BACKGROUND ON IL PASTOR FIDO

The author of Pastor Fido, Battista Guarini (1538-1612), was born in Ferrara and had a varied career as poet, man of letters, diplomat and courtier. He spent many years in the service of Duke Alfonso II d'Este of Ferrara, and was also in the employ of the courts of Mantua, Florence and Urbino.

He was a prolific writer of verse; much of his occasional poetry was particularly suited for madrigal texts, and provided a rich source of inspiration for late-16th- and early-17th-century composers. His most notable work, however, is the pastoral tragicomedy Il Pastor Fido ("The Faithful Shepherd"), which was written between 1580 and 1584 and first published in 1590, with the definitive edition appearing in 1602.

Pastor Fido, along with Tasso's Aminta, is the classic example of the dramatic pastorale. It was hugely popular in its own time, and remained in vogue throughout the 17th century, spawning a great variety of imitations and successors. Its popularity extended even into the 18th century, inspiring works by Handel, Vivaldi and Salieri among others.

Pastor Fido is a vast and sprawling work, comprising five acts and nearly 50 scenes (the modern edition runs to 250 pages). The plot, convoluted and contrived, proceeds at a leisurely pace and is punctuated by extended digressions and long-winded soliloquies. To judge solely by its bulk, it might be difficult to discern wherein the evident enormous contemporary appeal of the work lay.

A part of the answer is that Pastor Fido is one of those works that captures and epitomizes the spirit of its age. Guarini's milieu, and his audience, comprised the hyper-refined, world-weary, sensual, cynical world of the late-16th-century North Italian courts. By contrast, the world of Pastor Fido is a throwback to a bucolic semi-mythical Arcadia, when the earth was young, innocent and unspoiled. Richard Fanshawe's mid-17th-century translation of one passage captures the ambience:

O happy age of gold, when first
The infant wold by milk was nursed,
When trees the cradles did supply,
And whistling winds the lullaby; ...
No mortal then did ever feel
Th' insidious draught or wounding steel.
No gloomy thoughts, obscure as night
Eclipsed the rays of reason's light.

In Guarini's Arcadia, a rustic simplicity prevails, combined with stern Greco-Roman standards of virtue and morality; the gods are duly venerated; social distinctions are less rigid (everyone - with the exception of a satyr or two - is well-bred and well-spoken, although some are of gentler birth than others); relationships between the sexes are less circumscribed by social conventions; and (generally) everyone knows his or her place in the overall order of things.

At the same time, Guarini's Arcadia is not Eden, still less Dante's Paradiso; rather, it bears a distinct imprint of the very milieu with which it is intended to contrast. In the first place, it is a flawed and out-of-joint world, a land on which a curse has been laid down. Second, it is not exempt from a number of human foibles, among them scorn, jealousy, hatred, lust and intrigue. Last, and perhaps most significantly, it seethes with that most powerful and poignant of late-Renaissance passions, namely unrequited love, while simultaneously affording ample scope for various star-crossed lovers to enmesh themselves in its toils. This creates a titillating, slightly voyeuristic quality to Pastor Fido which must have contributed hugely to its contemporary popularity.

Not surprisingly, those qualities that would have appealed so much to the beau monde of the North Italian courts were greeted with shock and outrage in other quarters; indeed, Pastor Fido enjoyed something of a succès de scandale. Even before the first publication of the work, an extensive and often tendentious polemic arose. Its detractors raised two objections: first, that Pastor Fido was an uncouth hybrid that overturned dramatic conventions and flouted the classical unities; and second (and more ominously for its author), that the work was lewd and morally offensive. One contemporary critic opined - one wonders if he spoke from personal experience - that the language of Pastor Fido "would cause even the public prostitutes to blush," while another asserted that he had heard that two well-bred young women, upon reading the work, "had straightaway proceeded to set up a brothel in their home." (Guarini responded vigorously and in kind to his detractors, and does not seem to have suffered any serious consequences from their accusations.)

From the jaded perspective of the 21st century, one might wonder what all the fuss was about. However, it seems clear that some critics were disturbed by the degree of freedom accorded to the denizens of Arcadia - particularly the womenfolk - in choosing objects of their affection; in falling in and out of love; and in giving vent to, and acting on, their emotions and amorous impulses.

Turning now to the performance aspects, the sheer size and complexity of Pastor Fido must have presented daunting challenges as to how the work might be staged as simple drama, let alone as drama with music and dance. Yet the available evidence indicates that it was performed repeatedly, and that some form of "multi-media" rendition was indeed what the author intended. In his copious notes to the 1602 edition, Guarini makes reference to a staged version that included the Gioco della Cieca ("game of blind-man's buff") dance, with music by Luzzaschi and choreography by one Leone hebreo (both now lost), and also provides extensive directions for the execution of four pantomime "intermezzi" to be performed between the acts.

Furthermore, historical evidence indicates that Pastor Fido productions were mounted in various Italian cities in the course of the 1590s. (The evidence also indicates a number of failed attempts, although the reasons for failure are generally not clear.) The best-documented performances took place at the court of Mantua - two in the summer of 1598, and one more in November of that year. The second of these, in July 1598, is known to have combined drama, music, dance, and spectacle; to have been about four hours in length; and to have required the services of a small army to build the sets and props. The November production - probably a re-run - was given in honor of the new Queen of Spain, Marguerite of Austria, recently married by proxy to Philip III and en route to her new residence in Madrid. (This last staging is known to have included surviving music by Giangiacomo Gastoldi for the Gioco della Cieca scene.)

Unfortunately, the existing evidence does not really speak to the question of how the available music was performed. This question is particularly intriguing in the context of the 1598 productions. Although the argument is largely e silentio, it appears that much if not all of the 1598 music was in the form of polyphonic madrigals - Gastoldi's Gioco della Cieca settings, which were indisputably used, are for five voices a cappella; while other composers known to have been associated with the Mantuan court, such as Monteverdi and Pallavicino, published numerous a cappella settings of Pastor Fido texts at around the same time. Moreover, the earliest extant solo-song settings postdate the 1598 productions by several years. But how was a polyphonic madrigal - particularly one on a text spoken by an individual character, such as Mirtillo or Amarilli - actually integrated into dramatic performance?

At least as early as 1591, madrigal composers had turned their attention to Pastor Fido - particularly the emotionally charged and dramatic passages of some of its key scenes - as a source of texts. Over the next 80 years, some 500 musical Pastor Fido settings (whether a cappella or concerted madrigals or solo songs) are known to have been composed. Perhaps one-fifth of the total number of lines was set at one time or another, and some of the most favored excerpts were set upwards of 30 times. Some composers published entire collections of pieces with a Pastor Fido theme, e.g., Monte (Musica sopra Il Pastor Fido ... libro secondo a sette voci ..., 1602); Piccioni (Il Pastor Fido musicale, 1602); Mezzogorri (Il Pastor Fido armonico ..., 1617); Casentini (La Cieca, 1609); Tomasi (Il Corisca, 1613). In a few cases, whole scenes from the work were set to music (e.g., the hilariously comic Satiro e Corisca by Valentini, 1622), but at no time before the 18th century were efforts made to turn the work into opera as such.

However, virtually none of the works referred to above is available in modern performing editions or facsimile. The transcriptions made available here, it is hoped, will shed some light on a particularly rich and interesting aspect of the Italian madrigal.

 

Copyright © 2014 - Martin Morell