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Monteverdi’s Vespers - a pillar of Baroque sacred repertoire

Monteverdi’s Vespers - a pillar of Baroque sacred repertoire

Dynamic Baroque ensemble Ludovico’s Band joins forces with outstanding chamber choir Ensemble Gombert this September to perform Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Discover more about this pillar of Baroque sacred repertoire below.

In a period of enormous political, scientific, and religious upheaval, Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) was at the cutting edge of musical movements that sought to redefine expression through the blending of ancient rhetorical practice with modern compositional approaches.

Monteverdi is often viewed as the composer whose work embodies the transition from the Renaissance style-period into the Baroque. Major reasons can be traced to specific compositional techniques, especially his manner of setting text to music. Monteverdi’s substantial output – including three major surviving operas, many collections of secular vocal works (especially madrigals), and diverse sacred music – demonstrates the development of his approach and provides a vivid reflection of many of the radical aesthetic and musical transformations that took place in his lifetime. His Vespers for the Blessed Virgin of 1610 are regarded amongst the most expressive and florid sacred works of the period. The works within this collection were intended for performance in the Roman Catholic liturgy of Vespers, celebrated as part of the Divine Office.

Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi in Mantua 

From 1590 or 1591, Monteverdi worked in the court of the Gonzaga family in Mantua. His duties mostly involved producing music for entertainment and special festivities, but he also composed and performed sacred works for the spiritual devotions of Vincenzo Gonzaga. His publications of canzonettas and madrigals achieved acclaim, but attracted harsh criticism from the theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi, who in 1600 accused him of not following the rules of counterpoint correctly. This led to a fierce debate over the relative importance of text and music. Monteverdi and his brother Giulio Cesare were part of a movement that explored new ways of setting words to music, in which the text reigned supreme and the music supported and facilitated its expressive potential. They called this new approach seconda pratica (second practice), as opposed to the ‘first practice’ of Renaissance composers such as Lassus and Palestrina. Such a deliberate aesthetic shift – thought to emulate the approach of the ancient Greeks to words and music – represents a crucial turning point in Western art music and signalled an increasing emphasis on exploiting textual expression in vocal music. This was especially the case for opera, which had arisen as a new genre in the final years of the 16th century. While in Mantua, Monteverdi began to compose operas, including his early masterpiece Orfeo (1607) and the lost work Arianna (1608), of which only the final lament survives. It was possibly partly in response to criticism levelled by influential music theorists that Monteverdi prepared for publication a large collection of sumptuous sacred music for vocal and instrumental forces: a six-voice Mass written in a conservative learned style, proving his skill in prima pratica, settings of Psalms and Magnificats in the most modern style (but still based on canti fermi), and virtuosic ‘sacred concertos’, all in honour of the Virgin Mary. (In Italy at this time the word ‘concerto’ referred to an ensemble piece for voices and instruments; these works can also be termed ‘motets’.)

He had the collection published in Venice in 1610, and dedicated it to Pope Paul V. The title page refers to the suitability of these works for ‘the chapels or chambers of princes’, who would be most likely to employ the musical forces necessary for their performance. There has been much speculation over Monteverdi’s motives for publishing these works. He was evidently aiming to bolster his credentials as a composer who was capable of writing serious church music in the spirit of the Counter Reformation – as demonstrated in the Mass setting – which above all sought clarity in the setting of texts.

Monteverdi was keen to secure a church post in Mantua or elsewhere, which he probably saw as a more regular kind of employment, governed more by ecclesiastical duties and a standard liturgical framework, rather than the whims of secular employers. The demands placed on him by the Gonzaga family in the years prior to 1610, and the death of his wife in 1607, led him to request his release from service, but this was not granted. The publication of these sacred works could be a calling card for ecclesiastical institutions seeking a new maestro di cappella (literally ‘chapelmaster’, or director of music).

When Monteverdi travelled to Rome in 1610 to present his new publication to the pope, and to rub shoulders with influential ecclesiastical leaders (and potential new patrons), he may have raised the eyebrows of his employers, but at least he had the excuse of going there to try and find a place for his son in a seminary. In 1612, Vincenzo Gonzaga died, and his successor dismissed Monteverdi, leaving him unemployed for over a year. In a fortuitous turn of events, however, the prestigious post of maestro di cappella in the Basilica of San Marco, Venice, became vacant in 1613, and Monteverdi was appointed. The reputation of his published sacred works likely influenced the decision of the panel. Monteverdi would go on to a long and illustrious period of musical creativity in Venice, where he died in 1643.

The Psalms, Sacred Concertos, and Magnificat 

Of Monteverdi’s sacred works, the Vespers of 1610 have come to feature among his best-known and most performed compositions, since their first complete modern performance in 1935. One of the unifying features of the Vespers setting as a whole is Monteverdi’s assertion that the Psalm and Magnificat settings are ‘composed on canti fermi’ – that is, each of his complex polyphonic settings take thematic material from the plainchant melody (cantus firmus) to which each item was traditionally sung, elaborating them with the most modern and inventive music. Meanwhile, the sacred concertos (or motets) bring the full weight of his experience as a composer of madrigals and dramatic music into an ecclesiastical context.

David Irving is a Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. David Irving © 2016

Experience Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 when Ludovico’s Band joins forces with Ensemble Gombert on Monday 23 September 2019. Click here to learn more and buy tickets.

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