Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Claudio Monteverdi (1567 –1643)



His times: Monteverdi set in motion the development of what we’ve come to know as opera. In the late 16th century, arts and culture were flourishing thanks to extensive patronage from wealthy families, aristocracy, and the Catholic Church (who played a large part in Monteverdi’s musical education). Reams upon reams of music was written to be performed in church or court chapels, and this influenced a trend in vocal music towards more complex intertwining lines. This intensified into the 17th century, and musicians responded by looking more towards the expressive possibilities of a single clear melodic line which is accompanied by a series of simple chords, in order to give more weight to the text. This style of song is referred to as “Monody” and Monteverdi’s work on stage dramas set to music (an idea which had not properly appeared before this point) was a logical next step.

His music: Monteverdi focused his efforts on writing madrigals for most of his life. He produced nine books of madrigals in his lifetime. Fascinatingly, the transition from the style of Renaissance polyphony to the beginnings of the Baroque style can be neatly represented as you go through them all.

As the 17th century commenced Monteverdi produced his (and pretty much the world’s) first opera, L’Orfeo. Here the words dominate over the music, and the developing monodic style was used to great effect to emphasise what is being said by the characters.

L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) is another of Monteverdi’s most famous operas, written almost 40 years after L’Orfeo. The story portrays Poppea, mistress of the Roman Emperor Nero, and her determination to become Empress. It flies in the face of the literary convention of the time in the sense that it appears to be glorifying characteristics such as greed and lust.

Perhaps his most well-known sacred work is his Vespers of 1610. It is a composition which sets to music various Roman Catholic liturgical texts, Psalms, as well as featuring sacred motets and a traditional Hymn.


Himself: Monteverdi was very involved with the Catholic Church, and grew up studying music as a member the Cathedral of Cremona’s Choir. In his early twenties he procured himself a job in the Royal Court of Duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga, starting off as a vocalist and viol player, but rising to the position of musical director, court conductor, and eventually the court’s Master of Music.

He married one of the court singers, Claudia Cattaneo, and had two sons and two daughters. The court eventually sacked him because they couldn’t afford to keep him on, so after a year of unemployment he moved to Venice and started working as a conductor. He spent the last decade of his life fulfilling his religious aspirations as a priest, though he still spent time composing when he could.

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