The Artusi vs. Monteverdi Controversy
One of the most celebrated controversies in the world of Baroque music was inaugurated in 1600, when Giovanni Maria Artusi (ca. 1540 – 1613) attacked some as–yet unpublished madrigals by one Claudio Monteverdi, a musician at the Gonzaga court at Mantua. It is in many ways exemplary of disputes between conservative traditionalists and a progressive avant–garde, between serious and popular, old and new, conventional and exotic. And it is often juxtaposed ironically with a similar feud at the end of the Baroque period between J. S. Bach and J. A. Scheibe. Such disagreements seem to have popped up intermittently ever since.
Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals was published in 1592, the same year he was probably hired
at the court of Mantua, perhaps after playing there during rehearsals of the intermedii for Il
pastor fido (“The Faithful Shepherd”). The new volume shows the influence of Giaches de Wert, the Gonzagas’
Claudio Monteverdi, ca. 1600
(Wikimedia Commons) maestro di capella, and it contributed significantly to Monteverdi’s growing reputation and popularity. Within a short time, he had been promoted to court singer in a centre that was especially noted for it singers.
Duke Vincenzo I of Mantua was called upon by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in the latter’s Long War (1593 – 1606) against the Ottoman Turks, and it is a further measure of Monteverdi’s standing that he accompanied the duke through Austria to the plains of Hungary as part of the duke’s entourage. The trip appears to have made quite an impression on the musician; he would recall some of its imagery in later works.
In 1596, Giaches de Wert died and was succeeded by Benedetto Pallavicino as maestro di capella at Mantua ahead of Monteverdi, not, it appears, due to any sort of ill will, but simply because Pallavicino was next in line. Yet it was one item in a list of disappointments that Monteverdi was to accumulate against the Gonzagas. Indeed, the trip to Hungary had caused him financial hardship. A second trip with the duke to Spa in the Spanish Netherlands in 1599 caused added money problems, the more so because Monteverdi had a month earlier married Claudia Cattaneo, another Mantua court singer.
Renowned theorist and composer Giovanni Artusi had studied under the canonical authority Gioseffo Zarlino,
the same one whom Andrea Gabrieli worked under at Saint Mark’s in Venice.
When Vincenzo Galilei denounced Zarlino and his teaching to proclaim the new manifesto of
Giovanni Maria Artusi
(Wikimedia Commons) monody and Greek revivalism, Artusi was quick to stand up and defend Zarlino, and was very swiftly cast in the rôle of leading champion of the good old days. In 1600, he published his L’Artusi, overo, delle imperfettione della musica moderna (“Artusi, or, On the Imperfection of Modern Music”), criticizing several madrigals in the new style for their apparently haphazard treatment of dissonance. His earlier theoretical work had explained the correct use of dissonance, appropriate mostly to express strong emotion.
Some of Artusi’s most vehement criticisms were levelled against madrigals by a composer who was never mentioned by name, but whom everyone very well knew was Monteverdi. As Denis Arnold says in his biography,
No one attacks mediocrities. There is no point in writing a book to criticize the work of someone completely unknown, and from the setting of the book, the private house of one of the Ferrarese gentry, we may gather that Monteverdi was a leading light of a circle of composers which included some of the most progressive of the day.
— Dennis Arnold. Monteverdi. pg. 12
Curiously and ironically, Artusi’s own admonition to mirror the emotion of the words was ignored in his initial salvo against Monteverdi. The lyrics were not included as part of his criticism.
Yet things began looking up for Monteverdi. His first son, Francesco Baldassari, was born in 1601, and in the same year he finally became maestro di capella at the Mantua court. In 1603, his Quarto libro de madrigali a cinque voce (“Fourth Book of Madrigals for Five Voices”) was published, containing some of the madrigals to which Artusi had so strongly objected, followed by the Quinto libro (“Fifth Book”) in 1605, in which Monteverdi defended himself in writing, and included more madrigals that Artusi found problematic. Nobody was likely to forget Monteverdi again. Artusi, it seems, had simply hastened Monteverdi’s inevitable celebrity.