Monteverdi's work, often regarded as revolutionary, marked the transition from the music of the Renaissance to that of the Baroque. He developed two individual styles of composition: the new basso continuo technique of the Baroque and the heritage of Renaissance polyphony. Enjoying fame in his lifetime, he wrote one of the earliest operas, L'Orfeo, which is still regularly performed.
Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona, a town in Northern Italy, to Baldassare Monteverdi, a doctor, apothecary and surgeon. He was the oldest of five children. During his childhood, he was taught by Marc'Antonio Ingegneri , the maestro di cappella (The Maestro di capella’s job was to conduct important worship services in accordance with the liturgy books of the Roman Catholic Church. ), at the Cathedral of Cremona. Monteverdi learned about music by being part of the cathedral choir. He also studied at the University of Cremona. His first music was written for publication, including some motets and sacred madrigals, in 1582 and 1583. His first five compositions were: Cantiunculae Sacrae , 1582; Madrigal Spirituali, 1583; the three-part canzonets, 1584; and the five-part madrigals– Book I, 1587, and Book II, 1590. By 1587, he had produced his first book of secular madrigals. Monteverdi worked for the court of Mantua first as a singer and violist, then as music director. He worked at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua as a vocalist and viol player. In 1602, he was working as the court conductor.
By 1613, he had moved to the San Marco in Venice where, as conductor , he quickly restored the musical standard of both the choir and the instrumentalists. The musical standard had declined due to the financial mismanagement of his predecessor, Giulio Cesare Martinengo. The managers of the basilica were relieved to have such a distinguished musician in charge, as the music had been declining since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609.
Around 1632, he became a priest. During the last years of his life, when he was often ill, he composed his two last masterpieces: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641), and the historic opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero. L'incoronazione especially is considered a culminating point of Monteverdi's work. It contains tragic, romantic, and comedic scenes (a new development in opera), a more realistic portrayal of the characters, and warmer melodies than previously heard. It requires a smaller orchestra, and has a less prominent role for the choir. For a long period of time, Monteverdi's operas were merely regarded as a historical or musical interest. Since the 1960's, The Coronation of Poppea has re-entered the repertoire of major opera companies worldwide.
Monteverdi's works are split into three categories: madrigals, operas, and church-music.
Until the age of forty, Monteverdi worked primarily on madrigals, composing a total of nine books. It took Monteverdi about four years to finish his first book of twenty-one madrigals for five voices. As a whole, the first eight books of madrigals show the enormous development from Renaissance polyphonic music to the monodic style typical of Baroque music.
The titles of his Madrigal books are:
The Fifth Book of Madrigals shows the shift from the Renaissance style of music to the Baroque. The Quinto Libro (Fifth Book), published in 1605, was at the heart of the controversy between Monteverdi and Giovanni Artusi. Giovanni Artusi attacked the "crudities" and "license" of the modern style of composing, centering his attacks on madrigals (including Cruda Amarilli, composed around 1600) (See Fabbri, Monteverdi, p. 60) from the fourth book. Monteverdi made his reply in the introduction to the fifth book, with a proposal of the division of musical practice into two streams, which he called prima prattica, and seconda prattica. Prima prattica was described as the previous polyphonic ideal of the sixteenth century, with flowing strict counterpoint, prepared dissonance, and equality of voices. Seconda prattica used much freer counterpoint with an increasing hierarchy of voices, emphasising soprano and bass. In Prima Prattica the harmony controls the words. In Seconda Prattica the words should be in control of the harmonies. This represented a move towards the new style of monody. The introduction of continuo in many of the madrigals was a further self-consciously modern feature. In addition, the fifth book showed the beginnings of conscious functional tonality.
The Ottavo Libro, published in 1638, includes the so-called Madrigali dei guerrieri ed amorosi which many consider to be the perfection of the madrigal form. The Eighth Book of Madrigals is subtitled Madrigals of War and Love.
While in Venice, Monteverdi also finished his sixth, seventh and eighth books of madrigals. The eighth is the largest, containing works written over a thirty-year period, including the dramatic scene Tancredi e Clorinda (1624), in which the orchestra and voices form two separate entities, acting as counterparts. Most likely Monteverdi was inspired to try this arrangement because of the two opposite balconies in San Marco. What made this composition also stand out is the first-time use of string tremolo (fast repetition of the same tone) and pizzicato (plucking strings with fingers) for special effect in dramatic scenes.
Monteverdi composed at least eighteen operas, but only L'Orfeo, L'incoronazione di Poppea, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and the famous aria, Lamento, from his second opera L'Arianna have survived. From monody (with melodic lines, intelligible text and placid accompanying music), it was a logical step for Monteverdi to begin composing opera. In 1607, the premiere of his first opera, L'Orfeo, took place in Mantua. L'Orfeo was not the first opera, but the first mature opera, or one that realized all of it's potential. It was normal at that time for composers to create works on demand for special occasions, and this piece was part of the ducal celebrations of carnival. (Monteverdi was later to write for the first opera houses supported by ticket sales which opened in Venice). L'Orfeo has dramatic power and lively orchestration. L'Orfeo is arguably the first example of a composer assigning specific instruments to parts in operas. It is also one of the first large compositions in which the exact instrumentation of the premiere has come down to us. The plot is described in vivid musical pictures and the melodies are linear and clear. With this opera, Monteverdi created an entirely new style of music, the dramma per la musica or musical drama. L'Arianna was the second opera written by Claudio Monteverdi. It is of the most influential and famous specimens of early baroque opera. It was first performed in Mantua in 1608. Its subject matter was the ancient Greek legend of Ariadne and Theseus. During the last years of his life, Monteverdi was often ill. During this time, he composed his two last masterpieces: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641), and the historic opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea, (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero. The libretto for Il ritorno d'Ulisse was by Giacomo Badoarro and for L'incoronazione di Poppea by Giovanni Busenello.
Monteverdi's first church music publication was the archaic Mass In illo tempore to which the Vesper Psalms of 1610 were added. The Vesper Psalms of 1610 are also one of the best examples of early repetition and contrast, with many of the parts having a clear ritornello. The published work is on a very grand scale and there has been some controversy as to whether all the movements were intended to be performed in a single service. However, there are various indications of internal unity. In its scope, it foreshadows such summits of Baroque music as Handel's Messiah, and J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion. Each part (there are twenty-five in total) is fully developed in both a musical and dramatic sense - the instrumental textures are used to precise dramatic and emotional effect, in a way that had not been seen before.