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

BBC Music Magazine - - Con­tents - Clau­dio Mon­teverdi

An­drew Ste­wart se­lects the finest record­ings of Mon­teverdi’s cho­ral mas­ter­piece, the Ves­pers; plus we rec­om­mend what to lis­ten to next

The work

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

Pros and cons: mu­sic lover DukeVin­cenzo; (be­low) de­trac­tor Gio­vanni Maria Ar­tusi

Man­tua of­fice: the Palazzo Du­cale, home to the Gon­zaga fam­ily who are de­picted on the right

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