Music from A Plague Year

Hi folks! I created this video during my initial COVID quarantine, but I cleverly forgot to post it here at tonefiend.com.

When COVID struck, I was in Mexico City, working on a MTV Unplugged special with one of my all-time favorite bands. (I can’t share the details yet.) But the project was postponed when the scope of the disaster became clear, and I rushed home. I quarantined in the studio for two weeks and recorded this.

For decades Claudio Monteverdi has always been one of my three favorite composers, along with Claude Debussy and Duke Ellington. He’s one of the most fascinating figures in music history. It’s an exaggeration to say that he invented opera, but only a slight one. Over the course of his long career, opera transformed from an avant-garde experiment among court intellectuals to a grand popular entertainment. He also composed many books of madrigals and some of the most gorgeous liturgical music ever created. He pushed the period’s musical limits on all fronts: dissonance, drama, instrumentation, structure, and psychological depth. Do yourself a favor and read up on this radical visionary!

This piece, Zefiro Torna, was originally a vocal piece, based on a poem celebrating the return of spring. (This video includes a lovely traditional performance, with a scrolling view of the score.)

When the piece was published in 1623, there wasn’t much to celebrate. Europe was decimated after the ravages of the insane international power grab known as the 30 Years War. Venice, the composer’s adopted home, had lost a third of its population to the plagues that accompanied the incessant violence. Yet it’s exceedingly upbeat music, celebrating the seasons rebirth — until toward the end, when the mood turns dismal as the poet/narrator mourns that he alone is miserable, tortured by unrequited love.

For my video I performed the vocal lines mostly on overdubbed Veillette Gryphon. It’s a small 12-string tuned an a minor 7th above standard. (That is, when I finger the piece in its original key of G, it comes out in F.) Most of the other instruments perform the continuo — that is, the bass line and chords, as indicated in ubiquitous Baroque-era shorthand.

As I write now, many months later, COVID rages worse than ever. In the intervening time I’ve returned again and again to medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music from times of plague. There’s something soothing about beauty born of cataclysm. It’s a tribute to the better angels of our artist nature at a time when good angels are scarce.

P.S.: That postponed Mexican project returned to life last month. It’s a fun story that I’ll share soon.

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