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Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 – Program Notes

November 5, 2014

Program notes by Martin Pearlman

Even today, in an age which has heard Bach’s Mass in B minor, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and the requiems of Berlioz and Verdi, the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 is astonishing for the grandeur of its conception and the opulence of its sound. For its time, it was unprecedented. No other surviving work from that time is written on such a scale, combining the grandest of public music with the most intimate of solo songs; no other such work calls for the many colorful obbligato instruments and uses them in such a daringly modern, virtuosic way.

Like the music itself, the performing forces required by the Vespers are on a grand scale. Monteverdi calls for seven solo singers. The chorus must be large enough to divide into anywhere from four to ten voice parts, and it sometimes divides into separate choirs. The orchestra displays a rich variety of instrumental colors, including virtuosic solo parts for violins and cornetti, but the instruments are specified only in certain movements. For much of the piece, it is the conductor who must determine the orchestration–if, where, and when to double voice parts with instruments and which instruments to employ in much of the vocal music and in many of the orchestral ritornellos. It is also left to the conductor to decide whether to assign some passages in the choral movements to solo singers. Thus the Vespers can vary greatly from one performance to another.

When the Vespers first appeared in print (Venice, 1610), Monteverdi was still employed at the ducal court in Mantua. No one knows whether it was actually performed in Mantua or written with an eye toward applying elsewhere–Venice or even Rome (the publication was dedicated to Pope Paul V). In any case, it must certainly have served Monteverdi well when he applied for and won the prestigious post of maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice in August of 1613.


The structure of the piece

By Monteverdi’s time, the Catholic church had developed a strong cult of the Virgin Mary, and a good deal of music was dedicated to her. There were a number of special Marian feasts during the course of the year, and Monteverdi’s music sets texts that all of these major feasts have in common. In addition, the Vespers includes a sonata, as well as non-liturgical motets, which Monteverdi interpolates between the psalms. (While interpolating motets in this way became a frequent practice in Italy, Monteverdi’s was the first printed publication to do so.) The music could therefore be used for various Marian feasts during the year.

In order to make a complete service, one would have to add to Monteverdi’s music the parts of the liturgy that change from one feast to another by inserting the appropriate Gregorian chants. Plainchant antiphons for specific feasts would have preceded each of the psalms and the Magnificat. We follow that practice in this performance, using chants for the Feast of the Assumption (August 15). There are two reasons for choosing chants for this particular feast: a major Marian feast, such as this one, might be an appropriate occasion to employ a large ensemble, such as the one Monteverdi requires here. In addition, the Feast of the Assumption occurs at the time of year when Monteverdi was auditioning for his post at St. Mark’s, and he may well have performed the work — or a part of it — at that time.

One of the most glorious and moving features of this Vespers is found in the way Monteverdi has chosen to unify it. Like Bach, who draws inspiration from the restrictions of writing in the most complex counterpoint, Monteverdi undertook the forbidding task of building all his major movements–all the psalms, the sonata, the hymn, and the entire Magnificat–upon the traditional Gregorian plainchant for those texts. In other words, he used the notes of the old chant as a fixed voice (cantus firmus ) over which he built elaborate compositions. This is easiest to hear in the closing Magnificat, where, in one short movement after another, the chant is sung in long notes, while solo singers and instruments perform faster notes around it. This creates a clash of styles–an astonishing variety of “modern” music superimposed upon an old-style cantus firmus technique. The two styles are reconciled with breathtaking beauty, and the technique allows Monteverdi to build an enormous structure that goes beyond anything his contemporaries were able to achieve.


Individual movements

Of the endless details in the Vespers, here are a few that might be useful while listening:

I. Deus in adjutorium: In this introductory movement, the chorus chants the text on one chord, while the instruments play music from the opening toccata of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (1607). Right from the beginning he is mixing sacred and secular styles.

II. Dixit Dominus: The opening of this psalm is based on the notes of the chant, which underlies much of the music in this movement. Moments of choral declamation on a single chord (falso bordone) and particularly brief instrumental interludes (ritornelli) accentuate the sectional divisions of the movement.

III. Nigra sum: This sensual poem from the Song of Solomon had long been associated allegorically with Mary. It is the only true solo song in the Vespers.

IV. Laudate pueri: As in other psalms, this piece opens with music based on the appropriate plainchant for this text. The chant is most clearly heard during the ensuing solo sections, when it is sung, in our performance, by sections of the choir against the more elaborate music of the soloists. The movement ends with a remarkable diminuendo, in which the voices of the choir successively drop out, leaving only two tenor soloists to finish the piece — a 17th-century Farewell Symphony.

V. Pulchra es: Like the previous motet, this sensuous love duet is from the Song of Solomon.

VII. Laetatus sum: The memorable “walking bass” at the opening returns periodically to form strophes which organize this movement.

VII. Duo seraphim: Two seraphim are calling to each other across the heavens. When the text turns to the Trinity, a third tenor joins them. At the words, “these three are one,” the three voices join on a unison.

VIII. Nisi Dominum: In this psalm, the chorus separates into two choirs of five voice parts each. Throughout the movement, one tenor part in each choir sings the plainchant cantus firmus in longer notes.

IX. Audi coelum: This movement features a wonderful word-play. From a distance, one tenor echoes the phrase endings of the other. As he echoes only a part of the last word, he forms a new word as an answer to the first tenor.

X. Lauda Jerusalem: Here are two separated choirs of three voice parts each. Between the choirs, a group of tenors repeats the plainchant as a cantus firmus.

XI. Sonata sopra Sancta Maria: This is the only real instrumental piece in the whole Vespers. Over the unfolding virtuosic instrumental music, the sopranos of the chorus repeat a phrase of plainchant eleven times, the repetitions sometimes coinciding with and sometimes overlapping the orchestral phrases. The changes of meter in this piece are complex and fascinating.

XII. Ave maris stella: In this hymn, a “modern” chant peculiar to the liturgy in Mantua is used as a melody line and is sung by two separated choirs, as well as by soloists. Although instrumental ritornellos occur between the verses, Monteverdi does not specify which instruments should play them. Since the instrumental interlude is repeated several times, we vary the orchestration and add successively more ornaments to it.

XIII. Magnificat: As mentioned above, the Magnificat plainchant is sung in long notes throughout every section of this movement, while voices and instruments superimpose “modern” music over it. It is a stunning encyclopedia of cantus firmus writing.

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