The Vespers of 1610: Monteverdi’s Exuberant Setting in praise of the Virgin Mary

Saturday October 26, 2019
The Vespers of 1610: Monteverdi's Exuberant Setting in praise of the Virgin Mary

Monteverdi’s exuberant setting in praise of the Virgin Mary

Considered by many to be the masterpiece that ushered in the Baroque style of composition, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers epitomizes the era’s ideal that music should express the full range of emotions inherent in the text.

Featuring special guest soloists:

  • Janet Ross and Agnes Coakley Cox, Soprano
  • Jason Sabol and Max Blum-Campo, Tenor
  • Tevan Goldberg and Ulysses Thomas, Bass

This performance introduced Musica Sacra’s “60/40” season, celebrating 60 years of Musica Sacra and 40 years with Mary Beekman as Artistic Director.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Welcome to the initial concert of Musica Sacra’s 60th season and my 40th year as its director. We have the great privilege of opening our season with Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine; it is a real treat for us to perform it and we trust it will also be for you to hear it!

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Monteverdi published his Vespers in 1610 and dedicated it to Pope Paul V in anticipation of a trip to Rome, but the work might have been a compendium of previous compositions or written to celebrate the wedding of the Duke of Mantua’s son, since Monteverdi was in charge of both sacred and secular music for his court. To please the Pope, Monteverdi published it alongside a Mass for six voices written in the old school of Renaissance polyphony* referred to by Monteverdi as prima pratica, or ‘first practice,’ while the Vespers exemplified his seconda pratica. I love the clarity in the definitions of the two practices found on the site Lumen Learning:

Prima pratica was described as the previous polyphonic ideal of the sixteenth century, with flowing strict counterpoint, prepared dissonance, and equality of voices. Seconda pratica used much freer counterpoint with an increasing hierarchy of voices, emphasizing soprano and bass. In Prima pratica the harmony controls the words. In Seconda pratica the words should be in control of the harmonies.

The Catholic Church and particularly the Papal Chapel favored the polyphony characterizing prima pratica and continued to eschew instruments and the new style in worship throughout the Baroque era, thus explaining the presence of two totally incongruent styles in one publication. Those of us who love the Allegri Miserere, which we will perform in March, have the conservative views of the Church regarding music to thank, since Allegri wrote it for the Chapel during the 1630s, well into the Baroque era.

The seconda pratica allowed Monteverdi a full palette of musical textures to illuminate his texts. Among them was the stile concertato, wherein differing types of instruments would be played simultaneously, rather than the earlier style in which each type of instrument appeared only with others of its type, as in a modern string quartet. This style allowed him to accompany mixed voices with an orchestra, heretofore unheard of. Also at his disposal was the new texture of monody, where a single voice would declaim the text while accompanied by instruments, allowing the text itself to be discernible. Monody had appeared just a few years earlier with the invention of a new musical form in Italy: the opera. Monteverdi could also use the textures of double chorus or single chorus; alternate choral texture with solos, duets, or trios; have entire movements of one or two solo voices; alternate chorus and orchestra; and even have predominantly instrumental music with very little vocal presence.

Liturgically the Vespers conformed to the order of service as defined by the Liber usualis* with a few notable exceptions. For one, the antiphons* introducing the five psalms and Magnificat quoted more extensively from the Bible than dictated in the Liber; some of them are not even the antiphons called for in the Liber. The presence of the Sonata sopra “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” is an editorial insertion by Monteverdi that does not belong to the order of service. However, the inclusion of the following motet, Ave Maris stella, a hymn to be sung on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, pinpoints thereby the specific day in the church calendar for the performance of this Vespers.

Monteverdi figuratively threw down the gauntlet of bringing the advancements in secular style into sacred space by setting the response* to the introit, the antiphon* that starts the work, with a complete orchestra performing music he had composed three years earlier to open his opera L’Orfeo. To make it liturgically appropriate, he added the response to the intonation* sung in chant by the chorus in elongated notes over the extant orchestral work, adding a newly composed Alleluia for them to sing at the end. The ornamented lines of the orchestra over a D major chord drone, followed by the switch to a triple meter* with harmonic movement for the Alleluia, provide two different declarations that this Vespers will be an exultant celebration.

Monteverdi did adhere to the earlier prima pratica of sacred composition in retaining the chant specific to each of the psalms forming the service of Vespers. In two of the settings, the Nisi Dominus and the Lauda Jerusalem, the tenors sing the chant in its entirety in accompaniment to Monteverdi’s newly composed music. The other three—Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri Dominum and Laetatus sum—quote the intonation* to form the imitative lines that open the work, and intermittently have the verses of the psalm sung in longer note values of the chant by a voice part to accompany freely composed trios or duets. Every verse of the Magnificat, which always closes the service of Vespers, has this elongated chant to accompany the various combinations of solo voices.

Each psalm setting has its own unique musical characteristics. In the Dixit Dominus, the choral setting has a ritornello, a recurring brief instrumental interlude, to separate it into sections, although this also has the effect of unifying the work. The other element unique to this movement is Monteverdi’s use of fauxbourdon, French for ‘false drone.” In the fauxbourdon all voices simultaneously recite text freely on one chord; Allegri uses this device in his Miserere as well.

In the second psalm setting, Laudate pueri, Monteverdi makes use of a musical device heard often in the Baroque era: quoting the opening lines of the music to set the text as it was in the beginning from the Gloria Patri* that closes each psalm. Some of the choral singers among you may recall that JS Bach used it at the end of his setting of the Magnificat. He also changes meters* from duple to a celebratory triple meter to depict the joyful sections within the text. At the end, he distinguishes this psalm setting from the others by creating a musical equivalent of fireworks in his Amen, in which the voices sing an extremely florid line but then taper off one by one until only the two tenor parts remain. These two voices then proceed to musically face off with what seems to be improvisation but is actually musically dictated in Monteverdi’s notation.

Laetatus sum, the next psalm in the order of service, opens again with a direct quote from the plainchant* setting. This time, however, even though Monteverdi again alters it rhythmically to begin the work, rather than having it in equal note values, he abandons having it taken up by the other voices in the contrapuntal imitation that characterized the previous setting. Instead, he unifies the work with a walking bass that appears whenever the voices sing in chorus. Jazz enthusiasts may recognize this pervasive line of equal note values that creates a musical simulation of a walking pace. It may be an allusion to the Psalm’s exhortation to go into the house of the Lord and have one’s feet stand within the gates of Jerusalem.

Nisi Dominus, the fourth psalm for this particular Vespers service, shifts gears dramatically from its predecessors. Monteverdi sets it for two equal choruses of soprano, alto, tenor and bass that then accompany the cantus firmus sung in long note values by a ninth voice; the work opens with breathtakingly close imitation by one chorus of the other compounded by even closer imitation by two of the parts within each chorus. With this musical chaos, Monteverdi masterfully exemplifies the futility of those who attempt to build a house in the absence of the Lord. As with the Dixit Dominus, Monteverdi brings this marvelous musical material back for the Sicut erat in principio. Between these musical bookends, he introduces a tenth voice so that the choruses can sing an identical call and response with the cantus firmus* present in both. As with the Laudate pueri, he employs triple meter* to express the joyful parts of the text and in this triple rhythm underscores the mood change by changing the tonality from minor to major.

For the final psalm setting, Monteverdi once again turns to the texture of a double chorus, but this time he uses a less dense texture, with three voices in each chorus and a seventh voice intoning the cantus firmus.* The opening sounds like a responsive reading, with the tenor singing the chant in a buoyant celebratory rhythm and both choruses acting as one in response, with one of their voices intoning the chant as well. After this initial statement, the choruses once again have a call and response, but this time their respective musical material is different and they are bound together only by the tenor cantus firmus* bridging their sections. As the psalm progresses, the intervals between the two choruses become shorter and shorter until at the end of the Psalm they form a seven-voiced texture. Here once again Monteverdi shows his contrapuntal prowess by having two pairs of voices imitate each other a half beat apart. For the Gloria Patri he reduces the choral texture to five voices, thereby creating a musical delineation between the psalm and the Gloria Patri.* A densely contrapuntal Amen closes the movement.

As dictated by Catholic liturgy, the Vespers requires these five psalms, each with its own antiphon* to precede them; a hymn; and the Magnificat, the poem of social justice spoken by the pregnant Virgin when visiting her cousin. However, of the five texts used as antiphons by Monteverdi, only the introit* and Nigra sum are specific to the service, and for the latter Monteverdi quotes the selection from the Song of Solomon more extensively than the service requires. For the other four selections, Monteverdi picked non-liturgical texts, perhaps to better showcase the new style. To demonstrate its versatility, he sets the first one for solo voice, the second for duet, and the third for trio. For the fourth he returns to the texture of a duet but then brings in the chorus to provide yet more variety. These solo works consummately allow Monteverdi to craft the music to serve the text.

Take, for example, Nigra sum. The opening statement “I am black” is iterated twice on a lower tone in slow note values to convey the modesty and embarrassment of the speaker for having skin darkened by working in the fields in the sun, while the next line “but comely, ye daughters of Jerusalem” has a florid melody to illustrate both the attractiveness of the quality and the speaker’s pride in having it. For the exhortation “Rise,” the first setting has melody rising stepwise through ten degrees of the scale. Later in the piece, however, Monteverdi sets it repeatedly in shorter note values, creating a strong sense of urgency to the request. I have to admit that I am puzzled by the long note values on a single tone iterated twice in the piece to set the phrase “for the time of pruning has come;” perhaps it is a reference to time itself. For the next motet, Monteverdi changes vocal tessitura* as well as the number of voices, using two sopranos where he had used one tenor for the prior one. Once again he uses florid melismas* to musically depict the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘comely,’ creating a musical depiction of those words. An extended melisma* exemplifies the word avolare—to flee.

The third motet, Duo Seraphim, is one of my favorite works in the world for the way that it showcases Monteverdi’s mastery in word painting. The piece opens with two voices in unison; only when one voice rises a step is it evident that there are two voices singing, thereby illustrating the word ‘two.’ Monteverdi creates the Seraphs’ calls to one another on the word clamabit, using a line that rises and then falls as a cry would. Then he turns it into a musical contest by having each voice leap up an interval to top the other by a single tone, such that the lower voice and harmony has to move down a step to resolve the dissonance created by the movement of the first. With the boldness of the leap to the note that becomes the dissonance, Monteverdi creates the ultimate expression of the compositional device known as the suspension, wherein one voice remains on a note that had been in the previous harmony and then moves down to resolve with the new harmony. This contest is followed by a supremely florid melisma in both voices, creating a different musical depiction of their calling. Another densely ornamented line follows to set the word Sanctus, and the listener realizes that the praise is really a competition between the two to outdo one another in lauding the divinity. Soon Monteverdi adds a third voice as the two Seraphim become three, having the first moment of homophony* on a minor triad* to emphasize their now being three. Each uses the same melisma* in succession as it names each member of the Christian Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three voices unite again in a homophonic chord to intone et in tres (and in three) and, in one of the most sublime moments of ‘less is more’ music, resolve the chord to a unison in a musical embodiment of oneness. These three voices complete the motet with imitative and florid melismas to create a fitting tribute by the Seraphs to their triune God.

For the final motet Monteverdi chooses an anonymous poem in praise of the Virgin Mary. It starts out with one narrator, but soon a second voice, sung by a separate vocal part, interjects brief answers to the questions posed by the first. When the first finally surmises that the answer to his question is the Virgin, he then starts listing some of her attributes, which the second voice assures him are correct. In all instances, this second voice echoes the final section of the melody of the first. In the first section the echo musically associates the an-swer with the question. In the second section the echo underscores the reassurance offered. At this point a collective ‘we’ takes up the poem’s narration, and Monteverdi uses this opportunity to set the rest of the text for chorus, except in the two instances wherein the second voice offers reassurance, where once again one solo voice echoes the other. The choral sections are sung in a triple meter* in celebration of Mary’s redemptive and intercessory powers, in contrast to the duple sections of the two individual narrators. At the end, however, Monteverdi retains the duple meter as the chorus sings the final line blessing the Virgin for all eternity. To this listener the the long note values of music for the first phrase ‘blessed are you’ provides a musical expression of the balm received by the knowledge of the certainty of redemption, while the second phrase ‘for ever and ever,’ with its descending melodic line, represents the bestowing of this comfort from above.

In the next movement of his Vespers setting, Monteverdi inserts a largely orchestral interlude; the only vocal presence occurs with eleven iterations of the chant Sancta Maria ora pro nobis sung by treble voices. This allows Monteverdi to explore the virtuosic capabilities of the instruments, which he does to wonderful effect. Although the chant’s words are taken from the Ave Maria, they paraphrase the text for the antiphon of the Magnificat during the first services of Vespers particular to feast days for the Virgin Mary.

Because it is a hymn, the text for the next movement, Ave Marie stella, follows a strophic form; each verse uses the chant as its melody. Monteverdi sets the first stanza for an a cappella double chorus, the next two for each of the two four-part choruses; and the next two for a solo voice; a ritornello separates each one from the next. To end the work, Monteverdi unites vocal and instrumental forces in one more eight-voiced version.

The Vespers service ends with the Magnificat, and Monteverdi bookends the beginning and end with choral movements for six voices. There are quite a few chant settings of the Magnificat in the Liber usualis; this one is specific to a solemn feast day, fitting for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Monteverdi creates a succession of short movements by setting each line of the chant to its own particular accompaniment, creating a delightful variety. As a result, some of the movements are duets with continuo;* some are duet with instrumental accompaniment; one is a vocal trio; one is an instrumental trio; one alternates instrumental trio with an a cappella vocal duet; and one has the chant accompanied by full instrumentation. For the Gloria Patri* Monteverdi uses three equal voices to express the first line in a musical recognition of the triune nature of the Trinity. The texture of the Sicut erat alludes to the opening although the music differs from it, but once again the soprano voice intones the chant. He ends the movement with a free and exuberant imitative setting of Amen, a fitting end to the Vespers as a whole.

My freshman year at Harvard I took a course in Monteverdi’s music, the main textbook for which was a biography by Leo Schrade, a musicologist specializing in early music who taught for twenty years at Yale University. The book had an uninspired title of Monteverdi, but its subtitle was Creator of Modern Music. Certainly Monteverdi did not effect the revolution on his own, but, as demonstrated by tonight’s performance of his Vespers, he certainly revolutionized the use of music in the church. His music paved the way for Bach cantatas and all sacred music for chorus and orchestra that came after. It stands as testimonial to the inventiveness and genius of the man who created it, but it also stands as a glorious work for the ages.

© 2019 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.