Resilience Reimagined 4: Pur ti miro (Claudio Monteverdi)
Every three years when I receive “that” call from CLSA, the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, my heart sinks. Time again for a battery of tests. It’s not the heart, lung, bone density, vision or hearing tests, but the cognitive tests: the backward recitation of the alphabet, 60-seconds to name every animal I can think of, remembering to interrupt the conversation at a certain time and explain to the interviewer what is inside the envelope that is sitting in front of me. I begin to fumble, and anxiety makes me freeze. Being declared incompetent is surely round the corner.
In this age of pandemic, it’s not easy being a member of that visible and vulnerable group: the wrinklies, most of whom have bucket list of “underlying conditions.” Perhaps this is why in the past few months I have been drawn to the creativity of some especially great composers who, much later in life, found new energies that enabled them to stride confidently down new creative pathways of expression. In their later years they produced worked unlike anything in their earlier and mid-careers. Handel, Bach, and especially Telemann, were contemporaries, and each one opened the doors to new sounds and new formats in their final years.
Today, I want to go back a century earlier than Handel and Co., and talk about Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). He not only helped “invent” opera, he also changed the sound of church music. He forced it to express and embrace a very passionate intensity with very real emotional expression. He didn’t start with liturgy, but the popular song form of the Renaissance): madrigals. He published hundreds and then withdrew from music for a while to marry and raise three children. Eventually, he returned to madrigals, this time with a lighter, ironic touch.
Then, in 1609, he turned his attention to a new form of music in the theatre, with Orfeo, which is now considered to be one of the first operas. But then his wife died, and a deep depression took over. He survived that experience by writing one of the truly great polyphonic works of religious music: Vespro della Beate Vergine, first performed in 1610. For the next twenty years he wrote, rehearsed, and conducted church music, much of it in the magnificent St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.
In 1630, plague hit, and by the time its curve had been flattened, the widower Monteverdi had refocused once again. He was now an ordained a priest and had written a mass of post-plague thanksgiving. At this point, he’s 63, and like Dowland in England, he decides to get all his worked printed. We might call that legacy project as a celebrated composer with a eye to legacy looks back over his career. That collection printed, he then looks to future. He writes longer, fuller, richer, more complex operas than anything he or anyone else has ever produced.
The Coronation of Poppea is called one of the first “modern” operas because unlike his Orfeo with its single main plot, there’s a whole set of subplots, a broad and deep range of characters ‒ from servants to emperors ‒ and whole lot of corrupt politics and some especially nasty, sexually-charged evil. (Poppea was married, for a short while, to the Emperor Nero.) Scene after scene drives the action forward as the intensity tightens. And here’s the artistry.
The opera ends with one of the most beautiful duets in all of western music, Pur ti Miro, in which Nero and Poppea declare their undying love for each other and finish each other’s sentences. I suggest you might want to hear this gorgeous music first, before you read on:
Welcome back. That was Sarah Connolly and Louise Alder in a 2015 concert performance of the duet, “Pur Ti Miro” from the end of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Richard Egarr conducting the Academy of Ancient Music.
O mio tesoro, indeed!
Monteverdi knew that his audience would certainly know what happened “in real life” after the curtain fell on these apparently star-crossed lovers. Despite Nero’s protestations of undying love, not long after their marriage, he is reported to have kicked the then-pregnant Poppea, causing her to miscarry, and die. Monteverdi drives his art to one idealised destination, though history creeps toward a murkier destination.
This series, though, is about resilience, and this article is about innovation late in life, as new discoveries, new skills, enable us to work with new ideas and new forms of expression. I recently joined a Zoom meeting skillfully chaired by a 92-year old. Perhaps not on the scale of opera, but aging in a very post-Covid manner.
Music often ends with a coda, as does this article. It’s not about how my CLSA interview went, but Sarah Connolly, the singer on the left in the video. Last summer, she was forced to stop singing as she began treatment for breast cancer. “Like so many women afflicted with this disease, I will face whatever is coming as best I can,” she said. Now fully recovered, this summer she performed in a Royal Opera House fundraising gala that was streamed online. Resilience times two.
In the next Resilience Reimagined: Look! It’s the Northern Lights!