Baroque Music I: Claudio Monteverdi, Part II, The Birth of Opera

The genius who birthed the Baroque was, as previewed last time, the great Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi.  Its birthplace was Florence, and the medium was opera.  Opera was midwifed in the Florentine Camerata, that group artists, philosophers, musicians, poets, and intellectuals at the end of the Renaissance who debated and studied the arts.  I previously mentioned the centuries of lost music—nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the dramas of the ancient Greeks, whose famous “choruses” were, in fact, sung with musical accompaniment.  The score, unlike the script, was not preserved in history, but as with sculpture, Renaissance scholars and artists sought to return to classical forms—here, the melding of drama and song. 

These late Renaissance composers rejected polyphony and instrumental music, and instead embraced more ancient devices such as monody (solo singing with bare accompaniment).  In that, they embraced Luther’s lyrical innovations.  These “experiments” led directly to Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), which was premiered at the Pitti Palace in Florence, which is generally credited as the first opera for which we have an extant score (Peri’s earlier Dafne has been lost to history).  It isn’t a very good opera and is only performed today for academic reasons.  Some historians suspect that Monteverdi attended a performance of Euridice during the wedding celebrations for Henry IV of France who was marrying into the powerful Medici family (some guys have all the luck—marrying a Medici and hearing the first opera all in one go).  More on that particular Medici queen a bit later on. 

Monteverdi’s patron attended this first operatic performance; whether he brought along his court composer remains a mystery.  What is clear, though, is that the Duke of Matua loved Euridice (heck, some people like Cats too) and, upon his return to Mantua, instructed Monteverdi to compose an opera.  Monteverdi’s version of the same Greek myth, Orfeo (1607), is a staggering work of true genius and remains in regular performance to this day (a 400-year run—beat that Andrew Lloyd Weber!).  Everything about Orfeo was revolutionary—from the combination and number of instruments he used to his decision to tell a narrative story through singers expressing themselves directly to the audience.  As Howard Goodall puts it:  “It was loud. It was long. And it was modern.”  Finally, Monteverdi’s shift from Renaissance polyphony to the emerging basso continuo technique in Orfeo is, for me, where the Baroque begins if you really insist on a definitive starting point.  I’m sure I’m wrong about that, btw (see my Disclaimers in About this Blog).  You can use the links in the YouTube description to jump to Act IV, which is as good an example of early Baroque composition as you are likely to find.  Note the single voice above the accompaniment, as well as the occasional jarring dissonances.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’Orfeo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYUGVnfwDcE

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