top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Monteverdi's Vespers

Foremost among the musical minds active in Italy around 1600 was Claudio Monteverdi. Born in Cremona in May 1567, Monteverdi took up a post at the Gonzaga court in Mantua around 1591. He was acquainted with the new musical developments which were emanating from Florence at the time and by the end of the decade he was writing in the newer style: bold dissonances, vivid expressiveness, simpler textures, and embracing a new tonality which would lead to what we know as major and minor scales.

Bahuet: Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I (1587)

In 1600 Monteverdi was so prominent in the new musical movement that he was – with others – the target of a vitriolic attack by Giovanni Maria Artusi, a conservative music theorist from Bologna. Artusi’s publication, The imperfections of modern music, is a reactionary and backward-looking diatribe, decrying the dissonances and misuse of modes in the music of Monteverdi and his contemporaries. Monteverdi countered in the preface to his Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605) with an essay entitled, The second practice, or the perfections of modern music, in which he outlines the existence of two styles or “practices” of composition – the older style of the late Renaissance and the newer style of the early Baroque. The controversy did Monteverdi no harm at all. His reputation was increasing enormously with his publications, and with each new release he showed himself a master of the new style, which was given over to overt expressiveness, allowing the emotions to be exposed rather than hidden under the veneer of propriety.

(The course of Monteverdi’s extraordinary and life-long development as a composer can be charted in his madrigal publications, surveyed in an earlier post in this blog.)

It was against this background, then, that Monteverdi, in Mantua, produced two of his greatest masterpieces. The first of these was the opera Orfeo (Orpheus), performed with enormous success in 1607 and published soon after. The second was a collection of sacred music published in 1610, known colloquially today as the Vespers, in which Monteverdi provides not only a compendium of his skill as a composer in his early 40s, but also a wonderful combination of both the old and the new, the first practice and the second practice.

The publication of 1610 contains a long title in Latin which is translated: A Mass of the most holy virgin for six voices and Vespers to be sung by more voices, with a few sacred songs suitable for the chapels or chambers of princes; a work by Claudio Monteverdi recently composed and dedicated to the most holy Pope Paul V. Published in Venice by Riccardo Amadino 1610.

For a start, the title refers to a Mass, and indeed the publication contains one, composed in the older church style. It's based on a motet, In illo tempore, by the 16th century Franco-Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert, which was published in 1554. Monteverdi displays his extraordinary skill by treating the raw material of the Gombert motet with a dazzling array of compositional devices, resulting in a work which is a worthy successor to the Masses of the Renaissance masters.

Monteverdi travelled to Rome in 1610 to present the Mass and Vespers publication to Pope Paul V. It's possible that he hoped the publication and the dedication might have secured him a senior musical post in the Papal court; he was certainly extremely unhappy with his job in Mantua and was desperate for a new one. The Mass’s more conservative style was certainly in line with Roman ecclesiastical taste.

The Mass is certainly the major focus of the title of the 1610 publication but in terms of content it is dwarfed by the Vespers and “sacred songs” which provide the majority of the work. The term “Vespers” refers to an evening service, requiring the setting of five psalms and a Magnificat. Monteverdi sets the psalms which are set down for special feast days associated with the Virgin Mary, hence their more formal title Vespro della beata Vergine – Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.

The ducal church of Santa Barbara in Mantua, where Monteverdi would very likely have first performed the Vespers

In surveying the Vespers for this blog post I’ll link to a video of an excellent live performance given in New York last year. Each section of the Vespers will be noted with the point at which it starts in this video. Note that this performance also includes chant antiphons before many if the movements, as would have been appropriate in a liturgical context.

The Vespers opens with a versicle, chanted by the duty priest, and a response, set to music by Monteverdi. Monteverdi’s setting uses the same musical raw material as the opening Toccata from Orfeo. (0’00 to 3’16 in this link)

Then follows the sequence of psalms. Normally these and the concluding Magnificat (and maybe a hymn) would be all one would expect in a Vespers setting, but in between these movements Monteverdi provides even more music, a series of stunning motets for solo voices. These are motets on a wide range of texts which are not officially associated with the Vesper liturgy. They could be used in some contexts but we really don’t know for certain how Monteverdi would have used all this music in an actual Vesper service.

In considering the psalms, it’s clear right from the beginning that Monteverdi’s intention is to combine the old, the Gregorian chant, with the new. In fact, in the continuo book which was published in 1610 there is an extra heading – “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin in the concerto style composed on plain chant”. The “concerto” style refers to the second practice, the new style of composition, of which Monteverdi was the master. This involved immensely challenging writing for the singers, especially the tenors, and the inclusion of instruments such as violins and the now-obsolete cornetto.

Underpinning Monteverdi’s use of the latest styles, though, was the fact that every movement of the Vespers proper is based on Gregorian chant, which was many centuries old even then. Weaving its way throughout the complex vocal and instrumental writing, the Gregorian chant for the Vesper texts is sung in one or other voice part, making the whole Vespers a stunning tour-de-force of compositional ingenuity.

The first psalm, Dixit Dominus, sets Psalm 109 in Catholic Bibles (or 110 in Protestant and Hebrew ones), and it's scored for six part voices and continuo, with instrumental interludes. The first tenor part starts proceedings with a quotation of the chant. The second tenor and the bass then imitate this while the other voices enter. The next phrase has the chant hidden in the second soprano part of the six-part vocal texture.

Having played the calling cards of the old style – chant plus austere polyphony – Monteverdi then takes us into the new style. Little sections of free chanting are alternated with much more flamboyant imitation among the parts, and this is rounded off with an instrumental section, called a ritornello.

Having stated first practice, then second practice, Monteverdi now combines them. On the top is a dazzling duet for the two sopranos which could, but for the text, have easily have come from one of his madrigals or operas. But underneath it, in the continuo part and in the bass voice, is the Gregorian chant for the same text, stretched out into long notes. We then return to the sort of music which summarised the second practice earlier – free chanting, flamboyant imitation among the six parts, and an instrumental ritornello.

Another section combining chant and operatic vocal techniques then follows, this time featuring the two tenors, with the chant in the continuo part and the bass voice. Each section becomes more and more challenging for the singers. Next, all six voices sing difficult rhythms involving repeated notes, and the rhythmic complexity overall is growing. As before, this section featuring the new style concludes with an instrumental ritornello.

The increase in complexity continues in the sections involving the combination of both modern techniques and chant. At the start of the next section the chant is heard in the bass voice, while at the same time it’s harmonised in the first tenor and alto. This summarises the old style yet again, but immediately after this the textures thickens from three into six parts, with the music we just heard given to the bass and two sopranos, while the alto and two tenors indulge in music which is clearly modern and from the new style. This is the way in which Monteverdi takes us to the end of the psalm proper.

In the Catholic liturgy, and in many other Christian traditions as well, psalms and canticles conclude with what is known as a doxology, a short passage which in Latin begins Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto (Glory to the father, the son and the holy spirit). Every psalm and canticle has this doxology appended and therefore composers who set these psalms and canticles to music must also set the doxology. In this Dixit Dominus, Monteverdi starts the doxology with Gregorian chant stretched as usual into long notes. For the second half of the doxology, the upper five voices indulge in the most amazingly extroverted display of imitative writing, while the bass part sings the chant, only this time the chant is in notes twice as long as the tenor just sang it. It’s all pretty extraordinary writing. (3’17 to 12’16 in this link)

The non-Vesper texts which Monteverdi sets as motets in between the Vesper psalms are masterpieces of vocal writing. Unlike the psalms, the motets are completely in the vivid and virtuosic second practice. Across the 1610 publication they increase in size and complexity, starting with Nigra sum, which is scored for a single tenor voice and continuo.

Nigra sum sets a sensuous text from the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) which begins, "I am the black but lovely daughter of Jerusalem". Monteverdi's setting includes some vivid word painting, such as the ascending lines on the word surge, meaning "arise". Here the Monteverdi of the madrigals comes to the fore. (12’17 to 17’15 in this link)

The second of the psalm settings is Laudate pueri, Psalm 112 in Catholic Bibles, 113 in Protestant and Hebrew ones. It's scored for voices in eight parts and continuo, with no other instruments. Laudate pueri, is based entirely on the chant melody for the psalm, but combined with the chant, which is usually in one voice or another in long notes, the other parts indulge in wonderful vocal displays. Monteverdi follows his usual practice of contrasting pairs of sopranos, tenors and basses, and the two tenors, in particular, are required to sing music of extreme difficulty. Most shocking of all is the cliff edge to which we are taken at the end, where the Amen is started by all eight voices, but the “-men” syllable is only actually sung by the two tenors; the rest of the voices disappear into thin air without ever finishing the word. (17’16 to 24’16 in this link)

Monteverdi's publication of 1610 continues with the intimate motet Pulchra es, setting another sensuous and emotionally loaded text from the Song of Solomon. The previous motet, Nigra sum, was scored for one voice, a tenor; here we have two sopranos.

The translation of the text begins, "You are beautiful, my dearest, fair and lovely daughter of Jerusalem" and Monteverdi sets it with delicious beauty and sensuality. The motet falls into two halves. In each, the basic musical material is stated by the first soprano, after which it is repeated with lavish embellishment, using both sopranos. The subtle but telling use of discords adds real spiciness to the music. (24’17 to 28’53 in this link)

The third psalm, Laetatus sum, sets the Catholic psalm 121, or 122 in Hebrew and Protestant Bibles, and it's scored for six voices and continuo. It opens with a completely independent bassline, a gesture that was very modern for its time. This "walking" bassline keeps recurring throughout the psalm until the doxology moves into the major key provides. It a sonically sensuous conclusion to this psalm which begins by saying, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord'". (28’54 to 36’29 in this link)

The next interpolated motet, Duo seraphim, expands further the vocal requirements of these smaller movements by calling for three voices, in this case, three tenors. The text combines verses from opposite ends of the Christian Bible. It starts with part of the vision of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, the famous passage describing angels crying "Holy, holy, holy" around the throne of God. This section is scored for two angels, the duo seraphim of the title. Their cries of "holy" (sanctus) are incredibly florid.

Then it continues with part of the first epistle of St John in the New Testament, which says, "There are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one". At this point the third tenor enters, but Monteverdi carefully shows the unity of these three who bear witness by having them sing in unison on the words unum sunt, "are one". The "holy" music from before then returns, this time even more flamboyant as all three tenors are involved. (36’30 to 43’45 in this link)

Monteverdi's vesper publication of 1610 continues with the psalm which has the largest number of vocal parts. Nisi Dominus sets Psalm 126 in the Catholic Bible (127 in the Hebrew and Protestant ones) and its translation starts, "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it".

It's in no less than ten vocal parts, arranged in two antiphonal groups of five voices. The second tenor part of each group sustains the Gregorian chant throughout. (43’46 to 49’03 in this link)

There’s been a pattern of sorts in the interpolated motets on paraliturgical texts, between the psalms. The first required one voice, the second two voices, and the third, three. We now encounter a motet which is scored initially for one voice, then for two, and eventually for six. The text is Audi coelum, a hymn of devotion to the Virgin in which the Latin text is enhanced by extraordinary musical echoes.

The main voice, a tenor, is echoed by a second tenor whose utterances are the last syllables of the first singer's lines. These repeated syllables take on meaning of their own, and the devotional tone becomes passionate, almost operatically so, with the music becoming more florid and more sensuous as it progresses.

At the word omnes, meaning "all", the texture expands from two voices to six, as all are encouraged to follow the example of Christ's mother. (49’04 to 58’17 in this link)

From this restrained yet sensual music Monteverdi's publication of 1610 takes us to the fifth and final psalm, Lauda Jerusalem. The text is found in Psalm 147 in Catholic, Protestant and Hebrew Bibles and is an exuberant hymn of praise.

The musical setting indulges in antiphonal effects but there’s a twist. Scored for seven voices, Monteverdi writes for them in two groups of three (soprano, alto and bass in each) and a central tenor part which sings with both. The chant is given to the tenor part while the other six parts bounce around it with joyful exuberance.

Until recently there was a real dilemma which confronted people who wished to perform the Monteverdi Vespers. Two sections - this psalm and the Magnificat - were written so much higher than the rest of the work. The relative warmth and low setting of the majority of the Vespers was in stark contrast to the very high, almost shrill setting of the last psalm and the Magnificat. This was until it was discovered that for these two sections, Monteverdi used special clefs, those signs at the start of a line of music which indicate what line means what note, and that the practice in Monteverdi’s day was that when these clefs were encountered, the music was transposed down a fourth. This is now almost universally accepted by those who perform Monteverdi’s music, and it applies to sections of other works as well, most notably Orfeo. When the last psalm and the Magnificat are put four notes lower, they come more into line with the voice requirements of the rest of the work. The video linked in this post observes the downwards transposition. (58’18 to 1h03’09 in this link)

Strozzi: Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1630)

After the last psalm, and before the final Magnificat settings, Monteverdi provided two other pieces in the 1610 publication, and performers sometimes choose to perform them in a different order to that in the sources. One of these pieces is quite appropriate to a Marian vespers (that is, a Vesper service devoted to Mary), a setting of the hymn Ave maris stella, which is beautifully austere in its restrained setting of the text for eight-part double choir, while at the same time indulging the modern style with some verses sung by solo voices and continuo, and using instrumental ritornelli.

The first stanza of the hymn is translated as: "Hail, star of the sea / life-giving mother of God / and perpetual virgin, / happy gate of heaven." (1h10’58 to 1h20’06 in this link)

While this hymn is appropriate to a Marian Vesper service, the other "extra" piece is a complete shock and totally unexpected. This is a sonata for all the instruments based on a Gregorian chant. This chant is sung by one or more sopranos not once but eleven times during the course of this incredibly complex movement. This sonata, based on the chant Sancta Maria ora pro nobis (Holy Mary pray for us), requires violinists and cornetto players of the first order, and reminds us that Monteverdi must have had some pretty amazing players on hand in Mantua. One assumes they included some of the same players who played in Orfeo three years before. Even by the standards of the day, this sonata is extraordinarily, even outrageously, modern. (1h03’10 to 1h10’57 in this link)

We have no idea where Monteverdi intended this sonata to go in the Vespers service. We do know that it was not uncommon for instrumental sonatas to be included in sacred services, sometimes to replace chant antiphons which preceded and followed the psalms, and even though the 1610 publication ends with the Magnificat, some performances of the Vespers today end with the sonata. It does round things off nicely and it may have been used at the end of the Vesper service in Monteverdi’s day.

Monteverdi's publication actually includes two complete settings of the Magnificat. One is for six voices and continuo, and is on a smaller scale than the grand, seven-part setting. It's my conviction that Monteverdi did this to enable the complete Vespers to be performed by voices and continuo alone, if a church didn't have the lavish instrumental resources required in much of the music.

This is easily achieved. Omit the opening versicle and response and perform it in chant alone (or perform the response without the instrumental parts; they aren't essential to the music). Dixit Dominus can be performed by omitting the instrumental ritornellos; the remaining psalms and the motets are all scored for voices and continuo anyway. Ave maris stella can also be performed without the ritornellos, and the sonata is not liturgically essential, so could be omitted entirely in smaller musical establishments. This just leaves the Magnificat, and Monteverdi neatly provides the smaller six-part setting for this purpose.

In modern performances, though, it's generally de rigeur to use all the instrumental music Monteverdi provides, meaning the six-part Magnificat is virtually never heard (and it's omitted, as expected, in the performance linked here).

Monteverdi's tomb in the Frari church in Venice

The crowning glory of the 1610 publication is the great Magnificat for seven voices, instruments and continuo. This too is the crowning glory of the publication’s aim to unite the old and the new, with every verse of the text being set as a separate movement, and with every movement combining Gregorian chant with modern music of sometimes staggering difficulty. The opening of the text is set with the chant interwoven at first with the full panoply of voices and instruments, and then on its own with a walking continuo bass: old and new in stark contrast within the space of 30 seconds. (1h20’07 in this link)

The next phrase, Et exsultavit, is set with florid exuberance for the two tenors, with the chant above them in the alto part. (1h20’57 in this link)

The next verse, Quia respexit, opens and closes with an instrumental ritornello, and in between gives the free part to the instruments. The only voice part involved is restricted to the chant. As with the voices, Monteverdi treats the featured instruments in pairs, first a pair of recorders, then a pair of trombones. He had a never-ending ear for colour. (1h22’17 in this link)

The Quia fecit verse goes a step further, giving a pair of instruments, in this case violins, the chance to shine with two voices, in this case basses. The chant is in the alto voice. (1h24’06 in this link)

All non-continuo instruments are silent in the setting of Et misericordia, which involves 6 voices in dialogue – three higher voices against three lower voices. The atmosphere is restrained, and the chant is heard in the top voice of each group of three: the tenor when it’s the lower three voices, and the soprano when it’s the higher three. (1h25’20 in this link)

The mood changes completely for Fecit potentiam, which takes the form of a miniature trio sonata for two violins and continuo. There is only one voice part, the alto, which provides the chant. (1h27’18 in this link)

In a moment reminiscent of the title character’s great aria in the third act of Orfeo, the Deposuit verse features at first a pair of cornetti, then a pair of violins, which start together and then play in echo. A single voice sings the chant and there are no other vocal parts. One has to remind oneself that this is sacred music; listening to the intricacies of the instrumental parts is almost a guilty pleasure, distracting us from the words. (1h28’19 in this link)

A trio of cornetti introduce the Esurientes, but when the two soprano voices start, the instruments – including the continuo – are silent. This is yet another incredibly unusual thing which Monteverdi does. It was almost unheard of for voices to be unsupported by the continuo, and it’s not until the last word of the text that the voices and instruments are heard together. The chant is in the upper voice. (1h30’46 in this link)

Suscepit Israel is given to three voices – two sopranos and a tenor – with continuo accompaniment. The two sopranos sing largely in close imitation, and their parts are very florid, especially at the end, whereas the tenor has the chant. (1h32’17 in this link)

The last verse before the doxology, Sicut locutus, is characterised by two groups of instruments which play in dialogue. The first comprises strings (two violins and a bass instrument), the other wind (two cornetti and a trombone). Under these there is a continuo support. In the midst there is a single alto line entrusted with the text sung, of course, to the chant. (1h33’34 in this link)

Thus ends the Magnificat text proper, but Monteverdi saves the most spectacular till last. The doxology is in two movements, with the first, Gloria patri, featuring two tenors who sing spectacularly florid phrases. The second tenor is in echo with the first, such we heard earlier in Audi coelum. The chant is in a third vocal part, sung by a soprano, and there is the ever-present continuo underneath. There is enormous tension when the harmony wants to resolve at the end of the first tenor’s phrases but doesn’t until the end of the second tenor’s echoes. The second section of the doxology, Sicut erat, is given to the whole ensemble of voices and instruments, with the chant heard in canon in the two soprano parts. A wonderful Amen, derived from the last few notes of the chant, completes one of the most spectacular feats of compositional skill in all of western music. (1h34’39 in this link)

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2011.

741 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page