Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Music: A Christmas Recommendation - Claudio Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine, 1610

"Seasonal Music" or "Holiday Music" are two spongy terms intended to cover pieces of music from the earliest plainchant from 500 ACE to "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." In reviewing "Holiday Recordings" each year, I see clever additions to the "Seasonal Canon." For many examples, I point my readership to my series of four multiple-disc reviews as a part of my colume Bailey's Bundles in All AboutJazz.

Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Naive Records


While not proper seasonal fare, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567 – 1643) The Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610 nevertheless deserve a Christmas consideration. Vespro della Beata Vergine (in the proper Latin) is considered Monteverdi’s greatest work, proud thought for a composer who excelled in all choral areas, including madrigals and the reformation of opera.

Vespers is a term derived from the Hours of the Divine Office in Roman Catholic Tradition. The Vespers have remained structurally intact for the past 1500 years and are built around several Biblical texts traditionally used as part of the liturgy for several feasts honoring the Blessed Virgin. The overall structure includes the introductory Deus in adjutorum (Psalm 69), five psalms taken from Psalms 109-147, antiphons to both precede and follow each psalm, a hymn, a setting of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and the concluding Benedicamus Domino.

Okay, that is the encyclopedia explaination. The true history of Monteverdi's Vespers is a mess. Monteverdi published his Vespers in 1610, dedicated to Pope Paul V (for perspective, the next Pope Paul would not show up for another 328 years, replacing John XXIII). It was not the composer's piousness that drove him to compose what at the time was the largest work of its kind. Monteverdi wanted an appointment as masetro de cappella in Rome. In fact, Monteverdi was not known for his religious music. for twenty-eight years he was most noted as a composer of opera and madrigals, many of the latter more erotic than the church would approve of. After working himself to death as first a vocalist and then conductor at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua, Monteverdi wanted to move onto bigger and better things. As it turned out, not only did Monteverdi not get the post, he failed to even get an audience with the Pope. Failing to achieve his temporal goals, Monteverdi created one of the most celebrated pieces of music in Western Musical Culture.

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 represents an integration of Renaissance and Baroque musical styles, although these contrasting styles cannot exactly be viewed as a bridge between the two periods. However, it will suffice for our discussion to consider the Vespers as such a bridge. The Vespers were originally published in combination with a six-voice mass that based on "In illo tempore loquante Jesu," a motet by the Franco-Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert. Outside of composing Vespers as a potential way out of Mantua, Monteverdi’s creative context was poorly understood. It has opined by noted musicologist Graham Dixon that the Vespers setting was perhaps written for the feast of Santa Barbara (Third Century martyr, feast day – December 4), reasoning that Monteverdi’s use of passages from the Song of Songs could apply to any female saint. Monteverdi very well may have intended the application of Vespers to be broad so to have a broad, and therefore more marketable product.

Further evidence of this is revealed in the fact that Monteverdi did not specify the plainchant antiphons to insert before each psalm and the concluding Magnificat as was common practice at the time. This allows the performers to tailor the music according to the available instrumental forces and the occasion of the performance. That is user-friendly composing. Vespers contains reflective moments within its large frame, while incorporating secular elements into the pieces decidedly religious composition. The Vespers present an assembly of musical forms - sonata, motet, hymn, and psalm – while never falling off track. The Vespers maintains a spiritual center by constructing each movement on the traditional Gregorian plainchant for each text, Monteverdi’s intellectual idée fixe or leitmotif.

Having said all of this, Vespro della Beata Vergine is equaled only by Handel’s Messiah and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat and Christmas Oratorio in the history of large scale musical works and should be considered in the same breath as these Seasonal masterpieces. There exist many fine recordings that include John Eliot Gardiner’s historic and controversial reading on Archiv, Andrew Parrott’s coupling with The Venetian Vespers on Virgin Classics, and Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan Orchestra on BIS (replete with the traditional Mass to accompany the Vespers).

Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Vespers have been breathlessly awaited, and in the true spirit of delayed gratification, the results were worth the wait. Soloists and orchestra alike are gilded into a perfect aural offering. Alessandrini, a foremost Monteverdi scholar, proves he has done his homework with the finest, most succinct and crisp reading of the work ever. This music is a perfect joy that illustrates where Monteverdi spun the thread of the Renaissance into the Gold tapestry that was to become the Baroque. Add Vespers to A Christmas Oratorio this season.

Tracks and Personnel

Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini - Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine, 1610

Tracks: Disc 1 Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della beata Vergine (1610); Responsorium: Deus in adiutorium / Domine ad adiuvandum; Psalmus; Dixit Dominus; Concerto: Nigra sum; Psalmus 112: Laudate pueri; Concerto: Pulchra es; Psalmus 121: Laetatus sum; Concerto: Duo seraphim; Psalmus 126: Nisi Dominus; Concerto: Audi coelum; Disc 2 Psalmus 147: Lauda Jerusalem; Sonata sopra 'Sancta Maria'; Ave maris stella; Hymnus à; Magnificat [ I ] - a sette voci & sei strumenti; Et exultavit; Quia respexit; Quia fecit mihi magna; Et misericordia; Fecit potentiam; Deposuit potentes; Esurientes; Suscepit Israel; Sicut locutus est; Gloria Patri; Sicut erat in principio; Magnificat [ II ] - a 6 voci; Magnificat; Quia respexit; Quia fecit mihi magna; Et misericordia; Fecit potentiam; Deposuit potentes; Esurientes; Suscepit Israel; Sicut locutus; Sicut erat in principio.

Personnel: Roberta Invernizzi (Soprano); Monica Piccinini (Soprano); Anna Simboli (Soprano); Sara Mingardo (Alto); Francesco Ghelardini (Countertenor); Vincenzo Di Donato (Tenor); Gianluca Ferrarini (Tenor); Luca Dordolo (Tenor); Pietro Spagnoli (Baritone); Furio Zanasi (Baritone); Antonio [bass] Abete (Bass); Daniele Carnovich (Bass).

This article was first published in part in All AboutJazz.