Claudio Monteverdi, ca. 1630 © Bernardo Strozzi
Claudio Monteverdi, ca. 1630
© Bernardo Strozzi
Today we're celebrating the birthday of Claudio Monteverdi, gambist, singer, Catholic priest and composer.

At first sight, his life might have been quite ordinary: he was the oldest of five children, was taught music as a member of the cathedral choir, and went on to study music at the university of his hometown Cremona. He married, became a father, lost his wife, moved to Rome. What isn't at all ordinary, however, is his music. He published eight books of madrigals in his lifetime, one posthumously, wrote some of the earliest operas and made a lasting impression on music as we know it today. His work is sounding witness of the transition from Renaissance music to the new Baroque style.

The most famous of his works are certainly his stage works and vespers, yet until he was about 40 years of age, his main compositional output were madrigals, initially still composed in the polyphonic style of the Renaissance that longingly describes the "Sweet kisses" in this madrigal from his First Book:

As time moved on, however, his style changed. This opening madrigal from his Fifth Book, Cruda Amarilli, is a lament of a shepherd in love with Amarilli, who seemingly rejects him. Monteverdi starts to express the words of sadness with the music and "colours" it with plenty of chromatic steps – something his contemporary Carlo Gesualdo was to become even more notorious for (in addition to the infamous turn of his private life). A closer look at the score also reveals numerous transgressions of the rules of composition of the time and can indeed be seen as deliberate provocation:

With Early Music, it isn't all about history and theory, however. Not even with Monteverdi. I still remember clearly when a much admired (and reputable) university professor of mine opened a lecture with the bold statement "Monteverdi invented the walking bass". And she wasn't joking, either! Just listen to this formidable version of his "Ohimè, ch'io cado" by the splendid Philippe Jaroussky with the Early cross-over ensemble L'Arpeggiata:

On a more serious note, Monteverdi is indeed often seen as the pioneer of new musical format increasingly popular at the time – opera! His dramma per musica L'Orfeo revolutionised the genre that was still in its very early days, gave an exciting, new dimension to dramatic scenes. Listening to Furio Zanasi and Le Concert des Nations in the scene below, in which Orfeo receives news that his beloved has died, one can imagine the impression it must have made on the audience of the première: "Both poet and musician have depicted the inclinations of the heart so skilfully that it could not have been done better... nothing more beautiful is to be heard anywhere." (Cherubino Ferrari, poet at the court of Mantua) 

 

Monteverdi wrote numerous further operas, of which only Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea have survived. For seven more, the music is mostly lost, and the same is true for L'Arianna, where all but Arianna's lament Lasciatemi morire is lost – which makes it all the more popular.

Just as popular are his Vespers for the Holy Virgin, depicting a typical Vespers service and at the same time an exceptional composition in many ways. It is a milestone for vocal as well as instrumental composition: in the echo scene of Audi coelum, for example, the answers to the questions of the believer appear to be coming directly from heaven:

 

And the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria following the last psalm, with grand orchestration of strings and wind instruments, breathtaking virtuosity and oscillating colours is perhaps the most complex instrumental piece written to this day.