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Claudio Monteverdi
with Jan Swafford

In this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, commentator Jan Swafford explains why Claudio Monteverdi is one of the most important composers in the history of Western classical music. Monteverdi bestrode the musical eras we call Renaissance and Baroque, and was the first composer to develop opera to its full dramatic and musical potential. Monteverdiís revolutionary innovations have influenced 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky, while foreshadowing the modern idea of the song.

Born in Cremona in 1567, Monteverdi composed a book of madrigals by the time he was 17. At age 24, he became a musician in the court of Mantova, where he eventually became music director. By his mid-40s, he would be the most celebrated composer in Italy. Meanwhile, around the year 1600, a group of Florentine intellectuals introduced their fledgling concept of opera, an imitation of ancient Greek drama. In 1607, Monteverdi took this rudimentary approach and turned it on its head with, arguably, the first true opera, ďLíOrfeo.Ē His revolutionary debut defied all existing musical convention.

To emphasize the wide ranging emotions of his characters, Monteverdi subdued the traditional polyphonic structure of the Renaissance, in which all vocal elements were projected equally. Instead, he placed words and emotions in the foreground. In this sense, Monteverdiís operatic approach also resembles modern song, with its use of a prominent single melody line and chordal accompaniment for color and background. Monteverdi exploited dynamics and dissonance to convey human emotion in ways that dazzled audiences and befuddled conservative critics. Swafford says Monteverdi was the first to ďcreate opera out of characters who live, breathe, love and hate.Ē

A year later, after the tragic loss of his wife, Monteverdi finished his second opera, ďLíArianna.Ē Unfortunately, most of this work has been lost. We hear one of Monteverdiís most beloved pieces, the touching ďAriannaís Lament,Ē which was a huge hit in its day. Monteverdiís brilliance is equally apparent in his non-theatrical works. His books of madrigals epitomize the evolution of Renaissance to Baroque. According to Swafford, ďsacred music has never danced likeĒ Monteverdiís flamboyant Vespers of the Blessed Virgin from 1610. Like Bachís Mass in B minor, this work was originally intended as part of a job application. In this case, the pope did not hire Monteverdi. Instead of going to Rome, Monteverdi became music director of the majestic cathedral in Venice in 1612, where he rounded out his career in great style.

Monteverdiís last opera, ďThe Coronation of PoppeaĒ may have been his best. This slow, unfolding narrative is rich in subtleties and ironically celebrates a triumph of evil over good with beautiful music. Even Monteverdiís cynicism seems modern, though he was most likely depicting his own surroundings in 17th century Italy. We hear a love duet from the finale to conclude the hour.

Listen as Jan Swafford describes how Monteverdi moved us toward modern music in 1607, on this edition of Milestones of the Millenium. Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

Milestones of the Millennium
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