Cremona is, as I have written already, a music town; it is only in contemplation, which means getting back to real books, and a library, that even a few of its musical hauntings become easier to hear. Cremona is not just about violins, the Amati family and their heirs, the Stadivari; it is also the birthplace of the man who forged “opera” into a separate musical form.
And “opera” – like “Shakespeare”, Rousseau’s “rights of man”, Mantegna’s “perspective”, the Lumière brothers’ “documentary”, Coryat’s “tourism”, to name just a few “ideas” or modes available to witness on my route – is part of Europe’s grand DNA. One of the key architects of post-Second World War European restoration was Jean Monnet, often nick-named the “father of Europe.” He once said (according to Anthony Sampson, in his The New Europeans): “Europe has never existed, one has genuinely to create Europe.”
Well, opera is part of that story, a strand, one of the things that helps to create and recreate “Europe”. As is the story of Orpheus; someone once said that with his first song, “civilisation began”. So too opera: a collage of music, theatre, dance, spectacle and narrative; betwixt each individual form, not for “church” nor a ‘masque, not a play, not a novel. It is holistic, the sum not its parts: Opera’s ‘stretch’ is what film-makers from Orson Welles to Michael Powell, Jacques Demy to Martin Scorcese or Bernardo Bertolucci strive for in cinema such as Citizen Kane or The Red Shoes, Last Tango or Goodfellas. Opera’s reach is what we experience each time we watch a summer blockbuster, a mixture of sensory experiences collected together to show us impossible visions. Opera’s sensory range is what we find in computer games, albeit in five (or 50) interactive levels, rather than scripted acts.
And opera’s story begins in Cremona; begins with Claudio Monteverdi. Later stories might take us to Mantua, Venice, to La Scala in Milan, to Paris; to Bayreuth and Richard Wagner’s own journeys in Europe, both as man and myth and fashionable movement. But in Cremona where, now, as the streets and squares change through a day: from market to restaurant, promenade and café centre and dating-ground, musicality in rhythm and tone, mood and motion, infuses the experience of being present.
Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567 on May 15 (he had his 40th birthday on the day that Tom sailed from Dover to Calais); his “L’Orfeo”, not precisely the first opera, but probably the seventh, and the one which we have complete records, was performed at “carnival” in Mantua, four hundred years ago this year. More of L’Orfeo from Mantua, soon.
Monteverdi is, like so many artists of Tom’s time, a figure betwixt. He is seen as the bridge between Renaissance and “Baroque” music. A prodigy who was writing motets and madrigals for his teacher, Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di capella of Cremona’s cathedral, at the age of 15, Monteverdi moved 80 kilometers to Mantua when 23, to become first vocalist and viol player, and later, aged 35 conductor to the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga the First. It is in Mantua that “opera” is really born. And it is in the years, often filled with controversy about his “art”, between leaving Cremona and the production of “L’Orfeo” that Monteverdi creates the intellectual framework for “the modern in music.”
In a specific book, investigating the female voice in the late Renaissance and early Baroque, to which I shall return - Bonnie Gordon’s “Monteverdi’s Unruly Women” - the author writes of the composer:
“…his compositions bring into relief points of tension in a rapidly changing culture…few have considered his music in the context of ideas about sense and the body…To be sure, social mores in the decades around 1600 demanded tacit women whose quieted voices supposedly reflected their chastity and distanced them from inappropriate eroticism. But music from that time regularly depended upon and displayed trained women’s voices. This paradox inflected musical productions with tantalizing contradictions that situated women’s bodies and sonorous expression precariously between harmless pleasure and threatening excess. It also created a space in which women could, through singing, seize power…”
Again, half way through this journey, taking a pause to contemplate, it is clear that I have missed so much along the way. The “quieted” woman is one such thing. Tom almost never mentions women until the courtesans of Venice; in Padua shortly I will encounter a “shrew”. And yet all though my journey I’ve been thinking about women, of marriage rituals, family, of how travel and modernity have changed the role of mother, lover and friend. And now, one hour of reading something more researched than Wikipedia or the museum hand-out (in 14 languages) and I am plunged back into “Casaubon Complex”. More of this in Mantua proper. And some context about Google and Microsoft’s plans to “digitize” the world’s knowledge.
How far still we are from a world of portable knowledge: I had thought that the internet, the memory stick, the phone would aid these journeys. And whilst they can help, it is a very different experience I have with “information” and “knowledge” when travelling, being a mobile researcher, juggling the moment and the haunting and the “thing that should be seen”. The result is a surface polishing - one of Cremona’s mysterious varnishes for its famous violins – rather than the depth which comes from just a morning with a library and its books.
For twenty minutes in Mantua Ulrich Rückriem talked to me about the magic maths of triangles; of how explaining the triangle has eluded the greatest minds for so long: for the traveller today, betwixt the moment when the convergence of GPS, data, and place brings ‘knowledge’ to a precise geographical co-ordinate, and the pre-internet world of a guide book and, sometimes, an informed guide in a museum, what is missing is the crucial third point in Ulrich’s triangles of form. What is missing is the experience of depth. That only comes back in the library.