It has been almost a year since the last release in this series, but from the very first bar of the Laetatus sum setting which opens this new volume the wait seems to have been worth it: over a swaggering bass ostinato Monteverdi weaves an exuberant array of melodies—with widely contrasted instruments and voices—to draw us once more into the world of Venetian extravagance.
The programme continues with a range of motets, the forces called upon varying from solo voice in the declamatory Salve Regina to multiple soloists and polychoral opulence in the Beatus vir setting.
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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, 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.
The huge Selva morale e spirituale, a collection of spiritual madrigals and music for Mass and Vespers published in 1640/41, represents Monteverdi’s own summing up of his achievement while choirmaster of St Mark’s, Venice. Many examples of his work were, however, published by other people – by anthologists in Italy and elsewhere from 1615 to 1651, and by the Venetian music publisher Alessandro Vincenti, whose memorial volume Messa a quattro voci e salmi, published in 1650, contains a Mass, Vespers psalms, and a Litany of the Blessed Virgin. The music on this CD is drawn from both types of publication. Most of the works in the anthologies are motets: that is, they are settings of texts that are not part of the fixed liturgy of the Catholic church, but are drawn from biblical sources or freely invented. In the seventeenth century such motets might be sung during Mass – at the Elevation and Communion in particular – or between the psalms at a Vespers service.
Laetatus sum I à 5 instrumenti e 6 voci
Domine, ne in furore tuo
Salve Regina I
The extraordinary conflation of texts in this setting may have something to do with the Venetians’ perception of their city. Venice, Europe’s gateway to the East, saw itself as being under the special protection of the Virgin Mary. In St Jerome’s commentary on Ezechiel 44:2, Ezechiel’s description of the eastern gate of the temple, through which the Lord God had entered, is interpreted as prophesying the entrance of Christ into the world through Mary, who is thus described in ‘Audi coelum’ as ‘portal of the East … this sacred and joyful portal through which death was expelled and life renewed’. It may be no coincidence, then, that the first words taken from the ‘Salve Regina’ are heard immediately after the words ‘porta orientalis’ in the ‘Audi coelum’ text.
Dixit Dominus II à 8 voci alla breve
Sanctorum meritis II
Adoramus te, Christe
Exulta, filia Sion
Magnificat II à 4 voci
Salve, o Regina, o Mater a voce sola e B.c.
Laudate Dominum omnes gentes III
John Whenham © 2005
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