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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