Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in May, 1567. Andrea Amati (c.1511-1579) founder of the famous firm of violin makers, was already practicing his craft (although his more famous grandson Nicola was not to be born until 1596.) So Cremona was already a musical center of some repute and so it was perhaps only natural that Claudio’s father, Baldesar, a well-to-do and cultured doctor, sought a musical education for his talented young son.

In those days Cremona was under the rule of the Spanish, but earlier the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437) had established a university, modeled on the older universities of Bologna and Paris (the Sorbonne). Although the Spanish had failed to maintain its former high standards, it still provided a center of culture in the town. Presumably Claudio studied the humanities at this university. He clearly received a sound education, evidenced not only from his future compositions but also from his correspondence which displayed a remarkable evidence of cultural knowledge (even for a time when musicians were more liberally educated that is the case today). His home environment was one in which art and letters were held in high esteem; his elder brother Giulio Cesare also became a musician, and collaborated with Claudio for part of his career.

It is likely that Claudio became a student at the choir school of the cathedral where the Maestro di Cappella was the distinguished composer Marc’ Antonio Ingegneri. Ingegneri taught his young student counterpoint and how to construct motets, masses, canzonette, villanelle and madrigals. Claudio also became highly proficient in playing a number of instruments, as well as in vocal music.

Young Claudio prospered under Ingegneri’s tutelage, producing his first publication, the Cantiunculae Sacrae in 1582, at the age of 15. He described himself, on the title page as "discepolo di Ingegneri." (Note, he considered himself more than "studente di Ingegneri.") The Canzonette which are reprinted here were published in 1584 following the Madrigali Spiritualae a year earlier—these both contained the same title-page description as discepolo.

In 1590, Monteverdi completed his studies in Cremona, and got a job in Mantua as a viola player, an appropriate occupation for a Cremonese musician. Perhaps he brought his personal Amati instrument with him. He also sang in the court and cathedral choirs. He went on to glory as a composer of opera (an art form of which he was the principal architect) and later of church music. But our main interest here is in his early years during which Monteverdi evolved into one of the great innovators in the history of music, the creator of the Baroque school.

To understand this, we need to go back to the year 1450 when Johannes Ockegham (c.1415-1497), the Franco-Flemish composer and founder of the Netherlands school of Renaissance music, was 35 years old. Prior to Ockegham, music was still a medieval art, based originally on plainchant monody appropriate to the services held at the seven canonical hours but developing eventually into heterophony more relevant to the Mass. This latter form, for various technical reasons involving the way keyboard instruments were tuned, was written primarily in parallel fifths (or fourths). This so-called organum whose name suggests its origin in tuning problems (in Late Latin "organum" means "church organ") developed minor variations such as "free organum" and "melismatic organum" which were somewhat less constrictive. But overall this type of music was considered, at least by the Netherlandish musicians, to be primitive and even barbaric.

So Ockegham and especially his more famous follower Josquin des Pres (c. 1440-1521) created the Renaissance in music, based on what is known today as "Netherland polyphony." This form spread to Italy where its most famous practitioner, Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina (1525-94) was an older contemporary of Monteverdi’s. (One should also mention her Giovanni Gabrielli (c. 1555-1612), famous organist at St. Marks Cathedral in Venice, whose life spanned the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, and who wrote in both styles.) The main forms which developed during the Renaissance were the music written for specific church services, primarily Masses and Vespers; non-specific religious works, called "motets;" and songs with secular subjects called "madrigals." The madrigal became popular only in Italy, the Netherlandish and other northerners (or Oltremontani as the Italians referred to them) concentrating on religious music.

Secular songs (and dances), those which are still extant, had their origin in the 14th century in the French chanson, a form which eventually moved south and evolved into the Italian frottola which came into being after the Ockegham epiphany, and thus was polyphonic, generally in three parts. The next evolutionary step was the Neapolitan villanella, which differed from the frottola in being unaccompanied. The villanella was the immediate evolutionary precursor of the canzonetta. It is important to stress the secular, even frequently bawdy, character of the texts to these popular songs, the analogue of today’s pop music. The madrigal was also an offshoot of these popular songs, although there did exist a "madrigal" in Italian 14th century music of an entirely different type, written in strophic form with a ritornello. The classic 16th century Madrigal consisted of a single stanza. It should be considered to be a sophisticated descendant of the villanella, usually expressing lofty sentiments, whereas the canzonetta occupied a position roughly halfway between that of the villanella and the madrigal. Most of the canzonette were written to anonymous texts and always in three parts.

The 18-year old Monteverdi had evidently been thoroughly trained by his master Igegneri, because his canzonette contained elements of three styles of music, namely organum, polyphony and cadential. By arranging the polyphonic structure appropriately, different parts moved against each other in parallel intervals after the style of the faux Bourdon (a more advanced form of organum which did not confine itself to perfect intervals. In fact, it stressed the sixth.) But the melodic segments cadenced generally at the end of every line, after the style of Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-1474) and his rondeaux. Some of the music of Dufay’s genre consisted mainly of sequences of cadences, but virtually always at the fifth, the fourth or the octave.

Monteverdi shows that he considered the canzonette to be close to the actual dance, since he regularly organized them into two sections, each repeated. (AABB) Occasionally (in three cases out of 21) the third section is in triple meter, and serves as a refrain (whose words are actually not literally repeated). Otherwise, all sections are in duple meter.

A rather interesting aspect of Monteverdi’s first two books of madrigals (published in 1587 and 1590 respectively) is that the AABB structure of the canzonette was often modified to ABB in the first book and ABA in the second. The ABB form became the precursor of the dal segno arias of the 17th century (so common that they are still referred to as seicento arias). The ABA form, on the other hand, developed into the da capo aria of the late baroque, especially familiar in the opere serie and oratorios of Handel. Another link between Monteverdi and Handel has to do with the poet Torquato Tasso (1544-95) whose lyrics were used by Monteverdi in ten of the twenty-one madrigals of the second book. Tasso’s best-known work was the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata which Handel turned into one of his early (1711) London Italian operas, renaming it Rinaldo after the hero. And this opera contains a particularly splendid example of a da capo aria, the virtuoso piece for coloratura soprano "Molto voglio, molto spero" sung by the sorceress Armida, Queen of Damascus. Thus did the creator of the Baroque reach through the years to its ultimate practitioner. (Da capo arias, by the way, did not die with the Baroque, but extended well into the bel canto era. Well-known examples include Figaro’s "Se vuol ballare" from Act I and Cherubino’s "Voi che sapete" from Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro, although in the post-Baroque period the B sections tended to be longer and less melismatic.)

The use of varied rhythms was an attempt to introduce artistic elements into the canzonette else they would be indistinguishable from the vulgar villanelle. The refined qualities of the canzonette were derived directly from the madrigals, for example melodic phrases which were realistically expressive of the connotations of the words; the imitative outline of the voice entrances; and so forth. As stated by Leo Schrade in Monteverdi. Creator of modern music: Monteverdi wanted to take advantage of both forms by preserving the artistic qualities of the canzonetta along with some of the outstanding characteristics of the cosa bassa, the villanella. (London, 1951, p. 117)

What was Monteverdi up to, and how did this lead him to create the Baroque school of music? Well, my own speculation is that as a teen-ager he had an affinity for pop music, just as most of us did as teen-agers, and certainly as today’s teen-agers do. This led him to write in the villanella style. But due to his position in the Cremonese religious establishment, he had to tone it down a little; hence the canzonette. But he had not been "brainwashed" by becoming a child prodigy, as Mozart had. Maturing during his rebellious, teen-age years, he was more inclined to try novel approaches, so that he became a great innovator, a creator. Mozart on the other hand never matured emotionally, musically speaking, and continued always to write in the style learned as a young child, albeit bringing that style to its apotheosis.

But why the major move away from polyphony back to the monody of Baroque style (but now accompanied by that marvelous new invention, the basso continuo. In this way, the textual line was stressed but provided the necessary harmonic support was provided.) The idea was to make the text accessible to the listener, as it was definitely not in polyphonic music, when each part sang different words to different music at the same time. Part of (and perhaps the main) reason for this was the evolution of the religious drama into dramatic entertainment, that is opera, first introduced in the late 16th century in Florence, by the Camerata. Obviously opera would be meaningless if the words were not comprehensible to the audience (a lesson unlearned by American opera establishment until about the 1980’s, at which time Beverly Sills invented supertitles).

Within the context of the polyphonic structure of the Canzonette, Monteverdi was already laying the groundwork for this new style by assigning a greater harmonic structure to the bass line than had been the case heretofore. An excellent example is found in Canzonetta No. 13, Tu ridi sempre. The bass line, on the words Per darmi pene e guai, proceeds from the dominant stepwise to the tonic, back to the dominant with a final return to the tonic, but all with no melodic expressiveness and without relation to the text. Its notes, all half notes, serve only harmonic roles. Furthermore, the bass omits the first line of the text, singing the first line twice. The melody, meanwhile (on the words Tu ridi sempre mai ), all in quarter and eighth notes, is derived directly from the bass line. In this way, the canzonette were harbingers of Baroque style, becoming a guide to the overthrow of the Oltremontani and the revolution in music which Monteverdi set into motion.

Monteverdi, after his move to Mantua, became the main composer of opera, catering to the tastes of the wealthy and cultural Gonzaga court. In the process he had to create this entirely new style of music. Because of his ability to establish new musical forms, as in the canzonette, it is not too surprising that he was able to develop this new style which was to last for some 150 years, until the deaths of J.S. Bach in 1750 and G.F. Handel in 1759. Thus, the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music lasted roughly the same length of time.

There may be a non-operatic reason for the introduction of the Baroque style. The Council of Trent, which met from 1545-1563, was called to combat the Reformation and to undertake Catholic reform. Part of this reform was aimed at overly elaborate ecclesiastical music, with the aim of making the Mass more understandable to the masses. So there was also a religious impetus for the abolition of polyphony. Monteverdi, having undergone his musical training in a cathedral under the shadow of the Controriforma, would have been well aware of the desirability, to the thinking of l’Inquisizione, of introducing a new type of music. The fact that he was singularly well equipped, by intellect and training, to do this has led to his occupying a position as one of the great music masters of all time. He deserves to be put in the same category as the other greats, Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, to name a few.

Another reason for the gradual discarding of the northern polyphony was the fact that the music was too difficult to sing, even for the choirs in many large cathedrals. To counter this problem composers began writing a monadic voice line, putting the polyphony into the accompaniment. From this, the evolution to true Baroque, with basso continuo was perhaps natural. (It is even possible that the reformers of the Council of Trent had this fact in mind in calling for musical simplification in religious music.) One sees that there were a number of factors behind the transition to the Baroque period in music.

Performance notes added by Joan Yakkey:

The Bärenreiter score, which we have used, is base on the above analysis, but upon further research appears to be incomplete. A study of the villanelle of Luca Marenzio (c. 1553-99) and of Monteverdi’s canzonette indicates that sometimes the form is AABB and other times AABCC. After four years of practicing this music, we found that the AABB repeats do not work tonally, as one cannot grab either the rhythm or the notes. The correct repeats are found in editions edited by Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) whose complete edition of Monteverdi’s works was a monumental first step in Monteverdi scholarship.

It also turns out that the change to triple meter does not often compare perfectly, measure per measure. Editors simply try to find a common denominator, but many times it is not feasible. One has to perform the music more by musical "feel" more than anything else.

The reference to Marenzio is particularly relevant, in Monteverdi’s Primo Libro dei Madrigali published in 1587, it appears that Marenzio was a more important influence that Igegneri (Scrade, ch. six). According to Henry Prunieres, Monteverdi. His life and work. Westport, Connecticut, 1973, Marenzio was a "marvelous musician" who "showed a very modern sense of harmonic modulation…One can say that the madrigals of Luca Marenzio are already animated by the dramatic sense which is the essential characteristic of the madrigals of Monteverdi." However, the extent to which Monteverdi’s canzonette were influenced by Marenzio requires extrapolation.