Friday, March 07, 2008

The Inventor of Opera, but more

This NPR report seems quite accurate from my own understanding of the history of opera. It argues that Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) created the first opera that seems to have really worked well:

With Orfeo, Monteverdi created the first opera that both survived the centuries and stuck in the repertory. It's the earliest example of opera's uncanny ability to present the straightforward words of its characters as well as their anguished and chaotic emotions — and to express all of this simultaneously, with the remarkable clarity and insight that are the trademarks of any great opera. You might call it the first opera that actually "works," and it's still working in opera houses all over the world 400 years after Monteverdi wrote it.

This material is not to every taste. I recall a student at the Cincinnati Conservatory complaining how he had to sit through hours of this material, and he was bored out of his mind. I, on the other hand, love this material and can listen to it for hours, though I've never actually attended a live performance of a Monteverdi opera. It's true that the musical highlights, the really memorable passages, require patience. The thing here is the operatic narrative, the story itself.

In any case, this blog isn't about opera but a much higher form of liturgical art. So I'll use the NPR story as a hook to tell you about Monteverdi's Masses for Four and Six Voices.

Most people know of his Vespers service, which is one of the great musical creations of all time, a real landmark in the history of civilization. Less well known are his Masses, to which I feel a special attachment. The style here is completely fascinating. To a classical music lover, this material will sound like the 16th century. The texts are of the Mass and the music is wholly sung without instruments. It is obviously intended for Church. But for a person steeped in the polyphonic tradition of Palestrina and Victoria, the music sounds deferential to the Golden Age but also innovative in surprising ways, both melodically and harmonically.

This CD in particular is a good one to own to explore the ages between Palestrina and Bach as it applies to liturgy. I like this material especially since it avoids the sometimes discomforting ego and "decadence" (for the lack of a better term) of 16th and 17th century composition. It is so clearly a continuation of the work of the masters but moves beyond that period. I think you will be pleased.

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