Monteverdi or bust

Fans of the great Renaissance composer are in for a treat at the Monteverdi festival on the South Bank, in London, this weekend. But even they may be surprised by what they hear, says Bayan Northcott
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The tone is typical: "I assure you that unless I take a rest from toiling away at music for the theatre, my life will indeed be a short one, for as a result of my labours (so recent and of such magnitude) I have a frightful pain in my head and so terrible and violent an itching around my waist, that neither by cauteries which I have applied to myself, nor by purges taken orally, nor by bloodletting and other potent remedies has it thus far been possible to get better - or only partly so."

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is perhaps the earliest great composer to come down to us as a fully rounded character. Clues to the personalities of eminent predecessors have been gleaned from legal documents, prefaces, and brief descriptions by contemporaries; the minor Tudor composer Thomas Whythorne even left an autobiography. But from Monteverdi we have a sizeable selection of his correspondence; some 130 surviving letters in the authoritative edition of Denis Stevens.

The man who emerges is passionate, idealistic, touchy, concerned about his family, proud of his skill and resentful of its undervaluation. He frets about conditions of performance, shrewdly sizes up performers and rivals, vividly describes getting mugged on the road from Mantua to Venice, complains continually of ill health and overwork, and, most of all, of the difficulties of getting promoted and paid by his capricious patrons. Apart from the fact that his pleas and imprecations are directed at court functionaries rather than arts boards or the controller of Radio 3, he almost sounds like your average modern composer.

Monteverdi, Creator of Modern Music was in fact the title of an influential pioneering study published in 1950 by the scholar Leo Schrade. He was not, of course, claiming that Monteverdi invented expressionism and tone-rows; rather that he was the first important musician to embody the historical awareness, the self-conscious aspiration towards the expressively new that ultimately led to such developments. And while it is also true that Monteverdi was less a great original than the artist and thinker who best understood the emergent trends of his time and gave them definitive expression, the same could be said of Schoenberg or Stravinsky.

Born in Cremona, he evidently absorbed all that his eminent teacher, Ingegneri, had to teach him of traditional counterpoint early on, publishing a set of motets at 15. But he must soon have picked up the new fashion for so-called monody: for setting words not to a polyphonic web of equal voices, but for solo voice or voices, plus accompaniment, with all the possibilities of intensified expression such textures offered. One can follow his absorption of the new trend most clearly in the eight books of madrigals he published between 1587 and 1638, as he moves from polyphony to more individualised and declamatory vocal writing, with added continuo accompaniment from Book Five (1605) onwards. Some of the later madrigals are virtually operatic scene.

In fact, it had been the use of monody in courtly masques, and attempts to revive ancient Greek drama in Florence and elsewhere that led to what is generally thought to be the earliest true opera, Peri's (subsequently lost) Dafne in 1597. But it was Monteverdi who first realised the full-scale possibilities of the new-fangled genre. Employed, increasingly unhappily, by the tight-fisted Gonzaga dynasty in Mantua since the early 1590s, Monteverdi brought forth his "story in music", La favola d'Orfeo, in 1607 - when, fortunately for posterity, the score was immediately printed. Apart from its climactic lament, which became his greatest hit, his second opera, Arianna (1608), by grievous contrast, was lost, as were several of his later theatre pieces. His last two great operas, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642) - more focused than ever upon the essential human passions - survive only in skeletal sources.

Long before that, Monteverdi had come under attack from more conservative theorists for, in their view, seeking to substitute a thinner, flashier musical manner for the cumulative richness and substance of the old contrapuntal tradition. In response, Monteverdi defined what he was up to as a "Second Practice" that did not negate the virtues of the polyphonic "First Practice", and he promised in due course to publish a textbook outlining his new theories of word setting, expression and harmony - though he never actually got round to it.

When, on the other hand, he brought out his great collection of church music, including what we now know as the Vespers of 1610 with all its new-found flamboyance and richness of instrumental colour, he took care also to include a polyphonic mass to demonstrate he could compose in old First Practice as skilfully as anyone. And this at least seems to have helped him to escape his hated servitude to the Gonzagas for the more secure post of maestro di cappella of St Mark's, Venice in 1613. Here he remained for the rest of his life, accumulating international recognition and publishing such culminating collections as the wonderful Eighth Book of Madrigals of War and Love (1638).

In view of his influence on such younger composers as Grandi and Cavalli, it might seem surprising that his music fell into neglect so soon after his death. Perhaps his voice-dominated output seemed to offer little to the later Baroque, increasingly concerned with such instrumental genres as the suite and concerto. But it is no surprise that composers played so central a role in the great Monteverdi revival of the 20th century. Already, back in the 1900s, the French master Vincent D'Indy was attempting stagings of the operas. Between the wars, the Italian Gian Francesco Malipiero toiled over the first collected edition, while Michael Tippett, in collaboration with the émigré conductor Walter Goehr, spearheaded the British revival in the 1940s.

Meanwhile, Nadia Boulanger had begun to attract a more general public through her inspired pioneering records of selected madrigals in the 1930s, and by the following decade, Monteverdi had once more become a presence in the background of new music - tingeing several of Stravinsky's mid-century scores, and providing a starting point in the 1960s for younger composers such as Alexander Goehr (son of Walter) and Peter Maxwell Davies. By then, musicologists, period performers and recording companies were following on thick and fast.

Yet, argues that tireless impresario of early music Philip Pickett, fashion has somewhat passed on to other figures such as Handel over the last couple of decades, and it is high time we examined and listened to Monteverdi anew. This coming Saturday, in preparation for an evening performance of Orfeo in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with the period forces of his New London Consort, Pickett will be arguing that, despite his affinity with more modern trends, Monteverdi was deeply involved in the historical, allegorical and Neoplatonic thought of his day, which we need to know about to fully understand him; and Dr Jonathan Miller will be discussing how these impinge on his simple staging.

On Sunday, the tenor Mark Tucker will be demonstrating in speech and song the principles of Monteverdi's musical rhetoric, while Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall's Musick will be showing that there is much more to his church music besides the Vespers. With such a gathering of insightful performers, we should have a good chance of regaining something of the primavera-like freshness, the sense of being in at the birth of something new that the best of Monteverdi seems ever to radiate.

Inside Monteverdi, Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 November, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4201)