Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers of 1610)
Berkshire Choral Festival
Stewart Center at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts
Molly Quinn, soprano
Kathryn Lewek, soprano
Jason McStoots, tenor
Steven Fox, tenor
Richard Giarusso, baritone
Matt Boehler, bass
Chorus of the Berkshire Choral Festival
Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Kent Tritle
In his study of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, John Wenham quotes the musicologist Denis Arnold:
“No doubt all professions have their hazards; and for the student of Monteverdi the principal one is surely that musicological Lorelei, the Vespers (of 1610, of course). 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. Even to avoid joining in the controversy is to find oneself accused of (i) cowardice, or (ii) snobbishness, or (iii) sitting on the fence, or (iv) all three.”
What is it that makes the Vespers so problematical? A brief historical background will help the reader and listener to understand.
Claudio Monteverdi was the son of a barber-surgeon who practiced his trade in the Italian town of Cremona, where Andrea Amati, father of the celebrated Nicolò, was establishing the standard of excellence in the art of violin-making. As a pupil of the Master of Choristers at Cremona Cathedral Monteverdi published several books of sacred and secular music while still in his teens, and the First and Second Books of Madrigals from his early twenties already show a composer moving into new stylistic territory. At the age of about twenty-three he entered the service of Vincenzo, Duke of Mantua, as a string player. He met some of the finest musicians of the day, including the Flemish de Wert, whose basic principle was that music and words must go hand in hand – the music should match the feeling of the verse and allow the words to emerge as far as possible in the natural rhythm of speech. Monteverdi’s next Book of Madrigals (1592) shows a composer struggling to come to terms with new ideas; as the melodies become more angular and the harmonies more dissonant, emotion sometimes gets out of hand.
Monteverdi was never very happy at the court of Mantua. He was particularly upset when he was not appointed maestro di cappella on the death of de Wert in 1596, but in 1599 he married and two years later he received the desired promotion. After a period of ten years in which he had published very little, he brought out his next two books of madrigals, which showed that he had dealt successfully with the problems of his previous books and created a style of his own. The dissonances might be even more severe and the melodies more irregular, but there is now a sense of control and due proportion, together with humor and the lightness of touch that comes with true mastery of the medium.
Naturally these publications were not greeted enthusiastically by conservative musicians and theorists, who tried to brand the composer as an avant-garde revolutionary. Monteverdi, however, claimed to be a follower of a tradition that had been developing for over half a century and spoke of two musical practices, the prima pratica and the seconda pratica, which were to be considered equally valid. The prima pratica emphasized the perfection of the part-writing, most familiar to modern listeners in the pure polyphony of such composers as Palestrina and Byrd. Polyphonic music is not necessarily short of emotion, as Byrd frequently shows, but the feeling of the words tends to be expressed in a generalized form whereas the seconda pratica, with its emphasis usually on a single melodic line, allows the text to make its points phrase by phrase or even word by word.
Monteverdi’s genius in marrying words and music led in 1607 to the triumph achieved in his opera Orfeo, but this was immediately followed by the deaths of his wife and then of his pupil and ward, the latter of whom was to have sung the lead in his next opera. He was in poor health, overworked, poorly paid, under-appreciated and worried about the future of his two sons. In the midst and aftermath of these crises he was preparing the Vespers for publication and it seems highly likely that a great part of his motivation was to get away from Mantua and achieve financial stability. To do this he aimed at showing his mastery of all current musical techniques, including both musical practices so, in addition to the very up-to-date Vespers, he included a Mass for Six Voices, written in the older polyphonic style favored in the Sistine Chapel. The whole compilation was published in Venice, under the title of Mass and Vespers, with some Sacred Concertos, and dedicated to the Pope, evidently in the hope of making a strong impression in the two greatest musical centers of the Roman Catholic world. Palestrina had no luck with the Pope but 1612 brought the death of the great Giovanni Gabrieli, maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and Monteverdi was called for an audition.
It is fortunate that he was successful since his old patron, Duke Vincenzo, had died and one of his successor’s first actions was to fire Monteverdi.
The further history of Monteverdi’s stylistic development and his effort to create a practical philosophy of music is fascinating and it is comforting to know that he was secure, well and regularly paid and held in high esteem for the rest of his life. Now, however, for a closer look at the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.
Vespers, known in English as Evening Prayer, is the seventh of the eight services comprising the daily ritual of the medieval Roman Church. Certain versicles and responses and the Magnificat were part of every celebration of Vespers but the rest, including five psalms and the Office Hymn, varied throughout the church year. On feast days celebrating events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the same psalms were always sung and the Office Hymn was Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the sea, life-giving mother of God…) Liturgically each psalm would be preceded and followed by an antiphon explaining or commenting on its significance and it was necessary for the antiphons to fit musically with the psalms. A certain amount of alarm and despondency, not to mention acrimony, has been generated among musicologists by the fact that no set of antiphons for the Marian Vespers has ever been found and by Monteverdi’s omission of antiphons and inclusion of the motets that he called “sacred concertos” between the psalms. Scholars have attempted to remedy the situation by choosing antiphons with appropriate sentiments and tonal relationships but most concert performances simply omit them. Some argue also that the sacred concertos have no place in any Vespers service, but it seems from Monteverdi’s careful placement of them that he thought that they belonged where they were as part of an artistic and liturgical whole. There is, in fact, evidence that by the 1640’s the singing of motets between the psalms at Vespers was becoming an accepted practice in Venice. Here is Monteverdi’s layout:
- Versicle: Deus in adiutorium nostrum
- Response: Dominum ad adiuvandum
- Psalm 109: Dixit Dominus
- Motet: Nigra Sum
- Psalm 112: Laudate Pueri
- Motet: Pulchra Es
- Psalm 121: Laetatus Sum
- Motet: Duo Seraphim
- Psalm 126: Nisi Dominum
- Motet: Audi Caelum
- Psalm 147: Lauda Ierusalem
- Sonata sopra Sancta Maria
- Hymn: Ave Maris Stella
Musically, Monteverdi’s Vespers were designed to show his command of the newest musical techniques and his understanding of older styles and ability to adapt them for his own purposes. Composers from the earliest days of polyphonic composition had based liturgical works on a pre-existing melody, latterly known as a cantus firmus, which would be repeated by one voice-part in long notes while the other voices roamed more freely around it. Monteverdi uses an updated version of this technique in each of the psalms. Dixit Dominus, for example, alternates the cantus firmus style, based on a rhythmical version of the ancient chant associated with this psalm, with another technique, known as falsobordone, in which the psalm tone is given a simple chordal accompaniment. It was not, of course, the choice of techniques that made Monteverdi’s music sound so modern, but the originality of his ways of using them, including his treatment of modal relationships at a time when the ancient modal system had almost reached the stage of being indistinguishable from the modern major-minor system.
One of the major bones of contention among scholars, performers and scholar-performers is the size of the chorus and the numbers and functions of the accompanying instruments. In the 1950’s baroque choral works were usually performed by large choirs accompanied by full orchestras of modern instruments. By the 1970’s the scale had been reduced to that of chamber choirs and small orchestras. Knowledge of baroque performance practice was becoming widespread and the movement towards period instruments had begun. It was about that time that Joshua Rifkin startled everyone with his assertion that Bach’s choral music was generally sung with one voice to a part and enhanced the credibility of this belief with a marvelous recording of the B-minor Mass sung according to this principle. Meanwhile, one instrument to a part was becoming the norm for the performance of baroque orchestral music such as the Brandenburg Concertos. It is probably true to say that by now scholars who agree with Rifkin are in the majority and that the one-to-a-part method is as suitable for Monteverdi as it is for Bach, but the matter is still subject to vigorous debate.
Another cause of some acrimony is the style of voice production appropriate to this music. The motets, or Sacred Concertos, show that Monteverdi expected virtuoso singers to be available for the performance of his music, but the virtuosos of his time made a very different kind of sound from those of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which a rich, powerful tone, based on the elevation of the chest register into the stratosphere, has been cultivated. Monteverdi wrote for light, flexible, agile voices able to cope with technically very difficult ornamentation, sometimes written out by the composer but usually improvised by the singer. Improvisation can get out of hand and contemporary documents show that this was a concern. Embellishments were to be appropriate to the sense and feeling of the music and must never obscure the words. Efforts to recreate a baroque vocal technique have sometimes resulted in the production of a thin, colorless sound together with a mannered style of ornamentation and a tendency to attempt embellishments that are both inappropriate to the context and beyond the singers’ capabilities. Fortunately, none of these strictures apply to the performance under review.
Monteverdi provided two settings of the Magnificat, one for six voices with organ accompaniment, and one for seven voices with strings, brass and organ. It is the latter that is usually performed and which, with its brilliant exploitation of older and newer techniques, provides a thrilling climax to the Vespers.
It is no criticism of the Berkshire performance to say that, whatever his intentions and expectations, Monteverdi would have been surprised to hear his Vespers performed with a chorus of 150 people. The mission of the Berkshire Choral Institute is to enhance “the skills of choral singers, while extending the knowledge and appreciation of choral singing and its tradition to singers and audiences.” I assume that the economics and logistics of the situation make a large chorus necessary and, in any case, experience shows that small choruses of non-professional singers sometimes have difficulty with works that fall outside the regular repertoire of amateur choral groups. So the choice seems to be either to stick to the 18th, 19th and 20th century repertoire that such groups often do extremely well, or to take your large chorus and teach them to sing Monteverdi and other baroque masters with clarity, excellent intonation, a beautiful sound and a sense of style. This is exactly what conductor Kent Tritle achieved in a week of intensive rehearsal, leading to a performance that showed the Festival’s success in “striving for quality performances that challenge the chorus and attract outstanding conductors and appreciative audiences.”
The six soloists all made pleasant, appealing sounds and showed commendable dexterity in making the often tricky and, to modern ears sometimes odd, ornamentation sound quite natural and unforced. The sensuous element in the motets based on The Song of Songs came across very clearly but there were times when the singers seemed unduly reticent, especially for someone sitting towards the back of the auditorium. One section of the Magnificat, in which a soprano duet alternates with orchestral passages, produced the odd effect of alternating music and silence, although one could actually see the two ladies singing. I also feel that the virtuoso tenor duets in the Magnificat, beautifully sung as they were, demand a little more bravura and a little less caution. Monteverdi wouldn’t have written these passages as he did if he hadn’t wanted them to ring out through the surrounding spaces.
The Springfield Symphony Orchestra consisted, on this occasion, of fourteen strings, bassoon, three trumpets and three trombones, two recorders, theorbo (bass lute) and organ. Without disguising the fact that they were using modern instruments, the string and wind players produced a sound that was entirely appropriate to the music. The brass players, in particular, produced wonderful sonorities varying from intense solemnity to joyful exuberance, while the recorders, officially “soft” instruments, sometimes added an unexpected touch of brilliance.
In spite of the many thrilling moments, there was a strong inner quality, a kind of projected understanding of meaning, and only occasionally the feeling that the performance was a little too subdued and unwilling to storm the barricades.
Kent Tritle and his forces are to be congratulated and thanked for giving us a wonderful evening of music.