Late Monteverdi

In opera singers express their emotions directly to each other and indirectly to the audience—the fusing of drama between singer and audience is what powers opera to this day. And this is where it began, in earnest, with Monteverdi’s late opera Poppea, which was premiered to a paying audience in a public theatre. No more churches. No more ducal palaces. No more myths. A real story about real people with real problems expressing real emotions to the public at large. And yes, that fiddling emperor Nero is one of the first male superstar roles in opera history. This duet between Poppea and Nero closes the opera—no need to show what happens next, as everyone in the audience would have known the bloody story (Nero murders Poppea and their son and commits suicide, bringing an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty). Instead of that melodramatic ending (something that opera would come to specialize in during the 19th century), what we are left with is a moment so stunning, so modern, it is hard to believe that before Poppea nothing, and I mean nothing, sounded like this. This love song—I gaze upon you, I possess you—seems to affirm their wanton greed and ambition, a morality play turned on its head. Monteverdi’s none too subtle political message—Rome is once again in the hands of a Nero, threatening Venetian liberties–would not have been lost on his audience. The Professor claims to hate opera. I dare him to hate this.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di PoppeaPur ti miro, Pur ti godo“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_isL0E-4TsQ

A few words about this recording as well.  At the end, you will glimpse William Christie in the pit, conducting and playing one of two harpsichords (yes, Gert, I have not forgotten—lots of harpsichords to come!).  His Les Arts Florissant is quite simply the best and most important early music group ever.  I see them every chance I get—more than a dozen concerts and operas and counting.  A native of Buffalo, New York, Christie is the best in the business.  We’ll see a lot more of them later—they are to the Baroque what the Tallis Scholars are to the Renaissance.  Soprano Danielle De Niese, who plays Poppea here, is also an American and an early music specialist.  I’m a fan and will say she’s never sounded better than here, under Christie’s baton.  De Niese has a remarkable singing partner in the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.  In Monteverdi’s age, Nero would have been sung by a castrato—male sopranos who were castrated as boys to preserve their voice.  They were the superstars of the old operatic role and, obvious cruelness aside, I will note that they were left “fully functional” and in some cases quite famously so.  Following the demise of the practice of castrating boys for our entertainment, castrato roles eventually went to women, mostly mezzo-sopranos.  In recent years, countertenors have started to claim back these historically male roles.  A countertenor sings only in his head voice—falsetto—which gives his tone an ethereal quality.  While many countertenors of old had weak voices, the modern countertenor can hold his own with a female soprano, as this selection attests.

More Monteverdi: A Prayer on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, without end.

It is a wonderfully cool morning in NYC. Perhaps that’s what triggered it in my mind — it was that nearly imperceptible hint of fall that did the trick. 9/11. It had been the same 20 years ago: 9/11/01 was just a peach of a day until IT happened.

I had gotten to the office early that day for a conference call on one of those digital music joint ventures the record companies were always trying to get off the ground in the pre-iTunes world. The call started at 8:30am Eastern. I saw the towers fall from my office window. My wife had been there just two days prior. The walk home up Lexington Avenue seemed to take an eternity. The last time I had been in a crowd like that had been in Paris the year before. The French had just won Euro 2000; the mood had been quite different then. Here and there I caught bits of conversation, but mostly things were unnaturally quiet. No cars. No buses. Just people walking. You could sense the fear, the anger, the grief. I heard a couple of guys talking about going “Jew hunting” that night. Didn’t happen, but I still remember that. Mostly, I felt numb. A half eaten donut would lay on my desk for a week.

I bought a ton of pasta and bottled water that night. We ate mostly in silence and left town two days later when the bridges opened. In many ways, I never looked back. We moved to London that November and wouldn’t return for three years. London was different. Its scars were older and had been accepted by the time we got there. It was a happy place. We finally threw out the rest of the pasta when we returned in 2005.

I was in Scotland on 9/11/02.  We were staying at a small farmhouse outside of Oban.  We spent the day on the Isle of Kerrera, where sheep outnumber men by at least 3,000:1.  It couldn’t be more different than where I had been the prior year.  Nothing had changed here in centuries.  It was as it ever was.  The fateful hour had passed unnoticed.  I had begun to heal.  That night, we had dinner at the inn. We ate the BBQ chicken without thinking, reliving the day’s adventures; it wasn’t until we had the chocolate cake for dessert that I realized that the innkeepers had made an all-American dinner for us. And then, in an instant, I realized why.  That meant the world to me; it still does.

Twenty years on, that feeling of good will has been lost, squandered by the hubris of successive Administrations that have unethically preyed on the fears of the American people, driving us apart from each other, and us from the world at large. We have become the sheep, jumping at every little last provocation, repeatedly failing to embrace compassion and forgiveness because the lure of hatred is the easier path. Twenty years on, the memory of 9/11 still haunts this city. But the great tragedy of 9/11 is not the gaping hole that it left for the better part of a generation in downtown NY or even the lives that were lost that day. The greater tragedy by far is its legacy. It is a legacy that transformed our nation from a beacon of liberty and justice to an international pariah. Twenty years on, NYC has recovered. It is our nation that has been fatally wounded.

Sacred music can lift the spirits and inspire humanity to goodness, even if you do not have faith in its message. The message of music is universal, allowing those of us who are gripped in the vise of a historic pandemic in the 21st century to be soothed by music written half a millennia ago. Today, I think we need some of that.

Freed of the strictures of Renaissance music, Orfeo is where the full flower of Monteverdi genius began to take hold. Leaving his position at the Court of Mantua for the greener pastures of Venice, Monteverdi entered a city that would be described as “opera mad” only a few decades later. Libertine Venice, soon to be home to half a dozen opera houses, was surely ready to embrace Monteverdi’s revolution in full. And that’s because Monteverdi’s music, matching the ambitions of new employers, was simply bigger and louder (not to mention better) than anyone else’s: At a time when everyone maxed out at 7, Monteverdi went to 11. Gone were the subtle polyphonic harmonies that had been carefully developed in the Renaissance. Hello, over-the-top Baroque. For a taste of just what exactly that Baroque aesthetic looks like, gaze upon the splendor of the Church of the Gesu in Rome: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/9d/56/be/9d56be355ffd709324a8032a733ee300.jpg.

Commonly referred to as the Vespers of 1610, I can’t think of a better way to introduce the glorious sound of the Baroque in its fullest. If there is such a thing as music that heals, this is unquestionably it.

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJIwFO9A1f8

Recording note: John Eliot Gardner is one of the towering geniuses of interpreting Baroque through early Romantic Period music. If you are ever in doubt as to which recording to get, get his: Monteverdi through Berlioz. Although the Vespers were composed during his time in Mantua, some have speculated, given their unusual length and complexity (which made them unusable for standard liturgy services), that Monteverdi submitted the score as an informal application to the Basilica of San Marco. Regardless of whether that legend is true, Monteverdi was in fact hired and this recording was made live in the very space in which Monteverdi’s new music was first heard. This performance was captured on a 2-disc set that has been among my Desert Island Discs for as long as I can remember.

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

Interlude: A Happy Accident

As we are wrapping up the Renaissance with Monteverdi breaking from the strict Palestrina mode of composition, I am editing future entries on Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose 1722 treatise, Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, set forth the rules that would govern composition for the better part of the next 200 years. And, as it also turns out, I am simultaneously writing the first draft of the entries on Claude Debussy, who, perhaps more than anyone, systematically shattered Rameau’s harmonic constructs.

In listening to these three composers simultaneously, I chanced upon a recent album from the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, which pairs the works of Rameau and Debussy. In his words:

I decided to play through the entire keyboard works fo Jean-Philippe Rameau. I found things I could not believe in terms of the quality and the scope of expression: I would say about 5 to 10 of the [compositions] are things keyboard aficionados will know, but so many of them are under-performed and equally wonderful, if not more wonderful, than the famous pieces. In so many ways, Rameau was ahead of his time. The way he wrote for the instrument and the way he could perceive music, he does things that we have to wait another 150 years to see re-occurring in music history.

And I found traces of Rameau in Debussy; there was a direct link.

Much like many contemporary bands, Debussy looked back and was influenced by Rameau, as Olafsson compelling demonstrates in his performance. In the NPR interview excerpted above, Olafsson relays that Debussy, once a music critic, reported on a concert of Rameau works, declaring: “He is one of us.” It is exactly this dialog, these Conversations across the centuries that inspire the ever evolving sonic landscape of music, that inspired this blog.

A Gertus History of Music will return after Labor Day. But until then, do download Olafsson’s remarkable album “Debussy-Rameau” for a preview of what’s to come.

https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/debussy-rameau-olafsson-11900