Vespers of the Blessed Virgin 1610
Concerto Italiano (Rinaldo Alessandrini, cond.)
Choirmaster Seeks New Job, Has Original Material . . .
Somewhere around 1610, Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) hit the wall. After serving for years as choirmaster to the Duke of Mantua and occupying himself writing innovative books of madrigals, he realized he needed a better job. The twenty-five-section Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, designed for varying musical accompaniments, was an attempt to address this situation. Some scholars believe part of Monteverdi's motivation was to "advertise" his skills, and if so, the Vespers did the trick. In 1612, he was appointed maestro di cappella at Venice's basilica of St. Mark, a position he held until his death.
The piece, performed with gusto by the early music ensemble Concerto Italiano, is an unconventional, thoroughly captivating sacred choral work. Alternating between intricate overlapping chorales and demanding passages for solo singers, it presents Monteverdi as an inventive and independent-minded melodist—and cements his legacy as the primary "bridge" between Renaissance and baroque music.
In Monteverdi's time, vespers were not like Masses—they weren't nearly as formal, and often consisted of whatever leftover music happened to be lying around. These are different. Monteverdi envisioned the piece as a whole, and wrote magisterial chorales and exultant solo turns. Though he did some repurposing (the opening sequence is borrowed from his 1607 opera L'Orfeo), he composed the majority from scratch, sometimes relying on psalms as text. This gives the piece an unusual unity; broad thematic ideas turn up in several places, helping Monteverdi connect the cool ethereal tones of Renaissance polyphony to the florid spiraling phrases that characterize baroque music. Even as he employs these diametrically opposed techniques, Monteverdi sustains a questing, crusading, uplifting spirit throughout. He doesn't skimp on the "glory hallelujah" stuff. But he doesn't suffocate listeners with excess piousness either. Thrilling.
Released: 2004, Naïve
Key Tracks: "Ave maris stella," "Psalm 109/Dixit Dominus"
Another Interpretation: The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Catalog Choice: Madrigals, The Consort of Musicke; L'Orfeo, Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, English Baroque Soloists (John Eliot Gardiner, cond.)
Next Stop: La rocque 'n' roll: Popular Music of Renaissance France, The Baltimore Consort
After That: J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor
Book Pages: 515–516