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Claudio Monteverdi was a prolific baroque composer who contributed greatly to the success of the madrigal song form and is considered the father of opera. He was born in Cremona, Italy, on May 15th, 1567 and died in Venice on November 29th, 1643. During his lifetime he was an extremely successful composer, but after his death his works were forgotten for hundreds of years before making a revival in the 20th century. Today, he is arguably the earliest composer whose works are heard regularly.

His youth was spent in the city of Cremona. Born the eldest of five children, he studied music at the city cathedral, presumably after attending the University of Cremona. At the age of twenty, he published his first two books of secular madrigals - though he had written several religious works, starting at age fifteen. These were significant publications, marking the interest in secular music that was to characterize him throughout his life.

At age twenty-four, Monteverdi left to work for Duke Vincenzo in Mantua. Here, he worked as a singer and violinist for eleven years. During these years, he composed another book of madrigals and accompanied the Duke on campaigns and trips. On a personal level, he married Claudia de Cattaneis in 1599. In 1601, he was promoted to maestro at the court. The promotion left him less time to compose, but he continued to publish, if slowly. His fourth and fifth books of madrigals were published in 1603 and 1605. In 1607, his wife died, leaving him with their three children. That same year, Monteverdi published both the Scherzi musicali for three voices and his famous opera, Orfeo.

Some digression is required to put this massive work in context. At the time of publication, the term "opera" was not yet in use. Monteverdi called Orfeo a "story in music," and his composition brought life to this new art form. The music was varied and dramatic, required virtuoso singing, and was completely different from any prior compositions.

His successes, however, did not lead to a happy work life. Pressures in Mantua proved too great, as more and more was demanded of him. In 1608, he composed an opera, Arianna, and in addition was required to set 1500 verses to music on top of his duties with the orchestra and choir. Never a fast worker, he wrote in a letter, "I know one can compose fast, but fast and good do not go well together." By the end of 1608, Monteverdi and his children left the Mantuan court and returned to Cremona to live with his father. Duke Vincenzo, however, did not take kindly to this departure and pressured him to return. Despite Monteverdi's indignity at the low pay and poor working conditions, he did eventually return, working there until the Duke's death in 1612.

In 1613, however, fortune once again smiled upon him. He was appointed maestro at the famous St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. At the time, Venice was a lively city, full of musicians, artists, and a public who loved Monteverdi's music. There, he split his time between his duties at the church and his beloved secular music. His church duties required him to teach, oversee the musicians, and compose new sacred music - all of which he did capably and well. In addition, he wrote secular music steadily.

Monteverdi's music was new for its time, and offended some conservative listeners. He broke many of the old rules of counterpoint, and used dissonance extensively for expressiveness. His styles were many and varied, even within his favorite form, the madrigal. Monteverdi also continued to publish operas. Today, the music for many of these has been lost. The last two, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, and L'incoronazione di Poppea are preserved, though there is some doubt about the manuscript available for Ulissa. These operas, especially Poppea, are said to exemplify the translation of life and emotion into music.

Monteverdi continued to compose through the last years of his life. Upon his death, a year after the publication of his last opera, two simultaneous services were held in memory of "the divine Claudio," as his fans called him.

Reference: The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg 1997

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