He was born in Cremona in northern Italy.
In 1590 Monteverdi began working at the court in Mantua as a vocalist and violinist, and by 1602 he had become conductor there. Until his fortieth birthday he mainly worked on madrigalss, composing eight books of them in all. The last book includes the so-called Magridals of Love and War which many consider to be the perfection of the form. As a whole, the eight books of madrigals show the enormous development from the Renaissance polyphonic music to the monodic style which is typical of Baroque music.
From monody, with its emphasis on clear melodic lines, intelligible text and placid accompanying music, it was only a logical step to opera. In 1609 he composed his first, Orfeo. It was common at that time for composers to create works on demand for special occasions, and this piece was meant to add some lustre to the annual carnival of Mantua. Indeed it was a great success, fitting so well in the spirit of the times. Orfeo is marked by its dramatic power and lively orchestration. The plot is painted out in musical pictures and the melodies are linear and clear. With this opera Monteverdi had created an entirely new style of music, the dramma per musica (musical drama) as it was called. Monteverdi's operas are usually labelled "pre-baroque" or "early-baroque".
It is arguable that Monteverdi's greatest work remains the Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (The Vespers of the Blessed Virgin 1610). This is one of his few sacred works of any scale, but it remains to this day one of the greatest examples of devotional music, matched only by works such as Handel's Messiah and J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The scope of the work as a whole is breathtaking - each part (there are 25 in total) is fully developed in both a musical and dramatic sense - the instrumental textures are used to precise dramatic and emotional effect, in a way that had not been seen in before.
In 1613 Monteverdi was appointed as conductor at the San Marco in Venice, where he soon revived the poor withering choir. Here he also finished his eighth and last book of madrigals. It contains the dramatic scene 'Tancredi e Clorinda' (1624), in which the orchestra and voices form two separate entities. They act as counterparts. Most likely Monteverdi was inspired to try this form out because of the two opposite balconies in the San Marco. Previously these had been used for polyphonic music performances. What made this composition also stand out is the first-time use of tremolo (fast repetition of the same tone) and pizzicato (playing strings with fingers) to express dramatic scenes.
During the last years of his life Monteverdi became ill, but it did not keep him form composing his two last masterpieces, both operas: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1641), and the historic opera l'Incoronazione di Poppea (1642). L'Incoronazione especially is considered a culminating point of Monteverdi's work. It has tragic and also comical scenes (a new developement in opera), realistic coloring of the characters, and warmer melodies than had previously been heard. It needs a smaller orchestra, and a less prominent role for the choir. This work has also had considerable influence on the development of church music (masses).
Monteverdi composed at least eighteen operas, of which only Orfeo, l'Incoronazione, Il ritorno, and the famous aria "Lamento" from his second opera l'Arianne have survived.
Monteverdi died in Venice.