Sweet Torment over Four Centuries

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (The University of Texas at Austin) //

In 1623 Carlo Milanuzzi, a Venetian musician, released a “greatest hits” songbook—or at least a book of songs he hoped would be recognized as popular, since this was long before broadcasters established Top 10 lists. A highlight of the collection was a tune attributed to one of the best-known songwriters of the time, Claudio Monteverdi.

The text begins “Si dolce è il tormento”:


The wistful text speaks of the sweet torment of loving someone who does not return that love. It ends with the hope that the beloved will someday sigh after the speaker has departed. One good translation, with a lovely linked recording, is available at http://music.magnificatbaroque.com/track/monteverdi-si-dolce-el-tormento.

The song is very straightforward, almost simple, on the surface: a melody with limited range, which descends through a major scale in the first half of the song and briefly rises again before pausing and descending through a minor scale to the tonic note in the second half. Each text stanza of the song is designed to be sung to that same melody. The publisher indicates this by printing stanzas 2–4 below the musical setting of the first stanza—a practice still in use today. An underlying bass line provides about one note for each three notes of the melody. 

The style of musical notation Milanuzzi used was relatively new—it had first appeared in print just over two decades before his song was published. Known as basso continuo, it linked a melody to a bass line that was meant to be elaborated upon in performance. Musicians called this process of improvisation ripieno, which then as now also refers to the filling inside stuffed pasta (ravioli, tortellini, etc.). And just as ravioli are made tasty and unique by the creative combination of ingredients in the stuffing, ripieno realization is made distinctive and appealing by the performers’ ability to fill in the musical space between the bass and the melody provided by the score.

In the early 1600s, conventions about proper harmonization would have guided performers in their elaboration of the ripieno, but a fair amount of latitude with those rules encouraged individual interpretation. This practice was the domain of professional singers, who would accompany themselves elaborately by playing string instruments such as lutes (see the video example below). Sometimes they would even recruit additional instrumentalists to make the ripieno all the more “tasty,” adding complex sonic meaning to their powerful voices. Demand grew for skilled musicians, and “Si dolce” provided a great template for their expressive talents. A recent recording of the song attempts to recreate this kind of sonic variety, including improvisations by melody instruments as well as multiple ripieno performers.

Philippe Jaroussky, vocalist, is supported by Cristina Pluhar’s Ensemble Arpeggiata; the basso continuo /ripieno instruments are a cymbalom (which begins the performance), three members of the lute family, and a viola da gamba; featured melody instruments are cornetto and violin.

The notation of “Si dolce” provides an additional musical guideline that can supplement or replace the harmony suggested by the basso continuo. Above the melody line, capital letters indicate specific chords through a system known as tablature. (Modern guitarists are familiar with a similar system, which specifies finger positions on the frets of contemporary six-stringed guitars.) The tablature used in “Si dolce” was designed for the five-stringed Spanish guitar, an instrument popular in the early 1600s. During that time, many music books were published with fret-and-string-finger-position equivalents for various letters and symbols. Scholars are confident that Milanuzzi provided Spanish guitar tablature for “Si dolce” to make it more marketable for those who would not have been proficient in basso continuo realization but still wanted the opportunity to sing the song without hiring a professional to do it for them.

Few people today play five-stringed guitar, and fewer still are familiar with its tablature system. But if we listen to a recording by performers who do use the tablature indication in “Si dolce,” we can hear a subtle harmonic difference. The tablature indicates harmonies more precisely than the basso continuo and specifies that the final note of the melody should be harmonized by a major chord. (That same major chord also appears earlier in the song, but it’s a little harder to hear.) Listen to Montserrat Figueras’s version below—can you hear the different sonic “flavor” around the final note of the vocal melody? If so, try listening again for where that major harmony occurs earlier in the song.

Montserrat Figueras is the singer, with Rolf Lislevand playing basso continuo and ripieno on the theorbo, an instrument in the lute family.

Without the specific indication of the tablature, modern performers realize the final note in the bass with a minor chord, which is more in keeping with twenty-first-century harmonic conventions given the descending minor scale that precedes it. And indeed, it is possible that performers who were providing a ripieno in the early 1600s would have likewise seen the final bass note as implying a minor rather than a major chord. Authenticity here is hard to pin down. Since there are no other instances of Monteverdi using tablatures, it’s unlikely that those in “Si dolce” are his own. Perhaps this was Milanuzzi’s interpretation of the melody-bass skeleton provided by the composer.

And perhaps Monteverdi didn’t write the tune at all. Director of music at one of the most important institutions in the Italian peninsula—St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice—he was well known for many successful publications of songs. Might Milanuzzi have used Monteverdi’s name as headliner to hype his “greatest hits” collection, whether or not he had obtained the song from him? There was no copyright at the time, no systematic penalty for piracy or false attribution, so Monteverdi would have had little recourse. Even if the composer had seen his name used incorrectly to sell books, he might have been willing to let it slide, as long as he thought the music wouldn’t reflect badly on his reputation. (One other possibility: Milanuzzi’s collection features a couple of songs by Monteverdi’s son Francesco, who was beginning to make a career as a musician in his own right. The elder, more famous Monteverdi might have agreed to be featured in order to give his son an opening into the business.)

We don’t know if “Si dolce” was especially popular in the early 1600s—it was not reprinted in the volumes of songs that Milanuzzi released in the following two decades. After all, since the public always wants fresh material, one can’t release a “chart-topping” song more than once and expect market success. “Si dolce” has certainly become popular in the last couple of decades, performed and recorded by many prominent singers, and not exclusively early-music specialists. A number of modern musicians have recognized a similarity between the song’s expandable bare bones and the performance practices of jazz standards of the last century. Here are just a few of examples that reflect the stylistic diversity that can be mixed into the filling of this song: https://www.youtube.com/embed/WYvpgLqeG0c

Jazz trumpeter and composer Paolo Fresu is joined by pianist and composer Uri Caine. https://www.youtube.com/embed/dPANKDTY-go

An unnamed jazz-fusion ensemble on the Dutch Radio 4 show Virus in March 2012. https://www.youtube.com/embed/f847B1c6u0U

Guitarist Tony McManus, from Scotland, has recorded in a wide variety of contemporary traditions.

Almost 400 years after its creation, “Si dolce” continues to fire the imaginations of musicians.  If only Milanuzzi and Monteverdi were around today to reap the rewards!

For Discussion

  1. What do you think makes “Si dolce” so popular with musicians, and presumably their audiences, almost four centuries after it was written?
  2. Which of the versions presented above do you find most expressively compelling? Why? Can you find another version online that you find more compelling, and what makes it so?
  3. Does it matter whether this song was written by Monteverdi? Why or why not?

Further Reading

For more on Milanuzzi and popular song in Venice in the early 1600s, see this essay by Cory Gavito.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s