‘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.
from notes by John Whenham © 2003