Claudio, the Bridge Builder

Claudio Monteverdi; Photo credit – as seen on


No, he didn’t actually build bridges. But, Claudio Monteverdi provided a bridge between two early musical periods, the Renaissance and the Baroque. In fact, Monteverdi is really the first recognizable name in music history. Before him, you had your Willaert’s, du Fay’s, Ockeghem’s, and Palestrina’s, but none of them you may have heard of. Monteverdi’s name stands above the rest for a reason, even if you don’t exactly know why. Well, this is why I’m writing a blog post about him after all, to tell you the story of perhaps the first great composer and the creator of the longest surviving opera in human history.

Claudio Monteverdi’s magnum opus, L’Orfeo, is the opera in question. It is not the oldest opera however, that pleasure would go to two operas by Florentine composer Jacopo Peri, but those have not survived the test of time much like a lot of late 90s pop music. But instead of the changing tastes of generations, those operas are just incomplete. Plus Peri’s works are only less than a decade older than Monteverdi’s, so no biggie.

But enough rambling about dated tastes and bridge construction, let’s dive into how Monteverdi crafted one of the greatest operatic works in music and shifted history out of the Renaissance and into the Baroque.

My Cremona

Before we go into Monteverdi’s hometown, I just have to mention some things about my research. For most of my information and quotes from his background, I used Claudio Monteverdi, Life and Works by Hans Ferdinand Redlich, translated by Kathleen Dale. (1952). Professor, if you want an actual citation I’ll provide one on the associated Google Doc for the research projects. Also, sorry but I didn’t use that other source you recommended me, I already had over 1,500 words of research on my nine-page Doc, so I thought I might have enough :^)

Anyway, it’s really hard to accurately depict Monteverdi’s early life due to an apparent “sparseness of contemporary sources”. (pg. 1) The same can be said for other famous composers of the Renaissance, like Palestrina, since it was such a long time ago and music was by all means NOT part of the collective conscience. This may also have something to due with the pre-invention of the printing press that was more popularized during the Baroque period, which made the likes of Bach and Handel continental superstars.

As far as Monteverdi’s family origin goes, scholars believe that the Monteverdi’s may have descended from a line of Cremonese instrument-makers of the same name, but this is not verifiable in any way other than the similarities in naming. (pg. 3) In fact, some of that name still reside in Cremona to this day.

Cremona, Italy; Photo credits – as seen on

All that’s really known of Monteverdi’s immediate family is that his father, Baldesar, was a doctor with the financial capabilities to give his children classical educations. We also know that Claudio was the eldest of five children. Sheesh.

Scholars aren’t even that sure of Claudio’s birth date, all that is “for sure” is that someone named Claudio “Modverde” was baptized on May 15th, 1567. The fact that the name Monteverdi appears in various different spellings just further goes to show the level of book-keeping during this time. He spelled his name “Monteverdi”, but his “official” birth record is spelled “Modverde” and on various other documents it’s spelled “Monteverde”. The only logical conclusion I can gather as to why is the transfer of his name by word-of-mouth. I know this is a common reason why early American immigrant names, for example, are variants of their original form. Like look at my last name, Henderson, which is Scottish in origin. Whenever my ancestors packed up and headed for the States the immigration officer probably misheard their name in a thick Scottish accent and just wrote down “Henderson”. As far as I can tell, the name is a bastardization of “Henryson”, which would indicate a “son of Henry”. But enough of that, back on track.

The one thing we know for sure is that Claudio died November 29th, 1643 in Venice at the age of 76. I guess by this point he had gained enough clout for someone to notice at least when he died. What an interesting society.

Let’s now look into the background and implications of his hometown, Cremona. If you wanted to be a composer around the late Renaissance/early Baroque, then Cremona would’ve definitely been a good place to spawn. Cremona was actually possessed by the Spanish just before Claudio’s birth, being part of the Lombardy region of Italy and within the realms of Spanish expansion. A famous name from Cremona around the time was one Andrea Amati (1535-1611*), “founder of the great family of violin-makers who, with the Guarneri and the Stradivari, were later to spread the fame of Cremonese violins all over the world.” (pg. 4) For reference, Stradivari violins are the most expensive and sought-after violins, and perhaps general instruments, in the world, some going for millions of dollars.

A Stradivarius violin; Photo credit – ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Cremona was also home to composer Costanzo Porta (1530-1601), who was a pupil under none other than Adrian Willaert, one of the most influential late Renaissance composers and founder of the stylistic Venetian School of Music. This is where the connection to the Renaissance period would be linked for Monteverdi. Although it is unknown what he thought of Willaert’s work, it is known that “Claudio thought highly of C. Porta, but very poorly of B. Pallavicino, [and] may plainly be seen in letters and prefaces written during his maturity.” (pg. 4) B. Pallavicino would actually become a colleague of Claudio’s later on in his adulthood, so he may have taken offense to that.

Adrian Willaert

Claudio’s early teacher was a musician by the name of Marc Antonio Ingegneri (I can’t even begin to pronounce that), the prefect at the Cremona cathedral and “undoubtedly the most important musician within the boundaries of Cremona.” (pg. 4) Monteverdi would study under Ingegneri from about the age of 10 until his late teens, perhaps even until he was 20.

Cremona would provide an incredible launching point for his musical career, along with his affluent and privileged financial background. From here he would go to Mantua, Italy, home of the prestigious and important Gonzaga family, being hired as a court musician. It is there that he would be led to compose his greatest work.


This has nothing to do with basketball, but Claudio would serve in the Court of Gonzaga for more than 20 years from 1590-1612, just about as long as Gonzaga Basketball has been relevant.

But basically, if there’s anything you need to know about the Gonzaga’s, it’s that they were essentially the High Renaissance version of the Medici’s in terms of their patronage of the arts. They turned Mantua into seemingly one of the most important cultural centers of the early 17th century.

Mantua, Italy; Photo credit – as seen on

Claudio would serve under the reign of Vincenzo I (1587-1612), son of the highly influential Guglielmo I (1538-80). Guglielmo commissioned many important works during his reign, including a mass that was done by none other than Palestrina, with whom he had a close relationship. Again, not much is known about whether Monteverdi really cared, but cool to see another Renaissance connection. Guglielmo also worked with Palestrina’s pupil, F. Suriano who was in the court from 1581-6. Other commissions during his reign included the construction of the Church of St. Barbara, the founding of the “ducal cappella” (pg. 8), and also the hiring of Flemish musician Giaches de Wert (1536-96) as maestro to the Mantuan court. It is with de Wert that Monteverdi would work until his death in 1596. Under de Wert, Monteverdi was no more than an assistant violist.

Towards L’Orfeo

The creation of L’Orfeo would have a long and complicated road, to which if he were not in Mantua who knows if he would’ve even composed it.

The first step in the creation of his storied opera would come in working with a composer by the name of Al. Striggio “the elder” (1535-c. 1595; pg. 9), who composed an intermezzo called Psiche de Amore (1565) with specific instrumentation that “[gave] it the appearance of being a fore-runner of Monteverdi’s Orfeo [in] 1607.” (pg. 9) Al. Striggio’s son, A. Striggio “the younger”, would actually be the author of the same Orfeo as the one premiered in 1607. For those unaware or confused, most operas have a storybook plot, and thus there are credits for a writer (called a librettist who makes the libretto for the piece) and a composer.

Claudio’s financial standing had seemingly become progressively worse up to this point, however, while also experiencing the passing of his mentor de Wert in 1596 and multiple failed attempts at claiming his spot as maestro to the court. All this while providing for now two young children and an ailing wife, who unfortunately would pass just half a year after the premiere of L’Orfeo.

There were two other integral figures in the premiere and performance of L’Orfeo, Duke Vincenzo’s two sons, Ferdinando and Francesco. “Ferdinando, in particular, who was then studying at Pisa, seem[ed] to have been deeply interested in the performance of opera in the adjacent city of Florence.” (pg. 15) Francesco too, being the “hereditary prince” to the court, participated in many of the operatic projects in Mantua during the time. Monteverdi would actually dedicate his L’Orfeo to these young patrons of the arts.

“As Early as December 1604 he [Monteverdi] was entrusted with commissions from Mantua for several ballets. Thus it is safe to assume that during the winter of 1606-7 he was at work on the composition of Orfeo.”

pg. 15, Claudio Monteverdi, Life and Works, Hans Ferdinand Redlich, trans. Kathleen Dale

At last, L’Orfeo would premiere on February 22nd, 1607, with Hereditary Prince Francesco in attendance. The performance was venued at the Accademia degli Invaghiti, Mantua’s finest arts establishment.

The opera came with wild financial and cultural success, but at what cost? Claudio had lost his beloved wife in September of the same year. However, Monteverdi’s fortunes would soon change.

Performances of L’Orfeo at the wedding ceremonies of Francesco and Infanta Margherita of Savoy in 1608 “reached a climax in a series of memorable first performances which may confidently be described as the oldest opera festival in Europe.” (pg. 16) Along with this impressive first feat, L’Orfeo is also considered the first melodrama in music history, as well as the mentioned distinction of it being the longest surviving opera with performances still being arranged to this day.

Bringing the Old into the New

But what of Monteverdi’s bridge-building? Well, in this section I’ve decided to take two other composers and compare their works to that of our Claudio. For the Renaissance persuasion, I’ve picked Adrian Willaert, since one of Monteverdi’s early influences (Costanzo Porta) was a pupil to Willaert. As for the Baroque, well, none other than Bach of course. Bach is the quintessential Baroque composer, with maybe Handel even coming close to his form.

So how is this going to work? It’s quite professional, I assure you. I’ve taken the top tracks from both Willaert and Bach on Spotify and the top track from L’Orfeo and I will compare their stylistic differences and similarities to appropriately prove Monteverdi’s importance in transitioning the two musical periods. Originally I wanted to compare elements from the entirety of L’Orfeo, but that’s like two hours long. First, we’ll start with Willaert.

WILLAERT: A little background on Willaert, he came from the Franco-Flemish style of Renaissance music, having originated in the Netherlands. This style aided in the creation of numerous madrigals (a song arranged for several voices without instrumental accompaniment) and the use of isorhythms that focus on melodies and harmonies. Most of Willaert’s work is purely vocal and considered sacred (church music essentially).

His top song on Spotify is a piece by the name of “Magnificat sexti toni”, done almost like a sacred hymn or chant.

As you might be able to hear, the whole piece is done as a choral work in almost a chant-like fashion as I mentioned. You can also distinctly hear one rhythm playing with the other voices creating harmonies around it.

There really isn’t too much more to this piece, but it would supply a firm backbone to the music of later Renaissance composers, and I feel especially to Monteverdi.

MONTEVERDI: With the music of Monteverdi, one must understand two key techniques of music theory. The first is that of Renaissance polyphony. Polyphony, as defined by Google, is a style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other. You might have been able to hear examples of this in the prior piece. The next technique is that of basso continuo, which developed around the early Baroque and is essentially the earliest version of a rhythm section (kind of). Again from Google, basso continuo is an accompanying part that includes a bassline and harmonies, typically played on a keyboard instrument and with other instruments such as cello or lute.

Monteverdi’s top song off of L’Orfeo would be the prologue to the opera, in the form of a toccata.

A toccata is a musical composition that calls for more virtuosity, typically played on instruments such as piano or violin. Strange considering this piece calls for trumpets, or back then probably cornets.

But with this piece, we witness a transition from voice to instruments in a similar rhythmic style to Willaert. However, this piece adds a countermelody with a separate distinct rhythm that harmonizes with the main rather than a group of voices. Basso continuo can also be heard very clearly by the ear-shattering bass drum in the background.

As I mentioned, this piece is a toccata, but that is quite unusual. It’s unusual in that this is from a composer that narrowly predates the Baroque period, which was the home for many a toccata (Bach for instance; click on Bach’s name). This is one example of Monteverdi’s adoption of groundbreaking compositional styles that separated him from the prior Renaissance.

In case you didn’t know what Bach looked like.

BACH: Bach really needs no introduction . . . but I’ll give him one anyway.

Bach is one of, if not the, most famous composer(s) in music history. Although his music to this day is still considered by scholars to be sacred and for the church, it has stood the test of time and become some of the most classic compositions in human history.

I swear this article is still about Monteverdi.

But let me just puff up my guy, who wrote not a single opera in a period of time where operas were the trill rap beat of the day. And although like I said Bach’s works are considered to have been made for the church, his style incorporates a kind of emotion that’s more reminiscent of later Classical or even Romantic composers (Mozart, Beethoven). In these eras, composers for the first time made music for the sake of music, but not Bach. Bach was a very religious person, and dedicated all of his working time to writing for the church he served in.

Bach’s top song on Spotify is the groundbreaking Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (Prelude).

Just to illustrate more of Bach’s importance, this piece has over 150,000,000 plays on Spotify and was composed over 300 years ago(!). And it’s easy to tell why it is so popular.

This is an extremely moving composition and quite emotional (performed by the fantastic and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma), a far cry from the early Renaissance and a sound that is quite literally “Baroque”. Let’s first look at what makes this “Baroque”.

On the surface, it seems to be quite a simple composition, being arranged for solo cello. However, you can hear multiple different elements within the piece. For starters, it actually has a stated key. Before the Baroque era, common musical standards had not been made, so instead of calling something “G major” you probably would have called it Mixolydian. This very exotic word is a type of musical mode that is similarly used to indicate what key a song is in, except modal composition and history is quite complicated so we won’t go any further on that. Why this is important, however, is because Bach escapes the confines of the stated key multiple times throughout the piece, something unlikely heard in the Renaissance or before. In contemporary music, it’s extremely common for a song to swerve in and out of entire keys or modes, but during this time it was considered a relatively new innovation.

Surprisingly, even within a solo piece, Bach also manages to incorporate the crucial Baroque ingredient of basso continuo within the lower register of the cello while the upper register plays the melody. This sort of tricks the ear into hearing harmony, and is actually quite reminiscent of the Renaissance polyphony style, creating harmony within the melody and countermelody (in this case the basso continuo).

So to conclude, Bach incorporates so much detail of historical music tradition into just this one piece and thus can be used as an excellent barometer for music history. One can clearly see the elements of the past Renaissance era and the music of Monteverdi while also pushing his contemporary musical boundaries with the expansion of basso continuo.

In Conclusion

Well, I think that just about does it. I’m so sorry for rambling on about Bach for a whole page, I just can’t get enough of the guy.

But hopefully, by now you can see the importance in Monteverdi’s music, how he almost single-handedly transferred musical history to a new era. And as you could tell, it was not an easy feat. Having lost a wife, a mentor, and almost all of his financial well-being to ultimately shape up around his 40s.

I don’t think it was all for naught, however. I mean, I just wrote about 3,000 words on a person who died nearly 400 years ago now.

In any case, I hoped you enjoyed the read, although it was a long one. As I mention on my homepage please feel free to peruse my other articles, since by now they’ve just been sitting there unread for about a year.


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