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Hyperion Records

CDA67428 - Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 1
CDA67428
Recording details: February 2003
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2003
Total duration: 74 minutes 38 seconds

'This is life-enhancing stuff, breathtakingly exciting at times, exquisitely beautiful at others. If King and his forces maintain the standard they set here, this series is surely set to be the definitive representation of Monteverdi on disc' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The King's Consort shows complete affinity with both the dramatic and the lyrical aspects of Monteverdi's style. No ensemble could be better suited to this magnificent undertaking' (The Daily Telegraph)

'…one of the glories of the new disc is the gloriously full-toned and marvelously projected singing of his two sopranos, Carolyn Sampson and Rebecca Outram … A further distinct plus is Hyperion's superb engineering, which presents the performances with glowing, yet sharply defined immediacy' (Fanfare, USA)

'…a highly successful opening instalment' (Goldberg)

'This music is already familiar from other recordings of Venetian vespers, yet these are magisterial performances, the Christmas setting giving them an appropriately festive focus' (Early Music)

The Sacred Music, Vol. 1

Here we have the start of an exciting mini series from The King's Consort, recording highlights of the sacred music of Claudio Monteverdi.

The first volume is suitably opulent, with a veritable 'Who's who' of Monteverdi solo singers joined by two dozen chorus singers and a colourful group of instrumentalists under Robert King's lively baton. The repertoire for this opening volume presents a joyous Christmas sequence from the composer's great collection of 1640-41, Selva morale e spirituale, such as might have been heard at a Venetian Vespers, alongside a fine Mass. The spacious recordings are complemented by excellent booklet notes by Monteverdi expert Professor John Whenham.

Monteverdi's unique music is constantly inventive, immensely varied—and uniquely Venetian. A glorious new Hyperion project!


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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.

The Selva morale of 1640/41 contains both settings of Latin texts for use in the liturgy and spiritual and moral madrigals. The volume was intended by Monteverdi not only as a summing up of his work at Venice, but also as a resource book for choirmasters, who could draw from it as few or as many settings as they needed for a particular service. Like most Venetian musicians he had regard to the fact that most choirmasters worked within the Tridentine rite and not the special liturgy of St Mark’s. This recording presents the main items that would have been performed in polyphony—five psalms, the Office Hymn and Magnificat—for First Vespers of Christmas in the Tridentine liturgy, a service that would have been celebrated on Christmas Eve. It includes eight-part settings of the kind called for in St Mark’s on the important occasions on which the Pala d’Oro would have been opened and the doge present in the church.

Dixit [Dominus] Primo ‘à 8 voci concertato con due Violini et quattro viole o Tromboni, quali se portasse l’accidente anco si ponno lasciare’
‘Dixit Dominus’ is the psalm appointed to begin almost every celebration of Vespers, whether for Sundays, for commemorations of events in the life of Christ or for the feast days of male or female saints, and all Monteverdi’s Venetian settings are suitably imposing pieces for eight voices.

In this setting Monteverdi adopts the procedure of having the solo and choral exchanges customarily used for eight-part psalms at St Mark’s, though he uses a fluid series of contrasts between passages for one, two or more singers and the full ensemble, allowing the music to flow on from verse to verse without halt if the sense demands, and using repetition and contrast to build larger structures. The setting begins with a single vocal line intoning the first line of the psalm, as though chanting it to the psalm tone that would have been used for a celebration of Vespers in plainsong. In fact, though, the setting is not based entirely on plainsong; the solo intonation is used simply to distinguish between the narrative with which the verse begins and the direct speech with which it continues. Psalm tone 8 does appear briefly, in the music for verse 3, first in Tenor 2, elaborated with new material including fanfare-like battle figures for ‘in the midst of Thine enemies’ (in medio inimicorum tuorum); the chant is then taken over by Soprano 1 for the repeat of the words ‘Virgam virtutis tuae’ and then passed to Tenor 1 and organ for ‘emittet Dominus ex Sion’, where it acts as the accompaniment to duets in the upper voices. Monteverdi treats verses 4 and 5, 6 and 7 as linked pairs for the purpose of musical setting. Verses 6 and 7 are particularly memorable, with the duet ‘a dextris tuis’ which begins verse 6 reused at the beginning and in the middle of verse 7 as a reminder that it is the Lord who sits at the right hand of God who will wreak death and destruction on the day of judgment.

Confitebor Primo [à 8] ‘à 3 voci con 5 altre voci ne ripieni’
Here Monteverdi uses a primary group of three solo voices, adding a further five to produce a full eight-part texture for verses 2 and 6, the first half of verse 9 and the Gloria Patri. The three soloists sing, for the most part, in triple time and in imitative textures, but Monteverdi is careful always to allow the text to be clearly declaimed, and to punctuate it with cadences to mark the caesuras in the middle and at the ends of verses. When he uses the full texture of eight voices he allots it the same music each time—a rich harmonic progression in block chords. The reasons for his choice of one texture over another are sometimes easy to explain. For example, soloists are used for verse 1, in which the psalmist declares his intention to praise the Lord; the full texture is then used for verse 2, a statement that the works of the Lord are great. Similarly, a full texture is used for the first half of verse 9 to reinforce the striking statement ‘Holy and fearsome is his name’ and to round off the setting in the Gloria Patri, though here Monteverdi introduces a central section for three voices singing a line of his own invention extrapolated from the normal text—‘Semper gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto’ ([Let there] always be glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit). His use of a full texture for verse 6 is more difficult to explain in terms of the text; he may have introduced it simply for the sake of musical variety.

Beatus vir I‘à 6 voci concertato con due violini et 3 viole da brazzo ovvero 3 Tromboni quali anco si ponno lasciare’
The first ‘Beatus vir’ is one of the most attractive and inspired settings of the Selva morale and one of the few sacred works of Monteverdi’s later years that has become widely known. The musical setting is constructed in three sections: A (verses 1 to 4), B (verses 5 to 8), A1 (verse 9) plus the Gloria Patri. The two A sections are an elaboration on a large scale of the music that Monteverdi had earlier invented for a slight, but very charming canzonetta for two voices and violins, ‘Chiome d’oro’ (Hair of gold) included in his seventh book of madrigals (1619). They are set over a ‘walking’ bass using recurring patterns of notes (though not quite a ground bass) of a kind that became popular in Venetian song-books of the 1620s and ’30s. And as if this were not enough to bind the texture, Monteverdi also repeats the opening phrase ‘Beatus vir’ or, in its fuller form ‘Beatus vir qui timet Dominum’ as a refrain. In the second A section he produces particularly vivid musical images of the wicked man, his desires thwarted, gnashing his teeth in angry envy of the (admittedly rather smug) righteous and blessed man. In the B section of the setting, perhaps prompted by the initial image of happiness, Monteverdi changes to triple time and a new set of bass patterns; again, not quite a ground bass, but with recognizable repetitions.

Laudate pueri Primo‘à 5 concertato con due violini’
This is one of the most tightly drawn of the psalm settings in the Selva morale, consisting as it does of little more than two blocks of musical material. And it is a setting in which Monteverdi takes liberties with the text in order to produce a clearly audible refrain structure. Section A is formed by the music of the opening duet for tenors, in which Monteverdi sets only the first half of the verse before moving on to set verse 2 as a triple-time, aria-like section [B] for sopranos and violins. The A and B sections are then alternated, with A remaining recognizably the same while B evolves gradually through the course of the setting. The steady progress of this musical structure is interrupted only at verse 6, where the text turns aside from praising God to declaiming the news that he rescues the poor and needy, and then again at the beginning of the Gloria, which Monteverdi begins with a tenor duet in ornamented style. This soon shades off, however, into final statements of A and B, with A reintroducing the words ‘Laudate pueri Dominum’ and B allotted the text ‘Semper et in saeculorum’.

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes ‘à 5 concertato con due violini et un choro a quattro voci qual potrasi e cantare e sonare con quattro viole o Tromboni et anco lasciare se acadesse il bisogno’
‘Laudate Dominum’ is the shortest of all Vespers psalms (only two verses plus the Gloria Patri), and it requires some ingenuity on the part of the composer to produce a setting that does not seem perfunctory. Monteverdi rises to the challenge by using contrasts of texture, by repeating lines of the text in different permutations of voices to build larger structures, and by using the two violins to extend and repeat the vocal phrases. His setting of the first half of verse 2 is particularly striking. Here he contrasts a lively setting over a walking bass for ‘Quoniam confirmata est super nos’ with a strikingly harmonised descending chromatic line for ‘misericordia eius’. The contrasting blocks of material are presented three times, reaching a climax as all eight voices and instruments join for a final statement of the chromatic line. The full ensemble is used in two other places: at the end of verse 1, where they represent ‘all nations’ / ‘all people’ (omnes gentes / omnes populi) and at the end of the Gloria Patri, where the same music is used for the words ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ (Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper). The reference back to music heard at, or near, the beginning of the psalm for ‘As it was in the beginning’ is a device that Monteverdi used in several of his psalm settings.

Christe redemptor omnium ‘Himnus unius Martyris’
While the psalm settings of the Selva morale are scored for large groups of voices, the seven hymns are scored mainly for one or two voices with violins; only this one is for three voices, with violins playing both within the setting and between the verses. In the Selva it appears with the text ‘Deus tuorum militum’ underlaid, but Monteverdi indicates that it can be used for any hymn in the same metre. Here it is performed with the text of the Office Hymn for Christmas Vespers, ‘Christe redemptor omnium’.

Magnificat Primo ‘à 8 voci et due violini et quattro viole overo quattro Tromboni quali in accidente si ponno lasciare’
The Magnificat—the Song of Mary (Luke 1: 46–55)—formed the climax of every Vespers service, and the altar was ceremonially censed while it was sung. This setting for eight voices and instruments is one of Monteverdi’s finest pieces, a work that is clearly rooted in the mid seventeenth century, but one that also looks forward to the early works of Handel.

Monteverdi sets some verses of the text as self-standing entities: ‘Quia respexit’, set largely as though it were one of the languorous triple-time arias found in Venetian song-books of the 1620s and ’30s, is a case in point. But he also groups some verses into larger, more impressive, units. An example is provided by the first two verses, which are bound together by an opening for all the voices and instruments which gives way to a solo tenor intoning the beginning of the plainsong Magnificat tone for the first mode. Similarly, verses 6 to 8 are linked by an eight-part refrain for ‘Fecit potentiam’, using the triadic figures and repeated notes of the ‘warlike’ style that Monteverdi pioneered in his Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda of 1624. Verses 9 and 10, with their combination of sustained dissonances and faster-moving motives form a wonderful climax to the work and, with the final Gloria Patri, to the Vespers service as a whole.

Messa à 4 da Cappella
This setting of the Ordinary of the Mass is one of only three by Monteverdi that survive complete, though many more must have been lost if we are to believe Monteverdi’s comment in a letter of 2 February 1634 that he had to write a new Mass every year for Christmas Eve. Although sections of Masses by Monteverdi in an up-to-date concerted style survive, the three complete works are written in a style which had, by the 1630s, become known as the stile antico (the old style): that is, they are written deliberately in the restrained a cappella style of the late sixteenth century.

It has been suggested that the motive with which all the main movements of the Selva morale Mass begin is drawn from the beginning of the madrigal ‘La vaga pastorella’, published by Monteverdi in his first book of madrigals (1587) and that the Mass dates from around this period. The thematic material is indeed similar to the opening of the madrigal, but the apparently effortless flow of the polyphony suggests that the Mass itself belongs to a period of mastery rather than apprenticeship.

The concerted Mass sections printed in the Selva morale include settings of three texts—‘Crucifixus’, ‘Et resurrexit’ and ‘Et iterum venturus est’—the second of which includes violins as well as continuo accompaniment. Together, these three sections form a complete paragraph of the Creed. The original context for which they were written is uncertain, but Monteverdi indicates that they can be used, for variety, in place of the corresponding sections of the a cappella Mass.

John Whenham © 2003


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