He was born in Cremona and studied there at the cathedral before going to Mantua in 1591 to play in the ensemble at the court of the local duke. In the next few years he married, was appointed master of the chapel, and in 1607 produced his first opera, "Orfeo" (the first opera that is still performed today) and the next year, “Arianna”, of which only the famous “Lament” remains. Whilst still at Cremona he had published several books of motets and madrigals and by the time of Orfeo he was recognised as a leading exponent of new harmony, and the art of fitting musical expression to the words. In 1610, in a move calculated to secure advancement, he dedicated the massive collection of sacred music known (and still performed today) as the “1610 Vespers” to Pope Paul V, and in 1613 he was appointed chapel master at the great St. Mark’s, Venice. He lived and worked in Venice for the rest of his life He wrote in every vocal genre and style of the age, adapting his writing to the circumstance of the performance and the expressive necessity of the text. His mass in the “Vespers” is a fine example of the old style of writing whilst the motets within the same work were considered avant-garde.
- He wrote major dramatic music, including 3 operas, a couple of ballets, and what is known as a “dramatic dialogue”: “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda”, all of which with the exception of the lost “Arriana” are on modern recordings.
- His nine books of madrigals, written from early in his career to his death, are at the pinnacle of that art-form. The last books show the madrigal starting to become as one with certain operatic parts. He wrote much other secular vocal music, canzonettas, amorous songs, and 2 books of what are known as “scherzo musicali”.
- His sacred music include the great “Vespers”, 3 masses, 2 Magnificats, some spiritual madrigals, and other works including motets, psalms etc.,
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”
“The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia” - David Hamilton