May 152015


On this date in 1567 Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi, Italian composer, gambist, singer and Roman Catholic priest, was baptized. Monteverdi’s work, often regarded as revolutionary, marked the change from the Renaissance style of music to that of the Baroque period. He combined the heritage of Renaissance polyphony with the new basso continuo technique of the Baroque. Monteverdi wrote one of the earliest operas, L’Orfeo, a novel work that is the earliest surviving opera still regularly performed. He enjoyed considerable fame in his lifetime.


Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in Lombardy. His father, Baldassare Monteverdi, was a doctor, apothecary and amateur surgeon. He was the eldest of five children. During his childhood, he was taught by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Cremona. Monteverdi learned about music as a member of the cathedral choir and then later at the University of Cremona. His first music was written for publication, including some motets and sacred madrigals, in 1582 and 1583. He worked at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua as a vocalist and viol player, then as music director. In 1602, he was working as the court conductor and Vincenzo appointed him master of music on the death of Benedetto Pallavicino.

In 1599 Monteverdi married the court singer Claudia Cattaneo, who died in September 1607. They had two sons (Francesco and Massimilino) and a daughter (Leonora). Another daughter died shortly after birth. In 1610 he moved to Rome, arriving in secret, hoping to present his music to Pope Paul V. His Vespers were printed the same year, but his planned meeting with the Pope never took place.


In 1612 Vincenzo died and was succeeded by his eldest son Francessco. Heavily in debt, due to the profligacy of his father, Francesco fired Monteverdi and he spent a year in Mantua without any paid employment. His 1607 his opera L’Orfeo was dedicated to Francesco. By 1613, he had moved to San Marco in Venice where, as conductor, he quickly restored the musical standard of both the choir and the instrumentalists. The musical standard had declined due to the financial mismanagement of his predecessor, Giulio Cesare Martinengo. The managers of the basilica were relieved to have such a distinguished musician in charge, as the music had been declining since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609.

In 1632, he became a priest. During the last years of his life, when he was often ill, he composed his two last masterpieces: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641), and the historic opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero. L’incoronazione, especially, is considered a crowning point of Monteverdi’s work. It contains tragic, romantic, and comic scenes (a new development in opera), a more realistic portrayal of the characters, and warmer melodies than previously heard. It requires a relatively small orchestra, and has a less prominent role for the choir than previous works. For a long period of time, Monteverdi’s operas were merely regarded as a historical or musical interest. Since the 1960s, however, L’incoronazione has re-entered the repertoire of major opera companies worldwide.

Monteverdi died, aged 76, in Venice on 29 November 1643 and was buried at the church of the Frari.


Until the age of forty, Monteverdi worked primarily on madrigals, My focus here, composing a total of nine books. It took Monteverdi about four years to finish his first book of twenty-one madrigals for five voices. As a whole, the first eight books of madrigals show the enormous development from Renaissance polyphonic music to the monodic style typical of Baroque music.

The Fifth Book of Madrigals shows Monteverdi’s shift from the late Renaissance style of music to the early Baroque. It was published in 1605 and was at the heart of the controversy between Monteverdi and Giovanni Artusi. Artusi attacked the “crudities” and “license” of the modern style of composing, centering his attacks on madrigals (including Cruda Amarilli, composed around 1600) Monteverdi made his reply in the introduction to the fifth book, with a proposal of the division of musical practice into two streams, which he called prima pratica, and seconda pratica. He described prima pratica as the previous polyphonic ideal of the sixteenth century, with flowing strict counterpoint, prepared dissonance, and equality of voices. Seconda pratica used much freer counterpoint with an increasing hierarchy of voices, emphasizing soprano and bass. In prima pratica the harmony controls the words; in Seconda pratica the words should be in control of the harmonies. This represented a move towards the new style of monody where the words are clear and distinct, and the accompaniment relatively simple, supporting the words. The introduction of continuo in many of the madrigals, in which keyboard (harpsichord or organ) and bass instrument play the bass line while the keyboard improvised chords, was a further self-consciously modern feature, as was the introduction of Baroque tonality.


While in Venice, Monteverdi also finished his sixth (1614), seventh (1619), and eighth (1638) books of madrigals. The eighth is the largest, containing works written over a thirty-year period. Originally the work was to be dedicated to Ferdinand II, but because of his ill health, his son was made king in December 1636. When the work was first published in 1638 Monteverdi rededicated it to the new King Ferdinand III. The eighth book includes the so-called Madrigali dei guerrieri et amorosi (Madrigals of War and Love), favorites of mine. In the preface Monteverdi claims to have invented a new “agitated” style (Genere concitato, later called Stile concitato).

The book is divided into sections of War and Love each containing madrigals, a piece in dramatic form (genere rappresentativo), and a ballet. In the Madrigals of War, Monteverdi has organized poetry that describes the pursuits of love through the allegory of war; the hunt for love, and the battle to find love. In the second half of the book, the Madrigals of Love, Monteverdi organizes poetry that describes the unhappiness of being in love, unfaithfulness, and ungrateful lovers who feel no shame. In his previous madrigal collections, Monteverdi usually set poetry from one or two poets he was in contact with through the court where he was employed. The Madrigals of War and Love represent an overview of the poets he has dealt with throughout his life; the classical poetry of Petrarch, poetry by his contemporaries (Tasso, Guarini, Marino, Rinuccini, Testi and Strozzi), or anonymous poets whom Monteverdi found and adapted to his needs.


Here’s one of the most famous, Lamento della Ninfa. I’d like to give you more but you can find plenty on YouTube. Life has a habit of getting in the way of music for me these days.

Non havea Febo ancora
Recato al mondo il dí,
Ch’una donzella fuora
Del proprio albergo uscí.
Sul pallidetto volto
Scorgeasi il suo dolor,
Spesso gli venia sciolto
Un gran sospir dal cor.
Sí calpestando fiori
Errava hor qua, hor là,
I suoi perduti amori
Cosí piangendo va.
 Phoebus had not yet brought
The day to the world,
When a maiden so angry
Came out of her house.
On her pale face
Her pain could be read,
And every so often
A heavy sigh came from her
Stepping on flowers,
She wandered from here to there,
Bewailing her lost love
With these words.
(il ciel mirando,
il piè fermo,)
Dove, dov’è la fè
Ch’el traditor giurò?
Fa che ritorni il mio
Amor com’ei pur fu,
O tu m’ancidi, ch’io
Non mi tormenti più.
(Miserella, ah più, no,
Tanto gel soffrir non può.)
Non vo’ più ch’ei sospiri
se lontan da me,
No, no che i martiri
Più non dirammi affè.
(Ah miserella, ah più, no, no)
Perché di lui mi struggo,

Tutt’orgoglioso sta,
Che sí, che sí se’l fuggo
Ancor mi pregherà?
(Miserella, ah più, no,
Tanto gel soffrir non può.)

Se ciglio ha più sereno
Colei, che’l mio non è,
Già non rinchiude in seno
Amor sí bella fè.
(Miserella, ah più, no,
Tanto gel soffrir non può.)
Ne mai sí dolci baci
Da quella bocca havrai,
Ne più soavi, ah taci,
Taci, che troppo il sai.

(She said)
(gazing at the sky,
Standing still)
Where is the troth
that the traitor vowed?
(Unhappy one)
Make him return to my
Love, as he once was,
Or else kill me, so I
Can no longer torment myself.
(The poor girl, ah no more, no,
can she suffer so much ice.)
I no longer want him to breathe,
unless far from me
so that he can no longer say the
things that torture me
(Ah, the poor girl, ah no more, no,

Because I destroy myself for him,
so full of pride as he is;
but if I flee from him,
again he entraits me.
(The poor girl, ah no more, no, can
she suffer so much ice)

A more serene eybrow
has she than mine,
but love has not planted in his
breast so fair a faith.
(The poor girl, ah no more, no, can
she suffer so much ice)
Not ever such sweet kisses
will he have from that mouth,
not softer, a quiet,
quiet, he knows it only too well.
(The poor girl)

Sí tra sdegnosi pianti
Spargea le voci al ciel;
Cosí ne’ cori amanti
Mesce amor fiamma, e gel.
Thus with indignant complaints,
the voice rose up to the sky; thus,
in loving hearts, love mingles
flame and ice.

Moves me to tears.

For a recipe today I can think of nothing better than torrone di Cremona. Torrone, a kind of nougat, which has been produced in Cremona since the early 15th century, is still extremely popular at Christmas time throughout Italy and vast swathes of the Spanish speaking world where it is known as turrón. Here’s my Christmas platter in Buenos Aires in 2013 with turrón in evidence (purple wrapper beneath the Crunchie bar).


Cremona torrone ranges widely in texture (morbido, soft and chewy, to duro, hard and brittle) and in flavor (with various citrus flavorings, vanilla, etc., added to the nougat) and may contain whole hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios or only have nut meal added to the nougat.


Since turrón is so plentiful in Buenos Aires at Christmas (and throughout the year), I never made it myself. It’s a fiddly job, and I prefer to leave it to professional confectioners. Nonetheless, here is a recipe from which I’m sure does the trick:



Cornstarch for dusting
3 cups whole blanched almonds
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups sugar
1 cup clover honey
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 large orange

Special equipment: parchment paper; a candy thermometer


Heat oven to 350°F. Lightly dust a clean work surface with cornstarch. Line a 9” x 13” inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting excess paper hang over edges.

Spread nuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring once halfway through, until fragrant and golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack; let nuts cool completely.

Put egg whites and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with whisk; set aside.

In a heavy 4-quart saucepan with candy thermometer attached, heat sugar and honey over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until mixture begins to simmer and sugar is mostly dissolved, 12 to 14 minutes (mixture will be very thick, then begin to loosen and turn cloudy). Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until candy thermometer reaches 280º degrees. Continue to cook mixture, stirring once or twice, until temperature reaches 315°F. It will take the mixture about 15 minutes more to reach that temperature (the mixture will begin to foam and darken in color as temperature increases).

Meanwhile, beat egg whites on medium speed until firm peaks form. Add confectioners sugar and continue to beat until fully incorporated, about 1 minute more. Turn off mixer, leaving bowl in place.

When sugar mixture reaches 315°F, remove from heat; stir until temperature reduces to 300°F, 1 to 2 minutes, then carefully remove candy thermometer. With mixer on medium speed, slowly pour sugar mixture down the side of the bowl (egg mixture will double in volume, then decrease); continue to beat until mixture is cooled to warm and begins to lighten in color, about 5 minutes. Add vanilla and zest; beat for 1 minute more, then, using a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, fold in nuts (mixture will be very sticky).

Turn out candy on to prepared work surface; dust hands with cornstarch. Knead for 5 to 6 turns, then transfer to prepared baking dish. Dust hands with more cornstarch, then press candy to flatten and fill pan. Put pan on wire rack and let candy cool completely, about 1 hour.

Using parchment paper overhang, lift out candy from pan; cut candy into pieces. Layer in a sealed container, between sheets of parchment paper and let stand overnight, with container sealed and at room temperature, to dry, at least 8 hours or overnight. Candy can be kept, layered between sheets of parchment paper, in a sealed container at room temperature, for up to 3 weeks.