At Monteverdi’s funeral in 1644, a eulogy written by Matteo Caberloti summed up the overwhelming effects of the composer’s music: ‘Who can withhold his tears when listening to the lament of the unfortunate Arianna? Who can refuse to respond to the joy of his madrigals and his exquisite Scherzos? Who can fail to feel true religious devotion on hearing his sacred compositions? At the very moment of laughter, tears arise, and when the mind is inspired by revenge, some new variation, some suave harmony, disposes the heart to mercy.’
Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona. This minor town in northern Italy turned out to be a surprisingly beneficial one for the composer. First, it was the home of the respected and well-connected church musician Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, under whom Monteverdi learned to write correct counterpoint in the old style (stile antico) by basing his compositions on works by other composers. His early motet Quam pulchra es, for example, is modelled on a setting of the same text by the composer Costanzo Festa, and his earliest madrigals borrow from pieces by Marenzio, from Ingegneri himself, and several others.
Another advantage for Monteverdi was that Cremona was home to the Amati family, famous for their manufacture of stringed instruments. We usually think of Monteverdi as a vocal composer, but it is among his works that we find the first great flowering of instrumental ensemble music dominated by violins – as in the interludes and ritornellos that surround the arias and choruses of his opera Orfeo, the many surviving dance-based pieces (Il ballo della ingrate, Tirsi e Clori, Volgendo il ciel, etc), and the instrumental accompaniments he wrote for his late madrigals.
In fact, Monteverdi’s first position when he left home in the early 1590s was as a string player at the court of Mantua. This court was ruled by the Gonzaga family and which, together with the nearby city of Ferrara, happened to be right at the centre of the most progressive developments in the late 16th-century madrigal. Both Mantua and Ferrara had specialist groups of female singers and this encouraged a change in the textures of madrigals. So we find a trio of high voices dominating several works (‘Quel augellin che canta’ and ‘O come è gran martire’ among others) in Monteverdi’s third and fourth books of madrigals.
Also, both courts were attracted to the same two remarkable poets – Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini – who provided evocative verses for new kinds of musical setting. It was a play by Guarini, Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd), that proved to be the single most important source of madrigal texts for all composers of the period. Its characters – Amarilli, Mirtillo, Silvio and the rest – sigh and weep in a thousand musical works, and they dominate the pages of Monteverdi’s fourth and fifth books of madrigals (1603, 1605).
Such emotive texts led composers to experiment with new kinds of dissonance. Monteverdi’s ‘excesses’ in this regard can best be heard in a work such as ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (Cruel Amaryllis) from his Fifth Book of Madrigals. This setting happened to be heard by the conservative theorist Giovanni Artusi who was on a visit to Ferrara, and this led to a famous dispute with the composer. Monteverdi defended himself by making a distinction between what he called the ‘first’ and ‘second’ practices of composition – the former being governed by purely musical considerations and the latter primarily by the projection of the meaning of the words.
The most famous works from his Mantuan period are the opera Orfeo (1607) and the Vespers (1610). Although opera had been invented in Florence around 1600, Monteverdi’s Orfeo is the first masterpiece in that genre. The success of the first performance led to a series of commissions (Arianna, Ballo della ingrate, L’Idropica) for the 1608 wedding between Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy. But the speed with which he had to work took the tensions between Monteverdi and the Gonzagas to new heights and he involuntarily left their employ in 1612.
It took Monteverdi a year to find a new position, but in August 1613 he was appointed maestro di cappella of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. For the next 30 years, he was at the centre of Venetian musical life, ostensibly as a churchman, but also attracting secular commissions both in that city and elsewhere. The period up to 1630 seems to have been especially busy and his churchly activities kept him occupied writing masses and motets. He also re-opened contacts with the Gonzagas, providing several stage works for them (Tirsi e Clori, Andromeda, Apollo, Le tre costanti).
His private clients in Venice included the Mocenigo family, for whom he wrote the opera Proserpina rapita, and the more famous Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorinda which was published in his Eighth Book of Madrigals. This last collection contains a preface in which Monteverdi justifies his use of new styles of music – particularly the concitato (‘agitated’) and rappresentativo (‘representative’, ie ‘stage’). Monteverdi’s Combattimento, with its repeated chords depicting the sounds of battle, provides examples of the former, and the beautiful Lamento della ninfa, with its opportunities for dramatic response, fits the latter.
In 1637 the Venetians decided to open the first ever public opera house, providing the opportunity for a last great flowering of his compositional skills. He entered the realm of public opera cautiously in 1640 with a revival of his Arianna, but then in the same season presented Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, which was performed again in the following year. In 1643 came his operatic masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea. Over three centuries later, those effects of his music cited by Caberloti – the tears, the joy, the religious devotion – can still be heard. They help to explain why it endures to this day.