i – VII – VI – V: Monteverdi to Ray Charles

While reviewing early opera, I’ve been listening not only to the operas of the early 17th century but also the madrigals of Monteverdi. When Monteverdi released his Eighth Book of Madrigals in 1638, the genre had morphed from the polyphonic form of the Renaissance into a mixture of homophony and solos. In truth, some of his madrigals sounded like opera scenes.

When I listened to Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, I was struck by the familiarity of the continuo bass line (1:38):

Familiar? It’s the descending line that you hear in “Hit the Road Jack” and “Erie Canal” and a bunch of other tunes: i – VII – VI – V (for those who think in Roman numerals).

Other notable similarities between them:

  • The backup singers are extremely important in both cases and begin both pieces rather than the soloists.
  • The bass line is an ostinato (though in the case of Ninfa, the very beginning and end have different music).
  • Both soloists have interjections that sound like emotive outbursts rather than complete melodies.

Most importantly though, both are laments (Charles’ is a very groovy lament). Something bad has happened to the soloists, and the composer uses that downward motion to communicate it. When I hear that descending line, I feel their pain.

And why not? We’ve had hundreds of years of precedent to establish this firmly in our ears. For example, “Ben mio” from Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo – which premiered about ten years after Monteverdi’s Ottavo Libro – uses it (though not as insistently):

I’m not the first to notice this. Alex Ross – blogger, critic, and author – mentions this relationship in a regular talk that he gives. He expands it to include other similar chord progressions, but the idea is the same: that downward motion – at least since the early 1600’s –  suggests LAMENT.


  1. says

    Groovy! “When I Am Laid in Earth” has a great descending bass, too— oh, the pain!

    Ray Charles is a pretty chipper lament-er.