Personalities | Claudio Monteverdi | Early Baroque | Classical

(Klou’-dyo Mon-ta-ver’-de) 1567–1643
Italian composer

Claudio Monteverdi stands as one of the last great composers of the Renaissance and one of the first of the Baroque. He studied composition with the madrigalist Marc’Antonio Ingegneri (c. 1547–92) in his home town of Cremona. When he took his first professional post in his mid-twenties, he had already published six books of music and established himself as a leading madrigal writer.

His three surviving operas, Orfeo (‘Orpheus’, 1607), Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (‘Ulysses’s Homecoming’, 1640) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (‘The Coronation of Poppea’, 1642), have earned him an important place in the history of that genre. He also wrote sacred music; Vespro della Beata Vergine (‘Vespers of the Blessed Virgin’, 1610) are breathtaking in their stylistic diversity. After moving to Venice in 1613, Monteverdi composed and conducted virtuosic sacred music for the choir of St Mark’s, the greatest church choir of the day.

In his madrigals of around 1600 Monteverdi adopted new harmonic and melodic modes of expression, earning him a scolding from his more conservative contemporaries and branding him for future generations as a revolutionary. But revolutions are about ideologies; Monteverdi’s aim, whether following the rules or breaking them, was simply to express the text as convincingly as possible. In all his works Monteverdi’s supreme achievement was a seamless union of words and music.

Our understanding of Monteverdi’s life and works is greatly enriched by his extraordinary surviving correspondence. With the exception of Orlande de Lassus (1532–94), no other composer before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) left so many letters; they discuss in fascinating detail his compositional aims and musical ideals.

The Court Musician

By 1592 Monteverdi had joined the musical establishment at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga in Mantua as a string player. He published his third book of madrigals shortly after his arrival, but there was a 10-year gap before publication of the next book, in 1603. He seems to have been unhappy at Mantua from the beginning and his dissatisfaction was exacerbated in 1596 when he was passed over for the post of maestro di cappella (the musician in charge at the court) in favour of a senior, but less gifted, colleague. The post became vacant again in 1601 and this time it went to Monteverdi.

Some of the composer’s greatest achievements were made in the first decade of the seventeenth century. He published his groundbreaking fourth and fifth books of madrigals in 1603 and 1605, and his first two operas, Orfeo and Arianna, were produced in 1607 and 1608 (most of the music for Arianna is now lost). For Monteverdi, these latter works were linked with personal tragedy: the deaths of his wife, the singer Claudia de Catteneis, in September 1607 and a few months later of Caterina Martinelli, a young singer to whom both the composer and his wife had been greatly attached.

The Move to Venice

In 1612, in spite of having brought acclaim to the...

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