Monday, April 10, 2017

Monteverdi at 450: Don’t Believe the Hype (Guest post by Andrew Dell'Antonio)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! I completed my eighteen treatments of brain radiation a little over a week ago, and as far as I can tell, I’m not experiencing much in the way of cognitive impairment. That’s particularly good news, considering that in the past month I’ve had some fantastic opportunities: I received a commission to write program notes for a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I’ve been selected as a contestant for Jeopardy!, with the taping next week. So, even though I have a clear idea of what I want to blog about next, I haven’t had the time to write the posts.

But people keep being wrong on the internet, and I’m not the only one who cares. My friend and colleague Andrew Dell’Antonio (co-editor of The Avid Listener) spotted a trend in the way newspapers are using Claudio Monteverdi to boost tourism, and he offered to write a guest post. My sincere thanks to Andrew for his contribution!

As a long-time admirer of Linda Shaver-Gleason’s insights on the perils of musical-historical cliché, I am absolutely honored that she has given me this opportunity to have my say on an instance of celebratory flim-flam from my own musical-historical backyard.

Claudio Monteverdi
Portrait by Bernardo Strozzi
We are in the 450th anniversary year of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), verifiably one of the most prominent European musicians of the turn of the seventeenth century.  Anniversaries bring celebrations, and several have already been underway, the most noteworthy sponsored by the town of Cremona, where he was born, but also at Mantua, where he built his reputation, and Venice, where he landed and put down roots for the last 30 years of his long and productive life.

Most recently hype has bubbled up in a pair of posts from the travel sections of UK newspaper web sites The Guardian and The Telegraph, in conjunction with a planned performance in Venice of the three surviving operas by Monteverdi by prominent English ensembles directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Stephen Pritchard of The Guardian gushes:
The first composer to break through convention and display the true nature of humanity… a man who moved music out of the Renaissance into the Baroque, as much a revolutionary in his own artform as his contemporaries Shakespeare, Galileo, Cervantes, Caravaggio and Rubens were in theirs.
Claire Wrathall of The Telegraph extols: “The first true pioneer of opera as an art form.” In the process of falling over each other to praise Monteverdi’s spectacular greatness, the authors of the posts not only exaggerate the composer’s fame during his own time but also get a surprising number of facts wrong – for one, Monteverdi was not an organist so he would not have been playing the organ at the Scuola di San Rocco (that opportunity likely fell to his elder contemporary and predecessor at Saint Mark’s, Giovanni Gabrieli).

What’s the big deal?, my reader might object.  Hype has always surrounded musicians, and if we’re trying to make beautiful music compelling to those who might not already know about it, what’s the harm in a bit of rhetorical exuberance, in conflating a few facts or giving a little more credit than might strictly be due?  Monteverdi himself likely would have agreed with that point (he was after all a savvy marketer, ready to partner with publishers to promote his and his familys interests). Indeed, as both a scholar and an admirer of Monteverdi’s creativity, certainly I would be happy to convince others to join me in listening to his music all day, especially in the performances of ensembles that have been taking a dynamic approach to the centuries-old scores [just three of my favorites, for example: L’Arpeggiata, La Venexiana, and Concerto di Margherita]. But the exaggerations and factual inaccuracies that these puff pieces perpetuate are more than historical trivia, and I suggest that avoiding them is journalistically responsible and crucial for a couple of reasons:

First of all, the hype surrounding Monteverdi is being used to justify financial inaccessibility – leading to a pricing structure for the celebratory performances that is more in keeping with the one for the seventeenth-century one-percent-elite for whom Monteverdi’s works were written than for a more contemporary notion of art being widely available even to the less well heeled. (Granted, the Telegraph essay does appear under the “Luxury/Ultratravel” byline.)  My friend and colleague Giulio Ongaro has pointed out that the performances of Monteverdi’s operas at the marvelous La Fenice theater in Venice, to which both essays linked above eagerly point their British tourist-readers, are priced so that tickets to all three would run about 1,000 Euros – close to $1,000 and well beyond the budget of most local Venetians. This is exactly the way pricing structures worked in Monteverdi’s day, when opera was a “delight of princes,” as one of his contemporaries described it – but moves away from more recent trends that aspired to share operatic repertories with less affluent people. Luring wealthy patrons to Venice with promises of supreme art was par for the course when these operas were first created, but one would like to think that we’ve shifted our priorities in these days of ostensible democratic aspirations.

A second and broader philosophical point is closer to my own heart.  Some years ago I wrote an essay on the way narratives of greatness about Monteverdi and his operas as representative of Italian supremacy were constructed by Italian artists and critics during the Fascist regime in the second quarter of the 1900s, in order to complement grand statements about the glorious future of the Italian Empire under Mussolini. My conclusion was that the notion of Monteverdi as “father of opera” (and more generally the idea that his stage works were understood as artistic pinnacles by his contemporaries) was largely an invention of the twentieth century in that now-reviled political context. And maybe more importantly, that while the explicitly political aspects of “Monteverdi the Hero” are no longer part of our storytelling, the manufactured narrative lingers on in the ways that his music and cultural role is all too often characterized – in textbooks as well as journalistic publicity of the sort linked above – as unique and unrivaled.

Raising Monteverdi to such exceptional status and, what’s more, conflating him with other hard-working and successful musicians such as Giovanni Gabrieli is not only poor history – it also erases people’s lives.  That’s not fair to the dozens, hundreds, thousands of musicians (women and men) who collaborated closely with Monteverdi, helping performances of his music to ring effective and compelling for his patrons, and allowing him to bask in his managerial success, leveraging it for increasing financial and reputational privilege.  Furthermore, it’s not fair to modern musicians, who are again and again measured up against unrealistic images of super-achieving greatness, rather than being celebrated (financially as well as verbally) for their workaday efforts to bring sonic joy to their communities, like Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and so many others did for seventeenth-century Venetians. And it’s not fair to the vast majority of humans who struggle to fulfill our general social emphasis on extraordinary distinction and financial success as measures of human worth.

I believe that Monteverdi’s music deserves to be celebrated and performed on the occasion of his 450th birth-year, and I think we would understand his noteworthy accomplishments better if we shed tired clichés and instead told the more nuanced and historically accurate stories of his life in relationship with his contemporaries.  And I believe we would be not only even more historically accurate but also more ethically just if we could also acknowledge every year as the anniversary of equally noteworthy but less documented accomplishments by the millions of anonymous musicians who have sustained the sonic work of culture generation after generation, across the planet.  We might do this not only by patronizing and sustaining musicians who cultivate our own communities’ soundscapes, but also by opening those soundscapes as widely as possible.

Perhaps the many theaters worldwide that will be hosting the productions of the three Monteverdi operas after their almost-sold-out Venetian run (see again this announcement for details) can open up the ground floor – what we now call the “orchestra” area – for inexpensive general admission, as the Venetian theater-owners of the mid-seventeenth century did in order to accommodate audiences of a wider socio-economic cohort.  And if not, why don’t we look for local or regional ensembles who are also planning to celebrate Monteverdi (perhaps along with some of his contemporary collaborators!) and support them in this mission: Rather than making the celebration only about genius composers and performers, let’s celebrate inclusivity by recognizing the people who worked with and continue to work on him.

“Grazie mille, maestro: Monteverdi’s Venice” by Stephen Pritchard for The Guardian

“Claudio Monteverdi’s Venice: Following in the footsteps of the beloved opera composer” by Claire Wrathall for The Telegraph

“Il divino Claudio: Monteverdi and Lyric Nostalgia in Fascist Italy” by Andrew Dell’Antonio in Cambridge Opera Journal

Andrew Dell’Antonio is Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division of the Butler School of Music and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. His foremost research interest is the process of listening – how it has been characterized and fostered from the 1500s to the present, and how different modes of listening influence the social uses and cultural meanings of music. His edited collection Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing (2004) and his monograph Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy (2011) are both available through The University of California Press.   He blogs at The Avid Listener and is co-author of the textbook The Enjoyment of Music, both from W W Norton.


  1. OMG, Andrew, caro mio, well said! Bravo bravissimo

  2. Carissima, your kind words always bring me such joy. Grazie di cuore!

  3. Linda, I just watched your appearance on Jeopardy! the other night. One of the members at (a Jeopardy! discussion forum) posted about your battle with cancer and sent a link to your blog. Keep up the fight, and very nicely done on J!

    -Arjav Rawal
    Dublin, CA