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The Letters of Claudio Monteverdi.

Letters from Renaissance composers are extraordinarily rare. We are therefore very fortunate to have over 125 extant letters written by the most important composer at the transition from the Renaissance to the baroque, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The vast majority of these letters were written to personages at the court of the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua, where Monteverdi worked from the late 1580s until he took up the position of maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice in 1613. The earliest letters were written while either he or his employers were away from Mantua, but the bulk of them document the continuing close ties the composer maintained with his former employers after departing for Venice, at least through the 1620s. In addition, a few letters to other patrons and to his Venetian employers survive.

Monteverdi's correspondence not only reveals a great deal about the personal life of this great composer and his family and friends, but also much about the complex patronage practices of early modern Italy and of the process of planning and composing musico-dramatic works in the early seventeenth century. The letters often deal largely with Monteverdi's continuing attempts to obtain funds owed to him, but they also detail his concerns with the texts he is to set to music and how he can best interpret them, and also with the musicians who will be performing the completed works. The letters relate principally to the musical world of Mantua, but Monteverdi also slips in fascinating tidbits that provide insight into the life of an important musician in Venice.

This book is a revised edition of a work first published in 1980. Stevens has, for the most part, left his excellent original translations intact, making a few adjustments here and there, partially in response to the first reliable edition of the letters in the original Italian (Claudio Monteverdi: Lettere. Trans. Eva Lax. Florence: Olschki, 1994). Also mostly unchanged, though updated based on recent research where necessary, are the extraordinary introductions that Stevens provides for each letter. Often far longer than the letters themselves, they not only explicate Monteverdi's texts but provide a detailed explanation of musical and political events that took place before and after those addressed in the correspondence. Read straight through, they serve as a thorough biography of the composer.

This new edition does have several significant changes. One brief and newly discovered letter has been added, and the dates for two others have been revised. This alteration, however, which results in the renumbering of about a dozen letters, has been done without any comment or annotation; these changes might well cause some confusion for those familiar with the first edition or for users of books that relied on the earlier version. Indeed, even Stevens did not manage with complete success to rearrange the commentaries to accommodate the new dates. One further addition to this edition, which the author claims as an important contribution, is in some ways problematic. Since the letters begin in 1601, when Monteverdi was already thirty-four years old, the original edition was silent on the composer's early life. Stevens has, therefore, added a welcome chapter on those years. While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the material he presents, its format is perhaps more appropriate for an encyclopedia than a scholarly book; instead of references, Stevens offers only one unnumbered footnote, in which he simply lists the authors from whose work the account is derived. Anyone really interested in this period of Monteverdi's life would do much better consulting a modern scholarly biography such as that by Paolo Fabbri (Monteverdi. Trans. Tim Carter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

These few faults, however, do little to mar the real contribution made by this fine book, which is rich not only in information but also in entertainment, with its revealing glimpses into the life and thoughts of a great composer.

JONATHAN E. GLIXON University of Kentucky
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Glixon, Jonathan E.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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