Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi, was a choirmaster, musician, priest and composer of secular and sacred music and a pioneer in the development of opera. His career spanned sixty years and is considered a crucial transitional figure, between the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music history.

Born in Cremona and baptised, Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi on the 15 May 1567; is where he undertook his first musical studies and compositions. Monteverdi developed his career, first at the court of Mantua (c. 1590–1613) and then in the Republic of Venice, until his death in 1643; where he was “maestro di cappella” at St Mark’s Basilica. 

Whilst working extensively in the tradition of earlier Renaissance polyphony, which he termed the “prima pratica” (first practice); he also undertook great developments in form and melody and began to employ the basso continuo technique, distinctive of the Baroque. No stranger to controversy, he defended his sometimes, novel techniques, as elements of a “seconda pratica” (second practice); contrasting with the more orthodox earlier style.

He was the first composer to realise the potential of opera for expressing powerful emotions and he brought to his church music; the musical innovations of his madrigal and instrumental style, that he continued to refine throughout his lifetime.

Much of Monteverdi’s output, including many stage works, have been lost. His surviving music includes nine books of madrigals, large-scale religious works, such as his “Vespers for the Blessed Virgin” of 1610 and three complete operas – “L’Orfeo“, “The Return of Ulysses” and “The Coronation of Poppea“.

His works enjoyed a rediscovery, around the beginning of the 20th century and he is now established, both as a composer and a significant influence in European musical history; whose works are regularly performed and recorded.

His surviving letters, gives an insight into the life of a professional musician in Italy of the period; including problems of income, patronage and politics.



Claudio Monteverdi – Life


Background note. Monteverdi is usually described as an “Italian” composer, even though in his lifetime the concept of “Italy” existed only as a geographical entity. Although the inhabitants of the peninsula shared much in common in terms of history, culture and language; in political terms the people experienced various layers of authority and jurisdiction. In the first instance, they were subject to the local rulers of their city-states; powerful families such as the Gonzagas (rulers of the Duchy of Mantua). Cremona, part of the Duchy of Milan, fell under the control of the Spanish Empire from 1559).

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona and baptised (probably several days after birth), on the 15th of May 1567.

He was the first child of Monteverdi’s father Baldassare, who was an apothecary and medical practitioner. His mother Maddalena (née Zignani) died young and his father married twice more. Claudio had one elder sister, a younger brother Giulio Cesare, who also pursued a musical career and three more half-siblings from his father’s second marriage.

Cremona CathedralBoth Claudio and Giulio Cesare received a good musical education from Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, “maestro di cappella” of Cremona Cathedral (Left). The Maestro’s job was to conduct important worship services, in accordance with the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Ingegneri, gave him a solid grounding in composition and counterpoint and Claudio would also have studied playing instruments of the viol family and singing. He also studied at the University of Cremona. Monteverdi would later acknowledge his teacher, on the title page of his first book of madrigals.

(Def: counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices or lines, which are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and melodic contour.)


Claudio was clearly a precociously gifted boy, who between the ages of 15 to 17 sent a collection of “three-part motets” and other music; to be published by the Gardane printing house in Venice.  All were competent pieces, in a manner not far removed from that of his master.

Claudio MonteverdiThe culmination of this early period, occurred inBook 1 and 2 – five part madrigal books, published by Ricciardo Amadino; one of the most famous of Venetian printers in 1587 and 1590. This printing firm, would go on to publish much of Monteverdi’s subsequent work. They are full of excellent, attractive works, somewhat more modern in approach than Ingegneri’s. This may have been the result of studying the madrigals of Luca Marenzio; the greatest Italian madrigalist of the time and others. At this point however, Monteverdi’s aim appeared to be to charm; rather than to express passion.

(Photo left: a youthful Claudio Monteverdi)


However, Monteverdi’s first publications, also give evidence of his connections beyond Cremona; even in his early years. His second published work, “Madrigali spirituali” (Spiritual Madrigals, 1583), was printed at Brescia. The first book of madrigals (1587), was dedicated to Count Marco Verità of Verona and the second book of madrigals (1590) was dedicated to Giacomo Ricardi, the President of the Senate of Milan.

To recap, music for his first five publications were:

  • Sacrae cantiunculae“,1582 (a collection of miniature motets);
  • Madrigali Spirituali“, 1583;
  • Canzonette a tre voci“, 1584
  • Book I, the five-part madrigals“, 1587
  • Book 2 the second book of five-part madrigals”, 1590.



By the time Monteverdi was ready to publish this, he had evidently surpassed his teacher’s ability and was looking for a musical posting, outside Cremona. He visited Milan seeking patronage and within three years in 1592; he was in full-time employment as a singer and string player at the court of Vincenzi 1, Duke of Gonzaga in Mantua (photo below left).

He immediately came into contact with some of the finest musicians, both performers and composers of the time. The “maestro di cappella” in Mantua, was Flemish composer Giaches de Wert; who not a young man, was considered a “modernist”. The crux of his style was that music must exactly match the mood of the verse and that the natural declamation of the words must be carefully followed. Since Wert chose to use the highly concentrated, emotional lyric poetry of Tasso and Tasso’s rival Battista Guarini; his music also became highly emotional, rather unmelodious and difficult to sing.

It had an immediate effect and influence on Monteverdi and his Third Book of Madrigals that was published soon after in 1592 and dedicated to the Duke of Gonzaga; signaled his intentions to establish himself as a composer. The work represented a complete change of direction for him, with its angular melodies, dissonant harmonies and tense moods.  Guarini was the favoured poet, and every nuance of the verse was expressed; even at the expense of musical balance.

The new style, seems to have upset his productivity, as although he went on composing; he published little for the next 11 years. In 1595, he accompanied his employer on an expedition to Hungary and four years later to Flanders.

In about 1599, he married a singer, Claudia Cattaneo, by whom he later had three children, Francesco (1601–?1677/78),  Massimiliano (1604–61) and Leonora (b.1603), who died shortly after birth.

When the post of maestro di cappella to the duke became vacant, on the death of de Wert in 1596; he was succeeded by a more senior musician Pallavicino. Although disappointed not to get the post, Monteverdi was clearly highly regarded by Vincenzo Gonzaga and accompanied him on his military campaigns in Hungary (1595) and also on a visit to Flanders in 1599.  Here he encountered and brought back to Italy, a collection of songs or perhaps poems “in the French style“; some of which were set by Monteverdi in hisScherzi musicali“.

In 1600, Monteverdi was the subject of an attack by the musical theorist Artusi; who criticised certain of Monteverdi’s compositional style. This concerned works, which were yet to be published; but must have been circulating in manuscript.

Monteverdi may possibly have been a member of Vincenzo’s entourage at Florence in 1600 for the marriage of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France, at which celebrations Jacopo Peri’s opera Euridice (the earliest surviving opera) was premiered. On the death of Pallavicino in 1601, Monteverdi was confirmed as the new maestro di capella in 1602, aged 35.

In 1603 and 1605, Monteverdi published the “fourth and fifth books of madrigals”, both of which contain masterpieces. They included much of the secular music he had worked on in the previous decade at Mantua; that had attracted the ire of theorist Artusi, earlier in 1600. The avant-garde manner was now better assimilated into his idiom. While his aim was still to follow the meaning of the verse in great detail, he solved the purely musical problems of thematic development and proportion. Although the dissonances became more severe and the melody sometimes still more angular; the total effect was more varied in emotion and less neurotic. If Guarini’s eroticism stimulated a sensual musical style, Monteverdi often gave his mature madrigals a lightness and humour; seeing the essence of a poem rather than its detail.

With the fifth book, he had established himself as an important voice in the compositional style that became known as the seconda pratica” (second practice). This musical style differed greatly from the stricter, contrapuntal style of earlier Renaissance composition, making greater use of unprepared dissonance and responding sensitively and dramatically to the text. It also includes a brief reply to the criticism, which was amplified two years later by Monteverdi’s younger brother Giulio Cesare, in the introduction to the “Scherzi musicali” of 1607. This only served to further popularise Monteverdi’s music and enhance his fame. (Photo left: musicians of that time)

Monteverdi’s defense of his “seconda pratica” was not seen by him as a radical change or his own invention; but was an evolution from previous styles (prima pratica), that had been developing for the last 50 years or more. This tradition sought to create a union of the arts, especially of words and music. Moreover, the artwork must be powerful enough to “move the whole man” and this again might mean the abandonment of certain conventions.

On the other hand, Monteverdi also declared his faith in the older tradition or “primo pratica” (first practice), in which music was itself supreme and which was in effect; represented by the pure polyphony of such composers as Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Palestrina. It was to prove the basis of the preservation of an old style in certain types of church music, as opposed to a modern style in opera and cantatas, a dichotomy that can be found well into the 19th century.

Interestingly, Artusi, a few years later, had become fully reconciled to modern trends in music and the “seconda pratica”, was by then well established.

Opera, conflict and departure.

Monteverdi’s final years at Mantua were dominated by the composition of a series of dramatic works and unhappiness in his personal life; despite his rising fame.

In 1606,Vincenzo’s heir Francesco, commissioned Monteverdi to compose the operaL’Orfeo” to a libretto by Alessandro Striggio; for the Carnival season of 1607. It was given two performances in February and March 1607.

This was followed in 1608 by a commission for a second opera, L’Arianna” (libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini) intended for the celebration of the marriage of Francesco to Margherita of Savoy. Several other smaller dramatic works including the balletto, Il ballo delle ingrate; were composed. The music for this opera is lost except for the Lamento d’Arianna, which was published in the sixth book in 1614 as a five-voice madrigal and a separate monodic version was published in 1623.

In its operatic context the lament depicts Arianna’s various emotional reactions to her abandonment: sorrow, anger, fear, self-pity, desolation and a sense of futility. Throughout, indignation and anger are punctuated by tenderness; until a descending line brings the piece to a quiet conclusion. The lament, as a recognisable genre of vocal chamber music and as a standard scene in opera, would become crucial, almost genre-defining; to the full-scale public operas of 17th-century Venice.

Monteverdi is able to match in music both the words and gestures. For example in the text of Ottavio Rinuccini, the opening repeated words “Lasciatemi morire” (Let me die); are accompanied by a dominant seventh chord, suggesting “an unforgettable chromatic stab of pain“.


The strain of the hard work Monteverdi had been putting into these and other compositions, was exacerbated by personal tragedies.

Unfortunately, Monteverdi had to return to Cremona with his wife Claudia, who had been suffering serious ill-health and was to be cared for by his apothecary father. Claudia died on September 10 1607; however, after little more than a fortnight he was recalled to Mantua. Also the young singer Caterina Martinelli, intended for the title role of Arianna; died of smallpox in March 1608.

Overwork during the next year and resentment of his increasingly poor financial treatment by the Gonzagas, brought him close to a state a nervous collapse; again necessitating a return to his father’s house in Cremona to recuperate for a time. An angry exchange of letters, including Monteverdi’s request for “an honourable dismissal“; resulted in a pay rise from the Gonzagas, more or less obliging him to return to court duties.

Duke Vincenzo died and was succeeded by Francesco.  Court intrigues and cost-cutting, led to the dismissal of Monteverdi and his brother Giulio Cesare; who both returned almost penniless to Cremona. Despite Duke Francesco’s own death from smallpox in December 1612; Monteverdi was unable to return to favour with his successor; his brother Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga.



Monteverdi’s desire to remain any longer in Mantua, was effectively coming to an end.

The subsequent publication of the Vespro della beata Vergine” in 1610 has been interpreted by some music historians, as essentially being an elaborate curriculum vitae; for a church posting elsewhere. It was the first significant collection of church music published, since the motets of his youth.

The work includes a six-part parody mass, based on a motet of Nicolas Gombert, written in the Renaissance polyphonic style which he described as the “prima prattica”. It is in the style of the Roman church music, dominated in the previous century by Palestrina. He travelled to Rome to obtain permission to dedicate the volume to Pope Paul V.

On the other hand, the Vespers music, inventively fuses traditional plainsong psalmody with the new technical innovations from Monteverdi’s dramatic music, described as the “seconda prattica”. The Vespers were interspersed with more intimate motets “designed for princely chapels or apartments”. Thus, the work lent itself to the elaborate instrumental and choral resources of Venice, under the succession of maestri di cappella; ending with the Giovanni Gabrieli.

Following Giovanni Gabrieli’s death in 1611, Monteverdi was invited to perform for the procurators of the Basilica of San Marco and in 1613 he moved to Venice; where he would remain as maestro di cappella for the rest of his life. The musical standard had declined, due to illness and the subsequent administrative and musical mismanagement of his predecessor, Giulio Cesare Martinengo. The managers of the basilica were relieved to have such a distinguished musician in charge; as the music had been declining since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609. Monteverdi was no doubt relieved, as he had difficulty getting the pension owed from the Gonzaga court, which left him financially compromised.

Left: Claudio Monteverdi, in middle age.

The range of his responsibilities were:

  • to recruit, train, manage and discipline, the musicians of San Marco (the capella), who amounted to about 30 singers and six instrumentalists; however, the numbers could be increased for major events. Those hired, included two future composers of note, Francesco Cavalli and Alessandro Grandi; who wrote much church music.
  • Introduced daily choral services.
  • Compose music for all the major feasts of the church.
  • Compose a new mass each year for Holy Cross Day and Christmas Eve, cantatas in honour of the Venetian Doge and numerous other works (many of which are lost).
  • Monteverdi also sought to expand both the traditional and the modern style of repertory and insisted on daily choral services.

His “sixth book of madrigals” of 1614, consists of works written before the composer’s departure from Mantua. It might be seen as a transitional work, containing Monteverdi’s last madrigal compositions in the manner of the “prima pratica”; together with music which is typical of the new style of expression which Monteverdi had displayed, in the dramatic works of 1607-08.

The central theme of the collection is “loss”; the best-known work is the “five-voice version of the Lamento d’Arianna”; which says Massimo Ossi, gives “an object lesson in the close relationship between monodic recitative and counterpoint“.

The book contains Monteverdi’s first settings of verses by Giambattista Marino and two settings of Petrarch; which some have considered the most extraordinary pieces in the volume, providing some “stunning musical moments“.

While Monteverdi had looked backwards in the sixth book, he moved forward in the “seventh book of madrigals” of 1619, with some exceptions; from the traditional concept of the madrigal and from monody, in favour of chamber duets. There are exceptions, such the two solo “lettere amorose” (love letters), written to be performed “genere rapresentativo” (acted as well as sung).

The book also contains large-scale ensemble works and the ballet “Tirsi e Clori”. This was the height of Monteverdi’s “Marino period“; six of the pieces in the book are settings of the poet’s verses.  As one critic put it – Monteverdi “embraced Marino’s madrigalian kisses and love-bites with … the enthusiasm typical of the period“!

Monteverdi was also free to obtain income by providing music for other Venetian churches and for other patrons and was frequently commissioned to provide music for state banquets. The Procurators of San Marco, to whom Monteverdi was directly responsible; showed their satisfaction with his work in 1616; by raising his annual salary from 300 ducats to 400. He later composed pieces for various princes and leading dignitaries.

He also took an active part in music making elsewhere in the city, directing the music for the fraternity of S. Rocco; an influential philanthropic brotherhood, on the annual festival of its patron saint.

Nonetheless, Monteverdi remained a Mantuan citizen; possibly he had planned to retire there. He accepted commissions from the new Duke Ferdinando and subsequently from Vincenzo II. The works were delayed either by lack of priority or because of the Mantuan court changing requirements.









The Plague and Priesthood: 1630–1637

A series of disturbing events troubled Monteverdi’s world in the period around 1630.

Mantua was invaded by Habsburg armies in 1630, who besieged the plague-stricken town; looted its treasures and dispersed the artistic community.

The plague struck Venice and over a period of 16 months led to over 45,000 deaths. In 1633, this left leaving Venice’s population at just above 100,000; the lowest level for about 150 years. Among the plague victims was Alessandro Grandi; Monteverdi’s assistant at San Marco and a notable composer in his own right.

The plague and the after-effects of war had an inevitable deleterious effect on the economy and artistic life of Venice. Monteverdi’s younger brother Giulio Cesare also died at this time; probably from the plague.

By this time in his sixties, Monteverdi’s rate of composition seems to have slowed down. He had written in 1630, a setting of Strozzi’s The Abduction of Proserpina, for a Mocenigo wedding . He also produced a “Mass for deliverance from the plague for San Mark’s; which was performed in November 1631. The Gloria from it still survives and shows him applying some of the theories concerning the diversity of mood suggested by the words; however, overall it showed a calm and majestic approach rather than the passion of his earlier years.

In 1631, Monteverdi was admitted to the tonsure and ordained deacon and later as priest in 1632. Although these ceremonies took place in Venice, he was nominated as a member of the clergy of Cremona and this may imply that he intended to retire there. (Definition. Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp as a sign of religious devotion or humility).  

His set of Scherzi musicali”, was published in Venice in 1632.


An Indian summer of astonishing productivity: 1637–1643

A new burst of the composer’s activity, coincided with the opening in 1637 of the San Cassiano opera house; followed by others. It was the first public opera house in Europe and stimulated the city’s musical life. As the one indigenous composer with any real experience in the genre, he naturally was involved with them almost from the beginning.

In 1638, Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals and a revision of the ballet Mascherata dell’ ingrate“, was published. The book, subtitled “Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi” (Madrigals of war and love), is structured in two symmetrical halves; “war” and “love”. Each half begins with a six-voice setting, followed by an equally large-scale Petrarch setting, then a series of duets mainly for tenor voices and concludes with a theatrical number and a final ballet.

The “war” half, contains a ballet “Volgendi il cieland several items, written as tributes to the emperor Ferdinand III; who had succeeded to the Habsburg throne in 1637. Many of Monteverdi’s familiar poets: Strozzi, Rinuccini, Tasso, Marino and Guarini; are represented in the settings.

It is difficult to gauge when many of the pieces were composed, although the ballet “Mascherata dell’ ingrate” that ends the book dates back to 1608 and the celebration of the Gonzaga-Savoy marriage. “The Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda”, centrepiece of the “war” settings; had been written and performed in Venice in 1624. On its publication in the eighth book, Monteverdi explicitly linked it to his concept of stile concitato (aroused style). It would “fittingly imitate the utterance and the accents of a brave man who is engaged in warfare“. The work employed for the first time instructions for the use of: pizzicato string chords, evocations of fanfares and other sounds of combat.

The years 1640–1641, saw the publication of the extensive collection of church music, Selva morale e spirituale. Among other commissions, Monteverdi wrote music in 1637 and 1638 for Strozzi’s Accademia degli Unisoni in Venice, and in 1641 a ballet, La vittoria d’Amore, for the court of Piacenza.

Monteverdi’s contribution to opera at this period is notable. He revised his earlier opera “L’Arianna” in 1640 and wrote three new works for the commercial stage, “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in 1640 (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland), first performed in Bologna with Venetian singers. The Le nozze d’Enea e Lavinia” (The Marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia, in 1641 and now lost and the L’incoronazione di Poppea”  in 1643 (Opera set for “The Coronation of Poppea” – photo left).

With these works Monteverdi proved himself to be one of the greatest musical dramatists of all time.


(Musical Note. Although they still retain some elements of the Renaissance intermezzo and pastoral, they can be fairly described as the first modern operas. Their interest lies in revealing the development of human beings in realistic situations.

There are main plots and subplots, allowing for a great range of characters – the nobility, their servants, the evil, the misguided, the innocent and the good. The music expresses their emotions with astonishing accuracy.

Monteverdi shows how the philosophy of music evolved during his early years in Venice, could be put to use; using all the means available to a composer of the time, such as the the fashionable arietta (a short aria), duets, and ensembles. He showed how they could be combined with the expressive and less fashionable recitative, of the early part of the century.

 The emphasis is always on the drama: the musical units are rarely self-contained but are usually woven into a continual pattern; so that the music remains a means, rather than an end.

There is also a sense of looking toward the grand climax of the drama, which inspires a grand scena for one of the main singers, such as Ulisse, Nero, or Poppea. At the same time, there are enough memorable melodies for the opera to seem musically attractive.

 L’incoronazione especially, is considered a culmination of Monteverdi’s work. It contains tragic, romantic, and comic scenes (a new development in opera), a more realistic portrayal of the characters and warmer melodies than previously heard. It required a smaller orchestra and has a less prominent role for the choir.)

An introduction to the printed scenario of “Le nozze d’Enea“, by an unknown author, acknowledges that Monteverdi is to be credited for the rebirth of theatrical music and that “he will be sighed for in later ages, for his compositions will surely outlive the ravages of time”.

After returning from Cremona, he died in Venice on 29 November 1643 and is buried in the Church of the Frari; where a monument to him remains. The Venetian public showed its great esteem at his funeral. He was survived by his sons; Masimilliano (died in 1661) and Francesco (after 1677).

The posthumous “ninth book of madrigals” was published in 1651, a miscellany of works, dating back to the early 1630’s, some items being repeats of previously published pieces, such as the popular duet “O sia tranquillo il mare” from 1638. The book includes a trio for three sopranos, “Come dolce oggi l’auretta“; which is the only surviving music from the 1630 lost opera Proserpina rapita

Largely forgotten during the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, Claudio Monteverdi’s works, enjoyed a rediscovery around the beginning of the 20th century. He is now established both as a significant influence in European musical history and as a composer whose works are regularly performed and recorded. His surviving letters, gives an insight into the life of a professional musician in Italy of the period; including problems of income, patronage and politics.



Major members of the Venetian School of Music. 

Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) 

Jacques Buus (c.1500-1565)

Andrea Gabrieli (c.1532-1585)

Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576)

Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565)

Gioseffo Zarlino (1517–1590)

Baldassare Donato (1525–1603)

Annibale Padovano (1527–1575)

Costanzo Porta (c.1529-1601)

Claudio Merulo (1533–1604)

Gioseffo Guami (c.1540-1611)

Vincenzo Bellavere (d.1587)

Girolamo Diruta (c.1554-after 1610)

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d.1601)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555-1612)

Giovanni Croce (c.1557-1609)

Giovanni Bassano (c.1558-1617)

Giulio Cesare Martinengo (c.1561-1613)


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