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CHAPTER 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi


Orfeo was officially mounted not by the Mantuan court itself but by an Academy or noble learned society—the Accademia degli Invaghiti (“Academy of those captivated [by the arts]”) as it was called—but that was just a front to make the production look like a gift, since the academicians (whose ranks included both the librettist Striggio and the princely honoree) were all courtiers. Its orchestra surpassed that of any intermedio in its range of colors, although no more than a fraction of the full assembly of instruments plays at any one time, so that relatively few musicians were required as long as their ranks included “doublers” who could take different nonoverlapping parts.

The published score (Venice, 1609) calls for a ceaselessly churning fundamento or continuo contingent of five keyboard instruments (two harpsichords, two flue organs, one reed organ or regal), seven plucked instruments (three chitarroni, two mandolinlike citterns, and two harps), and three bass viols. The string ensemble, which mainly played ritornellos between the stanzas of the strophic numbers, consisted of a basic band of twelve ripieni or

ensemble members and two soloists on “French violins” (evidently meaning small dancing-master “pocket fiddles”

or pochettes). Finally there was an assortment of wind and brass, some of them reserved for the infernal scenes: two end-blown whistle flutes or recorders, two cornetti, three trombe sordini (“mute trumpets,” probably with slides), five trombones, and a clarino, meaning a trumpet played in its highest register.

The brass colors were to be flaunted first in a toccata (= tucket in English, Tusch in German)—a quasi-military fanfare that, according to the published score, was to be played three times from various places around the hall to silence the audience and invest the proceedings with appropriate pomp. (Contemporary accounts of the premire suggest that a tucket—perhaps this very one—was played before all Mantuan court spectacles; the one in Orfeo—as so often in the case of apparent innovations—was just the first to get written down.) Bukofzer’s point about the interest in ostentatious displays of power that the Counter Reformation church shared with the “baroque courts” is nicely confirmed by Monteverdi’s reuse of the Orfeo toccata three years later in a very uncustomary way to back up the choral falsobordone (choral recitation) for the Invitatory (opening Psalm verse) in his Vespers of 1610 which, we recall, was originally intended for Rome, the Counter Reformation command center. The concluding doxology is sampled in Ex. 1-6.

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ex. 1-6 Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della beata virgine (1610), Deus in adiutorium meum intende (doxology), mm. 14–18

As in the case of Rinuccini’s libretto for Peri’s Euridice, Striggio’s for Orfeo revises its mythological subject to avoid a tragic conclusion. In the myth, after losing Eurydice a second time, Orpheus turns against all women, for which reason a rioting chorus of jealous Bacchantes tears him to pieces. In the Orfeo libretto Orpheus’s father Apollo, the divine musician, translates Orpheus into the heavenly constellation that bears his name, substituting serene apotheosis for bloody cataclysm. There is also a somewhat didactically pointed clash between virtuosity and true eloquence in Orpheus’s great act III aria Possente spirto, his plea to the ferryman Charon to transport him across the river Styx to the Underworld. The aria consists of five strophes over a ground bass. The first four are decorated with flowery passaggii that exploited the famous skills of Francesco Rasi, a pupil of Caccini, who sang the title role. His florid stanzas are sung in alternation with fancy instrumental solos for the “French violins” mentioned earlier, for harp (standing in for the Orphic lyre), and for cornetto. When all of this artifice leaves Charon unmoved, Orpheus, in desperation, drops all pretense of crafty rhetoric and makes his final appeal in unadorned recitativo to a bare figured bass, the very emblem of sincerity. (Charon, while too oafish to respond, nevertheless falls asleep at this, possibly charmed by Apollo, and Orpheus steals his boat; it is the single touch of comic relief.) Above all, and perhaps

strangely to us who know what opera has become, there is virtually no love music in this tender favola, for all that it concerns the parting and reuniting of lovers. Orpheus sings on and on about his love for Eurydice, but he does not

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express it directly through music—that is, to her. Indeed, as it took a feminist critic, Susan McClary, finally to point out, Eurydice, with only a couple of very plain-sung lines in act I and a couple more in act IV, is hardly a character at all in what is at bottom a very decorous, an inveterately “noble,” and an insistently masculine spectacle in its focus on natural male vocal ranges and on the ideal of self-possession.13 This focus is made explicit in the scene where Orpheus loses Eurydice for the second time and a chorus of spirits sing the moral (intended not only for Orpheus but for the young prince Francesco in whose honor the favola was performed): only he who can subdue his passions with reason is worthy of reward. Indeed, the original performance observed the interdiction on female singers in serious places like the palazzi de’ principi grandi, casting the solo feminine roles—from La Musica to the Messenger to Eurydice herself—for castrati or, in some cases, possibly, for boys.

What, then, can account for this oddly restricted work’s enduring hold on audiences, even nonnoble ones, even to this day? Of all the individual acts, the second might best suggest the answer in the way Monteverdi’s music mirrors the implicit point of the whole favola, which is in essence a music-myth, a demonstration of music’s power to move the affections. For in the second act Monteverdi and his librettist contrived a determined clash between

“phenomenal” and “noumenal” music, as defined by the critic Carolyn Abbate: music actually “heard” as such on stage, and music that symbolizes the emotions expressed in speech. It concentrates the radical humanist message into a more powerful dose than any other contemporary composer imagined.

The act begins with a celebration of the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, surrounded by his friends the shepherds, celebrates his love. They do it as a kind of concert consisting, after an invocation by the title character, of no fewer than four strophic arias, veritable scherzi musicali with lavishly scored instrumental ritornelli, in all likelihood danced as well as sung. The first three are sung respectively by a shepherd, by two shepherds, and by the full chorus. Then comes Orfeo’s big number, the aria Vi ricorda o bosch’ombrosi, in which he gives catchy vent to his joy, using the elegant hemiola meter Monteverdi designated in his Scherzi of 1607 as “French” (=elegant, as in

“French pastry”). Repeated references in the verses to Orpheus’s lyre leave no doubt that he is playing along to accompany the singing, and that the songs and dances are literally that—actual songs and dances performed

“phenomenally” on stage.

After Orpheus has finished, one of the shepherds bids him strike up another song with his golden plectrum; but before Orpheus can comply, the baleful “Messenger” (actually the nymph Sylvia) bursts in with the horrible news of Eurydice’s death and silences the stage music for good and all (Ex. 1-7). But the phenomenal music is silenced only so that the noumenal music, the real music of lyric eloquence, can work its wonders on the audience. From here until Orpheus and the Messenger depart the scene (he to fetch Eurydice back, she to hide in shame at having broken such bitter news) no instrument is heard but those of the fundamento, whose music goes symbolically “unheard” on stage.

ex. 1-7 Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo, Act II, messenger breaks in on song and dance

The central business of the act is the exchange between Orpheus and the nymph Sylvia (fulfilling the same function as the nymph Daphne in Rinuccini’s Euridice libretto), which is clearly modeled on, but just as clearly far surpasses, the analogous scene in Peri’s and Caccini’s earlier favole (Ex. 1-8). Monteverdi actually pays Peri the homage of imitation in his deployment of jarring tonalities; but where Peri had contrasted the harmonies of E major and G minor in large sections corresponding to the main divisions of Orpheus’s soliloquy, Monteverdi uses the contrast at very close range to underscore the poignancy of the dialogue psychologically.

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ex. 1-8 Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo, Orfeo gets the horrifying news from the messenger

The harmonic disparity between Orpheus’s lines and Sylvia’s symbolizes his resistance to the untimely news she has brought him. He breaks in on her narrative with G minor—Ohimè, che odo? (“Oh no, what am I hearing?”)—as soon as she has mentioned the name of Eurydice (on an E-major harmony), as if to deflect her from the bitter message she is about to deliver, but she comes right back with E major and resolves the chord cadentially to A on the word morta, “dead.” When Orpheus responds with another Ohimè, this time he takes up the same harmony where she left it and confirms it with D, the next harmony along the circle of fifths: the message has sunk in, and he must accept it.

Once again, as in Euridice, the same horrific events are recounted rather than portrayed: not only out of delicacy, but because the composer’s interest is in portraying not events but emotions, those of the Messenger herself and those of Orpheus. When Orpheus finds his voice again after temporarily becoming (as one of the shepherds puts it) “a

speechless rock,” Monteverdi again shows his reliance upon Peri as a model, but once again only to surpass his predecessor. Monteverdi’s central soliloquy, like Peri’s, builds from stony shock to resolution, but does so with a fullness of gradation that mirrors much more faithfully—and recognizably!—the process of emotional transmutation (Ex. 1-9). The secret lies in the bass, which begins with Periesque stasis but gradually begins to move both more rhythmically and with a more directed harmonic progression, approaching some middle ground between recitativo and full-blown song. (Later this middle-ground activity would be called arioso.) Orpheus having spoken and left, the chorus strikes up a formal dirge by turning the messenger’s opening lines (“Ah, grievous mischance…”) into a ritornello, the messenger’s notes forming the bass, against which a pair of shepherds sing lamenting strophes that recall the previous rejoicing with bitter irony (Ex. 1-10). Whether to regard the dirge as phenomenal or noumenal music is a nice question; but in any event it is formalized and ritualized emotion that is here being expressed, rather than the spontaneous outpouring that provides the act with its center of dramatic gravity. In this most affecting act of Orfeo, then, the dramatic strategy has been to frame dramatic recitative with decorative aria. The commercial opera would eventually reverse this perspective.

ex. 1-9 Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo, Orfeo’s recitative (“Tu se’ morta”)


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Citation (Chicago):

(13) See Susan McClary, “Constructions of Gender in Monteverdi’s Dramatic Music,” Cambridge Opera Journal I (1989): 203–23.

Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2011.


Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from


Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." In Music In The

Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01006.xml

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See also from Grove Music Online

Claudio Monteverdi L’incoronazione di Poppea Opera: Early opera, 1600–90