Titian: Concert Champetre, c.1510-11

Luca Marenzio


Imagine taking a time machine back to the England of 1600. As an interested observer of the musical scene, you naturally seek out the company of musicians. One evening in a London tavern the talk turns to madrigals. “And who in your view is the greatest madrigal composer?”, you ask the assembled company. “Why, Messer Luca Marenzio of Rome, of course” comes the reply, almost in chorus. “Yes, indeed”, adds one of their number, “so esteemed is maestro Marenzio that five years ago even our famous John Dowland, now in the service of the King of Denmark, travelled to Italy to seek study with him, although we don’t think he reached Rome”.[1]

Marenzio’s eminence, which apart from being widely recognised in England extended far across continental Europe, may perhaps come as a surprise today, when as a madrigalist he remains firmly in the shadow of Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Yet even allowing for the fact that by 1600 Monteverdi had published only three books of madrigals, Marenzio continued to be held up as the exemplar of a fluent, classical style of madrigal composition, the finest exponent of the “pure” madrigal. In 1610 he was described by the Italian writer Alessandro Guarini (who is not to be confused with the famous author of Il pastor fido, Giovanni Battista Guarini) as “that musician who goes dispersing delight with his sweetness and lightness, determined above all not to offend the ear, but enticing it with exquisite sweetness”, while a century later another Italian writer could refer to Marenzio as “The sweetest swan who composed in the madrigal style”. Time and again it is this word “sweetness” that recurs in connection with the madrigals of Marenzio, yet as we will see it tells only a misleading part of the story.

Life and Times

Given the slow speed at which news travelled in those days, our convivial English drinking companions may not have known in 1600 that by then Luca Marenzio had died in Rome, an event that occurred on 22 August 1599, just over two months short of his probable 46th birthday. Like many composers of this period, his exact birth date is unknown, but acting on the evidence of a pollizza d’estimo (a statement made for tax purposes) completed in 1588 by Marenzio’s father Giovanni Francesco, the composer’s biographer Marco Bizzarini has computed that Luca was born in either 1553 or 1554, while the seventeenth-century historian Ottavio Rossi claimed he was named after St. Luke, which would make his birth-date 18 October 1554.[2] Marenzio’s place of birth was Coccaglia, a small town lying to the west of Brescia, where according to Rossi (himself a Brescian who may have known Marenzio personally), he studied with Giovanni Contino, maestro di capella of Brescia Cathedral, although the suggestion that the young Luca was a chorister there has no verifiable claim to truth. But there is certainly strong evidence to support some form of relationship between Contino and Marenzio, not least Contino’s service with the Gonzagas in Mantua, which lasted sporadically between 1562 and 1573. It seems highly probable that Contino introduced Marenzio to the court, the evidence of a surviving letter in the Gonzaga archives suggesting that the young musician spent some time working there. Assuming that to be the case, Marenzio could hardly have avoided coming into contact with one of the foremost madrigalists of the day, Giaches de Wert, maestro of the basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua, whose works would have made a powerful impression on the adolescent Marenzio. Indeed, as Anthony Rooley has noted,[3] certain of Marenzio’s madrigals suggest the direct influence of Wert. They were also the only madrigalists to have set Luigi Tansillo’s desolate cycle Se quel dolor in its entirety, Wert in 1577, Marenzio in his 6th Book for Six Voices (1595); it must be considered likely Marenzio was familiar with Wert’s setting.

The conjectural link between Marenzio and Contino gains further credibility from the appointment of Marenzio to the service of Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo of Trent, but resident in Rome by the time Marenzio joined him, which must have been around the time of Contino’s death in 1574. The latter had been Madruzzo’s maestro di capella in Trent during the time of the famous reforming Council and is much the most likely source of a recommendation of Marenzio to the music-loving cardinal. Unfortunately, no documentary evidence relating to the period Marenzio was in the service of Madruzzo (c.1574-1578) has come down to us, but we do know that at this point he was known better as a singer than as a composer and that he was also a lutenist.

On the death of Madruzzo in 1578, Marenzio transferred to the service and patronage of one of the most powerful Roman princes, Cardinal Luigi d’Este, a man renowned in Rome for a flamboyantly extravagant way of life that was the talk of the city and avissi, the newssheets and gossip columns of the day. The year after Marenzio joined him, the cardinal put his young protégée’s name forward to enter the Sistine Chapel, citing his “merit” and “good conduct”. Complex internal politics eventually thwarted the attempt, an episode dealt with in detail by Bizzarini.[4] More important from our viewpoint was the publication in Venice in 1580 of the first of Marenzio’s madrigal books, although he had previously had at least one madrigal published in a collection. Written for five voices, the first book unsurprisingly bears a dedication to Cardinal d’Este. In this the young composer speaks of the works included as “first fruits” and “imperfect efforts” that he hopes will be raised in stature by the greatness of the cardinal. Such subservient flattery was of course customary in an era in which the relationship between patron and artist was above all designed to bring reflected glory to the recipient of a dedication, which also frequently bore some form of political relevance to either artist or dedicatee.

At much the same time as the first book appeared, another event took place that would have profound repercussions for Marenzio’s development as a composer. A group of the cardinal’s men became involved in a brawl with the papal police, injuring some of them. When d’Este refused to hand over the culprits, Pope Gregory XIII, with whom he generally enjoyed a good relationship, told the cardinal in no uncertain terms that if he did not bow to papal authority he must leave Rome. So Cardinal d’Este did just that, setting off on a journey that eventually took him and his retinue, which in its later stages included Marenzio, to his brother’s domains in Ferrara.

The Ferrara of Duke Alfonso II was one of the undoubted cultural centres in Italy, a city in which the arts, especially music and literature, flourished. Among the ornaments of the court’s glittering musical establishment were such luminaries as the court organist Luzzasco Luzzaschi, whose avant-garde madrigals would exert a profound influence on Gesualdo. At the time of Marenzio’s visit, renowned singers such as Laura Peperara and Anna Guarini, said to have “the voices of angels”, contributed to the celebrated concerto delle donne that provided Alfonso with private concerts for the ears and eyes of only himself and specially invited guests, the so-called “musica secreta”. Neither was the glittering artistic roster at Ferrara confined to musicians. The tortured genius Torquato Tasso enjoyed the particular patronage of Alfonso’s two sisters, Lucrezia and Leonora, although by the time of the visit of Cardinal d’Este and Marenzio increasingly bizarre behaviour had led the duke to confine him. Tasso’s place as court poet had been taken over by another great poet, Battista Guarini, whose Il pastor fido (1590) would prove to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration to composers, including Marenzio, who drew on it in several of his late books. The effect on the 27 year-old composer of entering this extraordinary hothouse of artistic endeavour can only be guessed at, but it must have been considerable.

Possibly it provided at least some of the inspiration for the two books of madrigals produced in quick succession around the time Marenzio left Ferrara. The first, for six voices, was published in April 1581, diplomatically dedicated to Duke Alfonso and with a title page on which Marenzio describes himself as maestro di capella to Cardinal d’Este, the only occasion on which he used the title. Bizzarini suggests that this may have been a point of honour with the cardinal, intended to show his brother that he was the patron of a rising young star. The notion is certainly plausible, given that Luigi kept only a small musical establishment that hardly warranted being termed a capella. The second book, this time for five voices, appeared six months later with an address to the duke’s sister Lucrezia.

By that time Luigi d’Este and his entourage had returned to Rome, the cardinal forgiven by the pope at a meeting at which the two men “were seen weeping with tenderness” according to an avisso of 24 June 1581. For the next five years Marenzio remained in Rome, a routine broken only by the occasional visit to Luigi d’Este’s villa at Tivoli. During this time he published no fewer than seven books of madrigals for between four and six voices, a volume of Madrigali spirituale (1784) dedicated to the pope, five books of three-voice canzonets (lighter pieces than madrigals), and a book of four-part motets. In addition to his functions as a now fully-fledged composer, there is substantial evidence that Marenzio was frequently called on as a singer by some of the numerous confraternities in Rome. The confraternities were lay associations that met for spiritual and charitable purposes, often mounting elaborate devotional gatherings during Holy Week and other major religious festivals. Bizzarini quotes a request sent to Cardinal d’Este by one such confraternity, asking that he send Marenzio to assist with the music the following Lent. Significantly, the cardinal replied that he was not in the habit of ordering his musician to go anywhere and that he was free to choose whom he assisted.

If this suggests that d’Este held only a light rein on Marenzio, there was a price to pay in the form of late payments of his salary, an apparently recurring problem articulated in a desperate letter to the cardinal dating from 1584, begging for his pay and assurance that payment would actually be made after d’Este had ordered its release. This doubtless made the extra income that could be earned from the confraternities, especially that of SS. Trinità,
[5] the more important. In addition there was another Roman organisation with which Marenzio was involved, the Compagnia dei Signori Musici di Roma, a kind of musicians’ guild that not only promoted the work of its members through the publication of collections of their works, but was also involved in caring for those of its members who had fallen on hard times or become too old to work. Marenzio was involved in all the collections published during the 1580s, which indubitably formed the basis of those publications north of the Alps that helped disseminate his name.


Although Marenzio remained in Rome throughout most of the 1580s, there were several occasions on which he might have left. Plans of Cardinal d’Este, who had strong ties with the French court and was the protector of French interests in Rome, to send him to Paris came to nothing, as did protracted negotiations in 1586 and 1587 that might have seen Marenzio become maestro di capella to Duke Gugliemo Gonzaga of Mantua. As we have seen, Marenzio probably served in Mantua as a teenager and he is known to have kept close contact with the court over the succeeding decade. Even before this, in 1583, moves were made to attract Marenzio to Mantua, but they had coincided with the period when it was thought he would be sent to Paris. Considerable documentation exists regarding the negotiations of 1586 and 1587,[6] but suffice it to say here that in the end Gonzaga and Marenzio were unable to reach agreement over pay and terms. More importantly from our viewpoint, these negotiations provide rare insight into the character and personality of our subject, who in many respects remains a somewhat shadowy figure. Scipione Gonzaga, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was charged with dealing with Marenzio in Rome, submitted a number of reports back to Mantua, from which we learn that while Marenzio was in principle prepared to take a post with the Gonzagas it would have to be one that was both “honourable and advantageous”. Gonzaga’s impression of Marenzio reveals a man confident of his own abilities and the possessor of a certain pride that excluded haughtiness:

In general I find it good that he would not accept any kind of position, and that, much desirous of honour, he would not serve under a superior in the same profession; he also insists on stability, and wherever he agrees to serve, there insofar as it concerns him, he would expect to live and die. To sum up, he shows nobility of spirit, and does not find it easy to abase himself for anything: and yet he never fails to be modest and courteous towards whomever he is dealing with.

On 30 December 1586 Luigi d’Este died, leaving Marenzio without an employer until the end of the following year, the time when it is assumed he entered the service of Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici in Florence. That Marenzio was able not only to exist for such a period, but also make a visit to Verona, suggests that he was now able to command substantial free-lance earnings. The visit to Verona is linked to a publication that stands out as a landmark in his career. This is the First Book of Madrigals for 4-6 voices (Venice, 1588), a volume not only unique in his output for its mixture of vocal scoring, but, more importantly, because it represented a clear and conscious change of direction that would inform, if not dictate, the remainder of Marenzio’s madrigal output. That this change of emphasis was conscious is evident from the dedication to Count Mario Bevilacqua, the patron of the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona, a text sufficiently important to be quoted here in abbreviated form:

… since I have been unable till now to respond to them [favours bestowed by Bevilacqua] except with pure and simple affection, it seemed to me fitting on the occasion of my passing through Verona to present to you these madrigals composed by me very recently in a style very different from that of the past, inasmuch as I have aimed, through the imitation of the words and the propriety of the style, at a sombre gravity (so to speak), which will perhaps be far more pleasing to connoisseurs like you and to your most virtuoso ensemble.

Marenzio was correct in assuming that in turning to “sombre gravity” he was writing music that would appeal to a smaller audience of connoisseurs. The publication was not a success, failing to achieve more than one edition. Nonetheless it marks an important turning point, since while Marenzio did not entirely abandon the gracious elegance that marked his earlier work, the madrigals of his final decade are characterised by a new seriousness of approach and a degree of experimentation reflected in a choice of poets that now includes such names as Tasso and Guarini.

But we must return to Marenzio’s Florentine interlude, which occupied a period of around three years. In the autumn of 1587 Ferdinando de’ Medici had become Alfonso II, Grand Duke of Tuscany following the suspicious deaths of his brother and predecessor Francesco and his wife Bianca within a few hours of each other, deaths for which Ferdinando was widely considered responsible. Shortly before this Ferdinando had visited Rome, hiring several musicians including Marenzio and Emilio de’ Cavalieri, remembered today for his allegorical stage work Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo. It is not known exactly when Marenzio arrived in Florence, the earliest documented evidence we have dating from the end of February 1588.

The brilliant phalanx of musicians the new duke had gathered in Florence were there to serve a special purpose, an occasion that would enter history as one of the most spectacular of the sixteenth century. This was the celebrations that attended the wedding of Duke Ferdinando to Christine of Lorraine, the granddaughter of Caterina de’ Medici, Queen Mother of France, a union of immense political significance. The centrepiece of these celebrations was the hugely elaborate staging of the comedy La pellegrina, an entertainment that included six brilliant intermedi, the music for the second and third of which, “The Singing Contest between the Pierides and the Muses” and “Apollo slays the Monster at Delphi” respectively, was composed by Marenzio. The overall musical direction was entrusted to Cavalieri. Sufficient has been written elsewhere about this extraordinary and unusually well-documented “wedding of the century” (Bizzarini) for it to require little comment here, but we will return to Marenzio’s music in due course. The premiere (there were at least three further performances during the lengthy celebrations) took place on 2 May 1589 in a salon in the Uffizi Palace before a celebrity guest list drawn from across Europe, Marenzio himself taking part in the premiere (as Saturn in the first intermedio, “The Harmony of the Spheres”) and in one of the subsequent performances.

Following the wedding festivities, Ferdinando had little need for such a large number of costly musicians and Marenzio was one of those not retained. By the end of 1589 he was back in Rome, where he took up service in the palace of Virginio Orsini, the young Duke of Bracciano, whom the composer had come to know in Florence. Although the fifth book of 6-voice madrigals was dedicated to Orsini, the ties with him seem to have been looser than they were with Cardinal d’Este and in any event he had left the duke’s residence by 1593. Neither was Orsini the only member of the “Florentine circle”, with whom Marenzio was involved during these years. Of particular importance among the others we find the figure of Cardinal Alessandro Montralto, Orsini’s brother in law. A good musician himself –  he was said to play the harpsichord excellently and sing “in a sweet and sensitive manner” – Montralto  was later to become a great patron of the arts, and seems to have entertained an interest in the prospect of employing Marenzio.

Marenzio was now at the height of his fame, evidence for which comes with his appointment in the service of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini, a member of a family that had seen a meteoric rise to distinction culminating in the election of Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini as Pope Clement VIII in 1590. Cinzio was his nephew, appointed secretary of state by the new pope. Marenzio’s new home therefore became Cinzio’s apartments in the Vatican, among his neighbours being Tasso. Further evidence that Marenzio’s renown had spread well beyond the confines of Rome comes from an extraordinarily ambitious publishing project. In 1593 the Antwerp publishers Pierre Phalèse and Jean Bellère issued a complete edition of all Marenzio’s five-voice madrigals published up that point, that is to say Books 1 to 5, a distinction rarely accorded any composer and one enhanced by the issue of the equivalent six-voice madrigals the following year. The dedication (to two Spanish merchants of Antwerp) underlines the composer’s widespread fame:

The works of S. Luca Marenzio, one of the foremost musicians of our times, are so agreeable, and so respected by the virtuosi of this divine art of music, that they are collected and greatly prized not only in Italy but also in Flanders and all other parts of the world.

A timely reminder that the precedence of Marenzio’s secular works
should not be allowed to deflect us completely from his interest in sacred music comes with a commission he received from Pope Clement at the end at 1594. It called for Marenzio to take over the work of revising the Graduale started by Palestrina (who had died early the same year) and Annibale Zoilo, a Roman-born composer and sometime member of the Sistine Chapel who had died in 1592. At the same time, Marenzio was also asked to compose new sacred music according to the precepts of the Council of Trent, although it is difficult to determine which works might have resulted from this commission, as apart from the book of motets already mentioned few of Marenzio’s sacred works were published in his lifetime and most are undated.

The next (and perhaps final) major event in Marenzio’s life has always been surrounded by the strange episode of his supposed liaison with “a kinswoman of the pope”, a story first recorded by the English writer Henry Peacham in his The Compleat Gentleman (1622). According to Peacham it was this indiscretion that directly led the pope and Cardinal Aldobrandini to send Marenzio to Warsaw to take over as maestro di capella to the Polish king, Sigismund III. The story has never been substantiated and its close examination by Bizzarini, including the presentation of recently discovered documentation, can only lead to the conclusion that there is little likelihood of it being accurate, at least as it stands.
[8] It seems more likely that Sigismund simply sought advice from Rome about a replacement for his maestro Annibale Stabile, a pupil of Palestrina Nonetheless, Marenzio, whose constitution was reported to be not of the strongest, is hardly likely to have regarded the prospect of a post in such an inhospitable climate and unsettled territory with much pleasure. He left Rome at some point in the autumn of 1595 in the company of a number of other Italian musicians, journeying to Kraków, the usual residence of the Polish court at that time, and then on to Warsaw, where the court had transferred. Little is known of Marenzio’s sojourn in Poland, but surviving records show that he composed both sacred and secular works. A Te Deum cannot firmly be ascribed to Marenzio, but a polychoral Mass can, in addition to which Bizzarini identifies three polychoral motets almost certainly composed in Poland.

The lacuna that exists during Marenzio’s sojourn in Poland extends to any reason being known for his return to Italy. The first we hear of him back on home soil is in Venice, where on 20 October 1598 he signed the dedication for his eighth book of five-voice Madrigals, a publication addressed to Ferrante Gonzaga, a cousin of the Duke of Mantua, who himself would be the dedicatee of Marenzio’s ninth book of five-voice Madrigals (Venice, 1599), the final seal on a relationship with Mantua and the Gonzagas stretching back more than thirty years. By that time Marenzio had finally returned to Rome, but little more than three months later he was dead, most likely as a result of a fatal weakening in Poland of an already poor constitution. His death occurred on 22 August 1599 in the garden of the Villa Medici in Rome, a location that suggests he had resumed contact with the Medicis following his return.

The Secular Works

As is evident from the foregoing, secular works dominate Marenzio’s output. At the heart of this large corpus lies the eighteen published books of madrigals, ten of which are scored for five voices, the most favoured medium of the day, while six call for six voices, one four voices and attention has already been drawn to the unique seminal collection that includes madrigals scored for four, five and six voices. Included in this list is the Madrigali spirituali of 1584, which differs from overtly secular works only by virtue of the religious content and moralizing nature of its texts. With the exception of this book and the four-voice madrigals issued in Rome in 1585, all Marenzio’s madrigal books were published in Venice between 1580 and 1599. In addition there are five books of pieces scored for three voices, all dating from between 1584 and 1587, and designated either as villanelle or canzonette alle napolitana. Of a lighter character than the madrigals, they also differ in being set to strophic verses rather than through-composed and displaying a greater degree of homophonic as opposed to contrapuntal writing. Finally, we must note the two intermedi contributed by Marenzio to the spectacular 1589 Florentine wedding celebrations, his only music that can securely be placed within a dramatic context. Marenzio’s music is in some ways atypical, since although he retained the madrigalian style, the necessity of writing for large forces called for a considerable reduction of counterpoint. More strikingly, in contrast to other contributors to the intermedi such as Malvezzi or Cavalieri, Marenzio here shows little interest in the emergence of the revolutionary stile recitativo or the “seconda prattica”.

For the non-specialist, detailed consideration of Marenzio’s large body of madrigals remains a vain quest in the light of the lack of comprehensive accessibility to either printed or recorded music. Indeed, it would be possible to put in a valid claim that Marenzio remains one of the most neglected of all great composers. Here comment on particular publications and individual madrigals is therefore restricted to those readers at least have a chance of hearing, although not all the recordings on which they appear are currently available.

As already noted, Marenzio’s reputation as a madrigalist was founded almost entirely on earlier works that are typified by the easy grace, mellifluous elegance and “sweetness” so widely praised by his contemporaries both in Italy and further afield. A paradigmatic example occurs in Liquide perle, from Marenzio’s first published book, a tiny, exquisite gem whose six lines fall into three clearly subdivided sections, as Bizzarini notes in his penetrating analysis of the madrigal, where he also draws attention to the exemplary skill of the composer’s voice-leading and musical coherence.
[9] In short, the gentle, subtle eroticism of Liquide perle announces the arrival of an already fully equipped madrigal composer. And that we should not be misled into stereotyping all Marenzio’s early madrigals into such a world, the same book also includes a setting of Luigi Tansillo’s anguished Dolorosi martir demonstrating that even at this stage he was equally a master of more intense emotions, clearly in evidence in the dissonance of the opening line, the homophonic stress placed on the perpetual anguish of the lover, and the final heightening of tension in the concluding words: “my life has now become a bitter struggle”.

The mid-1580s constitute one of the most active periods of Marenzio’s creative life. A single year, 1585, witnessed the publication of no fewer than six collections: the fifth book of 5-voice madrigals, the third of 6-voice madrigals, the sole extant book of 4-voice madrigals (another is lost), three of the collections of villanelle and canzonette, and the Motectorum festorum for 4-voices, Marenzio’s first sacred music collection. Among these, the 4-voice madrigals have a special place, such a vocal disposition for madrigals being largely outmoded by Marenzio’s day. It is a form that makes special demands on a composer, since the more open texture is less forgiving than composing in five or six parts. Marenzio’s solution is an extraordinary diversity of mood and texture that runs from madrigals of playful, almost scherzo-like character with rapid declamation employing the most transparent of textures to broad, slow moving pieces. In Zefiro torna, which like a number of the pieces in the collection is drawn from Petrarch’s Canzoniere, Marenzio combines both features, dramatically contrasting the delightful, airy evocation of springtime in the first half with the bitter sentiments of the forlorn lover unable to respond to the rebirth of life. The abject misery of the abandoned lover is graphically illustrated from the outset in Ahi, dispietata morte!, another Petrarch setting, where the upper voice’s desperate cries emerging first from the octave leap from “Ahi” to the first syllable of “dispietata”, a process repeated in the second line, where the word “Ahi” now becomes the focus of the cry, the moment intensified by the chromatic underlay in the alto part.

The move to the “sombre gravity” of the 1588 Bevilacqua collection was, then, by no means unheralded. Its novelty lies in a new concentration on serious texts in which effects are often created by the subtlest of musical means. The 4-voice Piango che Amor, for instance, takes up the familiar theme of the affliction of new, thwarted love. But here the word “sospiro” is treated not to the expected falling “sigh”, but makes it effect by repetition, while the key text “I suffer, for no bright and lively glances…” is treated to a slow descending sequence of exquisite harmonic progressions. One notes, too, the extreme clarity of word setting, with a forward-looking concentration on the upper voice that suggests that while Marenzio never formerly adopted the principles of the seconda prattica, he was not unaware of developments taking place. Such trends are particularly apparent in 6-voice madrigals such as O fere stelle, where the top line dominates in both the opening and closing sections.

Three years separate the Madrigali for 4- to 6-voices from Marenzio’s next publication, the 6-voice collection dedicated to the Duke of Ferrara. Here we can perhaps detect some suggestion that our composer’s exposure to the Duke’s “musica secreta” had an influence on such writing as we find in the extraordinary sensuality of the four-part cycle Baci soave e cari, aptly described by Anthony Rooley as “a manual on the art of love-making”. Here every possible kind of kiss, its effects and results are explored in a work providing conclusive evidence that Marenzio had far from abandoned his ability to seduce ear and mind.

With the sixth (1594) and seventh (1595) books of 5-voice madrigals, come yet further distinctive advancements in Marenzio’s artistic development, in this case literary as much as musical. Completely absent is the reliance on historic writers such as Petrarch, who are replaced by contemporary poets in general and Guarini in particular. Indeed, the dominance of verses from Guarini’s Il pastor fido, a source hitherto largely neglected by madrigal composers, has led to speculation of direct collaboration between the two. The overall mood of the sixth book, dedicated to Cardinal Aldobrandini, is one of restrained passion, of the joys and pain of love expressed through an intensity that often inhabits a world of profound longing rather than of anguish, although there are lighter pieces and the book closes with two largely homophonic madrigals that look back to the wedding music of the 1589 intermedi – and perhaps forward to the dance madrigals in Act I of Monteverdi’s Orfeo; it is perhaps not without significance that several of these lighter pieces have texts by the Florentine poet G. B. Strozzi. In the predominating serious pieces one is aware of a heightened use of dissonance deployed in a manner designed to surprise, but never shock in the manner of Gesualdo, or even Wert. Also apparent is a greater of level of virtuosity in the inner parts, the astonishing skill with which supreme contrapuntal mastery is juxtaposed with the striking harmonies of the homophonic passages, and the contrast of colour achieved by the variety of vocal scoring, a trait particularly notable in the play of high against low sonorities in a work like Hor chi, Clori beata. All these features can be heard in the beautiful Rimante in pace,  where Marenzio employs narrative form to produce a heartrending picture of parting heightened by such subtle word-painting as the quickening of pulse at Tirsi’s words “for I must go, as the law ordains”, or the unforgettably tear-stained final words of his Clori: “O my dear soul, who would separate you from me?”.

Finally, we must note two further late books, the sixth (and last) book for 6-voices of 1595 particularly for the inclusion of Se qual dolor. The publication was dedicated to Margherita Gonzaga, the wife of the Duke of Ferrara, and includes a number of lighter or sumptuous works that some authorities believe predate the 1590s. However, Se qual dolor, a setting of a ten-movement capitolo (chapter) by Luigi Tansillo could not be further removed from such madrigals, inhabiting a world of almost unrelieved anguish announced at the outset to the words “If the pain that heralds death”, set to long, chromatically-tortured note values. The first eight movements consist of a deeply introspective plaint, the tension consistently heightened then momentarily released, but the final movements, directly addressed to the loved one, encompass an overwhelming outpouring of passion culminating in the devastating final line: “be kind enough to shed one single tear upon my ashes”. This great madrigal cycle is, if you will, Marenzio’s Winterreise, a summation of the extremes of love’s miseries that can only end in death.

The composer’s own swansong came four years later, with the publication of the ninth book of 5-voice madrigals. With hindsight it is tempting to see this book as a valedictory epistle, yet there is no evidence to suggest that Marenzio was expecting his early death in 1599. Fascinatingly, the texts chosen for the publication, addressed to Vincenzo Gonzaga, the new Duke of Mantua and Monteverdi’s future employer, revert to Marenzio’s interest in Petrarchian verse, exactly half of the fourteen madrigals included being set to his texts. But Marenzio does not forsake the modern poets he had turned to early in the decade and we also find here three Guarini texts. In another sense, too, one might see the madrigals of the final book as Janus-faced, since there is here a renewed concentration on strictly contrapuntal techniques allied to a highly contemporary approach to declamation and rhythm. One notes, too, a greater tendency to sectionalise and treat episodes more expansively; several of the madrigals fall into two parts and are among the longest of his settings. All these characteristics are in evidence in Così nel mio parlar, a rare example (for any madrigalist) of setting a text by Dante, where the closely-woven contrapuntal intricacy of the opening lines is disrupted by the sprightly rhythmic vitality of the central section, while the heavy-hearted opening of Dura legge d’Amor (Oh! Hard law of love!) is succeeded by a spectacular burst of rhythmic energy at the words “make peace, war and surrender”. L’aura che’l verde seems to return to the graceful elegance of Marenzio’s earlier works, but one viewed through the prism of maturity, a verdict that might similarly initially apply to the charming pastoral sentiments of Fiume ch’a l’onde tue ninfe e pastori, but here, as disillusionment sets in, they conspire to be a false dawn. Solo e pensoso, a profoundly philosophical text by Petrarch, also drew an outstanding setting for five-voices from Giaches de Wert in his seventh book of 1581, a madrigal with which Marenzio would surely have been familiar. Here he portrays the hesitant steps of the thoughtful wanderer with a startlingly modern sounding harmonic progression, while treating the burning intensity of his emotions (“fuor di legge com’io dentr’avampi”) to unusually powerful rhetoric. Marenzio could hardly have foreseen that the ninth book would form the culmination of his life’s creative work, but as such it forms the most eloquent of testimonies.

The Sacred Works

If only a small part of Marenzio’s secular output is known, the same observation is even truer of the sacred works, which have as yet barely begun to be explored. Far fewer in number than the madrigals and other secular pieces, only one extant publication dates from Marenzio’s lifetime, the book of 4-part motets published in Venice in 1585. As scholars have noted, the motet book can be seen as a corollary of the book of 4-voice madrigals published in the same year, works that take a madrigalian approach to such matters as word painting. The volume was dedicated to Scipione Gonzaga, the man who would the following year be in charge of negotiations with Marenzio over his mooted move to Mantua. Otherwise, we are left with a posthumous collection of motets published in 1614 and sundry other works that appeared in various other collections or remain unpublished. Among the latter are two impressive polychoral works in 12-parts divided into three choirs, Super flumina Babylonis and Lamentabatur Jacob, neither of which can be assigned to Marenzio with total security. As a footnote that again reminds us of his enduring eminence, in the early years of the seventeenth century several of Marenzio’s madrigals were turned into sacred contrafacta by the Milanese musician Aquilino Coppini, among them Deggio dunque partir (Book II a 5, 1581), which became Ergo non uis abire.  


There is evidence to suggest that Marenzio remained known to at least some extent for two centuries following his death, valued for the poetic sensibility, poise, grace and purity of a small, familiar part of his output. Interestingly, in 1607 he was named by Giulio Cesare Monteverdi, the composer’s brother, as a composer of the seconda prattica, alongside such names as Wert, Peri and Caccini, the last two perhaps composers one might not readily associate with Marenzio. For Henry Peacham, who got most of his “facts” about Marenzio wrong, the “delicious air and sweet invention in madrigals” made him a composer “who excelleth all other whatsoever”.
[10] Appreciation of Marenzio in England found new impetus with the revival of interest in the madrigal in the eighteenth century. Spearheaded by such organisations as the Academy of Vocal Music (founded in 1726) and the Madrigal Society (1741), a select number of Marenzio’s motets and madrigals, drawn of course from the early books, found a new audience, while both great English historians of the period, Charles Burney and Sir John Hawkins paid due tribute to him, Hawkins including the whole of the 4-voice Dissi a l’amata (1585) in his General History.[11] Thereafter, Marenzio’s star waned until the start of a revival of interest late in the twentieth century, Alfred Einstein’s comprehensive devotion to him in his magisterial The Italian Madrigal (1949) forming a notable exception. As yet this revival remains at best partial, scant reward for a composer of such real stature. For the most part intended for connoisseurs, the madrigals, particularly the great works of the 1590s, remain music for the refined ear. Yet the rewards for those prepared to enter this rarefied world, a world in which the most profound and intense human passions are laid bare, are incalculable. 

This article originally appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine and is reproduced by permission.


[1] Dowland did not reach Rome, and it is unlikely he ever met Marenzio. See “John Dowland”, Goldberg 37.

[2] Marco Bizzarini’s Luca Marenzio: The Career of a Musician Between the Renaissance and the Counter–Reformation, trans. James Chater (Aldershot, 2003) is an invaluable introduction to the composer. I acknowledge my considerable debt to Bizzarini in the preparation of this article. See Goldberg 27 for a review of the book.

[3]   Notes for Musica Oscura 070992. The CD is now unavailable. 

[4]   Bizzarini, Marenzio, p.11.

[5]   During Lent 1584 Marenzio earned 90 scudi from the confraternity, 50% more than his annual salary with d’Este.

[6]   Bizzarini, Marenzio, pp.113-121.

[7]   Quoted in Steven Ledbetter, ‘Luca Marenzio: new biographical findings, PhD diss., New York University, 1971. Also in Bizzarini, Marenzio, p. 115.

[8]   Bizzarini, Marenzio, pp.212-218, 226 & 28. Bizzarini does not dismiss the possibility of some kind of romantic liaison that could have played a part in Marenzio’s “exile” from Rome.

[9]   Bizzarini, Marenzio, pp. 143-145.

[10]  Henry Peacham, The Complete Gentleman, London, 1622. From O. Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, 1981 rep. ed. 

[11]  John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, Rep. New York, 1963. vol. 1. pp. 432-433.