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Monteverdi’s Setting of the Psalm Laudate pueri (1610)

Monteverdi’s setting of Laudate pueri (1610) is scored for eight voices, but here, in contrast ith his technique in Nisi Dominus and Lauda Ierusalem, Monteverdi rarely divides the ensemble into antiphonal four-voice combinations, preferring instead to pair voices in the same register. Throughout the psalm, Monteverdi is extremely flexible in his treatment of the plainchant. The psalm tone (tone 8 with finalis g) migrates freely from voice to voice, is transposed and is absent altogether in some passages. Nevertheless, each verse of the psalm appears at least once in plainchant.

The treatment of the psalm tone at the beginning of Laudate pueri resembles that at the opening of Dixit Dominus: after initial solo intonations in a tenor voice (quintus), the psalm tone combines with a countersubject to evolve a steadily expanding imitative texture. Even the countersubject is similar to the one at the beginning of Dixit Dominus. Whereas this process encompassed the entire first verse of Dixit Dominus, in Laudate pueri only the first half of the verse is traversed, so the process is repeated, with a new countersubject, to complete the first verse.

After the first verse, where Dixit Dominus had turned to the tripartite series of falsobordoni, ritornellos, and duets, Laudate pueri presents a lenghthy succession of virtuoso duets for voices in a single register, accompanied by the cantus firmus. In this portion of the psalm (verse 2-5), the psalm tone migrates upwards through the texture from one verse to the next, starting in the quintus and proceeding through the altus, the cantus, and finally the sextus. It is sung both in long notes and in half notes and quarter notes, but even in the shorter rhythmic values the cantus firmus appears sustained because of rapid embellishments in the other voices. The movement of the chant out of its bass role in the quintus part permits increased harmonic variety, and successive transpositions of the psalm tone upwards by a fifth (verses 2 and 3 transpose the reciting note to G, verse 4 to D) admit a wider tonal compass as well. Only at verse 5 does the reciting note return to its original C.

The virtuoso duets of verses 2-5 employ two sopranos (cantus and sextus) in verse 2-3, the two tenors (tenor and quintus) in verse 4, and the two basses (bassus and [octavus]) in verse 5. The gradual descent in register of the duets is mirrored by the gradual ascent of the cantus firmus (quintus, altus, cantus, sextus). the migrations and transpositions of the cantus firmus thus bring the psalm tone from the low register to the top of the vocal texture, parralleling the text of these verses, which begins with man’s praise of God and ultimately exults God above all nations, heaven, and earth in the climactic verses 4 and 5. The phrase et super coelos gloria eius is accompanied by durus harmonies over the notes of the natural hexachord, cadencing to A major, illustrating Monteverdi’s tendency to associate durus harmonies with positive textual ideas from this period onwards.

For the remainder of the psalm, Monteverdi abandons the few-voiced texture and makes use of all eight voices, with the exception of very brief passages for reduced forces. The psalm tone has already returned to its reciting note of C in verse 5, and it remains there for the rest of Laudate pueri, including the doxology. Because the chant always appears in an inner voice until it is projected to the top of the texture in the Sicut erat, there is considerable flexibility in its harmonization. Moreover, temporary pauses in the psalm tone allow for even further harmonic freedom and variety. Indeed, this portion of the psalm is characterized by substantial tonal variety couple with considerable textual variety, ranging from homophony to imitation, with the number of participating voices changing constantly. The rhythmic organization also shifts frequently between duple and triple meter.

Like Dixit Dominus, the doxology shifts tonality. The psalm text itself concludes with a complete cadence to A major, and through circle-of-fifths harmony, a transition is made to G major for the beginning of the Gloria Patri. As in Dixit Dominus, the psalm tone is recited by the tenor in long note values, accompanied only by the bassus generalis (though interrupted by a four-voice passage). This passage again reminds us of the traditional alternatim technique where plainchant verses alternate with polyphony. The Sicut erat, with its harmonization of the psalm tone in the top voice, is also somewhat parallel to the same verse in Dixit Dominus (Dixit places the chant in both the bass and top parts). But while the Sicut erat of Laudate pueri parallels Dixit Dominus in style, it is also reminiscent of the final verse and rounded structure of Nisi Dominus in closely resembling the opening verse of the psalm.

The final Amen, devoid of the psalm tone, constitutes an extended coda based on ascending fifths. At first the tenor and quintus remain silent, but as the texture gradually thins, they commence singing the same motifs as the other voices, emerging from the other parts to complete the psalm with a lovely imitative duet of their own. As a consequence, Laudate pueri ends with a thin texture in the tenor register, as it began. The two voices converge on the unison final g, the same note on which the two sopranos will begin their duet an octave higher in the following motet, Pulchra es. Indeed, the opening of Pulchra es outlines the same ascending fifths with which Laudate pueri concludes. The duet concluding the Amen is reminiscent of a very similar passage in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Quem vidistis pastores, published posthumously in his Symphoniæ sacræ of 1615.

In Laudate pueri, Monteverdi has bult a more dynamic form than the symmetrical structure of Dixit Dominus. This form proeeds, after the initial polyphonic verse, to a series of trio textures (duets against the psalm tone) before expanding again to the full choir. The length of each verse depends heavily on the character of the musical figures and their working out, and these figures depend in turn much more on the significance of individual words or phrases of the text than do the figures in Dixit Dominus. Yet some degree of symmetry is present in the reiteration of the music of the first verse in the Sicut erat. It may well have been the absenmce of other forms of symmetry in Laudate pueri that prompted Monteverdi to repeat the opening music for the Sicut erat (as in Nisi Dominus), whereas Dixit Dominus, being governed bthroughout by a symmetrical organization, did not require a similar return at the end.

[Excerpted from The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance by Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]

  1. April 9th, 2010 at 10:58 | #1

    I love the Vespro! It will appear a version with the New College Choir under E. Higginbottom… And boys soloists!

  2. April 9th, 2010 at 11:09 | #2

    Oh! I’m hearing the radio, a wonderful idea, and you sound so good…! A beautiful ensemble, and I didn’t know it! Thanks a lot, that’s great!!!

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