Survival of the Brilliant-est
So, there's not much of Monteverdi's work that made it out of the 1600s, but, lucky for us, what of it has is, according to just about all of the historical articles on him that you can Google, the best of everything he wrote. His madrigals (sung poetry, to put the word in the least helpful but most summary terms) and church music have been the focus of a few entitled classics men/women (musicologists) for their revolutionary style; it was pretty new over four hundred years ago, anyway. Yet it's his "L'Orfeo" on which sits three quarters of his fame's monumental rump, and for good reason, which I'll get to in a minute. "The Return of Ulysses" ("Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria"), the basis of which is obvious enough, and "The Coronation of Poppea" ("L'Incoronazione di Poppea"), based on the life and times of the royal Roman baddie, Emperor Nero, are pretty much legendary, too. You'd think that, like most computer games and cell phones, the first models of true-to-term opera music would be pretty heavy with prototype glitches that might make you want to drop them into the mouth of Mt. Etna from ten thousand feet in the air or repeatedly pound them with a volume of a useless, useless, useless and ridiculously expensive hardcopy encyclope... Okay, back to the point. Monteverdi's stuff was in no way underdeveloped, but it was he who gave music its first push into the Baroque Era, when Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel were One Republic, Sia, and Sean Mendes.
"L'Orfeo" is, as I've written, Monteverdi's big one, and the reason is very simple, really. It was only the first fully formed opera ever written. There were some operas composed before it, but they were more closely related to plays, the sounds of which several composers had decided to start playing with. Every play was peppered with what's called "incidental music," which is stuff that Shakespeare movie fans know all about. A piece of incidental music would be heard during specific sequences of action. I guess anyone who's ever encountered a soundtrack pretty much gets the idea. There was also the "intermedio," which was a piece of music or group of musical pieces, including songs, that was performed between Acts. Monteverdi did more than any other composer to advance the idea of his predecessors, who figured they could and should expand this material and have players sing their parts instead of just yelling them out, creating a more emotional art. "L'Orfeo," then, naturally, has a rather dramatic theme: the futile hope of a young lover for the return of his finer half from the land of the dead, and his quest to make that hope's reality happen. Of course, Monteverdi's opera doesn't sound as dramatic as late Classical, Bel Canto, and Romantic opera, but Gluck didn't show up until later to really start making music that could tell stories all by itself. We'll definitely be discussing him later.
Monteverdi was one of those composers that time just couldn't keep down. His music disappeared for awhile, but when it finally started receiving performances again in the 1800s, it became an important historical study. I know. It sounds boring, but in the 1960's, performers finally started giving the music all they had, getting the popular bunch of Handel and Mozart operas to bump elbows with "The Coronation of Poppea" in theatres across the planet. Now, the world's first major opera composer continues to bring houses down. They say The Beatles will live on forever, and their state of immortality has only just hit the fifty-five year mark. Let's see if they can make it to four hundred thirty-three.
Every one of the great artists of every genre has been made possible by the work of one master or another that, once upon the spark of a metaphorical light bulb, planted a seed with a pen. I hope you've enjoyed this little something on one of the greatest minds in the history of vocal music, my friends. Check out Everyone's Opera's Facebook page for the best of Claudio Monteverdi. Until next time, happy opera loving!