[Pt.V- Proj.4] ~ Exercise- Renaissance composers – Monteverdi

Exercise- Renaissance composers – Monteverdi

Apart from Monteverdi, three names represent the main currents of Renaissance music:

William Byrd, Tomás Luis da Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Write a brief account of the life and work of one of these composers, concentrating particularly on the context within which the composer worked and the musical innovations that feature in his work. Can you find any comments by the composer’s contemporaries?

Listen to a cross-section of work by your chosen composer and include your own responses to the music you’ve heard in your account.

Has your chosen composer had any obvious influence on modern composers?


The end of all good music is to affect the soul. Claudio Monteverdi

‘Enjoy the music of the never-enough-praised Monteverdi, born to the world so as to rule over the emotions of others . . . this truly great man . . . known in far-flung parts and wherever music is known, will be sighed for in future ages at least as far as they can be consoled by his most noble compositions, which are set to last as long as they can resist the ravages of time.1’

The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi (Cambridge Companions to Music) (p. 1). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition. Anthony Pryer

Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567. He began writing music already in his teenage years. Monteverdi’s motets were first published when he was only 15 years old and still a still a pupil of Marc’ Antonio Ingagneri ‘maestro di cappella’ of Cremona Cathedral. A couple of years later he published his first secular music. He completed five books of madrigals before publishing his first opera, Orfeo, in 1607. Orfeo is generally considered the first opera. Opera emerged in Florence around 1600 and started out as a re-imagining of ancient Greek drama. Monteverdi used this structure but emphasised the words and put emotions in the foreground. Opera was born and and this new genre can even be seen as an early forerunner of our modern concept of a song. The use of a lead melody line, using chords as harmonic accompaniment to provide colour and atmosphere was an entirely novel approach to composition. The use of dissonance to heighten emotion was a very modern approach.

After the death of his wife and perhaps as a result of over work Monteverdi fell ill. He attempted to focus on church music and gain employment by the church. He finally got his wish several years later when he’s auditioned for the post of ‘maestro di cappella’ at St. Marco, Venice in 1613.

Once at St Marco he completed his sixth book of madrigals and wrote the ballet Tirsi et Clori. His next work to be completed was the Seventh Book of Madrigals which he dedicated to Caterina de Medici. Whilst in the service of St. Marco he wrote operas and ballets alongside his sacred music. His work commissioned and performed at numerous ceremonies, functions and state visits.

His relationship with the rulers of Venice was not always conflict free. Monteverdi harked from the Milanese town of Cremona which was at the time under Nepalese/Spanish rule. His nationalist loyalties where therefore divided and he did not consider himself a Venetian. In 1623 he was denounced by the Venetian State Inquisition for supporting  Rome’s rule. His son had further run ins with the Venetian Inquisition and was even imprisoned by them for a while.

Other hardships came in the form of the plague. By 1630 the plague had reached Venice and countless Venetians, amongst them many of Monteverdi’s friends and collaborators, perished.

In 1638 he published his Eight and final Book of Madrigals, in which he also defined and explained his style ‘genere consitato’. ‘Stile concitato’ means ‘agitated style’ which Monteverdi developed in order to express emotions such as anger and agitation by methods such as using rapid repeated notes and extended trills. It bore some resemblance to the earlier ’stile concitato’ in rhetoric and poetry.  

The remainder of Monteverdi’s life until his death in 1643 was spent similarly writing and dedicating works to various dignitaries and for formal events, alongside numerous operas, ballets and sacred works.

He was  the originator of various genres, not in the least Opera and influenced countless composers throughout history, Igor Stravinsky, Strauss, D’Indy, Orff, Respighi, Hindemith, Maderna and Henze  amongst them.  He surpassed his contemporaries and outshone them in terms of emotional power and diversity of output. He invented numerous new expressive devices and through his ‘Seconda Pratica’, originated the method of using the violin to mirror vocal writing to great emotional effect. He also devised new ways of notating metrical and rhythmical relationships and overall greatly contributed to the foundations of Western Art Music.

‘I would rather be moderately praised for the new style than greatly praised for the ordinary’.