Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

[Portrait from  Fiori Poetici ,  a compilation of poems for Monteverdi’s funeral published in 1644]

[Portrait from Fiori Poetici,  a compilation of poems for Monteverdi’s funeral published in 1644]

Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona on 9 May 1567, of a well-to-do family. He showed talent as a singer at a young age, and trained first under the music director at Cremona’s cathedral. He published secular and religious music from the age of 15, and in his early career was a prolific composer of madrigals, many of which are frequently performed today. Around 1590 he entered the court of the Duke of Mantua as a string player. He eventually became the Maestro di Capella (Director of Music) there, in 1602, and published books of madrigals in 1603 and 1605, containing some of his finest works. 

In some sense it was a controversy which made him really famous. At about this time he was attacked by Giovanni Artusi, a conservative musical theorist, for ‘licence’ and excessive dissonance, and in an introduction to his 1605 madrigals, his fifth book, he developed his well-known theory of the ‘prima and seconda practica’. The latter was a defence of using means which might break with tradition, in order to marry words and music in the expression of emotion – to ‘move the whole man’. But the former expressed his admiration for the pure music of composers such as Josquin and Palestrina.

Monteverdi’s represents in some sense the end of the line for Renaissance polyphony, and is widely regarded as the transitional composer from Renaissance to Baroque music. He did write polyphonic works – his beautiful Mass ‘In Illo Tempore’ for 6 voices was published in 1610 – but he had already composed his first opera, Orfeo, which was first performed in Mantua in 1607. He may well have felt he had to write the Mass, as he was interested in becoming Maestro di Capella in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, where he moved in 1613. He died in Venice in 1643, and is buried in the church of Santa Maria dei Fiori.

Monteverdi tomb.jpg

Further reading:

Whenham, J. and R. Wistreich (eds.) (2007), The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.