15 May 2017
This year sees the 450th anniversary of the birth of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. This milestone is currently being commemorated, among a wide range of celebrations, with a series of performances by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Although we do not know the exact date of Monteverdi’s birth, his baptism was recorded at the Church of SS. Nazaro e Celso in Cremona on this day (15 May) in 1567.
The British Library’s printed music collections contain extensive Monteverdi holdings, with many editions of the composer’s works which were published in his own lifetime: these include various parts of first or early editions of his madrigal books (B.252.a, Hirsch III.942, D.195.a, D.195.b), as well as an early edition of his opera Orfeo (R.M.15.c.6).
Perhaps the Library’s greatest Monteverdi treasure is a letter written by the composer in 1627 (MS Mus.1707). This was acquired from the private collection of the late Albi Rosenthal in 2009. Monteverdi wrote the letter to Ferrarese nobleman Enzo Bentivoglio, who was in the process of organising the celebrations for the wedding of Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de’ Medici, and had commissioned Monteverdi to write a set of five intermedi for the marital celebrations in Parma.
Sadly, the five intermedi are not known to have survived; however, the letter remains a useful indicator of the commission, as well as an interesting testament to Monteverdi’s characteristically adventurous musical practices. In the letter, he discusses possibilities for musical representations in the intermedi of the Greek goddess Discord. He suggests that Discord’s part should be recited in an inharmonious voice (‘recitar in voce et non in armonia’) and not be built on instrumental harmony (‘appoggiato sopra ad armonia alcuna di ustrimenti però’): these suggestions could variously be interpreted to mean that the voice be in some way tuneless and dissonant, not accompanied by instruments, or even performed in some sort of half-spoken manner.
Monteverdi was, of course, well-versed in the use of dissonance for dramatic or textually-symbolic purposes. After attracting criticism for supposedly improper use of dissonance, he famously began a defence of the composer’s right to harmonic discretion in his fifth book of madrigals. The text is preserved, among other places, in an extremely rare first edition of the Quinto Libro in the British Library's music collections (D.195.a.), dating from 1605.
The British Library’s Monteverdi letter also has indications of a more personal discord in the composer’s own life; indeed, he mentions an accident or misfortune (‘acidente’) which had recently interrupted his compositional activity. Musicologist Denis Stevens interpreted this as a reference to the imprisonment of Monteverdi’s younger son, Massimiliano, who had been arrested by the Roman Inquisition for reading a forbidden book. While we don’t know which text got Massimiliano into trouble, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum lists what was forbidden at the time; Massimilano, who is known to have had interests in astrology, might well have been reading the particularly controversial books about helio-centrism by authors such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, and he was clearly a source of grave concern for his father at this time.
James Ritzema. Collaborative PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London, and British Library