picture of C. Monteverdi
lab51 clef icon Claudio Monteverdi
(Mantua, February 24, 1607)
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Some Basic Terms and Concepts in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

Contents: Monteverdi's Opera, Instrumental Pieces, Vocal Pieces.


Monteverdi's Opera:

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo is one of the earliest operas that survives today. An opera is a sung drama that is presented in a theatrical manner. It is different from other types of musical drama in that it is primarily sung; the action of the drama is conveyed through singing rather than through spoken dialogue. It is distinguished from an oratorio (such as Handel's Messiah) because it is presented theatrically with costumes and staging.

L'Orfeo is constructed of numerous small, discrete sections (scenes or numbers). These individual sections are grouped into larger sections, which are themselves grouped into still larger units: acts. Click here for an outline of the entire work.

There are several different types of pieces in this opera. They fall into two general categories: instrumental pieces (no singing) and vocal pieces (one or more voices usually also with instrumental accompaniment).

Instrumental Pieces:

Toccata: the trumpet fanfare that precedes the Prologue, probably to herald the Duke of Mantua. At this time this type of piece was often short and improvisatory in style, with sweeping, brilliant writing full of quick scales.

Ritornello: generally a recurring passage, often functioning as a refrain that punctuates a vocal section. In this opera you will find that Ritornello 1 reappears several times throughout the work, while the other ritornelli are limited to more localized appearances (see the outline).

Sinfonia: a piece serving as a prelude, interlude, or postlude in an opera of this period. In general, a sinfonia will bear less connection to the vocal music that precedes or follows it, when compared to a ritornello. In Act III of L'Orfeo, however, the third and fourth sinfonia (plural sinfonie) recur several times, framing the vocal sections, functioning as if they were ritornelli. In this work the sinfonie tend to be longer and more self-contained than ritornelli.

Moresca: a type of dance common in Europe in the Renaissance, often in binary meter. A moresca appears at the very end of the opera.

Vocal Pieces:

Recitative (a.k.a. stile recitativo or stile rappresentativo): the style of vocal declamation newly created at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. Its development is connected particularly with composers associated with the Florentine Camerata of the late sixteenth century. The aim of these composers was to develop a vocal style in which the music would be governed by the text; the meter, rhythm and melody are all flexible in order to reflect the changing ideas and emotions of a character in a dramatic situation. This style is meant to imitate natural, emotionally inflected speech. Recitative was ideally suited for the musical expression of dramatic action. (You will usually not hear a repeated "tune" in a recitative passage, as you might in an aria, for example.)

Aria: at the time that L'Orfeo was written, the aria was quite similar in style to recitative, except that it generally fell into a set meter (recitative usually feels more free metrically than an aria). The arias in this opera are strophic (where the singer's melody is repeated exactly to successive verses of text) or strophic-bass pieces (where the singer varies his/her melody above a repeated bass line, as in "Possente Spirto"). Often a ritornello will appear between each verse of the aria.

Duet / Trio: a vocal piece for two or three solo voices, respectively, often in the style of Monteverdi's madrigals from this period.

Chorus: a piece for several different voice parts (e.g., soprano, alto, tenor, bass). The choruses, like the duets and trios in L'Orfeo, are both homophonic (i.e., melodic focus is centered in one voice, while other voices provide accompaniment -- the "tune" is in one voice), and polyphonic (melodic focus is distributed among several or all the parts -- the "tune" bounces around from voice to voice).