Of mars I sing: Monteverdi voicing virility

Wistreich, R. (2009) Of mars I sing: Monteverdi voicing virility. In: Masculinity and Western Musical Practice. Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 67-94. ISBN 9780754662396


It may be said with reason that until the present, music has been imperfect, having only the two styles – ‘soft’ (molle) and ‘moderate’ (temperato). With these words in the Preface to his Eighth Book of Madrigals (Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi, 1638), the septuagenarian Claudio Monteverdi famously positioned himself at a historical summit, looking back down behind him at the limitations of modern music’s power up to then to express the full range of human passions, so confidently described by the Ancients. Looking forwards, Monteverdi announced a new era of completeness, thanks to his ‘rediscovery’ of the missing third style, the ‘agitated’ (concitato), that would finally allow music to imitate the expressions of the most active and elevated human state: in Plato’s words, ‘the utterances and the accents of a brave man who is engaged in warfare’. The claim of novelty, no less than the many problems – theoretical and practical – raised by the composer’s condensed and sometimes contradictory manifesto, and especially its relationship to the extraordinary collection of music which follows, have been the subject of intense explication and debate in recent years; even a summary of the numerous complex issues is far beyond the scope of this essay. Rather, I focus on some aspects of Monteverdi’s prospectus that have to do precisely with the practicalities of giving voice to the ‘utterances … of a … man … engaged in warfare’, and to place these in the context of a variety of late Renaissance discourses about male identity and singing.

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