerned with general trends in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Italian texted...

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