The Monteverdi / Artusi Controversy

In the early seventeenth century an enormous musical controversy raged in a series of letters between the theorist Artusi and the composer Monteverdi. Artusi, much older than Monteverdi, was a distinguished theorist and a canon at the church of San Salvador in Bologna. In 1600, he published a treatise entitled L'Artusi or "Of the Imperfections of Modern Music." The treatise is in the form of two dialogues; the first concerns tuning and was likely Artusi's main reason for printing the text while the second uses two interlocuters, Vario and Luca, to opine on the madrigals of an anonymous composer (clearly Monteverdi).

from L'Artusi, or "Of the Imperfections of Modern Music"

Second Discourse
The dawn of the seventeenth day was breaking as Signor Luca left his house and proceeded toward the monastery of the reverend fathers of Santa Maria del Vado where dwelt Signor Vario, in the service of the Most Illustrious and Reverend Signor the Cardinal Pompeo Arigoni, truly the most illustrious for the many virtues, the goodness, the justice and the piety in which in that Most Illustrious and Reverend Signor universally shine in the service of persons of every quality. On his reaching the monastery, his arrival was announced to Signor Vario, who indeed was momentarily expecting him. Signor Vario immediately left his room and met Signor Luca at the head of the stairs, from whence, after due ceremonies and salutation, they went again to carry on their discussion, according to the arrangement adopted the day before, into a room sufficiently remote and conveniently free from disturbing sounds. After they had seated themselves, Signor Luca began.

Luca:Yesterday, sir, after I had left Your Lordship and was going toward the Piazza, I was invited by some gentlemen to hear certain new madrigals. Delighted by the amiability of my friends and by the novelty of the compositions, I accompanied them to the house of Signor Antonio Goretti, a nobleman of Ferrara, a young virtuoso and as great a lover of music as any man I have ever known. I found there Signor Luzzasco and Signor Hippolito Fiorini, distinguished men, with whom had assembled many noble spirits, versed in music. The madrigals were sung and repeated without giving the name of the author. The texture was not unpleasing. But, as Your Lordship will see, insofar as it introduced new rules, new modes, and new turns of phrase, these were harsh and little pleasing to the ear, nor could they be otherwise; for so long as they violate the good rules - in part founded upon experience, the mother of all things, in part observed in nature, and in part provided by demonstration - we must believe them deformations of the nature and propriety of true harmony, far removed from the object of music, which, as Your Lordship said yesterday, is delectation.
But, in order that you may see the whole question and give me your judgment, here are the passages, scattered here and there through the above mentioned madrigals, which I wrote out yesterday evening for my amusement.
Vario: Signor Luca, you bring me new things which astonish me not a little. It pleases me, at my age, to see a new method of composing, though it would please me much more if I saw that these passages were founded upon some reason which could satisfy the intellect. But as castles in the air, chimeras founded upon sand, these novelties do not please me; they deserve blame, not praise. Let us see the passages, however.
Passage 1
Passage 2
Passage 3
Passage 4
Passage 5
Passage 6
Passage 7
Passage 8
Passage 9
Luca:Indeed, in the light of what little experience I have in this art, these things do not seem to me to entitle their authors or inventors to build a four-story mansion (as the saying goes), seeing that they are contrary to what is good and beautiful in the harmonic institutions. They are harsh to the ear, rather offending than delighting it, and to the good rules left by those who have established the order and the bounds of this science they bring confusion and imperfection of no little consequence. Instead of enriching, augmenting, and ennobling harmony by various means, as so many noble spirits have done, they bring it to such estate that the beautiful and purified style is indistinguishable from the barbaric. And all the while they continue to excuse these things by various arguments in conformity with the style.
Vario: You say well. But how can they excuse and palliate these imperfections, which could not possibly be more absurd?
Luca: Absurd? I do not know how you can defend that position of yours. They call absurd the things composed in another style and have it that theirs is the true method of composition, declaring that this novelty and new order of composing is about to produce many effects which ordinary music, full of so many and such sweet hamonies, cannot and never will produce. And they will have it that the sense, hearing such asperities, will be moved and will do marvelous things.
Vario: Are you in earnest or are you mocking me?
Luca: Am I in earnest? It is rather they who mock those who hold otherwise.
Vario: Since I see that you are not mocking me, I will tell you what I think of them, but take note that I shall not be so ready to yield to their opinion. And, for the first argument against them, I will tell you that the high is a part of the low and arises from the low, and being a part of it, must continue to be related to it, as to its beginning or as the cloud to the spring of which it is derived. That this is true, the experiment of the monochord will show you. [high pitches are a part of low pitches. Recall our demonstration of the harmonic series. - tt].... How then will the first, second, fourth, fifth and other measures stand, if the highest part has no correspondence or harmonic proportion to the lower?
Luca: They claim that they do observe harmonic relation.... They say that all this is called grace and is accented singing.
Vario: I do not remember having read in any author - and countless excellent ones have written of music - that there is such a thing as accented music.... I should like to give you my opinion, but I suspect that it may displease you.
Luca: Give it; I shall be glad to listen.
Vario: It is my belief that there is nothing but smoke in the heads of such composers and that they are so enamored of themselves as to think it within their power to corrupt, spoil, and ruin the good old rules handed down in former times by so many theorists and most excellent musicians, the very men from whom these moderns have learned to string together a few notes with little grace. But do you know what usually happens to such works as these? What Horace says in the tenth ode of his second book: Saepius ventis gitatur ingens / pinus et celsae graviore casu / decidunt turres feriuntque summos / fulmina montis. ["Tis oftener the tall pine that is shaken by the wind, tis the lofty towers that fall with the heavier crash, and tis the tops of the mountains that the lightening strikes"] In the end they are built without foundation, they are quickly consumed by time and cast to the ground, and the builders remain deluded and mocked at.
Luca: I grant you that all this is true. But tell me if this science can be advanced by new modes of expression. Why is it you are unwilling to augment it?....
Vario: Do you not know that all the arts and sciences have been brought under rules by scholars of the past and that the first elements, rules and precepts on which they are founded have been handed down to us in order that, so long as there is no deviation from them, one person shall be able to understand what another says or does? .... [further discussion of the individual passages follows ] ... Our ancients never taught that sevenths [the interval between do and ti] may be used absolutely and openly, as you see them used in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh measures, for they do not give grace to the composition and, as I said a little while ago, the higher part has no correspondence to its whole, beginning, or foundation.
Luca: This is a new paradox.
Vario: If this paradox were reasonably founded on some reason, it would deserve much praise and would move onward to eternal life. But it is destined to have a short life, for demonstration can only show that truth is against it....
Luca: Signor Vario, I kiss your hand. Farewell.

from Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York, 1950) 393-404.

Having received anonymous letters defending the anonymous composer from someone using the nome de plume "L'ottuso Accademico," Artusi published a second book three years later in response. Throughout this time, the identity of the anonymous composer remained unknown. This changed when Monteverdi published his fifth collection of madrigals, which began with the madrigal referenced in Artusi's first book, Cruda Amarilli and the following Dedication.

Monteverdi's Response: Dedication to Book 5 of Madrigals

I hereby present to Your Grace this group of madrigals I have created....
Do not be surprised at my publishing these madrigals without first replying to the objections raised by Artusi to a few tiny portions of them. Since I am in the service of His Grace the Duke of Mantua, I do not have the necessary time at my disposal. Nevertheless, I have written the reply to show what I do is not done by accident. As soon as my reply is copied out it will be published under the title Seconda Pratica, overo Perfettione Della Moderna Musica. Some people may marvel at this, thinking that there is no other practice than the one taught by Zarlino [Giuseppe Zarlino, 1517 - 1590, codifier of the old Netherlandish style, exemplified by Josquin]; but they can be sure that, with regard to consonances and dissonances, there is yet another point of view which defends modern compositional practice to the satisfaction of both the mind and the senses. I wanted to tell you this both to keep others from preempting my expression "Second practice," and so that even ingenious persons may meanwhile countenance other new viewpoints on harmony. Believe me, the modern composer is building upon the foundations of truth.
Live happily.

Monteverdi's dedication was answered by a now-lost discourse by a certain Antonio Braccino da Todi, likely a pseudonym for Artusi. A second response came in the form of a gloss on Monteverdi's dedication written by his brother, Giulio Cesare Monteverdi and published in Monteverdi's 1607 collection of musical miscellany titled Scherzi Musicale.

Monteverdi's Brother's Response

Some months ago a letter of my brother Claudio Monteverdi was printed [the dedication to Book Five of Madrigals] and given to the public. A certain person, under the fictitious name of Antonio Braccini da Todi, has been at pains to make this seem to the world a chimera and a vanity. For this reason, impelled by the love I bear my brother and still more by the truth contained in his letter, and seeing that he pays attention to deeds and takes little notice of the words of others, and being unable to endure that his works should be so unjustly censured, I have determined to reply to the objections raised against them, declaring in fuller detail what my brother, in his letter, compressed into little space, to the end that this person and whoever follows him may learn that the truth that it contains is very different from what he represents in his discussions. The letter says:...

"Nevertheless, I have written the reply to show what I do is not done by accident." My brother says that he does not compose his works at haphazard because, in this kind of music, it has been his intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant, and because it is in this manner that his work is to be judged in the composition of the melody. Of this Plato speaks as follows: "The song is composed of three things: the words, the harmony, and the rhythm"; and a little further on: "And so of the apt and the unapt, if the rhythm and the harmony follow the words, and not the words these." Then, to give greater force to the words, he continues: "Do not the manner of the diction and the words follow and conform to the disposition of the soul?" and then: "Indeed, all the rest follows and conforms to the diction." But in this case, Artusi takes certain details, or, as he calls them "passages" from my brother's madrigal Cruda Amarilli, paying no attention to the words, but neglecting them as though they had nothing to do with the music, later showing the said "passages" deprived of their words, of all their harmony and of their rhythm. But if, in the "passages" noted as false, he had shown the words that went with them, them the world would not have said that they were chimeras and castles in the air from their entire disregard of the rules of the First Practice. But it would have certainly been a beautiful demonstration if he had done the same with ... others whose harmony obeys their words exactly and which would indeed be left bodies without soul if they were left without this most important and principal part of music, his opponent implying, by passing judgment on these "passages" without the words, that all excellence and beauty consist in the exact observance of the aforesaid rules of the First Practice, which makes the harmony mistress of the words. This my brother will make apparent, knowing for certain that in a kind of composition such as this of his, music turns on the perfection of the melody, considered from which point of view the harmony, from being the mistress, becomes the servant of the words, and the words the mistress of the harmony, to which way of thinking the Second Practice, or modern usage, tends. Taking this as a basis, he promises to show, in refutation of his opponent, that the harmony of the madrigal Cruda Amarilli is not composed at haphazard, but with beautiful art and excellent study, unperceived by his adversary and unknown to him....

As soon as my reply is copied out it will be published under the title Seconda Pratica,

Because his opponent seeks to attack the modern music and to defend the old. These are indeed different from one another in their manner of employing the consonances and dissonances, as my brother will make apparent. And since this difference is unknown to the opponent, let everyone understand what the one is and what the other, in order that the truth of the matter may be more clear. Both are honored, revered and commended by my brother. To the old music he has given the name the First Practice from its being the first practical usage, and the modern music he has called Second Practice from its being the second practical usage.
By First Practice he understands the one that turns on the perfection of the harmony, that is, the one that considers the harmony not commanded, but commanding, not the servant, but the mistress of the words, and this was founded by those men who composed in our notation music for more than one voice, was then followed and amplified by ... Josquin Desprez ... and others of those times, ...
By Second Practice, ... he understands the one that turns on the perfection of the melody, that is, the one that considers harmony not commanding, but commanded, and makes the words the mistress of the harmony. For reason of this sort he has called it "second," and not "new," and he has called it "practice," and not "theory," because he understands its explanation to turn on the manner of employing the consonances and dissonances in actual composition.
Believe me, the modern composer is building upon the foundations of truth.
Live happily.

My brother, knowing that, because of the command of the words, modern composition does not and cannot observe the rules of practice and that only a method of composition that takes account of this command will be so accepted by the world that it may justly be called a usage, has said this because he cannot believe and never will believe - even if his own arguments are insufficient to sustain the truth of such a usage - that the world will be deceived, even if his opponent is. And farewell.

from Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York, 1950) 407-412.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.