Claudio Monteverdi

The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi was one of the key bridges between the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He was instrumental in the development of the brand-new opera genre, and the treatise he wrote on seconda prattica is largely seen as ushering in the Baroque era.

Born in Cremona, Italy, Monteverdi began studying music with Marcantonio Ingegneri, the musical director at the Cremona cathedral and an accomplished writer of madrigals and sacred music. He proved himself to be a fast and avid learner, and quickly began writing madrigals of his own, in addition to writing several books on music. Although Monteverdi’s writing was contemporary at this time it was far from revolutionary; rather it was mainly a continuation of the influence from his teacher.

In his early 20s, Monteverdi published two books of five-voice madrigals. These were more advanced than his earlier works, and demonstrated the influence of the great Italian madrigalist Luca Marenzio. It was largely due to these works that Monteverdi’s fame began to spread and although it is not known exactly when he left Cremona, by 1590 he had apparently moved to Mantua and assumed a position in the court of Duke Gonzaga. While there he became heavily inspired by the Flemish composer Giaches de Wert, an extremely forward-thinking composer who served as the choirmaster in Mantua. De Wert strongly advocated that the music should follow the path of the lyrics, and that all other musical principles were subservient to establishing the perfect mood for the text.

Monteverdi’s next book of madrigals took the theories of his mentor even further. Many of these pieces are true works of the avant-garde for the 16th century, containing surprising dissonances and a dogmatic adherence to the principles espoused by de Wert, even occasionally at the expense of musical continuity. The backlash to this progressive stance came in 1600 when the conservative music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi published a treatise called L’Artusi, overo Delle imperfettioni della moderna musica, which translates to “on the imperfection of modern music.” In it he slammed not only Monteverdi but many of his contemporaries, most notably Ercole Bottrigari, for their inobservance of the traditional rules regarding part-writing and dissonance.

The modern composer builds upon the foundation of truth.

When he finally responded to these allegations, it was in the form of a preface to his fifth book of madrigals, published in 1605. In this he famously laid out the distinction between the two prevalent styles, prima prattica and seconda prattica. While prima prattica dictated holding the traditional rules of music, such as part-writing, above all else, seconda prattica made it permissible to break these rules, as long as it was at the service of the text and the emotion trying to be conveyed. This dichotomy, essentially between having music serve purely an aesthetic purpose versus as a way to convey and reinforce specific and complicated emotions has been in existence ever since, and continues to be one of the dominant struggles even to this day. Even though he was no theorist himself, Monteverdi had succinctly and convincingly laid out an argument in favour of seconda prattica which would have extremely large implications later.

Although he was widely respected throughout Italy, it was not until Monteverdi completed his first opera Orfeo (1607) that he began to be recognized throughout Europe as a true genius. Although there was a small tradition of opera before the turn of the 17th century, mostly through Florentine composers such as Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, there were none that could be considered masterpieces. Orfeo, which was based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and featured a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, brought a whole new level of stylistic unity and an awareness of drama to the genre. Each act represented a coherent whole rather than a collection of smaller pieces, and true to his principle of seconda prattica, Monteverdi was never hesitant to employ dissonance and various instrumental and vocal techniques to add to the drama. Now over 400 years since it was first performed, Orfeo is the oldest opera to still be considered part of the standard repertoire.

Only a few months after the successful premiere of Orfeo, Monteverdi’s wife Claudia Cattaneo died. In a state of near-despair Monteverdi returned back to Cremona with the intention of retiring, but he was ordered to return to Mantua to compose a second opera, L’Arianna (1608), a ballet and a play for the marriage between Francesco Gonzaga with Margaret of Savoy. Although he completed all the works on schedule and they were enthusiastically received, this experience soured his relationship with the Gonzagas, who Monteverdi believed had been underpaying him and had not left him enough time to grieve for his wife.

Although Monteverdi continued to compose music at the Mantua court he was increasingly seeking a way out. His chance finally came in 1613 when he was invited to replace the recently deceased director of music at St. Mark’s church in Venice. Monteverdi would find immense appreciation and success at the Venetian court, and would ultimately remain there until his death three decades later. It was while in Venice that he began to take a more serious interest in religious music, as it was now a vital part of his job. However he continued to also compose theatrical works, including four operas within the space of three years. The two that survive, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643) are both masterpieces that are widely regarded as among the first significant works of the Baroque era.

Images courtesy of Mazmorra Maldita and public domain

The end of all good music is to affect the soul.

Josquin des Prez

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