picture of C. Monteverdi
lab51 clef icon Claudio Monteverdi
(Mantua, February 24, 1607)
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"Possente spirto": A Florid Aria Built on a Repeating Bass.

See sourcebooks vol. 1, p. 52ff (original pagination) for the score and ; vol. 2, p.79 (original; 831 modern in 2003 edition) for the Italian poetry and English translation.

If you can decipher musical notation, try to find the repeating cycle of notes in the bass:

G D G F C G D Bb F G C A G D

This bass line underlies each strophe (tercet) of the poem. We hear it five times. The rhythms are different each time; that is, the individual notes do not always last the same amount of time.

Even if you cannot find these notes by reading the score, you can use the text in your sourcebook to follow the strophic structure as you listen. Orfeo's vocal line is so florid (elaborate, melismatic) and varies so much for each cycle that we may not notice the constant underpinning. Don't worry. The bass is not what we really listen to in this aria. Monteverdi's craft serves a more important expressive aim: the persuasive beauty of Orfeo's lyric inspiration. But it is fascinating to consider that beneath an appearance of great freedom lies a steadfast structure.

Listen to the wonderfully varied instrumentation. The ritornelli offer increasingly elaborate echoes of Orfeo's vocal style; with each ritornello we hear a new instrument or group of instruments. This is a fine opportunity to learn what these different instruments sound like, as they are each relatively isolated.

Monteverdi temporarily breaks off the bass pattern in the middle of the fourth cycle, but he returns to it for the last line of verse. Then we have, without a break, an interlude: "O de le luci...": The bass part goes completely free. (Is this because Orfeo now addresses these words to Euridice?) Monteverdi then resumes the bass pattern for the sixth tercet (the fifth cycle) but then breaks it and has a sort of "coda" for the final line of text ("Contra cui...").


Tercets / Bass Cycles

Solo Instruments

Orig. Score Pg.

cycle 1: "Possente spirto..." + ritornello

2 violins


cycle 2: "Non vivo io..." + ritornello

2 cornetts


cycle 3: "A lei volt'ho..." + ritornello



cycle 4: "Orfeo son io..." (pattern breaks!)

2 violins & a "bass"
(see Note below)


free: "O de le luci" (bass is free)



cycle 5: "Sol tu noblie..." (pattern resumes!) + coda




The "Basso da brazzo" is a bass instrument of the violin family, a sort of bass violin or large cello. This passage may be one of this first cello solos in existence. It is likely included as one of the "dieci viole da brazzo" (which may imply that there were two five-voice consorts of variously sized instruments of the violin family) in the list of instruments from the 1615 edition.



Original text by Carlo Caballero, 1997 / Updated by Aaron S. Allen, 2003