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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 5 (1999) No. 1

Roman Monody, Cantata, and Opera from the Circles around Cardinal Montalto. By John Walter Hill. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. [2 vols., ISBN 0-19-816613-3. $150.]

Reviewed by Robert L. Kendrick*

1. Breadth of Coverage

2. Structure and Issues

3. Implications


1. Breadth of Coverage

1.1 The scope of John Hill's modestly titled book is actually wider than appears. These two volumes (the second an edition of some 191 pieces) engage some key questions in music around 1600: patron-musician relations, the cultural ambitus of music, the careers of individuals, the formation of monodic repertories, and an area one might designate as that of praxis (so as to indicate its somewhat broader scope than simply that of performance practice, i.e., improvisation and written music, standardized and eventually notated singing or accompaniment styles, and the rhetorical strategies of composers facing different kinds of texts and verse forms). Even before Hill states his conclusions, these topics are important to anyone concerned with most music of the early Seicento. He presents his material in nine chapters.

2. Structure and Issues

2.1 After an extremely detailed note that attempts to convert Roman money and costs into modern American terms, Hill begins with a description of the key role (the first chapter's title has a reference to "hinge") of Alessandro Peretti, Cardinal Montalto (1571–1623), in Roman cultural life of his time. Roman Monody considers this first as manifested by Montalto's building commissions along with some of the visual products he occasioned. Matters become more theoretical in the next chapter, which considers Montalto's self-presentation as modulated by his patronage and the relationships of clientela, a key word for musicians in his service. Hill is extremely careful and painstaking in his placement of the prelate's musicians among the four levels of his famiglia; the musicians (many of Neapolitan provenance), the central figures in the creation and transmission of the book's repertory, included Cesare Marotta and his wife Ippolita Recupito; Ippolito Machiavelli; and the perhaps better-known (until now) Giovanni Bernardino Nanino and Orazio Michi dell'arpa. Five of the singers completed an "inner circle", while the far-ranging if loose ties of Roman musicians were evident in the documentary evidence for those associated with Montalto's titular church and those "on loan" to him. Of these, Francesca Caccini and Giuseppino Cenci played major roles in the development of accompanied solo singing, and it is here that the major musical theme of Roman Monody is introduced, the subject of the next chapter.

2.2 Because Hill has chosen to pursue each of his issues in detail, the third chapter seems at first to be an interruption. But in reality, it is vital, detailing the principal musical evidence for his thesis about the continuity of styles of solo singing (especially in Naples) from about 1570 into the new century. Central to this discussion is his distinction between recitational and cantillational (i.e., rhythmically free; there is no hint of influence from Jewish or Muslim traditions) styles of singing. The chapter culminates in a largely convincing set of glosses on the paragraphs of Vincenzo Giustiniani's Discorso sopra la musica, reading this contemporary account in terms of styles and genres of solo singing (and their performers). Unlike some previous commentators, Hill takes Giustiniani as an accurate (if self-interested) narrator, and thus agency for changes in solo song comes to be owed to Montalto's singers, especially Cenci and Machiavelli. The musical evidence allows him to trace a process of notating previously improvisational practice (again, praxis) in solo song as key to the innovations around 1600 on which Giustiniani reflected, with rhythmical elements found also in the late Neapolitan madrigal (Gesualdo, Macque). The fourth chapter begins by returning to issues of patronage and recruitment, but continues by discussing the training of solo singers (Cesare, a castrato, and Baldassare, a boy). G. B. Nanino's examples of contrapunto alla mente (transcribed in vol. 2) along with some issues of singers' projection of texts complete the chapter.

2.3 After two chapters on the conditions of music, and two on solo song, the next begins to hone in on the surviving sources for the actual repertory of Montalto's singers: four central, and four collateral manuscripts, along with a group of printed editions and plucked-string tablatures as secondary testimonies to the music. This largely philological section enables Hill to establish a list of compositions for Michi (as he had done for Cenci in Chapter Three), and thereby to identify pieces containing the essence of the solo style that he posits as having taken shape and spread outward from the prelate's famiglia. The sixth chapter then begins with a consideration of how poetic forms (sonetti, canzonettas) map onto musical structures (strophic madrigals, arioso pieces) in this repertory. Central here are the already-adduced distinction between recitational and cantillational styles, the role of florid singing, and some more extended analyses of some of Michi's longer pieces as antecedents of the later Roman cantata. By way of parallel with developments elsewhere in Italy, we are here at the end of Montalto's life, around 1620, at a time when Alessandro Grandi in Venice would publish his own Cantade, the first so-titled edition of the genre.

2.4 The final chapters of the book attempt to bring its issues together in their influence on the music of three stage works: a revival of Guarini's Il pastor fido; the incomplete intermedi for the same author's last work, La priggionia... di Rinaldo, and the Montalto spectacle (it is perhaps stretching it a bit to call it the "first Roman opera") Amor pudico of 1614. For this last, Marotta and Machiavelli contributed the majority of the arias, while G. B. Nanino set the choruses in a variety of poetic forms. The interplay among solo song, theatrical music, and singing style is perhaps most tractable in Amor pudico, while the other two (incomplete, and musically poorly transmitted) productions evince some rather startling influence of Guarini's dramatic theory in Rome. Hill concludes with a brief epitome, the transcription of some 112 letters from Montalto, his singers, or his circle, and some twenty inventories of the major and collateral manuscripts and prints discussed in Chapter Five. The immense task of musical transcription takes up all 450 pages of the second volume, an extremely helpful (and Herculean) labor.

3. Implications

3.1 There are several major issues present in this fundamental contribution to basic research on early Seicento music. Although cultural ideology, patronage, and musical style are obviously related, it makes some sense to consider Hill's contributions on each of these counts separately.

3.2 The book is obviously cast around the issues of patronage and clientele, and raises the question of how much Montalto himself consciously attempted to foster styles of solo song, ultimately originating in Naples, that expanded the unwritten tradition. To his credit, Hill takes an approach similar to that which Claudio Annibaldi has championed in recent articles critiquing anachronistic "great men" theories of musical patronage in early modern Italy. Some of Montalto's personal taste for poets, repertories, and singers are clear; but some of the changes also reflect musicians' transmission and re-interpretation of their own long-standing (and super-individual) training. Hill also manages to give us a convincing musical portrait of the four main figures, although some issues simply must not have fit into the discussion. For instance, the gender inequality (not always in favor of males) of the famous Marotta/Recuperito case of a married couple of singers is quite striking in this latter regard. Although the outline of the household is generally convincing, sometimes the identification of figures associated with the prelate strains the imagination (e.g. the idea that the Milanese Jeronimite monk P. P. Torre might have been the figure of this name associated with the circle [p. 36]).

3.3 It would have taken another several chapters to have placed Montalto's own aesthetics, not to mention those of his cardinal associates, in the broader spectrum of Roman thought of his time. This is perhaps the one aspect of the book most open to further discussion, as it renders attempts to go from aesthetics to musical text and back more difficult. Thus there are a few major leaps from details of musical style to broader cultural patterns, as in the discussion of Nanino's eccentric, independent, and unpredictable counterpoint (p. 139). The author relates these features directly to (unspecified) "central cultural values of courtly life in Montalto's Rome and elsewhere in Italy at that time."

3.4 But the major musical claim of Roman Monody relates to Hill's largely convincing tracing of the Cinquecento and Neapolitan lineage of solo song, thus providing an alternative genealogy to Caccini's self-promotional claims of his own primacy, statements that Florence-centered musical historiography has been too prone to take at face value. As Noel O'Regan has recently demonstrated, analogous points can be made about solo sacred song of the time.(note 1) Hill's general approach, if not all the details, attempts to do justice to improvisational training of musicians, and it encourages us to view the continuity over the no-longer revolutionary year of 1600.

3.5 Hill makes no secret of his debt to the book's dedicatees, two scholars not necessarily associated first with the Seicento, but both of whose deaths have left us immeasurably poorer: Howard Brown and Nino Pirrotta. Others knew them far better than this reviewer, but fundamental aspects of their work find resonance in Hill's book. Brown's concern with performance practice, notation, careful study of sources, and (as he once put it) the "geography of monody" shine through much of the volume. Pirrotta's cultural insights, attention to poetic form, and not least the ongoing power of the unwritten tradition form a sort of pendant to the former, and it is in these areas that the book's strengths stand out. Hill has carried out remarkable work over the years, and the book is every line worthy of its inscription.


*Robert L. Kendrick (rkendric@midway.uchicago.edu) teaches music history at the University of Chicago. Return to beginning


1. "Asprilio Pacello, Lodovico Viadana and the Origins of the Roman Concerto Ecclesiastico," paper delivered at the sixty-fourth annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Boston, 1998. Return to text


1. Cardine della cardinalizia dignità

2. Padrocinanza and Clientela

3. Arie in stil recitativo, e cantativo

4. Quanto sia difficile questo cantare solo

5. The Ghirlanda musicale and its Companions: Sources of Music from Cardinal Montalto's Circles

6. The Romanesca bastarda and other Arias

7. L'aria pastoraleIl pastor fido

8. La priggionia, incantamento, et liberatione di Rinaldo: Guarini's Last Stage Work

9. Amor pudico

Return to text

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