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other works along these lines before him—The Play of Daniel and other Biblical dramatizations with music, countless settings of the mass, secular dances, troubadour songs—but the scope and scale of what Monteverdi created in his Vespers and in his operas, of which L’Orfeo was the first, was really unprecedented. These works established opera and large-scale sacred music as two pinnacles that all subsequent composers had to scale—Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven would add the symphony as a third. Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona, Italy. Northern Italy was the birthplace of the transition from the medieval to the modern, not only in terms of politics and society, but also with respect to culture. The Renaissance had been underway more than two centuries by the time Monteverdi arrived on the scene. He had gotten a good education as a member of the choir at the local cathedral; there, he would have learned about Renaissance polyphony, and his early works, which were published in his teens, show a thorough grasp of late 16th-century musical style. In 1592, he entered full-time service at the Gonzaga court in Mantua as a string player. The Duke had a small virtuoso band of instrumentalists and singers, and Monteverdi soon became one of its most valued members, writing madrigals for the ensemble and traveling with the Duke. Monteverdi was appointed maestro di capella in 1601, sealing a leading position for him among Italian composers of the time. It was for Mantua that Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo. The work had its premiere under the auspices of the Accademia degli Invaghiti, a Mantuan society for the promotion of music, on February 24, 1607. Monteverdi had, in his role as a court musician, been involved in creating and performing several dramatic works—ballets, intermedi, and incidental music. He was also well aware of contemporary developments in Florence, where through-composed music dra-


mas, the earliest operas, were being created. The Florentine Camerata, a group of humanists devoted to the recreation of ancient Greek drama through a union of visuals, music, and theater, laid the groundwork, and these first operas, with their choice of subjects from Greek mythology and their use of recitative to achieve a heightened form of musical declamation, are the fruits of that undertaking. In L’Orfeo, Monteverdi synthesized all of this into the first music drama that still resonates with our own time. The work opens with an arresting toccata for the full instrumental ensemble, a luxuriant combination of strings, recorders, harp, a variety of plucked instruments, trumpets, cornets, sackbuts (a predecessor of the trombone), percussion, and keyboards. The virtuosity of the instrumental writing, and the demands placed on each individual player, represents another venture into uncharted territory for the composer and testifies to the level of his colleagues in Mantua. The toccata itself was likely a military fanfare associated with the Gonzaga court, a sort of early-modern gloss on the national anthem idea—it turns up as well at the outset of the Vespers. In the prologue, we hear the first of the score’s strophic songs, in which the allegorical figure of Music introduces the drama. The form is simple, with an alternation of instrumental ritornelli (literally, “little returns”) and verses for the singer. The first act, a pastoral celebration of Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding, combines recitative, chorus, and instrumental dances and ritornelli into a musical-dramatic structure that unfolds over a long arc previously untried in music. The act opens with a recitative in which a shepherd exhorts his compatriots to praise the auspicious day; they duly oblige. A lively ballo alternates between chorus and instruments; this frames another heightened passage of recitative,

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Lorfeo Program  

Lorfeo Program  

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