Claudio Monteverdi, whose 450th anniversary we celebrate this year, was almost as good at grumbling as he was at composing. He had entered the service of Vincenzo Gonzaga at Mantua in the early 1590s and, by 1601, had become the duke’s maestro della musica. Regrettably, as Monteverdi explained in a missive of 1604, the wages did not always arrive in timely fashion. On this occasion he hadn’t been paid for five months and was obliged to “kneel before you with the greatest possible humility, and beg you to be so good as to cast your gaze not upon my boldness in writing this letter, but rather upon my great distress”. Worse yet, Monteverdi had been made to work ridiculously hard, so he felt the need to “beseech your highness for the love of God never to burden me again either with so much to do at once or in so short a time”. Such pressure, Monteverdi added with a hyperbolic flourish, might just lead to his “life’s abridgement”.
The next five years did not improve the composer’s mood and, in a letter of 1609, he groused about not “being in the slightest degree favoured by His Highness with any public mark of esteem”. He’d been granted a livery cloak, but it lacked a silk lining, so Monteverdi “spent out of my own pocket 20 scudi”. The duke had promised an income of 25 scudi per month, “but lo and behold he suddenly changed his mind and unluckily for me five of them fell by the wayside.” Perhaps it was time for “a change of air, work and fortunes, and, who knows, if the worst comes to the worst what else can I do but remain poor as I am?”
Within a few months of making the empty resignation threat, Monteverdi had received a pay rise and the promise of a handsome pension. This was just one of the ways you survived at the Mantuan court, and Monteverdi appears to have been a savvy operator. If potential rivals arose, for example, he was a master of damning with faint praise. When Galeazzo Sirena, a highly accomplished musician, was up for an organist’s job, Monteverdi’s opinion was sought. Sirena, he reported, had “an all-round talent and when he concentrates he does not do badly”, but he was rather “self-opinionated”, insisting that “whatever comes out of his head is the most beautiful of its kind”. What, one wonders, were the 17th-century northern Italian words for pot, kettle and black?
Monteverdi could not survive a regime change, however. Duke Vincenzo died in 1612, replaced by the penny-pinching Francesco who had little patience for Monteverdi’s insubordination. Fortunately, Monteverdi’s reputation was sky high: many of his finest madrigals, the operas L’Orfeo and L’Arianna, and the Vespers of 1610 were already in his portfolio. So it was off to Venice and a plum posting as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s. The glorious compositions continued to flow and, in 1632, Monteverdi even found time to be ordained as a priest, but the Venetian years saw their share of run-ins with employers and the emergence of new enemies. In June 1637, the singer Domenico Aldegati announced to a crowd of 50 people that “the director of music belongs to a race of cut-throats … and I call him and whoever protects him an ass, and so that you all can hear me, I say that Claudio Monteverdi is a thieving, cheating he-goat”.
Monteverdi complained to the authorities, but one of the most gifted composers of the 17th century was well used to fending off criticism, and it had often come from more influential people than a disgruntled bass-baritone. The Bolognese priest and musical theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi simply could not abide all the dissonances and innovations in Monteverdi’s work: it was to “act against nature and confound the matters and rules of our forebears”. Monteverdi and his cronies were “reputed as the better and more elevated talents” and believed that “they are to become immortal”, but they were “greatly deceived”. Artusi wrote of the “the madness of these men of whimsy who, thinking their songs produce new harmony and new effect, give birth to new nausea and new contempt”. Or perhaps even calling such “tomfoolery” new was too much of a compliment: the nausea was more like that produced by “the oldest, rancid, putrid merchandise held in whatever bizarre apothecary’s shop you care to think of ”.
Such spleen caused quite a stir but who, now, remembers very much about Giovanni Maria Artusi, or Domenico Aldegati, or even the Gonzaga dukes who oversaw a declining Mantuan court? Another of the maestro’s contemporaries sensed who would triumph in posterity: “Enjoy,” he wrote, “the music of the never-enough praised Monteverdi, born to the world so as to rule over the emotions of others.” He will “be sighed for in future ages” by those who seek consolation from works “which are set to last as long as they can resist the ravages of time”. Judging from this anniversary year’s concert programmes, that anonymous Venetian was not far wrong.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection