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Monteverdi Set Human Emotion to Music

Mr. Gardiner said both the madrigals and operas still speak directly to audiences more than four centuries later thanks to an emotional range that was unparalleled at the time. Unlike composers of the previous centuries, whose compositions “reflect the heavens and the divine godhead,” he said, “Monteverdi is much more centered on the human being’s place in the world: What he or she thinks about life, and how different emotions can wreck you.”


Claudio Monteverdi, born in 1567, is being feted with performances of his three surviving operas, and many madrigals.

Imagno/Getty Images

Monteverdi’s musical revolution coincided with Galileo’s demonstration that the Earth revolves around the sun, dispelling the notion that the sun revolved around the Earth. Also at the time, Caravaggio was painting beggars and prostitutes into religious settings. “Suddenly you’re aware of everyday people and human imperfection rather than the idealized figures in the paintings of Raphael or Botticelli,” Mr. Gardiner said.

The Counter-Reformation, in which the Catholic Church sought new ways of converting and maintaining believers, played an important role. “The Jesuits are absolutely clear,” said the musicologist Tim Carter by phone from Chapel Hill, N.C. “Grab them by the heart, and you can go for their souls later. You find this overt sensuality in early Baroque statues such as Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’”

The porous boundary between the religious and the secular becomes clear when considering the madrigals that Les Arts Florissants perform under the tenor and conductor Paul Agnew this summer. The selections found a second life as reset to sacred texts by the Italian lyricist Aquilino Coppini. “Some of the most overtly erotic texts become sacred, devotional pieces,” Mr. Agnew said.

The harmonic progressions in Monteverdi’s madrigals challenged conventions of the time and prompted an attack from the conservative theorist Giovanni Artusi. In retaliation, Monteverdi in 1605 published a statement maintaining that music should be the handmaiden of the word.

But according to Mr. Carter, Monteverdi’s writings about what he coined the “seconda prattica” (second practice) should not be read as a “great aesthetic statement.” Rather, he emphasized the composer’s exploratory nature and “enormously fertile musical mind.”

“Even in the first and second books of madrigals, when he is still learning the trade, Monteverdi plays with material and uncovers new sonic horizons,” Mr. Carter said.


Sir John Eliot Gardiner, founder and director of the Monteverdi Choir, said: “Monteverdi is much more centered on the human being’s place in the world: What he or she thinks about life, and how different emotions can wreck you.”

Michele Crosera

Mr. Gardiner, in his early preparation of the trilogy, chose to rehearse madrigals with his singers as a way of molding the ensemble together. The poetry itself was a primary focus and remains so as they brush up for coming performances of the operas.

“We start with pronunciation,” he said, “the way that the energy of the spoken text can pull both toward and against the harmonic rhythm of the music, which makes it feel like jazz in some ways.”

In a similar vein, Mr. Agnew said that “if we approach the text first, we should be able to find out when to go fast or slow, when to allow the dissonance to speak.”

The relationship of vocal to bass line must also remain flexible, not unlike in improvisation. “It might not be the same two consecutive evenings,” Mr. Gardiner said. “The singer might change the harmonic impulsion or narrative function.”

Robert Hollingworth, founder and director of I Fagiolini, has in his recent recording of the “Selva morale e spirituale” explored his own research about the relationship of duple to triple time and how it affects overall phrasing. He has concluded that the triple time should be much slower than it is usually performed.

Mr. Hollingworth has also devoted his career to developing performance formats that connect audiences to the music in immediate ways. In “The Full Monteverdi,” a project begun in 2004, his ensemble joined professional actors for staged performances of Monteverdi’s fourth book of madrigals in which poems like “Sí, ch’io vorrei morire” (“Yes, I wish to die”) or “Ah, dolente partita” (“Oh, sorrowful parting”) became the dialogue of couples at a restaurant.


Krystian Adam plays the title role in “L’Orfeo” with Anna Dennis playing the nymph, in a semi-staged performance in Bristol in May.

Shotaway Colston Hall, Bristol

“There’s very little artifice in Monteverdi’s music,” Mr. Hollingworth said. “It’s his own blood directly on the page.”

In “Vespers on the Move,” performed at the York Early Music Festival earlier this month, the conductor split his choir in two and allowed the audiences to move freely so that they would have the opportunity to hear the different voices more clearly.

Mr. Hollingworth’s ensemble aims to combine the British tradition of consort singing with the “flamboyant, Italian nature which the music clearly needs,” he said, noting that “the standard of singing of this kind has only gone up.”

Mr. Gardiner recalled that when he began conducting Monteverdi vespers in the 1960s, the repertory “was not at all on people’s musical horizons.” Even as the operas have become better known over the last two decades, he said, he believes their full originality has yet to be acknowledged.

All three stage works deal “with the power of love to complicate human life,” he said, citing the sacrifice of Eurydice in “Orfeo,” the theme of fidelity in “Ulisse” and the carnal passion that drives “Poppea.”

In what is probably his final composition, Monteverdi portrayed the bloodthirsty Roman emperor Nero and his scheming mistress, Poppea, as complex, at times vulnerable creatures. “Even though you’re dealing with two monsters, the listener is enchanted by the music,” Mr. Gardiner said. “You still are drawn into them as human beings.”

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