But if Book IV fires a warning shot across the bow, Books V and VIII launch an all-out musical assault on convention. For the first time an instrumental basso continuo part appears, providing continuity that allows voices to falter, stop altogether or even sing alone. Suddenly, musical emotion is less a matter of symbolism than of imitation; sighs, moans and shouts of joy can all be rendered truthfully, with each voice unshackled from its fellows. Harmonically, too, things are very different. The knife-twisting dissonances that famously angered the theorist Artusi in ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (‘A tumult of sounds, a confusion of absurdities, an assemblage of imperfections’) turn the poem’s cardboard lover into something of flesh and blood, someone whose thoughts alternately gallop and linger, whose emotions ebb and flow naturally, if unpredictably.
Book VIII is the greatest and widest-ranging volume of secular music of its age — perhaps of any. Composed over a 30-year span, the madrigals tackle not only the erotic charge of love and sexuality, but also for the first time its warring conflicts — the restlessness, agitation and rage that go hand in hand with its pleasures. No single work can represent such a collection, but perhaps the ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ comes closest; if you listen to just one work, make it this one.