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 as it then was: a mass in traditional style and more modern music for Vespers in which voices and instruments intertwine. But what did he hope to gain from the publication? The general assumption is – a prestigious new job. The mass might well have attracted interest from Rome, the elaborate psalms may have intrigued ambitious Venice and such a comprehensive demonstration of his art could have nudged authorities closer to home at the Basilica of St Barbara in Mantua. But we do not know whether or not those organisations were really interested in what he had to offer at that time.
It was 1613 before Monteverdi secured his release from Mantua and a new post as maestro at San Marco in Venice. Many commentators have assumed that a performance of at least part of the Vespers music formed his audition but the records say that he performed ‘a mass with instruments’ – not Vespers music. (So what happened to that mass? No such work by Monteverdi survives.) One slight glimmer of 1610 recognition might be the comment that he was appointed not only on the basis of his audition but also in recognition of his previous achievements. But we still have no record of a 1610 Vespers performance in his lifetime.
I’ve always been struck by the possibility of links between L’Orfeo and the Vespers music. One is certainly real. The instrumental fanfare that opens the opera is spectacularly expanded into the Vespers’ opening response. Another is purely speculative. I’ve always felt that the tenor solo Audi coelum was written for whoever first sang the role of Orfeo. The opera was first performed during the February 1607 Mantuan carnival season. Was there a corresponding ecclesiastical event featuring at least some of the 1610 music? Suitable musicians – singers and instrumentalists – were clearly available. Alas, no such event is recorded, but it’s what I’d like to believe.