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main index    © Jeff Matthews    entry Jan 2003

  from: 'other articles'

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

The years between 1400 and 1600 produced such an explosion of art, literature and knowledge in Europe that we had to invent a special term for it: renaissance. Not just any renaissance, mind you, but The Renaissance. Indeed, my little Dictionary of Neat Things has no end of items such as: “1518—Painting of The Assumption by Titian,” or “1507— Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi is completed after 18 years of construction.” Or the Mona Lisa, or St. Peter’s Cathedral or the invention of the use of perspective in painting. Or Petrarch. Or Shakespeare. There had never been two centuries like that before and there are not likely to be ever again.

But, you know what? I search in vain for references to the great sister art of painting, sculpture and literature —music! Well, not completely in vain. Here is one of the few references to music during the greatest  period in the history of human artistic activity: “1454 —28 musicians inside a huge pie perform at the Feast of the Pheasant for the Duke of Burgundy. A Mother Goose rhyme about ‘four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’ commemorates the event.” That’s right, 28 musicians in a pie —and then getting the number wrong for the nursery rhyme!— in competition with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to see who goes down in history! Some contest.

Music is very late in producing its own great names such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., who wouldn’t even start groping for the snooze alarm until long after the Renaissance had turned in. They worked different shifts. That’s just the way it goes, sometimes. One of the reasons for this is that music didn’t just need a renaissance, a rebirth —it needed to be born in the first place. In 1600, for example, there were no true orchestras, not even a  great variety of musical instruments except for a few strange-looking violins, flutes and tinny harpsichords. Music before 1600 had been primarily vocal, producing lovely and complicated song forms such as the madrigal, but still based on static concepts of sound with no such things as chords, major and minor keys, modulations and the dynamics of harmonic progression, all of which  make music what it is today.

If we look for a single musician who was largely responsible for breaking music from its earlier vocal static past and propelling it towards the dynamic and harmonic future of opera, symphonies and Rock and Roll, we find Claudio Monteverdi. He was born in 1567 in Cremona, but moved to Mantua where he served as violinist in the service of the Gonzaga court from 1590 to 1601 and then as maestro di cappella until 1612. Later, as choirmaster, he became an honorary citizen of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, where he died in 1643.

Monteverdi is regarded as the grand master of the sophisticated vocal polyphonies of the madrigal, in which layer after layer of unaccompanied voices pile up —somewhat like the children’s round, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, except you can start rowing whenever you feel like it and even use different notes than the original, or sing it slower or faster. Yet, Monteverdi broke with the past and devoted himself to the development of opera, the telling of Greek myths (the Renaissance commitment to Classicism) set to music. The myth played on a stage and the music came from an orchestra set in front.

‘Music-poems’ had been done before as unaccompanied vocal retelling of idyllic sylvan fables for the Florentine courts, but Monteverdi started expounding true mythological drama, using instrumental coloration to underpin dramatic effect and even assigning certain parts to certain instruments for the first time, thus inventing the art of ‘orchestration’.  The story lines were no longer carried solely by monotonous vocal declamations, but now were helped by developed arias and orchestral interludes. In more technical terms, Monteverdi helped music abandon the modal scales of the middle ages and accept the newer concepts of major and minor; and he helped music shift from the two-note interval in favor of true harmony based on the triad, a concept which has shaped music ever since. (It was this multi-note, chordal underpinning that, then, fed back into the creation of more complicated, more vertical --'prettier'--melodies.) Just as important, he helped turn a courtly divertissement into the most popular form of public entertainment in Europe by the middle of the 1600s. And, in Venice, when they actually started selling tickets to all-comers, commercial music was born.

Monteverdi’s first true opera, Orpheus, was produced in 1607; his last, The Coronation of Poppea, in 1642. It is ironic that, of Monteverdi’s operas, only these two survive intact. The first was an experiment with a new musical form; the last, with the music fully at the service of the psychology of the drama, was a full-blown model for  modern grand opera. When Walter Pater said in the last century that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” he surely was thinking of his own 19th-century music, a music developed along the lines laid down 250 years earlier by Claudio Monteverdi. Pater’s statement could have made no sense before Monteverdi. After him? Maybe.


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