The Music of Monteverdi

Monteverdi's long life is easily divided into three main sections:  the years of childhood and adolescence at Cremona (1567-1589), his musical services at the ducal court of Mantua (c. 1590-1612) and finally his appointment as "maestro di cappella" of St. Mark's, Venice (1613-1643), a post he retained to his death.

Cremona - 1567-1589

In Cremona Monteverdi became a pupil of Marc' Antonio Ingegneri.  His first musical endeavors are collected in the "Cantiunculae sacrae" of 1582, the "Madrigali spirituali" of 1583, and the "Canzonette a 3 voci" of 1584.  They amply testify to Monteverdi's early mastery of the traditional technique of vocal polyphony.

Mantua (Ducal Court) - 1590-1612

Monteverdi served for almost twelve years under the court conductors Giaches De Wert and Benedetto Pallavicino as violist, cantore and later assistant conductor.  His fame as a composer of progressive and harmonically daring madrigals was established with the publication of the Madrigal Books III, IV and V (1592-1605) and the subsequent issue of the "Scherzi musicali" of 1607.

It was during this period that Monteverdi was considered one the the Italian Virtuoso Madrigalists, along with Marenzio and Gesualdo.  Their madrigals were significantly different from the previous, accepted style (prima prattica) of composition.  The dominance of the text over the music was an innovative concept.  Chromatic harmony was incorporated in their attempts to musically depict the text and mood.  There was a shift away from the concept of "equal voices" to a style placing more emphasis on the solo, virtuoso singer.  Texture was no longer strictly polyphonic, but a mixture of polyphonic, homophonic and contrapuntally animated homophonic styles.  Examples of Monteverdi's madrigals are:

"Ohime il bel viso" is a scene to be acted out as it was sung, which demonstrated a new physical, dramatic level of performance.  It juxtaposes the men and women -- the women are lamenting while the men are commenting and expounding on the state of the women.  Monteverdi uses *prolonged dissonances, *long chains of suspensions, *cross relations of color (shifting between major and minor modes), *sequences, and *strong points of cadence (which usually contained a major tonic chord).

"Qui rise tirse" is considered a solo (not "choral") madrigal for five voices.  Monteverdi demonstrates the "concertato" style by writing various combinations of voices: duets; solo against solo; solo against ensemble; duet against ensemble; etc.  It also contains fine examples of word painting: "her arm around me" is sung as a duet where the voices cross, wrapping around each other.  This also calls for physical gestures, facial expressions and such to help convey the meaning of the text/scene.

His first opera, "La favola d'Orfeo" was also produced in 1607.  This stupendous work, the earliest opera still occasionally produced on the modern opera stage, fuses the characteristics of the experimental recitative opera (founded by the Florentine Camerata), the traditional orchestral splendor of the Renaissance "intermedio" and the progressive feature of da capo aria, orchestral ritornello and highly dramatic choral commentaries into a operatic type of unique significance.

In 1608, two of Monteverdi's operas were produced -- "Arianna" (which was lost except for the famous "Lamento") and "Ballo dell' ingrate."

His first comprehensive publication of liturgical compositions -- the archaic Mass on motifs from Gombert's motet "In illo tempore" and the revolutionary "Vespers Psalms" with their Orfeo-inspired orchestral palette and with the passionate solo motet "Nigra sum" (a distinct offspring of the "Lamento d' Arianna") -- juxtapose the "prima" and "seconda prattica" in a curious duality of styles.

Venice (St. Mark's) - 1613-1643

On August 19, 1613 Monteverdi was unanimously elected "maestro di cappella" at St. Mark's in Venice.  Charging himself with reorganization of liturgical music at St. Mark's he produced a great amount of church music during the three decades of his tenure of office, gathered together in tow huge collections, "Selva morale e spirituale" (1640) and "Messa a quattro e salmi" (posthumously published in 1651).

A rich harvest of continuo madrigals, cantatas and monodies (among them the madrigal version of the "Lamento d' Arianna," the lovely "Sestina" cycle, chamber duets and choral items of Gabrieli-like splendor) is accumulated in the publications of Madrigal Books VI (1614), VII (1619) and VIII (1638).

The twelve operas, composed mostly for the courts of Parma and Mantua and containing works like the opera buffa "La finta pazza Licori" (1627) and "Armida," are irretrievably lost, the manuscripts having perished during the sack of Mantua in 1630.  After the production of "La Proserpina rapita" and "La Delia e l' Ulisse" (both in 1630) it almost looked as if Monteverdi had forsworn opera for good.  The same year of the restaging of "Arianna" (1639), Monteverdi wrote "Adone" (which is lost).  The remainder of his life was devoted chiefly to the composition of progressive bel canto operas.  Of these, two have survived:  "Il ritorno d' Ulisse in patria" (1641) and "L' incoronazione di Poppea" (1642).  In them Monteverdi took a tremendous step forward in the directions of the later Neapolitan opera, creating for the singers the new style of bel canto, da capo aria and recitative secco, reducing the orchestra to its pre-classical nucleus of string and continuo instruments.


In religious music he remained, more than elsewhere, a child of his time.  The militant and persuasive spirit of the Counter-Reformation engendered the lavish setting of psalms (as in the Vespers of 1610), whereas the stylistic consciousness of the period, deliberately bringing about the artistic ossification of the "stile antico," excelled in the admirable archaic reconstructions such as the three Masses of 1610, 1640, and 1651.

In his later dramatic works, of which so few have survived, Monteverdi originated the grammar of a new style of dramatic characterization and symbolic musical expression, by which many artists of succeeding generations allowed themselves, consciously or unconsciously, to be inspired.

List of Works (mentioned above)

    Cantiunculae sacrae  (1582)
    Madrigali spirituali (1583)
    Canzonette a 3 voci  (1584)
    Scherzi musicali (1607)
    Mass (on motifs from Gombert's motet "In illo tempore")  (1610)
    Vespers Psalms (with their Orfeo-inspired orchestral palette)  (1610)
    Nigra sum (solo motet )
    Selva morale e spirituale (1640)
    Messa a quattro e salmi (posthumously published in 1651)

    Ohime il bel viso
    Qui rise tirse
    Madrigal Books I - VIII (1587-1638)

    La favola d'Orfeo  (1607)
    Arianna (lost except for "Lamento")
    Ballo dell' ingrate
    La finta pazza Licori  (1627)
    La Proserpina rapita (1630)
    La Delia e l' Ulisse" (1630)
    Adone  (1639)
    Il ritorno d' Ulisse in patria  (1641)
    L' incoronazione di Poppea  (1642)

(See also The Transition from Renaissance to Baroque)