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.
from notes by John Whenham © 2003