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Monteverdi and the Immorality of Art

ISSUE:  Winter 1989

In Monteverdi’s time, early 17th century, forward-looking composers wanted to enlist music in the wars of truth. This was the beginning of our modern age, and Monteverdi counts among our prophets. In key with his time he shared the impulse to soul-saving and said in prefaces what he thought he was up to. Words and deeds aren’t the same, though, and the music he made has no purpose but itself. Also it looks backward and forward. Master of the Second Practice, a new style in his young manhood, he highlighted words, projecting their truth through his music. In the old-fashioned style, the music, imperious, rode over the words. Monteverdi, backward-looking, mastered the First Practice, too. One side of him knew it for the more capacious vessel. The secret of his genius, this contrariness makes him hard to pin down.

Primarily a secular composer, he left nine books of madrigals and 15 dramatic entertainments. Seven survive, among them the first successful opera. He wrote sacred music as well, hoping to get on in a world where music and religion were still closely intertwined. Psalms, masses, responsories, motets, hymns, and so forth, the sacred pieces make an alphabet of forms. Some sound like Gregorian Chant, the Missa da Capella, for instance, and parts of the Christmas Vespers. But in the Vespers the swelling brass sounds like the Gabrielis, predecessors of Monteverdi in Venice. Then the music changes, becoming “baroque.” The 23 motets, Sacrae Cantiunculae, “little sacred songs,” conform to strict polyphony, not different to my ear from the music of Palestrina. But some of these motets, trembling almost erotically, return on themselves like the secular madrigals. You can hear this echo sound on the first side of the Cantiunculae, just in from the end of the record (Hungaroton, SLPX 11937).

For his sacred music, Monteverdi didn’t mind adapting popular tunes, “songs made before.” That was backward-looking, a practice forbidden by the Council of Trent. This Council, in session for almost 20 years, wound up its business shortly before Monteverdi was born. The voice of militant Catholicism in the Age of Reformation, it meant to answer the Protestant Reformers. But new Catholics and Protestants were an echo, not an opposition. Each thought that music, literature, too, was one thing or the other, serious or frivolous. Monteverdi, “post-Tridentine” with a difference, made a repertory that is all of a piece. Having written his opera Arianna, now lost, he went back later to the heroine’s lament. Fitted with sacred words, it became a five-part “Lament of the Madonna.” The old man wasn’t more pious than the young man, only, like most artists, an opportunist and provident. When he served as chapel master at St. Mark’s, Venice, the procurators there, confirming his tenure, voted him a raise in pay. They meant this for an incentive, wanting him to devote himself “to the honor of God with a whole heart.” That is what he did.

Dying in 1643, he was the oracle whose voice had been stilled. Oracolo della musica, they called him, but by the end of the century they had forgotten his name. In our time he has had a revival, and you can hear his great opera, The Coronation of Poppea, on two recordings, Vox and Telefunken. But for every live performance there will likely be a hundred of Aida or Boheme. Cognoscenti decry this, saying how Monteverdi wouldn’t stoop to conquer. But most of those we call masters want to please the million, a generous impulse. This court composer pleases the few. He has his intensities, though, worth a hearing.

He was Claudio Monteverdi of Cremona, born in May 1567, the oldest child of a barber surgeon. His mother died, probably of plague, when he was an infant. The barber surgeon remarried, but this second wife died young. Another stepmother followed. At 32, Monteverdi took a wife, Claudia, a court singer. She bore him three children, one dying in childhood. The marriage lasted eight years, terminated by Claudia’s death in 1607. Later his elder son fell foul of the Inquisition. No doubt these sorrows had their impact on Monteverdi, but his music, impersonal, doesn’t record it. He never had a Dark Period. This likens him to Mozart, already sick to death when he wrote his last chamber piece, the Quintet in E flat major, full of brio and technical surprise.

Unlike Mozart, Monteverdi was subject to spleen or vapors. The passionate man had a demon, and the music, like damped-down fires, suggests that he knew this. His letters harp on bad health and the pressure of meeting deadlines. A tardy composer, he said this pressure brought him “almost to death’s door.” However, he lived a long life, and maybe he was hypochondriacal. Toward the end of his life he took holy orders, a comfortable thing to do, but his famous old age was no more serene than his youth.


The great composers in the year of his birth were Palestrina and Orlando Lasso, in England Thomas Tallis. Masters of polyphony, they looked to the past. Victoria and William Byrd, heralds of the future, were young men; Gesualdo and Thomas Morley were boys. In letters and science, Monteverdi’s contemporaries included Shakespeare and Galileo, each born three years earlier in 1564. Galileo, an active personality, changed the world, where Shakespeare celebrated the world in his fictions. Monteverdi belongs with Shakespeare. A great revolutionary, he tutored us in nice discriminations. This description wouldn’t have pleased him, and his theoretical writings stake out a grander claim. In 1605, introducing a book of madrigals, he said that “the modern composer builds upon the foundations of truth.” A slippery word, he didn’t define it, and the truth of his music isn’t didactic, having no ax to grind. So far, this makes him old-fashioned.

His natal place, Cremona, a provincial town in the Po valley southeast of Milan, had its substantial cathedral, still there. From the maestro di capella, Monteverdi learned his craft. This chapel master directed the small choir, men and boys. They studied “note-against-note,” Monteverdi said, but didn’t take “the melodic factors” into account, i.e., they failed to honor the “Leading Note.” In their old-fashioned music, polyphonic, the different melodic parts combined to make a tapestry of sound. You couldn’t distinguish the threads in the carpet, though, and some thought this a scandal. Benevolent, they wanted to “move the affections” but polyphonic music spoiled their game. Interweaving the voices, it “lacerated the poetry.” They meant it undercut the idea. Betting on ideas, they called for a new kind of music, monophonic or homophonic, characterized by a single melodic line. This univocal music made Truth the burden, maybe a little coarse. Capital-letter abstractions are like that.

These connoisseurs of clarity canvassed their theories in learned discussion groups. Cremona had its group, the Accademia degli Animosi, bold spirits. In Mantua, where Monteverdi first came to public notice, the academicians were Invaghiti, impassioned ones. Being themselves and polemical, they sponsored manifestoes, appealing to “the Greeks and Latins of that better age.” This appeal wasn’t retrograde but progressive. They thought the ancients got the truth out front where the proximate past had obscured it. People who write about Monteverdi range him with these modern men, and there is reason to do this. If you put him on the record player after listening to Thomas Tallis or Josquin des Pres, he seems light years distant from these older composers. Egalitarian, they don’t honor the Leading Note but parcel out the melody among the different voices. “Share and share alike.” Also they value sound more than sense, a rough and ready way to put this, the sound being the sense. Tallis has a hopeful choral piece, Spem in alium, for 40 voices segregated in choirs of five voices each (MHS recording 4827M). He wrote it for a royal birthday, maybe Queen Mary’s in 1556 or her sister Elizabeth’s a generation later. But the occasion is only a point of departure, and the Queen and the birthday don’t get much of a hearing. Monteverdi, more scrupulous or courtly, keeps his eye on the occasion. Where the English composer makes gorgeous sound, he expresses his title, Tancred Fighting Clorinda, etc. This expressiveness isn’t a virtue exactly, only the hallmark of a new style.

The new style declares for “perspective.” Taking priority, the highest voice-part or cantus relegates all the others to secondary roles. This makes music more cognitive. Listening, you know where you are, not between C and E — flat but between the “shining blades” of Saracen and Christian. Expressive music makes a domicile where the bounding lines are sharper. The domicile is smaller, though. In his Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, lifted from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Monteverdi has a story to tell. When the fighters grow weary, the music, not wearisome but suggestive, reflects this. It changes, said the composer, “in accordance with the words.” That is something new, and on this side Monteverdi looks to the future.

Wanting a better future, he defers in his letters and prefaces to Plato, the great rallying point for moderns in his time. Also, at a guess, this self-made man wanted to bolster his credentials. Plato’s esthetic holds that music is instrumental. Laying down the law, he tells composers to look for rhythms that express a courageous and harmonious life (Republic, 399a). Monteverdi, quoting this passage in a preface, says that the end of music is to “move our mind.” It “either ennobles or corrupts the character,” and this modern composer is all for ennobling. He goes on to tell how the combat of Tancred and Clorinda gave him “an opportunity of describing in music contrary passions, namely, warfare and entreaty and death.” This was his stile concitato, an “excited” style that mirrored agitation and conflict. He meant it for kinetic, but his descriptions, pleasing mightily, don’t make us brave or better. Luckily, he didn’t see this. Otherwise, like poor Tasso, he might have folded his arms.

A disinterested poet, Tasso gave trouble to the hardliners of the Counterreform. They leaned over his shoulder, moralizing his text. Finally, they drove him mad, and he lapsed in silence. Monteverdi, thicker skinned, paid lip service to the new imperatives. That is partly the point of the prefaces. He wrote them from the heart but knew what side his bread was buttered on. In the music, another matter, he stumbled on his own reality. Harking back to two early operas of his, he said how Ariadne had “moved the audience because she was a woman, and equally Orpheus because he was a man.” He sought to render their emotions, a “true lament” for one, for the other “a true supplication.” Not the same as enlisting music in the wars of truth, this implied a remoteness from programs and theories.

Already in his teens, the precocious young man was publishing motets, spiritual madrigals, and secular canzonets. This is the mixed bag by which you know him. At 19, with four books to his credit, he had outgrown his Cremonese beginnings. So he looked elsewhere, moving to Mantua in 1591, about the time Shakespeare came up from Stratford to London. Monteverdi lived in Mantua for 21 years, becoming maestro della musica, composer to the court. Tasso in poetry and Rubens in painting distinguished this Mantuan court, also Guarini, author of the first pastoral play. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet said, but Italians doubted this, titivating their plays with music and intermezzi, colorful “business” between the acts. Monteverdi and others wrote the music for Guarini’s big success, The Faithful Shepherd, published in 1590 and premiered at Ferrara five years later. Like a tone poem by Respighi, this music was representational, “of the earth, the sea, the air, and the heavens.” Monteverdi didn’t like it, a vulgar imitation. Not imitative but mimetic, his truth adjusted nature, keeping the real world at a distance.

Over in England, they knew about Guarini’s Pastor Fido. Translated into English, it inspired Shakespeare’s junior colleague John Fletcher. Fletcher and Guarini share a lot of blame between them. The sexy hodgepodge they made, mixing tragedy with comedy, did as much harm to morals, Cardinal Bellarmine said, as Luther and Calvin had done to religion. Art, not morals, is what they did harm to. After the Restoration, when the King came back and Fletcher’s pastoral had a revival, Pepys the diarist went to see it. He said the new production was “much thronged after for the scene’s sake.” This is literary criticism. The scene is the thing, and the pastoral, not really a play, is a pretext, on the way to something else. For the playwright the something else is hothouse entertainment, for the regisseur who produced him it is son et lumière. Making their art a vehicle, they aren’t all that different from the academic theorizers, promoters of truth. Collaborating with both, Monteverdi sailed his tricky passage between these highbrows and lowbrows. Like that English milord who wrote “The Character of a Trimmer,” he adjusted at need, a good thing to do if you have an end of your own worth pursuing.


In these early years of the 17th century, the important question for the playwright was; which deserved priority, the eye or the ear? For Monteverdi the question, apparently different, comes down to the same thing: which counts more, the message (words) or the music? Another and harder way to put this is to ask of what the “message” consists.

The Gonzaga duke, a lecher, gambler, and brute, patronized the arts, lucky for Monteverdi. This Vincenzo I looks forward to the Emperor Nero in The Coronation of Poppea, not a moral bone in his body but compelling when he opened his mouth. For his provincial Maecenas, Monteverdi turned out memorable music, most of it on demand. The Carnival season of 1607 wanted something up-to-date, Duke Vincenzo thought, perhaps a “musical fable” (favola in música) like the story of Orpheus, or Apollo and Daphne “with her thighs in bark.” Friends of Monteverdi’s, Caccini, Peri, and Gagliano, Florentine composers, had tried their hand at these favole. Their early entertainments, less operas than intermezzi, showed Monteverdi a way. Not a plagiarist, he plundered royally as by right of conquest. His Orfeo, the cornerstone of Italian opera, was produced at the Accademia degli Invaghiti in 1607. In this year he lost his wife. She wasn’t Eurydice, though, and Orfeo, like Macbeth, written at the same time, is partly a pièce d’occasion.

The conjunction in time of Monteverdi and Shakespeare is surprising, anyway to me. Monteverdi “sounds” later, not expansive or discursive like a maker of the blank verse line but constricted like Augustan poets, makers of the heroic couplet. Psychologically, that is the company he keeps. English poets in the 18th-century, reining in, prefer the couplet, and Monteverdi mines his riches in a little room. Doing this, he is often at odds with his material, a fruitful contention. The Orpheus myth, a poignant fable of love lost, found again, then lost forever, offers him the whole gamut of emotions. The hero’s virtuoso aria in the underworld exploits this. Mostly, however, Monteverdi declines to run the gamut. Artistic temperament, reticent, is uppermost here, as when Orpheus, despairing, bids goodbye to the earth, sky, and sun. “Addio, terra; addio cielo, e sole, addio.” These are words for Verdi’s Violetta or Puccini’s Mimi, expiring on wings of song. Reading the libretto, we know what to expect. But expectation is baffled, 19th-century bravura being still over the horizon.

For the ending of Orfeo, Striggio the librettist brought the Maenads and their savagery on stage. This ending Monteverdi excised, not caring for very much reality. Instead, he made an apotheosis, sending the hero and the god Apollo to heaven. Up there all sorrows end, and the Chorus and full orchestra proclaim this. The ending is non troppo, though, faithful to the beginning. So what has happened between the Prologue and the end of Act V? The answer is involved with calibrating or nuance. A chiaroscuro painter among the great composers, Monteverdi works with half-lights or half-tones. His imagination isn’t seized by the dramatic difference between kinds but the modest difference between degrees. A limitation, it suggests his range. But the limitation, acknowledged, frees him for his appointed thing, the study of inflections.

Written many years later, The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland is like this. Every chance for the big curtain is there but put by. The day of joy has come, and the hero, wandering many years, clasps Penelope, a wife of sorrows, to his heart. They have their final duet: “Yes, my life, yes! Yes, my heart, yes, yes!” Si, si, vita! Si, si, core, si, si! But the heyday in the blood is past for these two, and their duet is muted, all passion spent. This is the enthusiasm reserved for middle age.

Even at his artistic summit, in The Coronation of Poppea, Monteverdi, knowing his demon, declines to unloose it. Some musicologists, not trusting their ears, want to deny him his masterpiece, but he is Ulysses come into his kingdom, and no one else had strength to draw the bow. Handed back and forth, a few words and phrases compose the great duet that ends the opera. We hear Poppea first, saluting Nerone: o mio tesoro, then the Emperor repeating this: “my treasure.” Crowded by passion, these lovers vie with each other and the notes intertwine. Passion is bridled, though, and they keep a saving distance, not hearts beating wildly but contracting and releasing. Systole-diastole is how I “see” this. The hero and heroine get the same words but the notes they sing are different, not all that different, Monteverdi being true to himself. Melodic range is modest, the melody proceeding by whole tones and half tones. Jejune, they think, a century later.

Handel thinks this. Specializing in bold contours, he jumps a full octave in the middle of a phrase, sometimes in mid-syllable, as when the altos and sopranos invoke “the Lord God omnipotent,” beginning the Hallelujah Chorus. Monteverdi, less audacious, lets his dramatic intervals wait on the ending or beginning of a phrase. The range, not negligible, gets our attention, but for sheer pyrotechnics he is to Handel as one to ten. That is by choice, as we see when he tries the high wire. Fittingly, he reserves this to the moment of climax. Poppea, moving up the scale, reaches high F above middle C. At the same time, Nerone, moving down, meets her an octave below. This thrilling conjunction across the tonal scale needs its complement, subsidence. For the final phrase Nerone’s voice ascends, Poppea’s descends, each seeking the other or seeking resolution. Where they join, on B, the opera concludes, diminishing, says the libretto, “to nothing.”

Repetition stales, and the love duet is one of a kind. Characteristically the music, austere beneath the florid melismata, vocal passages sung to one syllable of text, doesn’t soar or swoop, and when emotion is up front it grows softer. This is Monteverdi’s bias, possibly his need. Remembering a line from Wallace Stevens: before you heard him you never knew that fluttering things had so distinct a shade.

Partly the narrow range is expedient, an index of technique. Orfeo, the first opera, illustrates this. When the Messenger, a fatal bellman, brings the news that Eurydice is dead, his grief doesn’t bear much emphasis, and that is true for Orpheus, responding. A single bass line accompanies the hero’s solo, emphasizing declamation. Venturing on the underworld at the end of Act III, he brings this basso continuo with him. A simple-figured accompaniment in the bass clef, it emancipates the singer. But the basso continuo, introduced in the first years of the 17th century, is a double-edged blade. Heightening the word, it depresses the music, and I think that is why it got a welcome from truth-telling composers. Monteverdi’s friend Schuetz, for instance. A German Lutheran composer, he has the Evangelist, declaiming, take center stage in his Easter Oratorio for 1623. You hear the Word all right, and in the interstices the dead-level accompaniment. But this isn’t an agon where voice and music oppose each other. Taking priority but only by default, the Word falls on deaf ears. At least, my ear says so.

For Monteverdi, the basso continuo, promoting vocal virtuosity, insures the triumph of art over ideas. Pope’s art of the closed couplet offers an analogy. In this stricter kind of poetry, meter torments the poet. Pope is conscious, step by step, of the clink and fall of the meter, and Monteverdi, by analogy, of the music master’s baton, a tyrannical presence. Most people grudge the tyrant, but for these makers constraint is the warrant of freedom. Monteverdi’s music enacts a proposition. It says that if you go free or naked, you aren’t free but diffuse. Dissolving like “the life that wants the means to lead it,” the ungoverned composition leaks into thin air. The quotation is Shakespeare’s, his point being to the maddened King Lear. Monteverdi, understanding how all art is privation, estimates his confinement, then works out a modus vivendi.

Where the next generation of opera composers, Lully and Scarlatti, use the orchestra to frame the voices, Monteverdi gives them alternating roles. Rising and falling with each verse the composer sets, the music wants to be free as the wind. Jealous of freedom, the bass line opposes this. It presents the normative thing, letting the composer know where he came from. Like it or not, he can’t range very far. Compensating, though, he does exacting stunts and turns within his narrow compass, more exacting for the limits imposed and accepted.

Monteverdi, unlike Shakespeare, doesn’t thunder and lighten, or the lightning, a fitful incandescence, comes and goes. Listening to his operas is like reading a long poem by one of the lesser masters, e.g., Spenser in his Faerie Queene, if this near-contemporary had written in couplets. For the big things, “the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,” you have to wait patiently. This means that when they come you like them better for waiting, or better for the calm before the storm. In the meantime, little things are going on in the music, but you have to pay attention to hear them.

Much opera before Mozart is like this, Handel’s Semele, for instance. Not much happens in this opera until the last act. We jog along equably, and I wouldn’t want to claim much more. It isn’t The Messiah. Then, like a rocket, the great aria begins: “Where e’er you walk.” The excitement is in the difference, first the metronomic thing, then this startling exuberance of sound. The privation, anterior, sponsors the yield. That is how it is in Monteverdi’s entertainments.

Orfeo made his name, but in Mantua they paid him in plaudits. Complaining to the Duke, he said how his pay was five months in arrears. The neglect soured him, and he groused about it for the rest of his life. In 1612, the money stopped altogether. Duke Vincenzo died this year, and his son, wielding a new broom, swept Monteverdi from court. He left Mantua with 25 scudi in pocket, what he had to show for two decades of service. (One scudo = five lire.)

This cloud had a silver lining, however. The job of maestro di capella at St. Mark’s, Venice fell vacant in 1613. Monteverdi applied, and they took him. He spent the rest of his life in Venice. When he died at 76, a contemporary guidebook, describing the Frati church where he is buried, called him “a great theorist of vocal and instrumental music.” Incidentally, said the guidebook, he was famous for his valor and his compositions.


Theory, laying a heavy hand on Baroque and Renaissance composers, insisted that the words had to fertilize the music. First, though, you had to hear the words. The Council of Trent, legislating this, got the support of Protestants and Catholics. Victoria, Spanish and Catholic, tried in his Masses for the rhythm of the spoken word. His word was Latin, and most of us don’t understand it any more. For his considerable music, this seems not to matter. In King Henry’s England, Cranmer, a Protestant, said that composers ought to give every syllable a note. “Important” syllables got high notes or greater time value. That was how it was in classical times, Thomas Campion said. Born the same year as Monteverdi, he reinvented the solo song, “a naked air without guide, or prop, or color but his own.” Nakedness, he thought, cast the truth in relief. His music, like his “measured” poetry, is artificial in high degree, a word meant in praise and another instance of art bringing in its revenge on the artist.

Some reformers, root and branch, wanted music out of the church. In St. Paul’s time, said Erasmus, a great scholar with a tin ear, there wasn’t any music and words were pronounced plainly. There is something to this critique, and you can estimate what there is and isn’t by pleasing your ear with the songs in the Fayrfax MS (MHS 4649). This early Tudor miscellany, not indifferent to words exactly, uses them partly as an occasion. Taking off from the text, the swirling vocalizes, long melodies sung on a vowel, have their abundant meaning, but the meaning is “metrical.” You understand a fury in the words, not the words. People who put their money on meaning, as when they ask for the moral of the piece, deplore this.

In Monteverdi’s time these people had a program, “Greek ethical theory.” Boiled down, it said that the message took priority. Afterwards came the musical notation. Plato said this first in his Republic. Suave, he took it for granted that right-thinking composers would want to “adapt the foot and the melody to words.” Seventeenth-century composers, throwing in with this prescription, didn’t need to be bullied. The capitulating of the artist, in their time and ours, doesn’t depend on violence but the seductive power of a noble ideal.

William Byrd, maybe England’s best composer, wrote stunning vocal music but withheld approval unless it was “framed to the life of the words.” Composers before Monteverdi, disputing this requirement, made words subordinate to number. John Dunstable was one, a servant of the Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V. After 500 years, the repertory still honors his music. In his own country this prophet went unhonored, though, and English in the next century made fun of him for “dittying.” They meant that he fitted his words to the music. Dunstable, said Thomas Morley, “treated words like a dunce.”

Coming out in this nervous time, Orfeo succeeded hugely, the critics making it conformable to precept. They gave high marks to the “poetry,” Striggio’s libretto, but liked the music too. It “serves the poetry so fittingly,” one of them said. Not listening, he skewed the relation, Monteverdi’s truth being more influential than Striggio’s. Where the librettist thinks that Fame falls short of the truth, Ne giunge al ver, the music doesn’t doubt this, only it adds a new dimension as when, quitting a tunnel, we emerge into the light of day.

Depending on notes, the music is abstract or concrete beyond paraphrase. Unless you are tone deaf, you can’t ward it off. Not open to rebuttal, unlike discursive prose, it assaults the senses, enlarging or corrupting the meaning of the text. Corruptio optimi pessima, and the greatest composers, greatest all round, are necessarily the most corrupting. In the love duet for The Coronation of Poppea, Monteverdi has it all together. This means that moral guidons go down.

One of the great old men, he wrote this opera at 75. A portrait made in his old age shows a narrow, cadaverous face, big ears and big Italian nose. Above the short beard, the mouth is twisted, the eyebrows, arching, are Mephistophelean, and the deep-set eyes, taking everything in, give nothing away. Saving his best for last, the dogged old man is like that William Blake “Who beat upon the wall Till truth obeyed his call,” but the truth he mastered in age is indigenous, so gets nothing done. Devoid of anxiety, he antedates sin. His opera poses choices, not ethical, though, and the music, making a sequence, isn’t causal, only linear.

For moral men and women, most of us by intention, virtue is itself and the apple of our eye. On his composing side, Monteverdi has a different equation. Virtue means vigor. Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Monteverdi’s twin star, still lives in his music where a hundred lesser fry, better men than he was, are dust. The author of madrigals whose beauty spites the mills of time, this Neapolitan composer murdered his wife. Two hundred years later, Salieri, some say, murdered Mozart, but his C Major concerto for flute and oboe is fantastic.

An erotic tangle like Shakespeare’s “story of the night,” The Coronation of Poppea gives its verdict for Eros. Love makes the world go round, and the persons of the play attest this. Drusilla, a lady-in-waiting, loves Ottone, and he would like to reciprocate but has Poppea in his heart. Her heart belongs to Nero, who ought to love his wife but doesn’t. Seneca, a philosopher, speaks for the proprieties, and he and Nero have their back and forth, musically exciting. A moral monster, Nero is an aphorist, too, studying Villiers de l’IsleAdam. Law, he tells his old teacher, is for servants. In the context of the opera, circumscribed ground, this seems right.

Showing their maker’s mark, Monteverdi’s characters elude classification. Seneca, a humbug, is a kind of hero, too. Octavia, the cast wife, is onion-eyed, evoking pity, also a virago, evoking contempt. Either way, Monteverdi finds her useful. “Farewell, Rome,” she sings, leaving for exile. Her aria, deeply poignant, ends on the word Addio and, dying, begets another. This other, sempre staccato, goes to the nurse Arnalta, saluting the coronation of Poppea, her charge. You can pick up the aria near the start of side ten on the old Telefunken recording. No better than she should be, the nurse is elated. Trumpets and oboes share her elation, and Monteverdi goes along.

The doubtful priest is catholic, maybe to a fault. His notorious courtesan ought to be evil, and Busenello, his librettist, thinks she is. Behind them both is Tacitus, who makes no bones about it. But the music, plaintive or exultant, enters a different claim. “Dead to finer feeling,” Poppea meets her match in Nero, everybody’s idea of the villain. Celebrating their triumph, though, the Emperor and his consort, two bad ones who deserve each other, are two lovebirds on a branch. If we feel aberration, this is from the musical line. The last word being “Yes,” no ending in opera is happier.

I still have my program for a long-ago performance of The Coronation of Poppea. After the credits comes a note from the director, telling what the opera is about. “A stinging indictment of absolute dictatorship,” the director calls it. But he is taking the wish for the deed.

Orfeo, a tragedy, is happy all through, “doleful matter merrily set down.” In the underworld they listen, compelled by a greater harmony than they can contradict. Dryden’s phrase for this, in his St. Cecilia’s Ode, is “Sequacious of the lyre.” You follow the lyre whether you want to or not. This power from harmony is disordering or makes new orders, hard to come to terms with. The Chorus tells how life, short-lived and frail, soon disappears, Che tosto fugge, but the music, inconsequent, finds this gloomy saying a theme for laughter. Plot goes in one direction, downward to darkness, but the effect takes a contrary course. The hero, foiled or dying tragically, undergoes a sea change. Handel, in his entertainment Acis and Galatea, turns him into a river. In Milton’s Lycidas, a “monody,” he becomes the Genius of the Shore. The becoming-something-else, a laurel tree, a hyacinth, a constellation in the heavens—Pope’s happy resolution for his Rape of the Lock—works partly as metaphor, and the real transformation is from life into art.

A dramatic composer even in his nondramatic work, Monteverdi takes fire from conflict, the element he lived in. “Combattimento” offers a good all-purpose title, but the conflict is aborted or its resolution is technical. Someone wins a victory, the composer. It turns on an “if” clause, s’adoprerà suo ingegno: “if he will use his talent.” This being art, not life, the career belongs to the talents. Like Orpheus, the artist as hero, Monteverdi has a golden plectrum, also a magic cittern, making the difference for the health of the piece. Inducing sleep in the boatman who guards the black stream, the cittern, plucked cunningly, nips us into wakefulness. “Now you need a stout heart and a good song,” they tell the hero. Most of all, he needs a good song.

Taken as a type of the morality play, this opera ends at the end of Act IV. Tempted to look back, Orpheus succumbs, and a Chorus of Spirits moralizes his falling: “Only he who shall have victory over himself can be worthy of eternal fame.” The contention isn’t moral, though, between right and wrong, but esthetic, between harmony and discord. In the vindicating of harmony, bitterness is discharged, and the hero, much falling, is acquitted. This is better than life, altogether less formal.

For Monteverdi’s music, point counterpoint is the rubric. “The tunes change, now gay, now sad.” Just now, sighs were food and tears were drink, but this changes and “today” Orpheus is happy. Sorrow being a mine worth working, he doesn’t stay happy for long. Benedico il mio tormento, he sings, blessing his torment. This is pragmatic. The torment breeds and the yield, musical, is pleasing. “Whoever sows in sorrow,” the Chorus instructs us, “Reaps the fruit of every grace.” The sorrow makes mischief, however. Pluto rejoices when Proserpina, singing, remembers the rape, a “sweet deceit,” that brought her to Hades. But her singing, harmonious, doesn’t free him from passion. Donne has a poem, “The Triple Fool,” that tells how the poet draws his pains “through rhyme’s vexation,” meaning to allay them. Bringing grief to numbers will tame it, he thinks. But some other, it might be Monteverdi, sets and sings his grief and, by delighting many, frees it again. This art of Monteverdi’s, augmenting grief or love, is unexpectedly kinetic.

However, you can’t enlist it in the wars of truth. Calming every troubled heart, the music does the other thing, inflaming the most frozen minds. But the calming or inflaming make a well-tuned concord, winning assent, the death of activity. In the whirlwind of passion, even there, says Hamlet to the players, “you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.” Not the same as the naturalistic representing of passion, this smoothness, oil on troubled waters, gives passion the lie. You see this in Monteverdi and his successors to the present, in music, the other arts, too. Indifferent to morality, they don’t have our good at heart or the good they appeal to, like an axiom set, is only “satisfiable.”


Intellectual pressure, mandated by the theorizers, isn’t felt much in Monteverdi’s music. Madrigals from his ninth book (MHS 941) are only exemplary. Content as such absorbs them less than its ordering or disposing, outrageous to modern notions of what comes first. “A great work of art demands a great thought,” some modern person said, but thought for Monteverdi is mostly a given, having value only as it enables. Static like all art when it isn’t impure, his madrigals look like dialogue, a dynamic form. Voices answer each other, but “Hic” and “Ille,” our protagonists, take the same line. Conclusions are rhetorical, managed by the refrain, an arbitrary cinching. Adjusting it gives you the ending. Like an echo or rhyme in poetry, the refrain, gioir. . .languir, joyful or doleful, convinces us sonantally. This isn’t what theory means by sound mirroring sense. Monteverdi knows what theory means, and holds the mirror up to nature when he wants to.

The Coronation of Popped shows him on his “expressive” side. Pledged to kill his wife, Ottone blurts out the truth, and the notes, descending and gravid, mimic his secreto gravissimo. Meanwhile the Empire is going to the dogs, and Nero, a feckless ruler, laughs about it. Gleeful, the music laughs with him. But here he comes, the soldiers sing, so “Let us keep quiet.” Mirroring the words, the music says “Hush!” Sometimes, though, impatient of “views,” it lumps them together, composing their difference. Surprising in the madrigals, this is shocking in the hymns and motets.

For his sacred song Ut Queant, a hymn to St. John, Monteverdi sets a Latin text that varies from stanza to stanza. Now the saint’s “devoted servants” and now “guilty sinners,” we move without ado from one role to the next. But the music doesn’t notice these important transitions. Discriminating thoughtfully, “through-composed” music provides a new melody for every new stanza. Monteverdi’s setting is “strophic,” however, and the melody for every stanza is the same. Ignoring our little lapses and our efforts to do something about this, perhaps he discounts them, like Shakespeare’s Clown in Twelfth Night. “Anything that’s mended is but patched,” says the Clown. “Virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with virtue.”

Careless of discriminations, Monteverdi modifies the sense or you can say he redefines it. Taking in hand the clashed edges of words, he fits them together, and yesterday’s oxymoron becomes today’s familiar truth. Uccide and ride, killing and laughing, answer each other, and clamor answers amor, opposites by convention. The new truth perplexes, though. Under his hand, words, fragmented or agglutinated, lose their integrity. This happens across the board. Striking the ear, che sete: “what thirst,” comes through as “kay-say-tay,” a jingle. Questo mesto giorno translates as “this sad day,” but if you English the Italian you impoverish the “sense,” mnemonic like nursery rhyme. Point of view is implicit in this baffling of distinction.

The ghost of polyphony haunts the new music. Fresh from his reading in Plato and Boethius, Monteverdi might have laid this ghost, writing solo songs whose truth is open and shut. But doubt nagged him or old loyalties or his truth wasn’t simple, and the madrigals that made him famous stuck to polyphony, lacerating the words. Even in the sacred music he does what Plato says he shouldn’t, “puts his ear before his intelligence.” He thinks it makes a better arbiter. The new declamatory style gives priority to meaning, and you hear it in his madrigals but its uses are surprising. Oddly for the man who builds on truth’s foundations, Monteverdi employs this style for “neutral” words that don’t signify or shouldn’t. Chanted, they come clear, and evidently he wants this. But “important” words don’t get chanted, and the music obscures them. Consulting his own eccentric version of truth, he decorates neutral words with a melisma. He doesn’t do this all the time, though, and the sobbing trill occurs impartially on conjunctions, prepositions, and big words like “love” and “grief.” Where this leaves us intellectually is hard to say.

Growing up in an age committed to theory, the child of his age accepted its prescripts, making “a kind of music by which men might talk in harmony.” This meant rejecting “compounded” music, “bated” or vexed with fugue, and “the excessive passage-work with which they embellished it.” Also it meant submitting “for the most part to a recitative style.” In these quotations, contemporary theorists are spelling out the new imperatives. Monteverdi endorsed them, always “for the most part.” His “arioso” vocal line, midway between aria and recitative, comes home more clearly than the music of his fathers, polyphonic composers. What his voices have to tell us seems not worth remarking, though, not in so many words, and it isn’t for their saying that we remember Monteverdi.

Where the fathers in their First Practice made music mistress of words, he rebelled against this, building his new art on the ruins of the old. But he makes a bad rebel and like Orpheus in the Underworld can’t help looking back. Honoring words, he had his own sense of what this required. His contemporary Campion wanted to couple “words and notes lovingly together,” another imperative, and Monteverdi took it to heart. Magnanimous, he did more than this, however, and his magnanimity, the cardinal virtue, is also a vice, making trouble for him and us. Coupling the text with notes, he transformed it, darkening truth.

Like Mozart and Shakespeare, he couldn’t stint on beauty if he tried. In Macbeth a hired bravo speaks like a poet where a surly epithet is all you need, and the great aria in The Magic Flute glorifies an evil woman, the Queen of the Night. As Monteverdi received it, the story of Poppea provides the stuff for a cautionary fable. Shakespeare’s given in his Measure for Measure is like this, and the Vienna he imagines—it stinks in some sort—puts you in mind of Monteverdi’s Rome, a cauldron of unholy loves. Then these makers bend to the work. Unexpected things happen, not welcome to some. Vivifying the given, each enacts the triumph of our erected flesh.

First and last the opportunist, Monteverdi wants to get the job done. Moral purpose, avowed or otherwise, takes a back seat to this executive impulse. Opportunism, much maligned, is another word for the demiurge, a chthonic spirit whose activity is willful but lucky. Credentialed makers at their wit’s end invoke this shaping spirit but do so at their peril, it being no respecter of preconceived ideas. Campion, anxious for truth, likened the demiurge to Procrustes. This old tyrant, careless of truth, lopped or stretched his victims, a summary procedure. But when he was done, they fit his “procrustean” bed.

The result shows arbitrariness but makes a coherence, oddly as near to truth as we can get. Campion doesn’t say this; that is what I think. Anyway, the approximation satisfied Monteverdi. He wasn’t a theorist but a professional entertainer, with all this means for good.


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