Putting Man at the Centre of Music

Michael Heinemann: Claudio Monteverdi. Die Entdeckung der Leidenschaft. ISBN 978-3-7957-1213-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I read this book with interest, no doubt. The Dresden based music scholar Michael Heinemann explains in great detail how Claudio Monteverdi’s music presented a radical shift from past compositional techniques, whose limitation were linked to dogmas of the Catholic Church. Compositions were to reflect the cosmic order as it had been created by God, and Monteverdi was the first to systematically deviate from this practice. It is needless to say that he made himself a couple of enemies inside the composers’ guild and inside the Vatican. However he freed music at the beginning of the 17th century and by putting the individual man with his often conflicting emotions at the centre of his music, he allowed for an increase in expressivity unheard of up to then.

While Monteverdi’s early compositions like the Books of Madrigals I to III lack these revolutionary compositional pattern, his later Books of Madrigals, his operas and his masses show a high degree of innovation, which Heinemann explains with scores at hand. If contemporary classical music features since the ascent of György Ligeti basic building blicks like sound clouds or sound surfaces, it was highly amusing to learn that Monteverdi had used these elements already some 350 years earlier by having separate choirs positioned in different parts of the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice to produce similar effects without electronics.

Heinemann excels also in giving the reader a lot of historical context which demonstrates how Monteverdi’s style evolved and became more and more daring, and how his new ideas radiated through northern Europe. One of the long-term consequences of Monteverdi’s innovation was the sharper differenciation between secular music and church music, the first finding its apogee with Richard Wagner’s operas, the latter remaining anchored in the tradition of Palestrina.

I read this book with increasing irritation too. Heinemann’s style – he seems to be obsessed by short sentences, sentences without verbs or without a subject – makes the reading extremly tiresome, needlessly tiresome, to a degree that makes me think it has a lot to do with self-aggrandizement and much less with transmitting Heinemann’s passion with Monteverdi’s music. Too bad. By his deep understanding of Baroque music, the author has already demonstrated that he deserves scientific and public recognition and is in no need for self-aggrantizement.

All the drama you can get in Monteverdi’s music is encapsulated in his “Il Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorida”, a section of the Book of Madrigals VIII:

Liberating Jerusalem with pizzicato and tremolo