Monteverdi’s Symbolic Use of the Cornett: “Deposit potentes de sede”

MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 7

(This is the twenty-forth part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 6)

Deposuit potentes de sede

Domenico Fetti (Roman, 1589-1623) The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (1618/1628). Notice the cornett player among group of musicians in upper right.

Domenico Fetti (Roman, 1589-1623) The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (1618/1628). Notice the cornett player among group of musicians in upper right.

Monteverdi’s Magnificat from the 1610 collection is divided into twelve sections, coinciding with the twelve Biblical verses. Cornetts are used in six of these verses: (1) Magnificat anima mea, (3) Quia respexit, (7) Deposuit potentes de sede, (8) Esurientes implevit bonis, (10) Sicut locutus est, and (12) Sicut erat in principio.

The seventh section, Deposuit potentes de sede, is particularly interesting for many reasons, one of which is that its orchestrational and motivic concepts are derived in large part from the very well-known aria from Orfeo, “Possente spirto.” Both pieces share the texture of two soprano obbligato instruments playing in echo, which decorate and punctuate the solitary vocal line. In addition, there are many motivic devices that link Deposuit to “Possente.” Thus, one can see that Monteverdi used “Possente” as a model for Deposuit. In figure 13, four such devices are illustrated, including the upward-sweeping scale, spanning an octave, which I shall call Motive A; the downward, broken third figure, Motive B; the dotted rhythmic figure, Motive C; and the written out cadential gruppo figure, Motive D.

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In “Possente spirto,” there are four sections underscored by obbligato instruments in the following order: (1) violin duet, (2) cornett duet, (3) double harp, (4) two violins with “Basso da brazzo.

The concluding fifth section is for voice alone (and
un-ornamented). Unlike the order of the first two sections of “Possente,” the two sections of Deposuit potentes de sede are accompanied first by a pair of cornetts, then by a pair of violins. Despite similar motivic usage, as illustrated in example 13, between the first two sections of “Possente” and the whole of Deposuit, there is a significant difference between the two pieces: Monteverdi reverses the order of obbligato instruments. I believe Monteverdi conscientiously reworked the earlier material in order to make a significant correlation between the instrumentation and the new text. The words “Deposuit potentes de sede” (“He hath put down the mighty from their seats”) are framed by ritornello passages played by two cornetts. The words of the second half of this section, “et exaltavit humiles” (“and exalted them of low degree”), are set off by ritornelli played by two violins. The “mighty” in Deposuit are associated with the cornetts, whereas those of “low degree” are underscored by the violin (which was Monteverdi’s own instrument). Having already established the correlation between the cornett and the princely class, this text-painting of social status by means of instrumentation makes sense.[1] Moreover, if the mighty are to be put down from their seats, the cornett as a symbol of vanitas and death becomes an even more pertinent symbol for this passage.[2]

(Next: The Cornett as a Symbol of Social Hierarchy)

[1]. “To Monteverdi, the cornett substitutes for the trumpet and, by transference, becomes a symbol of the political power and munificence of the Gonzaga family.”

[2]. The Cornett as a Symbol of Death and the Transitory in the Graphic Arts

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Learning a new language without a formal class

1995 photo of the Brass Quintet of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. Petur Eriksson, bass trombone, Aigi Hurn, trumpet, Jon Etterbeek, trombone, Amy Schimmelman, horn. I am on the far right (everyone else in the photo is still in the OSG!). I had to learn Spanish on the job and on the street in La Coruña.

1995 photo of the Brass Quintet of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. Petur Eriksson, bass trombone, Aigi Hurn, trumpet, Jon Etterbeek, trombone, Amy Schimmelman, horn. I am on the far right (everyone else in the photo is still in the OSG!). I had to learn Spanish on the job and on the street in La Coruña.

Trumpeters, as most musicians, come up against other languages pretty frequently. We travel and perform in other parts of the world. We collaborate in our own country with people who speak Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian or some other language. We play music with notes and directions in other languages. And if we are in academia, we do research that needs language skills. Many doctoral masters programs in music require foreign language proficiency. At George Mason University, my doctoral students have reported to me that they are required to pass a language proficiency but they do not have a foreign language course requirement in their curriculum. If you want to study on a Fulbright scholarship, or some other exchange program, you will need to demonstrate language proficiency. What are some good ways to develop language proficiency without attending a formal class?

Computer applications: Although I have tried Rosetta Stone, the highly marketed and glossy language software, it is not my top recommendation. It is fairly expensive and does not give discounts if you are studying more than one language at a time. Try instead the mobile and web app Duolingo. It’s totally free and keeps reminding you to practice your language in little increments. You listen to and pronounce the exercises. Important for language proficiency for an academic degree, you work on grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and translation. Over time you move up in levels all the way to level 25 (this is an upper intermediate level), and you can compete with other friends. When you get something wrong (on the desktop web application), you can access comments from other users to see why you missed the answer. For English speakers, you can learn Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and Irish. Soon, (volunteer) contributors will finish courses for Hungarian, Swedish, Russian, Turkish, Polish and Romanian. There are other courses for native speakers of other languages. I currently am enrolled in French (level 11), Spanish (level 11), Italian (level 9), and German (level 5). Although my French and Spanish levels are both the same, my ability to speak the languages in real life are not. I can actually talk to people in Spanish, because I lived in Spain for a few years (see the photo above), but I have quite a bit of difficulty having any verbal conversation in French. Duolingo is great for learning the nuts and bolts of a language, but it will not help you speak the language well, at least in the beginning. There is an impressive Deutsche Welle Interaktive free course for German, but my initial impression is that it is bogged down by complex-looking modules.

Books: You should have some books that address grammar and verb conjugation issues for reference. In addition, phrase books might be helpful to get a feeling of some quick answers at first. However, because reading about languages is pretty dull and boring work, I feel that these books are best thought of as supplements to a more interactive method.

Audio lessons: One of my favorite ways to supplement what I learn on Duolingo is through listening to podcasts. There are many out there. The “Coffee Break” series by the Radio Lingua Network is fantastic, in my opinion, if you can wrap your brain around a Scottish man teaching you French (or Spanish or German). Available for Spanish, French and German. The podcasts themselves are free, but, like most language podcasts, there is a lot of extra content available for premium subscribers (meaning that you will have to pay).

People: Finally, you might want to hire a tutor or engage a friend to talk with you and address your particular difficulties. There is nothing like a live person to make your language skills much better!

Bonne chance! Buena suerte! Viel Glück! Buona fortuna!





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MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 6

(This is the twenty-third part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 5)

(c. 1562-68, Germany) Embroidered tablecloth with Count Poppo of Henneberg and wife Sophie of Brunswick, musicians and dancers (now lost). Among musicians are one curved cornett player (bottom right of middle square) and one straight cornett (top right of middle square).

(c. 1562-68, Germany) Embroidered tablecloth with Count Poppo of Henneberg and wife Sophie of Brunswick, musicians and dancers (now lost). Among musicians are one curved cornett player (bottom right of middle square) and one straight cornett (top right of middle square).

The Cornett as a Symbol of the

The loud, rustic, obstreperous associations of the cornett undoubtedly made the cornett one of the most approprate dance instruments in the Renaissance and early Baroque. A couple of lines from Henry Fitzgeffrey’s Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams illustrates how immediate the association between the cornett and dancing was: “Yet marke! No sooner shall the Cornets blow, / But ye shall haue him skipping too and fro.”[1] H. Colin Slim, in his analysis of Philippo Oriolo da Bassano’s poem Monte Parnasso, summarizes a part of the poem in which cornetts, among other wind players, are specifically identified with the heavenly dance music:

[The musicians] are presented according to their instrument. Players of wind instruments arrive first: bagpipes, cornetti, pifferi . . . , and trombones. With the wind players providing, as was customary, the music, a ball takes place with legendary and historical lovers as dance partners. Canto XX opens with these wind players, exhausted from accompanying the ball, giving way to players of keyboard instruments.[2]


Of the musical records affiliated with dance in my database, a wide range of dance types are found: allemands, ballets, courantes, galliards, passamezzos, pavanes, sarabandes, and intradas. The intrada and galliard are the most frequently encountered. Because the cornett is also prominently associated with announcing entrances, the intrada is particularly interesting.

There is an interesting example in Richard Brome’s drama The English Moor. In the scene of interest, a dance of costumed masquers (a stag, a ram, a goat, and an ox, all with horns on their heads) is put on to teach one of the characters a negative lesson. Interesting is the specificity of horns being on top of the masquer’s heads.[3] “Mercury” introduces the dance music:

Now by this dance let husband that doth wed
Bride from her proper love to loathed bed
Observe his fortune. Musick strike aloud
The cuckolds joy, with merry pipe & crowd.

They dance to musick of Cornet; & Violins.

The Daunce.

Exit. Masquers.[4]


The first line of Brome’s rubric after the introduction has a semi-colon after “musick of Cornet,” then follows “& Violins.” This detail of punctuation implies that the cornetts play a section of music first, as a way of playing an attention-getting introductory dance, followed by a section played by the violins (or violins and cornetts together). Another illustration of an opening dance played by cornetts, less ambiguous than Brome’s, is from Ben Jonson’s account of a masque at Whitehall Palace (a large indoor hall) on February 9, 1609:

Here they lighted from their Chariots, and danc’d forth their first dance; then a second, immediately following it: both right curious, and full of subtile and excellent changes, and seem’d perform’d with no lesse spirits, then of those they personated. The first was to the Cornets, the second to the Vyolines. After which, they tooke out the men, and danc’d the measures; entertaining the time, almost to the space of an houre, with singular varietie: when, to giue them rest, from the Musique which attended the Chariots, by that most excellent tenor voyce, and exact singer (her Maiesties seruant, M r. Io. Allin) this Dittie was sung.[5]


Still another instance of cornetts playing first is found in the English novel, Clidamas (1639):

The masquers prepared themselves for the first measure, which was performed in most exquisite maner to the sound of cornets, that being done certaine loose dances passed betweene the masquers and the gentlewomen, and they being finished, they addrest themselves to the second measures, at the end whereof, sorting themselves as they were at their entrance, Triton spake in this manner.[6]


Perhaps it is the cornett’s role as a fanfaring instrument which best explains the sequence of dances, in which the cornetts play the introductory signal or dance and then the other instruments follow with the rest of the dances.[7] A good visual example is found in an early sixteenth-century print by Hans Schäufelein (1480-1540) entitled “The Princess’s Dance: Audience and Musicians.” In this depiction of nobility, the princess and her companions, tired of traveling, are seated next to an open-air shelter, in which a flutist, a slide trumpeter, a drummer and a cornettist are playing. One of the verses reads as follows:

Blow loud and clear on the zinken [cornetts], we will be soon given a drink. There, the cadence is being played with great reverence. Go find the pipes and the flutes, the kettledrums and the trumpets. Let’s get our dancing rightly organized when the refreshments are brought.[8]

In this depiction the cornettist (there is only one depicted in the band—despite the plural used in the verse caption) is asked to signal the beginning of the dance (or perhaps in this example the cornett signals that the drinks are to be brought in and when this happens, the dance can begin). A dramatic example from Fletcher’s The Little French Lawyer, first performed around 1620, also illustrates this type of fanfare where the cornet does not actually play the dance music (“Cornet.” and “Musicke within.” are rubrics between lines of dialogue):

I am glad, I yield you

Such ample scope of mirth.

Musicke within.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I say, if you are noble, be’t who will;
Goe presently and thanke ’em: I can jump yet,
Or tread a measure.[9]


The following excerpt from Sylvester’s Du Bartas (1621) shows Musica (in this case, “Musick”) dancing.


     [The description of Musick.]
That grace-full posture, and those pretty feet
Which seem still Dancing: all those Harps and Lutes,
Shawms, Sag-buts, Citrons, Viols, Cornets, Flutes,
Plaç’t round about her; prove in every part
This is the noble, sweet, Voice-ord’ring Art . . .[10]


The cornetts are playing in a large, mixed ensemble, which would be appropriate for Musica, who represents all types of musical instruments.

(c. 1500) Israhel van Meckenem, The Dance at the Court of Herod (musician on left plays a cornett-like instrument, possibly a fingerhole horn)

(c. 1500) Israhel van Meckenem, The Dance at the Court of Herod (musician on left plays a cornett-like instrument, possibly a fingerhole horn; the middle musician plays a “pipe and tabor” and the musician on the right plays an early trombone)

Although the cornett as a symbol juxtaposed with dancing angels is a fairly common theme in general, the use of the cornett as a symbol of sinful dancing figures even more prominently in my research.[11] Israhel van Meckenem’s copperplate engraving “The Dance of Herodias” of 1475 depicts a small music ensemble of three wind players in the center of a large hall accompanying dancers who are elegantly dressed (in fifteenth-century garb) and are circling around the hall. The three basse danse wind instruments are a pipe-and-tabor, a slide trumpet, and a fingerhole horn, an animal horn with what appears to be seven finger holes and certainly the precursor to the sixteenth-century cornett. Symbolically, the most important aspects of this scene are the evil and  lewd overtones implicit in the subject matter: the head of John the baptist is presented to Salome in the left corner of the engraving; then the head is served up to Salome’s father in the right corner; in the foreground, Salome dances with the courtiers in celebration of her evil deeds. The idea here is that the instruments provide an unwholesome and frantic type of entertainment, appropriate only for the likes of Salome, noble though she is.[12]

Another example of the cornett as an unseemly dance instrument is from John Davies of Hereford’s poem Wittes Pilgrimage [1605?]:

My Lady shee will laugh as madd shee were
(Lord! why should Mirth make sober Ladies madd?)
If shee but see Him, like an Asse, to fleere;
So shee (kind Mule) to see an Asse is gladd.
And when such Buffons ball, and Cornetts sound
(The Ghests loud-Laughing) Who can then bee heard
That speakes like Phillpps Page, as shrill, as sound,
That Voice hath then no grace and lesse regard?[13]

In conclusion, one can see that the transitory and unwholesome connotations of the dance, held by many in the Renaissance, transfer to instruments used for the dance. Monteverdi effectively and ironically sets off the humble pleas to the Virgin Mary with instrumental dance passages idiomatically scored for violins, trombones, violas, and especially cornetts, which were known at this time to be particularly suitable for dances.

(Next: the cornett in “Deposuit potentes de sede”)

[1]. Henry Fitzgeffrey, “The Third Booke of Humours: Intituled Notes from Black-Fryers,” in Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams, originally published as Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams: With Certaine Observations at Black-Fryers: By H: F:  in London by Edw: Allde, for Miles Patrich [etc.] in 1617, The English Poetry Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), lines 117–18.

[2]. H. Colin Slim, “Musicians on Parnassus,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965): 139.

[3]. See chapter 2,  p. 58, for more on wearing horns as symbol of totemistic god.

[4]. Richard Brome, The English Moor, originally published as Five nevv Playes, Viz. The English Moor, or The Mock-Marriage. The Love-Sick Court, or The Ambitious Politique. Covent Garden Weeded. The Nevv Academy, or The Nevv Exchange. The Queen and Concubine. By Richard Brome in London by A. Crook… and H. Brome [etc.] in 1659, English Verse Drama Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), 1.3.169–72 (and following rubric).

[5]. Ben Jonson, The Masqve of Queenes, originally published in the source text The Workes of Beniamin Jonson in London by Will. Stansby in 1616, English Verse Drama Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), rubric after line 381.

[6]. J. S., Clidamas, originally published as Clidamas, or the Sicilian Tale in London by Thomas Payne in 1639, Early English Prose Fiction Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1997), 153. Italics original.

[7]. The cornett is associated with fanfares in 88 records of my database (3.4% of all records).

[8]. Naylor, The Trumpet & Trombone in Graphic Arts, 1500–1800, 194 (notes to plate 33).

[9]. John Fletcher, The Little French Lawyer, originally published as an anthology of three authors (John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, and Francis Beaumont) entitled Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beaumont and Iohn Fletcher.. Never printed before, And now published by the Authours Originall Copies in London by Humphrey Robinson.. and for Humphrey Moseley [etc.] in 1647, English Verse Drama Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey), 4.1.251–2, 267–9.

[10]. Joshua Sylvester, “Noah. The Second Day of the Second Week,” in Du Bartas: His Divine Weekes And Workes, originally published as Du Bartas: His Divine Weekes And Workes with A Compleate Collectio[n] of all the other most delight-full Workes: Translated and written by yt famous Philomusus: Iosvah Sylvester in London by Humphrey Lownes in 1621, The English Poetry Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), lines 710–14. Italics original.

[11]. An angelic example may be found in an anonymous Italian painting from the middle of the seventeenth-century entitled L’Annunciazione della Vergine; in alto il Padre Eterno, con concerto e danza di angeli which depicts a small ensemble with a cornett playing for dancing angels [observed in Luigi Parigi, I disegni musicali del Gabinetto degli Uffizi e delle minori (Firenze: L.S. Olschki, 1951), 84].

[12]. Beck and Roth, Music in Prints, Plate 1.


[13]. John Davies, “I said unto Laughter,” in Wittes Pilgrimage, originally published as Wittes Pilgrimage (by Poeticall Essaies): Through a a VVorld of amorous Sonnets, Soule-passions, and other Passages, Diuine, Philosophicall, morall, Poeticall, and Politicall. By Iohn Davies, in  London by Iohn Browne in 1605 [?], English Poetry Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1992), lines 37–44.

MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 5

(This is the twenty-second part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 4)

Stylistic Precedents and Parodies of Monteverdi’s Sonata

There are a few precedents for Monteverdi’s Sonata. Denis Arnold maintains that Monteverdi based his Sonata sopra on a similar piece by the Ferrarese monk, Arcangelo Crotti.[1] Crotti’s work pre-dates Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 by two years, according to dates of  publication.[2] Both works—in G major—repeat a chant set against the dactyllic rhythms common to the canzona francese. Instrumentation and formal subtlety, however, are greatly expanded in the Monteverdi version.

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 3.18.58 PMExample 12. Arcangelo Crotti, Sonata sopra Sancta Maria (opening excerpt). Source: Arcangelo Crotti, “Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria,” in Il primo libro de concerti ecclesiastici (Venice: Giacomo Vincenti, 1608).

Monteverdi also may have been looking over Giovanni Gabrieli’s shoulder when he wrote his Sonata. Christiane Engelbrecht points out that the Dulcis Jesu, sonata con voce à 20 by Gabrieli “repeats a short vocal phrase against elaborate instrumental writing that might almost exist without it,”[3] which describes the same technique Monteverdi brings to bear on his Sancta Maria. Skillful handling of large instrumental forces is the distinguishing feature which Monteverdi might have learned from Gabrieli. In both the Gabrieli and the Monteverdi settings, for instance, the cornett is given faster rhythms and a more extended range than in the Crotti piece. In addition, Kurtzman discusses several other pieces stylistically similar to Monteverdi’s Sonata that either influenced or were influenced by his striking work.[4]

In comparing Monteverdi’s Sonata to Gabrieli’s instrumental Canzoni e Sonate of 1615, Kurtzman notes the multi-sectional structure and extravagant scale common to both composers. Yet, according to Kurtzman, the conjunct and smooth melodic motion, the uncomplicated rhythmic patterns, and the high degree of motivic consistency of Monteverdi is unmatched by the elder Gabrieli. Perhaps even more important for a study of symbolism are the Sonata’s “ rhythms, particularly notable in the triple meter sections, but not entirely absent from some of the duple meter passages as well. Gabrieli, on the other hand, uses too much rhythmic differentiation within motives and between separate motives to create such effects.”[5] Indeed, the cornett’s strong symbolic connection to dance is borne out in my general research, and is probably due to its loud tone, necessary for projecting across a large dance hall.[6]

(Next: the cornett as a symbol of the dance)

[1]. Denis Arnold, “Notes on Two Movements of the Monteverdi ‘Vespers,’” The Monthly Musical Record 84 (1954): 60. See example 12 for my own realization of Crotti’s Sonata.

[2]. It is possible that Monteverdi’s Sonata predate’s Crotti’s. Dixon summarizes and proposes several theories of initial performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in his “Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610: ‘Della Beata Vergine?’” Because most scholars have assumed that it was originally intended as a Marian vespers, they have proposed dates corresponding with that assumption: Tagmann proposed a first performance on a Marian feast following the birth of Duke Vincenzo’s grandchild, Maria, on 29 July 1609; and Fenlon proposed 25 May 1609 for a Vespers service corresponding with the inception of an order of knighthood in Sant’Andrea, Mantua. In contrast, because of his theory that the original collection was performed not for a Marian feast, but a feast in honor of Santa Barbara (patron saint of the Ducal basilica), Dixon himself proposes 4 December 1607 or 1609 as the likeliest dates for the first performance.

[3]. Giovanni Gabrieli, Dulcis Jesu: Sonata con voce a 20, ed. Clifford Bartlett (Huntingdon: King’s Music, 1990), introduction; Christiane Engelbrecht, “Eine Sonata con Voce von Giovanni Gabrieli,” in Bericht Über Den Internationalen Musiwissenschaftlichen Kongress Hamburg 1956 (Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1957), 88–89; cited in Kurtzman, “The Monteverdi Vespers,” 366.

[4]. Ibid., 366–76. Apart from the Crotti and pieces by Gabrieli, the other pieces mentioned by Kurtzman do not specify cornett.

[5]. Ibid., 375.

[6]. Of the 108 records in my cornett database with some symbolic association to dance, 12 are iconographic, 19 are from written documents and 77 are musical. Many geographic regions are represented with German (55), English (28) and Italian (14) sources predominating.

MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 4

(This is the twenty-first part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 3)

Sonata sopra

Title page to Adriano Banchieri's L'Organo suonarino

Title page to Adriano Banchieri’s L’Organo suonarino

The next place in the 1610 collection which specifies cornett is the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. The text, addressed to the Virgin Mary, fits thematically with the rest of the collection.[1] Stephen Bonta notes that the motets Nigra sum, Pulchra es, Duo Seraphim, and Audi coelum and the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria ora pro nobis function as antiphon-substitutes in place of the Proper items.[2] Bonta bases his argument mainly on Adriano Banchieri’s L’Organo suonarino of 1605, and notes that Banchieri appended five sonatas in score in his handbook for organists “for use at the five psalms that are normally sung at Vespers.” It is significant, Bonta points out, that Monteverdi also used the title “sonata,” for his instrumental piece with the text Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.[3] The piece begins right away with cornetts playing the typical dactylic figuration as is shown in example 11.

Jeffrey Kurtzman, in his 1972 dissertation, wrote the following analytical discription of Monteverdi’s Sonata sopra Sancta Maria as an example of a composition which employs a repeated cantus firmus in long note values:

the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, which borrows the opening phrase from the Litany of the Saints . . . , reiterates it in the soprano voice eleven times over a sonata for eight instruments. The cantus firmus does not begin until well into the piece, and the separate statements are separated by rests of varying durations.  The chant itself is varied rhythmically in each statement.  Underneath the cantus firmus, the instrumental sonata unfolds in several large sections with the first one restated at the end.  As in the Magnificats [small and large, in the same collection], the separate sections of the Sonata are written for different textures and styles, often in differing meters.  Contrary to the Magnificats, the changes from one section to another do not correspond with each restatement of the cantus firmus. This time a single section may support several intonations of the chant melody.[4]

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 9.37.00 PMExample 11. Sonata sopra Sancta Maria (opening excerpt)


At the end of the Sonata, the introductory instrumental material is brought back and combined with the penultimate cantus firmus entry, creating a powerful climax by clashing sacred with secular. Since the cantus firmus is so different in style from the instrumental parts, the question arises as to which one of these elements was more important to Monteverdi. Kurtzman takes the position that “the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria is certainly first and foremost an instrumental piece.”[5] Indeed, Stephen Bonta dismisses the idea that Monteverdi set the cantus firmus of the Sonata to a less-important instrumental accompaniment. On the contrary, he writes that “Monteverdi used elements of the litany as an embellishment of a sonata.”[6]

After the introductory section in duple, a triple meter section follows, in the manner of a pavane/galliard pair, according to Denis Arnold. The form which emerges from this instrumental introduction is, he proposes, the canzona francese.[7] Of course, this is not music actually intended for dance, although the style of the instrumental ensemble is certainly secular and dance-like. Kurtzman explains the similarities between the Sonata and other contemporaneous, or near-contemporeaneous, instrumental pieces:

the metamorphosis of one motive out of another by means of lengthening or shortening, inversion of intervals, reversal of melodic direction, and alteration of rhythmic values is the same process used by innumerable composers of ricercare and canzone in the second half of the sixteenth century.[8]


Kurtzman then points to the fundamental difference (apart from the addition of a vocal line) between Monteverdi’s Sonata and these sixteenth-century instrumental canzonas. “It is only in those passages where greater identity is maintained . . . that one is not speaking of thematic development, but rather variation of the same material.”[9] This variation technique becomes a defining and future-looking compositional approach in the 1610 Vespers for Monteverdi, according to Kurtzman.

Thus we have a small dilemma of nomenclature. Although Monteverdi called this piece a “sonata,” it is not a real sonata (or any other instrumental genre), because it has a vocal part. Nevertheless, by discounting this vocal part and considering only the instrumental parts, how close does it come to other instrumental genres? It is like an instrumental canzona in the motivic development of most passages, in the idiomatic dactylic figuration, and imitative counterpoint, but it is much longer than a typical canzona, relies more on the use of pairs of instruments, and uses the process of seventeenth-century variation procedures. It is, furthermore, dance-like, although it is not a dance.

[1]. Bonta, “Liturgical Problems,” 93.

[2]. Ibid.,  94.

[3]. Ibid., 102.


[4]. Kurtzman, “The Monteverdi Vespers,” 111.

[5]. Ibid., 57–58.

[6]. Bonta, “Liturgical Problems,” 94.

[7]. Denis Arnold, Monteverdi, rev. Tim Carter, Master Musicians Series (London: J. M. Dent, 1990), 129.

[8]. Kurtzman, “The Monteverdi Vespers,” 119.

[9]. Ibid.

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