Friday, 17 October 2014


“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.” - Blaise Pascal

Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, 1610; SV 206 and 206a),  commonly called Vespers of 1610, is a musical composition by Claudio Monteverdi. The term “Vespers” (evening prayers) is taken from the Hours of the Divine Office, a set of daily prayers of the Catholic Church which have remained structurally unchanged for 1500 years.

In scale, Monteverdi’s Vespers was the most ambitious work of religious music before Bach. This 90-minute piece includes soloists, chorus, and orchestra and has both liturgical and extra-liturgical elements. The Vespers are composed around several Biblical texts that are traditionally used as part of the liturgy for several Marian feasts in the Roman Catholic church: The introductory “Deus in adjutorium” (Psalm 69), five Psalm settings, sacred motets (called “concerti”) between the Psalms, a traditional Hymn, a setting of the “Magnificat” text and the concluding “Benedicamus Domino”.

The sections contain striking contrasts, but the unity and continuity of Monteverdi’s grand design is maintained theatrically as well as musically. The overture, for choir and orchestra, is manifestly operatic, and close to that of Monteverdi’s first opera, “Orfeo” - an upsurge of joyous energy, interposed by an orchestral toccata and ending with a jubilant “Alleluia”. The instrumentation (cornets, sackbuts, a variety of single and double reeds, recorders, strings, organ, and harpsichord) is, with the exception of the instrumental ritornelli, mainly intended to contribute to the formal structure of the choral sections, colouring the choir in the manner of organ stops, as in the “Dixit Dominus”, “Laetatus sum”, “Audi, coelom”, and the beginning and end of the closing “Magnificat”, the climax of the whole work.

The ways in which Monteverdi treats the cantus firmus by incorporating it into the counterpoint of the choral writing, as in “Dixit Dominus” (Psalm 109), is not found in earlier choral literature, nor is the flowing, unfettered parlando (recitation) style used in “Nigra sum”, a metrically free poem with allusions to the biblical Song of Solomon. The concerto “Due Seraphim” is probably the most interesting section in the Vespers. It is set for two “answering” voices - a sort of singing competition for angels - and almost exceeds the limits of human vocal technique. The choral writing is also demanding in its splendour and complexity, much of it in six, seven, and, as in the psalm “Laudate pueri”, eight parts; yet the simplicity of the two-part hymn “Ave Maris stella” is also among the many treasures of this magnificent work.

Here conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the Versailles Chapelle Royale and performed by the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and the Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. In 1964, Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducted it for the first time, and then he decided to found the Monteverdi Choir. This concert actually marks the 50th anniversary of this world-renowned vocal ensemble.

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