Happy Birthday, Claudio

1567 – Claudio Monteverdi – 2017

A concert to mark his 450th birthday on (?) May 14th 2017. Monteverdi was baptised on 15th May, 1567. We do not know when he was born but the custom at the time was to baptise within a day or two of birth. His career can be summarised thus:

  • 1567 – Born in Cremona, first studies in music with Marcantonio Ingegneri, maestro at the cathedral.
  • 1589 – entered the service of the Gonzaga court at Mantua as a string player and then, from 1601, as director of the Duke’s private music for both chapel and chamber. During the next ten years he composed both the first great opera, Orfeo (1607) and the music we now refer to as his 1610 Vespers.
  • 1613 – became maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, Venice. As well as sacred music for the basilica he continued to compose dramatic music for Mantua, and then for the new opera houses in Venice.
  • 1643 – died and was/is buried in the Frari church in Venice.

Cantate Domino a6 & Christe, adoramus te a5

Giulio Cesare Bianchi (1590 – 1661) was a colleague of Monteverdi’s in Mantua. In 1620 Bianchi published his Libro primo de Motetti and invited his friend to contribute to the volume. Monteverdi sent Bianchi four motets (Adoramus te and Domine in furore follow shortly) which may give us a sense of the sacred music style he was cultivating in his first years at St. Mark’s.

Gloria in excelsis Deo a4

It seems likely that Monteverdi wrote more than thirty settings of the mass, of which three have survived complete. The mass from which this movement comes was published posthumously in 1650, part of a large miscellaneous anthology of his sacred music.

Adoramus te, Christe a6, Rutilante in nocte a5 & Domine, ne in furore a6

Rutilante is an example of a contrafactum – a re-texting of a composition without major changes to the music. Here, a madrigal from Monteverdi’s Book 4 (1603) has been given a Christmas text in Latin by Aquilino Coppini (published in 1609).

Ohime! Dov’e il mio ben a2 & Zefiro torna a2

Though they were published as madrigals (1619 and 1632 respectively) these outstanding pieces show Monteverdi’s transformation of the genre from polyphonic music in several parts towards what the next generation of composers would call cantatas. Both are written as sets of variations above a repeating bass line.

Magnificat a4

As far as we know, Monteverdi composed four settings of the Magnificat text. Two were published in the 1610 collection and the other two in the Selva morale e spirituale of 1640. Both pairs include an elaborate composition with instruments and a more modest piece for voices and organ only.

By describing this work as in genere da capella (in church style) Monteverdi draws attention to the music’s alternatim structure; the frequent references to the plainchant melody within his composed sections; the rigorous counterpoint; his use of ‘white notes’ (minims and semibreves) in an age when crotchets and quavers had become the norm; and the modest scoring. Indeed, performance by voices only is not impossible and would not produce any musically ungrammatical moments.

Although it is a ‘weekday Vespers’ piece, we enjoy the flowing lines, the occasional moments of rhythmic skittishness and the lively canonic writing in the Gloria Patri.

Ah dolente partita a5, Quel augellin a5 & Lasciate mi morire a5

Two madrigals from Book 4 (1603) and one from Book 6 (1614). Lasciate is an ensemble version by Monteverdi of music that is the only surviving fragment (for voice and lute) of his opera Arianna (1608). These thirty or so bars break just about every rule in early 17th century composers’ textbooks and are a perfect demonstration of Monteverdi’s so-called second practice, in which the musical content was a close reflection of the text, as opposed to the more neutral first practice, exemplified by composers of the previous generation such as Palestrina.

Lauda Jerusalem a7

We end with an ebullient psalm setting from the 1610 collection. The singers are divided into three groups: tenors sing the text to rhythmicised plainchant while two SAB groups dance around them.

Happy Birthday Claudio – and thank you!