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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 16 (2010) No. 1

Monteverdi’s Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy. By Ellen Rosand. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. [xxiv, 447 p. ISBN 978-0-520-24934-9. $65.]

Reviewed by Emily Wilbourne*

1. Prologue

2. Bibliography, Codicology, Philology

3. Interpretation


1. Prologue

1.1 Two weeks before my dissertation defense, I was stopped in the corridor by a fellow graduate student. “Tell me,” he urged in the voice of one eliciting scurrilous gossip, “is it true that there’s a stemma diagram in your dissertation?” “Yes,” I replied, somewhat taken aback. “That’s awesome!” was his response.

1.2 For many musicologists of my generation (full disclosure, I’m thirty-four, and I defended my dissertation in 2008), stemma diagrams are an arcane and curiously mystical icon of an older time. I don’t mean merely that the music is “old,” which in most cases it is, but rather that the techniques of codicological and philological study have become distanced from the critical and interdisciplinary approaches now taught as the fundamental tools of a graduate education. One consequence is a slippery set of generalizations: source studies are presumed positivist—fact-oriented, quasi-scientific investigations limited by the physical and metaphorical weight of the historical object itself—while critical theory, in contrast, arrogates the task of interpretation and meaning production. What my friend found “awesome” about my use of a stemma was a presumption of ironic citation; he took great delight in the idea that I had mobilized old techniques to support a new project.

2. Bibliography, Codicology, Philology

2.1 Ellen Rosand’s latest book, Monteverdi’s Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy, contains a number of stemma diagrams and even a graphic representation of an atypical gathering structure. The diagrams are, I promise you, awesome—not because they appear as an ironic citation of an old technique, but precisely because they don’t.

2.2 The entire first third of Rosand’s monumental study is bibliographic in nature, with the exception of Chapter 1, “Orpheus in Venice,” which serves an introductory purpose. While Chapter 2, “Discoveries and Reception,” might be thought of as similarly prefatory, it is here that the real work begins. This chapter contains some of the best material in the entire book, as Rosand explicates the ways in which previous authors, scholars, and performers have grappled with the extant music. Rosand’s summaries of other scholars’ work are clear and concise; she conveys the content and the context of academic studies alongside disciplinary conventions, building a clear and engaging narrative. Her treatment of history alongside historiography locates both of the surviving musical works as objects and subjects of the historically informed performance movement.

2.3 The following two chapters address the sources more directly. In Chapter 3, “Three Libretti,” Rosand considers the numerous surviving poetic texts of all three of Monteverdi’s last operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), Le nozze d’Enea e Lavinia (1641) [for which no score survives], and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642). In Chapter 4, “Two Scores,” she examines the surviving music for Il ritorno and L’incoronazione—since, in actual fact, however, three scores are involved (one for Il ritorno and two for L’incoronazione), the chapter title is a little confusing. The prominent placement of these chapters speaks to their importance in Rosand’s conception of her project. In and of themselves, the codicological and philological surveys present an unrivalled exploration of the confusing mixture of extant sources. At the same time, they serve as necessary ground for the critical and interpretive work undertaken throughout the remainder of the book. In Rosand’s own, succinct summation, “the task of interpretation is philological as well as historical” (44).

2.4 Above and beyond the admirable clarity of Rosand’s prose, the codicological chapter is aided by an exceedingly generous number of greyscale musical examples, copied from the original manuscripts. These images have reproduced remarkably well, making it possible to differentiate between shades of ink. One can, therefore, observe the three different layers that Rosand identifies in the copying of Il ritorno and follow her argument that the adaptation into three acts (from five) took place during the completion of the manuscript, although after Monteverdi’s composition of the larger part of the music, if not the entire work.

2.5 In the Venice score of L’incoronazione, Rosand highlights Francesco Cavalli’s repeated use of the phrase “va scritto questo su la carta” (this needs to be written on the sheet) or “su l’altra carta” (on the other sheet); Cavalli was chiefly responsible for the production of the score. Rosand’s explanation, that the correctly transposed and/or edited music was written out on loose sheets of paper, provides an extraordinarily convincing argument for several odd excisions and omissions (115–22). Her conclusions regarding the pair of L’incoronazione scores also include a reinvestment in the possibility of a 1646 Venetian revival (89, 127). The date 1646 is listed in Christoforo Ivanovich’s chronology; however, a lack of corroborating evidence, along with his propensity for error, has discredited the suggestion. Rosand’s account of differences between the two scores, and her convincing explanations for them offer, however, internal musical evidence in support of an intermediate production between Venice, 1642, and Naples, 1651.

2.6 Rosand’s consideration of the libretti for the late operas is similarly focused on traces of performance. In all three cases she differentiates among librettos based on their context and the purpose behind their creation. This approach allows her to identify certain exemplars as closer either to the performance or to the score (with others closer to the ideal literary or poetic text). While such categorizations have ramifications for her discussion of both Il ritorno and L’incoronazione, it proves most useful in her assessment of the missing music for Le nozze: Rosand suggests that it, too, was adapted from five acts to three, and she uses the repetitions, elisions, and omissions in the one surviving three-act libretto to Le nozze as indicative of the text-setting choices Monteverdi might well have used (158–74).

2.7 Throughout this section of the book, Rosand’s philological style and her discussion of the work of others makes evident the structural importance of interpretation and context. If she, as quoted above, argues for the importance of source studies to interpretation, then her work makes its own argument for the reverse: interpretation as crucial for source studies. Rosand has provided a beautifully detailed and admirably clear topography of Monteverdi’s late operatic sources, and simultaneously, for those who would wish to learn, a pedagogical model of how to go about such work and what it might mean to do so.

3. Interpretation

3.1 The characterological analyses that make up the latter part of the book have already made appearances in Rosand’s impressive catalogue of articles. Their cumulative weight, however, makes rewarding reading. A few elements are differently emphasized in comparison to their earlier iterations (for example, see her discussion of Seneca). While this section is, in the broadest sense, dependent on the book’s codicological and philological beginnings, the connections are presumed rather than explicated. I would have liked to see the links between the two types of material more clearly discussed, particularly in relationship to Rosand’s interpretation of the character Ottone.

3.2 Ultimately, despite the prominence of the intermediate work, Le nozze, in the preface, the first chapter and the fifth (where Rosand discusses the Le nozze music in its absence), this remains a book about the two better-known of Monteverdi’s three last operas. In the first chapter, Rosand argues that the three stories form a trilogy tracing the prehistory of Venetian political power, beginning in Troy and moving to Rome, with the depraved sensuality depicted in L’incoronazione understood as justification for the foundation of an infinitely superior Venetian republic (15). Yet only rarely does the concept of these works as a trilogy add weight to Rosand’s subsequent arguments. In the substantial final chapter—which reads the characterization of the philosopher Seneca against the parasite Iro and considers their deaths as crucial (and related) fulcrums around which the respective dramas pivot—no parallel is offered for Le nozze. Instead, Le nozze returns to grace the last pages of the chapter, and thus of the book, only after the discussion has shifted to a comparison of the prologues of all three operas and the various allegorical figures who appear therein.

3.3 One of the most loaded issues in Monteverdi scholarship concerns the musical text of L’incoronazione, in particular, the final duet, “Pur ti miro.” Long considered the swan song of a master composer, authorship of the music was famously cast into doubt when it was noted that the lyrics are absent from both of the printed sources associated with the premiere and, furthermore, appear in the libretto of an earlier opera by Benedetto Ferrari (neatly summarized by Rosand, 36). This discovery instigated a flurry of scholarship proposing alternate composers for the duet in question and an ongoing process of critical interrogation regarding the remaining music. The means of identifying which sections of the opera were truly composed by Monteverdi has become a pressing measure of professional ability, a major area of intellectual anxiety scaffolded by caveats and qualified statements.

3.4 This process of slicing away at questionable material in order to isolate Monteverdi’s contributions instantiates a reading practice that the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would label “paranoid,” a game from which Rosand—refreshingly—abstains.1 More than once, Rosand implies the reattribution of “Pur ti miro” to Monteverdi: her analysis of compositional alterations to the poetry of Penelope and Ulisse’s final duet draws direct parallels to the musical and textual procedures of “Pur ti miro” (293), and she also identifies a gradual increase in ostinato bass patterns as Nerone falls increasingly under Poppea’s control, culminating in the oft-cited four-note chaconne pattern of “Pur ti miro”(304).

3.5 Yet Rosand’s faith in the authorial authority of Monteverdi goes beyond “Pur ti miro” as isolated exemplar. Throughout the book, she discerns “the hand of a master musical dramatist” (xvii)—even, and perhaps especially, where the music exhibits dubious aesthetic qualities. Her discussion of the role of Ottone is a case in point. “The music,” she writes of his third soliloquy, “is utterly shapeless: a succession of unintegrated, unpredictable phrases, a torturously static vocal line interrupted by an occasional leap or chromatic inflection leading nowhere in particular” (316). Yet such dire music is, according to this interpretation, only further proof of Monteverdi’s exceptional skill: Ottone’s “ambivalence and psychological vulnerability presented a special challenge to the composer” (325). “Monteverdi surely knew how to write coherent and shapely music, whether aria or recitative. That he obviously did not do so with Ottone seems purposeful, crucial to his conception of the character” (326).

3.6 It would be easy to dismiss the circular logic of this position, whereby Monteverdi’s authorship is confirmed by the quality of the music (“Pur ti miro”) and the musical quality is assured by Monteverdi’s authorship (Ottone), only if Rosand herself were less conscious of the ways in which typically paranoid concerns have played out over the long history of Monteverdi reception (see Chapter 2, “Discoveries and Reception”). Her turn away from a reactive scholarly habitus is signaled at the outset: “But I confess to being tired of the recent temporizing, of the constant reminders of the contingent aspects of the sources, by scholars readier to dismantle than construct, to puncture rather than reify or reinscribe” (xvii).

3.7 In the language of Sedgwick, Rosand’s is a reparative move. For Rosand, “it may not matter” (38) whether Monteverdi is the composer of the music to L’incoronazione. She is not interested in a process of fragmentation, but rather in appreciating the work as a whole. “What we can best learn from [reparative] practices,” writes Sedgwick, “are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture.”2 Rosand’s book does exactly that. From her observations about minute holes punched in the edges of the manuscript to detailed analyses of musico-characterological aspects of the drama, every element of this book shines with Rosand’s love for the topic and the deep, abiding joy that she has found through the study and appreciation of Monteverdi’s works. Monteverdi’s Last Operas is a pleasure to read, and it is clear that, for Rosand, it was a pleasure to write. For me, the reparative love Rosand has for Monteverdi and his musical remains is the most important element of this book, as useful as the myriad observations, conclusions, and arguments contained within. I only hope that Rosand's reparative approach will prove as influential as her other work.


* Emily Wilbourne (emily.wilbourne@qc.cuny.edu) is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, in the City University of New York. She is currently at work on a book manuscript, provisionally titled, “Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Legacy of the Commedia dell’arte.”

1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You,” in Touching, Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–51.

2 Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 150–1.

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