Vespers of the Blessed Virgin

Claudio Monteverdi, 1610

When published in 1610, Monteverdi’s famous Mass and Vespers for the Blessed Virgin carried a dedication to Pope Paul V, and Monteverdi presented it personally to his Holiness later that year. Containing as it did the backward–looking cyclic mass In illo tempore in the polyphonic tradition like those still sung in conservative Rome, and the solemn Vespers incorporating all the splendour and spectacle of the new wave, the Sanctissimae virgini missa ... ac vesperae (“Mass and Vespers of the Most Holy Virgin”) has often been construed as an ersatz application for employment at two of the few places in Italy that would have been suitable for someone of Monteverdi’s calibre: Rome and Venice. The concertato combinations of instrumental colour and vocal affetti clearly evoke the atmosphere at Venice’s Saint Mark’s, where Monteverdi was ultimately to settle.

A closer inspection of the reality quickly deflates this assumption. Obviously both the Mass and the Vespers were written before their publication in 1610. The vocal ranges and the instrumentation, moreover, are similar to those in Orfeo. Besides, musicians were practical people; the idea of writing musical monuments for their own sake or as some dry exam–practice exercise would have been seen as odd, not to say bizarre. Music was written to be heard, to be consumed. The Vespers may or may not have been Monteverdi’s test–piece for Venice in 1613: in any event that was not its prime purpose. And the incumbent Venetian maestro di capella Giulio Martinengo was inconveniently still very much alive in 1610.

Then for exactly what occasion were the Vespers actually intended? Musicologist Iain Fenlon believes that it was intended for the church of Saint Andrea in Mantua where, in May of 1608, a new order of knights was to be inaugurated. Knighthood was to be bestowed on Prince Francesco himself as part of the same wedding festivities for which Monteverdi wrote Arianna and the Ballo delle ingrate. Indeed, the response to the Vespers opening Deus in adjutorium meum intende (“God, come to my aid”) hangs on a chord sung to exactly the same music as the Toccata that opens Orfeo. And between each of the five psalms of the customary order of service is a motet or ‘concerto’ for soloists, two of which are based on words taken from the Song of Solomon, which might have been a somewhat odd inclusion for any other occasion but a wedding.

The response to the opening antiphon from Psalm 69 (70) comprises the full complement of singers chanting to the accompaniment of the same instrumental fanfare as opened Orfeo which perhaps had special significance for the Gonzaga family. As in the opera, it is repeated three times, segmented by a ritornello, to which full chorus is added for the final alleluia.

The first psalm 109 (110) Dixit Dominus (“the Lord said”) begins polyphonically, with the tenor theme taken from the underlying psalm tone answered imitatively by other voices.

Dixit Dominus (Psalm Tone IV)

Monteverdi, Vespers; Dixit Dominus (excerpt)

This quickly gives way to a more homophonic texture, and a response based loosely on the practice of falsobordone commonly used for plainsong. In simple terms, it involved four–part harmonization of the ‘reciting tone’ without strict rhythm, followed by cadential termination in stricter rhythm at the end of the phrase. Thus Monteverdi begins the response with the same sort of chordal chanting already familiar from works such as Sfogave con le stelle followed by a more florid passage:

Monteverdi, Vespers; Dixit Dominus (excerpt)

The end of the response repeats the same pattern, then closes with a ritornello. Succeeding versicles follow a similar pattern, but now the bass gives the theme as cantus firmus while other soloists weave more embellished lines around it.

Monteverdi, Vespers; Dixit Dominus (excerpt)

The words of the psalm extend the military atmosphere of the opening fanfare.

Characterized a motet in the 1610 publication, Nigra sum is an introspective monody of the kind familiar from Monteverdi’s earlier operas. The words are taken from the Song of Songs, allegorically rife, according to the church, with imagery of Christ and his relationship with the church but, as said above, somewhat out of place in the celebration of Vespers except perhaps in a matrimonial context. The neutral phrase Nigra sum (“I am a black woman” or “I am a tanned woman”) contrasts with the more agitated sed formosa filia Jerusalem (“but [a] beautiful daughter of Jerusalem”):

Monteverdi, Vespers; Nigra sum (excerpt)

Similar treatment is given to the calmer ideo dilexit me rex et introduxit in cubiculum suum (“therefore the king delighted in me and brought me into his chamber”) and the more affirmative et dixit mihi (“and said to me”). Monteverdi extends the rising imagery on surge (“arise”), increasing the pace with surge amica mea et veni (“arise my love and come”) rushing to a high point, then releasing the tension through the gradually descending melody on jam hiems transit, imber abiit et recessit, flores apparuerunt in terra nostra (“for winter passes, the rains abate and recede, flowers have appeared in our land”)

Monteverdi, Vespers; Nigra sum (excerpt)

until the restful monotone on tempus putationis advenit (“the time of pruning [i.e. spring] arrives”) affirming the return to the opening G tonality. The entire second half is repeated.

Psalm 112 (113) Laudate pueri Dominum (“Praise the Lord, you servants”) follows, treating the plainsong polyphonically and in falsobordone as with the first one, along with soloist pyrotechnics over the sustained cantus firmus. The alternation between solo and choral textures, and between homophonic and florid imitative passages in this psalm in particular is suggestive of the choral spectacle of Venice, which perhaps led to the job–application hypothesis.

The same sort of highly ornamented closing passage for tenors (tenor and quintus) occurs in the succeeding motet Pulchra es amica mea (“Beautiful thou art, my love”) for sopranos (cantus and sextus) characteristic of Luzzaschi. Each phrase is sung once by the cantus, then repeated with sextus accompanying closely.

For Laetatus sum (“I was glad”), Psalm 121 (122), Monteverdi scores a remarkable bass–line that skips along during the declamation of the first part of each versicle to drive the motion forward, yet still treats the two halves of the theme in cantus firmus.

Monteverdi, Vespers; Laetatus sum (excerpt)

In the first and third iterations, this gives way to a response that broadens through longer note values. In the second and fourth, pairs of singers engage in more florid Luzzaschi–like passaggi, all the while continuing with the cantus firmus in various voices.

Monteverdi, Vespers; Laetatus sum (excerpt)

At least one director has suggested imagery of ascending the temple steps in keeping with the words of the psalm.

The words of the motet Duo seraphim clamabant (“Two seraphim cried out”) are taken from passages in Isaiah and I John. Monteverdi takes full advantage of the words in seconda prattica exposition: two tenors expound in declamatory imitation, and are joined by a third to point up the nature of God — et his tres unum sunt (“and these three are one”) — in simple but elegant triads and unisons, a musical allusion to the nature of the Trinity.

Monteverdi, Vespers; Duo seraphim clamabant (excerpt)

The forces are divided into two distinct choirs for Psalm 126 (127), Nisi Dominus aedificaverit (“Unless the Lord build”) sung using long note values for the cantus firmus with sustained chords and slow harmonic rhythm.

Monteverdi, Vespers; Nisi Dominus (excerpt)

The work is a notated version of a practice called contrapunto alla mente (“mental counterpoint”) that had been in relatively common use, and was described formally by authors such as Giovanni Nanino and Adriano Banchieri. While the cantus firmus is sung to sustained notes, the other voices weave ascending and descending figures over or around it, moving from one chord–note to another by what we would call ‘passing notes.’ These sections are contrasted with the more usual call–and–response passages between choirs. The doxology returns with the same material used at the opening of the psalm.

The fourth motet is a by now familiar echo monody like those already seen in Orfeo by Monteverdi and La Pellegrina by Peri. At the words omnes hanc ergo sequamur (“let us all therefore follow”), the pace quickens and the entire chorus joins.

The final psalm 147, Lauda Jerusalem Dominum (“Praise, Jerusalem, the Lord”) now splits the forces into three: tenors take the cantus firmus throughout, while the remaining voices are partitioned into two choirs, alternately singing in call–and–response fashion or joining together. Initially, tenors begin alone with an exhortive Lauda (“Praise!”) and are immediately answered by all forces. The pace slackens somewhat with the doxology, but soon hastens toward its majestic Amen.

During the traditional celebration of Vespers, each of the five prescribed psalms was preceded and followed by an antiphon. Monteverdi does not specify these, even though the Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina response clearly is a spectacular answer to an opening chant.

The apparent absence sometimes has been cause for a certain angst among conductors and directors. Music historians, on the other hand, tell us that other music was often substituted for the antiphons, and point to Monteverdi’s motets in their stead.

Missa in illo tempore | Vesperae Beatae Virginae II ⇒

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