Claudio Monteverdi

Composer Claudio Monteverdi

"Papa" of opera. His music was an important bridge from Renaissance to Baroque aesthetics.

Vital Statistics
May 15, 1567, Cremona, Italy
November 29, 1643, Venice
Performed As:
Player of viols; probably studied singing
During Lifetime:
Shakespeare’s plays were written and performed. The Thirty Years War was fought.
Biographical Outline
  • Boy wonder: Publishes his first collection of sacred songs at age 15.
  • First gig, 1590 or 1591: Lowly court musician for the Duke of Mantua.
  • Madrigal man: Between 1587 and 1607, Monteverdi publishes five books of madrigals and the Scherzi musicali (Musical pleasantries), a book of lighter-themed songs for voice and accompaniment. They make his reputation.
  • Bumped up to middle management, 1601: Appointed maestro della musica (master of music) in Mantua.
  • Opera at last: His Orfeo is performed at court in February 1607. Although not the first, this opera is the most impressive and important opera of the early 17th century.
  • The boot, 1612-style: Monteverdi is abruptly dismissed from the Duke’s service, after three years of discontent and court intrigue.
  • Corner office, 1613: Appointed maestro di capella at the Cathedral of San Marco, in the Republic of Venice. This was a state appointment as much as a church position, and one of the more important ones in Italy. Monteverdi composed music for civic celebrations, as well as sacred music. He was famous by this point, well-paid, and able to take advantage of many other composing opportunities.
  • Public opera: Venice gave birth to public opera houses in the late 1630s. Monteverdi responded with Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1639/1640), Le nozze d’Enea in Lavinia (The marriage of Aeneas in Lavinia, 1640/1641, now lost), and his last and, today, best-known opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642/1643).
Fun Facts
  • Survivor: Monteverdi survived highway robbery on the journey from his hometown of Cremona to Venice.
  • Great loss: Despite his fame, many of Monteverdi’s compositions are lost, including more than 10 stage works, and much sacred music.
  • Low point: Monteverdi wrote that he had only pocket money left when he was sacked at Mantua.
  • Credit where credit is due: The most famous part of Poppea, a duet between Nero and Poppea in the last scene, was actually composed by someone else.
  • Grave: Monteverdi is buried in Venice at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Vocal music: Known for his operas and his madrigals. He composed madrigals throughout his career, publishing eight books of them. A ninth book was published after his death.
  • Breaking the rules: Monteverdi was at the center of a famous controversy, when his “modern” style of composition was attacked by music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi. No theorist himself, Monteverdi proposed a “second practice” in which breaking the rules was justified in order to express poetic meaning. This idea became a bedrock concept in Baroque music.
  • Realism, 1643: In his opera L’incoronazione di Poppea, an ambitious courtesan manipulates a weak, psychologically unstable ruler (Emperor Nero), and there’s cross-dressing, exile, dueling goddesses—what more could you want from opera?
Recommended Websites
  • When looking for recordings of Poppea, choose ones in which the vocal ranges of the characters have been preserved. Avoid those in which Nero, Otho, and Valetto’s roles have been transposed down for baritones or tenors. Instead, choose ones that use countertenors or female singers in these roles. Our favorite:
    • L’incoronazione di Poppea
    • Sylvia McNair, Anna Sofie von Otter, Dana Hanchard; The English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner conductor (Archiv Produktion 1996)
    • L’Orfeo
    • Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Julianne Baird, Anne Sofie von Otter; The English Baroque Soloists, His Majesties Sagbuts & Cornetts, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. 2 CDs (Archiv Produktion 1990).
    • Vespri della Beata Vergine (Vesper service of the Blessed Virgin)
    • Janice Chandler, Richard Croft, Jeff Mattsey; Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman (Telarc Digital). This recording is tremendously exciting, though some might consider the tempos to be a bit extreme.
    • Fourth Book of Madrigals
    • Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini (Opus 111, 1993)
    • Fifth Book of Madrigals
    • Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini (Opus 111, 1996)