Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is regarded by many as one of the most significant and influential composers of the Western Art music tradition. He oversaw the transition of music from the Classical style, full of poise and balance, to the Romantic style, characterised by emotion and impact. Or did he? We know for example that Beethoven studied the music of JS Bach and often quoted him in his sketchbooks. Like all pianists of the late 18th century, Beethoven was raised on the sonatas and teachings of CPE Bach, the chief exponent of “expressive” music at a time when music was regarded as the art of pleasing sounds. One of his teachers was the organist of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, a learned contrapuntist of the old school who equipped him with the comprehensive technique that he needed. He also studied vocal composition with Antonio Salieri, the imperial Kapellmeister. I maintain that it is entirely possible to argue that as well as looking forward, Beethoven could also be argued as one of the last Baroque composers.
200 years earlier we come across someone who, like Beethoven, bridged multiple styles and musical periods. If Beethoven was the last Baroque composer then it could be argued that Monteverdi was the first. This coming Sunday is quite possibly Claudio Monteverdi’s 450th birthday. There is no record of his actual birth, just that he was baptised on 15 May 1567. Traditionally at that time, children were baptised a day or two after they were born. In order to celebrate this event I am planning to go to a concert by The Ripieno Choir at All Saints Church in Esher. The concert will feature a number of his motets, including Cantate Domino, Rutilante in nocte and Christe, adoramus te; his Magnificat in four parts; and the Gloria from one of his masses. Most importantly I am well informed by David Hansell, the choir’s Musical Director, that wine and cake are being provided afterwards!
After Monteverdi’s education as singer and instrumentalist at Cremona Cathedral under Marc-Antonio Ingegneri, his professional life was divided into his more-than-twenty-year service as string player and later maestro di cappella at the court of Mantua and the final thirty years in the position of maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice. Broadly speaking his musical output can be split into Madrigals, Operas and Sacred Music. For me the best example of Monteverdi’s genius lies in his madrigals and in particular books 7 and 8 which cover his years spent in Venice.
One of the things which sets Monteverdi’s work apart is the constructive and combinative way he worked with his brief motives. In a number of madrigals, Monteverdi superimposed various parts of the poem to make a complex and rather dense texture, but one basically different from the dense imitative polyphony of earlier generations.
The astronomer Galileo was born 3 years before Monteverdi. His defiant insistence that the Earth revolves round the Sun and his refusal to submit to the Inquisition, is a familiar one. It’s the battle cry not of a reformer but of a revolutionary who was passionate about the truth. Monteverdi too faced his own inquisition. Defying those who would make music an immoveable sphere, bound in place by harmonic proprieties and structural conventions, he made works that rejected tidy formalism in favour of messy, fleshy humanity. His was music that moved in every sense, that lived as vividly as those who inspired it. ‘The aim of all good music,’ Monteverdi wrote, ‘is to affect the soul.’ He may celebrate his 450th anniversary this year, but Monteverdi was in many ways the first modern composer.