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Kapsberger – Che fai tu

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sibyl1

Che fai tu, vita mia,
che fai tu lontan da me?
Che fai tu, chi ti desvia?
Torna, ahi, volgi il piè,
Toma mia com’eri pria!
Che fai tu, vita mia?

Che fai tu, vita mia?
Senza te star’ più non sò,
Nè più sò quell ch’io mi morriò
Di dolor’ di gelosia.
Che fai tu, vita mia?


Love of my life, what are you doing?
What are you doing so far away from me?
What are you doing, and who takes you away?
Come back, I beg you,
Return so we may be as we once were!
My love, what are you doing?

Love of my life, what are you doing?
I can’t live without you,
And I don’t know whether I should die
Of sorrow or jealousy.
Love of my life, what are you doing?

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Che fai tu from Libro primo di Villanelle con l’intavolatura del Chitarrone (1610)(S.H. transl.)


Is this song laden with heartache over unrequited love the work of a prince of the church who later emerged as one of the greatest pontiffs of the Baroque era? It was in any event set by his house musician who was given the charge of turning his publicly unclaimed poems into songs. Giovanni Girolamo (also called Johannes Hieronymus) Kapsberger was born in Venice in 1580, the son of a colonel in the service of the Hapsburg emperors. He was raised in Venice, married a Neapolitan aristocrat, and settled in Rome to pursue his career. A prolific composer, he is best known for his works for the chitarrone as well as the Spanish guitar, which include some of the best of the Baroque era. But Kapsberger was also a brilliant song writer, much of it being settings of contemporary poetry, the authors of which are often not noted. This example, Che fai tu, is typical for its simplicity and beauty, and it likely inspired many imitators–among them Johannes Nauwach, who studied with Frescobaldi, and then returned north to Germany to introduce the villanella style north of the Alps. Kapsberger was employed as a musician in the house of Maffeo Barberini, an influential cardinal of a prominent Florentine family who ended his career as Pope Urban VIII. Contemporaries record that many of Kapsberger’s villanellas are intonations of Barberini’s poetry, though Barberini’s status as a prince of the church left him hesitant to claim authorship for such profane works. It is nevertheless at least plausible that Che fai tu is the setting of a Barberini poem. Kapsberger knew and communicated with Galileo Galilei, who also frequented the Barberini household, and he performed concerts with Giorlamo Frescobaldi, who served the Barberinis at the same time. This brilliant constellation–Galileo, Frescobaldi, Kapsberger and Barberini himself, made this household one of the most important centers of arts and science in Europe in the early Baroque period.

Listen to Kapsberger’s villanella in a performance by Pino De Vittorio and Johanette Zomer:

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