The work of the Italian opera composer C. Monteverdi is one of the unique phenomena in the 17th century’s musical culture. In his interest in humans, in their passions and sufferings, Monteverdi is a true Renaissance artist. None of the composers of that time managed to express the tragic, life-like feeling in music, to come closer to comprehending its truth, and to reveal the pristine nature of human characters.
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At present, when art is becoming the art of interpretation, for an adequate “reading” of the creations of the past, it is necessary to address the experience of those composers who determined the main traditions of the opera, the principles of its embodiment. One of the most striking “discoveries” of the early 20th century was the music of the Venetian master Claudio Monteverdi. Today this name is known to the whole world, and by the number of theatrical premieres in the season, Monteverdi is approaching such absolute leaders as Verdi and Mozart.
Monteverdi’s musical dramas are now performed not only in most European countries but even in Australia and the countries of America and Asia (Lewis and Acuna 6). The study of Monteverdi’s work, in which both composer skills and a fine knowledge of vocal technique are merged, is very relevant since Monteverdi’s opera work had a significant impact on the development of vocal art and pedagogy. Namely, he was at the origins of the so-called “living vocal tradition” (Cohen 56-57).
An analysis of Monteverdi’s creativity allows defining the Italian vocal school as a synthesis of technology and aesthetics. In particular, Lewis and Acuna believe that this interpretation of the voice was most fully manifested in the “bel canto culture,” Italian vocal performing and pedagogical tradition, which is a syncretic unity of aesthetics and vocals (Lewis and Acuna 172-179). The object of study in this paper is the work of Claudio Monteverdi from the standpoint of embodying the technical and aesthetic principles of bel canto in it.
Brief biography and the value of Claudio Monteverdi’s creativity
Monteverdi was born in 1567 and began to compose music early. Already at the beginning of the 1580s, the first collections of polyphonic vocal works (madrigals, motets, cantatas) were published, and by the end of the same decade, he became a well-known composer in Italy, a member of the Academy of the Cecilia Santa in Rome (Redlich 19).
Since 1590, Monteverdi has been serving in the court chapel of the Duke of Mantua (first as an orchestra and singer, and then as bandmaster). In February 1607 in Mantua, the first opera of Monteverdi was staged with great success ‑ Orpheus (libretto by A. Striggio) (Redlich 25). Monteverdi turned a pastoral play intended for palace festivities into a real drama about the suffering and tragic fate of Orpheus, about the immortal beauty of his art. Orpheus is remarkable for its wealth of resources, amazing for early work. Expressive recitation and a wide cantilena, choirs and ensembles, ballet, a pronounced orchestra part serve to embody a deeply lyrical plan. The second Monteverdi opera, Ariadne (1608), served as a prototype of the many Lamento arias (complaint arias) in the Italian opera (Ringer 20).
In 1613, Monteverdi moved to Venice and, until the end of his life, remained in the service of bandmaster in St. Mark’s Cathedral. The rich musical life of Venice opened up new possibilities for the composer. One of the most noticeable works of these years is the dramatic scene The Duel between Tancred and Clorinda, with the text from Tasso’s poem The Liberation of Jerusalem, combining reading (part of the Storyteller), acting (recitative parts of Tancred and Clorinda), and an orchestra that depicts the course of the duel and reveals the emotional nature of the scene. Monteverdi himself wrote about the new concertato style (excited one), contrasting it with the “soft, moderate” style that prevailed at that time (Cohen 43).
However, undoubtedly, as Whenham (3) rightly points out, Orpheus is the most striking statement of the vocal and dramatic style of the early 17th century in Italy. Its significance is determined by the theatricality, great saturation of effects, including orchestral, sensitive appeals and spells, in which the melodious Florentine recitation (very enriched by emotional ups) seems to struggle with numerous madrigal inserts so that Orpheus singing is an almost classic example of their competition (Whenham 78 -82).
However, Monteverdi, of course, did not run the risk of moving away from the poetic text since he was always faithful to his ideas regarding the nature and purpose of music as a servant of poetry, helping the latter in its exceptional ability to express human feelings. Monteverdi, along with such composers as Peri, Caccini, Galliano, focused primarily on musical and linguistic means. They tried to recreate the ancient monody ‑ chants and hymns of antiquity, which are distinguished by simplicity and expressive presentation of the word. Turning to the ancient myth, Monteverdi tried to solve important problems of his time; the ancient impulses were ‘melted down’ and headed in a new direction. In this sense, the work of Monteverdi was very innovative.
Claudio Monteverdi’s opera work in the context of bel canto culture
The affirmation of the personal principle, characteristic of the Renaissance, in musical culture, was clearly manifested in the appearance of new and updating of old genres (madrigal, opera). At the same time, baroque trends had an indirect effect on their development (Ringer 15). The stylistic heterogeneity of the era of cultural “turning point” became the basis of a new round of singing art development, which was expressed, first of all, in the identification and development of a fundamentally new vocal composer, performing, and pedagogical culture of bel canto.
Its rapid development is associated with the increasing popularity of solo singing ‑ monody ‑ at the turn of the 16-17th centuries in the work of a group of Florentine scientists and musicians. Several scholastic experiments of the “Florentine Camerata” were experimental in nature and were not particularly favorable for the further development of vocal art until Monteverdi appeared (Lewis and Acuna 173).
The difference between the positions of Monteverdi and the Florentines is manifested in the interpretation of the myth of Orpheus. If the Florentines create the first drama per música (Redlich 24) as pastoral ‘pictures’ that are not characterized by the embodiment of the tragic aspects of life, then in Monteverdi, on the contrary, namely these scenes become compositional centers.
Ringer notes that the compositional structure of the prologue and the first act quite clearly reveal the direct relationship of Monteverdi’s Orpheus with the concept of ancient drama, in particular with Aristotle’s Poetics (11). Indeed, in this way, the composer pays tribute to the Renaissance orientation towards the ancient tradition. The music of the first Monteverdi opera is of undoubted interest as an artifact of the transitional era of musical thinking from modality to tonality. Monteverdi’s musical language is modal in nature; at the same time, the modal elements in Orpheus‘s music, and especially in the latest opera, The Coronation of Poppea, are becoming obsolete, giving way to new functional thinking (tonality).
Monteverdi created a tradition that was subsequently actively “exploited” by the Neapolitan school, and then it was rethought and revived in a romantic musical theater, and in the artistic performance, in the work of Maria Callas, who managed to return to genuine virtuosity, which consisted in conveying expression to coloraturas (Lewis and Acuna 38). In the context of the development of the art of mastering the singing voice, Monteverdi’s work has become a kind of canon, which largely determines the laws of opera development.
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The key provisions of the vocal and performing, as well as and pedagogical traditions, the principles of attitude to the singing voice were largely determined in the works of Claudio Monteverdi. As much as possible, revealing the technical capabilities of the performers, coloratura in his opera has become a means of characterizing the image, a way of identifying the personality and transmitting the internal state of mind.
An analysis of Monteverdi’s operas allows stating that he plays a fundamental role in the direction of the genre development over the next century, and in the mastery of solving dramaturgic tasks and the associated individual expressive effects, he anticipated the achievements of composers of the 19-20 centuries. Monteverdi’s opera work caused rapid growth in vocal skill, organically combining virtuoso ‘technical’ skills with the principles of stage expressiveness.
In this regard, it seems appropriate to further study the work of Monteverdi in the context of the problems concerning modern vocal interpretation of Italian opera of the 17th century in its first half. In particular, in the example of Monteverdi operas, the process of crystallization of the types of arias that will become the main ones in the opera theatre of the period from the second half of the 17th till the beginning of the 20th centuries can be shown.
Cohen, Mitchell. The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Lewis, Susan and Maria Virginia Acuna. Claudio Monteverdi: A Research and Information Guide. Routledge, 2018.
Redlich, Hans Ferdinand. Claudio Monteverdi, Life and Works. Greenwood Press.
Ringer, Mark. Opera’s First Master: The Musical Dramas of Claudio Monteverdi. Amadeus, 2006.
Whenham, John. Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo. Cambridge University Press, 1986.