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The Self Conscious song in the Opera: Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland Research Paper

About Monteverdi

Musical artists strive each day to come up with styles and genres that will capture the attention of the audiences. As such, it takes their sacrifice of time and funds to make sure that every composition is well received. Monteverdi is such an artist who went beyond the norms to compose his music. Monteverdi Claudio (Giovanni Antonio) started living on 15 may 1567[1] in Cremona and passed on in Venice on 29th November 1643 (PBS 2013). He was the son of a barber – surgeon and a doctor.

Throughout his life, he collected titles such as composer, gambist, and music prophet. He made the first debut into musical drama and perfected the art of opera while yet in his prime[2] before retiring to church music. His specialty lay in madrigals, operas, and church or sacred music. As a youth, he apprenticed for an elaborately talented master and was a precocious pupil as evidenced by him publishing his first works in his teens, which took the form of madrigals[3].

These were after the manner of his own master’s composition and were far from perfect but they set the young Monteverdi well on his way to musical success. With this brief overview, this paper provides details of his music composition style. It goes ahead to address his outstanding performances such as The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland. This performance, as it will be proved later in the paper, outstood the rest of his four operas.

Monteverdi’s Composition Style

Monteverdi is largely responsible for the shift in style from the Renaissance to the Baroque style of music[4]. He technically applied the previous style giving his new-genre compositions a refined sound and this tactic proved to be impossible for any successors to duplicate without risking a redundant undertone in the outcome (McComb, Todd 2000, 1).

The novel style featured an epoch shaping of musical characters[5]. It was characterized by the reduction of emphasis on simultaneous polyphony and counterpoint. The effect of this was that mainstream or traditional composition took a shift into melody and accompaniment[6]. The critics of Monteverdi have since opined that the aggregate effect of this new style of composition was the infiltration of the musical arena with ambitious but talentless composer since all that is needed to compose is a tune and a rule book.

However, even the critics acknowledged Monteverdi’s genius in the application of a technical touch to the initial style of composition that could not be mimicked by upcoming upstarts in the musical realm. The very basic effect of this novel style embraced by Monte was the liberation of melody from harmony or in other words, the style extracted the text and emotion from the contraptual style.

In effect, this gave this text and emotion an independent life that existed despite the tune being tampered with at times as was the case more often than not in most of Monte’s compositions. To further spice the composition, Monteverdi applied musical virtuosity, demanding it of the singers. He also focused the audience’s attention on the sonority and the showmanship that accompanied the music.

Initially, all these foreign tactics produced horrendous results and it soon became apparent to Monteverdi that he would have to balance out the new and the old. So far, he had only slightly reduced the effects of the older style without regard to the imbalance in melody and showmanship. Subsequently, he focused on reducing the emphasis on the contraptual invention[7].

When questioned about this new style that seemed to evoke negative thoughts and wild emotions, Monteverdi indicated that the notion of music being austere or illustrating only the positive modes of thinking needed to be challenged.

By releasing emotions that are likely to cause pandemonium and negative thinking, the initial idealistic inclination if many composers would come under attack and inspire change. Whereas these sentiments sound outlandish, it was interesting that most of the audiences liked this new style of composition[8] that to an abstract observer seems to wreak havoc instead of harmony (Arnold Denis and Nigel Fortune 1985).

It was apparent that Monteverdi’s music caused abreaction or catharses among the audience as evidenced by the various press releases indicating audience reactions to performances composed by him. The music he created had the effect of trickling down to the heart and causing the subconscious to react or purge out emotion.

In psychology, and as per the Aristotelian theory, catharses is achieved by exposure to tragedy drama, which works to bring to consciousness the patient’s sub conscious emotional preoccupations especially pity or fear. In the end, it purges them of any pent up emotions that may be destabilizing the equilibrium of their emotional scale.

The use of negative emotion in music mirrors the return of Greek drama to Italian stages in the 1600s[9]. Another explanation for his inclination to the dour may be the widespread and less concealed fascination with the occult that characterized this era. However, it is notable that Monteverdi’s music gave voice to the more tortured utterances of the soul, which at the time, resonated deeply with the audience[10].

This is because in most cases, these were feelings that people often felt but did not express and so having the pleasure of watching an opera with musical characters that voiced out their tortured emotions was some sort of a balm and had the exhilarating effect of liberation through expression of pent up emotions.

Finally, it is interesting to note that with the preceding styles of music, recognition that a novel style had since emerged usually took the form of critics recognizing the difference in style from what was familiar or traditional. The only exception to this trend had occurred in the fourteenth century with the debut of the Ars nova (Arnold Dennis 1975).

However, in the case of Ars Nova, there arose so much controversy as to who had initiated the style, whether it was the critics or the originators of the song[11]. In Monteverdi’s case, he came out openly and indicated that he had come up with a new style.

The new style included a standard of self conscious and aggressive expression as indispensable to prowess in musical composition. A confident air about this declaration may have discouraged critics from corrupting the music. The critics opined, as noted above, that Monteverdi’s music made the realm of musical composition accessible to any ambitious, albeit talentless musicians t compose so long as they had a tune and a rule book (Kamien Roger 2002).

Monteverdi countered this argument by indicating that his style was not that easy to mimic. This turned out to be true because in his composition, tune was not as important as the rights dosage of melody and accompaniment. Often he would ruin the tune to complete the musical parts required for a certain piece of music.

It soon became apparent that nobody could apply the technical style of old to this new version as much as he or she could until Beethoven came in (Cayne, Bernard 1990). Most of the other composers usually ended up with a superfluous composition in their bid to mimic Monteverdi’s style. This indicates that there was clearly more to his composition that simple tunes and / or rulebook instructions.

Moreover, Monteverdi continued to compose sacred music. He remained sacredly loyal to the traditional style of composition only deviating a few times to include humor in the mass music.

Monteverdi is clearly responsible for Western Music’s debut into an era of celebrity musicians or the soloist conception of musical performance. This is reflected in the dominance of personality in his compositions wherein the individualistic thoughts that could even be categorized as selfish become a common feature in the performances (Arnold, Denis 1967).

The most eminent successor in this element of style is Beethoven. However, it is noteworthy that although at times the self-conscious elements in musical composition may seem to reflect a soloist concept or to bare the musician as the persona in the piece, that effect is not the intended primary subject of the composer (Whenham and Wistreich 2007, 194).

It may well be that it is an intentional style aimed at drawing the audience’s attention to the musician’s individuality, but of primary importance to such a composer is usually the effect on the heart and soul of the audience. That is the primary subject of such tumultuous compositions.

The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland[12]

In his life, Monteverdi produced four operas: L’Orfeo, L’Arianna[13], Il Ritorno, and La Poppea (Marthaler, Benard 2003). The first two he produced at the beginning of 1600 (1606 – 1608) when he was an established court composer for the Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua.

However, he had a falling out with the duke’s successor, Duke Francesca Gonzaga after he was passed over in the appointment of a Maestro di Capella (Director of Music) upon Wert’s death. Wert had been the former court composer and had a great influence on Monteverdi. Consequently, he moved to Venice in 1613[14] where he was made the Maestro di Capella in the S. Marco Basilica. While he was there, he had a large team working with him and so he could compose for the court as well as take commission from outside of court.

He majored on sacred music and was very strict and diligent in his work. He was getting a good pay, which was regular and he seemed to be in a happy state. It was there that he composed the last two operas from 1639 onwards with Poppea[15] being released shortly before his death.

L’Arianna has since been lost except for the libretto. It is apparent that Monteverdi took opera as the outlet via which he could vent his frustrations and emotions as was apparent when the prima donna in L’Arianna died during production and he subsequently did a musical piece on her death[16]. With Il ritorno, he had already turned seventy and was seemingly unaware of the musical climate in Venice ( Paolo Fabbri 1994).

The Teatro San Cassioano was constructed in Venice in 1637 and it was the first theatre in the world that was primarily devoted purely to the production and performance of opera. The rich Tron folks subsidized this performance. Soon enough, other well-to-do folks including royalty began to sponsor musical houses and works, which is how Monteverdi ended up returning to the world of composition of operas.


Giacomo Badaoro (1602-1654) was a poet in the Venetian dialect and an esteemed member of the Academic degli Incogniti[17]. He did the libretto for Il Ritorno, which was his first Libretto[18].

His lack of expertise was apparent in “the faithful adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey Book 13-23 with the exception being that some of the characterizations had been altered” (Whenham, John 1986). It may that that part of Giacomo’s inspiration was drawn for the 1591 play of ‘Penelope’[19]. However, what is clearly established was that the libretto was primarily established to entice Monteverdi’s return into the Venetian opera.

This was relevant because of the character of Ulysses in the opera, who was returning home from a long period away from it as was Monteverdi returning to the opera stage from a long absence[20].The seduction bore fruit and Monteverdi accepted the commission (Whenham, John 1986). He was given the libretto either in 1639 or before them, since the opera was intended for performance in the 1639 -1641 carnival[21].


The musical composition was made for a small band of five string players and various accompanying instruments although there is no actual recording of the specific instruments that were used at the initial performance.

The use of a small band is evidence of the economic dynamics of the time, specifically the economizing of the opera production where sponsorship depended on the artistic and commercial success. The score was discovered in the 19th century at the National Library at Vienna. When Badaoro delivered the score to Monteverdi, it was raw.

It is recorded that when Monteverdi handed it back to Giacomo, the librettist could not recognize his own work because Monteverdi had made drastic, but masterful changes (Marthaler, Benard 2003). The note recorded in the preface that was addressed to Monteverdi, which is one of the evidences[22] of the authenticity of the score as Monteverdi’s indicates, “I can firmly state that my Ulysses is more indebted to you than ever was the real Ulysses to ever – gracious Minerva.” (Redlich, 1949; Eng. trans. 1952, reprinted 1972)

The question of authenticity led to the reduction in performance of the opera throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, there has been since the 1950s an acknowledgment of the authenticity of the script[23]. The basis of the questioning was the fact that the libretto was so different from the score. However, evidence indicates that the cause of this removal from the libretto is Monteverdi’s skill and prowess in writing, which had converted the piece into a masterpiece (Vogel, 1887).


The available 30 roles in the musical drama include angelic choirs, sirens and Phaecians (Whenham, John, and Wistreich, Richard 2007). However, these can be neatly stacked into fourteen singers by doubling the roles[24]. What is necessary in terms of voices includes three sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, one alto, six tenors and two basses (Schrade, 1979).


The opera or musical drama revolves in the scene around the Island of Ithaca ten years after the Trojan wars. The scene unfolds with the image of a man lying on the shores and of a stack of stones representing the ship that was turned to stone as well as its occupants when the gods disapproved of their aid to Ulysses.

The man on the ground is Ulysses and soon Minerva[25], disguised as a herding boy appears and seeks to help him return to his throne, which has since been taken over but suitors importuning Penelope his wife. It is recorded that Penelope has maintained constancy in her chastity and would not accept any of the suitors as she still awaited his return.

To success in taking back his throne, he shall have to maintain his beggarly disguise to enter into Ithaca unidentified. Minerva takes him to Eumete[26], who has since been banished off court by the suitors as she goes to fetch his son Telemaco, who should help him regain his throne. When Telemaco arrives, they are reunited in a robust display of power where Ulysses’ disguise is stripped off and Telemaco recognizes his father. Later, Ulysses has to return to his disguise and they enter the court.

Once there, the suitors challenge him to a game, which he wins and Penelope offers to marry anyone that would string Ulysses’ bow, they fail and the beggarly Ulysses’ offers to try after denouncing Penelope’s hand. He succeeds and summons the gods to vanquish the suitors with his bow. Finally, in Act 3, Iro[27] commits suicide and Penelope is still disbelieving that Ulysses is returned. Minerva summons the gods again where his disguise is stripped of him and they unite in joyous celebration[28].

The music in the opera is in Monteverdi’s style. An illustration of this is in the lament offered by Penelope as the opera begins, which is after the manner of both the lament in L’Arianna, and Orfeo’s Redentemi il mio ben. Additionally, the music representing the battle and the killing of suitors resembles the Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda[29] (Sadie, Stanley 2001). The musical characters come out in the music that they are supposed to sing and this is an element of self-conscious.

Penelope and Ulysses sing in a manner best described by Ringer as “honest musical and declamation” whereas the suitors are made to appear abhorrent to the audience by making their music “exaggerated and ornamental” (Ringer, Mark 2006). Penelope’s lament begins with five E flats that depict a sense of emotional stagnation that was reflective of how she felt when the opera begins[30] (Vogel, 1887).


Change is a difficult phenomenon to grasp, the cause of it or even the inspiration. However, Monteverdi is a unique historical character that seemed to have the courage to flaunt the rules of his day in order to create a new genre of music that has subsisted up to date as evidenced by celebrity style musicians.

It is true that in modern music some of the artists seem to have missed the point and sing only to exalt their individualistic thoughts, whereas Monteverdi used this style to relate to the personal self-conscious and emotions of the audience.


Arnold, Denis and Nigel Fortune. The New Monteverdi Companion. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

Arnold, Dennis. Monteverdi. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

Arnold, Denis. Monteverdi Madrigals. London: Billing and Sons Limited, 1967.

Cayne, Bernard. Encyclopedia Americana Deluxe Library Edition. Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1990.

Fabbri, Paolo. Monteverdi, translated from the Italian by Tim Carter . Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Halsey, William. Collier’s Encyclopedia. Vol. 16. New York: MacMillan Educational Company , 1991.

Kamien, Roger. An Appreciation of Music, 4th brief edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Marthaler, Benard. New Catholic Encyclopedia 2nd ed. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2003.

McComb, Todd. Monteverdi, TMM Editorial index. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

PBS. “Great Performances.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Last modified May 19, 2013. Web.

Redlich, Fiola. Claudio Monteverdi. London: Leben und Werk, 1949.

Ringer, Mark. Opera’s First Master: The Musical Dramas of Claudio Monteverdi. Canada: Amadeus Press, 2006.

Sadie, Stanley. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2nd ed. London: MacMillan Publishers Limited, 2001.

Schrade, Lizla. Monteverdi: Creator of Modern Music. London: MacMillan Publishers Limited, 1950.

Schrade, Leo. Monteverdi: Creator of Modern Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1950.

Vogel, Ellen. A Classical Study of Claudio Monteverdi. London: MacMillan Publishers Limited 1887.

Whenham, John. Claudio Monteverdi Orfeo. Cambridge: Cambrdige University Press, 1986.

Whenham, John, and Richard Wistreich. The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi: Cambridge Companions to Music. London: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


  1. This was actually the year that he was baptized
  2. While still in his forties, he did L’Orfeo and L’Arianna
  3. In total he produced eight books of madrigals during his lifetime
  4. The title music prophet stems from the fact that he made the debut into musical drama with roles such as Iro in Il Ritorno who was the first comical character in opera
  5. In short, he would use his music to be the definition of the characters and so if he wanted to create a rude and brash character, the music would be fitting to the characterization.
  6. This referred to the various instruments that would be applied in the musical performances, although in most instances, the original instruments used in performance cannot be traced.
  7. De-emphasis of contraptual invention became a critical requirement for the attainment of balance upon his introduction of a new style of doing music.
  8. The only explanation that has been rendered by analysts of that era is that perhaps the population was bored of comfortable and safe-living and found pandemonium and havoc to be a titillating recreational experience
  9. It may be that what had in effect caused the dramas to be rejected was the very inspiration that Monteverdi drew on for his musical compositions
  10. Opera was also the medium for expression of the human conditions in the 1600s
  11. This controversy culminated in the dilution of the Ars Nova style over time so much so that by Monteverdi’s time, it was impossible to trace the origins of it
  12. English for “IL Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria”
  13. At the time of making this performance, his wife had just died and then his prima donna in L’arianna, a pupil of his late wife also passed died of small pox. He did a piece of work indicating his emotion at the time caused by the losses
  14. Prior to this, Monteverdi had lost his wife and mother of his three children, one of whom had died in infancy and so he was depressed whenever he retired to his estates only to be summoned back by his employer to perform in the court. His depression can be felt in his work at this time.
  15. The controversy over the authenticity of Il Ritorno’s score also partly stems from the magnificent work he did in his last opera (poppea) as critics imbibe that Il Ritorno was not good enough for Monteverdi’s standards
  16. Monteverdi did a madrigal for his prima donna that captures his loneliness and frustration eloquently in the sixth book
  17. This was a group of intellectuals that sought to promote musical theatre in Venice
  18. Badaoro may also have had a personal financial interest in a certain theatre that the proceeds of this composition would help him acquire
  19. This was a work of Giambattista Della Porte
  20. After all, he had been away for thirty years
  21. It is commonly agreed that the opening venue for the opera was the Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo.
  22. Among other evidence, there is the letter from a known librettist of le Noze d’Enea in Lavinia discussing Monte’s setting of Il Ritorno
  23. Authenticity came as a result of the discovery of a variety of contemporary documents evidencing Monteverdi’s part in composition
  24. The reduction in the number of required singers was in a bid to minimize costs of performance as the rich sponsors were often stingy and demanding of success
  25. This is one of the gods
  26. This was Penelope’s personal assistant who had been banished from the court by the importuned suitors and was relegated to a pastoral lifestyle
  27. This traitor in Ithaca has sided with the importunate suitors seeking to overthrow Ulysses. He is also the first comical character in the history of opera
  28. At this point Penelope and Ulysses sing to reflect their joy and a promise of happiness in their futures
  29. This was a work that Monteverdi worked on back in 1607 while in the thick of opera composition
  30. This use of music to create character is Monteverdi’s trademark in characterization during musical composition
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