Portrait of Claudio Monteverdi with one of his manuscripts

Claudio Monteverdi and the madrigal

The composer who contributed to the development of the madrigal

Through the works of Claudio Monteverdi it is possible to get to know the history of the madrigal which, despite the magnificent fruits of the composer from Cremona, suffered an unstoppable disappearance in the mid-seventeenth century. In fact, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, important changes took place, changing the way music was produced and enjoyed, stylistic choices and the transition from the modal to the tonal system began. This was marked by the end of the Renaissance period and the beginning of the Baroque period for which the purpose of music was to move the affections of the listeners. Furthermore, Monteverdi was not only a composer of madrigals but also of important operas such as Orfeo and Arianna, the latter of which has unfortunately been lost, with the exception of the 'Lamento d'Arianna'.

From Cremona to Mantua in the Gonzaga court

Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567 where, from a young age, he studied with the maestro di cappella and skilled madrigalist of the city's cathedral.
Already at the age of fifteen he made his debut as a composer with the publication of a collection of motets "Sacrae Cantiunculae" for three voices (1582). This first volume was followed by two other publications: "Canzonette" for three voices (1584) and the "Madrigali spirituali" for four voices (1583).

Queste prime composizioni sono fedeli alla tradizione rinascimentale dei madrigali dove il testo è musicato verso per verso, rispettandone sia il significato letterale che la struttura poetica. Tra poco vedremo come gradualmente Monteverdi modificherà la natura di questo genere, rendendosi sempre più libero dal testo ma sempre concentrando la propria attenzione sul contenuto espressivo del materiale letterario.

💡 Did you know? Monteverdi wrote eight books of madrigals, the first of which was printed in Venice in 1857 and there is also a ninth which includes canzonette, but was published posthumously.

At the age of twenty-four, in 1591, he was employed at the court of Mantua as violinist, cantor and singing master. The following year, he dedicated the 'Terzo libro de madrigali' to Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga who, appreciating the musician's gesture and talent, appointed him master of the small chapel that accompanied the duke on his expedition to Hungary in 1595. A few years later, again accompanying the duke, the singers of the small chapel went to Flanders where Monteverdi had the opportunity to get to know the Franco-Flemish production.

However, the composer from Cremona had to wait until 1601 to be hired as maestro di cappella, when Duke Vincenzo granted the formal application.

The controversy with Artusi and the 'Second practice'

When Monteverdi's fame began to spread, along with it came criticism. In particular, his madrigals were criticised by Giovanni Maria Artusi, a music theorist from Bologna. In 1600 he published a book with the rather explicit title "L'Artusi, overo Delle imperfettioni della moderna musica" in which - without ever writing Monteverdi's name - he severely criticised some of his madrigals, condemning the conduct of the parts but above all the nonchalance in the use of dissonances.

💡 Did you know? Artusi's teacher was Zarlino who had a great controversy with Vincenzo Galilei, father of Galileo Galilei.

Monteverdi did not respond immediately, he waited and took advantage of the publication of his "Quinto libro di madrigali" (1605) to respond to the criticism he received in the appendix entitled "Seconda prattica, overo Perfettione della moderna musica". However, this appendix was never published as the composer did not stop working on it, but his ideas were made public in the Declaration attached to the Scherzi musicali a tre voci published, under the name of his brother Giulio Cesare, in 1607.

In this Declaration, he argued the answer to Artusi's criticism, explaining that it was wrong to consider his madrigals only from a musical point of view because their structure was determined by their relationship to the text, so that rules could be ignored.

Thus, according to Monteverdi, with the second practice the situation was completely reversed: "harmony [...] becomes servant to oration, and oration master of harmony". In other words, the composer felt the need, through music, to deepen the meaning of the words in order to move the listeners' affections.

The birth of other compositions

In the meantime, being the maestro di cappella at the court of Mantua also meant trying his hand at other musical genres. In fact, two of his operas were performed in 1607: Orfeo and Arianna. Also in the same year, he composed music for the court ballet 'Ballo delle Ingrate' with voices and instruments.
Two sacred compositions were born in 1610: the Missa 'In illo tempore' for six a cappella voices, a parody of the Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert's motet of the same name, and the Vespro della Beata Vergine for voices and instruments.

The move to Venice

Unfortunately, however, after twenty years of service at the court of Mantua, as soon as Duke Vincenzo died, the composer was dismissed by Duke Francesco IV, for unclear reasons. So in 1613, after winning a prestigious competition, he was hired as maestro di cappella in St. Mark's Church in Venice and went from being a court servant to being a civil servant, justly paid and in a place rich in publishing and musical activity.
Although Monteverdi still composed for the Mantuan court, he remained in Venice for the rest of his life.

From the Fourth book he began to approach the new recitative style in Florentine solo voice, introducing an instrumental basso continuo in the madrigals, and in the next book to support the voices he introduced a five-voice group for unspecified instruments. But in 1619, with the Seventh Book of Madrigals, the madrigal, no longer polyphonic, became monody with basso continuo.
This book was followed by the last one entitled "Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi" (Madrigals for war and love) in which we find one of the most famous madrigals, Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorinda (Combat of Tancredi and Clorinda), the text of which is taken from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata.

Affiguration of the battle of Tancredi and Clorinda, from Torquato Tasso's 'Gerusalemme liberata'.
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