Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Vergine

Notes from the CD

Monteverdi's collection of Vespers music published in Venice in 1610 typifies the rich Italian repertoire for voices and instruments in the early 17th century. Italy witnessed an enormous explosion of creative activity in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, both in terms of musical composition and the development of instruments. New compositional forms such as sonata and concerto proliferated, as well as larger forms such as opera and cantata. Alongside these formal developments there were stylistic shifts, principally towards a clarity of expression of text and emotion with a growing use of simpler musical textures such as monody and recitative where a solo voice or instrument would be partnered by a harmonically simple yet colourful and pliable accompaniment.

This is not to suggest that composers such as Monteverdi abandoned the many-voiced polyphonic style of prima prattica but rather used more varied structures in order to communicate more vividly with the listener. Thus, in his Vespro Della Beata Vergine we find tutti sections in many parts (such as Magnificat, the Hymn and some of the psalm settings) set alongside solos, duets, trios etc., either with or without instrumental obbligati but always with the newly-established basso continuo.

Even in these modern psalm settings, Monteverdi utilises old Gregorian melodies, which appear throughout as canti firmi - slowly moving melodic lins around which the outer parts weave their intricate harmonic and contrapuntal patterns. These chants act as the unifying factor, in the manner he had used earlier at Mantua employing a group of solo singers against a tutti choral group.

Monteverdi had been in the service of the Gonzaga family at Mantua since 1592. By 1608, he had become completely disenchanted with the post, accusing the court authorities of meanness and insulting behaviour. In 1610 he travelled to Rome and Venice in search of a new appointment, and succeeded in taking over at St Mark's in 1613. It’s evident that part of his purpose in the 1610 publication was to help secure new employment away from Mantua, and the dedication to Mary as well as the versatility of the music within the collection was designed not only to show his skills but also to give his music as wide a circulation as possible. Thus the music is not presented in any liturgical sequence and includes two versions of the Magnificat, one with instruments and one with organ continuo only.

It is clear that Monteverdi provided a corpus of music for various occasions some of which exclude the use of instruments apart from the continuo. This is more straightforward than we might assume. For example, the opening movement, which incorporates an instrumental toccata also used in l’Orfeo, would simply be chanted (as it is elsewhere in the liturgy). Instrumental ritornelli would be omitted from the Hymn and Dixit Dominus: here Monteverdi suggests this with the directive ‘Li Ritornelli si ponno sonar, e anco tralasciar secondo il volere'. (the ritornellos may be played or omitted, as desired) The Sonata, in which the sopranos sing the text Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis, would simply be omitted.

For the Sonata, this recording substitutes a motet, Sancta Maria succurre miseris, from a later publication, and includes the Magnificat à 6 with organ (and chittarone) continuo only. There can be no doubt that this sequence is one of those Monteverdi envisaged when making his 1610 collection. One result of this combination is that the focus falls even more clearly on the voices, both solo and choral, and allows Monteverdi to present the text with a dazzling clarity.

There is evidence to suggest that the order in which the movements were originally printed owes more to the publisher's convenience and publishing conventions of the period than to any liturgical intentions Monteverdi may have had. So although this has served many performances (there is considerable internal logic) it does not follow any recognisable sequence. But it does include those musical genres which would have been heard: polyphony, monody and chant. Each psalm is preceded by the appropriate plainchant antiphon (here taken from Antiphanorium Romanum ad ritum breviarii ..., Venice, 1607) which, strictly speaking, should then be repeated after the Gloria patri of the psalm. However, in Monteverdi’s Italy, this pattern was more honoured in the breach than the observance. So it is in these places that the movements for soloists (or some instrumental sonatas) may be used as antiphon substitutes.

For this CD we are presenting the music as it might have been heard in the context of Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (March 25), a dedication that would, presumably, have been used by Monteverdi when he subsequently worked in Venice. There are movements, such as Duo Seraphim, which have no place in a Marian Vespers and which were probably inserted by the publisher to fill out the collection. Additionally, there are two motets, O quam pulchra es and Sancta Maria succurre miseris, which come from later publications.

The result will startle some who have come to love the familiar format with its florid and colourful instrumental writing. However, what we now present is certainly close to one of the composer’s own uses of his ‘1610 Vespers’ and gives us the opportunity to reconsider the scale and flexibility of Monteverdi’s music.