We now arrive at the singular musical genius of Claudio Monteverdi. In any list of the most important composers in history, he’s Top 10, easily. As much as I love Tallis and Allegri, neither is on Monteverdi’s level artistically. Unlike Bach, who fully embodied his age with such mastery that (at least for me) his death took the entire Baroque Period with him to the grave, Monteverdi’s genius for innovation ended the Renaissance, began the Baroque, while pretty much inventing and perfecting opera along the way. More to say about him as a Baroque composer later, but for now, a true late Renaissance madrigal to close out that singularly gilded period. A standard form to be sure, but for Monteverdi a chance to incite a revolution in sound—Monteverdi dabbles in that black art of dissonance to achieve a more dramatic effect to his music, a technique that he would use to great effect in his operas. Instead of composing solely on closely related chords, Monteverdi experimented with combining chords that had no relationship to one another, adding additional color to his music and which enabled him to express a broader range of emotions.
Here is the story. In 1598, a group of composers and performers met in Ferrara in connection with the wedding of Philip III. Details of what emerged during those concerts was memorialized in the writings of Giovanni Artusi, a noted music theorist. Monteverdi used this occasion to trot out some of his more inventive compositions, which Artusi described as “harsh and little pleasing to the ear.” Chief among Artusi’s complaints was Monteverdi’s “open and exposed” use of dissonance, breaking Palestrina’s golden rules of harmony and counterpoint. The Artusi-Monteverdi debate raged without cessation much of the next decade—Artusi published his anti-modernist treatise on music theory in 1603 and Monteverdi responded in kind. Best not to debate a genius on his own turf: Monteverdi’s landmark Fifth Book of Madrigals compiled these innovative compositions and, in the introduction, the composer announced his intention to publish a treatise of his own, one that has come to be known as the Seconda practica, although Monteverdi’s full title was Seconda practica, overo Perfettione della moderna musica. Translation is probably not needed there.
The first selection, Cruda Amerilli, leads off the Fifth Book. Monteverdi undoubtedly placed it first, since this madrigal and come in for the harshest criticism from Artusi. In it, Monteverdi uses dissonances in the opening bars to convey the wounds of love suffered by the protagonists, the shepherdess Amaryllis and the shepherd Mirtillo:
Cruel Amaryllis, who even with your name, to love, alas, instruct bitterly; Amaryllis, more pure and beautiful than the white privet, but more deaf and more fierce and more fleeting than the deaf asp; since in speaking I offend you, I will die in silence.
Claudio Monteverdi, Cruda Amarilli:
The next selection, which closes the Fifth Book, has become the most famous of the lot. Here, Monteverdi takes harmony to new places, creating dissonances and ambiguity, augmenting the lyrics musically to drive the emotionally points home. The lyrics and music, in Monteverdi’s skilled hands, are fused to one. While these brief dissonances fall relatively easily on our 21st century ears, they would have seemed like harsh daggers to the brain in 1605. This pain, this music, is all too real—we are still singing songs about it today:
O Mirtillo, Mirtillo, my love, if only you could see the inner life and feelings of her whom you call most cruel Amarilli, I know well that you would feel for her that same pity which you ask of her. Oh, our souls are too unhappy in love! What joy is there, my heart, in being loved? What joy is there for me in having so dear a lover? Why, cruel Destiny, do you divide us when Love unites us? And why do you unite us, treacherous Love, when Destiny divides us?
Claudio Monteverdi, O Mirtillo, Mirtillo anima mia:
The use of dissonance has become more common over the centuries, but it still can be effectively employed to convey emotional pain. By 1964, The Beatles, and John Lennon in particular, had reached a tipping point. The extreme popularity of the Fab Four had completely eroded their privacy, subjecting The Beatles to constant attention—the pressure of fame had become literally physical as photos of the band from that era will attest. Lennon wrote a song about his emotional pain, which The Beatles would predictably lampoon in a movie by the same name. But the title and that remarkable opening chord tell a story as old as time.
The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night:
Monteverdi’s Fifth Book was a landmark in music history—this is where Monteverdi slams the door on the Renaissance for good, in compositions that would influence scores of musicians, from Mozart to Beethoven and right through to The Beatles and beyond. Bigger things to come next time, as Monteverdi’s genius reaches its full flowering; but for now, a farewell to the Renaissance and, oh, what a way to close out that glorious age.