Pitch – a tricky wicket almost without boundaries

Despite what is widely believed, there never has been and probably never will be a universally agreed and used pitch standard for music. As a small example, there are still many Victorian church organs in the UK that play at their original ‘Old Philharmonic’ pitch – about a quarter of a tone higher than today’s theoretical norm of A440. And several famous orchestras play just a bit higher than that as well.

Even older organs and other instruments tell a story of great diversity. Bach worked at two pitch standards on a daily basis, Handel owned a tuning fork that gave yet another and for musicians in Monteverdi’s time and place the pitch standard was about a semitone higher than A440. So this is the pitch at which we will perform.

But there is a second pitch issue with the 1610 Vespers. The fifth psalm Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat appear to sit very much higher than all the other music. At Monteverdi’s pitch singers would definitely feel under pressure in these movements. But this appearance is deceptive and help is at hand. Music theory and notation at the time were such that composers wishing to write music in certain ‘keys’ had to write it four notes higher using a combination of clefs that contemporaries would have recognised as ‘requiring transposition down’. So we will. What a relief!

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.

So what are we going to do about ‘1610’ then?

My previous two blog entries highlighted issues we’d really like to know about but don’t. Prior to that I had sketched the general background and begun to lay out the dilemmas that confront those wishing to perform the music. Let’s take those a bit further forward.

Monteverdi based all the mandatory Vespers music (response, psalms, hymn, Magnificat) on the plainchant melodies traditionally associated with those texts. By doing so, he placed himself within the tradition of composers of church music going back to its very beginnings. (The first music in parts consisted of counter-melodies added to plainchants.) But he was a pioneer, a musical adventurer, and sought new ways of doing things so rather than dress the tunes in music of a similar nature he wrote virtuosic music of the kind that typified the then new world of opera. And not just for the voices – in the Magnificat the instruments join in too.

Such ornate writing does not lend itself to choral performance so a conductor wishing to use a choir, or a choir wanting to sing the music, needs first of all to decide who will sing what. (Monteverdi offers no suggestions.) This might be a pragmatic decision – ‘that bit’s really hard so give it to a soloist’ – but will mostly be an aesthetic or symbolic choice. The plainchant melodies were obviously important to the composer so we will sometimes highlight these by allocating them to choral voices against soloistic complexity or, in one case, instruments against the choir. And before anyone says ‘Aren’t you just helping yourselves to Monteverdi’s notes?’ let’s be clear: early seventeenth century practice was very much of this spirit. Choirmasters adapted music to their own needs, sometimes by adding lavish instrumental colouring to vocal music though at other times reducing a polyphonic motet to a solo, with the organ taking the other parts. But I don’t think we’ll do anything that wouldn’t have occurred to Monteverdi and his contemporaries, though they might not have used all our sonorities on the same occasion.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not one should seek to place Monteverdi’s music in at least the semblance of a quasi-liturgical context. Well, on our various tours we have come to realise that liturgical music gains greatly from performance in its intended context. A Sanctus by Byrd or Victoria, for example, never sounds more glorious than when it emerges from the lengthy plainchant introduction that precedes it in a celebration of mass. So to create at least a feel of such context we have added to Monteverdi’s Vespers music the chant antiphons that embrace each psalm and the Magnificat and a few other items, not least the essential initial versicle to which he provides so vivid a response. There will also be an opening instrumental canzona and a concluding motet – audible if not visible processions.

This still leaves the issue of the ‘sacred concertos’, the precise role of which has caused some of the biggest musicological arguments in modern times. ‘So what exactly is . . .’  outlined the possibilities. I have to say that performing this music many times has convinced me that the ‘sacred concertos’ are best treated like anthems, which adorn the liturgy though are not an essential part of it. So these will be placed between the psalms, where they appear in the original print.

Now all we have to do is decide how to deploy the large instrumental ensemble that Monteverdi requests though, some might feel, barely uses; decide what pitch to sing at; and solve a problem like Sonata sopra Sancta Maria.

And a lot of people are so convinced that we’ve got the right answers they’ve already bought tickets. Join them! And remember – early booking discount only until November 5th, an easy date to remember.

So what exactly is a Vesper?

Vespers is the early evening service of the Catholic church. It is rarely part of modern parish life, though is still part of the cycle of daily prayer in monasteries and cathedrals. The more prominent Anglican Evensong is a synthesis of Vespers and the later evening service of Compline.

If you read or listen to a broadcast comparative review of recordings of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers or attend a number of performances of this amazing music you may well be startled by how different they all are in content. After all, a similar exercise with Bach’s B minor Mass or Haydn’s The Creation, though there would be differences of interpretation – speeds, for example – would at least reveal several sets of the same notes in the same order.

Part of the reason for this is that the 1610 publication isn’t ‘a work’, but a collection of related (though some question that) movements for two (maybe three – there can be arguments about that) distinct liturgies. There are then some other bits that may (or may not) belong to one (or two) of them.

Monteverdi (or more probably his printer) didn’t make it easy for those wanting to untangle his threads. The title page exists in two versions both of which can be translated/interpreted in more than one way and of course have to be considered in the light of other writings of the period – themselves capable of more than one interpretation – concerning the performance of sacred music.

Standing at the beginning of the printed music is a mass in a quite severe style in which Monteverdi showed his skill at writing traditional counterpoint and his knowledge of and respect for his distinguished predecessors: the musical ideas are taken from a motet by Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560). At least we can all agree that this music has nothing to do with Vespers.

After the mass follows the Vespers music: an opening response, the five psalms needed for the feast-day of any female saint, a hymn for feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary (which is why you will often hear the phrase ‘Marian Vespers’ or similar) and two settings of the Magnificat. All these pieces are based on their traditional plainchant melodies, though these are often so disguised or embedded in the music that listeners could be forgiven for not noticing them. Interleaved among these movements are five others – four ‘sacred concertos’ (sacred songs) and an instrumental sonata, during which a vocal ‘overlay’ repeats the phrase ‘Holy, Mary pray for us’. Monteverdi also provides would-be users of his music with two basic options: performance by a group of singers with just organ support (in which case one would use the shorter Magnificat setting) or a lavish interpretation with singers and a large instrumental ensemble – strings, cornetts, sackbuts and organ. Other instruments can be added at the performers’ discretion.

Some other music must also be added. At the very least, the phrase of plainchant to which Monteverdi’s first text is a response needs to be placed at the beginning, and for strict liturgical purposes each psalm and the Magnificat should be preceded and followed by a short biblical phrase sung to plainchant (antiphons). These define the precise liturgy which is being celebrated. Other passages of plainchant will include further responses, prayers and a Bible reading.

So the sacred concertos and the sonata are not part of Vespers and are not needed at all? This is where the arguments start. Some take precisely that view – a performance of ‘Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers’ should not include them. Others quote early seventeenth century writings which suggest that these movements should replace the antiphon repeats. The problem for those who take this line is that six such movements would be needed but Monteverdi only provides five. Yet others take the view that the concertos should be sung between the psalms, after the antiphon repeat. There is also documentation to support this practice. And, perhaps suggestively, between the psalms is where these movements appear in the print . . .

Many modern performers treat and perhaps even think of this music as if it were an oratorio with ‘choruses’ and ‘arias’. Needless to say, we won’t. Tickets are selling fast so if you want to know what will happen when we complete the celebration of our 70th and Monteverdi’s 450th birthdays get yours now. And do note that they become more expensive on November 6th!

More to follow . . .