About this Recording
8.550662-63 - MONTEVERDI: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin

Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643)

Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
Vespers of the Blessed Virgin

Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567, the son of an apothecary and physician who had come to occupy a leading position in his profession in the city. Monteverdi was probably trained as a chorister at the cathedral and was certainly a pupil of the distinguished maestro di cappella Marcantonio Ingegneri, a composer of international reputation. Monteverdi's first published compositions, sacred music in the spirit of the reforms of the Council of Trent, appeared in 1582, followed in succeeding years by other collections of madrigals and canzonets, sacred and secular. In 1590 or 1591 he entered the service of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua as a string-player, continuing to work in the musical establishment of the Gonzaga court until Duke Vincenzo's death in 1612, from 1601 as maestro di cappella to the court.

Among Monteverdi's compositions in Mantua, which include further innovative collections of madrigals in the new style of the period, the dissonances of the modern style giving rise to controversy with more conservative musicians, is the court opera Orfeo, first staged in 1607. With a text by Alessandro Striggio based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice as recounted by Ovid and by Vergil, Orfeo was a remarkable and significantly successful achievement. It was followed in 1608 by Arianna, a work now lost, except for the very influential lament of Ariadne, reworked by Monteverdi into a five-part madrigal and subsequently published in its original form in a collection of music by various composers.

Duke Vincenzo was succeed in 1612 by the older of his two sons, Prince Francesco, the initiator of Orfeo, but now, as the ruling Duke, determined to, institute various reforms and economies in the court. There had been no i reason to suppose that Duke Francesco harboured any ill-will towards Monteverdi, but, for whatever reasons, Monteverdi and his brother Giulio Cesare were dismissed from the service of the Gonzagas during the summer of 1612. The two returned to Cremona, while seeking other employment, which Monteverdi found triumphantly in 1613 with his appointment as maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Marco in Venice, a position that brought opportunity and security of tenure. He remained there for the rest of his life, refusing attempts to recall him to Mantua and instituting various reforms at San Marco, particularly in the employment of instrumentalists.

It was in Venice in 1637 that the first public opera-house was opened and Monteverdi was able to contribute again to this repertoire. In 1640 his Arianna was revived at the Teatro San Moise, now converted from theatre to opera- house, and in the same year a new opera, Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria was staged at the Teatro San Cassiano. For carnival in 1643 Monteverdi wrote another new opera, La coronatione di Poppea, staged at the Teatro Grimani.

Monteverdi died in Venice on 29th November 1643, after returning from an extended journey through Lombardy, his death widely mourned. He was succeeded at San Marco by one of his pupils, Giovanni Rovetta, who had served as Monteverdi's assistant, while his fame is witnessed by the contemporary tributes to his achievement and a series of posthumous publications of his music.

The Vespers of 1610, written in Mantua, presents certain problems. The published volume has the title Sanctissimae Virgini missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros ac vespere pluribus decantanda cum nonnullis sacris concentibus, ad sacella sive principum cubicuIa accommodata, opera a Claudio Monteverdi nuper effecta ac beatiss. Paulo V pont. max. consecrata (To the Most Holy Virgin Mass for six voices for choirs of churches and Vespers to be sung by several singers with some sacred concertos, suitable for the chapels or rooms of princes, works recently composed by Claudio Monteverdi and dedicated to the Most Blessed Paul V, pontifex maximus). The Mass with which the volume opens is based on material from Gombert's motet In illo tempore, such a use of existing material being a common practice of the sixteenth century. The problems surrounding the Vespers themselves concern the exact nature of the original publication, whether it is intended as something liturgically complete or whether it is, as the title might suggest, a setting of Vespers with an added collection of sacred concertos. It has been suggested that these concertos, a term which at this time means a form of vocal music with instruments, are to serve as substitutes for the antiphons which, in normal liturgical practice, precede and follow each psalm and canticle. If the sacred concertos are to take the place of the usual antiphons, then no additional chants are necessary. If, however, the texts by Monteverdi are to follow current general liturgical practice, then plainchant antiphons would be added. Whatever Monteverdi's intentions, the music included in the publication of 1610 offers a fascinating conspectus of old and new styles of composition, ranging from the parody Mass to the very essence of the modern style in the sacred concertos. The publication includes two settings of the Magnificat, one in more elaborate form with instruments and seven voices and the other for six voices and continuo. It should be added that the title of the Vespers, Vespere della Beata Vergine da concerto, composto sopra canti fermi indicates the important fact that Monteverdi makes use throughout of canti fermi (given thematic elements) from the traditional plainchant of the liturgy. There is no direct indication of which Feast of the Blessed Virgin is to be celebrated by performance of this setting of the Vespers and, as is evident, no clear indication of any specific liturgical purpose for the work as a whole, if such liturgical unity was intended.

It remains to add the fact that in 1610 Monteverdi visited Rome, perhaps with the intention of seeking employment, but certainly with the hope of securing a free place for the older of his two sons at a seminary, an attempt that was unsuccessful at the time. It may be presumed that the 1610 publication carried some weight with the officials responsible for Monteverdi's appointment to San Marco in 1613, since much of what the volume contained seems well suited to the forms of music current in Venice.

Keith Anderson

About this recording
The lack of precise information about Monteverdi's original intentions when writing his Vespers of 1610 makes it impossible to claim true “authenticity” when preparing performances of this marvellous work. First, like other composers until late in the seventeenth century, Monteverdi did not specify instrumentation of his works in any great detail (in only two parts of the Vespers does he give precise indications as to instrumental scoring). Secondly, it is not absolutely clear what instruments Monteverdi had at his disposal and which could or could not have been used in church. It is not even absolutely clear that Monteverdi wrote the Vespers exclusively for use in a religious service or, indeed, if they were written to be performed as a whole. Additionally, musicologists are not in agreement as to the correct pitch used for different parts of the work.

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble, using a score prepared for them by Clifford Bartlett, has opted to perform the work with one singer and one player to a part with a continuo section consisting of violoncello, chitarrone and organ. No sixteen foot instrument is used. Antiphons, suitable only for church services at specific times of the church year, have not been added and the final Magnificat has been maintained at the higher pitch to give a more dramatic ending to the whole work.

David van Asch

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Sopranos: Kym Amps, Janet Coxwell
Altos: Angus Davidson, Frances Jellard
Tenors: Robin Doveton, Julian Podger (with John Bowen, no.7)
Basses: David van Asch, Adrian Peacock Violins: Pauline Nobes, William Thorp
Cornetts: Jeremy West, Nicholas Perry, Susan Smith
Sackbuts: Paul Nieman, Martin Pope, David Stewart
Violoncello: Jan Spencer Chitarrone: Robin Jeffry
Organ: Terence Charlston
Artistic Coordinator: David van Asch
(Organ by Bernhardt Junghänel)

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van Asch with the idea of complementing the "a capella" work of the vocal ensemble The Scholars. This group, consisting also of the soprano Kym Amps, counter tenor Angus Davidson and tenor Robin Doveton, has had worldwide success during the last twenty years. The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are all specialists in the field of Baroque music and play original instruments (or copies) using contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together without a director to produce their own versions of great masterpieces such as the St. John Passion by Bach, the 1610 Vespers by Monteverdi, Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen by Purcell, the Messiah and Acis and Galatea by Handel, all of which are being released by Naxos. Concert performances by the ensemble have been highly praised by critics and audiences alike. The artistic aim of the ensemble goes far beyond that of so-called "authenticity"; more important is the clarity and vitality achieved by the use of a minimum number of players and singers per part, normally only one (as in this recording), which was common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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