Monteverdi's Vespers 1610: a guide to the sacred masterpiece and its best recordings
Andrew Stewart pays an aural visit to late-Renaissance Italy, as he takes his pick of the best recordings of a spectacular sacred masterpiece, Vespers of 1610
Claudio Monteverdi, born in Cremona in 1567, towered above the mill’s run of late-Renaissance composers. But as the new century dawned, he felt increasingly becalmed in the relative backwater of Mantua, despite opportunities offered by his promotion as maestro di cappella to the powerful Gonzaga family.
Monteverdi’s career blues deepened during a long and reactionary campaign against his highly expressive vocal music, spearheaded by the priest and music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi. The responsibilities of fatherhood also weighed heavily.
The death of his wife and a relentless workload pitched the 43 year-old into a state of depression. It was time for Monteverdi and Mantua to part company.
When did Monteverdi compose Vespers?
He had served the Gonzagas for almost two decades by the time he published his Vespers setting in 1610. The work formed part of a collection that showed what Monteverdi, famed for his secular madrigals and dramatic pieces, could do for the church. Its title-page description of movements as ‘suitable for princely chapels or chambers’ suggests that he was angling for a better job, probably at one of the chapels of Pope Paul V, to whom the publication was dedicated.
It seems likely that the Vespers partbooks, printed in Venice, found favour among Venetian musicians. Three years later, having been dismissed from Gonzaga service after the death of the music-loving Duke Vincenzo, Monteverdi was appointed to the ducal chapel at St Mark’s, Venice, where he remained until his death 30 years later.
Did it stay popular?
Monteverdi’s Vespers, like so many works of the period, was soon buried in the archives. Although parts of it were published in 1834 by one of the founders of the German school of musicology, another century passed before it received a practical edition. Its first modern performance, presented in Zurich in 1935, helped revive the Vespers, albeit in a version littered with errors and exotic instrumentations.
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Many of these issues were addressed in the work’s premiere recording, made in Paris in 1953 by the Ensemble Orchestral de L’Oiseau-Lyre under the direction of Anthony Lewis. There’s much to learn from the intensity of Lewis’s interpretation, with its genuine sense of praise and spiritual conviction.
Wikipedia’s discography of the 1610 Vespers documents over 60 commercial recordings, half of them made within the past two decades. The dazzling diversity of recorded interpretations reflects the elusive background to Monteverdi’s composition and the questions it poses for performers.
What was Monteverdi’s vision of Vespers?
Was it conceived as a unified work devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or is it simply a collection of sacred pieces in a variety of styles? A reasonable case can be made for treating the Vespers as a complete entity, perhaps written for and even performed at the Mantuan church of Santa Barbara during the early 1600s. On the other hand, individual movements may well have been performed in Mantua alongside other works by Monteverdi and his contemporaries. Simon Russell Beale presents more on the genesis of the Vespers in a fascinating BBC documentary featuring The Sixteen, now available on the Coro label (CORDVD7).
The composer took a practical approach to his work, marking the words ‘if wanted’ in the partbooks for wind and string instruments to indicate that the number of performers could be cut if money or musicians were in short supply.
The original publication contains two different Magnificat settings: one grand, the other less so. Monteverdi probably composed the Magnificat for Six Voices first before using it as the model for a more expansive version of the same text included in the Vespers. Should one or both be performed? And what of the order of pieces?
Some recordings present the Vespers in its published order, while others prefer to mix things up; others still surround Monteverdi’s music with a framework of liturgical plainsong. There are questions, too, about the number of voices appropriate to the ensemble pieces, recently answered by a trend to reject choral performance in favour of one singer per part.
Monteverdi’s pragmatism was typical of his time. But the inventive genius of his 1610 Vespers, invested in what are almost certainly his first sacred compositions, remains timeless, as fresh today as it was four centuries ago.
We named it one of Five essential works by Monteverdi
The best recordings of Monteverdi’s Vespers
John Butt (conductor)
Dunedin Consort; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
Linn Records CKD 569
Released in 2017 to mark the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, the Dunedin Consort’s Vespers recording resists the temptation to surround its constituent parts with plainsong to focus directly on the work as it was published. As John Butt explains in his excellent booklet, Monteverdi probably conceived the 1610 compilation as ‘an idealised, “imaginary” Vespers service’. Although Butt follows the order of the original printed text, he subjects its contents to scholarly scrutiny and arrives at a performance that’s historically informed and deeply immersed in words and their meaning.
This is one of those rare recordings, impressive at first blush, that reveals more with every hearing. There’s an equally rare combination of innocence and experience about Butt’s ten-strong vocal team: compare the treble-like purity of sopranos Joanne Lunn and Esther Brazil in the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ with the sensuous, exquisitely tender singing in the duet ‘Pulchra es’.
Subtle changes to the vocal scoring, moving from one voice per part to the whole ensemble and back again, brings out usually buried details of Monteverdi’s counterpoint. Although the full set of singers is deployed in ‘Nisi Dominus’ and ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, they project light and shade into the composer’s homophonic treatment of their psalm texts, thereby striking a careful balance between the grandeur suggested by the words and the intimacy of ritual worship in a sacred space. Perhaps the atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk worked wonders during the sessions; certainly, the building’s warm acoustics complement the music-making’s contemplative nature.
Some things will surprise, even irritate those raised on earlier recordings of the Vespers, Butt’s decision to treat the shift from duple- to triple-time sections as proportions of 3/2 among them. Although certain passages are consequently taken more slowly than usual, his flexible approach to tempo relationships allows greater room for expressive details and, in the case of the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’, for the plainsong cantus firmus to unfold at a uniform speed.
For all the attention lavished by John Butt and his musicians on the score – from the high chosen pitch and meantone temperament to the sampled sounds of an early 18th-century Venetian organ – this Vespers transcends historically informed performance practice to touch the spiritual core of Monteverdi’s masterwork.
Robert King (conductor)
Robert King’s vision of the Vespers formed during a gap-year project, shaped over the months he spent transcribing Monteverdi’s published partbooks. He refined it in 2004 for a spectacular BBC Proms performance and, with The King’s Consort, recorded his edition two years later at St-Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Instrumental colour, contrasts of tutti and reduced vocal scoring, plus impassioned solo singing from, among others, Carolyn Sampson and James Gilchrist, help make this the best ‘choral’ version. (Hyperion CDA67531/2)
Rinaldo Alessandrini (conductor)
Naïve OP 30403
Rinaldo Alessandrini and his Concerto Italiano forces offer a potent antidote to the polished sounds of former British choral scholars in Monteverdi.
Their dramatic reading, made in 2004 with one singer per part, embraces much recent scholarship and even plays with it to highlight the difference in sound between the Magnificat for Seven Voices in downward transposition and the Magnificat for Six Voices at written pitch. I love the baritonal heft and lavish ornamentation of Furio Zenasi’s ‘Nigra sum’, emblematic of a genuinely heartfelt and imaginative performance.
Andrew Parrott (conductor)
Erato 561 6622
The Taverner Consort’s recording, made in All Saints’ Tooting almost 35 years ago, signalled a revolution in Vespers performances. It sets Monteverdi’s music in the context of a liturgical reconstruction of Second Vespers for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin (15 Aug).
Emma Kirkby and Tessa Bonner turn ‘Pulchra es’ into the stuff of desert island dreams. The choir appears only in five movements, leaving the ethereal solo consort to deal with the other ensemble pieces; instrumental doubling is limited to that specified by Monteverdi.
And one to avoid…
Recorded live at the Metz Arsenal in 2010, L’Arpeggiata’s Vespers is strikingly individual and daringly virtuosic. In the booklet notes, conductor Christina Pluhar admits that tempos are a matter of choice, and her superfast speeds here give the impression that the musicians were aiming to catch the last train to Paris. L’Arpeggiata’s vocal athleticism skates over words and could just as easily be applied to a recital of the phonebook.