Monteverdi today

David Vickers Fri 2nd June 2017

In celebration of the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth this year, David Vickers talks to renowned musicians about how the interpretation of the composer’s music continues to evolve

No other composer who was alive in the 16th century is as popular on recordings and in modern concert halls and opera houses as Claudio Monteverdi. The 450th anniversary of his birth in Cremona, where he was baptised on May 15, 1567, is an opportune moment to reappraise his exceptional but often enigmatic music. L’Orfeo (1607) has become firmly established in the operatic canon; the so-called 1610 Vespers is a beloved favourite of choral singers all over the world; and there are more alternative recordings of his diverse books of madrigals and other secular vocal music than is the case for any of his most deserving contemporaries. Almost all of the aforementioned music was written for Mantua, where by 1590 Monteverdi was employed as a musician at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. He was promoted to maestro della musica in 1601, but after more than 20 years of service he was sacked by the new duke, Francesco Gonzaga, in 1612. A year later, in August 1613, the out-of-work Monteverdi auditioned for the prestigious post of maestro di cappella at the Basilica San Marco in Venice. He impressed the procurators so much that they offered him the job on the spot, and he remained there for the rest of his life. On March 13, 1620, he declined an invitation from the Gonzagas to return to Mantua, writing gleefully to an intermediary that, in Venice, when he was about to perform chamber or church music, ‘the whole city comes running’.

Monteverdi is regarded as the supreme musical genius of a period of transition that straddled the late Italian Renaissance and the dawn of the Baroque era, but within a few years of his burial in Venice’s Milanese chapel at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in 1643 his works were almost completely forgotten. A few 18th-century music historians discussed him briefly out of a purely antiquarian curiosity, but it was not until the late 19th century that a small handful of his works were published in modern editions. The acceleration of interest in Monteverdi’s music in the early years of the 20th century was spearheaded by composers who were inspired to make their own radical ‘realisations’ of his works. One of these was Gian Francesco Malipiero, whose fascination for Monteverdi led to his monumental collected edition of the complete works (1926-42), which had a seismic impact upon gradually increasing the number of performances, the proliferation of alternative editions of individual works and the first trickle of commercial recordings. In 1937, Nadia Boulanger made a seminal recording of assorted madrigals sung chorally with piano accompaniment, and it was also in Paris that Anthony Lewis conducted the first relatively complete recording of the 1610 Vespers for L’Oiseau-Lyre (1953). Two further landmarks were August Wenzinger’s recording of L’Orfeo on historical instruments (DG Archiv, 1955), and Jürgen Jürgens’s ground-breaking Vespers (Telefunken, 1967) with his Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg, members of the Vienna Boys Choir, plainsong specialists Capella Antiqua München and the innovative period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien (its founder Nikolaus Harnoncourt proceeding to record influential ‘realisations’ of Monteverdi’s late Venetian operas for Teldec Das Alte Werk in the 1970s).

Madrigal trailblazers

Among the many innovators at the vanguard of the Monteverdi revival in the 1980s, the trailblazing Consort of Musicke helped bring about an influential transformation. Their idiomatic use of single voices revealed the full breadth of the vocal chamber music’s diverse styles and musical quality. Their anthology ‘Madrigali erotici’ (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 12/82), prepared in the wake of their explorations of Dowland, drew extensively from the Seventh Book of Madrigals. Director and lutenist Anthony Rooley points out: ‘It’s worth remembering that in the early ’80s there were virtually no Italian artists of international standing who were paying attention to their rich tradition of late 16th- and early 17th-century music. I had reference to very few recordings from English, Dutch and German artists, but nothing that inspired me – so a fresh start had to be made. We were still in our infancy as a vocal consort, and went through intense preparations that began to really bear fruit in our next Monteverdi recordings – the Fourth Book in 1983 and the Fifth Book in 1984. We had inspiring help with Italian diction from Sylvia Dimiziani – she was our living link to Italian rhetoric and emphasis. We were, of course, inevitably still English – but with a growing awareness of Italianate delights.’ Dame Emma Kirkby reflects: ‘I used to say to people that we were like a vocal string quartet – we’d got very steady personnel, we grew together and had a wonderful time, and its collectiveness was very satisfying. It was a wonderful ritual feeling, while at the same time we were all sharing human emotions. The core members – me, Evelyn Tubb, Mary Nichols and Andrew King – were the same for about 20 years.’

By the time the Consort of Musicke’s Monteverdi series continued with Virgin there had been the addition of fresh-voiced young tenor Paul Agnew, who now sings his own madrigal projects alongside colleagues in Les Arts Florissants. He explains why their recent trilogy of mixed Monteverdian albums was divided into periods devoted to Cremona, Mantua and Venice. ‘The recordings were all taken from live concerts of the complete books, but I wanted to present a digestible guide to Monteverdi’s laboratory – which is essentially the five-voice form. The first three books of madrigals from the early Cremonese years are packed with charming things, but then the Mantuan music in Books Four, Five and Six are clearly the fruits of him being pushed by Vincenzo Gonzaga’s interests and tastes, and also of him being influenced by what he’s learning about from Ferrara [one of Italy’s other ‘city-states’ ruled by the Este family, for whom Monteverdi also composed], where he has met the poets Tasso and Guarini. Whereas, later on, the madrigal no longer exists – there’s not a single five-part unaccompanied vocal piece in the whole of Book Seven! And Book Eight also contains some astonishing concerted music for combinations of solo voices and instruments. So, with Les Arts Florissants, I wanted to capture all these transitions that are the birth of modern music.’

Agnew insists that the poetry is fundamental to a successful understanding of how to sing these pieces. ‘When we first rehearsed them, the only thing we did for the first sessions was to work with Rita de Letteriis, who is not only an Italian coach but also immersed in the poetry of this time. We talked about the scansion of the metre, the rhyming structures, the internal rhymes, and the riposte – there are incredible structural elements in the poetry, and Monteverdi brings out all of these. It helps us to start exactly where Monteverdi himself started, with two pieces of paper on the table – one with the poem on it and the other one with nothing.’

Rinaldo Alessandrini expresses a similar mantra about the supremacy of text when telling me about Concerto Italiano’s long-awaited return to Monteverdi madrigals for a mixed programme recorded in the court theatre at Caserta. ‘When we first encountered Monteverdi’s music in the early ’90s it was very rare to approach this music in Italy with a group of solo singers. It was totally new for us, and maybe we were a little bit too excited! I think we were too anxious to use the music – and our main mistake was to treat it using the same chemistry familiar to us in later repertoire. Everything we did had a lot of diminuendos, crescendos – a lot of pure musical effects. But since then, I’ve realised that what you really have to manipulate is the text, and that everything else around it is a kind of reflection of the poetry. You can almost decide that in some ways the music doesn’t exist – the truth of the music is hidden in plain sight, just behind the text. So for this new project it was a change for us to approach all of the music afresh. Now we’re just trying to recreate the possibility of being surprised by the poetry!’

Concerto Italiano’s new Naïve album, ‘Night: Stories of Lovers and Warriors’, was conceived as a dramatic presentation with a narrative arc: ‘It gave us an opportunity to revisit several of the major pieces from Book Eight – Combattimento, Lamento della ninfa, and Hor che’l ciel e la terra – but collected together with nice things from other publications. It is like a character is speaking about the very strange effect of night on the soul and on the mind. But then the story continues with Ecco mormorar l’onde from Book Two – the moment when the sun finally rises again. And we end with Quando l’alba in oriente, one of the Scherzi musicali; a text that describes the sun. So the theme is not just about night, but it is a journey from dark to light, from despair to hope.’

Exploring the Venetian church music

I Fagiolini have never been artists to record Monteverdi’s music by the book, so to speak. Reluctance to tread along well-worn paths is why Robert Hollingworth has so far resisted the urge to record the 1610 Vespers. Instead, their contribution to the Monteverdi anniversary is cheekily entitled ‘The Other Vespers’: it’s a liturgical reconstruction of a Vespers for the Feast of St John the Baptist as it might have been done in 1620 (an occasion described somewhat unreliably by an enthusiastic Dutch tourist who was impressed by hearing Monteverdi direct some of his own music). Hollingworth bases this alternative Monteverdi Vespers on selections from the large published collection Selva morale e spirituale (1641). ‘I suppose I just wanted to draw attention to this music because there are so many recordings of the 1610 Vespers. I reckon there are other things published later on during Monteverdi’s Venetian years that are worth looking at as well. There’s something fundamentally acoustically exhilarating about Monteverdi’s incredibly rich Venetian church music – his skill in the way he voices music so that every chord and every bit of dissonance speaks beautifully. I also wanted to test out the research into what his triple-time signatures really mean in famous pieces like Beatus vir because I think that, for decades, we’ve been doing them too fast and overlooked that Monteverdi’s use of time signatures is essentially left over from the Renaissance, and not an anticipation of the late Baroque. This can result in things that are quite different from what we’ve all become used to!’

Nevertheless, the 1610 Vespers remains ubiquitous for plenty of good reasons, and last month saw a scrubbed-up reissue of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s famous DG Archiv recording (audio and film) made at Venice’s Basilica San Marco in 1989. As Gardiner remembers, ‘It was an extraordinary experience because we were trying to do a live television broadcast whilst also making a gramophone recording for DG – and it was hampered by the fact that the BBC were on strike for one of the two performances. Their lighting team and cameramen wanted to record both concerts but couldn’t cross the picket line, so we had only the second performance to get everything right for the film version. Then, as soon as the concert began, a dog started barking in a tower nearby and it carried on for 15 minutes, which meant that, after the end of the performance, we had to re-record the beginning. In fact, we ended up filming all through the night, and we only stopped because the sunlight came through the windows of the Basilica at dawn and the BBC cameramen couldn’t film anymore!’

Andrew Parrott’s landmark recording of the Vespers reappraised many fundamental questions, not least new ideas about the size of vocal forces, reordering the contents of the 1610 print into a plausible liturgical context, and trying out the theory of chiavette clefs so that ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ and the Magnificat were performed about a fourth lower. As Parrott insists, ‘The details and problems of musicology that I got involved in afterwards were only as a result of an initial instinct to try out Monteverdi’s music for myself in order to see what could happen, and then I started to ask difficult questions about it. The use of single voices in much of the Vespers music and playing on period instruments were not the only issues per se, but I was certainly interested in music-making that could work on a different level in terms of subtlety, intonation, colour and nuance.’

The burgeoning Vespers discography is continuing to expand in 2017 with a significant contribution from the label Glossa, which has just issued a fresh take masterminded by the tenor Giuseppe Maletto – a founder member of La Venexiana along with director/countertenor Claudio Cavina, soprano Rossana Bertini and bass Daniele Carnovich (all alumni of Concerto Italiano). Cavina’s subsequent interest in opera projects led the core of the madrigal group to continue working together in a collaborative fashion under the name La Compagnia del Madrigale, and it is this ensemble who feature on the Glossa recording. For their new interpretation of the 1610 Vespers, they have joined with the additional voices and instrumentalists of Cantica Symphonia, the wind specialists La Pifarescha and organist Luca Guglielmi. Revisiting many significant questions about pitch, instrumentation, continuo practice and tempos, Maletto has opted to follow the published order of music rather than adopt a liturgical reconstruction: ‘I think it is a sacrilege to upset the order of the continuous and articulate conversation between pieces that Monteverdi arranged with great care and wisdom,’ he says. ‘He creates an alternation of chiaroscuro between psalms and concertos that the introduction of Gregorian antiphon disrupts. All the individual works are unique masterpieces, of course, but for me they only acquire their full meaning when they’re experienced within a grandiose fresco. No one, for example, would ever think of exchanging panels from Piero della Francesca’s The Polyptych of the Misericordia!’

When I enquire how Maletto’s musical interpretation might differ from other approaches, he observes that ‘everyone who performs the Vespers probably performed a Vivaldi concerto or a Mozart mass the night before. It’s likely that this leads to some confusion of musical languages. So while it’s true that the Vespers is a work that transcends all ages, we need to be aware that its musical roots are in Renaissance polyphony such as Palestrina, Giaches de Wert and Andrea Gabrieli. But often it’s tackled like it’s an oratorio by Handel! Also, the rich mixture of continuo instrumentation of theorbos, harp, harpsichord, viola da gamba and a little box organ in sacred music is a modern invention – and the illusion of balance between them is often an artificial trick conjured up by recording engineers! The only continuo instrument cited in the 1610 publication is the organ, so we’ve used a large, full and bright church organ of the right historical type, and this has revealed a hitherto unknown strength of harmonic richness in this music.’

Delving into the operas

Gardiner sees the Vespers as being intrinsically connected to L’Orfeo. ‘In Monteverdi, there’s no membrane between secular and sacred. There’s theatricality in church music, and there’s spirituality in secular music, and the colour of the words and of the music is absolutely essential to the aesthetic purpose of Monteverdi – we bleach that at our peril. And nowhere do you see that fusion of sacred and secular more than in La Musica’s Prologue. In many respects, L’Orfeo is a very religious work that touches profoundly on what it means to be both human and divine, and the Vespers is very theatrical – so they’re both two sides of the same coin.’ Gardiner’s landmark recording of L’Orfeo was the result of an extensive process. ‘My enduring memory is the mesmerising Antony Rolfe Johnson in the title-role. I’d done it with him at English National Opera in a production by David Freeman, sung in English. But although I enjoyed doing it in English, I had insisted that the cast learn it in Italian and that we rehearse it in Italian before we went over to English.’

La Venexiana’s 2008 Gramophone Award-winning L’Orfeo (Glossa, recently reissued) brought Italianate warmth, softness and flamboyance to the score, and clearly benefited from the ensemble’s extensive experience of working on the complete madrigals project. As Maletto observes, ‘What has always characterised Claudio Cavina’s approach to Monteverdi is that he is instinctive and direct, sometimes impetuous, but always sincere, passionate and without too much intellectualism.’ More recently, in 2013, Andrew Parrott and a reconfigured incarnation of The Taverner Consort and Players strove to recapture the flavour of an oversized madrigal performed privately in a small apartment at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua – in other words, the conditions of the first performance on February 24, 1607, long before the 20th-century reinvented the work as the first great opera (a genre that did not yet exist in any realistic sense). As Parrott observes, ‘In later generations of opera, the music wins over the words, whereas L’Orfeo’s balance between those two things is absolutely faultless. On every level, emotionally as well as musically, the music, drama and poetry are in a rare, perfect alignment. There’s nothing clichéd, predictable, routine or degenerate. Also, in my view, it’s miles and miles away from the much later Venetian operas that he wrote – I know those are good, but to me they come from a different world.’

Everyone agrees that the later Venetian operas Il ritorno d’Ulisse and L’incoronazione di Poppea are problematic in all sorts of respects. The sketchiness of the sole Vienna manuscript copy of Ulisse and the extensive discrepancies between the contradictory Venice and Naples manuscripts of Poppea (not to mention legitimate doubts about how much of the extant music is actually by Monteverdi), mean that we are unlikely to ever find perfect solutions to all of the problems and questions that they raise. Gardiner is looking forward to revisiting the late Venetian operas on tour with semi-staged concert performances. ‘I think there are unmistakeable fingerprints of Monteverdi’s style, such as his exploration of the whole range of human emotions and this wonderful way he has with words whilst still thinking contrapuntally,’ he says. ‘In the late Venetian operas, his two-part writing for voice and basso continuo line has this constructive friction. Venetian music in the 1630s and ’40s becomes tuneful and popular, and Monteverdi goes along with that as well, but there is always a much grittier type of symbiosis between text and music. But you know, musicologists can get themselves into a tremendous kind of fuss and tangle about all this, so let’s just accept the fact that public opera in Venice was often a collaborative process. Monteverdi was getting on in years, and could well have turned to his collaborators – just as painters did at the time – to fill in certain sections.’

After this year’s extensive Monteverdian touring, Gardiner plans to record Ulisse for SDG. ‘The opera is often traduced in performances because either it’s done in a ridiculously over-composed kind of way with lots of additional instruments and extra accompaniments, as if the conductor is terrified that the music might not be good enough to sustain our interest, or you get the hair-shirt approach, which is scrupulously as written, with just a continuo line and short little ritornellos played by strings – but this also neglects what I think is really critical: that there should be tension and complicity between singers and players in order to communicate the language of the drama. That’s rarely calibrated as it should be, but if you can get that right you’re a long way towards understanding the originality of what Monteverdi was trying to achieve in this prodigious work.’

Why our fascination continues

The abundant discography of Monteverdi’s madrigals, church music and operas encapsulates the variety of approaches and ideologies about performance in the modern history of the early music revival. It seems like we know as much about Monteverdi as we might ever know, unless we are fortunate enough for long-lost works to be rediscovered: compositions such as the Mantuan operas Arianna (1608) and Andromeda (1620), Requiem music commissioned by the Florentines in Venice to mourn the death of Grand Duke Cosimo II of Tuscany (1621), music for a performance of Tasso’s play Aminta (Parma, 1628) and the lost Venetian operas Proserpina rapita (1630) and Le nozze d’Enea e Lavinia (1641) all spring to mind as tantalising hints that the music he chose to publish was only the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, our fascination for Monteverdi seems to become more complex and compelling the deeper we look. As Gardiner sums up, ‘This year’s 450th anniversary celebration is a perfect moment to consider that Monteverdi is just one figure in a generation of scientists, thinkers, philosophers, musicians and painters all born in the 1560s and ’70s, and all of an extraordinary quality. Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon, Monteverdi, Caravaggio, Rubens…they were all around together in that period, and all of them in their own ways transformed the modern world.’


Recommended Monteverdi recordings

Fourth and Fifth Books of Madrigals

Consort of Musicke / Anthony Rooley


Previous efforts are swept away by the transparency and musicianship of the Consort of Musicke’s recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Books of Madrigals.




Sols; English Baroque Soloists; Monteverdi Choir / John Eliot Gardiner

DG Archiv (12/87)

Cavina’s madrigalian flexibility and Parrott’s integrity are both essential perspectives, but Lynne Dawson’s La Musica and Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s Orfeo are indispensable.



1610 Vespers

Taverner Consort, Choir and Players / Andrew Parrott

Erato (10/85)

Parrott answers difficult questions raised by the 1610 Vespers, and the musical qualities of his results remain outstanding in a crowded field.



Sixth Book of Madrigals

Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Alessandrini

Naïve (8/06)

Alessandrini’s Gramophone Award-winning recording of this serious chamber vocal music for connoisseurs (like none written before) uses the continuo part added to later reprints.



‘Sweet Torment’

I Fagiolini / Robert Hollingworth

Chandos (A/09)

I Fagiolini mix up secular music from different books, including both versions of ‘Zefiro torna’ and a reconstruction of the original Mantuan Il ballo delle ingrate.



Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Tirsi e Clori

Tragicomedia / Stephen Stubbs

Warner (10/93)

La Venexiana’s complete Books Seven and Eight are vital listening, but Tragicomedia’s performances of Combattimento and Tirsi e Clori are sensational.



Selva morale e spirituale

Cantus Cölln; Concerto Palatino / Konrad Junghänel

Harmonia Mundi (A/01)

Other versions are either selective, slightly short of completeness or blighted by anachronisms, whereas Cantus Cölln’s Gramophone Award-winning recording is top dog.



L’incoronazione di Poppea

La Venexiana / Claudio Cavina


Cavina’s whimsy gets the better of him in ‘Pur ti miro’, but otherwise this recording has more humour, eroticism and personality than any of the next best versions.


Gramophone Subscriptions


Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2019