Monteverdi's work, often regarded as revolutionary, marked the transition from the music of the Renaissance to that of the Baroque. Enjoying fame in his lifetime, he wrote one of the earliest operas, L'Orfeo, which is still regularly performed.
Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona, in Northern Italy, to Baldassare Monteverdi, a doctor, apothecary and surgeon. During his childhood, he was taught by Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di cappella or singing master, at the Cathedral of Cremona. He wrote his first music for publication, some motets and sacred madrigals in 1582 and 1583. By 1587, he had produced his first book of secular madrigals. Between 1590 and 1611, Monteverdi worked at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua as a vocalist and viol player. In 1602, he was working as the court conductor.
In 1599 Monteverdi married the court singer Claudia Cattaneo, who was to die in September 1607, leaving him with three children.
By 1613, Monteverdi had moved to the San Marco in Venice where, as conductor, he quickly restored the musical standard of both the choir and the instrumentalists, which had declined due to the financial mismanagement of his predecessor, Giulio Cesare Martinengo. The managers of the basilica were relieved to have such a distinguished musician in charge, as the music had been in decline since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609.
Monteverdi was ordained a Catholic priest in 1632, and during the last years of his life, when he was often ill, he composed his two last masterpieces. Both were operas: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641), and the historic opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero. L'incoronazione especially is considered a culminating point of Monteverdi's work; it contains tragic, romantic, and comedic scenes (a new development in opera), as well as a more realistic portrayal of the characters, along with warmer melodies than had previously been heard. It requires a smaller orchestra, and has a less prominent role for the choir. After a long period when Monterverdi's operas were regarded as of merely historical or musicological interest, since the 1960s The Coronation of Poppea has re-entered the repertoire of major opera companies worldwide.
The titles of his Madrigal books are:
While in Venice, Monteverdi also finished his sixth, seventh and eighth books of madrigals. The eighth is the largest, containing works written over a thirty-year period, including the dramatic scene Tancredi e Clorinda (1624), in which the orchestra and voices form two separate entities; they act as counterparts. Most likely Monteverdi was inspired to try this arrangement because of the two opposite balconies in San Marco, which had inspired much similar music from composers there, such as Gabrieli. What made this composition also stand out is the first-time use of string tremolo (fast repetition of the same tone) and pizzicato (plucking strings with fingers) for special effect in dramatic scenes.
Monteverdi composed at least eighteen operas, but only L'Orfeo, L'incoronazione di Poppea, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and the famous aria, Lamento, from his second opera L'Arianna have survived. From monody (with melodic lines, intelligible text and placid accompanying music), it was a logical step for Monteverdi to begin composing opera, especially for a dramatically inclined composer who loved grand effect. In 1607, the premiere of his first opera, L'Orfeo, took place in Mantua. It was normal at that time for composers to create works on demand for special occasions, and this piece was part of the ducal celebrations of carnival. (Monteverdi was later to write for the first opera houses supported by ticket sales which opened in Venice). L'Orfeo has dramatic power and lively orchestration and is arguably the first example of a composer assigning specific instruments to parts in operas. It is also one of the first large compositions in which the exact instrumentation of the premiere has come down to us. The plot is described in vivid musical pictures and the melodies are linear and clear. With this opera, Monteverdi created an entirely new style of music, the dramma per la musica (musical drama) as it was called. L'Arianna was the second opera written by Claudio Monteverdi, and one of the most influential and famous specimens of early baroque opera. It was first performed in Mantua in 1608. Its subject matter was the ancient Greek legend of Ariadne and Theseus. During the last years of his life, when Monteverdi was often ill, he composed his two last masterpieces, both operas: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641), and the historic opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea, (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero.
The Vespers of 1610 are also one of the best examples of early repetition and contrast, with many of the parts having a clear ritornello. The published work is on a very grand scale and there has been some controversy as to whether all the movements were intended to be performed in a single service. However, there are various indications of internal unity. In its scope it foreshadows such summits of Baroque music as Handel's Messiah, and J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion. Each part (there are twenty-five in total) is fully developed in both a musical and dramatic sense - the instrumental textures are used to precise dramatic and emotional effect, in a way that had not been seen before.