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Part of the seminal Cambridge History of Music series, this volume departs from standard histories of early modern Western music in two important ways. First, it considers music as something primarily experienced by people in their daily lives, whether as musicians or listeners, and as something that happened in particular locations, and different intellectual and ideological contexts, rather than as a story of genres, individual counties, and composers and their works. Second, by constraining discussion within the limits of a 100-year timespan, the music culture of the sixteenth century is freed from its conventional (and tenuous) absorption within the abstraction of 'the Renaissance', and is understood in terms of recent developments in the broader narrative of this turbulent period of European history. Both an original take on a well-known period in early music and a key work of reference for scholars, this volume makes an important contribution to the history of music.
The seventeenth century could well be characterised as one in which singers and singing in general, and the figure of the individual solo singer in particular, were the driving forces in a range of major developments both in specific genres and in the broader institutional manifestations of music. The most obvious of these, perhaps, is the acceleration of what began as a fairly marginal form of music theatre – opera – from its near standing start in the elite space of the Florentine court in 1600 to its flourishing establishment in the public theatre culture of most of Western Europe by the early 1700s. Music historians rightly point to innovations in a whole variety of other genres of vocal music, including in the church: the sacred concerto, oratorio and grand motet; in chamber music: secular song in many different national styles, concerted madrigal and cantata; and the various different kinds of theatre music besides Italian opera, such as French ballet de cour and tragédie en musique, Spanish comedia and zarzuela. English masque and ‘semi-opera’, and so on. All of these largely depended for their realisation on the highly developed skills of virtuoso singers. Furthermore, the emergence of professional women singers from their barely visible sequestration in the north Italian courts onto the centre stage of public acclaim and accessibility, and an almost parallel trajectory for castrato singers, are two of the more obvious phenomena which, in different ways, both drove and resulted from these developments.
It is now more than twenty years since the appearance of The New Monteverdi Companion, edited by Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, to whom this book is dedicated. During those years the re-evaluation of Monteverdi and his work by performers and historians alike has proceeded apace and shows no sign of abating. New generations of performers now work comfortably with the instruments of Monteverdi's day and continue to explore the types of vocal production with which he might have been familiar; and listeners can now experience a wide range of live and recorded interpretations of Monteverdi's music. More is known now about the context in which Monteverdi worked, and fresh questions have been asked about his musical output, not least those arising from the so-called "New Musicology". On his operas alone three new books have appeared within the last five years.