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The Monteverdi allure

On the 360th anniversary of the death of Claudio Monteverdi, RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR pays tribute to the first great composer of opera


Claudio Monteverdi was one of music's greatest composers. He was his own symphony, and magnum opus.

A martinet classicist, Monteverdi, quite simply, never compromised on what he thought was exact -- be it a note, or a theme. He is fondly remembered, today, as the primal composer of L'Orfeo, albeit his most famous composition -- one that has been etched in letters of gold, on the sands of time -- remains his incomparable opera, L'Arianna.

When Monteverdi's first opera, L'Orfeo, was performed in 1627, before an aristocratic academy, at Mantua, it marked a new beginning in his career. Because, until then, Monteverdi was in the services of the royal court of Gonzagas -- as an instrumentalist. It was not the best of times, because, for eighteen years, till his magical revelation emerged, Monteverdi had reason to feel that his awesome talent was undervalued. He felt the court was loaded in favour of poets such as Tasso and Guarani, and painters like Rubens -- notwithstanding rich resources in other talents.

The feeling just stayed on, all the same, until Monteverdi bid adieu, and journeyed for the greener, richer, pastures of Venice. Venice was what the doctor had ordered, and Monteverdi was soon in his element. Within a short period of time, he published two shorter versions of L'Orfeo -- a remarkable foray that calls for a large ensemble of wind, strings, and brass allied to a varied group of continuo instruments. Which, more or less, explains why L'Orfeo would be listless without virtuoso performers.

L'Orfeo is so much, and more, like 'Mass' and 'Vespers', with its resplendent introduction addressed to the Pope. It is a rendition beyond approximation -- something that was designed by the Gods of Music to demonstrate Monteverdi's supreme finesse, and fluency, in a wide repertoire of styles, both old and new. However this maybe, Monteverdi himself was drawn, both psychically and spiritually, into that famous lament sung by Arianna, on being abandoned by Theseus on Naxos -- a five-voice madrigal, in essence. There was an element of anachronism, even ambivalence, with Monteverdi's L'Arianna. It mirrored the composer's artistic and emotional life -- as it were.

Monteverdi comprehended that L'Arianna was a natural way of imitation of bewail -- a musico-dramatic language in which words and forms were intimately bound, for sense, sound and music to fuse. It was also a constant reminder to the great composer of an upheaval, a traumatic period. It bespoke death -- maybe, 'prophecy'. Before long, following the success of L'Orfeo, and with L'Arianna making waves, Monteverdi's beloved wife, Claudia, became seriously ill, and was no more. And, no sooner had this personal desolation shaken Monteverdi's entire being, Mantua required him to take part in a musical extravaganza for a royal wedding. With L'Arianna. Nothing else.

That's not all. There was yet another setback waiting. Monteverdi's title singer, Caterina Martinelli -- a young, accomplished, lively, and experienced artiste -- contracted smallpox, and died almost immediately. It was a professional and personal blow for Monteverdi. He was in a fix. But, his Creator did not let him down. A visiting theatrical singer, Virginia Andreini, learned the title role, and did a successful job when it was most needed. Monteverdi heaved a sigh of relief.

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Copyright © 29 November 2003 Rajgopal Nidamboor, Mumbai, India


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