In his new book, associate professor of music Seth Coluzzi examines the “reciprocal relationship” between the celebrated Italian Renaissance play Il pastor fido and the many madrigals it inspired.
For Seth Coluzzi, madrigals are music to the ears. Originating in 16th-century Italy, madrigals are a cappella vocal settings of high poetry for an ensemble of four to six singers. They reached their zenith around the turn of the 17th century.
Coluzzi, an associate professor of music, focuses his research on issues of interpretation, voice, and analysis in the Italian madrigal. “My research gives me a chance to dig deeply into the music and try to understand how madrigal composers are reading the poetry in impassioned and expressive ways,” Coluzzi says.
One of the most renowned sources of texts for Italian madrigals was Il pastor fido, a celebrated pastoral tragicomedy written by Renaissance court poet Battista Guarini. This groundbreaking play became one of the most widely translated and imitated works of its age and was adapted repeatedly by madrigal composers in the years after the play was published in 1589 and first produced in the early 1590s.
Coluzzi explores how Guarini’s “widely read yet controversial text became the center of a lasting and prolific music tradition” in his new book Guarini’s “Il pastor fido” and the Madrigal: Voicing the Pastoral in Late Renaissance Italy (Routledge, 2023).
Coluzzi first encountered madrigals while earning his bachelor of arts in music at the University of Rochester. In graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as he focused his studies on madrigals, he became familiar with Guarini’s Il pastor fido and its adaptations by Luca Marenzio — considered one of the finest madrigal composers of the late 16th century. In fact, Coluzzi wrote his dissertation on “Structure and Interpretation in Luca Marenzio’s Settings of Il pastor fido.”
But there was still so much left to explore about the topic; Coluzzi knew there was a book to be written. In 2010–11, he secured a one-year fellowship at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. There he conducted research for his book.
He traveled to libraries and archives in Venice, Milan, Turin, Rome, Ferrara, and elsewhere to learn more about the evolution of the play and its performances. Each vocal part of a madrigal — alto, tenor, bass, soprano — was published as a separate book, so he had to track down these different books in libraries across Europe and the United States and then translate not only the language from Italian to English but the form of musical notation used in the 1600s into modern notation. “All of that was preparatory work for reconstructing the history of Il pastor fido, the play and the madrigal,” he says.
As Coluzzi writes in his book, “Something set Guarini’s work apart … from all other plays of Renaissance Italy as a promising, plentiful and inspiring source of madrigal texts.”
The celebrated play was considered controversial in several regards. First, Guarini received sharp criticism for combining into one play elements of three rigidly distinct genres: tragedy, comedy, and pastoral. “These were discrete genres going back to antiquity,” Coluzzi says. “Guarini’s combination was compared to a hybrid monster.”
Critics also took issue with the sensuality of the play — there’s a kissing game in one scene — and the strong influence and agency of the female characters, who hold the fate of their people in their hands. And they also quarreled over Guarini’s use of sophisticated and eloquent language for characters who were supposed to be rustic nymphs and shepherds. (The play’s title translates as ‘The Faithful Shepherd.’)
However, some of the aspects that made the play so controversial are what made it especially engaging to madrigal composers. “The poetic language really appealed to composers,” Coluzzi says. “There’s a large number of impassioned monologues that were perfect for composers to pluck out of the play and set to music. You could visualize the characters speaking these emotionally heightened words, and that gave composers something more to grab on to expressively.”
Marenzio and Franco-Flemish composer Giaches de Wert set early examples for which speeches from the play translated best into madrigal form. “Marenzio, in particular, was a major influence in how other composers read and modified the text for their madrigals,” Coluzzi says. Before long, Marenzio’s compositions — instead of the play itself — became a primary source material and inspiration for other composers. In fact, a competitive spirit arose between composers to see who could create the best interpretation of the most popular passages. “They had to prove that they could do it differently or more innovatively,” Coluzzi says.
In the process, madrigal composers started rewriting the musical rules. “The madrigal represents a culmination of musical-literary innovation and technique in the early modern period, not only in Italy but throughout Europe,” Coluzzi writes. Composers introduced unusually harsh sounds into their works. They eschewed the expected overarching design for a musical work in favor of more artistic freedom to better reflect the varying emotions expressed at different points in the text.
There are debates today about the viewpoint from which a madrigal “speaks” its text. In the play, these speeches would be spoken in first person. But in a madrigal, those same words are sung by a group. In his research, Coluzzi found that composers often resolved that dilemma in a creative way. “The madrigal essentially acts as narrator or reader of the speaker’s words, placing the text in implied quotation marks, as if to say, ‘The speaker of the poem said…,’ and then the singers convey the speech,” he explains.
After its zenith around the turn of the 17th century, both Il pastor fido and madrigals faced new competition for audiences’ attention. “Around 1600, opera is invented,” Coluzzi says. “It became more fashionable to compose music for solo singing rather than for an a cappella ensemble.”
Il pastor fido may have faded from the spotlight, but its legacy lives on. Coluzzi teaches students in his music history class that Il pastor fido and the madrigals it inspired are comparable in significance to the advances that Beethoven made in the 1800s and then Wagner made in the late 19th century. “It thrust music forward in terms of new techniques and a greater range of expression,” he says. “The play was a significant influence on poets and playwrights, including Shakespeare, Donne, and Pope.”
To this day, in both literary and musical circles, “The Faithful Shepherd” retains a faithful following.