There is no question regarding Monteverdi's stature. He was an epoch-shaping musical personality, at least insofar as one man can be given credit for a phenomenon, but I have long delayed collecting my thoughts on his work, simply because I have been afraid of expressing too much negativity. Monteverdi's musical innovations basically put the death blow to any remaining elements of medieval style, and are ultimately at odds with my own musical values. Having stated this fact, perhaps I can go on to express a worthwhile perspective on this important composer. In the discussion of Josquin, I described the idea that epoch-shaping changes involve new structural techniques which are at least as accessible to the non-genius as to the genius. In Monteverdi's case, deemphasizing simultaneous polyphony & counterpoint, thereby turning mainstream composition into melody & accompaniment, decisively changed Western music such that anyone with a tune and a rule book could write a song deemed technically as good as any other. The modern phenomenon of popular music is certainly thankful. Of course, like most such shifts, Monteverdi was able to write this music with a real technical command of the previous style, a command which became superfluous for most of his successors.
Simply "having a tune" is not as easy or unimportant as I might have implied, and Monteverdi had real expressive reasons for embracing the new monody, as well as for taking steps toward the development of continuo playing. As I discussed in the "melody determining form" series, the first was a desire to liberate melody from harmony, or liberate text & emotion from contrapuntal style. In this way, what Monteverdi wanted to employ, what he demanded, was the developing virtuosity of singers. Emphasizing sonority & showmanship while simultaneously deemphasizing contrapuntal invention has served to make the technical changes surrounding Monteverdi perhaps the most decisive in the history of Western music. Josquin eventually had the printing press, but with such seminal works as his Vespro della beata Vergine and Orfeo, Monteverdi brought music firmly into the modern age. Monteverdi was very able to defend himself in print, and so connected his "musical liberties" explicitly to texts and to wildly divergent emotional expression. At this point, there was no sense that music was austere, and indeed there was no sense that it was illustrating positive modes of thought. Allowing music to unleash destructive emotions and negative patterns of thought is a development the consequences of which can hardly be circumscribed. One can only assume that people were comfortable enough in their daily lives at that time that some added discomfort seemed stimulating.
Although many cultures have been reluctant to embrace negative emotion in music, Monteverdi's efforts certainly had their precedents, including one of which he was acutely aware. The idea of bringing Greek drama back to the Italian stage was part of a broader interest in antiquity during the era, part of rediscovering sources of similar antiquity which had not been as popular as others during the preceding centuries, and part of a more open fascination with the occult. Greek tragedy was supposed to be cathartic, supposed to express profound negativity, to show its horrible consequences so that the audience could live out any grotesque fascination with such things. Is that what Monteverdi was doing? I am not so sure. Indeed, I've seen it argued that there can be no real dramatic tragedy today (not that today is 1600), and certainly television does not try. At any rate, the music in classical drama came from the chorus, which only commented on the action, often in moralistic tones. Moreover, Monteverdi's choice of musical style seems to have had little to do with actual Greek dramatic music. Another effort in that direction was undertaken not long before by Antoine de Baïf and Claude Le Jeune, with their measured rhythm and declamatory-homophonic approach to choral singing, and it had little to do with either negative emotion or Monteverdi's own approach to monody. Monteverdi, if less so than Gesualdo before him, gave musical voice to more tortured utterances, to the sort of grotesque & bizarre miniatures which came eventually to permeate other Baroque endeavors, even becoming musically explicit as soon as the violin music which followed in Monteverdi's wake. Even if his operas were cathartic, we can be certain these instrumental showpieces by other composers were not.
Besides their effect on the overall development of Western music, perhaps the most amazing aspect of Monteverdi's innovations is that they seem to have been carried through with such calculated certainty. Proclamations of "new music" are rarely made so strongly at the time of composition, usually waiting instead for a retrospective appraisal to confirm them, but Monteverdi's era joins that of the early fourteenth century Ars Nova in fitting the "calculated" profile. Indeed, with questions surrounding whether it was the originators or the critics who supplied the Ars Nova label, and of course uncertainty regarding the precise identities of the principals, the Ars Nova becomes a less clear-cut example. The proclamations of Monteverdi's time set the standard for self-conscious & aggressive expressions of successful musical newness. Monteverdi's innovations are even more a case study of "retrospectiveness" as his rhetoric made ample use of various retrospective views, whether in the explicit turn to ancient precedents or in arguments over the precise origin of his seconda prattica in the preceding decades. One idea he certainly embraced, however, was that his later music was not prima prattica, even if he had written such works.
That we can read this series of arguments as it existed around the turn of the seventeenth century, looking back as it did to earlier precedents and building on a growing history of such rhetoric, serves to place the musical shift surrounding Monteverdi in much sharper historical relief than would be possible if we could only begin debating now. The events also mark the growing dominance of personality in music, not just of negative thought patterns, but of individualistic or even selfish thoughts, of celebrity per se and soloistic conceptions. It seems strange today, with overcrowding issues and a premium placed on harmonious relations, that art would eschew such things at about the time the population started to grow decisively. For me, it is one of the most ironic factors surrounding Monteverdi's work, something taken to the next level by Beethoven. Yet we also know that such an orientation requires an audience of tabloid readers, and so it requires an emerging population, even if it becomes an increasing liability as that population continues to grow. A craving for novelty for its own sake is, after all, straightforward compensation against a fear of being lost in the crowd.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb