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Re-Discovering Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

This article is adapted from a longer article that appears in the April issue of the San Francisco Early Music Society newsletter, which can be viewed and downloaded in PDF format at the SFEMS website.

Monteverdi as a young man in Mantua

One of the great joys of Magnificat has been the opportunity of exploring the astounding repertoire of 17th-century music that has been unjustly neglected for centuries. Magnificat’s process of discovery has often resulted in modern “premieres” that are exciting for both the musicians and our audiences. But in the case of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, we are approaching music that is generally familiar to our audience — many of whom have even sung the piece — and each of the musicians involved can list multiple performances of the work on their resumes. Yet turning to Monteverdi’s familiar music together is no less a revelation than any premiere, especially in the company of musical friends that bring such a breadth of experience with them to the performances.

It has been observed that Monteverdi’s astonishing juxtaposition of old and new perfectly captured the zeitgeist of Italy in 1610 and, in fact, few artworks are so strongly associated with a specific year. At the same time, the music succeeds in transcending identification with any particular time and place. It is this sense of timeless beauty that has captured the imagination of generations and made it one of the most beloved works of Western Art.

The panoply of virtuosic vocal and instrumental techniques found in Monteverdi’s Vespers is unparalleled in the 17th century, and the ingenuity displayed in wedding this pyrotechnic display to the austere Gregorian psalm tones is simply breathtaking. Many, though certainly not all, of the individual compositional techniques Monteverdi adopts in approaching the setting of the vespers texts can be found in music from other composers of the period, though not in such dense concentration. From the passionate intimacy of solo monody in Nigra sum to the sublime grandeur of the concluding Sicut erat in the Magnificat, Monteverdi’s vespers music overflows with a sheer exuberance of invention.

Magnificat will perform Monteverdi’s music one-on-a-part with a roster of noted early-music specialists, including singers Peter Becker, Alan Bennett, Hugh Davies, Paul Elliott, Jeffrey Fields, Daniel Hutchings, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Christopher LeCluyse, Jennifer Paulino, and Robert Stafford, as well as instrumentalists Rob Diggins, John Dornenburg, Steve Escher, Katherine Heater, Richard Van Hessel, Herbert Myers, Ernie Rideout, Sanford Stadtfeld, David Tayler, Kiri Tollaksen, Jolianne von Einem, and David Wilson.

Magnificat’s performances of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers will take place in three beautiful venues — Friday April 23, 8:00 pm at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Saturday April 24 8:00 pm at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley, and Sunday April 25, 3:00 pm at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Tickets are available online or by calling  (800) 595-4849.

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