Saturday, 26 March 2011

1640s Goodbye Monteverdi

Monteverdi comes to the end of his career and his life on a musical high with one of his most popular tunes – Pur Ti Miro Pur Ti Stringo from his opera  L’Incoronazione di Poppea composed in 1642, the year before his death.  You don’t really have to like opera to like this. 

A highly influential and well travelled German composer who comes in during this decade is Johan Jakob Froberger (1616-1667). A student of Frescobaldi, he is largely known for his keyboard works. Most of this type of solo keyboard music is not particularly appealing to me but there are just a few from his earliest surviving published work, the libro secondo from 1649, that are worth a listen. These are Partita VI G-dur FbWV 606 Prima Partita and Seconda Partita and Courant Sopra Mayrin Double on an album called Froberger: Meditation – Works for Harpsichord.

Now, from the books I have looked at the music from the first half of this century is dominated by opera composers like Monteverdi and Schutz. The three keyboard composers Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and Froberger get a bit of coverage too but as I am not so keen on most of their music or opera I have had to look a bit further for music from this period that I like.

Well I have found a little more from the early composers of violin music, which was being made in Italy. The violin more than any other instrument mimics the voice. Composers recognised this at an early stage and wrote music which would give the violin a good melody above the other instruments, just as the opera composers wrote their melodies for the human voice. 

We have already heard Marini who is probably the most important of these but he barely gets a mention in the books. By 1640s there are several Italian composers of violin music of even lesser fame and a significant contemporary of Marini was Marco Ucellini (c.1610-1680) who extended the range of the violin by being the first to use the third position. That just means he moved his hand further up the neck of the instrument to get to the higher notes. I can recommend Aria Quinta Sopra La Bergomasta by him which I think is from 1642. Other good early violin pieces are Ciaconna by Tarquinio Merula c.1595-1665 (has a good guitar riff all the way through (on this recording anyway)- most of his work was published from 1615-1639 so this piece may well be pre-1640s) and La Bergamasca from Gasparo Zanetti (1645 I think) – very similar but simpler than and not as good as the Ucellini piece. I might have missed these because Marini is the only one who gets a passing mention in Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music and in Griffiths’ Concise History of Western music. Evidently these early composers of violin music are not considered as important as the opera composers and perhaps that is because the opera music from this time has proved to be more enduring and the good violin pieces are few and far between.

So my selections for this decade are:

Monteverdi - Pur Ti Miro Pur Ti Stringo from his opera  L’Incoronazione di Poppea (realised by Raymond Leppard; abridged version)
Ucellini - Aria Quinta Sopra La Bergomasta – Ucellini: La Bergomasta
Merula – Ciaconna The Collected Recordings of Il Giardino Armonico
Zanetti - La Bergomasta – Gasparo Zanetti - 17th century Italian Dances
General events

At last in 1648 the Thirty Years War came to an end with Germany left in a bloodbath, Spain greatly weakened and France greatly strengthened. In England it’s the civil war (1642-1651) ending up with King Charles I getting executed in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell abolishing the monarchy and taking over.

Rembrandt van Rijn 1606-69, the most successful painter in Amsterdam and one of the greatest painters of all time was reaching the height of his powers. May be his most famous painting is The Night Watch from 1642 (above). He had been commissioned to paint a formal portrait but he made it into an action scene.

In France the classical trend in literature can also be seen in art of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). A good example of this is ‘The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow’ from 1648 (left).  Poussin and another Frenchmen, Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) sought to portray classical antiquity with a sense of nostalgia. Claude is best known though for being the first to make landscape painting a respected genre with paintings like  ‘Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca’ also from 1648 (below left).

The greatest sculptor of the day was Bernini (the same Bernini as the architect who came to prominence in the 1630s). He is seen as a successor to Michelangelo and one of his best works said to be a masterpiece of high baroque is his ‘Ecstasy of St Theresa’ from 1647.

Descartes continued to develop his ideas publishing ‘meditations’ in 1643. This elaborates more on the ‘I think therefore I am’ idea and justifies the existence of God. Another thing to mention about Descartes is that he was a brilliant mathematician and did lots to develop algebra and graphs. The certainty that you have in Maths was what Descartes applied to his philosophy.


No real major works of literature in this decade except that in 1640 the Bay Psalm Book was the first book to be printed in North America. Corneille wrote another three plays- all classical tragedies.


In India they were building the Taj Mahal but other than that nothing specifically spectacular here. 


  1. Sir Thomas Browne's 'Religio Medici' was an British best-seller during the 1640's and has been in print ever since. Pepys diary notes it being, 'cried up to the whole world for wit and learning'; also during this decade Browne's encyclopaedia 'Pseudodoxia Epidemica' of 1646, found itself upon many English book-shelves. It was later translated into several European languages.

  2. That's great - thanks for your contribution!