University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Claudio Monteverde

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Monteverde, the originator of the modern style of composition, was born at Cremona, Italy, in the year 1568. At a very early period he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua as a violist, showing, from the first, unmistakable signs of a talent which gave good promise of future excellence, and which, before long, met with cordial recognition, not only at the ducal court, but from end to end of Europe.

The youthful violist was instructed in counterpoint by the Duke's maestro di capella, Antonio Ingegneri, a learned musician, and a composer of some eminence, who, if we may judge by the result of his teaching, does not seem to have been blessed in this instance, with a very attentive pupil. It is, indeed, difficult to believe that Monteverde can ever have taken any real interest in the study of scholastic music. Contrapuntal excellence was not one of his strong points; and he never shines to advantage in music in which it is demanded. His first published work—a book of "Cazonette a tre voci"—printed at Venice in 1584, though clever enough for a youth of sixteen, abounds in irregularities which no teacher of that period could have conscientiously endorsed. And the earlier books of madrigals, by which the canzonette were followed, show no progressive improvement in this respect, but rather the reverse.

The beauty of some of these compositions is of a very high order; yet it is constantly marred by unpleasant progressions which can only have been the result of pure carelessness; for it would be absurd to suppose that such evil-sounding combinations could have been introduced deliberately, and equally absurd to assume that Ingegneri neglected to enforce the rules by the observance of which they might have been avoided.

We must, however, draw a careful distinction between these faulty passages and other of a very different character, which, though they must have been thought startling enough at the time they were written, can only be regarded now as unlearned attempts to reach per saltum that new and as yet unheard of style of beauty for which the young composer was incessantly longing, and to which alone he owes his undoubted claim to be revered, not only as the greatest musician of his own age, but as the inventor of a system of harmony which has remained in uninterrupted use to the present day. Among progressions of this latter class we may instance the numerous suspensions of the dominant seventh, and its inversions, introduced into the cadences of "Stracciami pur il core,"—an extremely beautiful madrigal, published in the Third Book (1594). Also an extraordinary chain of suspended sevenths and ninths, in the same interesting work: which, notwithstanding the harshness of its effect, is really free from anything approaching to an infraction of the theoretical laws of counterpoint, except, indeed, that one which forbids the resolution of a discord to be heard in one part while the discord itself is heard in another—and exceptions to that law may be found in works of much earlier date.

In his Fifth Book of madrigals, printed in 1599, Monteverde grew bolder and, thrusting the time-honored laws of counterpoint aside, struck out for himself that new path which he ever afterward unhesitatingly followed. With the publication of this volume began that deadly war with the polyphonic schools which ended in their utter defeat, and the firm establishment of what we now call modern music. In "Cruda Amarilli," the best known madrigal in this most interesting series, we find exemplifications of nearly all the most important points of divergence between the two opposite systems, not excepting the crucial distinctions involved in the use of the diminished triad, and the unprepared dissonances of the seventh and ninth.

Some modern writers, including Ulibishev and Pierre Joseph Zimmermann, have denied that these passages exhibit any novelty of style—but they are in error. Up to this time, sevenths had been heard only in the form of suspensions, or passing-notes, as in "Stracciami pur il core." The unprepared seventh—the never-failing test by which the ancient school may be distinguished from the modern, the strict style from the free—was absolutely new, and was regarded by contemporary musicians as so great an outrage upon artistic propriety that one of the most learned of them—Giovanni Maria Artusi, of Bologna, published, in the year 1600, a work entitled, "Delle inperfezioni della moderna musica," in which he condemned the unwonted progressions found in "Cruda Amarilla," on the ground that they were altogether opposed to the nature of legitimate harmony. To this severe critique Monteverde replied by a letter addressed "Agli studiosi lettori," which he prefixed to a later volume of madrigals.

A bitter war now raged between the adherents of the two contending schools. Monteverde endeavored to maintain his credit by a visit to Rome, where he presented some of his ecclesiastical compositions to Pope Clement VIII. But, much as his church music has been praised by the learned Padre Martini and other well-known writers, it is altogether wanting in the freshness which distinguishes the works of the great masters who brought the Roman and Venetian schools to perfection. Labored and hard where it should have been ingenious, and weak where it should have been devotional, it adds nothing to its author's fame, and only serves to show how surely his genius was leading him in another and a very different direction.

Monteverde succeeded Ingegneri as maestro di capella at the ducal court, in the year 1603. In 1607 the Duke's son, Francesco di Gonzaga, contracted an alliance with Margherita, Infanta of Savoy; and, to grace the marriage festival, the new maestro produced, in emulation of Peri's "Euridice," a grand serious opera, called "Arianna," the text of which was supplied by the poet Rinuccini.

The success of this great work was unprecedented. It could scarcely have been otherwise; for all the composer's past experience was brought to bear upon it. The passionate dissonances which had corrupted the madrigal, and were destined, ere long, to prove the destruction of the polyphonic mass, were here turned to such good account that, in the scene in which the forsaken Ariadne laments the desertion of her faithless lover, they drew tears from every eye. No possible objection could be raised against them now. The censures of Artusi and his colleagues, just though they were, would have lost all their force, had they been directed—which, happily, they were not—against vocal music with instrumental accompaniment. The contrapuntal skill necessary for the successful development of true Church music, would have been quite out of place on the stage.

Monteverde's bitterest enemies could scarcely fail to see that he had found his true vocation at last. Well would it have been for polyphonic art, and for his own reputation also, had he recognized it sooner. Had he given his attention to dramatic music, from the first, the mass and the madrigal might perhaps have still been preserved in their purity bequeathed to them by Palestrina and Luca Marenzio. As it was, the utter demolition of the older school was effected before the newer one was built upon its ruins; and Monteverde was as surely the destroyer of the first as he was the founder of the second.

"Arianna" was succeeded, in 1608, by "Orfeo," a work of still grander proportions, in which the composer employs an orchestra consisting of no less than thirty-six instruments—an almost incredible number for that early age. As no perfect copy of "Arianna" has been preserved to us, we know little or nothing of the instrumental effects by which its beauties were enhanced. But, happily, "Orfeo" was published in a complete form in 1609, and was reissued in 1615; and from directions given in the printed copy we learn that the several instruments employed in the orchestra were so combined as to produce the greatest possible variety of effect, and to aid the dramatic power of the work by the introduction of those contrasts which are generally regarded as the exclusive product of modern genius.

"Orfeo," indeed, exhibits many very remarkable affinities with dramatic music in its latest form of development—affinities which may not unreasonably lead us to inquire whether some of our newest conceptions are really so original as we suppose them to be. The employment of certain characteristic instruments to support the voices of certain members of the dramatis personæ is one of them. The constant use of a species of mezzo recitative—so to speak—in preference either to true recitative or true melody, is another. But what shall we say of the instrumental prelude, formed, from beginning to end, upon one single chord, with one single bass note sustained throughout? No two compositions could be less alike, in feeling, than this and the introduction to "Das Rheingold"—yet, in construction, the two pieces are absolutely identical.

Monteverde produced only one more work of any importance, during his residence at Mantua—a mythological spectacle, called "Il Ballo delle Ingrate," which was performed at the same time as "Orfeo." Five years later he was invited to Venice by the procuratori of Saint Mark's, who, on the death of Giulio Cesare Martinengo, in 1613, welected him their maestro di capella, promising him a salary of three hundred ducats per annum—half as much again as any previous maestro had ever received—together with a sum of fifty ducats for the expenses of his journey, and a house in the canons' close. In 1616 his salary was raised to five hundred ducats, and from that time forward he gave himself up entirely to the service of the Republic, and signed his name "Claudio Monteverde, Veneziano."

The new maestro's time was now fully occupied in the composition of Church music for the cathedral, in training the singers who were to perform it, and in directing the splendid choir placed under his command. His efforts to please his generous patrons were crowned with complete success; and his fame spread far and wide. On May 25, 1621, some Florentines resident in Venice celebrated a grand Requiem, in the Church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, in memory of Duke Cosmo II. Monteverde composed the music, which produced a profound impression; but, judging from Strozzi's extravagant description, it would seem to have been more fitted for performance in the theater than in the church.

A happier opportunity for the exercise of his own peculiar talent presented itself in 1624, in connection with some festivities which took place at the Palace of Girolamo Mocenigo. On this occasion he composed the music to a grand dramatic interlude, called "Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," in the course of which he introduced, among other novel effects, an instrumental tremolo, used exactly as we use it at the present day—a passage which so astonished the performers that a first they refused to play it.

But Monteverde's will was now too powerful to be resisted. He was the most popular composer in Europe. In 1627 he composed five intermezzi for the court of Parma. In 1629 he wrote another cantata—"Il Rosajo fiorito"—for the birthday festival of the son of Vito Morosini, governor of Rovigo. In 1630 he won new laurels by the production of "Proserpina rapita," a grand opera, to a libretto written for him by Giulio Strozzi, and represented at the marriage festival of Lorenzo Giustiniani and Giustiniana Mocenigo.

Soon after this event Italy was devastated by a pestilence, which within the space of sixteen months destroyed fifty thousand lives. On the cessation of the plague, in November, 1631, a grand thanksgiving service was held in the Cathedral of Saint Mark, and for this Monteverde wrote a mass, in the Gloria and Credo of which he introduced an accompaniment of trombones. Two years later he was admitted to the priesthood, and after this we hear nothing more of his for some considerable time.

In the year 1637 the first Venetian opera-house, Il Teatro di San Cassiano, was opened to the public, by Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Manelli. In 1639 the success of the house was assured; and Monteverde wrote for it a new opera, called "L'Adone." In 1641 "Arianna" was revived, with triumphant success, at another new theater—that of Saint Mark. In the same year the veteran composer produced two new works—"Le Nozze di Enea con Lavinia" and "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria." Finally, in 1642, appeared "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"—the last great effort of a genius which, in less than half a century, proved itself strong enough to overthrow a system that had been at work for ages, and to establish in its place another, which has served as the basis of all the great works produced between the year in which the dominant seventh was invented and that in which we are now living.

Monteverde died in 1643, and was buried in the Chiesa dei Frari, where his remains still rest, in a chapel on the gospel side of the choir. Of his printed works, we possess eight books of madrigals, published between the years 1587 and 1638; the volume of canzonette, published in 1584; a volume of scherzi; the complete edition of "Orfeo"; and three volumes of Church music. A manuscript copy of "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse" is preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna; but it is much to be regretted that the greater number of the composer's manuscripts appear to be hopelessly lost—a kind of misfortune too frequent in musical history.

We shall never be able to say the same of his influence upon art—that can never perish. To him we owe the discovery of a new path, in which no later genius has ever disdained to walk; and as long as that path leads to new beauties, he will maintain a continual claim upon our gratitude, notwithstanding the innumerable beauties of another kind which he trod underfoot in laying it open to us.

While various attempts had already been made in Italy at finding a new method of musical expression, and not without considerable results, Monteverde was the first trained musician who devoted himself to the work. He was equipped for conquest in a manner to which his predecessors in the new field could lay no claim, and when his chance came he was able at once to put a fresh complexion upon the prospects of opera. It is only necessary to glance at the score of "Orfeo," the principal work of his which is available for study in an edition accessible to English students, to realize how great was the step that he made from the first tentative efforts of the Florentine amateurs. Their few tinkling lutes have given place to an orchestra of viols, contrabassi, organ, harpsichord, chitarroni, flutes, cornetti, and trumpets—in fact, strings, wood and brass complete—used with a surprising instinct for instrumental effect; their shapeless dialogue us transformed into often highly expressive recitative rising at times almost to the dignity of an aria; their childish harmonies are superseded by novel and daring experiments in discord, which, though they may sound ordinary enough to ears trained upon Richard Strauss, must have made the hair of conservative musicians in those days stand upon end.