Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin; SV 206 and 206a); also called Vespers of 1610. Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the Versailles Chapelle Royale with the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and the Pages du Centre de musique Baroque de Versailles, Palace of Versailles, 2014.
Silvia Frigato, Emanuela Galli, sopranos
Raffaele Pè, alto
Krystian Adam, Nicholas Mulroy, Gareth Treseder, tenors
Alexander Ashworth, Robert Davies, bass
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists
Les Pages du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles
John Eliot Gardiner
Location: Royal Chapel at Versailles (Versailles, France)
Movie director: Stéphan Aubé
Production: Wahoo – Château de Versailles
- 2:10 Domine ad adiuvandum (This opening movement makes use of musical elements from the introduction to Monteverdi’s Orfeo – 1607)
- 4:38 Dixit Dominus (Psalm 110) Six-voice choir and six instruments
- 13:13 Nigra sum sed formosa (Motet) solo tenor
- 17:58 Laudate, pueri, Dominum (Psalm 113) Eight-voice choir and organ
- 24:15 Pulchra es, amica mea (Motet) (from Song of Songs) Vocal duet
- 28:32 Laetatus sum (Psalm 122): Six-voice choir
- 36:24 Duo Seraphim clamabant (Motet) (Isaiah 6:2-3; 1 John 5:7) Vocal duet leading into trio
- 43:53 Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum (Psalm 127) Ten-voice choir
- 48:54 Audi, coelum, verba mea (Motet) (anonymous liturgical poem): Two tenor soloists singing call and response (prima ad una voce sola)
- 58:08 Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum (Psalm 147): Two choirs of three voices plus tenor cantus firmus
- 1:03:33 Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria’ ora pro nobis (Sopranos and instruments)
- 1:11:01 Ave maris stella (8th-century plainsong hymn) Two choirs and soloists
- 1:21:20 Magnificat
The term “Vespers” (evening prayers) is taken from the Hours of the Divine Office, a set of daily prayers of the Catholic Church which have remained structurally unchanged for 1500 years. In scale, Monteverdi’s Vespers was the most ambitious work of religious music before Johann Sebastian Bach. This piece includes soloists, chorus, and orchestra and has both liturgical and extra-liturgical elements.
Monteverdi’s Marian Vespers of 1610 was his first sacred work after his first publication twenty-eight years prior, and stands out for its assimilation of both old and new styles, although it cannot be specifically classified as prima pratica or seconda pratica, per se. The Vespers were published in July 1610, in combination with a six-voice mass which parodied a motet of Nicolas Gombert; In illo tempore loquante Jesu. Today, over four hundred years later, the precise intentions of this large work are not clearly known or understood. This has been a great topic of debate among musicologists for decades, and it has even been suggested by Graham Dixon that Monteverdi’s setting of the Vespers is more suited towards use for the feast of Saint Barbara, claiming, for example, that the texts taken from Song of Songs are applicable to any female saint. He goes on to write that formatting the Vespers to fit a Marian feast made the work more “marketable”. There are several facts that support this view: there are just two Marian songs in the whole work (Audi Coelum and Ave Maris Stella); the sonata could very easily be rearranged to any saint’s name; and the text of the Duo Seraphim is connected with Saint Barbara (because she is generally connected with Trinity).
The Vespers was first printed in Venice in 1610 when the composer was working at the ducal court in Mantua. Historical record does not indicate whether Monteverdi actually performed the Vespers in either city; the work may have been written as an audition piece for posts at Venice (Monteverdi became maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice in 1613) and Rome (where the composer was not offered a post).
The Vespers is monumental in scale, and requires a choir large enough and skillful enough to cover up to 10 vocal parts in some movements and split into separate choirs in others while accompanying seven different soloists during the course of the piece. Interestingly, solo parts are included for violin and cornett, but the ripieno instrumentation is not specified by Monteverdi. Additionally, he did not specify a set of plainchant antiphons to insert before each psalm and the concluding Magnificat. This allows the performers to tailor the music according to the available instrumental forces and the occasion of the performance (the particular feast day’s liturgy would have included suggested antiphons that could be chanted before Monteverdi’s psalm settings). Another example of tailoring to the forces available is the fact that the collection includes two versions of the Magnificat, one of which is scored for a smaller group of musicians than the other. Some scholars have argued that this suggests that the Vespers was not intended as a single work, but it is generally performed as such.
The historical interest of this work is almost as great as its inherent qualities. Vespers are part of the daily Offices, or Canonical Hours, of the church, music for the Offices including psalms (with antiphons), hymns, and canticles, as well as chanted lessons (with responsories). Although inspired by the Church Office, Monteverdi’s Vespers in many ways transcends the original concept, perfectly exemplifying the transition between austere Renaissance polyphony and sheer Baroque splendor. Monteverdi makes his characteristic contribution to sacred music in a bold, almost operatic, style, complete with daring stereophonic and echo effects, and includes a suite of instrumental dances, concerti sections for both voices and orchestra, and a love song. To what extent this is liturgical music is debatable in view of the choice of texts, which some in Monteverdi’s time considered blasphemous. Completed in 1610, the Vespers was written for the court of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, where Monteverdi was employed from 1590 to 1612, and dedicated to Pope Paul V. But the composition’s true home is undoubtedly the cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, where Monteverdi was appointed maestro di cappella in 1613. Indeed, the Vespers could well have been conceived with its echoing spaces, galleries, balconies, organ, and choir lofts in mind.
The sections contain striking contrasts, but the unity and continuity of Monteverdi’s grand design is maintained theatrically as well as musically. The overture, for choir and orchestra, is manifestly operatic, and close to that of Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo – an upsurge of joyous energy, interposed by an orchestral toccata and ending with a jubilant Alleluia. The instrumentation (cornets, sackbuts, a variety of single and double reeds, recorders, strings, organ, and harpsichord) is, with the exception of the instrumental ritornelli, mainly intended to contribute to the formal structure of the choral sections, coloring the choir in the manner of organ stops, as in the “Dixit Dominus,” “Laetatus sum,” “Audi, coelum,” and the beginning and end of the closing Magnificat, the climax of the whole work. The ways in which Monteverdi treats the cantus firmus by incorporating it into the counterpoint of the choral writing, as in “Dixit Dominus” (Psalm 109), is not found in earlier choral literature, nor is the flowing, unfettered parlando (recitation) style used in “Nigra sum,” a metrically free poem with allusions to the biblical Song of Solomon. The concerto “Due Seraphim” is probably the most interesting section in the Vespers. It is set for two “answering” voices – a sort of singing competition for angels – and almost exceeds the limits of human vocal technique. The choral writing is also demanding in its splendor and complexity, much of it in six, seven, and, as in the psalm “Laudate pueri,” eight parts; yet the simplicity of the two-part hymn Ave Maris stella is also among the many treasures of this magnificent work.
Back in 2010, Gardiner had already conducted the Vespro at Versailles’ Chapelle Royale, winning broad acclaim; this is the reason why it was decided to film the 2014 concert. The title page of the first edition is inscribed “ad Sacella sive Principum Cubicula accomodata Opera” (for use in princely rooms and chapels). According to the conductor, Versailles Chapelle Royale is the perfect place to perform this masterpiece, because the spatial disposition makes the audience experience the feeling of Renaissance concerts: the architecture and the various levels enhance the echo and the dialogs between the singers, performing from different heights.