Monteverdi Vespers

Monteverdi Vespers concert on Saturday 19 January 2013 in Canterbury Cathedral

London Handel Orchestra
Julia Doyle and Kirsty Hopkins: soprano
Benjamin Hulett and Nathan Vale: tenor
Robert Rice and Robert Macdonald: bass
Canterbury Choral Society
Canterbury Choral Society Youth Choir
Richard Cooke: Conductor

PRICES: £25, £20, £16, £12, £8

Read Kentish Gazette Canterbury Monteverdi Vespers concert review »


Programme Note

The turn of the sixteenth century saw what was perhaps the most far-reaching revolution in the history of Western music. During the Middle Ages, music for the church had evolved through the decoration of traditional plainchant melodies by the addition of one or more simultaneous vocal lines (polyphony); the chant, or ‘cantus firmus’, being sung by one voice, usually the tenor. During the early Renaissance this melodic web became more highly developed, the cantus firmus disappeared and the vocal parts came to hold equal places within the texture, each line often being derived from the appropriate plainchant or sometimes from a secular tune. This manner of writing reached a perfection exemplified by the highly polished music of Palestrina.

Composers at this period clearly felt, as did the twentieth-century inheritors of the language of classical and romantic music, that there was little new that could be said in this style and, like them, began to seek fresh means of musical expression. There arose various schools of composition exemplified by the following: Alessandro and Giovanni Gabrieli, who created contrasting blocks of sound with multiple choirs or groups of instruments and new orchestral sonorities, Carlo Gesualdo, who pushed the accepted tonality of the time to (and beyond) its limits, Jacopo Peri with a style of declamatory monody for his operas – the first ever to be written; and John Dowland, who modified the structure of the madrigal to give rise to a solo melody with instrumental accompaniment.

Towering above all these was the figure of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). He adopted those ideas of his contemporaries which suited his purposes, but made many contributions of his own, as, for example, the use of sequences – short patterns of notes repeated at progressively rising or falling pitch. His most important development, however, one similar to Dowland’s but more fundamental, was a new relationship between the melodic line (or sometimes two interweaving melodic lines) on the one hand, and the bass and accompanying parts on the other, so that the voices were no longer equal, but had different functions within the texture. So aware was he of the implications of this change that he called the new style ‘secunda prattica’, as distinct from the ‘prima prattica’ or old (polyphonic) style, and Leo Schrade therefore felt able to entitle his book on the composer “Monteverdi, Creator of Modern Music”. But Monteverdi was not only an innovator, he was also a great artist, his works frequently surpassing in stature those of his contemporaries.

In 1610 he went to Rome seeking certain favours from Pope Paul V, and took with him various compositions including his Vespers for the Feast of the Virgin Mary, which would have served well as his ‘curriculum vitae’ consisting, as it does, of an anthology of musical styles, and displaying his prowess in them all. He failed to impress the Pope, but in 1613, after staging a performance of the Vespers in St Mark’s in Venice, where there was a tradition of musical splendour, and where the cathedral boasted many galleries ideal for the placing of antiphonal choirs, he was appointed to hold the position there of maestro di capella.

The Vespers follow, with some deviations, the order for vespers on the occasion of the Feast of the Blessed Virgin, and includes the five psalms appointed for this service. It is here that we find a particularly interesting feature of Monteverdi’s writing. He used the psalm tones, which are largely recitations on one note, as canti fermi, much as they had been used in the Middle Ages, and clothed them in a variety of ways (usually following his secunda prattica), a method never again used in quite the same way by Monteverdi or anybody else! Monteverdi replaced the antiphons, which consist of short chants on various texts and which customarily preface the psalms, with more extended ‘concerti’ for solo voices using the style of accompanied monody that he did in his operas and giving opportunity for display of vocal agility.

Since this period was a turning point in the evolution of musical language and Monteverdi its most significant composer, the Vespers, encapsulating his musical philosophy, spanning his two styles of writing and being, at the same time, an undoubted masterpiece, must stand as a unique milestone in the history of the music of the Western world. The original sources are not suitable for performance today so editions have been made by, among others, Malipiero, Walter Goehr and Denis Stevens. That being used tonight is by Clifford Bartlett.

© John Andrewes