A towering masterpiece of the early Baroque — at once intimate and grand, prayerful and dramatic, exalted and sensual. Monteverdi’s rarely performed 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin offers up a dizzying array of textures and sonorities in brilliant instrumental writing, opulent choruses, and moving solo arias and duets. Don't miss this highlight of the classical music season.
Approximate running time: 90 minutes. There will be
Chorus Director William Jon Gray will give preconcert lectures on Friday, April 1, at 6:15 pm, and Sunday, April 3, at 2 pm. There will be no preconcert lecture on Saturday, April 2.
Sponsor: The Negaunee Foundation
Media sponsor: 98.7wfmt
- I. Deus in adjutorium
- IV. Laudate pueri
- XII. Ave maris stella
Born in Cremona on May 15, 1567, Claudio Monteverdi displayed musical talent at an early age. He published a collection of three-part motets when he was only 15, and his first book of madrigals—issued by the Venetian publishing house Gardane—helped him obtain a position in the court of Duke Gonzaga in Mantua, where he eventually became maestro di cappella. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, Monteverdi’s name became very well known for other reasons. An exchange between theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi and Monteverdi sparked a controversy that spoke volumes about an aesthetic shift taking place in European music. According to Artusi, musical form took precedence over text; there were important rules of composition that needed to be
followed, and he criticized Monteverdi for breaking them. Monteverdi’s brother responded on the composer’s behalf, using the famous phrase seconda prattica (second practice) to describe “that style which is chiefly concerned with the perfection of the setting; that is, in which harmony does not rule but is ruled, and where the words are the mistress of the harmony.” Whereas other composers took pride in the perfection of counterpoint and the beauty of “correct” harmony, Monteverdi used text as the guide for his compositional choices.
Monteverdi was inspired not by words or music alone, but by the rhetorical potential of their union. The idea that music could literally produce the emotions inherent in any text was powerful, and Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine, composed only a few years after his debate with Artusi, illustrates the freedom of this new way of thinking. While Monteverdi is restrained in his approach, his attention to expressive nuance is on display throughout. Not until Bach’s Passions do we find such a variety of styles—grand public music next to intimate song, sacred chant alongside sensual melody—all in a wonderfully opulent tribute to the Virgin Mary.
In its time, the Vespers was unprecedented in scale—seven solo singers, a chorus large enough to divide in as many as ten parts, and a varied and colorful orchestra. Still, we don’t know why Monteverdi composed the Vespers. As he was unhappy with his circumstances at the court of Mantua when the work was published in 1610, scholars have speculated that its composition perhaps was the result of trying to find a different job in Venice or Rome—especially as Monteverdi dedicated the work to Pope Paul V. In 1613, Monteverdi in fact won the post of maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice, and we can be reasonably certain that this remarkable sacred work played a role in his engagement.
We also don’t know where or when the first performance of the Vespers took place—Monteverdi left no clues behind. Part of the daily cycle of Roman Catholic prayers called “Hours,” the Vespers took place in the early evening and consisted of five Psalms, a hymn, the Magnificat, other prayers, and a set of responsory antiphons tailoring it to the specific day in the church calendar on which that service occurred. (As is common today, these concert performances of the Vespers omit the antiphons altogether.) Monteverdi composed his Vespers to fit all of the major feasts associated with the Virgin Mary.
Many decisions are left to those who perform the Vespers. Instruments are only specified in certain movements, leaving the conductor or editor to determine the composition of the orchestral accompaniment throughout most of the work. Some movements can be sung by the chorus or played by solo instruments. There are four versions of the concluding Magnificat—one for six voices, one for seven, and then each version transposed down a fourth. Modern performances and recordings of the Vespers therefore vary, sometimes quite significantly.
The Vespers can be divided into two main types of music. Monteverdi uses the chorus for all texts that are strictly liturgical, setting them using the appropriate chant as a cantus firmus, or structural foundation. In so doing, he both displays his prowess with traditional sacred compositional techniques and shows how they can be merged with modern expressive sensibilities. The work opens with the brief but exhilarating versicle “Deus in adjutorium” and response “Domine ad adjuvandum,” into which Monteverdi incorporates music from the opening of his 1607 opera Orfeo. The remaining choral movements consist of five psalm settings—“Dixit Dominus” (six-part choir), “Laudate pueri” (eight-part choir) , “Laetatus sum” (six-part choir), “Nisi Dominus” (ten-part choir), and “Lauda Jerusalem” (seven-part choir)—the hymn “Ave maris stella” (eight-part choir) , and the Magnificat (in these performances, the seven voice version).
More unconventional are the intimate and erotically charged “sacred concertos,” motets for solo voices with continuo, and the largely instrumental Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. Expressive in their own right, these movements become even more intimate when contrasted with the massed sound of the choruses. Texts from the Song of Songs associated with the Virgin Mary form the basis of the tenor solo “Nigra sum” and the soprano duet “Pulchra es.” Monteverdi’s madrigal-like treatment of these sections emphasizes the words’ very secular overtones. The way the two female voices languidly intertwine in “Pulchra es,” for example, sounds almost like a love duet. The tenor trio, “Duo Seraphim,” with its text taken mostly from Isaiah 6:3, tells of angels proclaiming the glory of God and the Holy Trinity, but Monteverdi begins slowly, quietly, with two-voiced imitative polyphony that builds to a chain of achingly beautiful suspensions. Atmospheric echoes add to the effect of the motet “Audi coelum” for two tenors and
chorus. The only true instrumental piece is the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, in which the sopranos sing a variant of a plainsong phrase from the Litany of the Saints while the instruments scurry around them in virtuosic flourishes.
Unlike Bach’s Passions or Handel’s oratorios, the Monteverdi Vespers were forgotten for centuries. In 1834, Carl von Winterfeld—one of the founders of historical musicology—published transcriptions of a few excerpts, and a few Italian editions of the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria were issued in the first decades of the 20th century. After Monteverdi’s complete works were published in 1932, performances of the Vespers began to take place in Europe, and recordings emerged in the 1960s. Today, listeners agree that Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin truly exemplifies one of its composer’s own core beliefs: “The end of all good music is to affect the soul.”
© Jennifer More Glagov, 2016