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.