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Analysis of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione Di Poppea”

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 2203 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Though Western music is not alone amongst world’s music that was being written down, the idea that the music score itself takes a place of priority in this tradition is somewhat unique. Yet, it is not even clear that the way in which nowadays we typically consider the music score itself as a kind of ideal representation of a musical work is always approximating to the approaches that ancestors in Western music had towards notated music. This essay aims to investigate a published music repertoire from the early to mid- Baroque Period and to analyse the degree of information carried in the score was related to what the performers might have been expected to add as well as the status of the music score in relation to the musical work itself.

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Monteverdi’s final masterpiece “L’Incoronazione Di Poppea” (The Coronation of Opera) will be examined and analysed. Monteverdi often created music of emotional intensity and strove to create unprecedented passion and dramatic contrast in his works. Poppea was composed in 1642 and the performance took place at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul) in Venice during the Carnival season in 1643 (Munns 71). This work was rightly regarded as one of the pivotal and milestones in operatic history and the first known opera which Monteverdi was inspired by actual historical events to publish it, rather than drawing on mythology. He focused on human and it takes its cue from the Roman history: the relationship between the Roman aristocrat Sabina Poppea and Emperor Nero (Golomb 60). It relies heavily on the decidedly human failings that drove them and was not only becoming the driving force behind a new and unique form of entertainment, but Monteverdi also took opera in a whole new direction (“NPR Choice Page”). The libretto was composed by Gian Francesco Busenello, which brought a new note of realism into opera (Hanning and Weinstock).

This opera was intended for a large group of soloists accompanied by a small instrumental group yet there are some controversies on the work itself. In the existing music scores, the singers are accompanied by continuo only, with instrumental ritornelli between vocal passages. Some scholars and performers argued that Monteverdi would have endorsed or expected a richer accompaniment and more ritonelli than what the music score indicated. Others argue that additional instrumental interventions are historically anachronistic and highly distracting (Golomb 60). Alan Curtis, an American harpsichordist, musicologist, and conductor of baroque opera pointed out that the vocal line is beautifully delicately balanced, moving freely between the extremes of pure lyricism and actual expression, both of which are inherently dramatic, so the piece can be played successfully with a sustained accompaniment. The addition of musical instruments will make music more rigid, limiting the singer’s mobility and flexibility (Golomb 60).

The plot, based for the first time on a historical theme, gave Monteverdi a long-awaited opportunity to demonstrate the developments and changes in characters and the text in Poppea promoted Monteverdi’s adoption of Marinist musical techniques and idiom (Tomlinson 216). He rose to meet the challenge with every devices and subtlety in his artistic armoury. Ground basses, balanced forms, key themes, arioso-recitatives, vocal embellishments, contrasting ritornels – these and many more are deployed with all the art of a mature musician intent on raising opera to a new level of emotional experience. Nero and Poppea were treasured to one another, sang the most beautiful of all Monteverdi’s duets for they were clear that his music itself is the treasure and shining brilliantly through no matter what arrangement, orchestration, or adaption might be foisted upon it (Stevens 137-38).

The music of the L’incoronazione di Poppea has been thoroughly and critically appreciated in terms of the creativity of its form, the wealth of harmony, the diversity of melody and the originality of using leitmotif (the leading motive). The precise distinction between recitation, ritonello and aria has been clearly drawn as to its relationship to the libretto and the aria shows a clear preference for the da capo form by inserting orchestral ritornello (Redlich 115). In addition, Poppea reveals the sure hand of a veteran composer who could readily draw vivid characters and organise this attractive operatic play, mainly through recitative (Schulenberg 73). The guard’s affective recitative, which depicts Octavia’s grief, gives way to the hieroglyphics of concitato genere, and to the imitative laughter of a canzonetta-like walking bass, this can be shown in Example 1. It provides an interesting demonstration of the emotions that often linked with Monteverdi’s iconic techniques (Tomlinson 219-20).

Poppea is dedicated to the musical characterization of the main figures. For example, in an early scene of Nero’s confrontation with Seneca, the old philosopher used phrases of homogenous length, rhythm, and general style in this calm recitation. Conversely, Nero sang in short, tense phrases that varied in style and tempo. He seems to grow irrationally excited at the words “ma del mondo”, which appears in Act 1 Scene 9 Bar 32-34 and it repeats for a few times, this is shown in example 1 (Schulenberg 73). Moreover, he indulges in a sudden, sweeping scale as he refers to his own absolute power, which appears in Bar 36-37. Nero’s character is sung in soprano, this is an early example of the male-dominated castrato section of later Italian Baroque opera (Schulenberg 73). The difference between Seneca’s low bass and Nero’s high-pitched soprano supports the psychological contrast between the two characters, this is shown in example 2 (Schulenberg 73). The work includes retrospective allusions to an older style, but is largely confined to a single scene, in which Seneca’s friends lament his imminent death in what amounts to a three-voice continuo madrigal, this is shown in example 3 (Schulenberg 73).

Example 1: Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea, Act 1, Scene 2

Example 2: Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea, Act 1, Scene 9 (Bar 32-34)

Example 3: Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea, Act 1, Scene 9 (Bar 10-33)

Example 4: Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea, Act 2, Scene 3 (Bar 22-30)

Despite there was some appreciation that was given in this operatic work Poppea, criticism has also been raised by critics. They have found Poppea filled with some musical and dramatic problems. The fact that this was Monteverdi’s last opera composed at the age of seventy-five and inevitably encourages a search for valedictions and grand statements yet there are notable difficulties in where music comes from and the attribution of the music (Carter 176). All the music in the two manuscripts of the opera was certainly not by Monteverdi as they were being taken into considerations and additions which take the text well beyond the actual version that staged at Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in 1643, just less than a year before Monteverdi die. Besides, the dubious propriety of the plot – the illicit passion that celebrates the emperor Nero and Poppaea is unsettling, with apparent evil triumphing over apparent good in a reversal of moral principles that underpin the reading of operatic works. The resulting discomfort has caused a notable amount of special pleading and rather as with another morally ‘problematic’ opera (Carter 176).

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Furthermore, Susan McClary, a musicologist associated with the “New Musicology” and a feminist critique to musicology argues that Monteverdi’s Seneca like Ottone and Nerone, is ‘depicted as profoundly passive and impotent: Seneca habitually reverts to idiotic madrigalism that destroy the rhetorical effect of most of his statements’ (Carter 184). In her opinion, Poppea causes ‘crucial assumptions concerning the effectiveness of patriarchy, male domination and masculine sexuality to evaporate, and it liberates the female voice in “an anomalous moment in culture when power relationships correlated with gender and rhetoric were strangely reconfigured” (Carter 185). 

Another critic Ellen Rosand, an American musicologist, historian and opera critic who specializing in Italian music and poetry from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries interpreted Poppea was centred on Seneca’s character in order to draw out the morality of immoral opera and to rescue Monteverdi from the condemnation of those critics troubled by the difficulties of its plot. She argues that Monteverdi’s music places Seneca in a glow which is not the same as the cast by the libretto: the basic details that shown Seneca’s songs give the character a depth, honesty and integrity which make him the true hero of the piece, steadfast and wise in a world of otherwise persistent degeneracy (Carter 185). She also believed that the opera does not conveniently fall into a general category like tragedy, tragicomedy, comedy or pastoral which would set a conventional restriction on its interpretation and as an ‘opera regia’ (Carter 191).

In L’Incoronazione Di Poppea, the information of the score and the work are not equivalent to each other. It can be concluded that “the score” as a kind of ideal representation of a musical work is not always approximating to the attitudes that forebears in Western music had towards notated music. Positive and negative comments were made by different critics and conflicts were appeared between the score and the work. The degree of information carried in the score was somehow not related to what the performers might have been expected to add.

Reference List:

  • Carter, Tim. “Re-Reading Poppea: Some Thoughts on Music and Meaning in Monteverdi’s Last Opera.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 122.2 (1997): 176-193.
  • Golomb, Uri. “L’Incoronazione di Poppea, de Claudio Monteverdi.” Goldberg Early music magazine 42, 2006, pp. 60-71.
  • Hanning, Barbara Russano. Weinstock, Herbert. “Opera – Civic Humanism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/art/opera-music/Civic-humanism#ref395599 . Published 21 Mar. 2019. Accessed 07 May 2019.
  • “NPR Choice Page”. Npr.Org, 2019, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97828105. Accessed 07 May 2019.
  • Redlich, Hans Ferdinand. Claudio Monteverdi: Life and Works. Oxford University Press, 1952. pp. 115
  • Schulenberg, David. “Monteverdi and early Baroque Musical Drama”, Music of The Baroque, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp.72-77.
  • Stevens, Denis. Monteverdi: Sacred, Secular, and Occasional Music. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978, pp. 137-138.
  • Tomlinson, Gary. Monteverdi And The End Of The Renaissance. University of California Press, 1990, pp.216-20.
  • Carter, Tim. “Giovanni Francesco Busenello and Claudio Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea (Venice, 1643).” Understanding Italian Opera, Oxford University Press, 2015
  • Rosand, Ellen. “Monteverdi’s Mimetic Art: L’incoronazione Di Poppea.” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol.1, no.2, 1989, pp.113-137
  • Prunières, Henry, and Theodore Baker. “Monteverdi’s Venetian Operas (Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, L’Incoronazione di Poppea).” The Musical Quarterly 10.2 (1924): 178-192.
  • Rosand, Ellen. Monteverdi’s Last Operas: a Venetian Trilogy. University of California Press, 2007, pp.
  • Horn, Samantha. “Seneca, Valletto and Cultural Commentary in Monteverdi’s” L’incoronazione di Poppea”.”, 2012
  • Monteverdi, Claudio, et al. L’incoronazione Di Poppea :Drama in Musica. Universal-Edition, 1937, pp. 180


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