Where did the Operas Go? The Case Against Giovanni Artusi

Giovanni Maria Artusi

Seven of the ten operas the great master of opera, Claudio Monteverdi, composed have never been found. How did they come to be lost? We don’t know. But without the composer’s correspondence, their existence would never have been known.

What follows is a theory—flawed, it is true—about what could have happened to those operas. It’s the story behind the plot of the latest Haydn Mystery, Aria to Death.

Monteverdi’s own words provided me with my first clue. He had been ambushed on his way to Venice—a deliberate attempt, he surmised in a letter to the Mantuan Court secretary reporting the matter.

Like Haydn, my protagonist, Monteverdi was a much sought-after composer in his own time. He published nine volumes of madrigals—secular songs written for four or five voices. But he is better known as opera’s first master. In addition to these, he composed ballets and interludes for plays—not all of these have survived either.

That’s not to say, however, that his music was universally appreciated.

As a composer, Monteverdi had two tendencies. Both arose from that emphasis on subordinating music to the demands of the text that gave rise to opera. This was a rather new view, brought about by the recent re-discovery of and a renewed appreciation in the classics. Greek tragedy, to be more precise. And Monteverdi wholeheartedly subscribed to these contemporary views.

The first tendency—which must have upset many an unwary librettist—was to use his music to emphasize the text and its meaning. That is to say, rather than simply set his music to the lines the librettist provided him with, Monteverdi would, since he was composing a musical drama, emphasize and repeat words and phrases.

Sometimes, he’d cut out lines altogether. And he was quite vocal on the subject of the dramatic quality—or lack, thereof—of any work he was asked to furnish music for.

In some cases, he’d add rests instead of setting a line to a single, flowing line of music. So, the singer pauses, overcome with emotion. All wonderfully apt for opera. And even his madrigals are set in a similar fashion.

It was a technique that added emotional depth to his works, but destroyed the poetic unity of the line.

And so, Giacomo Badoaro, the librettist for Return of Ulysses, one of the three Venetian operas Monteverdi composed a few years before his death, remarks in a preface to the libretto: “We admire with the greatest astonishment those rich ideas of yours, not without some perturbation, because I can no longer recognize this work as mine.”

Now, Badoaro had actually approached Monteverdi with his libretto, pleading with the great master of opera to once again wield his magic.

Of course, a disaffected librettist might have a motive to make all the opera scores disappear. However, Monteverdi’s operas were widely acclaimed. What member of the audience would know that the lines provided had been drastically changed by the composer? Moreover, librettists frequently printed their works, doing so in the original form rather than incorporating the changes the composer made to their words.

I thought Monteverdi’s second tendency—which succeeded in irritating at least one theorist that we know of—might furnish a better motive.

In the world of creative expression, theory has always lagged behind actual practice. It was no different in Monteverdi’s time.

For quite some time, composers such as Monteverdi had disregarded the very strict rules of counterpoint taught by Gioseffo Zarlino and which were upheld by theorists such as Giovanni Maria Artusi, a secular monk.

Counterpoint—literally, note against note—is a compositional technique that requires the composer to write a second line of music against a given line of melody. The latter is referred to as the cantus firmus. Harmony arises through the interaction between the two lines of music. You’ll be familiar with this style of music from church music and chorales.

Things get a little more complicated when the composer begins writing three or more lines of music against the cantus firmus. Every line of music must not only accord with the cantus firmus, it must also accord with every other line. Everyone agreed, however, that when it came to improvised counterpoint—when a group of singers gathered together with each part improvising against the part singing the cantus firmus—it was fine for the improvised line to simply accord with the cantus firmus.

The disharmonies and clashes that resulted due to the other parts not being consonant with each other were tolerated because they were pleasing to the ear.

Now, the same might have been said of written music. But theorists like Artusi disagreed. So, Monteverdi’s treatment of dissonances—the way they were introduced and resolved were a sore point.

A singer might in the throes of emotion ornament a long note, thereby introducing notes that didn’t strictly belong within the mode. But for a composer to write these out was considered by sticklers like Artusi to be offensive. The fact that they might be pleasing to the ear or even be necessary for expressive purposes didn’t excuse a disregard of the rules.

There was another change taking place in music at the time—one that Artusi couldn’t understand and that Monteverdi would have been hard put to explain. The modal harmony of Renaissance music was giving way to the tonal harmony we’re familiar with. Some of his compositional solutions would, in the strict sense of this older harmony, have seemed totally and inexplicably wrong.

Monteverdi mixed modes, complained Artusi. And what reason could there be for that?

Monteverdi responded to these complaints in the letter opening his Fifth Book of Madrigals. There was a rationale behind his compositional technique, and it would require a newer harmony—seconda prattica—to explain it. He would, he promised, explicate this new harmony. But he never got around to it.

Meanwhile, the controversy raged on. For Artusi, Monteverdi’s practices meant that the elegance of counterpoint was being compromised—done so in a haphazard way that made no sense. Was there any way to stem the tide?

Consider reactions against swing, jazz, heavy metal, rock-and-roll, or rap. Episodes in the Dr. Blake Series and the Murdoch Mysteries both show us the vehemence with which people who hold reactionary views can behave.

A motive for crime? Why not? In my theory, Artusi orchestrated a theft of all of Monteverdi’s music, seeking to destroy them. Even a man of Monteverdi’s capabilities would have been hard put to replicate his vast output. But one of the thieves saved the scores, handing the monk copies of the music.

Over a hundred years later, a Viennese merchant acquired the music on his travels to Italy and bequeathed them to his nephew. The bequest causes a killer to surface, setting into motion a murderous rampage that only Haydn can resolve.

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