When Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567, the first child of a family of pharmacists, who could possibly have guessed that they were looking at the most important musician of the late 16th and early 17th century? No, none of the people peeping around the cradle could yet know, but the young Monteverdi was to become the last great polyphonist of the Renaissance and at the same time the first brilliant composer of accompanied monody. A genius who could bridge two eras. More than a revolutionary, more than an innovator. A precursor.
And, as such, he immediately set the pace. Educated from an early age by the famous Marcantonio Ingegneri, Claudio immediately displayed uncommon talent, beginning to write music at a very early age: at 15, his first book of motets for three voices; at 17, a volume of canzonettas for three voices; at 20, the first of the nine books of madrigals he would eventually complete during his lifetime.6
At the age of 25, he became a violist at the court of the Duke of Mantua and here, with humility and total commitment, he learned the trade of court musician. The cultural milieu in and around the court was heady: Monteverdi got to know Giaches de Wert, the works of poets and artists such as Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini, as well as the virtuoso singers of Ferrara. And he found love: he married the court singer Claudia Cattaneo, daughter of a colleague in the string orchestra.
Surrounded by visionaries and virtuosi, the maestro honed the style by which he would go down in history: unsettling, extrovert, expressive, theatrical. A polyphony that defies the prevailing rules of counterpoint and is enhanced by unprecedented harmonic progressions that masterfully render the “affects”, i.e. the emotions, found in the lyrics. The word is brought to life in music as never before.
His touch was by now unmistakable, his fame uncontainable. He was responsible for the madrigals played in 1598 during the visit of Margaret of Austria to Ferrara, one of the most popular social events of the time. Indeed, Vincenzo I Gonzaga adored his music, so much so that he kept him in his circle for twenty years, at court and on the road, in peace and… in war. When the Duke left to battle the Turks in Hungary in 1595, Monteverdi was at his side: not for tactics or war strategy, but to impress the allied nobility and the enemies with his virtuosity. Mission accomplished.
Although the Duke’s esteem for him was boundless, the pay Monteverdi received was not enough. Not feeling properly appreciated, and more ambitious than ever, he did everything he could to obtain a prestigious and well-paid position as maestro di cappella in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. There, his duties include expanding the music library, hiring new musicians, writing music for the basilica and for Venetian festivities. But, above all, there he could devote himself body and soul to music.
An effort that soon bore results, amid applause and criticism. His scores, disrupted in form and structure, caused outrage among the traditionalists: not only did the Bologna-born composer Artusi define his music as “harsh” and “unpleasing to the ear”, but even the choristers of Saint Mark themselves tried to undermine him with anonymous complaints, fortunately ignored by the Inquisitors. He, however, paid no heed to the controversy and responded with new madrigals that immediately became hits.
The secret of Monteverdi’s success? It is easily said: his music for the first time moved away from the cold atmospheres of the 16th century to delve into the light and shade of the human soul, in a constant search for the “truth of expression”, i.e. the perfect union between music and words.
It was in this intellectual climate that L’Orfeo, his first play and one of the very first examples of melodrama, took shape. The reception was excellent across the board. On one occasion, his own music overwhelmed him to such an extent that he forgot to conduct the orchestra during a performance. Coming to his senses and turning to apologise, he was swept away by the thunderous applause of the musicians, touched by so much passion and intensity.
Not long after the debut of Orfeo, his beloved wife died. It was a severe blow, from which Monteverdi struggled to recover. In 1632, he chose to take his vows and translated his new introverted and reflective dimension into some of the best sacred music ever written, such as Selva morale e spirituale (1641), considered a synthesis of almost thirty years of activity at St. Mark’s Chapel in Venice.
By now, he had become a master at portraying the human soul and he proved it time and time again: in the opera Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria, he gave each character music suited to his or her rank and personality, whether human or divine, while the Incoronazione di Poppea was the first opera in the history of music to tell the story of real-life characters, with their weaknesses, passions and flaws.
This was the genius’ last work. Tired and old, a few months after the first performance of the Incoronazione, Monteverdi died after a brief illness. The news hit like thunder and everyone came to greet him for the last time, from the aristocracy to the clergy, to the people: a crowd never seen before at a musician’s funeral. Dozens and dozens of musicians and singers gathered outside the basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice and held one of the most touching funerals in history, honouring with music someone who, through music, knew how to communicate all kinds of human experiences and emotions.