Monteverdi's Vespers

Rebecca Tavener gives an insight into Monteverdi’s Vespers.

Would a composer of today be likely to make a job application in the form of an anthology of sacred music?  Unlikely, I imagine.  There are some fascinating historical examples of just this sort of thing, however, so here’s some digging and a spot of myth-busting around one of the pillars of the repertoire, the so-called Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. 

The commonly held belief is that Monteverdi wrote a setting of Vespers for the Blessed Virgin Mary as a complete work and that it was performed in Venice: the truth is that neither of these ‘facts’ is correct.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising when the idea of combining his supremely beautiful music with such a stunning venue is overwhelmingly attractive.  Like many musical myths, it’s much more appealing and memorable than the prosaic truth.

St Mark Basilica VeniceOne of the world’s most evocative sacred spaces, the Basilica di San Marco broods by the Venetian lagoon like a mythical beast.  Its glowing interior encrusted with iridescent mosaic scales, it dreams in an atmosphere that radiates the devotions of a millennium of souls - no wonder, therefore, that it is popularly viewed as the spiritual home of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine.  It is ironic, however, that this anthology of liturgical music (which also includes a gorgeous stile antico Mass setting for six voices) may never have been heard there in the composer’s time in the sequence in which it is generally performed today.

The 1610 volume was published in Venice three years before Monteverdi took up residence, having been ‘let go’ from his previous job as director of music for the ducal court of Mantua, and it is generally accepted that this brilliant collection of sacred music would have influenced his appointment as Maestro di Cappella of San Marco in 1613.  There is also no doubt that, besides composing the fabulously inventive stream of new sacred works that he would eventually publish in the Selva Morale e Spirituale (Venice 1640/1), he would have cherry-picked items from his back-catalogue to adorn the liturgies within the basilica, BUT there is absolutely no evidence for a performance in Venice of a Vespers sequence as it appears in the 1610 volume.

One of the main reasons why the myth of the 1610 manuscript belonging to Venice persists is because Monteverdi sent the volume to be published there.  Venice was one of Europe’s leading music publishing centres and many works not actually written or performed there were sent to Venetian publishers in order to guarantee the best possible public reception.  Monteverdi thought, no doubt, that the expense would be worthwhile so as to obtain the highest quality printed volume to send to the Pope.

For music scholars, analysis of the 1610 publication has led to deep and often vituperative debate:  one of the leading experts, Denis Arnold, quipped ‘to edit it is to receive the kiss of death as a scholar, to perform it is to court disaster.  To write about it is to alienate some of one’s best friends’.  The argument about Monteverdi’s intentions will probably rumble on into infinity, fuelled in part by discussion of a strap-line on the title pages of the first edition, ad Sacella sive Principum Cubicula accommodata (works suited to the chapels or chambers of princes), which has caused some to argue that Monteverdi intended a distinction in use between the obvious liturgical items such as the Psalm-settings and the ‘sacred concertos’ (eg Duo seraphim and the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria).   These ‘sacred concertos’ often consist of virtuosic, passionate, deeply emotional music that might have more in common with opera.  Have a listen to one of the most emotive, ‘Duo Seraphim’:

So where did Monteverdi’s innovative approach to sacred music come from?  He was employed at the ducal court of Mantua as a composer principally of secular music, and in 1610 his fame was already assured by works such as the opera Orfeo.   When the old duke, his patron, died, his successor was less interested in artistic patronage.  Monteverdi’s personal circumstances, including the death of his wife and his son’s decision to take holy orders, caused him to turn more to the sacred, and his dedication of the 1610 volume to Pope Paul V was almost certainly an attempt to acquire a church post in Rome as well as to secure a place for his son Francesco in the Roman Seminary.  So, this great anthology was Monteverdi’s artistic calling card: a portfolio that ought to impress any potential employer, offering the finest of creative minds for their money.  The various items that make up the Vespers sequence showcase an innovator at the peak of his powers, marrying ancient, time-honoured structures and liturgical sensitivities to new techniques.

One more significant piece of evidence ties the volume to Rome: Monteverdi applied his great compositional skill to composing a Mass setting for six voices, the Missa in illo tempore, written in the old-fashioned, unaccompanied polyphonic style perfected by Palestrina, the style and mode of performance favoured in Rome.  Even this, like the Vespers material that makes up the lion’s share of the 1610 anthology, might have had a first performance in Mantua, however.  You can see and hear part of it now in the likely original setting:

As for the various Vespers items, a variety of occasions have been suggested where they might have been used in Mantua, including the inauguration of a new order of chivalry in honour of Christ the Redeemer in the Chiesa di Sant’ Andrea (1608) and a reunion of that order in 1609.  From 1609 onwards the private concerts held by the ducal family, the Gonzagas, might have included some of this material.  In 1611 a letter from Lorenzo Campagna to the Marchese Fabio Gonzaga suggests that Monteverdi newly composed ‘most beautiful music’ for the Office of First Vespers for the Feast of the Ascension in Sant’ Andrea (although only two of the 1610 Psalm-settings would have been liturgically appropriate).  It has also been suggested that all or part of the Vespers sequence might have been intended for the church of Santa Barbara, and there are plausible liturgical reasons for treating this as more than just a curious possibility.  Monteverdi would have used the galleries for assorted groups of musicians - Here’s the Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria from the 1610 volume as it might have been performed in Mantua.

Please don’t imagine that there is only one possible sequence of Vespers to adopt from the 1610 collection: the first decision a present-day performer has to make is whether to go for the more colourful option with virtuoso instrumentalists or a smaller-scale sequence with organ alone.  The seven-voice Magnificat belongs to the former and the alternative (probably earlier) Magnificat à 6 to the latter.  Then, if performing the Magnificat à 7, one must choose between the high pitch of the original or the now generally preferred downward transposition by a fourth that brings the pitch in line with the rest of the sequence.

At this point a small digression may be required: someone once asked me ‘what is a vesper?’  Well, not to be confused with an Italian motor scooter (vespa, meaning ‘wasp’), Vespers is a service of evening prayer from the monastic tradition.  It is a sequence of Psalms and, always, a Magnificat, all with antiphons appropriate to the season (or saint’s day etc etc) and other material such as hymns at the discretion of the celebrant and music director.

The question of liturgical practice is a knotty issue of Gordion-esque proportions: for what particular context, if any, was all or part of this music intended?  The possibilities include (obviously) all the Marian feasts, but also celebrations of female saints and events such as the Mantuan occasions listed above.  If a quasi-liturgical structure is intended in performance today, which antiphons should be chosen?  In Monteverdi’s time the music director would select the appropriate plainsong antiphons (short snippets of chant that act as ‘bookends’ to the Psalms) and, on the assumption that this was an obvious action, Monteverdi gives no hint of which antiphons are most appropriate in the 1610 manuscript.  Selection is far from straightforward due to difficulties in matching the modes of appropriate antiphons to Monteverdi’s Psalm-settings.

For an explanation of what I mean by ‘modes’, take a look at the following Wikipedia links for the enjoyment of musical pedants: Mode Music and Music Theory.

Here you can see how one of the Psalms, the Lauda Jerusalem, works when it has an antiphon attached:

A modern quasi-liturgical performance of what we now think of as the ‘standard’ sequence requires not only a set of outstanding virtuoso soloists but also a ripieno chorus (full choir for the bigger moments) and a separate male-voice schola (regular church singers for the plainchant antiphons).  The Basilica di San Marco had twenty-eight singers on the books in Monteverdi’s time, but this is not a true guide as the soloists would have been borrowed from the opera and the basilica choir suffered from regular absenteeism.  His singers would all have been male, of course, with castrati as soprano soloists.  Once again, we have to forget modern preconceptions: in the seventeenth century the church singers would have had loud, ponderous voices to cut through the slow resonance of spaces like San Marco.  The operatic voices employed on an ad hoc basis would have been light and flexible, agile and with a creative ability to adorn the music with improvised ornaments.   

The 1610 volume is a perfect synergy between sacred texts and the most innovative and modern musical techniques, all underpinned by Monteverdi’s profound respect for the Gregorian Chant tradition, making it a fitting musical manifesto for the leading composer of the age.  His greatest achievement was surely to bring the most refined virtuosity of secular chamber music into the church whilst creating music of the deepest spiritual probity.  To sit in San Marco gazing up at the many winged mystical figures, angels, evangelists, cherubim and seraphim depicted in mosaic while listening to a clutch of virtuoso tenors giving their all in Duo Seraphim is an incomparable aesthetic and spiritual experience.

In 2010 to mark the 400th anniversary of publication I was present at such a performance in San Marco.  You would think that La Serenissima would celebrate this 400th anniversary and be a proud and supportive host to an outstanding performance but, with sublime insouciance, the city, living on memories of its distant glorious past or too busy, perhaps, with its bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, seemed almost indifferent. That such an event took place at all was due to the indomitable vision of Johannes Skudlik, founder and director of Euro Via Festival, an organisation dedicated to networking between countries and creating ‘human relations through music’ across Europe.  Their aspiration to locate lavish events of the highest quality in mystic places as symbols of pan-European artistic collaboration are so laudable that it seems inexplicable that, as yet, the organisation does not receive the financial support it deserves from the European Union.

Witnessing a live performance of any great work of sacred music by a professional ensemble inside a magnificent venue is a privilege and all the difficulties that had to be overcome by the organisers were more than justified by the depth of Skudlik’s interpretation and the virtuosity of his Europa Antiqua Consort – a group hand-picked through his international contacts and comprising performers associated with many of Europe’s leading early music groups. 

They were only allowed ninety minutes of rehearsal time inside the Basilica and there were other hurdles imposed by the location:  the wonderful chamber organ, made in Verona and resident in Milan, travelled by truck, boat and porter before finally coming to rest in front of the rood-screen (nowadays the Basilica does not have a decent organ!); Bayerische Rundfunk, recording the concert, transported their equipment by boat and set up their studio in the Cripta; music stands and lights were borne through the streets by the performers.  They were ranged in front of the quire-screen as permission to use the pulpitum and galleries, where musicians were placed in the 1600s, was not granted, meaning that questions about the acoustic that might have been experienced in Monteverdi’s day must remain partially unanswered.  From my wanderings in the rehearsal, however, I can confirm that the listener needs to be within five metres of the performers to hear most of the detail.  Only the Doge and the other bigwigs would have heard the music properly.

Coordination of the music from the galleries could be a problem before Monteverdi’s day and there were complaints.  One observer commented ‘to perform music in the organ lofts at such times as the Most Serene Prince and the Most Serene Signoria come to church’ one of the best musicians must be placed in each loft ‘to beat time as it is regulated by the maestro’.  Monteverdi appears to have got this off to a fine art.

At the 2010 performance, the sort of sound-scape that John Cage might have appreciated was represented by two ancient, fur-clad Venetian dames who whispered to each other throughout; a constant vocal susurrus from the crowd of tourists clustered like gannets around the souvenir shop in the Narthex; and a coruscation of bells from the campanile, colliding with the Magnificat to crown a truly unforgettable experience.

At the end, a grandly robed Monsignor popped up and asked everyone to leave the basilica as quickly as possible because it was time for ‘real Vespers’.  Looking at the service cards he was handing out revealed that this would be a spoken affair, in the vernacular and lacking any artistic content.  Of course, the faithful who were to attend had not paid an admission charge, unlike the privileged audience for the Monteverdi, and (also of course) the ‘real Vespers’ would be genuine prayer for all concerned, but this incident set me musing on the question of ‘when is a concert of sacred music an act of devotion?’: we all have known occasions when a concert has felt like a spiritual event, when a sense of the numinous in the uncanny alchemy of music, performance and venue, has been a vehicle for the Holy Spirit. 

The performance I had just witnessed had to be given without the antiphons and other bits of liturgical armature that would make it more ‘real’ in order to finish in time for ‘real vespers’, and I couldn’t help wishing that the Monsignor had negotiated for Monteverdi’s music to be the genuine liturgy on that occasion, with free places for his regular (very small) Venetian congregation.  Having said that, they may well have not appreciated having to sit there for ninety minutes!

Nowadays the 1610 Vespers crops up all over the place in vastly varied performances.  If you wish to watch and hear a performance in an extravagant venue, here’s the whole thing from Versailles:

There are many recordings available, so what should one look for?  A high proportion is directed by experts in the field who make very plausible claims for a variety of approaches.  I’ve studied them all, so here’s a personal view:

Performances that are too big, with forces larger than those at Monteverdi’s disposal, can be unwieldy and unbalanced.  The singers should also be in the right perspective: light soloists and heavier choir.  Performances that sound too knowing and safe, though they may be ever so lovely, lose the powerful sense of energy and innovation that ought to shine through the whole sequence.  Monteverdi’s music was, for the first listeners, startlingly brilliant beyond the imagination of his times and it ought to sound like that!  Performances that pay no heed to liturgical context, not addressing the questions of antiphons and so on, lose out not only from a devotional point of view but also miss a major aspect of Monteverdi’s artistic perspective.

The bad news is that there is as yet, in my view, no recording that matches up to all these standards.  My top recommendation gets everything right although it lacks antiphons.  Nevertheless, you won’t hear a better, more searingly exquisite interpretation of Monteverdi’s Vespers anthology than this:

Monteverdi/Vespro della Beata Vergine
L’Arpeggiata/Christina Pluhar
Virgin Classics
50999 64199429

As we now appreciate that the composer probably produced many versions of Vespers, drawing on his many other sacred works besides the 1610 manuscript, why not indulge in a fascinating and very beautiful alternative to the standard sequence?:-

Vespri Solenni per la Festa di san Marco
Claudio Monteverdi
Concerto Italiano/Alessandro Rinaldini
Naïve  OP 30557

Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Monteverdi interpretations resound with authentic Italian passion and his reformatting of Vespers for the feast of La Serenissima’s Patron, St Mark, using material from the 1610 manuscript and (mostly) the 1640 Selva Morale, plus antiphons from the local usage of the time, is a brilliantly conceived, scholastically sound and liturgically plausible sequence, burnished with spiritual sincerity.  It features singing and playing of coruscating intensity, energy, technical mastery and total commitment, producing passages of ecstatic excitement. There’s also a marvellous bonus DVD which includes a 17th century cooking demonstration as well as musical discussion (subtitled) and ‘live’ rehearsal/performance. 

Rebecca Tavener is Creative Director of Cappella Nova. Founded in 1982 Cappella Nova has built an unrivalled reputation as champions of Scotland’s unique treasury of early vocal music.