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.