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Encountering Monteverdi’s Vespers

Claudio Monteverdi brought a virtuosity usually reserved for secular music to his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin). Dramatic, ecstatic, and full of breathtaking melodies, daring vocal special effects, and vibrant instrumental color, the Vespers—as they are popularly called—are one of the towering masterpieces you’ll hear in Before Bach. Whether you are new to early music or a dedicated fan, an aficionado of choral or solo vocal music, a believer or a non-believer, the power and beauty of Monteverdi’s Vespers will keep you mesmerized.

Renaissance Letter W 110x110hat are vespers?

vespersVespers (the evening service of the Christian daily prayer cycle) were major musical events during the celebrations of saints’ feast days in the 17th century. Monteverdi’s were published in 1610, along with his setting of a Mass in the old Renaissance style. Together the works commemorate the Virgin on her chief feast days. A typical vespers service contains an introit (a kind of introduction to the service), five psalms (typically framed by chant), a hymn, and the Magnificat (the Virgin’s song of praise).

Renaissance Letter M 110x110onteverdi’s Masterpiece

In Monteverdi’s published edition of 1610, there are two Magnificat settings—one for a large ensemble and one for a smaller one. He also included four spectacular vocal concertos (motets for one, two, and three voices) and a sonata with voices. Monteverdi had a remarkable talent for interpreting text through his music. He was a master composer of passionate madrigals and operas, and his Vespers burn with similar intensity.

The fusion of both sacred and secular forms in this piece is both a novelty and a cause for scholarly debate as to whether the work was conceived as a whole or is instead an amalgam of existing works Monteverdi decided should be published together. This is only one of the scholarly questions surrounding the piece, though its quality has never been in dispute.

Renaissance Letter A 110x110  Closer Listen                          before bach marginalia 03            before bach marginalia 04          before bach marginalia 01            before bach marginalia 02      

Monteverdi’s Vespers are a marvelous introduction to 17th-century vocal music because he incorporates a vast range of styles and techniques that make the music of the period so unique. These include the exotic trillo, the rapid-fire repetition of a note used for dramatic effect; thrilling passages for massed voices punctuated by early wind instruments, such as cornetts and sackbuts; and echo and spatial effects. All of these fireworks rest on bedrock of sweet melodicism and high drama.

From its majestic opening to its brilliant closing Magnificat, the Vespers are superb; here are some moments to look out for:

“Nigra sum” (“I am dark”) sets a text from the Song of Solomon and is a tour de force for tenor. Impassioned recitative, dramatic repetition of key words, and other operatic devices make this a stunning showpiece.

“Pulchra es” (“You are beautiful”) is also taken from the Song of Solomon—many of these love poems were used in services devoted to the Virgin—and is a breathlessly beautiful duet for two sopranos that showcases Monteverdi’s sublime melodicism.

“Audi coelom” (“Hear, Heaven”) uses an unforgettably dramatic echo technique popular in 17th-century secular music, where the last note of a solo line is repeated by a second voice singing a different word.

“Nisi Dominus” (“Unless the Lord”) is a show-stopping setting of Psalm 126 for two five-part choirs. The texture and tone of the opening chorus is breathtaking, with cascading waves of music flowing from the full complement of voices and instruments. The central section is noteworthy for the exchanges between the two choirs—choir one sings a verse and choir two repeats it—and the finale reunites the full ensemble for a stirring finale.

Sonata sopra “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” (“Holy Mary, pray for us”) is a dazzling piece for instruments and soprano voices. A lengthy instrumental introduction sets the stage for massed soprano voices singing a supplication to the Virgin with Monteverdi spinning a set of dazzling variations on the tune.

“Ave Maris Stella” (“Hail, star of the sea”) is a popular Marian hymn, and Monteverdi puts on a virtuoso show by setting each of its seven verses for various combinations of voices, including settings for double choir and solo voices. The verses are separated by instrumental interludes and the hymn is capped by a powerful “Amen.”

The Magnificat was set twice in the 1610 edition. Both are remarkable for their virtuosity, color, and the dexterity with which Monteverdi treats the Magnificat chant tone by weaving it into the texture of each verse.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Thursday, April 30 at 8 PM
English Baroque Soloists
The Monteverdi Choir

Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine is a sacred work that draws upon a variety of secular early Baroque vocal styles. The music is quietly contemplative and joyously ecstatic, bringing an operatic sensibility for the first time to sacred music. The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, are renowned for their groundbreaking performances and recordings of this much-loved work.

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