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Hyperion Records

CDA67487 - Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 3

Recording details: February 2004
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes & Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2004
Total duration: 68 minutes 45 seconds

CLASSICAL CDs OF THE YEAR 2004 (The Daily Telegraph)

'It would be difficult to praise these performances to highly … the clarity and sheer élan here defeat close rival performances by William Christie and Konrad Junghänel' (BBC Music Magazine)

'No Monteverdi enthusiast will want to be without this superb selection … Robert King's light-footed approach to the big pieces, with brisk speeds and crisp, springy rhythms, keeps up both the momentum and the excitement to produce some thrilling climaxes' (The Daily Telegraph)

'We have come to expect nothing but first rate perfomances from Robert King and his colleagues, and this recording does not disappoint. Hyperion's recorded sound is clear but warm, sumptuous, and intense, as befits the music' (American Record Guide)

'The warmly enveloping acoustic is exactly right for this opulent, exciting music; and Robert King’s trusty group disport themselves with the usual trim gusto. With performances like these I’d be happy if this series rolled on forever' (The Times)

'this is another fine issue to add to a series that has now firmly established its credentials as yet one more (brilliently plumed) feather in the respective caps of King and Hyperion' (Fanfare, USA)

The Sacred Music, Vol. 3

Hot on the heels of their glorious recording of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia, Robert King, Carolyn Sampson and James Gilchrist are here joined by a host of further soloists for this third volume of Monteverdi’s sacred music.

The programme opens with the ebullient second setting of the Dixit Dominus and ends with the seven-voice Gloria, surely one of Monteverdi’s most impressive sacred works and one which is thought to have been part of a ceremonial Mass written to mark to the end of the 1630 plague outbreak in Venice. In between these two pillars of the repertoire come nine motets and Psalms, including the famous Christe, adoramus whose long-breathed phrases become the perfect vehicle to show off the intense range of colours Robert King so effortlessly draws out from his performers.

Other recommended albums
'Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 1' (CDA67428)
Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 1
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67428 

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
For most music lovers Monteverdi’s church music begins and ends with the sumptuous Vespers settings that he published, together with a Mass, in 1610. However, the Vespers of 1610, astonishing though they are, form only part of Monteverdi’s total output of church music and belong, paradoxically, to a period in which we have little evidence of his work as a church musician.

Monteverdi’s career as a professional musician falls into two periods of almost equal length. From 1590 or 1591 to 1612 he was employed as a household musician at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, ruler of the north Italian duchy of Mantua, and rose to become court choirmaster there in 1601. The extent of Monteverdi’s involvement in church music at Mantua is not clear. He was not regularly involved with the musical establishment of Santa Barbara, the ducal chapel, which was headed by Giacomo Gastoldi from 1582 to 1609, and the majority of his publications from the Mantuan period are of madrigals and opera. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that he wrote sacred music to be performed in the smaller chapels within the ducal palace or as spiritual chamber music. It has been suggested, too, that both court and chapel musicians may have joined forces at least once a year in Santa Barbara to celebrate the feast day of its patron saint, and that some at least of the music that appears in the 1610 volume may have been written for these occasions.

Equally, though, the music of the 1610 volume, published by Monteverdi at a time of growing dissatisfaction with conditions at Mantua, may have been intended simply to demonstrate that he was employable as a church musician. The volume contains settings for the two services for which elaborate music was most often used in the late Renaissance. The Mass, the ritual reenactment of the Last Supper, was the central celebration of the church day, and Monteverdi made great play, in the 1610 volume, of writing a setting which emulated the conservative style of Palestrina and his contemporaries. His settings of five psalms, hymn, Magnificat and motets for Vespers, the main evening service of the Catholic Church, are quite different, and use all the resources of the new music of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—rich harmonies, expressive operatic solos and elaborately ornamented music to be performed by virtuoso singers and instrumentalists. The 1610 volume can, then, be seen as a portfolio for prospective employers. Certainly, when Monteverdi took copies of the newly published volume to Rome to present them to Pope Paul V, he spent nearly three months in the city, cultivating the acquaintance of an influential group of cardinals. And in 1611 some of his psalm settings were performed in Modena Cathedral, though, according to a Modenese chronicler, they caused ‘disgust’ among everyone who heard them.

Following the death of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Monteverdi was summarily dismissed from Mantua in July 1612 by the new duke, Francesco Gonzaga. It seems that he had unwisely hinted that he might be able to obtain a better position elsewhere. For a year he was without regular employment, though performances of some of his music in Milan led to rumours that he was seeking the position of choirmaster at the cathedral there. He was fortunate, therefore, that the post of choirmaster of St Mark’s, Venice, fell vacant in the summer of 1613, and doubly fortunate that the procurators of St Mark’s, faced with falling musical standards in the church, decided to look outside Venice for a new appointee. For his audition on 1 August 1613 Monteverdi directed a Mass of his own—probably the one included in the 1610 volume—and his appointment was approved unanimously by the procurators. He remained at Venice, deriving a good deal of satisfaction from the honour and respect that he enjoyed there, until his death in 1643.

In Monteverdi’s day St Mark’s was not the cathedral of Venice, but the doge’s chapel. As such it was at the centre of interaction between church and state, for in Venice, major religious feast days were inextricably intertwined with the celebration of the city’s history and sense of identity. Moreover, important guests of the doge attended services at St Mark’s, where music of appropriate splendour was used to impress them; and the choir, with their choirmaster, was also responsible for entertaining the doge and his guests at state banquets; indeed, there were occasions when half the St Mark’s choir would be engaged in singing at a banquet while the other half was left to sing Vespers in the church.

The musical establishment that Monteverdi inherited included a main choir of about twenty men, including soprano castratos, who were responsible for singing the most elaborate of the music heard at St Mark’s; in addition, the church boasted a group of boy singers who performed plainsong and the occasional short polyphonic mass on weekdays, a group of some sixteen instrumentalists, and two organists (the church had two fixed and another two portable organs). The music that the choir sang (and, thus, that the choirmaster wrote for them) was governed by an elaborate set of rules specifying the types of music to be used for particular occasions. And, to complicate matters still further, St Mark’s had its own liturgy, independent of the Roman rite formalised by the Council of Trent (the Tridentine rite), which meant that some of its texts were used only at St Mark’s and at a limited number of similar institutions. A case in point is the so-called ‘Vespero delle Cinque Laudate’ (Vespers of the Five Laudate) in which all five psalms began with a variant of the verb ‘laudare’ (to praise). This service does not appear in the Tridentine rite at all, but was used at St Mark’s for Vespers on many of the most important feast days of the year; and though we customarily associate St Mark’s with music of great splendour and virtuosity, surviving collections of the Cinque Laudate psalms (none of them by Monteverdi) are rather restrained in character and conservative in style.

The style of music most often associated with St Mark’s is that involving spatial effects between two or more groups of singers and/or instrumentalists. This style, exemplified particularly in the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, was used at St Mark’s for Mass settings and ceremonial motets, and might involve the main choir singing at ground level, with instrumentalists and solo singers placed either in the organ lofts at each side of the chancel, or in the alcoves (nicchie), stacked like opera boxes, just behind the choir screen. At first sight, the many eight-part Vespers psalms involving two groups of four voices that were written for St Mark’s seem to belong to the same tradition, especially since custom dictated that the choir should sing Vespers in eight parts on days of particular solemnity, when the great golden altarpiece—the Pala d’Oro—was uncovered and, more often than not, the doge himself was present for the service. In fact, though, the two choirs who sang Vespers—one a group of soloists, the other a larger, ripieno, group—customarily stood together in a large pulpit at the front right of the choir screen, just as Canaletto depicted them in the mid eighteenth century. Since only about twelve or thirteen singers could fit into the pulpit we have a clear indication of the size of choir normally used for Vespers at St Mark’s. It is clear, too, that all the musicians, whether situated in the pulpit, in the organ lofts or in the nicchie, directed their performances not into the nave of the church, but into the chancel, where the priests, the doge, senators and important visitors were seated.

It should be emphasized that we only have clear evidence of the way in which Vespers was normally sung at St Mark’s; however, those of Monteverdi’s psalm settings that call for instrumental accompaniment could not have been performed from the pulpit alone; the instrumentalists were probably located in one of the organ galleries along with the player who was accompanying on the organ. We know, too, that the service of Vespers was occasionally celebrated on a grand scale at St Mark’s: the revised version of Sansovino’s Venetia città nobilissima, published in the early years of the seventeenth century, includes this description of First Vespers for Christmas: ‘[On Christmas Eve Vespers] is celebrated with the sweetest sounds of voices and instruments by the salaried musicians of the church and by others hired specially to make a greater number, since on that evening they sing in eight, ten, twelve and sixteen choirs [sic] to the wonder and amazement of everyone, and especially of foreign visitors, who declare that they have never heard music as rare, or as remarkable in other parts of the world.’

St Mark’s was not the only scene of Monteverdi’s activity in Venice. As the city’s leading musician he was also regularly invited to direct music for important services in other churches where different performance practices obtained and the Tridentine rite was followed. To take just one example: in 1620 the Flemish diplomat Constantin Huygens witnessed him directing his own music for Vespers for the Feast of St John the Baptist (24 June) in a church that has been identified as S Giovanni Elemosinario, near the Rialto; the music was sung by twelve singers and accompanied by theorbos, cornetts, bassoons, a basso di viola, organs and other instruments.

A good deal of the sacred music that Monteverdi wrote for Venice, including some important works mentioned in his letters and other documents, is now lost. Apart from a few works included in anthologies, most of what survives was published in two collections, the Selva morale e spirituale, issued by Monteverdi himself in 1640/41 and dedicated to Eleonora Gonzaga, daughter of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga and widow of the Emperor Ferdinand II (1587–1637), and the Messa a quattro voci et salmi, issued posthumously in 1650 by the publisher Alessandro Vincenti. Both are monumental publications summing up the thirty years of Monteverdi’s work in Venice and both contain multiple settings of Vespers texts. The two books include a wealth of music and a wide range of styles, from conservative Mass settings to psalms and motets that use the most up-to-date song styles of the 1620s and ’30s; for even in his old age Monteverdi continued to explore new ideas.

Dixit Dominus II
In the liturgy of St Mark’s, Venice, the evening service of Vespers on important feast days was marked by the uncovering of the Pala d’Oro, the church’s great gold altarpiece, and on these occasions the choir was obliged to sing double-choir psalms in eight parts. Monteverdi follows this convention in this second Selva morale setting of ‘Dixit Dominus’, the psalm with which most Vespers services begin. Unlike some of his predecessors at St Mark’s, however, he did not follow the practice of dividing the two choirs rigidly and alternating between them verse by verse. Instead, he produced a setting of a grandeur suitable for the great state church of the Venetian Republic and one that, through its colourful mixing of voices, violins and trombones, matches the rich decoration of the church. In his setting Monteverdi contrasts passages for a few voices with full scorings that emphasize the idea of a powerful God, sometimes speaking loudly from heaven, as in ‘sede a dextris meis’ (verse 1), or emphasizing the word ‘tu’ in ‘tu es sacerdos’ (verse 5), or exulting through the joyful figuration of ‘exaltabit’ (verse 8), or represented as helping to crush the enemies of the psalmist (or, in this case, Venice), as we can hear in verse 2 and the second half of verse 3, and in verses 6 and 7, the texts of which Monteverdi rolls together, beginning them with a tremendous crescendo on ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’. The passages of reduced scorings are characterized by extensive use of duets, sometimes overlapping, as in the setting of ‘Tecum principium in die virtutis’ (verse 4), sometimes, as at the beginning of the ‘Gloria Patri’, in intimate dialogue with the two violins.

Sancta Maria à 2 e B.c.
In the Roman liturgy (though not in the liturgy of St Mark’s) ‘Sancta Maria, succurre miseris’ was the antiphon commonly sung before the Magnificat at first Vespers on Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Monteverdi’s exquisite setting for soprano duet, first issued in a anthology published in 1618 by the Milanese choirmaster Giovanni Battista Ala, would thus have found widespread use within the Roman Catholic church. It is tempting, though, to think that the unusual petition ‘intercede for the devout female sex’ (‘intercede pro devoto femineo sexu’) might also have prompted its use by nuns as a more general devotional motet, for in Venice, as elsewhere in seventeenth-century Italy, sacred music flourished not only in establishments with all-male choirs, but also in convents. In this setting Monteverdi makes use of the litany plainsong that he also employed for the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria in the 1610 Vespers. The first two sets of petitions are begun in plainsong and then extended by the second voice in a freer, more passionate, recitative style. For the final petition, Monteverdi treats the plainsong as a duet, rising in urgency before a release into triple-time writing and an extended treatment of the final two lines of text.

Lauda Ierusalem I à 3
This madrigalian setting of Psalm 147, published posthumously in 1650, serves as a reminder of just how expert some of Monteverdi’s singers at St Mark’s were, allowing him to write rapid virtuoso lines for words like ‘spargit’ (‘scattereth’ – verse 5) and ‘fluent’ (‘run’ – verse 7). Most of the setting is conceived in a dance-like triple time, but the text ‘et liquefaciet ea’ (‘and shall melt them’ – verse 7) is set in suitably melting duple-time harmonies, and verses 2 and 6 are set to a duple-time refrain which is also used for the ‘Gloria Patri’, where it is unexpectedly interrupted by a repeat of the joyful music (and the text) with which the setting began. This refrain is marked ‘tutti’, as distinct from ‘à 3’ (for three voices), suggesting choir with soloists; at these points, an editorial chorus part has been added since the harmony often seems surprisingly thin, perhaps indicating that, as in other Monteverdi psalms, there may be additional parts missing.

Memento Domine David à 8 voci da Capella
At St Mark’s, ‘Memento Domine David’ (Psalm 131, or, in the Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 132) was sung at Vespers on a number of important feast days during the year, beginning with second Vespers on Christmas Day. For almost all these occasions the Pala d’Oro was opened and double-choir psalms sung in two choirs. In this setting of a long psalm text, Monteverdi comes closer than he does in the eight-part setting of ‘Dixit Dominus’ to the style of simple double-choir chanting that characterizes many St Mark’s psalm settings. Even so, he takes the opportunity to underline the rhetorical force of words such as ‘Ecce’ (‘behold’ – verse 6) and ‘in saeculum saeculi’ (‘for ever and ever’ – verse 14) by tossing them from one choir to the other, or ‘exsultatione exsultabunt’ (‘rejoice with exceeding great joy’ – verse 16) by setting them in triple time.

Confitebor tibi III alla francese
This, the third setting in the Selva morale of the Vespers psalm ‘Confitebor tibi, Domine’, is headed ‘in the French manner’ and the option given of performing it either with five voices, or with solo soprano and strings. The precise derivation of ‘canto alla francese’, which Monteverdi also applied to settings in his Scherzi musicali (1607) and his Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638) is still uncertain, though it seems to apply both to a manner of singing, with full voice, and to a melodious musical style characterized by clear-cut phrase-structures, alternation between solo voice and full ensemble, and the setting of single syllables to pairs of notes. All these characteristics can be heard clearly in this setting, though Monteverdi also mixes them with gestures that are distinctly Italian. The first of these is heard at the setting of ‘Sanctum et terribile nomen eius’, where long notes for the word ‘Sanctum’ are followed by a wholly unexpected series of semiquavers for ‘et terribile’. The semiquavers represent Monteverdi’s ‘genere concitato’ – the warlike style that he invented for the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda of 1624 – and are presumably intended to suggest a wrathful God. Wholly Italian too are the wide-ranging ornamented lines for solo soprano with which Monteverdi opens the ‘Gloria Patri’. Even these give way, however, to the French manner as Monteverdi reintroduces the opening music of the setting at the words ‘Sicut erat in principio’ (‘As it was in the beginning’).

Christe, adoramus te Nella Elevatione di N. Signore
This short but very moving motet was one of two on the same text published in 1620 in an anthology compiled by Giulio Cesare Bianchi, a cornett player who was then working in Milan, but had earlier studied composition under Monteverdi at Mantua. The text is found in devotional Books of Hours as part of the Hours of the Cross.

Salve Regina II à 2 voci, due Tenore o due Soprani
If Vespers was not immediately followed by Compline, the last of the daily Hours services, it was the custom to sing instead the seasonal Marian antiphon with its associated devotions. ‘Salve Regina’ was the antiphon sung at St Mark’s from the Octave of Pentecost to the first day of Lent – i.e. for most of the Church year – which may explain why Monteverdi supplied no fewer than three settings in the Selva morale. This languorous and sensual setting for two equal voices shows clearly why Monteverdi was particularly fond of the medium of the duet, for it allowed him to explore the rhetorical devices of declamatory solo song while also allowing him to intensify them by giving them now to one voice, now to the other, now to both together, and through such repetitions to build larger-scale structures than would be possible with a single voice.

Nisi Dominus I à 3 voci & duoi violini
In compositional terms this setting of ‘Nisi Dominus’, the fourth psalm of Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, seems to stand half way between a setting ‘alla francese’ and the full-blown madrigalian setting of the same text for six voices which is found alongside it in the posthumous Messa et salmi (1650). The setting opens with a melodic line characterized by the paired quavers of Monteverdi’s ‘French manner’; and just as in the setting of ‘Confitebor tibi, Domine’, the ‘Gloria Patri’ begins with elaborately ornamented lines only to give way to a repeat of the opening material at ‘Sicut erat in principio’. The matchings of musical imagery to text in the fanfares of ‘surgite’ (‘rise up’) in verse 2 and the flight of arrows (‘sagittae’) in verse 4, however, seem to be initial versions of the ideas worked out much more fully in the six-part setting.

Cantate Domino à 6 voci
‘Cantate Domino’, with a text conflated from Psalms 95 and 97 (96 and 98) is another short motet contributed by Monteverdi to the anthology of motets for from one to eight voices published in 1620 by his pupil Giulio Cesare Bianchi. It seems to have been aimed at choirs of modest ability. Whether consciously or not, Monteverdi reused for the phrase ‘Cantate et exultate’ a musical sequence that he had first used at the end of the madrigal ‘Ecco mormorar l’onde’ in his Second Book of Madrigals of 1590; this may indicate that the motet was written very much earlier than its date of publication.

Ecce sacrum paratum a voce sola e B.c.
‘Ecce sacrum paratum’ was published in 1625 in Ghirlanda sacra, an anthology issued by Leonardo Simonetti, a castrato who was appointed to the choir of St Mark’s in 1613, the year in which Monteverdi arrived in Venice. The freely invented motet text mixes images of the celebration of Mass with those of the Last Supper, conceived as an Ancient Roman feast in which the guests reclined on couches at table. Monteverdi’s setting is a very striking example of rhetorical solo song which mixes declamation with short passages of aria-like writing in triple time, whether denoting urgency, as in ‘mundate corda vestra, festinate’ or passion, as in the setting of ‘Quid, ah quid huic amori tuo possim referre?’.

Gloria in excelsis Deo à 7 voci
This is one of the most impressive of all Monteverdi’s sacred works. It has long been thought to have formed part of a ceremonial Mass with music directed by Monteverdi at St Mark’s on 21 November 1631. The Mass marked the official end of the devastating outbreak of plague that swept through northern Italy from summer 1630, killing some 50,000 people in Venice alone. The Mass was followed by a procession across a bridge of boats to the newly founded votive church of Santa Maria della Salute (St Mary of Health) on the opposite side of the Grand Canal. Accounts of the occasion mention the use of ‘trombe squarciate’ – ceremonial trumpets – in both the Gloria and the Credo of the Mass. The trumpets may have played little more than fanfares, and there is no mention of them in the Selva morale version of the Gloria; even the parts for the optional trombones which are mentioned are not supplied and have to be reconstructed by modern performers.

Monteverdi casts the setting in five sections, following various cues in the text. The first section runs from the initial ‘Gloria in excelsis’, with its thrilling virtuoso figurations, through to ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’, where the word ‘gloriam’ prompts the return of those figurations to round off the section. The second section embraces the three invocations ‘Domine Deus’, ‘Domine Fili’ and ‘Domine Deus’, each set for two sopranos and contrasted with passages of concitato writing for the full ensemble, suggesting God’s power. In sections 3 and 4, Monteverdi sets the three petitions to God and the three statements of his qualities as though they were two strophic songs for two or three voices, with each petition or statement separated from the next by a passage for two violins. The last statement – ‘Tu solus altissimus, Iesu Christe’ – is then taken over by five voices as the beginning of the final section, in which the phrase ‘in gloria Dei Patris’ prompts Monteverdi to return again to the ‘Gloria’ figurations of the opening of the setting.

John Whenham © 2004

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