Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was an Italian composer who, in addition to being the first great operatic writer, reflected in his works, especially the madrigals, the change in style from late Renaissance to early baroque.

Claudio Monteverdi was undoubtedly one of the more progressive composers between 1590 and 1625. During these years he infused the rather dry stile rappresentativo of the early monodists with a lyricism that foreshadowed the later aria, and he introduced a more intensely expressive and dramatic element into music, notably through what he called the stile concitato (agitated style). As early as 1600 Giovanni Maria Artusi, a well-known theorist, criticized Monteverdi for some harsh "modernisms."

Monteverdi's influence, both before and after his death, was not commensurate with the high esteem in which he was held by the discerning few; thus he left no "school," and the only significant composer who can be called his pupil was Heinrich Schütz. The reason for this comparative lack of influence was probably Monteverdi's serious cast of mind and a strong tinge of conservatism that mitigated his continuing in the vanguard throughout a period which was, perhaps, the most dichotomous in the history of music and during which taste and fashion changed rapidly. Today he is regarded less as a revolutionary than as one of the outstanding composers of all time, who combined the old with the new and who forged a style that for dramatic range, emotional expression, and sensuous lyricism had never been equaled before.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona and baptized on May 15, 1567. His mother, Maddalena, and father, Baldassare, a doctor, were probably musical, for both Claudio and his brother Giulio Cesare became professional musicians. It is most likely that Monteverdi became a choirboy at the local Cathedral and received his first musical training there. He was certainly a pupil of the noted composer M. A. Ingegneri, the Cathedral's music director, for in 1582 Monteverdi claims as much on the title page of a collection of three-voiced motets, Sacrae cantiunculae, published in Venice.

We know little about the next 10 years, apart from Monteverdi's unsuccessful attempt to get a job in Milan in 1589, but they were certainly productive, for he published a book of Madrigali spirituali (1583), one of Canzonette (1584), and the first two books of madrigals (1587, 1590). Perhaps in 1590 or the year after, he became a string player at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga I, Duke of Mantua; he definitely held this position in 1592, the same year that he published his third madrigal book.


Employment at the Court of Mantua

Monteverdi remained at Mantua for about 20 years. During this period he accompanied the duke on two visits to foreign countries, the first (1595) a military expedition to Hungary to fight the Turks (an experience that made a deep impression on him), the second (1599) a journey to Liège, Antwerp, and Brussels. Shortly before the second visit he married Claudia Cattaneo, who in their brief marriage (she died in 1607) bore him three children, Francesco in 1601, Leonora in 1603, and Massimiliano in 1604. In 1602 Monteverdi was promoted to maestro della musica; he published his fourth madrigal book a year later, his fifth in 1605, and the first set of Scherzi musicali in 1607.

The Scherzi were edited by Monteverdi's brother Giulio Cesare, who had been appointed to the Mantuan court sometime previously and who added an appendix to the volume in which he expounded Claudio's views on music, in particular the elucidation of what Claudio called the prima prattica, that is, the old polyphonic style of the late Renaissance, and the seconda prattica, that is, the new style in which the poetic text dictated the character and form of the music. This latter style is already apparent to some extent in a few of the pieces in the fourth madrigal book and more obviously so in the last six pieces of the fifth book, which, like the rest of his output in this genre, use a continuo accompaniment and are better described as vocal chamber music than as madrigals.


The Opera Orfeo

The year 1607 also saw the production, in Mantua, of Monteverdi's first opera, La favola d'Orfeo. This was followed a year later by L'Arianna; the Prologue, no longer extant, to a comedy by Giovanni Battista Guarini, L'idropica; and Il ballo dell'ingrate. Orfeo is perhaps the most remarkable first essay in any musical genre by any composer. The libretto (by Alessandro Striggio) keeps to the original story more closely than the two earlier operas on the same subject by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini (and most later ones), in that Orpheus loses Euridice on the journey back from Hades, though they are reunited in heaven.

The music represents a virtual cross section of contemporary practice, including choruses in imitative polyphony and chordal harmony, solo ensembles, da capo arias, dances and other independent instrumental pieces, and the new monodic recitativelike style, to which most of the text is set. The orchestra consists of over 40 instruments, including harpsichords, chamber organs, strings, woodwind, and brass; which of these played when was largely left to the music director, though in certain instances Monteverdi specifies the instrumentation. For example, the spirits of Hades are accompanied by regal (reed) and positive organs, five trombones, two bass gambas, and a violone, which produce a strikingly dark timbre; trombones, indeed, later became traditionally associated with anything "infernal."

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Orfeo is the clearly deliberate attempt at some kind of overall design. This is particularly evident in Act I, where the arrangement of solos, ensembles, choruses, and instrumental ritornelli form two ABA structures, the first large and complex, the second small and simple, and followed by a coda.

Orfeo was revived several times during Monteverdi's lifetime, as was Arianna, which if anything was even more popular, especially the celebrated lament Lasciatemi morire, the only fragment to have survived. Not only was this piece arranged for five voices and included in the sixth madrigal book, and adapted to sacred words in the Selva morale e spirituale, but it also set a fashion that affected virtually every opera for the next 150 years or so, a well-known example being Dido's lament, "When I am laid in earth," in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.


The Vespers

In 1610 Monteverdi published one of his finest works, the Vespers, comprising a Mass, 2 Magnificats, 11 "motets," and an orchestral sonata. In it he combines solos, ensembles, choral writing for one and two choirs of up to five voices each, orchestral ritornelli (some in six real parts), in addition to a sonata, and obbligati for various instruments. The style ranges from the old to the new, from richly imitative seven-part polyphony to highly affective monody, from rhythmically clear-cut, ear-catching melodies to complex highly virtuosic melismas. As Denis Arnold (1963) said, "Passion and magnificence—these two are inseparable words when describing this volume."

The Vespers may have resulted from Monteverdi's desire to write a large-scale, widely expressive sacred work that complemented, to some extent, his operatic output. It almost certainly was a result of his wish to find another post, a wish that arose from the growing dissatisfaction with conditions, particularly his salary, at the Mantuan court. His situation became aggravated in 1612, when Vincenzo I died, for shortly afterward he was dismissed by Vincenzo's successor, Ferdinand. For over a year Monteverdi sought employment that was commensurate with his now considerable reputation, and finally, in August 1613, he was appointed to one of the most prestigious musical positions in Italy, that of maestro di cappella at the famous basilica of St. Mark's in Venice.


Years in Venice

Monteverdi spent the rest of his life in Venice, dying there on Nov. 29, 1643. The only domestic events of note during this period were the arrest in 1627 of his son Massimiliano by the Inquisition and his acquittal the following year, and Monteverdi's entry into the priesthood about 1632. Musically his 30 years in the service of St. Mark's were richly productive. In addition to completely reorganizing the whole musical setup and raising to a new excellence the standards of the singers and instrumentalists, he composed a quantity of music, both sacred and secular. Most of the sacred music was published in Selva morale e spirituale (1640), which includes a Mass, two Magnificats, and over 30 other pieces, and in a collection published posthumously in 1650, which contains a Mass, a litany, and over a dozen psalm settings.

The secular music can be divided into chamber and dramatic. The chamber category includes the sixth, seventh, and eighth madrigal books (1614, 1619, 1638) and the second set of Scherzi musicali (1632). The dramatic category comprises nine operas, three ballets, incidental music, an intermezzo, a masque, and the dramatic cantata Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624). Il combattimento, notable for its demonstration of the stile concitatovia such unusual (at that time) instrumental effects as pizzicato and tremolando, has survived, as have the ballets Tirsi e Clori (1616) and Volgendo il ciel (1637) and Monteverdi's last two operas, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1641) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642). Poppea is the first opera on a historical subject (as opposed to mythological, biblical, or poetical subjects) and a masterpiece by any standard.


The Operas Ulisse and Poppea

Monteverdi's two last operas show profound differences compared with Orfeo. Both were first produced in Venice, but Ulisse is more typically Venetian than Poppea in the rapid succession of scenes—comic, serious, and spectacular—the quick patter of its recitative, often broken up by short songlike passages, the infrequency of instrumental numbers, the varied and heightened emotional range, and the reduction of the orchestra to a basic string group, which was first used in Il combattimento and has formed the foundation of the orchestra ever since.

In Poppea Monteverdi largely rejected the purely spectacular and the restless succession of scenic contrasts, relying more on the vivid and subtle characterization of the leading figures of the drama and maintaining a well-nigh perfect balance between music and drama, the music seeming to spring directly from the drama and not, as happened in most later baroque operas, being an end in itself. Not until Christoph Willibald Gluck, in fact, was such a conception of opera again realized. The music in Poppea is seldom less than attractive, and at times it reaches an emotional intensity and a melodic beauty that make an immediate impact today.

The works from Monteverdi's Venetian period that have not survived are the operas La favola di Peleo e di Tetide (1617), Andromeda (1617), La finta pazza Licori (1627), La Delia e l'Ulisse (1630), Proserpina rapita (1630), Adone (1639), and Le nozze d'Enea con Lavinia (1641); the Prologue to a sacred play, La Maddalena (1617); a Prologue and five "Intermedia" (1627); the ballet La vittoria d'amore (1641); the intermezzo Gli amori di Diana e di Endimione (1628); and the masque Mercurio e Marte (1628). The disappearance of these works, and in particular of all but two of the last nine operas composed in Venice, must be counted the most tragic loss in the history of music, when one considers the exceptional significance of any opera written during the first half of the 17th century, Monteverdi's own stature as a composer, and the high quality of those examples that have come down to us.

Further Reading on Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi

Full-length studies of Monteverdi include Henri Prunières, Monteverdi: His Life and Work (trans. 1926); Leo Schrade, Monteverdi: Creator of Modern Music (1950); Hans F. Redlich, Claudio Monteverdi: Life and Works (trans. 1952); and Denis Arnold, Monteverdi (1963). For background material see Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965); Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, from Monteverdi to Bach (1947); and Simon T. Worsthorne, Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Fabbri, Paolo, Monteverdi, Cambridge; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Horton, John, Monteverdi, Sevenoaks Eng.: Novello, 1975.

Schrade, Leo, Monteverdi: creator of modern music, New York: Da Capo Press, 1979, 1950.