Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was an Italian priest, choirmaster, string player, and music composer. He was born on the 15th of May 1567 and went on to craft both sacred and secular music, specializing in opera. He is considered an important link between the Baroque and Renaissance era in the history of music.
He was born in Cremona, in the Lombardy region in Northern Italy, to Baldasar Mondeverdo and Maddalena, his first spouse. He started off his musical studies in this city, but there remains little evidence of him studying at Cremona University. He published his first set of works at the mere age of fifteen - a collection of motets. He also started studying under the tutelage of Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, creating a solid base in composition and counterpoint.
In 1583, Monteverdi’s second work was published titled, “Madrigali spirituali.” In 1587, he published a collection of 5-part madrigals titled, “The first book of madrigals” and dedicated it to Marco Verità, the Count of Verona. In 1590. He dedicated his “second book of madrigals” to Giacomo Ricardi of Milan. In 1591, he joined the court of “Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga” of Mantua. In 1599, he married Claudia de Cattaneis, the court singer. In 1592, the third book of madrigals was published, followed by the fourth and fifth versions in 1603 and 1605, respectively. In his third book, he showcases the strong influence of Giaches de Wert. The fourth book faced objections on the grounds of “ultra-modernism.” The fifth madrigal book is much ahead of its time, where the composer employs an advanced “concertato style” infused with “basso continuo,” with an instrumental interlude in the final composition.
At the beginning of the 17th century, he found himself marred in musical controversy. Giovanni Maria Artusi, the influential and celebrated Bolognese theorist, attacked his work without naming him. The theorist in his work titled “L'Artusi overo delle imperfettioni della moderna musica” cited excerpts from Monteverdi's unpublished works and criticized his musical innovation and usage of harmony. He deemed them as overtly orthodox and even tried to correspond with the composer, but was eventually foiled. This discourse raised Monteverdi’s profile, which subsequently led to the reprint of his earlier set of madrigals. In 1605, some of his madrigals were again published. In 1606, he was commissioned for his opera titled, “L'Orfeo” for the upcoming carnival season. Alessandro Striggio crafted the libretto, and the opera was staged twice in 1607.
However, soon tragedy struck. Claudia de Cattaneis passed away in September and was soon followed by Caterina Martinelli, a young singer who intended to play a titular role in his opera. Monteverdi also started feeling the strain of working continuously, which was further exacerbated by his deteriorating financial condition. In 1610, he was forced to visit Rome pursuing alternative employment, just after publishing his celebrated work “Vespro della Beata Vergine.” He auditioned for the post of “maestro” at the “basilica of San Marco” and was eventually appointed for 50 ducats.
While crafting stage music (four operas), Monteverdi retained political and emotional attachments to the Mantuan court. In 1632, his “Scherzi musicale” was published, which was the only work apart from the last Madrigal books. He spent his last years working on the Venetian stage scene. His “L'incoronazione,” and “Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria” are considered as the first set of modern operas. They were soon followed in 1641 by “The Selva morale e spirituale.” In 1650, the “Messa et salmi” was published, albeit posthumously. It contained a selection of “sacred music” he had crafted during his San Marco stint. In 1650, another posthumous publication, his ninth book of madrigals, is his last known work.
The music in the Renaissance era was considered as a form of discipline, while in the Baroque era it undertook an aesthetic revolution. Festive, social, and religious celebrations were incorporated, while music took a step back to infuse text. Solo performances with instruments increased and obtained greater significance in the expression of dramatic music. Monteverdi was part of this change of guard. His early compositions were littered with the usage of word-painting and chromatic progressions. He was also a proficient user of “The canzonetta form,” as evident in his first book of madrigals. A playful yet pastoral setting reflects his intricate usage of dissonance. He set the music of his second madrigal book to an “archaic” style. Claudio Monteverdi was respected and admired among his contemporaries, including the public. He passed away in Venice on the 29th of November, 1643, and is buried at the “Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari” in San Paolo, Venice.
His Best Works
The opera begins with a short trumpet toccata. The prologue is introduced through a “ritornello” accompanied by strings, which is often repeated to signify the musical prowess. It is considered one of the first usage of an operatic leitmotif. Monteverdi innovatively uses polyphony throughout the opera, often going beyond prevalent conventions. He has successfully combined traditional madrigal elements with a new “monodic style,” - where the domination of text over music along with instrumental ritornellos is embellished throughout.
The original music of “L’Arianna” is lost, except the “Lamento d'Arianna,” which was later included in the sixth book. In 1623, a distinct monodic version was published. The operatic context depicts the various emotional reactions of the protagonist - a sense of desolation, self-pity, fear, anger, sorrow, and futility. Her anger and indignation are thoroughly punctuated via tenderness as the piece descends into a hushed conclusion.
This sacred musical piece comprises 14 components - opening with a versicle, followed by 5 psalms and “sacred concertos” respectively, and continues with a hymn and 2 “Magnificat” settings. There are diverse musical styles at play here, both traditional and latest madrigal features - namely “cantus firmus,” “chains of dissonances,” “Venetian canzone,” and “echo effects.” The music retains some features of his “L'Orfeo,” which was also set for similar vocal and instrumental forces.
Madrigals books 6, 7 and 8
“Loss” is the central theme of this set, which also includes an alternate version of “Lamento d'Arianna.” It is considered the zenith of the connection between a musical counterpoint and a monodic recitative. Monteverdi strives forward confidently in his seventh book by incorporating chamber duets. The eighth Madrigals book is arranged in two distinct symmetrical halves - “war,” and “love.” Both halves start off with a six-voice setting, followed by a series of duets and a theatrical number, concluding with a ballet. The linear patterns of his books are similar - they all complement the world of “modality” by projecting structural functions through melodic gestures.
Father of Modern Opera
Monteverdi's letters offer an insightful gaze into the everyday life of a professional musician of that era, including the politics and patronage at play. Most of his stage works are lost forever, except the nine madrigal books, and some large-scale religious work, and multiple operas. Claudio had extensively favored Renaissance polyphony in his early days but eventually evolved in the usage of melody and form. He undertook the “basso continuo” technique and even defended his style when criticized for growing out of the orthodox setup. His works were largely forgotten in the following eras before resurfacing in the 20th century. He is now considered an established and significant figure in the history of European music, while his works are regularly recorded and performed.
Monteverdi discarded rigid regulations of counterpoint, opting for free treatment of dissonance and chromaticism. His frequent usage of dance patterns, irregular rhythms, and adventurous shifts of texture enriched a newly formulated opera genre that completely transformed the musical field - the mass, the madrigal, and the motets speak volumes of creative genius. His musical vocabulary launched the transformation from “modality” towards “tonality,” which fundamentally changed the course of music. He was the breaker of musical shackles, a symbol of defiance who stood up against the ancient authority. He was indeed the father of modern opera.