So what exactly is a Vesper?

Vespers is the early evening service of the Catholic church. It is rarely part of modern parish life, though is still part of the cycle of daily prayer in monasteries and cathedrals. The more prominent Anglican Evensong is a synthesis of Vespers and the later evening service of Compline.

If you read or listen to a broadcast comparative review of recordings of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers or attend a number of performances of this amazing music you may well be startled by how different they all are in content. After all, a similar exercise with Bach’s B minor Mass or Haydn’s The Creation, though there would be differences of interpretation – speeds, for example – would at least reveal several sets of the same notes in the same order.

Part of the reason for this is that the 1610 publication isn’t ‘a work’, but a collection of related (though some question that) movements for two (maybe three – there can be arguments about that) distinct liturgies. There are then some other bits that may (or may not) belong to one (or two) of them.

Monteverdi (or more probably his printer) didn’t make it easy for those wanting to untangle his threads. The title page exists in two versions both of which can be translated/interpreted in more than one way and of course have to be considered in the light of other writings of the period – themselves capable of more than one interpretation – concerning the performance of sacred music.

Standing at the beginning of the printed music is a mass in a quite severe style in which Monteverdi showed his skill at writing traditional counterpoint and his knowledge of and respect for his distinguished predecessors: the musical ideas are taken from a motet by Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560). At least we can all agree that this music has nothing to do with Vespers.

After the mass follows the Vespers music: an opening response, the five psalms needed for the feast-day of any female saint, a hymn for feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary (which is why you will often hear the phrase ‘Marian Vespers’ or similar) and two settings of the Magnificat. All these pieces are based on their traditional plainchant melodies, though these are often so disguised or embedded in the music that listeners could be forgiven for not noticing them. Interleaved among these movements are five others – four ‘sacred concertos’ (sacred songs) and an instrumental sonata, during which a vocal ‘overlay’ repeats the phrase ‘Holy, Mary pray for us’. Monteverdi also provides would-be users of his music with two basic options: performance by a group of singers with just organ support (in which case one would use the shorter Magnificat setting) or a lavish interpretation with singers and a large instrumental ensemble – strings, cornetts, sackbuts and organ. Other instruments can be added at the performers’ discretion.

Some other music must also be added. At the very least, the phrase of plainchant to which Monteverdi’s first text is a response needs to be placed at the beginning, and for strict liturgical purposes each psalm and the Magnificat should be preceded and followed by a short biblical phrase sung to plainchant (antiphons). These define the precise liturgy which is being celebrated. Other passages of plainchant will include further responses, prayers and a Bible reading.

So the sacred concertos and the sonata are not part of Vespers and are not needed at all? This is where the arguments start. Some take precisely that view – a performance of ‘Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers’ should not include them. Others quote early seventeenth century writings which suggest that these movements should replace the antiphon repeats. The problem for those who take this line is that six such movements would be needed but Monteverdi only provides five. Yet others take the view that the concertos should be sung between the psalms, after the antiphon repeat. There is also documentation to support this practice. And, perhaps suggestively, between the psalms is where these movements appear in the print . . .

Many modern performers treat and perhaps even think of this music as if it were an oratorio with ‘choruses’ and ‘arias’. Needless to say, we won’t. Tickets are selling fast so if you want to know what will happen when we complete the celebration of our 70th and Monteverdi’s 450th birthdays get yours now. And do note that they become more expensive on November 6th!

More to follow . . .