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Of all the musical minds active in Italy circa 1600, the most brilliant was that of Claudio Monteverdi. Born in Cremona in May 1567, Monteverdi took up his first post at the Gonzaga court in Mantua around 1591, initially just as a singer and violist, but soon rising to the position of music director. As a young man, he soaked up the exciting musical developments emanating from Florence, and by the end of the decade was writing in a new expressive style of simple textures, bold dissonances and adventurous tonality.
By 1600, Monteverdi was so prominent in the new musical movement that he became the target of a vitriolic attack by Giovanni Maria Artusi, a conservative music theorist from Bologna. In The imperfections of modern music, Artusi lambasts Monteverdi’s music (without mentioning him by name). Monteverdi countered with his own The second practice, outlining two styles of composition: the older style of the late Renaissance and the newer style of the early Baroque. The controversy did Monteverdi no harm. His reputation was increasing enormously with his madrigal publications, and with each new release he showed himself a master of the new style.
It was against this background that Monteverdi, in Mantua, produced two of his greatest masterpieces. The first of these was the opera Orfeo, performed with enormous success in 1607 and published soon after. The second was a collection of sacred music published in 1610, known colloquially today as the Vespers, in which Monteverdi provides not only a compendium of his skill as a composer, but also a wonderful combination of the old and the new, the first practice and the second practice.
The publication of 1610 bears a verbose Latin title, which translates as: A Mass of the most holy virgin for six voices and Vespers to be sung by more voices, with a few sacred songs suitable for the chapels or chambers of princes; a work by Claudio Monteverdi recently composed and dedicated to the most holy Pope Paul V. Published in Venice by Riccardo Amadino 1610.
Monteverdi travelled to Rome in 1610 to present the Mass and Vespers to Pope Paul V. It’s possible he hoped that the publication, and the dedication, might secure him a senior musical post in the Papal court, as the Mass’s more conservative style was completely in line with Roman ecclesiastical taste.
In terms of content, though, the Mass is dwarfed by the Vespers and “sacred songs”, which provide the majority of the work. The term “Vespers” refers to an evening service, requiring the musical setting of five psalms and a Magnificat. Monteverdi sets the psalms which are assigned to special feast days associated with the Virgin Mary, hence their more formal title Vespro della beata Vergine – Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.
Between these movements Monteverdi provides a series of stunning motets for solo voices. These are motets on a wide range of texts, which are not officially associated with the Vesper liturgy. There is also an extended setting of the hymn Ave maris stella and a virtuoso instrumental sonata based on the chant Sancta Maria ora pro nobis.
It’s clear that Monteverdi’s intention in the psalms is to combine the old, the Gregorian chant, with the new. In fact, in the continuo book there is an extra heading – “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin in the concerto style composed on plain chant”. The “concerto” style refers to the new style of composition, of which Monteverdi was the master. This involved challenging writing for Sancta Maria ora pro nobis singers, especially the tenors, and the inclusion of instruments such as violins and the now-obsolete cornetto, a hybrid instrument with a small trumpet-like mouthpiece and fingerholes like a recorder.
Underpinning Monteverdi’s use of the latest styles, though, is the fact that every movement of the Vespers proper is based on Gregorian chant. Weaving its way throughout the complex vocal and instrumental writing, the Gregorian chant for the Vesper texts is sung in one or other voice part, making the whole thing a stunning tour-de-force of compositional ingenuity.