Claudio Monteverdi is considered as one of the greatest composers in the history of music. Composer of operatic masterpieces, Monteverdi’s works are said to have united the music of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Kamien, 1998, p. 117).
One of his best-known creations is Orfeo, also called “L’Orfeo, an opera about Orpheus, the musician in the Greek mythology (p. 117). The opera deals with Orpheus grieving about the death of his wife Eurydice from a lethal snake bite (p.117). The opera was created for the Mantuan court and featured prominent stars, dancers, a chorus and an orchestra consisting of 40 musicians (p. 118). This masterpiece has the dramatic and literary elements that cemented Monteverdi’s status during the Baroque era.
Born in Cremona, Italy, in 1567, Monteverdi served as a singer, violinist and music director for the court of Mantua (Kamien, 1998, p. 117). He was appointed music director at St. Mark’s in Venice, where he worked for 30 years (p. 117). Opera was said to originate in Italy, where composers, nobles, and poets usually convened to hold musical discussions (p. 115). The first opera house was in Venice (p. 116). These individuals, who at one point included Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo, called themselves the Camerata or Italian for fellowship or society (p. 115).
The Camerata yearned to develop vocal style patterned after the ideals and practices of the Greeks (p. 115). However, since there was no concrete Greek dramatic music, the Camerata patterned their creations on surviving stories and descriptions (p. 115). Greek dramas were described as being sung in a style between melody and speech (p.115). The Camerata decided on a vocal style that was recited and would have a single chordal accompaniment that resulted in a homophonic texture (p. 115). This homophonic texture is a characteristic of the Baroque opera. But why Greek?
The aristocrats’ fascination with Greek mythology and history was one of the main reasons why composers and musicians created operas reflecting Greek dramas (Kamien, 1998, p. 115). It may also be because Renaissance, the period preceded by the Baroque, was a period wherein Greek philosophy, architecture and ideals were given paramount interest. Renaissance means “rebirth” and perhaps this included rebirth of the earlier times, which included the ancient civilization of the Greeks. Then it continued with the Baroque period, with the aristocrats still favoring Greek drama and composers and musicians trying to please them.
Monteverdi was able to create effects, such as pizzicato and tremolo to reflect feelings such as that of anger (Kamien, 1998, p. 117). Additionally, his expressive use of polyphony while at the same time allowing instruments to function aside from simply accompanying he vocal parts is truly an innovation. With Orfeo, Monteverdi was able to inject different kinds of music: “recitatives, arias, duets, choruses and instrumental interludes” (p.118).
He had a way of making his characters “come alive” (p. 118). The texts are set in such a way that the recitatives and the melodic passages rotate (p. 118). This resulted in a feeling of heightened passion, allowing the soloist to move from one mood to another. Monteverdi was a master in achieving this.
Monteverdi wrote about 12 operas but only 3 were preserved (Kamien, 1998, p. 117). His music was mainly for voices, accompanied with a basso continuo or instruments (p. 117). At 75, Monteverdi finished his last opera “L’inconronazione di Poppea or The Coronation of Poppea (p. 117). In his lifetime, Monteverdi was known for his opera but was not given due respect. In fact, he was once quoted as saying that he had to “beg “to be given what was due him (p. 117). It is unfortunate that Monteverdi uttered those words once and while it is sad to note that he is no around to read, see and hear people admire him, it is enough that in death, Monteverdi’s works live on.
Kamien, R. (1998). Music An Appreciation 3rd ed. USA: McGraw-Hill.