Hyperion’s record of the month for May brings us the monumental Monteverdi Vespers—a perennial bastion of the choral repertory, and the fifth release in The King’s Consort’s acclaimed series: ‘The definitive representation of Monteverdi on disc’ (BBC Music Magazine).
In 1610, disgruntled with his lot as choirmaster to the Duke of Mantua, Monteverdi set about compiling what was to become one of the most significant choral publications in history. At its heart lies the Vespers—a blistering array of virtuosic solo movements and magisterial choruses to texts from which can be assembled music suitable for any Solemn Vespers, whatever the forces available. Many movements offer abridged versions and a complete alternative Magnificat is provided. This performance is of the full work in all its opulent glory, with the addition of the simplified Magnificat and the Missa In illo tempore—a setting of the Mass without which no liturgical publication of the time could have been complete.
And what a recording this turns out to be. As the cornerstone of The King’s Consort’s twenty-fifth anniversary concert series, the Vespers scored a knockout performance at The Sage Gateshead in February this year. Over the following weekend Robert King led the same jubilant forces in the creation of this recording, the fruit of some two-and-a-half decades of research and performance—the glorious result being a rendition cut free from transient artifice and embued with a degree of fully formed confidence that can only spring ‘from the heart’.
A dazzling array of soloists join King—his choir and orchestra on top form—in presenting this new recording of a true masterpiece to the world: a project made possible by the generosity of all the many hundreds of people who donated to Hyperion’s appeal for recording funds in 2005.
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Over the past seventy years, since its first performance in modern times, Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of the Blessed Virgin’, first published in 1610, has become one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. Its music, magnificent and sonorous, sensuous and rhythmically thrilling, holds an immediate appeal, and Monteverdi’s use of plainsong as the basis for all the Psalm settings, the exquisite Hymn Ave maris stella and the grand Magnificat lend the Vespers a compelling sense of consistency and purpose. However, Monteverdi himself may not have expected to hear the Vespers sung as a complete ‘work’; indeed, there is little evidence that any of its music was actually performed during his lifetime.
Monteverdi’s 1610 publication, produced while he was choirmaster to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua in northern Italy, was intended as a compendium for use by the choirmasters of court chapels and those great churches like St Mark’s, Venice, or St Peter’s, Rome, which had a permanent staff of expert singers and could call upon the necessary instrumental forces. Choirmasters would have chosen as many or as few of the settings as they needed, or the forces at their disposal could manage, and Monteverdi provided in his publication not only Vesper Psalms, motets and Magnificat settings, but also a Mass for six voices—all the music, in fact, needed for the services of a feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To make the book more saleable, Monteverdi also made provision for the Vespers music to be performed with organ alone on those occasions when other instruments were not available. So, for example, the opening response ‘Domine, ad adiuvandum’, which we are used to hearing with the brilliant instrumental accompaniment developed from the Toccata which opened Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (1607), also appears in the 1610 book in a simple version where the singers chant the text to organ accompaniment. Similarly, Monteverdi provided two settings of the Magnificat—one for seven voices with strings, wind and brass instruments as well as organ, the other for six voices and organ alone. Both versions are presented in this recording, and it is fascinating to compare the two: although we cannot be certain in which order they were written, it is likely that the seven-voice version is a reworking of the material of the six-voice version, rather than the other way round.
The evening service of Vespers was celebrated twice on each feast day: once on the eve of the feast—the more important celebration, for which elaborate settings like Monteverdi’s would have been most appropriate—and once on the day itself. The service began with a versicle and response, followed by five Psalms, each prefaced and followed by an antiphon appropriate to the feast day, the texts of which provided a specifically Christian frame for the Old Testament Psalm. The Psalms were followed by a short Bible reading, a Hymn, a further versicle and response, the Magnificat (the canticle of the Virgin Mary, which was sung at all celebrations of Vespers), and concluding prayers. Monteverdi provides settings of all the major items; the remainder of the service would have been sung to plainsong.
Monteverdi’s Psalm settings take as their basis a simple technique: each verse of the Psalm is sung to the same plainsong phrase—the Psalm tone—and round it the composer wraps a web of polyphony. What is extraordinary, however, is the sheer range of invention that Monteverdi brings to this technique, from the alternation of two basic textures in Dixit Dominus, through settings like Laudate pueri in which he draws on his experience as a madrigalist to provide images that match the meaning of the text, to Laetatus sum, a set of variations on three different bass lines, and the Magnificat, in which each verse is treated at length in textures ranging from a simple opening to a verse like ‘Deposuit potentes’ with echo duets for instruments. The elaborate treatment of the Magnificat reflects its place as the climax (though not the end) of Vespers, during which the altar would have been censed.
By Monteverdi’s day the custom had grown up of singing motets or playing instrumental pieces between the Psalms (not, as was once thought, in place of the repeated antiphon). In his 1610 publication Monteverdi provided four motets, three of which have clear Marian associations, and one which is of a more general devotional nature. This is the unforgettable Duo Seraphim, which paints a picture of seraphs singing across the vastness of heaven in a manner which, appropriately for angels, represents the most elaborate singing style of the early seventeenth century. In addition to the motets, Monteverdi also included the glorious Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, a large-scale instrumental work with a superimposed vocal petition ‘Holy Mary, pray for us’.
We do not know to what extent Monteverdi was involved in producing church music for Mantua before 1610, though as early as 1595 he had acted as choirmaster to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga during a military expedition against the Turks, providing both secular and sacred music for the duke and his followers. He probably continued to produce church music thereafter for use in the smaller chapels of the palace at Mantua, or for occasions when the court worshipped elsewhere; he was, however, never in charge of the ducal chapel of Santa Barbara, which had its own musical establishment. All his publications before 1610 were of secular music—madrigals and the opera Orfeo—and he had built a formidable reputation as a member of the musical avant-garde. By about 1608, however, we know that he was growing dissatisfied with his employment at Mantua, in particular with the relentless demands placed upon him to produce entertainment music, and that he was looking round for a new post. It is possible, therefore, that he prepared the 1610 publication specifically to demonstrate that he was worthy of employment in a major church, rather than as a court musician. In this respect it is significant that he dedicated the volume to the pope and went to Rome in person to present a copy, taking the opportunity while there to mix in the company of well-placed music-loving cardinals.
The idea of the 1610 volume as a musical ‘calling card’ goes some way to explaining the nature of its contents. We first hear of Monteverdi’s work on the book in a letter of 16 July 1610 written to Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga by Monteverdi’s assistant at Mantua, Don Bassano Cassola:
Monteverdi is having printed an a cappella Mass for six voices [the product] of great study and effort, he being obliged to handle continually, in every note through all the parts, building up more and more, the eight points of imitation [actually ten] which are in Gombert’s motet ‘In illo tempore’ and together with it he is also having printed some psalms of the Vespers of the Madonna with various and different manners of invention and harmony, and all on a cantus firmus, with the idea of coming to Rome this autumn to dedicate them to His Holiness.
Monteverdi’s 1610 Mass—musical settings of texts for the ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper which lies at the heart of the Catholic liturgy—was designed, then, to demonstrate that he was a serious composer capable of writing the most learned music in a conservative style designed to appeal to a Counter-Reformation papacy and qualifying him to seek employment at a major Roman church. Even the Vespers settings, characterized by virtuosity and opulence, have a learned aspect in being based upon plainsongs.
Although Monteverdi did not obtain employment in Rome, as he may have hoped, the 1610 publication stood him in good stead when, in 1613, he applied for the post of choirmaster of St Mark’s, Venice. The report on his audition, for which he directed a Mass—perhaps the 1610 setting—mentions the ‘quality and virtue [of] his works which are found in print’ even before expressing satisfaction with his performance. It is likely, then, that Monteverdi intended his 1610 book to be admired and read as a whole, and this provides us with an historical justification for recording the music of the publication in its entirety and, indeed, for performing the Vespers music as a concert work. The chief justification, though, lies in the music itself, which speaks to us directly and powerfully across the four centuries since it was created.
When Vespers was performed in plainsong only, the first half of verse 1 of Dixit Dominus was sung by soloists, to set the pitch, with the choir joining in the second half. Subsequent verses were sung alternately by each half of the choir. Monteverdi plays with this idea, setting the first half of verse 1 in imitative lines based on a rhythmicized version of the plainsong Psalm tone and the second half for full choir. Subsequent verses are set alternately, first to a free form of chanting with elaborate endings based on the sort of exercises used by professional singers, and secondly for solo voices over the plainsong in the organ line and bass voice, amongst which are interspersed elegant string ritornellos. At the climax of the Psalm a bass chants the beginning of the ‘Gloria Patri’ a tone lower than expected before the choir rejoins and exultantly ends the setting.
In the Renaissance, texts from the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon)—love poems often cast in the feminine voice—were widely used for Marian devotions. Nigra sum is one such, though Monteverdi, writing in a period in which mixed choirs were not permitted in church, decided to set it for tenor rather than castrato soprano. His setting uses various rhetorical devices, ranging from repeated phrases to full-blown passionate operatic recitative to convey the meaning of the text to the listener. The opening statement by the woman, ‘I am black’ (that is, sunburned from working outdoors—not the ideal of aristocratic beauty) is set low in the soloist’s tessitura and followed by a silence (so that the listener can absorb the idea); then the word ‘sed’ is set an octave higher, to emphasize it and followed by no fewer than three statements of the word ‘formosa’ (‘comely’). The whole movement is ardent, even ecstatic, in tone—a glorious piece of religious opera.
In Laudate pueri Monteverdi again sets verse 1 apart from the main body of the Psalm, and in the ‘Gloria Patri’ he wittily brings back its music for the words ‘Sicut erat in principio’ (‘As it was in the beginning’). For the rest, he uses a series of devices to match music to text: virtuoso singing worthy of praising God, rising and falling lines depicting upward and downward motion, triple time to express the pleasure of the barren woman who bears children. At the beginning of verse 4 (‘Excelsus super omnes’) the plainsong Psalm tone sung by the sopranos soars above the other voices, representing God in the heavens; by the same token, in verse 6, the poor and needy (‘inopem’ and ‘pauperem’) are left exposed, singing the Psalm tone, and after the first phrase of the richly scored verse 7, can again be heard chanting the plainsong, set in the midst of the company of princes.
Pulchra es sets another text from the Song of Songs, this time as a duet and, like Nigra sum, in a mixture of lyrical and declamatory styles virtually identical to those used for contemporary secular love-songs. Monteverdi’s development of the movement, setting the opening stanza for one voice, then elaborating it on its repeat as a decorated duet, is glorious, but even that is capped by the sensuous setting of ‘Averte oculos tuos’ (‘Turn thine eyes’).
Laetatus sum is a compositional tour de force—three sets of variations over three different basses, each lasting for one verse of text and played in the order ABAC ABAC ABC. All three basses can be used to harmonize the Psalm tone, though Monteverdi teases the listener by sometimes including the plainsong (as at the beginning) and sometimes leaving it out altogether (as in verses 2 and 3). The opening bass is a jauntily striding theme: bass B is slower moving and more scalic: bass C is signalled by exciting virtuoso writing in the upper parts, especially in the snapped rhythms which begin verse 8—‘Propter fratres meos’. The Gloria is splendidly grand.
The text of Duo Seraphim is the only one in the 1610 Vespers not linked to Marian devotions and it is likely that Monteverdi included the motet simply because he was particularly proud of it. It opens with a picture of two seraphs—angels of the highest rank—calling to each other across the heavens. They sing in a highly ornate style—the height of the singer’s art in the early seventeenth century—and this style is carried over into the second half of the motet, at which point a third voice majestically enters to complete the representation of the Trinity. Monteverdi’s musical representation of ‘Et hi tres unum sunt’ (‘And these three are one’) is pure magic.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Vesper Psalms were often set for double choir, and in the thrilling setting of Nisi Dominus Monteverdi utilizes two five-part choirs, with the Psalm tone embedded in the tenor part. Monteverdi reserves the full ten-part texture for the first and last verses, and for the ‘Gloria Patri’, which begins with a rich setting in E flat before giving way to the opening music at ‘Sicut erat in principio’. For the central section Monteverdi generates an exhilarating sense of momentum by allotting each verse to choir 1 and then having choir 2 repeat it.
The motet Audi caelum, cast in the form of eight apparently freely invented stanzas and a final line reminiscent of a number of Marian texts, is set as an echo madrigal with concluding six-part chorus. The use of echo technique, in which the last word, or syllables, of the soloist’s line are repeated by a second voice to form a different word in reply, dates back to the sixteenth century when it was frequently used in theatrical music. The style of Monteverdi’s setting, too, with its long winding ornamentation, also looks back to the sixteenth century. The entry of the full chorus at ‘Omnes’, prefaced by a long melisma from the soloist, is another dramatic masterstroke. The final line, ‘Benedicta es, Virgo Maria’, is ravishing.
Lauda Ierusalem opens dramatically, the Psalm tone sounded by the tenor and repeated by the other six voices; it then proceeds in dialogue, with exchanges between two choral trios circling around the tenor, who presents the psalm tone verse by verse. The setting possesses a strong sense of forward movement, full of rhythmic life and syncopation, the two choirs urging each other on, anchored by the cantus firmus, to the grandest of Glorias.
The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, scored for eight instruments and continuo, is the most brilliant piece in Monteverdi’s collection. The sudden appearance of soprano voices after some thirty-five bars of an ostensibly instrumental sonata must have caused as much surprise and delight in the seventeenth century as it still does now. Technically the movement is a masterpiece, for its apparent wealth of melodic invention is actually created by variations on just three basic motifs. Through this web of ingenious instrumental polyphony the soprano voices are heard singing the petition ‘Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis’ (‘Holy Mary, pray for us’) no fewer than eleven times to a short phrase of plainsong intended for litany settings.
Monteverdi’s setting of the verses of Ave maris stella, the Hymn for Marian feasts, is exquisite. He sets the seven verses in a variety of ways—for double choir, four-part ensemble and solo voices—separating each verse with a lilting, five-part instrumental ritornello. The plainsong melody is most heavily disguised in the double-choir settings of the first and last verses, for which Monteverdi invents a counter-melody; even here, though, there is a delicacy of touch which does nothing to destroy the Hymn’s ethereal quality. The final ‘Amen’ numbers amongst the great glories of all Monteverdi’s works.
During the Magnificat (for seven voices, obbligato instruments and organ), the officiating priest censes the altar, and Monteverdi provided a large-scale setting of the text to cover this liturgical action. Each verse is set as a separate entity, with the plainsong Magnificat tone heard clearly in each verse. Variety is everywhere, with some verses set with instrumental accompaniments, almost in the manner of the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. The ‘Quia respexit’ utilizes every available instrumental colour within the framework of a dancing ritornello and more sombre middle section; the ‘Quia fecit’ brings brilliant violin flourishes to a mighty bass duet. The setting of ‘Deposuit potentes’, with two instruments in echo, draws on the style of elaborate instrumental figuration that Monteverdi used for the great central aria of Orfeo. The hungry in ‘Esurientes’ are left unfed by any instrumental accompaniment, and the seed of Abraham rejoice in rich instrumental dialogue. Other verses are set for voices and organ alone, including the joyfully dancing ‘Et exultavit’, the sombre ‘Et misericordia’, begun by an especially low-voiced trio, the ravishing soprano duet ‘Suscepit Israel’ and an evocative ‘Gloria Patri’ for solo tenor, echoed by a second tenor voice as the sopranos enter with the plainsong. After such a compositional tour de force the final movement is wonderfully grand, headed by Monteverdi ‘tutti gli instrumenti & voci, & va cantato & sonato forte’ (‘all the voices and instruments, it should be sung and played loudly’). The final ‘Amen’ dances exuberantly, and this extraordinary work ends in a blaze of glory.
Monteverdi provided a second setting of the Magnificat, for six voices and organ only, to be used on those occasions when the large array of obbligato instruments called for in the seven-part setting were not available. In fact, the 1610 partbooks allow the possibility for all the essential items of a Vespers service to be performed with organ alone: thus, in addition to this Magnificat, Monteverdi provides a simple chanted version of Deus in adiutorium and marks the instrumental ritornellos of Dixit Dominus as optional; the ritornellos for the hymn Ave maris stella, too, can be omitted.
One easily audible difference between the seven-part setting of the Magnificat and the six-part one, from which it was probably developed, is that in the former Monteverdi omits one pitch from the second part of the plainsong (listen to the endings of verse 1 of each setting). This small change, together with differences in the patterning of the bass, has the effect of making this verse in the larger setting seem more sharply focused than its model. Similarly, in the three-part settings of ‘Et exultavit’, the leisurely triple-time of the six-part setting becomes a more lively and virtuosic duple-time setting in the version for seven voices. Elsewhere, however, and particularly in those movements in which obbligato instruments are employed, the seven-part setting is an altogether larger and grander conception. Almost all the verses in the seven-part version draw on those of the smaller setting. The exceptions are the verse ‘Suscepit Israel’ and the opening of the ‘Gloria Patri’. The two settings are also linked in that both include detailed indications of the organ stops to be used.
Even if we lacked Bassano Cassola’s letter telling us that the Missa In illo tempore was the product of ‘great study and effort’, it would be clear that Monteverdi intended it as a demonstration of his mastery of contrapuntal technique. In both its published form and in a manuscript score that survives in the Vatican library, the Mass is prefaced by the ten motifs of between five and ten notes on which it is based and which Monteverdi borrowed from the six-part motetby the Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert (c1495–c1560). One or more of these motifs—sung in their original form, or inverted (upside down), or in retrograde (backwards) or in retrograde inversion (backwards and upside down)—appears in every section of the Mass with the exception of the ‘et incarnatus’ of the Creed and the Benedictus, which seem to be freely composed. Moreover, Monteverdi forgoes the variety of scoring that composers, himself included, usually used to lighten the texture of five- and six-part pieces; instead, much of the Mass is written in six real parts (seven in the final Agnus Dei). Only at the ‘Crucifixus’ section of the Creed does Monteverdi drop down to four voices, and only at the ‘et incarnatus’ of the same movement and in the Benedictus does he indulge in block chordal writing.
And yet, despite the relentlessly contrapuntal writing and dense textures, the adoption of an old style a cappella framework, and the tribute to a respected composer of a much earlier generation, the Mass is still recognizably by Monteverdi. Its energy and the modern-sounding major tonality contribute to this. But there are moments too when the writing is clearly related to that found in the ostensibly more modern Vespers music. There is frequent sequential writing—in the last section of the Kyrie, for example, and in the Sanctus and Benedictus—and some passages have exact parallels in the Psalms: compare, for example, the close imitation in dotted rhythms heard in descending form at ‘in gloria Dei Patris’ (Gloria) and in the last Agnus Dei, and in ascending form at ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ (Creed), with the ‘Amen’ of Laudate pueri and the ‘Gloria Patri’ of Laetatus sum (both ascending), the ‘Gloria Patri’ of the six-part Magnificat (descending), and, more generally, with the close canonic entries that open and close Nisi Dominus. As so often, Monteverdi leaves us with a question: is the Mass more forward-looking than it at first appears?
Creating a performing edition A note by Robert King
John Whenham © 2006
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