Three Sonnets of Petrarch

By Carman, Judith | Journal of Singing, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview
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Three Sonnets of Petrarch

Carman, Judith, Journal of Singing

ABBREVIATION KEY: Diff = difficulty level; V = voice; P = piano; E = easy; mE = moderately easy; M = medium; mD = moderately difficult; D = difficult; DD = very difficult; Tess = tessitura; LL = very low; L = low; mL = moderately low; M = medium; mH = moderately high; H = high; HH = very high; CR = covers range; CS = covers staff; X = no clear key center.


ARGENTO, DOMINICK (b. 1927). THREE SONNETS OF PETRARCH for Baritone and Piano. Boosey & Hawkes, 2008 (Hal Leonard). Tonal; A[musical flat]^sub 2^-F#^sub 4^; Tess: mH; regular meters with some changes; Andantino, Moderato, Presto; W/mD-D, P/M; 9 ½ minutes. Titles: I. "Sonnet 63 (Volgendo gli occhi)" II. "Sonnet 164 (Or che'l ciel)" III. "Sonnet 300 (Quanta invidia io ti porto)"

The three sonnets that the composer chose for this short cycle represent the beginning of Petrarch's passionate infatuation with the beautiful Laura (whom he apparently never formally met throughout all the years of his love for her), the middle of his long connection to her when he discovers that his love produces both sweet and bitter fruit, and the end as he mourns her death. Argento states in the "Composer's Note" that he has taken the stand that Laura was a real person (a point on which scholars have always disagreed) based on the "unstilted and passionate" nature of the poet's original language (Argento made his own English translations) and on a quotation from a letter to a friend in which Petrarch denies that Laura is a poetic device by saying, "I wish that she indeed had been a fiction and not a madness." Argento goes on to say, "The music I have written for these sonnets is a product of that view."

As we have come to expect from Argento, the music for these texts reflects beautifully their meaning and emotional context. The opening piano motif of the first song, an upward arpeggio of an eleventh chord, suggests the eyes of those who see the poet's paleness: "Casting eyes upon my newfound paleness, people cannot help but think of death." The simple act of turning the flourish upside down transforms it into the gentle glance of Laura: "yet you were moved by pity: whereupon my heart, greeted so gently, clung to life." After the narrative opening of the vocal line, the voice sings a long rising melody that will recur in the piano part of this song and the last song - the "Laura" theme. Throughout the remainder of the song, the emotional content of the words is buoyed with two repetitions of the theme in its entirety. The song ends with a half quotation of the theme followed by the rising eleventh chord arpeggio from the beginning.

The second song begins with a tranquil ground bass figure that sets the mood for "Now that sky and earth and wind are hushed/ and beasts and birds in sleep are silenced too,/ Night steers its starry chariot through its course,/ and even the waveless sea retires to bed." In the depths of night, the poet wrestles with his love for the "one clear living fountain [from which] come/ both the bitter and the sweet whereon I am sustained;/A single hand both stabs me and also heals the wound.

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