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Monteverdi Turns the Big 450!

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Detail of title page from “Fiori poetici raccolti nel funerale del … signor Clavdio Monteverde.” Music Division, Library of Congress. (Call number ML410.M77 M18 Case).

On May 9, 1567, one of music history’s most revered composers was born – Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi. To look at the whole of Monteverdi’s exquisite compositional output is to understand the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque era in music. Some of the most exciting early printings in our collections include early editions of several of Monteverdi’s famous madrigal collections:

Il primo libro de madrigali a cinque voci del Sig.or Claudio Monteverde. Venice: Gardano, 1621. (Call number M1490.M8 Case) **First edition was published in 1587.

Il secondo libro de madrigali a cinque voci di Claudio Monteverde. Venice: Appresso Alessandro Rauerij, 1607. (Call number M1490.M782 Case) **First edition was published in 1590.

Il Quinto libro de madrigali a cinque voci di Claudio Monteverde. Venice: Appresso Bartholomeo Magni, 1620. (Call number M1490.M8M15 1620 Case) **First edition was published in 1605.

Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo, che saranno per brevi episodij frà i canti senza gesto, libro ottavo. Venice: Appresso Alessandro Vincenti, 1638. (Call number M1490.M8 M2 no. 8) **This is a first edition copy of Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals!

Monteverdi, Claudio. Madrigals Book 8. [Appresso Alessandro Vincenti, In Venetia, monographic, 1638]. (Call number M1490.M8 M2 no. 8)
Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals, called Madrigals of War and Love (and referenced just above), is his largest collection in the genre. It features an impressive variety of works, and is divided into two parts: 1) Madrigals of War, where the composer draws upon poetry that describes the pursuit of love with war metaphors, and 2) Madrigals of Love, where the poetry explores despair in love (infidelity, disappointment, etc.). Aside from its stellar music, Monteverdi’s Madrigals of War and Love includes a historically significant preface in which the composer asserts that he has discovered a new style of composition, stile concitato, that uses effects like rapid, repeated notes and trills to communicate agitation or war-like tension to the listener. While musicologists debate the first appearance of such writing, Monteverdi’s preface remains an important source reading. You can research the first edition printing of that preface online in full!

Speaking of prefaces, there’s another one for which Monteverdi is famous – that in his fifth book of madrigals. In fact, the preface served as the jumping off point for one of music history’s most famous debates! Prior to the publication of the fifth book, scholar and theorist Giovanni Artusi  famously attacked Monteverdi’s modern compositional approach in his publication, On the Imperfections of Modern Music. Artusi was offended by the “imperfections” in Monteverdi’s part-writing, specifically in the (at that point unpublished) madrigal Cruda Amarilli. Artusi writes, “The writing [of the madrigal] was not bad – though…it introduces new rules, modes, and idioms that are harsh and hardly pleasing to the ear. It could not be otherwise, for these new rules break the [established] good rules…These new rules must therefore be deformations of nature…They are far from the purpose of music, which is to delight.”

We hold a copy of Artusi’s On the Imperfections of Modern Music in our collections, along with a 1620 edition of Monteverdi’s fifth book of madrigals (originally published in 1605) where the composer responds to Artusi’s critiques in the book’s preface material. His response proposes two compositional approaches: prima pratica, which falls in line with the tenets of 16th-century late Renaissance polyphony and equality among the voices; and seconda pratica, a modern approach that loosens the bounds of counterpoint resulting in a hierarchy of voices. In seconda pratica the soprano and bass receive greater emphasis in this new hierarchy, which leads to the new early Baroque style of monody (where a single voice has the melody over an instrumental accompaniment).

This blog post could go on and on about Monteverdi’s music and significance in music history – as evidenced by our shelves of books published on him! His operas Orfeo and L’Incoronatione di Poppea are hallmarks in any History of Opera course — see the Italian libretto for Poppea from our Schatz libretti collection, and take a listen to a selection from Orfeo streaming on the Library’s National Jukebox: Tu se’ morta (“Thou art dead”):

So, today, I hope you are inspired to listen to your favorite Monteverdi work, read an article and get to know more about the man and his music, or mine the Library of Congress website for every Monteverdi-related piece of information you can find (I haven’t even mentioned our digitized copy of Monteverid’s 1607 Scherzi musicale a tre voci!).  Remember that you can email our reference librarians anytime with questions via Ask A Librarian. Happy birthday, Monteverdi – or rather, Tanti Auguri, Claudio!

Comments (4)

  1. Please — tu se’ mortA.

    • Thanks, Alex – slip of the finger, but an easy fix!

  2. Is it to Monteverdi that us altos owe our “relegation” to (almost) always the harmonizers, rarely the melodizers?

  3. Opera Lafayette will be celebrating Monteverdi with music from the 8th book on our opening concerts next year (Oct 24 at KC in DC, Oct 25 in NY), and featuring, among others, lutenist Thomas Dunford, harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, and soprano Lea Desandre. Not yet announced, and pardon the plug, but a nice chance to hear this music with some fabulous performers of it.

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