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“La Poppea Impasticciata” or, Who Wrote the Music to “L’Incoronazione” (1643)? – BY ALAN CURTIS (excerpts)

by Luca

LIKE SO MUCH TRADITIONALLY ACCEPTED in formation both right and wrong on mid-seventeenth century Venetian opera, the attribution to Monteverdi of the musical setting of Busenello’s L’incoronazione di Poppea stems largely from a source originating long after the composer’s and librettist’s demise. Thomas Walker (1976) has shown that this source, Cristoforo Ivanovich’s Minerva al tavolino (Venice, 168 ), is often inaccurate. In addition to the errors Walker cites, there is the oft repeated notion of a revival of Poppea in 1646, which in fact never took place, and which probably comes from Ivanovich’s having read the handwritten date “1646” on the cover of a Poppea libretto now in the library of the Rome Conservatory (Santa Cecilia). If one looks beyond the cover, this printed libretto turns out to be the same as all the others: L’Incoronatione Di Poppea Di Gio: Francesco Busenello Opera Musicale Rappresentata Nel Teatro Grimano / Anno I642 (Venice: Giuliani, I656). Note that the print is dated 1656 (which perhaps gave rise to the mistaken date 1646), that the opera itself is dated 1642 (i.e., 1643 season) and that there is no mention either of a revival, or indeed, of Monteverdi at all. This last detail is in itself an anomaly. Giacomo Badoaro, in his preface to L’Ulisse errante (Venice, 1644), mentions proudly that his Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria was “. . . decorated by the Music of Signor Claudio Monteverdi, subject of all fame and perpetual renown,”, and Busenello himself, for instance in the preface to La Statira (Venice, 1655), praises Cavalli, and says that he, having “. . . converted the mute sense of my verse into many harmonic numbers, and clothed its failings in [musical] ideas, imitated the miracles of Creation, making all from nothing.But concerning the music of Poppea there seems to be a conspiracy of silence. Neither the scenario (Venice, I643) nor the 1651 Naples libretto contains any reference to Monteverdi. True, libretti for other operas were also published without mentioning a composer, but common sense, human nature, and such documentary evidence as Benedetto Ferrari’s protest in his letter of 3 April I650 shows us that such a slight would not necessarily be taken casually. Moreover, the Laconismo delle alte qualita di Claudio Monteverde by Matteo Caberloti Piovan di S. Thoma, someone who knew Monteverdi well during the decade prior to his death in I643 and who provides the principal nearly the sole source for our present day knowledge of the composer’s very last years, also contains no reference to Poppea. Although Caberloti Piovan speaks of works “performed in Venetian theatres” and refers specifically to Arianna (Caberloti 1644), performed in Venice in the I640-4I season, as well as to the muse Thalia havingt aught Claudio’s “ingegno” to sing of “i lascivi Amori,” there is no mention of Monteverdi’s having been involved with L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Teatro Grimano in I643, certainly a major musical event that should still have been fresh in his mind. Could this mean that Monteverdi was not involved? Or that Caberloti Piovan found involvement with such a plot (and/or such a librettist) unbecoming of a priest? Or that Monteverdi himself had preferred to keep such involvement anonymous? Or that the authorship of Poppea was too complicated a collaboration to bother to explain? Deferring the answers to these questions for a moment, one must also recognize that the quality of the piece in general, the stylistic connections of much of it to II ritorno d ‘Ulisse in patria and, for 1643 in Venice, the conservative nature of certain of its particulars (the monodic laments of Ottavia, for example), as well as the dramatic force and economy of such dialogues as act I, scene 9 (Nerone/Seneca), all point to the “Oracolo della Musica, Questo bel Monte sempre Verde,”as he was styled by his admiring colleague, Benedetto Ferrari. But this need not meant hat Monteverdi rote the whole. In an era when the collaboration of several composers on such large projects was normal, and particularly at a time when we know that Monteverdi was an ailing septuagenarian, it seems unreasonably credulous to assume that he was necessarily the composer of every note of an opera that has come down to us anonymously.

Let us now consider in detail what clues regarding attribution can be derived from the surviving mid-seventeenth-century manuscripts. In addition to the scenario and the surviving libretti, none of which mentions a composer, two mid-seventeenth-century scores of the music survive: one from the magnificent private collection of the Contarini family in Piazzola, generously given to the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice in 1843, and one “abandoned among the refuse”of the Naples Conservatory library and salvaged by Guido Gasperini at some point in the late I920S. Neither score gives unequivocal external evidence as to the composer, […], and the name “Monteverde” was added not by either of the two principal copyists, but probably by a seventeenth-century hand. […] In fact, both manuscripts were prepared some years after Monteverdi’s death, perhaps in conjunction with the 1651 Naples revival. […] Peter Jeffery (1980) has since shown that scribe to be Cavalli’s wife Maria, which provides a terminus ante quem, since she died in the middle of September I652. Osthoff also identified the opening sinfonia in Venetian copy as closely related to and likely derived from that which opens Cavalli’s Doriclea (I645), and correctly suggested that added indications for transposition, cuts, etc., were in Cavalli’s own hand. These observations had far reaching implications. Although they did not, for instance, prevent Winternitz (1965) from continuing to present proudly a so-called “Monteverdi autograph” of a sinfonia composed after his death, they did stimulate many younger scholars to study the problems surrounding this masterpiece and its related repertory. Shortly after Osthoffs article appeared, acquired a photocopy of Neapolitan copy and began to compare it with the facsimile of Venetian copy, as part of my preparation for a performance at the University of California at Berkeley. This performance led to a recording, for which my friend and, at that time, student, Thomas Walker played the cembalo secondo. As we compared the two scores, our discussions began to focus on such problems as the discrepancy in act I, scene I (Ottone solo), between instrumental ritornelli pitched in C and with the time signature, with the semibreve as unit (hereafter called semibreve-triple) and vocal strophes in D, marked , with the minim as unit (hereafter called minim-triple). We were satisfied neither with Osthoff’s theory of muted trumpets (Osthoff 1956) nor with Anna Amalie Abert’s notion of alternating tonal shifts as symbolizing “the malevolent silence of [Poppea’s] house, where havoc lies in ambush . . .”  We felt on musical grounds that either the ritornello should have its note values halved and be transposed up a major second or, vice versa, the vocals trophess hould have their values doubled and be transposed down a second. Comparison with other seventeenth-century operatic manuscripts can also make clear that such notational discrepancies are the commonplace result of changes in cast, when a role was not only transposed but rewritten, often by another, younger composer. As pointed out by Harold Powers, there are similar examples later in the century where a ritornello, whether or not in a different key, may remain in 3/2 while a revised vocal line is put in 3/4, as the currency of triple-time notation continues its inflationary course (inflationary in the sense that units once accepted as normal or even fast become ever slower). In my opinion, the role of Ottone had at some point to be rewritten for a singer with a slightly higher voice. Monteverdi, presumably because of illness or death, was unable or unwilling to make these changes, and the task was given to a younger composer, who used a more modern notation for triple meter. Thus the same notational discrepancies found in act 1, scene 1 (Malipiero ed. [hereafter M], Curtis e d. [hereafter C ], return in act I, scene 1 (M, 95-104; C, 90-99), […] Similarly, in act 1, scene 1 (M, 107- 14; C, I02-8) and act 2, scene 9 (scene I in M, 172-79; C, I67-74; both Ottone/Drusilla), though there are no ritornelli, Ottone sings always in minim-triple while Drusilla, even when singing the same motive, has doubled values (semibreve-triple). One could argue that Ottone, in both scenes, is more urgent and excited, Drusilla more calm and self assured, and that the difference in notation is therefore intentional meant to show a faster (even if not double) tempo for Ottone. As tempting as this may be from a purely musico-dramatic standpoint (and nothing prevents such an interpretation regardless of notation), I feel the historical evidence is to the contrary. In fact, it is again within the role of Ottone, this time his solo scene in act 2 (scene 8 in M, 151-56; scene 6 in C, 147-52), where we can see most clearly that notation in semibreve or minim-triple does not of itself have any significance for tempo. The same ritornello bass for “Sprezzami” is notated in semibreve-triple in the Neapolitan and minim-triple in the Venetian, while both sources give the following vocal strophes in minim-triple. The discrepancy, which here cannot possibly mean a difference of tempo, is best explained by the assumption that, just as in act I, scenes I and II, an original ritornello bass was retained in the Neapolitan score and its source, while an altered vocal part, given a higher tessitura, was copied in minim-triple. A later scribe, perhaps indeed the unknown copyist of act 2 in the Venetian, halved the values of the ritornello as well, rather than retaining them incongruously as had Maria Cavalli in act I. In act 3, probably because Ottone’s tessitura was already fairly high, but perhaps also because he has here relatively little to sing, Signora Cavalli seems to have copied his part unaltered: it is in alto clef and semibreve-triple throughout. The Neapolitan score’s copyist (or the sources on which he depended) recopied the part in mezzo-soprano clef but still left the semibreve-triple notation. Another trace of the original alto-clef notation is found at the beginning of act I, scene 2 (M, 22; C, 23). In both sources the two interjections that Ottone mutters after the soldiers have been roused are left in alto clef even though all through act I, scene I Ottone has sung in the mezzo-soprano clef. Either these brief utterances, though low in range for the role of Ottone as it was rewritten, were left as they were in order not to necessitate alteration of the soldiers’ parts, or else they were simply overlooked, in haste, by the transposer-rewriter (a younger composer brought in to finish and/ or revise the work of an old man whose health was failing?). To return to Ottone’s opening scene (act I, scene I), the one with the ritorello in C and voice part in D: in the facsimile of this scene in the Venetian score, one sees only smudged clefs on ff. 7v-8r, but in the original it is clear that Signora Cavalli first wrote alto clefs and then corrected them to mezzo-soprano clefs. Even such a casual oversight is probably not unrelated to the use of alto clef in act i, scene 2 and act 3. Since she copied the first strophe correctly, could this mean that her husband (or another composer) completely rewrote that first strophe, and then simply gave directions for adapting the second, third, and fourth? Such a theory gains some credence from the unusually high range (high d!) and tessitura of the first strophe as though the reviser, given the task of slightly raising Ottone’s tessitura, at first went overboard; alterations for the rest of the role seem to have raised the tessitura consistently less. One can suppose that the reviser had been chastised for having extended the range excessively, was more cautious in subsequent strophes, but never took the trouble to go back and correct the first strophe (perhaps because the tessitura in the first strophe is not impossibly, but rather unnecessarily high). Also, since the bass of strophes 3-5 (“Apri,” “Sorgi,” and “Sogni”: M, 15-I8; C, 17- 20) preserves a relationship to the bass of the second (minor) ritornello, in spite of the difference of notation, one could presume that something of the original (Monteverdian?) melodic line might also have been preserved, even though the succeeding recitative shows evidence of having been completely rewritten. Other parts of the opera also show evidence of rewriting or revision. Continuing to regardt he use of minim-triple as an important clue to later revision, we find that, in addition to the revised role of Ottone, virtually every passage in the Neapolitan score which does not appear in the Venetian also uses minim-triple exclusively. The one exception, which proves the rule by following the path of inflation and using semiminim-triple, is act 2, “scena sesta” (Ottavia sola) (M, 266-67; C, 278-84), added for Anna Renzi, and closely modelled after her solo lament, also in F minor, in Sacrati’s La finta pazza (also act 2, scene 6).


All of this evidence suggests that the entire final scene and most of the role of Ottone was written by another composer than was the main body of the opera, and that the other passages singled out (the Prologue; act 2, scenes I and 4; and the final sinfonia) were also written and/or revised by a composer or composers of a generation younger than Monteverdi’s. This is the conclusion I reluctantly arrived a troughly two decades ago reluctantly, because it was a shock particularly to imagine “Pur ti miro,” the “noble ending to his noble efforts” which “sets the pattern for operatic compositions of the whole baroque era” (Schrade I950, 366), “the most beautiful of all Monteverdi’s duets,” with which the eminent scholar Denis Stevens poignantly closes his brief Monteverdi biography (Stevens 1978, 138), as the work of some other composer. If not by Monteverdi, then by whom? Cavalli was of course the first to come to mind, but further study (under which term I include conducting some sixty performances of Cavalli’s L’Erismena), ruled this out on stylistic grounds. Lesser known composers of the same circle were next in line: the poet-composer-lutenist Benedetto Ferrari, Francesco Manelli, Filiberto Laurenzi, and Francesco Sacrati (though at that time no music of the latter was known to be preserved). I had already settled on Ferrari as the most likely candidate when I heard that Lorenzo Bianconi had discovered him to be in fact the author of the text of “Pur ti miro” and so possibly, though not inevitably, also of the music. Subsequently, Bianconi also discovered that the text “Pur ti miro” recurs in 1647 in a Roman carnival “opera-on-wheels” called II trionfo della fatica, with music (now lost) by Laurenzi. Unfortunately, no operas by Ferrari have survived, and his oratorio Sansone (Modena, I68o) was written at the very end of his life, consciously in a style completely different from that of his operas. However, three books of Musiche, all published by Magni in Venice, are preserved in unique copies at Oxford (I633), Wroclaw (1637), and Bologna (1641), and they can give us some idea of his earlier style and abilities. The Musiche include settings of Busenello texts, and there is evidence that Busenello and Ferrari were friends. The transcription, editing, and stylistic study of these three books in connection with Poppea formed one of the topics of a seminar I conducted at Berkeley in I978. Shortly thereafter, independently, Alessandro Magini began a more thorough study of the same topic, which has culminated in his excellent thesis (Magini i983-84), a facsimile of all three books of Musiche (Ferrari 1985), and a recent article (Magini 1986). Although the preserved works of Ferrari are close in style to the “suspect” portions of Poppea, a tentative attribution of them to him, faute de mieux, left me with many misgivings, particularly since only one single (and not very typical) example of the most salient “fingerprint” could be found in his Musiche. The discovery of Sacrati’s La finta pazza, if it has not entirely solved all the attendant problems, has at least cast a bold new light on the matter. With my first random glance at a photocopy of this long lost score, my eyes happened to fall on the first of the passages given below (Sacrati, La finta pazza, act 3, scene 5), so closely related to Nerone’s “Per capirti”(L’incoronazione di Poppea, act 3, scene 8). Within minutes, I was able to locate a dozen more examples of what I was quickly coming to think of as the “Sacrati fingerprint.” I had already been informed that in the manuscript of La finta pazza the two sinfonie (with the two upper parts left mostly blank) of the Consuls/Tribunes coronation scene in Poppea served, in reverse order, as an overture. It is difficult to be objective about music already so familiar, but I tend to feel that the two pieces are here “artificially” joined, in other words, that their function in Poppea seems more natural, more authentic. From the libretto, we know that the manu-script of La finta pazza found by Professor Bianconi represents a “road-show” version, not the original 1641 score. Thus the sinfonie could have been composed for Poppea in 1643 and then linked to serve as (substitute?) overture for La finta pazza. From this one could, of course, argue that they were composed by someone else (even Monteverdi!) and borrowed for the tour. However, assuming for the moment that Sacrati composed the surviving prologue to his La finta pazza (by no means an absolute certainty), one could also assume he composed these two sinfonie, especially if one compares the “running” bass-line (second sinfonia of the Consuls/Tribunes, the opening of La finta pazza) with certain passages in the prologue. Since I had sensed Sacrati’s hand in Poppea mainly through aspects of his treatment of triple meter, the recovery of La finta pazza now opens, of course, the possibility of further study and comparison, especially of duple meter and free recitative. For instance, a passage in the first entrance of Tetide resembles Amalta’s “E pur vedete”; both are tenor travesties with a similar comic purpose. Moreover, the triple meter “fingerprint” can also occur in duple meter, as indeed it does in Drusilla’s “II tribunal d’Amor” (M, 108; C, 103, m. 12). However, as already mentioned, Drusilla’s role else-where shows evidence of remaining in an earlier notation even when Ottone’s similar passages in their dialogue have been modernized. On the whole, I think, we need not rush to attribute fragments of Poppea here and there to Sacrati. We should, however, recognize that he seems to have finished, possibly with some help from Ferrari, the parts of Poppea that we may presume Monteverdi had left incomplete. And he seems to have rewritten, probably only as much as needed to raise the tessitura, the role of Ottone to conform to a cast change with which, assuming it did take place during Monteverdi’s lifetime, the aged master felt unable to cope. Whether all this was with or without Monteverdi’s consent, before or after his death, we shall probably never know.

As for “Pur ti miro,” one now must judge not the case of Ferrari vs. Monteverdi but rather of Ferrari vs. Sacrati. Was Ferrari, whose first Pastor reggio (Venice, 1640-41 carnival) does not include “Pur ti miro,” inspired by the erotic languor of the Deidamia-Achille-Eunuco trio (La finta pazza, act I, scene 5 [Venice 1641-42 carnival]), also in G major and built on the descending tetrachord, to compose his “Pur ti miro” (Bologna, 1641)? And did Sacrati (and/or Monteverdi?) then find it so beautiful that it deserved to be heard in Venice (at the end of Poppea, Venice 1642-43 carnival)? Or did Sacrati simply reset a fresh the slightly revised text by Ferrari? In any case, the widely believed legend of “Pur ti miro” as the climax, the glowing sunset of Monteverdi’s long career, if not yet perhaps conclusively disproved, has at least been shown to be most unlikely. One legend, however, can quickly be replaced by another and I hasten to supply one that could appear to both seventeenth and twentieth-century sensibilities as more “realistic.” If we accept that the entire last scene was not set by Monteverdi, then Arnalta’s solo, which immediately precedes it (M, 226-29) could have been his final composition. Is it not more fitting that we should imagine the last words set by the 76-year-old master as being, not the baby-talk quaternari of Poppea and Nerone (or rather of Ferrari’s Laurina and Clizio), but the wisely ironical adage of the aged Arnalta: “Chi lascia le grandezze/Piangendo a morte va,/Ma chi servendo sta,/Con piu felice sorte,/Come fin degli stenti, ama la morte”? (“They who have grandeur to leave behind, weep as death approaches, but they who serve have a happier fate, welcoming death as the end of their labours.”) Here, perhaps, is one happy instance where the cynical libertine Busenello’s text could wholeheartedly be espoused by the devout humanist priest Monteverdi.  We may hope that Monteverdi left this mortal scene as does Amalta-and as we all hope to with an abrupt, unexpected cadence in untroubled C major.

University of California, Berkeley

“La Poppea Impasticciata” or, Who Wrote the Music to “L’Incoronazione” (1643)? Author(s): Alan Curtis Source: Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 23-54 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the American Musicological Society Stable URL: