Personalities | Claudio Monteverdi | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera

1567–1643, Italian

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was born in Cremona and began his illustrious career as a choirboy in the town’s cathedral. By the time he was 20, he had already published the first of his eventual nine books of secular madrigals.

He was also a skilled composer of motets. Monteverdi’s horizons expanded in 1591 when he joined the court orchestra of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, as a string instrumentalist.

An Ambitious Young Man

The young Monteverdi was full of ambition, and aspired to succeed the Flemish composer Giaches de Wert as maestro di cappella in Mantua. In the event, he was upstaged by an older musician, Benedetto Pallavicino, and was forced to wait until Pallavicino’s death five years later before he achieved his goal. However, his new position did not bring Monteverdi a comfortable berth. The influence of the Camerata group in Florence and the push for heightened emotion and expression in opera were already spreading. Monteverdi was attracted by these radical changes and was soon regarded as the leading exponent of the new forms of harmony and orchestration. This led him into conflict with the conservative theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi. The argument brought Monteverdi to the fore as a leader of the progressives, who embraced the new, if revolutionary, style in opera.

An Innovative Opera: Orfeo

Monteverdi’s Orfeo, produced in Mantua in 1607, made the case for the progressive approach, and the message was reinforced by his next work, Arianna (1608). This was a particularly fraught time for Monteverdi, for both these operas were accompanied by tragedy in his personal life.

In 1607, the year of Orfeo, Monteverdi’s wife, Claudia de Cattaneis, died and left him with three young children. In 1608, Caterina Martinelli, a young singer who lived with Monteverdi and who was due to take the title role in Arianna, died of smallpox. A replacement took over, and the first performance of the opera went ahead as scheduled. Like Orfeo, it was a great success, but the achievement had its down side: the acclaim appeared to intensify the dispute with Artusi and other conservatives, and a disenchanted Monteverdi left Mantua for his home town of Cremona. He pleaded poor health and insufficient pay but could not entirely free himself from Mantua. However, the Gonzaga family still had a lien on his services and did not release him until Duke Vincenzo died in 1612.

Maestro di Cappella at St Mark’s

The following year, Monteverdi was appointed maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of St Mark’s in Venice – a prestigious post he held until his death 30 years later. His duties were not onerous, however, and left Monteverdi with plenty of time for other work. He was now a well-respected figure in the music and opera world, and commissions regularly came his way. Two, ironically from Mantua, included a ballet, Tirsi e Clori (1616), and another opera, La finta pazza Licori (‘Licori’s Fake Madness’, 1627). Meanwhile, Monteverdi’s...

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