Monday, February 27, 2017

Why Monteverdi?

I proposed doing a whole series of posts on Claudio Monteverdi the other day on the notion that he, along with Joseph Haydn, is one of the great creative geniuses of Western Music. A few years ago I devoted a great number of posts to Joseph Haydn, another underestimated composer, and the justification there was that Haydn was at the very origins of Classical style, mentor and teacher to both Mozart and Beethoven, and largely responsible for the crafting of those harmonic, melodic and structural elements that have been the foundation for most classical music well into the 20th century.

Haydn more or less invented sonata form, which is the structural principle behind not only piano sonatas, but also string quartets and symphonies.

What did Monteverdi do that in any way puts him into this same category? Well, he did pretty much invent opera. There were a couple of people that preceded him, but their efforts have been largely forgotten. The first real opera in European history is Monteverdi's L'Orfeo written in 1607. It is fairly clear that Monteverdi was one of the key creators of the Baroque in music. There is a very good argument that can be made for the honor being shared equally with Arcangelo Corelli who laid much of the groundwork for the Baroque uses of functional harmony as well as sonata and concerto form. Monteverdi's work falls into the three categories of madrigals, church music and opera. So it is fair to say that Monteverdi laid the foundations for vocal music in the Baroque, while Corelli did the same for instrumental music.

But Monteverdi played a unique role in that he not only was a master of late Renaissance vocal music, especially in his earlier books of madrigals, but he enacted the transition to the Baroque in his own music which was, in the later books, truly Baroque in style. This is much rarer than you would think in music because it means that Monteverdi was a master of not one, but two quite different musical styles. The closest parallel I can think of is C. P. E. Bach who was a transition from the music of his father, J. S. Bach, and the early classical style of Haydn. But C. P. E. Bach was neither a great master of the Baroque, nor of the Classical styles but a somewhat eccentric, though interesting, sub-category in himself. Monteverdi however was very much in the mainstream in both the late Renaissance and the early Baroque.

Just to sample a bit the two styles, let's listen to the first madrigal from Bk I, "Ch'io ami la mia vita":

There is nothing there that really hints at Baroque style: it is clearly within the bounds of the late Renaissance. You will hear a few ornaments that the performers add, but this practice dates far back into the early days of the Renaissance (and probably earlier, but we don't have too much evidence). Here is the first page of the score:

Two stylistic features that are the foundation of Baroque style are the polarization of the texture between the treble and the bass and the use of a continuo, that is, a prominent bass line fleshed out with chordal instruments like the lute, harpsichord or organ. Neither element is present here. Just for comparison, let's have a look at the score to the first madrigal from Bk VIII, "Altri canti d'Amor":

And there it is: the basso continuo and a prominent treble voice. Of course, later on the other voices join in as well, but the basso continuo is throughout, indicating the huge increase in the importance of and compositional command of pure harmony as an expressive device. Let's have a listen to this piece:

It begins with a short sinfonia for the strings and continuo alone. I just quoted from where the voice enters.

I think you will agree that this madrigal occupies an entirely different musical realm from the first one!


Craig said...

It's an auspicious time to focus on Monteverdi too, as this year marks his 450th birthday!

I vividly remember being in Venice some years ago and stumbling unexpectedly upon his tomb (in the Franciscan church, the "Frari"). Of course I knew that he had lived in Venice, and it stood to reason that he'd also have been buried there, but those of us raised in the New World can still be surprised when people we know from history books turn out to have been real after all.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, you're right! I hadn't realized. Born in 1567.

Archilochus said...

I am very excited for this series. I discovered Monteverdi three years ago and he has moved me profoundly ever since!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Archilochus. Your support is much appreciated!