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Haydn and the Lost Operas of Monteverdi

On a twilight evening in October 1613, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was set upon by a band of thugs on the road from Mantua to Venice. I was researching the Haydn Mysteries when I came upon that tidbit, and I was instantly intrigued.

Much later when I began the research for Aria to Death, I read of the distressing account in the composer’s own words:

“I am writing to let Your Lordship know,” writes the father of opera to Gonzaga court secretary Iberti, “how, being in the company of the Mantuan courier and leaving with him for Venice, we were robbed at Sanguinetto . . . by three ruffians—bandits. . .”

Monteverdi, as he recounted the details to Iberti, said he suspected an inside job—that is to say, he suspected the courier, who knew that Monteverdi was moving all his household goods to Venice, where he’d been appointed Director of Music at St. Mark’s Cathedral.

The courier also knew no one in the party would be armed.

Two of the men led the party, comprising the composer, his two sons, and a maidservant, to a field, and making them kneel down, proceeded to rob them at gun-point.

Armed with long muskets—”the flint-wheel type,” the composer tells us—the robbers ordered the courier to hand down the travel cases one by one and inspected each in turn, taking whatever caught their fancy.

They even inspected the maid’s belongings, but nothing of the courier’s was touched. This in itself wouldn’t have been sufficient to arouse the composer’s suspicions. But the robbery took place on Wednesday.

It wasn’t until the following Saturday when they were in Padua that the man put his arm in a sling “saying that this happened because of that business. . .when he was robbed.”

It was a new serge coat that the composer had ordered that was stolen. But to my mind, that seemed a poor reason for a deliberate ambush on a travel coach. What else could have been stolen? And who had orchestrated the theft?

Those questions occupied my mind even as I knew that the attack in 1613 would somehow form the basis for a Haydn Mystery. As a history buff, I couldn’t resist the idea of a historical mystery that turned upon events and a personage that were historical within the story world.

How thrilling that Haydn, an eighteenth-century musician, should be confronted with the aftermath of that robbery that took place over a hundred years ago.

My initial research into Monteverdi uncovered the rather startling fact that most of the theatrical works of a man known for having produced them were lost. Of the ten operas he wrote, only three have survived—two from his Venetian period: The Return of Ulysses and the Coronation of Poppea.

The third is the first opera written for his Gonzaga patrons in Mantua: the story of Orpheus. It was the first opera he was ever to write, and Monteverdi showed himself a skilled practitioner of the genre.

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo has long been considered the first opera ever. It was not, of course. But Monteverdi’s skill in enhancing the emotional scenes within a libretto are such that it might as well be the very first.

How did seven operas disappear? What if it was his music the robbers were after? Monteverdi, like Haydn, was a popular and much sought-after composer in his own time.

But what would a mere ruffian know of such things? Someone must have hired the bandits who waylaid Monteverdi.

When I learned of Artusi, a secular canon who took great exception to Monteverdi’s style, in particular the new harmony in which he primarily worked, I knew I had my guy! More about him in my next post. Aria to Death will be published later this year. If you’d like to be the first to know when it’s released, sign up for my newsletter and receive a Free Haydn Mystery.


Aria to Death, Haydn mystery, highway robbers, lost operas, Monteverdi

  1. cj petterson says:

    cj Sez: Great post, Nupur. I love these historical tidbits. Where in the world do you find your research?

  2. Nupur says:

    Thanks, Marilyn! The initial tidbit about the robbery came from a historical timeline of western music. I’m still in the process of unpacking my books, and unfortunately can’t recall the exact title. Monteverdi’ account came from a collection of his still extant copious correspondence. So much of what we know of his music comes from his letters. Without them, we wouldn’t even know what to look for!

  3. Ellen Byron says:

    Fascinating, Nupur! You really dig up the most interesting facts.

  4. Nupur says:

    Thanks, Ellen. I nearly considered making Monteverdi my sleuth when I read about that incident. But I’m glad I stuck with Haydn.

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