Magazine article Gramophone

Why Monteverdi Still Sings: In Celebration of the 450th Anniversary of Monteverdi's Birth This May, David Vickers Talks to Renowned Musicians about How the Interpretation of the Composer's Music Continues to Evolve

Magazine article Gramophone

Why Monteverdi Still Sings: In Celebration of the 450th Anniversary of Monteverdi's Birth This May, David Vickers Talks to Renowned Musicians about How the Interpretation of the Composer's Music Continues to Evolve

Article excerpt

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 Jurgen Jurgens's ground-breaking Feipm (Telefunken, 1967) with his Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg, members of the Vienna Boys Choir, plainsong specialists Capella Antiqua Miinchen 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. …

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