Monteverdi (Orchestral Splendours)




This will be a series of lectures in which Matthew will be tracing the development of the orchestra in its different forms from the early baroque at the end of the16th century up till the end of the 19th century.  His first lecture covers three early composers whose styles are each very individual.  The earliest is Monteverdi.


One great difficulty in writing about the great composers and artists from the middle period of the second millennium is in being able to find out what went on in their lives.  As the centuries roll forward we begin to learn more about the subject from the writings and testimony of their contemporaries; their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their lifestyles and what they got up to in the office.  We follow with interest Haydn having acted as a shop steward for the orchestra and later being as home in London as a Chelsea footballer;  we feel for Beethoven in his deafness and throwing the plate of soup at his servant;  we are not hidden from the knowledge that Schubert picked up a dose which ultimately took him off.  We thrill to Berlioz’s passion for Harriet Smithson; we almost go to the grave with Tchaikovsky over his pathéthique symphony:   Our knowledge of these composers is matched by our greater knowledge of their output than can be said for that of those earlier more anonymous composers.  There are of course exceptions to the rule before you mention the likes of Leonardo or Caravaggio.  Still it is a fact that not only do we know more about Beethoven or Mozart than we do about Monteverdi but we have probably all heard Beethoven’s 7th or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik many more times than we will ever hear Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. I too confess that I am less familiar than I should be with his music and I don’t suppose that Matthew is going to stand before us doing a full Monteverdi to entertain us. Anyway all of this is to prepare you not to expect reams of information about the subjects of these earlier times.  I hear you sigh with relief.

He was born in Cremona in 1567, a city already with a musical reputation, renowned as a centre of manufacture of stringed musical instruments. From the 16th century onwards it started with the violins of the Amati family, followed later by the instruments from the shops of Guaneri and Stradivari. They remain this day, notwithstanding what is called technological advancement, the summit of achievement in string instrument making. Today Cremona is still renowned for producing high-quality instruments.  His father is variously described as a doctor, apothecary and amateur surgeon. He was in fact a barber surgeon and unlike amateur actors, amateur orchestras and amateur cricketers they were paid. Barbers had extended practices in mediaeval times and, in addition to giving a short back and sides, were generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after a battle. In this era, surgery was not generally conducted by physicians, but by barbers. In the Middle Ages barbers would do anything from cutting hair to amputating limbs. Physicians tended to be academics, working in universities, and mostly dealt with patients as an observer or a consultant. They considered surgery to be beneath them.

Monteverdi learned his music as a member of the cathedral choir. He also studied at the University of Cremona. His first music was written for performance, including some motets and sacred madrigals, in 1582 and 1583.  For the most part musical progress was through the church and its unvarying liturgy.  Motets were a higher form of mediaeval development of several unrelated parts being sung contrapuntally.  Madrigals were a development of the sixteenth century of mainly secular themes from poetry being set to music more freely and for the most part sung a capella (unaccompanied). Monteverdi arrived at a pivotal moment in musical development through the meeting between the polyphony of the late Renaissance with the arrival of the early baroque.  He studied and learned the earlier, the old school, but developed side by side with the latter, the new school.  The culmination of this, his early period, occurred in two madrigal books published by one of the most famous of Venetian printers in 1587 and 1590 and showing themselves more modern in approach than that of the maestro of his cathedral, Ingegneri. Until the age of forty, Monteverdi worked primarily on madrigals, composing a total of nine books. It took Monteverdi about four years to finish his first book of twenty-one madrigals for five voices. Madrigals would be his principal output until he was forty. He wrote nine books of madrigals in all which demonstrate his development from Renaissance polyphonic music to the more monothematic style typical of Baroque music.

In 1589 he visited Milan and Mantua where in 1592 he obtained an appointment as viol and/or violin player to Duke Vincenzo I of Mantua. Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals, published in 1592, reveals the strong influence of de Wert, the Duke’s court maestro di cappella. Monteverdi accompanied the duke on a battle against the Turks in Austria and Hungary in 1595, and was in attendance again in 1599 when the duke went to Flanders for a cure.  Still when it came to finding a successor for de Wert in 1596 Monteverdi was passed over.

In 1599 Monteverdi married the court singer Claudia de Cattaneis and they had two sons followed by a daughter who died in infancy. Claudia herself died in 1607. There appears to me to be an important link here as 1607 was the very year that he wrote his first successful opera, Orfeo. It is not quite clear if there had been earlier ones.  The Orpheus legend is well known, of his losing his wife and making his way to Hades to seek to bring her back to Earth provided he did not look round before he/she got there.  This must have seemed powerfully pertinent to Monteverdi at the time of losing his own wife.  Now, if Haydn can be called the father of the symphony or of the string quartet, then Monteverdi is certainly the father of the opera. It was perhaps a natural step to develop after achieving the monody of his madrigals. With Orfeo Monteverdi had produced music drama with instruments assigned to represent different characters.  It was produced for the Duke of Mantua’s Carnival but its mood is anything but.  One associates emotion in music particularly with the late romantic period of the nineteenth century and that what went on in earlier centuries was music of a particularly static kind where it was de rigueur to express subjective feelings.  In fact if we go back early enough there was an earlier age with freedom of emotional expression.  This could be heard  in Monteverdi and also was dominant in a golden period of English music of the late Elizabethan period and early seventeenth century. Hence we have lute songs by Dowland with titles such as “Come, heavy sleep” ,”Flow my tears”and “I saw my Lady weepe” .  I have rarely frequented early opera but I did see Orfeo many years back at the ENO and I have a distinct recall of the chorus relating the story and choking with emotion. 

Orfeo was to be followed the next year with the production of his second opera, Arianna. Monteverdi’s reputation was spreading and he looked to move on from Mantua.   Meantime he composed there his Vespers of 1610, a set of established daily prayers   It was a return to his prima pratica and was the most ambitious work of religious music until then. It is a 90-minute piece including soloists, chorus, and orchestra with both liturgical and extra-liturgical elements including motets and sonatas. That same year Monteverdi visited Rome to seek a position but was rejected.

In 1612 Duke Vincenzo died and his successor, Francesco, came in with a new broom and Monteverdi was given his cards. He then sought a position at St Marco in Venice in 1613.  This was a top flight position and he had to compete for the post which he won.  Standards at St Marco had deteriorated since their last music chief had died and Monteverdi was charged to get the team back up to scratch. He would stay on at St Marco for the remainder of his life.

In addition to composing some large-scale works, Monteverdi’s duties at St. Mark’s included reorganizing the cappella, finding new singers, and purchasing music. He received some commissions from Mantua after Duke Francesco was succeeded by his brother Ferdinando. He now turned to a new medium, his ballet Tirsi e Clori which was performed in Mantua in 1616. Other dramatic works were to follow as well as his his seventh book of madrigals in 1619. Apart from Venice he continued to write for Mantua who sought to get him to transfer back to them which he refused to do.

In 1630 Monteverdi decided on a career change without having to give up his music. Against the background of commissions from Mantua slackening off and a plague breaking out in Venice, Monteverdi took holy orders in 1632 and published a small collection of vocal music under the title Scherzi musicali the same year.   This is the first time I have encountered the word “scherzo” (joke) so early in music history.  As a musical form it was elevated to great heights by Beethoven but one knew he was not the inventor of the genre. Whilst he had replaced the traditional classical minuet with the scherzo we knew that Haydn had in one or two string quartets used the scherzo for similar purposes. But the Monteverdi pieces (which I have not heard) were written 100 years before Haydn’s birth.

The opening of public opera houses in Venice in 1637 created a new outlet for the dramatic works of Monteverdi. L’Arianna was revived in 1640, followed by three new operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), Le nozze d’Enea con Lavini (1641), since lost, and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643); in addition, he wrote a further ballet performed in 1641 but which has also been lost. It was also the early days of publishing and a retrospective collection of his secular music was published in 1638, with a similar volume of church music appearing in 1641.

Monteverdi died at the age of 76, in Venice, and was buried in the Church of the Frari.  His work divides itself between traditional liturgies, secular songs and madrigals which looked to a future and the world of stage, opera and ballet, which brought about the opera and the opera houses to go with it.  In a world where “early music” is reserved for the pursuit of the esoteric we need to know more about this distant time and to hear more of Monteverdi.