b. Cremona, Italy, 15 May 1567; d. Venice, 29 November 1643
Though not the inventor of opera, Monteverdi was the new genre’s first great master. Only three of his 19 stage works survive but their power and imagination make them the earliest operas to maintain a place in the modern repertory.
The son of a pharmacist, Monteverdi studied with the choirmaster of Cremona cathedral before joining the ducal court of Mantua, where he was employed for over 20 years alongside other important artists such as the painter Rubens and the madrigalist Giaches de Wert, a powerful influence on his young colleague.
Monteverdi probably attended the premiere of Peri’s Euridice (the earliest surviving opera) in Florence in 1600. Seven years later, he composed his own first opera, Orfeo, but following the death of his wife that same year he returned to Cremona. Summoned back to Mantua in 1608, he wrote a new opera, Arianna (of which only one fragment, ‘Ariadne’s Lament’, survives), and a dance-work with singing, Ballo delle ingrate (Ballet of the Ungrateful Ladies), both for the wedding of the duke’s son, Francesco. Two years later he wrote one of his greatest works, a setting of the Vespers that, like his operas, reveals a willingness to mix different types of music within a single work: monody, madrigal-like choruses, florid ornamentation and echo effects are all combined into a varied and dramatic whole.
In 1612, Monteverdi was summarily dismissed from Mantua by the new duke, Francesco, but unexpectedly offered the prestigious post of choirmaster at St Mark’s in Venice. Though the composition of church music took up much of his time, he eventually began to employ assistants, so freeing himself for other kinds of music. One of his major secular works from this period was Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a dramatic cantata about a duel between a Christian knight and a Saracen woman (disguised as a man), for which he invented a new, highly graphic and emotional musical language that he called stile concitato (agitated style).
By the late 1620s Monteverdi was less active as a composer and in 1630 many of his operas were lost when Mantua was sacked by Austrian troops. Later that year Venice was ravaged by the plague and shortly afterwards Monteverdi took holy orders. But in 1637 the opening in Venice of the first public opera house rekindled his enthusiasm and during the last six years of his life he worked regularly for the stage, composing several new works, of which only two, The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea, have survived.
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