Selva morale e spirituale (III)

Claudio Monteverdi, 1641

In 1632, Monteverdi took holy orders and later the same year was ordained as deacon, an action which some writers have found rather odd. Some years earlier, his son had had a run–in with ecclesiastical authority for reading — unwittingly — an interdicted book; the plodding pace of his trial and eventual acquittal kept father and son on edge for months. And despite Monteverdi’s own fame and gift to His Holiness of the Missa in illo tempore in 1610, his welcome in Rome had been, if not dismissive, then at the least apathetic.

Yet death and grief were never far away in the seventeenth century. While enduring Gonzaga callousness in Mantua, Monteverdi had lost his wife and his favourite protegée, Caterina Martinelli, before ultimately being shown the door. In 1630, the Bozzetto-Zanchi, Peste del 1630 a Venezia
Bozzetto-Zanchi, Peste del 1630 a Venezia (Wikimedia Commons)
tramontane conflict that was murdering tens of thousands of central Europeans spilled over into the Italian peninsula, bringing not only war, but plague. Its effects were terrifying: thousands died after horrible suffering in what must have seemed apocalyptic judgment. People shut themselves up in their homes, refusing contact with others. Desperate intercessions were sought of all the saints, especially of the Holy Virgin. By the time the horror abated, one of every three Venetians, some 50,000 souls, were dead.

The Selva includes a Palestrina–style polyphonic four–voice mass a capella, notwithstanding its part for basso continuo. Musicologists suggest it stems from the years around the outbreak of plague, and some speculate that it may have been written expressly for the celebratory mass after it abated, but no evidence to support this conjecture has surfaced. The musical forces at Saint Mark’s, as at every other church, were greatly diminished. The Gloria a 7 on the other hand, was almost certainly performed in company with works by numerous other composers as part of the festival.

The style of the mass was familiar to everyone. It is remarkably unified with thematic material that crops up repeatedly throughout.

Monteverdi, Mass a 4, thematic material

Each phrase is taken up at the termination of its predecessor, while at strategic locations the pace broadens out as all voices join to emphasise import points in the drama. Changes in texture and weight are used effectively to focus on both the sense of the words and their place within the structure of an entire movement.

Monteverdi, Mass a 4, thematic material



Following the mass are three movements that Monteverdi says can be substituted for sections of the Credo. Crucifixus (“He was crucified”) is cast as a despairing lament, opening with a slow, descending chromatic line. The setting of passus (“he died”), with its implied crescendo between the first two notes and immediate drop in volume and pitch on the third, evokes mournful grief. The passage ends as all voices come to rest in their lower range on et sepultus est (“and was buried”).

Monteverdi, Crucifixus, SV 259 (excerpts)

Et resurrexit (“and he arose from the dead”) is scored for two sopranos (or tenors), who are joined by two violins concertati and continuo; the melody takes its expected shape at et ascendit in coelum (“and he ascended into heaven”).

Monteverdi, Et resurrexit, SV 260 (excerpts)

The triumphant Et iterum venturis (“And he shall come again”) is written for two altos and bass, with four strings or trombones and continuo in traditional Saint Mark’s fashion. The piece ends with the jubilant cuius regni non erit finis (“whose reign shall not end”).

Monteverdi, Et iterum, SV 261 (excerpts)



Monteverdi was in his sixties, and had spent almost twenty years in the service of the church, when death began stalking and slaughtering its victims in 1630 Venice. For a man now considered old — however venerable — the specter of plague must have been a harsh reminder of his own impending end. Taking holy orders had nothing to do with contrition, but was merely a natural milestone along his path.

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