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 . . .

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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.

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.