Monteverdi is the most important Italian composer of the early to middle Baroque period, and, indeed, one of the most influential figuresin the history of music. His music represents the transition from theRenaissance to the Baroque period.
Born in Cremona in 1567, he served at the court of the Dukes of Mantua from the early 1590s until 1612, when he moved to Venice as maestro di cappella at the basilica of St. Mark. For the time it was one of the most coveted musical posts in Italy and is a position he retained until his death in 1643. His importance as a proponent of the so-called Stile moderno (modern style) is unquestioned, as is his pre-eminence in the development of the new form of opera that sprang from the combination of music and speech in the art of Italian monody.
In 1607, Monteverdi established himself as a composer of major works with his opera L'Orfeo, which is considered to be the first great opera. L'Orfeo is based on the legend of Orpheus, the musician who sought to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the Underworld by the power of music. L'Orfeo synthesized several important operatic elements: Instrumental Overture, Aria, Recitative, Ensemble, and Chorus.
After Orfeo, L'Arianna (Mantua, 1608) became one of the most influential operas in Europe. Wildly popular, the Lamento d'Arianna was admired and imitated by composers until the end of the century.
Two major works represent the culmination of Monteverdi's operatic output: Il Ritorno d'Ulise in Patria (The Return of Ulysses) (Venice, 1640), based on the final portion of Homer's Greek epic The Odyssey, and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea)(Venice, 1642), set in imperial Rome in the time of Nero, whose love for the courtesan Poppaea is the subject of the opera.
L'Orfeo Front Cover of the 1609 Venice Edition
Monteverdi's operas introduced elements that held tremendous public appeal. So much so, that these elements would remain intact in Italian opera for almost 300 years with only minor modifications, as follows:
1.Topics that are classic and modern at the same time are used as the basis for entire productions. This creates powerfully dramatic situations.
2.Bel canto arioso for virtuoso singers with tuneful, rhythmic, easy-to-remember melodies with major and minor harmonies.
3.His music contains a combination of recitative and arioso passages.
4.An orchestra that is not merely a background, but an active participant in the action, adding to the expressiveness of the music—L'Orfeo contained 14 independent orchestral pieces (symphonies). Monteverdi was one of the first composers to include indications for specific instruments in the orchestral parts.
Monteverdi is also famous for the madrigals he published between 1587 and 1606. Until his 40th birthday, he mainly worked on this genre, composing a total of nine books. Monteverdi's madrigals are particularly important because they represent the transition between what...