Revolutionizing Music and Serving Italian Princes

Monteverdi composed beautiful sacred music. © Charles Thibo
Monteverdi composed beautiful sacred music. © Charles Thibo

Ah, Monteverdi!  What a daring man. He revolutionized music in the 16th and 17th century in several ways. While at the service of different Italian princes, he became a prolific composer of both sacred and secular music. He wrote one “Book of Madrigals*” after the other – nine in total – with some 400 pieces.

He wouldn’t stop at that. He innovated the art of composing while being halfway through the “Books of Madrigals” by having a permanent bass voice as integral part of his compositions – the basso continuo*, central principle of composition until 1750, was born. He changed forever the art of theater by having music played along the performance to highlight the dramatic action and dialogues were to be sung – as a rule – instead of being declaimed. Wow! The result of this was what many call the first true opera: L’Orfeo (Orpheus).

Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona (Italy). Today he ranks among the best known Baroque composers. Consider the time span: When Monteverdi died in 1643, Johann Sebastian Bach, the most famous Baroque composer of all, was not even born. Monteverdi composed “L’Orfeo” in 1607, while at the service of Duke Vincenzo I. Gonzaga of Mantua. The duke had set out to promote his own standing as a protector of arts by encouraging Monteverdi to develop the lyrical drama as it was performed in Florence, rivaling with Mantua.

Monteverdi himself had the ambition to solve a question that has plagued composers and drama producers for a long time: What should be more important: the dialogues or the melodies? He asked the question in a different way: How to marry words to music? In “Orfeo”, the words subjugate on the surface the music, but the music, through its inherent power, stays on and anchors itself in the audience’s memory while the words fade away. Richard Wagner is going to claim i the 19th century, that he has found the final answer to the question!

I had the chance to attend one of the last classical music performances in the Paris concert hall “Salle Pleyel” in June 2014 and was absolutely amazed by the ensemble “Les Talens Lyriques” under Christophe Rousset performing “Orpheo”. What beauty! The musicians and the singers conferred the sense of the original drama even though there was no acting on the scene of the “Salle Pleyel”. “L’Orfeo” was not performed as an opera, but as a concert. And the music stayed on… a marvelous experience! Take the time to relive that sensation: There is an excellent recording available by the English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

If you happen to like the “Orfeo”, your discovery of Monteverdi should not stop there. Check out one or several of the books of madrigals. One that I like a lot is volume VIII: Madrigali Guerrieri e Amorosi (Madrigals on War and Love). I listen to it while typing this post! Puts me in a kind of trance… Another piece (of church music this time), that I consider both spiritual food and balm for my soul is the “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin). I cherish the recording by Jordi Savall and the Capella Reial de Catalunya.

In 1613 Monteverdi became the person in charge of all music in and around the Dome of San Marco in Venice. A prestigious assignment. He initiated one more revolution and ruled that the members of the choir would be paid on a monthly basis instead of being paid every day. Well done. He clearly remembered the time when he had to beg the Duke of Mantua to pay his salaries. It was in Venice that he composed the “Book of Madrigals Volume VIII”, one of his masterpieces. Unfortunately, the work load of composing, leading a large choir and performing sacred music for the masses celebrated in San Marco took its toll. He died as an artist of high renown… and was forgotten for several centuries. It was only after World War I that the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero published Monteverdi’s works in several compendia and thus sparked a new interest in this composer.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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