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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 11 (2005) No. 1

Claudio Monteverdi. Vespro della Beata Vergine. Apollo’s Fire: The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra and Apollo’s Singers, directed by Jeannette Sorrell. Electra, 1999. [ECCD 2038 (2).]

Reviewed by Jeffrey Kurtzman*

1. Introduction

2. Program Notes

3. Added Plainchant Antiphons

4. Motets and the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria”

5. Instrumentation

6. Psalms, Hymn, and Magnificat

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

1.1 It is remarkable that after the first recording of a truncated version of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 by Leopold Stokowski at the University of Illinois in 1952,1 and an utterly scrambled rendition conducted by Robert Craft with E. Power Biggs, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Gregg Smith Singers in 1967,2 all of the many subsequent recordings have originated in Europe, especially England, with the sole exceptions of the 1994 recording by Frederick Renz and New York’s Grande Band,3 and now, the present recording by Apollo’s Fire and the Apollo Singers of Cleveland, directed by Jeannette Sorrell.

2. Program notes

2.1 Sorrell’s program notes claim that “it is probable that Monteverdi was ordered to compose his extraordinary Vespers for the wedding celebrations, which took place in Mantua in May [recte May and June], 1608.” In fact, it is highly unlikely that any more than a few of these pieces, if any at all, might have been written for this occasion, since Monteverdi makes no mention of sacred music in his complaints about the heavy duties imposed upon him for this event. That some or all of the music of the Vespers, possibly previously written, was performed in connection with the wedding is possible, though we have no indication whatsoever that this was the case. I have no idea where Sorrell got the notion that the Vespers were commissioned for the wedding, an idea which, to the best of my recollection, doesn’t appear anywhere in the Monteverdi literature.

2.2 Sorrell also subscribes to Iain Fenlon’s erroneous hypothesis that the Vespers were performed on May 25, 1608 in Sant’Andrea at the inauguration of a new order of knighthood honoring the Redeemer.4 Since the feast celebrated at this ceremony required the “male cursus” of psalms and hymn, only the response, two of the psalms, and the Magnificat in Monteverdi’s 1610 print would have been usable. She claims that “the sensuous love poetry contained in Monteverdi’s text, drawn from the Song of Solomon, is ideal for a wedding celebration but would certainly seem out of place at any other Vespers service.” She also claims that the “four motets … do not appear to belong in a Vespers service.” This statement is bizarre, given that a paragraph later, Sorrell declares that she has chosen her antiphons from the feasts of Mary of the Snow and the Assumption. Versions of “Nigra sum” and “Pulchra es” are the official liturgical antiphons in those feasts. In fact, there is a long tradition of exegesis interpreting the Song of Solomon in terms of veneration of Mary.5 Sorrell also connects the Vespers with Orfeo, a much more obvious association, but makes the erroneous statement that “the instrumentation is the same.” Although there is substantial overlap in the instrumentation of the two publications, that for Orfeo is more extensive, utilizing instruments that don’t appear in the Vespers, and employing continuo instruments that are unsuitable and inappropriate for the Vespers. The program notes would have been better left to someone more in touch with historical information and less prone to unfounded speculation.

2.3 If the program notes contain much nonsense, the performances rank with the very best available, for Sorrell is an excellent musician and director. For the sake of convenience, after commenting on Sorrell’s liturgical reconstruction with added plainchant antiphons, I’ll group my remarks around the motets and sonata (interpolations into the liturgy), instrumentation, and then the response, psalms, hymn, and Magnificat (liturgical items with cantus firmus).

3. Added Plainchant Antiphons

3.1 Sorrell presents the recording as a reconstructed liturgical service, performing the compositions in the order in which they appear in the Bassus Generalis partbook, omitting Monteverdi’s extra setting of the Magnificat, and inserting plainchant antiphons before each psalm and the Magnificat. All but one of the antiphons are taken from the Common of the B.V.M. The other is derived from the Feast of the Assumption, and the antiphons are ordered not according to the psalms with which they are associated in the liturgy, but with the psalms whose preceding motet’s texts match as closely as possible the antiphon texts. Thus the antiphon “Nigra sum,” which is the antiphon to the third psalm in the Common of the B.V.M., is placed before the second psalm, right after Monteverdi’s motet “Nigra sum.” Likewise, the Assumption antiphon “Pulchra es,” which precedes the fifth psalm on that day, is positioned before the third psalm, immediately after the motet “Pulchra es.” If the similarity in texts was the deciding factor in the placement of these antiphons, then it would have made more sense to place “Nigra sum” before the first psalm, which is then followed by the motet “Nigra sum,” and the antiphon “Pulchra es” before the second psalm, which is followed by the motet “Pulchra es.” The fifth antiphon, “Virgo prudentissima,” is a Magnificat antiphon rather than a psalm antiphon. Only the antiphon placed before Monteverdi’s Magnificat, “Succurre miseris,” is liturgically correct.

3.2 Most of the antiphons are transposed, either to end on the same pitch with which the following psalm begins, or on a sufficiently related pitch to make a smooth transition to the psalm. The practice of jumbling antiphons from different Marian feasts in order to match each antiphon tonally with the following psalm was inaugurated by Denis Stevens in his edition of 1961 (revised 1994) and recording of 1967.6 However, this makes little liturgical sense, even if antiphons were indeed sometimes switched around from their normal positions in the seventeenth century, and a liturgically more appropriate solution would have been to transpose the antiphons of the Common of the B.V.M. or a particular feast of the Virgin to accommodate the tonalities of Monteverdi’s psalms and Magnificat.7

3.3 The plainchants are sung with fluctuating rhythms and tempos, slowing down on expressively emphasized words, and driving forward where the text demands. The dynamics and tone quality are equally variable, ranging from a whisper to forceful fortes. This approach to chant is perfectly appropriate for an age where there are numerous indications of rhythmicized chant, and the rhetorical presentation of any text was the highest aesthetic value in music.

4. Motets and the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria”

4.1 The soloists in this recording are exceptional, and the motets are perhaps the best performances available. They are sung a little slower than on most recordings, but the tempos are exploited for highly expressive nuances and additional ornamentation. Many excellent singers forget that this music is supposed to seize the worshipper emotionally, draw the congregant into the text, and make the listener feel its emotional power. The passionate performance of “Nigra sum” by Ian Honeyman is exemplary in this regard. Honeyman modulates the volume and tone of his voice, varies the tempo, and ornaments key notes with an impeccable sense of taste and of the meaning of every word and phrase. In the phrase “tempus putationis,” the sonority and nuance of each of the successive sustained semibreves is treated differently. I know of no recording of “Nigra sum” that can match Honeyman’s, as many fine ones as there are.

4.2 Much the same may be said about the other motets, with Sandra Simon and Jennifer Ellis singing “Pulchra es,” Gareth Morrell as the principal tenor in “Audi coelum,” and Robert Psurny joining Morrell and Honeyman in “Duo Seraphim.” Ornamentation in the motets is beautifully integrated into the melodic line so that it never seems notey or stodgy, even in the manifold repeated notes of “Duo Seraphim.” The voice of Sandra Simon, who begins “Pulchra es,” has a quality resembling a boy soprano. The two tenors at the beginning of “Duo Seraphim” marvelously milk the suspended dissonances, and in the second part, all three tenors become soft as whispers when the mystery of the Trinity (“Et hi tres”) is sung on a unison at the words “unum sunt.”

4.3 The principal continuo instrument in all of the motets is a theorbo, with a chamber organ added in “Audi coelum.” The theorbo players, Richard Stone and Gregory Hamilton, do an excellent job of following the voices, choosing suitable notes to play, providing sufficient harmony and occasional counterpoint, and adding appropriate ornaments, but never interfering with or covering the voices. I can’t be sure whether the dulcian listed in the program booklet also makes an appearance in the motets, but a bass string instrument is quite obviously used in places to reinforce the bottom part in “Duo Seraphim” and “Audi coelum” and, if I’m not mistaken (my hi-fi is pretty good, but not superior), very discretely in “Pulchra es” when both sopranos are singing. No evidence suggests that bass strings were employed in few-voiced textures (unless upper strings were also present) in the first half of the century, but its use in this recording is modest and mostly discrete, so that only in some places in “Audi coelum” is the sound loud enough to interfere with the voices. The six-voice conclusion of “Audi coelum” is sung by a choir, probably with three on a part, with the two-voice echoes reverting to soloists. The triple meter of this section is lively, but the brief interruptions and conclusion in duple meter are perhaps a little slow in comparison.

4.4 The “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria” is well executed, with an excellent pair of violins, played by Cynthia Roberts and Emlyn Ngai, and good, warm-sounding brass. The cornettists on this recording (only two are required for the Sonata) are Jean Tubery, Kiri Tollaksen, and Robert Rieder. The cantus firmus is clearly sung by treble John Buffett, although he is miked in such a way that at times it’s hard to tell the difference between a solo treble and a small group of sopranos. Sorrell keeps a fairly steady pace for all of the passages in duple meter, including the central section in blackened triplets, with some minor fluctuations depending on the figuration at the moment. The sections in 3/2 are related to those in duple time by an approximate half note equivalence rather than by sesquialtera proportion. Thus every perfect semibreve in triple time is approximately half again longer than an imperfect semibreve, rather than being equivalent. This is the relationship found in the majority of recordings of the Sonata, and it certainly works well enough musically, since the listener senses a tempo relationship between the two passages, but I know of no sanction for it in the theoretical literature on proportions of the period. If one adheres to the sesquialtera proportion between the first and second sections, then a pavan-galliard effect is created, which I believe was Monteverdi’s objective.

4.5 Certain passages of the Sonata, as well as the six-voice section of “Audi coelum,” the response, and the psalms, employ the harpsichord as a continuo instrument. The basic continuo instrument in church was the organ, joined sometimes, or even replaced by such instruments as the theorbo, bass violin, violone, trombone, and bassoon, but the use of the harpsichord in church was uncommon. Apart from its adoption when an organ was out of repair, harpsichords sometimes joined organs as continuo instruments in large-scale polychoral compositions. Usually Sorrell confines the harpsichord to full textures and the double-choir psalms where it is unobtrusive, but I do find it occasionally bothersome, especially in one of the ritornellos of “Dixit Dominus,” and in the principal ground bass of “Laetatus sum.” On the other hand, the double-choir hymn, “Ave maris stella,” is performed without harpsichord, perhaps because of the more antique polyphonic style of its choral verses. In the solo verses the theorbo, sometimes joined by a bass string instrument, and/or a chamber organ, provide the continuo. This is also true in the few-voiced textures of the psalms and Magnificat. At times in the psalms, especially in “Laetatus sum,” the bass string instrument is recorded too loudly and tends to distract from and even overwhelm the voices.

5. Instrumentation

5.1 Sorrell’s use of instruments is imaginative and varied. She borrows the recorders from “Quia respexit” of the Magnificat to use as doubling instruments in the response “Domine ad adiuvandum” and psalms and even substitutes the recorders for cornettos in one passage in the response. Her approach to instrumentation is well exemplified by the response, where the text is accompanied by Monteverdi’s own orchestration of brass and strings. Sorrell employs brass and strings with the cornettos and violins doubled by recorders in the first ritornello; the “Gloria patri” is accompanied by strings and recorders; she continues with the same strings and recorders in the second ritornello; the “Sicut erat” is accompanied by brass and recorders; and all of the instruments join in the final “Alleluia.” The treble instruments add some appropriate, unobtrusive ornamentation at the final two cadences. Sorrell’s principal continuo instrument, however, is a harpsichord rather than the organ.

5.2 Similarly, the three ritornellos in “Dixit Dominus,” for which Monteverdi did not indicate any instrumentation, all have a different sonority: the first is played by strings alone, the second gives the harpsichord most of the lower and inner parts and substitutes recorders for violins, while the third features a balance between strings and harpsichord. The ritornellos in “Ave maris stella,” also without specific instrumentation, are played successively by brass with theorbo continuo, strings alone, brass with theorbo, and a consort of recorders alone. In the last three ritornellos, the instruments add considerable, tasteful ornamentation. As in the response, all of the psalms employ doubling instruments, but only in certain passages, especially those with fuller textures, and Sorrell is both discrete and quite varied in her orchestration. She has obviously given a great deal of thought to what instruments to utilize where in terms of the texture, the intricacy of the polyphony, the prominence of particular voices, the support of particular voices, and the position of a passage in the course of the psalm itself.

6. Psalms, Hymn, and Magnificat

6.1 The same tenors and sopranos who sing the motets are joined by basses Jeffrey Strauss and Michael McMurray as soloists in the psalms, hymn, and Magnificat. Margaret Bragle, alto, sings the cantus firmus in several of the Magnificat verses.

6.2 The first three psalms, “Dixit Dominus,” “Laudate pueri,” and “Laetatus sum,” with their frequent soloistic passages and intricate counterpoint, are sung primarily with solo voices (“Laudate pueri” throughout, according to Monteverdi’s own rubric). Sorrell brings in the full chorus, usually with doubling instrumental support, only in “Dixit Dominus” in the falsibordoni verses (which are flexible in rhythm) and in the more climactic passages in “Laetatus sum.” Once again the continuo is often too loud, especially in “Laetatus sum,” to the point where it decidedly interferes with the voices. The singing in these psalms is itself superb. Articulation of the text is exceptionally clear, the textures are easy to follow, and the virtuosic melismas are every bit as melodious and directional as in the motets.

6.3 “Nisi Dominus” and “Lauda Jerusalem,” both for two choirs surrounding a tenor cantus firmus, are sung equally well by the full choir. Tempos are lively and energetic, and even with substantial instrumental doubling, the complicated textures involving close imitation between the two choirs are exceptionally clear, not only because director and singers are all quite conscious and attentive to the contrapuntal weave, but also because of the clear textual articulation, where sharply pronounced consonants and well-voiced sibilants help define the movement of the parts. “Lauda Jerusalem,” apparently in response to its high clefs, is transposed downward by a step, which brings it into a B-flat–D tonal orbit consistent with many other pieces in the print. The Magnificat, also in high clefs, is left untransposed, however. Typically, in the seventeenth century, the high clefs (later dubbed chiavette), would have been transposed down a fourth or fifth. The Missa in illo tempore that accompanies the Vespers in Monteverdi’s 1610 print is also in high clefs, and a manuscript organ partitura of the Mass survives in the Duomo of Brescia with all the parts transposed down a fourth. Even more than a century and a half later, when Padre Martini published an excerpt from the Agnus Dei of this Mass in his Esemplare, o sia saggio fondamentale pratico di contrappunto sopra il canto fermo (Bologna: Lelio della Volpe, 1774–5), he transposed the excerpt down a fourth.

6.4 Sorrell’s performance of the hymn “Ave maris stella” begins with a plainchant presentation of the first verse, useful for following Monteverdi’s subsequent settings of the melody, though unnecessary in terms of a liturgical reconstruction. Although tempos are lively and energetic in the response, psalms, and Magnificat, Sorrell, like so many other directors of the Vespers, is lured into a somewhat slow tempo for the first and last verses of the hymn by their conservative style of polyphony. The cut time in the Bassus Generalis partbook suggests a somewhat faster beat, which then could be kept in proportion with the verses in triple meter. As things stand, however, the triple-time verses pick up the pace of the tactus and are at a fast enough tempo. The fourth through sixth verses are for different soloists from the first and second choirs, and for some reason, perhaps symmetry, Sorrell interchanges voices for the fifth and sixth verses. Monteverdi calls for a soprano for the fifth verse and a tenor for the sixth, but the tenor sings the fifth verse on this recording, with some nice added ornamentation, while the sixth is sung by a soprano (as, symmetrically, is the fourth). The continuo combinations change for each of these verses. The instrumental ritornellos have already been discussed (see par. 5.2), and instruments double the voices in the first and last verses.

6.5 In the Magnificat, the soloists perform equally well as in the motets the virtuoso duets that characterize most verses. Sometimes, however, the plainchant is too loud, occasionally interfering with the solo voices. The balance is satisfactory in “Et exsultavit” and “Quia fecit,” but in “Suscepit Israel” the chant is too prominent and would make a better effect as a background reminder of the Magnificat tone rather than as an equal partner at the forefront of the texture. The virtuosic “Gloria” is marvelously sung, but the “Sicut erat” is slow and ponderous. Long note values in cut time (as indicated in the Bassus Generalis) don’t imply a slow tempo, but in fact, a faster tactus than common time. As in other pieces of the collection, the instrumentalists add appropriate and unobtrusive ornamentation in several places.

6.6 Throughout the response, psalms, and Magnificat, Sorrell adheres to appropriate sesquialtera and tripla proportional tactus relationships, giving the kind of vitality to triple-time passages that they require. Only in the Sonata, as described above (par. 4.4), is another relationship chosen, and in the hymn, the triple-meter verses are not in proportion to the slower duple-time opening and closing verses.

7. Conclusion

7.1 Instrumentalists that I haven’t already named are violists Nicole Divall and Allison Edberg, viola da gambist Ann Marie Morgan, cellist Rene Schiffer, contrabassist Sue Yelanjian, recorder players Michael Lynn and Kathie Lynn, dulcian player Daniel Stillman, trombonists Dominique Lortie, Paul Ferguson, and Peter Collins, and keyboardist Barbara Weiss. All contribute very successfully to one of the best recordings of the Vespers available. The greatest strength of this performance is the exceptionally expressive approach Sorrell and her performers take to the texts, not only in the motets and Magnificat, but also in the psalms and hymn. This degree of passionate rhetorical expression and vitality, so appropriate to the music of the period, is greater than in most European recordings, where the rhetoric is more often understated in favor of a concentration on exquisite sound and a certain preciousness of vocal style. Of all the many fine performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 available, this one is my favorite, even if I do disagree with some details.


* Jeffrey Kurtzman (jgkurtzm@wustl.edu) is the author of The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance (Oxford University Press, 1999); editor of Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) (Oxford University Press, 1999); and editor of the ten-volume series “Seventeenth-Century Italian Sacred Music: Vespers and Compline” (Garland Publishing, 1995–2003).

1 University of Illinois CRS 1. For details, see Jeffrey Kurtzman, The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 516.

2 Columbia M2L 363 (monophonic), M2S 763 (stereo). For details, see Kurtzman, 517.

3 Musical Heritage Society MHS 523536W. For details, see Kurtzman, 523.

4 Iain Fenlon, “The Monteverdi Vespers: Suggested Answers to some Fundamental Questions,” Early Music 5 (1970): 380–7.

5 See Robert Kendrick, “‘Sonet vox tua in auribus meis’: Song of Songs Exegesis and the Seventeenth-Century Motet,” Schütz-Jahrbuch 16 (1994): 99–118.

6 The edition was published by Novello in London; the recording is Vanguard VCS 10001/2. For details of the recording, see Kurtzman, 517.

7 See the discussion of the problem of relating plainchant antiphons to polyphonic psalms and the various options for dealing with this question in Kurtzman, 58–78.

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