Cipriano Madrigals Bear Out A Lofty Epithet: ‘ll Divino’

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Five-voice madrigals by Cipriano de Rore are the focus of Blue Heron in preparation for a 2-CD set of his 20-madrigal cycle based on poetry of contemporaries including Petrarch. (Frontispiece by Hans Müelich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek)
By Marvin J. Ward

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Cipriano de Rore (1515/16-1565) fits chronologically between Josquin des Prés (1450/55-1521) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who called Cipriano “il divino,” and shares something with both in that he was from Belgium but spent nearly all of his professional career in Italy. Excerpts from Cipriano’s remarkable I Madrigali a cinque voci were performed by the vocal ensemble Blue Heron on May 17 at the (Episcopal) Church of the Redeemer, in Chestnut Hill.

Cipriano lived first in Brescia, then Ferrara, and later, from 1560, in Parma – but not in Venice where Monteverdi, born in Cremona, spent 30 years of his career. Although born in Ronse, now Renaix, the last village on the French-speaking side of Belgium’s linguistic divide, Cipriano’s family was Flemish.

Blue Heron was awarded the 2015 Noah Greenberg Prize for historical performance.

The family name is not that of a place, but a word meaning “scythe”; it also appears as de Rodere. His given name was Cyprien, also spelled Cypriaan, the double-‘a’ being Flemish, but its orthography befuddles and makes one wonder what its pronunciation was: perhaps more like modern French -ian than its current sound for -ien; it also sometimes appears in a hybrid Cypriano. As to the “Ci,” generally pronounced “chee”as in modern Italian rather than “see” as it would have been in French, its sound is unclear, too; Italian was not established as a language until the late 19th century, when the peninsula was united as a county. In the composer’s time, it was a bundle of sometimes very small areas with their own dialects and governors.

Cipriano’s I Madrigali a cinque voci is a bundle of “firsts.” For two starters, it was the first book published by the composer and the first vocal music known to have been written in five parts. It was published in 1542 in Venice without a patron’s name and without a privilege, the period equivalent of a copyright, which resulted in nearly a dozen different editions issued by four different printers during the remainder of the century.

It appears to have been the period equivalent of self-publishing, but this, too, is ultimately a mystery, and it did not make Cipriano rich, though it certainly did enrich the history of music and the experience of this recent performance in Chestnut Hill (a village within Newton, Mass.) – one of a series of presentations that began in 2017.

This information is gleaned from the program book note by musicologist Jessie Ann Owens, emeritus professor of music, University of California-Davis, who also gave introductory comments before the performance and is the primary proponent of the entire project, having written her dissertation (Princeton, 1978) on Cipriano. I had the enormous pleasure of being able to speak with her following the concert, and she straightened me out on the true origin of the composer and his name.

I Madrigali, published in part books, were the first to present texts arranged to tell a story, the first true song cycle, with its turning point about the death of the beloved. They were the first to arrange the music by modes as they progress through a cycle, similar to the arrangement of Bach’s 1722 Preludes and Fugues through the 24 major and minor keys, and the first published work to use the modes to express emotions. I Madrigali also use the modes to represent the meanings of the words, and the rhythm also often does this; the music is “intensely text-based,” in Owens’ words, “dense and intense.”

The Church of the Redeemer’s fine acoustic served both the Cipriano concert and forthcoming recording. (John Yannis)

The work consists of twenty madrigals setting poems by contemporary poets, sixteen of them sonnets, twelve of those by Petrarch, making it the earliest set with such a large number of Petrarch settings. The project will culminate with the recording of all twenty, thanks to the American Musicological Society’s awarding of the Noah Greenberg Prize in 2015 to Blue Heron and Owens: a world premiere recording made in the venue of this concert, the group’s usual one (for recording, not performance), the Church of the Redeemer, a moderate-sized Gothic-style structure with only a very shallow transept on its right side and the fine acoustic one would expect from such a building. Release of the 2-CD set (c. 120 minutes of music) is expected this fall.

The May 17 performance, entitled Songs of Love and Death, consisted of six madrigals, Nos. 6, 10-12, 14, and 20, chosen from the ten printed in the program book (the others were Nos. 4, 15, 16, and 18). It featured singers soprano Margot Rood, countertenor Martin Near, tenors Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Sumner Thompson, and bass Paul Guttry. Before each madrigal, Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe read the English translations and Alessandro Quarta – Italian conductor and founder of Concerto Romano – read the Italian originals.

Listening to this splendid music is also intense. Each voice is singing a different text at a given moment, so it’s impossible to follow the printed ones, in spite of the crystal-clear clarity of the diction; yet some individual words were easily understood, and there were moments when things did suddenly come together out of the blur of resonance.

The whole was akin to waves of harmonious and mellifluous vowel sounds flowing into one’s ears, an aural “kaleidoscope,” as Owens said during our conversation, that was indescribably beautiful. It really must be experienced to be appreciated; there is nothing else like it, and these singers are perhaps the best in the world today to produce it.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.