Two events make 1567 a watershed year in the history of music’s relationship to words. In Rome, Palestrina (c. 1525- 1594), the greatest master of Italian Renaissance polyphony, published his most famous composition, the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass); and in provincial Cremona, Claudio Monteverdi was born. One style of music reached its apogee just as the leader of the next phase’s development was born.
So says Mark Ringer in his book Opera’s First Master – The Musical Dramas of Claudio Monteverdi. Often referred to as ‘the father of opera’, Ringer’s title is closer to the truth: opera evolved.
Monteverdi was more than opera, and his madrigals kept his name alive when his operas were all but forgotten. Their sometimes surprising dissonances set off an early music spat with Giovanni Maria Artusi. Theorist Artusi stated that Monteverdi was breaking the rules, whereas Monteverdi was deliberately overlooking the ‘rulebook’ to be more expressive in his response to the poetry he was setting. He called it the seconda pratica. Conservatives and avant-gardists continued to battle away for next four centuries until, in the mid-20th century, music, somehow, ran out of steam.
Pushing the boundaries let Monteverdi spearhead the movement that would take music out of the Renaissance and into the Baroque.
John Eliot Gardiner, who has conducted more than his fair share of Monteverdi, is quoted by the San Francisco Classical Voice:
I find him a compelling musical figure. He is a sort of the Shakespeare of music because he manages to combine high culture and low culture; he is concerned with conveying the whole range of human emotions, from the most elevated to the most basic.
The two men were almost exact contemporaries; we were celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth just three years ago.
In Alan Riding and Leslie Dunton-Downer Eyewitness Companions: Opera, they write,
His L’Orfeo, first performed in 1607, was the first work to unite opera’s basic ingredients in an enduring manner. Monteverdi’s early lyric dramas were the fruits of courtly Mantua, while his late operatic masterpieces were for public audiences in Venice. No other opera composer made such a leap.
When Monteverdi arrived at the Mantuan Court in 1590, he was a string player for Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. He’d arrived from Cremona which was fermenting with craftsmen making stringed instruments; Stradivari would join them later in the 17th century.
The court was bubbling with cultural innovation. The setting was ideal for a rising composer with an ear for polyphony and a keen sense of dramatic action…
…By the late 15th century, the court had assembled musicians, poets, dancers, and painters to stage heroic and pastoral stories. A century later, Monteverdi performed as a musician in the latest of these, and by 1602 became Mantua’s music director. There, in 1607, his momentous L’Orfeo premiered.
Soon after the premiere, Cherubino Ferrari, a Mantuan court theologian, poet, and a friend of Monteverdi, wrote:
Monteverdi has shown me the words and let me hear the music of the comedia which Your Highness had performed, and certainly both poet and musician have depicted the inclinations of the heart so skilfully that it could not have been done better. The poetry is lovely in conception, lovelier still in form, and loveliest of all in diction… The music, moreover, observing due propriety, serves the poetry so well that nothing more beautiful is to be heard anywhere.
Monteverdi became famous. Herbert Lindenberger, in his book Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage, writes,
In his own time Monteverdi counted as a towering figure. As musical director of the church of San Marco in Venice during the latter part of his life, he occupied a lofty public position that few if any composers after him we’re ever granted…
Although Orfeo experienced no known performance history between its initial production and the twentieth century, it achieved considerable fame in its time. In an age in which operas were not normally repeated after their early performances, the now-lost Arianna was actually revived in Venice during the composer’s old age. Its lament not only spawned a whole genre of Arianna laments by other composers, but the descending tetrachord of its accompaniment became a recognizable emblem of operatic laments in general for much of the century.
To judge from the statement that “there has not been any house with theorbos or harpsichord which did not also possess the lament [of Arianna]”, Monteverdi’s name quickly became what we would today term a household word.
An anonymous letter, written two years before Monteverdi died, was prophetic in the extreme:
Enjoy the music of the never-enough-praised Monteverdi, born to the world so as to rule over the emotions of others… this truly great man… known in far-flung parts and wherever music is known, will be sighed for in future ages at least as far as they can be consoled by his most noble compositions, which are set to last as long as they can resist the ravages of time.
It has been so.