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Monteverdi’s Vespers

February 27, 2016

Monteverdi: Vespers
Concerto Italiano
Michael Fowler Centre, 27 February 2016

Monteverdi published ‘Sanctissimae virgini missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros ac vesperae pluribus decantandae cum nonnullis sacris concentibus, ad Sacella sive Principium Cubicula accommodata’ aka his Vespers in 1610. The most likely explanation for the work is that it was a compendium of all the different types of sacred vocal and instrumental music that Monteverdi was skilled at, with the idea that it could get him a more exciting position than his place in the Mantua court. It seems to have worked: he ended up in Venice, overseeing the basilica of San Marco, and he stayed there until his death.

As performed by Rinaldo Allessandrini’s Concerto Italiano, the Vespers consists of 13 pieces, all of which use sacred texts. The texts used make up substantial parts of what would be a full and correct church service, but there are gaps and extras and the order doesn’t quite make sense, so it likely wasn’t meant to be performed as a single work originally. The first recorded performance, in fact, wasn’t until 1933!

There’s also a great deal of connection between the ‘historically informed performance’ movement and the way this work has been performed. Some performances have used modern instruments, large orchestras and choirs, more operatic vocal styles and other anachronisms. The Concerto Italiano interpretation is very pared back and I assume closer to what would have been originally done.

The ensemble was: two theorbos and a chamber organ providing continuo, two violins, cello, double basse, three sackbuts/early trombones (three different sizes, with much smaller bells and on the bass one a little handle to allow for the slide to go out further than arm’s reach), and three cornetts (which are kind of like recorders with a trumpet mouthpiece). In addition there were ten singers, although they all sang together in only a couple of places.


Cornetts: in this performance there were three of the middle one here. Image by Multimann~commonswiki from Wikimedia Commons

Most of the pieces involve between one to three soloists with the rest of the choir joining in for some sections in many of them. There are also a few pieces for eight or so singers plus continuo with very intricate counterpoints. The feel of the pieces is quite varied. Some are very austere and restrained, almost like plainchant, others sound more like a baroque polyphonic chorus, and some of the orchestral parts were exuberant and very passionate.

I’m not at all Catholic, and this text very much is. As with a lot of old sacred music I find I can still find an emotional connection with what’s being expressed, particularly as I’ve gradually learned more about the services via the music written for it. Even as pure music it is still beautiful, but Monteverdi’s settings also work as a way in to the text, in that the music gives you the emotion that goes along with the text. Most of the words are about praise and thanks for Mary and God, but the music creates the context, so that you are clear about which parts are, for example, purely joyous thanks, and which ones are about God helping people through struggles, or which ones are about the heavenly planes and God’s directing the world.

The size of the ensemble ensured that every musician matters and they all get their moments in the spotlight, or on the other hand that any slight mistakes would be very exposed. There were a couple of odd moments that made the group look slightly less than 100% polished, such as the very long tuning up, one of the trombone players dropping his slide during a violin duet, obsessive adjusting of stand heights by some of the singers, and some slow reactions on the part of the organist to the request for a starting chord after the interval. But when they were actually making music the sounds they made were constantly beautiful.


Sackbuts. Image by Sguastevi via Wikimedia Commons.

The focus throughout was very much on the singers and the text, and the singers were very good. A few of the guys were almost too excellent in fact because they kind of put some of the other singers in the shade even though they were far from bad! Tone-wise the voices were more restrained and ‘plain’ than you’d get in a 19th century opera or oratorio, especially in terms of vibrato and the level of projection and expressive gestures. The music itself had plenty of ornametations, trills, and so on, though, and the voice were beautiful, just different. I really loved the more ‘rough’ or ‘raw’ sound that some of the men especially had, which felt very personal and like they were really bringing their emotions to bear on the text, rather than cranking out the notes like a machine, despite not using the more modern opera tropes for demonstrating emotions. The dynamics were also beautifully done, from gorgeous quiet harmonies to strongly accented and energetic counterpoint entries.

The programme mentions that Monteverdi broke some of the rules of the time to emphasise the text, and I was glad I had the printed programme text so that I could catch some of these moments. In amongst the generally easily understandable harmonies and melodies there would quite often be a note in the vocal line that made me think ‘woah that sound wrong’ for a fraction of a second before I realised that it was actually a fabulously expressive note that Monteverdi had plucked out from the heavens because he needed something more pungent.

I think my favourite of the textual moments was in ‘Duo Seraphim’. The motet begins with two male voices singing about two seraphim calling to each other, but when the text gets to ‘there are three who give him testimony in heaven’ a third joins, and it’s beautifully clear who the holy spirit is with the low voice rising up out of the harmonies. Then when the text moves to ‘And these three are one’ the voices merge into perfect unison. An ‘obvious’ concept in some ways, but astoundingly effective as written and performed! The blend of the voices throughout the night was always wonderful, with a unified ensemble sound keeping each individual voice pick-out-able.

Incidentally, it was surprising to me that a song beginning ‘I am a black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem’ is assigned to a tenor, but it was a definite highlight, so I’ll forgive Monteverdi.

The first half of the concert had very little for the strings and brass to do, but the second half brings them in more often and I really enjoyed the way the original style brass/wind instruments (as opposed to transpositions for modern brass) forced me to think of this as very old music that really was performed on exactly this kind of instrument. Generally it was somewhat small-scaled, except for some points in the closing Magnificat, but it didn’t get boring or monotonous despite generally moderate tempos because of the variety of styles and the range of solo singers.


What a theorbo looks like. Ludovico Lana, Ritratto del liutista Girolamo Valeriani, 1630. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Monteverdi probably invented a lot of harmonic and melodic ‘technology’ in pieces like this, but he still didn’t have anything like what an 18th or 19th century composer had: this music was as old to Beethoven as his ‘late period’ is to us! Although you can still hear the influence of the mediaeval in Monteverdi, you can also hear the pre-echoes which reached to everyone from Bach onwards. And, most importantly, it was a performance which stood on its own as a truly enduring work of art for all time, regardless of my distance both in time and in religious practice. When I closed my eyes in the last movement I could only imagine how this music would have sounded to the people of the time who would have not even been able to imagine having a performance in a luxuriously outfitted concert hall with the magic of electric lighting.

I suppose one close comparison I have recently was seeing the touring Globe tour of Hamlet last year. As with this performance, they aimed to match a the performance style of the time, although they didn’t go all the way to using period accents. Again by putting you in front of roughly what people of the early 1600s would have seen and heard the appreciation of what these geniuses created is only heightened – instead of shoehorning the content into a modern box to show how modern it really is, leave it in its original state so that it is even more shocking how it still seems fresh!

A really memorable performance by a group and director who clearly have committed enormous amounts of time and research to trying to give real authentic emotion and expression to the work of a long-dead master. Maybe the best thing about it was that while the performance was exceptional, it also makes me want to hear many more performances to discover new treasures I missed and understand all the possibilities this amazing music contains.

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