Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.2.2: Claudio Monteverdi - Orpheus

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    In Chapter 2, we examined a classic opera: Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie. Wagner was contributing to a tradition of staged musical drama that had existed for about 250 years. Here, we will encounter one of the very first European operas ever created, Claudio Monteverdi’s Orpheus. First, however, we will consider the social structures and values that gave rise to opera in the first place, and we will address the new ways of writing music that made sung drama possible.

    The Origins of European Opera

    European opera was born in the city of Florence in the late 16th century. Beginning in the 1570s, a group of intellectuals began meeting in the home of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi to discuss artistic matters. They called themselves the Camerata (a name derived from the Italian term for “chamber”), and today are referred to as the Florentine Camerata. The members of the Camerata were courtiers, composers, poets, and scholars, and they were concerned with the modern development of artistic forms. In particular, they believed that the arts had become corrupted, and that artistic expression could only be revived by returning to the principles of ancient Greece. Where music was concerned, however, ancient Greece could offer only limited guidance. While many theoretical and philosophical treatises on music survive, very few compositions were preserved, and we don’t really know what those would have sounded like. Resurrecting the musical practices of ancient Greece, therefore, is a tricky endeavor.

    Image 4.8: This map shows the walled city of Florence about 100 years before opera was born there. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Hartmann Schedel License: Public Domain

    The members of the Camerata drew much of their inspiration from the work of Girolamo Mei (1519-1594), a Roman scholar and the leading authority on ancient Greece. In his 1573 treatise On the Musical Modes of the Ancients, Mei argued that all ancient Greek poetry and drama had been sung, not spoken. He also wrote about the extraordinary power that music had over the listener. His descriptions fascinated the Florentine intellectuals, who felt compelled to develop a modern approach to sung drama. Their aim was to recapture the emotional impact that, according to Mei, sung plays had once had on audiences.

    Image 4.9: Music was very important in ancient Greece, both in the context of theater and as everyday entertainment. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Colmar Painter License: Public Domain

    The leading music theorist of the Camerata was none other than Vincenzo Galilei (1520-1591), father of the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei. In order to facilitate sung drama, Galilei sought to develop a new approach to writing vocal music that imitated dramatic speech. It would be modelled on the way in which actors used variations in pacing and pitch to expressively declaim text from the stage. Such music would be free of repetition, of course, since every note would be uniquely tied to the word it illuminated. The rhythms would be derived from the text, while the melodies and harmonies would portray the emotional content.

    Today, this style is termed recitative, for it more closely resembles dramatic recitation than typical singing.

    Of course, a solo singer needs accompaniment. Although Galilei and his colleagues did not invent basso continuo, they did adopt it as the ideal vehicle for supporting sung text. The term “basso continuo” (which translates to “continuous bass”) refers to a style of accompaniment that came to be used in almost all music of the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1750). When a composer writes an accompaniment in the form of basso continuo, they indicate only the bass line and harmonies, which are usually to be played by at least two instruments. They do not usually specify instruments or exact pitches of each chord, which are chosen on the spot by the performers. An instrument that can play chords— harpsichord, organ, and lute were most common—is required, while an instrument that can play a bass line—cello or bassoon, perhaps— is usually included.

    Image 4.10: Here we see the cover of Galilei’s 1581 treatise, On Music Ancient and Modern. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Vincenzo Galilei License: Public Domain

    Members of the Camerata began experimenting with short sung dramas in 1589, while the first full-length opera—now lost—was composed by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) in 1597. In 1600, Peri created Euridice, an operatic portrayal of the Orpheus myth. This work, which survives, consists almost entirely of recitative, as does a second version of Euridice produced by another member of the Camerata, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), in 1602. (The two men were colleagues and collaborators, but also saw themselves as being in competition with one another.)

    All of these developments took place in Florence, and were supported by the Medici court. Peri’s Euridice, for example, was created and staged to celebrate the marriage between King Henry IV of France and Maria de Medici.

    Image 4.11: This photograph of the interior of the Medici Palace in Florence captures the splendor in which the family lived. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: User “Sailko” License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    From its inception, opera was understood to be aristocratic entertainment. It upheld noble values and catered to refined musical tastes. It also offered the opportunity for luxurious spectacle in the form of fantastical costumes and scenery. Musically, however, these early operas were a bit boring, and the art form might have lived and died in Florence had not one of the great composers of the century developed an approach to sung drama that was truly compelling.


    Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was born in Cremona—an Italian city most famous for its legendary violin makers. He secured a position at the Mantuan court in 1590, where he served the Gonzaga family. Although Monteverdi flourished under the employment of Duke Vincenzo I, he was abruptly dismissed by the Duke’s son and successor in 1612. The next year he won the prestigious post of music director at St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, where he remained for the rest of his long life—despite a 1620 invitation to return to his post in Mantua, which he gleefully rejected. Although we will examine an opera that Monteverdi produced early in his life for the Gonzagas, he returned to the genre in his old age, creating three operas for the Venetian public in the 1640s.

    Figure : This portrait of Claudio Monteverdi was painted around 1640 by Bernardo Strozzi. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Bernardo Strozzi License: Public Domain. (right) This portrait of Duke Vincenzo I was produced around 1600. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Studio of Frans Pourbus the Younger License: Public Domain

    The oldest opera still to be regularly performed and enjoyed is Monteverdi’s Orpheus (Italian: L’Orfeo). We will begin with the occasion for which Monteverdi created this masterpiece. Then we will summarize the story before examining several musical excerpts.

    Like the operas developed by the Florentine Camerata, Orpheus was intended for the private enjoyment of courtiers and their guests. This opera was among the festive entertainments on offer for the 1607 Carnival season. Carnival is celebrated in Catholic countries around the world during the days or weeks preceding Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. During the forty days of Lent, Catholics are expected to give up earthly pleasures and demonstrate penitence for their sins. Lent culminates in Holy Week, when the story of Christ’s crucifixion is told, and ends with Easter, which celebrates the resurrection. Carnival, therefore, marks the last opportunity for the faithful to enjoy food, drink, and entertainment. Although Orpheus was one of the first operas written for Carnival, the genre would be associated with the Carnival season for centuries to come. Opera would also come to be prohibited during Lent. Orpheus, like other early operas, served a dual purpose. On the one hand, it provided dazzling entertainment to accompany a courtly celebration. On the other, it put the wealth and splendor of the court on display for the purpose of impressing those in attendance. Because he was tasked with exhibiting the affluence of the Gonzagas, Monteverdi did not need to worry about keeping his production within budget. For this reason he was able to write for an enormous orchestra and cast, and the original staging would have been extravagant.

    It is not difficult to guess why Monteverdi chose the Orpheus myth as the subject for his opera. To begin with, by doing so he set himself up for favorable comparison with the Florentine composers who had already produced operas on this topic. Monteverdi’s boss, Duke Vincenzo, had in fact seen the production of Jacopo Peri’s opera Euridice, which had inspired him to commission a similar sung drama from his own court composer. The story itself is also particularly well-suited to an operatic telling. The Orpheus myth is, in essence, a story about the power of music to sway emotions. This, of course, was exactly what the architects of opera wanted to accomplish with their new art form.

    Image 4.14: Orpheus and his lyre have been the subject of countless paintings. In the work from the 1630s, we see him captivating woodland creatures with his musical ability. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Theodoor van Thulden and Frans Snyders License: Public Domain

    Monteverdi set a libretto (the text for a sung drama) written by another member of the Mantuan court, Alessandro Striggio, who crafted a narrative in five acts. In the first part of the opera, Orpheus—a legendary musician fathered by the god Apollo—weds Euridice, a wood nymph. A raucous celebration follows, but the revelers are interrupted by Euridice’s friend Sylvia, who reports that she has died as the result of a bite from a venomous snake. Orpheus is at first devastated, but soon resolves to pursue her into the underworld and bring her back to life. Using the power of song, he convinces the boatman Caronte to carry him across the river Styx. He then persuades the rulers of the underworld to release his beloved. She is permitted to follow him back to the Earth’s surface, but Orpheus is warned that he must trust that she walks behind him, for he will lose her forever if he looks back. Unable to control himself, he looks—and she is once more taken away from him. Orpheus returns home distraught, but is comforted by his father, who carries him away to the heavens. (This is a relatively happy ending: In a more authentic telling, Orpheus is torn to pieces by the Furies.)

    Image 4.15: In this 1862 painting by Edward Poynter, we see Orpheus leading Euridice out of the underworld. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Edward Poynter License: Public Domain

    Perhaps because they were working in a different city, Monteverdi and Striggio departed from the dogmatic prescriptions of the Florentine Camerata. Instead of setting the entire story in recitative, they interspersed recitative with different types of structured vocal music, including folk-like strophic songs (in which many verses are sung to the same melody), choral refrains (interjections by the choir), and a massive, ornate aria (a highly formalized song) for Orpheus. The resulting opera is full of variety, although it still relies on recitative to convey emotion at all of the key dramatic moments.


    The first thing the audience heard at the premiere of Orpheus was not singing but instrumental music. This would become typical of opera and other types of sung theater, which always begin with an orchestral overture. Monteverdi described his overture as a “toccata”4, an Italian term that translates to “a thing that is touched” and was used at the time to indicate music for instruments. The toccata is very simple, for it served a simple purpose: It alerted the audience, with appropriate grandiosity, that the show was about to start. For his toccata, Monteverdi composed a repetitive melody in the style of a bugle call. It contains only the first six notes of a major scale, and consists primarily of ascending and descending stepwise motion. The melody is played three times using different sets of instruments. In our recording, it is heard first in the brass, second in the strings, and finally in the brass again.


    “Toccata” from Orpheus. 4. Composer: Claudio Monteverdi Performance: Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall (2002)

    This recording—and Orpheus in general—provides us with an excellent opportunity to encounter instruments of the Baroque era. As one can see and hear, they are similar to modern instruments, but not entirely familiar. The instrumentation in Orpheus is particularly interesting because, counter to common practice, Monteverdi specified it himself. Up until the Baroque era, it was typical for composers to write generic “instrumental” music that could be performed on any instrument. Monteverdi, however, took special concern with the sound qualities of his opera. In particular, he specified that the scenes on earth were to be accompanied by strings and flutes, while the scenes in the underworld were to be dramatized by the sounds of brass and the reed organ. The resulting timbres reinforce the darkness of Hades.

    Most modern productions, including both referred to in this text, use what are termed period instruments. These are usually copies of instruments that were built in the Baroque era. In the first pass through the toccata, we see a drum, a trumpet that is a bit different in shape than the modern instrument, and two sackbuts—small predecessors of the modern trombone. During the repeat by the full orchestra, we see a variety of additional instruments: Baroque violins, which can differ slightly in shape and are played with arched bows; cornetti, which sound somewhat like trumpets but look like oboes or clarinets; recorders (the predecessor to the modern flute); a Baroque harp; theorbos, which are lutes with long necks and additional bass strings; and bass viols, which look a bit like cellos but are different in shape and have frets. The ensemble sounds familiar, but has a timbre that is notably different than that of a modern orchestra.

    We will continue to address instrumentation throughout the opera, for it plays an important role. The richest area for discussion, however, is not the orchestra but the basso continuo section. Monteverdi provides a diverse selection of continuo instruments, including harpsichord, theorbo, harp, pipe organ, reed organ, bass viol, and cello. These can be combined in a variety of ways to produce a nuanced palette of sound colors. As a result, even long passages of recitative are full of variety, as accompanying instruments enter and leave the texture.

    Act II

    Act II from Orpheus. Composer: Claudio Monteverdi Performance: Das Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1978)



    What to listen for


    Ritornello & Aria A

    Ritornello: strings and flutes

    Aria: Orpheus, one verse


    Ritornello & Aria B

    Ritornello: violins

    Aria: a shepherd, two verses


    Ritornello & Aria C

    Ritornello: violins

    Aria: a pair of shepherds, two verses


    Ritornello & Aria D with Chorus

    Ritornello: flutes

    Aria: a pair of shepherds, one verse

    Chorus: one verse


    Orpheus’s aria

    Orpheus sings a four-verse aria; the ritornello is a lively dance tune played by the strings


    Recitative: Shepherd

    Basso continuo: harp and cello

    29’01” Refrain:

    The Messenger enters with a melodic refrain that Messenger will return throughout Act II

    Basso continuo: theorbo, organ, and cello

    Basso continuo: harpsichord and cello Shepherd
    29’24” Recitative: Basso continuo: theorbo, organ, and cello Messenger
      [...] Recitative: Basso continuo: various various

    Refrain: One of the shepherds repeats the Messenger’s Shepherd refrain
    35’29” Recitative: Basso continuo: theorbo and cello Orpheus
    37’41” Refrain: The chorus repeats the Messenger’s refrain, Chorus which is extended into a choral lament
    38’47”   End of listening guide

    We will skip the wedding and start at the beginning of Act II with the party. In this scene, Orpheus is celebrating with the nymphs and shepherds who reside in an unnamed rural paradise. As might be expected on such an occasion, they sing and dance together. Monteverdi took the opportunity to abandon the solemn recitative of the previous act and compose a string of folk-like songs to be performed by Orpheus and his friends. Almost all of the songs are strophic, meaning that two or more verses of text are sung to the same melody. In between the songs, different assortments of orchestral instruments provide ritornellos, which are repeating instrumental themes. The performing forces slowly grow: first we hear a solo, then a duet, then the entire chorus. Finally, Orpheus himself sings the longest strophic song of all—containing four verses—on the topic of his extreme happiness.

    All of this music can be heard in a diegetic framework. That is to say, we can understand the characters on stage to really be singing. This interpretation makes sense in the dramatic context. Orpheus in particular is a famed musician who would be likely to sing for his friends, while the setting—a wedding celebration— suggests the presence of music. The folk-like attributes of the songs also make them particularly appropriate for the characters to sing. However, we must also assume that the characters are not hearing exactly the same music that we are. Although shepherds might sing and dance, they would not have a large orchestra at their disposal. Monteverdi treads the line between the realistic portrayal of a party and the fantastical world of opera, in which everything happens to musical accompaniment.

    At the conclusion of Orpheus’s song, the music suddenly changes. The orchestra drops out, leaving only basso continuo in support of a solo singer (one of the shepherds). This is recitative. Suddenly, the scene is interrupted by Sylvia, who comes bearing the news of Euridice’s death. In our production, her entrance is marked visually with the descent of a black cloth over the backdrop, but also musically with a change in basso continuo instrumentation. While the shepherd had sung with an accompaniment of harp and cello, Sylvia sings with theorbo and organ. The new timbres contrast with the pastoral scene, making her message all the more disruptive.

    Following interjections from several of the other characters, each marked with a change in basso continuo, Sylvia tells her story. It might seem strange that one of the most dramatic scenes in the opera is not portrayed onstage, but rather described in a lengthy monologue. Compared with the party that opened the act, the next few minutes are a bit drab. Sylvia’s recitative lacks variety in texture and instrumentation, and it contains no melodic repetition—indeed, it contains no memorable melodies whatsoever. However, it does allow Monteverdi to exhibit his skill at expressing emotion by means of harmonized text declamation.

    We might see Monteverdi’s technique at work by examining the emotional high point of the recitative, which arrives when Sylvia recounts Euridice’s final words: “Orpheus, Orpheus!” These are the highest pitches that she sings, and her delivery of the text closely mimics Euridice’s unsung cry, which the listener can easily imagine. The harmonies are stark and surprising. Throughout this passage, the listener is kept ill at ease as Monteverdi leads the singer through countless harmonic twists and turns. The devastating development of the story is paralleled by unpredictable, dark, and even ugly chords.

    After a response from the shepherds, the first of whom repeats Sylvia’s text and melody from her entrance (“Ah, bitter blow!), Orpheus finally speaks. His opening words are low, set to a murky, chromatic melody and accompanied by gut- wrenching harmonies. As he moves from disbelief to anguish, his melody becomes higher, louder, and faster. Soon, however, his mood changes again as he resolves to bring her back from the underworld. Orpheus engages in a bit of text painting as he sings the words “I will surely descend to the deepest abyss” to a melody that itself descends into his lowest range. His final passage, in which he bids farewell to the sun and sky, in turn ascends into his highest range.

    Act III

    Act III from Orpheus. Composer: Claudio Monteverdi Performance: Das Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1978)



    What to listen for


    Recitative: Caronte

    Basso continuo: reed organ

    Played by cornetti, sackbuts, and harp

    Basso continuo: theorbo and organ Accompanied by a pair of violins

    Accompanied by a pair of cornetti

    Accompanied by harp

    Accompanied by orchestral strings

    End of listening guide




    Orpheus’s aria - Verse 1


    Orpheus’s aria - Verse 2


    Orpheus’s aria - Verse 3


    Orpheus’s aria - Verse 4



    We will briefly visit Act III to hear the sounds of the underworld. Caronte, the boatman who is responsible for transporting deceased souls across the river Styx, sings to the somewhat horrible accompaniment of reed organ. This instrument’s aggressive timbre underscores Caronte’s gloomy job and belligerent character, expressed in his refusal to transport to Orpheus. Next we hear the music of Caronte’s world: a funereal march performed principally on sackbuts.

    After the march, Orpheus sets about the task of convincing Caronte to carry him across the river. He does so, of course, using the power of music. Orpheus sings a magnificent aria, “Mighty spirit and formidable god,” that lasts for nearly ten minutes. Unlike his joyful song from the wedding party, this aria is slow, grandiose, and expressive. As in recitative, his singing is mostly unmetered. There is a fixed melody, and although it varies between the first three verses, the bass line remains the same. The listener, however, would be forgiven for failing to observe the repetition, for the bass line is so long and complex that it is difficult to recognize even upon repeated hearings. Recognition is made more difficult by the fact that the singer heavily ornaments the melody, and does so differently on each repetition. Ornamentation refers to the practice of adding notes according to accepted rules.

    Orpheus’s aria also provides us with one more opportunity to encounter some of Monteverdi’s more interesting instruments. Each verse of the aria is decorated with instrumental interjections and completed by an instrumental refrain. First, we hear two violins: one playing from the stage or pit, and the other echoing from a distance. (Monteverdi was particularly fond of this echo effect, and used it in several dramatic contexts.) Next, we hear similar music from a pair of cornetti. This instrument—now almost extinct—employs a trumpet-like mouthpiece connected to a narrow tube, traditionally made from an animal horn and wrapped in leather. Finally, we hear from the double harp, a Baroque instrument with two rows of strings (modern harps have one row). The fourth verse of Orpheus’s aria, which is accompanied by strings, is different—an indication that he is gaining control of the situation. He wins his argument with a concluding passage of comparatively simple and straightforward singing.

    As with the dance songs that open Act II, we can understand this aria to be diegetic: Orpheus the character really is singing. Whether or not he has in fact conjured up cornetto and harps to accompany his singing, however, is up for debate. It is more reasonable to interpret these instruments as belonging only to the theater orchestra, not to the scene in the underworld. The double harp in particular can be heard as a symbolic stand-in for Orpheus’s own instrument, the lyre, which is a type of small harp used in ancient Greece. This scene is expressly about the music, however, for it is Orpheus’s hypnotic singing and playing, in combination with his eloquence, that wins over the reluctant Caronte.

    This page titled 4.2.2: Claudio Monteverdi - Orpheus is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Esther M. Morgan-Ellis with Contributing Authors (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.