Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was an awe-inspiring Italian composer, singer and gambist. He was a revolutionary composer who pioneered the transition from Renaissance mode of music to Baroque era. He invented two distinct styles of composition – the heritage of Renaissance polyphony and the new ‘basso continuo’ technique of the Baroque. Monteverdi initiated writing one of the earliest operas, ‘L'Orfeo’, an imaginative work that is performed frequently even today. He became extremely popular as an ingenious composer and enjoyed considerable fame during his lifetime. He was an Italian priest as well as a musician and was engaged as a violist to the Duke of Mantua at an early age and also studied composition under ‘Ingegneri’, the duke's maestro di capella. He experimented with new techniques and created some incredible, breakthrough musical works in the midst of prevailing music of Renaissance period. He was the earliest composers to intentionally apply unprepared dissonances or fundamental discords. His harmonic innovations replaced the school of Palestrina and created new pathways for modern music.
Childhood And Early Life
Claudio Monteverdi was born on 1567 in Cremona, a town in Northern Italy. His father, Baldassare Monteverdi was a doctor, surgeon and apothecary. Monteverdi was the eldest of the five children. Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Cremona was his teacher during his childhood. While participating in the Cathedral choir, Monteverdi learned about music. He further studied at the University of Cremona. He authored his maiden music for publication in 1582 and 1583, which comprised of some motets and sacred madrigals. His first five publications were: Sacrae cantiunculae (a compilation of miniature motets) in 1582; Madrigali Spirituali (a volume of which only the bass part book is existing) in 1583; Canzonette a tre voci (an assortment of three-voice canzonettes) in 1584 and the five-part madrigals Book I in 1587, and Book II in 1590. Initially, Monteverdi worked for the court of Mantua as a singer and violist and then he became the music director. At the Court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua, he worked as a viol player and a vocalist. He also got the position of a Court conductor in 1602.
Monteverdi married the court singer Claudia Cattaneo in 1599. Unfortunately, she expired in September 1607. He and his wife were gifted with two boys (Francesco and Massimilino) and one girl (Leonora) – another daughter expired soon after her birth.
Monteverdi relocated to San Marco in Venice in 1613 and worked as a conductor. Soon, he reinstated the musical standard of the instrumentalists and the choir. The need to re-establish the musical standards arose because the musical standard had deteriorated due to the financial negligence of his predecessor, Giulio Cesare Martinengo. As music had been waning since Giovanni Croce died in 1609, after Monteverdi joined, the managers of the basilica were reassured to have an eminent musician in charge.
Monteverdi became a priest in 1632. He composed two of his masterpieces during the later years of his life. These works of genius were ‘Il ritorno d'Ulisse’ in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641), and the historic opera ‘L'incoronazione di Poppea’ (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642) which were based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero. ‘L'incoronazione’ is believed as the apex of Monteverdi's works as it comprises of romantic, tragic and comic scenes, considered as an innovative development in opera. He showcased a more practical depiction of the characters and warmer pieces of music than ever heard earlier. His musical compositions needed a smaller orchestra and were less significant for the choir. Initially, Monteverdi's operas were only considered as a mere historical or musical interest. It was since the 1960s; ‘L'incoronazione di Poppea’ was included in the collection of foremost opera companies across the world.
Monteverdi's works can be categorized into three categories: madrigals, operas and church-music
Monteverdi largely worked on madrigals until he turned forty. He composed nine books in total under this category. Monteverdi took around four years to complete his maiden book on madrigals made up of twenty-one madrigals for five voices. In totality, the first eight books of madrigals illustrate the massive growth from Renaissance polyphonic music to the monodic style typical of Baroque music.
The titles of his nine Madrigal books are:
- Book 1 - Madrigali a cinque voci (1587)
- Book 2 - Il secondo libro de madrigali a cinque voci (1590)
- Book 3 - Il terzo libro de madrigali a cinque voci (1592)
- Book 4 - Il quarto libro de madrigali a cinque voci (1603)
- Book 5 - Il quinto libro de madrigali a cinque voci (1605)
- Book 6 - Il sesto libro de madrigali a cinque voci (1614)
- Book 7 - Concerto. Settimo libro di madrigal (1619)
- Book 8 - Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo, che saranno per brevi episodi fra i canti senza gesto (1638)
- Book 9 - Madrigali e canzonette a due e tre voci (1651)
Though around eighteen operas were created by Monteverdi but only ‘L'Orfeo’, ‘Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria’, ‘L'incoronazione di Poppea’, and the famous aria, ‘Lamento’, from his second opera ‘L'Arianna’ have continued to exist. Monteverdi’s maiden opera was ‘L'Orfeo’ and was premiered in 1607 in Mantua. To be more specific, L'Orfeo was not his first opera, but the first full-fledged opera that received the designation of becoming a mature or well-established opera. In those days it was a trend for composers to compose music on demand for special events and this piece of music created by Monteverdi was a part of the ducal celebrations of carnival.
L'Orfeo had spectacular influence and vivacious orchestration and became the first example of a composer assigning specific instruments to various sections in operas. It is also one of the first large compositions in which the exact instrumentation of the premiere has been done. The plot of L'Orfeo is depicted by vibrant musical pictures and clear and crisp melodies. With this opera, Monteverdi composed exclusively a novel style of music, ‘the dramma per la musica’ or the musical drama.
L'Arianna was the second opera penned down by Claudio Monteverdi. It is one of the most significant and prominent examples of the beginning of baroque opera. It was performed in 1608 for the first time in Mantua. It revolved around the ancient Greek legend of Theseus and Ariadne.
Church Music - Vespro della Beata Vergine
Monteverdi was well recognized for his incredible church music. Monteverdi's first church music publication was the archaic Mass ‘In illo tempore’ to which the ‘Vesper Psalms’ were supplemented. The Vesper Psalms, published in 1610 are also one of the best examples of early contrast and repetition, with many of its sections having an apparent ritornello. Each part amongst the twenty-five parts is beautifully composed both in dramatic and musical senses. Monteverdi had amazing musical ability to apply instrumental textures effectively to create dramatic and emotional effects, never achieved by any musician before.
Death And Legacy
Monteverdi expired on 29 November 1643 in Venice. He was buried at the church of the Frari.