Born May 15, 1567, Claudio Monteverdi most likely had no idea how far his idea of putting words to music and staging would go to the rich, extravagant productions seen in opera today.
Maybe his marriage to a court singer in 1599, Claudia de Cattaneis, encouraged him to tackle a Greek myth of finding love only to give in to temptation and lose it for eternity.
Monteverdi’s musical life began as a student of Ingenner, maestro di cappella (Master of the Choir and/or Orchestra) at the Cremona Cathedral. He produced motets and madrigals before going to Mantua and serving the Duke of Mantua as a string player. Following the death of the maestro di cappella, Signor Pallavicino, Monteverdi achieved a certain amount of fame for supporting a modern approach to harmony and text setting.
In 1607, L’Orfeo was produced–and what an interesting evening for the audience. This was an entirely new idea; text, music, stage, settings, and costumes combined for a performance. Monteverdi instructed his players to “play the work as simply and correctly as possible, and not with many florid passages or runs.” In other words, no show-offs, please.
L’Orfeo was written for five acts, each act dealing with a single component of the story, and each act ending with a chorus. The famous lament sung by Orfeo, “Tu se’ morta!” (“You are dead!”) is available from the NLS Music Section at BRM 34677.
The practice of the day dictated that all scene changes took place in front of the court without benefit of a curtain rising or falling, allowing the instrumental line to indicate what action was taking place and with improvisation allowed, it could make for some very interesting scene shifts.
Monteverdi wrote more operas, opening the door for this synthesis of the arts that continues to excite listeners and theater patrons today. I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance of L’Orfeo in person with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, accompanied by the English Baroque Soloists. I anticipated a superb level of playing and singing from the group, but surprised myself at how quickly I became involved in the story while I was following the libretto and hearing this lovely music. His last opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea is enjoying a revival today at many of the major opera houses. He achieved a pivotal mark in his career with the appointment of maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. No doubt performances of his sacred and some secular works were to his satisfaction in this beautiful cathedral.
For our braille music patrons, you can borrow from the NLS Music section or download from BARD more Monteverdi, along with a standard of the singer’s repertoire, 24 Italian Songs and Arias at BRM 22077. Biographies of the composer are available at DBM 01619, World’s Greatest Composer series, and a lesson on “L’asciatemi morire!” including diction, translation and piano accompaniment for practice are available for soprano at DBM 01904 and tenor at DBM 01903.
I’m always open to new music experiences, but sometimes it is good to look back and investigate a favorite genre in an earlier phase. One could say I’m coming ‘out of the depths’ with a treasure of early music…and I won’t look back!