His work marks the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music. During his long life he produced work that can be classified in both categories, and he was one of the most significant revolutionaries that brought about the change in style. Monteverdi wrote the earliest dramatically viable opera, Orfeo, and was fortunate enough to enjoy fame during his lifetime.
He was born in Cremona in northern Italy. In childhood he studied with Marc Antonio Ingegneri, who was maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Cremona. Since there is no record of him singing in the cathedral choir, the music lessons must have been private. Monteverdi produced his first music for publication—some motets and sacred madrigals—in only 1582 and 1583, so he must have been something of a child prodigy. In 1587 he produced his first book of secular madrigals, and shortly thereafter began to look for work outside of his native town.
In 1590 Monteverdi began working at the court in Mantua as a vocalist and viol player, and by 1602 he had become conductor there. Until his fortieth birthday he mainly worked on madrigals, composing nine books of them in all. Book VIII, published in 1638, includes the so-called Madrigals of Love and War which many consider to be the perfection of the form. As a whole, the first eight books of madrigals show the enormous development from the Renaissance polyphonic music to the monodic style which is typical of Baroque music. The ninth book of madrigals, published posthumously in 1651, contains lighter pieces, such as canzonettas, probably composed throughout his lifetime and representing both styles.
From monody, with its emphasis on clear melodic lines, intelligible text and placid accompanying music, it was a logical step to begin composing opera, especially for a dramatically inclined composer who also loved grand effect. In 1607 he composed his first opera, Orfeo. It was common at that time for composers to create works on demand for special occasions, and this piece was meant to add some lustre to the annual carnival of Mantua. Indeed it was a great success, fitting so well in the spirit of the times. Orfeo is marked by its dramatic power and lively orchestration. Indeed, this piece is arguably the first example of a composer assigning specific instruments to parts, and it is also one of the first large compositions in which the exact instrumentation of the premiere has come down to us. The plot is described in vivid musical pictures and the melodies are linear and clear. With this opera Monteverdi had created an entirely new style of music, the dramma per musica (musical drama) as it was called. Monteverdi's operas are usually labelled "pre-baroque" or "early-baroque".
It is arguable that Monteverdi's greatest work remains the Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (The Vespers of the Blessed Virgin 1610). This is one of his few sacred works of any scale, but it remains to this day one of the greatest examples of devotional music, matched only by works such as Handel's Messiah and J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The scope of the work as a whole is breathtaking - each part (there are 25 in total) is fully developed in both a musical and dramatic sense - the instrumental textures are used to precise dramatic and emotional effect, in a way that had not been seen in before.
In 1613 Monteverdi was appointed as conductor at the San Marco in Venice, where he soon revived the choir, which had withered under his predecessor. Here he also finished his sixth, seventh and eighth books of madrigals. The eighth is the largest, containing works written over a 30-year period, including the dramatic scene 'Tancredi e Clorinda' (1624), in which the orchestra and voices form two separate entities. They act as counterparts. Most likely Monteverdi was inspired to try this arrangement because of the two opposite balconies in the San Marco, which had inspired much similar music from composers there, such as Gabrieli. What made this composition also stand out is the first-time use of string tremolo (fast repetition of the same tone) and pizzicato (plucking strings with fingers) for special effect in dramatic scenes.
During the last years of his life Monteverdi became ill, but it did not keep him from composing his two last masterpieces, both operas: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1641), and the historic opera l'Incoronazione di Poppea (1642). L'Incoronazione especially is considered a culminating point of Monteverdi's work. It contains tragic as well as comic scenes, (a new development in opera), more realistic portrayal of the characters, and warmer melodies than had previously been heard. It requires a smaller orchestra, and has a less prominent role for the choir.
Monteverdi composed at least eighteen operas, of which only Orfeo, l'Incoronazione, Il ritorno, and the famous aria "Lamento" from his second opera l'Arianna have survived.
Monteverdi died in Venice.
- Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1947. ISBN 0393097455
- Denis Arnold, Monteverdi. London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1975. ISBN 0460031554
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- Sacred Music, The King's Consort, Robert King