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.
from notes by John Whenham © 2004