It is a sobering thought that this gloriously exuberant setting for Vespers of Psalm 121 (Psalm 122 in the Book of Common Prayer) would probably have been lost for ever had it not been for the intervention of Monteverdi’s publisher, Alessandro Vincenti, who included it in the Messa a quattro voci e salmi
of 1650. Most of the setting is based on a four-note ostinato – the first four notes of the ‘Ruggiero’ bass with which Monteverdi began his setting of the same text in the Vespers of 1610. Where the 1610 setting is one of Monteverdi’s most complex and intellectually challenging pieces, however, here he seems to take a simple delight in overcoming the restrictions of the ostinato, introducing variety not only through melodic invention but by introducing a number of obbligato instruments – violins, trombones and bassoon. There are echoes of the well known Beatus vir
setting in the opening violin melodies, and of the semiquaver roulades of the great seven-part Gloria. There is humour too, perhaps, in the seemingly endless sequences with which Monteverdi sets ‘ascenderunt’ in verse 4 and ‘Amen’ towards the end of the setting. The ostinato is presented in triple time in verses 8 and 9 and abandoned for the beginning of the ‘Gloria Patri’, but returns in its original metre to round off the setting.
from notes by John Whenham © 2005