The Most Magnificent Madrigal: Zefiro torna (Monteverdi)

Notes on Zerfiro Torna, the most stunning piece by Monteverdi

This post is dedicated to my Step-Mutterlein Sarahchen Davies, PhD-writer extraordinaire, who introduced me to Monteverdi and much more and deserves a gold star every minute.

-Here’s a beautiful version by the astounding William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants, but my favorite is by the early music ensemble Artek and is on their work “I Don’t Want to Love”. For more on Artek, click on their name.

-Zefiro Torna is based on  a sonnet that begins with “Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti l’aer fa grato” and is from a late XVI century poet, Ottavio Rinuccini, a member of the Camerata de’ Bardi. Here’s more on the madrigal from the All Music Guide:  This work is one of two madrigals composed by Monteverdi with the title Zefiro torna and is not to be confused with his five-voice a cappella setting of a sonnet by Petrarch published in his Sixth Book of Madrigals in 1614. This madrigal sets a text by Ottavio Rinuccini, the poet who authored the librettos for the first two surviving operas, Peri’s La Dafne and Euridice, as well as Monteverdi’s lost opera, Arianna. It was published in the collection Scherzi Musicali, and in the composer’s Ninth Book of Madrigals (1632). Scored for two tenors and continuo, most of the piece is in the form of a ciaccona or passacaglia, which uses a constantly recurring bass line, and it is the first known example of a vocal duet that uses a ciaccona accompaniment. Although it is sometimes performed in a “straight” manner, it is most frequently interpreted as a comic parody of madrigals as they had evolved by the early seventeenth century, particularly the mannered conventions of the seconda prattica, in which the musical setting is largely driven by the text, and dissonance is used with extreme freedom as an expressive tool.

The poem, a sonnet, is a rhapsodic pastoral ode to Zephyr, the west wind that brings Spring and its attendant opportunities for romance, or at least dalliance. Here, as in many of his madrigals, Monteverdi’s exceptionally fluid text-setting skillfully subverts the structure of the sonnet so that its poetic effusions seem spontaneously improvised rather than constructed according to strict formal standards. The catchy repeated figure of the ciaccona, the springy rhythms, and the graceful but florid vocal lines give the work an infectious exuberance. The composer’s playful tweaking of the seconda prattica is evident throughout in his exaggeratedly obvious text painting. “Mormorando,” (murmuring), for instance, is set to a wavery, murmuring figure that runs on for a little longer than is strictly necessary. Later, the first voice sings “e da monti” to a line that leaps upward to the extremes of the singer’s range, while the second voice’s “e da valli” precipitously tumbles down in the opposite direction. In the final tercet of the sonnet, the mood changes and the author gives in to despair because he has not found his beloved. The ciaccona figure halts, and these lines are set as a slow quasi-recitative. In the final line, “piango” (weep), is given a balefully pathetic treatment with a harmonic progression that droops almost irretrievably below the home key, before recovering on the final word, “canto” (sing), which brings a return of the ciaccona figure and the original mood of joy and optimism. These and many other examples give performers the opportunity to showcase the music’s humor, making Zefiro torna one of the composer’s most popular and frequently performed madrigals. ~ All Music Guide

-Sarahchen told me it was a Huge Hit in the 17th century. So this was the Brittney Spears of those times?!?

(The poem used by Claudio Monteverdi, first in Italian then translated into English.)


Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti
l’aer fa grato e’il pié discioglie a l’onde
e, mormoranda tra le verdi fronde,
fa danzar al bel suon su’l prato i fiori.

Inghirlandato il crin Fillide e Clori
note temprando lor care e gioconde;
e da monti e da valli ime e profond
raddoppian l’armonia gli antri canori.
Sorge più vaga in ciel l’aurora, e’l sole,
sparge più luci d’or; più puro argento
fregia di Teti il bel ceruleo manto.

Sol io, per selve abbandonate e sole,
l’ardor di due begli occhi e’l mio tormento,
come vuol mia ventura, hor piango hor canto.

Return O Zephyr, and with gentle motion
Make pleasant the air and scatter the grasses in waves
And murmuring among the green branches
Make the flowers in the field dance to your sweet sound;
Crown with a garland the heads of Phylla and Chloris
With notes tempered by love and joy,
From mountains and valleys high and deep
And sonorous caves that echo in harmony.
The dawn rises eagerly into the heavens and the sun
Scatters rays of gold, and of the purest silver,
Like embroidery on the cerulean mantle of Thetis.
But I, in abandoned forests, am alone.
The ardour of two beautiful eyes is my torment;
As my Fate wills it, now I weep, now I sing.


19 thoughts on “The Most Magnificent Madrigal: Zefiro torna (Monteverdi)

  1. Pingback: myötätuuli « sissi minanaä

  2. Love this excellent discussion of “Zefiro torna.” I am planning to perform it with a fellow tenor next year. Do you know of a source for the full score–with all continuo parts?

    • IMHO, the ensemble of 4 instruments balances beautifully with the voices. I wonder if a fuller orchestration would mar that wonderful simplicity.

      • I think the one-on-a-part strings with a continuo group, in meantone tuning is a good setting for the piece, but many interpretations are possible.

  3. Zefiro Torna is a really nice piece. I don’t think it’s the most stunning. The 1610 Vespers Mass and the opera Orfeo are in that category. The choral anthems and motets are really fine also. By the way, I prefer 2 tenors singing this one. Thank you so much for your thoughtful essay

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