BBC Music Magazine
Vespers of 1610
Andrew Stewart pays an aural visit to late-renaissance Italy, as he takes his pick of the best recordings of a spectacular sacred masterpiece
Andrew Stewart selects the finest recordings of Monteverdi’s choral masterpiece, the Vespers; plus we recommend what to listen to next
Today’s top young talents aspire to work for Deepmind, Google’s artificial intelligence division or some other scion of Silicon Valley. Others have already been harvested as human resources to feed the financial services industry. Four centuries ago, the brightest and best among musicians aimed to score plum jobs at the Vatican or serve one of the great princes of the Roman Church. 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 yearold into a state of depression. It was time for Monteverdi and Mantua to part company. ★e 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 musicloving Duke Vincenzo, Monteverdi was appointed to the ducal chapel at St Mark’s, Venice, where he remained until his death 30 years later. 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. 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. 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.
The 1610 Vespers showed what Monteverdi could do for the church
Turn the page to discover the best recordings of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers