Monteverdi's Ingenius Synethesis in the Vespers or 1610
By Thomas May
Music history is filled with examples of monumental achievements that fell into oblivion soon after their composers’ deaths (if not before), only to acquire a vivid “afterlife” somewhere down the road thanks to the dedicated efforts of performers and scholars. Of course the paradigmatic example would be J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – an obscurity for several generations after Bach’s death until Felix Mendelssohn (and others) became its fervent advocates.
Yet such neglect was relatively short-lived in comparison with the lengthy historical deep freeze endured by Claudio Monteverdi’s first masterpiece of sacred music. Published in Venice in 1610, the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (or, to use the work’s Italian title, Vespro della Beata Vergine) is part of an extraordinarily ambitious collection of sacred music (see sidebar) that also included a Mass setting. But the Vespers of 1610 (another title by which this music is known) remained at best a footnote for centuries until scholarly interest was rekindled early in the 19th century – around the time that Bach’s music also began to enjoy the same phenomenon – and it had to wait another century to be revived in performance, in a special concert given in Zurich in 1935.
Certainly the Vespers has made a comeback since then; but rather than diminish the uncertainties surrounding what Monteverdi created, such recognition has actually brought them into sharper focus. Even to refer to the Vespers as a unified “work” rests on an unverifiable assumption. For there is no unequivocal proof that Monteverdi intended the score that nowadays is usually presented in the context of a self-contained concert performance to be a single work, whether unified in artistic or in liturgical terms. (Such a secular setting for the entire Vespers moreover involves a kind of presentation more suited to the oratorios of Handel’s era and would have been unknown to Monteverdi, although his title page indicates that individual pieces might be performed in a secular palace setting.) Some argue that the 1610 publication should indeed be interpreted not as a single unified Vespers celebration but as a diverse, flexible collection of numbers available to be excerpted or performed in various contexts. This very diversity was in any case surely meant to display the full range of Monteverdi’s compositional prowess.
In this regard, the closer analogy is with Bach’s Mass in B minor as opposed to the St. Matthew Passion, since the latter was undoubtedly written for liturgical performance whereas the purpose of the Mass – a miscellaneous compilation or a unified spiritual and artistic testament? – remains a matter of debate. The list of almost uncanny parallels between the Vespers and the Mass in B minor doesn’t end there. Monteverdi’s publication and parts of Bach’s Mass might have been produced as elaborate “job applications” motivated by unhappiness with their respective current employers. We have no record of a complete performance of either work – assuming they were even meant to be performed as such – during the lifetime of each of their composers. Most significantly, the scope of both the Vespers and the Mass is breathtakingly encyclopedic and magisterial. Like Bach, Monteverdi shows his command of the wealth of musical knowledge that had accumulated by his time by effortlessly weaving together “ancient” styles and the most contemporary developments.
Of course sacred music occupied the center of Bach’s job responsibilities for the majority of his career. The mystery around the Vespers deepens when we realize that Monteverdi had little if any involvement with sacred music – at best there are scant hints – during the two decades leading up to the 1610 publication, when he served on the staff of Vincenzo Gonzaga (1562-1612), Duke of Mantua, eventually becoming music director at Gonzaga’s well-appointed palace. (The composer’s duties even included a stint tagging along with the duke to Hungary on a military campaign against the Turks and presiding over musical performances in the camp.)
Monteverdi had emerged as a precocious composer of motets and madrigals he published while still a teenager, and more recently he had expressed his wish to be able to compose sacred music for the Mantuan court. Yet as far as is known, throughout his prime Monteverdi had focused on secular genres. The years leading up to the Vespers witnessed his devotion to the revolutionary new style he cultivated in his books of madrigals and in his early operas. Indeed, among the most intriguing aspects of the Vespers is the interplay between secular and sacred idioms that underlies the collection.
Why would Monteverdi turn his attention to sacred music at this time, when he had already established a formidable reputation as a secular composer? Perhaps he did gather pieces that had been composed over many years, or he may have crafted the entire collection in a brief, concentrated timespan – this is just one of the Vespers’ many enigmas. What scarce evidence we do have, from a handful of letters, indicates how overburdened and underappreciated the composer felt regarding his position in Mantua. Simply “resigning” and seeking out another court appointment was not an option in this era. (Even Bach would later face jail time for resisting his employer’s will.) The field of church music, by contrast, beckoned as an alternative, and likely less-stressful possibility.
But there was a further impediment beyond Monteverdi’s lack of a track record in sacred composition: the fact that he was identified with the farout “modernists” for his embrace of the new style had led to controversy eagerly stirred up by enemies. Giovanni Maria Artusi, an archconservative cleric, published a pamphlet critiquing Monteverdi’s disregard of the longstanding rules of counterpoint (a style also known as the prima pratica). The composer, aided by commentary from his brother, defended himself by proudly characterizing his aesthetic as a seconda pratica – a more recent practice in which unprepared dissonances and surprising tonal shifts were not only allowed but considered necessary to enhance the emotional truth of the text being set.
The ingenious integration of both styles that is another hallmark of the Vespers thus acquires additional significance if we accept the theory that the publication of this imposing collection in 1610 was intended to advertise what Monteverdi could offer as a master of sacred music, whether to hoped-for employers in Rome or in Venice. John Whenham, an authority on the composer, argues that the Vespers of 1610 might be interpreted as a defense far more effective than any verbal counterargument against detractors by proving Monteverdi’s skill at actually following the prima pratica while at the same time seducing with the irresistible, intricate beauty of his seconda pratica expressivity.
Even more, the feat of braiding these strands together into complex structures would draw attention to his sheer technical brilliance. Monteverdi accomplishes this synthesis most obviously in the musical architecture of all five Psalm movements, the sonata, the hymn, and the Magnificat: in all of these he uses the preexisting ancient plainchant melody associated with the text in question (otherwise known as the cantus firmus) as a structural girder around which material in the new style is unfolded and elaborated. Like the Renaissance/Baroque marvel of the expanded St. Peter’s, Monteverdi builds over longstanding foundations with awe-inspiring imagination and majesty.
Tellingly, the publication of 1610 includes a setting of the Mass (Missa in illo tempore) strictly based on an “old-school” motet by Gombert. This might have hedged his bets all the more, so that there were elements to attract the relatively conservative taste in control in Rome as well as the somewhat bolder leanings of Venetian patrons. Monteverdi made a point of dedicating “the fruits of my nocturnal labor” as gathered in this impressive publication to Pope Paul V. Such a dedication, writes Whenham, “once accepted, implied papal acceptance of the music within the volume” and “a powerful antidote” to the composers’ critics. As things turned out, Monteverdi did not receive a job offer from Rome, but three years later came his appointment as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice, where he contentedly remained for the rest of his long career.
Alongside these unresolved questions of the origin, motivation, and context behind the publication of the Vespers, there remains a host of uncertainties about how to perform the music that was in fact printed. Monteverdi clearly envisioned a sound world on the most sumptuous scale of his time, to be realized by an ensemble of virtuoso musicians: seven solo singers, instrumentalists who have taxing solo parts, and a first-rate choir capable of navigating the constantly changing stylistic currents of the musical flow. (Interestingly, he also included an alternative setting of the Magnificat – for 6- rather than 7-part choir and with only continuo accompaniment – suggesting the possibility of a reduced-scale version of the entire Vespers that could be performed with limited forces in more modest circumstances.)
Yet details are lacking on the most basic level about orchestration and the disposition of solo voices vis-à-vis the choir in the larger choral movements. Ambiguities abound as to how to deploy Monteverdi’s late Renaissance/ early Baroque instrumental ensemble, which comprises three groups, each of which has prominence throughout the score: strings, winds (including the trumpet-like, wooden cornetto and the sackbut, a forerunner of the trombone), and continuo (with its signature blend of organ, theorbo, lute, violone, and cello). There are no dynamic or even tempo indications. Every interpretation of the Vespers thus takes on a unique, unpredictable flavor. For tonight’s performance, Music Director Grant Gershon has opted after careful study to use the edition prepared by Robert King, since he believes it represents ‘the best combination of the most recent scholarship while also being user friendly for live performers.”
In this sense, encountering the Vespers in performance involves still another level of synthesis beyond what Monteverdi achieved in his masterful combination of the sacred with the secular, of ancient with modern styles, of solo with choral singing, and of the human voice with a rich orchestral tapestry: This is the synthesis between an aesthetic perspective contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s final decade and our own expectations of musical meaning.
— Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
Structure of the Vespers
In Monteverdi’s time, Vespers – part of the cycle of Roman Catholic prayers to be recited or sung at set times of each day (early evening in this case) – was structured around a sequence of five Psalms, a hymn, the Magnificat, and other prayers. A set of responsory antiphons was used to frame the Psalms and Magnificat, with specific relevance for the liturgical time of year or feast day at hand. Monteverdi constructed his Vespers to be suitable for any of the major feasts in honor of the Virgin Mary. (There are also arguments that the Vespers may have been intended for other sacred feast days, including that of Saint Barbara, patron of the composer’s employer at the time, the Duke of Mantua.)
The most traditional aspect of the texts Monteverdi includes in his Vespers thus pertains to the large choral movements (starting with the briefer choral versicle introductory movement, which incorporates the instrumental toccata from his recent opera L’Orfeo of 1607). These consist of the five Psalm settings – Dixit Dominus (6-part choir), Laudate pueri (8-part choir), Laetatus sum (6-part choir), Nisi Dominus (10-part choir), and Lauda Ierusalem (7-part choir) – the hymn Ave Maris Stella (8-part choir), and the Magnificat (7-part choir). Traditional plainchants associated with these texts are embedded within Monteverdi’s complex and varied textures. (For example, the tenors in the divided chorus of Nisi Dominus repeat the plainchant back and forth at a slow speed while musical events unfold around it.)
Remarkably unconventional is Monteverdi’s inclusion of five special pieces he calls “sacred concertos” – a sequence of motets for steadily increasing numbers of solo voices with continuo accompaniment, as well as the mostly instrumental Sonata sopra Santa Maria. These entail highly expressive solo numbers and other alternatives that are either substitutes for or supplements to the antiphons (though the latter would still have to be recited as mandated by the liturgy). The tenor solo Nigra sum and soprano duet Pulchra es, set texts from the Song of Songs that on the surface are erotically charged but had become allegorically associated with love of Mary. Yet Monteverdi’s most up-to-date new style, perfected in his madrigals and opera writing, underscores the tension of more secular associations. The tenor trio Duo Seraphim is a tour de force of colorful solo vocal technique and “text painting” – and at the same time profoundly spiritual in its effect.
Another use of echo effects resounds in the motet Audi coelum for
two tenors and choir. The instrumentalists come to the fore in the
wonderful Sonata (which has nothing to do with later sonata form),
while a soprano choir enters and repeats its cantus firmus in varied
rhythmic form 11 times.