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Volume 13, no. 1:

The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance. By Jeffrey G. Kurtzman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. [xix, 601 pp. ISBN 0-19-816409-8. 71.]

Reviewed by Massimo Ossi*

1. Overview of the Volume

2. Previous Scholarship and Kurtzman’s Topics

3. Seventeenth-Century Tonal Analysis

4. A Primer on Early Seventeenth-Century Performance Practices

5. New Avenues for Monteverdi Research

6. Conclusion

1. Overview of the Volume

1.1 At a daunting 500 pages of text, plus another 100 of critical apparatus, Jeffrey Kurtzman’s The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance confronts the reader with its imposing, even intimidating, presence: here is a book of a size to match the historical significance of its subject. Fortunately, the book’s contents are as reader-friendly as Monteverdi’s music is appealing. Kurtzman’s writing is clear, direct, and highly informative; the book wears its encyclopedic scope lightly.

1.2 As its title announces, the volume concerns itself exclusively with the Vespers, not with the Mass that precedes them in the collection; also true to the title, it is divided into three roughly equivalent sections, each dealing with a broad aspect of its subject: the first four chapters (Part 1) are devoted to contextualizing the Vespers, both historically and liturgically; the next six (Part 2) deal with analytical and stylistic aspects of the music itself; and Part 3, consisting of 13 short chapters, addresses the many questions of historical performance practice that arise from the work. Six appendices present valuable source materials to which the author refers in the course of his discussions, from texts and structural diagrams of individual compositions to the various psalm cursus for the liturgical year, lists of treatises and prints, and even a comprehensive discography. Taken together with the author’s own edition of the work, this project provides not only an enlightening narrative but also a reference guide that scholars and performers will undoubtedly find useful well into the future.

2. Previous Scholarship and Kurtzman’s Topics

2.1 Kurtzman’s approach to the task of contextualizing the Vespers is to establish the contributions of earlier scholarship to the various topics into which the book is divided. For example, Chapter 1, “Sources, Controversies and Speculations: The Early and Modern History of Monteverdi’s Vespers,” covers a wide territory, almost too much for a single chapter: the primary sources and the problems they raise; editions, going back to Padre Martini’s scoring of the first Agnus Dei from the Missa In illo tempore in his counterpoint treatise of 1774–5, and the problems of the liturgical and aesthetic coherence of the Vespers as a unified work; and finally the known history of the work, including speculations about its possible performances and origins, during the early seventeenth century. There is enough material for three chapters, although in practice Kurtzman makes a good case for the linking together of these apparently separate aspects of the Vespers into a single historical problem. Starting with a close reading of the book’s title, which posits a separation between its various contents—the Mass, the Vespers, and the sacred concertos—Kurtzman discusses, in chronological order, the various approaches taken to determining what belongs in the Vespers by a variety of scholars and performers. The latter group is a welcome addition to the historical overview, since it brings the historical dimension of the Vespers into the modern listener’s living room via phonograph records and CDs. Thus Leo Schrade, Walther Goehr, Stephen Bonta, and John Eliot Gardiner, to name a few, all appear as participants in an evolving and very lively debate about the identity of the Vespers. The problems of performance practice—one of the “two principal issues” of the debate surrounding Monteverdi’s Vespers, the other being liturgical integrity—emerge in this discussion, and provide a link with the end of the book.

2.2 This kind of thorough review of the issues and literature characterizes all three parts of the book: readers will find useful synopses of both historical sources and modern scholarship on topics as diverse as the mechanics and history of the vesper liturgy (Chapters 2 and 3); modal theory and its application to both analysis and performance of the Psalms (Chapter 5, and parts of Chapters 2 and 17); analytical discussions of all the works, divided between cantus-firmus based movements and free motets (Chapters 6–10); vesper publications from the earliest fifteenth-century examples through the 1620s, and the influence of Monteverdi’s 1610 volume on subsequent collections (Chapters 3–4); voice quality and ornamentation (Chapters 15, 16, and 21); questions of pitch, transposition, tuning, and instrumentation (Chapters 12–19, and 22); meter, tempo, and a general discussion of historical performance practice (Chapters 11 and 20). Each of these, and more besides, is well-researched and clearly summarized. Throughout, Kurtzman offers the reader who is seeking interpretative solutions—either hermeneutic or performance-related—a range of informed choices rather than a single “correct” or “preferred” interpretation, although he does not shrink from offering clear solutions where necessary (for example, he does so convincingly in the discussion of proportional meters and tempo in Chapter 20). The even-handedness of the author’s stance may prove frustrating for some, but in all cases Kurtzman provides clear and cogent summaries of those choices and their rationale.

3. Seventeenth-Century Tonal Analysis

3.1 I found Chapter 5, “Analytical Method and Terminology,” particularly informative and will assign it to students over and over again. Kurtzman’s premise is that sacred music in the early seventeenth century poses a specific set of problems for modern analysts—problems of coherence deriving from the new stylistic and textural possibilities of secularly-infused concertato techniques, and the peculiar problems of a harmonic language in transition between mode and modern functional tonality. In order to establish his own analytical parameters, he reviews in detail the work of four scholars: Carl Dahlhaus, Bernhard Meier, Susan McClary, and Eric Chafe. Each method is reviewed, its premises and structure are presented clearly, and each is evaluated for its potential usefulness to the analysis of Monteverdi’s sacred music. Kurtzman argues, convincingly, that sacred music poses problems not encountered in the secular works (with which most of the scholars discussed are concerned). This is particularly true of psalmody, in which the use of psalm-tones significantly conditions the harmonic language. In the end, his own flexible approach to both analytical method and the terminology he uses to describe the music is especially useful, as it reflects Monteverdi’s own shifting take on mode and emerging tonal structures; like much of the book, it reflects a fundamentally pragmatic and musically sensitive reading of Monteverdi’s compositions.

4. A Primer on Early Seventeenth-Century Performance Practices

4.1 The section on performance practice ranges widely over a broad array of questions, from the problem of what to include in a performance of the Vespers as a “work” to the details of historical pronunciation. In the course of treating performance matters, Kurtzman draws on modern scholarship and historical sources, providing a number of relevant passages from contemporaneous treatises in translation. (The volume does not, however, provide the originals. In many cases, Kurtzman cites from published translations that are easy to find and check, although it would be preferable to include the originals, especially since he occasionally corrects or comments on the translators’ choices of terminology. For practical reasons—the book is long enough as it is—this may have been an editorial choice, although an additional twenty or so pages would not have substantially altered the bulk of the volume.) The sections on voices and choirs, vocal style, ornamentation, and pitch and transposition (Chapters 14–17) make for particularly enlightening reading, as they bring together information that is otherwise broadly scattered in a variety of sources. Taken as a unit, Part 3 of the book is an excellent primer on early seventeenth-century performance practices, and should be required reading for ensemble directors and performers alike, both students and professionals, for the wealth of information it provides.

5. New Avenues for Monteverdi Research

Après moi, le déluge: the encyclopedic scope of Kurtzman’s book would appear to put an end to discussions of the Vespers of 1610—what else is left to say? In fact, the value of this book may be just the opposite: by providing a thoroughly-researched, in-depth discussion of its subject, it allows scholars to explore other possible approaches to this work and to Monteverdi’s other sacred music. For example, Kurtzman’s thorough investigation of Monteverdi’s harmonic and stylistic language provides a starting point for studies comparing his later sacred music with that of the Vespers, tracing the development of his harmonic and text-expressive vocabulary. Similarly, the insights Kurtzman provides should prompt comparative studies of the sacred and secular repertories from the roughly twenty-year period surrounding the publication of the Vespers. From a wider hermeneutic standpoint, the question of changing liturgical practices reflected in the new secularly-infused music of the early seventeenth century has not yet been broached: how was Vespers music incorporated within the celebration of the office itself—its gestures, physical settings, readings, and the particular affective, theological, and extratheological (political and otherwise) meanings it sought to convey? If one chapter may be considered “missing” from this study, it is one devoted to the impact on its audience (however constructed) of the Vespers as a totality (again, however that is conceived). The difficulty in determining specific performance circumstances for the Vespers does hamper such research, but should not discourage it entirely, and the general view of the contemporaneous repertory that Kurtzman provides should point scholars to other composers, venues, and works that are ripe for investigation (and one need not look any further than Appendix E, “Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Musical Sources” to start working).

6. Conclusion

6.1 In sum, Kurtzman’s study will prove eminently useful to a variety of audiences: performers, who will find in it a wealth of clearly-presented information regarding a wide range of performance-practice problems posed not only by the Vespers, but also by much repertory, sacred and secular, in the first half of the seventeenth century; scholars, who will find both information and ideas on which to build future research; and students, for whom this book should become a go-to reference guide to practical, historical, and theoretical issues of early Baroque music.

References

* Massimo Ossi (mossi@indiana.edu) has published extensively on seventeenth-century music, is a past editor of 17th-Century Music (the newsletter of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music), and currently serves as Chair of the Department of Musicology at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University.


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