Music from the Court of Mantua

Apr 5, 2018 | baroque | 0 comments

During the Renaissance, the most high-profile and lucrative positions for ambitious and talented musicians were found either through prominent posts at Catholic churches or in the moneyed courts of wealthy families who ruled the city-states throughout the peninsula.

At our next concerts, April 27 to 29, we will feature music from 17th-century Italian composers — two of whom were employed by the Court of Mantua during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

At the time, Mantua, a prosperous city located in the lowlands of northern Italy, was ruled by thee Gonzaga family, which had been in power since 1328. Under their rule, the city became a center for Renaissance art and culture, and the family employed a wide array of painters, architects and musicians.

In 1587, the young Vincenzo Gonzaga became Duke of Mantua. Even more than his forebears, Vincenzo realized the political and economic advantages of cultivating a court renowned for its entertainment, particularly theater and music. Having traveled extensively to other Italian courts, Vincenzo was eager to recruit leading musicians to provide original, inventive, and highly entertaining music for the banquets, wedding feasts, theater productions, and chapel services that took place at the Mantuan Court.

One of Vincenzo’s best-known hires was Claudio Monteverdi. He was initially contracted in 1590 to serve as a viol player and singer when he was only 23 and remained in Vincenzo’s employ for two decades. At the Mantuan Court, Monteverdi went on to compose many famous works, including some of the earliest operas ever written, L’Orfeo (1607) and L’Arianna (1608), as well as lush madrigals and sacred music. He pushed the envelope of compositional style with his use of counterpoint, harmony and word painting to create a new, unique sound.

Listen to Ellen Hargis singing Monteverdi’s “Ohimè ch’io cado.”

Monteverdi was far from the only high-profile composer/musician serving at Vincenzo’s illustrious Court. One of his prominent colleagues was was Salamone Rossi, a well-known Jewish violinist who served as concertmaster from 1587 to 1628. In fact, he was so renowned for his performing that he was excused from wearing the yellow badge that was usually required for Jews in Mantua at the time.

Rossi wrote more than 150 secular works in Italian during his time at the court, including several pieces for three voices with lighthearted, dance-like melodies, as well as madrigals set to some of the most famous poetry of his day. And his instrumental music, (which will feature prominently on our April concerts), was innovative for his time, featuring virtuoso violin parts, which helped serve as a bridge between Renaissance and Baroque styles.

The musicians at the Court were highly valued; Monteverdi even accompanied the Duke on his military campaigns in Hungary and on a visit to Flanders in 1599. But though court musicians were esteemed, their positions were nonetheless precarious. Monteverdi’s employ ended abruptly with the death of his patron, Vincenzo Gonzaga. Rossi likely suffered death at the hands of Austrian troops who wrested control of Mantua from the Gonzagas in 1630.

While Vincenzo Gonzaga only ruled in Mantua for a brief time, the musical gems composed and performed during his time in power continue to delight and entrance audiences today. Don’t miss your chance to hear the music of Monteverdi, Rossi, and their contemporaries April 27 to 29 when we present Dangerous Love: Playing with Fire!

Related Articles