top of page

An Early Musical Scandal! - 'Cruda Amarilli' and the Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy Discussed

© Katie Morgan

If you wish to reproduce any notes or articles (or part of) from this website, please contact me before doing so. To commission new articles or programme notes, please contact katie @ katiemorgan. com (no spaces)

It could certainly be declared that the Artusi-Monteverdi controversy reveals a prolonged but fascinating investigation. As Claude Palisca has pronounced, Artusi focused the attention on one of the deepest crises in musical composition and consequently stimulated the composer, who most squarely confronted it, to clarify his position.[1]

The question we could ask ourselves is why did the music of Monteverdi create such a controversy? The answer is very complex, but can only be very concisely examined at this time. To begin investigating even so much as a terse answer to this question, one must look back in time to how the ideas in pre-Monteverdian music conflicted with the stylistic profile of the “modern” music developed by Monteverdi.

It was the great renewal of European interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that deeply affected how people thought about music. The influential religious leader, Bernardino Cirillo, expressed disappointment with the learned music of his time, and wished for the greatness of the past, thus urging musicians to reclaim the power of the classical styles and modes by following the example of the sculptors, painters, and architects who had rediscovered ancient art, and the scholars who had restored Greek and Roman literature. Musicians, such as Gioseffo Zarlino, who strongly believed in contrapuntal technique, concurred with this opinion, and during this time ancient learning was revived. Theoretically minded people were called upon to judge their work by the standards of antiquity. Both Cirillo and Zarlino both deplored the decline of music after the classical age and sought to see the ancient ideas soar again.

Greek music treatises were brought to the west by emigrating Greeks or by Italian manuscript seekers, and the section on music in the pseudo-Aristotle Problems, the Deipnosophists of Arthenaeus, containing a long section on music, was made available, along with the eighth book of Aristotle’s Politics, and passages concerning music in Plato’s dialogues, particularly the Republic Laws. All of these treatises were translated into Latin, with all knowledge attained by the ancients. This was a time where we witness the exploration of human reason and universal truths came to the fore, with fixed categories of learning.

The ancient philosophers believed that composers could draw on the listener’s emotions by their choice of mode. Both Plato and Aristotle insisted that the various modes had different ethical effects, and theorists and composers assumed that the emotional powers of the former could be attributed to the latter.

Ancient and medieval theory published puts music into a quadrivium consisting of theories from arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. With Pythagoras also playing an important role in music, all this resulted in a precise distinction between consonance and dissonance, and counterpoint masters devised new rules for controlling dissonance, restricting them to suspensions at cadences. These rules were further refined in later treatises by Italian authors and finally by Zarlino, who devoted a book, Le Istitutioni Harmoniche of 1558, which institutionalises the rules of harmony.

On the contrary, as Palisca reveals, the more modern composers recognized that they had inherited a plurality of styles from the previous century, thus resulting in distinction between a prima prattica and a seconda pratica, controversially created by Claudio Monteverdi. The first practice designates the style of vocal polyphony systemised by Zarlino, with the second being the audacious style of the modern Italians such as Marenzio, Rore, and Monteverdi himself. Monteverdi’s distinction was that in the first practice, music dominated the verbal text, while in the second practice the text dominated the music. In this new style, the old rules were controversially broken and dissonances used more freely to express the feelings evoked in the text. Others called the two practices stile antico and stile moderno (old and modern style), or stylus gravis and stylus luxurians (severe and embellished style).

Monteverdi used dissonances to express the feelings evoked by the text. For example, in the famous passage from Giulio Monteverdi’s preface (which will be referred to again and analysed later) to Claudio Monteverdi’s Scherzi Musicali 1607, Giulio states: -

“My brother says 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.”

One could say that the controversy was partly down to the battle of the generations, in view of the fact that Monteverdi rebelled so strongly against the disparagement of his predecessors. Artusi, an eminent follower of Zarlino, believed in Zarlino’s standards of composition which expected dissonances to be introduced according to the rules of counterpoint, and he insisted upon unity of modality within a piece. These conventions had been challenged already in the middle of the sixteenth century, and Artusi’s offensive was only one of a succession of attacks that can be traced back to the debate between Nicola Vincentino and Vincenzo Lusitano in 1551.[2] Palisca also suggests that it was a battle between two contemporary points of view. He suggests that on the one side were those like Monteverdi who accepted the advances of concerted instrumental music, improvised counterpoint, ornamented singing, the rhythms of dance music, and the enlarged vocabulary of chromaticism blended with the diatonic; while on the other side were those like Artusi who felt that these innovations, mainly products of relatively untrained musicians, corrupted a pure, noble and learned art.[3]

By examining ‘L’Artusi overo delle imperfettioni della moderna musica’ of 1600, one can find sufficient evidence of Artusi’s distaste for modern music. Artusi expressed his opinions through fictional interlocutors; Vario and Luca, mentioning that music must “satisfy the intellect”. This complies with the scholastic rules laid out by Zarlino, which institutionalises music, and it is Artusi’s fictional character, the theorist Luca, who also mentions that the new composing methods “are contrary to what is well and good in the institution of harmony”. Artusi believes that the new method of composing “deserves blame, not praise”, asserting that the “beautiful and purified style is indistinguishable from the barbaric.”

Artusi also printed and analysed in his dialogue of 1600, nine examples from two madrigals by Monteverdi that he knew from manuscript copies. However, rather unfairly, from our point of view, Artusi saw no reason to print the words. As Palisca suggests, he did not recognize a double standard of contrapuntal correctness. Artusi expressed his opinion in the dialogue through a fictitious musician named Vario, who converses with a cultivated amateur named Luca.

It can be asserted that the treatment of dissonances was the most bitterly contested territory throughout the Artusi-Monteverdi controversy. Artusi objected to the dissonances caused by the application of ornaments to a consonant structure; secondly, those which were outside the standards of the severe style; and thirdly, outside of these two categories, those that could be justified only in terms of the expressive demands of the text. However, the text was the principle driving force behind all three kinds of dissonances.

On the contrary, Thomas Morley also seemed to suggest that such music is to be limited by the understanding, and also by techniques of the gentleman - the ideal courtier of Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano or Sir Thomas Elyot’s Governour. This may not be too unfair to some of the more minor composers of the era, but it certainly gives the wrong impression of Monteverdi, who composed madrigals because the genre offered a vehicle for expressing profounder feelings. The madrigal certainly had a special place in the career of Claudio Monteverdi; it is the genre in which he made the crucial transition from writing for the polyphonic vocal ensemble to the instrumentally accompanied solo and duet, much to the aversion of Artusi and the followers of Zarlino.

Monteverdi’s first five books of madrigals, published between 1587 and 1605, could be described as a cenotaph in the history of the polyphonic madrigal. During this time, Monteverdi demonstrated remarkable expressive power through his suave combinations of homophonic and contrapuntal writing, faithful rumination of the text, and free use of chromaticism and dissonances. Yet, later in Monteverdi’s life, he was to compose using monody resulting in an attempt to recreate what was believed to be the profounder feeling created in Greek music with the use of monodic lines. Monteverdi’s use of monody can be found in his last publication of Lamento d’Arianna. However, to look back again at the middle of Monteverdi’s career, even at this time, there were certain features implied in music which indicate that Monteverdi was moving swiftly and assertively toward the new seventeenth-century style. Many of the musical motives are not melodic but oratorical, almost like the recitative, which was to come later in the seventeenth century. One can also perceive that the texture often moves away from the medium of equal voices and becomes a duet over a harmonically supporting bass, with ornamental dissonances and embellishments. This would once have occurred only by the performer’s improvisation were now actually written in Monteverdi’s score.

It is apparent that performers quite clearly helped to shape Monteverdi’s compositional style, and it is doubtful that Monteverdi would have composed such ornate virtuosic upper parts in his madrigals, if it had not been for the dexterous voices of the prima donnas at that time. Or for that matter, such magnificent tenor duets and bass solos if it had not been for his colleagues in the strictly masculine choir of St Mark’s. As Giulio mentions in the preface to Scherzi Musicali, Claudio called the Seconda Prattica the “‘practice’ and not ‘theory’”, suggesting that Claudio Monteverdi composed his music based on the practices of the performers and not on the convention of theory. Therefore, there is the emphasis on practice, rather than theory in judging the new style and the domination of harmony both by the text and the melody. Yet, it is important to realise that Monteverdi’s seconda prattica was not a rejection of the prima prattica, but as Giulio himself said in the preface, “he had called it ‘second’ and not ‘new’”, and therefore, we can infer that the seconda is just a development. It is evident that the exploitation of dissonance does result in the end of a strong sense of tonal motion, arguably the primary quality in the shift of style from Renaissance to Baroque.

Dissonances are often at the central point of Monteverdi’s individual work and are motivic as well as having harmonic character. For example, the madrigals of Monteverdi’s fourth and fifth books, present incendiary dissonances from the onset. “Si ch’oi vorrei morire”, from Book Four, has an extensive use of dissonance-resolution sequence patterns for ironic effects, depicting the sexual act. This alone would have caused a scandal at the time of composition. In many pieces the most provocative simultaneous dissonances form patterns of successive dissonance as well, the latter manifested in forms of sharp/flat juxtaposition, which is just one of large number of things which made Artusi disdain Monteverdi’s work profoundly.

Artusi’s critique seems to make a point in its reference, which claims that Monteverdi’s dissonances epitomized “accented singing”.[4] Eric Chafe asserts that the dissonances receive their meaning from the context of the individual phrases and their larger groupings. However, Monteverdi maintains that the new music is founded on the same principles of Renaissance harmony, but that harmony is now secondary to melody. The modern composers such as Monteverdi, had apparently given an explanation of this, with the heading “accented singing”, to relate to the usage of dissonances. Unless Monteverdi’s supporters intended more than we know by “accented singing”, Artusi’s rejection of the explanation is understandable, as Artusi might question why some areas are ornamented with more dissonance than others. The explanation that these areas express the specific variance of the text would not have been adequate for Artusi, who believed that “music must satisfy the intellect”. Conversely, the idea was that dissonant passages were modified forms of a consonant framework that the ear identifies by supplying or substituting the missing or correct pitches. Thus, as Giulio Cesare Monteverdi affirms, the new music retains the same principles of harmony as the old, which is suggestive of the idea of the development of the “second” practice and that the old rules have not been totally rejected. The evocation of such ideas are instantaneously perceived in the madrigals from the fourth and fifth books, and to a further extent in the madrigal to which Artusi gave greatest criticism, Cruda Amarilli, from Book Five; a work which will be concentrated on in order to endeavour a concise examination of some of the musical scandals that resulted in the escalation of Artusi-Monteverdi controversy.

Cruda Amarilli demonstrates the reminiscent, dynamic and agile style of Monteverdi’s polyphonic madrigals, with a text from a speech from Giovanni Battista Guarini’s pastoral play Il Pastor Fido. In Artusi’s dialogue, one interlocutor in the dialogue objected to bars 12-14 of Ex.1, pointing out that “the soprano part in measure 13 fails to agree with the bass.”[5] As Chafe points out, the other interlocutor defends the passage, arguing that if one assumes a G on the first beat of the soprano part, the figure resembles an accento, thus replacing the stepwise motion G-A-F-E. Such diminutions, also makes the harmony more interesting with the use of descending figures in bar 12 and bar 2. Chafe suggests that although some of Monteverdi’s dissonances may be rationalized as embellishments, his real motivation in writing them was to convey through harmony, rather than through graphic images, the meaning and feeling of the poet’s message. The diminution of D-B and B-G in the upper parts cause “grating dissonances that aptly express the complaint “Cruel Amaryllis”.

Ex. 1 Cruda Amarilli bars 1-14

Three main sections can be demarcated in Cruda Amarilli. The opening section, bars 1-25, introduces the idea of a musical oxymoron, which is later resolved. We find this oxymoron personified in the name Amarilli, with the word amar being the source of both love and bitterness. From bars 26-34, the second section, Monteverdi captures the contrast of Amaryllis’s beauty with her deafness, cruelty, and equivocation. The final section takes up another musical oxymoron, and expresses it in the form of inner conflict with the words “die in silence.”

However, the notion of the obverse, created these three sections, also has a sense of resolution, with Monteverdi ending each section in G. Although Artusi would have described the mode of Cruda Amarilli as essentially G mixolydian, Monteverdi’s command of the mode could be viewed as tonal, as the cadence points are places a fifth below and above G. This forms what would now be called subdominant and dominant. Although some musicologists disagree, Chafe asserts that Monteverdi “uses cadences to these two degrees to articulate the climaxes of the two outer sections, placing them at or near the midpoints of those sections.” If we were to follow the rules of Zarlino’s Instituzioni archmoniche, C has no place in the cadences of this mode, and the manner in which Chafe tells us that Artusi emphasises that fact is undoubtedly a reaction to the usage of the C at this cadence point. Chafe suggests that Monteverdi’s conception of the mode is mixolydian rather than Ionian, which suggests a minor dominant with the tone F as an essential pitch. Chafe also suggests that the “F# functions locally merely as the subsemitonium modi or as a Tierce de Picardie for cadences to the dominant.”[6] The two measures of the C major cadence feature voice-leading patterns of traditional sixteenth-century cadences, but they can also be interpreted as being a series of harmonies above the notes of G-C. However, it would appear to settle all vagueness in the soprano line by using features which Artusi found abhorrent, such as a rest on the first beat followed by ascent to the dissonant note of A, followed by the dissonance of the note F.

As Chafe so rightly proclaims, Monteverdi creates a “tonal analogue to the intensity and hopeful anticipation of “d’amar” (love: emphasis on G) and the pessimistic or depressing effect of “ahi lasso” (the sigh)”. Also the contrary motion between the upper voices in bars 19-20, leads us toward and then away from a cadence of C, then moves into parallel thirds in contrary motion with the bass, creating dissonances that would have most likely offended Artusi.


Ex.2 Cruda Amarilli bars 19-20

Monteverdi strikes Artusi’s attack for having scrutinized the music of Cruda Amarilli, without regard to either the text or the melodic context. He objected to Artusi’s calling such excerpts passages as they were “confined to isolating examples of the harmony, not the melody.”[7] Monteverdi differentiates the effect of melody from that of harmony, by ironically quoting Plato, asserting that “only melody, turning the mind away from all things whatsoever that distract, reduces it to itself”[8], which reveals that when analysed by itself, the details of the harmony, as discussed by Artusi, do in fact diverge attention from the melody. Chafe has declared, “the and the melody go hand in hand to produce the “fruit”, to which the harmony is incidental.”

It is also interesting to look at the notion of gender in Monteverdi’s music. From a twenty-first century outlook, one could assert that it is the music in Monteverdi’s madrigals, and not the text which exercises the real expressive power, but as Suzanne Cusick has so aptly concluded, we position ourselves and music away from the submissive, feminized role that both Monteverdi and Artusi believed it to play in the style then called modern. Therefore, we must then look back at the infamous passage of Giulio Cesare’s 1607 Dichiaratione, which states that it was his brother’s “intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant”.[9] However, the relationship of authority implied by Giulio’s gendered metaphor in the English language, is in fact, the complete opposite of what Monteverdi intended, as he meant that the words were to be the master and not the servant of the harmony, which is contradictory of Zarlino’s sixth rule from his 1558 Instituzioni archmoniche. Conversely, as Cusick has asserted, the Italian word for “mistress” is padrona, and in the Italian language has a different meaning to the English meaning of a sexual employee, but instead has, as Cusick suggests, the meaning of a wife or widow head of household. It was, however, Guilio’s purpose to defend the stylistic emancipations of Claudio’s music, from Artusi’s attack.

The metaphor, however, is merely a small part of a complex array of gender references in Artusi’s several attacks on the “imperfettioni della moderna musica”. Such references by Artusi attempt to disgrace modern music, pronouncing it as feminine and unnatural. Conversely, it could be affirmed that although the Monteverdi brothers’ famous reply to Artusi’s attack is a defence of the composer’s masculinity, Cusick also mentions that it too acknowledges and even reaffirms the femininity of music itself.

Cusick suggests that gender rhetoric of both Artusi and Monteverdi operates within a system of generally understood assumptions about the natures of women and men[10], and it is interesting to compare some commonplace Renaissance notions of masculine and feminine natures (Ex. 3)[11] with Artusi’s gendered oppositions in music (Ex. 4)[12].

Ex. 3

Gendered Oppositions in Late Renaissance Thought


Ex. 4

Gendered Oppostions in Artusi

(modern implying feminine and traditional implying masculine)


Thus, as Cusick explains, the association of qualities with the masculine or the feminine renders it possible for a writer to invoke gender without once mentioning the words man or woman.[13] In Seconda parte delle imperfettioni, the intensity of the gender and sexuality metaphors zenith, with such suggestions that modern music resembles a painted whore, through Artusi’s term “una sfacciata meretrice”, and a description of Cruda Amarilli as resembling a “monstrous birth, part man, part crane, part swallow part ox”[14]. As Cusick affirms, this is parallel to the “monstrous births” considered in the Renaissance to be “caused by unnatural sex acts”.

The oratorical centrepiece of Artusi’s first attack on Cruda Amarilli is his claim that the highest part is inadequately controlled by the lowest; the high part owes obedience to the lower one because, as he believes the high part is born of the lower one. Here, as Cusick has aptly described, Artusi invokes for the high and low parts the image of a child rebelling against its parent; this image resonates with the text of the madrigal, with its oratione. In the dissonant entrance of the soprano at “Ahi lasso”, it could be suggested that the disobedience is committed by the canto against the basso, which could be suggestive of a daughter disobeying her father. As the music of Artusi’s period was also under the influence of Classical and Christian cosmology, Cusick suggests that the most likely such pair evoked by Artusi’s rhetoric would have been that of Eve/Adam. She continues by suggesting that Eve was created from a part of Adam, just as the canto was understood to have been created from a part of the basso.[15] Eve, similarly to the canto line was distinctly disobedient.

Artusi believed that the composer is to the madrigal as the lowest part is to the canto. Similarly, Adam is out of control, letting the incomplete (Eve) overrule the completely masculine figure. One could suppose that this mere suggestion of inadequate authority, is questioning Monteverdi’s masculinity. However, to take the insult further, Cusick asserts that “Artusi insinuates that the composer is to his tradition as the canto is to the lower part, as Cruda Amarilli is to the composer – a disobedient Eve.”

It could be suggested that modernity in music represented change, and in Renaissance thought, change was an unsettling force which was then understood as feminine.[16] Also the feminism involved with the fact that Monteverdi’s music was wrought by the unusually versatile voices of the Mantuan prima donnas, would have probably been associated with the “unnatural” during the Renaissance period. “Unnatural” was also associated with being feminine, and if one were to recall back to Artusi’s treatise, the attack focuses on the “unnatural” role of the canto. Virtuosity in early times was also associated with the unnatural.

One could suppose that an explanation of such passages extends into the jurisdictions of analysis and theory that neither Artusi nor Monteverdi could have envisaged. Conversely, it was Monteverdi’s compositional intent, revealed in the relationship of the text to the tonal design, which now leads us to draw conclusions of the authenticity behind the use of dissonances. One could say that Artusi’s attack was unfair given that Monteverdi’s music was analysed without reference to the text. On the other hand, one could claim that with the ideas of change being unnatural, as a result of the associations with gender, during a period of history when anything remotely connected with the feminine was subsequently associated with the unnatural.

It is notable that in various declarations concerning the old and new musical practices, Monteverdi reveals an extraordinary awareness of the significant change in musical style. To draw a conclusion from the preceding analysis, one could say that Monteverdi laid the groundwork for music with such determination that the primary source of prevalent vivacity in seventeenth century music is a quality that is directly and immediately perceptible in Monteverdi’s music. The virtues of discovery in Monteverdi’s music are closely involved with the generation of dissonance and its validation. The tensions introduced by the increased appearance of consecutive dissonances in the sixteenth century eventually demanded and found logic through the means of strong cadence points. The introduction of consecutive dissonances, accompanied the emergence of the new tonality, which consequently resulted in the development of early Baroque music, along with the use of monody which appears in Monteverdi’s later works, thus creating the initiation of the Baroque basso continuo.

We can, therefore, conclude that the scandals caused by Claudio Monteverdi’s music were due to a retrograde attitude causing an outward manifestation of a deep ambivalence, which underlies the heart of the Artusi-Monteverdi controversy and the musical scandals created during the Renaissance era.

[1] Claude V. Palisca, ‘The Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy’: The New Monteverdi Companion, ed. Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune (London : Faber and Faber, 1985) p. 127.

[2] Palisca, ‘The Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy’, p. 127

[3] op. cit

[4] Eric Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language, (New York : Schirmer Books, 1992) , p.7

[5] Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language, p.11

[6] Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language, p.12

[7] Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language, p.7

[8] Op. cit

[9] Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, ed. Murata, (New York : Norton, 1998) pp. 18-36

[10] Suzanne G. Cusick, Gendering Modern Music : Thoughts on the Monteverdi – Artusi Controversy, (lecture notes) p. 3

[11] Cusick, p.4

[12] Cusick page 8

[13] Cusick p.4

[14] Cusick p.7

[15] Cusick p.10

[16] Cusick, p. 17


ARNOLD, Denis. The Master Musicians: Monteverdi, London: J.M Dent and Sons, 1990

ARNOLD, Denis, and Nigel Fortune. The New Monteverdi Companion, London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

BIANCO, Lorenzo. Music in the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

CARTER, Tim. Monteverdi and his Contempories, Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press, 2000

CHAFE, Eric. Monteverdi’s Tonal Language, New York: Schirmer Books, 1992

CUSICK, Suzanne G. Gendering Modern Music: Thoughts on the Monteverdi-Artusi Controversy, The American Musicological Society, INC, 1993

FABBRI, Paolo, trans. Tim Carter. Monteverdi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994

GROUT, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, fifth edition, New York: Norton, 1996

LIPPMAN, Edward, A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992

STRUNK, Oliver. Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History, Revised edition, vol. 4, The Baroque Era, ed. Margaret Murata. New York: Norton, 1998

TOMLINSON, Gary. Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance, California: University of California Press, 1990


Claudio Monteverdi, Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda Lamento d’Arianna. Musica Antiqua Köln, Reinhard Goebel. CD 415 296-2, Hamburg: Archiv Produktion

Monteverdi : Madrigals The Consort of Musicke, Anthony Rooley. CD 455 718-2 London: Decca

Featured Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page