Humpty-Dumpty and the motet

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty might well have speaking on behalf of composers over the centuries who have labelled an astonishing variety of pieces ‘motet’. Actually, scarcely any of the standard musical ‘genre’ labels have always meant the same thing: symphony and concerto were very different things for Schütz compared to Mozart, for example. And sometimes one term has meant different things at the same time. An early 18th century trio sonata might require anything from one to four players.

There isn’t even clear agreement about the origin of the term motet. Is it from the Latin movere (move) reflecting the musical independence of the parts, at least in the earlier repertoire, or from the French mot (word), perhaps because early examples often had more than one text being sung at the same time? Either way, the earliest motets (13th century) were some of the very first types of music to be in parts, with one voice singing a quickly moving counter-melody against slower plainchant. The principle quickly infiltrated secular music and in the 14th and early 15th centuries motets were written in which a slow moving melody (which might be sacred in origin) was encircled by up to three other parts which may have separate texts in different languages as well as being governed (especially in their rhythms) by schemes of dizzying mathematical complexity.

It was in the 16th century that the meaning of motet settled down to mean a composition in parts setting a Latin text that was not part of a specific liturgy (though this is rather a grey area). The three marvellous examples by Lassus included in our March programme reflect this ambiguity rather neatly. Laetentur coeli sets a text from the Christmas liturgy – though only in part; Ave verum corpus – a setting in six parts that is every bit as fine as Byrd’s famous setting – is from the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi; and Musica, Dei donum has no known liturgical function.

I’ll have a bit more to say about Schütz and Bach another time. Don’t forget that tickets to Ripieno concerts are cheaper when bought in advance. This is a really good programme (even if I do say so myself) in which our singing will be enhanced by support of The Brook Street Band. Lucky us. Lucky you.

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.