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Why All This Music for Vespers?

The reasons for the exponential growth in music for Vespers around the turn of the 17th century 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 (conforming to the decrees of the Council of Trent), 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.

The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a period when the efforts to draw parishioners back into churches and solidify their faith had taken a decidedly theatrical turn, with church decorations, including marbles, paintings and sculptures, becoming evermore colorful, ostentatious and theatrical. Vesper music for solo voice with virtuoso embellishments, the use of a variety of instruments, and the colorful, sometimes highly embellished concertato psalm and Magnificat settings of Monteverdi reveal the efforts of composers to match the theatrical attractiveness of the ecclesiastical physical surroundings with an attractiveness of theatrically oriented music.

Impressive display, whether of the virtuoso solo voice or of vocal sonorities and instrumental color, become an important aesthetic goal in publications of the first decade of the new century. Not only does such music begin to match the physical surroundings in ostentation, but its attraction for listeners draws worshippers into church for what were essentially concerts of sacred music. From an economic standpoint, the process was self-feeding and circular: impressive music attracted more worshippers, who in turn gave more alms and other donations that financed the elaborate and expensive music-making. On the other hand, most music for Vespers during this first decade of the century still followed the traditional models and formats of the Cinquecento, though often a basso continuo part was added, especially toward the end of the decade.

Psalms by such composers as Giovanni Gastoldi, Giovanni Croce, Giulio Belli, and Lodovico Viadana not only reflected sixteenth-century styles, but were reprinted in multiple editions for many years to come, preserving the older traditions well into the new century. It is likely that the continuation and proliferation of traditional settings served feasts of lesser significance than the most important celebrations that featured the most elaborate music (often referred to in documents as “solemn Vespers”). Nevertheless, there were certain churches where more conservative styles, especially eight-voice, double choir psalmody were required for the most important feasts.

Magnificat will perform Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers on the weekend of April 23-25 and will also participate, along with Artek, AVE, The Marion Verbruggen Trio, Music’s Recreation, Sacabuche!, and Archetti, in a concert celebrating a century of Venetian vespers music from Monteverdi to Vivaldi as part of the Berkeley Early Music Festival and Exhibition on June 13.

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