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Giaches Wert's madrigal settings of Gerusalemme liberata

Turning to Wert’s early settings of Gerusalemme liberata, a similar interpretation of the poem takes place: setting stanzas from the romance narratives, while alluding to the overarching epic narrative.  Wert’s settings of stanzas from Canto 16, a description of Armida’s enchanted island and her later abandonment, demonstrates this paradigm. Vezzosi augelli, for example, is a descriptive ottava rima about the singing birds in Armida’s pleasure garden (Example 1).

Example 1: Vezzosi augelli

example 1


Wert mimics the song of birds with a continuously moving sixteenth-note motive that is passed around to all the voices.  The light homophonic texture of the madrigal pulls the listener away from the larger epic and into a sensual dream world.  When this madrigal is placed in the context of Wert’s other settings from Canto 16, what emerges is similar narrative to that of the Poussin illustrations—the movement from the mythical realm back into the larger epic.  Carol MacClintock observes, “Taken together the three compositions form a perfect dramatic cantata: the opening lyrical and graceful, the middle portion anguished, impassioned and the third the summing up and resolution, the catharsis, of the emotional situation [sic, her italics].”[25]

Wert chose stanzas that move from third person description of place and setting to first person narration of emotions and actions.  Wert highlights the shift from third person to first person with a change in musical texture. Beginning with the lyrical introduction, which creates space for the character to speak, the piece then shifts to a more declamatory/syllabic setting and the poem moves into first person narration.[26] This textual shift mimics the dialectical relationship between epic and romance, as discussed by David Quint:

"the romance narrative bears a subversive relationship to the epic plot line from which it diverges, for it indicates the possibility of the other perspectives, however, incoherent they may ultimately be, upon the epic victors’ single-minded story of history."[27] 

Taking Quint’s examination of Gerusalemme liberata and applying it to Wert’s madrigals, the composer’s lyrical introduction parallels the relationship of romance to epic: as romance allows the “impeding other” to speak, so Wert’s introduction creates an aural surrounding that allows these same characters to sing. And where the “impeding other” can garner sympathy from the Christian soldiers, Wert fashions an introduction that can both entice the listener, and illustrate their “otherness” and subversive relationship to the entire epic.  Additionally, it is during the third person narration that Wert alludes to the larger epic on a whole.  That is, during these moments of lyrical expression, the text gives him a certain degree of freedom for musical exaggerations so that he might paint both emotional and physical scenario of the situation.

This effect is telescoped in his setting of the stanza Forsennata gridava (Example 2). In the introductory first three measures, the music introduces Armida’s speech with the repeated leap of a major tenth.  Even though the text is simply the narrator stating “forsennata gridava” (Madly she cried), Wert immediately pulls the listener into a completely foreign world. Additionally, coming after Vezzosi augelli, the leap breaks the listener away from the mythical realm and points back to the larger narrative. 

Example 2: Forsennata gridava

example 2


This grotesque leap highlights Armida’s “otherness.”  When the poem moves to her first person narration, the texture changes to a declamatory setting. Again using this introductory section to allude to Armida’s place in the larger epic, he creates for the listener the character’s “otherness” and antithetical nature toward the Christian epic.  By mainly focusing on sections in which the “other” speaks, Wert makes musical exaggerations that can both distance the listener, as in Forsennata gridava or entice and seduce the listener like Vezzosi augelli

Where Forsennata gridava immediately betrayed Armida’s “otherness,” in the introductory stanza Qual musico gentil (Example 3), she tries to regain control of herself:

As cunning singers, just before they free
Their voices into high and brilliant song,
Prepare the listener’s soul for harmony
With sweet notes sotto voce, low and long
So in the bitterness of sorrow she
Did not forget the tricks and arts of wrong,
But gave a little prelude of a sigh
That his soul might be more deeply graven by [28]

The text shifts away from the first person narration to third person description in which Armida is compared to a musician preparing to sing.  Falling back on her magical arts, she attempts to seduce Rinaldo from leaving with her alluring and enchanting voice.  The introductory phrase languishes between the harmonies A and D, as if Rinaldo hesitates and his thoughts still lingering on Armida’s blissful paradise.  Because of the third person narration within Qual musico gentil, Wert allows himself a certain freedom with word and phrase repetition.  The continual web of motives enraptures the attentive listener like Armida’s magical spells and portrays Rinaldo unable to leave the sorceress.  Before Armida begins her magical speech, she first lets out a “sigh”, sospir, so that she can move Rinaldo’s pity and hold his attention.  Similarly, Wert breaks up the motive on the word sospir with a rest, which disrupts the continuous flow of music, and, like Armida, forces the listener’s pity—her grief has left her gasping for air.  This small sigh, however, is overshadowed by the following long melisma on the words voci im prima that holds her enchantment over both Rinaldo and the listener.[29] 

Ex. 3a: Qual musico gentil introduction

example 3a


Ex. 3b: “sospir” from Qual musico gentil   

example 3b


Moving away from the third person description in Qual musico gentil, Wert sets Armida’s first person narrative in a much more syllabic and declamatory manner. He allows for small madrigalisms here and there, but the expressiveness of the text is carried more in the harmonic language or in staggered vocal entrances.  For example, in the third stanza, Se m’odii e’n cio diletto alcun, Wert has all the voices declaiming together Armida’s hatred of the Christian state, “Anch’ io le genti Christiane odiarnego” (I too have detested the Christian nation): all the voices move in lockstep with each other, highlighting the unified Christian army (Example 3c). 


Ex. 3c: Se m’odii e’n cio diletto alcun

example 3c


Starting on a C harmony, the voices move via a hard hexachord to F to show her recovery and growing hatred.  As Armida’s hatred grows, the voices lose their unity and enter in fragmentary response to each other. 

With Wert’s straightforward declamatory setting of the first person narrative, he still highlights important words to add a higher degree of emotional intensity to the work.  This is especially apparent in the last stanza, Sia questa pur tra le mie frodi, e vaglia (Example 3d).  It is at this point in the narrative structure that the listener perceives Armida’s resolve to follow after Rinaldo.  This resolution is created, not so much through melodic invention, but through a rhythmically driven text setting.  The voices move in close unison with each other, while also eliding cadences to keep the music moving forward.  The tenor first suggests the final action “Vattene” at the end of m. 10 into m. 11; the other voices then affirm this action on the next beat:  The music moves into a quickly declaimed passage in which Armida remarks “Go sweat and toil and fight across the seas, / destroy our faith—I’ll even help you flee.”[30]  With its forceful declamation, Wert pushes the listener back into the historical epic of Gerusalemme liberata.  This external push is then followed by an internal reflection on the part of Armida, as she asks herself “Our faith?  Not mine, not now.”[31]  To represent this turn, Wert changes the harmony, moving it away from C at the end of m. 14 towards the softer hexachord of F.  Her internal question is then transformed into action, realizing “my cruel one, you [Rinaldo] are my faith, my idol—you alone.”[32]  Whereas word repetition was used sparingly before, here Armida’s constant repetition of “Fedel/ sono a te solo, idolo mio crudele” (my cruel one, you are my faith…) represents her inability to give up Rinaldo.  The staggered entrances of all the voices demonstrate her frantic state of mind.  Ending on E, instead of A where the first stanza started, the change of mode symbolizes Armida’s desire to move forward and rejoin the overarching narrative of Gerusalemme liberata


Ex. 3d: “Vattene” from Sia questa pur tra le mie fordi, e vaglia

example 3d


Ex. 3d continued: “Che dico nostra?” from Sia questa

example 3d2


Ex. 3d continued: “Fedel” from Sia questa

example 3d3


Ex. 3d conclusion: “Idolo mio crudele” from Sia questa

example 3d4


Armida’s movement from the romance interlude to the epic whole marks an important shift in the context for which Wert composed this large-scale madrigal. The Este family at Ferrara, to whom Wert dedicated his eighth book of madrigals, believed themselves to be the offspring of Rinaldo and Armida. Tasso specifically mentions this connection in Gerusalemme liberata through the mouth of Peter the Hermit to Rinaldo: “Their arts will be to put the arrogant down, and lift the poor, punish the workers of impiety and shield the innocent. Past the sun shall fly the eagle of the Este family.”[33]  Additionally, Wert’s connections to the court of Ferrara meant he and Tasso knew each other very well.  Wert even received selections of Gerusalemme liberata from the poet before the work was published-- hence, the appearance of “Giunto alla tomba” in his Book 7 of madrigals in 1581, when Tasso’s poem was published.[34] With the connection between the composer and poet, noted above, it should not be regarded that the composer’s setting was a misreading of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata.  James Haar notes, for example, “[Tasso] may not have been over-pleased to see isolated stanzas from his Gerusalemme set to music; in his discussion of literary genres Tasso say the epopeia or heroic verse has no need of music.”[35]

Wert’s poetic selections and musical settings were influenced not only by the poet himself, but also by the performers at his disposal.  With Wert’s strong connections to the Ferrara court, his style was greatly influenced by the concerto delle donne.[36]  As the concerto delle donne grew in popularity (along with other professional female singers) at other Northern Italian courts, it made sense for women to be singing female characters or men acting in a “womanish” manner.[37] Wert’s lament of Armida became part of the long history, in both the madrigal and opera, of the female lament of abandonment or longing as characterized for instance by Dido and Arianna.[38]  In the context of female abandonment scenarios, Armida (along with Dido and Arianna) retains her appeal, because the sorceress keeps her beauty after Rinaldo leaves her.  Comparing the Armida abandonment story with earlier epics, Melinda Gough observes that though the veil is lifted on her deception of Rinaldo, she never transforms into a hideous witch, but is made even more beautiful by her grief.[39]  Therefore, the singers would retain and enhance their beauty during the performance and even draw the listener’s sympathy for this character.  A similar parallel could be said of the paintings and representations of Armida discussed earlier: her beauty is dangerously alluring, but never grossly “exotic” or “Eastern”.  Therefore, when she submits to Western authority and Christian doctrine, this subjugation is easily accepted and even celebrated by the Western listener/viewer.   


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