The Vespers of Claudio Monteverdi
September 1, 1999
The Vespers of Claudio Monteverdi
Monteverdi: a revolutionary genius
by Dominique Olivier
Claudio Monteverdi, the father of modern opera, was the revolutionary genius whose work embodied the transition from the polyphonic music of the Renaissance to the stilo moderno of the Baroque period.
Born in Cremona in 1567, Monteverdi was trained in the great Franco-Flemish polyphonic tradition by his celebrated teacher Marco Antonio Ingegneri. He became a prolific composer of both liturgical and secular music, mainly for voice, and gained renown throughout Europe with the publication of his nine books of madrigals. In 1590, he settled in Mantua as a member of the orchestra of the Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. There he met his wife, Claudia Cattaneo, who bore him two sons and a daughter. Eventually Monteverdi had a falling-out with his patron and left Mantua for Venice, where he became choirmaster of Saint Mark's Cathedral, a post he held from 1613 until his death in 1643. At the age of 65, now a longtime widower, he took holy orders.
Monteverdi's dream was to create a musical language that would express the full dramatic intensity of real emotion. In achieving this dream, he aroused a storm of controversy but also gained the admiration of his peers. In Orfeo (1607), his first music drama, he presented the innovative work that has earned him the title of "Father of the Opera." He went on to create other important lyric works, including The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea.
In polyphonic music the words are almost unintelligible. Monteverdi was able to increase dramatic intensity and meaning by using a single melodic line for voice with dramatic orchestral accompaniment to bring about a perfect fusion of words and music. He also achieved a new mode of expression in liturgical music by borrowing those emotional elements of secular music that were likely to reinforce religious faith (this being the period of the Counter-Reformation). Vespers, published in Venice in 1610, was his crowning religious work. Monteverdi combined genius with profound religious faith to breathe inspired emotion into both sacred and secular music. Indeed, as the new musical language of the Baroque period developed, the distinction between sacred and secular music gradually faded.
Monteverdi's Vespers — otherwise known as Vespro della Beata Vergine — remains an unclassifiable masterwork, too great in its scope to be given a convenient label. It is both a monument to faith and a work of troubling modernity: it renders homage to the past through the use of Gregorian melodies, but in itself represents an entire segment of western musical culture.
The Vespers was published in 1610, when Shakespeare was working on The Tempest, Cervantes on Don Quixote, and Carlo Gesualdo was composing madrigals with innovative chromatic harmonies. In England, Byrd, Dowland, and Gibbons gave Elizabethan music its hour of glory. It was while all this artistic ferment was in progress that the Vespers achieved a synthesis of two worlds, combining various compositional techniques so that they could cohabit without colliding. It was published along with a first item in the folio, a mass written in the old prima prattica style, poles apart from the Vespers, musically speaking. The full title of the actual publication reads as follows: "Sanctissimae Virgini Missa Senis Vocibus ad Ecclesiarum choros ac Vesperea pluribus decantandae Cum nonnullis sacris Concentibus."
The mass with its Renaissance polyphony is an admirable tribute to the past. Rightly or wrongly, some critics suspect the mass was an attempt to gain papal favour. At the time, Monteverdi was soliciting a scholarship to the papal seminary for his son Francesco. In any case, the dedication to Pope Paul V indicates a desire to please the Holy Father. It reads as follows: "So that these holy songs may shine in the reflection of your celebrated and almost divine radiance, and so that, with the supreme blessing granted by you, the little mountain of my genius may flourish more and more each day and the unjust mouths that speak against your Claudio be closed, I bring and offer, prostrated at your most holy feet, my elucubrations of all kinds." The grant was refused, but Monteverdi has left us this extraordinary bit of prose.
The Vespers themselves represent the opposite pole — the future. They are almost unbelievably modern, written in the spirit of the seconda prattica. Monteverdi reveals to us a new approach to musical language that was to be a profound influence for centuries to come. He also overturned the traditional relationship between spiritual and musical expression, making emotion possible as a link with the divine. Because words were at times essential, they had to be intelligible. Almost imperceptibly, polyphony yielded to accompanied monophony, and harmony became a new tool for expression.
In all, the Vespers contain thirteen compositions that are extraordinarily rich from the vocal and instrumental standpoint, skillfully developed around a strong focus or thread, the cantus firmus. This wonderful "benchmark," as Roger Tellart calls it, is also one of the apotheoses of the Venetian style, although Monteverdi actually wrote the Vespers while in Mantua, three years before becoming choirmaster of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. Here we find the double choirs and the tonal colours of the herdsman's horn, sackbut, recorder, violin, viola da gamba, organ, and harpsichord, all providing a sensual opulence reminiscent of the splendours of St. Mark's in Gabrieli's time. The combination of polyphony, stylistic contrast between solo voices and choir, highly expressive vocal techniques such as the falso bordone, vocal ornamentation in what was then the innovative operatic style, and accompanied monophony, all unified by the Gregorian cantus firmus, makes the Vespers a protean, many-faceted work. Denis Morrier, in his liner notes to the CD featuring the Nederlands Kamerkoor and the Concerto Vocale under the baton of René Jacobs, describes it this way: "The Vespro della Beata Vergine is like a splendid tree. Its deep roots plunge into a rich past. Its huge, solid trunk evokes the pomp and circumstance of a tumultuous present, while its leafy branches spread generously toward the future. It was a very gentle revolution that Monteverdi brought about, a revolution that was to overthrow all without destroying anything."