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Music of the seventeenth century was little known to the concertgoing or record-buying public, up until fifty years or so ago when Monteverdi’s Vespers were performed under the inspiration of figures such as Michael Tippett as part of a modern revival of early music. Subsequently, it has been one of the most celebrated works both with choral societies and early music specialists.
Here, the Rodolfus Choir offer their interpretation of one of the most magnificent works of the seventeenth century. Following their highly successful release with Signum earlier this year, Choral Arrangements by Clytus Gottwald, the Rodolfus Choir perform earlymusic as sensitively and musically as they perform music of the twentieth-century.
The modern revival began in Switzerland, with performances in 1935, 1941 and 1943. Selections were performed in New York in 1937. In England, the significant event was a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers at Morley College in London in 1946, given under the inspiration of Michael Tippett and involving many musicians subsequently to be influential. It gradually became popular, and for the last quarter-century it has been one of the most-enjoyed works both with choral societies and early music specialists. Recordings have usually been made with chamber choirs, as here. Any performance requires much thought. A conductor embarking on Verdi’s Requiem will buy a score without having to choose between several presenting the music in significantly different ways, study it, and direct a concert whose success depends chiefly on the ability of the singers and players and his own skill and inspiration. We still live within Verdi’s musical tradition. But there are innumerable questions concerning Monteverdi’s work that have to be addressed even before buying the music and booking the musicians.
What are Vespers? Those who are not Catholic probably know the term chiefly from Monteverdi’s or Mozart’s settings, and sometimes Monteverdi’s work is set in a liturgical context. It is the late afternoon service of the Roman Catholic church, which was virtually unchanged from the middle ages till 1970. Most of the text was ‘sung’ in one way or other. The priest delivered his text in a monotone, slightly inflected to indicate punctuation. The five psalms and Magnificat were sung slightly more elaborately: each verse had a reciting note, but opened with a few rising notes and closed with a descending phrase. On special occasions, these might be sung to more elaborate music, as here. The psalter was sung systematically through the week’s services, but the prescribed psalms were replaced for special occasion, and feasts of the Virgin Mary had their own special set. The psalms, being from the Old Testament, had little except allegorical reference to specific feasts, but that was remedied by antiphons which preceded and followed each psalm and linked them to the theme of the service. These were set in more elaborate chant, musically related to the chant tones by their mode. The hymn followed; Monteverdi tweaks the rhythm of the plainsong melody. The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise on being told by the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant, was a fixed point in all Vespers, and survives in the Church of England Evensong. Apart from the Mass, Vespers was the service that received most musical attention, perhaps because it took place at convenient time in the afternoon. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it could be treated almost as a concert; a bit like tourists at Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge.
Monteverdi did not set the antiphons that would have framed the psalms and Magnificat. There is a practical reason: the major Marian feasts had their own sets of antiphons, so any publication with a specific set would have been usable only once a year. Instead, Monteverdi includes settings of other Marian texts, which would seem to function in a similar way to antiphons. It is likely that the liturgical requirements were fulfilled if a priest said the required text while the musicians performed something appropriate in parallel. Some conductors choose to perform the antiphon before, but not after, the psalm. This produces another difficulty: Monteverdi couldn’t have chosen the modes for his psalm settings more perversely: out of a possible five matches between individual psalms in eight Marian feasts (40 possible matches), Monteverdi chose the corresponding mode for only one psalm in one feast. His music, sung by the Mantuan court’s virtuoso singers, would have been heard in parallel with the ecclesiastical proceedings rather than integrated with them.
There is no contemporary documentation about the work except the 1610 edition itself. Its title page translates as:
“Of the most holy Virgin, a mass for six voices [for church choirs] and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs, suitable for the chapels or chambers of princes; a work by Claudio Monteverde recently composed and dedicated to the most holy Pope Paul V. Published in Venice by Riccardo Amadino, 1610.”
The phrase in brackets occurs only in the bassus generalis partbook. That partbook also has a separate heading after the Mass, which comes first in the edition:
“Vespro della B[eata] Vergine da concerto composto sopra canti fermi” (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin in the concerto style composed on plain chant.)
‘Composed on plain chant’. This makes the failure to link antiphon and mode even odder, especially since the work was dedicated to the Pope, in the hope that it might win preferment for Monteverdi’s son Francesco. It is puzzling that Monteverdi expected a publication like this to find favour in the Vatican, where the ‘new’ style of the 1600s had not yet penetrated. But the opening Mass, not usually recorded with the Vespers, is ostensibly an exercise in the old style, being based on themes from a motet by Gombert dating back at least fifty years; though the handling of the harmony is utterly modern. Monteverdi was not happy in Mantua, so may have been angling for a job, not necessarily with the Pope, but at one of the many other churches in Rome, some of which were more progressive. The place of publication as no particular significance: Venice was the centre of the music-publishing industry, and the leading position (at San Marco) had a new incumbent in 1609. Monteverdi had no official role in the production of church music in Mantua. But the director of music there, Gastoldi, retired in 1608, so Monteverdi may have helped out. The reuse of the fanfare that that began his opera Orfeo (1607) suggests some formal Mantuan occasion, though none of the attempts identify which have been generally accepted. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the Vespers as usually performed is not a ‘work’ at all, but a collection merely assembled for publication. Another link with Mantua is the presence of one item that is not Marian, ‘Duo seraphim’, whose declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity links the specific Trinitarian aspect of the devotion to Saint Barbara in the decoration and liturgy of the ducal chapel.
The modern conductor has to balance what we know (or, at least, think we know) about how the work might have been performed in 1610 with modern voices, instruments and expectations. Here there is no attempt to set the music within a service, so there is no additional chant. In some recordings, instruments are added to the chorus in the psalms, but not here, except where Monteverdi indicates it in the first and last sections of the Magnificat. It is likely that (as with Bach’s Passions and cantatas), the original performances were with an ensemble of soloists who also comprised a one-to-a-part ‘chorus’. But as with Bach, the Vespers are now part of the choral tradition, and here the usual compromise is made of selecting the more ornate sections of the psalms to be sung by soloists. ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ and Magnificat are written in a combination of clefs that implies they should be transposed down, probably by a fourth. Modern choirs and taste is for higher singing, so in this recording these movements are left unchanged at the notated pitch. In 1610, the music probably sounded about a semitone higher.
The stylistic change in the vocal writing between the leading composers of church polyphony of the preceding generation—Palestrina and Lassus died in the 1590s, Byrd and Victoria were still alive—is enormous. A glance at nearly any page of the score shows a significant widening of the range of note-values: in ‘Laetatus sum’, for instance, those singing the chant of ‘Illuc enim’ have two dotted semibreves and two minims while the other parts are singing mostly semibreves: about 32 notes to match four. To make musical sense of both phrases is a challenge. The range of vocal expression is enormous. No-one makes so much of the sound, pattern and sense of a word as Monteverdi. The contradiction between the underlying beat and the surface rhythm was often subtle in the music of the previous generation, but Monteverdi makes it more declamatory. The exuberance of the virtuoso passages, frequently for several voices, not just a soloist, is breathtaking for the listener as well as the singers. But Monteverdi can then bring in an apparently simple phrase that is intensely moving. Listeners will have their own favourites. An example that always affects me is the repetition of ‘ut collocet eum’ in ‘Laudate pueri’: four simple chords (C G a E), linked by the chant entering between them on C before the E chord has stopped resonating, with suspensions on the two middle chords; other people will have their own favourites. There is something magical about the beginning of most of the Glorias. The work is a cornucopia of vocal devices, full of expression, with moods that can change instantly, but in the psalms and Magnificat, held together by the cantus firmus, the chant that is present almost throughout. “Composto sopra canti fermi”: the firm structure permits such freedom, and the ‘sacred songs’ fall into place between them within a strong overall structure.
Monteverdi wrote virtually nothing for instruments except short interludes. In the Vespers, we have one of the most sophisticated instrumental pieces of the period, but as accompaniment to a simple vocal phrase repeated (with a slightly different rhythm—what game was Monteverdi playing?) sung 11 times. The instruments also come to the fore in the Magnificat (though Monteverdi’s publication provided an alternative setting for voices and organ for occasions when they were not available). The cornetts in ‘Deposuit’ sound as if they are in a different world from the chant and organ, while the transition to violins for the second half of the verse (with a chord change from A to F) is not only magical, but could almost be symbolic of the replacement of the cornett by the violin as the main expressive instrument. Why, I wonder, do the instruments accompany ‘deposuit’ mostly by ascending phrases and ‘exaltavit’ by descending ones? I don’t know, but I’m sure Monteverdi had a reason!
Clifford Bartlett © 2007