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.
from notes by John Whenham © 2003