Orfeo (L'Orfeo, favola in musica) is one of the earliest works recognized as an opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi with text by Alessandro Striggio for the annual carnival of Mantua. It was first performed at the Accademia degl'Invaghiti in Mantua in February of 1607 and on February 24 at the Court Theatre in Mantua that same year, and was published in Venice in 1609. The opera saw its modern debut in 1904 in a concert version in Paris.

The action is based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, who attempts to rescue his dead lover Eurydice from Hades, the underworld.

Orfeo is in five acts, with a prologue:

  • Prologue. A "Spirit of Music" explains the power of music, and specifically the power of Orfeo, whose music is so powerful that it is capable of moving the gods themselves.
  • Act 1. Orfeo and Euridice celebrate their wedding day.
  • Act 2. Orfeo receives the terrible news that Euridice has died; he resolves to go down to the underworld himself to rescue her. He sings a poignant aria on the transient fragility of human happiness.
  • Act 3. Hope accompanies Orfeo to the entrance to Hades. Orfeo meets Charon, the guardian of Hades, and attempts to seduce him into letting him pass, by the beauty of his singing. At first unsuccessful, he tries again using his lyre; Charon falls peacefully asleep; Orfeo passes and descends into Hades.
  • Act 4. Proserpine, the queen of Hades, is moved by Orfeo's music, and persuades Pluto, king of Hades, to let Euridice go. Pluto acquiesces on one condition: that Orfeo not look back as Euridice follows him back up into the light, and back into life. At first he leaves with Euridice following him; his doubts, however, impel him to look back over his shoulder, and Euridice vanishes like a phantom before his eyes. Despondent, he returns to Earth.
  • Act 5. Orfeo is consumed by grief, and Apollo, his father, comes down from the heavens to take his son away, where he can behold the image of Euridice forever in the stars.

Orfeo is marked by its dramatic power and lively orchestration. Monteverdi used 15 viols, 2 violins, 2 large and 2 ordinary flutes, 2 hautboys, 2 cornetts, 4 trumpets, 5 trombones, 2 harpsichords, harp, 2 small organs, a portable reed organ ("Regal"), etc. It is an early example of a composer assigning specific instruments to parts; while composers of the Venetian School had been doing this, with varying precision, for about two decades, the instrumentation in the case of Orfeo is unusually explicit. The plot is clearly delineated with musical contrasts, and the melodies are linear and clear; much of the writing uses the style of monody which was pioneered by the Florentine Camerata in the last decades of the 16th century. With this opera Monteverdi had created an entirely new style of music, the dramma per musica, or musical drama. This idea of theatrical works set to music was taken from the notion that the Ancient Greeks had sung their plays.

Monteverdi's operas are usually labelled "early Baroque," or sometimes "pre-Baroque." Music in northern Italy at this time was in transition between the style of the late Renaissance and the early Baroque, and progressive composers such as Monteverdi combined the stylistic trends prevalent in the various musical centers such as Florence, Venice and Ferrara.

Monteverdi’s orchestra

The following list of instruments that were used in the first performance of Orfeo at Mantua in 1607 can be found on the second page of the printed score (Venice, 1609 – second edition 1615). Note that Monteverdi sometimes requires an instrumentation that is at odds with this list:

Duoi Gravicembani – “two harpsichords”. Gravicembani is a corruption of Clavicembali, the general Italian term for keyboard instruments in which the strings are plucked by a quill (i.e. harpsichords, spinets and virginals).

Duoi Contrabassi de Viola – “two double-bass viols”

Dieci Viole da Brazzo – “ten arm-viols”, i.e. discant or tenor viols, or possibly five of each. The term viola da braccio was later used for violas as we know them, but Monteverdi is referring to members of the old viol family.

Un Arpa doppia – “one double harp”, i.e. a harp with two sets of strings.

Duoi Violini piccoli all Francese – “two French violins”, i.e. two ordinary violins. In France the violin had supplanted the treble viol by the beginning of the seventeenth century, which presumably accounts for Monteverdi’s unusual nomenclature.

Duoi Chitaroni – “two [[The chitarone is a bass member of the lute family used for continuo

Duoi organi di legno – “two organs with wooden pipes”.

Tre Bassi da gamba – “three viole da gama”. The viola da gamba was the bass member of the viol family. It was eventually supplanted by the cello.

Quattro Tromboni – “four trombones”. There are actually parts for five trombones in the score itself.

Un Regale – “one small portable organ”

Duoi Cornetti – “two cornetts”. In the Venetian School the cornett was the preferred choice of treble instrument for accompanying trombones, as it was capable of playing diatonic melodies – unlike the Baroque trumpet.

Un Flautino alla vigesima seconda – “one small flute at the twenty-second”. The interval of a 22nd is equal to three octaves. It is thought that Monteverdi is referring to a flute pitched in 1-foot C, one octave above middle C (and three octaves above 8-ft C, which is thought to be the standard pitch from which the 22nd was measured). If this interpretation were correct then Monteverdi’s flautino would be a piccolo. However, the parts written for the instrument (or, rather, “instruments”, for two are actually called for in the score itself) can be played on an ordinary flute. Two larger flutes, not included in the list of instruments, are also required.

Un clarino con tre Trombe sordine – “one clarino trumpet with three muted trumpets”. In the toccata which precedes the opera there are parts for five – not four – trumpets. These are assigned the old Renaissance names according to the register in which they play. The following are the names, with the trumpet partials that they were required to play in parenthesis: Basso (2nd), Vulgano (3rd), Alto e Basso (3rd, 4th and 5th), Quinta (4th to 8th) and Clarino (from the 8th up). All five trumpets would have been natural Baroque trumpets in 8-ft C (i.e. the fundamental pitch was C2, two octaves below middle C). The only difference would have been in the size of mouthpiece used. The clarino trumpet would have been fitted with a small mouthpiece to facilitate the playing of the higher partials, while the basso would have had a large mouthpiece, without which the second partial could not be played in tune. Carse (1925) suggests that the clarino trumpet would also have had a narrower bore than the others, though this is denied by Tarr (1988). Tarr also points out that the trumpets are only specifically mentioned in the toccata, and concludes that they were not used in the opera itself. It should be noted, however, that there are a few places in the opera where Monteverdi instructs tutti gli stromenti (“all the instruments”) to play; but in these numbers he does not identify the particular instruments by name. It would appear, however, that after Orfeo the trumpet did not return to the opera house until 1667, when Antonio Cesti reintroduced it with his opera Il Pomo d’oro.


Toccata from L'Orfeo (file info)

Live recording

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References and further reading

  • John Whenham: "Orfeo", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed November 9, 2004), (subscription access)
  • Carse, Adam (1925, 1964). The History of Orchestration, Dover Publications, Inc., New York. ISBN 0486212580.
  • Tarr, Edward (1978, 1988). The Trumpet, Amadeus Pr. ISBN 0931340136.

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