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Hyperion Records

CDA67438 - Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 2
Recording details: February 2004
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Release date: April 2004
Total duration: 66 minutes 9 seconds


'Monteverdi is one of those composers who really does merit a complete recording of his output. The sacred works have been a little neglected, and this splendid new series, with its informed and intelligent booklet notes, is putting things right' (BBC Music Magazine)

'… there are joys here to melt icebergs … I want Volume 3 immediately' (The Times)

'Sumptuous surround sound and full-blooded performances from Robert King and Co. combine to thrilling effect in the second release in their fabulous Monteverdi cycle' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Where this new disc really comes into its own is in the small-scale motets, where King's outstanding roster of soloists would be exceedingly difficult to better … The rarely performed motets alone should ensure the present disc its place in any Monteverdi collection, while John Whenham's notes prove as valuable an asset as those Michael Talbot provided for King's Vivaldi sacred music traversal' (Fanfare, USA)

'I'll say it straight out: the result is truly exciting! The music is magnificent, and so is the interpretation … The architecture of the programme is particularly remarkable, and the album is built on balance, variety, contrast' (Goldberg)

'This is an absolutely crack team of soloists, all of whom are completely at home in Monteverdi's idiom. The tenors in particular luxuriate in the ornamental roulades …' (Early Music)

'En effet, c'est avec un tact et une finesse sans précédent que King mène son corpus instrumental … La douceur séraphique de Sampson et Outram dans le Venite, Siccientes n'a d'équivalent que la parfaite maîrise de la diction, des sons enflés et de la souplesse de ces voix' (Classica, France)

The Sacred Music, Vol. 2

This second volume of Monteverdi’s sacred music focuses on works to be found in the 1650 publication Messa a quattro voci e salmi. Here we find a glorious Mass-setting (one of only three to have survived complete – the 1597 Mass is recorded on volume 1), and the composer’s well crafted response to the epic Litany of Loreto. The third work here with full choir is the five-part Exultent caeli, a suitably joyous little work published in 1629.

Distinguished soloists Carolyn Sampson, Rebecca Outram, Rogers Covey-Crump, Charles Daniels, James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey share out the remaining works: the duets Venite, siccientes, Ego dormio, Cantate Domino and O beatae viae, and the solo pieces Currite populi and Laudate Dominum (sung by Gilchrist and Harvey, respectively).

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.

Exultent caeli à 5
The Marian motet ‘Exultent caeli’, for five voices and continuo, was published in the Quarta raccolta de’ sacri canti (Fourth Collection of Sacred Songs, 1629) of Lorenzo Calvi, choirmaster of Pavia Cathedral as he styled himself on the title-page of his third collection (1626). Calvi’s book includes music by a number of able north Italian composers who had, to use his own words, ‘favoured him’ with compositions for inclusion in the anthology. In the source this appears to be a motet with two verses, and it has previously been performed as such. In fact, though, each verse refers to a different Marian Feast day and it is clear that only one should be sung at a time. The text of the second verse of Monteverdi’s motet identifies it as suitable for the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March). Monteverdi sandwiches the verse between two passages in triple time: the first is the five-part chorus of rejoicing that opens and closes the motet, the second a suave three-voice hymn to Mary which begins as a setting over the so-called ‘Chaconne Bass’, often used as an ostinato in music of the 1630s (Monteverdi himself used it for his setting of Rinuccini’s ‘Zefiro torna’, published in the Scherzi musicali of 1632). In a note to the choirmaster Monteverdi states that the ‘Exultent caeli’ section can be performed with instruments doubling the voices.

Venite, siccientes à 2
This duet, from Calvi’s Second Collection of Sacred Songs (Seconda raccolta de’ sacri canti, 1624), takes the Old Testament image of a land flowing with milk and honey and transfers it to a Christian context in which water and wine, honey and milk are freely given by the Lord. Monteverdi sets the text in four sections. The first two and the last are in triple time, culminating in the slower refrain ‘mel et lac’ (honey and milk), laced with a bitter-sweet harmony for the first statement of the word ‘lac’. The third section, the focal point of the motet, is set in an expressive recitative-like style.

Currite populi à voce sola e B.c.
This motet for solo tenor and continuo was published in a volume entitled Ghirlanda Sacra (1625) compiled by Leonardo Simonetti, a singer at St Mark’s, Venice. It is one of Monteverdi’s happiest inventions, beginning in a rapid triple time suggesting people hurrying to sing the melodious ‘alleluia’ that then follows in honour of the saint whose day is being celebrated. The two parts of this refrain are then used to punctuate the verses announcing the saint’s name, praising him, and petitioning him to hear the people’s prayer, before being coupled together again to end the piece. This is an all-purpose motet: in the text, the saint’s name is left blank for the choirmaster to fill in as appropriate to the Feast being celebrated.

Ego dormio à 2 voci e B.c.
The Old Testament Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), a collection of love-lyrics often written in the female voice, was a frequently mined source for motet texts during the Renaissance. In the Christian church such texts were interpreted metaphorically, sometimes as texts in praise of the Virgin Mary, sometimes, as in this case, as texts representing the Church (the woman) welcoming her beloved (Christ). Although the motet is scored for soprano and bass, Monteverdi does not treat the text as a dialogue, but uses both voices together to represent the female and male speakers. The motet was the first by Monteverdi to be published in a Roman anthology – Francesco Sammaruco’s Sacri affetti (Sacred Affections), published by Luca Antonio Soldi in Rome in 1625. Interestingly, there is no hint of the melodious triple-time refrains found in the music of northern Italian anthologies. Instead, the motet is set throughout in an expressive (‘affective’) recitative-like style.

Messa à 4 voci da Cappella (1650)
Of the many Masses that Monteverdi must have written for St Mark’s (he was under an obligation to produce a new Mass for Christmas Eve each year) only two have survived. This four-voice setting from the Messa … e salmi of 1650 is, like its sister in the Selva morale, written in the stile antico – the style of sixteenth-century church music — characterized visually by note-values that are rarely shorter than a crotchet. In aural terms, though, it is easy to hear in its sequential patterns, rich textures and virtuosic writing, Monteverdi’s long experience of composing in the newer styles of the seventeenth century.

The 1650 Mass is particularly interesting for the ways in which Monteverdi generates a variety of material from only a few basic ideas. Most of the material of the setting is, in fact, based on the initial motifs of the first Kyrie – a falling scale followed by a sequence of two rising thirds. In the second paragraph of the Kyrie, the sequence of rising thirds is filled in to produce a sequence of rising scales; and in the third paragraph the initial idea is inverted to produce a rising scale and a sequence of falling thirds. In the second paragraph of the ‘Christe eleison’ the sequence of falling thirds is filled out with additional notes and given a new rhythmic impetus, producing yet further material which becomes an important element of the remainder of the setting: it is heard at ‘Laudamus te’ in the Gloria, for example, at ‘visibilium omnium’ in the Credo, in a slightly different form in the ‘Hosanna’ of the Sanctus and Benedictus, and at the words ‘qui tollis’ in the Agnus Dei. In each case this sequence also follows the downward scale-pattern with which the Mass began. Some of the most touching moments of the Mass – at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ in the Gloria, ‘et incarnatus est’ in the Credo, and the opening of the Benedictus – are formed by yet another transformation of the descending scale motif in the top line, accompanied in the first and last cases by the falling thirds motif in the lower parts. The very tight motivic integration of the Mass shows Monteverdi thinking in compositional terms that are quite different from his usual engagement with the imagery of a text, and in this respect the 1650 Mass is the heir of the Mass in Monteverdi’s 1610 publication, a work that we know cost him ‘great study and effort’.

Cantate Domino à 2
This two-voice motet was the earliest published example of Monteverdi’s Venetian sacred music and, interestingly, it was issued in an anthology dedicated to Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, who later, as Emperor Ferdinand II, was the intended dedicatee of Monteverdi’s monumental eighth book of madrigals. The anthology – Parnassus Musicus Ferdinandaeus (1615) – includes music by composers working in Italy, as well as those working at Ferdinand’s court at Graz. It was edited by Giovan Battista Bonometti, a singer employed by Ferdinand who had earlier worked at Milan Cathedral, where he may have met Monteverdi during one of the composer’s visits to that city. The text of the motet is based on verses 1, 2 and 4 of Psalm 97 (98 in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the English Bible). The musical setting establishes the pattern for many of Monteverdi’s later Venetian motets by contrasting a triple-time refrain, representing singing (‘Cantate Domino’), with passages in duple time, in this case lavishly ornamented in a manner reminiscent of pieces in the 1610 Vespers collection.

O beatae viae à 2 voci
‘O beatae viae’ was published in 1620 in Lorenzo Calvi’s Symbolae Diversorum Musicorum. Its text is an antiphon for the Feast of San Rocco (16 August), a saint venerated in Venice as a protector against plague and as the patron saint of one of the city’s richest confraternities. Celebrations of the saint’s day at the home of the confraternity, the Scuola di San Rocco, were accompanied each year by elaborate music-making, with singers and instrumentalists bought in from St Mark’s to boost the Scuola’s own musical forces (a notable account of the celebrations for 1608, when Giovanni Gabrieli was organist of the Scuola can be read in Thomas Coryate’s Crudities, published in 1611). Monteverdi’s two-voice setting of the antiphon reflects the approach to duet-writing adopted by his assistant choirmaster at St Mark’s, Alessandro Grandi, in which the end-phrase of a solo melody is treated in imitation to build a large musical paragraph. Triple-time writing is used for the word ‘cantemus’ (Let us sing) and for the extended final ‘Alleluia’.

Laudate Dominum Basso solo
Although most of Monteverdi’s psalm settings are for ensembles of five or more parts, two settings for solo voice survive. One, of ‘Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius’ (Psalm 150) is found in the Selva morale. The other is this setting for bass of the very short Psalm 116 (BCP 117), ‘Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes’, which was published in the Messa … e salmi of 1650 and reprinted in 1651 in an anthology of motets edited by Gasparo Casati. Monteverdi brings to the setting the arts of the musical orator. In the first verse, for example, the parallel between the first and second halves of the verse, each beginning with the word ‘laudate’, prompts him to use similar musical phrases, though at different pitch levels. In verse 2, set mainly in triple time, Christ’s mercy (misericordia) is confirmed upon us (confirmata est) by a repetition of the same musical phrase, and various methods are found of stretching out the phrase ‘manet in aeternum’ (abides for ever). Each half of the Gloria is allotted its own ostinato bass before Monteverdi returns to the figuration of the motet’s opening for the ‘Amen’.

Letaniae della Beata Vergine à 6 voci
Devotion to the Virgin Mary was a powerful force in Venetian religious life, and the feeling that the city was under the special protection of the Virgin was reinforced when Pope Pius V declared that the Venetians’ victory over the Turks in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto was due to the intervention of the Madonna of the Rosary. The many polyphonic settings of the ‘Litany of Loreto’ that were written for Venice and other Italian centres during the seventeenth century seem to have been prompted by the new wave of Marian devotion that followed the victory at Lepanto.

The ‘Litany of Loreto’, which Monteverdi sets, is so called because it seems to have originated for use at the Holy House of Loreto near Ancona, one of Italy’s most important shrines, a basilica built to contain the house at Nazareth in which the Holy Family lived, which was miraculously transported to Loreto by angels in the late thirteenth century. The litany – a series of invocations and petitions – seems to have been used at the basilica from the late fifteenth century, and its text was authorized for general use in the Catholic church by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, at a time when other litanies had been suppressed.

The litany begins and ends with invocations familiar from the text of the Mass – ‘Kyrie eleison’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ – though here they have new petitions added. Between these there are groups of petitions to the Trinity (beginning ‘Pater de caelis, Deus, miserere nobis’), and to Mary as saint (‘Sancta Maria’), mother (‘Mater Christi’) and virgin (‘Virgo prudentissima’), as personification of biblical and other images (‘Speculum iustitiae’), and as queen (‘Regina Angelorum’). Monteverdi’s setting, published in the posthumous 1650 collection, is in eight sections. He combines the Kyrie with the petitions to the Trinity to form the first section, and subdivides into two the group of petitions beginning ‘Speculum iustitiae’. Otherwise he follows the main groupings of petitions exactly. He creates variety in the setting by changing scorings, by using triple time for the sections beginning ‘Virgo prudentissima’ and ‘Regina Angelorum’ and by occasionally telescoping the petitions: in the ‘Mater Christi’ section, for example, he begins new invocations while the preceding ‘ora pro nobis’ is being sung.

John Whenham © 2004

Other albums in this series
'Monteverdi: Vespers' (CDA67531/2)
Monteverdi: Vespers
'Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 1' (CDA67428)
Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 1
'Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 2' (SACDA67438)
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Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 3
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'Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 3' (CDA67487)
Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 3
'Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 4' (CDA67519)
Monteverdi: The Sacred Music, Vol. 4
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