Claudio Monteverdi



Monteverdi revolutionised music in his time. He wanted to tell the truth about life and love, in music that was fresh, immediate and dramatic.

He was born in Cremona, Italy. Around 1590 he was employed by Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga of Mantua – the Duke wanted his court to be a real hub of music. After a few years, Monteverdi became maestro di cappella – in charge of all the music – and his L’Orfeo was performed in 1607. It is considered to be the first great opera ever written!

However, Monteverdi began to resent his poor treatment by the Gonzaga family – brilliant though he was, he was badly paid. He returned to Cremona almost penniless, but in 1613 he became master of music at San Marco – the great cathedral in Venice. He was there for 30 years. There was a lot to do – the music had been neglected. Directing performances and composing music, he flourished in Venice.

In music history, Monteverdi straddles the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Before him, music was full of polyphony – a complicated tapestry of sound where individual musical lines or parts weave around each other. Palestrina’s music is like that. Monteverdi began to develop a more dramatic style, with one single melody above an accompaniment (called monody), or with parts moving together in the same rhythm (homophony). This helped the sung text to be heard more clearly: ‘The words should be the mistress of the music, not its servant,’ he said.

He wrote his Vespers in 1610: it is still performed regularly in our time, and is full of expressive music that soothes and even startles our modern ears.

If you close your eyes and stroke a piece of velvet, it feels really nice. Listening to Monteverdi’s music can have a similar effect: there is something rich, elegant and supreme about it. The rhythms are engagingly fresh and the harmony is daring and colourful. It sounds best when it rings out in big cathedrals and churches: its beauty is often as breath-taking as the beauty of those wonderful buildings.

Claudio Monteverdi, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try some music by Monteverdi…

Vespers of the Blessed Virgin: Domine ad adiuvandum

This splendid opening to Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin uses a fanfare from his opera L’Orfeo. One solo tenor starts the whole thing off, then you can hear choir and instruments (especially the brass – sackbuts and cornets) come thrillingly to life.

Performers: Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.556841

Madrigals, Book 5: Cruda Amarilli

This is one of Monteverdi’s many madrigals – a secular (non-religious) piece for a small group of voices. There is ‘word-painting’: the music reflects the meaning of words and phrases (e.g. at 0.59, they sing ‘amaramente insegni’ – ‘bitterly you teach’ – the notes sink low and the music tails away).

Performers: Delitæ Musicæ, Marco Longhini

Taken from Naxos 8.556841

L’Orfeo: Toccata

If you’ve heard the first spotlight track, you might recognize this… Here is the fanfare that Monteverdi reused for his Vespers! It’s attention-grabbing, right at the start of his big opera. No singing in this one, but something that we didn’t have for the Vespers: drums!

Performers: San Petronio Cappella Musicale Orchestra; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.556841

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Monteverdi was born in which city?

a. Cremona
b. Venice
c. Brighton

 Monteverdi was the first great composer of what?

a. Symphonies
b. Operas
c. Reggae

 Monteverdi got his first big job where?

a. Rome
b. Paris
c. Mantua

 Monteverdi wrote nine books of what?

a. Poetry
b. Studies
c. Madrigals

 At the end of his life he wrote a great opera called what?

a. The Marriage of Figaro
b. West Side Story
c. The Coronation of Poppea

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Monteverdi dabbled in alchemy, the old version of what today we call chemistry.
  2. Monteverdi played the viola da gamba (an early cello) and viola da braccio (an early violin).
  3. Monteverdi was a pioneer of opera. The music of three complete works has survived: L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (‘The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland’) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (‘The Coronation of Poppea’).
  4. Monteverdi said: ‘The modern composer builds upon the foundation of truth.’
  5. Before he died, Monteverdi became a priest.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Religious Works

Vespers of the Blessed Virgin

Monteverdi’s Vespers is a colourful, original and sumptuous setting of the daily prayers of the Catholic Church. Written in 1610 in Mantua, it would have been designed for a big resonant space – but even then, Monteverdi wanted more resonance, so he created echo effects within it – for example, where one singer stands at a distance and actually echoes another (listen at 0.35 in track 9: ‘Audi coelum’). Sometimes there are individual solo voices with beautiful lines – such as ‘Pulchra es’, a duet for two sopranos (track 5); sometimes all the voices sing in an exciting blend of sound, such as ‘Nisi Dominus’ (track 8 – where one group echoes another); and sometimes, the instruments are in the spotlight, and a vocal line comes floating over the top (track 11 – Sancta Maria ora pro nobis, where the voice first enters at 1:45). Monteverdi also incorporated some non-religious texts in the work. It was extraordinary for its time, and it’s still extraordinary for our time!

Performers: Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.550662-63

Operatic Works

L’Orfeo (extracts)

Monteverdi’s famous L’Orfeo of 1607 is considered to be the first great opera ever written. It is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus (‘Orfeo’ in Italian) and Eurydice, where Orpheus goes into hell to retrieve his beloved Eurydice and tragically messes it up. The instruments used sound different from modern orchestral instruments: the early kind of violin (viola da braccio), cello (viola da gamba), trumpet (cornet) and trombone (sackbut) are among those that make up this atmospheric sound. Here are the famous opening Toccata, Prologue, and then Acts 1, 4 and 5.

Performers: Alessando Carmignani, tenor (Orfeo); Marinella Pennicchi, soprano (Euridice & La Musica); Rosita Frisani, soprano (Ninfa, Messaggiera & Proserpina); Patrizia Vaccari, soprano (Speranza); Carlo Lepore, bass (Caronte); Gastone Sarti, bass (Plutone, Pastore V); Giovanni Pentasuglia, tenor (Apollo, Eco, Pastore III, Spirito IV); Other soloists; San Petronio Cappella Musicale Orchestra; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.554094-95

Ballo delle ingrate (‘The Ballet of Ungrateful Ladies’)

This semi-dramatic ballet was performed in 1608 for the wedding of the wealthy son of the Duke of Mantua and actually published in Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals. Its rather odd plot has Pluto, god of the Underworld, warning women who have turned their back on love that a bad fate awaits them. It is beautiful but quite mournful!

Performers: Patrizia Vaccari, soprano (Amore & una Ingrata – Cupid & An ungrateful lady); Gloria Banditelli, mezzo-soprano (Venere & una Ingrata – Venus & An ungrateful lady); Antonio Abete, bass (Plutone – Pluto); Maura Pederzoli, soprano (An ungrateful lady); M. Ernesta Scabini, alto (An ungrateful lady); Michel van Goethem, tenor, Alessandro Carmignani, tenor & Roberto Abbondanza, baritone (Ombre d’inferno – Shades from the inferno); San Petronio Cappella Musicale Orchestra; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.553322

Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (‘The Combat between Tancredi and Clorinda’)

This is a sort of opera scene produced in 1624. Its story is set against the background of the First Crusade (1095–1099). The Christian knight, Tancredi, fights and kills another mysterious knight by the walls of Jerusalem. The dying knight asks to be baptized and reveals that ‘he’ is Clorinda, Tancredi’s beloved.

Performers: Gloria Banditelli, mezzo-soprano (Clorinda); Alessandro Carmignani, tenor (Testo); Roberto Abbondanza, baritone (Tancredi); San Petronio Cappella Musicale Orchestra; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.553322


Madrigals, Book 2: Crudel! perchè me fuggi? (‘Cruel one, why do you flee from me?’)

Monteverdi wrote madrigals throughout his life, around 160 in total. They are secular (non-religious) pieces for a small group of singers. Book 2 was written when the composer was in his early twenties – already he was bold in what he produced! The first word, ‘Crudel’ (‘Cruel’), is flung out expressively – it really makes you sit up. Monteverdi believed that it was important for a composer to write music that matched the meaning of the text being sung.

Performers: Delitæ Musicæ; Marco Longhini

Taken from Naxos 8.556841

Madrigals, Book 4: Ohimè, se tanto amate (‘Alas, if you take such pleasure’)

Monteverdi’s first two books of madrigals are early works written before he arrived at the Court of Mantua. Mantua was a stimulating musical environment and Monteverdi’s third and fourth books show great progress. Book 4, written in 1603, contains more daring harmonies and greater complexity.

Performers: Delitæ Musicæ; Marco Longhini

Taken from Naxos 8.556841

Madrigals, Book 6: Lamento d’Arianna (‘Arianna’s Lament’)

Book 6 of Monteverdi’s madrigals marks his move from Mantua to Venice. It includes the two madrigal ‘cycles’ – a set of several madrigals forming a longer work. One of these is the Lamento d’Arianna (‘Arianna’s Lament’ – a lament is an expression of grief or sorrow). Originally this music was part of his opera Arianna, and it proved incredibly popular and influential: a trend for ‘lament’ music began. There were also lively discussions about music’s power and whether it can imitate the emotions of a human being. Listen to the sadness of this… does it sound like someone is crying?

Performers: Paolo Costa, counter-tenor; Maurizio Piantelli, theorbo; Daniele Bovo, cello; Carmen Leoni, harpsichord; Vittorio Zanon, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.556841

Madrigals, Book 8: Ogni amante è guerrier

Book 8 of Monteverdi’s madrigals is called ‘Madrigals of Love and War’ – both subjects for strong expression! It was published in 1638 and dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor. Monteverdi’s style here is free, imaginative and varied. Below is a madrigal with four sections, and it includes string instruments, such as harpsichord and theorbo (a kind of lute with an impressively long neck). Just listen to the opening of the second track – a low bass voice, still as can be, sings in Italian ‘I who was born into and have lived in idleness, desirous of nothing but a peaceful life’, and the clever thing is that it sounds as if he’s making it up on the spot… but of course he’s not: only a master composer, as well as excellent performers, can achieve that impression!

Performers: Delitæ Musicæ; Marco Longhini

Taken from Naxos 8.573755-58