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Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) was a musical revolutionary who championed the new style
of music that replaced intricate Renaissance counterpoint with the more theatrical music of
the early Baroque. Yet he was a master in both these styles, as this selection from his loveliest
madrigals and most famous opera and sacred works shows. Whether praising the divine or
lamenting the pain of mortal love, Monteverdi remains a composer whose music can melt the
hardest heart and set the soul dancing.
By Ardella Crawford
American Record Guide
The Best of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)
[Track 1] Vespers of the Blessed Virgin: Domine, ad adiuvandum (Track 1 from disc 1 of 8.550662–63)
[Track 2] Vespers of the Blessed Virgin: Concerto: Duo Seraphim (Track 7 from disc 1 of 8.550662–63)
[Track 3] Lamento d’Olimpia (Track 26 from 8.555307)
[Track 4] Madrigals Book 2 (1590): Crudel, perché mi fuggi (Track 17 from 8.555308)
[Track 5] Madrigals Book 4 (1603): Ohimè, se tanto amate (Track 12 from 8.555310)
[Track 6] Madrigals Book 5 (1605): Cruda Amarilli (Track 1 from 8.555311)
[Track 7–11] Madrigals Book 6 (1614): Lamento d’Arianna (Track 16 to 20 from Disc 2 of 8.555312–13)
[Track 12] L’Orfeo: Toccata (Track 1 from Disc 1 of 8.554094–95)
[Track 13] L’Orfeo - Act III: Orpheus: Scorto da te (Track 1 from Disc 2 of 8.554094–95)
[Track 14] Amarilli onde m’assale (Track 2 from 8.553317)
[Track 15] Dolci miei sospiri (Track 13 from 8.553317)
[Track 16] Canzonetta: La fiera vista (Track 4 from 8.553316)
Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567, the son of an apothecary, surgeon and doctor in the city, a
man of some substance. He was a pupil of Marc‘ Antonio Ingegneri, master of music at the cathedral and a
musician of wide reputation, presumably as a chorister, winning a local reputation as a singer and as a string-player
and publishing, at the age of fifteen, his first collection of sacred music, followed by a second a year later,
in 1583. A third publication came in 1584, a collection of three-part canzonets. In 1587 and 1590 he issued two
further collections, now of five-part madrigals.
Some time after the beginning of 1590 Monteverdi found at last a position in a distinguished musical
establishment outside Cremona. This was initially as a string-player in the service of the Gonzagas in Mantua,
so that his third volume of madrigals, issued in 1592, is dedicated to the ruling Duke Vincenzo. Monteverdi’s
subsequent relationship with his employers was the later subject of much retrospective complaint on his part. In
1595 he accompanied the Duke on an undistinguished military expedition to Hungary and again, in 1599, the year
of his marriage to a singer, the daughter of a fellow-musician, he travelled in the Duke’s entourage to Flanders.
In 1602 he was appointed maestro della musica to the same patron. In 1607 his opera La favola d’Orfeo was
staged in Mantua, followed the next year by L’Arianna, a work now lost, except for the famous lament of Ariadne,
abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. The same year brought a further court entertainment in
Il ballo delle ingrate. In 1610 Monteverdi published his famous Vespers, possibly in a prudent attempt to interest
other patrons, whether in musically conservative Rome or in Venice. Any reservations he may have had about
his service in Mantua were justified. In February 1612 Duke Vincenzo died and five months later Monteverdi was
dismissed, returning now to Cremona. In 1612, however, came a much more congenial appointment as maestro
di cappella at the basilica of San Marco in Venice, a position he held with distinction until his death in 1643 at the
age of 76, composing in old age further operas, of which Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Homecoming of
Ulysses) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), staged in Venice in 1641 and 1642
The volume of 1610, dedicated to Pope Paul V, includes a relatively conservative setting of the Mass coupled
with Vesper settings in the modern style, a series of sacred concertos. These works provide examples of what
Monteverdi could do, whether for conservative Rome or for contemporary Venice. The Vespers open with the
versicle and splendidly orchestrated response Domine, in adiuvandum me festina (Lord, make haste to help me)
[Track 1], after the opening plainchant Deus, in adiutorium meum intende (O God, make speed to save us). Sacred
concertos are placed between the usual Vesper psalms. Psalm CXXI, Laetatus sum (I was glad when they said
unto me) is followed by the concerto Duo Seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth (Two Seraphim cried one to the other: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth) [Track 2] for three
tenors and organ, exploiting the possible acoustic effects of a building such as San Marco in Venice.
Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (Orpheus) of 1607 was first performed at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. The work
holds a special position in operatic literature as the earliest such composition to have regained a place in current operatic repertoire. Although it was not the first opera, it may be accounted the first opera that, in revival, has
held its own, including, as it does, compelling music by a great master of the early Italian Baroque, a pioneer of
the new music of the period, in a treatment of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a demonstration itself of the
power of music. The rise of humanism in Italy had brought with it increased musical experiment, particularly in
the association of music with dramatic texts. Interest in classical literature, ancient Greek drama and the plays
of Seneca and the further development of a continuing pastoral tradition stemming from Theocritus and Vergil,
led to attempts to restore ancient Greek dramatic practice and to the development of aesthetic theories deriving
from Plato. The story of Orpheus has Latin literary sources in Ovid and in Vergil and had, in part at least, been
the subject of a lost play by Aeschylus. Immediate literary sources, however, are pastoral rather than dramatic
and the opera of Monteverdi, therefore, and of the poet Alessandro Striggio, derives much from the pastoral
tradition of Sannazaro and of the Italian madrigal, the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney, of Spenser or of Marlowe’s
Monteverdi’s musical treatment of the work follows the new principles of Italian dramatic monody, with the
concomitant rhetorical shifts of harmony, closely following the dramatic intonation suggested by the text. The
opera starts with an instrumental Toccata [Track 12] brief overture to the drama in which the legendary musician
Orpheus descends to the Underworld in order to bring back his beloved Eurydice, a task in which he is finally
unsuccessful when he disregards the warning of Pluto, King of the Underworld, and looks back to see that
Eurydice is following him. In the third act Scorto da te, mio nume Speranza (Accompanied by you, my goddess
Hope) [Track 13] Orpheus has reached the banks of the Styx, accompanied by the goddess Hope, who describes the bleak
scene and urges him on, in spite of the words at the entrance to Hades, Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here), which forbid her to go further with him.
Monteverdi’s Arianna was staged in Mantua a year later. The lost opera treated the tragic story of the Cretan
princess Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, after she had helped him escape the Minotaur.
Ariadne is to find life again with the cult of Bacchus. The legend has its literary sources in Ovid and in Catullus.
The famous Lament of Ariadne, the model for so many further musical laments made an immediate impression
on those who first heard it and was variously re-used by Monteverdi, towards the end of his life with a sacred
text. In 1623 he published a version of the Lament of Arianna [Track 7–11], sung here by a counter-tenor with continuo
accompaniment provided by the larger sized lute, the theorbo, harpsichord, organ and cello. The text of Arianna was by Ottavio Rinuccini and the heroine here, as in Ovid’s Heroides, laments the infidelity of her lover, first
seeking death, then reproaching her lover.
The Lamento d’Olimpia [Track 3] is found in a Roman manuscript, once the property of the composer Luigi Rossi
(1598–1653). This follows the situation and pattern of the more famous Lamento d’Arianna. Olympia, a Dutch
noblewoman, abandoned by her lover Bireno, is found in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and in her sorrow she too first
calls for death, before begging Bireno to return. Following convention, it is sung by a counter-tenor, accompanied
by theorbo, bass viol and lirone.
Monteverdi published seven volumes of madrigals. From Book 2 of 1590, a collection of five-voice madrigals, comes Crudel, perché mi fuggi (Cruel one, why shun me) [Track 4], a setting of a text by Battista Guarini, accompanied
by harpsichord and bass viol. The collection came at a time when Monteverdi was unsuccessfully seeking
appointment at the court in Milan, a fact reflected in his dedication to Iacomo Ricardi, President of the Senate in
Milan. It was in 1590, however, that he secured a position in Mantua as a string-player. Book 3 of the madrigals
was published in 1591, followed by Book 4 in 1603. From the latter comes Ohimè, se tanto amate (Alas, if you
so love) [Track 5], a graphic setting of words by Guarini based on the suggestions of the first word, promising a final
mille dolci ohimè (a thousand sweet ‘alases’), if the lover and beloved will live for each other.
Book 5 was published in Venice in 1605 with a dedication to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. Cruda Amarilli, che col
nome ancora / d’amar (Cruel Amaryllis, your very name, alas, suggests the bitterness of love) is a setting of
words by Guarini, taken from his Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd), the five voices here accompanied by
theorbo and harp. The lovelorn shepherd Mirtillo pleads with Amaryllis, the first two syllables of whose name
suggest both love and bitterness.
Monteverdi published a collection of Scherzi musicali a tre voci in 1607 with a dedication to Prince Francesco
Gonzaga. The publication included two madrigals by Monteverdi’s brother Giulio Cesare, who assembled the
works. The three-voice Amarilli onde m’assale (Amaryllis, why does the proud shaft of new love assail me) [Track 14] is
a strophic setting of words by Gabriello Chiabrera, a poet who had been in Mantua in 1602 and whose work was
much favoured at the Gonzaga court. Each verse is preceded by an instrumental introduction. Dolci miei sospiri (My sweet sighs) [Track 15], again with words by Chiabrera, is taken from the same collection. Chiabrera experimented
with Italian verse forms, following French practice of the time and providing new opportunities for composers.
Again the verses of the strophic setting are divided by ritornelli, repeated instrumental interludes.
The final work included here, La fiera vista e’l velenoso sguardo (The proud sight and poisonous look / Of the
basilisk take a man’s life) [Track 16] is taken from Monteverdi’s earliest collection of Canzonette a tre voci, published in
1584, when he was seventeen, and dedicated to Pietro Ambrosini, member of a distinguished family in Cremona.
The setting of the anonymous text for three female voices, with instruments, reflects the influence of the Concerto
delle Dame of the court of Ferrara, under the patronage of Alfonso d’Este. It is representative of Monteverdi’s
work at the start of his career, yet foreshadowing something of what is to come.
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