years between 1400 and 1600 produced such an explosion of art, literature
and knowledge in Europe that we had to invent a special term for it:
renaissance. Not just any renaissance, mind you, but The Renaissance.
Indeed, my little Dictionary of Neat Things has no end of items such
as: “1518—Painting of The Assumption by Titian,” or “1507— Florence’s
Palazzo Strozzi is completed after 18 years of construction.” Or the
Mona Lisa, or St. Peter’s Cathedral or the invention of the use of perspective
in painting. Or Petrarch. Or Shakespeare. There had never been two centuries
like that before and there are not likely to be ever again.
know what? I search in vain for references to the great sister art of
painting, sculpture and literature —music! Well, not completely in vain.
Here is one of the few references to music during the greatest
period in the history of human artistic activity: “1454 —28 musicians
inside a huge pie perform at the Feast of the Pheasant for the Duke
of Burgundy. A Mother Goose rhyme about ‘four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie’ commemorates the event.” That’s right, 28 musicians
in a pie —and then getting the number wrong for the nursery rhyme!—
in competition with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to see who goes
down in history! Some contest.
very late in producing its own great names such as Bach, Mozart,
Beethoven, etc., who wouldn’t even start groping for the snooze alarm
until long after the Renaissance had turned in. They worked different
shifts. That’s just the way it goes, sometimes. One of the reasons for
this is that music didn’t just need a renaissance, a rebirth —it needed
to be born in the first place. In 1600, for example, there were no true
orchestras, not even a great variety of musical instruments except
for a few strange-looking violins, flutes and tinny harpsichords. Music
before 1600 had been primarily vocal, producing lovely and complicated
song forms such as the madrigal, but still based on static concepts
of sound with no such things as chords, major and minor keys, modulations
and the dynamics of harmonic progression, all of which make music
what it is today.
If we look
for a single musician who was largely responsible for breaking music
from its earlier vocal static past and propelling it towards the dynamic
and harmonic future of opera, symphonies and Rock and Roll, we find
Claudio Monteverdi. He was born in 1567 in Cremona, but moved to Mantua
where he served as violinist in the service of the Gonzaga court from
1590 to 1601 and then as maestro di cappella until 1612. Later, as choirmaster,
he became an honorary citizen of the Most Serene Republic of Venice,
where he died in 1643.
is regarded as the grand master of the sophisticated vocal polyphonies
of the madrigal, in which layer after layer of unaccompanied voices
pile up —somewhat like the children’s round, Row, Row, Row Your Boat,
except you can start rowing whenever you feel like it and even use different
notes than the original, or sing it slower or faster. Yet, Monteverdi
broke with the past and devoted himself to the development of opera,
the telling of Greek myths (the Renaissance commitment to Classicism)
set to music. The myth played on a stage and the music came from an
orchestra set in front.
had been done before as unaccompanied vocal retelling of idyllic sylvan
fables for the Florentine courts, but Monteverdi started expounding
true mythological drama, using instrumental coloration to underpin dramatic
effect and even assigning certain parts to certain instruments for the
first time, thus inventing the art of ‘orchestration’. The story
lines were no longer carried solely by monotonous vocal declamations,
but now were helped by developed arias and orchestral interludes. In
more technical terms, Monteverdi helped music abandon the modal scales
of the middle ages and accept the newer concepts of major and minor;
and he helped music shift from the two-note interval in favor of true
harmony based on the triad, a concept which has shaped music ever since.
(It was this multi-note, chordal underpinning that, then, fed back into
the creation of more complicated, more vertical --'prettier'--melodies.)
Just as important, he helped turn a courtly divertissement into the
most popular form of public entertainment in Europe by the middle of
the 1600s. And, in Venice, when they actually started selling tickets
to all-comers, commercial music was born.
first true opera, Orpheus, was produced in 1607; his last, The
Coronation of Poppea, in 1642. It is ironic that, of Monteverdi’s
operas, only these two survive intact. The first was an experiment with
a new musical form; the last, with the music fully at the service of
the psychology of the drama, was a full-blown model for modern
grand opera. When Walter Pater said in the last century that “All art
constantly aspires to the condition of music,” he surely was thinking
of his own 19th-century music, a music developed along the lines laid
down 250 years ealier by Claudio Monteverdi. Pater’s statement
could have made no sense before Monteverdi. After him? Maybe.
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