• Contact us!

  • Follow us on Facebook

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,087 other followers

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

    No Copyright Music on The Female Trailblazers : Wome…
    The Symphonist on 2020 – the year of Beetho…
    Jo on Women Composers – A Reflection…
    Bionica (@bionicaban… on Women Composers – A Reflection…
    Mary Cooke on Sol-Fa – Singing Through…
  • Archives

Claudio Monteverdi: 450 Years of Inspiration

May 15th 2017 marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi.

Born in 1567, in Cremona, Italy, Monteverdi was famous during his lifetime as a musician and composer, and his works are still regularly performed today.

Cremona is a city with a vast musical heritage. It was home to lute makers, later becoming renowned as a centre for musical instrument making, and home to the Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari violin making families. The historic feudal system – the myriad noble families ruling Italy at the time – laid the way for music to develop, supported and funded by the court, offering employment and opportunity for musicians.

Monteverdi thrived in this musical hotbed, exploring and developing music far beyond his contemporaries. He is nowadays considered to provide a transition between the Renaissance and Baroque periods – and his compositions influenced 20th century composers such as Stravinsky.

One of the main differences between Renaissance and Baroque music is the move from counterpoint to melody with accompaniment. Much Renaissance music was based on imitation and variations, with ground bass or ostinato, where a tonal structure and multi-movement forms emerged in Baroque music – functional harmony based on a central tonic with a strong harmonic flow and tonal sequences such as the circle of fifths.

Many of these ideas were introduced and popularised in the work of Monteverdi.

Monteverdi began his musical studies at the Cathedral in Cremona, producing his first published works – a collection of sacred songs – at the age of 15. After his studies were complete, he was employed as a court musician for the Duke of Mantua, where he initially worked as a singer and viol player before a promotion to music director.

It can be difficult to see historic figures in a human light, but Monteverdi’s life was full of drama; a nice parallel with the plays of Shakespeare, which were written and premiered during his lifetime over in England.

He tragically lost his wife and his baby daughter, he was robbed at gunpoint by a highwayman, on the death of his employer, the Duke of Mantua, he was fired by the Duke’s successor who could not afford to keep him on, leaving the composer with virtually no money, and he was ambitious, planning to show his music to the Pope. By his mid-40s, he was the most celebrated composer in Italy.

His work L’Orfeo is the earliest surviving opera still regularly performed today.

The beginning of opera as a genre is unclear. The concept was born partly by Florentine intellectuals who were fascinated by the dramas of ancient Greece. But the idea was probably gestating long before 1600. Admiration for antiquity was a strong trend in Renaissance Italy, but the recreation of Greek tragedies was not the sole intent of opera composers.

There was a strong interest in the bucolic, pastoral story – nymphs and gods were featured rather than kings and queens. Instrumental music was increasingly integrated into dramatic performances and madrigals were used as interludes in more serious theatrical court productions. Legends such as that of Orpheus were incredibly popular, and composers found affinity with the divine musical gifts displayed by Orpheus.

Monteverdi took these ideas and created something new: The debut of L’Orfeo defied all previous musical convention. He placed words and emotions right at the forefront, subduing the traditional Renaissance polyphony (two or more lines of simultaneous independent melody) to emphasise one prominent melody line. He exploited dynamics and unprepared dissonance in order to convey human emotion, responding sensitively to the text. He was the first to create opera out of ‘real’ characters – living, breathing, emotional beings.

L’Orfeo was premiered at the Ducal Palace in Mantua – indications are of a small space, a narrow stage and an audience of only men. All of the performers were male, with castrati playing the female roles. The performance was successful enough that a repeat was demanded for all the ladies of the city to attend!

Part of the uniqueness of the score lies in Monteverdi’s fragmentary markings and instructions. As was common for that period, Monteverdi encouraged instrumental ornamentation and embellishment, presenting his score as what today might be considered skeletal. This gives every performance of L’Orfeo its own distinct sound and identity.

Tom Ford – Limelight Magazine

Fragment of score for Poppea

The score also points to a composer in full command of his craft. It may be sparse, but it is not simple. Instrumentation was cleverly designed to characterise, and in some places, Monteverdi instructs what is to be played, not how: “Sung to the sound of five violins, three chitarrone, two harpsichords, a double harp, a double-bass viol and a sopranino recorder,” with only the vocal line and bass notated. This produces exciting challenges for modern performers.

Monteverdi’s second opera, L’Arianna, was completed a year after the tragic death of his wife. Sadly, like large swathes of Monteverdi’s work, this opera has been lost, save for Arianna’s Lament, which was so popular it was published separately several times.

In 1612, Monteverdi took a position as musical direct at the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. During his latter years, when he was ordained as a Catholic priest, he composed much sacred music and music for civic occasions. Despite being ill much of the time, he also wrote two more operas, including L’incoronazione di Poppea, considered by many to be his finest work. Poppea contains romance, tragedy, and comedy – a new development in opera. The opera foreshadows those of Mozart, its complexity describing the triumph of evil over good through beautiful music.

Monteverdi died at the age of 76 in Venice in 1643. His legacy of works fall into three categories: Madrigals, opera and sacred music. Over 50 of his letters survive, giving a wonderful view of Italy and of the 17th century.

Experience the Music of Monteverdi:

Monteverdi at the V&A

Monteverdi’s Vespers at the BBC Proms

Monteverdi’s Vespers at St. James’ Piccadilly

Monteverdi 450, Colton Hall, Bristol

Come and Sing

Find events in your area…

Celebrate Monteverdi in Cremona!


Contact the Music Workshop Company today!

OperaScotland, the Listings and Archive Website

Has the name of a singer, heard in a particular opera, ever escaped you? Or are you interested in the history of an opera or singer? If the answer is “Yes,” the growing number of online databases can help. MWC caught up with Peter Fraser, one of three founders of OperaScotland, to find out more…

Launched in 2009, OperaScotland is led by three brothers who had no idea that what to them seemed such an obvious need – developing an archive of the live performing arts – had also been addressed elsewhere. For example, AusStage offers a fantastic resource for Australians: elsewhere such activity tends to focus on work within an individual venue or city.

For OperaScotland, the supporting archive mainly consists of large numbers of programmes collected over a lifetime of opera-going by three Scottish brothers, Peter, Iain and Stephen Fraser. Other programmes were inherited from their parents or came as generous gifts from opera fans. It has been primarily from these programmes that casts are copy-typed into the website.

Full casts are also drawn from programmes held in public libraries and more limited performer derails obtained from newspaper reviews and playbills. While initially it had been thought there was not much surviving material in archives, more and more has been found. Amateurs and outsiders fail to appreciate how little ephemera has been put listed or catalogued.

Researching as we are doing, our personal highlights are many. Additional light has been thrown on:

  • Giuseppe de Begnis, famous Italian bass. Opinion was divided as to the merits of his singing, perhaps less impressive than his acting and stage presence. But having sung for Rossini, in 1827-8 he brought a company of Italian singers north to Scotland during their tour of Great Britain. Performances at Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal included the first offerings in Scotland of Rossini’s Turco in Italia, Cenerentola and La gazza ladra.
  • Denhof Company for their outrageous but pioneering success in presenting Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung in Scotland and the provinces for the first time during their short period of existence 1910-13. Casts have been uploaded from programmes, a prospectus and some playbills found in a range of libraries including those in Manchester and Liverpool.
  • The work of George Wood, music seller and concert promoter, who put on three seasons of Italian opera in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1850s. He built up the business to be the largest in Scotland before moving to London to try his hand at promotion there.
  • The touring company Carl Rosa gave the UK premiere of Puccini’s La Boheme in Manchester, before moving on to Glasgow then Edinburgh. Scottish audiences therefore heard it before London ones.
  • Erik Chisholm’s work with Glasgow Grand Opera – finding that a programme for the historic 1935 Trojans survived uncatalogued in a library, enabling us to establish the cast.

We promote the archive on line and through face to face networking as well as through new media such as Facebook and Twitter. We have been surprised to find that noticeably more traffic comes from outside Scotland though average time on site is higher for the native visitor.

Aims for the future include building traffic, speaking to societies and clubs, and developing some small scale touring exhibitions. People worldwide use the site to seek information about their performing relatives. Other users are journalists, librarians, researchers and writers working on a wide range of projects and dissertations. Check it out here at OperaScotland.

Subscribe to our newsletter or donate to support our work.

If you are interested in opera, read our blog post Inspiring with Opera.

Contact the Music Workshop Company today

%d bloggers like this: