Baroque Opera Composers: Monteverdi & Lully

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  • 00:01 Opera & The Baroque
  • 1:10 Inventing Opera
  • 2:56 Monteverdi
  • 5:12 Lully
  • 8:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

The Baroque period began with the invention of opera, and composers like Monteverdi and Lully helped bring the opera genre to new heights. In this lesson, we'll explore the life and music of these two great opera composers.

Opera & the Baroque

Imagine crowds flocking to a performance, ready to boo or cheer the newest music. They're expecting to see spectacular costumes and singers pouring their hearts out on stage. Does it sound like I'm describing a Broadway premiere or a Lady Gaga concert? Actually, I've described the scene at a typical Baroque opera performance. Full of spectacle and hit tunes, Baroque opera was the rock music of its time.

The Baroque period is an era of music history that dates from the invention of opera around 1600 and lasting until about 1750. Whether writing for the stage, the church, or private concerts, Baroque composers frequently found inspiration in the dramatic world and musical language of opera. In this lesson, we'll explore the creation of opera and meet Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the first great opera composer. Then we'll look at Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), who created a unique style of Baroque opera in France.

Inventing Opera

Near the end of the 16th century, a group of musicians and philosophers called the Florentine Camerata started meeting in Florence, Italy. You could call them a nerd group or a think tank. They were tired of the elegant Late Renaissance music of their time and wanted music to express deeper emotions.

They read about ancient Greek drama and the powerful emotions its ancient audiences experienced. They theorized that Greek drama had originally been sung, not spoken, and they wanted to recreate this effect in their own time.

Jacopo Peri was a singer who met with the Florentine Camerata. He combined their ideas of sung Greek drama with elements from contemporary Italian theatrical performances that involved singing. Many scholars consider Peri's work Dafne (1598) and L'Euridice (1600) to be the first true operas: theatrical performances in which every line is sung.

For these early operas, Peri and his Camerata colleague Guilio Caccini developed a new style of singing called monody, in which one vocalist sang an expressive melody over a bass line and a simple accompaniment of chords. The accompanying bass line and chords were usually played by a lute or harpsichord and cello. This accompaniment came to be called basso continuo, which means 'continuous bass'.

If you've ever enjoyed a pop song sung by one singer with a guitar or a piano, you should thank the Florentine Camerata. Monody and basso continuo are a couple of the musical ancestors of that sound!


Though Jacopo Peri wrote what's considered the first true opera, it was Claudio Monteverdi who composed the first great opera. Monteverdi was a kid genius from Cremona, Italy, who started publishing music in his teens. Throughout his career, he focused on vocal music and was known for his close attention to the rhythm and emotional meaning of lyrics. By the end of his life, he had risen to the highest musical job in Italy: director of music at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Monteverdi lived during the transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque, and since he loved vocal music, it's no surprise that he was drawn to the new genre of opera. His first operatic masterpiece was L'Orfeo, composed in 1607. L'Orfeo was based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Euridice. It tells the story of Orpheus, the mythical musician, who frees his wife Euridice from the Underworld through the power of song.

Monteverdi used a wide variety of instruments and styles to tell a story. He used flutes and strings to create dances for Orpheus' wedding, and he used trombones to express the depths of the underworld. He wrote rhythmic, Renaissance-influenced madrigals for choral numbers, and he wrote moving, expressive monody with basso continuo for solo movements.

Here's an example of monody from L'Orfeo. Orpheus has just sung to Hades and Proserpina, the King and Queen of the Underworld, telling them of his undying love for Euridice. In this excerpt, Proserpina begs Hades to grant Orpheus' request to release Euridice.

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