In the liturgy of St Mark’s, Venice, the evening service of Vespers on important feast days was marked by the uncovering of the Pala d’Oro, the church’s great gold altarpiece, and on these occasions the choir was obliged to sing double-choir psalms in eight parts. Monteverdi follows this convention in this second Selva morale
setting of ‘Dixit Dominus’, the psalm with which most Vespers services begin. Unlike some of his predecessors at St Mark’s, however, he did not follow the practice of dividing the two choirs rigidly and alternating between them verse by verse. Instead, he produced a setting of a grandeur suitable for the great state church of the Venetian Republic and one that, through its colourful mixing of voices, violins and trombones, matches the rich decoration of the church. In his setting Monteverdi contrasts passages for a few voices with full scorings that emphasize the idea of a powerful God, sometimes speaking loudly from heaven, as in ‘sede a dextris meis’ (verse 1), or emphasizing the word ‘tu’ in ‘tu es sacerdos’ (verse 5), or exulting through the joyful figuration of ‘exaltabit’ (verse 8), or represented as helping to crush the enemies of the psalmist (or, in this case, Venice), as we can hear in verse 2 and the second half of verse 3, and in verses 6 and 7, the texts of which Monteverdi rolls together, beginning them with a tremendous crescendo on ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’. The passages of reduced scorings are characterized by extensive use of duets, sometimes overlapping, as in the setting of ‘Tecum principium in die virtutis’ (verse 4), sometimes, as at the beginning of the ‘Gloria Patri’, in intimate dialogue with the two violins.
from notes by John Whenham © 2004