Selva morale e spirituale (I)

Claudio Monteverdi, 1641

Venetian authorities were so pleased with their new maestro di capella that within three years of his début they had resolved to raise Monteverdi’s annual salary to 400 ducats, a sum which, according to the composer himself, was twice as much as any of his predecessors had ever earned. They showed complete Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, title page
Guardi, Basilica San Marco
(Wikimedia Commons)
faith in his judgment by consulting him on all things musical, from special ceremonials like the three–day consecration of a newly discovered relic declared to be a fragment of the True Cross, down to the hiring and firing of individual singers and organists.

Their confidence was well–placed: the republic’s standing as a centre of excellence steadily rebounded. Monteverdi re–organized the capella, hiring more singers including castrati, added and standardised more instrumentalists, and instituted more sung masses. As discipline and competence increased, the repertory was expanded. And as Venice’s musical reputation recovered, so did its attractiveness to other composers and musicians.

Published in 1641, the Selva morale e spirituale (“Moral and spiritual forest”) comprises sacred works by Monteverdi likely covering his entire tenure at Saint Mark’s. Perhaps Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, title page
Selva morale e spirituale, title page
a third or more of its content are concertato works for varying numbers of voices. They are difficult to date, because the forces required for their execution would have made publishing works of this magnitude unprofitable, at least in the short term.

Yet the optimism and joy of Monteverdi’s new circumstances come through clearly in works like the Gloria a 7 voce concertata (“Gloria for seven concerted voices”) with two violins, four violas or trombones, and continuo. It opens with an ascending figure for solo tenor, then erupts with florid melismas on the word gloria that are exchanged between the two highest (canto) voices and two tenors, the violins weaving in their own similar figures, until the entire ensemble reiterates the opening strains with Gloria in excelsis Deo (“Glory in the highest to God”).

Monteverdi, Gloria a 7, opening

The format is repeated, again culminating with all voices and instruments bringing the first phrase to a close. They continue tutti with the calm et in terra pax hominibus (“and in earth peace to men of goodwill”), whose sturdy chords indeed evoke a feeling of restfulness and peace, with all voices near the bottom of their respective registers.

Monteverdi, Gloria a 7, excerpt

The next sentence proceeds with calmer banter between pairs of soloists interspersed with commentary from the violins, each section closed off with the entire ensemble. The pattern bass moves the piece forward gently but firmly until the section concludes with a solemn triple time repetition of the entire second sentence. The opening figure returns with a brilliant restatement of the initial flourish on the word gloriam in Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam (“We thank thee for thy great glory”).

Monteverdi now points up interlocking phrases in the liturgy, assigning to each its own peculiar thematic material. The trinitarian address at the start of the next three lines is given to the two sopranos (canti), then the entire line is echoed and completed tutti with a more animated phrase:

Similar treatment follows in succeeding phrases until the broadening at the last line of the verse Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu, when the original figure re–appears on gloria, unifying the entire piece.

From the same collection is a setting of Beatus vir (“Blessed is the man,” Psalm 112), perhaps for a Vespers celebration. It remains one of Monteverdi’s most popular works, and is based on the madrigal Chiome d’oro (“Tresses of gold”) published in his seventh book of 1619. The original is a strophic song for two voices, with ritornelli for two violins and continuo.

Like its contrafactum, Beatus vir unfolds over a pattern or ostinato bass,

Monteverdi, Beatus vir primo, bass

with the entire ensemble joining at the end of each verse. The instrumental ritornello however, is here replaced by the singers’ opening phrase, first in the canto primo, then by the entire group.

Monteverdi, Beatus vir primo, ritornello

The same playful exchanges occur between the violins but, as in the Gloria, they reflect each choral phrase, or join in the tutti. The middle triple–time section, too, shifts phrases between pairs of soloists with recaps from the violins, the same ostinato bass showing up in a long–short pattern. After a falling off on the word peribit (“perishes”), with voices dwindling from highest to lowest, the motet closes with an assured doxology.

As published, neither the Gloria nor the Beatus vir is scored explicitly for split choruses or chori spezzati, but a similar effect is achieved as the focus shifts from one group or pair of soloists to another, whether singers or instrumentalists. It must have been gratifying for the officials of Saint Mark’s to hear its walls resonate once again with such stunning effect. Perhaps the spirits of the Gabrielis were looking on, and listening, approvingly.

Musica Sacra | Luigi Rossi ⇒

↥ Top