Looking forward to a couple of performances of Claudio Monteverdi's magnificent 1610 Vespers very soon: on Nov 13 in Houston and Nov 14 in Dallas, with Ars Lyrica, the Orpheus Chamber Singers, and the Whole Noyse. Here are notes on that upcoming program, hot off the press.
NOTES ON THE VESPERS
Though published relatively early in his career, Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine is his most spectacular sacred work. Part of a larger 1610 Venice publication (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) that begins with a Mass setting, the 1610 Vespers, as it has come to be known, comprises far more than one actually needs for Vespers, prompting all manner of speculation as to the composer’s intent and the origins of this collection. Its contents—big psalm settings, smaller-scale motets, a lavishly scored sacred concerto, and two differently scored settings of the Magnificat—certainly cover all the standard parts of the Vespers liturgy, but whether they were meant to be performed as a whole is doubtful.
Like Bach’s equally monumental Mass in B Minor, Monteverdi’s Mass and Vespers are less solitary works than compilations of various items. Their publication may have served as a kind of musical calling card: by 1610 Monteverdi was no longer satisfied with the terms of his employment in Mantua, and the publication of a Mass and Vespers in Venice may well have led to his eventual position at St. Mark’s Basilica in that city. In any case, the sheer range of musical styles in the Vespers, from grandiose psalm settings to intimate motets, is striking, as is Monteverdi’s practical ingenuity: in the print he provides directions for performing the various movements either with groups of string and wind instruments or with organ alone. Most modern performances (like ours) give the score its full due with a rich panoply of instrumental color.
The 1610 Mass and Vespers summarize the shifting sands of musical style in the early seventeenth century: the Mass is set contrapuntally, in the style of a Palestrina, while the Vespers combines mostly prima prattica psalms with more modern seconda prattica motets. Within the psalm settings one finds a variety of compositional techniques, from the venerable block chordal style of psalm recitation (falsobordone) in “Dixit Dominus,” to various contrapuntal treatments of a slow-moving cantus firmus in the “Magnificat a 7” and elsewhere, even variations on the Romanesca (a secular ground bass) in “Laetatus sum.” The motets are by no means impoverished by their leaner scoring; their reduced forces permit greater vocal display, from the delicate intertwining of two sopranos in “Pulchra es” to the exuberant flights of fancy for three tenors in “Duo seraphim.” These latter movements especially have much in common with the theatrical music of this era: Monteverdi’s own Orfeo, for example, whose ardent song is not so different from these love songs to the Virgin Mary.
Of all the great monuments of music literature, the 1610 Vespers is one of the least familiar, perhaps because of the exotic performing forces the “full dress” version requires. Once one locates the necessary cornetts, sackbuts, theorbos, agile tenors, low basses, and altos with seemingly endless lungs, there are still many issues to consider: Should the piece be given in a liturgical context? Should the “Lauda Jerusalem” and “Magnificat” movements be transposed downward by as much as a fourth? Should instruments double the vocal lines and, if so, where? How much embellishment should one apply to the individual parts? Did the composer intend a performance of the various movements in the published order of the partbooks? Attempting to steer a course somewhere between the latest musicological findings and practical reality, ours is a concert performance of the whole work (without interpolated plainsong antiphons) in the order of the 1610 partbooks, with transposed “Lauda” and “Magnificat” movements, and occasional doublings of the parts and embellished solo lines. ©Matthew Dirst