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Polyphonic Vespers Music Before Monteverdi

The following is an excerpt from my article “Stylistic diversity in Vesper Psalms and Magnificats published in Italy in the Seventeenth-Century”, which can be downloaded here (PDF). Citations omitted from this excerpt can be found in the full article.

Forty years ago, virtually nothing was known about polyphonic music for the Office except for the 1610 Vespers of Claudio Monteverdi, which had been receiving significant scholarly attention since shortly after World War II. Today, not only have a number of critical editions of Vesper publications from Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries been issued in various series, but a variety of scholars, including notably, Robert Kendrick, have researched the relationship between published and manuscript liturgical music and the monastic institutions and their friars and nuns that produced and performed this music. My own research has focused on bringing the entire Italian published repertoire of Office music to light through the collection of bibliographical information on over 1500 prints of Office music published between 1542 and 1725. This information will be made available online through a database being assembled at the Fondazione Cini in Venice and an online catalogue to be published by the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music.

Dufay and Binchois

Polyphonic music for Vespers is a latecomer to the repertoire of polyphonic sacred music in Europe. This is especially true of the principal texts of the Vesper service, the four or five psalms that constitute the core of every Vesper ceremony (the monastic rite typically required only four psalms; however monastic composers almost invariably published psalms in groups of five or more). Hymns for Vespers had already been the subject of polyphonic composition in the late fourteenth century, and Dufay placed significant emphasis on hymns in his compositional output. Like hymns, polyphonic Magnificats also originated in the fourteenth century and achieved popularity in the next century with settings by Dufay, Binchois and others. The papal chapel in Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a major center of Magnificat composition.

Vesper psalms, however, only began to be circulated with some frequency in the late fifteenth century, appearing in an increasing quantity of manuscripts in the first half of the sixteenth century. After the middle of the century, growing quantities of psalms appeared in print, although much psalmody, especially in Rome, remained in manuscript and was never published.

By the time we reach the threshold of the seventeenth century, a number of trends in polyphonic Vesper settings had already been established:

1. Four-, five-, and six-voice falsobordone settings
2. Four-, five-, and six-voice polyphonic settings
3. Eight-voice, double-choir settings
4. Twelve-voice, three-choir settings
5. Multi-choir settings

Many of these settings were alternatim, alternating either odd or even polyphonic verses with plainchant verses, although through-composed polyphonic settings assumed increasing importance with the decade of the 1580s. Multi-choir settings were especially prominent in Rome beginning in the 1580s, where the quantity of choirs could reach four and five. We also know that by the middle of the century, instruments were used to enhance the impressiveness of multi-choir psalm and Magnificat settings in the North and by the 1570s in Rome. Rodobaldo Tibaldi cites as the first publication to call explicitly for instruments in a psalm or Magnificat a collection of motets by Joseph Gallo, published in 1598, although the title page of Ippolito Camatero’s Salmi corista a otto voci of 1573 had already declared the contents as “comodi alle voci, accompagnate anco con ogni sorte di instrumenti,” and the same composer’s Magnificats for eight, nine and twelve voices of 1575 were described in the print’s dedication as “concertata con ogni sorte di stromenti musicali.”

While publications of Vesper psalms had increased steadily throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, spurred on especially by the publications of Giambattista Asola in the 1580s and 1590s, Vesper music increases dramatically in significance during the first decade of the Seicento. By 1610 Vesper publications considerably outpaced publications of masses and motets. It is in this decade that a number of new stylistic possibilities for the setting of Vesper psalms emerges alongside those inherited from the previous century. What is apparent is that polyphonic Vesper services, whether in secular or monastic churches and chapels, had become of greater musical significance than the mass, for composers focused more of their efforts and their imagination on Vesper psalms (including Magnificats, which were often subsumed under the rubric of psalms) than on masses. This new emphasis is obvious in Monteverdi’s 1610 publication with its single polyphonic mass in the contrapuntal style of the mid–16th century and fourteen items for Vespers of the Blessed Virgin exhibiting a myriad of different, elaborate compositional techniques representing virtually every new musical style developing in the first decade of the century.

The reasons for the exponential growth in music for Vespers are not entirely clear, though probably multiple. A few publications of Vesper music in the latter part of the Cinquecento carried mottos such as conformi al decreto del Sacro Concilio di Trento, even though psalms and Magnificats themselves had not been mentioned in the final dictates of the Council. Indeed, the predominantly chordal settings of psalm texts in this period meant that psalm settings by their very nature conformed to the Council’s decree for clarity of text in polyphonic masses. However, the fact that the Council had not addressed psalmody in its declarations on music eventually meant that psalms were not considered subject to the same constraints as the mass in the eyes of composers and church officials. Certainly the psalms for major feasts, which were more in number than the mass ordinary movements normally set in polyphony, offered a greater variety of texts for seventeenth-century composers who continued and even augmented the interest in musical interpretation of textual concepts inherited from the Cinquecento. Another factor may have been the tradition of granting indulgences for attending Vesper services—there are hints of this in the documents of the Servite congregation in Milan. This is a subject requiring further investigation, but may indeed be a principal explanation of the rapid expansion of Vesper polyphony in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

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