Near the end of last month, Brilliant Classics rounded off the beginning of their project to record the complete madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi. This most recent release consists of the first two of that composer’s books of madrigals, thus now offering the full scope of the eight books of madrigals that Monteverdi published during his lifetime. (There is a ninth book of madrigals, but it was published posthumously.)
The album has two CDs, one for each of the two books. As with all of the other recordings, the performances are by the Dutch early music group Le Nuove Musiche under the direction of Artistic Leader Krijn Koetsveld. The timing could not have been better, since this past May marked the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.
Monteverdi was born in Cremona at the time when the city was under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs, meaning that one of Italy’s greatest composers was born a Spanish citizen. However, for those who do not know the geography, Cremona was close to the territory controlled by the Venetian Republic, and it was not far from Mantua. The progress of Monteverdi’s career was not well documented until his work took him to the court of Mantua and subsequently to Venice.
However, these first two books of madrigals predate the move to Mantua, which took place in either 1590 or 1591. The first book was published in Venice in 1587 and was dedicated to Count Marco Verità of Verona. Entering his third decade, Monteverdi had clearly begun to understand how to promote his work. The second book was published in Venice in 1590. It was a “follow-up” to Monteverdi’s visit to Milan, where he played viola for Giacomo Ricardi, President of the Senate. The second book of madrigals was dedicated to Ricardi. Monteverdi may have been looking for work in Milan; but, while he was waiting, a real offer came to serve at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. This was where Monteverdi began to become the Monteverdi we now know.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to classify those first two books of madrigals as “beginner’s work.” All of these pieces (21 in the first book, 20 in the second) are set for five voices a cappella. Even this early in his career, Monteverdi had cultivated the command of advancing the progress of the poetic text through his musical rhetoric. We already encounter his skill at using homophony to make sure that the words register, after which they can be elaborated through counterpoint. Curiously, however, the booklet provides no information regarding the authors of those texts. Perhaps the young Monteverdi was so focused on his advancement that he was reluctant to share credit for his work with anyone else!