Vespers (1610) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Monteverdi was born in Cremona, Italy in 1567 at a time when the spiritual values and traditions of Renaissance music were giving way to the more human-centred values of the Baroque age. Indeed, his life and music reflect this profound change in mentality; by his own admission he wrote in two different styles – prima prattica (a Renaissance style of composition using polyphony over a cantus firmus) and seconda prattica (the use of opera-influenced stile recitativo). Monteverdi was a musical prodigy – his first works, Sacrae Cantiunculae, were published when he was 15. He studied with Ingegneri at Cremona Cathedral and published several books of madrigals and motets, before being engaged as a string player and later as Maestro di cappella to the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga at Mantua, during which time he studied with Giaches de Wert. During his life, which culminated in his appointment in 1613 as Maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, Venice, he published many examples of secular and religious works including six operas (a newly developing musical form), ballets, nine books of madrigals, numerous motets and masses as well as the famous Marian Vespers.

Claudio Monteverdi

In 1610, dissatisfied with his work at the Gonzaga court and beset by financial difficulties, Monteverdi travelled to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul V, possibly seeking a bursary for his son. He took with him his own publication of a Mass (Missa ‘In Illo Tempore’) dedicated to Paul V; published in the same volume was a setting of the main movements of the Vespers (five psalms, a Magnificat, and the hymn, Ave maris stella) together with an additional setting of the Magnificat, an opening Toccata (adapted from his earlier opera Orfeo),and five ‘sacred concertos’ for various voices (Nigra sum, Pulchra es, Duo Seraphim, Audi cœlum and the Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’). It is the inclusion of these latter items that has caused considerable debate as to whether the Vespers were ever intended to be performed liturgically with all of these items included. Redlich, for example, regarded the volume to be a loose compilation of pieces for publication rather than an entity.

The Renaissance tradition of Marian Vespers called for the use of appropriate plainsong antiphons to be used in between the psalm settings and before the Magnificat, and no reference to these is found in the first printed edition. Alternative research suggests that Monteverdi fully intended the five ‘sacred concertos’ to be used in place of the plainsong antiphons.

The evidence for this is in the strong key relationships between the concertos and the rest of the pieces in the Vespers (whereas the modes of the appropriate antiphons do not relate). Although the words of the concertos do not at first seem to be fitting for the celebration of a feast of the Virgin Mary (two of them are taken from the Song of Solomon, a highly erotic biblical poem), it is known that one of the prevailing allegories at the time was that of the church being seen as the spiritual bridegroom to the soul of Mary; indeed, several other quasi-sacred works of the time (among them Finetti’s O Maria, quae rapis corda hominum – O Mary, who steals the hearts of men) show a surprisingly sensual view of the mother of God. The inclusion of the concertos is also in keeping with Monteverdi’s somewhat dichotomous composing style – the psalms, hymn and Magnificat are all written in his prima prattica, the concertos in the much more modern and operatic seconda prattica. Modern performances often include both the concertos and the plainsong antiphons.

Barry Creasy
Chairman
Collegium Musicum of London

Page last updated 10 April, 2007 by Ian Downie