Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (May 15, 1567–November 29, 1643) was an Italian composer, string player and choirmaster, who was a composer of both secular and sacred music, a pioneer in the development of opera, and a crucial transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods of music history. Monteverdi was baptized in the church of SS Nazaro e Celso, Cremona, Italy, on May 15, 1567. The register records his name as “Claudio Zuan Antonio” the son of “Messer Baldasar Mondeverdo.” He was the first child of the apothecary Baldassare Monteverdi and his first wife Maddalena (née Zignani); they had married early the previous year. Monteverdi is usually described as an “Italian” composer, even though in his lifetime the concept of “Italy” existed only as a geographical entity. Cremona lay under the jurisdiction of Milan, a Spanish possession, so that Monteverdi was technically born a Spanish subject.
There is no clear record of Monteverdi’s early musical training, or evidence that (as is sometimes claimed) he was a member of the Cathedral choir or studied at Cremona University. Monteverdi’s first published work, a set of motets, Sacrae cantiunculae (Sacred Songs) for three voices, was issued in Venice in 1582, when he was only fifteen years old. In this, and his other initial publications, he describes himself as the pupil of Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, who was from 1581 (and possibly from 1576) to 1592 the maestro di cappella at Cremona Cathedral. Monteverdi’s first publications give evidence of his connections beyond Cremona, even in his early years. His second published work, Madrigali spirituali (Spiritual Madrigals, 1583), was printed at Brescia. His next works (his first published secular compositions) were sets of five-part madrigals. The first book of madrigals (Venice, 1587) was dedicated to Count Marco Verità of Verona; the second book of madrigals (Venice, 1590) was dedicated to the President of the Senate of Milan, Giacomo Ricardi, for whom he had played the viola da braccio in 1587.
In the dedication of his second book of madrigals, Monteverdi had described himself as a player of the vivuola (which could mean either viola da gamba or viola da braccio). In 1590 or 1591 he entered the service of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga of Mantua. Duke Vincenzo was keen to establish his court as a musical centre, and sought to recruit leading musicians. When Monteverdi arrived in Mantua, the maestro di capella at the court was the Flemish musician Giaches de Wert. Monteverdi married the court singer Claudia de Cattaneis in 1599; they were to have three children, two sons (Francesco, b. 1601 and Massimiliano, b. 1604), and a daughter who died soon after birth in 1603. Monteverdi’s brother Giulio Cesare joined the court musicians in 1602. When Wert died in 1596, his post was given to Benedetto Pallavicino, but Monteverdi was clearly highly regarded by Vincenzo and accompanied him on his military campaigns in Hungary (1595) and also on a visit to Flanders in 1599. On the death of Pallavicino in 1601 Monteverdi was confirmed as the new maestro di capella.
In 1606 Vincenzo’s heir Francesco commissioned from Monteverdi the opera L’Orfeo, to a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, for the Carnival season of 1607. It was given two performances in February and March 1607; the singers included, in the title role, Rasi, who had sung in the first performance of Euridice witnessed by Vincenzo in 1600. This was followed in 1608 by the opera L’Arianna (libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini), intended for the celebration of the marriage of Francesco to Margherita of Savoy. All the music for this opera is lost apart from Ariadne’s Lament, which became extremely popular. To this period also belongs the ballet entertainment Il ballo delle ingrate. The strain of the hard work Monteverdi had been putting into these and other compositions was exacerbated by personal tragedies. His wife died in September 1607. He retired to Cremona in 1608 to convalesce. After publishing his Vespers in 1610, which were dedicated to Pope Paul V, he visited Rome, ostensibly hoping to place his son Francesco at a seminary, but apparently also seeking alternative employment.
In 1613, following the death of Giulio Cesare Martinengo, Monteverdi auditioned for his post as maestro at the basilica of San Marco in Venice, for which he submitted music for a Mass. He was appointed in August 1613. Martinengo had been ill for some time before his death and had left the music of San Marco in a fragile state. The choir had been neglected and the administration overlooked. When Monteverdi arrived to take up his post, his principal responsibility was to recruit, train, discipline and manage the musicians of San Marco (the capella), who amounted to about 30 singers and six instrumentalists. Monteverdi also sought to expand the repertory, including not only the traditional a cappella repertoire of Roman and Flemish composers, but also examples of the modern style which he favored, including the use of continuo and other instruments. Apart from this he was of course expected to compose music for all the major feasts of the church. Nonetheless, remaining a Mantuan citizen, he accepted commissions from the new Duke Ferdinando, who had formally renounced his position as Cardinal in 1616 to take on the duties of state. These included the balli Tirsi e Clori (1616) and Apollo (1620), an opera Andromeda (1620) and an intermedio, Le nozze di Tetide, for the marriage of Ferdinando with Caterina de’ Medici (1617). A subsequent major commission, the opera La finta pazza Licori, to a libretto by Giulio Strozzi, was completed for Fernando’s successor Vincenzo II, who succeeded to the dukedom in 1626.
Monteverdi also received commissions from other Italian states and from their communities in Venice. These included, for the Milanese community in 1620, music for the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo, and for the Florentine community a Requiem Mass for Cosimo II de’ Medici (1621). Monteverdi acted on behalf of Paolo Giordano II, Duke of Bracciano, to arrange publication of works by the Cremona musician Francesco Petratti. Among Monteverdi’s private Venetian patrons was the nobleman Girolamo Mocenigo, at whose home was premiered in 1624 the dramatic entertainment Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda based on an episode from Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata. In 1627 Monteverdi received a major commission from Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, for a series of works, and gained leave from the Procurators to spend time there during 1627 and 1628.
A series of disturbing events troubled Monteverdi’s world in the period around 1630. Mantua was invaded by Habsburg armies in 1630, who besieged the plague-stricken town, and after its fall in July looted its treasures, and dispersed the artistic community. Monteverdi’s younger brother Giulio Cesare died at this time, probably from the plague. By this time Monteverdi was in his sixties, and his rate of composition seems to have slowed down. He had written a setting of Strozzi’s Proserpina rapita (The Abduction of Proserpina), now lost except for one vocal trio, for a Mocenigo wedding in 1630, and produced a Mass for deliverance from the plague for San Marco which was performed in November 1631. His set of Scherzi musicali was published in Venice in 1632. In 1631, Monteverdi was admitted to the tonsure, and was ordained deacon, and later priest, in 1632. Although these ceremonies took place in Venice, he was nominated as a member of the clergy of Cremona; this may imply that he intended to retire there.
The opening of the opera house of San Cassiano in 1637, the first public opera house in Europe, stimulated the city’s musical life and coincided with a new burst of the composer’s activity. 1638 saw the publication of Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals and a revision of the Ballo delle ingrate. The eighth book contains a ballo, “Volgendi il ciel”, which may have been composed for the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, to whom the book is dedicated. The years 1640–1641 saw the publication of the extensive collection of church music, Selva morale e spirituale. Among other commissions, Monteverdi wrote music in 1637 and 1638 for Strozzi’s “Accademia degli Unisoni” in Venice, and in 1641 a ballet, La vittoria d’Amore, for the court of Piacenza. Monteverdi was still not entirely free from his responsibilities for the musicians at San Marco, but his contribution to opera at this period is notable. He revised his earlier opera L’Arianna in 1640 and wrote three new works for the commercial stage, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland, 1640, first performed in Bologna with Venetian singers), Le nozze d’Enea e Lavinia (The Marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia, 1641, music now lost), and L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1643). He died in Venice on November 29, 1643, after paying a brief visit to Cremona, and is buried in the Church of the Frari. He was survived by his sons; Masimilliano died in 1661, Francesco after 1677.
The following work by Claudio Monteverdi is contained in my collection:
Vespers: Deus in Adjutorium.