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Theories, speculation and wishful thinking

In the first decade of the 17th century Monteverdi was employed by the Gonzaga family in Mantua. It was, to say the least, an eventful period for him. He composed the first (L’Orfeo) and the second (Arianna) great operas and the 1610 Mass and Vespers music; he became embroiled in a dispute about the development of music as an expressive language; his wife died; the court’s star singer died; and he was increasingly disenchanted by the way his employers treated him. All of that we know.

The 1610 publication shows his mastery of all aspects of sacred music composition Continue reading

How do you solve a problem like Sonata sopra Sancta Maria?

On the face of it, it’s a bit odd to include an instrumental piece in a collection of sacred vocal music, as if an English cathedral composer had included an organ voluntary with a setting of the music for Evensong. At least Monteverdi’s Sonata does have one vocal part, repeating the phrase Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis – Holy Mary, pray for us. I have taken this to indicate that the Sonata fulfils the liturgical function of a Litany and we will perform it towards the end of our Vespers – later than its place in the print.

But this is not the end of the oddities. Continue reading

Pifara, fifara, flauto and Magno

Monteverdi made dramatic use of instruments in his 1607 ‘story in music’ – L’Orfeo, the first great opera.

In the more-or-less contemporary 1610 Vespers he continued down the same path, requesting a string ensemble, a brass ensemble and an organ. There is also brief use of pifara, fifara, (one of which is probably a misprint for the other) and flauto, though we’re not absolutely certain what he meant by any of those! Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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. Continue reading