Vespers of the Blessed Virgin
Claudio Monteverdi, 1610
Between the five psalms and the hymn of the Vespers service, there is a reading from the Bible, either spoken or chanted. Surrounding the preceding psalm and the hymn that follows are the customary antiphons or their substitutes. Monteverdi provides the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria (“Sonata on ‘Holy Mary’”), a full–blown Venetian–style instrumental sonata or canzona with interjections of the common supplication Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis (“Holy Mary, pray for us”).
It opens with a ritornello in duple metre, followed by a repetition of the same material in triple metre, a common practice especially in secular dance music. Two violins then take up sustained, pensive chords that lead to interplay in dotted rhythms. At the end of this section, the restful mood returns in sustained chords and is handed off to three trombones, while the first iteration of the cantus firmus is heard; another episode now follows in dotted rhythm between cornettos
gradually joined by the entire orchestra. More sections follow in different metres, the cantus firmus stated in each. Finally, the opening ritornello returns, this time with the cantus firmus, the movement closing with a slower cadential formula.
The hymn Ave Maris Stella (“Hail, Star of the Sea”) to the blessed Virgin is extremely old, both its words and melody going back many centuries. Monteverdi sets the first verse homophonically for two choirs based quite closely on its traditional psalm toneritornello by violins, the third verse is taken up by the second choir and followed by the same ritornello played by cornettos and trombones. Soloists sing verses four, five and six, each time echoed by ritornello alternating among instrumental groups. The final verse seven returns with the original material of verse one among both choirs, this time joined by the orchestra.
Perhaps older still than the hymn is the liturgical passage known as the Magnificat anima mea (“My soul magnifies the Lord”) found in the gospel according to Luke (1:46 – 55) on the occasion of Mary’s meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The text looks back on Old Testament prophecy and its fulfilment in the coming of the Messiah, and has been a central part of liturgical hours since they were first celebrated.
Monteverdi treats the text phrase by phrase, using many of the same techniques already seen in the psalms and motets. After the opening Magnificat in which voices gradually build until all voices and instrumentalist join in joyous declaration,
two tenors weave imitative seconda prattica around one another while alto sings et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo (“and my spirit rejoices in God my salvation”). After a brief ritornello, the quintus (tenor) sings quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent (“who has seen the lowliness of his servant, behold from now I am called blessed”) accompanied by more subdued trombones and cornettos. The ritornello returns, this time with quintus singing omnes generationes (“[among] all generations”). Each phrase further unfolds in turn, the cantus firmus alternately accompanied by soloists or instrumental combinations. There are some echo passages between instruments quite similar to the echo passages in Possente spirto.
The first phrase of the doxology Gloria Patri is another echo piece for tenor and quintus; the remaining response and closing Amen are set for full choir and orchestra, bringing the section and the work as a whole to a close.
Even though there are numerous points of similarity between the Vespers and Orfeo, and techniques such as falsobordone and echo were familiar, Monteverdi poured a lot of creative energy into it and its accompanying mass. Listening to them is hard work, performing even harder. One can only imagine the composer’s exhaustion creating them, then rehearsing and producing them amidst the high expectations of his employers and all the other duties he was responsible for. Small wonder, then, that relations between them were — to say the least — strained. Most astonishing of all is that Monteverdi fashioned such extraordinary masterpieces notwithstanding the personal cost.