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Monteverdi's Vespers, performed on Friday, March 7, by the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and a stellar array of guest artists, could be viewed as an audio resum. Claudio Monteverdi published the music we now call the 1610 Vespers in a volume of music printed probably at his own expense and dedicated to the Pope. The year before, Monteverdi had published a volume containing his opera L'Orfeo and dedicated to the future Duke of Mantua. In that first book, he showed that he was the master of the new theatrical style and that he could weld into new shapes the musical styles he had inherited from his predecessors; and that opera has been held up as a masterpiece ever since.
Now in 1610 he wants to show that he is the master of church music. So this volume contains a mass composed in elaborate polyphonic style and paying tribute to past masters, and it also contains all the music sung at the evening service called Vespers; music, as Monteverdi says on the title page, suited to the chapels or apartments of princes. Monteverdi is trying to see how far his artistic wings will carry him. These two publications prove his mastery of his art, and the dedication to the Pope suggests his desire for a new job, far away from the problems of being the court musician at Mantua, with all its requirements to provide music for dinners, concerts, dancing, tournaments, and on and on.
Monteverdi is a brilliant tactician; he bases just about all the Vespers music on the ancient traditon of Gregorian chant. Surely that will appeal to conservative church authorities. And he shows a dazzling musical variety in doing so; surely that will impress the musical world. And he intersperses the psalms and canticles with the very latest things, little concertos or motets for solo voices, displaying the fabulous virtuosity that the Mantuan singers, under Monteverdi's direction, were capable of.
The Vespers is really an occasional piece: that is, designed for a specific occasion. We don't know whether there really was a single occasion on which all this music was performed; but it uses almost exactly the same rich variety of instruments as the opera L'Orfeo: strings, cornetti, sackbuts, recorders, organs, lutes, harpsichords; it uses the same numbers and types of voices, and most of the same wonderful musical techniques: tricky echoes that turn the last syllables of a phrase into a new word; fantastic fast notes; learned counterpoint. It is a piece drawing specifically on the talents of the musicians Monteverdi regularly worked with.
Musicologists like to worry about whether the 1610 Vespers is really a single piece or compendium; about whether Monteverdi envisioned using a chorus rather than a group of solo singers; about whether he had in mind a specific feast of the Virgin Mary. These are all worthy questions, but they shouldn't overshadow the beauty of the music. It is the best musical resum I've ever heard, and if I were the Pope I'd hire him. In fact, though, Monteverdi ultimately got a job that probably really suited his musical talents better: he spent some 30 years at the head of the music of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.
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