Monteverdi Vespers

Monteverdi Vespers (1610)

Bristol Cathedral
Saturday 20th March 2010

Gavin Carr Conductor

Soloists from The Sixteen:

Elenor Bowers-Jolley   Soprano
Rebecca Outram   Soprano
David Gould   Counter-tenor
Mark Dobell   Tenor
Chris Watson   Tenor
Jonathan Arnold   Bass-baritone
Ben Davies   Bass

Canzona - Theresa Caudle   Leader


In many ways, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is a programme note writer's nightmare. Very little is known about the historical context of the music, and such basic questions as exactly when the music was written, why it was published and whether it was actually performed during the composer's lifetime remain unanswered. Many theories abound, often contradictory, and often contributing more heat than light to the argument. However, disagreements about the historical context pale into insignificance beside the disagreements over matters of performance practice.

Although we know this music as the ‘Vespers of 1610’, this is the date of its publication, not necessarily the date of composition. The stylistic variety of the movements and the differing degrees of accuracy suggest that parts of the Vespers were probably written at different times and then later assembled for publication. (A highly accurate movement might suggest one that had been written some time ago and so had already been performed and had any errors corrected, whereas a highly inaccurate one might suggest a movement completed in a hurry just before publication.) Two of the Vespers movements, the opening respond ‘Dominus ad adjuvandum me festina’, and the Magnificat, are known to have been written at least in part before 1610, as they contain music taken from Monteverdi's earlier opera Orfeo, first performed in 1607.

Monteverdi's publication of 1610 contained not only the music we will hear performed tonight, but also a second Magnificat setting and a Mass. The Mass was for six voices with organ accompaniment, and was based around the motet ‘In illo tempore’ by Gombert. The second Magnificat setting was also for six voices with organ accompaniment, and it is thought that it was the model that Monteverdi used to develop into the more elaborate seven-voice setting with instrumental accompaniment that we will hear this evening. The whole collection was dedicated to the then Pope, Paul V.

But what led Monteverdi to undertake such a publishing project? In 1610 he was still employed, albeit unhappily, at the ducal court of the Gonzaga family in Mantua. At this time, he had no particular responsibility for composing church music, so it seems likely that the publication was intended to act as a musical calling card, to demonstrate that he had the skills to fulfil the post of maestro di cappella at a major church or cathedral.

There was also another reason that might have prompted the publication. Some years earlier, Monteverdi had become caught up in an unpleasant dispute with the church musician and critic Giovanni Maria Artusi. As we might say today, there was a full and frank exchange of views, as Artusi published articles and pamphlets decrying what he saw as Monteverdi's outrageous breaking of the rules of counterpoint, and Monteverdi defended his music. Monteverdi's view was that in breaking the ‘rules’ he was obeying the expressive demands of his texts - what he called the seconda pratica (the second practice, in opposition to the more conservative prima pratica). However, in the 1610 publication, Artusi would have found (in the Mass at least) a blameless example of the prima pratica, so perhaps Monteverdi was attempting to show that he could - when he wished - write music that would satisfy even a conservative ecclesiastical establishment.

There is no concrete evidence of any performance of the Vespers around the time of its publication. Theories exist, such as that it was performed at an important Marian feast in Mantua shortly before publication, but none have been proven beyond any doubt. There is also evidence that the Mass setting from the 1610 publication might have been used as Monteverdi's audition piece when he applied for the post of maestro di cappella at St. Mark's in Venice in 1613.

When writing about historical arguments, it is at least possible to present more than one point of view. But when points of musical interpretation or performance practice are at stake, then the performers at some point have to make a choice, and come down on one side or other of the debate. And to perform the Vespers, there are many choices that have to be made.

For example, although Monteverdi is very specific about exactly which instruments he requires for some movements (even to the extent of specifying the organ registration to be used), he is completely silent on the matter for other movements, and so the decision is left to the performers. There is also the matter of the size of the choir to be used - should it be one singer to a part throughout, or is a bigger choir acceptable? Then we have the vexed question of pitch. Two of the movements (the Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat), are notated differently from the others, and this notation has now been recognised as implying that the music should be transposed downwards. The downward transposition solves some performance problems (that the instrumental parts would otherwise be too high), but introduces others (that the vocal parts then become very low). This single issue has cost a great deal of academic ink, and something of the flavour of the dispute can be guessed by the titles of journal articles on the matter such as “An aberration defended” or “An aberration amplified”.

After all the unknowns and the disagreements, it is a relief to come to something about which everyone can be agreed: that this is the most remarkable collection of music, by turns sumptuous then intimate, dramatic then sensuous. The order of events at a Vespers service is the opening versicle and respond, five psalms, a liturgical hymn and finally the Magnificat. In a liturgical context, the five psalms would be preceded and followed by an antiphon. However, rather than antiphons, Monteverdi's 1610 publication contains 5 sacri concentus (sacred concertos), for varying numbers of voices that follow each of the psalms. In this way, Monteverdi contrasts the compositional rigour of the psalm settings, each one composed around one of the plainchant psalm tones, with the freedom of the settings for solo voices in modern style. We remember here that Monteverdi was perhaps the most influential early exponent of the newly emerging genre of opera.

As mentioned above, the psalm settings, as well as the opening versicle and respond, the Magnificat and the final ‘sacred concerto’, the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, are each composed around a plainchant cantus firmus. In deciding to use chant as a structural device in this way, Monteverdi set himself a considerable compositional challenge. The problem for the composer is that aside from opening and closing inflections, the plainchant psalm tones are very static, remaining for long stretches on a single note. It therefore takes a great deal of ingenuity to weave them into the texture of the movement without repetitiveness or dullness.

The liturgical hymn, Ave Maris Stella, is also based on a plainchant melody, but this melody is much more song-like than the psalm tones, and appears as the principal melodic voice in each verse.

The four freely composed sacred concertos show Monteverdi's mastery of the most modern virtuosic style of his day. These movements are remarkable for their variety and sensuousness, and for the vocal dexterity that they require of their singers. They also contain wonderful examples of the way Monteverdi could shape his music to illustrate the text in hand. Notice, for example, in Nigra sum, the way the solo line rises through an octave and a fifth on the word surgere (arise), or in Duo seraphim, the way the initial duet becomes a trio at the words tres sunt (there are three), and how the three voices come together in unison as they sing et hi tres unum sunt (and these three are one). The structure of the movement Audi coelum deserves special comment. This is an echo aria, a popular device of the time, and is a series of Latin puns brought about by the second tenor repeating the last syllable of each phrase sung by the first.

Vocal agility and expressive embellishment were perhaps the most prized skills of singers in Monteverdi's day. Monteverdi writes vocal lines that are already heavily ornamented, but singers would have been expected to add their own decorations too. One ornament that can sound strange to our ears, but that was absolutely characteristic of the time, is the trillo, a single note repeated ever more quickly, and usually placed at cadences. (Confusingly, ornaments that we would now call trills, the quick alternation between adjacent pitches, were known as gruppi).

The musicologist Denis Arnold once wryly remarked of the Vespers: “To perform it is to court disaster. To write about it is to alienate some of one's best friends”. My friends, I hope that neither of these terrible predictions will come true this evening, and I invite you to enjoy with us one of the most remarkable masterpieces of western music.

Programme notes © Margaret Williams 2010