Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance

Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance

Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance

Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance


Combining a close study of Monteverdi's secular works with recent research on late Renaissance history, Gary Tomlinson places the composer's creative career in its broad cultural context and illuminates the state of Italian music, poetry, and ideology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


The music historian focuses first on works of music, whatever else he might survey. These are his primary texts. They are ordered systems of symbols, linguistic webs that conveyed meanings to those who created, performed, and listened to them. The historian’s task is to describe what he takes to be those meanings.

In this book I attempt to describe the meanings of the secular works of Claudio Monteverdi, the foremost Italian composer at the end of the Renaissance. My narrative revolves around the works themselves—nine books of madrigals, three complete operas and a fragment of a fourth, and numerous canzonette, scherzi, and arie, all produced between 1584 and 1642. But it is not restricted to these works. For, as anthropologists, general historians, and others frequently remind us, meaning does not reside in isolated expressive acts but arises from the relations of these acts to their contexts. In seeking to understand the significance of an individual artwork, we seek to describe as fully or, in the fashionable parlance, as “thickly” as possible its connections to the context from which it arose.

These connections take various forms because the context of any work is manifold and complex. The linguist A. L. Becker has enumerated four general categories of relation between a text and its context; they conform rather neatly to the conceptions underlying my book and may serve as the starting point for a synopsis of it. The contextual relations of a text and its constituent units, Becker writes, include “I. The relations of textual units to each other within the text. … 2. The relations of textual units to other texts. … 3. The relations of units in the text to the intention of the creators of the text…. 4. The relation of textual units to nonliterary events with which units in the text establish relations of the sort usually called reference.” In Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance my narrative shifts among four varieties of interaction between Monteverdi’s works and their contexts, each similar to one of Becker’s categories: from analysis of individual works (Becker’s relations within texts), to the placing of these works in traditions of similar works (relations among texts), to description of Monteverdi’s expressive ideals manifested in his works (the creator’s intentions), to elucidation of the relations of

1. A. L. Becker, “Text-Building, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in Javanese Shadow Theatre,” p. 212. I was introduced to Becker’s work by the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who discusses it in Local Knowledge, pp. 30-33.

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