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 Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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