Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monterverdi
Born: Cremona, (baptized May 15, 1567)
Died: Venice, November 29, 1643
The son of a doctor, Monteverdi studied music at the town cathedral in Cremona, and attained his first position as composer and instrumentalist at the court of the Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua in 1591. In 1599 he married a singer at the court, Claudia de Cattaneis. The couple had three children before her untimely death in 1607. The composer remained a widower for the rest of his life. Although unhappy and grossly underpaid in Mantua, Monteverdi remained there until the death of Vincenzo in 1612, when he was relieved of his duties by the new duke. Soon after however, he was invited to serve as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, an extremely prestigious post. Monteverdi remained in Venice until his death in 1643.
Although required by his employers to compose much sacred music throughout his career, Monteverdi seemed most happy (and his art in greatest evidence) with secular music. Monteverdi composed and published dozens of madrigals throughout his life, and Zefiro trona is an excellent example of his art in that secular form. In this madrigal, Monteverdi uses the common technique of spinning out the melodic lines, one after the other, over a repeated bass figure. One of Monteverdi's undoubted sacred masterpieces are the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, composed in 1610. Monteverdi's settings here vary between Renaissance polyphony and the newer homophonic sound of the Baroque. He was a master of both forms. The power and fervor of the writing can be heard in the "Lauda Jerusalem" from the Vespers of 1610, with the sound of instruments added to the choir.
Internationally famous through the publication of his madrigals, Monteverdi scaled new artistic heights with the composition of his operas. His first was L'Orfeo, called by the composer a "fable in music," and was composed for the court of Duke Vincenzo in 1607. Many operas followed, but the music to them is unfortunately lost. Monteverdi's final opera, written in 1642 when he was in his seventies, remains one of the landmarks of the new genre and his undisputed masterwork. Although the manuscripts that have survived consist only of the bass line and vocal parts, comprising mostly dramatic recitativo (melodic declamations over the bass, to which the instrumentalists fill in appropriate harmonies), the ensemble passages are of exceptional beauty. The frankly erotic moments between Nero (originally a part for a castrato) and Poppea (soprano) contain music that can still move and amaze modern audiences, as can be heard in the final duet, "Pur ti miro" from L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Opera remained popular throughout the Baroque age, culminating in the stage works of George Frideric Handel.
With his death in 1643, Monteverdi's music fell into oblivion, as it was the nature of the times to perform only the very newest music. (Public concerts as we know them did not generally come about until the musical scholarship of the nineteenth century.) With the early music movements of the twentieth century and the rediscovery of his madrigals and sacred music, Claudio Monteverdi has at last been recognized as one of the true masters of Western music.