Thursday, February 2, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Claudio Monteverdi

One of the fascinating things about looking at the history of music is that when you come to a really big transition, like the one from the Renaissance to the Baroque, you come to notice not only those aspects that are important in the new period, but you also become aware of aspects of the older period that had not stood out before. What I'm trying to say is that we see in early Baroque music the movement towards a strong delineation of the outer voices, the soprano and bass, with the middle being filled in with functional harmony. This seems quite normal to us now, but at the time it was an innovation. The Renaissance instead treated all the voices equally as you will hear if you go back and listen to the music of Orlande de Lassus or Josquin in my previous posts. So, in looking at the Baroque, we notice not only things about it that are new, but we also notice, in retrospect, things about the Renaissance.

The life of Claudio Monteverdi, born 1567, died 1643, spans the transition from Renaissance to Baroque. Here is the earliest portrait of him, painted in 1597, just when the Baroque was beginning in music. It is interesting that he is shown playing a bass instrument as it was with the bass line that the innovations of the Baroque were particularly important:

The beginning of the Baroque in music is attributed to the activity of a group known as the Florentine Camerata who were most active between 1577 and 1582. Since then we have had many instances of private associations like this, cultural or artistic collectives who are pursuing common aims, but they were the very first we know of. The Wikipedia article is worth reading. As they say, these thinkers were interested in reviving music by going back to the ideals and practices of the ancient Greeks. For example, as they understood Greek drama to have been sung, they wanted to revive this and to do so they decided that the complex polyphony of the Renaissance had to go. The text had to be sung in a more dramatic and easily understood fashion. So they created a new style of melody, half spoken, half sung, and invented recitativo and opera. Most interesting, from a composer's point of view, is that the search for drama in music, also seems to have led to the idea of functional harmony where the harmony is one of the driving forces in the musical 'narration'. The first really successful result of the ideas and experiments of the Camerata was Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo, based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, who went to the Underworld to rescue his bride Eurydice. L'Orfeo was composed in 1606 and 07 and performed for the first time in February 1607. It was much performed and admired for the next fifty years or so, but then was forgotten until the late 19th century and was not performed again until 1904. The historical instruments and style necessary for a really accurate performance all had to be rediscovered and it wasn't until after WWII that performances were given that were an accurate reproduction of the original. Here is an excellent production that captures the feel of the work. This is part 1 of 12:

This is a whole new musical world and it feels so much closer to our own. A lot of what is going on here for the first time has stayed with us. A dramatic text, declaimed clearly, with largely chordal accompaniment? This is exactly what we hear in many operas from 1600 until now. In fact, it is also what we hear in Schubert lieder, Bob Dylan and even rap music. The big aria for Orfeo comes in Act 3 on the text "Possente spirto". Here is just that aria from a different production:

And here is the first page of the original printed score with the aria:

Click to enlarge

Apart from a few incidentals like odd-looking clefs and rests, this is a score that many contemporary musicians could simply read from. It looks rather bare, but all the sung melody is there and all the little runs in the violins. What is not on the page, but we hear, are the plucked chords in the various lutes and other harmony instruments. This is an entirely new concept of harmony: if you give the player the only really important note, the bass note, then he is free to strum and pluck chords with that as the root. This is new both in terms of performance and in terms of harmony.


Nathan Shirley said...

Very nice article here, great overview of how bass/melody/chords became prominent at this time in music history.

I'm going to have to go back and read your other posts. Thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Nathan,

Welcome to The Music Salon. I visited your home page and listened to some of your music. Very nice stuff!

Nathan Shirley said...

Thanks, I'm really enjoying your articles.