Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643)
Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643)

10 (Little) Things You Might Not Know about Claudio Monteverdi

Over 450 years ago, on the 15th of May 1567, Claudio Monteverdi was baptised in Cremona, Italy. The composer’s rich musical style made a great impact on the era, bridging the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

He was one of the most celebrated musicians in Europe, and was often known as the ‘father of opera’. Towards the end of life he became ordained as a priest, his music could be said to have died with him, as it then lay forgotten for more than two centuries. . A sense of duality is present in his work, which in many ways was a portent to modernity. Here are 10 little things you might not know about Monteverdi – 

An Orchestra at His Disposal 

Claudio Monteverdi began his career, at the age of 28, as a singer and viol player for the Duke of Mantua. Twelve years later he was appointed to the prestigious position of Music Master of the Court of Mantua. Under Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga of Mantua, Monteverdi had a small, talented orchestra at his disposal. He made good use of it, composing and realising his musical aspirations. 

Star of the Era 

Many composers only experience posthumous success; this was not case with Monteverdi. This musician was much feted throughout his lifetime; he was one of the most celebrated musicians in Italy and across Europe until the time of his death. Upon his death in 1643 a grand memorial service was organised in his honour at the Saint-Marc Basilica in Venice. 

Why did he experience such success? Perhaps due to his cutting edge music… Monteverdi was not content to merely compose; he was deeply inspired by his predecessors, whilst also evoking a sense of novelty and modernity in his music. 

Forgotten for Two and A Half Centuries 

During Monteverdi’s time success did not guarantee posthumous recognition, his work was quickly forgotten. This was also the case for numerous Renaissance and Baroque composers. Musicologist Philippe Beaussant proffers that until the 19th century contemporary music was preferred over “incomprehensible” early music. It therefore only took a few years for a celebrated star to be replaced with a younger, more talented or cutting edge composer. 

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Monteverdi’s works were exhumed thanks to Vincent d’Indy, a French composer. He disovered Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1905 and took it back to the Schola Cantorum in Paris. 

Emotion Above All 

Monteverdi was not content to follow the rules set out by his predecessors. He let emotion come to the fore, especially in his madrigals. Monteverdi uses the madrigal (secular, a cappella music) to express the full range of human emotion, from the very darkest to the lightest feelings.  

The composer placed a great deal of importance on the text. When he received a libretto for an opera project from the poet Striggio he replied saying “Oh, how emotive your characters are, Arianna brought me to tears, Orfeo made me pray but this story, I do not know what its purpose is, I do not feel that it ultimately brings me to an ending that moves me”.

A Foe Turned to Friend 

One of his greatest critics, musical theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi condemned Monteverdi’s works, including his madrigals from the fourth and fifth books, as “unbearable to the ear”. Monteverdi’s use of harmony did not align with his sensibilities; he thought that his senses had “gone wild”. 

One day, Monteverdi’s brother defended him to the critic. This confrontation was enough to convince Giovanni Artusi who eventually became a great admirer of Monteverdi’s music.

His Beloved Brother 

Following the premiere and success of his opera Orfeo, Monteverdi received renewed criticism from Artusi. He wished to reply but as his brother, Julio Cesare, explained did not have the time “being in the service of the Great Prince, he [was] busy, either at tournaments, ballets, plays or various concerts”. 

In the preface of his book Scherzi musicali, published in 1607, Julio Cesare took to his brother’s defence, an act that radically changed the opinion of his detractor. 

Risqué Madrigals

The seventh of his eight Madrigal Books, makes use of sensual, at times erotic, texts. Associate Producer of Culturebox, Paul Agnew, said in an interview that it is here that “Monteverdi has a real eroticism for the first time”. 

Among these lines is part of a poem, Conche soavita, by Giovanni Battista Guarini which focuses on the mouth and ideas of desire – 

Sweet and fragrant lips

I kiss you or listen to you 

But when I enjoy one pleasure, I deprive myself of the other.

Ordained as a Priest 

Despite the publication of these roguish madrigals, Monteverdi was ordained as a priest in 1632, at the age of 65. Towards the end of his life he fully devoted himself to music, producing some forty sacred works and two opera, which we still have today - Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643). 

The Father of Opera

He has been heralded as the Father of Opera, with many citing Orfeo as the first opera ever composed. Monteverdi did not however invent the operatic style. Two works, which resemble the modern opera form were composed, by Jacopo Peri, prior to Monteverdi’s masterpiece – Dafne (1597) and Euridice. 

The significance of Orfeo therefore lies in its musical audacity – the way in which it conveys the characters’ emotions through the music and not only the text. It represents a milestone in the shift between old and modern styles. 

Orfeo and the Death of His Wife 

As Monteverdi was composing Orfeo his second child, Massimiliano, was born. His wife Claudia was weakened by childbirth and her health began to deteriorate. Some highlight the symmetry between the fate of Eurydice in Striggio’s libretto and the fate of Monteverdi’s wife; the composer’s wife died at the same time as he completed the score of his famous opera. 

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