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Harsh and little pleasing: Monteverdi, mythology and modern music

Harsh and little pleasing: Monteverdi, mythology and modern music

By Donald Nicolson

When Monteverdi premiered his L’Orfeo in 1607, it was at the cutting edge of musical developments. His followers declared a new way of composing music; critics decried his methods as barbaric; were he alive today, we might call him avant-garde. But Monteverdi was not a single radical figure, lost at sea in the waves of musical eccentrism. The styles which he brought to their peak ushered in the Baroque Era, and assisted in the creation of the Baroque’s greatest contribution to music – opera.

Monteverdi was a key exponent in a movement of musicians at the turn of the 17th  century taking inspiration from Ancient Greek theatre. Their belief was that the ancient performances, which restricted singing to a single part at a time, contained more potential to arouse emotion in the listener. To them, polyphonic music of the 16th century obscured the text; no clear text, no clear meaning. So they chose to eschew complex polyphony, favouring a style in which ‘the words were the mistress to the music and not the other way round.’ By mimicking the natural rhythms and inflections of impassioned speech, music and text were unified in an exciting new way, resulting in a compositional style that could be described as a speech-song; it was the dramatic prototype of operatic recitative. These developments were so radical, that these musicians called themselves the ’second practice,’ separating them from the previous polyphonic discipline.

It was Ovid’s Metamorphoses that told the tale of the demi-god Orpheus, the legendary musician who could tame equally the raging beasts and hearts of men. It was Orpheus who confronted Charon and crossed the river Styx to the Underworld to bring back his Eurydice, taken from him on their wedding day. And it was Orpheus who, gripped by his human condition, could not but look at her on their journey back to earth, losing her forever. Through the Greek tragedy, there was no better way for the seconda prattica to demonstrate its stylistic breakthroughs.

Monteverdi did not call his work an opera: he named it ‘Orpheus: a story in music.’ It did not have a string of performances, such as we would expect today; in an environment not unlike the Melbourne Recital Centre’s splendid Salon, it was limited to just a single performance, for a select lucky few. He wasn’t even the first to write in this genre.[1] Neither was Monteverdi without his opponents; he was the subject of a biting letter by contemporary critic Giovanni Maria Artusi who condemned his techniques as ‘depraved’ and ‘corrupt.’ Bach was also castigated for writing with ‘an excess of Art,’ and so too Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Nirvana were all considered – worthy of Plato’s complaints in the Republic – to be hastening society’s downfall; depraved and corrupt music indeed.

How relevant is a 400 year-old depiction of Ancient Greek mythology today? Dramatically, the determined Orpheus, the terrifying Charon, benevolent Pluto and Proserpina are larger than life while they contemplate their superhuman emotions and decisions. They would have much in common with Marvel’s Avengers, bridging a notable gap between Ancient Greece, 17th-century Italy, and today’s action blockbuster. Greek tragedies – in particular Sophocles – are used to assist modern-day war veterans crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder.[2] Monteverdi’s compositional devices are remarkably contemporary. Rhythm of speech is notated with absolute attention to recited detail, not unlike Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme (coincidentally, the founder of the Second Viennese School). Every pitch inflection in the delivery is precisely indicated, similar to Luciano Berio’s Sequenze. Monteverdi’s setting of the word amor is frequently extremely dissonant harmonically (an unresolved major seventh from the bass), at once strikingly beautiful and immensely painful.

Like the seconda prattica, l’Orfeo was inspired by ancient theatre, but came nowhere near a recreation of it. The crowning achievement of Monteverdi’s opera is the unfailing conviction in music’s capacity to move the emotions more powerfully than any other artform, which, 400 years later, it still profoundly demonstrated.

Experience the works of Monteverdi throughout August and September as local and international artist’s present programs featuring Monteverdi’s timeless masterpieces, including: Steve Mackey, Latitude 37, Melbourne Guitar Quartet, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and more.

[1] That honour goes to his colleague Jacopo Peri – who was inspired by the same tale, composing Eurydice which was premiered in 1600.

[2] Bryan Doerries, The Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies can Teach Us Today (Melbourne & London: Scribe, 2015).

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