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Claudio Monteverdi
Claudio Monteverdi


Claudio Monteverdi lived in a time of great change, as the vocal polyphony of the Renaissance gave way to the textures of the early Baroque. He harnessed both styles with great skill, sometimes contrasting them in the same work, and wrote successfully in every vocal genre. His liturgical works can be heard as a culmination of the choral traditions of previous centuries. But his operas embody the lyrical and dramatic innovations that were shortly to sweep across Europe. As a court musician, Monteverdi would have composed many dances and ceremonial pieces, yet almost all of his surviving works are for voices. His training with the music director of Cremona Cathedral, Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, included learning several instruments as well as composing and singing. In 1590 or 1591 he was appointed as a viol player at the court of the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo I of Gonzaga. Monteverdi had already published several sets of vocal music, both sacred and secular. The first, Sacrae cantiunculae, appeared in 1582 when he was just 15 years old. The Mantuan court was small but culturally active, and he came into contact with many leading musicians. He met Giovanni Gastoldi, one of the few late Renaissance composers now known as a composer of dance music. The court’s music director was Giaches de Wert, a famous composer of madrigals who would have a profound influence on Monteverdi’s early work in that genre. Monteverdi soon left any historical models far behind. So much so that, in around 1600, he was targeted in a series of articles by Giovanni Maria Artusi. The conservative music theorist criticised Monteverdi’s unregulated use of dissonance and other perceived faults. Monteverdi defended his work, describing it was an example of a new style, the so-called ‘second practice’ (seconda prattica). Compositional license was permitted, he argued, in order to better reflect the meaning of the text. In 1601 Monteverdi was appointed master of music to the Duke of Mantua. By then his name was known across Europe thanks to his ongoing series of Books of Madrigals. He now turned to stage music. He wrote a ballet, The Loves of Diana and Endymion (now lost), and then the opera L’Orfeo, which was premiered in 1607. Though Jacopo Peri had written the first ever opera in 1598, La Dafne (also lost), L’Orfeo is the earliest surviving opera still regularly performed today. As in his madrigals, Monteverdi uses surprising dissonances in the opera to underline important words. His scene-setting is particularly effective, making evocative use of a range of instrumental colours. The world of nymphs and shepherds in which the opera begins is represented by recorders, strings and plucked instruments. When the action moves to the Underworld, sackbutts (early trombones) and regal organ take over. There are also significant instrumental solos for violin and harp. Monteverdi is known to have written over a dozen operas, but most have been lost. From Arianna (1608) only the protagonist’s lament has survived, an iconic piece that is said to have moved the first night audience to tears. The ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ became a ‘hit’, circulating widely in both hand-written and printed copies. Monteverdi was quick to cash in. He adapted it as a five-part madrigal and converted it into a sacred song under the title ‘Pianto della Madonna’. For all his success, Monteverdi felt overworked, underpaid and underappreciated in Mantua. So in 1610 he tried to get work at the Papal Court. He put together a portfolio of sacred compositions and had it printed under the title Vespro della beata Vergine.The plan, unsuccessful as it turned out, was to present it in person to the Pope with the offer of the work’s dedication. Considering the quality of this collection, it beggars belief that Monteverdi wasn’t engaged on the spot. Rome’s loss was Venice’s gain. In 1613 Monteverdi was appointed music director of St Mark’s Basilica. He retained the position until the end of his life 30 years later, in spite of offers of employment at the courts of Vienna and Warsaw. In 1641 Monteverdi published a compilation of the sacred music written for St Mark’s, under the title Selva morale e spirituale. Another one, Messa et salmi, appeared posthumously in 1650. Among other notable non-operatic works written in Venice, the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (c.1624), which was later included in the Eighth Book of Madrigals, is an amazing example of descriptive music for strings, depicting trotting horses, a duel and the heroine’s death. A cantata for three voices, the work includes the first known use of pizzicato (or plucked) string playing.  Opera had initially been a courtly and therefore private affair, but in 1637 the world’s first public opera houses opened in Venice. This prompted several new contributions to the genre by Monteverdi. Only two have survived: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria sua (The Return of Ulysses, 1640) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1643), the first opera to be based on historical events rather than classical mythology. Poppea was unique in its amorality, with lust, violence and greed apparently triumphing over virtue, though Monteverdi’s original audience would have known that neither Poppea nor Nero enjoyed a happy life after their marriage. A mood of tragic intensity is lightened with several scenes of comic relief for servants and sleepy sentinels. It is now thought that some parts of the score are by other hands but the opera continues to cast its spell, its music and dramaturgy as powerful in the 21st century as in the year of its composition.

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