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The ‘Specialness’ of Monteverdi’s Vespers

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.

Recently Craig Zeichner, who is writing a piece about “2010 Vespermania,” asked me what made the Monteverdi Vespers so special. There are so many different answers to the question, which in itself is certainly a potent argument for its “specialness.” Several generations of writers have explored many angles in describing this amazing music — certainly more than any other music from the period — and it has become one of the enduring classics of the musical canon.

Surely one of the most striking aspects of this music is Monteverdi’s astonishing juxtaposition of old and new in a way that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of Italy in 1610. In fact, few works of art are so strongly associated with a specific year. At the same time, the music succeeds in transcending identification with any particular time and place.

But in considering Craig’s question, I found myself asking another: “What was the motivation for this grandiose display of talent?”

The answer may lie in the specific circumstances in which the collection was assembled. As many scholars have demonstrated, the Mass and Vespers collection of 1610 does not present the music performed for any specific event. Indeed, combining the five psalms and five sacri concenti into a single liturgy is problematic. But why a collection of sacred music — a genre almost entirely absent from Monteverdi’s published music in the first 40 years of his life? All indications suggest that the publication was intended to help Monteverdi escape the Mantuan court.

Monteverdi had always been ambitious – I like to think that I can see some of that in the only portrait we have of the composer as a young man. Before his 20th birthday, he had already published three collections of his own music, each dedicated to patrons outside his hometown of Cremona, a clear indication that he was intent on advancing his career in one of the great musical centers of the day. His engagement at the prominent court of Mantua certainly suited that ambition, and for many years the opportunities and rewards of service to the duke were abundant. However, by the end of the first decade of the 17th century, the situation had deteriorated, and Monteverdi had become exhausted, disheartened, and under severe financial strain.

While we tend to think of Monteverdi as the towering musical figure of his time — the celebrated maestro di cappella of the most prestigious musical position in Europe, the Basilica of San Marco in Venice – at the time he published his Mass and Vespers of 1610 Monteverdi, still in Mantua, was at the lowest point in his life. He was still reeling from the lost his wife and his beloved student Caterina Martinelli in quick succession during the disastrous months leading up to the production of his second opera, Arianna, in 1608. And in surviving letters we find bitter complaints about his treatment at the hands of the Duke of Mantua.

His dire circumstances must have been particularly galling given his recent remarkable accomplishments. He had just composed and produced two operas, both of which had been phenomenally well received. His fourth and fifth books of madrigals had generated renown and controversy (a sure sign of success). And, however reluctantly, Monteverdi had found himself acting as the spokesman for the new musical style of the 17th century.

And yet, as he described himself in a letter from 1610, he was “a poor man,” unable to secure bread and wine for his sons. Physically exhausted and financially burdened, he was determined to improve his circumstances, and he channeled that determination into composing and compiling the most spectacular possible “work sample” — as his ticket out of town. Perhaps the mother of invention really is desperation, not merely necessity.

In any case, the composer’s efforts to impress were eventually rewarded. Monteverdi dedicated his collection to Pope Paul V, and it is clear from surviving letters that his initial quest was to secure a position at the Vatican and a benefice at a seminary for his son. While he was unsuccessful in Rome, he was engaged at San Marco in 1613 and, even though documentary evidence is frustratingly slim, it seems likely that the mastery demonstrated in the 1610 collection was decisive in his appointment. Beyond his successful exit from Mantua, Monteverdi also bequeathed the fruits of his labors to posterity and provided musicians of every generation with a worthy vehicle for their own creativity and imagination. And in this case, the familiarity and iconic status of the Monteverdi Vespers is, in fact, a blessing.

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