Claudio Monteverdi was born in Cremona, the son of a surgeon and apothecary. Although there is no record of him being a member of the city’s cathedral choir, the young Monteverdi received his first composition lessons from its maestro di cappella Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, whose teachings he acknowledged in his first publications.
Monteverdi was clearly a precocious talent. His first publication, the three-voiced Sacrae cantiunculae (1582), was printed when he was just 15 years old. After attempts to find employment in Verona and Milan, he was eventually appointed as a viol player at the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. It was in Mantua that he first began to experiment with the contemporary forms of liturgical music and develop a novel approach that united elements of the musical past and present, while offering glimpses of the future. This balance between tradition and innovation was epitomized in his much-loved Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610. His compositional achievements undoubtedly helped him in 1613, when he advanced to the prestigious post of maestro di cappella at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, where he would remain until the end of his career.
The majority of the repertoire contained within this program is drawn from three publications: the Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest), published in 1640, and Giulio Bianchi’s two books of motets, both of which were published in 1620. The Selva morale e spirituale was a retrospective anthology that drew together some of Monteverdi’s most innovative and successful music from his time in Mantua alongside his more recent Venetian work. It includes a mass, several psalm and Marian hymn settings, as well as two separate Magnificats. Bianchi was a cornettist and composer, who was also born in Cremona and led the wind band at Mantua alongside Monteverdi.
The seven-voiced setting of the Gloria in excelsis Deo is thought to have originally been part of a large-scale mass written by Monteverdi in 1631 to commemorate the end of the Italian Plague of 1629-31 (also known as the Great Plague of Milan). The plague brought great devastation to northern Italy and is thought to have killed up to 50,000 people in Venice alone. Monteverdi divides the Gloria into five distinct sections, closely following the sense of the text. Over the course of the piece, individual voices and pairs of voices emerge from the main texture with flashes of rapid coloratura, to participate in a compelling musical dialogue with the violins.
Dixit Dominus is the first psalm of the evening office of Vespers on Sundays and feast days. As part of the San Marco liturgy, Vespers services on special occasions saw the uncovering of the Pala d’Oro, the exquisite gold high altar at the far east end of the church. To accompany this, sixteenth-century Venetian composers normally produced lavish eight-voice, double-choir settings of the Dixit Dominus. While this second setting by Monteverdi is scored for eight voices, he does not stick to a rigid division between two ensembles. Instead, he uses the forces in a series of different combinations to depict the psalm’s lucid imagery—for example, using the full ensemble to terrifying effect in the stile concitato (‘agitated style’) section at the words Confregit in die irae suae reges (‘The Lord shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath’), but then suddenly paring back, in complete contrast, to a pair of soprano voices for the beginning of the following verse.
One of Monteverdi’s best-known later sacred works, Beatus vir (his first of two settings of Psalm 111) was actually based on a secular canzonetta Chiome d’oro, which was included in his Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619). In Beatus vir, Monteverdi borrows the charm and naïveté of his earlier work, originally addressed to the beauty of a lover’s physical features, to convey the blissful assurance of the faithful man that fears God and obeys his commandments.
Adoramus te Christe was included in Bianchi’s first book and is a simple but heartrending setting of a text from the Hours of the Cross in devotional Books of Hours. Its opening statement, ‘We adore you, O Christ’, is tinged with bittersweetness, effected by Monteverdi’s unconventional use of dissonances, but the closing statements of Miserere nobis (‘Have mercy on us’) bring comfort and solace in the ending.
In addition to the simple four-part mass setting published in the Selva morale, Monteverdi also included some more modern alternative settings that could be substituted for sections of the mass. This short Crucifixus setting is one such alternative. It is cast in a much more modern style, with its descending chromatic line giving it a distinctly different character to the ordinary of the mass, which remained very consciously within the parameters of the stile antico.
There was a conspicuous increase in expressions of Marian devotion in Venice from 1571, after the city’s victory over the Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto, with Pope Pius V attributing the victory to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. As part of this, musical settings of the Litany became popular. Monteverdi’s setting of the Litany of Loreto, the Laetaniae della Beata Vergine, was printed in Bianchi’s second book. Between the opening Kyrie eleison and the closing Agnus Dei, the Litany consists of a sequence of invocations addressed to the Trinity and then to Mary, as mother, virgin, saint, and queen. The music is relatively simple and it is likely the piece was intended to be sung in procession.
O bone Jesu, o piissime Jesu was actually first printed outside Italy, in a collection entitled Promptuarii musici issued by the German composer Johannes Donfrid in Strasbourg in 1622. A simple setting for two sopranos and continuo of a devotional hymn text, it is an example of the so-called ‘echo motet’, whereby the first voice sings a phrase that is immediately repeated by the second voice, before the pair join together to elaborate and extend the melodic materials. Growing out of a fairly sparse opening, the piece builds cumulatively in intensity, culminating in the final invocation, Salva me (‘save me’).
Following the five psalms at Vespers, the Magnificat was featured as the centerpiece of the liturgy, being sung as the altar was censed. This eight-voice setting is the first of two contained within the Selva morale e spirituale. Breaking the text down into a series of standalone sections, Monteverdi explores its vivid imagery in a number of fresh ways. The stile concitato is introduced once again with the words Fecit potentiam in brachio suo (‘He hath showed strength with his arm’). In juxtaposing these modern forms of expression with elements of the musical past, in the shape of short fragments of plainsong and imitative polyphony, Monteverdi demonstrates his unique ability to make the unfamiliar seem somehow familiar. These truly immersive soundworlds must have been utterly entrancing to seventeenth-century ears—but they remain no less captivating to contemporary audiences.
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