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Timeline 015: Claudio Monteverdi, Prima Prattica And Seconda Prattica

Claudio Monteverdi's works mark the boundary between the Renaissance and the Baroque.

There are individuals in music history that stand as pillars, whose life and work help us delineate the various eras of musical practice. One such individual was the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, whose work marks the boundary between the renaissance and the baroque.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona, Italy. His father was a chemist, a practicing barber surgeon (which was not completely legal at the time) and his mother passed away when Claudio was rather young.    Monteverdi was an extremely prolific composer even as an adolescent. By the age of 16, he had multiple publications from various printing houses around Italy. By the year 1600, Monteverdi was well established as a composer on the international stage. For the next 40 plus years he worked as an innovator and refiner of musical styles, including the first fully realized opera “L’Orfeo”.

The birth of the 17th century saw a dramatic shift in musical style and Monteverdi’s work was on the cutting edge of that change. Not everyone welcomed these developments, the theorist and outspoken critic Giovanni Maria Artusi famously attacked the music of Monteverdi, calling it crude and taking undue license with pure form and counterpoint. He launched his criticism at this work in particular, Monteverdi’s madrigal “Cruda Amarilli."

Monteverdi fired back in the introduction to his fifth book of madrigals in 1605. There he laid out a proposal of dividing music into two distinct styles, prima prattica and seconda prattica. Monteverdi defined prima prattica, or first practice, as the perfection of 16th century counterpoint, following the rules and forms that made the music of Palestrina so successful.  This was the music of the divine.  However, Monteverdi desired for the freedom to express his humanity within his music, which means imperfection. His seconda prattiica, or second practice, allows for these rules of counterpoint and melody to be broken if the drama, emotion or (more frequently) the text demanded it. This allowed the composer the freedom to make the music dissonant or ugly if need be in order to express what he desired.

It was the development of this second practice that gave birth to the era of music we call the baroque.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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