This 1607 masterpiece was the eureka moment in a new genre known today as opera.

Let’s get something straight from the outset: Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 music drama L’Orfeo, favola in musicawas not the first opera. It wasn’t even close. Like the story of Orpheus himself, the idea that Monteverdi single-handedly gave birth to the modern music drama is nothing more than myth.

As with most great landmarks in Western music, the rumblings begin long before the main event. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Das Wohltemperierte Klavierfrom 1722 – a kaleidoscope of prelude and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys – had many precursors and models. A cycle of 24 passamezzo-saltarello pairs by Giacomo Gorzanis from 1567 and Daniel Croner’s little organ pieces in successive keys from 1682 are but two examples. We are also quick to assert that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the first instance of choral music within a symphonic setting; yet his contemporary Peter Winter beat him to the punch with his Schlacht-Sinfonie, composed a good decade earlier in 1814.  

Like Bach and Beethoven’s respective compositions, what should be attributed to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeois the distinction of being...

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