But it’s really all about great singing

It is very easy to become so side-tracked by the historical and musicological issues that surround Monteverdi’s 1610 music that one overlooks the fact that it is, above all, a set of great vocal pieces. Monteverdi explicitly makes provision for performance by singers with just an organ for support. The opening response can be chanted, the instrumental interludes in the first psalm and the hymn can be omitted, the sonata can be omitted, and there is a second Magnificat setting that requires only an organ for accompaniment – no brass, no strings. You don’t even need a choir – one good singer per part may well have been the composer’s expectation. Frankly, if you know the deluxe version that we will be performing it’s a bit of a let-down, if nonetheless lovely in its own way.

However, there were choirs (in our modern sense) in Monteverdi’s time and it is not inappropriate in either musical or historical terms to use one. And what a feast they get. Always divided into at least six parts and in one psalm as many as ten; soaring melodies; jazzy syncopations; intricate counterpoint; gravely beautiful plainchant; and one of the greatest ever ‘Amen’ settings.

The soloists, too, have a rich banquet. Swift virtuosic passages, lyrical lines, luscious duet writing, echoes, the greatest ever tenor trio . . . it’s all there.

My favourite bits? All of it really, but if you push me then Lauda Jerusalem and the six part conclusion to Audi coelum. But I’d love to be a tenor who could sing Duo seraphim. 

Join us for a great night out on November 18th.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.


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 as it then was: a mass in traditional style and more modern music for Vespers in which voices and instruments intertwine. But what did he hope to gain from the publication? The general assumption is – a prestigious new job. The mass might well have attracted interest from Rome, the elaborate psalms may have intrigued ambitious Venice and such a comprehensive demonstration of his art could have nudged authorities closer to home at the Basilica of St Barbara in Mantua. But we do not know whether or not those organisations were really interested in what he had to offer at that time.

It was 1613 before Monteverdi secured his release from Mantua and a new post as maestro at San Marco in Venice. Many commentators have assumed that a performance of at least part of the Vespers music formed his audition but the records say that he performed ‘a mass with instruments’ – not Vespers music. (So what happened to that mass? No such work by Monteverdi survives.) One slight glimmer of 1610 recognition might be the comment that he was appointed not only on the basis of his audition but also in recognition of his previous achievements. But we still have no record of a 1610 Vespers performance in his lifetime.

I’ve always been struck by the possibility of links between L’Orfeo and the Vespers music. One is certainly real. The instrumental fanfare that opens the opera is spectacularly expanded into the Vespers’ opening response. Another is purely speculative. I’ve always felt that the tenor solo Audi coelum was written for whoever first sang the role of Orfeo. The opera was first performed during the February 1607 Mantuan carnival season. Was there a corresponding ecclesiastical event featuring at least some of the 1610 music? Suitable musicians – singers and instrumentalists – were clearly available. Alas, no such event is recorded, but it’s what I’d like to believe.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.

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. One of the parts is labelled (?by Monteverdi ?the printer) ‘viola or trombone’. Now this isn’t necessarily as weird as it looks: early 17th century trombones were quite gentle instruments. But whichever instrument plays it, you end up with some odd moments – either a viola part in the middle of what is otherwise a passage for brass or a trombone moonlighting in the middle of a string ensemble. It looks to me as if the sonata as originally printed has at least one part missing, or alternatively that for reasons we can’t even speculate about, at least two of the parts of a more elaborate original have been condensed into one.

So I have had a go at re-creating this ‘lost original’, bearing in mind that it may never have existed (!) – rather like my ‘Western Wynde’ two-part song. Panic not – those wonderful duets for virtuoso violins and cornetts are untouched and I haven’t added any notes, just redistributed the ones we’ve got and allowed violas and trombones to play with each other at times. We’ll see . . .

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.

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! To these it is possible, perhaps even desirable and certainly historically valid, to add further chord playing instruments though not the harpsichord, which was overwhelmingly considered a secular instrument at this time.

We are fortunate in having Magno, one of the very largest lutes in captivity, available for our performance. Of him his keeper and player, Lynda Sayce, writes:

When I was studying at the Royal College of Music I regularly visited the RCM’s instrument museum to gaze at an enormous 1608 theorbo, built by Magno Tieffenbrucker III in Venice’s Calle degli Stagneri, a mere stone’s throw from Monteverdi’s workplace at St Mark’s. My fascination with this instrument led me to commission Magno, a copy built by David Van Edwards in Norwich in 1987. Magno and I have been playing Monteverdi and getting stuck in lifts, revolving doors, taxis and plane seats worldwide ever since.

Monteverdi specifies that the band plays in the opening response (and how!); interludes in the first psalm and the hymn; fully integrated obbligati in the Magnificat; and, most gloriously, in the Sonata. Within the bounds of period performance principles it is possible to increase this role: some performances have the band playing almost throughout. But it seems to me that this rather takes away from the ‘special’ moments, so I have restricted such ‘extras’ to a little doubling of the voices in two of the psalms and the final motet.

This will still allow plenty of opportunies for you to enjoy the virtuosity of the Monteverdi String Band and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, not least in the elaborate canzona by Gabrieli that will open the proceedings.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.

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.