John Eliot Gardiner presents a series of eight podcasts exploring Monteverdi’s role at the centre of seismic changes and tumultuous advances in all the arts and sciences during the early 1600s, spearheaded by his contemporaries – Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Shakespeare, Caravaggio and Rubens.

The series launches on Friday 7 August 2020 with the release of the first episode – available to stream on the Monteverdi website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Deezer and more. Subsequent episodes will be released every following Friday.

‘Monteverdi and his constellation’ – The series at a glance
The first three decades of the 17th century saw intellectual ferment bubbling up across Europe, epitomised by a single generation of visionary artists and scientists, all born in the 1560s or ’70s. Galileo, Kepler, and Bacon spearheaded a scientific and philosophical revolution, while Shakespeare, Caravaggio and Rubens made radical innovations in the arts, as did a pioneer group of women creative artists and interpreters. This constellation of game-changers extended the map of human knowledge, overturned traditional views, and helped usher in the modern world. But why do historians routinely overlook their exact contemporary, the composer Claudio Monteverdi, whose contributions were no less ground-breaking? Sir John Eliot Gardiner has spent a lifetime studying, editing and performing the composer’s works, and is ideally placed to bring his work and its historical context to life. With the help of specially recorded musical illustrations and a handpicked team of experts, he guides listeners through an in-depth investigation into the causes of the seismic shift around 1600 and the development of the early-modern mind.

Episode 1 – Something in the air: The year 1600 was the start of a century of unprecedented change, of extraordinary invention and of tumultuous advances in all the sciences and the art forms. John Eliot Gardiner makes a strong case for Monteverdi to be seen as a significant ‘star’ in a constellation of innovative talent that also included Galileo, Rubens, Caravaggio, Kepler, Shakespeare and Francis Bacon.

Episode 2 – The “Intertrafficke of the minde”: A meeting of far-flung minds and a vigorous exchange of ideas occurred more frequently in these years than at any time hitherto. The paths of Galileo, Rubens, and Monteverdi crossed at the Gonzaga court in Mantua in March 1604. What might they have talked about and what can we learn about the interconnectedness of science and the arts at this time? 

Episode 3 – The new art of science: Bacon’s formulation of the inductive method – the study of the empirical fact of antecedents and consequences – gave voice to the scientific advances being made by Galileo and Kepler in the face of widespread incredulity, opposition and persecution. The mind of Europe was now poised for a new venture of thought by this exceptional generation, one dominated by mathematics and physics but paralleled by striking developments in the arts.

Episode 4 – How music catches up: Music can help us to grasp the true modernity of this enormous shift in human consciousness. Monteverdi’s first opera, L’Orfeo (1607),is almost a manifesto for the power of music now elevated to a level of virtuoso craftsmanship and universal human emotion. John Eliot Gardiner guides us through two centuries of musical and poetic evolution which laid the foundations for this remarkable achievement.

Episode 5 – The anatomy of melancholy: A window of opportunity opened for women artists and musicians in this period, allowing a temporary escape from paternalistic dominance, before closing again by mid-century. Monteverdi’s empathy with his female protagonists and performers is examined; the actress Dame Janet Suzman finds a resonant truthfulness in Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, and we hear how the painter ArtemisiaGentileschi dealt with her real-life experience of rape and processed it in her creative work.

Episode 6 – More beautiful than the truth”: Visual art – and especially the work of Caravaggio and Rubens (in different but complementary ways) now aimed to intensify sensory experience and drama. What Monteverdi called the “natural path to imitation” was a radical bid to represent, magnify and even ‘improve’ upon nature through song and music theatre.

Episode 7 – Celebrating the self: The focus is now on the growing awareness of the physical, mental, and psychological attributes of the individual, and the development of a new philosophy which leads ultimately to Descartes’ formulation: cogito ergo sum. The first public opera house opens in Venice in 1637. Monteverdi, now maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St Mark, is perfectly placed for one final, extraordinary push into this brand-new dramatic world.

Episode 8 – The window of opportunity closes: Monteverdi’s swan-song, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643), is a high-water mark of the new genre of public opera, Shakespearean in its contrasts of high and low-life characters, political chicanery and outrageous theatricality. It coincides with the death of the last two in this constellation of genius – Galileo in 1642 and Monteverdi a year later – and marks the end of this extraordinary period of innovation that shaped the modern world. , expressing and dramatizing the human condition.

Guest contributors:

  • Sir Roger Penrose: Oxford University physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science
  • Raymond Tallis: Prolific British philosopher, writer, and neuroscientist
  • Eileen Reeves: Princeton University science historian
  • David Freedberg: Columbia University art historian
  • Reinhold Baumstark: Prominent German art historian and museum director
  • Dame Janet Suzman: Royal Shakespeare Company actor, director, and Oscar nominee
  • Charles Nicholl: British literary scholar and biographer
  • Jonathan Jones: British art critic and Guardian journalist
  • Tim Carter: Australian musicologist and UNC Chapel Hill professor
  • Roseen Giles: Duke University musicologist
  • Ellen Rosand: NYU musicologist and historian
  • Laurie Stras: Professor of Music at the University of Southampton
  • Richard Wistreich: Director of Research at the Royal College of Music
  • Oliver Webber: Violinist and musicologist
  • Elizabeth Kenny: Renowned lutenist

Musical excerpts:

  • Excerpts taken from John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestras’ award-winning Monteverdi 450 Opera Trilogy tour in 2017 (‘The genius of Monteverdi could not be better honoured.’ ★★★★★ The Guardian) 
  • Recordings of Monteverdi’s madrigals made exclusively for the series, recorded by John Eliot Gardiner and a hand-picked cohort of international soloists: Anna Dennis, Silvia Frigato, Francesca Biliotti, Peter Davoren, Gareth Treseder, Krystian Adam and John Taylor Ward
  • Further illustrative musical examples include Puccini, Palestrina, Gesualdo and others

John Eliot Gardiner:

  • Gardiner is one of the most versatile and sought-after conductors of our time and a key figure in the early music revival. He is the founder and artistic director of the Monteverdi Choir (1964), the English Baroque Soloists (1978) and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (1989). He regularly guest-conducts orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, and Bavarian Radio Symphony, as well as the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
  • He has won the Concertgebouw Prize, two Grammys, and more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist.
  • His book on Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven (Penguin/Knopf, 2013), won the Prix des Muses award.
  • Gardiner has presented highly acclaimed BBC TV documentaries on Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz.