The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death.
By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history.
Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form.
A proper assessment of Monteverdi’s role in opera does not diminish the fact that his three surviving operas are incomparable masterpieces. But it allows greater appreciation for his achievements as a composer of madrigals and sacred music.
Monteverdi certainly ranks among the more innovative composer in his or any other time. He fended off a vicious attack on some of his madrigals by appealing to a “second practice.”
He never did get around to explaining what he meant by it, and he never did abandon the “first practice.” But the idea of Monteverdi as a revolutionary who threw off the shackles of the old order also does not stand up to close examination.
Monteverdi’s music and Italian nationalism
The long-standard narrative of Monteverdi’s operatic genius comes to us from poet and philosopher Gabriele D’Annunzio. He and other Italian writers on music of the early 20th century lamented the state of Italian opera in their lifetime.
Verdi, in their view, had no worthy successors among Italian opera composition. They scorned Puccini and other verismo composers. They lamented that Wagner now dominated operatic development.
These writers noted that Wagner had based his operatic philosophy on the ancient Greeks. They thought the Florentine Camerata had understood the Greeks better. And Monteverdi had made great art from their experiments.
Monteverdi, they said, pointed the way not only to the development of opera in his own time, but to a greater future for Italian music. Wagner would ultimately be seen as a parenthesis within the continued glory and supremacy of Italian music. And not incidentally the supremacy of the Italian fatherland.
Not only a towering literary figure, D’Annunzio exercised great political influence as a supporter of Mussolini. And Mussolini compared himself with the greatness of the Medici.
Mussolini was in power, and D’Annunzio still influential, on the 300th anniversary of Monteverdi’s death in 1643. Gian Francesco Malipiero, editor of Monteverdi’s complete works, wrote a major essay about him.
He was a disciple of D’Annunzio and equally supportive of Mussolini (nicknamed Il Duce). In describing Monteverdi, he used the word “luce” (light) in a way that recalled the popular slogan, “Duce, tu sei la luce” (Duce, you are the light.)
D’Annunzio, Malipiero, and others, had grander intentions than simply supporting a fascist narrative. They wanted to trace a line of progress from Monteverdi through Verdi and on into a resurgence of Italian musical domination. To do so, they had to make Monteverdi’s operas the pinnacle of his output and reduce his other music to mere preparation.
And so non-Italian scholars of the caliber of Federico Ghisi and Paul Henry Lang could delete the Italian nationalism and still perpetuate the same basic outline. Subsequent scholarship has learned much more about the development of Baroque opera.
It turns out that Monteverdi’s late masterpieces had little influence on it. But only with the third edition of Donald J. Grout’s A History of Western Music, edited by Claude V. Palisca, did the old fascist narrative begin to disappear from important textbooks.
The musical journalists who hype this year’s anniversary still haven’t gotten the memo.
Some of Monteverdi’s innovations
Sometime after the publication of the third book of madrigals in 1592, Monteverdi composed a new one, “Cruda Amarilli.” He introduced jarring, unprepared dissonances to highlight words like “cruel” and “alas.”
Giovanni Maria Artusi severely censured that madrigal for breaking the rules of good counterpoint in his book The Artusi, or the Imperfection of Modern Music (1600). He called it and other Monteverdi madrigals rough, harsh, and ugly, He complained that they ignored and canons of good taste.
Twentieth-century critics hardly heaped any more scorn on Schoenberg or Stockhausen.
At the end of his 5th book of madrigals (1605), Monteverdi wrote a brief reply to Artusi’s attack. He promised a more extensive treatise, titled “The Second Practice, or the Perfection of Modern Music.”
Gioseffo Zarlino, the foremost music theorist since the ancient Greeks, had codified what we know as Renaissance polyphony. Artusi, among others, considered Zarlino’s rules binding on all good music.
Monteverdi simply acknowledged them implicitly as the “first practice” and insisted that he based the disputed madrigals on a “second practice.” He further insisted that no one else appropriate that term.
Two years later, his younger brother Giulio Cesare Monteverdi wrote a “Declaration” as preface to Claudio’s Scherzi musicali. He expanded on the concept of second practice: “It is his [Claudio’s] intention to make the word the mistress of the harmony and not the servant.”
The younger Monteverdi appealed both Plato, to Cipriano de Rore (Zarlino’s contemporary and an influential madrigal composer), and to numerous other modern composers. He even insisted that Zarlino himself did not make such broad claims for his theories as Artusi did.
In other words, neither Monteverdi claims that Claudio invented the second practice. The more experimental madrigal composers had used it for a generation. But Monteverdi gave it its name.
He never got around to finishing the promised treatise. Modern scholars usually discuss Monteverdi’s works in terms of the opposition between the first and second practices. This framework is useful, but in fact one of his contemporaries referred to a mysterious “third practice.”
And since Monteverdi never got around to defining what he meant by “second practice,” scholars continue to argue about it. In any case, he never intended to repudiate the “first practice.” He wrote music that followed Zarlino’s rules when it suited him for the rest of his life.
The 8th book of madrigals (1638), dubbed “Madrigals of War and Love,” delves further into music’s emotional content. Monteverdi’s preface notes that the ancients wrote of agitated, soft, and moderate music.
Plato had described the agitated style as “harmony that would fittingly imitate the utterance and the accents of a brave man who is engaged in warfare.” But Monteverdi wrote that he had never found instances of the agitated style in any music he had ever encountered.
So he claimed to have invented it. The book includes an operatic scene for three voices and orchestra called Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, (composed in 1624).
The piece introduces what amounts to a measured tremolo for the string orchestra: a whole note reduced to sixteen sixteenth notes, all struck one after the other. He found it difficult to persuade the orchestra to play such a novel technique correctly.
PIX: Monteverdi, young. ‘Portrait of a Musician’, thought to be Claudio Monteverdi, c.1590, by a Cremonese artist
Monteverdi achieved with the madrigal what Beethoven later achieved with sonata form. Both mastered the form as they inherited it and then went on to transform it into something nearly unrecognizable.
The sixteenth-century Italian madrigal first appeared in the 1520s. As literature, it imitated the style of the 14th-century poet Petrarch. By the 1550s, the more innovative composers began to use madrigals as a vehicle for experimentation. They began to explore chromaticism, declamatory rhythms, dance rhythms, and word painting.
By the 1580s, pastoral poetry, particularly that of Tasso and Guarini, became popular. Through the end of the 16th century, madrigals remained secular pieces for unaccompanied vocal ensemble. Composers started to add basso continuo and to give some vocal solos the name of madrigal around 1600.
In his first three books of madrigals, Monteverdi demonstrated mastery of the techniques developed by the more experimental madrigal composers of his time. He published some of the madrigals that offended Artusi in his fourth book (1603) and more in the fifth book (1605).
Not content with the standard word painting of traditional madrigals, Monteverdi now sought to imitate the emotional state inherent in the words. The singers sigh, moan, and shout. The fifth book also includes Monteverdi’s first madrigals with continuo.
The sixth and seventh books continue in the direction of dramatic rather than descriptive music. In the eighth book, Monteverdi had figured out how to express anger. By this time, his madrigals also began to borrow operatic elements.
The ninth book, published posthumously, includes some previously published pieces and much other music in a lighter vein that appears to date from the 1620s, but without the intensity of his grandest pieces of the decade.
Perhaps someone collected everything he had not seen fit to publish himself in the hope his name would lead to good sales. In that case, we apparently have his entire output of madrigals, although much sacred music and most of the operas are lost.
If that’s the case, it would appear that we do not have Monteverdi’s operas primarily because he valued them less than his madrigals and made no attempt to preserve them.
Monteverdi’s sacred music
Monteverdi published two collections of sacred motets at the age of 15. He probably wrote them to develop his technique in standard counterpoint.
He joined the musical household of the Gonzaga family, dukes of Mantua, as a string player, in 1590. Then he rose through the ranks to become music director in 1601.
Church law required all Italian laity to attend Matins, Mass, and Vespers every Sunday and every major feast day. Italian nobles also enjoyed sacred music as part of domestic entertainment. Although someone else had responsibility for church music at the Mantuan court, the Gonzagas expected all the court composers to provide appropriate music.
Monteverdi had a stormy relationship with his employers. He seems to have been laying the groundwork for employment elsewhere when he published his third collection of sacred music in 1610. It includes the renowned Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. He dedicated it to the Pope, and not to anyone in the Gozaga family.
The collection comprises a miscellany of sacred music: a mass setting, six motets, and the Vespers music. The publication puts the latter in an order that might be appropriate for a Marian festal Vespers service. In our time, it is frequently performed or recorded as a unit, but it probably never occurred to anyone in Monteverdi’s time to do so.
The Gonzagas eventually fired Monteverdi in 1612. He remained unemployed for about a year until he was named director of music at the San Marco Basilica in Venice. Composing sacred music became his primary professional responsibility, although he composed many madrigals and most of his operas during that time.
He did not publish another collection of sacred music until near the end of his life. His Selva morale e sprituale appeared in eight volumes in 1640. It contains a mass, many motets and psalms, and five sacred madrigals.
Much of the music shows Monteverdi’s mastery of the “first practice.” It also shows his adaptation of “second practice” to sacred music. Monteverdi reworked some of his secular music for sacred use.
“Beatus vir” uses the same base line and violin parts as “Chiome d’oro” from the seventh book of madrigals. “Pianto della Madonna” fits new words to Arianna’s Lament from the 1608 opera.
The pre-history of opera
Humanist scholars, artists, and their patrons in the 16th century wanted to revive ancient Greek tragedy and the effects it allegedly had on its audiences. They knew that the plays used music to achieve them.
Some concluded that the Greeks used it only in the choruses. Others, including Florentine scholar Girolamo Mei, believed that the entire text was sung.
Mei’s writings influenced the group known as the Florentine Camerata. The Camerata included theorist Vincenzo Galiliei and singer-composers Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri.
They concluded that modern counterpoint, with its interweaving of different vocal lines, couldn’t possibly duplicate the effects of ancient singing.
They devised a kind of solo song, called monody, that imitated the inflections of a skilled orator or actor.
Musically, opera grew from at least three theatrical antecedents.
The pastoral drama provided models for characters and the integration of singing and drama that all operatic composers adopted. These verse plays, based on Roman and Greek mythology, became very popular in Italian courts and academies, beginning with the first, produced in 1471
Madrigals explored the dramatic content of poetry. They often used different combinations of voices to suggest dialog between characters. Composers sometimes wrote sets of madrigals around a simple plot, called “madrigal comedies” or “madrigal cycles.”
Finally, the 15th and 16th centuries saw the revival of ancient Greek comedies. Renaissance theaters lacked curtains. In order to mark divisions between the acts, an unrelated musical entertainment, called the intermedio took place.
The standard five-act play would then require four intermedii between the acts. Two more were customarily performed before and after the play. They featured singing (choral, solo, and small ensembles), instruments, and dancing.
Over the course of the 16th century, the intermedii began to overshadow the play at major court functions like weddings of members of a ruling family.
Their text, written for the occasion, glorified the host. They became increasingly elaborate. The wedding in 1589 in Florence of Ferdinand de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Christine of Lorraine featured La pellegrina, the most spectacular intermedio ever mounted. Several of the originators of opera worked on it, including Peri and Caccini.
Scholars consider Peri’s Daphne (1598) the first opera. Little music from it survives. He and Caccini both set a text called Euridice in 1600, the first two surviving operas. Peri’s was performed first, but Caccini rushed his setting of the same text to the publisher before his rival.
Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) uses the same story, but a different libretto.
It makes a better effect than either Peri’s or Caccini’s settings in part because of his experience with expressive text setting as a madrigal composer. He drew on all the same influences they did and more.
Besides solo singing and choruses, Monteverdi included duets, madrigals, and dancing. He also used a larger orchestra, comparable to the forces used in almost a century of intermedii.
From all accounts, his Arianna (1608) made an even better impression, but only Orfeo was published in its entirety. He published multiple versions of the famous lament.
Of Monteverdi’s at least 16 subsequent operas, only the last two, Il ritorno d’Ulisse (1640) and L’incoronzaione di Poppea (1642) survive.
Other composers contributed some of the music in the edition of the latter that has come down to us. Granted that both operas are incomparable masterpieces, they had little influence on younger operatic composers.
So D’Annunzio and his contemporaries held up a marginal part of Monteverdi’s output for their own philosophical and political purposes. In so doing, they did injustice both to many of his contemporaries, including other early figures in the history of opera, and to the music Monteverdi devoted most of his energy to. So have too many of today’s journalists
Claudio Monteverdi and Sacred Music in the Household of the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua, 1590–1612 (abstract) / Roger Bowers. Music & Letters (2009) 90 (3): 331-371.
Il divino Claudio: Monteverdi and lyric nostalgia in Fascist Italy / Andrew Dell’Antonio, Cambridge Opera Journal 8 (1996): 271-284
A history of western music / J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca––9th ed. (W.W. Norton, 2014)
Monteverdi at 450: don’t believe the hype / Andrew Dell’Antonio, Not Another Music History Cliché. April 10, 2017
The new Harvard dictionary of music / edited by Don Randel (Harvard University Press, 1986) entry for “Madrigal”
“La Poppea Impasticciata” or, Who Wrote the Music to “L’Incoronazione” (1643)? / Alan Curtis Journal of the American Musicological Society 42 (1989): 23-54
Il Quinto libro de’ madrigali: foreword with the “declaration” of his brother, G. C. Monteverdi ; Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi: foreword / Claudio Monteverdi. in Source Readings in Music History. Selected and annotated by Oliver Strunk (New York: Norton, 1950)
The true radical genius of Monteverdi is not in the operas but in the madrigals / Alexandra Coughlan, The Spectator. February 18, 2017
A vocal masterwork: Monteverdi’s Selva Morale e Spirituale / Pablo FitzGerald Cerdán, Bachtrack. March 23, 2017
Monteverdi portrait, Strozzi. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Puccini. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Young musician. Public domain. Source unknown
San Marco. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Peri. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacopo_Peri_1.jpg
Orpheus mosaic. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, September 28 2006. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons