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A Reassessment of Madrigal Settings from
Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata

Introduction

After its release in 1581, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata became one of the most popular epics in Renaissance Italy.  Not only did painters mine the poem to depict its various heroic and romantic moments, but composers also found it a rich source for madrigal texts and would later transform sections into operatic librettos.  Since the first settings in both music and painting, artists have continuously focused on the romance narratives found within the larger epic (especially Armida and Rinaldo, Tancredi and Clorinda, and Erminia’s longing for Tancredi). The sections of epic verse within Gerusalemme liberata are often too regular, emotionally bland, and homogenous in poetic structure to be set to music and as Tim Carter observe, “This explains why when madrigalists did set Tasso, they tended to opt for specific moments of emotional intensity, such as rage or lament; in so doing, they may well have exaggerated the effect beyond the poet’s intentions.”[1]  This “emotional intensity” can be heard from the outset in Giaches Wert and Claudio Monteverdi’s early settings from Gerusalemme liberata, where they derive most of their stanzas from Armida’s abandonment in Canto 16 or Tancredi’s insanity over killing Clorinda in Canto 12.  Such sections of “emotional intensity” allowed for a high degree of musical extravagance and contrasting affects that appealed to listeners of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.

By examining composers’ poetic selection from Gerusalemme liberata in the context of Tasso’s literary criticism, what emerges is a paradigm that can appear antithetical to his theories of epic and romance narratives. That is, by focusing on the romantic and pastoral interludes throughout Gerusalemme liberata, composers and painters downplayed the larger narrative—the recapturing of Jerusalem.  However, composers did not ignore the larger epic and misread Tasso all together; they found means of referring and alluding to the larger epic and the dialectic between romance and epic inherent in the poem.  First, this paper will outline Tasso’s literary theory and the role of romance in Gerusalemme liberata.  Second, by assessing parallel art historical developments and the cultural context of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, this paper will shed new light on the manner in which composers Wert and Monteverdi allude to Tasso’s larger epic narrative.   

Tasso’s theory of epic versus romance narrative arises from his critiques of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato. Using the poetic theory of Aristotle, chiefly the dictum of unity in epic poetry, Tasso attacks Ariosto and Boiardo for the profusion of plots that infiltrate the poem:

"If the plot is single, his purpose will be single; if there are many and diverse plots, there will be many and diverse purposes.  However, since diverse purposes distract the mind and hinder labor, he who sets himself to a single goal will work more effectively than the imitator of a multitude of actions."[2] 

In his Discorse dell’arte poetica (1567), Tasso responds to the defenders of Ariosto who claim, “The romance (as they call the Furioso and other poems like it) is a poetic genre different from the epic and unknown to Aristotle.  Therefore, it is not bound by the rules that Aristotle gave for the epic.”[3]  To answer this claim, Tasso asserts that,

"epic and romance imitate the same actions, the illustrious…[additionally] Romance and epic imitate in the same manner: the person of the romance appears in both; both tell stories, they do not reenact them…. They imitate by the same means: both employ plain verse without making use of rhythm and harmony, which belongs to the tragic and comic poet."[4]

Tasso is not completely dismissive of the diversity of plots within epic poetry. According to him not only can variety accentuate and ornament the plot outline, it can also capture the attention of readers, especially those of lesser learning:

"Variety is, by nature, extremely delightful; and greater variety appears in multiplicity, than in unity of plot.  Nor do I deny that variety gives pleasure; to deny that would contradict the facts of our feelings, since we perceive that things unpleasant in themselves become pleasant through variation….  I maintain that variety warrants praise until it becomes confusing and that up to this point unity of plot is as capable of variety as is multiplicity."[5]

For Tasso the perfect poem is one in which,

"variety of matter is one; its form and its plots are one; and all these things are brought together in such a way that one thing shows consideration for another, one thing corresponds to another, and through either necessity or verisimilitude one thing depends on another in such a way that by removing a single part or by changing its place, we destroy the whole."[6] 

Therefore, variety and diversion are acceptable in Tassian narrative structure as long as they are held together by a unified plot outline.  In Gerusalemme liberata the unifying narrative is the recapturing of the Jerusalem by the Christian armies led by Godfrey; they are freed of this bond when Godfrey kneels at the tomb of Christ.   The divergent plot structures, according to Tasso’s added Allegory of the Poem,represent the various difficulties they must endure in order to attain their goal.  Here Tasso singles out Tancredi and Rinaldo as characters who stray from, but return to their true enterprise:

"As for the internal impediments—the love that caused Tancredi and the other knights to behave like fools and abandon Godfrey, and the indignation that led Rinaldo to stray from the enterprise—these signify the strife between the rational faculty and the concupiscible and irascible faculties, and how these two rebel."[7] 

The pagan characters Armida and Clorinda, for example, appeal to the irrational faculties in order to incite rebellious longing in the knights Rinaldo and Tancredi.  Tasso’s “Allegory” justifies why divergent amorous narratives exist within this Christian narrative; by justifying their place in the narrative, he allows himself certain poetic freedoms to add sumptuous and passionate interludes that break from the direct, epic language of the Crusades.  Such interludes in the Gerusalemme liberata comment on the human tendency to give in to excessive passions and deceptive forces, only to return to the righteous path laid out by God.[8]  

Focusing on the narrative of empire in Tasso’s epic, David Quint notes in Epic and Empire: “within the Virgilian dichotomies between West and East that Tasso revives, romance becomes a deliberate stratagem used by the female Easterner [Armida and Clorinda] to impede the progress of the Crusade.”[9]  Though he did not want to eliminate romance from his epic, Tasso’s literary concern is to bring romance under the service of epic.  The theme of deliverance, according to Andrew Fichter, is one of the methods by which Tasso turns romance into epic: “Tasso’s notion of deliverance, or redemption, is itself an aspect of his impulse to reconcile opposites, to see continuity in what once seemed discontinuous, or concord in what once seemed discordant.”[10] Looking specifically at Rinaldo and Armida’s narrative, which becomes the focus for many painters and composers, Fichter points out that, “Romance…is constructed as an integral component of the Christian epic.”[11]  With tangential romantic interludes impeding upon Rinaldo’s true quest to recapture Jerusalem, he performs the “itinerary of the Christian hero: he must lose himself in order to find himself.”[12]

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