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When writing music notes about such a crucial historic figure as Claudio Monteverdi, I would request your patience by first mentioning a few of my own experiences, and how I came to love 16th & 17th century music. As a young boy, at home we had a few early music recordings, which were very rare in the early 60’s. One particular recording was the music of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and his Dances from Terpsichore. I loved the timbre of the original instruments and the great rhythmic energy. 

 My first organ lessons included one of the most famous keyboardists of his day - Girolamo Frescobaldi, a contemporary of Monteverdi. Later, when I decided to pursue a music degree at the University of Manitoba, the organ repertoire was much more demanding. But I had no idea what else was in store for me. On the U of M faculty of music were two of the most prominent teachers and scholars of early music - not just in Canada, but internationally: Christine Mather and Peggy Sampson. Both emigrated from the UK in the 1950’s - Peggy originally from Scotland, was a prominent cellist in her own right. Christine from England was a highly-regarded bassoonist - recitalist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician. They joined the faculty of music around the same time: with Peggy now specializing in performing and teaching viola da gamba. She and Christine formed one of the first successful early music ensembles in all of Canada. 

 With these amazing teachers, a small group of us were privileged to be able to sing madrigals (some by Monteverdi of course) and play in a consort, learning to play gamba with a very patient Peggy Sampson. (I still cannot believe this now!) The pleasure of singing polyphony one-on-a-part in madrigals coupled with the timbre of early string instruments stayed with me. Experiencing early music this way, first hand, was unforgettable.

 A much later encounter regarding early music was when I was organist at West Vancouver United Church. At that time, I was never interested in Handel’s Messiah. I thought it was stale and over-rated, and why did every choir in the city sing it every year! BOHH-RING! Then in 1982, a new recording (yes, it was still LP’s) appeared with a glowing review. It was Handel’s Messiah with John Eliot Gardiner (a new name for me) conducting his Monteverdi Choir. With original instruments, stunning soloists, tempi and articulation “off the charts,” I was totally and utterly blown away! Wow - THIS is what Handel’s Messiah is supposed to sound like! A revelation!

 I have always known that John (now Sir John) Eliot Gardiner has been passionate about many composers, most notably J.S. Bach, but equally so with Claudio Monteverdi. The influence of Gardiner set me on a path to learn more about Monteverdi. John says: “I find him a compelling musical figure. He is sort of the ‘Shakespeare of Music,’  because he manages to combine high culture and low culture; he is concerned about the whole range of human emotions, from the most elevated to the most basic.” 

 For me, this duality also bears out in the fact that Monteverdi stood equally in both the Renaissance world and the newer style of the Baroque. His skills in the more intellectual polyphonic madrigal writing served him well. Madrigal writing was considered proving ground for any composer of the latter part of the 16th c. (prima prattica).The newer style (seconda prattica) was the more melody-driven basso continuo style distinctive of the Baroque, which spoke to his enormous skill in writing operas. Gardiner says “he was not the first composer of operas, but he was the first to encapsulate human emotion in such an intense and varied way.” 

 I end my notes with a fond memory that I will forever hold dear. It was an Early Music Vancouver stage performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the Chan Centre, complete with a HUGE array of original instruments, and stunning soloists. (Can we please hear cornetti played more often?- it’s totally like having another singer on stage!) Again I was totally blown away! How could a secular opera be a religious experience? It really was for me. I walked home on a cloud and didn’t come off that cloud for several hours. It reminded me of the famous 15th c. graphic of a person at the outer dome of the earth, beyond the sun and the stars, poking his/her head through the dome into a glimpse of heaven. That is exactly how I felt. It was Monteverdi who took me there.

 I also highly recommend everyone to check out John Eliot Gardiner’s podcast series called Monteverdi and his constellation: exploring Monteverdi’s role at the centre of seismic shifts and tumultuous advances in all the arts and sciences during the early 1600s, spearheaded by his contemporaries - Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Shakespeare, Caravaggio and Rubens.