Classical Haiku: Claudio Monteverdi

The gods would smile on
you if they knew how close you
came to their own art.

Claudio Monteverdi had a front-row seat for the birth of opera.

Imagine that you’re going along day to day and a chunk of the past drops from the sky and into your life. How would you deal with it?

This was the situation that faced the folks who lived during what we now call the Renaissance, when the world had only recently unearthed the texts of ancient Greece and Rome.

Some of the folks in Renaissance Italy dealt with this phenomenal state of affairs by trying to re-create the powerful ancient Greek tradition of drama, imbued with compelling stories of the deeds and misdeeds of gods and mortals alike, portrayed in poetry, speech, gesture, dance and song.

So imagine you’re a Renaissance guy and you’re trying to put on an ancient Greek tragedy, but the only production notes you have are the texts of the plays themselves – no photos, no YouTube videos, no cable TV how-to shows.

Maybe you’d have the actors start speaking their lines, but then you’d notice that there’s a chorus, and sometimes it seems they sing and dance.

So eventually you decide that all the actors don’t just speak their lines, they sing them, and now everybody onstage is singing and there are costumes and props and a chorus that comes in once in a while.

Now you’ve got a “drama for music,” as the Italian Renaissance guys called it, or what later Italian guys would come to call an opera.

Monteverdi was among the earliest composers of dramas for music. The lion’s share of his operas are now lost (oh, the irony), but those we do still have (as well as his large body of madrigals) show us that throughout his career he was fascinated by by how music could amplify the meaning of poetic texts, even texts about the exploits of the gods, whose shortcomings are so like our own mortal ones they move us to tears.

Today’s Classical Haiku is devoted to Claudio Monteverdi, whose dramas for music blessed the ancient union of music and words.

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